21 August 2017

Dustup in Dok-La


Given my interests in geopolitics in general, Asia in general and China in particular, the gentle reader may with some justification ask: where the hell have you been all this time on the Dok-La question? You delivered yourself of some fairly strong opinions on North Korea of late! Are you simply indulging an America-centric view of the world which ignores problems in which America has no direct stake?

There is some justice to these charges – particularly the last one. It’s true, I don’t read or speak Dzongkha or Hindi, and thus haven’t been as nearly exposed to one entire side of the dispute. It also hasn’t appeared as urgent to me as the threat of a nuclear war, which has since fizzled out into yet another by-this-point paint-by-numbers predictable domestic squabble inside the Trump Administration. But, in my own defence, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been following the story, that I don’t have any stake in it, or that I don’t have my own views on the subject.

My familial ties to China are well-known at this point. But I do also have a significant sympathy for Bhutan, for political-philosophical as well as cultural reasons. I have written before with guarded praise for the idea of the Gross National Happiness, an idea pioneered by King-Father Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan. Following David Bentley Hart’s excellent essay, I posted this comment to Facebook in June of last year:
Bhutan does have very strong environmental protections and is carbon-negative.

Not mentioned in the video is that it is also a traditionalist, monarchical and confessional state (though not a theocracy) which places a strong emphasis on retaining local traditions.
Which I then followed up with:
[With the exception of its treatment of the Nepalis,] Bhutan’s kind of got it together. Environmentally-friendly, Anglophile, traditional agrarian kingdom in the middle of South Asia. Doesn’t go stirring up trouble with India or China, but basically minds its own business and leaves everybody else alone. Conserves over 50% of its land area with federal park protections and state ownership. Has a distributist, scale-free œconomy and mostly trades locally (something like 83% of its trade is with India, and much of the rest with China and South Korea). Exports sustainable energy. Doesn’t put emphasis on growth-at-all-costs.
Even though they are a confessional monarchy belonging to the same branch of Buddhism as their northerly neighbours in Tibet, and even though the Bhutanese people deeply respect Tenzin Gyatso as a religious leader, both they and their political leadership tend to turn off the Dalai show when the subject of Tibetan politics arises. That’s probably not surprising, given that Tibet historically treated Bhutan and her kings as subservient clients, giving them fewer political considerations than Tibet herself received from the Qing Chinese government. Little wonder, given this history, that they treat the cause of Tibetan independence with so little sympathy (and Tibetan white émigrés with a certain degree of scepticism).

That very history, actually, is precisely the background one needs to have in order to understand Bhutan’s seemingly-complex interests in Dok-La. Like the Qazaqs, Bhutan’s people understand perfectly well the perils that come from being a small country wedged between two regional great powers, and the strategy they embrace is a parallel one: retain close and friendly diplomatic ties with both, but never too close with either one.

In general, then, but certainly in Dok-La and the Tri-Junction, Bhutan has several key interests at stake which must here be enumerated:
  1. Bhutan is simply not going to relinquish her territorial claims to the area. Not only is this in her own national interest, it’s also simply good strategy. It would set a bad precedent if she yielded a historical claim to a much larger territorial power on her border.

  2. Even less than contesting territory with China, Bhutan does not appreciate having her foreign policy essentially usurped by India – this is the part that reminds Bhutanese all too much of their days as a de facto vassal state of Tibet.

  3. Bhutan does not want a war between India and China. In particular, she does not want a war between India and China on her own territory. And she does not want to lose key elements of her national sovereignty to the victor in such a conflict.
Sadly, in the current situation, Bhutan has become something of a political football between Chinese and Indian great power interests. There is far more to be said on the subject, of course. Modi’s aggressive, religiously-tinged revisionist brand of Indian nationalism is obviously not helping matters, and is pushing things in a predictable direction. And Japan’s LDP government acting as an accelerationist element on India’s behalf, unctuous and disgusting as it is, is obviously no surprise to me either. But for the present, for Bhutan’s own sake, it’s necessary to look for and work for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Dok-La.


EDIT: I seem to have made a fairly egregious omission, which would leave the reader with the wrong impression if taken the wrong way. Bhutan has been continuously independent since the 900’s at the very latest, although the country has had a treaty of friendship with India since 1949 that allowed the latter to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. Tibet and India have at various times in history exerted strong influences on Bhutan’s culture and politics, but never to the point of establishing total suzerainty over them. Still, Bhutan has jealously guarded her own independence from both nations for at least 1100 years, and they aren’t about to start compromising now. More power to the Dragon Kingdom.

