18 October 2017

Jane Kate Leonard on the self-institution dialectic

Late Ming jingshi thinker Chen Zilong 陈子龙

Jane Kate Leonard, China historian and scholarly biographer of Qing statesman (Gongyang-school political Confucian and close friend of Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and Lin Zexu 林则徐) Wei Yuan 魏源, on the complexities of the Confucian self-institution dialectic:
Statecraft themes were perpetuated in the early Ch’ing period by Ming loyalists who saw statecraft as the ultimate goal of study and self-cultivation. The concept of statesmanship contained two main elements which provided its philosophical foundations. The first was the moral element which affirmed that the primary aim of statesmanship was the creation of a moral order at both the societal and cosmic levels. The moral leader or statesman played a key rôle in this process because his influence and charisma transformed lesser men into morally perfect beings which, in turn, resulted in the creation of a moral society and universal moral order. This idealistic approach took little account of the rôle of man’s institutional and legal environment in shaping character and human values.

The second element in statecraft thought was the practical or pragmatic one which expressed a greater concern for the realities of the here and now, especially the smooth functioning of the dynastic order. This approach, while affirming the central rôle of moral leadership, sought to achive the establishment of a stable, prosperous state and society which was viewed as the first step in realising the ultimate goal of universal moral order. The affirmation of moral ends, however, served to justify actions that were essentially utilitarian and directed toward the solution of immediate political, social and œconomic problems. Implicit in this approach was the Mencian view that the purpose of government is to rule on behalf of the people and that the conditions of life, to a great extent, shape human character. Because of a willingness to concede the important effect of man’s institutional environment on behaviour, advocates of the practical approach to statesmanship emphasised the importance of laws and institutions. They saw both in relative terms and were inclined to regard change in a positive light.

Moral statesmanship and practical statesmanship were closely tied; each represented different points on a continuum of Confucian values ranging from the idealistic and abstract to the more practical and concrete. In the rhetoric of Confucian political thought, the idealistic, moral approach was the more dominant. In reality, the two were inextricably entwined, with idealistic ends justifying a broad spectrum of practical means. In the early Ch’ing period, the lines between the two were blurred, and, although it was called the age of ‘practical statesmanship’, there was, nonetheless, an overriding concern with moral leadership and its achievement through rigorous scholarship and self-cultivation.
Leonard argues, convincingly, that early Qing dynasty jingshi 经世 (or ‘statecraft’) thought, the milieu to which Wei Yuan belonged, came largely out of the loyalist reform-minded cliques of the late Ming, as they grappled both with big existential questions and with the more immediate and nitty-gritty ones of how to run a just and well-ordered state. Their entire world, after all, had been completely overthrown: it’s only natural that much of their reform-driven energy would be redirected into questions normally reserved for Daoist reflection. It’s particularly interesting that Leonard mentions Mencius as a forerunner of the ‘practical’, political strand of Confucianism – that goes slightly against the received wisdom which sees Mencius as a forerunner of the ‘heart-mind’ school and Xunzi as that of the ‘political’ school, but it jives nicely with Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi’s preferences.

I’m only just beginning this text, and it’s already proven to be a fascinating one. Leonard is much more knowledgeable than I am, that’s clear to me already. But it’s interesting that she used her monograph on Wei Yuan to touch on a philosophical dialectic I’ve been thinking about and grappling with on my own for a long time, and that she expressed it in such clear terms.

16 October 2017

Yang Guifei and Dou E as victims and scapegoats

Yang Yuhuan (left) and the execution of Dou Duanyun (right)

Unsurprisingly, SPOILER ALERTS apply for this entire blog post.

Two of the other Chinese operas I’ve read recently have been The Palace of Eternal Youth and Snow in Summer; both of which centre on a female protagonist who is the victim or scapegoat of forces entirely outside her control, but for which she wrongly takes the blame and pays for it with her life. In each of these plays, traditional morality and family norms form the context within which these women act. In neither play is the traditional morality entirely rejected, but it is subjected to various levels of critique.

Yang Yuhuan 杨玉环 is the tragic heroine of Hong Sheng’s 洪升 The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》. The youngest daughter of four, of an impoverished Sichuanese official, she is procured as a palace maid and given as a concubine to Prince Shou 寿王, the son of Emperor Tang Minghuang 唐明皇. The emperor, upon seeing Yang himself, is smitten with her and arranges for her to be sent to a Daoist monastery as a novice named Taizhen. After some time, she is taken into the Imperial harem herself, gifted with the rank of ‘Guifei’ 贵妃 (literally, ‘precious concubine’) and given some unprecedented privileges, like access to the Huaqing Pool 华清池, which was normally reserved for the Emperor’s exclusive use. Her promotion is good news for her overbearing and ambitious brother Guozhong 杨国忠, who is quickly promoted to prime minister, but she herself is surrounded by eunuchs and other court ladies in the emotional hothouse of harem life and secluded from the life of the people. Yang Guozhong abuses his position by pardoning a barbarian general named An Lushan 安禄山 for a favour from his patron; after that Yang and An become bitter enemies and pursue a private rivalry and feud with each other at the expense of the Empire. Loyal officials like Guo Ziyi 郭子仪 (on whom another blog post at some future date – he’s a fascinating character in his own right) can only look on in horror at the oncoming disaster for the state.

The Palace of Eternal Youth juxtaposes scenes of human suffering at the hands of Yang Guozhong, An Lushan and even Emperor Minghuang’s other underlings, with the scenes of luxury, lust, jealousy and intrigue within the court itself. Despite her self-aware pulchritude and vampish demeanour, Yang Yuhuan is actually one of the single most blameless characters in the opera, apart from some wholly natural twinges of jealousy toward the other court ladies for Emperor Minghuang’s affections. She is kept oblivious to the human cost of her and the Emperor’s lifestyle until the very end. And yet by the end she is singled out by Emperor Minghuang’s guard as a scapegoat for the troubles of the Empire when An Lushan rebels. She hangs herself with her own girdle on orders from the eunuch Gao Lishi 高力士, over the initial objections of Minghuang, in order to appease the rebellious imperial guards and save her beloved Emperor’s life. The Emperor himself spends the rest of his life in a state of depression, wondering if he could have done anything to save the life of his beloved.

Opinion on Yang Yuhuan among the Confucian scholarly class was sharply divided after her death. Some scholar-officials saw her as a blameless victim of her family’s intrigues, guilty only of being an object of a besotted Emperor’s affections; others saw her as an evil temptress responsible for misleading the Emperor and bringing disaster on the Tang. The later Tang Buddhist poet-official Bai Juyi 白居易, whose ‘Song of Everlasting Regret’ 《长恨歌》 was the inspiration for Hong Sheng’s opera and is quoted at length within it, went a long way toward rehabilitating Yang Yuhuan’s memory and guiding scholarly opinion toward a more sympathetic and tragic view.

Snow in Summer, also called The Injustice to Dou E 《窦娥冤》, by Guan Hanqing 关汉卿, is a much earlier work that functions as a subtle attack on the social conditions for ordinary Chinese people under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty – but the main character is, like Yang Yuhuan, a young woman who has very limited control over her own immediate situation and who is also scapegoated for a crime she didn’t commit. Duanyun 端云, the daughter of an impoverished but highly-talented scholar Dou Tianzhang 窦天章, is sold to a petty usurer, Widow Cai 蔡婆, in lieu of a significant debt as a child bride for Cai’s son. Famine forces the three of them to move into another town, where Widow Cai again takes up her lending business to keep her family fed. Unfortunately, Widow Cai’s young son dies of illness.

One of Widow Cai’s debtors, a dishonest pharmacist named Dr Sailu 赛卢医, attempts to strangle her to avoid paying the debt he owes, but he is stopped by a pair of hooligans – Zhang the Dog 张狗儿 and his son Zhang the Mule 张驴儿 – who force themselves upon Widow Cai’s household. Zhang the Mule tries to rape Dou Duanyun, but she fights him off repeatedly. Scorned by the object of his lust, Zhang the Mule blackmails Dr Sailu into selling him poison to kill Widow Cai, but he poisons his father Zhang the Dog by mistake. Zhang the Mule then blames Duanyun for the deed and takes her before the corrupt and degenerate Mongol magistrate Taowu 梼杌, who then throws her in prison. He then robs Widow Cai of all her silver and uses it to bribe Taowu into finding in his favour. Dou Duanyun is sentenced to death by beheading for poisoning Zhang the Dog.

