The Long View 2006-09-15: The Benedictine Jihad

Pope Benedict XVI speaks to students and professors at the Auditorium Maximum of the University of Regensburg in Regensburg, Germany, Sept. 12, 2006. (Matthias Schrader/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Pope Benedict XVI speaks to students and professors at the Auditorium Maximum of the University of Regensburg in Regensburg, Germany, Sept. 12, 2006. (Matthias Schrader/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Pope Emeritus Benedict later gave a speech in Jordan that is sometimes described as an anti-Regensburg speech, but I honestly think he really believed what he said both times.

The Benedictine Jihad


Guy Fawkes Day came early in the Muslim world, to judge by these scenes of effigies of Benedict XVI being burned. The cause of the commotion is the address that Benedict gave at the University of Regensburg earlier this week, Glaube, Vernunft und Universität: Erinnerungen und Reflexionen.(Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections). An English version is available here. This assessment may be premature, but it looks as if this could turn into a worldwide campaign comparable to the Cartoon Jihad. Unlike that earlier episode, the reaction to Benedict's remarks does not seem to have been planned in advance. However, the earlier incident created a network for disseminating disaffection of this sort. The Benedictine Jihad will provide an instructive test case, not least because, this time, the criticism of Islam was real.

I discussed the pope's remarks earlier here. In this entry, I would just like to summarize more precisely what he said. As the title of the lecture suggests, Benedict's subject was the intellectual climate of the universities. He was making the same kind of argument that John Cardinal Newman (and Allan Bloom, for that matter) made for "liberal education." Benedict's understanding of the matter is that the concept of "reason" has to be expanded beyond the physical sciences to include the liberal arts and theology: each discipline with its own methods, but each a necessary part of the life of the mind. The interesting aspect of the lecture was the historical dimension.

Benedict argues that Greek philosophy and Hebrew thought as expressed in the Old Testament converged on the same high evaluation of reason. The culmination of this convergence is the first sentence of John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word." The term for "Word" here is "logos," the rational aspect of the world in Greek philosophy and term that John applies to Jesus. Thus, Christianity is, in its essence, both Greek and Hebrew; the place where these traditions meet is reason. It is this "reason" that Christinaity proclaims as the human face of God. It is also, the pope reminds us, the metaphysical principle that created Europe.

As Benedict points out, this position has become controversial. The late Scholastics moved away from the the sort of confidence in reason that we find in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Rather, the late Scholastics argued that God was wholly transcendent and cannot be apprehended even in part by reason, even by analogy. The extreme view of the sovereignty of God that we find especially in some forms of Calvinism continued that trajectory. Pascal put this view pithily: "the God of the philosophers is an idol." In any case, what began as a preference for philosophical austerity turned into skepticism of reason as such. The result today is that reason in the academy shrank to nothing more than logical method, tolerated in the physical sciences but carefully isolated in a philosophical vacuum. As more than one commentator has pointed out during the past two centuries, this makes impossible "the university" as it was historically understood.

What put His Holiness in hot water was his observation that this rejection of reason, expressed as an understanding of God as wholly arbitrary, was an early feature of orthodox Islam. (This is true, though as Aquinas was aware, there have been Muslim theologians as keen to appropriate the Greek philosophical tradition as were the High Scholastics.) The philosophical criticism in itself is no harsher than what Benedict said of some Protestants, or even implied about some of his own academic colleagues. However, Benedict chose to make the point through statements made in 1391 by the Byzantine Emperor Maunel II Palaeologus, to the effect that Islam was inherently destructive and coercive because it conceived of God as irrational.

The Emperor Manuel was not quite the last Byzantine Emperor, but by his day the Turks had whittled the empire down to little more than Greater Constantinople. That city would fall in its turn in 1453. Manuel had little inclination to wax irenic on matters Islamic. Benedict XVI's case is by no means as desperate as the emperor's, but he seems to share the view that this is not a time when the first priority is to find common ground.

We have reached an age in which the chief defenders of reason in the classical sense are found in the Vatican. That may tell us something about the future.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-12-22: Europe and Its Discontents

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

In this blog post, John Reilly points to a sublime essay written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the height of his powers: Europe and Its Discontents. Published in English by First Things magazine, Benedict analyzes the idea of Europe through a grand sweep of history, religion, and politics.

You should go and read it.

I was quite excited when Pope Benedict was elected, and this essay illustrates why. Benedict has an extraordinarily sharp mind, and he turned his mind towards the largest questions of our age. I think his diagnosis of the crisis of European civilization, broadly defined to include the European diaspora and those parts of the world brought fully into the European cultural orbit, holds up well eleven years later.

In particular, it seems to me that Benedict was right that the default position among the centrist coalitions that dominate politics in Europe and America and their cultural partners, that there is nothing of value in Western culture or history, is profoundly weak, and this weakness has enabled nationalist populists of various sorts to gain political power by simply not expressing disdain for their nations or their history.


I don't think these movements are really what Benedict had in mind:

What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.

I think Benedict was trying to build a more peaceful future by looking squarely at what was happening, but also by trying to build bridges between the powerful and those in Europe who felt marginalized. In his characteristic way, he sought this way through truth.

He frankly said this about immigration and low birthrates:

At the hour of its greatest success, Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life, subjecting it to transplants that erase its identity. At the same time as its sustaining spiritual forces have collapsed, a growing decline in its ethnicity is also taking place.
Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as though they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen—at least by some people—as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire. In its final days, Rome still functioned as a great historical framework, but in practice its vital energy had been depleted.