19 August 2017

Alt-right? All ‘lite’


From The Death of Major Peirson, John Singleton Copley, 1783

It’s as I’ve been saying for awhile now. My biggest problem with the nouvelle nouvelle-droite, or the ‘alt-right’, is that they’re philosophically weak. I believe I had them pegged as a ‘rancid mixture of free-speech absolutism, postmodernism and white identity politics’; to that I’d add that they haven’t gone anywhere far enough down their rabbit hole. Certainly not as much as they like to pretend they have. Nothing bores so much as a poseur, and the ‘alt-right’ are pretty much all low-calorie fizzy drinks.

Think about it this way. If the ‘edgiest’ thing they have on offer is the idea that the races are not equal, then there’s no real difference between the views they’re offering and the original formulations of, say, Kant or Hume (and arguably Locke as well, though it seems from the primary sources that Locke was less doctrinaire in his ‘race realism’ – or at the very least inconsistent in it). Kant and Hume both posited ‘scientific’ hierarchies of the races, which look remarkably similar to those proposed by the ‘human biodiversity’ people today – with whites being blessed with superior intelligence and blacks with inferior intelligence but greater ‘brute’ strength. So, if anything, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite are really just peddling weak tea from the used teabags of the original Enlightenment. If your only, or even most prominent, objections to Enlightenment liberalism are based on race, then you don’t actually have any.

The easiest way to understand the fundamental insipidity of the alt-right and the milquetoast, limpwristed nature of their intellectual pretensions to ‘reaction’, lies in the confluence of the alt-right’s intellectual lodestones with transhumanism, eugenicism and technological utopianism, primarily through the LessWrong crowd. The fact that there are so few teleological differences between the alt-right’s ideal society and the ideal society most ‘progressive’-minded Americans of the 1910’s and 1920’s envisioned, should drop a massive hint that these guys are all guff. There’s very little of Voegelin’s belief in epistemic limitations in any of the nouvelle nouvelle-droite, less of the characteristic caution of Kirk (whom Vox Day, speaking for the alt-right, explicitly rejects), still less of the ‘small-is-beautiful’ sensibility of Carlson, and nothing at all of the tragic classical sensibilities of Strauss or Bloom. For someone whose introduction to the American tradition of classical conservatism was through the anti-fascist poet and historian Peter Viereck, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite strikes me as so thoroughly lacking in any of the vital, creative or self-reflective elements of this tradition as to be a complete non-starter.

Then, consider that the opposition to the growing infatuation with Enlightenment ideas at the time was basically on the other side of the contemporary argument about race. The Anglo-American Tory moralist tradition (represented by such people as Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteous, Richard Oastler, John Strachan, William Wilberforce, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, enriched by dialogue and practical coöperation with the Quakers) proceeded from the belief that black people were not ontologically inferior to whites. And all of these people, in one way or another, were also strident critics of what they saw as a sustained assault by Scottish and French philosophes on the traditional social strictures of Church and state.

But to these voices were joined, on the Continent, the Counter-Enlightenment thinking of – in particular – Johann Gottfried Herder (‘Notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth’), Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (who took an admirable linguistic interest in South Asia) and August Franz von Haxthausen (a devout Catholic and counter-Enlightenment thinker, whose sociological work in the German East and in Russia was aimed squarely against the anti-Asiatic racism of Custine). The work of the Orthodox Slavophils, in particular Khomyakov with his opposition to British imperialism in China, may be seen in this vein as well. Clearly there was something in the return to the Church that both the Anglo-American Tories and the Continental Counter-Enlightenment thinkers that strongly militated against racism and colonialism.

As a brief aside: poor Schlegel is emphatically not to blame for that later, perverse Franco-German interest in South Asia. Schlegel, like Tolkien later, was interested not in race ‘science’ but instead in linguistics, and attempted to show how European languages, and ‘Eastern’ Indo-Iranian languages like Sanskrit and Farsi, derive from a common root language. Rather, that Franco-German perversion is what happens when you try to bastardise the Romantics by attempting to fit them into pseudo-scientific categories of thought, of the sort pioneered by Carl Linnæus.

