The Long View 2005-11-21: The Rally for Marshal Pétain

By Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) - L'illustration, n° 5074 du 1er juin 1940, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25577429

By Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) - L'illustration, n° 5074 du 1er juin 1940, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25577429

It was unfair of John to associate Lt. General William Odom with Marshal Pétain, although John did at least go out of his way to give Pétain some credit. In retrospect, Odom sounds like he was right.


The Rally for Marshal Pétain

 

As I have elsewhere had occasion to remark, 50 USC Section 407 forbids the expenditure of federal money to devise contingency plans under which the United States would surrender to an enemy. That provision, of course, applies only to the Executive Branch, so it would not apply to the sort of legislative debate that Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha began when he proposed a resolution in favor of a rapid US withdrawal from Iraq. (The Republican leadership immediately emended the resolution to "immediate withdrawal," which was soundly defeated: a stunt, of course, but then it also forced Congress to acknowledge what it was actually taking about.) In any case, the fact that the heretofore obscure Congressman Murtha took the lead on this matter has some interesting historical resonance.

Murtha, as the world beyond Pennsylvania was immediately informed, is a Marine Corps veteran. This personal history is supposed to give his views greater credibility, or even immunity from criticism:

Referring to Vice President Dick Cheney, Murtha used the "chicken hawk" attack so far uttered in public only by out-of-office liberals.

"I like guys who got five deferments and have never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what ought to be done," Murtha said.

It is an old principle of politics that opposition to a distasteful policy will be minimized if the step is taken by a leader of the party that finds it distasteful. As the saying goes, "Only Nixon could go to China." By this logic, then, the best person to conclude a surrender would be a leader with a respected military career. This was exactly the logic that made Henri-Philippe Pétain the French premier in 1940.

Marshal Pétain was a genuine hero of the First World War. In that war of attrition, he had a reputation for not wasting the lives of his men. His gift was the defense of territory while minimizing French losses. After the war, he became a gray eminence: a man of the Right, but generally respected by all parties. He was more than willing to help when the Third Republic was overrun:

On 14th June 1940, the German Army occupied Paris. Paul Reynaud, the French prime minister, now realized that the German Western Offensive could not be halted and suggested that the government should move to territories it owned in North Africa. This was opposed by his vice-premier, Henri-Philippe Pétain, and the supreme commander of the armed forces, General Maxime Weygand. They insisted that the government should remain in France and seek an armistice.

Outvoted, Reynaud resigned and President Albert Lebrun, appointed Petain as France's new premier. He immediately began negotiations with Adolf Hitler and on 22nd June signed an armistice with Germany. The terms of the agreement divided France into occupied and unoccupied zones, with a rigid demarcation line between the two. The Germans would directly control three-fifths of the country, an area that included northern and western France and the entire Atlantic coast. The remaining section of the country would be administered by the French government at Vichy under Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain.

The interesting thing about the Vichy Armistice is that it was actually a very good result, considering the French negotiating position. It kept the French state and administrative structure intact. France continued to function as an independent diplomatic actor. It even preserved the French empire, at least as far as the Germans were concerned. The US law against government funding of surrender studies was passed when someone on the federal payroll was tactless enough to suggest that, should the US lose a nuclear war, we would be lucky to get an agreement for the US as good as the one Henri-Philippe Pétain obtained for France.

* * *

Surrender may be a misnomer in this context of the Terror War, however, because it implies an enemy that would be willing and able to accept one. For that reason, arguments by people in the US for withdrawal from Iraq tend to be a bit self-referential, as we see in the list of reasons for withdrawal recently published by yet another retired military figure, William E. Odom, a former Air Force general. He has actually been saying these things for quite some time, without reference to the state of things on the ground in Iraq, but his latest pronouncements got media coverage because of the Murtha incident. Some points from the latest restatement of his argument run like this.(He has always liked numbered lists, apparently):

1) On civil war. Iraqis are already fighting Iraqis. Insurgents have killed far more Iraqis than Americans. That’s civil war. We created the civil war when we invaded; we can’t prevent a civil war by staying...

Certainly it is a goal of the terror campaign to start a civil war; it is also clear that the goal has not yet been reached. Should open war break out, of course, it can hardly be a matter of indifference to the US who wins it. But moving along...

3) On the insurgency and democracy. There is no question the insurgents and other anti-American parties will take over the government once we leave. But that will happen no matter how long we stay. Any government capable of holding power in Iraq will be anti-American, because the Iraqi people are increasingly becoming anti-American.

The logic behind this is obscure. The base of the insurgency is the Arab Sunnis, a fifth of the population. The tactic of terror attacks on the Shia and Kurds has not endeared the insurgency to the rest of Iraq. The insurgents, in fact, are the only people we know for sure that most Iraqis do not want to run the government. Of course, Iraq was governed by a minority before the invasion, so unpopularity would not exclude such a government arising again. "National unity" would have nothing to do with it, however.

In any case, next we see where Odom's policy is flawed in a way that Pétain's was not:

4) On terrorists. Iraq is already a training ground for terrorists. In fact, the CIA has pointed out to the administration and congress that Iraq is spawning so many terrorists that they are returning home to many other countries to further practice their skills there. The quicker a new dictator wins the political power in Iraq and imposes order, the sooner the country will stop producing well-experienced terrorists.

And why should the new dictator stop producing terrorists? I suppose it is possible that Odom thinks that the Baathist Party might return to power. It's hard to see why: the Baathists were blown of of power pretty decisively, and they seem to have less and less to do with the violent opposition to the new government.

Mark Steyn remarked about jihadi suicide tactics that the Islamists like them for the same reason the British in the 19th century liked the Gattling gun: it brings them victory. An American withdrawal from Iraq at this point would, correctly, be seen as a victory for that tactic: when you talk about the insurgency in Iraq these days, that's mostly what you mean.

If Odom's insurgents ran the country, there would be an Islamist state that believes it could discount retaliation from abroad incurred by any mischief it works in the world. What's the worst that can happen: an invasion? The withdrawal would not solve the problem.

* * *

Odom's analysis is much more than the Democratic Party in the US needs. It's not just that it is divorced from the course of Iraqi politics; it's that the party is not actually trying to lose the war. In point of fact, the notion of beginning a withdrawal in 2006 is close to being a consensus. What the Democrats are trying to ensure is that the outcome of the war, any outcome, is seen as a failure of the policies of the Bush Administration.

The withdrawal must be perceived to be a change in course, made under pressure from the Democrats in Congress. After that, if the new government collapses and Osama bin Ladin is is acclaimed the new caliph at Baghdad, that would provide a campaign issue for many years to come. On the other hand, if the new government is a success, then the Democrats can claim credit for having forced the withdrawal that allowed the Iraqi political factions to find a way to accommodate each other.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-11-18: Luminous Surrealism; National Insurance Schemes

I've never gotten into any of Ballard's writings, but I probably ought to give him a try someday.

This is the "Cadillac of the Skies" scene from Spielberg's film adaptation of Empire of the Sun. It is an amazing scene, classic Spielberg, and sufficiently iconic that you usually find it on the cover of the movie.

John mentions Michael Fumento in passing here. I used to follow Fumento, he was an interesting contrarian in the early 2000s. But it turned out that he didn't so much write what he thinks [consequences be damned], like Greg Cochran, but rather he wrote what he was paid to write. Eventually, his gig and his marriage fell apart. I feel kind of bad for the guy, but you could probably see this as a kind of rough justice. However, he wasn't always wrong. It really isn't likely that you can get an Ebola epidemic in the US or another country with decent medicine.


Luminous Surrealism; National Insurance Schemes

 

J. G. Ballard is best known for his memoir, Empire of the Sun, but he is usually classed as a science-fiction writer with a surrealist twist:

Though still essentially grounded in science fiction (his future technologies and ecological disasters are unsurpassed in the genre), reading one of his books is like falling into the interior world of a Surrealist painting.

When a story about the food supply conjures memories of J. G. Ballard stories, maybe you've got a problem:

Australians have been told there is no need to panic after a recent "glow-in-the-dark pork chop" scare. ...The New South Wales Food Authority said the glow was caused by the harmless pseudomonas fluorescens bacteria.

Food authority head George Davey said he understood people would be "shocked" to see their meat glowing in the fridge but said the bacteria were safe...[however]...The bacteria are naturally present in meat and fish but they multiply quickly if food is not stored at the correct temperature.

So the glowing can be a sign that the food is starting to go off and Mr Davey recommends consumers throw any luminous pork chops - or other cuts of meat - straight into the dustbin.

In a typical Ballard story, some minor anomaly will intrude into everyday life: a prolonged drought, say, or a new kind of crystal will be noticed spreading in wilderness areas like creeper vine. At first the anomaly will be a minor annoyance in the everyday world; then it will be a major public issue; then it will overwhelm ordinary life, both physically and metaphysically.

But nothing like that is happening now. That is just ordinary bacteria. Ordinary, glow-in-the-dark bacteria.

* * *

Speaking of surrealism, this may be the first perfectly tautological pitch in the history of fundraising:

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaking to the group’s national leadership here last week, signaled a sharp shift in ADL policy by directly attacking several prominent religious right groups and challenging their motives, which he said include nothing less than “Christianizing America.” But even more threatening, Foxman said, is how the views of many of the most strident Evangelical leaders have started to pervade American society, which he said will be revealed in a forthcoming ADL poll...Although only portions of the survey were available this week, Foxman said some of the results are alarming...According to the survey, 70 percent of weekly churchgoers and 76 percent of self-described Evangelicals agreed that “Christianity is under attack”...


Probably those numbers are even higher among churchgoers who have read the ADL's direct mail solicitations.

* * *

Who is this Marshall Law anyway? I went to a perfectly good law school and, frankly, the subject of "martial law" never came up. In any case, those of my readers who plan to stage military coups might be interested in this brief explanation of the by Rohn K. Robbins:

Exactly what is martial law and why might the spread of a killer strain of flu - H2N1 or some other - one day invoke it?... Martial law is, strictly speaking, the suspension of civil law and, in its place, the imposition of military authority. While not explicitly provided for in the Constitution, suspension of habeas corpus is mentioned in Article 1, Section 9, and the activation of the militia in time of rebellion or invasion is mentioned in Article 1, Section 8.

Speaking of avian flu, Michael Fumento has a critique in The Weekly Standard of the interminable hype we have been hearing on the subject:

High on the list of scaremongers is Laurie Garrett, former Newsday reporter and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Garrett is to pandemics what Paul Ehrlich is to population growth, having amassed fame and fortune by being consistently and spectacularly wrong. Just as he became famous predicting a Population Bomb that fizzled, she came to prominence through a 1995 book, The Coming Plague. No, it hasn't come yet, but--trust her--it will. Garrett's rise began with her prediction of an Ebola virus pandemic. This was notwithstanding the fact that Ebola is just about last on any realistic list of possible pandemic pathogens, since it's terribly difficult to transmit. But guess who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Ebola coverage? Lessons like this aren't lost on other journalists.

Sometimes, as we saw with the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, long-anticipated catastrophes do finally arrive. On the other hand, disasters that once seemed certain are often postponed indefinitely. And some developments are complete surprises, like the one that began with the odd glow from the meat section of your refrigerator.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the healthcare front, Bruce the Psychic Guy has favored us with the outline of a universal medical-insurance system for the United States. (Thanks, Jay!) A complete system would need more moving parts, but the Psychic Guy's proposal is correct in emphasizing the need to increase the supply of doctors and nurses.

The most common criticism of national health schemes is the libertarian argument that government cannot be expected to do anything more efficiently than the private sector, and that the bigger the government program, the more inefficient it will be. There is a historical analogy that suggests otherwise, however.

Deposit insurance for bank accounts had been tried on the state level several times before the New Deal finally created a national deposit-insurance system. The early experiments had not worked. The insurers, either private entities or state agencies, just were not big enough or credible enough. Neither were their client banks diversified enough; all the banks in an agricultural state, for instance, would be stressed in a year with bad weather.

The problem with deposit insurance is "moral hazard." Depositors will have no incentive to seek out banks that have prudent lending policies if the depositors know that their deposits will be protected even if the bank fails because its creditors default. The only way around moral hazard is a fairly intrusive system of supervision by the deposit insurer. The supervision is not rocket-science, but the states usually lacked the personnel or the political will to do it effectively.

The banking system was flat on its back when FDR became president in 1933. The Roosevelt Administration was actually not very keen on deposit insurance. The key feature of the finance-industry reform that the Administration presented to Congress was a centralization of the Federal Reserve System: deposit insurance was an afterthought.

To everybody's surprise, deposit insurance was what made people trust banks again. It continued to work without a glitch thereafter, except for the S&L episode in the 1980s, when political influence turned off part of the supervision system for a few years.

I suspect we might see a similar pattern with health insurance. Some states, such as Tennessee, have tried to run their own health-insurance schemes, with mixed success. Everywhere, the system is a patchwork of state regulators and private insurers that has none of the merits of a free-market system and all of the defects of a social-welfare bureaucracy. With a national system, economies of scale will solve more than half the problem.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-11-13: The Shape of Things to Come

This post from 2005 was the first time I became aware of Ross Douthat. Ross has done well for himself as a pundit in the last twelve years, and now works for the New York Times. I've enjoyed his work immensely over the years.


The Shape of Things to Come

 

Who are Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam? They seem to be ubiquitous these days. They have their own bloglike entity at The American Scene, where you can find out more about them. I mention them here because of their remarkable article in The Weekly Standard of November 14 entitled "The Party of Sam's club." If the Republican Party really needs a new domestic agenda, it need look no further:

Many of the issues that the Republican Party wrote to power remain salient today, of course. The capital GOP doesn't need to rethink its support for a strong national defense, for instance, or its commitment to social conservatism. But having risen to power at a time when most Americans were worried about their economic freedom, the Party needs to adapt to a new reality -- namely, that today, Americans are increasingly worried about their economic security -- and reorient its agenda to address those concerns.

This is the first article I have seen in a conservative journal that admits just how anachronistic the traditional Republican platform has become. Thanks to past tax decreases, the federal income tax burden on the middle class is now low enough that few people find it onerous. At least on the federal level, Republicans can no longer run successfully on tax cuts, though there is room for political gains on the questions of simplification and fairness. The piece makes the interesting proposal that, instead of reforming the income tax so we can abolish the alternative minimum tax, we should abolish the income tax and retain the alternative minimum tax. That would in effect return us to what the income tax was supposed to be originally: a progressive tax on relatively high incomes. The shortfall caused by the abolition of the income tax might be made up by a modest consumption tax.

The authors broach the subject that the political system has heretofore avoided entirely: the need for mildly pro-natalist labor policies. This does not mean that Republicans should pursue the Democratic preference for professionalizing child-rearing through daycare, or by redefining the family out of existence. It does mean that pension systems and education subsidies should be structured so that young women have a realistic option to stay home and be mothers without jeopardizing their career opportunities in later life.

Immigration is the issue on which Republican voters are diametrically at odds with the Republican leadership. The voters do not dislike immigrants; they do perceive, correctly, that immigration suppresses wages at the lower end of the income scale. The most popular, indeed populist, policy at this point would be one that regularized the status of illegals who are settled in the United States while ensuring that the borders are secured.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the article is devoted to the need for a national health-care system. The Republican Party came to power in the 1990s partly as a result of the implosion of the unworkable health-care proposal that the Democrats made early in the Clinton Administration. Since then, the Republicans have evaded or derided the issue. This is a grave error. Guaranteed health insurance is not a question of help for the underprivileged. Almost all ordinary people at some point in their lives will have trouble providing health care for themselves and their families, or will find that the insurance they do have is inadequate. Furthermore, the overpriced and over-bureaucratized system in the United States has become deadly to the competitiveness of American manufacturers. The important criteria are: insurance must be portable, mandatory, and cheap. If I understand their argument, they say that the country needs is a national catastrophic insurance system, with a competitive insurance industry to manage the deductible.

Some combination like this, of cultural conservatism and social security in the broad sense, is probably the future. The question is whether the Republican Party can provide the vehicle. The Democrats could do it too, if they jettison some of their own pathologies.

* * *

Several people have written to me over the past three years to ask when I am going to read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. Well, I have; the review is here. It's the best AH novel ever written. Okay?

* * *

Reports from New Orleans has taken a surreal turn. The following information all appeared the New York Times this week (I would link to the articles, but the Times has that idiotic registration wall).

Murder rate in New Orleans falls to zero. This is because five sixths of the population is still missing. A criminologist described the disappearance of violent crime as "a great experiment," apparently without irony. The Times did not quote Tacitus: "They have made a desert, and call it peace." That would be too much to expect from the paper nowadays, I suppose.

New Orleans real estate market set to rise. Well, yes, I suppose it would.

On death certificates of the victims of the flood, "decomposition" is sometimes cited as a cause of death. After a major disaster, there is a delay before people can grasp causal relationships again.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Years of Rice and Salt

N = 1

N = 1

This book review is the source of one of my favorite cocktail party theories: a number of seemingly well-established sciences are built upon an n of 1. In a grand sense, geology and biology fall into this category, since the big theories like plate tectonics and evolution depend on one big sequence of inter-related events. In a micro-sense, you can see if similar things happen in different times and places, but the overall development of life on earth, or the development of the earth itself, only happened once, and we lack the capacity to conduct meaningful experiments about such things. Of course, the universe itself, the subject of the grandest of all theories in science, also falls in this category. Perhaps that explains the need to invoke the multiverse.

I don't have any complaints about the way these sciences have been pursuing, it just strikes me as funny that some really big scientific ideas aren't actually amenable to experiment. We can conduct experimental programs that build up the foundations of such ideas, but we can't wind the universe back up and set it down and see what happens the second time, which is the foundation of all experimental philosophies of science. Maybe that is why I like alternative history and science fiction: this is how we try to acknowledge our weaknesses here.


The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Bantam Paperback 2003
(Hardcover 2002)
763 Pages, US$7.99

 

This review appeared in the
Spring 2006 issue of
Comparative Civilizations Review

 

Once upon a time, a course in science-fiction writing was offered at Rutgers University. The grade was based on stories written by the students, but the instructor offered an exam option as a joke. It included this memorable question: “Describe the influence of the papacy on medieval Europe.” The question posed by this novel is actually more ambitious: what was the effect of post-medieval Europe on world history; or more precisely, what would the world be like if there had never been a European modernity? In the course of answering this question, Kim Stanley Robinson has written what may be the finest example thus far of Alternative History: historiographically sophisticated, with plausible characters, the book is essentially world history made readable as a series of biographies. Best of all, at least from the prospective of an admiring reviewer, the book presents a model of history that is both demonstrably and instructively false.

The premise of the story is that the outbreaks of plague in 14th century Europe were far more deadly than they historically were. The whole continent, from Britain to Constantinople, and from Gibraltar to Moscovy, is wholly depopulated. The action starts around 1400, when a deserter from the horde of Timur the Lame gets an inkling of the disaster as he wanders through the deserted landscapes of Hungary and the Balkans. He is enslaved by Turks; he is sold to the treasure fleet of Zheng He, who happened to be in East Africa on one of his famous oceanic expeditions. Eventually, the deserter dies as an innocent bystander at a court intrigue of the early Ming Dynasty.

In the course of this man’s adventures we meet pretty much all the people we will be meeting for the next 700 years. The conceit that holds the book together is that people are reincarnated, in much the way contemplated by Tibetan Buddhism, and that they normally progress through time with the same companions. In “The Years of Rice and Salt,” the principal companions are the Revolutionary, the Pious Man, and the Scientist; the Idiot Sultan puts in several appearances, too. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are set in the bardo state, between incarnations. Depending on the period in which they most recently lived, the companions take these interludes more or less seriously. During one such incident, the Revolutionary becomes exasperated with the Pious Man’s spiritual and historical optimism: “We may be in a hallucination here, but that is no excuse for being delusional.”

Macrohistory in this scenario differs from that of the real world more in detail than in broad outline. The 15th century discovery of the Americas is cancelled, for obvious reasons. Less than a century later, however, a Chinese fleet sent out to establish a base in Japan discovers the Inca Empire. Not long thereafter, the oceanic explorers from Firanja, a Europe resettled from North Africa, discover the east coast of the western continents. These penetrations from Eurasia are slow enough, however, to allow the politically ingenious people around the northern continent’s great freshwater lakes to adapt to the new diseases and to organize defenses. In later years, their model of democratically representative federal government would become the best hope of mankind.

The parallels continue. In Samarqand, in what would have been the late 17th century if anyone were using that reckoning, an alchemist notes that different weights of the same material fall at the same speed; soon there is a mathematics to express acceleration. Move forward another century, and we see scholars in the fracture area between China and Islam trying to reconcile the intellectual traditions of the two. The result is the beginning of a secular, enlightened science of humanity. A noble passage from their work runs thus:

“History can be seen as a series of collisions of civilizations, and it is these collisions that create progress and new things. It may not happen at the actual point of contact, which is often wracked by disruption and war, but behind the lines of conflict, where the two cultures are most trying to define themselves and prevail, great progress is often made very swiftly, with works of permanent distinction in arts and technique. Ideas flourish as people try to cope, and over time the competition yields to the stronger ideas, the more flexible, more generous ideas. Thus Fulan, India, and Yinzhou are prospering in their disarray, while China grows weak from its monolithic nature, despite the enormous infusion of gold from across the Dahai. No single civilization could ever progress; it is always a matter of two or more colliding. Thus the waves on the shore never rise higher than when the backwash of some earlier wave falls back into the next one incoming, and a white line of water jets to a startling height. History may not resemble so much the seasons of the year, as waves in the sea, running this way and that, crossing, making patterns, sometimes to a triple peak, a very Diamond Mountain of cultural energy, for a time.”

The hopes of this period for universal reconciliation are shattered by power politics; the power in this case coming from the steam engines of the trains and warships of southern India, whose Hindu regions were the first to master mechanical industrialization. These techniques soon spread universally, however. In the earlier parts of the book, it sometimes seemed to the characters that China would take over the world. This fear performed the minor miracle of uniting the huge and fractious Islamic world, which in turn posed a threat to China and India. Thus, in the closing decades of the decrepit Qing Dynasty, the Long War began, which essentially pitted eastern and southern Asia against the Middle East, Firanja, and northern Africa. It went on for 67 years, killing perhaps a billion people all told. Even in the middle of what would have been the 21st century, the world had still not recovered from it psychologically, however much social and technological progress had occurred.

In some ways, the postwar parts of the book are the most fun. In western Firanja, disgruntled intellectuals chatter in cafes about the history of everyday life and the perennial oppression of women. A musician takes the name “Tristan” and becomes a sort of one-man Solesmes, resurrecting the plainchant of the vanished Franks. There is a subplot about how physicists collude to avoid building an atomic bomb. There are conferences of historians in which the author gets to critique his own devices. A panel on the nature of the plague that destroyed Europe comes no closer to explaining what happened, perhaps for the excellent reason that the real Black Death was probably the worst that could have happened. We get a discussion of reincarnation as a narrative device and, better still, of narrative structures in historical writing, particularly in narratives of historical progress.

The book ends peacefully, with an elderly historian, the Pious Man, settling into semi-retirement at a small college in a region that is not called California. In a way, he had achieved the era of perpetual Light that people like him had always hoped for, but the eschaton is more like that of Francis Fukuyama than of any of the great religions. There was really only one way that history could go, we are led to believe. In the closing sections, children in his campus village hunt for Easter eggs in springtime, but of course they don’t call them Easter eggs.

The speculation in "The Years of Rice and Salt” presents the same sort of issue that Stephen Jay Gould addressed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the latter work, Gould considered what would happen if biological history were begun again. Would it follow the course of the history we know, and arrive at something like our world? Gould answered “no.” His principal evidence, an interpretation of the Burgess Shales, collapsed a few years later when better preserved fossils from the same period were discovered. His larger contention is still open to debate; the matter can be decided only when we can compare the evolutionary history of Earth to that of another earth-like planet. At this point, it seems to me that Gould was probably wrong: evolution does tend toward certain solutions. I would say the same about human history, and so, apparently, would Kim Stanley Robinson. In this novel, however, the most remarkable effect of the deletion of the West is that there is no effect. This is almost surely wrong.

Consider a few of the notable figures in this alternative history: a Chinese Columbus, an Uzbek Newton, an Indian Florence Nightingale. They not only perform roughly the same historical functions as their real-world counterparts; except for the Columbus figure, they each do so at roughly the same time as each of their real-world counterparts. It is hard to see why this should be. The West did not decisively influence the internal affairs of the two greatest non-Western imperia, China and the Ottoman Empire, until well into the 19th century. There is no particular reason why sailors from Ming China could not have discovered America. For all we know, maybe a few did. Even if that discovery had become well-known, however, it would have made little difference. For internal reasons of cultural evolution, China was no longer looking for adventures. Similarly, there is no reason why the physics of Galileo and Newton could not have been discovered in Central Asia in the 17th century, if all that was necessary was cultural cross-fertilization and a frustrated interest in alchemy.

There are in fact good reasons for making India the site of an alternative industrial revolution. Its patchwork of states, so reminiscent of Baroque Europe, might well have offered both the intellectual sophistication and the political license to develop a machine economy. The problem is that no such thing seems to have been happening when the English acquired control over most of the subcontinent in the 18th century. There was considerable Indian industry, of course, but it was not progressive in the way that European industry was in the same period. It was not just a question of technique; industrial development requires financial sophistication and acceptable political risk quite as much as it requires engineering. India was kept from developing by the government of the Idiot Sultan, and he was wholly indigenous.

Toynbee defined civilization to be a class of society that affords an intelligible unit of historical study. The nations or other units that comprise a civilization could not be understood in isolation from each other; the larger ensembles to which a civilization might belong are accidental or not constant in their effects. Toynbee modified his ideas in later life, but this definition is helpful here.

We see even in the dates in this book that something literally does not compute. Most numerical dates are given in the Muslim reckoning; actually, it is easiest to find your way around if you keep a chronological list of Chinese emperors handy. Even though there is a very sketchy timeline at the beginning of the book, there are still occasions for confusion. Because of the difference between the lengths of the lunar and solar years, a Muslim century is (if memory serves) only about 97 Gregorian years. The omission of the Christian calendar, however necessary because of the book’s premise, makes the world history the book seeks to describe almost inconceivable.

There is a sense in which Columbus, and Newton, and Florence Nightingale were world-historical figures, but if we are to discuss them as a group, we must start with the fact they were all products, indeed characteristic products, of Western civilization. The line of development that led from one to the other (or from the social milieu that produced one to the social milieu that produced the other) was a process within Western civilization. There had, perhaps, been figures parallel to these great names during the pasts of other civilizations, but the parallels were not chronologically simultaneous.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as world history. Another of Toynbee’s notions is helpful: the idea that civilizations appear in generations. The most ancient civilizations, those of the river valleys, were local affairs, however widely their influence spread. The “classical” civilizations of the next generation, of Rome and the Han and the Gupta, were regional. The third generation, including the Islamic cultures, post-Tang China, and the West after the Dark Age, are all third generation, as indeed are other societies, notably Japan and Hindu India. What Islam, the West, and China, have in common is that they are all, in principle, universal. During their great ages, Islam and China both reached just shy of global influence before consolidating their activities to certain broad regions. The West finally did achieve global scale, in the 15th century, and so created the possibility of a genuinely ecumenical society.

