30 May 2017


My words, too, are only an echo; but there is no reason why I should not repeat what I have heard.
- Socrates, Phaedo

Confucius remarked: ‘I transmit the old truth and do not originate any new theory. I am well acquainted and love the study of antiquity. In this respect I may venture to compare myself with our old Worthy Peng.’
- The Analects of Confucius

28 May 2017

Tawney’s classically-minded conservative socialism

RH Tawney

I just finished reading The Acquisitive Society by Richard Henry Tawney, the Indian-born English soldier-scholar, historian, critic and Fabian socialist. Given my own interests, this read has been long overdue. Indeed, I came upon The Acquisitive Society and began reading it after having read the introduction to Alasdair MacIntyre’s review of another of his books, The Radical Tradition. Tawney’s book, then, does not disappoint, but instead bridges several of my interests both old and new. He was clearly influenced by Ruskin. He writes from an awareness of Homer and Plato (and indeed uses them in interesting ways). He critiques, with devastating moral clarity, not only capitalism as an œconomic system but also the liberal-democratic belief that an expansive structure of ‘rights’ will secure happiness and dignity for the vast majority of people living under it. In its place, he advocates a ‘functional’ society where duty – or rather, virtue, since what he means by ‘duty’ or ‘function’ refers to a certain standard of excellence as applied to a common good – is considered prior to rights. He advocates for essential worker rights including a democratic restructuring of the workplace. But, not being an anarchist, he is emphatic that, even in such a workplace democracy:
There would be subordination. But it would be profoundly different from that which exists today. For it would not be the subordination of one man to another, but of all men to the purpose for which industry is carried on.

There would be authority. But it would not be the authority of the individual who imposes rules in virtue of his economic power for the attainment of his economic advantage. It would be the authority springing from the necessity of combining different duties to attain a common end.

There would be discipline. But it would be the discipline involved in pursuing that end, not the discipline enforced upon one man for the convenience or profit of another.
After all:
Rights without functions are like the shades in Homer which drank blood but scattered trembling at the voice of a man.
Tawney’s criticism of rights stretches so deep, in fact, that he even characterises the claims of the workman upon productive property and wages not in terms of right but in terms of virtue. Though he doesn’t here make the connexion explicit, his insistence that ‘[w]hat he has a right to demand, and what concerns his fellow-men to see that he gets, is enough to enable him to perform his work’, indeed reflects broadly the concerns of Socrates and Adeimantus when they are discussing the means by which excesses of poverty and wealth curtail the excellence (or, again to use Tawney’s own language, ‘function’) of a craftsman’s work!

One may thus expect that his critique of property is multifaceted and far from straightforward. In fact, the ideal to which he points is a society of smallholders and coöperative industrial ventures, to the point that it isn’t always easy to tell if he’s advocating for socialism or, indeed, for something more akin to distributism. Indeed, Tawney has left a deep influence on some of the modern distributists. As he writes:
The real analogy to many kinds of modern property is not the simple property of the small landowner or the craftsman, still less the household goods and dear domestic amenities, which is what the word suggests to the guileless minds of clerks and shopkeepers, and which stampede them into displaying the ferocity of terrified sheep when the cry is raised that “Property” is threatened. It is the feudal dues which robbed the French peasant of part of his produce till the Revolution abolished them.
Or, more laconically:
Property is not theft. But a good deal of theft becomes property.
And he distinguishes himself very clearly as well, both from Marxists, anarchists and other utopians who would abolish property altogether, as well as from bourgeois defenders of ‘property’ per se as legally defined under capitalist modes of production:
Those who value [energy, thought, the creative spirit] will try to promote them by relieving property of its perversions, and thus enabling it to return to its true nature. They will not desire to establish any visionary communism, for they will realise that the free disposal of a sufficiency of personal possessions is the condition of a healthy and self-respecting life, and will seek to distribute more widely the property rights which make them today the privilege of a minority. But they will refuse to submit to the naïve philosophy which would treat all proprietary rights as equal in sanctity merely because they are identical in name. They will distinguish sharply between property which is used by its owner for the conduct of his profession or the upkeep of his household, and property which is merely a claim on wealth produced by another’s labour.
Here Tawney manages to highlight both the similarities of his thought to distributism, and also a key difference. Very much like Chesterton, Penty and Belloc, he wants to see productive property not concentrated in the hands of a small class of people (whether public or private), but as widely and as creatively dispersed as possible. On the other hand, he wants to be very clear about what ought to count as property and what oughtn’t, and this is where distributist readers of Tawney may hit a snag if they are not reading him carefully. Not only does he want to return property into the hands of the smallholder, the artisan, the shopkeeper, the workman and even the brain-worker; he wants to make property both intelligible to them and functional for human flourishing; that is, directed toward a virtuous social life. He reacts with indignation to the idea that the passive property of the stockholder, who speaks in the language of derivatives and interest, is even of the same ontological order of things as the farmer’s plough, the artisan’s tools or the workman’s factory machine. In fact, he places the defenders of the former, æthereal ‘property’ unfavourably on the same plane as the sans-culottes of the French Revolution: ‘The theory that property is an absolute, which is held by many modern Conservatives, is identical, if only they knew it, with that not only of the men of 1789, but of the Convention itself.’ This is a reaction with which the distributists should sympathise, even if they may disagree with some of his state-heavy methods of achieving the same goals.