But let’s consider a group of ‘alt’-thinkers who actually did threaten the thought-establishment – to the point where the CIA took actions against them. Whatever their other faults, it is not an accident, and should not be seen as such, that many of the twentieth-century voices for pan-African regionalism and the non-aligned movement migrated to Apostolic Christianity – likely following the example of Broad Church Anglican convert and abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. Many were either Roman Catholic (Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Kambarage Nyerere) or Orthodox (HM Haile Selassie I, Bp. George Alexander McGuire, Fr. Raphael Morgan, Bp. Christophoros Reuben Spartas Mukasa Mugimba Ssebanja). These pioneers of African political philosophy and religious thought saw clearly the links between liberal Enlightenment thinking and the oppression they were then still under, and hearkened instead to the classics of Christian thought, which offered a far truer account of the human person and the virtue-oriented potential for freedom.

Speaking of the last, the great classical virtue-ethical philosopher Plotinus was born on the African continent, and should rightly be considered as much part of the legacy of Africa as of the West. The ‘conservative, reactionary and right-wing’ (in the elder sense) Imperial British poet Lawrence Durrell even made reference to Plotinus’ ‘great square Negro head, reverberating with the concept of God’! Take special care to see that it’s a British Old Rightist speaking up against the notion of black intellectual inferiority, in the context of the classical Western world.

To tie all this up: this recent comment from the excellent modern-day Roman Catholic High Tory commentator, David Lindsay, not only rings especially true, not only echoes Herder and not only cuts straight against the current gender-ideological and identitarian silliness on both sides of the political moment, but it is fixed quite firmly in the spirit of Johnson’s High Toryism. A spirit I profoundly endorse.
Any two human beings, no matter how divergent their ethnicity, can produce a child. Provided that one of them is a man, and the other is a woman.

All human beings belong, not only to a single species, but to a single subspecies, with less biological difference between any two than there is between a Labrador and a
dachshund. The differences that there are, have been changing constantly ever since they first began to emerge, since they have not always been there.

But the difference between the two sexes has always been there, and it is written into the chromosomes of every cell of the body, no matter how the tissue may or may not be cut up.

On the first of these realisations depends every past and future achievement of the anti-racist movement. On the second depends every past and future achievement of the women’s movement. There must be no compromise on either as a matter of political principle. There actually can be no compromise on either as a matter of scientific fact.
Well said indeed.

17 August 2017

Silly rabbit, Dixie’s for Whigs


Some further thoughts on Charlottesville here.

This war over Confederate statuary is in fact a war over symbols that themselves do not stand up to scrutiny. The defenders of Confederate statuary sadly continue to play-act as defenders of a deep Southern ‘tradition’, ‘roots’, ‘heritage’, ‘pride’. It is on this basis that they appeal to elements like the right-wing protesters that met at C-ville this past weekend. Meanwhile, the boosters of removal, such as Black Lives Matter, continue to pretend that the war was solely a contest between progress and slavery, humanity and racism.

The thing is, the entire war over Confederate symbolism, is two separate movements of organised forgetting. This organised forgetting has absolutely nothing to do either with defending real traditions, or with advancing true racial equity. It has everything to do with two competing idealisations of what the American experiment ought to have been. Because the devil’s often in the details, reality sadly gets short shrift between these two.

Allow me to present two or three very inconvenient facts about the geopolitics and ‘big principles’ behind the Civil War. The first inconvenient fact is that the Confederate cause was sustained overwhelmingly by British guns, and thus by the largest imperialistic military-industrial apparatus of the day – and that at the behest of Britain’s Liberal Party, whose leadership (Palmerston and Gladstone) were enthusiastic supporters of the Confederacy, for wholly mercenary œconomistic reasons. The British material support for the Confederacy was based on the entirely natural presupposition that, with the war’s close, the American South would provide raw materials for British industry and British capital. The American South was poised to become a willing outpost of what was, at that point in history, the most ‘progressive’ liberal-internationalist maritime empire the world had ever seen.

Among the Tories of the day, among whom interest in the Civil War overall was much less pronounced, Benjamin Disraeli was far more circumspect and opposed any intervention (military or œconomic) in the American Civil War; and while Lord Salisbury did support the South in private, he thought nonetheless that the Liberal commitment of materiel (let alone British naval power) was foolish. It might be somewhat simplistic to say that the mercantile, business-loving Whigs favoured pro-Confederate intervention, while the landowning, genteel Tories favoured non-intervention – but from an investigation of the secondary literature, that isn’t a bad overall characterisation of the British political landscape between 1861 and 1865.