This is the gospel according to Toynbee, and you can take it or leave it; as we have noted, “The Years of Rice and Salt” includes a quite sophisticated discussion of metahistory. Nonetheless, the incontestable fact is that, whatever malign influence you might want to ascribe to European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other great civilizations during early modern times were simply not efflorescent in the way the West was. Without too much speculation, we can make a good estimate of the course of the world’s major civilizations in the absence of the West.

China was winding down from its Song climax; the Ming and Qing Dynasties would have followed much the same course with or without Western influence. The result would have been another minor dark age in the 20th century, as after the Latter Han in antiquity. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, the greatest of Islamic states, was losing control of North Africa and the hinterland of the Middle East before the Europeans ever became a factor. The empire would probably have unraveled in pretty much the way it did in our timeline, perhaps with the exception that the caliphate might have survived as a venerable anachronism. As for India, it is a commonplace that the English stepped into a vacuum left by the decline of the Mughal Empire. Doubtless other forces would have stepped in if the English had not been available, but there is no particular reason to suppose that the new situation would have been discontinuous with earlier Indian history.

There would still have been dynamic societies in the world, of course. Japan’s social evolution has its own internal logic; Western contact in the mid-19th century was an opportunity that Japanese elites chose to exploit. During the same period, Burma was literate, mechanically ingenious, and of an imperial turn of mind; only annexation by the British Empire prevented what might have been a new Buddhist civilization from forming. Anything at all might have happened in the Americas, but for the time being, it would have been of only local significance. The “classical” generation of American civilizations would still have been in the future.

On the whole, Earth by the middle of the 20th century might have seemed like a planet with a great future behind it. However, there have been general breakdowns of civilization before, notably at the end of the Bronze Age. Even in the barbarous early Iron Age that followed, however, techniques and ideas spread from land to land. Similarly, in the third millennium, it would have been just a matter of time before one or more societies wove the new ideas into a civilization with universal potential.

That history would have taken another 500 to 1000 years to reach the state of things that we see from the college in the land that is not Calfornia. A book about it would have to be very good indeed to compare to “The Years of Rice and Salt.”

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Years of Rice and Salt
By Kim Stanley Robinson

The Long View 2005-11-09: French Nuances

We are now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


French Nuances

 

Here's an occasion for a bit of Alternative History. Writing for the BBC in a piece entitled Violence exposes France's weaknesses, John Simpson offered this aside on the relationship between France's policy of appeasement in the Middle East and its troubles at home:

No matter that events have thoroughly borne out his criticisms of the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Muslim teenagers who briefly applauded him then have long since forgotten all that - though of course if he had supported President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair then, he would be in even greater trouble now.

It is hard to see exactly what the French government was right about. Like everyone else, they thought that Iraq had an active WMD program, but that the Baathist government could be trusted to abandon the project after one last round of inspections. The inspections after the invasion proved both beliefs were wrong. The French also warned against an uprising of the Arab street. That did occur, after a fashion, but it happened about 10 klicks from the president's office.

Imagine that the US and UK had adopted the French position and settle for inspection rather than invasion. The results would have been negative. The sanctions would have been lifted. Iraq would have gone back into the WMD business, since we know for a fact that the plan was to wait until the UN went away. Baathist Iraq was ruled by a kind of Islamofascist distinct from the Islamists, but they had reached the point where the victory of one was celebrated as the victory of the other; celebrations were held in Iraq after 911, for instance. Similarly, the end of the sanctions on Iraq would have been seen, correctly, as a victory of militant Islam over the West, France included. This could only have enhanced the appeal of Islamism to the immigrant communities in Europe. For that matter, the Iraqi government would have been in a position to press for concessions to the energized Islamic minorities.

One can argue, though I think incorrectly, that the US would be in a better position today if the Iraq War had been aborted. In such a scenario, however, the position for France would have been far more desperate.

* * *

I myself have used the term "Intifada" to describe the events in France, but I recognize that this needs qualification. Many bloggers have noted that the Mainstream Media rarely mention the Muslim angle. Libertarians mention it, but discount it. Culture war types, a group that includes me for most purposes, seem to speak of little else. Certainly the tactics used by the rioters appear influenced by television reporting of the Palestinian Intifada. If you want to make a case that the riots are an Islamist uprising, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. A site called Information Regarding Israeli Security has compiled a long list of links to support that proposition: see Evidence the "Paris Riots" Are Actually the "French Intifada"

However, though there is a degree of coordination in the violence, it is not organized in the semi-military manner that we see in the Palestinian territories. Casualties have been light. There have been no suicide bombings.

Mark Steyn says that we should take no comfort from these differences:

As to the "French" "youth", a reader in Antibes cautions me against characterising the disaffected as "Islamist". "Look at the pictures of the youths," he advises. "They look like LA gangsters, not beturbaned prophet-monkeys."

Leaving aside what I'm told are more than a few cries of "Allahu Akhbar!" on the streets, my correspondent is correct. But that's the point...But, whether in turbans or gangsta threads, just as Communism was in its day, so Islam is today's ideology of choice for the world's disaffected.

That sounds plausible to me, but it makes the threat a little hypothetical. When I used the term "Arab street" above, I used it advisedly. What seems to have happened is that the French and other European countries have succeeded in transferring Arab (and South Asian) political culture to their own soil, gangs and all. What we have seen in France in recent days is what would happen in the Middle East if the regimes there had not learned to keep the Arab street clear by shooting the Arabs in it.

Will that happen in Europe? Some people think so, but I rather doubt it. We have to remember that the problem is neither class warfare in the European tradition, nor the sort of racial conflict that bedevils American history. A Middle Eastern millet is trying to form in Europe. That has to be prevented, but it cannot be prevented by pretending that we are dealing with a class or a race issue.

* * *

Meanwhile, a new evil has been discovered by Andrew Sullivan:

CHRISTIANISM AND THE LEFT: The emergence of Christianism in this country - a political movement founded on evangelical doctrine - is arguably the most significant political development of the new millennium. And what's critical about this new movement is its relationship to government: there's nothing Christianists like more than active, interventionist government to right wrong, police private lives and uphold their version of morality.

There is a very old New Age term, "Christine," for an follower of the alleged esoteric teachings of Jesus. That coinage did not stick. I have small hope for "Christianist."

* * *

But what if we are attacked by pirates!?! Well, obviously, you fire your sonic blaster:

MIAMI - The crew of a luxury cruise ship used a sonic weapon that blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam while being attacked by a gang of pirates off Africa this weekend, the cruise line said Monday...The LRAD is a so-called "non-lethal weapon" developed for the U.S. military after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen as a way to keep operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships.

The military version is a 45-pound, dish-shaped device that can direct a high-pitched, piercing tone with a tight beam. Neither the LRAD's operators or others in the immediate area are affected.

Piracy is no longer a joke. Shipping companies and the world's navies seem to have gotten the memo, but more needs to be done.

* * *

A Correction: A reader informs me that the Alternative Minimum Tax was not, as I had recalled, created in 1986. It was augmented as part of the TEFRA reform of that year, but a version of it was created in 1978, which was actually a modification of an earlier "minimum tax" that dates to 1969. You may read the whole sorry tale here. (Thanks, Adam!)

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Contemplative Life -- Pt. II

It took me a couple of weeks to finally paint in all the corners I needed to repost John Reilly's review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle. Sure, I could have just slapped it up here, but I like to preserve the web of links John made within all of his works. It produces something like a wiki-walk. Maybe when I'm done with the reposting project I will do a network analysis of John's HTML files and see how it matches up with my own impressions.

The reason I wanted to return to John's luminous review of St. Teresa's signature work is that I was struck by the similarities in Scott Alexander's book review of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I have fond memories of Theravada Buddhism from my college years. I won a writing award in college for an essay, "Inescapable Beliefs," which dealt with my fascination with Buddhism, and my conviction that it could never replace Christianity in my heart. That particular bit of juvenilia should probably stay right where it is, but I look back on it now as a turning point in my life.

My later college obsession with Japanese culture provided an introduction to Mahayana Buddhism that only reinforced my Chestertonian impression that Christianity speaks best to the universal human longing for God that is expressed in multitudinous ways. Which brings me to the contrast between The Interior Castle and Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha.

The first thing I noticed was not in fact the differences, but the similarities. John says:

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection.

He goes on to note:

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

The kinds of experiences described by mystics seem to be somewhat independent of their cultural context. This implies a common psychological/neurological framework within which they occur. I can see a plausible argument to be made that this explains religion. I think it to be false, but I can at least see where people are coming from. 

Following Chesterton, and St. Thomas, I see this is evidence that we are are all looking for something that we lack, something that transcends our human particularities, a something best found in Christianity. Part of what makes me think so is the different impressions I get from St. Teresa's book on mystical experiences, and Ingram's. My impressions here are colored by what I learned about Theravada Buddhism in college, so I would be interested to hear otherwise.

So far as I know, the state of nirvana is the ultimate goal of Buddhists. Mystical experiences brought about by meditation, as described by Ingram, are really just part of the path to achieving release from the self. St. Teresa, on the other hand, says nothing of the sort:

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. 

Ordinary sanctity is something quite different in Christianity from the ultimate goal in Buddhism. It is far easier to achieve, and accessible to humbler people. This perhaps is why Thérèse of Lisieux, sometimes referred to as St. Thérèse the Little Flower, a nun of the same order as her namesake, is so popular. The heroic spirituality of Teresa of Avila is out of the reach of ordinary people. The severe discipline described by Ingram seems similar. The Little Flower shows us another way.

I sometimes describe myself as religious, but not not spiritual. Reading these parallel book reviews reinforces this in me. The way in which "enlightenment" overlaps with ordinary mental illness is particularly intriguing. Both Ingram and St. Teresa describe things that seem very much like common mental problems, and Alexander is particularly good at identifying these things. It isn't at all clear that the enlightenment Ingram describes is actually desirable. St. Teresa at least does a better job of selling it. However, each path is frankly described in terms that make it seem more than a little crazy.

Furthermore, the things Alexander describes as in his book review as things to be overcome via meditation seem more like features than bugs to me. 

Taken seriously, it suggests that some of the most fundamental factors of our experience are not real features of the sensory world, but very strong assumptions to which we fit sense-data in order to make sense of them. And Ingram’s theory of vipassana meditation looks a lot like concentrating really hard on our actual sense-data to try to disentangle them from the assumptions that make them cohere.
In the same way that our priors “snap” phrases like “PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” to a more coherent picture with only one “the”, or “snap” our saccade-jolted and blind-spot-filled visual world into a reasonable image, maybe they snap all of this vibrating and arising and passing away into something that looks like a permanent stable image of the world.

In particular, I've never understood the obsession with the saccade among rationalists. This is clearly a feature of our brains that enables sense perception to better match reality than the unfiltered optic nerve data would be be. If you break it, you wouldn't be able to function well, which seems to be what happens if you go too far down the meditation rabbit-hole.

The lesson I took from this is that the spiritual life is not for everyone, and can have some strongly negative consequences for the unwary. Religion, on the other hand, is accessible to everyone. I'll stick with religious, but not spiritual.

The Long View: The Interior Castle

This luminous review of St. Teresa's The Interior Castle finally brings me full circle, back to the mysteries of human experience, and the unity of mystical experience across religions. 


The Interior Castle
By St. Teresa of Avila

Translated by: 
The Monks of Stanbrook, 1911
Spanish Original:
Published Circa 1583
Barnes & Noble, 2005
227 Pages, US$9.95
ISBN: 978-0-7607-7024-5

 

If someone asks you, "What do you want from life?" all sorts of answers may occur to you. Ancient tradition suggests, however, that you should ask for something like this:

[T]he spiritual marriage with our Lord, where the soul always remains in its center with its God. Union may be symbolized by two wax candles, the tips of which touch each other so closely that there is but one light; or again, the wick, the wax, and the light become one, but that one candle can again be separated from the other and the two candles remain distinct; or the wick may be withdrawn from the wax. But spiritual marriage is like rain falling from heaven into a river or stream, becoming one and the same liquid, so that river and rainwater cannot be divided; or it resembles a streamlet flowing into the ocean, which cannot afterwards be disunited from it. This marriage may also be likened to a room into which a bright light enters through two windows--though divided when it enters, the light becomes one and the same.

The spiritual marriage is an event that occurs in the Seventh Mansions of the seven-region structure of the soul described in this book by Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada (1515 -- 1582), the reforming Carmelite nun. She was later named a saint and a Doctor of the Church; she is best known as St. Teresa of Avila. The state she described is the best thing that can happen to a living human being.

The contemplative tradition of prayer in which Teresa is such an eminent figure prescinds from most late-modern discussions about the reality and nature of the divine. God is not a proposition to be proven; or even an object of faith, at least after the first stage of prayer as self-initiated meditation. Rather, God is known through direct experience, an experience that is prior to any philosophical or scientific glosses that students of contemplation might apply to it. In that sense, contemplative prayer is an existentialist enterprise, rather like Heidegger's study of conscience as the voice of Being. The difference is that modern existentialism appeals to immediate experience on the assumption that experience will always behave itself. In the world of the contemplative, experience does not behave itself at all.

Be that as it may, any class of phenomena that are predominantly mental is going to raise at least some suspicion of insanity, fraud or mistake. Teresa reminds us more than once that she suffers from headaches, and that she sometimes hears a sound like rushing waters. There were points in her spiritual life, she makes clear, when she was simply ill. Critical of her own experience, she offers readers frank cautions about the psychological pathologies to which the nuns of her Order are subject. ("Melancholia" is not a modern diagnosis, but it seems at least as useful as later terms have proven to be.) She has a quite lively sense of the power of wishful thinking. She evidently knows mere silliness when she sees it. She also warns that even the most dramatic psychological event can be a diabolical deception, or may simply have no deep significance at all.

Readers of her book will soon appreciate how disciplined her treatment of contemplation is. They will also appreciate that quite a lot of this discipline is external.

Throughout her career, Teresa's activities were impeded because she was a woman in a society where women had limited legal personality, and, in any case, were not expected to have serious intellectual interests. Teresa was the daughter of a converso family, which also made her an object of suspicion in 16th-century Spain. More important, she and her colleague in the male wing of the Carmelite Order, Saint John of the Cross, were continuing to cultivate a tradition of late medieval spirituality that the Spanish hierarchy of her day strongly suspected, not without reason, to have contributed to starting the Reformation. Teresa was periodically suspected of being one of the alumbrados, a mystical movement whose beliefs shaded into antinomianism.

For a variety of reasons, then, Teresa had protracted problems with the Inquisition and her own superiors. In fact, in 1577, when this book was written, her access to religious texts and even her own earlier works were restricted; when she makes a Biblical quotation, she warns that she may have misremembered it because she cannot look it up. Nonetheless, it says something for her general mental health that she proved to be a formidable bureaucratic infighter. She managed to keep her major works in circulation, and she co-founded the Discalced Carmelites, a branch of the 12th-century Carmelite Order, that remains an important institution in the 21st century.

Teresa's uncongenial historical circumstances created fewer restraints than the system of confession and spiritual direction that can be found in some form in any religious order, but that are especially important to contemplatives. They are not unwanted intrusions, but an integral part of the discipline she describes. She repeatedly urges her readers, whom she assumed would at first be her fellow Carmelites, to keep their confessors informed about their spiritual experiences, and their prioress about their social and psychological ones (sometimes, the best next step in one's prayer life is a vacation, or at least a change of assignments). Of course, Teresa was aware that she knew more about the theory and practice of advanced spirituality than some of her spiritual directors did. The book is sprinkled with passages like this:

The time which has been spent in reading or writing on this subject will not have been lost if it has taught us these two truths; for though learned, clever men know them perfectly, women's wits are dull and need help in every way. Perhaps this is why our Lord has suggested these comparisons to me; may He give us grace to profit by them!

Leaving aside the question of which two truths were at issue, there are several ways to view this passage. Maybe it is a simple expression of humility. Maybe it is a way of deflecting possible criticism from suspicious prelates. There is also some reason to suppose that Teresa was the snarkiest Doctor of the Church since Augustine.

* * *

We should note that nowhere does Teresa suggest that the contemplative path is necessary for salvation, or even peculiarly helpful for it. Neither does she make special claims for her model of the soul as a castle like a translucent crystal. Nonetheless, for those who found the analogy helpful, she suggested that those who wished to advance in the knowledge and experience of God could think of themselves as moving through a concentric system of six rings of rooms or mansions ("moradas") toward a seventh, central set, where God was most perfectly present. Each of these rings of mansions presented its own challenges in terms of personal reformation and the type of prayer that is possible there; also, in each successive ring God affects the seeker in a more dramatic and overwhelming way. After the inner sections, particularly after the Fourth Mansions, God is clearly controlling the advance, but grace of some kind is needed for every step, including the original decision to enter the Castle.

Outside the castle is a dark landscape, where poor sinners are preyed upon by "reptiles," which may be demons, or the temptations, or the sinners' own ill will. Entering on the spiritual life, the penitent comes to the First Mansions. There, with some suffering, he gains self-knowledge. This painful process is necessary, though these mansions are a relatively crepuscular region, where the assaults of the reptiles are still common. The Second Mansions are similarly dark and dangerous, but there the aspiring soul will first learn how to pray. In the Third Mansions there is less danger from the cruder assaults of evil. It is the region of ordinary virtue; continuance in a state of grace becomes easier. Though we are not told this explicitly, one might gather from the text that these are the Mansions where the faithful in secular life might ordinarily expect to spend their lives.

In any case, even in these first three sets of Mansions, one meets here some of the subtle dangers of the spiritual life. Teresa counsels her readers on dealing with aridity and distraction in prayer, and about indiscreet zeal, the temptation to judge and criticize persons who seem less pious than oneself. The denizens of the Third Mansions in particular are tempted to think their lives are saintly because they are irreproachable; such people can actually benefit from the humility that comes with misfortune.

In the first three Mansions, the aspirant soul may sometimes be aware of special manifestations of divine grace, and of peace in prayer. As a rule, though, the divine is experienced only through the ordinary means of preaching and the sacraments, and through the natural satisfaction in a job well done (if you are a contemplative nun, the distinction between liturgy and labor tends to disappear). The Fourth Mansions, however, are the point where "consolations" normally begin to play a large part in the spiritual life. There are moments of the "expansion of the heart" that are outside the normal range of emotions; and indeed, in some manifestations, outside the range of nature.

There is a science of mystical experience. The Interior Castle is one of the key sources of its data; so are Teresa's earlier works, including the Life and The Way of Perfection. Rather than try to summarize the increasingly complex treatment of the inner mansions, let us here simply paraphrase the editor's Note 113 to The Interior Castle, even though it uses some of Teresa's terminology that does not occur in this particular book:

The first three Mansions of the Interior Castle correspond with the first water, or the prayer of Meditation. The Fourth Mansion, or the prayer of Quiet, corresponds with the second water. The Fifth Mansion, or the prayer of Union, corresponds with the third water. The sixth mansion, where the prayer of ecstasy is described, corresponds with the fourth water.

As for the Seventh Mansions, this review begins with a description of the spiritual marriage that occurs there.

The present text assumes that the reader is familiar with these modes of prayer and how they are performed. Meditation, for instance, seems to mean principally the sustained contemplation of the incidents in the life of Christ or of the Passion; the Rosary is a prayer of this type. In the other forms of prayer, some voluntary recollection or other act may be necessary, but the higher forms are events in which the will of the aspirant plays a smaller and smaller role. In any case, this book is less concerned with how to pray than with how to handle prayer's effects.

* * *

The theological subtext of The Interior Castle is Thomistic. Teresa was not herself trained in systematic theology, however, and even by her own account she garbled some points. This text has editorial notes and an interpolated chapter to clarify these points. Thus, they amplify with a venerable Scholastic gloss her distinction between the prayer of Union, which occurs in the Fifth Mansions, from the Marriage that occurs in the Seventh Mansions. The prayer of Union, the monks suggest, involves the accidents of the soul (its senses and cognitive functions), while the Marriage involves a change of its substance. This change is a transformation that identifies the soul with the divine to the degree that Teresa has a vision in which Jesus says to her "that henceforth she was to care for His affairs as though they were her own and He would care for hers." In the spiritual marriage, a human life becomes Christ's life. The editors do not make quite so bold as to call this transubstantiation.

Note that this was an "interior vision." Teresa describes "imaginary visions," which occur when people see images as if they were physical objects. She does not say such things are impossible, but that they do not belong to her experience. She also describes raptures, in which the spirit feels itself to leave the body (the she is professedly agnostic about whether this is actually the case). She also describes "jubilees," which can involve more than one person, and which sound a bit like charismatic behavior. Until she gets to the dramatic (and apparently somewhat dangerous) ecstasies of the Sixth Mansions, she herself is far more comfortable with "intellectual vision," in which knowledge is infused directly into the intellect, without the intervention of the senses. This can involve a direct awareness of an object or person, including the physical appearance. Indeed, one of the greatest consolations in the more advanced Mansions is the repeated and even habitual awareness of the divine presence.

Even a cursory familiarity with the literature of mysticism will find resonances in this work. This reviewer was surprised to discover how much of this book's advice about prayer and the dangers of the advanced spiritual life is echoed in C.S. Lewis's most popular work, The Screwtape Letters. Lewis was familiar with the literature of mysticism, of course, but that is unlikely to be the whole explanation. Serious spirituality is an empirical enterprise; people who have experienced its effects will recognize them in the accounts of others who have experienced them.

This does not mean that all the writers say the same things about the same experiences, or even that it is certain that the experiences are the same. For instance, in The Interior Castle, Teresa speaks of a point where a word, an idea, any small thing will cause an eruption of the divine presence. The divine sends out a flurry of sparks, any one of which could cause the soul to ignite. This sounds a bit like the climax of the anonymous English work, The Cloud of Unknowing, from two centuries earlier. In that book, the prepared soul sends out, at unpredictable intervals, shafts of aspiration that pierce the Godhead. Similar to The Interior Castle, yes: but are these moments identical?

There are certainly points where Teresa takes care to distinguish her views from those of other writers. There are some texts that suggest there comes a stage in the seeker's journey when the whole object of attention is God without qualification; the earlier meditations on Christ and His Passion were necessary, but are no longer relevant to the final stages. That is the view of The Cloud of Unknowing, which demands a preparation of perfect faith and purity of life, but moves to a point where everything, including even the benefits conveyed by God, is neglected in favor of the love of God. Teresa says that this is not her experience; she never ceases to focus on Jesus and the Cross. She never forgets the Saints, who at this level become felt companions rather than merely recipients of prayers for intercession. The Interior Castle presents a world that is less arid and alien than other expressions of advanced spirituality, particularly those of the 20th century. Finally, we may note that the seven-part structure of the Castle makes the journey through it into a history of seven ages, which inevitably calls to mind some of the models of time based on the structure of the week. The spiritual marriage of the Seventh Mansions calls to mind the Millennium, an idea that might have a literal personal application even if it does not have a historical one. More speculatively, one of Teresa's best-known metaphors, that of the caterpillar that spins a cocoon and later dies to be reborn as a butterfly, might have an application not just to the aspiring soul, but also to the Incarnation. The cocoon begins to be spun in the Fifth Mansions, after a long history of preparation. This is not unlike the idea that the Incarnation is the center of history, structurally if not necessarily in terms of the duration of the time periods to either side.

Even if Teresa had any thoughts along these lines herself, she does not mention them in The Interior Castle. They are the sort of notion that made the Inquisition cranky, for one thing. For another, speculation was not Teresa's vocation. She wrote about only what she knew.

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The Long View: The Reformation

John reviews a fine one-volume history of the Reformation, marred by a jarring lapse into modern obsessions at the end.


The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 2004
800 Pages, US$35.95
ISBN: 0670032964

 

In the later volumes of A Study of HistoryArnold Toynbee came to the conclusion that world history was about the development of universal religions rather than the rise and decline of civilizations. Certainly Christianity has most often understood its core mission to be the salvation of souls, though it has rarely neglected to make the argument that this enterprise also tends to alleviate the secular human condition. The Reformation era was one of the great inflections in the development of Western civilization, however. In the history of civilization, the theological controversies of that era necessarily become history's factors rather than history's meaning. In this telling by a professor of church history at the University of Oxford, the story begins in the 15th century with a strange interplay between the theologians of England and Bohemia, well before the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, and reaches a conclusion around 1700 with the establishment of the first gay subcultures in Amsterdam and London. The book itself meanders to the end of the 20th century.

If we ask why the Reformation narrowly so called occurred, why the Lutherans and Calvinists (very roughly, the Evangelicals and the Reformed) seceded from the Church of Rome, there may be two fairly straightforward reasons.

First, the theology of the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to the Eucharist, had long been cast in terms of Thomas Aquinas's understanding of Aristotle. This understanding, called “moderate realism,” has it that universal concepts really exist, but are present in the sensual world as individual things that reflect the universals. This is a handy model in several contexts. In theology, it means that human ideas, human institutions, and even the material world participate in divine universals. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, moderate realism had fallen out of fashion in favor of nominalism, which holds that universals are just names attributed to individual things. Without moderate realism, God's knowledge became an entirely different thing from human knowledge, and the concept of natural law was undermined. Anyone with a motive for doing so could easily point out that it had become very difficult to maintain traditional doctrines in nominalist terms. Martin Luther was, of course, a nominalist.

The other straightforward cause, the author suggests, was that an economic bubble burst. The bubble in this case was the Purgatory Industry, the endowment of chantries and other institutions to pray for the souls of the dead. There is a case to be made for some commerce between the living and the dead as a corollary of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. However, by 1500 in northern Europe the institutional expression of this argument was clearly in a state of unsustainable hypertrophy. An amazing amount of capital and manpower was going into the repetitive performance of liturgies whose only visible benefit was the satisfaction of the descendents of the original donors. The Purgatory Industry was the kind of endowment that invites expropriation (let today's universities take note). It did not help that the most prominent purgatorial entrepreneurs were crooks.

Those are the straightforward reasons the author highlights for our consideration, but he does not claim they were the deep causes. This reviewer, at least, takes away two key points to remember about the Reformation era.

