15 February 2019

Fei and Berdyaev contra Dreher


Reading Rod Dreher’s repeated attempts to talk himself into supporting Trump in the upcoming presidential election and re-coining the phrasing of ‘cultural socialism’ as a thing to describe features of hypermodernity which he doesn’t like, I really don’t have much better a riposte to make than that already made by Alan Jacobs at Snakes and Ladders.
[T]he strategies that Christians and conservatives and, in general non-socialists used to survive under Soviet-sponsored socialism are likely to become immensely relevant to many American Christians and conservatives in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean that what we’re battling against is a form of socialism, cultural or otherwise. I would argue rather that it’s the ultimate extension of the free market — a kind of metaphysical capitalism.
I think Jacobs is absolutely correct here about what we might call ‘the nature of the beast’, and you don’t have to look far to find where I agree on that. It’s worse than obfuscation to deliberately mislabel a cultural phenomenon like ‘woke neoliberalism’ (or ‘woke capitalism’ or ‘metaphysical capitalism’) as any kind of socialism, a term which refers to a principle of œconomic organisation, despite some socialists perhaps being attracted to it. But here’s the thing. If you want to understand why socialism has such a strong appeal among young people, including to myself, one has to look honestly at the history of conservative thought and praxis in the Old World.

A case in point – and one which Dreher might appreciate: Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, who has been one of my intellectual heroes since I first picked up From the Soil. Fei Xiaotong is most famous for his defences of the peasantry and of sociology in China, for the latter of which he was branded a ‘rightist’ and subject to the brutal excesses of the Cultural Revolution – he was stripped of his academic credentials and forced to clean toilets throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The degree to which Fei actually was a rightist is a matter of some debate. In his early years, he was given to no particular political worldview unless it was a mild form of conservative Chinese patriotism – and even that was tempered by a certain cosmopolitan sensibility engendered by his education in Christian schools. Indeed, his conservatism was more of a gentle, English reformism – he modelled his intellectual course after the Russian white émigré Sergei Shirokogoroff as well as the Polish-British functionalist sociologist Bronisław Malinowski. He militated strongly against both Marxist and Whiggish forms of developmentalism, and sought to understand the institutions of indigenous, rural and agrarian societies instead on their own terms. After his visit to America, this understanding manifested itself as a kind of ‘reactionary’ tendency that led him to briefly embrace Spengler – he retreated into a critical embrace of Chinese family life and the independence of familial bonds from the state.

Fei Xiaotong, like poet and fellow Anglophile Wen Yiduo 聞一多, embraced left-wing politics fairly late in the day, and that largely in response to the corrupt, brutal, callous and authoritarian right-wing rule of the Chinese Nationalists (Guomindang 國民黨). It is really necessary to understand how hated the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 had made themselves in the 1930s and 1940s with their internal policies. Flush with American aid money, their grandees lived in luxury while peasants starved to death by the millions or were shot and bayonetted by the Japanese, against whom they fought a war that was characterised by their total lack of concern for Chinese livelihoods in bello. The Communists under Mao Zedong 毛澤東 managed to attract to themselves a great deal of sympathy by the fact that they promised to undertake the reforms that the Nationalists wouldn’t – in effect, they won by capitalising, violently, on the promises made by the father of the Nationalist Party, Sun Zhongshan 孫中山.

Fei had never been a particular fan of the Communists, or of Marxism. But, as Arkush describes, starting in the 1940s he was led more and more to embrace explicitly left-wing and socialist political positions because he was able to see, at the ground level, the impoverishing and demoralising effects Nationalist political repression, Nationalist concentration of wealth and Nationalist corruption had on peasant family life:
Fei probably only became really interested in politics during the war, in 1943 or so. As a boy and in college, he had been unconcerned with such things. He later mentioned a ‘radical atmosphere’ at the London School of Economics, but there is no indication he was caught up in it. In Peasant Life, written in 1938, he fleetingly criticised the government for its inability to carry out practical rural reforms because of spending so much money on anti-Communist campaigns, but he also suggested that political issues were unimportant, the result of mere factual misunderstandings which would be dispelled by books such as his about ‘actual conditions’. Similarly, in his articles on rural policy written during the early war years, he offered suggestions to the government, but his criticisms were mild and the tone calm.

A little later, just before and during his trip to the United States, Fei seems to have become more concerned over the Nationalist Government’s behaviour. In April 1942, he signed with eight others a long statement protesting the harmful effects of inflation, and proposing government controls and heavy taxes on the rich… Finally, his articles from the United States praising the American war effort implicitly threw Chinese wartime policies into a bad light. In the preface to the first collection of these, dated October 1944, Fei’s disgust with the Nationalists’ corruption and demoralisation was explicit and bitter:
One thing is the same in each article, and that is that I was taking the United States as a mirror to ourselves… In their society the distance between rich and poor is decreasing because of the war, with us it is increasing daily. In order to win the war they have devoted half their citizens’ total income to military expenses, with us it is probably less than one tenth and most of the nation’s wealth is locked in foreign banks. Their sons all do military service without regard to rich or poor, high or low; we have a special class which enjoys honour without the responsibility of protecting the country. They go without coffee and meat at home so that the front lines won’t lack these; with us the rear consumes ceaselessly and frontline soldiers die on the road. The sons of their leaders are first in the line of fire; the relatives of our important people use foreign exchange to travel abroad. I need not give further examples of the difference between the two. I just want to ask, how can we be this way—are we richer, stronger, less afraid of national extinction, more shameless? What can I say?
Amazingly, the exact same criticisms that the elected ‘socialists’ in our day – Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and others – are making about our social order, come not from Marxist principles but from the same observations that the temperamentally-conservative Fei Xiaotong was making in his day about his own country. They see a growing wealth gap; they seek to lessen it. They see capital flight; they seek to stop it. They see poor and indebted young people fighting and dying in endless wars which seem to have no point; they seek various means to end those. They see a political class immune from the consequences of its evil actions; they seek to hold it accountable. I do not share the cultural priorities of these elected officials, but I also have to acknowledge that they do not seek violent or destructive means of accomplishing these goals, but work within the legal confines of our established political system.