Eleven years ago, Benedict attempted to head off the political crises we have now by warning that low birthrates and high rates of immigration with the frank intent to replace the missing natives were bound to reach a tipping point that sparked a backlash. Would that we had listened.

Europe and Its Discontents


The essay "Europe and Its Discontents," by Pope Benedict XVI, appears in the January 2006 issue of First Things. (This is the piece’s first appearance in English; it was apparently published in Europe last year.) The pope tries to define Europe geographically and religiously; to diagnose the causes of the loss of morale in European societies; and to outline certain remedies.

Europe, for the pope’s purposes, includes the historically Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox regions of the Old World from the Atlantic to the Urals. To some extent, it also includes the Americas and the Russian East, but Benedict’s historical observations apply chiefly to Western Europe. He proposes the interesting hypothesis that the original self-consciousness of post-Roman Europe was an awareness of finality and mission provided by the model of history in the Book of Daniel. However, Benedict emphasizes that the notion of a distinction between church and state is very old in the West. As early as the fifth century, Pope Gelasius (492-496) cautioned that secular and spiritual authority were united only in Christ, not in any human institution. At the time of the Reformation, the traditional practice of close cooperation between church and state was challenged by the model of the state church, a model which later included provision for the toleration of free churches. The Enlightenment and the French revolution saw the beginning of laicism, under which religion was treated as a private matter and the public sphere was secularized as much as possible. The United States took a middle ground between these positions. The American stance is based on a combination of the religious disestablishment demanded by the free-church tradition with a national sense of universal religious mission. The result is not so far from the model of Pope Gelasius.

Throughout Europe, and also in the United States to a lesser degree, religion was in decline in the 20th century no matter the model that a given country favored. The same was true of socialism, which had briefly tried to replace religion or (in its democratic forms) supplement it. Thus, the terms in which Europeans had identified themselves for centuries lost their meaning. The loss of identity has apparently also meant the loss of the societal will to live. The symptoms are both demographic, in the form of below-replacement birthrates, and cultural, in the form of a multicultural refusal to embrace the European heritage or to pass it on.

The essay considers whether there is anything to be done about this situation. Benedict notes Oswald Spengler’s model of history, with its pattern of civilizations that grow, bloom, and decline toward death. The biological metaphors that Spengler used leave little room for hope. The pope is far more pleased with Toynbee’s model. It is not deterministic, and in fact it diagnoses the problem of modern Europe as a loss of social cohesion that arises from a loss of religious faith. Toynbee counseled that Western Civilization needed a new spiritual foundation. His Holiness, perhaps predictably, is of like mind.

The essay suggests three specific points of identity that Europe needs to regain:

Human rights must be acknowledged to have a transcendent origin;

Marriage and the family must conform to historical norms;

There must be respect for the sacred; even atheists can be expected to manifest ordinary respect for what other people hold to be holy.

Returning at the end to Toynbee, Benedict notes that the well-being of a civilization depends on its creative minorities. He says that Christians should look on themselves as just such a creative minority. They should help Europe to regain its identity and thereby allow Europe to serve all mankind.

* * *

Reading Benedict’s short essay, one is reminded of Henri Pirenne’s observation that it is much easier to write briefly of a large subject; narrow topics, in contrast, must be treated at length. Actually, it is probably a failing on my part that my summary is as long as it is. So, rather than compound the error by long commentary, let me just highlight a few points that touch on my own peculiar interests.

It is a mistake to see too much daylight between Spengler’s and Toynbee’s views on the future of the West. Both spoke in terms of a civilization-wide revival of religion. The chief difference is that Spengler said “is” and Toynbee said “ought.” Spengler’s prophecy of the Second Religiousness is not perhaps wholly complimentary to religion; certainly it does not understand of the malaise of modernity as a religious issue. Nonetheless, it does point to a substantial resacralization of thought and of public life. It might be said, in fact, to predict the return to religion that Toynbee advised.

Note that Toynbee is a problematical prophet, however. Sometimes he seemed to think of the future not in terms of a revival of historical Christianity, but of the appearance of a new universal faith that would be the underpinning of a future ecumenical society. This new faith would have a large Christian component, of course, and it might even be considered a development of Christianity. Inevitably, however, it would be a Christianity with quite a lot of syncretic elements, certainly with regard to expression and possibly in terms of dogma. What use would such a Christianity be for the reconsolidation of a European Europe, whose problem is precisely the forgetting of the historic forms that this new Christianity would replace?

This brings to the three essential points that Benedict says must enter into a European identity. The items he mentions are unobjectionable, indeed obviously necessary. The problem is that there is nothing particularly European about them. Inalienable rights; a human model of the family; reverence for reverence: what part of the world does not need these things? One could argue, of course, that having returned to essentials, Europe would again embrace that part of its heritage that was consistent with them, and then move on to a new golden age. One fears, however, that such a thin understanding of the European identity would prove a bit like John Rawls’s theory of ethics: an economy of principles often produces an economy of results.

Then there is the basic question of whether religion should be recommended for its practical benefits. Jesus did not come into the world to save Western Civilization; he came to save souls. Augustine provided a partial answer to this objection, of course: Christians have an obligation to work for the betterment of the human condition, and it is no great stretch to argue that the revival of Europe would make the world a better place. However, there is a difference between a situation in which Christians know what they have to do and the practice of commending Christian principles to the world at large for their curative properties.