Dou Duanyun goes to her death in midsummer insisting that she was framed and protesting her innocence before Heaven. She proclaims that if Heaven has any justice, it will not let any of her blood stain the ground, it will cover up her dead body with snow despite the heat, and the district of Chuzhou will suffer three years of drought. When the executioner brings down his sword, none of Duanyun’s blood falls upon the ground, but instead flies up onto a white silken garment hanging over her head. A snowstorm blows up and covers her body in a snowdrift – and no more precipitation falls for the next three years.

In the meanwhile, Duanyun’s father Tianzhang has passed the civil service examinations and is sent to a remote district where he is promoted. He attempts to go back and find his family only to find that Widow Cai has already left their hometown. Heartbroken he returns to the Imperial court, where he is appointed a Censor and sent to back to his home province of Anhui to investigate wrongdoings by local officials. He comes across Chuzhou and discovers a drought that has been going on for three years – Taowu organises a lavish banquet for Tianzhang and offers him a hefty bribe to cover up the drought to higher officials, arousing Tianzhang’s suspicions.

The rest of the opera reads like a Judge Dee courtroom drama, with Tianzhang in the role of the magistrate as he reopens his daughter’s case. Under Tianzhang’s unrelenting and thorough investigation, the truth comes out about Zhang the Mule’s parricide and Taowu’s gross miscarriage of justice. The now-homeless Widow Cai is avenged and Duanyun’s memory is vindicated. Zhang the Mule is sentenced to death by slow dismemberment, Taowu to death by beheading, and Dr Sailu is exiled to a border garrison. After the sentences are carried out, a heavy rain falls on Chuzhou, ending the drought and indicating that Heaven’s justice is satisfied. Tianzhang weeps before his daughter’s grave, and takes Widow Cai into his home.

Duanyun, of course, is fictional and Hong Sheng’s Yuhuan a fictionalised version of a historical woman (who really was forced to commit suicide for the crimes of her brother). In their literary contexts, although they come from markedly-different backgrounds and live very different lives, they nevertheless share some similarities. Their ability to speak up for themselves is compromised in each case, and in the end they, innocent, are made to suffer and die as scapegoats for the guilty party: Yuhuan in her brother’s place at the hands of the Emperor’s guard, and Duanyun to save her persecutor’s skin at the hands of a corrupt and perverted magistrate.

Yuhuan is a much more ambiguous figure than Duanyun, being in a position of power that she herself is unaware of except insofar as it involves the person of the Emperor, and it’s stated in Hong Sheng’s drama that there are sins that her spirit must atone for. One can see, in fact, that the Confucian literati themselves were divided on how to view the historical Yuhuan – though in the end they were swayed to the view that she was an innocent victim of political intrigue. In each case, though, the positions of Yuhuan and Duanyun – as scapegoats for injustices they aren’t responsible for – are used to illustrate broader questions about political justice and legitimacy. This is an ambiguous point. There is a certain sense in which these literary portrayals of women justifies Chinese classicism’s claim to being a humanistic ethos, but there’s also a sense in which the same classicism understands women’s experiences and subjectivity to be still, in a broader sense, not their own.

One foot in the big red circle

Yup. I’ve got reservations about that, too.

The Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies recently released a paper which appears to be (and is – though you have to wade into the footnotes to discover it) a continuation of the study by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing on nascent ideological formations in China, which caught my attention a couple of years ago. This study appears to be based on a much more fine-grained (but also more subjectively-based) survey that has a similar qualitative methodology, and which focusses on social media users in particular. It also has a broader and more ambitious set of goals, which I’m still not sure if it succeeds in meeting convincingly. Social media have a tendency to foster and voice opinions which may not resonate broadly off-line. The paper not only seeks to map the online presence of ideological formations, but also attempts to categorise and lay out the ‘party ideology’ of the CCP based on its interactions with all of these online groups in four case studies involving online controversies set off by a media-covered event or story.

The descriptions of eleven distinct online factions or ‘ideological clusters’ are interesting, and in some cases even convincing. They include three factions which fall mostly within the ‘party ideology’ (the Party warriors, the flag wavers and the China advocates), four which partially overlap with the ‘party ideology’ but also include critiques from various sides (the traditionalists, the Mao lovers, the equality advocates and the industrialists), and four which fall almost entirely outside the ‘party ideology’ and define themselves in terms antagonistic to the CCP (the humanists, the US fans, the democratisers and, increasingly, the market lovers). The rather more interesting thing about the paper is that it attempts to articulate the goal of the CCP as articulating a ‘China path’, a cultural and œconomic Sonderweg which runs agonal to the values and norms of the ‘West’, but which otherwise – in the words of the authors – ‘remains eclectic and vague’ in content.

The ‘China model’, in certain ‘eclectic and vague’ forms, is precisely something I’ve come to endorse, by degrees, over a long period of years of living and working there – and that includes the distrust of democracy. I’ve come to sympathise with the folks of Henan and Inner Mongolia – the two provinces in which I spent the longest time and where I developed the closest personal attachments. I understand, and even endorse to a degree, the populist sense of righteous brotherhood and solidarity to which the poor and downtrodden of the mainland Chinese interior are drawn – even if it is clothed in a ‘red’ mythology which tends to betray it.

I have a certain, very strong set of ‘traditionalist’ qualms about the current direction the ‘China model’ leads, though I also tend to hold out a kind of Tolkienian hope for it. I suppose you could say, even though I’m far from a fan of Mao and far from an uncritical supporter of the CCP, that I’ve got one foot firmly in the Big Red Circle the authors of the Mercator Institute paper describe. I’m personally still unsure I’d fit neatly inside of any of these ideological clusters, though if I had to choose one from the descriptions, it would likely be as a ‘China advocate – with profound reservations’.

The Mercator Institute – an affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations – paper unfortunately tips its own hand in the conclusion. The ‘China model’ is not a scholarly interest to be considered objectively as it was for Pan and Xu, but instead a threat to the West to be contained, resisted and neutralised by Western nations ‘revitalis[ing] their political institutions’ and ‘their œconomic and technological capabilities’. The way of the humanists, US fans and democratisers is taken uncritically as superior. It is therefore not an academic exercise but a policy paper written for use by NATO and the OECD as intelligence in geopolitical struggle, seeking to leverage upwardly-mobile upper middle-class intellectuals active on social media as a kind of intellectual fifth column in that struggle. Even as such, it does have elements of valuable analysis that deserve to be considered seriously.

15 October 2017

The meta-Confucian rage of The Peach Blossom Fan

Still going strong on my Rumiko Takahashi-inspired Chinese opera kick. I just finished reading a prose translation of The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren 孔尚任, a descendant of Confucius who lived during the decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty and the rise of the Qing – the backdrop which sets the tragedy of his dramatic work.

Kong Shangren’s work indeed shows a strong streak of Confucian moralism, as is to be expected. Hou Fangyu 侯方域 is a sympathiser with the reformist Donglin Movement 东林党 (a critical neo-Confucian movement focussed on reforming the bureaucracy, and a predecessor of the Changzhou New Text revival and the broader jingshi 经世, or ‘statecraft’, ethos which took hold in the early Qing), and his lover, a hooker with a heart of gold named Li Xiang 李香, has an even greater sense of moral scruple than he does – refusing dowry gifts from corrupt officials, refusing any other suitors than Hou, rebuking the evil Ruan Dacheng 阮大铖 to his face. The same shared moral outlook which brings the two of them together in the beginning and strengthens their relationship as the play progresses, also ultimately makes it impossible for them to end up together. They find, ultimately, that in a world without a moral centre, where there is no possible safe haven and no way to retain their moral standing, they cannot at once retain their integrity and remain a couple. Kong has them both undertake vocations in Daoist monasteries by the end of the play.