The second inconvenient fact is that the Union’s best friend in Europe during the Civil War was not a force for democracy or radicalism or ‘progress’ at all, but indeed the last true autocracy there: the Imperial Russia of Tsar Aleksandr II. The reasons for this support and show of friendship for the Union from Russia were grounded, not in ideology, but instead in geopolitics and classical realism. Lincoln had stood for the principle of state sovereignty over the Polish question while the Western European powers howled for ‘humanitarian intervention’. Tsar Aleksandr II, by sending a fleet to defend San Francisco from Confederate raiders, was returning the favour: supporting the principle of state sovereignty whilst thwarting British and French designs in the Western Hemisphere. True, Lincoln’s intention to emancipate the slaves appealed to the Slavophil sensibility and to Aleksandr’s ‘reformist-autocratic’ personality. But it’s hard to tell whether these concerns were ever placed on the front burner, so to speak. Geopolitics was complicated even back then.

Now, let’s talk about Lincoln himself. Time was when I considered Lincoln an overrated president, but the more I read about him, the more respect I have for him. Partizans of Confederate honour – particularly those adhering to an idealistic libertarian œconomic philosophy that historically had nothing to do with conservatism – tend to characterise Lincoln as a ‘tyrant’, or else a ‘despot’ or an ‘emperor’. But ‘tyrant’ is the word of choice that gets plastered all over the place among the Lost Cause partizans, whether at Lew Rockwell’s site or the Ludwig von Mises Institute or elsewhere.

But it’s common for liberal idealists of the centre-left as well to label anyone who dissents from neoliberal œconomic or geopolitical ‘consensus’, particularly from a realist view determined by genuine national interest, as an ‘authoritarian’. Why should we be surprised to hear the same from the liberal idealists of the right, about a leader who dissented from the liberal free-trade empire of the day? That’s reason enough to give Lincoln a second view. A more balanced, realist and (I dare say) High Tory understanding of Lincoln would look much more like that given to us by the last generation’s dean of conservative foreign-policy realism in America, Hans Morgenthau:
Statesmen, especially under contemporary conditions, may well make a habit of presenting their foreign policies in terms of their philosophic and political sympathies in order to gain popular support for them. Yet they will distinguish with Lincoln between their “official duty”, which is to think and act in terms of the national interest, and their “personal wish”, which is to see their own moral values and political principles realized throughout the world. Political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible—between what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place.
The partizans of Confederate statuary claim that removing the statues is tantamount to ‘erasing history’. I would argue that they’re already doing a bang-up job of that on their own, without any help from BLM or the Antifas or anyone else – and they’re doing it by creating glib narratives that seek to link up the money-driven aims of the Confederacy with grander causes. But – whether in Britain or in Russia – the forces of the Old Right wanted nothing to do with the Confederacy, which they rightly saw as an ideological experiment every bit as suspect as the Revolution which had preceded it.

16 August 2017

Plato on democracy, tyranny and freedom

‘Does tyranny come from democracy in about the same manner as democracy from oligarchy?’

‘How?’

‘The good that they proposed for themselves,’ I [Socrates] said, ‘and for the sake of which oligarchy was established, was wealth, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘And then the greediness for wealth and the neglect of the rest [of the people] for the sake of money-making destroyed it.’

‘True,’ [Adeimantus] said.

‘And does the greediness for what democracy defines as good also dissolve it?’

‘What do you say it defines that good to be?’

‘Freedom,’ I said. ‘For surely in a city under a democracy you would hear that this is the finest thing it has, and that for this reason it is the only
régime worth living in for anyone who is by nature free.’

‘Yes indeed,’ he said, 'that’s an often repeated phrase.’

‘Then,’ I said, 'as I was going to say just now, does the insatiable desire of this [freedom] and the neglect of the rest [of moderation, shame, order] change this
régime and prepare a need for tyranny?’

‘How?’ he said.

‘I suppose that when a democratic city, once it’s thirsted for freedom, gets bad winebearers as its leaders and gets more drunk than it should on this unmixed draught, then, unless the rulers are very gentle and provide a great deal of freedom, it punishes them, charging them with being polluted and oligarchs.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what they do.’

‘And it spatters with mud those who are obedient, alleging that they are willing slaves of the rulers and nothings,’ I said, 'while it praises and honours—both in private and in public—the rulers who are like the ruled and the ruled who are like the rulers. Isn’t it necessary in such a city that freedom spread to everything?’