The end result in China, of course, was not that the Nationalists changed direction and backed down. Bending an ear to those who held that the reformers were really just Communists in disguise, the Nationalist leadership cracked down on the critical reformists and gunned down the Christian activist Li Gongpu 李公樸 and the aforementioned Wen Yiduo in cold blood on the streets of Kunming. (They had made plans to assassinate Fei Xiaotong as well, but he had fled with his family and several other reformist intellectuals to the American consulate in Kunming.) Arguably, with those and similar actions around the country, they practically handed the moral high ground over to the violent revolutionaries under Mao Zedong, and forfeited the sympathy not only of the peasantry but of the critical intelligentsia whose support they required to rule. The Nationalists had pushed Fei Xiaotong from being an apolitical sociologist with certain ‘reactionary’ sympathies hard to the left by virtue of their brutality – and he was by no means alone. Again, Arkush:
To say he [Fei] was an implacable foe of the Nationalists is not to say he was really close to the Communists in his political views. As late as 1947, he was still writing longingly about Anglo-American democracy and constitutionalism, freedom of the press and rule of law, and the peaceful democratic socialist revolution of postwar England. These political values kept him somewhat aloof from the Communists in the 1940s and were to cause friction between him and them in the 1950s. Yet, a few people who were students at the time have told me of being radicalised by Fei’s articles in the late 1940s, and it seems not unlikely that many young readers must have been encouraged to join cause with the revolution by the persuasive and popular writings of this calm and reasonable scholar about rural distress, Guomindang oppression, American international capitalist exploitation and minzhu 民主 (democracy). The disaffection of intellectuals from the Nationalist Government was a significant factor in the eventual success of the Chinese revolution, and it is worth a close look to see the process by which one so little inclined to radicalism as Fei Xiaotong came to support it.
Dreher’s book promises to be an anthology of voices from white émigrés who lived under communism and fled it, and seek to warn us of its consequences, and these voices are well worth listening to. But it strikes me that he could stand to read more carefully the experiences of not only Fei Xiaotong but also Nikolai Berdyaev and his own impressions of the Soviet revolution as he lived through it. Berdyaev, along with the rest of the Vekhi circle, bitterly opposed the revolutionaries of 1905 – it goes without saying that he was no Bolshevik and had no love for them. But as his book on The Russian Revolution written some time later made clear, he understood the 1917 revolution within its historical context in a Dickensian way, as the judgement of God upon a society which could not and would not listen to those of its members who urged timely and necessary reform within the existing rule of law. ‘Revolutions are a payment of the debts of the past.

It therefore strikes me that if we want to avoid a violent revolution of our own – and believe me, I want to avoid a violent revolution if at all possible – then we need to start paying down those debts now. It should not be the case, but the elected ‘democratic socialists’ are the only ones right now promising to do just that. With a very few honourable exceptions on the right (such as, off the top of my head, Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee) literally nobody else seems willing or able to push back on the problems of endless war; imperial overreach; a hollowed-out œconomy; a rapidly-warming planet; mountainous consumer debt; a widening wealth gap; and a callous, greedy, hubristic political class on autopilot.

Holy Bishop Sigefrið of Växjö, Enlightener of the Swedes, and Priestmartyr Unaman with his two brethren Winaman and Sunaman


Our father among the saints Sigefrið of Växjö

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the feast of the English apostle to Sweden, Saint Sigefrið of Växjö, who built upon the wracked foundation that had been laid in that land by the bold missionary Ansgar of Bremen over a century before. Sadly, documents pertaining to this great missionary saint are lacking; most of York’s written records of its holy men were destroyed in 1069 during the Harrowing of the North by the invading Normans.

Sigefrið, an Englishman according to the tradition born in Glastonbury, was baptised by the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury Ælfhéah and ordained a priest – later a bishop. At some point he was transferred to York, where he laboured for several years. One of Sweden’s kings, again by tradition named Olof – probably Olof Skötkonung, ruler of Svealand and Götland – made appeals to the English to send missionaries among his people to convert them to Christianity. By the time of Sigefrið’s priesthood, northern England – including York – had been retaken from the Danelaw by Eadred King of Wessex, who thus united England under his rule. It is therefore entirely reasonable that the king of England at the time, Æþelræd Unræd, should have chosen a Yorkshire priest with a knowledge of Danish customs to undertake the mission to Sweden.

Bishop Sigefrið sent out across the North Sea and landed in Norway. It is very likely that Sigefrið was in contact with the Church at Bremen with regard to his missionary work: Bishop Sigefrið had entrusted Osmund, who was part of his mission, to the care of the Church at Bremen on his voyage to Norway. Church politics seems to have taken up some years of his life – for some reason, apparently Olof Skötkonung soured on the idea of having an English mission in his country and forbade Bishop Sigefrið from entering the country. Instead he appealed to Bremen to replace him while Saint Sigefrið worked among the Norwegians.

Eventually, however, Saint Sigefrið did make his way eastward into Götland, and found himself at the small town of Växjö which once had been under the sway of Olof Skötkonung, and which was a holy place among the heathen and which housed a hof for animal sacrifices. There, in the midst of the heathens’ holy ground, at great plight to himself he righted a rood and built a wooden stave-kirk around it; he held the Divine Liturgy therein and preached the Gospel to the folk of Växjö – at first with the help of local interpreters. As Christ gathered to himself twelve apostles, so too did the saintly Sigefrið win over the twelve tribal elders of Växjö, to whom he entrusted his work. One of these died, and was given a Christian burial with a cross upon his grave.