The first point is that reform occurred throughout Latin Christendom. Before the reform, the typical parish priest was likely to be a man with a rudimentary education; he could say the Mass in Latin and perform other liturgical functions, but he might not be able to do much else. The work of preaching and of spiritual counsel (which was closely connected with hearing Confession) was in the hands of the friars, and to a lesser extent of the older monastic orders. By the end of the seventeenth century, priests and ministers on either side of the new Catholic-Protestant divide were people of some education (in the case of England, of university degrees) who could deliver an exposition of doctrine and who acted as spiritual pastors to their congregations. The late medieval world has been called a “blocked society,” in the sense that there was a general consensus that many social and ecclesiastical abuses needed to be corrected but insufficient will to make the correction. By and by, the consensus of around 1500 about what needed reform was carried out everywhere. In some ways, the era of reformation started in Spain, with a great campaign against ecclesiastical featherbedding and a notable outburst of precise Biblical scholarship (the Inquisition was part of it, too: go figure). The Counter-Reformation associated with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was, in its own understanding, a conservative enterprise, but it was the sort of conservatism that turned what had been options into principles. One could argue (though it is not clear that the author does) the process in Protestant Europe was different in degree rather than kind.

The second point was that the great drive for reform was moved from first to last by the manifest approach of the end of days. Savonarola's Florence in the 1490s was only slightly precocious in this regard. Spain was in the lead here, two, with a simultaneous outbreak of ecstatic millennialism among Christians and Jews and Muslims, each confession with its own eschatological agenda but all three in contact. The launching of Columbus's transatlantic voyages was closely connected with this social mood. (He hoped to find the resources in the Indies to take the Holy Land from the Turk and begin Joachim of Fiore's endtime scenario.)

As is so often the case, the expectation of an imminent apocalypse expressed a perfectly accurate intuition of the fact that the world was about to change. As is often also the case, the effort to prepare the world for the Second Coming was itself one of the chief causes of revolutionary change. Church and state needed to be rebuilt, and even gutted. The Antichrist's advent was expected hourly (and indeed he was already present, in the person of the Bishop of Rome), so that leagues had to be formed and state structures integrated to an unprecedented degree to oppose him.

The degree of apocalyptic fervor varied over time and from confession to confession throughout the 16th century, of course. Millenarian enthusiasm, indeed enthusiasms of any sort, was coolly discountenanced in Reformed Geneva. Millennial excitement broke out among commoners and elites in Catholic-controlled areas, but it was almost invariably denied support by even subordinate agencies of the Catholic Church. On the whole, the expectation of the end of history tended to morph into the expectation of the beginning of a new age, and then into the idea of historical progress.

The author has a great deal to say about the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of the beginning of the 17th century, with its technological optimism and its expectation of a Protestant world informed by the sound principles of modern alchemy. This was the ideology behind the Elector Palatine Frederick's bid to take the throne of Bohemia from the Habsburgs. This was, perhaps, intended to be the first step toward protestantizing the Holy Roman Empire. The failure of this adventure at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 famously turned a set of minor disputes into the Thirty Years War. On the whole, the Protestant confessions did badly in that conflict, and would do worse still as the 17th century progressed. However, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment's essentially hermetic interpretation of history as a story of social evolution became the distinguishing feature of the modern era.

The Reformation era was also the time when the states of the classic European international system crystallized. Again, this happened on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, and in both cases the autonomy of ecclesiastical structures suffered. France, notoriously, was a world to itself in terms of state control over Church governance. However, though French governments until Louis XIV generally were more interested in social peace than in religious conformity, Protestantism was eventually suppressed, and the author has some fascinating things to say about the continuities in French history that this process reveals.

Unkind persons (Englishmen, probably) have sometimes said that the real constitution of France is bureaucracy mitigated by riots. The riots started with the refusal by the Catholic populace of French municipalities to accept the terms of royal measures of toleration, of which the most important was the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The mob discovered that they could face down edicts of the government, and they did not forget. Similarly, the royal government tended increasingly to act unconstitutionally in part because France's dense and recalcitrant system of local government often refused to take steps to protect Protestants. One does not usually think of Louis XVI as having been beheaded by the remote effects of his ancestors' good intentions, but there you have it.

Speaking of Englishmen, the author often delicately refers to “the Atlantic Isles” rather than to England, and for the most part resists the temptation to make the history of Europe in this period simply a colorful background to the evolution of the Anglican Church. Nonetheless, one cannot help sensing a note of satisfaction when he observes that the English tended to think of the Reformation as something that was done far away by, well, foreigners, and that did not bear directly on important domestic concerns.

One of the what-ifs often mentioned in connection with the Reformation is the conjecture about what would have happened if Luther had become pope. A much more plausible alternative would be the election of the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, who actually came within one vote of becoming pope in 1549. As the author points out, the cardinals had been rereading Augustine, too, and at least some of them saw the point of the Protestant theories of faith and works. Cardinal Carafa, who became Paul IV a few years later, considered Pole a heretic (not much of a distinction, frankly: Paul IV had similar thoughts about Ignatius Loyola). Pole was preserved from a heresy trial by the fact he had become Archbishop of Canterbury and was presiding over, if not quite conducting, the anti-Anglican persecution of Queen Mary. Very few of the prominent actors of the early modern era are entirely sympathetic to late modern eyes.

The author, in what might be taken to be typical Anglican fashion, tends to split the difference regarding the various theories about the relationship of Protestantism to capitalism and democracy. He suggests that Max Weber's hypothesis of a Protestant Work Ethic was really just a projection of the state of Switzerland in Weber's own time onto the 16th and 17th centuries. He also is not much impressed by the “stripping of the altars” model of Protestantism as elite vandalism of popular religious practice. On the other hand, he says that Protestantism often meant a loss of local control; what actually happened in late medieval parishes had usually been decided by the local guilds, which paid the clergy salaries and maintained the buildings. Most of that local autonomy went away, in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

In Reformed Protestant areas, whose presbyterian form of governance often overlapped with civil government, control was of course extremely local. Such churches were oligarchies of the Saints rather than democracies, perhaps, but public affairs were managed openly and decisions were made by a relatively broad base. We should note that this style of government used the actual consent of the governed to justify a remarkable constriction of liberty. The same principle applies to condominiums and homeowners associations today.

Finally, let us address what the author suggests to be the conclusion of the Reformation. The process worked out the implications of nominalism. The relationship of God to the world was no longer part of the great chain of being that extended to the relationship of the king to the kingdom and the father to the family. Even as late as the beginning of the 17th century, for instance, the Holy Roman Empire seemed to be part of the furniture of the universe. By the end of the Thirty Years War, it was just a confederation. The important point was not a change in power but in ontological status. The author argues that the same happened to every human relationship. Everything became subject to renegotiation.

The great bulk of this commendably bulky book is solid, careful, political and intellectual history, illuminated by social studies, and all of it adhering to the ordinary standards of historiography. The final section, however, is given over to the late 20th-century scholarship of gender and of sexual identity. It is oddly incoherent with the rest of the book. Suddenly, a book that had been notable for crisp facts becomes sodden with theory. The switch is a little disorienting. If patriarchy was so important for understanding the later 17th century, then why does it rarely come up when the author has sola scriptura and the millenarian tyranny of the Munster Commune to talk about? Towards the end, the author suggests that the great issue facing Christianity today is the need to adjust its views on sexual morality. Of course, it is notoriously difficult to bring a broad-scope history down to the present without overestimating the significance of the issues of one's own time. In the long run, it may well become apparent that the questions that dominate the book's end were cultural epiphenomena incident to a lapse in demographic morale rather than a latter day extension of the Whig Tradition. Be that as it may, the book's treatment of these issues does not diminish the interest or importance of the earlier sections.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Long View: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment

Rosicrucians

Rosicrucians

The Rosicrucian Order is the kind of thing I couldn't get enough of when I was a teenager and a young man, and now bores me to tears. Accordingly, I'm sympathetic to John's critical reading of what the history of such movements really means.


The Rosicrucian Enlightenment
By Frances Yates
Routledge, 2004
(First Published 1972)
333 Pages, US$14.95
ISBN 0-415-26769-2

 

Did companies of English actors once prowl the capitals of western Germany and Mitteleuropa like Cathar troubadours, providing entertainment to the masses, to be sure, but also heralding to the wise a the impending arrival of an alchemical Millennium? And did the mind of modernity really spring from the Monas Hieroglyphica, John Dee’s dense and enigmatic little book, whose evangel Dee spread during his time in Europe in the 1580s, when he became a figure at the uncanny court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II at Prague? To answer a flat “yes” to either of these questions would be to put the matter more crudely than it appears in this careful classic study of the Rosicrucian moment in European intellectual history. (And actually, in asking those questions, I put in the comparison to the troubadours myself, though the author does make much of the role of Elizabethan drama.) Conspiracy theorists cannot be greatly comforted by this book, since it deals in large part with a public if overambitious political project, though the book does touch on the origins of the Freemasons and the other not-particularly-secret societies that began to flourish in the 17th century. Be that as it may, the real theme of the work is that the origins of the culture of modern science are closely linked with millennialism and a form of neoplatonism.

The centerpiece of the story is brief reign of the Winter King and Queen of Bohemia: Frederick V (1596-1632), Prince-Elector of the Palatinate, and of Princess Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662) of England. In 1619, the Kingdom of Bohemia rejected the Catholic Habsburg heir to the throne and chose the Protestant Frederick instead. His marriage in 1613 to Elizabeth, the daughter of James I of England, had been seen as a great strengthening of the Protestant cause in Europe. The offer of the Bohemian crown raised the possibility of a league of Evangelical princes that would break the hegemony of Habsburg and Spanish power. The supporters of the Bohemian project, as manifested in the literature of those years that purported to issue from an ancient but theretofore secret order of the “Rosy Cross,” also seem to have hoped that Frederick’s move from Heidelberg to Prague, the old capital of Rudolph II (1552-1612), might be the preliminary to Frederick’s ascension to the throne of the Holy Roman Empire (an elected position, remember: Frederick was one of the electors). Thus the connection between that ancient federation and the Church of Rome would be broken, and the empire would become the instrument, in the words of the Rosicrucian literature, of “a general reformation of the whole wide world.”

As it happened, few enterprises have ever turned out quite so badly. There had been a long truce in the wars of religion in the decades before the Bohemians chose Frederick. In those days, every state in Germany and Middle Europe seems to have been ruled by Ludwig the Mad, and the recluse Rudolph with his hermetic studies and keen interest in alchemy is usually denounced as the most frivolous of all. In retrospect, though, his absent-minded tolerance was probably the best course. His Habsburg successor (after the brief reign of his brother) refused to accept the loss of Bohemia to the Protestant cause (though it was largely a Protestant country). The Thirty Years War began with the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, when Frederick and Elizabeth were driven from Prague. Frederick simultaneously lost the Palatinate to invading Catholic armies. They then established a long-running but penurious court at the Hague.

The key documents on the Rosicrucian Furore, as it was called in Germany, were the pseudonymously published pamphlets, the Fama (to use the abbreviated title), which appeared in printed form in 1612, and the Confessio, which appeared two years later. To some extent, they were just partisan literature extolling the future of Frederick and his House. However, as we have seen, they also announced the existence of a secret society, an “Invisible College” of long-lived persons founded by one Christian Rosenkreuz, who was said to have acquired his knowledge in the East. This society promised to inaugurate an era of universal enlightenment in the very near future. The recovery of ancient wisdom was to be the foundation of this new reformation, but a crucial feature of it was to be the perfection of natural knowledge gained by experiment and by the consultation of scholars.

These documents and associated publications included the numerological reworking of ancient prophecies to prove that a great change was imminent. The model of history they proposed was not so different from the postmillennialism familiar from later centuries, which holds that the Millennium will be established on Earth by human effort before the Second Coming; this model is not so different from Age of the Holy Spirit forecast by Joachim of Fiore, to which the author of this book tells us the literature actually alluded.

The Christian Rosenkreuz after whom the Rosicrucian fashion was named was not so much a myth as a joke, an imaginary monk who was said to studied in Damascus and Fez. The spirit of the anonymous literature is captured in the work of a “Rosicrucian” whose name we do know, Johann Valentin Andreae. His allegory, written in German but appraently under influence of English drama, is known in English as The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. The work depicts a royal wedding spread over seven days, whose events track in some ways the alchemical process understood as a spiritual exercise. The Wedding ends with the sending out of “missionaries” to spread the new science. It is reasonably clear that this did not describe an actual missionary enterprise, but the spread of a new historical optimism based on the hope for a new synthesis of knowledge.

Persons less astute than Andreae took the Rosicrucian brotherhood literally. In Germany, until the defeat of Fredrick V in 1620 burst the bubble of irrational enthusiasms, there was a flood of literature by people defending and attacking the brotherhood; many sought admittance to it. The echo of in France of the German furore was a sort of witch hunt, occasioned by the appearance in 1623 of posters in Paris announcing the arrival of the invisible Rosicrucians. “Invisibility” was sometimes taken to mean not just “clandestine,” but unable to be seen. Young Rene Descartes, who had actually fought at the Battle of the White Mountain on the Catholic side, was rumored to be a Rosicrucian until his return to Paris proved him to be visible after all.

What was this new science that the Rosicrucian literature claimed to be about to transform the world? It was Renaissance Hermeticism, heavily focused on mathematics but with a keen interest in the mechanical arts developed by the engineers of antiquity. Frederick’s gardens at Heidelberg, for instance, were famous for their automata and other mechanical marvels. “Hermetic” in this context usually meant the theosophy of “Hermes Trismegistus,” who was purported to be a philosopher of ancient Egypt whom Renaissance had identified with Moses, though in fact the writings ascribed to him date from the Greco-Roman period. Like the earlier Renaissance, it included a systematic interest in alchemy, but in the “new” alchemy of Paracelsus (1493-1541), with its heavy focus on medicine and the philosophy of the parallel nature of the macrocosm and microcosm. The novel feature was the Cabala. This, too, had been an element of Renaissance thought since at least the 15th century, but the Rosicrucian Cabala was the new, Lurianic Cabala that developed in the Levant after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It was not just Messianic, it was “reformist,” looking to the reconstruction of a damaged world.

The English element clarifies the story greatly. The order of the Rosy Cross itself, for instance, is plausibly explained as an allegorical reworking of the rose and cross among the symbols of the English Order of the Garter, which James I bestowed on his new son-in-law Frederick, and which had recently been given to the prince of Württemberg. Most significant of all, however, was the role of John Dee (1527-1609).

Dee was a serious mathematician and a notable statesman. He is sometimes credited, perhaps with a measure of exaggeration, with founding the British Secret Service. He was interested in the natural world as such; and to use Francis Bacon’s later phrase, he hoped to use natural knowledge for the relief of man’s estate. He was also quite chatty with angels.

In his Monas Hieroglyphica, Dee tried to unite all these themes in a synthesis whose ambitions are at least as great as, say, Thomism, or the search for a Theory of Everything. Empirical science was an element of what Dee sought to promote, but as a component of a grander structure whose focus was elsewhere. As we read in this history:

To return to the general analysis of the Rosicrucian outlook. magic was a dominating factor, working as a mathematic- mechanics in the lower world, as celestial mechanics in the celestial world, and as angelic conjuration in the supercelestial world. One cannot leave out the angels in this world view, however much it may have been advancing towards the scientific revolution. The religious outlook is bound up with the idea that penetration has been made into higher angelic spheres in which all religions were seen as one; it is the angels who are believed to illuminate man’s intellectual activities.

Readers will note how these ideas reflect the doctrine of Perennialism and anticipate later speculation about the transcendental unity of religions. In connection with ecumenicism, this reviewer notes that Dee’s Hermetic progressivism seems to have been an element of what Paul Johnson later called the Third Force: Johnson’s treatment of the topic in his History of Christianity (1976) is largely a paraphrase of The Rosicrucian Enlightenment. According to Johnson, this Third Force operated in both the Catholic and Protestant regions of Europe before the Thirty Years War to mitigate the friction between Catholic and Protestant, and between the different denominations in the Protestant camp, with a view to eventual reconciliation. The author of this book does note the existence of associations during that period whose members were systematically indifferent to confessional affiliation. They might claim to belong to any church, while adhering to their own version of slightly esoteric Christianity.

Sometimes the esotericism of these years overbalanced the Christianity. That seems to have been the case with Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), yet another familiar of the court of Rudolph II. Unlike the pious Evangelical Dee, Bruno espoused turning to the “Egyptian Religion,” by which he meant the new synthesis of Hermeticism and alchemy.

As for Dee himself, his version of what we must call “Rosicrucianism” (though that is not necessarily a term he would have heard himself) certainly had political dimension. In addition to his still somewhat murky adventures in Prague, during his stay in Europe in the 1580s he seems to have been attempting some such link between England and the Palatinate that the marriage of Frederick and Elizabeth later achieved. This policy was not necessarily anti-Catholic. Dee’s own Anglicanism had not quite gelled yet as a Protestant confession, for one thing. Dee could still talk to the Emperor Rudolph without a strong sense that each was a member of a different confession. The strongest insistence that Catholic and Protestant choose sides, this book suggests, came from the Society of Jesus. Officially recognized as an order in 1540, the Jesuits required some decades to become the ubiquitous, and allegedly omniscient, face of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Indeed, maybe the phantasm of the Order of the Holy Cross was intended as an image of the Jesuits as they should have been. (We may note that rumors were not lacking that the Rosicrucians actually were the Jesuits, presenting themselves in other guise.) In any case, by the time of the marriage of Frederick and Elizabeth, the Rosicrucian movement had become less generically reformist and more specifically anti-Catholic, or at least anti-Jesuit. At the same time, its focus on the improvement of the secular world had become more emphatic:

The Rosicrucian manifesto may now take a somewhat wider meaning. It calls for a general reformation because the other reformations have failed. The Protestant Reformation is losing strength and is divided. The Catholic Counter Reformation has taken a wrong turning. A new general reformation of the whole wide world is called for, and this third reformation is to find its strength in Evangelical Christianity with its emphasis on brotherly love, in the esoteric Hermetic-Cabalist tradition, and in an accompanying turning towards the works of God in nature in a scientific spirit of exploration, using science or magic, magical science or scientific magic, in the service of man.

The actual outcome of Frederick’s Bohemian adventure was sufficiently appalling to occasion what Richard Landes of Boston University has called “millennial disappointment,” which is what happens when the perfection of the world is promised but does not arrive. This was a key theme in Endless Things, the last novel of John Crowley’s Ægypt series. The series is based on an analogy of the Rosicrucian Enlightenment to the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s; it tells tales from both eras in parallel. However, as The Rosicrucian Enlightenment reminds us, it is possible to argue that the Rosicrucian Millennium did arrive, though not quite in the manner expected by John Dee or Frederick V.

The later story of the Rosicrucians links in obscure ways to the other obscure beginnings of the 17th century. It had something to do with beginning of the Freemasons (of the real Freemasons, as distinct from the bogus lineage that runs from the Temple of Solomon through the Templars). It also had something to do with the foundation of the Royal Society in 1659. That august institution is, perhaps, the Invisible College made visible, however much its founders sought to distance themselves publicly from all the occult sciences, and especially from any taint of association with John Dee. The important link here is Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the statesman and philosopher who is sometimes credited, not altogether accurately, with the discovery of the scientific method.

Certainly some of Bacon’s ideas were diametrically opposed to those that we have been considering. He had no interest in secret societies or invisible colleges; he was keen, rather, to promote the exchange of scholars and discoveries among the visible colleges of Europe. Though he, too, urged the development of the sciences, mathematics does not seem to have been on his list of disciplines that needed perfection. Mathematics seemed to him to be too close to conjuration. (Some of his contemporaries thought the same, and supported the development of mathematics for just that reason.) No doubt his disinterest in this subject was related to his rejection of the Copernican model of the solar system. Be this all as it may, though, to read Bacon’s New Atlantis is to be confronted with a Rosicrucian utopia, down to the rosy crosses on the turbans of the Christian priest-scholars who benevolently manage the great temple and research institute on the hidden continent with which the story deals. These scholars dispatch secret observers to the rest of the world, to keep abreast of developments in every country. What more could a Rosicrucian ask for?

Bacon was certainly the spiritual founder to whom the first histories of the Royal Society looked back, though this book reminds us that the Society had a pre-history at Oxford before its official founding in London, a prehistory when its membership may have felt less need to be intellectually respectable. Be that as it may, the precautions of the founders to disassociate themselves from subjects that Bacon would have considered questionable was in vain. In its second generation, the world reputation of the society was made by the mathematical attainments of Isaac Newton, who was also an alchemist and a millenarian, though he was discrete about those interests. Unlike John Dee, he did not talk to angels, or at least not that we know of.

This book emphasizes the reciprocal Rosicrucian influences that went back and forth between England and the continent, particularly in the form of refugees from Germany and Bohemia. It may have been that the foundation of the Freemasons was “blowback” (a term the book does not use) from Dee’s sojourn in Europe. The most interesting political figure in this story is Elizabeth, the Winter Queen of Bohemia. She maintained her court-in-exile after the death of her beloved but not particularly useful husband. During the English Civil War and the Protectorate, she contrived to stay on good terms with both Roundheads and Royalists. Meanwhile, intellectuals and persons of a mystical bent flocked to the Netherlands to be near her. (Descartes was devoted to her daughter.) If she had seriously hoped to become empress of a magical transformed Europe, then no doubt she was disappointed. Still, she did live to see her son restored as ruler of at least part of the Palatinate. Much later, her grandson became George I of England.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Endless Things

I suspect that John's review is rather better than this book.


Endless Things
a part of Ægypt
By John Crowley
400 Pages, US$24.00
Small Beer Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-931520-225

 

Solemnity is out of order in a review of a book that ends with a mountain-top pastorale accompanied by heavenly music from an Aeolian harp played by no human hand. And how grim can you get about a book that has dialogue like this?

--The Torah has six hundred thousand facess, the Maharal said to the Ass. One face for every Jew alive at the time Moshe rebiana revealed it; it is their turned-away faces we seek for through Hokhmath ha-Tseruf, or as it is said, gematria.

--This is the art by which form and substaance may be transmuted, said the Ass.

When the Rabbi said nothing in assent, the Ass added: So I have read in ancient authors.

Nonetheless, some nostalgia may be in order: Endless Things is the fourth and final part of the Ægypt series that John Crowley, metaphysical novelist and teacher of creative writing at Yale, has been publishing since 1987. That first book was originally called Ægypt, but through some inexplicable alchemy is now called The Solitudes; the other two books are Love & Sleep (1994) and Dæmonomania (2000). Faithful readers will not be disappointed by the arrival of this eschaton. And yes, Crowley does finally explain why there is something rather than nothing, but let us consider a few lesser points first.

Endless Things is an epilogue. The world ended twice in the third book in the series: once in Upstate New York in the late 1970s and again in Prague in the late 16th century. The author has the sense not to do it a third time. What we get now are explanations, marriages, the tying up of (most) loose ends, and an eclipse of magic that is not disillusion but illumination. As always, the tale is about the painful education of freelance scholar Pierce Moffett, a would-be magus with a persistent intuition that the past is more fluid than we had supposed. His adventures in the 1970s, brought into the 1990s by this book, are hermetically synchronous with events in London and Prague in the decades around the year 1600.

To put it baldly, the premise of the Ægypt series is that the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s (would that Charles Reich had lived to see this hour) was comparable to the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of the early 17th century. Both were the beginning of a new age. In both cases, within a generation, the past was thought of in a new way, the scientific assumptions of the educated had been transformed, and what once was socially unthinkable had become obvious.

Earlier books in the series dealt with the researches and intrigues of Dr. John Dee (a fine man, even if he was a werewolf) during his exile from the court of Queen Elizabeth I. This book brings to a conclusion the career of Dee’s colleague at Prague, Giordano Bruno. Indeed, the story goes beyond his career into an exercise in alternative history: Bruno is not burned at the stake in 1600, but briefly enacts a version of the tale of the Golden Ass, finally emerging from the asinine state to foment through theater a religious and scientific revolution. Readers may amuse themselves by assessing the hypothesis that The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz was really an allegory of the marriage of Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate with Princess Elizabeth of England, and whether it was in fact written by Jan (or Johann) Valentin Andræ. In any case, in this alternative scenario, Frederick does not rule Bohemia for just a single season as the Winter King, but defeats his Catholic opponents at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1619. Bohemia then becomes the model for the sort of Great Instauration that filled the speculations of Francis Bacon at about the same time, instead of the detonation point of the Thirty Years’ War. Endless Things does not finally adopt this alternative, but the 20th-century characters do eventually pay Bruno honor for his actual role in the imagining of modernity.

Meanwhile, back in the 20th century (the early 1980s, by this point), there is a man desperate for several kinds of closure. Pierce Moffett realizes that he will never finish that big book for which he had accepted a large advance some years ago from a now-impatient publisher. That work, to be called Ægypt, would have reconstructed the ancient past as the hermetic philosophers of Bruno’s day imagined it; a past about which, Moffett sometimes suspected, those philosophers had been correct at the time. The irony is that Moffett actually knew the people who, in Dæmonomania, permitted another new age to begin: they had enacted the critical Gnostic myth of “the thing that was lost but found again” by rescuing a little girl from a Christian cult, the complement of John Dee’s successful alchemical enterprise in old Prague. Moffett did not know what his friends had done, or at least he did not understand the significance of what he knew. There was nothing left for him to find, but he must take a dreary trip to Europe to establish the fact. Eventually, he understands that what had seemed a plausible, even exigent research project during the decades of transition had become incomprehensible. Like Bruno long ago:

[H]is apprehension of the possibility of the possibility of a magical renaissance had itself been a sign that it wouldn’t last much longer.

But just because Moffett could not finish the Great Literary Work, that does not mean that nobody could. Moffett’s research had been funded in part by the Rasmussen Foundation, whose founder, Boney Rasmussen, had set much of the story in motion by subsidizing the search for the elixir of eternal life (rather like the Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, you see). Much of the research toward that end had been done by Fellowes Kraft, a historical novelist with occult interests; we learn about his odd but not unhappy childhood in this final book. Kraft had died a few years before the series starts, but one of Moffett’s tasks is to determine whether a manuscript of Kraft’s, believed to be an unfinished novel, might be publishable nonetheless. At the end of all things, Moffett realizes that the book is in fact finished, but in a peculiar mode:

...Pierce had thought it was actually going to turn out to be like a work out of the former age of the world, one of those vast ones like The Faerie Queene or The Canterbury Tales, which are unfinished but not therefore necessarily incomplete...But it wasn’t like any of those works. That was obvious to him now, now having reached the end of it again, again. It wasn’t like any work of the former age. Nor was it a work of the first age, like one of those endlessly cycling epics that [his teacher] used to talk about, with simply no reason to end. Rather it seemed to be trying to become a work of the age now beginning, the age to come, which it and other works like it (not only in prose or on paper) would bring into being, of which the new age would at length be seen to consist: works that don’t cycle or promise completion as the old stories or tales did, nor that move as ours do by the one-way coital rhythms of initiation, arousal, climax and inanition, but which produce other rhythms, moving by repetition, reversal, mirror-image, echo, inversion; vicissitudes of transformation that can begin at any point, and are never brought to an end at all, but just close, like day.