It would also be quite wrong to dismiss Tawney as some kind of utopian – even though in The Acquisitive Society he includes an apt, if rather cheeky, reference to the utopian designs of the ‘city-in-speech’ in Plato’s Republic. Tawney, a historian by training, was no immanentiser of eschatons. He was quite clear both from his Anglican Christian convictions and from his own sound observations, that society is not perfectible as long as sin exists in human nature. However, even with these convictions firmly in mind, he refused to give ground to the bland panglossianism which now characterises much too much of business-conservative thinking:
It is obvious, indeed, that no change of system or machinery can avert those causes of social malaise which consist in the egotism, greed or quarrelsomeness of human nature. What it can do is to create an environment where those are not the qualities which are encouraged. It cannot secure that men live up to their principles. What it can do is to establish their social order upon principles to which, if they please, they can live up and not live down. It cannot control their actions. It can offer them an end on which to fix their minds.
There is indeed much that recommends itself to both leftists of a realist bent, and conservatives in the mould of Kirk, in The Acquisitive Society. He points to a better order, appealing not to unattainable goals but instead to certain aspects of England’s own history and experience with industrialisation. Many of his prescriptions (like that for an intellectual ordering of œconomic psychology which does not rely on brute œconomism and sophistry) have gone largely unheeded in the nearly 100 years since he wrote it. There is, therefore, much still to be gained from considering it.

26 May 2017

A blue crest in the pink tide

President Igor Dodon, the socialist president of Moldova, recently had a meeting with Russian government representatives in which he outlined the four non-negotiables for his country’s public and geopolitical life. They are:
  1. Moldova’s statehood and sovereignty;
  2. Moldova’s neutrality and rejection of NATO;
  3. Moldova’s religious values - specifically Orthodoxy;
  4. Moldova’s friendly relations with Russia.
The Eastern Orthodox, socialist president of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, has also shown a similar assertiveness of late. He issued some brash language against Erdoğan’s neoliberal-Atlanticist Turkey:
Every politician must learn the lessons of history and geography. I want to assure you that the elections in Bulgaria will take place in a calm atmosphere. Bulgaria is a European country that is led by its laws, not by foreign emotions.
The Eastern European left has always been tinged, even and particularly in its populist incarnations, with a strong traditional streak, being wont to take the long rather than the short view. It is, as Dimitar Bechev puts it, ‘socially conservative and holds in high regard institutions such as the army and the Orthodox Church’. It is not surprising that the left-wing parties of this age, when the Marxist social dogmas lie discredited, are beginning to show counterrevolutionary colours, and are beginning to speak the old languages of stability, sovereignty, realism and international non-alignment, and appeal to religious principles.

This is a trend to be welcomed. It signals a further shift of the mainline parliamentary Left (at least in Eastern Europe) away from utopianism, postmodernism and neoliberalism, and more toward the traditionally-minded realism of figures like Slovakia’s Róbert Fico and Belarus’s Aliaksandr Lukašenka. Though such a shift has been blamed by the neoliberal parties for the rise of the populist right, the failure of that same neoliberal centre to front any kind of meaningful challenge on the level of ideas to the politics of Trump, Farage and the European nouvelle nouvelle-droite (and let us be clear, Macron’s victory in France is a fleeting one), means that the dawn of a more realistic (sovereigntist, non-aligned or even Russia-friendly) left in Eastern Europe is really only just beginning.

24 May 2017

Empire Day

A very happy Empire Day to one and all! (Or Commonwealth Day if, like me, you were born after 1958.)

I have – as it should be clear by now – a very complex relationship with the British Empire.

On the one hand, I love Great Britain dearly as a son or a brother separated by an ocean can. My ancestors dearly valued their loyalty to the British King, far more so than they valued their own property and livelihood and even their own lives. And I can understand why – when the head of state of the United Kingdom is Queen Elizabeth: a truly decent, warm, caring and virtuous human being who takes seriously the idea that she embodies a culture and a civic tradition, it is hard for one’s loyalty not to be swayed.

My intellectual and emotional attachments are also to Britain’s past – even though I can lay claim to Low German, Swabian, Ashkenazi Jewish, Danish and Yugoslav heritage as well (at least according to Family Tree DNA), no author or artist or cultural figure from any of those nations has moved me as profoundly as have the works of Bede, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hooker, Laud, Astell, Johnson, Swift, Austen, Oastler, Porteus, Strachan, Southey, Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Ruskin, Morris, Gore, Chesterton, Tawney, Grant, Tolkien, Sayers, Lewis, Pargeter, Dart, Milbank and Hitchens. (That said, of course, I do also have a love for Yugoslavia and for Serbia in particular that played a role in nudging me toward the Christian East.)

But these artistic and literary figures were – it should be noted – either partially or wholly, directly or indirectly critical of the Imperial direction that their nation was taking. They represented an elder, more humane national tradition: a tradition which railed against the factories as they were rising, against the gunboats as they hammered foreign shores, against the trade in the blood of slaves that sweetened British tea, against the dogma that ‘free trade’ is best for everyone. And my own attitude toward the British Empire follows roughly the same lines. It produced some of the finest minds, some of the most sublime poetry, some of the most subtle œconomic theory and some of the greatest philosophy of its time. But the British Empire’s greatness did not lie in its military or œconomic strength or in its geographical extent; still less in the wars it fought in Africa or India or China or Eastern Europe. It lay instead in its humble origins, its common traditions, its (as Ivan Aksakov would call it) obshchestvo.