Bishop Sigefrið laboured long and hard in the heathen land of the Geats. Unlike Saint Ansgar, whose hard work before him had not borne fruit in his own lifetime, Sigefrið was rewarded by the Lord with seeing the fruits of both his work and that of his Frankish forerunner blossom and ripen before his eyes. Many Geats and Swedes were drawn to the hof at Växjö, where now there was a holy spring and fountain for baptism. Having appointed successors, Bishop Sigefrið could undertake journeys around Sweden, visiting Uppsala (which was ‘not far’ from Birka, the site where Saint Ansgar had carried out his first mission, and which still had a small group of Christians living there) and Strängnäs, founding churches and ordaining priests there.

Saint Sigefrið had entrusted the care of Växjö to a priest who was also his nephew, yclept Unaman. Heathens attacked the church at Växjö while Sigefrið was away, stole away the ornaments for plunder, and beheaded the Priestmartyr Unaman and his two brethren, Sunaman and Winaman, therein. The banes of Father Unaman hid the heads of the three witnesses in a chest and threw it into the lake nearby. When Sigefrið returned, he set at once to work rebuilding the kirk, and bade that the chest be retrieved. So it was, by the help of God, for a light shone over the spot in the lake where the chest had been thrown. He translated the relics of the slain priest and his two brothers into the kirk at Växjö, where they remained until the Reformation had them removed.

The murderers of Priestmartyr Unaman and his brothers were caught and bound, brought before the irate Swedish king, who wanted their blood. Saint Sigefrið, however, intervened on their behalf and begged that their lives be spared. The king therefore sought weregild for the three men from them, to be bestowed upon Sigefrið. However, although both man and parish were armly and in great want, the selfless saint would not take any part of the weregild for Father Unaman and his kin.

Sigefrið continued in his tireless labours for the rest of his life, and reposed and was buried in Växjö. His relics were placed in high honour in the kirk there, where they worked a great many wonders. The Western Church acknowledged Sigefrið as a saint in 1155. Holy Father Sigefrið, pray unto Christ our God to save us!
For thy patience and zeal, O holy bishop Sigefrið,
Thou hast earned a great reward from Christ our God;
For having laboured continually in the vineyard of His Church,
Thou hast been granted to dwell in the garden of paradise for all eternity.
Wherefore, beseech Him without ceasing,
That the land of the North behold His salvation,
And that our souls be saved.

14 February 2019

Matushka Olga, the Theotokos and the ‘stolen sisters’


Today was the the annual march, hosted by the Minnesota American Indian Centre here in the Twin Cities, that was meant to draw attention to the nationwide plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. This is a crisis that is affecting indigenous women, not just nationally, but in our own state, on and off the reservations. Indigenous women are ten times as likely as women of other ethnic groups to be murdered, and multiple times more likely to be victims of sexual violence or human trafficking. The statistics are staggering. An overwhelming 85% of indigenous women have suffered from violence at one point in their lives. In 2016, 5,711 indigenous women in the United States were reported missing – in 2017, 5,646 more ‘disappearances’ were reported. In most cases, this happens because law enforcement (i.e., the FBI) does very little to help indigenous communities, or passes the buck to tribal authorities which don’t have the resources to pursue investigations thoroughly, and which very often aren’t even notified of missing-persons cases in their jurisdictions!

The heartbreaking plight of indigenous women in the United States – the violence and the cruelty that they face on an everyday basis – was something I was only vaguely aware of before coming to the march itself. The photos and names of the ‘stolen sisters’ at the march spoke volumes. I have spoken up before on this blog on the need for Orthodox Christians, not only to become aware of and to embrace our historical legacy of indigenous solidarity and culturally-sensitive social evangelism on the ‘Irkutsk model’, but to listen attentively to indigenous persons and communities themselves as part of that same social witness – because they have often witnessed better than we have to the labour truth and the community truth that were implicit to the very life and ministry of our Lord.

We of the Orthodox Christian communities in North America need to pay particular attention to the life and example of one of our local saints, Mother Olga Arrsamsuq (Michael) of Alaska. A slightly-built Yup’ik woman of Kwethluk, Alaska, she was placed in an arranged marriage from an early age with a local post-worker and general-store owner named Nikolai O Michael. The first years of her marriage to Nikolai were difficult – they did not communicate with each other very well, and Nikolai was often out of the house on business. However, Olga bore thirteen children in her marriage, of whom eight survived to adulthood; these children she raised largely on her own. She became known as a skilled midwife, and assisted many of her fellow Yup’ik in giving birth to their own children – she was even able to tell if a woman was pregnant during her first month. Eventually, Nikolai himself became interested in the Church and became tonsured as a reader; from this point it seemed their marriage improved. Eventually Nikolai was ordained to the priesthood, and Olga took readily to the duties of being a matushka, ever hospitable and understanding to those who came to their door in need. She herself sewed Father Nikolai’s vestments that he used in Liturgy, and also baked prosphora, fashioned parkas, warm socks and other clothing for her children and those of the parish. She was generous also in giving away any spare clothes their family had to families who needed them more.

But she was most active in sheltering and giving aid to women in her village who were victims of abuse – and particularly sexual abuse. She would often invite young women into the banya (sauna, or steam bath), which was the one place in the community where women could be alone and out of the gaze and earshot of men. There she would counsel and encourage them, do whatever she could to heal their hurts both physical and emotional, and work even within the confines of a tight-knit and male-dominated community to speak up for them.

A humble and self-effacing woman, in her later years she enjoyed travelling with her husband to regional meetings of the Church and speaking with women in other Alaskan parishes – though she would always be glad to return to her home in Kwethluk. She fought for a long time with cancer, and eventually succumbed to a relapse; she reposed in the Lord in 1979. Before her funeral, which was held during the early winter when rivers would freeze over, a warm southerly wind melted the frozen rivers such that people from neighbouring villages could attend – and hundreds of them did, filling the little church which she had looked after in life. She very quickly rose to prominence as a local saint; with any luck, one day she will be recognised as such by the whole of the Orthodox Church.