As for applying Toynbee’s notion of “creative minority” to the Europe’s dwindling stock of Christians: that would be a fine thing, but one does not create a creative minority at will. There is nothing wrong with elites per se; Toynbee is perfectly correct when he says they make the world go round. As we know, however, anyone who wants to belong to an elite does not deserve to be a member. Elites are constituted by the work they do; at their best, they scarcely notice their own status. An elite that knows it’s an elite is more likely to be what Toynbee called a “dominant minority,” the ruing class of a civilization in its terminal phase.

Having made all these carping remarks, let me conclude by saying that there is actually very little in Benedict XVI’s essay that I disagree with. The points I have made here are more in the nature of qualifications than of criticisms. Like Spengler, I am of the “is” rather than “ought” disposition. The difference is that I have persuaded myself that the “is,” the most likely future, is not so bad as some people (notably Spengler himself) would have us believe. Of course, for an inevitable good outcome to happen, we must act as if the outcome depends solely on our own efforts, which in fact it does.

It is entirely possible that I have thought about all this too much.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-10-20: Real Reasons

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

This reminder of Pope John Paul II in his declining years makes for an interesting counterpoint to his successor, Benedict XVI. Each faced increasing age and debility; each selected a different way of responding to it. I think each way has its merits. 

The argument John makes here that the Papacy is best thought of as the still center around which the Church turns has something going for it.  I think is true in a long term sense, and perhaps less true in the short term sense. The reason for this is something John himself said in 1998

[...] the papacy has never existed in a vacuum. The mutations it has undergone in the past 2000 years are only partly the result of the logic of its own development. The short explanation for these changes is that the papacy was simply mirroring the political evolution of the societies in which it lived. The pope was once a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The reigning Pope currently is an executive, even if he lacks a nuclear football. This seems to be the reason why Benedict chose resignation: to allow a more vigorous man to try to fix the many messes in the Vatican. Whether Pope Francis is successful at reigning in the power and influence of the curia is a matter yet to be settled.

As for the Iraq War, John mentions the five-year seven-country plan that widely circulated at the time. General Wesley Clark mentioned that plan too, in an interview in 2007.

So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

By now, we have managed to make a mess of Syria and Libya. We negotiated a deal with Iran, although Clark was right about the kind of influence Iran was and is wielding in Iraq. Sudan and Somalia are still hellholes. Lebanon has quieted down some. I suppose I should be grateful our reach exceeded our grasp here?

Real Reasons

John Paul II was clearly not well at yesterday's beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He confined himself to reading the brief Latin formula declaring her blessed; he delivered none of his own homily. He slumped in his seat in such a way that he seemed to disappear into his ceremonial robes. Seeing his obvious debility, many people are asking why the pope continues to appear regularly in public. For that matter, they ask, why does he not just abdicate? John Paul II knows his own reasons, but I would suggest two points.

The first is that, by showing himself in public, he demonstrates to a increasingly rumor-prone world that he is still alive. Moreover, he has enough good days to prove that he has his wits about him. Still, it is reasonably clear that his staff must be managing almost everything by now. Why does he stay in office? I suspect he does it to demonstrate that the papacy is not just an executive. The pope is not followed around by a Swiss Guard with a nuclear football; he does not have to be alert and fully briefed at every moment. Popes reign. They rule only incidentally.

Speaking of Mother Teresa, I recently heard a homily by a priest who knew her slightly. In his presence, he said, another priest patted her on her head and said, "Mother, you are getting shorter every year!" To that she is said to have replied, "I become smaller, Father, so that I can better fit into the heart of Jesus."

Given a straight-line like that, someone else might have said, "I'm not getting smaller, Father. I just look smaller to you because every time I see you you are more full of it." She said no such thing, however. That's why she is up for sainthood.

* * *

An opinion piece appeared in yesterday's New York Times by the president of Iraq's Governing Council, Ilad Alawi. (The first name is "Ilad" online, but "Iyad" in the print edition.) The article, entitled America Must Let Iraq Rebuild Itself, makes a reasonable argument that Iraq's regular army and pre-war police should be recalled to duty. The officer corps of both must be vetted for Baathist sympathies and human rights violations, of course, but the rank-and-file can be counted on to devote their attention to keeping the peace. Such a move would relieve Coalition troops of most ground-level security duties, and would greatly enhance the legitimacy of the coming Iraqi government in the Arab world.

The fact that this proposal has appeared at all is perhaps more important than its specifics. When the Governing Council was organized, it was said that no one would take it seriously unless it publicly opposed the US occupation authority on some major issues. It has been doing that frequently, so much so that one wonders whether some of the disputes may have been exaggerated simply to demonstrate the Council's independence. This proposal to revive the army and police is just the biggest initiative to come from the Council so far.

And what of the merits? The Coalition dissolved the army and police for the excellent reason that it would not have been able to trust them. Moreover, institutions like the Iraqi army often have a debilitating effect on the political life of developing countries. They are not really militaries, but a combination of police force and political party. Such armies become the single largest interest group. They offer a measure of stability, but often at the expense of occupying political space that ought to be filled by civilian associations. Certainly the Iraqi Governing Council would have been a negligible institution, if the Coalition had kept the army in being and worked through a committee of anti-Baathist generals.

These things are a matter of degree, however. The plan had always been to recruit police and military officers from the institutions of the old regime. The question remains how much use can safely be made of the old institutions themselves. One suspects that the Governing Council will eventually get at least part of its wish, now that there is a core of personnel committed to the new order of things.