Admirers of the Ægypt series have sometimes observed that the story tends to ramble. Now we may say with the engineers at Microsoft: it’s not a glitch; it’s a feature.

But what of Pierce Moffett himself? Early in the book, the author plays a little trick with his readers concerning the final form of Moffett’s life. Here we will limit the spoilers by simply noting that, as the magic runs out of the world, Moffett achieves not just ordinary unhappiness, but even ordinary happiness. Be that as it may, few people read the Ægypt series for a snappy plot. Let us turn now to the insights that Moffett and the other characters offer us.

Among these is Fellowes Kraft. He, too, visited Prague, but in 1969, during the short-lived period of Reform Communism remembered as the Prague Spring (like the Winter of the Winter King, perhaps). Inspired by these events, he conceives a way to overthrow Communism, a project that we are encouraged to believe that Vaclav Havel carried out:

You get power over history, he saw, by uncovering and learning its laws, formulating them, teaching them to others, who get thereby a share of the power you have. You form up your followers into an army, which can impose these irrefutable laws on Time’s body; you have earned the power, by your grasp of History’s Laws, to eliminate or hide away anything that confounds or flouts them. It is thus that in any age the Archons rule; the rule of the Archons in heaven being continuous with that of their epigones on earth.

So the way to defeat power is to propose new laws, laws conceived in the secrecy of the heart and enacted by the will’s fiat: laws of desire and hope, which are not fixed but endlessly mutable, and unimposable on anyone else. They are the laws of another history of the world, one’s own.

We are given to understand, indeed, that literature cannot describe the world; what it does is transform it. It does exactly what alchemy does; it is alchemy, in fact. When we transform the world, we do not change the present. Rather, we make the present mean something new by giving it a new history.

Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who produce literature are chiefly responsible for this process. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then they are all under the influence of lobbyists for one fashion or another, an influence made all the more unbreakable by the poets’ belief in their own originality.

Such a work as Ægypt could not neglect the age-old question: just who is this God person anyway? Moffett is one of those baby-boomer lapsed-Catholics who often show signs of backsliding into the faith but never quite let go. (He remarks, with some justice, that Holy Mother Church had changed so much in his lifetime that it was no longer familiar enough to backslide into.) Nonetheless, he is given pause by this suggestion from a monk that there might be a deeper motive behind Moffett’s aversion to looking for God in the usual places:

“Has it occurred to you that this might be a way toward God as well?” he asked.

Pierce said nothing.

“I mean the discreating of false creations about God? Refuting false statements, rumors you might say, skeptically? It is, in fact, a way toward God, or it can be. Many mystics have understood this. Saint Thomas himself said that it is proper and right to say that God is not: not good, not big, not wise, not loving. Because these things limit God to the definitions of those words. And God is beyond all definitions.”

Perhaps so that the book does not take an unfortunate turn, the monk follows these subtle remarks with a bit of flat-footed and unworkable pastoral counseling that it is difficult to imagine any priest of Rome giving at that time (the 1980s) or in that context. In any case, with orthodoxy safely fended off for the moment, Moffett is free to pursue insights that have the rare distinction of being even more ineffable than the via negativa. Just after Moffett again encounters the Gnostic Sophia in her most fallen state (a strip club, this time), Moffett suddenly grasps the reason there is something rather than nothing:

There is a realm outside.

It wasn’t a thought or a notion arising in his heart or head, it was as though presented to or inserted within him, something that wasn’t of or from himself at all. He had never felt even the possibility of it before, and yet he knew it now with absolute plain certainty. It wasn’t even a surprise.

There is an enveloping realm, beyond everything that is and everything that might be or can be imagined to be. It was so.

Not Heaven, where the Logos lives, where everything is made of Meaning; or better say, where meanings are the only things. That realm, of any, is deep deep within. But beyond the realms of meaning, beyond even any possible Author of all this, if there was one, which there was not; outside or beyond even Bruno’s infinities, outside of which there could be nothing; outside all possibility, lay the realm in which all is contained...It provided all that was needed for this world to be, but it touched nothing here. It made nothing, altered nothing, wanted nothing, urged nothing...This world shone with its own light, and its light is all the light there is.

What we have here is an intuition of the noncontingent, the insight that gives St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof quite real force. This is all very well, but we may note that this impersonal Absolute Elsewhere has a history of showing signs of life to those who think about it long enough.

Perhaps Moffett may actually be of the same way of thinking. At any rate, he is sympathetic to the ideas he later encounters in the memoirs of a wealthy 19th century naturalist who was also a sort of outsider artist, a mighty battler of demons in his youth. The demons ceased to trouble him, he said, and his self was returned to him, when he stopped thinking of God as simply the greatest of the demons, at work in this world as they are.

Soon after Moffett encounters these thoughts, we move onto the final scene with the Aeolian harp. It’s a mechanical harp, but a very fine 

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Forge of Christendom

Cricketer, historian, and author Tom Holland is here a proponent of the thesis that one of the things that truly differentiates the Christian West, Christendom, is the separation of powers between church and state that gradually evolved out of a fight over who was allowed to nominate bishops.

However, Holland also takes millennialism seriously, which adds a layer of interest for me. For many, it is one of those things that are just not mentioned in polite company. John also mentions here [I think elsewhere too, but I can't find it at present] the idea that Eastern Christianity never really developed the idea of just war. I find the idea intriguing, but I don't know the field well enough to confirm or deny. It is certainly plausible, with the relative unpopularity of Augustine in the Greek-speaking East, but on the other hand, Justinian also sent Belisarius to recover territory lost to Germanic barbarians. On the gripping hand, no one in the Roman empire after Belisarius managed to emulate his military successes.


The Forge of Christendom:
The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West

By Tom Holland
Doubleday, 2009
512 pages, US$30.00
ISBN-10: 0385520581
ISBN-13: 978-0385520584
(2008 British Edition: Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom)

 

The West has deep roots, reaching down past the Roman Republic to the level where Hellas differentiated itself from the societies of the Near East. Tom Holland, armed with an Oxford doctorate and a rolling prose style that the best Victorians might envy, has already written well-received popular histories on those subjects. (He also does vampire fiction.) Despite the West's continuities with antiquity, however, it's beginning in anything like the sense we mean it today was notoriously discontinuous. In the generation to either side of the year 1000, a new system booted that was clearly distinguishable from its Islamic neighbor and even from its sometime ally in Constantinople. In the author's telling, the first great characteristic act of the young West came at Canossa in 1077, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV conceded to Pope Gregory VII a right beyond the power of the state (the right to nominate bishops) in the Investiture Crisis. The concession was only temporary, and Gregory died in frustrated exile, but the pope's point stuck. Thereafter, the political and religious were recognized as different spheres with enforceable borders; the beginning of all civil liberties. This was something new in the world, but it was not the only novelty of the new society.

The two centuries that the book covers in detail, the 10th and the 11th, are among those stretches of history that make almost novelistic sense. The plot is driven by fear of the imminence of Antichrist and the hope for the Parousia.

The question of millennial expectation connected with the year 1000, whether that fear was important or even whether it existed at all, is one of those historiographical controversies that are prone to coup and counter-coup. 19th-century Romantic historians painted a dramatic and, well, Romantic picture of popular enthusiasm and even frenzy. The Romantics' successors, sometimes exaggerating what their predecessors had actually claimed, said the “terrors of the Year 1000” were a 19th-century myth and that the change of the millennium was little regarded at the time. Late in the 20th century, the American medievalist Richard Landes reopened the question (disclosure: I the reviewer am a member of his Center for Millennial Studies). His assessment informs Holland's book.

There was no revolutionary millenarianism around the year 1000 like that which occurred in late medieval or early modern times, Landes noted, but the fact is that the intellectual and political life of those generations was suffused by the preparation for a new age, impelled by a mood of expectation that had both a popular and an elite dimension. There was quite a bit of interest in the year 1000 itself. (Yes, people did know when it was: the information was available in every set of tables showing the dates for Easter.) There was at least as much interest in the year 1033, however, the millennial anniversary of Christ's Passion. One could argue that the West was actually born in the intervening years.

The term “postmillennialism” does not occur in this book, but something very similar to that doctrine was at work in the 11th century. Postmillennialism posits that Christ will return at the end of the Millennium; the millennial age itself, then, is a historical period during which human effort will perfect the world in preparation for that event. Postmillennialism was closely connected with the progressive, reformist Social Gospel that underlay much of the politics of the early 20th century. The idea of historical progress is really just a politely secularized version of postmillennial eschatology.

Medieval eschatology was different in detail but not in effect. St. Augustine in the fifth century (when the world did indeed seem to be ending, by any reasonable measure) had cautioned against the idea of a literal millennium as a period of historical felicity lasting 1000 years, though the Book of Revelation does mention a thousand-year reign of the Saints. He also cautioned against the temptation to apply information in the Bible to historical events in order to calculate precisely when the Second Coming would occur. He did, however, suggest that the reference in the Book of Revelation to a “millennium” could be taken as an allusion to an age of indefinite duration following the establishment of the Church by Christ that will end with his Second Coming.

In the tenth century, the condition of Western Christendom was dire enough to suggest that maybe the end was near and the 1000 years should be taken literally after all. In that century and the eleventh, sophisticated clerics tended to vehemently deny the possibility of predicting the End Time using calculations drawn from the Bible, all the while assuming a near-term eschaton in their worldview and planning.

The imminence of Doomsday had practical implications for medievals. Before the advent of Antichrist set the dramatic machinery of Revelation in motion, the world must first be evangelized and set to rights. This implied the revival or restoration of the Roman Empire in Christian form; even before Constantine, Christians had come to regard the Empire as “the Restrainer” of Second Thessalonians, the power in the world whose presence prevented the eruption of the worst historical evils, and whose final withdrawal would mean the end of the age. In the Byzantine Empire, where Rome never entirely fell, the hope for a penultimate age of peace became centered on the figure of the Emperor of the Last Days. He would restore the ancient empire and end his career by laying down his crown at Jerusalem, thereby marking the beginning of the end. This idea was easily transferable to the West, particularly after Charlemagne revived the imperial title in 800. (That was another possible date for the beginning of the endtime, by the way, arrived at through another set of calculations based on the seven-millennium model of history.)

We should recall that there is little institutional continuity between the Carolingian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. The last Carolingian “emperor” died in 905, long after anything resembling an empire had lapsed. The title was revived in 962 by Otto I, who had won the Battle of the Lech against the then-pagan Hungarians in 955. Both events were part of a process that solidified the idea of a German identity. Not incidentally, the battle also ended one of the several existential threats to the still inchoate West that were defeated in the decades before 1000.

The author emphasizes that Christendom was born in a near-death experience. The measure of security that Charlemagne had been able to bring to Europe scarcely survived him. From the east came Slavs and Hungarians. In the south were the Muslims: Sicily was an emirate for much of the period covered by this book, and corsairs sacked St. Peter's in Rome as late as 846. In the north and on all the coasts there were the Vikings, and in France there were the French.

“France,” “French,” “Germany,” “German”: all are anachronistic terms for this period, the author reminds us. “East Francia” and “West Francia” are better. Be that as it may, one of the themes of the ninth and tenth centuries was the trend among the elites in what would become France toward pure predation. In most of Europe, castles were usually places of refuge or barriers against barbarian invasion. In France, they were often prison towers to facilitate the plundering of the population and attacks against the bandit lords in the neighboring castles.

In such a situation, anyone who could impose legitimate order was clearly doing God's will, even if violence was necessary to do it. When bishops consecrated German kings, they left no doubt that one of their duties was to defend their people from their appalling enemies. The papacy began a practice of endorsing campaigns in Italy and Spain for the defense of Christian polities. The practice would evolve into the theory of the crusade.

This was in marked contrast to the Byzantine Empire, a church-state that regarded war as the greatest of evils. The Orthodox Church never developed an analogue of the theory of the Just War. The state favored defensive fortress warfare and acute diplomacy to solve its problems. Despite the contempt this posture often inspired in the Latin West, it worked at least as well against the Muslims as the Western preference for the offensive. At any rate, it did until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when a fresh invasion of Turks caused the collapse of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia. That defeat set the events in train that would lead to the request for help from Constantinople to the West that sparked the First Crusade. The book ends with the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

On the level of diplomacy and military affairs, the elites of the West were often sidetracked by impractical schemes of universal empire. They did nation-building, but by accident; what really interested them was universal empire, always with an eschatological dimension. That dimension was no less present in the reform of civil life, however, and usually to better effect.

Any outburst of disorder was regarded by medievals as a precursor of Antichrist, or at least a type. The violence of the lawless aristocracy of the West was just as evil and intolerable as the depredations of the Hungarians, and just as much a sign of the endtime. The remedy in this context was not counter-violence, but holy example, particularly holy example as set by the most innovative monasteries. The most important monastery of all, perhaps as important for the reform of the West as the papacy itself, was the monastery at Cluny, founded in 910:

Earlier generations of monks, following the prescriptions of their rule, had devoted themselves to manual labour, so as to display humility, and to scholarship, so as to train their souls; but the monks of Cluny had little time for either activity. Instead, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, they sang the praises of the Lord: for this, in heaven, was what the choirs of angels did. Indeed, on one occasion, it was claimed, a monk had ended up so lost in his devotions that he had actually begun to levitate. Prayers and hymns, anthems and responses: the chanting never stopped. [Abbot] Odo had required his brethren to recite one hundred and thirty-eight psalms a day: more than three times what had traditionally been expected of a monk. Barely a minute of a Cluniac's life went by, in short, but it was governed by ritual, as unwearying as it was implacable. Hence, for its admirers, the monastery's unprecedented nimbus of holiness: "for so reverently are the masses performed there,” as Rudolf Galber put it, “so piously and worthily, that you would think them the work, not of men, but of angels indeed.”

Cluny, at least in this telling, was Shangri-La, but a Shangri-La that succeeded in projecting its inner peace onto much of the outer world. The monastery was an important element in organizing the Peace of God Movement, under which the armored aristocracy swore before bishops and huge assemblies of peasants to respect the lives and property of the general population. The movement went on for decades, and as the author notes, it implied the formalization of a social structure based on the private appropriation of what had once been common property. Nonetheless, the commoners apparently believed that even an unequal law was better than no law. The Peace of God was not the Millennial Kingdom, but it was regarded as a preparation for that no longer distant prospect. As it ran its course, everywhere the cathedrals were built, and the landscape took on the look of ordered settlement.

Meanwhile, the borders of Christendom were expanding through missionary effort. The author plainly admires St. Adalbert, who left important posts at Magdeburg and Rome to die a martyr in 997 in the evangelization of the east. The conversion of the rulers of the Scandinavians and the Normans (and of the Russians, for that matter) seems to have been marked by a fair amount of Realpolitik. They had a lively sense that a Christian king or duke had far more legitimacy than even the most successful tribal plunderer. These accessions left the heartlands of Christendom more secure. Nonetheless, they too were evidence that the end was near, since the end could come only after the remotest parts of the world had heard the Gospel. Surely newly Christian Iceland was as remote was it was possible to be?

Much of the book's attention is given to Spain, where the famously wealthy and sophisticated Caliphate of al-Andalus made one last drive against Christian Leon before imploding from its own internal divisions. The recapture by Christian forces of the ancient Visigothic holy city of Toledo put the strategic position of Moorish Spain past remedy.

Fatimid Egypt also comes into the picture. Caliph al-Hakim entertained eschatological notions, in his case centered on himself. His destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem in 1009 simultaneously appalled the West and confirmed its view that the climax of history could not be far off. (Latterly, in some tellings, he joined the ranks of Hidden Imams; he is still venerated or worshipped by the Druze, depending on whom you ask.)

Though the West still interacted with Islam and with the Byzantine Empire in important ways, by some point in the 11th century it had become an “intelligible unit” in Toynbee's sense of “civilization,” a society with a story that can be understood only on its own terms.

The author allows the text to reflect the sources, usually to good effect. If someone said they saw a dragon, then they saw a dragon; why argue about it, since the dragon is rarely the point of the story? When the author wants to be critical, he lays on the solemnity a bit too thick, which is actually a very medieval thing to do. The downside of this approach is that the text glides over points that are controverted. It is also economical of explanatory digressions. Still, any reader who does not know about the filioque clause will no doubt find everything he needs in the substantial bibliography and large number of footnotes. This book is a delight to read.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: A History of the Crusades

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Steven Runciman at Cambridge in 1925, photographed by Cecil Beaton

Sir Steven Runciman's three volume history has seen quite a bit of criticism in the last twenty-five years. However, it tells a hell of a good story, and you can learn something even if you disagree with Runciman's take.


A History of the Crusades
By Sir Steven Runciman
Cambridge University Press 1951-54
(Paperback 1990: ISBN 0 521 34770 X)
Volume I: The First Crusade and the Foundations of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (376 Pages)
Volume II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East 1100-1187 (522 Pages)
Volume III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades (528 Pages)

 

Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) was the Edwardian That Time Forgot. Perhaps the leading 20th-century authority on both the Crusades and on Byzantine civilization, he tells the tale of the former largely with an eye to vindicating the latter. The resulting assessment of the Crusading movement was thus somewhat harsh. The last sentence of this history runs: “High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.” Gibbon, to whom Runciman was often compared, could not have coined a more telling anathema. What makes this a great history is that readers who do not accept that assessment will still find these volumes enjoyable and useful.

A History of the Crusades” is chiefly a military and dynastic history. Large tracts of it are densely genealogical. This was unavoidable: the string of Crusader states along the Levantine coast, collectively called “Outremer,” were small, feudal, principalities, whose politics was the interaction of a few great families. Runciman sometimes discusses economics, but gives surprisingly little sustained attention to culture and religious history. In any case, the work rises above the details to reveal Outremer as an incident in the history of the Near East. Outremer was possible only during an era of shifting balance, from the 11th to the 13th century, between the Caliphate of Baghdad and the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople. When the balance was destroyed, by the Mongols and by the Crusaders themselves, Outremer soon fell, too.

Byzantium had actually recovered nicely from the explosive Islamic expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries. By the end of the first millennium, there was a reasonably stable international system in the Near East. Byzantium was the acknowledged protector of Orthodox Christians throughout the region. Constantinople was by far the largest city of Christendom. The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, which represented Sunni orthodoxy, was becoming more venerable than powerful; the allegiance of the rulers of places like Mosul and Damascus was increasingly nominal. Meanwhile, the Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo continued on its own Shia course. Jerusalem was under its control, but Cairo encouraged the profitable flow of pilgrims and traders to the Holy Land. In the 11th century, however, the Seljuk Turks arrived from the east. They quickly revealed the fragility of the region.

The Turks were largely but not exclusively Sunni Muslim. They reduced the Caliphate of Baghdad to ceremonial significance. In the countries they conquered, their rulers adopted the Arabic word “sultan,” meaning “authority,” as the title for the holder of real political power. They went far west, sacking Jerusalem (only Christians were spared), but failed to conquer Egypt. Most important, they ended Byzantine control over most of Anatolia in 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert. That battle was the proximate cause of the Crusades.

The 11th century is also the time when the Latin, Roman Catholic Church of the West and the Greek, Orthodox Church of the East are usually said to have split. The Great Schism occurred in 1054, when the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople exchanged mutual anathemas. Runciman makes very clear, however, that neither side regarded the differences between the Latin and Greek churches as permanent until the 13th century, or even the 15th. In fact, it was during one of the partial reconciliations between Rome and Constantinople that the Emperor Alexius I asked Pope Urban II, almost as an afterthought, for Western assistance in driving back the new Muslim encroachments onto historically Byzantine territory. The idea was that this would again make it possible for Western pilgrims to visit Jerusalem safely.

Western warriors fighting for Byzantium were not a novelty. The emperor's own Varangian Guard of Englishman and Vikings is familiar to every student of history (and indeed to every student of the better comic strips). Companies of Frankish knights had long featured in the empire's armies. (At least in the beginning, most of the “franks” in the east were from what would become France, but the term later referred to any Westerner.) Alexis I would no doubt have been satisfied with one or two thousand extra mercenaries. What he got was a mass movement.

Urban II preached the First Crusade at Claremont in France, in 1095. The nobility and the laity jumped at the chance to free the Holy Places from the infidel. Runciman makes much of the idea that the Crusades appealed most to the younger sons of feudal lords, who otherwise could have looked forward only to lives as landless poor-relations. This idea has been questioned since; certainly the leaders of the First Crusade were among the most eminent men of their time. He also never quite comes to grips with why the crusading movement so appealed to ordinary people. He suggests that the average peasant may have confused the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one. Be this as it may, as long as the Crusade was a popular movement, it was liable to spark pogroms against the Jews in Europe. Before the Crusade proper even set out, rabbles of religious fanatics swarmed toward the east.

Not without a certain amount of pillage and rapine, the First Crusade arrived in the neighborhood of Constantinople in reasonably short order. The emperor tried, with mixed success, to extract promises from the Crusaders that any of the recently lost Byzantine territory they might recover would be returned to the empire. The Crusaders and the imperial army soon did recover big chunks of Anatolia and northern Syria. The Crusaders rather exceeded the emperor's expectations when they recaptured Antioch independently. To everyone's surprise but their own, the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. It was not actually true that they slaughtered all the inhabitants (many were ransomed), but their introduction to the region was not such as to endear them to the locals.

Nonetheless, the Crusaders settled into the region quickly enough. They became participants in local politics, fighting with and against the Muslim powers. There was much intermarriage between the Crusaders and the local Christians, particularly the Armenians. Franks newly arrived from Europe, eager to fight the infidel, were often shocked by the Franks of Outremer, with their penchant for native dress and relative religious tolerance. The newcomers thought the Franks of Outremer became soft, and maybe they were right. Though the Franks of Outremer had their territorial ambitions, they were not keen to launch further Crusades of their own. They welcomed Crusades from Europe only when their own situation was desperate. Of the five major Crusades, only the First was completely successful. Only the first three were even directed to the Holy land.

According to Runciman, the real beginning of evils between the Latin and Greek Churches was the Crusader tendency to install Latin Rite bishops into sees that had once been occupied by Greeks. The filoque clause, which was the nominal theological difference between the Greek and Latin churches, was negotiable. The problem was that the Crusaders were sometimes not above deposing an existing Greek hierarchy and replacing it with Latin incumbents. Gradually, despite many compromises, this led to overlapping jurisdiction, bishops in exile, and finally the end of intercommunion between the two rites.

Outremer, during the brief life of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, was something of a fool's paradise. Runciman suggests that there may never have been more than 2,000 adult Frankish nobles, outside the military Orders that arose to defend Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself, for that matter, was a singularly bad place for a capital city. Far more durable was the string of coastal cities and forts, as far south as Jaffa or Ascalon, that owed some degree of allegiance to the King of Jerusalem. (Antioch, though a Crusader state, was nominally a vassal of Byzantium.) Nonetheless, the Kingdom was not without good points. Despite his antipathy, Runciman allows that it was a remarkably tolerant place. Oaths could be taken in its courts on the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah, as the witness chose. Indeed, the Kingdom was thick with law. The real power lay in a High Council, which was not quite either a parliament or a supreme court, where there was some representation for the bourgeoisie and the clergy, as well as the aristocracy. Runciman does note, however, that the only contribution of Outremer to civilization seems to have been its formidable military architecture; Frankish forts were designed with an eye to the fact their garrisons would be relatively small.

With its small population, exposed position, and threadbare economy, the Kingdom's survival rested on two conditions. The first was that the Sunni rulers of Damascus were scarcely on speaking terms with the Shia of Cairo. The other was that, despite the chronic friction between Outremer and the Byzantine Empire, the emperor probably would not have allowed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to be wholly overrun. The latter circumstance no longer applied after the Battle of Myriocephalum in 1176, in which the Byzantine army suffered a defeat at the hands of the Turks from which it never recovered. Meanwhile, the famous Kurdish leader, Saladin, eliminated the Fatimid Caliphate in a palace coup, and so united Damascus and Cairo under a Sunni dynasty. After a siege and negotiation, he accepted the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187.

Saladin might have gone on to destroy all of Outremer, but maybe he was not terribly eager. He needed Palestine to ensure communication between Syria and Egypt, but the Frankish ports had their uses. In any case, the Third Crusade soon arrived. (The Second, which occurred 40 years earlier, had been directed at Damascus; the less said the better.) The history of the Third Crusade makes the best story of the whole Crusading period. The conflict between Richard the Lion Heart of England and Saladin reads like a single combat. In any case, the result was that Outremer survived, with its capital at the port city of Acre. The Crusaders had to settle for access to Jerusalem, rather than actual possession. The second Outremer arguably made better sense than the first. It was more defensible. It also did not contain any provocative holy places. Maybe this was less important than we might think, though. One of the revelations of the last century of the life of Outremer was how little the powers of the Muslim world cared for Jerusalem as a religious site.

We see this point illustrated in the Fifth Crusade (we will get to the Fourth in a moment), which was launched against Egypt in 1217. The Crusade was supposed to take Cairo, and it petered out to a sad end. However, when it briefly seemed to have some chance of success, the sultan actually offered to give Jerusalem back to the Franks. In perhaps the oddest episode in the whole history of the Crusades, the Franks did get it back, in 1228, by negotiation rather than by war. The negotiator was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who eventually ran out of excuses not to go on the Crusade he had long promised. Runciman presents him as an evil genius, half an easterner himself because of his upbringing in still partially Muslim Sicily. Be that as it may, he acted like no other newcomer from Europe ever had before. Relying purely on diplomacy, he acquired limited control of Jerusalem for the ruler of Acre, including an access route from the coast. He also acquired the title to the kingship of Acre for his own line, by marrying the princess with the best claim to the throne. She did produce an heir, dying soon thereafter. That line, as well as Frederick's provisions for Jerusalem, came to an end not much later. Still, Frederick's career in Outremer shows what you can accomplish in the Middle East, if you speak the relevant languages and are unburdened by scruples.

The second Outremer was also more commercially viable than the first, because it was becoming increasingly Italian. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was a vigorous feudal state in the Norman mold. The Kingdom of Acre, and the gaggle of tiny states it led, was more like Genoa or Pisa or Venice, whose quarrelsome citizens made up a larger and larger percentage of the inhabitants of Outremer's cities. Acre and Antioch, indeed, were governed by communes on the Italian model, though they also owed allegiance to feudal lords. The drawback to the Italianization of Outremer was that the whole Crusading movement was increasingly subservient to the interests and policies of the Italian maritime republics. The effects of their rivalries on the already fractious internal politics of Outremer was bad enough. More seriously, Italian influence also led to the greatest scandal of the whole Crusading era, the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade.

Runciman claims that this atrocity set at naught the whole purpose of the Crusades, which was to defend Christendom against Islam. The Fourth Crusade, he says, so weakened Byzantium that it lost the ability to defend the Balkans from the Turks, thus leading to the sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries. Well, maybe, but Byzantium was clearly in decline long before the sack. It had been losing commercial ground to the Italians in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea for years. This was in part because the imperial government sold trading privileges for ready cash, but also because the trade routes of the world were shifting. Byzantium itself was losing population and territory in Asia Minor and the Balkans. It is not clear how much difference the Fourth Crusade really made.