The following ‘miracle story’ comes from the Athonite Pemptousia website, and speaks of an encounter that a native Alaskan woman had with Matushka Olga:
“One day I was deeply at prayer and awake. I had remembered an event that was very scary. My prayer began with my asking the Holy Theotokos for help and mercy. Gradually I was aware of standing in the woods still feeling a little scared. Soon a gentle wave of tenderness began to sweep through the fresh garden scent. I saw the Virgin Mary dressed as she is in the icon, but much natural looking and brighter, walking towards me. As she came closer I was aware of someone walking behind her. She stepped aside and gestured to a short, wise-looking woman. I asked he “Who are you?” And the Virgin Mary answered, “St. Olga.”

“St. Olga gestured for me to follow her. We walked a long way until there weren’t many trees. We came to a little hill that had a door cut into the side. After a little while some smoke came out of the top of the hill. St. Olga came out with some herbal tea. We both sat in silence drinking our tea and feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces. I began to get a pain in my belly and she led me inside. The door was so low I had to duck like bowing in prayer.

“Inside the hill was dry and warm and very quiet. The light was very soft coming from a shallow bowl and from the open hole on the top of the hill. Everything around me felt gentle, especially Mother Olga. The little hill house smelled like wild thyme and white pine in the sun with roses and vio­lets mixed in. Mother Olga helped me up on a kind of plat­form bed like a box filled with moss and grasses. It was soft and smelled like the earth and the sea. I was exhausted and lay back. St. Olga went over to the lamp and warmed up something which she rubbed on my belly. I looked five months pregnant (I was not really pregnant at that time). I started to labor. I was a little scared. Mother Olga climbed up beside me and gently holding me by the arm, she pretend­ed to labor with me, showing me what to do and how to breathe. She still hadn’t said anything. She helped me push out some stuff like afterbirth which kind of soaked into dried moss on the box bed, I was very tired and crying a little from relief when it was over.

“Up until this she hadn’t spoken, but her eyes spoke with great tenderness and understanding. We both got up and had some tea. As we were drinking it, Holy Mother Olga gradu­ally became the light in the room. Her face looked like there was a strong light bulb or the sun shining under her skin. But I think the whole of her glowed. I was just so connected to her loving gaze that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. It was like the kind of loving gaze from a mother to an infant that connects and welcomes a baby to life. She seemed to pour tenderness into me through her eyes. This wasn’t scary even though, at that time, I didn’t know about people who literally shone with the love of God, (It made more sense after I read about St. Seraphim.) I know now that some very deep wounds were being healed at that time. She gave me back my own life which had been stolen, a life that is now defined by the beauty and love of God for me, the restored work of His Hands.

“After some time I felt like I was filled with wellness and a sense of quiet entered my soul, as if my soul had been crying like a grief-stricken abandoned infant and now had finally been comforted. Even now as I write . . . the miracle of the peacefulness and also the zest for life which wellness has brought, causes me to cry with joy and awe.

“Only after this did Holy Mother Olga speak. She spoke about God and people who choose to do evil things. She said the people who hurt me thought they could make me carry their evil inside of me by rape. She was very firm when she said: “That’s a lie. Only God can carry evil away. The only thing they could put inside you was the seed of life which is a creation of God and cannot pollute anyone.” I was never polluted. It just felt that way because of the evil intentions of the people near me. What I had held inside me was the pain, terror, shame and helplessness I felt. We had labored togeth­er and that was all out of me now. She burned some grass over the little flame and the smoke went straight up to God, who is both the judge and the forgiver. I understood by the incense that it wasn’t my job to carry the sins of people against me either. It was God’s, and what an ever-unfolding richness this taste of salvation is.

“At the end of this healing time we went outside together. It was not dark in the visioning prayer. There were so many stars stretching to infinity. The sky was all shimmer with a moving veil of light. (I had seen photos of the northern light but didn’t know that they move.) Either Matushka Olga said or we both heard in our hearts -I can’t remember which -that the moving curtain of light was to be for us a promise that God can create great beauty from complete desolation and nothingness. For me it was like proof of the healing -great beauty where there had been nothing before but despair hidden by shame and great effort.”

What is one to make of these accounts? If nothing else, for now, one can acknowledge the special place that Matushka Olga has had in the lives of certain native people and a growing number of contemporary women. But it is in the slow and gradually expending process of knowledge which moves from local veneration to broader awareness that God reveals how He can be “wonderful in His Saints.” Matushka Olga herself was a midwife and may also have known from personal experience the traumas of being abused earlier in life. Perhaps it is in this role as an advocate for those who have been abused, particularly sexually, that God will continue to use Matushka Olga in drawing “straight with crooked lines,” His work of “creating beauty from complete desolation and nothingness.”
As one of the signs at our march said: ‘Our women are sacred.’ That, they very much are: every single one of them an icon of the living God and of the Most Holy Theotokos. As Mother Olga might tell us, though they might be forgotten in our justice system, not a single one of them is forgotten in æternity. Again, the relevance of this miracle story as well as Matushka Olga’s service in life to the young indigenous women of Kwethluk to the current plight of her ‘stolen sisters’ in the modern day, all over Turtle Island, is immediately apparent. It’s an excellent thing that several outlets of our church already acknowledge it – but we should certainly not stop there. This protective, healing and advocacy work of Saint Olga of Alaska must continue, as it can, with us. Holy Mother Olga of Alaska, pray to God for us sinners!