But despite the tone of moral outrage that accompanies Kong’s descriptions of the persecutions of the Donglin clique, the each-man-for-himself betrayals among the military and the civil service, the decadence and cowardice of the Imperial court in the face of foreign invasion, there’s something of a nihilist streak that runs through the play. As in Zhao the Orphan, most of the ‘righteous’ characters are rendered powerless either by being too trusting or too stubborn, and the vast majority of them end up either dead, in hermitages, or on the lam from both the Ming and the Qing courts. But there is a significant difference here. If, in classical Confucian thinking, righteousness and virtue nucleate the people around a salvific leader, a ‘worthy’ with charismatic power – here those ‘worthies’ are notable by their absence. There is no orphan of Zhao in whom the ‘righteous’ people can put their trust. The play ends with Nanjing occupied, most of the Ming loyalists scattered or dead, and three of the ‘good’ characters being pursued by the new Qing Dynasty’s police into the mountains, with no hope of salvation in sight. The world of the Ming has come to an end. Nothing noble has replaced it, unless it is the path of total renunciation proclaimed by the guard-turned-Daoist-monk Zhang Wei in the final scenes.

It’s this very streak of nihilism – this very apocalypticism – which renders The Peach Blossom Fan such a beautiful, poignant and masterful tragedy. The heartbreak which accompanies the failure of Hou Fangyu’s relationship with Li Xiang is rendered all the more piercing by the broader failures of Ming governance and Chinese morality more broadly around them. But there’s something in it which smacks much more of the Russian sensibility. Under the quasi-Daoist resignation of Hou and Li, there is an unspoken call to apocalyptic revolt in the sense meant by Berdyaev. There is a finger of accusation which Kong Shangren points at the very people who would enjoy The Peach Blossom Fan as a merely æsthetic work, which the constant allusions to other operas (particularly The Peony Pavilion) as vehicles for narcissistic enjoyment by corrupt officialdom make plain. It’s not light amusement. When Zhang Wei tears the eponymous fan in half at the end of the play, it’s almost a dare to the audience that they find any reason to be happy in the result. It’s also a mistake to see it as simply a ‘loyal’ tribute to the Donglin movement of the Ming Dynasty’s final years – the Donglin partizans, however righteously aggrieved, are hardly effective heroes in the face of the Manchu threat. There is something prefiguring Lu Xun’s all-consuming rage against his own social milieu present in the play, barely contained below the poetic verse, that comes off even in the English translation.

I can certainly see why the work is considered a dramatic masterpiece. I’m still not sure if it’s my ‘favourite’ of the several dramas and operas I’ve read recently – the sheer bulk of the historical background Kong Shangren brings forward makes his opera appear a trifle overstuffed in my (admittedly-biased) Western view – but I can understand its importance and appreciate its tragic sensibility. Highly recommended reading. I’ve read only Chen Meilin’s novel adaptation rather than the Zhen-Acton-Birch translation, but the latter will certainly be on my list!

12 October 2017

New Hieromartyr John of Riga

Father and New Hieromartyr Saint John of Riga

Our father among the saints, the Holy New Hieromartyr John (Pommers) of Riga, was martyred by fire at the hands of unknown assassins widely believed to be working for the Bolshevik government, on this day eighty-three years ago, as I was informed not long ago by a gentle reader and friend of this blog, Mr. S—. Saint John seems to have been something of an activist priest, and head of an Orthodox Party focussed on organising and aiding landless peasants, whose unique blend of agrarian-socialist and monarchist politics seems on first blush to be somewhat similar to my own. He was also acquainted with Father Saint John of Kronstadt and a close friend and compatriot of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow, with whose blessing the Latvian Orthodox Church was granted autonomy. One of Saint John’s appointees, Bishop John (Garklavs) of Riga, fled to the United States and became the OCA bishop of Chicago and Minneapolis, my current diocese. Also – another small fact: unbeknownst to me, the relics of Saint John of Riga were present in the very altar of the Russian Orthodox mission church at which I was chrismated.

Saint John was born to the Pommers family, whose ancestors had adopted Orthodoxy while Latvia was still under Teutonic rule. The (at that time Lutheran) Dukes of Courland persecuted Orthodox believers mercilessly, and refused one of the Pommers men a Christian burial. The local peasantry gave him a grave of his own and erected a double cross over it, but this grave was desecrated by the Germans under the orders of the Duke.

Saint John himself grew up tending flocks of sheep for his parents, but soon developed an aptitude for reading and writing which landed him in a seminary, complete with a scholarship. Ever the filial child, he worked for his parents each summer while he was at school, and was careful not to burden them financially. When he moved to Kiev, he supported himself by taking on jobs as a teacher. With a recommendation from Saint John of Kronstadt, he was tonsured a monk and continued to teach, instilling in his students a love for Scripture and the Church. He was also politically active at this time, adding to his teaching mission various forms of charitable and activist work – aiding the unemployed and advocating for sobriety among the peasantry.

He held various sees in his tenure as a comparatively young bishop in the Russian Empire: Slutsk, Odessa, Priazovsk-Taganrog. In each place he proved both his pastoral ability and his deep compassion for the people under his care. As bishop of Taganrog he provided shelter to many war refugees from the (then-enemy) territories of Austria-Hungary: Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians alike, and encouraged his Russian parishioners to do the same. Having grown up in poverty himself, he was a strong and tireless advocate for the rights of labour against the claims of capital, and he came to occupy positions as representative for the fledgling labour unions in his sees as a result.

He was not, however, a friend to the new government after 1917, and neither was the Bolshevik government a friend to him. Seeking excuses to remove him from office, they brought several phoney charges against him which were easily disproved by the Metropolitan. The workingmen of Taganrog, supportive of their bishop and comrade, sent an armed escort with Saint John as he went to and from Divine Liturgy. Seeing that their strategy had failed, the Bolsheviks then began transferring Saint John to different bishoprics: Tver, then Moscow, then Penza. At Penza, the authorities used every excuse they could find to harass the Latvian bishop, and several attempts were even made on his life – suspected to be instigated by the secret police. However, Saint John survived all of these attempts, and he was popular enough even with the people of Penza that no harm came to him. The persecution came to an end when the Cheka issued an order in 1920 proclaiming Saint John innocent of all the charges that were arraigned against him and allowed him to carry out his religious duties unmolested.

In 1921, Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow acknowledged a request from Riga to appoint Bishop Saint John to the head of that see in the Latvian Church. During the same year, the Patriarch granted the Latvian Church autonomy, with Saint John as its first Archbishop. As Archbishop of the Orthodox Church in Latvia, John worked as tirelessly for the preservation and recognition of the rights of Orthodox people in the newly-independent country as he had for the workingmen under his care in Russia. He lived in the basement of the Cathedral, in protest of the Cathedral’s planned demolition by the government. His protest was successful and the demolition was cancelled. But his activism on behalf of the Orthodox faithful in Latvia ended up having political ramifications: he wound up as the leader in the Sæima (the Latvian Parliament) of the Party of the Orthodox.

The Party of the Orthodox was at once a minority-rights party, a confessional party and an agrarian populist party. Like the modern Latvian Russian Union under Tatyana Ždanoka, the Party of the Orthodox stood for the civil rights of ethnic Russians in independent Latvia. It also stood for the religious rights of Orthodox Churches – Saint John was able, through political actions, to have many of the historical properties of the Orthodox Church in Latvia restored to Orthodox control, and also to secure funding for church repairs and education. And lastly and chiefly: it was a party for the landless peasantry. The Party of the Orthodox championed the radical land reforms that broke up big estates and transferred them to the dispossessed, and worked to see that Orthodox and ethnic Russian peasants in particular got a fair shake under the terms of the reform. Saint John’s service in the Sæima, unusual and irregular for a bishop, was as selfless as his ecclesiastical life. A Latvian himself, he gave his full efforts to fighting for the rights of the ethnic minorities in his flock. Still: the hard left in the Sæima did not trust him because he was considered a ‘monarchist’, and the right did not trust him because he supported land reform.