We do know that the Venetians, with a pretender to the throne of Constantinople in tow, diverted the Crusade from its announced destination and seized the city by force and guile. (Runciman points out that the pope honestly thought the Crusade was headed to the Holy Land, though Eastern historians have claimed otherwise.) When the pretender proved unable or unwilling to pay the Crusaders the amount agreed for their services, they dispensed with him and his dynasty. They then began what must have been among the most remarkable three days of looting in human history. When they were finished, they created the Latin Empire of Constantinople, complete with a Latin patriarch instead of a Greek one.

The Fourth Crusade made Byzantium itself a Crusader state, but only briefly. The Latin Empire never controlled the Byzantine Empire's hinterland, where several successor states immediately sprang up. The Palaeologus Dynasty retook Constantinople in 1261 and reestablished the Byzantine Empire, but meanwhile the world had changed. The empire by then was just one of a number of Orthodox states, one with a great lineage but few resources. More important, the Islamic world had become a harsher place.

One of the impressions I took away from this history was that the legend of Prester John was essentially correct. The Mongols were not themselves predominantly Christian, but their neighbors and onetime overlords, the Kerait people of northeastern Asia, were Christians of the Nestorian variety. The Mongols absorbed the Kerait territory and leadership, as well as their script. Although the Mongol empire, at least in the beginning, made a point of religious tolerance, there was heavy Christian influence among the advisers of Genghis Khan. There was even more Christian influence on Hulagu, who conquered southwestern Asia and eventually became the Ilkhan of Persia.

In the 13th century, there was quite a lot of coming and going between the principal courts of Europe and those of the khans, all with an eye to coordinating an attack on Islam. European representatives to the Mongol capital at Karakorum were exasperated by the Mongol principle that there were no sovereign states in the world, only current and future vassals of the Great Khan. Nonetheless, encouraging words were exchanged. Rather more substantive talks took place with a Nestorian priest from Hulagu's court, who said Mass for Edward I of England and received communion from the hands of the pope himself.

None of this really came to much. The Franks of Outremer was actually more cautious about allying with the Mongols than were their cousins in Europe. It was the local Christians, the Armenians and the Georgians, who accompanied Hulagu when he destroyed Baghdad in 1258. Few world cities have been as thoroughly destroyed as Baghdad was. While they were at it, the Mongols slew the Caliph, who had surrendered to them, and ended the Abbasid Caliphate, along with the Old Regime of Islamic history. (That is the reviewer's phrase, by the way, not Runciman's.)

A shadowy line of Abbasids, whose legitimacy Runciman doubts, continued at Cairo for some centuries. This was merely for show, however. The new legitimacy in the Muslim world was passing to people like Baibars, the new sultan who came to power in Cairo at about the time of the Mongol disaster. A member of the Mameluk corps, and so technically a slave, he overthrew what was left of Saladin's genteel but decadent dynasty. He then set about creating a ruthless and rather intolerant order to the south and west of the new Turkic and Mongol powers. The destruction of Outremer was part of this process. There was none of the courtesy or moderation of Saladin's day. With some exceptions, the cities of Outremer were dismantled and the inhabitants killed or enslaved. Acre itself fell in 1291.

There were later campaigns, against Egypt or Anatolia or in the Balkans, that are dignified by the term “crusade.” The interesting thing is that it became harder and harder to organize crusades, even as the Ottoman threat from Islamic world began to crystallize. Runciman speculates about why. Though he does not use the term, one might say that the Crusade had become a Sorelian myth that had overstayed its welcome. Sorelian myths are not lies, or not necessarily lies. They are the justifications for which power is exercised. The Crusade had long been the reason that governments gave for raising taxes, or for making and breaking alliances, or sometimes just for a bit of piracy. Even when Crusades met with some success, the benefits were not the sort of thing for which one started a Holy War. People were still willing to fight for God and country. They just no longer saw a Crusade as the way to do it.

As we saw at the beginning of this review, Runciman's assessment of the Crusades is wholly negative. Quite aside from the question of religious tolerance, he disparages the secondary benefits that are often claimed for the Crusades. Outremer did little or nothing to facilitate contact between Islam and Christendom, he claims. There was fruitful contact during the Crusading era, but it happened in Sicily and Spain. Outremer itself produced advances in military engineering, but no new art. More to the point, it did not make Christendom any safer. Quite the opposite: by its assault on Byzantium, the Crusades left Europe open to invasion.

Runciman does allow that Outremer might have made a decisive difference, if it had cooperated with the Mongols. Though he restrains himself from elaborating the what-ifs, he hints that, in the 13th century, it might have been possible to end Islam as we know it. With some Western aid and encouragement, the Mongols might have become the ruling stratum all the way to Egypt. It is likely that they would have embraced some form of Christianity, then the religion of large minorities in the Muslim world, and in some places even majorities. Islam, with Baghdad in ruins and with Mecca and Medina soon to follow, might have shrunk to the status of the heterodox Christian churches of the Byzantine Empire. There are problems with this scenario, but not so many that it could not serve as the premise of a counterfactual novel.

More seriously, let me suggest that, if the Crusades did not do much good, they also did not do much harm. The Islamic world became a more desperate and dangerous place after the 13th century, but that was not the Crusaders' fault. Though Outremer never went entirely native, it was never regarded with holy horror by its Muslim or Byzantine neighbors. It was eccentric, but then eccentricity was normal in a part of the world where, for instance, the Assassin sect was a weighty international power. For the most part, Outremer seems to have offered more stable government, and indeed more just government, than the other societies of the region. It is even possible that the Crusades did contribute to the defense of Europe. Though the Byzantine Empire had reestablished a frontier after the Battle of Manzikert, it was a diminished frontier, one that would have left the ports of the Levant in hostile hands. Without the Crusades, Constantinople might have fallen far earlier than 1453, and more catastrophically than in 1204.

Considerations like these would not have impressed the men of the First Crusade, of course. They were on a mission from God. What God actually thinks of their enterprise has yet to be announced.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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A History of the Crusades
By Sir Steven Runciman

The Long View: America Alone

habsburg-dynasty.jpg

If the National Intelligence Council really predicted that the EU will collapse by 2020, their prediction is looking like a real long shot at this point. Maybe that is why DARPA funded Philip Tetlock's superforecaster project: to improve the accuracy of things like this.

To be fair, if you had told someone in 2006 that a huge wave of migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa would move into Europe in 2016, and that terrorism would be a regular feature of life in much of Western Europe, then a collapse of the EU might have seemed more likely.

I think it demonstrates that the neoliberal consensus is a lot stronger that it might otherwise seem. A relatively tolerant, multicultural, welfare capitalist global system [with a military/secret police enforcement system] seems to be the twenty-first century answer to the same problem the Habsburgs faced in Central Europe: how do you hold together a truly diverse polity?

There are a lot of people who suspect you can't. I think you can, but it's hard. I think this is one of the things that is likely to push us towards a truly post-democratic political order: the need to keep the peace.

Steyn's book talks about how we built a global system on the assumption that populations would keep growing forever. Large scale immigration is often advocated for precisely this reason: we need people to keep the system going. The controversy over immigration has become explosive, but what is interesting to me is that the model doesn't actually seem to be right.

The developed economies keep doing just fine, despite aging populations. If anything, there is too little work to be done, rather than too much. The assumption that Steyn and his political opponents share, the social democratic state needs to constantly grow to survive, may not be true.

In the eleven years since John wrote this, the average number of children across the world has continued to fall everywhere except Africa. So far, sub-Saharan Africa has proven unusually resistant to the demographic transition.


America Alone:
The End of the World as We Know It
By Mark Steyn
Regnery Publishing, 2006
224 Pages, US$27.95, Can$34.95
ISBN 0-89526-078-6

 

There is no way to put Mark Steyn’s view of the next few decades gently:

“The U.S. government’s National Intelligence Council is predicting the EU will collapse by 2020... How bad is it going to get in Europe? As bad as it can get – as in societal collapse, fascist revivalism, and the long Eurabian night, not over the entire Continent but over significant parts of it. And those countries that manage to escape the darkness will do so only after violent convulsions of their own.”

But who is this Steyn fellow, and why is he saying these terrible things? Mark Steyn is a Canadian-American journalist (he first attracted notice as an arts and music critic) who is now sometimes accounted the most influential conservative writer in the anglophone world. He owes that position in part to an epigrammatic style that bears comparison to that of the early G.K. Chesterton. America Alone is composed chiefly of Steyn’s scintillating columns of recent years, but he or his editors have accomplished something very rare: a compilation of previously published occasional pieces that reads like a connected text, with a lucid argument and surprisingly little repetition. This synthesis was possible because Steyn believes he has discovered the Key to World History, or at least the mechanism that will determine the history of the 21st century. To put it briefly:

“[D]emography is an existential crisis for the developed world, because the twentieth-century social democratic state was built on a careless model that requires a constantly growing population to sustain it... The single most important fact about the early twenty-first century is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States.”

The magic number here is 2.1, as in the total fertility rate per woman that a developed society needs to maintain its population over time. The US fertility rate is at about that number, a fact explained only in part by immigration: the native-born population of Red State America is over that figure, while the figure for the Blue States is generally below it. It is almost uncanny how much of the rest of the world is below it, either slightly (like Australia) or catastrophically (like Italy and Russia and Japan; and don’t forget China, doomed to get old before it can get rich). It’s true even of most of Latin America. Aside from America, the only regions where it is not true are India, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Muslim world. Without the Muslim angle, this might be a story of economies freezing up and welfare states closing down as the percentage of working-age people becomes too small to support a growing majority of pensioners. The effect of Muslim immigration and conversion, however, coupled as it is with the spread of lethal jihadist ideology, is to raise the possibility that much of Europe could slip out of the Western world entirely. Steyn did not coin the term “Eurabia,” but in an age when a third of the young people in France have been born to Muslim parents, it comes in handy.

Several writers have raised these points in recent years. However, despite the title of the book, Steyn does not subscribe to the conclusion of many of his colleagues that the United States should simply turn inward:

“And I’m a little unnerved at the number of readers who seem to think the rest of the world can go hang and America will endure as a lonely candle of liberty in the new Dark Ages. Think that one through: a totalitarian China, a crumbling Russia, an insane Middle East, a disease-ridden Africa, a civil-war Eurabia -- and a country that can’t even enforce its borders against two relatively benign states will be able to hold the entire planet at bay? Dream on, ‘realists.’”

Neither is the book a call for an American Empire. Steyn tends to support the Bush Administration’s military policy, and particularly the invasion of Iraq; he faults the execution of that campaign principally for being too culturally sensitive. However, he tells us:

“This book isn’t an argument for more war, more bombing, or more killing, but for more will.”

Steyn’s Key to History unlocks not just a proper reading of foreign affairs, but reveals to him the need for a cultural and political transformation of the West. That part of the book, and particularly his prescriptions for the future, is the most problematical. As for the doomsday material, one might observe that it is in the nature of present trends not to continue. If the ones Steyn highlights do continue, however, his grim forecasts will be right.

Steyn has a short explanation for demographic catastrophe:

“In demographic terms, the salient feature of much of the ‘progressive agenda’ – abortion, gay marriage, endlessly deferred adulthood – is that, whatever the charms of any individual item, cumulatively it’s a literal dead end...In fact, [opposition to Islamization] ought to be the Left’s issue. I’m a social conservative. When the mullahs take over, I’ll grow my beard a little fuller, get a couple of extra wives, and keep my head down. It’s the feminists and the gays who’ll have a tougher time.”

The welfare state in Europe and Canada allows the political system to focus on satisfying “secondary impulses,” such as long, legally mandated vacations and government-provided daycare, or for that matter, responsibility for the care of the elderly:

“But once you decide you can do without grandparents, it’s not such a stretch to decide you can do without grandchildren...[T]he torpor of the West derives in part from the annexation by the government of most of the core functions of adulthood.”

As he never ceases to remind us, there is an important distinction between Europe and America in these matters, or at least between Europe and Red State America. The distinction, he argues, results from a recent historical accident:

“It dates all the way back to, oh, the 1970s. It’s a product of the U.S. military presence, a security guarantee that liberated European budgets...[however]...[u]nchecked, government social programs are a security threat because they weaken the ultimate line of defense: the free-born citizen whose responsibilities are not subcontracted to the government.”

To quote an authority that Steyn does not, Immanuel Kant once said, “Even a nation of demons could maintain a liberal republic, provided they had understanding.” If we are to believe Steyn, however, Kant was wrong about the degree to which rights and procedures could replace morality and religion:

“[B]y relieving the individual of the need to have ‘private virtues,’ you’ll ensure that they wither away to the edges of society...Almost by definition, secularism cannot be a future: it’s a present-tense culture that over time disconnects a society from cross-generational purpose.”

One may note that this would apply only to a form of secularism with no metahistorical script for the future. Thus, a Marxist society (if it did not starve), or a eugenicist society, or a society intent on colonizing the solar system, might make the connection between generations. A society that was just a gas of atomic individuals today and looked forward to being just a gas of atomic individuals tomorrow, in contrast, would have neither a past nor a future.

Steyn is not just another talkshow ranter (though he does that, too) because he sometimes slows down enough to express skepticism about his own arguments. He asks: does the loss of religion explain the morbid state of advanced and even moderately developed countries? That might seem to be an explanation within the United States, with its relatively sterile and aging New England versus, say, the burgeoning Mormon population of Utah. But what about Europe, where the relatively religious South has even lower fertility rates than the godless North? One might also adduce East Asia: the populations of neither Japan nor South Korea are sustainable, but South Korea is a hotbed of evangelism of all sorts, while Japan is as secular as Sweden.

If God is not the answer, could Mammon be? America as a whole has a somewhat more free-market economy than most of Europe, but the most laissez faire economies in the world are in East Asia, and they have birth rates lower than most Western countries. We should also note, as Steyn does not, that the prolific Red State populations receive more in federal subsidies than they pay in taxes: those family values are paid for with farm subsidies and often rather paternalistic business practices. Steyn also points out that the major anglophone countries all have birthrates either at or near replacement level, but he does not suggest that the birth dearth could be solved with Berlitz courses.

* * *

Among the most delightful features of America Alone is the blurb on the front bookjacket from Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi Ambassador to the United States: “The arrogance of Mark Steyn knows no bounds.” The prince perhaps has reason to be miffed. Though he does not say so in this book, Steyn elsewhere likens the increasingly successful Islamization of Europe to an opportunistic infection, made possible by the simultaneous collapses in cultural confidence and fertility. He has many worthwhile things to say in this regard; he is certainly right to underline the fantastic level of mendacity among the people in the West who speak for and about Islam. In academia and on the evening news, “sophistication seems mostly to be a form of obfuscation by experts.” As for official appreciation of the threat, “government ministers in Western nations spend most of their time taking advice on the jihad from men who agree with its aims.” The problem is not simply a matter of immigrants with new ideas changing the nature of their new homes: “Islam,” not just in the West but around the world, increasingly means a brutal and hegemonic version of Wahhabism. The evangelization of this doctrine is lavishly subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia, support that ranges from establishing local Islamic schools in Canadian and American cities to building mosques the size of cathedrals in Europe.

Steyn recounts many anecdotes of allegedly moderate Muslims in Western countries who turned out to be recruiting or fundraising for terrorist groups, but far more disturbing are the proliferating incidents of homegrown jihadis turning against the lands of their birth:

“If you’re a teenager in most European cities these days, you’ve a choice between two competing identities – a robust confident Islamic identity or a tentative post-nationalist cringingly apologetic European identity. It would be a mistake to assume the former is attractive only to Arabs and North Africans.”

As Steyn notes, multiculturalism was instituted not to acquaint Westerners with other cultures, but to criticize the West. One effect of multiculturalism has been to absolve students of learning any hard information about other cultures. The result is that the West has disarmed itself in the most critical arena:

“We have no strategy for dealing with an ideology...groups with terrorist ties are still able to insert their recruiters into American military bases, prisons, and pretty much anywhere else they get a yen to go.”

Western attempts to influence the development of Islam are usually exercises in self-delusion, beginning with the preferred choice of interlocutors: “’moderate Muslims’ would seem to be more accurately described as apostate or ex-Muslims.” As for more long-range efforts: “We – the befuddled infidels – talk airily about ‘reforming’ Islam. But what if the reform has already taken place and jihadism is it?”

The Islamization of Europe is no longer hypothetical, in part because of the determination of the anti-discrimination police to enforce accommodation to what often extremist and unrepresentative Islamic groups claim to be Muslim sensibilities: “there’s very little difference between living under Exquisitely Refined Multicultural Sensitivity and sharia.” Worse than that is the casual use of violence and threats against European writers and artists, or even against ordinary persons: non-Muslim women in heavily Muslim neighborhoods increasingly go about dressed in something approaching Muslim fashion in order to avoid insult.

* * *

How, you may ask, can the United States prevent much of the world from turning to theocratic rubble, like Taliban Afghanistan? Steyn suggests these priorities:

"In World War Two, the sands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa where the main event, and rounding up the enemy sympathizers in Michigan was the sideshow. One can argue that this time around the priorities are reversed -- that bombing Baby Assad out of the presidential palace in Damascus is a more marginal battlefield then turning back the tide of Islamicist support in Europe and elsewhere. America and a select few other countries have demonstrated they can just about summon the will to win on the battlefield. On the cultural front, where this war in the end will be won, there’s little evidence of any kind of will.”

Nonetheless, he says that the military dimension cannot be neglected: the worst thing to do is nothing. Even if the war is chiefly ideological, there are state sponsors of the hostile ideology, and something has to be done about them, either militarily or through devastating economic sanctions:

“[E]very year we remain committed to 'stability' increases the Islamists’ principal advantage: it strengthens the religion – the vehicle for their political project – and multiplies the raw material...So another decade or two of ‘stability and the world will be well on its way to a new Dark Ages...But the central fact of a new Dark Ages is this: it would not be a world in which the American superpower is succeeded by other powers but a world with no dominant powers at all.”

It is true that the United States is held in light esteem in many of the world’s better magazines, and even does increasingly badly in public opinion polls taken in countries whose leadership is not necessarily committed to America’s destruction. Steyn attributes the darkening of the American image to elites like those in France, who are obviously weighing their chances in a semi-Muslim future, or to other well-meaning people who live in a fantasy world, where the most pressing issue facing civilization is rising sea levels. One might also suggest that, if the post-World War II international system is decomposing, America has become the screen onto which are projected the anxieties and ambitions aroused by the decomposition. To the jihadis, America is the godless Great Satan; to much of Europe, and even to many Blue State Americans, America is a theocratic Jesusland. As Steyn puts it: “America is George Orwell’s Room 101: whatever your bugbear you will find it therein; whatever you’re against, America is the prime example thereof.”

In reality, though, what much of the developed world is going to experience in the next 10 or 20 years is re-primitivization: “The Serbs figured that out – as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em.” Where states fail, private parties can be expected to step in:

“If a dirty bomb with unclear fingerprints goes off in London or Delhi, it’s not necessary to wait for the government to respond. As in Ulster, there’ll always be groups who think the state power is too [timid] to hit back. So unlisted numbers will be dialed hither and yon, arrangements will be made, and bombs will go off in Islamabad and Riyadh and Cairo. There will be plenty of non-state actors on the non-Islamic side. In the end the victims of the Islamist contagion will include many, many Muslims.”

To combat the Islamic dimension of the threat (and remember, it’s chiefly a demographic problem) Steyn has suggestions of various degrees of plausibility, of which the most intriguing is the proposal to create a civil corps to engage Islamism ideologically:

“If America won’t export its values -- self-reliance, decentralization -- others will export theirs. In the eighties, Paul Kennedy warned the United States of ‘imperial overstretch.’ But the danger right now is of imperial understretch -- of a hyperpower reluctant to sell its indisputably successful inheritance to the rest of the world.”

Steyn wants to scrap the post-World War II international institutions and replace them with an alliance of capable and committed democratic powers. He says the Saudis have to be stopped from financing their worldwide religious underground. He would also like to develop technology that would end the dependence of the developed world on Middle Eastern oil: a fine notion, and none the worse for having been suggested a hundred times before.

This brings us to the cultural front. It is a good bet that Steyn is prophetic when he tells us, “By 2015, almost every viable political party in the West will be natalist.” And what should the platforms of these Mewling Infant Parties contain? “We need to find a way to restore advantage to parenthood in the context of modern society. Shrink the state. If you got four dependents, your taxable income is to be divided by five. We must end deferred adulthood.” And how do we do that? “We need to redirect the system to telescope education into a much shorter period.” The upshot, apparently, is that educated people should be educated faster so that they will normally have children while they’re in their twenties. We hear not one word that these proposals, though perhaps inevitable, will mean that the life courses of men and women will diverge again.

Steyn has given us a fiery polemical introduction to the crisis of the first quarter of the 21st century. However, we recognize the limitations of his analysis when we come to statements like, “The free world’s citizenry could use more non-state actors.” Consider his view of the moral of September 11, 2001:

“What worked that day was municipal government, small government, core government -- fireman the NYPD cops, rescue workers. What flopped -- big-time, as the vice president would say -- was the federal government, the FBI, CIA, INS, FAA, and all the other hotshot, money-no-object, fancypants acronyms.”

Stirring words, but counterfactual. In reality, on 911 the World Trade Center’s security service killed many of the people in the buildings by urging them to return to their offices after the attack was underway. The radios of the various emergency services were not able to communicate with each other. The firemen died needlessly by charging into burning buildings that local fire experts had declared indestructible. The epitome of effective local government, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was almost killed because the city’s emergency command center was located in the World Trade Center complex, despite the fact everyone knew the complex was the most likely target for a terrorist attack. The federal government did not cover itself with glory on that day, either, but at least the feds managed to close down and then restart the airline system within the space of a few hours.

Toward the end of the book, Steyn remarks, “You can’t win a war of civilizational confidence with a population of nanny-state junkies.” But the fact is that is how the world wars were fought and won, either by states that had extensive social-welfare systems, or that promised such systems to their citizens as part of the reward of victory.

It is certainly the case that the nanny state of the postwar developed world, with its therapeutic model of governance and its subsidy of victimhood, is a degenerate and unsustainable type of polity. But consider what it degenerated from: the war-and-welfare state of the era of the Great Wars that lasted from 1861 to 1945. The same powers of economic and political mobilization that allowed those wars to be fought permitted, indeed required, the domestic mobilization of education and public health and industry that allowed the governments of that explosive era to function effectively as military actors. Those governments commanded the most effective states that ever existed, and the mark of the societies they governed was precisely that, during the long lifetime from Lincoln to Churchill, the fortunes of the state and of the citizen increasingly merged. For a while, for just a few years, the mechanisms were in place to drive society in the service of urgent public policy.

The nanny state is a declension from that height of state fitness, and so is the libertarian state. In the face of an existential crisis, Churchill promised his people that their lives would be drenched in blood, sweat, and tears until victory was won. In the face of a comparable threat to civilization, George Bush made some fine public restatements of America’s now traditional Wilsonianism, but otherwise told the American people to support the tourist industry by visiting America’s beauty spots; while cutting taxes in the middle of two major wars, he reminded the taxpayers, “It’s your money.” Even if you accept the president’s economic model, surely it is obvious that such policies have no power to mobilize. The philosophy behind them diverts attention from the core functions of government, as the embrace of an open-borders policy by the Republican establishment illustrates. The small government that Steyn urges might be able to win conventional wars, but it would be unable otherwise to affect events. Increasingly, its irrelevance to the real problems, many of which Steyn has identified, would lose it the loyalty of its citizens. Thus we see that the libertarian state undermines patriotism quite as effectively as the European Union. They are parallel manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Many of Steyn’s specific proposals have merit, but they need a context he has not yet attempted to articulate. It might be possible for America to revive the Churchillian State within its own borders; maybe Japan could do that too, but neither Europe as a whole nor the nations within it could manage such a thing. In any case, it is not at all clear that even America should try. The work of regeneration needed to fight off the Muslim infection and save the threatened societies of the world from suicide cannot dispense with patriotism. However, it must be patriotism strengthened by some wider loyalty impervious to the subversions to which the Churchillian State proved subject.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

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The Long View 2011-06-17: Decline, Afterlife, Google, Heidegger

Dipping into John's blog posts six years later from where we are now in the chronological re-posting project reveals some regrets about the course of action he advocated for pretty strongly in 2002-2003. Which is a good thing.


Decline, Afterlife, Google, Heidegger

 

Over at Financial Times, I see, Alan Beatie has a piece with the alarming title The global order fractures as American power declines. The gist of the article, however, is that major developing countries are not keen on pursuing the global free trade project of the Washington Consensus, and the United States is not pressing the issue. It is not at all clear that the eclipse of 1990s-style globalization is a result of what the Soviets would have called a shift in the correlation of forces, however. The main factor is that the political class in the United States is no longer of one mind on the matter, or has simply lost interest in it.

I might mention, by the way, that I did not quote the article because I read the hilarious Financial Times copyright policy. I read the notice because some Perl-generated text urging me to do so appeared when I cut and pasted a bit of the article from the Financial Times webpage into a Word file. Its not impossible to quote the paper online and still comply with the policy. It's just too ridiculous to bother.

* * *

One online source that is always safe to quote at great length and to varied effect is Mark Steyn. In a piece entitled Too Big to Win, he laments the fact that the wars in which the United States has been involved in recent decades have lacked closure. This he attributes to strategies based on nation-building and to a defense policy conceived in terms of social work rather than of the national interest:

The fact that you have no stake in it justifies your getting into it. The principal rationale is that there's no rationale, and who could object to that? Applied globally, political correctness obliges us to forswear sovereignty. And, once you do that, then, as Country Joe and the Fish famously enquired, it's one-two-three, what are we fighting for? When you're responsible for half the planet's military spending, and 80 percent of its military R&D, certain things can be said with confidence...

One of those things, it seems to me, is that you're not just another international actor, and that you are have a unique interest in maintaining international norms you have created. George W. Bush at least realized that some metahistorical explanation of what you're fighting for was in order. He actually gave one, once, in his Second Inaugural Address, before moving on with his busy schedule. We may not like that formula, but something of the same scale and ambition is required.

President Obama and his circle are not the people to provide it. The president himself is an essentially cautious thinker. This is not a criticism. Certainly he is not an ideologue, though he swims expertly through one of the ponds of received opinion. The problem with that pond is that, though exceptionally American, it has no sense of American exceptionalism. That exceptionalism is not primarily a charism of the Founding Fathers; it's a frozen accident resulting from the way the 20th century turned out. Any policy or politics with that blind spot will be ahistorical.