Blessed Matushka Olga Arrsamsuq (Michael) of Alaska

13 February 2019

Queen Saint Eormenhild of Ely


Venerable Eormenhild, Abbess of Ely

Today is the feast of Saint Eormenhild of Ely, the daughter of Eorcenberht of Kent by Saint Seaxburg, the wife of Wulfhere king of Mercia and mother of Saint Wærburg, niece of Saint Éanswíþ of Folkestone on her father’s side and on her mother’s Saint Æþelþrýð of Ely, and in her own right the third Abbess of Ely.

She married into a rather deadly intrigue. Wulfhere of Mercia was one of the eight children of the fierce heathen Penda of Mercia, who was defeated and slain by Oswiu King of Northumbria at the Battle of the Winwæd. Oswiu granted half of the spoils from that victory to Peada, who was poisoned by his wife the following year. Wulfhere was the next in the line of succession; out of love for his dead brother he generously patronised the Abbey at Peterborough which Peada had begun to build jointly with Oswiu King. Also, at the urging of his wife Saint Eormenhild, Wulfhere King received Bishop Saint Wilfrid of York (then out of favour with Oswiu King) hospitably and granted him land within his own kingdom with which to build a cathedral.

Wulfhere King, unfortunately, was prone to his father’s temper, and his foes used it to their advantage. A heathen thegn named Werebod approached Wulfhere hoping to wed his and Eormenhild’s daughter Wærburg. Their two elder sons, Wulfhað and Rufin, who were followers of Saint Ceadda of Lichfield, objected to the match on the grounds that Werebod was not a Christian. Werebod, seeing that the brothers’ gainsay would not be overcome, instead whispered into Wulfhere King’s ear that his sons were plotting to overthrow him. Wulfhere believed Werebod, flew into a rage, and ordered the deaths of his own sons, who went to their deaths as martyrs. After this, Saint Wærburg prevailed over her remorse-stricken father never to arrange for her another match with any man but Christ, and Saint Eormenhild managed after this to steer her husband away from his wicked rages.

Saint Eormenhild also prevailed over her husband to begin visiting Saint Ceadda frequently at his cell, and to begin promoting Christianity within his realm. Wulfhere King began to destroy heathen temples and replace them with churches; he founded a priory at Stone, near where his sons were laid to rest. In 674, Saint Eormenhild and Saint Wærburg prevailed over Wulfhere to grant his daughter leave to enter the cloister – and the king led a royal procession, as to a wedding-feast, for his daughter to Ely, where she was received with great joy by her great-aunt Abbess Æþelþrýð.

Wulfhere died the following year, and Eormenhild was overcome at first with grief, but later was drawn to where both her mother and her daughter had gone: to the cloister. She put aside all her earthly glory and finery, and took the veil as a simple Benedictine sister-nun. She went at first to the cloister of Sheppey in Kent where her mother served as abbess, and she in turn became abbess when her mother was sent instead to Ely. She herself moved to Ely after her mother Saint Seaxburg’s repose and became the third abbess there. Her son, Cœnred, would also himself later become king of Mercia and retire to a monastery toward the end of his life.

Holy Mother Eormenhild, Venerable Abbess of Ely, pray unto God to save us sinners!

12 February 2019

Money, law and crypto-currency


The classical Athenian agora

One thing I learned about Plato in my year of reading him is that he is not just an able philosopher but a great dramatist with a master’s eye for detail, subtlety, irony and nuance. When reading Plato, then, you need to keep both eyes open at all times, take account of the setting and understand the subtext between the characters. In the Republic in particular, you need to pay attention particularly when Socrates is questioning his young learners – and particularly when the two of them are building up their ‘city in speech’. You need to pay particular attention when Socrates is grilling Glaucon, because Glaucon is the one whose very soul is at stake. Adeimantus’s soul is, too, but not in the same way – Adeimantus is a secret lover of comfort and wealth, and not a true ‘dangerous youth’ like his brother.

Let’s talk a bit more about what Plato is exploring for us when Socrates is speaking with Adeimantus. What they are exploring in this early, ‘large-print’ foray into what justice means with the ‘city in speech’, after the challenge from Thrasymachus then taken up by Glaucon about justice being something only instrumental for gain, is precisely the foundation of œconomics. Let it not be said that Plato was ignorant of ‘œconomic principles’; those principles are front and centre for the first part of the Republic’s Book II! Adeimantus speaks precisely about the basis of social life as being in the meeting of basic needs: food, clothing and shelter – hence the need for the ‘city of utmost necessity’ to be peopled with farmers, carpenters and weavers (a division of labour). Smiths arise from the need for those engaged in primary occupations (ahem) to have decent tools to hand for their work. Herdsmen arise from the need for plough-oxen, draught animals, hides and wool. The need for trade between them arises – and thus arises the mercantile class. But only when we arrive here does he use the word ‘market’ (αγορά), and immediately afterward does he use the word ‘currency’ (νόμισμα), which is a play on the Greek words for ‘convention’ and ‘law’ (νόμος). Here the conversation about justice turns precisely away from meeting natural needs and instead toward establishing conventions.

Plato’s Socrates isn’t merely being cutesy with Greek etymologies here the way he is in Cratylus. This is actually an important turning point in the conversation, because it is concurrently with this exchange that what we would consider the state is established in the ‘city in speech’. The need for the enforcement of contract arises only with the establishment of trade. (It is only a few lines later that Glaucon jumps back into the conversation, irritably, to complain that a city in which only basic needs are met is a ‘city of sows’, and to insist on luxury, glory, fame, danger, risk-taking – and ultimately war – as human needs. Tellingly, this happens only after the establishment of the state.) In Plato’s examination of œconomic needs, he places exchange, money, law and thus government all at precisely the same point. For Plato money is not a natural feature of human society, but instead a customary and legal one whose correct purpose is to guarantee a fair exchange between the producing members of the city. Plato insisted in the Republic that the value of money is not natural or intrinsic but instead symbolic (σύμβολον).