Britain, indeed, is still a source of inspiration although its imperial strength is gone and isn’t coming back. The elder Tory strain which still occasionally expresses itself actually more through Labour and its organs than through the party which call themselves ‘Conservatives’, is still very much worthy of heeding.

22 May 2017

Hitchens and the standard

Like clockwork, Peter Hitchens keeps matters in perspective, as any good journalist should, and is at hand with the requisite bucket of cold water.
After attacking restrictions on free speech in Iran (which is a good deal less repressive than Saudi Arabia), Secretary Tillerson was then asked by a reporter if he had anything to say about human rights in Saudi Arabia. He left without answering, according to the New York Times.
In the end, selective interventionist outrage over Assad, over the Houthis (again, some of the poorest people in one of the poorest countries on the globe), over Iran or over Russia: in the name of consistency and even common decency, all of that should be treated with the derision it deserves. Particularly when juxtaposed with this brown-nosing of a régime which treats non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, non-Arabic Sunni Muslims and women like dirt, which uses barbaric forms of corporal and capital punishment, which funnels vast quantities of money to terrorist groups, and which, again, wages a heinous offensive air war against the civilian populace of one of the poorest countries on earth, and is rewarded for doing all this with a head seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. The elder Tory tradition of the great Lord Salisbury, realism, non-intervention and ‘splendid isolation’ – a tradition now represented only by the likes of John Baron and (perhaps with reluctance) Peter Hitchens himself – would have a ready answer for the sort of blatantly cynical, ersatz-idealistic grandstanding that the American government is now transparently engaging in.

It is a telling judgement on our politics that, outside a handful of truly maverick statesmen like Dennis Kucinich, Tulsi Gabbard, Ted Lieu and Paul père et fils, neither of our major parties here in the United States has such an answer. Nor does that sorry excuse for a party that styles itself ‘Conservative’ in Great Britain. Again, Hitchens puts it best:
I am so sorry, but after this incoherent but unpleasant oration, and after the whole extraordinary visit by President Trump to Saudi Arabia, in which the ghastly ‘special relationship’ between Washington and Riyadh has been laid bare as exactly what it is, I find it quite impossible to take seriously any future outrage on the subject of repression or liberty expressed by the US government while these gentlemen remain in office. Whatever it is that bothers Washington about Syria or Russia, it is not the freedoms of the people there.

21 May 2017

Constantine, Helena and Christian statecraft

Equal-to-the-Apostles and Emperor Constantine with his Mother Helena

Today is the name-day of my daughter, whose patron saint is Holy and Right-Believing Helena the Empress, Equal-to-the-Apostles, mother of Equal-to-the-Apostles Emperor Saint Constantine the Great. Perhaps it is worth reflecting this Sunday on the virtues of both, and the ideals of Christian statehood which they represented?

Emperor Saint Constantine was a model emperor, not because of his military victories alone, not because of his founding the great City that bore his name, not because of his public philanthrōpía (a generosity for which his saintly mother Empress Saint Helena was equally famed, being a patroness of churches and hospitals in the Holy Land – most famously the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem) and state welfare policies, not even because of the Edict of Milan which lifted the great repressions from off the shoulders of the Christian Church. Constantine was a model emperor because he was able to exercise both authority and humility. Even though he did not outlaw pagan practices and (for the purposes of political expediency) kept most of his pagan titles, he nonetheless refused outright to allow himself – the State, in the person of Cæsar – to be worshipped as a god, as demanded by the tribunes of the older Roman cultus. At the same time, though, Emperor Constantine was relentlessly insistent upon the prerogatives of the state to enforce justice – and at that, a justice which was far more expansive than mere procedural formalism.

Constantine’s relationship with the Church shows a similar balance of humility with authority, a similar sense of sōphrosunē in the classical sense, as demonstrated by his conduct at Nicæa. Even though Constantine told the bishops they must come to an agreement on the question of the doctrines of Arius, and even though he was responsible for hosting and assembling the bishops there, he himself exerted no pressure one way or the other. He asked only that the bishops come to a unanimous agreement. As Church historian Theodoret put it: ‘These and similar exhortations he, like an affectionate son, addressed to the bishops as to fathers, labouring to bring about their unanimity in the doctrines.’ Emperor Saint Constantine was well aware of his civil power and prerogatives, and used those prerogatives as appropriate both before and after the Council, but while the ecclesiastical leaders deliberated he conducted himself before them meekly and with deference, as a son or as a younger brother would do. This virtue was inculcated in him early in his life by his mother, whom he treated with great filial respect both before and after he became Emperor.

The saintly Emperor was clearly no ‘intégriste’ – such a vertical conception of the unity of the ends of church and state itself being a product of the ‘reforms’ of the eleventh century and of the investiture controversies, rather than of the ecclesiology of the Early Church. Saint Constantine embodied, rather, the principle of symphonía: harmony, or cooperation, between civil and ecclesiastical authority. The civil state with its own ends of earthly justice, conditioned by the realities of sin and death, does have concerns which overlap with the Church in its care for the eternal soul; however, these ends are very different. Certainly Constantine, a man who from personal experience was all too well-aware of the ‘messiness’ of statecraft and of political exigency, would have understood that his own position could not be effectively conflated with those of the bishops he invited to Nicæa; nor could their authority be exercised through punitive civil actions without the salvific witness being polluted. Yet neither could the two be indifferent – or, still worse, hostile – to each other.