‘How could it be otherwise?’

‘And, my friend,’ I said, ‘for it to filter down to the private houses and end up by anarchy’s being planted in the very beasts?’

‘How do we mean that?’

‘That a father,’ I said, ‘habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents—that’s so he may be free; and metic is on an equal level with townsman and townsman with metic, and similarly with the foreigner.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what happens.’

‘These and other small things of the following kind come to pass,’ I said. ‘As the teacher in such a situation is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers, as well as of their attendants. And, generally, the young copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds while the old come down to the level of the young; imitating the young, they are overflowing with faculty and charm, and that’s so that they won’t seem to be overbearing and despotic.’

‘Most certainly,’ he said.

[…]

‘Then, summing all of these things together,’ I said, ‘do you notice how tender they make the citizens’ soul, so that if someone proposes anything that smacks in any way of slavery, they are irritated and can’t stand it? And they end up, as you well know, paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all.’

‘Of course, I know it,’ he said.

‘Well then, my friend,’ I said, ‘this is the beginning, so fair and heady, from which tyranny in my opinion naturally grows.’

‘It surely is a heady beginning,’ he said, ‘but what’s next?’

‘The same disease,’ I said, ‘as that which arose in the oligarchy and destroyed it, arises also in this
régime—but bigger and stronger as a result of the licence—and enslaves democracy. And really, anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction—in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, in particular, not least in régimes.’
- Plato, The Republic (562a-e, 563d-564a)

15 August 2017

To be sure


At the Divine Liturgy for the Dormition of the Theotokos earlier this morning, the reading was from the Gospel of Saint Luke. It was the story of Mary and Martha, and a segment afterwards from when Jesus healed a dumb man possessed by a dæmon, that a ‘certain woman from the crowd’ praised Jesus highly, by way of praising His mother the Theotokos: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!

From my time as a Mennonite and then as an Anglican, I have been accustomed to hearing Jesus reply to the woman from the crowd with a kind of rabbinical rebuke – a sort of pietistic tut-tutting to an all-too-worldly woman who would be so gauche as to mention wombs and breasts in her praise of Him. Jesus would always say to her, ‘rather’ or ‘but’ or even ‘on the contrary’! It was as if Jesus was attempting to deny or to downplay the biological facts of His birth, the particular place and person from which He came – in favour of a more ‘spiritualised’ and otherworldly understanding of what it means to be ‘blessed’. But that was not what I heard today from the Gospel as it was read aloud at Saint Herman’s! This time, Christ replied to the woman:
To be sure, and blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it!
To be sure!’ The Greek word μενουν can mean ‘but’, but it very rarely occurs at the beginning of a sentence the way it does in the Gospel of Saint Luke. Christ was not contradicting or correcting or rebuking the woman from the crowd. Still less was He denying His mother or ungratefully downplaying her care for Him. The μενουν here means ‘and moreover’ – the KJV comes closest to the meaning with the phrasing ‘Yea, rather’. ‘To be sure!

I have to admit that that was a bit of a shock to my system. Jesus’ relationship with His mother was kind of transfigured there, just as He himself was transfigured a week ago. There was a much greater warmth in Jesus’ words this morning, not just to His mother, but also to the ‘certain woman from the crowd’ who praised Him (and her also). Jesus was adding to her praise, glorifying His mother for the one act by which she brought Him into the world. Because she had heard the word of God, and she said ‘yes’ to it! ‘Be it unto me according to thy word.

But she was no angel, no cælestial power or principality, no goddess nor demi-goddess of the sort the Greeks were used to acknowledging, nor was she at all like Leda or Europa or Alcmene or any of the other mortal consorts (mostly unwilling or unwitting) of Zeus. Like them, though, she was a mortal human being, a woman in every meaningful way like the woman from the crowd who praised her Son and blessed her womb and breasts – though one who was a virgin and remained one even in childbearing. But she was no passive agent, no mere consort. She was not hoodwinked. Her free will was never violated in any way. Through that freely-given and knowing ‘yes’ of hers, in bearing God Incarnate unto the world, she had – in some mysterious sense, a sense defying the logic of time and space and the reality of death – some hand even in the first Creation. In that way, to be sure, being the Mother of God she is the Mother of us all, the Mother of Life itself.