As an aside, gentle readers, here’s a bit of historical irony. It’s something of a truism of American life that we tend not to take wisdom from our elders but instead insist on finding it out ourselves. And it’s rather always been this way. Edward Kellogg, the self-taught radical œconomist from Connecticut who started out as a dry-goods grocer and began to write treatises on ‘the currency question’ under the name of Godek Gardwell after the Panic of 1837, came to the exact same conclusions as Plato on the nature of money, I guess we might say, ‘the hard way’.

Kellogg became convinced that for something to be considered currency, needs to have four proper features: it has to be able to represent, measure, store and exchange œconomic value; and it can only acquire these features by the force of convention and law. Markets can only function under the legal conditions set forth by these conventions; subjecting the conventions themselves (that is to say, the medium of exchange, or money) to the conditions of the market in fact introduces distortions and contradictions. Plato (or, say, Saint John Chrysostom) could have told him all this, but credit should be given where it’s due: Kellogg was wise enough to notice that tagging the value of currency to that of a market commodity, like gold, leads precisely to market distortions and speculation on the standards which allow the market to function in the first place. Despite Plato’s convinced elitism, a Pythagorean symbolic reasoning which we can only describe as ‘Platonic’ undergirds the entirety of the œconomic thought of North American populism – and the laws governing money were largely learned through trial-and-error in the same way that Meno’s slave learned the laws governing the areas of quadrilaterals.

Unfortunately, it seems we are doomed to keep learning these lessons by trial-and-error. The Platonic intuition that money given its properties by the force of custom and law is one which has gone completely overlooked through most of modern Western œconomic history; we’ve instead cleaved unto the Aristotelian error that money is a commodity whose value is derived from supply and demand. This is true particularly with regard to digital crypto-currencies, whose values are explicitly derived from the massive computing power necessary to generate the self-referential blocks that in turn serve as transaction records in the currency itself. Discussions over crypto-currency tend to get sidetracked into questions of whether or not crypto-currency is a ‘bubble’ or whether or not it has ‘actual’ value; speculation in crypto-currencies is only a symptom of a much more deep-rooted problem, and the question of crypto-currency market values is a red herring.

Instead, our reliance on checkbook money has given us a false idea of what wealth actually is, and how it is related to the problem of money. Faced with the glaring structural problems created by a system in which money is created and circulated by volume of private loans, many libertarians and conservatives guided by commodity-money logic go looking for a ‘sounder’ form of money distinguished by its scarcity and utility – whether that is gold or a more high-tech commodity like bitcoin. Many leftists and liberals, on the other hand, despite having truly trenchant critiques of the exploitative banking system and the manipulation of the process and factors of production by the hyper-capitalist financial sector, offer little by way of cogent critique of the medium by which this manipulation and exploitation occurs. As that most excellent peripatetic al-Fârâbî would doubtless tell you: if you do not understand the lower-order functions, it’s a foregone conclusion that you won’t understand the higher-order processes that depend on them.

The one place where it seems a critique of money (which amounts to a critique of credit) is being taken seriously is among the post-Keynesians generally and among the ‘modern money’ folks in particular (a subset of the post-Keynesians, from what I gather), who operate from the Platonic-Socratic intuition that money’s sole source is in the power of law, and that the medium ought to be symbolic if it is following its proper function and end. Ultimately, the answer we need to give to the culture is the same as Christ’s answer to the Pharisees on this exact same question. The money used to pay tribute to Cæsar bears Cæsar’s image and superscription. Once this fact is shown, it becomes a bit easier to get disentangled from false ideas about where the ‘value’ is and where our debts are to be repaid.

11 February 2019

Saint Cædmon of Whitby, the first English poet


Venerable Cædmon of Whitby

Now we must praise the Guardian of Heaven,
the might of the Lord and His purpose of mind,
the work of the Glorious Father; for He,
God Æternal, established each wonder,
He, Holy Creator, first fashioned
Heaven as a roof for the sons of men.
Then the Guardian of Mankind adorned
this middle-earth below, the world for men,
Everlasting Lord, Almighty King.

Nú scylun hergan  hefaenrícaes Uard,
metudæs maecti  end his módgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur,    sué hé uundra gihwaes,
éci dryctin  ór ástelidæ
hé ǽrist scóp  aelda barnum
heben til hrófe,    háleg scepen.
Thá middungeard  moncynnæs Uard,
eci Dryctin,    æfter tíadæ
firum foldu,    Fréa allmectig.
This nine-line poem is the earliest example of Old English poetry we have, to which we can reliably ascribe authorship. And the author happened, in fact, to be a common landless neatherd named Cædmon. Like his mythical cælestial counterpart from the Shijing 《詩經》, Cædmon was given to menial tasks – drawing carts and cutting firewood for the Abbey of Whitby where he served Saint Hilda. He had no natural or earthly talent for song or scop-craft, as Saint Bede tells us:
Although he followed a sæcular occupation until well advanced in years, he had never learned anything about poetry; indeed, whenever all those present at a feast took it in turns to sing and entertain the company, he would get up from the table and go home directly he saw the harp approaching him.

On one such occasion he had left the house in which the entertainment was being held and went out to the stable, where it was his duty to look after the beasts that night. He lay down there at the appointed time and fell asleep, and in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who called him by name. ‘
Cædmon,’ he said, ‘sing me a song.’ ‘I don’t know how to sing,’ he replied. ‘It is because I cannot sing that I left the feast and came here.’ The man who addressed him then said: ‘But you shall sing to me.’ ‘What should I sing about?’ he replied. ‘Sing about the Creation of all things,’ the other answered. And Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator that he had never heard before [in fact, the verses quoted above]. When Cædmon awoke, he remembered everything that he had sung in his dream, and soon added more verses in the same style to the glory of God.