Emperor Saint Constantine, in no small part thanks to his upbringing by the august Empress Helena, displayed in his public life an altogether-too-rare mixture of humility, cunning and genuine concern for the least of his subjects, which taken together made him something of an anti-machiavel. Or rather, Emperor Saint Constantine was someone with the requisite ‘virtù’ in the instrumental sense, but who directed that skill toward selfless and truly public-minded ends.
Having seen the figure of the Cross in the heavens,
and like Paul not having received his call from men, O Lord,
Your apostle among rulers, the Emperor Constantine,
has been set by Your hand as ruler over the Imperial City
that he preserved in peace for many years,
through the prayers of the Theotokos, O only lover of mankind.

19 May 2017

The fruits of Libyan régime change

This is Africa. This is chattel slavery. This is happening today:
A day after reaching safety aboard a humanitarian ship, migrants on Friday told of arbitrary detention, slavery and beatings in Libya as Europe seeks to build up the Tripoli-based coastguard.

“Libya is crazy. They arrest us, the police ... They put us in some place ... two, three days no eat, no drink. They beat us,” said Alseer Issa Ibrahim, 28, from the Darfur region of Sudan.

Ibrahim is one of almost 600 people on the
Aquarius, a rescue ship operated by Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee, now heading toward an Italian port.

Six years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Libya appears to be sliding deeper into lawlessness. Smugglers are packing record numbers of people onto unsafe boats, with sea arrivals to Italy up 35 percent so far this year. More than 1,300 have died.

John Osifo, a 29-year-old Nigerian, spent 11 months in Libya. He said he did not plan to go to Europe, but after a few months working at a car wash, a local man destroyed his passport and work permit, making him an irregular migrant, and he was forced into hard labour.

In Libya “they believe blacks are slaves. That is what they call us. When they want to beat us, they beat us with pipes,” he said, showing a scar on his left hand.

“They take us to jobs, force us to do hard labour without payment ... Sometimes they take you to a prison where you'll be kept and beaten up,” he said, as the
Aquarius’s crew served tea and bread to the migrants ...

“We are always suffering in Libya from hunger, and the Libyan people hate us. They don't look at us like people, they look at us like animals,” said Yagob Mobark Ibrahim, 21, from Sudan.
Remember clearly that no such conditions existed for black Libyans under Gadhafi’s régime. Remember that the accusations of atrocities against Colonel Gadhafi were fabricated whole cloth. Remember that ‘dark heart’ propaganda depicting black Africans as Gadhafi’s ‘mercenaries’ and ‘rapists’ was part-and-parcel of NATO’s information war in Libya that sparked off a race war, turning Arabs against their black neighbours in heinous acts of democide (like at Tawergha). Remember all of this historical background when you read these stories of dehumanisation of people on the basis of their skin colour, in a country which was considered a ‘model humanitarian intervention’ by some very important American and European politicians. As Our Lord Christ taught us, ‘ye shall know them by their fruits’; NATO’s strange fruits on display now in Libya are quite bitter. As that great anti-slavery Tory Dr Johnson would no doubt tartly observe, it is still the case that those yelping loudest for ‘liberty’ (and ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’) are drivers of Negroes.

With apologies to Herbert George Wells

I told you so. You damned fools.

The past is prologue; and Donald Trump was never going to be the Great White Alt-Right Hope of a war-weary Middle America that his more fanatic supporters imagined him to be. He was never going to be anything more than a grifter and, ultimately, a servant of those established interests which could do him the most favours. And among the people willing to buy in, the Saudis and the Israelis were always going to be the first in line. It should therefore come as no surprise at all that Trump would join the well-funded neoconservative do-something brigade and bomb the secular and Shi’ite protectors of Christians in the Middle East.

In fact, bombing the Syrian Arab Army is just the first and most egregious of several ridiculously bad ideas that Trump is floating on behalf of his Saudi creditors. The idea of creating an anti-Iranian Arab counterpart to Nato is perhaps not as ordnance-heavy, but is still overwhelmingly likely to exacerbate problems in the Middle East rather than fix them, as well as creating a precedent for any harebrained interventions our bloated, thuggish Salafi Gulf State ‘allies’ want us to bankroll, arm and execute.

But Hillary would have been worse!’ Or so I keep hearing from Trump supporters. Whether or not I actually agree with that, at this point, it’s not only a moot point and an outright evasion of responsibility, but one of the single most pathetic, pusillanimous things one could possibly say in support of Trump. Trump supporters spent ages and torrents of ink and bandwidth telling us how disastrous Lady Macbeth would be for our relations with Russia and for Christians in the Middle East. And for that period of time, there was good reason to believe it. But now? We have a puppet at the beck and call of the neoconservatives and the Salafis, whose actions seem expressly calculated (by minds much sharper than his own) to provide a pretext for armed conflict with Russia, and Christians are now more than ever being forced to leave the Middle East because of the gasoline Trump is pouring on the fire under their feet. Whether or not Clinton would have done worse, the idea that we should be satisfied or complacent with the utter stupidity and immorality Trump is bringing to bear on both aspects of our foreign policy is, to say the least, insulting.