That ahistoricism is no less a characteristics of the president's principal opponents, of course. In their pond, George Washington's views in 1796 on entangling alliances are the last word in strategic thinking. These views are particularly dangerous in connection with the "America-the-Broke" rhetoric. Whatever else is wrong with federal finances, it isn't the military, which takes up all of 4% of GDP. There is an assumption in some quarters that, if 4% were reduced to 1%, then the world would crystallize into a system of sturdy Westphalian peer powers. This assumption is oddly symmetrical with the view that removing the tyrant of Iraq would occasion the spontaneous formation of a healthy state. Acting on such an assumption globally would have equally rapid and unhappy results.

* * *

Fans of Ursula LeGuin will recall the Land of the Dead in her Earthsea Trilogy, a place of blank serenity where nothing could go wrong or right. I was greatly struck by the parallel to Ms. LeGuin's afterlife that we find in David Goldman's description of the American economy in the piece Zombinomics and volatility:

We aren't going to have another financial crash. In fact, nothing at all is going to happen. Forecasting the United States economy is about as exciting as predicting next quarter's gross domestic product in 1957 Poland. You want to know what's going to happen, comrade? Read the Five Year Plan. With 40% of US personal income coming from transfer payments, it's almost nostalgic to call it capitalism.

The so-called American economic recovery won't die, because it's undead. It was a zombie to begin with. Equity investors during the past six weeks came to the collective conclusion that the US is not in the early phase of an economic recovery, but in the endless middle of a structural slump, in the term of Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps.

This is a slander of command economies. They are quite capable of growing, if you command them to do so. What they don't do well is facilitate market growth.

In any case, readers will be pleased to learn that zombies can be ministers of justice:

Apart from the nearly trillion-dollar reduction in bank lending to private borrowers, the banks have also reduced their holdings of bonds reflecting private risk (mainly mortgage-backed securities) by about $200 billion. It's the Slaughter of the Guilty. US households that put 10% down on a house during 2000-2006 as home prices rose 10% a year earned 100% a year on their equity. Goldman Sachs' return on equity never broke above the low 30% range. Compared to homeowners, investment banks are on the back of the line at the punch bowl.

It would be simplistic to assert that what is bad for Goldman Sachs is good for America, but not necessarily misleading.

Still, we should grow uneasy at any prediction that nothing at all is going to happen. Remember this from the last chapter of The War of the Worlds:

I followed them to my study, and found lying on my writing-table still, with the selenite paper weight upon it, the sheet of work I had left on the afternoon of the opening of the cylinder. For a space I stood reading over my abandoned arguments. It was a paper on the probable development of Moral Ideas with the development of the civilising process; and the last sentence was the opening of a prophecy: "In about two hundred years," I had written, "we may expect----" The sentence ended abruptly. I remembered my inability to fix my mind that morning, scarcely a month gone by, and how I had broken off to get my Daily Chronicle from the newsboy. I remembered how I went down to the garden gate as he came along, and how I had listened to his odd story of "Men from Mars."

Unprecedented events of a major order do sometimes still occur.

* * *

For instance, I was flummoxed by this:

Imagine if every time you listened to a particular song on your laptop, iPod or stereo system it was different, as if it was being performed for you by a secret orchestra...Bronze uses software that (very basically) takes each component of a song apart and puts them back together according to how it's instructed to. As Gold told me: In a normal recording, all the sounds are bound together in one, but in Bronze you build a compound from every constituent part of every layer of every rhythm or sound. That's how it generates different grooves.

Bronze works with any music that has multiple components, but it's better with music made specifically for the software. At the moment Wild Beasts and The Invisible are interested in writing music for it and I'm sure other high profile musicians are chomping at the bit to get involved...

I'm sorry, this is just stone evil.

* * *

Regular readers of online book reviews are quite likely to have encountered Danny Yee's. It was one of the first book review sites I came across, and in some ways my own site is just a child's copy, a slave's flattery. I was therefore distressed to learn that Google has taken a dislike to his site. Several issues could have aroused Google's suspicions. There could even be so much content there that the search engine decided the site is a content farm. Danny offers these surmises:

Now it's clear, however, that negative selection plays a significant role in Google's algorithm, and that changes the situation for people like me, and not for the better. Google's search results were filling up with spam (also known as "content farms", "Made for Adsense" pages, scrapers and various other names, but I'll stick with "spam"). These are basically automatically generated pages designed to rank highly on Google search results but with no or little actual content.

So Google has added a negative screen on top of their traditional algorithm.

I have had some Google problems, too, over the years. The engine gets these morbid enthusiasms, sort of like purges in Communist countries, but they rarely last.

The deep explanation is that robots are evil.

* * *

How deep is the explanation, you ask? Martin Heidegger deep, if we may believe the anthology Poetry, Thought, Language. Not content with having read his signature work, Being and Time, I persevered to read this collection of later essays, because I understood Heidegger's philosophy had undergone a "relaxation" in the 1930s, so there were substantial differences between the early and late Heidegger.

As advertised, I found differences in tone and doctrine. "Relaxed" is a good word for what happened to Heidegger's tool-based theory of perception (a notion that, in its pure form, I was ready to take to the bank). The relaxation is related to the literally enchanting doctrine that the human world reveals a reality that is fourfold: earth, sky, mortals, divinities. The revealing, the "worlding" (to use a characteristically appalling Heideggerian expression) is done by human works. The essay, "Building Dwelling Thinking," is lyrical on the matter and not merely obscure.

The relaxation is also related to Heidegger's increasing dread of technology. This was not a mere phobia of machines. Rather, even writing in the middle of the 20th century, he meant something very close to what we mean by virtual reality. If I understand the point correctly, technological modernity renders Being inaccessible with a screen of information about it. It destroys the world in a more profound sense than merely blowing up the planet would do, which it may do anyway.

Lawyers have a similar effect, of course.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Being and Time

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger's star has dimmed a bit, but his heavy German prose is still famous.


Being and Time
By Martin Heidegger
Translated from the German Seventh Edition
By John Macquarie & Edward Robinson
First edition (Sein und Zeit) 1927

__________

HarperPerennial 2008
589 Pages, US$19.9
9 ISBN 978-0-06-157559-4

 

The philosophy presented in Being and Time is expressed in grotesquely obscure language, but the gist of it is intuitive: our understanding of our own mortality brings the world into focus for us, and it is only in light of that understanding that we honestly know anything at all. St. Augustine had some thoughts along these lines, as Heidegger points out with all due deference; so have several other people. Nonetheless, in the spirit of this work, let me present an authentic, primordial reading of the book, unencumbered by the vast machinery of critical appraisal it has occasioned, or by the loose ends that stick out of my own exposition.

* * *

Before philosophy, before theory, before even language, I know quite a lot about the world. What I authentically experience is "presence," or "being present," and moreover, being present in a world and a history. This book's word for that presence is "Dasein," literally "to be there" in German; a common term for "existence," it is here given a more esoteric meaning. Everything connected to Dasein is mine, but Dasein is not I.

In the authentic sense, the world is not just an assembly of objects from which a list of characteristics can be deduced or detected by study. What I really experience is an environment of equipment, things that are relevant to some purpose or another, even if only in the negative sense of being judged useless. Truth is the disclosure of the world and of events in a way that is always embedded in a purpose. That is truth, the most real being. This truth is mine, and it is not eternal. My being is the context of world and history in which I find myself; what has been "thrown" to me, to use the book's term. My being, then, is not an objective substance, but my existence.

Using this model, old philosophical problems are either solved or never arise. Rene Descartes' and Immanuel Kant's flawed efforts to demonstrate that there is an objective world outside the solitary self are unnecessary, because there is no inside and outside: Dasein encompasses the world in the first instance, and "I" is just another tool for which it has a purpose. Other people are primordially present just like the "I" is; there is no deeper level of experience that could bring us behind or below these things. Language is made possible by this immediacy. I understand the Others because I already know what they could be saying.

This understanding of being that has just been explained is fully experienced only rarely, however. Dasein tends to fall into inauthenticity, in which it identifies with the Others and not with its own primordial experience. This is the public world, the eternal world, the world of conjecture and abstraction. It is also, for the most part, the world of the Western philosophical tradition. This tradition forgot the quest for being to some extent even as early as Plato and Aristotle; the Pre-Socratic Greeks understood primordial Being, but that history is not explored in detail in this book.

This presence that makes the world, Dasein, is "care" in the sense of "anxiety." This anxiety is generated because authentic Dasein is turned toward death. This orientation toward death makes Dasein, our immediate experience authentic, because it makes me shake off the public concerns of the Others.

This awareness of death is not the same as the surmise that at some point in the future I will probably not be living. The defining characteristic of this anticipation is that it precedes knowledge of the world; it is indefinite with regard to mere clock time, the time of the Others. The approach of death is how the world is, it is not a fact in the world. (Heidegger did not use this very un-Kantian expression, but it seems to follow from the book's argument.) Neither is the anticipation of death experienced as simply being morbid. Dasein speaks to the Self (which again, is not quite the "I") in the form of the conscience. What the conscience says is that we are guilty, and we are guilty because we are finite.

Anticipatory resolution toward death is the ultimate authenticity. "Resolution" here means the readiness to accept this anxiety in the face of death. This resolution provides the stability that is constitutive of the authentic Self.

The author understands that his analysis is circular; his model of the world requires a definition of the Self that could apply only to the sort of world he posits. He does not take this as an objection, however. Any analysis of being is going to have this character, we are assured.

In any case, Dasein is the presence of the future and the past, with the future in its authentic form as the orientation toward death. Primordial temporality, then, the temporality I know before all theory, is directed toward the future, a future that is finite. But Dasein is not just temporally finite; it is also historical. Heidegger's system allows for a kind of Beatific Vision: called "the moment of vision," it is a rapture of Dasein that reveals authentically the situation of one's world and time (as distinguished, presumably, from what Others say about it, or what contextless theory would suggest).

My understanding, then, is grounded in the future, but when I understand, I understand in some particular state of mind, in some mood. That is grounded in the state of having-been or done something; it is the past as an aspect of my present. Again, Dasein is temporal. It sees a world with a temporal horizon that transcends it. Space and time are united and made meaningful as aspects of the accessibility of the equipment of which the world consists.

The resolution we have just discussed, which accepts the finite possibilities of my Dasein, accepts the particular inheritance that has been "thrown" to my Dasein. On the personal level, Dasein is fate; in being with others, not necessarily in an inauthentic sense, it is destiny. There can be a historical "moment of vision" as well as a personal one.

The authentic appropriation of history accepts the past and "repeats" it. This does not mean simply carrying out the past again in the present, but rather taking the past as a proposal to which a rejoinder can be made. The desire for progress plays no role in this process. The authentic historical sense, then, understands the past as the recurrence of possibilities. Its understanding makes of the past an implicit critique of the public present, because it makes "today" no longer the authentic present. The inauthentic sense, in contrast, understands the past in terms of the present. That makes the past a burden.

* * *

This summary does not do justice to the depth of Being and Time or to the ways that Heidegger relaxed and expanded his views in later years. Neither does it dwell on the famous fissures in the system, notably the unresolved tension between the depiction of the Others as chattering soul-stealers and the necessity for authentic understanding to accept the historical heritage of mankind. I also will not trouble readers at length with complaints about the book's notoriously neologism-ridden language, a black forest in which participles do unspeakable things to gerunds on the dark floor while mutant adverbs gibber in the branches. Here is a fairly lucid bit:

Dasein exists as an entity for which, in its Being, that Being is itself an issue. Essentially ahead of itself, it has projected itself upon its potentiality-for-Being before going on to any mere consideration of itself. In its projection it reveals itself as something which has been thrown. It has been thrownly abandoned to the 'world', and falls into it concernfully.

This works better in German, but not much. The book repeats Count Yorck's defense of obscurity in philosophical prose; easily comprehensible language, it seems, is easily comprehensible only because it communicates the public and the superficial. Readers may be reminded of "The Tale of the Emperor's New Clothes."

It would also be out of place here to consider the author's biography in detail. For the benefit of the record (and of the crawling cybernetic devices that so unsettled the author in his later years), let us simply note a few points:

Martin Heidegger lived from 1889 to 1976. He taught at the University of Freiburg and at the University of Marburg. As a young man, he was a member of the Society of Jesus, though he was never ordained. The fact that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Duns Scotus might not be irrelevant to his idea of good philosophical writing. He left the Jesuits, and served for health reasons in a noncombatant post during the First World War. He was a member of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, with varying but subsequently embarrassing levels of enthusiasm. After the war he was rehabilitated and continued teaching.

All I would like to do now is raise a few underemphasized ways in which Heidegger's system fits into intellectual history.

The philosophical species here is called "existentialism," which belongs to the genus "phenomenology." That latter approach to understanding appeals to the actual phenomena of experience. It is, perhaps, the polar opposite of scientific reductionism. It was hardly new, even when Heidegger was writing; Hegel was a phenomenologist of sorts. Nonetheless, self-described phenomenology was one of the growing points of European philosophy in the first half of the 20th century. To some extent, it simply reflected a general characteristic of the period. What Heidegger was doing was not so different from what the natural-language philosophers were doing at the same time, or for that matter what some of the pragmatists were doing.

As we noted at the beginning of this review, philosophies that structure the world in terms of an eschaton are not new, either. The structure has some force, irrespective of the merits of the argument for it. While reading this book, I was reminded of the device of "tonic drive" in music. The sense of time in music can be made meaningful by rhythm, in which the ear learns to expect the next beat. The classical way in Western music to create a sense of time, however, is to end each cadence with the tonic of the key. The expectation of that end turns noise into music, like the anticipation of death creates the world.

Heidegger's philosophy is related to the science contemporary with it. Heidegger's view of the dynamic Self is not so different from Freud's view of the matter, and in some ways it is even more reminiscent of Jung's. These two are not cited, however, though we do get some citation to early, pre-Freudian personality theory. Even more interesting is the way that Heidegger's model of truth as Dasein's disclosure of entities chimes with the contemporaneous development of quantum mechanics, which holds that reality becomes certain one when observation collapses the wave function. Werner Heisenberg was Heidegger's friend at some point, but it is not clear who might have been influencing whom.

More obscure, but perhaps more provocative, parallels can be found in the similarities between elements of Heidegger's system and that of esoteric Tradition, principally though not exclusively as represented in the philosophy of Heidegger's contemporary, Rene Guenon. Both were convinced that Plato roughly marks the point where Western philosophy departed from the contemplation of Being in order to gossip about the eternally expanding vacuum of mere ideas. Both had a horror of mechanism and quantification, and of what the modern world's embrace of these principles meant for the future. (Guenon's apocalyptic masterwork, remember, is called The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.) Parallels show up even in the details of their work, such as their insistence that time and space are meaningful in a way that geometry and clock-time simply caricature. Both were oddly fond of the adjective "primordial," at least if their translators are to be believed.

And then, of course, there is Julius Evola, sometime ideologist for Fascist Italy, and by most accounts the black sheep of the Traditional family. His system almost seems like Heidegger re-expressed in alchemical terms. Evola's formula for immortality involved not just resolution towards death, but the resolution to actually die. His late work, Ride the Tiger, is about the cultivation of the authentic self in a world where history is breaking down. By any reasonable reading, it is a form of existentialism, with only residual esoteric content.

These points I have mentioned concern matters that were in the philosophical air of the Western world in the 1920s and later. To the extent there was direct influence, it was likely to have flowed from the better known writer to the more obscure. In any case, we see again that thinkers reflect their period, however eccentrically.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

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The Long View: The Red Book Liber Novus

The Red Book Liber Novus

The Red Book
Liber Novus

I can't add anything to this. Enjoy.


The Red Book
Liber Novus

By Carl Gustav Jung

Edited by Sonu Shamdasani
Preface by Ulrich Hoerni
Translated from the German by
Mary Kyburz, John Peck & 
Sonu Shamdasani
2009, W.W. Norton & Company
Philemon Series
416 Pages US$122.85
ISBN 0393065677

 

----------------------------------
An Actively Imagined Review

By John J. Reilly
---------------------------------

 

Most Respected Dr. Jung,

All of us here at Numinous Books were delighted to learn of the movement of your spirit in favor of the publication, almost fifty years after your passing, of what you called The Red Book or Liber Novus, the “New Book.” The Bollingen Foundation had long since completed the publication of your Collected Works. The matter of your unpublished work fell to the Philemon Foundation, in collaboration with your heirs. The Red Book was the largest piece of unfinished business, one that you were reluctant to present to the general public in your lifetime, but which was by no means a secret in the Jungian community; elements of it were already in limited circulation. We are pleased to report that we have succeeded in inspiring the proper parties among the living to bring this work to the light of day. Publication was preceded by a tasteful but effective publicity campaign, including the inevitable viral marketing.

During the course of your life from 1875 to 1961, you devised a model of therapy that required the reconciliation of the conscious mind with elements of the psyche of which the individual might not be aware or which were found intolerable. In this project you were at first Sigmund Freud's protégé and collaborator, but later a sort of ideological adversary. Like Freud, you held that some of the troublesome psychic material could be experiences that an individual has repressed, has tried not to know. You went beyond Freud, however, by insisting on the existence of supra-personal psychic elements, of a collective unconscious in fact, with which the ego must be reconciled for its own peace and ability to function in the human world.

Your view of history was the fundamentally Stoic vision of Eternal Return. You shared the view with Nietzsche that everything external has already happened before, but perhaps avoided the nihilist implications of that idea with the intuition that the internal is always new. Be that as it may, you had quite a lot of subtle influence on the apparent novelties of the external 20th-century. Certainly you have had more influence than did esoteric Tradition, whose precepts have many points of contact with your own but whose exponents charge you with spirit-destroying congress with the dead. The happy accident, if you believed in accidents, of your birth in neutral Switzerland may have been no small advantage in the first half of the 20th century (unlike poor Freud, with his base in disaster-prone Austria), if only because it allowed your work to assume the disinterested tone of a species of the perennial philosophy. Many of your century's most interesting artists and writers were influenced by your ideas, even if they were not necessarily actually Jungians. The same might be said of your connections with the Anglophone intelligence services, notably your long association with the Dulles family.

The Red Book is most important, perhaps, because it will clarify the identity of your teaching as a post-religious apocalyptic doctrine, a genre in which the 19th and 20th centuries were peculiarly rich. As you tell us yourself, you created the book because of visions and presentiments of disaster and carnage you began to experience around 1913. At first you supposed these to be precursors of an impending personal breakdown. When the First World War began, however, you understood them to reflect disruptions in the collective unconscious. The World War itself was only the outer manifestation of that inner turbulence. The commotions of the 20th century were caused by the failure of the Christian psyche to assimilate evil. Consequently, evil grew in the psychic shadow of Europe, whence it was projected onto national and class enemies.

All of this, you would explain with due tact in any suitable venue, was just a consequence of the passing of the Christian Age. Sometimes you expressed this change of dispensation in terms of the ending of the astrological age of Pisces, and sometimes in terms of the end of the Second Age of Joachim of Fiore. In any case, the myth of the God who saved the world by assuming the suffering of all individual men was losing its hold on the European mind. This meant disaster, since whatever novelties might be victorious in the conscious mind of Europe, Europeans still had a Christian psyche. The ghosts of Europe therefore could not rest, a proposition you showed little sign of meaning metaphorically. Your Red Book, like the Liber Inducens ad Evangelicam Aeternam of the Fraticelli, would thus be the evangel of the New Age. But let us review the structure and content of The Red Book itself now.

* * *

One of your oft-cited principles is the phenomenon of enantiodromia, which means that the excess of any force or tendency generates its opposite. We see that in the publication of your book: in an age when physical books are disappearing into cyberspace and their contents being viewed on handy plastic tablets, this book at about a foot wide by a foot-and-a-half long is so large and heavy that it can be read comfortably only if mounted on special furniture. The redness of the more informal title comes from the cover of the original. From 1914 to 1930 you recorded your dreams and visionary stories in a sort of italic book-hand, punctuated by illuminations and other graphics. These range in quality and style from naïve outsider art to intriguing mosaic and geometrical abstractions. Anyone familiar with your work has already seen some of these images, but The Red Book could launch your belated reputation as an artist. The graphics and even the text are almost devoid of explicit sexual references, by the way. Freud would have something to say about that.

The bulk of the published volume consists of your own illuminated calligraphic volume, divided into “Liber Primus” and “Liber Secundus,” the latter much longer than the former. The single largest item that does not consist of photographic reproductions is the English translation. (The German version of the book, incidentally, which presumably has a transcription rather than a transliteration, is a bit briefer but costs twice as much.) The critical additions include a biographical sketch in which you would find nothing awkward, as well as an able description of your system by the principal editor and translator, Sonu Shamdasani. The book ends with a final section, “Scrutinies,” including the previously published “Seven Sermons to the Dead.” There is an Epilogue containing some short pieces in your usual academic style. They and Scrutinies give a very detailed description of the cosmology underlying your psychological system, including the theology, or metaphysics, or whatever you prefer, concern the God Abraxas.

Liber Primus and Secundus are made of relatively short chapters with titles like “The Desert,” “The Murder of the Hero,” and “The Magician.” Here is a bit of “The Desert” from “Liber Primus.”

Sixth night. My soul leads me in the desert, in the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot desert, dusty and without drink. The journey leads through hot sand, slowly wading without a visible goal to hope for? How eerie is this wasteland. It seems to me that the way leads so far away from mankind. I take my way step by step, and do not know how long my journey will last.

As literature, this compares unfavorably to Khalil Gibran, but that is a bit unfair. Particularly in the earlier parts of the book, you are doing something very close to automatic writing. The unconscious is invited to speak for itself. The book in some parts echoes Luther's Bible (which inevitably produces an echo in the English translation of the King James Bible), in some parts it resembles Nietzsche's parody of Luther in Also Sprach Zarathustra, and in others Goethe's Faust Part II. You yourself, of course, believed that those works by Nietzsche and Goethe were written in the same way as The Red Book, by interrogation of the deep psyche. Some of your readers will no doubt be reminded from time to time of Hesse's Steppenwolf. In any case, in the manner of these works, you alternate prophetic discourses with passages that must be considered whimsical, like this from Liber Secundus:

Slowly, the throne of God ascends into empty space, followed by the holy trinity, and finally Satan himself. He resists and clings to his beyond. He will not let go. The upper world is too chilly for him.

S[oul]: “Have you got hold of him?”
I: “Welcome, hot thing of darkness! My soul probably pulled you up roughly.”
S[atan, here and hereafter]: “Why this noise? I protest against this violent extraction.”
I: “Calm down. I didn't expect you to come last of all. You seem to be the hardest part.”
S: “What do you want from me? I don't need you, impertinent fellow.”
I: It's a good thing we have you. You're the liveliest thing in the whole dogma.”
S: “What concern is your prattle to me? Make it quick. I'm freezing.”
I: “Listen, something has just happened to us: we have united the opposites. Among other things, we have bonded you with God.”
S: “For God's sake, why this hopeless fuss? Why such nonsense?”
I: “Please, that wasn't so stupid. This unification is an important principle. We have put a stop to the never-ending quarreling, to finally free our hands for real life.”
S: “This smells of monism. I have already made note of some of these men. Special chambers have been heated for them.”
I: “You're mistaken. Matters are not as rational with us as they seem to be. We have no single correct truth either. Rather, a most remarkable and strange fact occurred: after the opposites had been united, quite unexpectedly and incomprehensibly nothing further happened. Everything remained in place, peacefully yet completely motionless and life turned into a complete standstill.”

Jungians to this day have a sense of humor not always to be found among Freudians. Or indeed elsewhere.

The reconciliation of psychic opposites, of instinct and reason, of male and female, of good and evil, occurs by creating a conscious relationship with the collective psychic structures. These are the archetypes. In their most familiar forms, they turn up as the story templates for characters in popular fiction, from the young hero who rises from obscurity to save the world, to helpful talking animals (the latter recently tend to be helpful talking robots). The archetypes are also the foundations of the great characters of myth.

Throughout the book, but especially in Liber Primus, you talk to your soul. The soul is revealed to you by the cultivation of your anima, the minor-key female side of yourself, which is also a manifestation of the more basic reality of Eros. (Women, of course, have an animus.) The soul links the personal with the collective; it becomes for the ego the symbol of the psyche. You speak also to the Logos, enigmatic reason, which has its own motives and its own life, but which it is a necessity of mental health to reconcile with Eros. You remind us that the archetypes are multiform. The pair of Logos and Eros appear frequently in myth and fiction, right down to stories that involve a mad scientist and his daughter. In this book, they appear at first as Elijah and Salome, who of course do not appear in the Bible together, but the venerable Elijah seemed to you a better representation of Logos than would John the Baptist. The pair also appear as the more or less historical couple, Simon Magus and Helen; the former rescued the latter from prostitution because she incarnated Sophia, divine Wisdom. Your mature image of this relationship is Philemon and Baucis, who appear in a Greek myth about the happy fate of those who offer hospitality to the Gods unknowingly. (“God” is almost always capitalized in this book, by the way; an echo of the German practice with all nouns, perhaps). Philemon became an important figure in your life, almost a personal prophet. The Red Book uses the Greek spelling of the name: ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ.

Conventionally religious people might object that what you teach your followers to do would be the worst kind of prayer. Prayer, however, is not what is intended. This process of active imagination that you use in interacting with the archetypes is familiar to many writers of fiction. You solidify psychic entities with whom you may then converse like a novelist talking to his characters. To the extent the characters are the forms of activated archetypes, however, they are not wholly of your devising, and they are not entirely under your control.

The collective unconscious as you describe it is not merely a standard unconscious that everyone has, like a standard pulmonary system. Rather, it is a networking the whole human race, present and, to some degree, past. Thus, you understood that the assassination of poor Archduke Ferdinand was not merely an attack on a high-status person, but part of a general movement of the European spirit to kill the hero within.

You popularized the hypothesis that the collective unconscious is exterior to individual humans in uncanny ways. Coincidences occur, the famous “synchronous events,” when the archetypes are activated, thereby enabling them to make an impression on an otherwise inattentive ego. The collective unconscious, as you were never slow to acknowledge, bears a family resemblance to Immanuel Kant's “noumenon,” the dark subsurface of the knowable world, a darkness where causality does not apply. Physicists of the caliber of Wolfgang Pauli have attempted to explain the phenomenon, even if its reality has never been satisfactorily demonstrated except to those who have experienced it. The “quantum entanglement” of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is still sometimes mentioned in this connection. That is hardly surprising; the Copenhagen Interpretation is just Kant without the Hilbert space.

Objective observers, if there are such creatures, would be forgiven for suspecting that your invocations of science were just a patina of modernity that you applied to a system that you knew quite well was a kind of magic. Magic of some sort is necessary to deal with the collective unconscious, though even magic cannot control it. The collective unconscious deploys that weapon first, of course. It appears as the uncanny and at first glance inexplicable glamour that for your patients attached to certain people and things. Jungian analysis is about coming to terms with that glamour, especially if it inhibits life and growth.