* * *

On a different but not wholly unconnected topic, we should be giving some thought to the likelihood that laser weapons could soon make the recent revolution in military affairs obsolete. Writing in The Oakland Tribune, Ian Hoffman points out in an article entitled Warfare at the speed of light that even today's superduper smart weapons are still bound by the limits of Newtonian ballistics. Not so the laser weapons now under development, which have passed beyond gas lasers to chemical combustion and now to solid state. Once deployed and married with computer guidance, they could clear the skies of everything from ballistic missiles to mortar shells. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is problematical. Hitting a bullet with a beam of light is not.

There are problems, of course. Lasers are fair-weather weapons. The chemical lasers closest to deployment, as air-to-air canon, sound a little like the steam-driven computers in The Difference Engine. Nonetheless, it is likely that they will turn warfare into something new by midcentury. Note that the evolution continues away from unconscionable mass destruction, and toward precision and ubiquity.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the current war, readers might want to compare two recent assessments of the next step.

I can't remember the last time I actually touched a copy of the The Village Voice. However, when I saw that its current issue had a picture of President Bush as a crusader on its cover, and not as a moron or a cowboy, I took the trouble to view the cover-story online. The piece is called Bush's War Plan Is Scarier Than He's Saying: The Widening Crusade, by Sydney H. Schanberg. He tells us in the first paragraph:

If some wishful Americans are still hoping President Bush will acknowledge that his imperial foreign policy has stumbled in Iraq and needs fixing or reining in, they should put aside those reveries. He's going all the way-and taking us with him.

Part of the reason I found this interesting was because it contrasted so strongly with a the opening paragraph of a recent analysis by Dr. George Friedman of Stratfor. His article, entitled "The Next Phase of the War," begins thus:

Washington is reformulating its war plans in Iraq -- something critics of the Bush administration might view as a sign of weakness. The real weakness lies not in that the United States is shifting strategies, but rather that it has taken so long to make adjustments. However, even with a new strategy, it is unclear whether the United States will succeed.

The important point is that these two views of what is going on are not essentially different. Friedman says that the Iraq War had two objectives:

1. Seizing the most strategic country in the region as a base of operations from which to mount follow-on operations against countries that collaborate or permit collaboration with al Qaeda.
2. Transforming the psychological perception of the United States in the Islamic world from a hated and impotent power to a hated but feared power.

Schanberg fleshes this out with the increasingly famous five-year, seven-nation to-do list that has supposedly been circulating in the Pentagon since 911, but his article makes the same point: It's All Part of a Big Plan. The difference is that he finds this shocking:

A five-year military campaign. Seven countries. How far has the White House taken this plan? And how long can the president keep the nation in the dark, emerging from his White House cocoon only to speak to us in slogans and the sterile language of pep rallies?

May I in turn express my surprise that people continue to say they have been surprised by the Bush Administration? The president has repeatedly said pretty much what he was going to do: just look at his State of the Union speech in 2002. For rhetorical purposes, the president's opponents have named him Liar. In fact, few presidents have been clearer about what they intend to do and why they intend to do it.

Please pay attention. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Glass Bead Game

I don't think this counts as a prediction, but there is an interesting parallel to subsequent events. John says:

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

After Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, John said that Pope Benedict is exactly the kind of man who would enjoy playing the Glass Bead Game. As it turns out, he is also exactly the kind of man who enjoys resigning from the Glass Bead Game.

Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game

By Hermann Hesse

German Original “Das Glasperlenspiel” (1943)

English Translation by Richard and Clara Winston (1969)

520 Pages; Approximately US$18.00

ISBN: 080501246X

Editions are available from Henry Holt and Bantam.

This book earned Hermann Hesse his Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. World War II had just ended then, so the novel's depiction of a debellicized future for Europe no doubt had special appeal in the German-speaking world. “The Glass Bead Game” is not an arbitrary Utopia, however. (The renderings of the title for some editions are arbitrary, unfortunately; sometimes it's “Magister Ludi” or the English equivalent, “The Master of the Game.”) What we have here is an example of speculative fiction that applies a humane gloss to the model of history in Oswald Spengler's “Decline of the West.” The result belongs to that small set of speculative futures that are both surprising and plausible.

Hermann Hesse was born in Germany, in 1877, where he achieved early success as a journalist and novelist. During the First World War he was an example of that modern conundrum, the pacifist activist. His career took off in 1919, when he published “Demian” and moved permanently to Switzerland. At his death in 1962, he was thought of as an esoteric and even somewhat obscure writer. Immediately afterward, however, his books gained wide popularity as guides to the path of spiritual enlightenment.

Because of the assimilation of his work by the Counter Culture of the 1960s, Hesse is often remembered, whether fairly or not, as the novelist of the truculent intellectual adolescent. This reputation is reflected in the four novels for which he became best known in the English-speaking world: “The Glass Bead Game,” “Siddhartha,” “Demian,” and “Steppenwolf.” The first three are Bildungsromane: novels about education and growing up. In all three, the protagonists eventually transcend cultural norms. The fourth is about a midlife crisis, but “Steppenwolf” deals, on the surface at least, with sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (well, with jazz; it was published in 1927). Perhaps for that reason, it has often served as the smart teenager's answer to “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The Counter Culture has long since become the middle-aged establishment, but Hesse's books still renew their readership. For one thing, they are informed by a Jungian interpretation of Chinese and Indian mysticism, features which are all perennial favorites for several audiences. Hesse's Spenglerian view of history fell out of fashion after the middle 20th century, but that does not seem to have hindered the reception of his books. Quite the opposite, in fact: without familiarity with Spengler, “The Glass Bead Game” in particular seems even more original and mysterious. I might also mention that Hesse's German is very accessible, and it translates well into English.