Unfortunately, even in Latvia proper, and even as a representative of a sort of left politics, the saintly Archbishop could not escape Bolshevik persecution. (Like the Socialist-Revolutionaries in Russia, Saint John’s was considered the wrong kind of leftism: too rural, too religious.) He got involved with the Russian Christian Student Union – a left-wing youth movement with an educational focus – but he left it when it became clear that it belonged to a Marxist-Leninist tendency. Saint John was thereupon subject to attacks by hooligans and partizan zealots, and was subject to false allegations of sexual abuse. He even came into possession of papers claimed to prove the disloyalty and treasonous activities of the Marxist-Leninist faction in the Sæima, and it’s thought that these papers were what caused him to be marked for death.

In the end the Soviet secret police caught up with him. Several unidentified hooligans, thought to be under their employ, found him at his dacha, tied him to his carpentry bench, tortured him, soaked his robes in kerosene and set him on fire – sending him to a martyrdom very much like that of Great-Martyr Nikitas at the hands of the heathen Goths. They also trashed his dacha and burned his papers, which were their true objective.

Saint John was mourned by the entire city of Riga, and a hundred thousand people – nearly a quarter of the city – turned out for his funeral. One Russian student saw a vision of the martyred Archbishop standing in prayer beside his body, along with a number of other saints and martyrs with shining faces. He was glorified in the Latvian Orthodox Church in 2001, though he had been recognised as a martyr for some time before that in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Holy Father and New Hieromartyr John of Riga, pray to God for us sinners!

10 October 2017

Realism, history and politics

The ancients, who were our betters and nearer the gods than we are, handed down the tradition, that whatever things are said to be are composed of one and many, and have the finite and infinite implanted in them: seeing, then, that such is the order of the world, we too ought in every enquiry to begin by laying down one idea of that which is the subject of enquiry; this unity we shall find in everything. Having found it, we may next proceed to look for two, if there be two, or, if not, then for three or some other number, subdividing each of these units, until at last the unity with which we began is seen not only to be one and many and infinite, but also a definite number; the infinite must not be suffered to approach the many until the entire number of the species intermediate between unity and infinity has been discovered—then, and not till then, we may rest from division, and without further troubling ourselves about the endless individuals may allow them to drop into infinity. This, as I was saying, is the way of considering and learning and teaching one another, which the gods have handed down to us. But the wise men of our time are either too quick or too slow in conceiving plurality in unity. Having no method, they make their one and many anyhow, and from unity pass at once to infinity; the intermediate steps never occur to them. And this, I repeat, is what makes the difference between the mere art of disputation and true dialectic.

   - Socrates, Philebus
This passage from Plato’s Philebus was brought to mind by a couple of conversations I had been party to on Facebook recently – only one of which was on the topic of colonialism. The problem with modern discussions of colonialism (among other historical phenomena needing critique), that I can tell, is that they vacillate between two mutually-irreconcilable and incommensurate poles, which themselves nonetheless exist in a strange kind of dialectic with each other. The first is the one of moral outrage – the idea that colonialism was a horrific evil (which it was), and that any effort to differentiate or distinguish between different forms of colonialism is an attempt to muddy the issue or to exculpate oneself wrongly from the institutions which resulted. The second one is one which pretends to understand the issue, but which actually does exculpate an involved historical figure by claiming – without any further reference to the context – that he or she was a ‘product of his time’.

Actually, the conversation which brought this issue to mind was a discussion of Jehan Cauvin, in the wake of a rather tone-deaf article by Calvinist author Marilynne Robinson attempting clumsily to portray Cauvin’s Geneva as some kind of enlightened proto-Scandinavian welfare state, and Cauvin himself as a jolly French liberal humanist and democrat. Contrarianism can be charming, but not when it comes at the cost of historical fact. I pointed out that the Consistory which handed down totalitarian repressions, tortures and death sentences with relative abandon was largely the work of Cauvin himself, and backed up my argument with evidence drawn from Geneva’s own judicial records. The response, tellingly, was that Cauvin was a product of his time, and that similar tortures and executions were carried out in France and Russia.

Leaving aside the historical fact, here, that even though corporal punishment was used often, execution was vanishingly rare in Muscovite Russia until after the reign of Peter the Great, there is still a distinction that needs to be made. Cauvin’s Geneva was demonstrably worse in the torture-and-executions regard, even than nearby Zürich. In just seventeen years, Cauvin’s Geneva – one city of about 10,000 people – executed 139 – an average of over eight executions per year. This may be compared with the record of the canton of Zürich with over 73,000 people, in which 574 executions were held in the entire sixteenth century, an average of under six executions per year in the entire county. Cauvin’s Geneva was actually worse than the prevailing norms when compared with other examples from its own time and space. These drastic differences in degree should hint to us that it’s simply not enough to excuse the very real evils for which Cauvin was directly responsible, by simply making him a ‘product of his time’ and submerging him and his ideas both in the misleading philosophical unity of his historical epoch.

Likewise, cover is given if we dismiss the Europe of the Reformation and the Renaissance as characterised by a false infinity of iniquity. The initial, lazy slacktivist overreaction which refuses to draw distinctions between different kinds of ‘social evil’ – different kinds of slavery, different kinds of colonialism, different kinds of misogyny – discredits itself by rebelling against our moral intuitions that qualitative differences exist between different circumstances and environments: the same intuitions to which Socrates alluded in Philebus. We miss highly significant differences when we absolutise a particular kind of evil, and we discount these differences altogether when we relativise evils under the guise of ‘historical progression’. As I was arguing earlier, following the labour historian Frank Tannenbaum’s book Slave and Citizen, slavery in Anglo-America was a demonstrably crueler institution than it was in Latin America. In Latin America, slavery was still slavery – and attended by all of the brutalities and inhumanities that characterised slavery in the former British colonies. But, as Dr Tannenbaum carefully notes, manumission was nowhere near as difficult in Brazil and in New Spain as it was in North America; freedmen were treated with full legal dignity; and ‘miscegenation’ was not frowned upon at all.

If we’re going to find a way out of the current war between these emotivist factions in our politics, both the identitarian left and the identitarian right, then that way out needs to find a way to draw distinctions, make meaningful comparisons and create apposite analogies that can situate and orient us realistically within our historical moment. The aim of Socrates and Protarchos in the Philebus was to seek out and define ‘the good’ for the human person; here we are using some of the same insights to sort between evils. But the end goal is the same. Politics is about finding and implementing a course of action which moves us toward the good. Dithering between the poles of false unity and false infinity does not get us there.

09 October 2017

Dr Samuel Johnson on colonialism

From Dr Samuel Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage, expressing Mr Savage’s rather dim view on colonialism, a dim view which is cited with approval by his biographer:
Savage has not forgotten, amidst the pleasing sentiments which this prospect of retirement suggested to him, to censure those crimes which have been generally committed by the discoverers of new regions, and to expose the enormous wickedness of making war upon barbarous nations because they cannot resist and of invading countries because they are fruitful; of extending navigation only to propagate vice, and of visiting distant lands only to lay them waste.
A very happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day to my gentle readers, and (as is relevant) feast day of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow.

08 October 2017

The Righteous Empress Myeongseong of Joseon

Empress Myeongseong

Empress Myeongseong of the Kingdom of Korea is a fascinating figure who, although I have mentioned her once before on my blog, is much worthier of study than I had first thought. She was, after all, the one primarily responsible for the welcoming climate that Christians have since found in Korea, even though she never became Christian herself. Despite this, I consider her a martyr: killed unjustly by the agents of a hostile and revolutionary foreign power, for her pro-Christian and pro-Russian sympathies.

Empress Myeongseong was born Min Jayeong to the scion of a respectable, but impoverished, family of gentry in Yeoju in central Korea. Despite growing up in poverty, she was bright and well-read in the Chinese Classics, and apparently a bit too independent-minded than was fashionable for a Korean woman of the gentry class. She was introduced as a suitable bride to King Gojong by his father and regent, Heungseon Daewongun, for two simple reasons: as a noblewoman, her bloodline was suitable; but as a poor woman, her family would not be in any position to cause dynastic troubles. She also was described as having a pleasant face, a good physique, and a suitable education. The Heungseon therefore thought her a harmless and pliant wife for his son, who would not make waves or rock the boat. That was the Heungseon’s great mistake.