Early in the morning he went to his superior the reeve, and told him about this gift that he had received. The reeve took him before the abbess, who ordered him to give an account of his dream and repeat the verses in the presence of many learned men, so that they might decide their quality and origin. All of them agreed that Cædmon’s gift had been given him by our Lord, and when they had explained to him a passage of Scriptural history or doctrine, they asked him to render it into verse if he could. He promised to do this, and returned next morning with excellent verses as they had ordered him.

The abbess was delighted that God had given such grace to the man, and advised him to abandon sæcular life and adopt the monastic state. And when she had admitted him into the Community as a brother, she ordered him to be instructed in the events of sacred history. So Cædmon stored up in his memory all that he had learned, and after meditating on it, turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful renderings turned his instructors into his audience.

He sang of the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole story of Genesis. He sang of Israel’s departure from Ægypt, their entry into the land of promise, and many other events of Scriptural history. He sang of the Lord’s Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching of the Apostles. He also made many poems on the terrors of the Last Judgement, the horrible pains of Hell, and the joys of the kingdom of heaven. In addition to these, he composed several others on the blessings and judgements of God, by which he sought to turn his hearers from delight in wickedness, and to inspire them to love and do good. For Cædmon was a deeply religious man, who humbly submitted to regular discipline, and firmly resisted all who tried to do evil, thus winning a happy death.
A number of verses are attributed to Saint Cædmon, including the Dream of the Rood which is inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross which bears Cædmon’s name. His fame among the forefathers of Old English poetry, along with the anonymous author of Beowulf, is thus well-deserved.

Cædmon’s death as well is related by Bede, and he places particular emphasis on the way in which he approached it. A fortnight before he had been taken ill with a ‘physical weakness’ that did not prevent him from walking or talking the whole time. He went to the hospital run by the Abbey at Whitby and entertained the sick who were housed there. He received the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy that was held within the house. He then asked the brothers whether any man had a complaint against him, and they answered him in the negative – and they asking him the same question, received the reply: ‘Dear sons, I am at peace with all the servants of God.’ He then asked the brethren how long it was until Matins, and learning that it was not long, he crossed himself and lay his head upon his pillow, reposing blessedly in the Lord, shriven and at peace with all.

Saint Cædmon was not an iconographer, but his divinely-given talents as a scop may be described in similar terms. He took the stories of Scripture and related them in a wholly selfless and inspired way by the popular oral tradition of Teutonic song and verse to folk of his own class and tongue.

Venerable Cædmon, Spirit-led crafter of hymns, we bid you pray to Christ our God to save us!

09 February 2019

An outsider’s view of the Evenks’ long struggle


There is a ‘white’ historiography, a ‘red’ historiography, and a history of the people that more often than not cuts against the grain of both. Having just finished the book Gaining Ground? by Gail Fondahl, which attempts a ‘bottom-up’ view of land-use issues from the perspective of the Evenki people of Siberia who were among the accidental hosts and mission of Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, it seems that this truism holds up rather well, at least in some regards.

Reading about the current Evenki struggles to revive their culture in the face of the very logic of colonialism is not easy, particularly when set against the backdrop of the political history of their western neighbours. The Evenkil, who hunt and trap and herd reindeer (for transportation and milk, not for meat), have lived a hard existence on what may be termed marginal territory for a very long time. The contacts between Tsarist Russia and the Evenk people were far from wholly friendly – the Cossacks as they moved eastward during the 1600s took hostages to enforce the Tsarist tax policy which demanded from the head of every Evenki clan a certain percentage of the furs that they trapped. At the same time, apart from the occasional swindler, rogue trapper or squatter, the Tsarist government largely left Evenki land claims alone – under the guise of a kind of protective paternalism. The Evenkil were seen as ‘backwards’ and in need of enlightenment – in particular by the Westernising monarchs Peter and Catherine. One exception seems to have been during a miniature gold rush in the late 19th century that brought Russians and Koreans flooding into traditional Evenki lands – and the Tsarist government more often than not supported the prospectors over the indigenous people.

Even so, it is interesting to read how Gail Fondahl narrates the Evenki reception of the Revolution. For the most part, the Evenkil regarded the war between the ‘reds’ and the ‘whites’ as having little to do with them and little impact on their lives. Evenk hunters welcomed ‘Mr Soviet’ when he replaced the local ‘white’ Russian traders, since Mr Soviet gave them better bids on the furs they trapped and lower prices on guns, ammunition and other equipment. (More importantly, at first ‘Mr Soviet’ kept his word when he made a deal and didn’t try to cheat them.) And when Russian Communist party apparatchiks arrived in Evenk households and described the revolution and its aims to them, most Evenkil politely paid attention and shrugged their shoulders: largely because the way Marxism was described sounded to Evenki ears like the way they had been living all along. Here Fondahl describes a fictionalised Evenki family hearing out a Soviet party apparatchik for the first time:
When Anna was almost a teenager, Tyan and Basuk were visited by a man who explained that Soviet power ruled, and that they should join a collective. Tyan and Basuk had a hard time making out where this fellow was coming from; he seemed pleasant enough and brought tea and candy. He also brought several pamphlets with red print, which he said he wanted them to be able to read. Tyan knew how to sign his name; this man said they should both attend literacy school. He also asked if Basuk, Tyan, Tyan’s family (father and mother, and older brother and his family), with whom they nomadised would collectivise. When it turned out that all he wanted was for them to continue doing what they had always done, but call themselves the “Sable Collective”, they saw little harm and agreed.
Indeed, it’s telling that Fondahl uses the traditional Russian word obshchina (that is to say, the patriarchal-syndicalist peasant commune so idealised by the Slavophils) to describe the communal life of the Evenki people prior to contact with the Russians. Apart from the herds (reindeer often belonging to a single family or family member), it was the traditional Evenki way to share everything communally: land, water, meat, furs, medicines, supplies, storehouses or labazy. What is interesting, however, is that Fondahl sees more continuity than disruption between late Tsarist policy and early Soviet policy. For the most part, the early Soviets (including Stalin in his first few years) simply seem to have left the Evenkil alone – though the attitude of the Soviets to the Evenkil was still one of condescending paternalism and a desire to ‘rationalise’ the ‘backward’ Siberian natives. It was only when collectivisation, sedentarisation and political repression began being carried out more forcibly and aggressively – in the 1940’s and 1950’s – that the Soviets began to show their more savage face to the Evenkil. The Evenkil were hit particularly brutally by all three policies, such that the Evenki population was reduced from 38,800 in 1926 to 24,150 in 1959. (There are 38,400 Evenkil living in Russia today.)