So, those of you who voted for Trump: this is all on you. Your nationalist ideology and your ressentiment against what you broadly categorised as ‘the Left’, blinkered you to the fact that you were being conned the whole time. And you didn’t listen because you wrongly assumed that leftists (even idiosyncratic conservative-leftists like me) who were warning you, were your tribal enemies in a total war of cultures. But in the meantime, Christians, and Shi’ite and Ezidi allies of Christians, are being raped, starved and brutalised to death by the crazy right-wing Salafi headloppers your boy in the White House is bankrolling and supporting from the air. Trump supporters: you don’t have a clue what actual total culture war looks like; be thankful for that much. But what you do have is a responsibility now to oppose the gross iniquities Trump is committing in your name.

Do not shirk that responsibility.

16 May 2017

Infections of gut and brain

If we were a sane society, the ‘humanitarians’ and ‘egalitarians’ among us would be jumping up and down screaming bloody murder about the brutal war of aggression America is perpetrating on behalf of the Saudi royals (the richest, most venally corrupt, most debauched family of plutocratic oil barons on the face of the planet) against the Zaïdi Shia of Yemen (who are some of the very poorest and most neglected people on the planet). Tens of thousands have died and many hundreds of thousands more are on the brink of starvation, without sufficient food or water or sanitation. Most recently, our actions in that country have been the cause of a serious outbreak of cholera in the Shi’ite area of Yemen.

But here’s the rub. It’s not simply that the Zaïdi Shia of Yemen are dark-skinned people in a small country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map if their lives depended on it. It’s also that they happen to be taking help – as any desperate people would – from those who offer it. And who is offering them help? The Iranian government, of course, for geopolitical and religious reasons both. And of course the Iranians Never Mean Anything Good because some Iranians took some Americans hostage almost forty years ago and that’s one of the few things we can be counted on not to forget. But most Americans – including and especially those who consider themselves ‘humane’ and ‘egalitarian’ – would just as soon prefer not to think about it at all (a task in which they are aided, of course, by pliant and power-serving corporate news media outlets). The few exceptions – statesmen who take thought on this aspect of our foreign policy like Congressmen Ted Lieu, Rand Paul and (somewhat surprisingly) Chris Murphy – are, sadly, by and large ignored.

When we listen to the sort of Serious™ political figures of the John McCain and Lindsay Graham stripe, who are always calling for more ‘muscular’ responses to international crises, we need to keep this humanitarian crisis of our own making in the back of our mind. These sorts of people want to use their ‘muscle’ on the poor and wretched of the earth, and they will be judged by God accordingly. And whenever we listen to an American public figure praising the bloated, heinous Saudi régime in any way, shape or form, our reaction should automatically be one of derision.

15 May 2017

Pointless video post – ‘Fake Healer’ by Metal Church

A villain at your bedside –
Take this and you’ll be fine.
Severely educated,
Just pay your bill on time.
I think it’s time for another test;
I need more of your blood.
Sign this affidavit
So my insurance won’t go up!

You’re dying on a stretcher;
We’ll try to save your life.
If you can’t afford my service
I will let you die!
I’m ‘trusted and respected’,
Says my diploma on the wall;
Before I will do anything
I’ll give your bank a call!

09 May 2017

Jesus, taxes and charity

Peter Paul Rubens, The Tribute Money, ca. 1612
Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent out unto Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, ‘Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?’

But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, ‘Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money.’

And they brought unto Him a penny. And He saith unto them, ‘Whose is this image and superscription?’

They say unto Him, ‘Cæsar's.’ Then saith He unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’

When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left Him, and went their way.
(St. Matthew 22:15-22)
It’s sadly become somewhat de rigueur, particularly but not exclusively on the American political right, to proof-text or misread this passage or to read into it things that were not intended, to prove an ideological point or – as I rather more strongly suspect – to put a religious gloss on an ideological position (that of libertarianism, or anarcho-capitalism) which is, according to the social teaching of the Church, fundamentally godless. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.

First, let’s think here about what the Pharisees are trying to do to Jesus with this question. It says they were trying to ‘entangle Him in His talk’ (αυτον παγιδευσωσιν εν λόγω, ‘trap Him in His words’). How would a question about taxes, though, entangle Christ? Consider that He was in Jerusalem, the seat of Roman power in the province, and that there were crowds around Him wherever He went – crowds which ostensibly hoped Him to be the Messiah who would deliver them from rule by Rome. By asking Him a question about taxes, the Pharisees hoped to set the crowd against Him if He answered one way and spoke in favour of the rights of the Roman government to tax them, or alternately to get Him in trouble with the authorities if He answered the other way and denied their right to collect taxes.

The brilliance of Christ’s answer, ‘Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s…’ (Απόδοτε ουν τα Καίσαρος Καίσαρι) is that it reverses the trap in an act of rhetorical jujutsu. Pace Reed, the Pharisees – and not Jesus – were the ones who were concerned about the interpretation of the law as it concerned property rights. Christ’s answer to them did not cast the question in terms of ‘property rights’, but instead framed the question in terms of debts. The Greek word ‘αποδίδωμι’ does not mean simply to give, but to give back, to return, to restore or to pay what is owing. This answer clearly did not turn the crowds against Christ, nor did it give his would-be legal entrappers ammunition to make a case against Him to the Romans, and yet the Pharisees ‘marvelled’ and ‘went their way’. The implication, then, which would have been clear to the crowds and Christ’s questioners both, was that the Pharisees themselves owed something to Cæsar which Christ and the crowds did not. Being in positions of wealth and power indebted them to Cæsar.