But because she was no angel nor any sort of cælestial being, but every bit as much a woman as the ‘certain woman from the crowd’ who called out to Jesus – that is to say, every bit as much a human being as any of the rest of us her children through Christ – there is something of a warning and a reminder in that ‘to be sure’: to us, to warn us from thinking wrongly of the Theotokos. That is why we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, rather than the Assumption. We do not hold that Mary was somehow more than human in nature. Her advantage over us sinners, is that she actually did hear the word of God and kept it; and then went on to bear Christ, to care for Christ, to feed Christ, to love Christ the Son of God as her own son. She was not preserved from toil or weariness or worry or the bitterness of sorrow, seeing her Son crucified on the Cross and suffering the death that every single one of us is subject to. And at her end, she was not preserved from falling asleep herself.

They speak wrongly, and unworthily, of the Theotokos who say that she was transported to Heaven without first falling asleep. To be sure, she was taken to Heaven, living in body and spirit. But by making the Ever-Virgin Mary something ontologically more-than-human, they lessen her humanity and they lessen (every bit as much as the predestinarians) the honour which is rightly due to her, that she freely chose to hear the word of God and keep it. By ‘forgetting the body’ of the Ever-Virgin Theotokos in the wrong way (and thus daring to do what Christ did not, in correcting or contradicting the woman from the crowd), they actually do her a grave injustice. It then becomes all-too-easy to forget that she was Jewish; that she was a woman of Nazareth; that she was working-class; that she was a subject of the Roman Empire and their Herodean client kings; that her father and mother Saints Joachim and Anna remembered the Hasmonean Kingdom with fondness and no doubt prayed for its restoration. In short, in forgetting the Dormition it becomes easier to forget the Theotokos as she was: an obedient daughter, a loving mother, a humble woman magnified by her love.

To be sure: she was every single one of those things.
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos,
The unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection.
As Mother of Life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb
Transposed her to life.

The Dormition of the Mother of God

Въ рождествѣ дѣвство сохранила еси,
Во успеніи міра не оставила еси, Богородице,
Преставилася еси къ животу, Мати сущи Живота:
И молитвами Твоими избавляеши отъ смерти души наша.

In giving birth you preserved your virginity,
In falling asleep you did not forsake the world, O
Theotokos!
You were translated to life, O Mother of Life,
And by your prayers you deliver our souls from death.

13 August 2017

Saint Tikhon the Wonderworker of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh and Elets


Saint Tikhon, Bishop and Wonderworker

One of the easier reads I’ve done this year – easy, but by no means ‘light’ or shallow; it was full of profundity and wisdom – was Journey to Heaven: Counsels on the Particular Duties of Every Christian (original title: «Наставления о личных обязанностях каждого христианина»), a collection of writings and homilies by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh. Saint Tikhon, an academically-trained philosopher and rhetorician, offered up in his writings the truths of Christian doctrine, written (and presumably spoken) in a way that ordinary folk can easily grasp. This sterling simplicity – by no means indicative of a lack of learning or, worse, condescension – was one of the marks that earned him the moniker of ‘the Russian Chrysostom’. The other such mark was, of course, his steadfast sympathy and solidarity with the poor.

That solidarity came very easily and naturally to Bishop Saint Tikhon, of course. He had been poor himself, and had come from a poor family. Born Timofei in 1724 in the small village of Korotsko in the Valdai Hills southeast of Veliky Novgorod, his father, a sexton named Savelii Kirillov, died when he was still a very young child, leaving his family in dire financial straits. He was one of six children growing up in the house of their widowed mother, who, when the family had nothing at all to eat, considered giving Timofei up for adoption to a rich but childless coachman who lived nearby. However, his eldest brother Piotr intervened and implored their mother not to give him up, believing little Timofei to be better-suited to reading and writing than to being a coachman, however rich.

That belief was well-placed. The Kirillovs had to work hard, long days for even meagre food in the fields of richer peasants, young Timofei included. Timofei’s mother enrolled him in the parish school to keep him from being conscripted for the military by the government of Empress Anna; there he had to work in the vegetable gardens in order to earn his tuition – and the rest of his time he spent in study. His schoolmates made fun of him and mocked him, both for his serious and scholarly bent and for his ragged clothes. However, he passed his examinations in the top fifth of his class and earned a state grant to study at seminary in Novgorod. There he gained a deep knowledge of Greek, classical philosophy and rhetoric as well as church learning. He finished his course of study in 1754 and became a lecturer.