For your true adepts, the point of all this is “individuation,” the formation of the Self around which the elements of the psyche revolve like the planets about the sun. The Self is emphatically not the ego. Should the ego identify with the Self, or with any of the archetypes, it becomes divine in a pathological sense.

* * *

Let us return to one of the key features of this book, that it falls into the genre of apocalyptic prophecy. The meaning of the religion of every age is the religion that succeeds it: so says the psychic entity that appears in the Liber Secundus under the name “The Anchorite.” (Readers may be confused about how seriously to take this figure, since his personality later deteriorates and he becomes interested in liturgical reform, particularly liturgical dance.) In any case, the religion of the New Age would be a kind of depth-psychology monotheism, with the Self at the center of every individual recognized as identical (and not merely very similar) to the Self at the center of every other individuated individual. On the other hand, it would be an age of polytheism, since the archetypal complexes of the collective unconscious are real Gods. It would, however, be singularly dangerous to worship them; that would invite possession. As for the divine of the old dispensation, it apparently has an honorable retirement to look forward to, if this passage near the end of the Scrutinies is to be believed. Here you show us what seems to be Jesus talking to a later version of Simon Magus:

The shade answered, “Is this garden not mine? Is not the world of the heavens and the spirits not my own?”

ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ said, “You are, Oh master, here in the world of men. Men have changed. They are no longer the slaves and no longer the swindlers of Gods and no longer mourn in your name, but they grant hospitality to the Gods. The terrible worm came before you, whom you recognize as your brother insofar as you are of divine nature, and as your father in so far as you are of human nature. You dismissed him when he gave you clever counsel in the desert. You took the counsel, but dismissed the worm: he finds a place with us. But where he is, you will be also. When I was Simon, I tried to escape him with the ploy of magic and thus I escaped you. Now that I gave the worm a place in my garden, you come to me.”

The religion of the New Age follows the Pleroma's tendency toward individuation. The collective savior is no longer possible because each person must become his own savior. The soul can no longer identify with the collective Christ archetype.

Late in the book, you, or the archetypes who speak through you, reveal that the essential stuff of reality, or the perfect vacuum in which reality shimmers, is the Pleroma, the fullness. It is simple, in the sense of perfectly uniform; a sea of unrealized possibility. The first emanation of the Pleroma is Abraxas, the lord of the material world. He is a time God: his name is a nonsense word that simply incorporates the numerological value “365.” He is neither good nor evil, but effective cause of the horror of history and its wonder. His creations are God (or “Helios,” as you prefer) and the devil. Abraxas should not be worshipped, you caution, but neither can he be neglected. Within each psyche, your readers are promised, the Self can become Abraxas to the rest of the psyche's contents, including to the ego.

Readers will be confused, as may have been your intent, about whether everyone can or should seek individuation. Many people, perhaps all, seek that degree of psychological integration needed to function socially. Maybe individuation, which links the personality to cosmic forces, was for an elite? Those who achieve it would have a numinous quality marking them as unusually substantial persons. That is as may be, but surely you must question now whether your prophecy of a new spiritual regime has been fulfilled in any but an ironic sense.

You did correctly intuit that the later 20th century would see a revulsion against the collectivism that had increasingly characterized Western Civilization since the middle of the preceding century. However, the libertarian trend has been notably antinomian. Far from embracing depth psychology, it has been characterized by an ebbing of the psychic sea rather than a deepening. As for conventional religion, that too has suffered from the general desiccation, but your work has not served to drive people from traditional religion, or even in many cases to provide a spiritual alternative. Rather, it has served as a bridge to systematic spiritual examination for people who otherwise would not have been able to approach the question seriously. People who do this are likely to find the transcendent God at least as interesting as the immanent God. Often enough, they find that not all spiritual entities are really the fauna of the psyche, even of the collective psyche.

That is none of our affair, of course. We just publish this stuff.

 

With friendly greetings,

Basilides Screwtape

Numinous Books
Developmental Editor

Copyright © 2010 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2009-09-26: Jung in the 21st Century

Carl Jung

Carl Jung

It isn't at all clear that Carl Gustav Jung's reputation survived the publication of his most famous work, Liber Novus, known as the Red Book. Both John Reilly and Tim Powers have made use of his ideas, but the sheer strangeness of the work makes it uninteresting to the prosaic and political twenty-first century.


Jung in the 21st Century

 

When I was in college, I read my way through most of Carl Gustav Jung's Collected Works, in the elaborately illustrated and suitably dark hardcover volumes issued by the Bollingen Foundation. I by no means regard the time spent as wasted; you can get a good education just acquiring the resources to understand a system like Jung's. Neither do I condescend to Jungians with the attitude that Jung's philosophy is just something you outgrow; there are many unfootnoted Jungian notions floating around in my published work. Still, I don't think there was ever a time when I confused Jungianism with enlightenment, much less with salvation (people who knew me 35 years ago may remember otherwise, but if so, their memories are defective).

In any case, the Bollingen Foundation no longer exists. They decided in the 1960s that their work of making Jung's principal works available was complete and they turned the Bollingen Series over to Princeton University Press. Smaller entities have continued to promote Jung's works and ideas, however. Among them is the Philemon Foundation, which is about to strike a publishing coup:

During WWI, Jung commenced an extended self-exploration that he called his "confrontation with the unconscious." During this period, he developed his principal theories of the collective unconscious, the archetypes, psychological types and the process of individuation, and transformed psychotherapy from a practice concerned with the treatment of pathology into a means for reconnection with the soul and the recovery of meaning in life. At the heart of this endeavor was his legendary Red Book, a large, leather bound, illuminated volume that he created between 1914 and 1930, and which contained the nucleus of his later works. While Jung considered the Red Book, or Liber Novus (New Book) to be the central work in his oeuvre, it has remained unpublished...

Unpublished until October of this year, when a carefully produced facsimile edition with a critical (as in "annotated") English translation from the German will appear.

In some ways, the Red Book, as it will be called, sounds a bit like the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is also a heavily illustrated expression of the “active imagination”:

([I]n English Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream, from Greek hypnos, "sleep", eros, "love", and mache, "fight") is a romance by Francesco Colonna and a famous example of early printing. First published in Venice, 1499, in an elegant page layout, with refined woodcut illustrations in an Early Renaissance style, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili presents a mysterious arcane allegory in which Poliphilo pursues his love Polia through a dreamlike landscape, and is at last reconciled with her by the Fountain of Venus.

(We know that Aldus Manutius published the work, by the way, but there is more than one view about authorship. Samples of the work are available at that link, too.)

Despite the parallels, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili seems to be different in kind from the Red Book. For one thing, the former is a carefully constructed work designed in part to show off the author's Classical erudition. By all accounts, the Red Book is dense with obscure references, too, but only incidentally. The author was deliberately trying not to construct the book, but to let his imagination function without editing. There is also this: the book is fascinating, in the special sense of mesmerizing or bewitching, to Jungians and to people interested in related subjects. That is certainly the impression created by Sara Corbett's long article in the September 20 issue of the New York Times Magazine on the upcoming publication of the Red BookThe Holy Grail of the Unconscious. To some extent, the fascination adheres to the physical book itself, for so many years just an illuminated rumor in a bank vault. The book does have text, however:

The book tells the story of Jung trying to face down his own demons as they emerged from the shadows. The results are humiliating, sometimes unsavory. In it, Jung travels the land of the dead, falls in love with a woman he later realizes is his sister, gets squeezed by a giant serpent and, in one terrifying moment, eats the liver of a little child. ("I swallow with desperate efforts — it is impossible — once again and once again — I almost faint — it is done.") At one point, even the devil criticizes Jung as hateful... ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH the Red Book — after he has traversed a desert, scrambled up mountains, carried God on his back, committed murder, visited hell; and after he has had long and inconclusive talks with his guru, Philemon, a man with bullhorns and a long beard who flaps around on kingfisher wings — Jung is feeling understandably tired and insane. This is when his soul, a female figure who surfaces periodically throughout the book, shows up again. She tells him not to fear madness but to accept it, even to tap into it as a source of creativity. "If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature."... In the Red Book, after Jung's soul urges him to embrace the madness, Jung is still doubtful. Then suddenly, as happens in dreams, his soul turns into "a fat, little professor," who expresses a kind of paternal concern for Jung.

Jung says: "I too believe that I've completely lost myself. Am I really crazy? It"s all terribly confusing."

The professor responds: "Have patience, everything will work out. Anyway, sleep well."

Two items in Jung's box of tricks seem particularly responsible for keeping spiritual seekers interested in the system, for the excellent reason that these items resonate in the seekers' experience. One is that, if you pay attention to your dreams, they really will put on a show for you, though one may question whether the performance reliably follows the depth-psychological script or means quite what the depth-psychologists say. The other attraction is "synchronicity," the phenomenon of the "significant coincidence." Again, if you look for synchronous events, you will surely find them. If you are at all philosophically minded, you will spend many happy hours trying to figure out whether the coincidences are real or just a product of selective attention, or whether that distinction can have any meaning. And look, here is a synchronous event right here, since the very day the New York Times piece appeared (though before I read it or heard rumor of it, I solemnly swear) I posted to my website a long review of Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius, which contains this passage:

The author brings some interests to this study that are peculiarly relevant to the period, but that some early 21st-century readers may find as exotic as the gladiatorial games that Marcus found so tedious. The author is keenly interested in depth psychology, particularly of the Jungian variety, which really was prefigured in the medicine of the second century. The famous second-century oneirologist Artemidorus gets several mentions (he is not very obscure, since he influenced both Jung and Freud). For that matter, so does the deified Asclepius, who offered advice in dreams to both physicians and patients; this was a culture in which valetudinarianism seems almost to have been a spiritual discipline.

Robertson Davies, himself a Jungian of the strict observance, attempted in The Cunning Man to describe an internist's medical practice that employed such a model. Regarding the second century, Peter Brown has noted that the Antonine Age enjoyed, or at least experienced, a low-key but personally important spiritual life that involved access to the numinous through dreams; and one might add, through the affect associated with holy places. However, we should remember that, even centuries earlier when pure theory preoccupied the finest minds of the Classical world, the ancients meant by the term "philosophy" something very like what Jungians mean by Jungianism: not just a system of propositions, but a therapeutic regimen with a comprehensive intellectual component.

On the whole, it seems to me that there are two things to remember about Jungianism. The first, which the Jungians themselves urge, is that their system may be good for you but it is not really “medicine.” The second is that Jungianism is not a religion, though it functions as one for many of its adherents. It some respects, it seems to have been designed to make possible a spiritual life without a transcendent dimension. This would be as much a mistake in the twenty-first century as it was in the second.

* * *

Speaking of Jung, Hermann Hesse was a fan, but he seems to have come to the conclusion that Jungianism was a self-referential exercise, a sort of game of symbols. Am I the first person to whom it has occurred that the annual Eranos Conferences in Switzerland, with their gatherings of "psychologists, philosophers, theologians, orientalists, historians of religions, ethnologists, Indologists, Islamists, Egyptologists, mythologists and scientists" (and senior CIA officials, but don't get me started) was the model for the annual Glass Bead Game in Hesse's book of the same title?

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Marcus Aurelius: A Life

Bust of Marcus Aurelius By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Another Roman history lesson, courtesy of Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius. 

I have been slowly re-reading [for probably the twentieth time] G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, and I also find Chesterton's description of Classical Rome strikingly allusive. For Eastern Christians, the Roman Empire was a living presence until 1453, but for Western Christians, with the outsize influence of St. Augustine, the Fall of Rome is far more distant. 

For Catholics especially, Rome is both the model of all future states, and the tyranny that executed Christ and a memorably large number of his followers. No one has ever captured that tension as well as Chesterton.

Another thing that strikes me about The Everlasting Man is how well Chesterton's anthropology and archaeology aged. The sections at the beginning about the Lascaux cave paintings sound like the comment section of Greg Cochran's West Hunter. For a guy whose education was in art and literature, his views on science were very robust.


Marcus Aurelius
A Life

By Frank McLynn
Da Capo Press, 2009
684 Pages, US$30.00
ISBN: 978-0-306-81830-1

 

No less an eminence than Edward Gibbon laid it down that the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius from A.D. 161 to 180 (Marcus was born in 121) was the happiest era in the history of mankind. The author of this long, rambling, thoroughly entertaining biography, Frank McLynn (a noted historical biographer and sometime visiting lecturer at Strathclyde University), will have none of it. Though he plainly admires his subject, calling him conscientious, careworn, and courageous, he judges that the reign of Marcus was the ragged end of a long period of ideological fossilization in a society being gradually undermined by demographic decay and a deteriorating strategic situation. Marcus continued the run of competent good government that the empire had enjoyed since the accession of Nerva, the first of the Five Good Emperors, in A.D. 96. However, in Marcus's time the structural unsustainability of the empire began to become manifest. When Marcus died in 180, the empire under his son and successor, the variously degenerate Commodus, broke out in a toga-party from which it never really recovered. Rather than being the happiest time in human history, the reign of Marcus was simply the last period in Roman history when the greedy and complacent upper class, stultified by their educations, and the degraded and brutal urban proletariat, mollified by deliberately erratic imperial subsidies and blood-drenched public spectacles, could pretend that their world was working normally and would continue to do so forever.

The notion that Marcus Aurelius marks the halftime of the Roman Empire is not a new idea. The author is well aware of the revisionist wars that have riven the study of Roman history since the 1970s. He addresses many of the issues that have become controversial, but he does not try his readers' patience by fighting with his sources or by trying to argue away the glaringly obvious. On demographic issues, he sides with “the upper range of the minimizers,” so that the population of the empire during the Antonine Dynasty (the time of Marcus and his predecessor, Antoninus Pius, who reigned from A.D. 138 to 161) was probably around 70 million and not the fantastically larger figures suggested by some of the revisionists. About depopulation, he holds that it was certainly happening in Italy and that the process had important consequences.

He also lays great stress on the Antonine Plague that afflicted Marcus's later years and which he says may have killed at least 10% of the imperial population. It certainly exacerbated the manpower shortages of those years, as well as probably killing Marcus himself while on campaign in the Danube region. Galen himself was Marcus's physician (though he prudently avoided going on campaign with the emperor), and from Galen's studies of the disease the author surmises that the plague was a form of small pox. Except maybe it was small pox plus something else. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Revisionism occurs in part because we have just enough information to raise a question but not enough to answer it.

The author brings some interests to this study that are peculiarly relevant to the period, but that some early 21st-century readers may find as exotic as the gladiatorial games that Marcus found so tedious. The author is keenly interested in depth psychology, particularly of the Jungian variety, which really was prefigured in the medicine of the second century. The famous second-century oneirologist Artemidorus gets several mentions (he is not very obscure, since he influenced both Jung and Freud). For that matter, so does the deified Asclepius, who offered advice in dreams to both physicians and patients; this was a culture in which valetudinarianism seems almost to have been a spiritual discipline.

Just as important as psychology, the author is also keenly interested in the traditional questions of philosophy. In modern times, Marcus Aurelius became the most widely read Stoic philosopher of the ancient world, this because of the compilation of his reflections (probably written on that last campaign in the Balkans) called the Meditations. The perennial popularity of the Meditations stems in part from their quotably aphoristic style, in part (at least during eras when such things are popular) from their pantheistic element, and in part from their appeal to the agnostically inclined as a source of ethical principles without an overtly religious basis. This biography makes clear how profound a mistake it is to view the emperor as a polite deist; he shared in no small degree the growing embrace of the numinous that characterized his century. It also makes clear the extent to which Marcus shared his time's philosophical eclecticism. Of the Four Schools that received public support, Epicureanism and Stoicism were losing their popular audience for being too theoretical and remote from real life; Platonism and, to some extent Aristotelianism were gaining support in no small part because they were friendlier to religious experience. Marcus's Stoicism incorporated quite a lot of Platonism, but not in a way to fill the inherent gaps or resolve the original tension in Stoicism; the author explains these points in remarkable detail. He also explains how Stoicism formed the emperor's attitude toward government.

Marcus got to be emperor because he was chosen when a small child by his distant relative, the emperor Hadrian. The book recites the dense web of family relationships that characterizes all genuine Roman history. The web grows even denser, perhaps, in the second century, since the senatorial class did not reproduce itself and made up the lack of living heirs through adoption; the practice of frequent divorce and remarriage exacerbated the complexity. Readers of this book will soon appreciate that the institution of “co-emperors” was not an innovation of Diocletian. Hadrian had two, one of whom did not live long, the other being the future emperor Antoninus Pius (all these people underwent complicated name changes when the emperor adopted them and again when they assumed the throne, and then sometimes again when they died; we may dispense with these matters here).

“Vespine” is one of the kinder adjectives that the author applies to Hadrian, who reigned from A. D. 117 to 138. That emperor is known in every high-school history text as the one who withdrew from those “empire at its greatest extent” borders created by his predecessor Trajan to more defensible lines. In graduate school, he is known as the emperor who was so upset that his catamite drowned himself in the Nile that he had the fellow deified. The author takes every opportunity to remind us that, although there was quite a lot of same-sex activity during this period of the empire, nonetheless early 21st-century ideas about homosexuality, much less “gayness,” simply cannot be mapped onto that era, and the emperor's behavior was considered scandalous. The emperor was vindictive and bore grudges, though he maintained a carapace of amiability until his personality decayed in his last two years. He humiliated the Senate in various ways, including the execution of its more unsatisfactory members. He humiliated Rome by spending as much time as possible traveling about the empire. Worst of all, he was a know-it-all polymath who was often wrong but whom it was not at all safe to correct. On the upside, though, a sympathetic historian might say that he was one of those unhappy people who are better than their nature. He at least took his role seriously, and he is not counted among the “Good Emperors” for no reason. He was a good judge of character, if we may judge by his selection of Antoninus and Marcus to succeed him.

Antoninus Pius was a dutiful senator who, by middle age, had never done anything very interesting and who ascended to the imperial throne apparently determined to maintain that record. Like his predecessor and his successor, he was a “Spanish” emperor, a man descended from Roman colonists in Iberia. As the author points out, he seems to have been the only Roman emperor who never waged a war. He was also the last emperor who was able to spend practically his whole reign in the neighborhood of Rome. He swore never to execute a senator; his greatest conflict with the Senate arose in connection with the deification of Hadrian. Antoninus did not like him either, but he felt the honor had to be bestowed for the sake of the imperial office. Beyond that, he rationalized the legal system at the margins and provided sound fiscal management, though the author claims that disaster relief and army bonuses left the treasury largely empty by the time Marcus succeeded him.

Marcus's biological father died when Marcus was young. “Verus” was the family name. Hadrian called the boy “Verissimus,” a play on his name that meant “most true” or “most trustworthy”; or perhaps in this case, as the author seems to suggest, it meant “For God's sake, Marcus, do you have to be right about everything all day long?” We know quite a lot about Marcus-the-student because his correspondence with his tutor Fronto has survived. Marcus never had much of a sense of humor, but the author suggests the letters show that he was by far the more intelligent of the correspondents, and sometimes he makes a witticism that goes over the old man's head. Fronto's notion of style seems to have gone against every precept of good usage that teachers of English composition have been trying to drill into their slacking students for sixty years. He encouraged euphuism, verbosity, archaism, and an arch use of literary references. He also, by the way, encouraged the use of Latin.

Latin was Marcus's working language all his life, but it was not the language he favored for philosophical discourse. The Meditations are written in Greek, a language in which the emperor was proficient but not, the author tells us, a master of style. This had some implications for his philosophical development. Seneca, who had lived about a century earlier, is generally thought of as the other important early imperial Stoic, but he wrote in Latin and seems to have made little impression on Marcus. For Marcus, the great exponent of Stoicism was Epictetus (A.D. 55 to 135), a former slave to one of Nero's freedman. He wrote no books, but he taught in Greek, and his lectures are preserved in that language.

Epictetus had suffered in the persecution of philosophers by the emperor Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81 to 96, and who sometimes is regarded as a type of Antichrist. The philosopher was keener on duty than on the cosmological points that often engaged the Stoics, and one of the duties he discerned was a special one for emperors not to be tyrants. He also assigned the Roman Empire a higher ontological status than it had ever had before. The empire for Epictetus was cosmopolis, a universal polity that was part of the natural order of things, like the existence of the human race itself. Being part of the universal order had political implications, which Marcus was not slow to draw. The whole universe was a single unit in which each part affected every other. (The author makes much of the relationship between the Stoic version of holism and Whitehead's notion of prehensions; some readers may be reminded of quantum entanglement.) It was eternal but limited in time, since it moved in a great cycle that repeats itself absolutely. Nothing, then, could ever really change. The social order of the empire was natural and irreformable.

The part of the wise man in an essentially pre-determined and unalterable world, therefore, was to attend to the one thing in the universe that he could alter, which was his own internal states of mind. He must do his duty, but suffer neither joy nor despair at the outcome. This variety of fatalism conduced to an even temper and a certain measured asceticism in one's personal life. It also made thoroughgoing reform literally unimaginable. It made progress unimaginable. The author almost frantically draws our attention to the fact that Marcus's Stoicism, most of it derived from earlier thinkers but some original with him, eclipsed hope and deadened curiosity. And Marcus was the best the empire had to offer.

Marcus stayed with the Emperor Antoninus in central Italy as his deputy and aide for more than two decades before becoming emperor himself. He was given responsible work to do. Early on, he displayed a predilection for turning appointments that another man might have treated as an empty honor or a sinecure into real jobs. This part of his career made him thoroughly familiar with the technical aspects of administration, as well as with a big-picture view of the empire. It had the drawback of ensuring that Marcus would know the empire only from his paperwork. He had never been abroad, in the sense of outside Italy, and he had no military experience at any level. Nonetheless, when repeated crises afflicted the empire during his reign, he would perform better than any other imperial hot-house flower in world history.

The Emperor Marcus did have a private life. Unfortunately for historians, it was one of those private lives to which the term “exemplary” might apply and not leave much more to be said. He had 15 children by his only wife, Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus. That number was as extraordinary then as now; a typical Roman matron might have three. The survival rate of the imperial children was not unusual, unfortunately: of those 15, only six lived to adulthood. The author detects a genuine nihilism in the Roman upper class brought on in part by numbers like these. The upper class really did not care much about the future because they could not reasonably expect their direct descendants to be living in it. This assessment by the author is a little counterintuitive. Why should the Romans have been peculiarly depressed by what until the 19th century been the human condition? Still, when we judge Marcus's embrace of the Buddhist view that “he who has no love has no woe,” we should remember how many children he buried.

Marcus in office continued Antoninus's policy of constitutional punctilio, particularly toward the Senate. The author observes that Marcus's treatment of that body had less in common with how an American president might treat Congress than like how a scrupulous British prime minister might treat the monarch: the queen is kept carefully informed on every issue and deferentially asked for permission she has no power to refuse. Nonetheless, the author also notes that the trend toward absolute monarchy that had been apparent even under the Good Emperors continued in Marcus's time. Though it had been a long time since the emperor could not have his own way and his own way of having it, still the more tactful emperors had been in the habit of seeking a “senatus consultum” from the Senate regarding any important initiative. Essentially, that was a resolution from the Senate advising the emperor to do what he intended to do anyway. The senatus consultum would be the citable law. Under Marcus, however, his “oratio” to the Senate, an address in which he explained his acts and intentions, increasingly was treated as law. Under another emperor the expansion of this practice might have caused some unease, even in the second century. However, this was Marcus Aurelius, Mr. Constitution himself, so there was no reason to complain.

Roman emperors were a font of advisory legal opinions to pretty much anyone who cared to ask for one. They also conducted trials themselves. If they were as hardworking as Marcus, they would hold long proceedings and not just summary hearings. Marcus favored widows and orphans, in that he took care to amend the law to ensure that the beneficiaries of wills were not defrauded by their administrators or disinherited by technical error. Unlike his master Epictetus, he had no philosophical objection to slavery, but he did strengthen the presumption in the law (to use a later Common Law term) in favor of manumission. He also lent his own money to encourage landholding in Italy, quite likely in order to try to break the trend toward huge slave-worked latifundia that disturbed even the Roman sensibility.

Marcus suffered fools gladly, a duty enjoined on him by his Stoic convictions. This applied both to his work as a magistrate and as a scholar. Yes, it was safe to tell this emperor to his face that he was in error about something, or that he had done wrong. The satirist Lucian flourished during his reign because Marcus refused to take offense, even if he generally could not take a joke. A duty even grimmer than enduring stand-up comedy was the funding of and attendance at the spectacles that the people demanded; to refuse either was to risk insurrection. Marcus was not a sentimental fellow, but he had no interest in seeing animals slaughtered or criminals executed, and he seemed to think that if you've seen one chariot race you've seen them all. He learned, as Caesar had before him, that to do paperwork at the circus was to enrage the crowd. He hit on the trick of holding cabinet meetings in the imperial box during games. The people thought he was being one of the guys, and he managed to get some work done.

However, the author repeatedly reminds us that Marcus was on the side of the “big battalions,” of the class of large landholders for whose benefit the empire more or less openly operated. Even the kind of land reform that had occurred at earlier stages of the empire seemed beyond the range of possibility, or maybe beyond the range of imagination. Citizenship became increasingly devalued as the empire aged. In the first half of the first century, the author reminds us, the Roman citizenship even of the provincial tent-maker St. Paul was enough to activate an elaborate system of due process that kept him alive for many months until he could be tried at Rome. In Marcus's day, such a man would have been given a short hearing locally and probably executed on the spot. A few decades after Marcus, and citizenship would be bestowed on all freemen in the empire alike, not as a matter of civil equality but to spread the liability for direct imperial taxes. Under Marcus, the law increasingly recognized wealth and birth as dispositive of the rights individuals enjoyed and the duties to which they were obligated. A process of 500 years of legal evolution toward universal citizenship reached its logical limit at about the time it became irrelevant. This was just the kind of phenomenon that Marcus's anti-historicist education disabled him from seeing.

Keeping as always his attention on the things he could actually control, Marcus adopted one Lucius Verus as his junior colleague. He thereby honored Antoninus's wish to honor the plan of Hadrian to include Lucius in the succession plan, though Hadrian seems to have been the only person in antiquity who saw much merit in Lucius. Lucius was not a vicious man, but he was a party animal (“pansexual debauchee” in the author's delicate phrase). The emperors maintained separate courts at Rome, which from their descriptions must have been a bit like meetings of the Sensible Party and the Silly Party respectively. At Marcus's court philosophers of various sorts, usually as bearded as Marcus himself, could be found holding seminars on the perennial questions. Some shaved their heads as an added sign of seriousness. Lucius's court, in contrast, was Animal House with real togas. Nonetheless, when the test came, Lucius did not do too badly.

Marcus had barely settled into office when the first foreign shock struck the empire: the Parthians had invaded the eastern provinces. Rome had been at war with Parthia on and off since the late Republic, but this was the first war the Parthians had started. Hadrian's withdrawal from Mesopotamia had perhaps created an illusion of weakness, while the responsible Romans in the east had made a hash of the control of the succession in the client kingdom of Armenia. In any case, something had to be done fast, and Marcus made the surprising decision to send Lucius to do it.