The text does not say just when the story takes place. However, Hesse let it be known that the principal narrator is supposed to be writing around the beginning of the 25th century, about a person who had lived long enough ago for legends about him to spring up. The action, then, is probably in the early 2300s. We learn pieces of the historical background, which we will discuss below, but part of the book's purpose is to depict an era that is anti-historical, or post-historical. Indeed, the book is largely devoid of the sort of things that novels set in the future often emphasize. We are told there are radios, telephones, ground cars, and trains: so much for technology. It is clear that a “Century of Wars” lies in the past, but the usual term for what we call modernity is the Age of the Feuilleton, of trivial and occasional literature. There are different states, or at any rate countries, which have parallel cultural and educational institutions. We learn almost nothing about the state of the world, except that Europe is extremely peaceful and has been so for longer than living memory.

“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.

All this is expounded through long talks and little incident (there is one stinging memorandum). At school, Knecht is assigned to defend the educational system against a schoolmate named Plinio Designori (there are many Italian names in this book) who later facilitates his departure from his exalted status. Knecht receives precocious promotions. Knecht's mentor turns out to be a saint. Aside from Knecht's resignation, the most dramatic episode is a long stay in a Benedictine monastery. There Knecht is instructed in the neglected subject of world history by wise old Father Jacobus, whom critics say is supposed to represent the great Swiss historian, Jacob Burkhardt. (The most annoying character is a neurasthenic named Tegularius, who represents Friedrich Nietzsche.) There is just one, very minor, female character: Designori's wife. Knecht dies of heart failure on his first day as tutor to Designori's son, thereby giving the sulky good-for-nothing something to live up to. The conversations are really interesting.

One should note that the life of Joseph Knecht in “The Glass Bead Game” was planned as just one of a number of lives of the same man; Hesse had at first envisioned an anthology of incarnations, from the prehistoric past to the distant future. In the course of composition, however, the bulk of the book became a hagiography of the famous and infamous Magister Ludi. Just three other incarnations survive as appended stories, supposedly as examples of the school exercises the students of Knecht's time are assigned to develop the historical imagination. They deal with the life of an ancient shaman, a Desert Father, and a hard-luck Indian raja.

Hesse renders the Glass Bead Game of the title absolutely believable by not describing it in detail. We are never told just what a match consists of. Some early prototype of the Game used actual glass beads. The great annual Game matches are followed as closely and widely as international soccer (the latter isn't mentioned in the book, by the way). Those matches use some unspecified projection equipment. Calligraphy enters into it. So does music. On the other hand, people can and do play by themselves.

The Game seems to be about spotting and extending homologies in the phenomena of nature and in cultural history. The notes of a musical scale, for instance, can conform to the arrangement of the elements in the Periodic Table, or the growth pattern of a plant can conform to the expansion and leveling off of an animal population. Organic growth in general can be shown to have something in common with the efflorescence and exhaustion of an artistic style. Aquinas called these commonalities “intelligible elements”; Leibnitz actually tried to create a numerical language that could express them and even generate them. Hesse posits that some such project eventually succeeds and becomes institutionalized. The Game players seek to express all the phenomena of history and science in the Game language. An international authority oversees additions to the form and subject matter.

All in all, the Game sounds like a competitive jazz of literary and scientific allusions. It serves as an outlet among the finest minds for the creativity that in prior eras would have found expression in art. It is more than a mere trial of mental dexterity, however, because it contains a strong component of meditation. Indeed, many people pursue it as a path to spiritual enlightenment, as a way to perceive Being behind the shimmering veil of thought. The Game simply makes the veil visible, however; it is no business of the Game to suggest what may lie behind the veil.

The hints we get about the Game make it sound more than a little like the “I Qing,” the famous Chinese book of divination. However, Hesse goes out of his way to dispel any implication that they might be equivalent. One Sinicizing teacher of Knecht says this to his suggestion that a Game might be based on the “I Qing”:

“Anyone can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world into his grove.”

As Magister Ludi, Joseph Knecht presides over the Game center at Waldzell, which is located in an unnamed German-speaking country. The Magister Ludi is just one of the dozen Magisters of the national Board of Educators, however. There is also a “Magister Mathematicae,” for instance, and a “Magister Musicae,” and so on. The primary duty of the Magisters is to oversee the teaching of their subjects in the elite schools. The Magisters as a group oversee Castalia, the “province” (it is never clear to what extent the characterization is geographical or administrative) of all disciplines.

The students in the system of elite schools, all boys, are recruited as children. They normally serve as teachers, researchers or Game players for life. The Order to which they belong, in fact, holds them to a life of comfortable poverty and bachelorhood; to judge by this book, that also means celibacy after their student years. The people call them “Mandarins,” with some reason. Unlike the Mandarins of traditional China, however, their power does not extend beyond pedagogy.

There are also ordinary schools, up through the university level, which prepare their students for the practical professions. Castalia provides many of the teachers for the public system, but the Magisters do not control it. Castalia is wholly dependent on public funding. The Magisters even spend a fair amount of time lobbying.

It is a measure of the distance that the West has traveled by the Age of Castalia that the 20th century idea of biography has become a historical curiosity. The narrator of Knecht's life puts it this way:

“[F]or the writers of those days who had a distinct taste for biography, the essence of a personality seems to have been deviance…We moderns, on the other hand, do not even speak of major personalities until we encounter men who have gone beyond all original and idiosyncratic qualities to achieve the greatest possible integration into the generalities.”