His hagiography shows that two incidents from his life as a student left a deep impression on him. At one time he went up to an old, decrepit bell-tower and leaned over the railing, only to be shoved backwards by an unseen force and thrown clear just as the railing gave way, saving him from a deadly fall. At another time, when he was studying at night, he saw the heavens open up and felt a light shining on him. After leaving school he became a monk, and took the tonsure under the name of Tikhon, and was appointed the rector of his monastery on account of his learning. He was the first to give lectures on theology in the vernacular Russian rather than in Latin, and his plain manner of speaking and the topics he would speak on drew such interest that he drew crowds from outside the monastery.

At this time, at Peterburg, the Synod was deciding on a new bishop for Novgorod, and they threw lots. Saint Tikhon’s name was providentially drawn three times in succession. When he came to Novgorod, he received the local clergy with joy and love – among them several of the students who had teased him at school, whom he readily forgave. He found his eldest sister, sick and impoverished, living there in Novgorod – he tended her during her last days with a younger brother’s love, and when she died he tended to her funeral. It is said that she smiled to him from her coffin.

His tenure at Novgorod was not long – he was soon transferred to Voronezh in Russia’s southeast, a see where, in his words, ‘the harvest was great, but the workers few’. Voronezh was a vast but poorly-organised see with few clergy, lax discipline and a populace in which the dvoe verie was still quite strong. The young bishop set to work with zeal, often on horseback. Caring deeply about the education of the common folk, setting up schools was one of his priorities. He also castigated the local nobility and wealthy peasantry and exhorted them to share what they had with the poor. However, he is renowned for delivered a fiery homily impromptu, to break up a heathen festival to Yarila in the square at Voronezh. In addition to this, knowing the state of his bishopric, he wrote prodigiously for the benefit and edification of the clergy and the laity, often staying up very late nights at his desk.

He himself was remarkably kind to the poor. Remembering his own childhood in poverty, he distributed his possessions, the gifts he received, and even his own pension to those who needed money and even shared his supper with those who had nothing to eat. He went out into the town clothed as an ordinary monk, to ask which townsfolk were in need of assistance, and even gathered orphans and poor children to him to share bread and give small change to them. He loved to be of service, particularly to the people of the town of Elets and to the peasantry who lived around the monastery of Zadonsk. When someone was injured or fell ill, the saint often let them recuperate in his own bed.

As an abbot, he maintained good friendships with the monks as well as with notables outside, but he led a fairly austere life. The workers at the monastery, who didn’t understand his discipline, would sometimes laugh at him, but Saint Tikhon would take it in stride. He sometimes stayed with the laymen Iakov Rostovtsev and Kuzma Sudeikin. At one time, he saw the schemamonk Mitrophan – one of his good friends at the abbey – dining together with Kuzma: even though it was Lent, they were eating fish, since Kuzma would not be with them on Palm Sunday. The two men were frightened and ashamed, but Saint Tikhon did not rebuke them. Instead he told them, ‘love is higher than fasting’, and shared the fish with them to put their minds at rest. Toward novices and toward other laymen he was similarly lenient, forgiving and understanding, even though he kept a strict ascetic discipline himself. He often advised parents not to let their children become monks, particularly not at early ages – though he was equally ready to put great trust in new monastics whose devotion was genuine.

Saint Tikhon acquired the gifts of healing and foresight through his humility, though he was careful not to publicise them. He healed one of his cell attendants who had a serious illness, with the words: ‘Go, and God have mercy upon you’. He had several visions of the Holy Theotokos, and prophesied several important events, including the victory of Russia over Napoleon’s armies in 1812.

As he neared his end, Saint Tikhon withdrew almost completely into solitude, permitting no one to see him except his close friends and cell attendants. One night he heard a quiet voice speak in his ear: ‘Your end will be on the Lord’s Day’; and at another time: ‘Labour yet another three years.’ Fifteen months before his death he was stricken with paralysis; at this time he had a vision of having to climb toward Heaven upon a ladder, with many people behind him encouraging him and lifting him upwards. These people, he knew, were the people who had heard him and who would remember his life.

He reposed on 13 August, 1783 – a Sunday. The new bishop of Voronezh presided at his funeral, and mentioned in his eulogy that no matter how hard his passing would be for him, it would be yet harder for the unfortunate, poor and oppressed – at which point he and all those listening to him broke into sobs. However, the schemamonk Mitrophan had a vision of Saint Tikhon’s glorification, and his relics were uncovered in 1845 and discovered to be incorrupt. He was formally glorified in 1861.

