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.