In the age of Castalia, the West has again become a Traditional society, in the special sense of “tradition” coined by René Guénon. Though he does not say this, Hesse seems to have tried to map out a trajectory for the West like that of China after the Sung Dynasty. After several centuries of dramatic growth, chaos, and experimentation, Chinese culture turned toward consolidation under the banner of Neo-Confucianism. Like the Glass Bead Game, that philosophy is as comprehensive as it is final. However, Hesse is at pains to emphasize that a comparable transition in the West need not produce an alien world, much less the fascist outcome that some followers of Tradition favor. In the Age of Castalia, there are still political parties, elections, and newspapers. Nonetheless, the creativity of the modern era is over, as well as its violence and instability.

The Age of Castalia understands the prior thousand years in this way. Two trends had been in play since the end of the Middle Ages. One was the liberation of thought from authority, particularly from the Church of Rome. The other was the “covert but passionate search” for legitimacy for this freedom, for a new and sufficient authority arising from reason itself. The result was disaster, followed by recovery:

“[T]hey were already on the verge of that dreadful devaluation of the Word which produced, at first in secret and within the narrowest circles, that ascetically heroic countermovement which soon afterward began to flow visibly and powerfully, and ushered in the new self-discipline and dignity of the human intellect.”

The reformation of the life of the mind began, clandestinely at first, even in the 20th century. This was done under the impetus of musicologists and of the loosely organized religious movement called the Journeyers to the East (a reference to Hesse's novel of similar name, published in 1932).

After the crisis of civilization, intellectual life became monastic. People understood that their culture was no longer creative, but they also understood that there were still worthy goals to pursue. There was still the work of pious preservation, of systematization and sympathetic critique. The liberal arts began to aspire to the rigor of engineering. The Glass Bead Game was just part of a general turn toward synthesis.

By Knecht's time, no one is much impressed by Enlightenment philosophy anymore. Kant is little known, while the High Scholastics are part of the regular curriculum. On the other hand, everyone is familiar with the music of the 18th century. That's the only reason they think the 18th century is important. As Spengler predicted, the controversies of the modern era have become literally incomprehensible. A Castalian refers to a long-defunct economist sect, for instance, that is probably supposed to be Marxism, but it's hard to tell; the ideology is just too alien to mean anything to him.

Knecht's society is by no means a theocracy, but neither is it secular in the modern sense. This is, no doubt, a nod to another of Spengler's prophecies: the “Second Religiousness.” The Vatican, based on its moral authority, is again a force in culture and in world politics. (Knecht spends that time at the monastery to help Castalia negotiate an agreement to send an ambassador to the Holy See.) Protestantism has died out. However, historians within the Church remember Protestantism rather fondly. As Father Jacobus puts it: “They were unable to preserve religion and the Church, but at times they displayed a great deal of courage and produced some exemplary men.”

One might think that all this hierarchy and authority would provoke a backlash, but no. The elite schools and the hierarchy of Castalia are tolerable precisely because society is not going anyplace. The qualities of a great musician, for instance, are said to be “enthusiasm, subordination, reverence, worshipful service.” Maybe only superior people have those qualities, but their superiority does not include the sort of genius that demands attention for its novelty. The Magisters do not conceive avant-garde ideas and expect people to follow. The hierarchy is the embodiment of a consensus by which the hierarchs themselves are the most strictly bound.

However, though history may have ended, time has not stopped. In preparation for his resignation, Knecht warns the other Magisters, “The world is once again about to shift its center of gravity.” Ominous but unnamed developments in the Orient threaten not just peace, but life and liberty. Serious rearmament could be just a generation or two away. When that happens, Castalia may seem an over-expensive luxury, unless its spirit can be communicated to society as a whole.

The Order is not impressed:

“In the view of the majority, the calm that descended upon our Continent must be ascribed partly to the general prostration following the bloodlettings of the terrible wars, but far more to the fact that the Occident has ceased to be the focal point of world history in which claims to hegemony are fought out.”

Oddly for men who must convince their government every year of the indispensability of their institution, the Magisters also have little patience with Knecht's argument that the calm and sanity of Castalia has itself been a force for peace. Instead, the Magisters reply that Castalia, and indeed the life of the mind, are not historical factors:

“Rather, culture or mind, or soul, has its own independent history – a second, bloodless, and sanctified history – running parallel to what is generally called history.”

Knecht does not resign as Magister in order to sell war bonds. The short explanation for his departure from Castalia is that he had exhausted his own capabilities. There was nothing left for him but the “eternal recurrence” of routine. More important, though, was the characteristic way in which he fulfilled his destiny as a servant. Like St. Christopher, he possessed “a self-reliance which by no means debarred him or hampered him serving, but demanded of him that he serve the highest master.” Because of his introduction to history, he understands that the Glass Bead Game is not the final truth. The Game, too, will prove to be ephemeral:

“Yes, Castalia and the Glass Bead Game are wonderful things; they come close to being perfect. Only perhaps they are too much so, too beautiful. They are so beautiful that one can scarcely contemplate them without fearing for them.”

“The Glass Bead Game” is the story of the progressive “awakenings” in Knecht's life. He comes to realize that these gates through which he passes do not lead to any inner sanctum. Rather, they are awakenings to the reality of each new situation. The same can be said for the progress of the spirit in history. The lack of linearity, however, does not imply a lack of exigency:

“In history, too, moments of tribulation or great upheavals have their element of convincing necessity; they create a sense of irresistible immediacy and tension. Whatever the consequence of such upheavals, be it beauty and clarity or savagery and darkness, whatever happens will bear the semblance of grandeur, necessity and importance and will stand out as utterly different from everyday events.”