Reading Saint Tikhon’s writings, it is easy to understand how deeply appreciated he must have been. But even more so when one considers that he lived in an age where sæcular learning and humility didn’t often coincide in one person, and in which most learned men didn’t bother to write or preach in Russian. Fedotov did not write about holy men from the early modern period, though I suspect – given his work on earlier periods – that the historian would see in him a sterling example of the kenotic spirituality that was strongest among the Novgorodian clergy. From Journey to Heaven, here are several of the better quotes I found. This one is on the providence and great love of God:
God is our provider. He takes thought for us and cares for us. He gives us our food, clothing and home. His sun, moon and stars give us light. His fire warms us and we cook our food with it. His water washes us and refreshes us. His beasts serve us. His air enlivens us and keeps us alive. In a word, we are surrounded with His blessings and love, and without them we are not able to live for a moment. Then how can we not love God who loves us so? We love a man who does good; all the more should we love God Who does good, Whose we are and everything we may possess. All creation, and man himself is God’s possession. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.’
On love of neighbour, as a sign of love for God:
A sign of love for God is love for neighbour.

He who truly loves God also loves his neighbour. He who loves the lover loves what is loved by him. The source of love for neighbour is love for God, but the love of God is known from love of neighbour. Hence it is apparent, that he who does not love his neighbour, does not love God either.

As the Apostle teaches: ‘If a man say, I love God, but hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen? And this commandment we have from Him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.’

These are the signs of love for God hidden in the heart of a man.
On God’s mercy and forgiveness of sins:
Do not despair of whatever sins you may have committed since Baptism and find yourself in true repentance, but await God’s mercy. However many and however great and however burdensome your sins may be, with God there is greater mercy. Just as His majesty is, so likewise is His mercy.
On the differential duties of rich and poor:
Works of mercy are exalted before the whole world by Christ, the just Judge and in other places in Holy Scripture. Christian! If you wish to partake of this blessedness, be merciful and generous to the poor.

Do you have much? Then give much. Do you have little? Then give a little, but give from the heart. Alms are not judged by the number of what is given, but by the zeal of the giver,
for God loveth a cheerful giver. Now you give into the hands of the poor man and the pauper, but you will receive a hundredfold from the hands of Christ. Then give, and do not be afraid. What is given shall not be lost, for He that promised is faithful.

Many Christians do not think that alms receive such a great reward and either guard their property like watchmen or they squander it on their whims and luxuries. Hoarded property will be left to strangers, and often even falls into the hands of enemies. What is squandered into whims and luxury perishes, as you see for yourself, O man! But both of these, hoarders and squanderers, are not only deprived of blessedness, but they shall be cast out by God as wicked servants. Beware of this, O Christian!
On stewardship of wealth and almsgiving generally:
If you have riches, avoid applying your heart to them, lest you thus depart in your heart from God. Ye cannot serve both God and mammon. Likewise avoid squandering God’s blessings on whims and luxury; they are given to you from God not for your sake alone, but also for the sake of other poor people. Remember that you are the steward, and not the master of these goods. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof. Be a faithful steward of your Lord, then, and not a squanderer of the Lord’s property; and contenting yourself with moderation, thank the Creator of all good things and provide for poor people. Both those that guard their property like watchmen and those that squander it on whims and luxuries will be without excuse and shall be put to shame at the Judgement of Christ. Avoid this lest you be condemned with the wicked servants.

If you have gathered property through injustice, bestow it on the poor, lest it reprove you at the second coming of Christ. In this matter imitate Zacchæus the publican, whom Christ set as an example for all. It is better to live in poverty than in unrighteous wealth. Choose, then, what is better and distribute what was ill-gotten. If you do this, believe the Lord, that He will not forsake you, and that He Who does not even forsake even birds and feeds them and provides for all creatures will give you what is needful for your life.
Holy Tikhon, Bishop and Wonderworker, pray to God for us sinners!
From your youth you loved Christ, O blessed one.
You have been an example for all by word, life, love, faith, purity, and humility.
Therefore, you now abide in the heavenly mansions,
Where you stand before the throne of the All-Holy Trinity.
Holy Hierarch Tikhon, pray for the salvation of our souls!