Reading this passage, therefore, as a narrow defence of property rights against the claims of Cæsar, mangles the entire sense of Christ’s answer and completely ignores the context in which it was given. In fact, given the context, it could plausibly be more correct to say that this passage could hold up the principle that property rights are conditional and dependent on the largesse of the state authority that guarantees them! But such an implication, of course, would not further the ideological agenda. Thus it is this context which gets sacrificed in favour of an anachronistic straw-man of ‘progressive’ thought (among which, I guess, would be considered any kind of thinking – broadly also including classical and conservative thought – which supports a state’s paternalistic right to levy taxes on its subjects).

It is also noteworthy that the story of the man in the Gospel of St. Luke who wanted his brother to split his inheritance with him warrants a mention, but – tellingly – this author fails to note the following condemnation Christ gives in his parable of the rich man who tears down his barns to store his abundant harvest, instead of doing what is pleasing to God. The sermon of Saint Basil the Great of Cappadocia to the rich on this passage specifically is illuminating, and shows quite well what the Early Church thought of the ‘wealth creators’ the American right wing loves to vaunt, who know very well how to tear down their barns but very ill how to please God.

This same sort of anachronistic, nineteenth-century ideological thinking (and sadly-predictable Austrian school fetishism for ‘wealth creation’ and ‘sound œconomic principles’) runs throughout this piece like a long stain. Instead of reading the parable of the workers in the vineyard as the Holy Fathers would have done – that is, as an image of the way salvation will work, or as a way of distinguishing the divine œconomia from that of man – in the capable hands of a libertarian author, it becomes instead a dull, materialistic, pedantic lesson in the mundane operation of labour markets and (of course) a defence of the this-worldly landlord’s untrammelled right to cheat his workers. Still more shamefully, the parable of the talents becomes a celebration of usury! (Again, paging Saint Basil the Great…)

Mr. Reed does do his readers one service, though, and that is to point them to the Mosaic law as the Law which Christ came to fulfil. Sadly, the only of these laws he cites are the eighth and tenth Commandments; and at that, he wants us only to consider how these two commandments apply only to poor people (as though rich people could not possibly be tempted to steal or covet that which is their neighbour’s!). The laws of Moses considered more fully and with greater intellectual honesty, however, do not exactly provide the pet ideology of Austrian œconomics with the support sought, and that may be why only such a selective and self-serving reading of them is provided. After all, in Deuteronomy the law of Moses says explicitly that people with property must set aside one tenth of their income every three years specifically to be redistributed to the poor:
When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of thine increase the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled; (Deuteronomy 26:12)
And in fact, under Mosaic law not even all the produce that grew on land a man owned was actually his property, but was in fact common property that was to be left to the poor and to strangers:
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22)
And Christ’s own deeds in life, in relation to respecting individual property rights were of a similar nature with regard to the flexibility of Mosaic law:
And it came to pass, that He went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and His disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.

And the Pharisees said unto Him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?

And He said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?

And He said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.
(St. Mark 2:23-28)
And what did the Church historically think about such things as income taxes and redistribution? If they had indeed thought as poorly as this libertarian author does about non-voluntary giving in the form of taxation, in the interests of consistency they should have refused to take any tax money from secular rulers. And yet, as the emeritus British historian of Byzantium Judith Herrin notes:
For besides these instances of episcopal and monastic charity, imperial assistance played a crucial role in the development of Byzantine charity. On numerous occasions it is the additional income from the imperial treasury or from public funds sanctioned by emperors, that secures the survival of ecclesiastical institutions for the poor. From an early date appeals to imperial generosity, like that by Bishop Porphyrios, indicate the significance of state funding. Not only did the Empress Eudoxia finance the replacement of the pagan temple of Zeus Marnas at Gaza by a grand Christian church, but she also provided a hostel where visitors could stay free of charge for three days. Similarly, through the generosity of Empress Pulcheria, strangers who died in the Byzantine capital could receive a proper burial in her xenotapheia. The reign of Justinian, as Patlagean has shown, is vital to an understanding of church-state relations in the administration of charity. At this point, the poor are recognised as a legal category worthy of assistance, which is often entrusted to ecclesiastical bodies.
Not only that, of course, but the first Christian emperor, Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles, instituted (gasp!) the first progressive taxation system in Byzantium, in the interests of rectifying past injustices perpetrated on the poor by the rich. Very much in contrast to modern American notions of ‘philanthropy’, Byzantine philanthrōpía was very much guided by funds and initiatives from the imperial state – appropriated from landlords, merchants and government officials who, we may be fairly certain by the example of the officials Saint Constantine pressured for money, were often reticent givers. And the Orthodox Church not only made no objection, not only actively encouraged the trend, but for a long time actually served as the social-welfare apparatus of the Byzantine imperial state! Many of the officials and royals who engaged in philanthrōpía were ultimately regarded as saints by churches East and West. The artificial libertarian distinction between ‘voluntary’, individual charity on the one hand, and taxation for the purposes of aiding the poor on the other (though the question never arose prior to Saint Constantine), would be a foreign one to the mind of the Early Church – clearly they did not find these two practices ‘irreconcilable’. But if we were to follow Reed’s logic to its conclusion in the same spirit of chronological snobbery he assumes, subjecting the entire history of Christendom to the sophistry of the Austrian œconomists, we would puff ourselves up in judgement over entire generations and centuries of blessed Christian saints, branding them ‘envious’, ‘thieves’ and ‘hypocrites’. But in so doing we would be exposing only our own hypocrisy and self-righteousness, our puffed-up pride at belonging to an age which possesses ‘sound œconomic principles’.