In some ways, “The Glass Bead Game” represents the road that Spengler did not take. At one point in the 1920s, Spengler replied to the charge that “The Decline of the West” advocated nothing but pessimism and despair with the assertion he could fittingly have called the book “The Fulfillment of the West” or the “Perfection of the West.” His thesis, after all, was that the West may have exhausted its creative potential, but that modernity was the age in which it would fashion the final forms of Western Civilization in art, science, politics and religion. His model of history was quite consistent with a future that was humane, peaceful, and orderly. Sadly, he was distracted from pursuing this insight by Nietzsche's nihilism and the sour politics of the Conservative Revolution. More and more, he foresaw a Faustian future of disaster and tyranny.

In “The Glass Bead Game,” however, Hesse took the hint. The most intriguing story in the book deals with the final stage in the life of Knecht's old mentor, the Magister Musicae:

“He certainly does not seem to me to be close to his life's end, but his way of taking leave of the world is unique…[I]t is as if he has been on his way elsewhere for some time, and no longer lives entirely among us…
[H]is cheerfulness, his curious radiance…While his strength is diminishing, that serene cheerfulness is constantly increasing.”

Many legends later grew up about the Transfiguration of the Magister Musicae, we are told. The interesting point is that the episode seems to relate Spengler's prediction of the Second Religiousness to the palpable aura of eternity said to surround some living saints. Knecht remarks:

“Even though whole peoples and languages have attempted to fathom the depths of the universe in myths, cosmologies, and religions, their supreme, their ultimate attainment has been this cheerfulness.”

The old Magister, however, was not just any kind of saint, but a specifically Castalian saint. The sanctity he manifested was intrinsic to the Game, which is the final form of the spirit of the West:

“With us scholarship, which is the cult of truth, is chiefly allied also with the cult of the beautiful, and also with the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation. Consequently it can never entirely lose its supreme cheerfulness.”

Good Spenglerians (among whom we must number Spengler himself) tend to imagine the final stage in the life of the West as a heroic last stand, perhaps lasting centuries but ending in defeat. Evil Spenglerians, not a trivial class, hope for conquest and domination. Hesse's book hints at the possibility that the same insights into historical morphology might be put to quite a different use. Is the world ready for holy Spenglerians? Maybe someday.

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-04-12: The World United

John's rather broad take on the Enlightenment makes me think of Pope Francis, and Pope Emeritus Benedict. Pope Francis' recent trip to America has been a huge success. From the very first, Francis' style has won over nearly everyone. You cannot find a better example of this than the way in which Francis laughed in obvious delight when he saw a baby dressed as the Pope in Philadelphia.

Francis Laughs

Francis Laughs

Poor misunderstood Benedict never had this kind of press. Partly, this is due to very real personality differences between the two men. But it is also due to the way in which portraying each man in a certain way fit the narrative. Inconvenient acts or statements by either man tend to fall down the memory hole. For example, who now remembers when Pope Benedict installed solar panels on the Vatican, or when he praised environmental values and criticized capitalism in an encyclical? Contrariwise, who remembers when Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio compared a bill before the Argentine Senate regarding gay marriage to a work of the Father of Lies?

Activists on each side remember these things, but the general public neither knows nor cares. Yet, each man in his own way is working on the same project of human betterment, often doing and saying things that are indistinguishable. In fact, their differences only make sense in a certain shared context, that of the Enlightenment. As John said:

Left and Right, Progressive and Traditional, Liberal and Conservative, all these are oppositions that began with the Enlightenment and are meaningful only within it.

This shared set of assumptions is precisely what unites Francis and Benedict. Each man naturally appeals to slightly different strains of thought within the Enlightenment, but neither would be comprehensible without its shared set of assumptions. Eventually, modernity will come to an end, and something fresh and new will take its place. In time, that new point of view will make it difficult to distinguish exactly why Francis was popular in a way that Benedict never was [although in truth, Benedict was pretty popular, despite his press].