Gojong married Miss Min in an elaborate ceremony when she was sixteen years old and he fifteen. It became clear that the newly-crowned Queen Min had a mind of her own and did not behave like other court ladies. Instead of attending to social functions, she kept to herself, reading the Chunqiu and the Old Text Zuo Commentary, cultivating her knowledge of history, science, philosophy and political œconomy. She did not have a high opinion of her husband at first – Gojong being something of a party animal by temperament, she tended to belittle him. However, when Gojong’s majority came, he found a firm supporter in Queen Min, who advocated quietly but firmly – against the Heungseon, earning her his mortal enmity – that it was only just for her husband ought to rule in his own right, rather than being the puppet of a regent. This she did through Choe Ik-hyeon, a neo-Confucian scholar who argued that the rules of propriety demanded a clear rectification of the titles between lord and vassal, and assailed the Heungseon in fiery invective terms for his corruption and immorality. Gojong, grateful for this assistance and finding himself in need of his wife’s intelligence and erudition to rule the country, soon developed a firm respect for her. And she, seeing his serious turn, reciprocated that respect.

In their early years, King Gojong spent his time with other women and neglected Queen Min. She only became pregnant with his child five years into their marriage, as he began relying on her more. Eventually she gave birth to a boy, but this child died at only four days old, under suspicious circumstances. Queen Min blamed the Heungseon for the baby’s death, and moved to have him removed from the court permanently, along with his supporters. She and Gojong would eventually have another son, Sunjong, but this son would grow up sickly.

Both King Gojong and Queen Min shared a belief that both of the reigning foreign policies favoured by the Korean political establishment and the yangban – of total isolation on the one side, and of appeasement towards Japan on the other – were mistakes. They witnessed the decline of Qing China and the rise of Japan under the Meiji with alarm, and began studying the Japanese path of modernisation. To counterbalance the influence of Japan, Queen Min sent ambassadors to American President Chester Arthur, and invited advisers from Russia and America, as well as Christian missionaries, into the country. However, she herself was not in favour of a Meiji-style reform. There was a ‘progressive’ clique of yangban who advocated for a full and immediate Westernisation at the cost of relations with China; Min, who favoured the conservative-reformist and pro-Chinese Sadae faction, understood well that cutting ties with China the way the progressives wanted would only mean, in the end, a swifter capitulation to the Japanese.

Queen Min supported education in scholastics and manners for Korean girls, and appealed to American Methodist missionaries to make this a possibility. With Queen Min’s blessing, the Ihwa Academy was founded by Mary Scranton for the purpose. Under Queen Min, also, the first newspaper press was organised, the first factories were founded, telegraph lines were laid, and Western agricultural methods were introduced from the United States. Russian Ambassador to Joseon, N. A. Svishchiy, sent a memorandum to his superiors in Russia detailing Queen Min’s tolerance of Christianity generally and her interest in Russia specifically, prompting the establishment of a mission which eventually turned into the Orthodox Metropolia of Korea.

Again, however, Queen Min was not interested in altering the spiritual basis of her society. She was herself a Buddhist and a Confucian to the end. Though she did not like her husband at first, she was loyal to him alone and eventually earned his trust, respect and love – and learned to trust, respect and love him back. She lay a great deal of emphasis on appropriate relationships. She looked, not to Germany as Japan had, but instead to Russia for inspiration: a traditional power with a traditional religion, which was attempting to modernise at its own pace and on its own terms.

But even though she had accomplished much in her career, she made powerful enemies among Korea’s yangban class – the most dangerous of whom was the Heungseon. Needless to say, her anti-Japanese stance did not endear her to that government, either. The Heungseon enlisted the help of the Japanese minister Miura Gorô in a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Min. This assassination, this heinous and despicable crime against Heaven, was carried out on the eighth of October, 1895. With the aid of troops loyal to the Heungseon, Japanese assassins, acting under direct orders from Miura, entered the palace, subdued the king (who had tried to interpose himself bodily between the assassins and the women’s chambers), and sought out the palace women. They found three women, dragged them forcibly out into the courtyard, stomped on their prone bodies, hacked them brutally to death with blades, sexually molested and defiled their corpses. When one of them was identified as Queen Min, they burned her and scattered the ashes – the final and most outrageous sacrilege upon the body of a Confucian woman like Min.

The reaction to this brutal regicide was instantaneous and it was outraged. The Russians in particular were moved to fury at this brazen, shameless and damnable act of lèse-majesté, this superlatively-hideous murder and defilement of a Korean royal by Japanese thugs and dog-officials, and lost no time moving against the Japanese in Korea. Ambassador K. I. Veber, upon hearing of the incident, assured King Gojong of his government’s support against this brutishness, which the King accepted. Russian officials and military assisted King Gojong in retaking the palace from the Japanese and expelling the traitors who had allowed his beloved wife to be massacred. Unfortunately, the newfound Korean self-assertion under King Gojong would be short-lived, as Tsarist Russia herself would soon be embroiled in a war against Japanese aggression.

It quickly became clear to all observers that the barbarous assassination of Queen Min had been the result of a Japanese conspiracy at a very high level, with the Heungseon as co-instigator. The primary conspirators were part of a political clique centred in Kumamoto Prefecture, and included not only Miura Gorô but also the oligarch Inoue Kaoru and the statesman Itô Hirobumi, who was informed of Miura’s plan, and who himself would later be killed by Thomas An (a Roman Catholic advocate of Korean independence) in retaliation. A number of other members of the Japanese legation and the Imperial Japanese Army were directly implicated. In response to international outrage and pressure, the Meiji government orchestrated a sham trial which, disgustingly, exonerated all fifty-six of the arraigned blackguards and regicidal scum on a legal technicality, even though enough evidence was indeed available to the Japanese government to convict Miura at least.

At least a handful of Japanese moderns have some sense of compunction for the bloody event. The descendants of two of the assassins came to Namyangju in 2005 to offer their personal and heartfelt apologies to the soul of Queen Min on behalf of their ancestors. However, there has as yet been no apology forthcoming from the Japanese government itself for this crime against Heaven, for which they made themselves directly responsible when they acquitted Miura.

As for Queen Min herself – titled Empress Myeongseong after her murder – she was a Cassandra for her people. She spoke only the truth to the yangban, but she was not believed in her own time, either by the progressives or by the isolationists, that the moderate, measured reforms she sought were necessary. Like Cassandra, too, she faced a bloody end precisely on account of her perspicacity, forethought and care for her people. Her treatment of Christians in Korea was correct and gracious; if we Orthodox do not view Empress Myeongseong as a holy martyr, than we must at least acknowledge her as one among the righteous pagans who kept the law written on their hearts.
Have mercy, O Lord, on the soul of Thy servant Empress Myeongseong.
Unsearchable are Thy judgements.
Let not this prayer of mine be counted as sin, but let Thy will be done.

07 October 2017

Sanity and stability

TL: Saint Alexis (Tovt); TR: Saint John (Pommers);
BL: Saint John (Kronstadt); BR: Saint Tikhon (Bellavin)

For my one-thousandth blog post, I still feel it’s somewhat important, in an age where the liberal consensus (long my bête noire) is busy not so much eroding as blowing itself apart (with the nouvelle nouvelle-droite taking the place of the postwar liberal-conservatives, and the identitarian regressive left taking the place of the postwar social-liberals), to clarify that I still adhere – paradoxical as it may sound – to both the broad ideals of the Old Left, and to the suspicions of the Old Right that these ideals cannot be achieved in defiance of human nature.

Insofar as I’m a socialist – a label which is still arguable, though perhaps not as arguable now as it once was – I would like to think myself a socialist in the same broad and non-dogmatic sense that Patriarch Saint Tikhon (Bellavin) of Moscow, Father Saint John (Sergiev) of Kronstadt, Father Saint Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre and Archbishop Saint John (Pommers) of Riga all were. All of these holy men were forthright, vocal and unapologetic in their support for the rights of labour against the depredations of capital. All four spoke to this support with their deeds in life, and not just their words. All four understood the need for concerted, collective political action in support of the poor, the infirm and the dispossessed – not merely private ‘charity’. All four publicly decried inequality and poverty, racism and bigotry, exploitation, usury and greed precisely as systemic social evils, as well as personal ones. These positions are consistent, in full, with the witness of the Holy Orthodox Church, and require no alteration. However, these same positions do preclude an embrace of materialism. All four of these modern saints would likely be described by modern commentators (such as Nadia Kizenko) as Christian socialists, but none of them can be justly described as Marxists.