Lucius took his time getting to the east, stopping at every city where a good time was to be had, especially if it involved the theater; he was a patron of thespians, to put it politely. Eventually, he made his base at Antioch. He had brought as good a staff as the empire had ever produced, however. He had the wit to endorse sound strategy when he saw it, and he made sure the Roman drive to the east had adequate logistics. The Parthians were creamed. As the author points out, Trajan and Hadrian had had comparable success; the empire had worked out the tactics to defeat Parthia long ago. Parthia remained an irritant because its feudal society was not of a kind that the empire could assimilate. The real problem would come in the next century, when Parthia collapsed and was replaced by the lethal menace of Persia. Meanwhile, though, Lucius was able to collect the credit for the successful campaign and return to Rome. Marcus indulged his request for Senatorial thanks for conquering territories he had not actually much bothered. Lucius's flacking was done by old Fronto as the campaign's historian, so perhaps Marcus felt the need to be even more than usually patient.

So far, so good, but the peace of the empire by that point was being hollowed out in certain areas. Several regions, particularly in the Balkans, southwest Anatolia, and part of western Africa were chronically infested by bandits by the late second century. As for Italy, the author characterizes the situation there as a great deal like that in 18th-century England: an exquisite aristocracy living in a landscape in which they did not dare to travel the roads, even during the day, without a formidable armed escort. That state of things, too, was probably a declension from the days of St. Paul, but the change did not constitute an urgent emergency. That was provided by the first of the German invasions.

The author provides us with a brief history of Roman relations with Germania, the loosely defined region north and east of the empire where the leading elements in the various tribes and kingdoms spoke a Germanic language. The empire had abandoned the attempt to expand east across the Rhine for much the same reason that Hadrian had abandoned Trajan's project of directly annexing Mesopotamia: the economy was too poor and the population too sparse to pay for the region's occupation or civil government. By Marcus's time the Rhine had long been a quiet frontier, however, and most of the empire's frontier troops were stationed on or near the Danube. The polities to the north of that line were not so primitive as they had been or so disorganized. They wanted the benefit of economic contact with the empire without political control. Since negotiation had not served particularly well with Antoninus's rather isolationist government, they decided to try organized plunder under the new emperor.

The extent of the coordinated raids from what is now southern Germany was serious enough: the invaders reached the neighborhood of Aquileia, from which they could have threatened the major cities of northern Italy if they had had a strategic plan. More alarming still, however, was the fact that the empire once again had a major war on its borders that it did not start. This time, the emperor went to organize the defense himself, bringing Lucius in tow to keep him out of trouble. (When Lucius died a few years later, Marcus chose not to complicate his succession plans for his own son Commodus by picking another adult colleague.) It was a difficult campaign, made more so by the fact there were no objectives whose capture might defray the cost of the war, or for that matter whose capture might decide the issue politically. In such a case there is no workable objective but extermination, or at least reaching a degree of superiority where extermination can be plausibly threatened. Marcus eventually was on the verge of complete victory along these lines, but then had to reach a compromise peace.

In another portent of things to come, the governor of Syria, Avidius Cassius, had declared himself emperor. He was under the impression that Marcus had died, an impression that may have resulted from a miscommunication from Marcus's wife Faustina, who seems in any case to have been provisionally ready to marry him. Trying to look as unruffled as possible, Marcus sauntered from the Danube to Rome and then to the east, with the avowed intention of clearing up the misunderstanding. In the event, Governor Cassius was killed by one of his own men, and Faustina died on route with her husband to the Levant, not altogether impossibly of natural causes. Marcus exacted no terrible revenge on Avidius's family or his few supporters, though a few executions were inevitable.

There were a few years of peace, and then the settlement that Marcus had created on the Danube began to fall apart. He initiated another campaign, this time a bit further east in Dacia. This went more smoothly than the first war, but was hampered by the outbreak of the plague. To that disease Marcus himself succumbed. He went through with the project of having his son Commodus succeed him, despite the fact it was apparent to everyone that the young man had not turned out well. Perhaps the emperor's Stoic fatalism at last persuaded him that the fate of cosmopolis was among the things he could not control, no matter what he did.

In some ways, the most interesting evidence of the great change that occurred to the empire in the second century is the mutation in imperial iconography. The earlier Good Emperors had favored the use of the heroes of Roman history on their coinage. Under Marcus, the figures tended to be religious or mythological. And then there is the Tale of the Two Columns. Trajan's Column (which this book does not discuss in detail) is an essentially political document extolling the emperor's numerous if ephemeral conquests. Marcus Aurelius's Column (which the author does discuss) also deals in large part with military matters, but depicts these events with significant supernatural intervention. The depiction of the first German war recounts the Lightening Miracle, in which Marcus is reported to have called down a thunderbolt on an enemy siege machine, and the Rain Miracle, in which a Roman contingent is depicted as being saved by a providential deluge. The water god shown creating the deluge does not look like any iconography before or since, or perhaps not until the 20th-century comic book.

The second century was a time of the stirring of the spirit. The author reminds us on several occasions that there was a general drift throughout the period toward monotheism among the educated, so that men like Epictetus often spoke of God in the singular. (Marcus rarely did, though. When he alluded to a Supreme Being, he normally used some pantheistic locution.) On a popular level, the era was full of wonder workers, preachers, and prophets of all sorts. Some of these last bore apocalyptic messages that another emperor might have taken in bad part: to predict the end of the world could reasonably imply a threat to the world's ruler. When such people were brought to Marcus's attention, however, he dealt with them indulgently. The exception to his attitude of toleration involved Christianity, of which Marcus is remembered as one of the most vicious persecutors.

This is more than a little odd. The author recites for us the history of the Roman attitude toward Christianity, of which the most striking feature is the general trend toward toleration under the Good Emperors. Trajan endorsed the policy of one of his governors of requiring reputed Christians to sacrifice to the Olympians to prove their loyalty, but forbade that the governor (Pliny the Younger, to be precise) to hunt down Christians to question. Hadrian and Antoninus had required strict standards of proof for the fantastic crimes of which Christians were routinely accused; local persecution of the sect was clearly disfavored by the imperial government, even if not quite forbidden. Then Marcus the humane philosopher came to power, a man who believed that logos governed the world, and persecution broke out everywhere. In some places, notably Lyon in Gaul, there were horror-shows in which hundreds of people were sent to the arena without a shred of due process. In other places, little Pilates tried to weasel their way around the law by offering the accused technicalities to snatch at, which even more disconcertingly the accused often refused to do.

No decree or rescript from Marcus survives ordering a general persecution of Christians, but it is certain that he knew what was happening. Some of the victims were locally prominent Roman citizens, and in any case, Marcus would have received many queries about these proceedings as an ordinary part of his legal work. Furthermore, there was a flurry of sophisticated “apologies” for Christianity, some of them addressed to the emperor himself. Even some of the Christians seemed to believe that the emperor would relent if only someone told him the tenets of their religion and that they prayed for him daily. We know for a fact that at least one person did tell him: Athenogoras delivered his apology to Marcus in person at Athens in A.D. 176. It did no good. The persecution eased under Commodus partly because he had a Christian mistress and partly as an aspect of the general paralysis of government during those years.

The author argues, persuasively, that the persecution of Christianity was the correct thing to do in the context of Marcus's world view. There were second-century Romans who opposed metaphysical monotheism; Tacitus comes to mind. However, the empire was willing to tolerate the monotheism of the Jews, even though the Jews had launched two catastrophic revolts against the empire, since it was the monotheism of a self-limiting sect. The Church, in contrast, claimed to be a cosmopolis in just the way that Epictetus's empire was cosmopolis: an eternal community that rightfully laid claim to the final loyalty of all mankind. In the light of such claims, it was irrelevant that Christians prayed for the emperor. To promise to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's is to imply that there are things that are not Caesar's. That is the sort of claim against the state that the Classical world, from first to last, was never able to accommodate.

Something more was at work in the second century than can be explained by political theory, however. Something new was trying to enter the world, and conscientious, careworn, and courageous Marcus Aurelius was moved to stop it. I recommend this book to all students of the period, but one of its effects has been to increase my appreciation for the treatment of its period in G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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Marcus Aurelius: A Life
By Frank McLynn

The Comtemplative Life

I'm going to break from my chronological reposting of John J. Reilly's The Long View for a bit, because I read a fascinating book review on SlateStarCodex, BOOK REVIEW: MASTERING THE CORE TEACHINGS OF THE BUDDHA

I noticed that Scott Alexander's review was oddly unsympathetic, insofar as the core of what the author of the book described as mystical experiences were mostly categorized as forms of mental illness. This is an interesting idea worth pursuing further. In order to do so, I wanted to repost John's review of St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle. I thought I would just link to the Internet Archive, but today I found out that the robots.txt on johnreilly.info wouldn't let me.

Which is odd, since John has been dead for five years. I looked, and I found someone has bought the domain and setup a fake site, with some of John's content, and some random gibberish. Whoever bought the domain is using an WHOIS anonymizer, so it is a bit harder to see who it is.

Capture.PNG

Weird, but it gives me an excuse to post some really interesting stuff. More fun than rehashing old politics, other than I was just getting to Valerie Plame circa 2005, who just became internet famous again.

The Long View: Augustine: A Biography

St. Augustine By Unknown - http://www.30giorni.it/us/articolo.asp?id=3553, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6029808

St. Augustine

By Unknown - http://www.30giorni.it/us/articolo.asp?id=3553, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6029808

I don't have much to add to this fine book review of a biography of St. Augustine, other than to highlight this:

At the end of his life, with the Vandals already approaching Hippo, Augustine was carrying on a long polemic, all for publication, with John of Eclanum. (It is amazing how much the theological discourse of the early Church resembles Internet flame wars.) Brown suggests that Augustine might have done better to read Julian more carefully, since Julian was close to the sort of workable synthesis of theology and Aristotle that Thomas Aquinas was to achieve many centuries later.

Augustine:
A Biography
By Peter Brown
University of California Press, 2000
Originally Published 1967
548 Pages, Various Prices
ISBN 0-520-22757-3

A Review By John J. Reilly

 

Aurelius Augustinus, known to history as Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, lived from 354 to 430. When he was born in Thagaste (a town in the Province of Numidia: perhaps the Roman equivalent of the American Midwest), a provincial like himself might hope to pursue a career as a public intellectual in Italy and the great cities of the east. At the time of his death, Rome had already been sacked 20 years before. Roman Africa, long the most secure region of the empire, had collapsed in the space of two years. The Vandals were besieging Hippo Regius, the port city where he had been bishop for 35 years. There are many reasons for studying the life of Augustine, but among them is surely the fact that he was a highly articulate man who lived at the end of the world.

This biography by Peter Brown is now almost 40 years old. Since he finished it, Brown became one of the leading authorities on late antiquity. This edition includes an epilogue with some second thoughts and a survey of writings by Augustine that came to light in the last quarter of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine what more one could want in a book this size, but as Brown himself points out, it has certain blind spots. He follows Augustine's theology only to the extent it seems to have some psychological significance for Augustine or the culture of his period. Brown also notes that, while our growing understanding of Augustine's society makes him appear no less original, it also highlights the fact that the Bishop of Hippo did not loom as large as earlier historians had assumed. I have often felt there to be a problem with Shakespeare studies: they forget that, when Shakespeare was alive, being Shakespeare was not such a big deal. Something similar may also have been true of Augustine.

The future saint was born about 400 miles west of Carthage, a Roman city on the site of the Roman Republic's ancient enemy, and about 150 miles southeast of Hippo. The region was traditionally a granary of the Roman Empire. Augustine's hometown, Thagaste (Souk Ahras in modern Algeria) was a conventional Roman grid-city, but going to seed. Major building had stopped for almost a century, and the neat layout of streets was supplemented by warrens of shantytowns.

There are continuing questions about Augustine's ethnicity and knowledge of languages that this book does nothing to clear up. Some secondary sources say baldly that “Augustine spoke Punic,” which they identify with the Semitic language of ancient Carthage. Brown says no; he even says that the “Punic” to which Augustine and his contemporaries referred was actually a form of Berber. In any case, Augustine in later life did seem to need an interpreter to deal with the country people from the non-Latin-speaking parts of his diocese.

Augustine's education, in Thagaste and Carthage, was based on scraps and tatters of Roman authors. It involved the minute analysis of great chunks of Cicero, but as Brown points out, Augustine as a student seems not to have encountered any philosophy as a coherent system, not even in translation. He studied Greek, and he could make translations at need, but he could not write or speak it. His family was Christian, or at least Monica his mother was (his father would be baptized on his deathbed). However, part of his difficulty as a young man with Christianity was that the Latin translations of the Bible then in use were subliterary. Only much later would Augustine's friend, Saint Jerome, produce the Latin Vulgate version that would remain standard throughout the West even after Latin ceased to be spoken. Like the King James Version, Jerome's Vulgate may have been too pretty for its own good.

Augustine's first conversion, if we may use that term, was to Manicheanism, a form of gnosticism created in the 3rd century by Mani, a prophet from Mesopotamia. This doctrine held that the evil in the world was the result of there being two principles, dark and light, evil and good. The disgust with the mere physicality of human beings that people of all religious persuasions felt in late antiquity made this doctrine intuitively attractive. The late empire was nominally Christian and Manicheanism was proscribed, but it created little cells everywhere, in a manner reminiscent of Masonry, or for that matter, of 20th-century Communism. Augustine was a fellow traveler.

He quickly found problems with it, however. The sacred texts of Manicheanism were not subject to philosophical inquiry. Doctrines about the movement of the moon were central to the system, but Augustine knew enough astronomy to know that they were nonsense. There was also the deeper problem that the Manichean Light was helpless. The Elect might hope to purify themselves of darkness, but there was nothing to be done about the state of things in this life. If the Light could do nothing, then why bother about it?

According to some historians, notably Toynbee, the real date for the fall of the Roman Empire is 378, when the Visigoths killed the emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople and the empire lost control of the frontier in the Balkans. Contemporaries recognized the gravity of that event. Still, it was not so serious that Augustine could not sail for Rome in 383 to teach rhetoric at an advanced level. As a teacher in Rome, he famously discovered that Roman students were deadbeats about paying their school fees. A little later, influential contacts and natural ability secured him an appointment as a professor of rhetoric in Milan in northern Italy. In effect, he was an imperial flack, work that he did not appear to find satisfying.

We should remember that Milan was then the capital of the empire in the West. In the empire's last two centuries there were normally two emperors, nominally colleagues, with the senior emperor resident in Constantinople and the junior somewhere in Italy. The effective seat of government had actually shifted to Milan as early as the 2nd century: under the empire at its height, its rulers discovered that, strategically, Rome was in the middle of nowhere. Later in Augustine's life, the government would move permanently to Ravenna. There it was no more effective, but it was at least protected by marshes.

In Milan, Augustine completed the transition to Platonism that he had begun long before. By “Platonism,” he meant what is now called “neoplatonism,” the mystical, even ecstatic doctrine of Plotinus and Porphyry, but which people of Augustine's day saw as perfectly continuous with the school of Plato. In any case, the doctrine was a revelation to him on several levels.

To begin with, this was his first acquaintance with the idea that there could be real entities that are not material. The Light and Dark of the Manicheans were thought to be different kinds of stuff. Even the grossest superstitions of late antiquity were “materialist” in this sense, as indeed were most forms of late Classical philosophy. Augustine saw that the notion of the non-material Idea was far more useful.

More important, Augustine saw that the Good need not be helpless. Quite the opposite: it was overwhelming. In the neoplatonic view, the world we see is simply a pale image of the Good, which exists at the summit of the chain of Being, each link of which is more perfect than the one below. Neoplatonism promised direct experience of the Good, which was also the Beautiful and the True, through contemplation and asceticism. This was a rather more satisfactory goal than the ritual purity of the Manichean Elect.

Many sophisticated pagans made their peace with Christianity through Platonism, which they believed allowed the common people an image of the Good. Platonists of this sort might attend church in good conscience, without being baptized, as a social convention. Augustine was a member of this class for a time, perhaps. However, in Milan he met not just sophisticated Platonists, but also sophisticated Christians, the most important of whom was the city's famous bishop, Ambrose, later to be acclaimed a saint.

Ambrose successfully faced down emperors when the need arose. He also succeeded in overcoming Augustine's largely literary prejudice against the Christian scriptures. In any case, Augustine's experiences in Milan led up to the day in 386 when, in an Italian garden, he heard a child's voice say, “take up; read.” His encounter with scripture in response to this injunction completed his conversion to Christianity. His baptism soon followed. He then set about reforming his own life; a little later, he turned his attention to reforming other people's lives. We remember Saint Augustine because of the record he left us of his discovery of the extent to which these things were and were not possible.

During the next two years, Augustine briefly lived in a group home, a sort of proto-monastery, with similarly minded philosophical Christians. Like most people of his day, he assumed that deep conversion would require a renunciation of married life, if not quite of family life: Monica, his mother, had followed him to Italy and apparently managed his household. In any case, he canceled plans for marriage to an heiress. He also sent away his concubine, by whom he had had a son, who died as a young man. (“Concubine” sounds rather racy in modern English. In the Greco-Roman world it was a prosaic arrangement in the nature of a “civil union,” though not generally a union of equals.) Monica's Catholic orthodoxy was not the least of the influences in her son's conversion. She died just before they were all about to return home to Thagaste. She became a saint, too.

Brown notes that Augustine left Italy at just the time when it began to cease to be true that all roads led to Rome. He would do business all the remainder of his life with the government in northern Italy and with the pope in Rome, but he belonged to the last generation of provincials who went to Rome to make their reputations. Through invasion, and even more through irresponsible uprisings by local commanders, the wheels were starting to fall off the political system. Increasingly, the empire was unable to guarantee the security of its citizens, even at the cost of oppression.

Back in sheltered Africa, though, Augustine now had a reputation as a man of learning and good character, so much so that he was essentially drafted as a priest by the congregation of the basilica of Hippo in 391. Four or five years later, he became bishop. His transformation began into Saint Augustine, the great Doctor of the Latin West.

Augustine wrote quite literally a library of books. When he spoke of his library at Hippo, in fact, he seems to have been referring to a small research and publishing enterprise, dedicated in no small part to disseminating the wide range of texts he produced. Still, when people talk about Augustine, they are normally talking about two books: the Confessions, which began to appear about 400 and which deals with his conversion; and The City of God, parts of which began to circulate in 413, and which tried to make sense of the sack of Rome three years before.

Two points are particularly interesting about the Confessions, in light of what we know about Augustine's background. The first is that, despite Augustine's Platonic readiness to conceive of God as an intellectual object, Augustine seems him as the prime mover in his conversion. The book, in fact, is largely a second-person address to God, to Whom Augustine recounts how God led him through reason, through joy, and through happy accident to that garden where Augustine heard the child's voice. For someone who had recently been a Manichean, this was a very favorable assessment of world of the senses. Human nature itself was full of handles for God to grab onto.

The other point is that the story does not end with Augustine's conversion. That was unusual: conversion narratives, then and since, often assumed that the protagonist would be effortlessly holy ever after. Neither was it usual for high paganism: neoplatonic philosophers and Stoic sages were supposed to “get it,” to achieve enlightenment, and then to live an untroubled life in semi-retirement, where they would try to explain the ineffable to eager students. As we have seen, Augustine actually tried to do something like that, but discovered he was not good enough. Even after his conversion, he was still Augustine. He needed God's help at least as much after his baptism as he needed it before. Perfection in this life was not an option.

This was, perhaps, why Augustine had little patience with sects and theological opinions that promised perfection, or that even said it was possible.

One such sect was the Donatist Church, a schismatic group that was actually the dominant church in Africa when Augustine returned from Italy. It grew out of the last pagan persecutions. In those days, many Christians, clergy included, apostatized to save their lives, but later repented and were received back into the church. The Donatists were the institutional descendants of some of those who had not apostatized, and who refused to recognize the repentance of those who had. They also did not recognize the power of former apostates to baptize, or ordain their successors.

The Catholic Church did exist in Africa, in the sense of bishops who were in communion with the bishops of the patriarchal sees, and especially with Rome, whose bishop enjoyed a unique primacy even then. It was the Catholic bishops that were recognized by the imperial government. The Donatist Church differed from this universal establishment in no point of doctrine or liturgy. The Donatists differed only in claiming that they were a church of saints: they were the true Church in Africa, and maybe the only true church in the world.

Augustine attempted to heal this schism through persuasion and polemics, not wholly without success. In the final analysis, though, it was the willingness of the imperial government to seize Donatist property and place the Donatist faithful under civil disabilities that destroyed Donatism, or at least drove it out of the cities. Augustine justified persecution, at least at this relatively moderate level, for much the same reason that he had recognized the necessity of the world for his own conversion. The social environment can lead us to God, but this implies that the environment must be cleared of delusions and distractions. Augustine was prepared to use the state toward that end.

This is not to imply that when Augustine said “jump!” the Proconsul in Carthage asked “how high?” Particularly in the letters that came to light in the late 20th century, we see Augustine working as an ombudsman between his flock and a government that was becoming simultaneously less competent and more brutal. He tried to get pardons for tax protesters. He tried to get death sentences commuted. He tried to stop a new and appalling recrudescence of the slave trade. Taking advantage of the eclipse of imperial order, private entrepreneurs had taken to capturing free peasants in Africa and selling them to buyers in Gaul and Italy. They embarked their captives through Hippo, under the nose of the port authorities, who had been bribed. When members of Augustine's cathedral chapter sought legal redress for some of the captives, the slavers sued for interference with their business.

Augustine was not an uncritical admirer of the Roman Empire, which, again, was somewhat unusual for a man in his position. The tendency of his time was to increasingly regard the empire as a providential historical development, created by God to foster and protect the Church. The ideology of the medieval Holy Roman Empire was not so different; Dante's theory of universal monarchy made the Church and the Empire equivalent divine institutions.

Brown emphasizes that Augustine was skeptical of these ideas long before the sack of Rome in 410. After that event, he canonized his measured dismay of those years in his greatest work, The City of God. Brown notes that the immediate audience for the book consisted in significant part of literary refugees from Italy. In fact, the book started life in part as a series of sermons.

Augustine explains that the Church, City of God, was a pilgrim in this world. (“Pilgrim” did not suggest to Augustine that to travel hopefully was better than to arrive; he always hated traveling.) It could cooperate with the City of Man, with which it was inextricably connected. Indeed, as citizens, Christians had some duty to work for that City's good. However, the City of Man was ultimately transitory. It could not command our final loyalty.

Augustine was a patriot. He knew the empire was in trouble, but he said it might recover, as it had done so many times before. And in fact it did recover for a few years; Alaric the Visigoth turned out to be more an unsuccessful extortioner than a world conqueror. Augustine, clearly, was wise not to link the troubles of his contemporary world with the prophecies of revelation (one of the great faults of Brown's book is that we get almost no discussion of Augustine's views on eschatology). What Augustine did do was create the historical framework for a livable world. Augustine has even been called “the father of progress,” since he held open the prospect that the betterment of the secular world was at least possible.

Interesting as all this is, the issue that made Augustine's reputation was the controversy with Pelagius about free will, predestination, and original sin. Pelagius, a man of British extraction, argued against the doctrine that we are born tainted by original sin. He also argued that the human will, informed by teaching, was capable of rejecting sin and choosing the good. In many accounts of this debate, Pelagius is portrayed as the champion of reason and human autonomy, while Augustine is seen as the proponent of infant damnation and of a God who arbitrarily predestines some fraction of the human race to Hell.

Brown's thesis is that, at every point, Augustine's concern was actually to make the Christian life livable. Pelagius's account of the autonomy of the will meant that people bore a terrible burden for their own choices. In Pelagius's system, the least infraction of divine law merited damnation. Pelagians laid great stress on the value of threats of hellfire to encourage the faithful to greater efforts. To that Augustine responded, oddly like a philosopher of the Enlightenment 1,300 years later, that a man who fears hell does not fear sinning, but burning.

And in fact, the Pelagian party was not a would-be Broad Church of moral uplift, but yet another example of Late Antique spiritual athletes trying to form a tiny minority of the elect. When Augustine defended original sin, he was defending the power of the rite of baptism to offer some surety of salvation, even to infants. Augustine's version of predestination rejected the notion that one could say that conversion and continuance in grace were either personal choices or divine intervention; he did insist that the unaided human will was insufficient. He cited scripture, but this insight is really what the Confessions had been all about.

In his debates with Pelagius, Augustine articulated a concept of freedom that has fascinated and repelled the West ever since. In this view, the mere perception of a choice is evidence of the corruption of the will. True freedom, in contrast, means transcending choice. A truly free man is one whose will has been so cleared of error and bias, particularly the biases created by desire, that he can see there is only one real possibility.

This has a fine Hegelian ring to it: freedom is the conformance of the will to necessity. And like the politics that descends from Hegel, it can be breathtakingly oppressive. At its worst, it means than a government can ignore popular opposition to its policies as the product of false consciousness, or that an established church could assume that there is no such thing as an honest heretic. On the other hand, the procedural notion of freedom, as a choice that is externally unrestricted, is subtly self-contradictory. The existence of objective value in the things we are choosing among, that is, the possibility that a choice might be right or wrong, is the kind of external constraint that a procedural system has to ignore or suppress. Freedom then means the right to choose between things that there is nothing to choose between.

The philosophical question remains with us, but Augustine did succeed in settling the matter for a long time as far as dogma went. A council of eastern bishops found nothing wrong with Pelagianism (the Greek church has never very interested in psychological questions), but Augustine had enough influence to light a fire under several popes to get Pelagianism condemned. Even then it did not lack for brilliant defenders. At the end of his life, with the Vandals already approaching Hippo, Augustine was carrying on a long polemic, all for publication, with John of Eclanum. (It is amazing how much the theological discourse of the early Church resembles Internet flame wars.) Brown suggests that Augustine might have done better to read Julian more carefully, since Julian was close to the sort of workable synthesis of theology and Aristotle that Thomas Aquinas was to achieve many centuries later.

There are ironies in the aftermath to Augustine's life. The world that he was trying to make tolerable for Christians did not survive him. The Catholic Church in Africa was soon being oppressed by the Arian Church of the new Vandal kingdom. A little later, and the Vandal kingdom was conquered by the Byzantine Empire, whose Greek orthodoxy Augustine would have recognized as Catholic, but which was imposed by force over sullen populations with their own ideas. Three centuries later the Arabs came, and Latin-speaking, Christian North Africa evaporated as quickly and thoroughly as had Roman Britain.

Almost all that is left of that world is the writings of Saint Augustine. As it happened, his was the last voice from the Latin West of antiquity.


These books scarcely mention Augustine, but they essentially restate in modern terms the story of Augustine's conversion: