06 December 2016

A philosophical fragment on the saints

If we are to believe Fyodor Dostoevsky, the big question for political philosophy is a spiritual one.

Do we strive to become the man-god, or do we humbly seek the God-man in pilgrimage?

Most, if not all, of American politics does not even approach this question. The comfortable, middlebrow, middle-class, suburbanite mind, whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, is mired in moralistic therapeutic deist categories which sever man from all gods, from all consideration of the absolute, from the Platonic forms. The ‘good’ is a matter which is assumed, not sought after, and with very few exceptions the bourgeois centrist thinking on the matter is settled. Is not man better left to ‘be good’ whilst ‘making good’, without any true or honest consideration of what ‘good’ actually is? The assumptions even just beneath the surface of life go unchallenged. The soul of the bourgeois centrist is lulled and disoriented, as in a dreamlike state; it is asleep. Worse than asleep—it is as though dead.

But in the soul of the radical, the revolutionary, the reactionary, ah! Here—where that dreadful and fundamental question, ‘Chto delat’?’ is asked—here is where the spiritual forces begin to play. And (let us be as clear on this point as Ransom was!) not all of the spiritual forces are good or angelic. Once that terrible and fatal question is asked, once that seal is broken, once that trumpet sounds—not only are the angels roused to battle but also the demons awaken and begin to attack the soul. Here is where prophets true and false begin to preach of a Kingdom of Heaven drawn near. Here is where the very ground is split open and Hell pours forth upon the earth. Ideologies and grand ideas represent only the surface of this fight, however, and even within ideologies (as within nations, states, cities, churches and peoples, even within the person herself), the battle is fought at a feverish pitch.

The Satanic and sodomite impulse, the impulse to pervert and mutilate what is true for the sake of the will to power – the impulse of Shigalev and Smerdyakov – this impulse so often associated in Dostoevsky’s mind with the revolutionary, can be found at work in the reactionary mind as well. It is not just in Stalin, Pol Pot and other extremists of the left. How else, indeed, can the throwing of innocent men and women from helicopters be justified? Or the concentration and extermination camps of the Germans? Or the mass starvation of the Bengalis? How else can the horrific atrocities the Japanese visited upon the long-suffering Chinese people even be contemplated?

Looking at the crimes of the twentieth century in particular, an age in which ideologies of left and right reigned supreme, one is led to conclude that the reactionary mind is tempted, just as the revolutionary mind has been, to strive toward man-godhood. Particularly and especially if it kneels in total obedience to power, if it exalts worldly Caesars beyond the possibility of rebuke, and if it builds up Towers of Babel for itself.

And on the other hand, there have been revolutionaries, redeemed Raskolnikovs – even, yes, among the socialists and the communists – who have felt the stirrings to seek Christ, to look in the humble and ordinary places for the God-man.

Dorothy Day was one such. Righteous Martyr Maria Skobtsova and her fellow-martyrs, Blessed Ilya Fondaminsky and Priestmartyr Dmitry Klepenin, were three others.

And I would argue that Gilbert Chesterton, Simone Weil, George Parkin Grant, Father Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – while not saints – are in the same spiritual vein, as are John Milbank, Hayao Miyazaki and Alasdair MacIntyre. These are all people whose radicalism led them to the idea, not of universal unity through universal slavery, but of the idea of unity through a free and self-sacrificial spirit, even through a single act of self-denying and self-emptying gift: in other words, their search led them to seek the personal essence and will of the incarnate God-man.

The line is not, and never has been, between radicals and reactionaries. If I may borrow shamelessly the conclusions of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and of Simone Weil, the line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of every human heart, and the freedom to choose between obedience to the I Am that leads to being, and disobedience that leads to destruction, lies before every single one.


  1. While the demoniacs of The Possessed certainly was an interesting take, even forward-looking, on secular radicals (namely the fringes of International Communism), it's hardly interesting anymore. As you've pointed out, we've experienced a generation of Maos and Frankos.

    But Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor parable sits with me to remind me of the grossest demoniac, the man of God who hates God and agrees with the Devil for the sake of Mankind. In that way, the fear is to abandon the Godman for something else. It's not necessarily arrogance, but a form of pity, a completely twisted logic.

    So, when I see Milibank on the list, I can't help but cringe. I am not speaking of him personally, but the RadOx romanticization of the Medieval period is highly disturbing. Of course, it's merely an odd aestheticized fetish to wax about a past that never was, but it's that sort of thing that ought to warn us of the possibility of something seriously wrong.

    The path to Mangodhood is not merely a secular rejection, but the theological rejection of God. It's the warped Cardinal who intends the best for his flock. The theologian is most apt to speak the devil's words before they are repeated by political practice.

    God have mercy during such dark days

  2. Hi Cal!

    Thanks again for the comment!

    I tend to take a kinder view of the RadOx folks (Milbank included), in part because their apophatic 'read' on certain elements of virtue-ethical philosophy and its disrelation to the modern world actually led me to seek out truths in Eastern Orthodoxy.

    And I tend to take a kinder view of the Middle Ages, in part because of the historical witness of Solzhenitsyn, who saw more of that libido dominandi (even in a religious sense, usurping the prerogatives of God over human freedom!) at work in the Renaissance reaction to mediaevalism than in mediaevalism itself. And I think it's even a little bit mistaken to read Dostoevsky himself in such a way. He is speaking (as, later, Solovyov would speak) in a prophetic and apocalyptic way, and using metaphors to do so which would shock the consciences of even a 'humane' European audience.

    But it's still my gut feeling that there exists the possibility of repentance for a Left following Marx - who never truly rejected the God-man and all that he represented but instead presented, at best, a partial rejection rooted in a heretical materialism - than there is in a Nietzschean Right which, understanding the radicalism of the Incarnation, rejects it in its totality and blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.

    In any event, thank you for the well-wishes!

    With kind regards,