Which is why I think it necessary also to look at the other side of their thinking. Apart from Archbishop Saint John of Riga, of whom I know only that the Marxists suspected him of monarchism whether he held to it or not, all of these Russian saints were also indeed committed monarchists and defended even the ‘Asian’ institution of the Tsarist autocracy. And this, in spite of – or, indeed, even because of – their service and connexion with the Church in the Americas. Both Saint Tikhon and Saint Alexis publicly prayed for the Russian Tsar, defended both him and his office to their flocks, and asked them to do the same. They did so, not naïvely, but after having known and experienced the deep republican sentiments and temperament of the American people, and the instinctive distrust they displayed to any sign of royalism. They saw in the Tsar and in the institution of monarchy one of the surest ways of restraining the greed of the wealthy and the pride of the powerful, provided the Tsar himself understood himself as a servant of Christ and a younger brother to the Church. Saint John Kronstadt, too, mourned the 1905 revolution against the Tsar, though he did not cease his political activism in its wake.

And even though these men were themselves much of the time on the move, the bishops in particular being transferred from one eparchy to the next, they encouraged their flocks to root themselves, to maintain their old traditions and resist assimilation (even while, if possible, learning the tongue most commonly used in their community), and to love their immediate neighbours. Saint Alexis of Wilkes-Barre and Archbishop Saint John of Riga both also preached sobriety, patience, modesty and stability in marriage to flocks in which discipline was lax.

I hope and pray these great and gracious saints of the Church will not be too offended by what I say, when I claim their memories and witnesses as relevant to a Western, Anglocentric political concept like Tory socialism or Tory radicalism. But they do offer, and offer strongly, a perspective which is deeply, even implacably, critical of liberal individualism and the capitalist ethos; a perspective which takes opportunities to show both material and moral support for the working class. At the same time, these saints have little patience or tolerance for the totalitarian presence which was making itself felt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, on either side of the political spectrum.

In memory of these saints and of others, I still think it’s necessary to call for a ‘third way’, a ‘personalist’ way and even (yes) a ‘socialist’ way – only if, however, we understand the snarl of ‘socialism’ in the mouths of our accusers in the same way Father Paisiy of The Brothers Karamazov did and, then, if we try to live in the way that Father Paisiy and Father Zosima (or these real-life saints!) did. When both sides of the liberal consensus are unravelling into madness in peculiarly illiberal ways, holding to sanity and stability becomes all the more pressing.

Holy Fathers Tikhon, Alexis, John and John, pray to God for us!

06 October 2017

Zhao the Orphan, reimagined as Tory jeremiad

I have recently been reading popular Yuan Dynasty zaju 雜劇. As my gentle readers will know, I was overcome by a slight bout of nostalgia about a month back, and began watching Maison Ikkoku again. (I was always more of a Ranma ½ fan, but I did occasionally pick up Maison also.) It struck me on this watch-through that it was a slightly-satirical modernisation of the caizi jiaren 才子佳人 tradition of Chinese literature, with a particular resemblance to the Yuan zaju, The Romance of the Western Bower 《西廂記》. In the same volume that I’ve been reading, there is a retelling of another, very different, Yuan zaju, Zhao the Orphan 《趙氏孤兒》. And I came across an interesting little historical tidbit related to the story that was certainly of interest to me, and I hope would also be of interest to my gentle readers.

In short, Zhao the Orphan is a grand tale of revenge. It begins with the descriptions of two ministers in the State of Jin 晉國, Zhao Dun 趙盾 and Tu’an Gu 屠岸賈, who were courtiers of the Duke of Jin, who was given to drunkenness, vapid entertainments and an opulent and lascivious lifestyle. He had a resentful and cruel personality, and thought nothing of torturing and killing servants and ladies who displeased him. Zhao Dun, the prime minister of Jin, missed no opportunity to remonstrate with the Duke on his cruelties and excesses; on the other hand, Tu’an Gu did everything to encourage the Duke in his dissolute habits, with the aim of taking the State of Jin for himself. Zhao Dun was righteous, but lacked caution – Tu’an Gu succeeded in framing him for an attempt on the Duke’s life, and ordered the extermination of the entire Zhao clan. Tu’an Gu oversaw a bloodbath which murdered 300 innocent Zhaos, and then moved against Zhao Dun’s son Zhao Shuo 趙朔, who was the brother-in-law of the Duke. He forged a letter ordering Zhao Shuo to commit suicide, leaving only his pregnant wife, the Duke’s older sister Zhuang Ji 莊姬. Tu’an Gu then made plans to murder the infant as soon as it was born; however, Zhuang Ji managed to smuggle her son out of the palace with the help of a maid, her family doctor Cheng Ying 程嬰 and a righteous general named Han Jue 韓厥. Han Jue, Zhuang Ji and her maid thereupon killed themselves to escape Tu’an Gu’s wrath.

Cheng Ying fled into the countryside, but Tu’an Gu published notices to the effect that if the Zhao orphan was not handed over to him within five days, he would send soldiers to kill all children under half a year old. Cheng Ying then drew up a ruse with Zhao Dun’s old friend from the court, the righteous official Gongsun Chujiu 公孫杵臼, to pass off his own infant son Bo, in place of the Zhao orphan. Gongsun Chujiu was taken and killed by Tu’an Gu, along with Cheng Bo, and the Zhao orphan – thought to be Cheng Bo – was taken into the Jin palace to be raised by Tu’an Gu jointly with Cheng Ying.

Cheng Ying taught the Zhao orphan letters and manners, while Tu’an Gu taught him the military arts. When the last of the Zhaos reached the age of twenty, Cheng Ying – omitting all of the names so that he would be believed – began to tell him about the tragedy of the Zhao family and the deaths of the righteous people who had fallen to save the orphan. Zhao, roused to indignation and fury by so grievous an injustice, asked where the last of the Zhaos could be found – and then at last it dawned on him that his ‘father’ was the doctor in the story, and that his ‘adopted father’ was the villain who had murdered his entire family. As the lecherous and cruel old Duke had died, Zhao the Orphan went to the new Duke Dao of Jin 晉悼公 (a better man than his predecessor), told his tale as he’d learnt it, and begged the right to take vengeance upon Tu’an Gu.

That’s the story, as scripted by Ji Junxiang, in the rough strokes. As can likely already be noticed, it explores, in a high tragic tone, the dialectic between the Confucian duties of family loyalty and justice absolute, with Cheng Ying and Han Jue being subjected to the greatest degree of tragic choice, left with no options but those which can bring disgrace, pain and death upon them. But the interesting historical tidbit is this: a full score years before Voltaire butchered the story with his adaptation, a more faithful French translation of Ji Junxiang’s opera had been made by a Jesuit priest named Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare.

Prémare’s French version, in turn, was adapted into English by William Hatchett – a Yorkshire actor, pamphleteer and possible lover of actress Eliza Haywood – who also happened to be a Jacobite sympathiser and a ‘violent Tory of the old school’. Hatchett’s The Chinese Orphan was written primarily as a scathing attack on the Whiggish prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, particularly for his high-handed treatment of Field-Marshal John Campbell, Second Duke of Argyll, who opposed the Walpole government’s increasing authority over the king, and was sacked for it. Hatchett’s royalist tweaking of Zhao the Orphan makes the Duke of Jin a much more sympathetic character, and attributes all of the wrongdoing to Tu’an Gu (who is renamed ‘Siako’ and clearly made to stand in for Walpole), whereas Zhao Dun and possibly Han Jue are meant to stand in for the Duke of Argyll. The Chinese Orphan was never performed, and indeed was not even published until 1741 – the year Walpole was to be dismissed.

Even though Hatchett makes a deliberate (and polemical) reversal of the ‘literary’ and ‘military’ noble roles in the play from Ji Junxiang’s original in order to drive home his domestic political point, it’s still an interesting early use of the ‘orientalist’ motif in Western European literature. (And – I will be blunt – one I’m much more sympathetic to than Voltaire’s, for blatantly partizan and political-philosophical reasons.) Perhaps once I’m done with my current reading, I’ll have to make a foray into Hatchett’s adaptation!

05 October 2017

Synaxis of the Holy Hierarchs of Moscow

The fifth of October is the feast on which we commemorate the holy hierarchs of Moscow, the foremost among whom are: Holy Father Pyotr, Aleksiy the Wonderworker and Holy Father Iona. It is worth considering on this day the manner by which Moscow came to be, through the caritative and social labours of these three saintly hierarchs, the ecclesiastical centre – confirmed over and over again in the history of the universal and conciliar Orthodox Church – of the Russkiy Mir, the world of the Rus’. To give an example that will illustrate the point herein, let us take an example from one of the great hierarchs commemorated today: the first Patriarch of Moscow, Saint Iov, who himself established this feast for the remembrance of his saintly predecessors Pyotr, Aleksiy and Iona.

Upon being elevated to the exalted status of Patriarch – the first time a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church was recognised on Russian lands – one of the first things Saint Iov did in his new office was to recognise officially two of Moscow’s ‘social justice’ saints: Blessed Basil, Fool-for-Christ, and Saint Iosif the Abbot. The subtext here is that Saint Iov, in spite of having been an official for much of his life, understood the essence of Muscovite spirituality as caritative. Both Saints Basil and Iosif represented an ideal of spirituality as care for the poor, sick and dispossessed – Basil to the point of absolute renunciation even of all social standing and claim to honour.

To her enemies and detractors, Moscow is a Jezebel – an ecclesiastical usurper, drunk on imperial power and mad with delusions of grandeur, an ‘Orwellian’ embellisher of history who paints herself up to ‘look more exotic, more like a great prize to be wooed at all costs’. But the first acts of the first Patriarch – who is attacked by the schismatic priest in First Things for his late arrival – show that characterisation to be a lie. Moscow became the centre of the Russian world – the Russkiy mir – through several twists of irony and tragedy, and the messiness of politics under the Mongol yoke. But she could not have stayed as the centre of that world if not for the kenotic holiness of the men who lived and worked there, despite being part of the chaos.

As long as we are speaking of timelines, here is a good one to remember. Moscow is an ancient city of Kievan Rus’ which predates the Mongol invasion. The city herself first appears in 1142, a small border outpost for Knyaz Yuri Long-Arm of Kiev and his son, Knyaz Saint Andrei of Vladimir. She was sacked when the Mongols invaded, and her inhabitants put to the sword. For a long time she was poor and rustic – a river fort in the lonely backwoods.

The political changes preceded the ecclesiastical ones, though the two of them were wrapped up in each other in typically-ironic ways. Kiev’s abdication of her own kenotic ethics for the ethics of pride and revenge became apparent when her Metropolitan Konstantin II, who had been insulted by the Bishop Fedor of Vladimir, had Fedor thrown in prison, and cruelly tortured, mutilated and killed. The half-Qypchaq Knyaz of Vladimir, no stranger to revenge himself, visited his wrath upon Kiev with fire, burning the town and not even leaving the churches intact. (Later chroniclers in Kiev would even call this episode a just punishment for the hubristic pride of their Metropolitan.) The ecclesiastical and sæcular power of Kiev had been irrevocably broken, and the ecclesiastical title of the Metropolitan of Kiev thereafter existed in name only.

How Moscow became the ecclesiastical centre of the Rus’ is a different story. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Athanasios I, whose predecessors had supervised all of the Metropolitans of Kiev to this point, was basically blackmailed into appointing a Galician to the post, as the princes of Galich were threatening to break off and form their own church. The Galician he chose, in the end, was a meek, gentle and generous monk named Pyotr.

Saint Pyotr’s ascension to the Metropolitanate of Kiev (located in Vladimir) was opposed by the Knyaz Mikhail of Tver, such that his life was endangered. Unsurprisingly, he asked for protection from the court of Ivan Kalita, then the Knyaz of Moscow, who was in good odour with the Mongol khaghans. Ivan, who could very well understand the benefits of sheltering the Metropolitan of Kiev, assented. On Saint Pyotr’s part, to be sure, this was very much a realist act of self-preservation in the face of princely persecution. But Saint Pyotr’s entire ministry thereafter was one of self-renunciation and peacemaking. In spite of his quarrels with Knyaz Mikhail, he worked relentlessly for the conciliation of the princes. He made a dangerous journey alone into the heart of the Mongol Horde to beg the khaghan to leave the Rus’ in peace and to allow the clergy of the Rus’ to attend to the people unmolested. His self-giving holiness was uncontested during his life, and after his repose his relics continued to work miracles. But the most important thing he did in terms of ecclesiastical politics, was to move the see of Kiev permanently into Moscow. Even though the Metropolitans of Kiev all still bore that title-of-honour, they lived, worked and died in Moscow from Saint Pyotr’s time forward.

Metropolitan Saint Aleksiy the Wonderworker was the third Metropolitan of Kiev to reside in Moscow, after Metropolitan Saint Pyotr and his successor Metropolitan Saint Theognostos, an ethnic Greek who also distinguished himself as a peacemaker with the Mongols and as a ‘social justice’ saint who worked to restore the city of Moscow after a devastating fire. Saint Aleksiy, a pupil and protégé of Saint Theognostos, continued very much in this tradition as a good student ought, healing the sick, calling for the princes to cast aside their petty quarrels, and making dangerous journeys – more than one – into Mongol territory to beseech them for lenience on behalf of the Church and on behalf of the people. The first three Muscovite Metropolitans all stand as models – not of political wheeling-and-dealing or of ideological wrangling or of the imperialistic hubris of which she now stands, along with her entire history, wrongly accused – but instead of meekness, true peacemaking and self-giving love. Such is the essence of Muscovite spirituality that Saint Iov pointed to, when he glorified Blessed Basil and Saint Iosif the Abbot.

But we come to the crux of the argument of the schismatic priest in First Things: that issue of the Metropolitan Isidore of Thessaloniki, that issue of the vacant seat, that issue of the kinda-sorta-maybe-canonical election of the saintly Metropolitan Iona to fill the vacancy of the Metropolitanate of Kiev and All Rus’. Metropolitan Isidore, who had attended the Council of Florence and there joined the Latin Church, perjured himself before the Church of the Rus’, attempted to impose an outward uniformity on them, and was promptly deposed by the bishops of the Church in Moscow. There was no Metropolitan of Kiev from 1441 to 1448, and it was only under the extremity of need that Saint Iona was selected – unanimously, and with the blessing in absentia of the Patriarch of Constantinople (whose office was at that time also contested). Saint Iona faced the same problems with the Mongols that his predecessors had, and like them, he used, not the weapons of empire, but the prayers of peace. He led a procession around the walls of Moscow, entreating the Most Holy Theotokos to protect the city and its people. Although the Mongols shot to death one holy monk, named Antonii, the city was spared when the Mongol ranks were miraculously thrown into confusion, and they left Moscow unmolested.

When Abbot Filofei of the Eleazarov Monastery in Pskov first floated the idea of the ‘Third Rome’ in reference to Moscow in 1510, he was not propounding a political theory. As Robert Crummey states, ‘[The Third Rome theory] contains no concrete political or diplomatic programme and no recommendations on the form which their government should take’. It was, indeed, a warning to the Tsars in Moscow that if they failed to uphold the caritative duties of Christians and their responsibilities as rulers to uphold social justice, an age of apostasy and apocalypse would follow: there will be no fourth. (Remember that Pskov is, along with Novgorod, considered one of the two centres of proto-democratic thought in Russia. Also, remember that Constantinople had fallen less than three generations before.) The later intentional misreading of the Third Rome theory, both by Moscow’s supporters and her enemies, as some sort of call to imperial power, is thoroughly off-base. The idea of the Third Rome carries a wholly moral dimension – the obligations of care and hospitality.

Despite what its sæcular leaders have done – and several conscientious historians, including Crummey and Fedotov, have upbraided those leaders thoroughly for their veniality and machiavellian cynicism – the Muscovite Church has always held forth this kenotic, caritative and peacemaking witness to the world. A dutiful and humble younger sister, the crown of the Church of All Rus’ was placed on her head precisely for her irenicism, through the Saints Pyotr, Aleksiy and Iona. And despite the lies and artfully-worded doubts that are thrown with monstrous injustice upon the entirety of the Muscovite legacy today, this kenosis and peaceable witness still shines forth. Today on the celebration of the Synaxis of the Hierarchs of Moscow, we ought to remember and embrace that witness.