But is this and ought this to be thought of as a call to rest on our laurels and leave the business of charity to what Dorothy Day sarcastically referred to as ‘Holy Mother the State’? No, not in the slightest. Merely paying our taxes does not make us more moral or charitable or loving people. We owe much of our relative comfort and leisure as citizens of a first-world nation to the policies of the state we live under. Like the Pharisees, our paying taxes is simply ‘αποδίδωμι’. More, much more, is demanded of us than Christ demanded of the Pharisees. Also, please do not consider this an apology for ‘progressivism’, that both too-often-reviled and too-often-worshipped bugbear of the (post-)modern age. I appeal here not to Progress but to the Great Apostolic Tradition to which Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and apostolically-inclined Protestant Christians lay claim. And indeed I would echo the calls for readers to search their consciences, consider the evidence and to be mindful of the facts – particularly historical fact, Scriptural context, and traditional hermeneutics of the parables of Our Lord.

07 May 2017

Our Father among the Saints Alexis of Wilkes-Barre

Our Father among the Saints Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre

I have a particular attachment to our local saint here in the Twin Cities, Holy Father Alexis (Tovt) of Wilkes-Barre: I have his icon on our wall and I brought that icon to the procession on this past Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy during Lent (which I felt was fitting). Holy Father Alexis was the leader of a great movement in the Americas which evangelised great numbers of people – his own Carpathian Rusin people, in fact – into the Holy Orthodox Church. He is a personal inspiration to me, as a working-class priest who never failed to support the striking mine-workers amongst his flock, and who counselled the immigrant community he served to hold fast to their traditions and make an effort to live with moderation and courage.

Father Alexis was himself the son of a Uniate priest in the Carpathian region of what would later become Slovakia, born in a village outside of Prešov. His father, Fr George Tovt, was the dean of the Prešov deanery; and with the means at his father’s disposal Father Alexis was given a solid education. He had a firm scholastic mastery of a number of languages, including his own native Rusin, Latin, Hungarian, Russian, German and even some Greek. Just before his ordination, he married a young woman named Rosalie Mihajluk, who tragically died only two years after their marriage, along with their infant daughter. Shortly afterward, his bishop John Valyi of Prešov received a letter from a classmate of Fr Alexis asking for missionary workers in America – to which many Carpathian Rusins were immigrating (whether voluntarily or impelled by law or force by their Austrian landlords and masters). Fr Alexis answered the call, and arrived in Minneapolis in 1889.

He presented himself and his credentials to the Latin Rite Catholic Archbishop John Ireland, whose ill-tempered, inhospitable and antagonistic treatment of Fr Alexis would later become notorious, and for which John Ireland would later be ironically referred to as the ‘father of the Orthodox Church in America’. Archbishop Ireland had ideological reasons, of course, for his bitter dislike of the Rusin Uniates – chief among them being that he wanted to Americanise the Catholic Church. Naturally he was going to do his utmost to marginalise these imported peasants with their Slavic tongue and manners, who wouldn’t ‘get with the programme’. Ireland not only refused Fr Alexis a parish, but publicly told all members of the Catholic diocese to cut him off, and sent a request to Rome to have all the Uniate priests removed from America and shipped back to the Carpathians. Thus, in the short term, Fr Alexis – and the Carpathian Rusins for whom he was responsible – had very few options open to them. They could submit to a celibate Polish priest, they could protest to Rome although their letters went unheeded and unanswered, or they could turn to the Russian Orthodox bishop, located in San Francisco. After one of Fr Alexis’s parishioners, understandably upset by the way in which the Latin hierarchs had treated them, angrily made this last suggestion public, Fr Alexis undertook to seek out the Orthodox bishop. He made a journey to San Francisco where he met with the Russian warden Pavel Podany and was chrismated into the Orthodox Church.

The bishop, His Eminence Vladimir (Sokolovski) of the Aleutians, made a visit to Minneapolis the following year, and baptised the three hundred sixty-one Rusins in Father Alexis’s parish into the Orthodox Church. It would be the first tremor of a massive exodus of Rusin-Americans from the much-abused and unsupported Uniate church into the welcoming arms of Orthodoxy – and few people were as instrumental to this exodus as Father Alexis himself, who took upon himself the monumental and thankless task of writing and preaching the ‘faith of the fathers’ throughout the American Northeast, supported by nothing but a small pension from San Francisco.

Though he brought, in the end, seventeen parishes and over twenty thousand Rusin Uniate souls into the Orthodox Church – what would later become the Orthodox Church in America – many of his former friends and fellows who remained Byzantine-Rite Catholics quickly became his bitter enemies. Orthodox churches in which Father Alexis Tovt preached were subject to brickbats and bullets. At least one assassination attempt by a Uniate zealot was made on Father Alexis’s person while he was in Wilkes-Barre. In response, Father Alexis urged his newfound converts to practise calm and a spirit of forgiveness.