The World United
No less a person than Jane Fonda is now on record with the fear that "the entire world" will unite against the United States in the wake of the Iraq War. That would be good material for a humor column, but people who should know better have had thoughts along the same lines. Indeed, some of these thoughts substitute "hope" for "fear."
Consider the column by Matthew Parris in the London Times: It's Time We All Signed up for the Rest of the World Team. Though he does not touch on the merits of the Iraq War, he does go on at some length about American hubris and the need for the United Kingdom to return to the eastern side of the Atlantic. The gist of the argument is this:
"[T]hose nations that do not choose to take Washington's whip are going to need to coordinate their positions and keep in touch. The balance of power needs rebalancing. For want of a better term, I shall call the grouping of which Russia, Germany and France now form a putative core, the Rest of the World."
I don't want to beat a horse that was born dead, but I must point out that what we have here is a proposal for an Anarchist Union. If the world were capable of uniting, the US would not have had to conduct the Iraq War almost alone. (Giving due regard to the substantial contributions of the UK, Australia, and the other Coalition members, the war would not have happened if the US had not wanted it to happen.) Without rehashing the whole issue, it seems to me that any serious international system would have taken care of Iraq, and North Korea, long before now, even for human rights issues alone. War would probably not have been necessary; such a system would be able to impose sanctions that mean something. Such a system would also require a redefinition of sovereignty even more radical than that implicit in the European Union. The most uppity American acts would be far less irksome.
Whether or not the US was right about Iraq, the US acted precisely because the Rest of the World did not act. The institutions that purport to represent The Rest of the World worked to make collective action incoherent. Toothless Security Council resolutions, phony inspections, a porous sanctions regime that the "core of the Rest of the World" wanted dismantled anyway: the UN did nothing, and took 12 years to do it. The US believed that, finally, something real had to be done. Now we are asked to suppose that a new League of Nations will be formed to ensure that nothing is ever done again. I would not bet on it.
* * *
Let us count the quagmires. Soon after 911, there was the Afghanistan Quagmire. Then there was the Diplomatic Quagmire. Then there was the Desert Stalingrad Quagmire. We are in the waning hours of the Looters' Quagmire. Presently, we will be hip-deep in the Iraqi Internal Politics Quagmire. If we have learned nothing else in the past two years, we have learned that wetlands are drainable.
* * *
There is a critique of the Iraq War which goes far beyond issues of mere power and legitimacy. People who think that no use of force is legitimate without a UN stamp are still playing in the same intellectual ballpark as the neoconservatives. The dispute is really about how the goals of the Enlightenment can be best achieved; the proponents of the Rest of the World say merely that America is the wrong agent, implementing the wrong policies.
This is far from the only way to look at the question. One could also argue that America is the finest flower and avatar of the Enlightenment, and its activities in the world promote the Enlightenment most perfectly. According to a a Dr. John Rao, writing in Seattle Catholic, that is precisely what damns the Iraq War:
Orthodox Catholicism is what it says it is, and fails only in so far as people do not live up to its message. We are now witnessing the complete victory of a message that has never been what it says that it is, and becomes even more of a lie when people do live up to its potential for evil...These are not failures to live up to American Pluralist conceptions. This is what the American Regime, one of several socio-political by-products of revolutionary Enlightenment concepts, inevitably encourages.
As I have argued previously, the Enlightenment is a bit above our likes and dislikes. Everything that came after it was tinged by it: Left and Right were created at the same time in the 18th century. This is also true of Orthodox Catholicism in the 21st century. John Paul II is a man of the Enlightenment. He is comfortable with the fact, because he understands that there is more than one Enlightenment. The modern era is fragmented, but it is not essentially anti-religious or antinomian. Moreover, its program of human betterment can be considered nothing other than a Christian project, even if sometimes carried out in other terms.
At any rate, this is what the Enlightenment has meant in America. Michael Novak's essay in the April First Things, The Faith of the Founding, puts some welcome daylight between the actual "American Regime" and the recent jaundiced assessments of the whole Whig Tradition as an exercise in wiley anti-theism. All of this is not to suggest that the Enlightenment inaugurated the millennium, or that the United States is the Lord's anointed. What I am saying is that the Enlightenment is what we have. America is what we have. Any great good that is to be done in the current era will involve these two.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Religion

I wasn't a Catholic when I first started reading John's website. He is probably partly to blame for how I turned out, along with G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Fr. John Neuhaus. Which is just as well, since none of these men are around to defend themselves any longer. John had a theological bent that showed in all of his writing. I was intrigued, and it led me on.

John's take on papal encyclicals, and the papacy itself was particularly formative. The Anglo-Saxon parts of Europe and their overseas progeny are currently ascendant, and we are right to see those individualistic cultures as uniquely successful, and as the birthplace of the political notions that currently dominate the world. However, it is worth remembering that space was opened in Western Civilization for liberty when a Pope forced an Emperor to kneel in the snow. I have come to see this as one of the defining features of Western Civilization, and also how Western Christianity differs from Eastern. The space that opened up between Church and State allowed for more real freedom than anyone had ever had, and also served as the first example of the principle of checks and balances that American democracy embraces.

John saw the Papacy as a unique institution in the world, one tied up with the fate of the West. It is also the nucleus of something greater, as the oldest transnational institution. The Bishop of Rome has variously been "a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The Pope may not have many divisions, but the Holy See bulks large in international politics. If a system of world governance crystallizes, the Holy See will be a part of it. This is why people who aren't Catholic care so much about who is Pope. They rightly surmise that much is at stake. On a personal level, John was a fan of Benedict the XVI as well. John understood him better than most. I don't think John would have been surprised by Benedict's resignation. John always saw him as an unwilling pope who accepted elevation out of obedience, when he would have much rather gone back to live a life of writing, prayer, and meditation. I am sad that John didn't live to see Pope Francis. I would rather have enjoyed his commentary. Ah well. Perhaps we'll catch up someday.


I am what is known as an "orthodox" Roman Catholic. This means that, while my views are conservative, I do not think I am any more Catholic than the Pope. This is an important point

Readers who have looked under the other headings of this Web site will have noticed a certain theological twist in everything I write. Here are some pieces that deal directly with religious questions. Just click on the underlined words:


The Reformation: A History [Diarmaid MacCulloch on one of God's Great Mistakes.] The Interior Castle [Saint Teresa of Avila describes the best case.]  


Revelation of the Magi [Brent Landau's translation and commentary of an ancient Syriac text that is not quite the Party Line.] Findings [Charles Upton chronicles the decay of Traditionalism in the latter Kali Yuga.] The Red Book [Carl Gustav Jung's psyche in illuminated color, also called Liber Novus.]


  American Babylon [Father Richard John Neuhaus's last book was on politics in the light of the eschaton.]


  Earthly Powers [Michael Burleigh on "The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War."] Eschatology [Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) on Death, Eternal Life, and the End of the World.]


  Spe Salvi [A review of Benedict XVI's second encyclical, Saved by Hope. The document is really about the idea of progress.] Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion [David Gelernter assures Americans that they are not as other men.]

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site