Even stranger is the history of ‘privatisation’ in the Evenki lands. The alienation of Evenki lands from the traditional obshchina did not happen all at once under Eltsin. Soviet policy beginning under Brezhnev, in particular the transitions away from the early-Soviet kolkhoz, was responsible for the breakup of the obshchina and the imposition of individual tenure over traditionally-Evenki lands. (As often as not, this individual tenure also meant the leasing of Evenki hunting grounds to individual non-Evenks: Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and Poles.) The Evenks themselves were increasingly force-sedentarised into townships and villages under late Soviet rule. Ironically, Evenki women found themselves far better-suited to advocate themselves under the late Soviet government: both because they had been sedentary longer and better understood Russian psychology, and because they had fewer hurdles to jump through to lay claim to their ancestral lands under glasnost.

The infamous 1990s made things at once better and worse. The ‘better’ part would seem obvious: liberalisation of the laws allowed (at least on paper) the Evenkil to advocate for themselves without fear of repression. But from an œconomic perspective, most Evenkil – poor, landless, often dependent on now-defunct government-run stores for supplies – were at this point ill-equipped to deal either with the post-Soviet bureaucracy, or with the overall atmosphere of shock-therapy privatisation that was so utterly alien to their (both traditional and the Sovietised) way of life and thinking. The fall of the Soviet Union coincided with massive rises in alcoholism, delinquency and suicide – the same as for their Russian brethren – but also with a certain degree of hope that perhaps things could return to the way they had been. It has been an uphill struggle, however. The Russian government under Eltsin, though it was eager to get the photo-ops that came with a European-style ‘liberalisation’, in practice was not particularly sympathetic to Evenkil claims to their ancestral lands – and certainly not amenable to the restoration of traditional patriarchal-communal land tenure as had been the case under the obshchinas.

The Evenkil who present themselves in Gail Fondahl’s book have, therefore, a very complicated view of the history of their neighbours – one that doesn’t lend itself to the easy black-and-white characterisations of Russia (or the Soviet Union) that seem to be so pervasive in the West. They have little reason to love any of the previous governments, but they do have a slightly more-sympathetic view of the older obshchina and kolkhoz systems under which they were basically left to themselves and had a better œconomic situation overall. In the modern day, the challenges of the Evenks in Russia involve trying to restore some of the elements of the Soviet kolkhoz that have since been abandoned, advocating for better environmental protections and using the more liberal legal atmosphere in Russia to attain some status for their cultural rights (particularly as those rights pertain to their old œconomic livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and reindeer herding). As such, many Evenks tend to be sympathetic to the left-leaning ‘loyal opposition’ Just Russia party, which makes a point of supporting and advocating for the œconomic needs of Russia’s indigenous peoples at the local level.

Again, though, it is still of immense interest to me that the obshchina as a method of social organisation with its own inner reason, is not necessarily unique to the Russians or to the Slavs but indeed is also claimed by the Evenkil themselves. One of my big questions is – and this is where Dr Fondahl’s book leaves me somewhat in the dark – was the terminology of the obshchina a Russian way of describing traditional communal Evenki life by analogy to the way of life of the Russian free peasantry? Or was it instead an Evenki method of describing their social organisation to outsiders – particularly to the Russians, who along with the Chinese and the Koreans were their most significant neighbours for the first two hundred years of contact? If the latter is true, particularly: the Evenkil themselves may be an important witness for the social-political ideals of the Orthodox Church in the world, for the realisation of sobornost’ as conceived of by the Slavophils. And if that is true, other indigenous peoples with similar and analogous inward principles of life, are equally important to us: not as mere missionary projects; certainly not as passive recipients of Western largesse; but instead as living natural-law witnesses to the love and unity of Christ we Orthodox Christians still struggle to embody in the world.

In this respect, the research work of Sergei Mikhailovich Shirokogoroff – the White Russian and the sociologist specialising in the Evenkil and the Manchus who was mentor to the great Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, father of Chinese sociology and one-time head of the Democratic League – would seem to be of the utmost importance.

This is something I look forward to reading myself. I beg my readers’ pardon in advance for what may appear to be mystical or theosophical speculation, but it is deeply, deeply intriguing to me that the populist political-poetic impulse that led to a revaluation of Qu Yuan 屈原 by Wen Yiduo 聞一多 as tapping into a subaltern vein that hearkened back to the elder, ‘rustic’ shamanistic practices of the ancient Chinese, should be matched on the scholarly, sociological side by an equal impulse to locate the deep roots of Chinese culture in the social psychology of the ‘Tungus. There is some truth in the deep heart of Chinese antiquity that seems to have fired the imaginations of both Fei Xiaotong and Wen Yiduo; and that same communal truth, essentially Christian in form and content, in the depths of Slavic antiquity seems to have fired those of Khomyakov and the later Russian populists. And somehow, the Evenkil seem to be standing astride that truth, worthier in an infinite degree than the gold beneath their feet sought by the Russians and the Koreans.