27 April 2016

On the detection and overthrow of praxis and logos falsely so-called

It is always disconcerting and saddening to me to see Eastern Orthodox laymen, and even a few priests, praise the work of the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, for what turn out ultimately to be vulgar and simplistic reasons. Particularly when it comes to the idea that the ‘individualism’ of the Austrians is categorically to be preferred to ‘collectivism’ of anyone else. It has always been the case that classical Christianity is a more ‘collectivist’ faith than, say, either the Second Temple Judaism from which it emerged, or the Monophysite, Arian and Islamic heresies which broke away from it. Our ‘collectivism’ is written into our very theology, our very Christology: our God, being both Three and One, is not (unlike the god of the Arians) some detached deistic monad but a truly social God; and our God, having taken on the flesh of a human man – the son of a young virgin of an impoverished branch of the House of David – stood in what Saint Athanasius called ‘divine solidarity’ with humankind. And yet when this conviction manifests in any kind of practical way, the modern Orthodox layman flees to the preachers of Robinson Crusoe and the myth of the ‘self-made man’ (as if St. Paul had never written a word!).

The problem goes much deeper than the surface level, as is to be expected. There is a difference even in the ways of knowing. First it is necessary to understand what the Eastern Orthodox world means by ‘knowledge’, by true gnosis. In Eastern Orthodox thinking, the ones who have attained the truest and the highest levels of knowledge, are the saints – and in particular the hesychasts and ascetics – who have taken the path of self-renunciation. The Desert Fathers – for example, Abba Cassian – who have attained the truest and the purest knowledge of God, are those who renounced their property and their self-will, and opened themselves radically to the service of God and of neighbour. The paradox is, that the personality opens up when the will is renounced: the more the self is renounced, the more truly themselves the saints are. By removing from themselves the ability and the presumption of sitting in the seat of judgement, and passing condemnation upon their brothers, and instead allowing God to sit there and judging themselves first, they are able to attain a clearer knowledge of what is right, and more importantly, what is necessary that human being shall be saved. Again, the paradox of this Eastern Orthodox theory of knowing is that the more one belittles oneself and one’s own intellect and reason in consideration of one’s own sins, the more reasonable one becomes, and the wiser.

Reference is made always to the fact that we are created and dependent beings – dependent, indeed, upon God alone. During Lent and during this Holy Week most of all, this much should be apparent: we fast, and we find ourselves hungering not only for food, but for the One from whom both our bodies and our souls are sustained. We falter and fail in the fast to a greater or lesser degree, and we find ourselves needing to rely upon God’s strength and upon the strength of our friends and neighbours in the faith. Whatever value there is in the Lenten fast, can only be found not by contemplating it on a detached, individual level, but by participating in the common life, by partaking in the common struggle, by feeling the bright sadness of the season that all of us feel, who find ourselves on the road to Golgotha in the knowledge that Christ will die, and who find ourselves on Pascha looking into the eucatastrophic breach of our fallen reality that is Christ’s empty tomb. Lent only touches us to the degree that we partake in the collective life of the Church.

This way of knowing is what is preached – subtly, and often by way of parable and anecdote – in the writings of the Desert Fathers. The ones primarily responsible for developing and expounding this in ways that we moderns, so far divorced from the knowledge of the desert as we are, can understand, are the Slavophils: Aleksey Khomyakov and Ivan Kireevsky. The concepts of sobornost’ and of integral knowledge – that is to say, of a free and dynamic collectivism of self-giving love, and of the knowledge that comes from the loving submersion of the willing subject in the participation and experience of the object – are means by which the thought of the Fathers, and specifically St. Isaac of Nineveh whose writings were so influential on Khomyakov and Kireevsky, can be made understandable to those of us who live in an age warped by ideology. More: the Slavophils’ model of the ideal society is not individualistic. It is not bourgeois. It is not one of Robinson Crusoes and Man Fridays; it is not one populated by mere producers, consumers and ‘rational actors’. Khomyakov’s and Kireevsky’s distrust of the market is Eastern, it is Syriac and Iranian: it is the same as the sentiments of Kourosh-e Bozorg as he articulated them to the Spartans: ‘I have never yet been afraid of any men who have set a place in the middle of their city, where they come together to cheat each other and perjure themselves’. They do not turn to the market but to the familial obshchina, the Russian rural village, characterised by common ownership of the land and benevolent paternalism within families. The Slavophils looked for, and found in the studies of von Haxthausen, an outworking of praxis to go with the orthodoxia they had sought indirectly to clarify.

Now, of course, it is a hallmark of Slavophilia that they refused to reduce their own collectivism (and, make no mistake, collectivism it was indeed!) to a set of rationalised political principles. Khomyakov and Kireevsky, although (and because) they refused the bourgeois spirit in toto, also refused the various strains of socialism and ‘enlightened’ autocracy that came out of the West, in part because the alternatives both such radicals and proposed to the bourgeois individualism of the more radical Enlightenment forms were themselves nakedly political and reductive. Such political and state-driven collectivisms could only work formally, and only from the outside; they would leave no inward space for the free-and-dynamic element of sobornost’ that they thought so critical, nor for the willing renunciation of will that is needed for the integral way of gnosis.

But how different still this integral knowing is, from what is meant, in the subtle and even demonic subversion of the noble Greek words from which it derives, by the Austrian method of ‘praxeology’. In Mises’ own words, it ‘aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences’! Was there any scientist so mad that he thought his own knowledge, his own logic, to be absolute? Think carefully on what this means. Again, this is from von Mises’ own words:
Its scope is human action as such, irrespective of all environmental, accidental, and individual circumstances of the concrete acts. Its cognition is purely formal and general without reference to the material content and the particular features of the actual case. It aims at knowledge valid for all instances in which the conditions exactly correspond to those implied in its assumptions and inferences. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts…

Economics can never be experimental and empirical. The economist does not need an expensive apparatus for the conduct of his studies. What he needs is the power to think clearly and to discern in the wilderness of events what is essential from what is merely accidental…
Human action need have no reference to the other. Further, no reference to reality or to nature, let alone to other human beings, need be made to understand human action. The will triumphs over even the heavens. Think again of what this means, on what the implications are. Human reason – divorced from any consideration of experience – sits arrogantly self-appointed upon the judgement seat, needing no justification outside itself, fit to pass judgement over the whole scope of human activity over all time, based solely on a set of axioms: chief among which is that human beings are fundamentally rational when they act! Starting from the most basic of the Austrian ‘praxeological’ axioms (which is ultimately a denial that human beings are sinful and that our reason is darkened), and building back up – can we not see that this is an undoing of the whole of the intuitive and integral tradition of knowing that our Fathers have so carefully cultivated? Who dares to deny the nose upon his face? Need it be spelt out in full, this Austrian affirmation of the lie that we should be as gods, if only we should eat of this fruit… ?

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