Holy Saints, Fathers and Hierarchs Pyotr, Aleksiy, Iona, Filipp, Makariy, Iov, Germogen, Innokentiy, Filaret, Pyotr Krutitskiy, Tikhon and Makariy, pray to God for us sinners!
O Russian Hierarchs,
Guardians of the Apostolic tradition,
Firm pillars, guides of Orthodoxy,
Peter, Alexis, Jonah, and Philip,
Pray to the Lord of all,
To grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls.

04 October 2017


Chang’e 嫦娥

A happy Mid-Autumn Festival to all! 中秋節快樂!

One of the most popular Chinese observances, which (at least this year) falls in a ‘golden week’ along with National Day on the mainland, it’s a lunar holiday which is accompanied by the folk tale of the beauty Chang’e and her husband, the archer-hero Hou Yi.

There are many versions of the tale, but they follow the same basic story. In a Chinese farming village, a young girl named Chang’e 嫦娥 (or Heng’e 姮娥) caught the eye of Hou Yi 后羿, a boy from a neighbouring village who was skilled in archery. The two soon became sweethearts; later husband and wife. One day, instead of a single sun rising in the sky, ten suns rose, scorching the earth and threatening all life. Hou Yi volunteered to shoot down the suns, which he did – nine of them fell to his arrows, leaving only one sun in the sky. Later (possibly as a reward for saving the earth), Xiwangmu 西王母, the Queen Mother of the West, gave Hou Yi a pill that would make him immortal. Not wanting to spend an eternity without his beloved wife, he kept it at home in a box, and told Chang’e not to open it. He went out one day, and Chang’e got curious and opened the box, finding the pill inside just as Hou Yi got home. Startled, Chang’e swallowed the pill by accident, and began to float out the window. Hou Yi saw this and took out his bow to shoot her down, but he couldn’t bear to point an arrow directly at the woman he loved – so all of the arrows missed their mark. She floated straight up to the moon, where she stayed. Each year thereafter, the heartbroken Hou Yi would offer fruits and cakes – Chang’e’s favourite foods – as sacrifice to his wife’s memory.

The other versions of the tale that I’ve seen and heard differ in subtle ways. In some tellings, Hou Yi and Chang’e are already immortals, attendants of the Jade Emperor who are made mortal and sent down to earth as punishment for Hou Yi’s killing of the nine suns. In others, Chang’e swallows the pill of immortality to keep Hou Yi’s evil archery student, Peng Meng 逢蒙, from stealing it. In still others, Chang’e deliberately swallows the pill out of defiance of her husband. But the basic contours are the same. The story as a whole, in fact, reminds me strongly of Chesterton, and the ‘logic of Elfhame’ and the ‘doctrine of conditional joy’ which he explored. The story of Chang’e and Hou Yi appears to me to follow the same truly human kind of logic, West or East.
Touchstone talked of much virtue in an ‘if’; according to elfin ethics all virtue is in an ‘if’. The note of the fairy utterance always is, ‘You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word “cow”’; or ‘You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.’ The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.
The ‘conditional joy’ in the story of Chang’e and Hou Yi, the doctrines of Elfhame and the days of myth, highlight the very real, tangible and (seemingly) unconditional joys which the Mid-Autumn Festival itself celebrates. On any one day it might be that ten suns come up in the sky; thus, folk nowadays are grateful for the good weather they’ve had from the one. Hou Yi and his wife were mortal; folk take the opportunity to pray for long life and happiness. In swallowing the forbidden pill and becoming immortal, Chang’e found herself exiled from her husband and her hearth; folk are thankful for family and home. The bitter separation that Chang’e undergoes from her lover sweetens the moon cakes that folk now enjoy.

The enduring importance of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the ubiquity of the lunar symbolism surrounding it, shows that China (in spite of all her Sisyphean efforts in that direction) never truly rid herself of ‘feudal superstition’. So much the better. If you ask me, a little healthy superstition (and, for that matter, a little healthy feudalism) is just what we need to keep us sane and rooted. Once again, a very happy mid-autumn to one and all!

02 October 2017

Kingdom and commonwealth

The Greek word basileía βασιλεία can be correctly translated as ‘kingdom’, ‘sovereign realm’, ‘empire’ or (as we Americans tend to prefer, blasted republicans that we are) as ‘commonwealth’. Rather than griping too much about it, it’s worthy to dwell on the breadth of the meaning of the Greek word itself, because there is actually a good reason for the last translation. As our father among the Saints, Archbishop John the Golden-Tongued of Constantinople, put it:
The possessions of the Emperor, the city, the squares, and the streets, belong to all men, and we all use them in an equal degree. Look at the economy that God has arranged. He has created some things that are for everyone, including the air, sun, water, earth, heaven, sea, light, and stars, and He has divided them equally among all men, as if they were brothers. This, if nothing else, should shame the human race. The Emperor has made other things common to all, including the baths, cities, squares, and streets. There is not the slightest disagreement over this common property but everything is accomplished peacefully. If someone tries to take something and claim it as his own personal possession, then quarrels arise. It is as if the very forces of natures were complaining, and as if at that time when God was gathering them from everywhere they were trying with all their might to separate among themselves, to isolate themselves from each other, and to distinguish their own individual property by coldly saying that ‘this is yours but that is mine’. If this were true, quarrels and bitterness would arise, but where there is nothing of this sort neither quarrels nor disagreements occur. In this way we see that for us as well a common and not an individual ownership of things has been ordained, and that this is according to nature itself. Is not the reason that no one ever goes to court about the ownership of a public square the fact that this square belongs to all?
Saint John Chrysostom’s reading of the Imperial inheritance as public property of all people in the basileía, as common wealth, to be used for the common good, is actually taken from prior sources. It is a Christian radicalisation, in fact, of Seneca. It critically reorganises the Roman, pagan understanding of property in light of the rights and duties of the Emperor – by way of analogy to the providence of God. Byzantine autocracy (that is to say, the Christianised autocracy that took root after Emperor Saint Constantine) is, in fact, one of the main wellsprings of modern Christian social thought on the progressive income tax and the welfare state.

Modern leftists, ‘progressives’ and socialists borrow shamelessly from this inheritance – as well they ought to do. Quotes from Saint Basil, Saint Gregory and Saint John Chrysostom are rightly common among ‘progressive’ Orthodox and Latin Christians. There is much worth borrowing from them. Far less admirable, though, is the failure to acknowledge that the radically-Christianised aristocratic principle, the idea of noblesse oblige found in the Gospel of Saint Luke (but hardly limited to that!), is in fact the source of this Patristic thinking that they claim to value. The insistence on retaining the old equity-inspiring values and norms of the early Christian world would ring a lot more true, if they actually respected that early Christian world and its political thought, rather than writing it off as so much oppressive ‘despotism’.

In doing that, such leftists and ‘progressives’ retread the conscious rejection of Byzantine political thought in Whiggish classical-liberal and proto-libertarian quarters in the nineteenth century. They ignore the history of leftist ideas in modernity, as rooted in royal initiatives against a rising bourgeoisie. And they rob their own side of a critical dimension of historical awareness, a dimension that could still be useful in actually promoting ‘progressive’ policies.

I’ve pointed out before that the polities that generally take the best care of their people – that assure the great bulk of them of a decent and civilised existence, at least in œconomic terms – are either constitutional monarchies of the northern European variety, or else ‘illiberal’ post-communist ‘hybrid’ states. Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom was not being naïve or haphazard when he appealed to the property of the Emperor to make his case for the common weal. Concrete expressions of everyday social solidarity actually do matter a great deal more than slogans (or elections, or partizan invective). Keeping in mind that all of the Three Holy Hierarchs were, on some level, educated Christian Platonists, it’s necessary for leftists to begin to adapt at least some of the Socratic-Platonic scepticism of democracy for themselves, if they want to preserve the egalitarian goals they claim to stand for.