That may seem surprising, given that his personal correspondence and sermons could tend toward the polemical and eristic (not, in historical perspective, altogether unlike another working-class, formerly-Uniate Rusin Orthodox priest who was similarly well-educated and gifted with languages). He was, indeed, passionately defensive of his flock, who were subject to attacks both verbal and physical, as well as acts of litigation from the Uniates which tied the new Orthodox churches up in mostly-unsympathetic American courts, deepened the parishes’ debts and further strained Father Alexis’s personal poverty. And furthermore he did not suffer fools or swindlers lightly even among ‘his own’. But even though he was swift to loose the verbal or written barb when he felt it was deserved on behalf of someone else or on behalf of his church, he was even swifter to forgive the wrongs he himself suffered.

Father Alexis worked several odd jobs, including in a bakery, to make up for his late financial support from the Russian Orthodox church in San Francisco; even then, what he made he gave directly to the churches he served. He had a passion for education; and with the blessing, moral and material support of the saintly Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin) he organised a parish school for children of Rusin families here in the Twin Cities. He loved the Slavs and preached in many different Slavic communities in North America; he exhorted his own Slovak, Rusin parishioners to love other Slavic people, even from different nations, as brothers and sisters.

Though he worked tirelessly and without complaint for the Church in America, his constant work and the conditions in which he lived took their toll on his health. When he was being considered by Moscow to be an auxiliary to a bishop, he declined, giving as his reason that the office should go to a younger and healthier man. His illnesses began to worsen in 1908. He took a brief visit to New Jersey to recover his health, but he was confined to his bed upon his return to Wilkes-Barre. He did not recover. He reposed in the Lord on the seventh of May, 1909.

Holy Father Alexis, tireless worker as he had been in life, continued to intercede for on behalf of his people even after his repose, however; his Life on the OCA website has this to say about a family miracle that occurred in 1993:
In January, 1993 a certain man prayed to Saint Alexis to help him obtain information about his son from whom he had been separated for twenty-eight years. Placing his confidence in the saint’s boldness before God, he awaited an answer to his prayer. The very next day the man’s son telephoned him. It seems the young man was in church when he was suddenly filled with an overwhelming desire to contact his father. He had been taken to another state by his mother, and she changed his name when he was a child. This is why his father was unable to locate him. Having learned from his mother that his father was an Orthodox Christian, he was able with the help of an Orthodox priest to obtain his father’s phone number in a distant city. As a result of that telephone call, the young man later visited his father, who rejoiced to see what sort of man his son had become. The father gave thanks to God and to Saint Alexis for reuniting him with his son.
It is worthy of note that Father Alexis’s shining example – his witness to the Faith, his tireless work, his activism, his care for the poor – would find deliberate echoes in the other great movements into the Orthodox Church on the North American continent; including the mission of Bishop Orestes (Chornock), but not least of which also, the efforts of the late Guatemalan labour priest and monk Andres (Girón de Leon) and his fruitful efforts to bring the indigenous people of that country into the Church. Holy Father Alexis, pray to God for us!
O righteous Father Alexis, our heavenly intercessor and teacher,
divine adornment of the church of Christ!
Entreat the Master of All to strengthen the Orthodox Faith in America,
To grant peace to the world and to our souls great mercy!

06 May 2017

Bunakov, Russian social thought and the Eurasian way

Blessed Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky

Blessed New Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky, known in life by his nom de guerre Bunakov, left behind him some very interesting writings, which I’m only just starting to delve into – starting with Пути России (Ways of Russia), a series of essays which he published in the ‘pink émigré’ publication Современные записки in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Konstantin Skorkin said of his thought that it was an ‘original synthesis of Christianity, socialism and autocracy’, which naturally piqued my interest. After all, such a synthesis is very much parallel to the kind of work I’m attempting to do here.

Saint Ilya’s writings undersigned as ‘Bunakov’, so far, do not disappoint. The first of his Ways of Russia essays is essentially an extended apologia for the Slavophils. Not necessarily an apologia in terms of a rigorous defence of their ideas, but an attempt to reclaim them both from the charge that they were a failed, abortive political movement; and also from the reputation that had attached to them as Russian proto-chauvinists. (The latter was a reputation not at all helped by the fact that right-wing nationalists like Mikhail Katkov had attempted to position themselves as heirs to the Slavophil legacy, even while Ivan Aksakov was still alive – but more so after his death.) The overall thrust of Ilya Fondaminsky’s argument is that the measure of the Slavophils’ success is in the deep-reaching impact their ideas and convictions had, even on their political adversaries. He finds telltale traces of the Slavophil messianic conviction even in Chaadaev (whose polemical Philosophical Letters served to ignite the Slavophil-Westerniser controversy in the first place), in Herzen (the foremost of the critics of the Slavophils on the Russian socialist left), in Chernyshevsky (author of What Is to Be Done?) and Mikhailovsky, in Tolstoy and (of course) Dostoevsky, in Solovyov, and even in anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin.

Bunakov puts it thus:
The Slavophils asserted Russia in its entirety. Russian sources – spiritual, governmental, social – were accepted as a whole, following from the underlying source: the religious. Populism is a one-sided Slavophilia. It destroyed the integral concept of the ‘Russian source’, adopting one principle (the social, along with the spirituality that stems from it) and discarding others (governmental and religious). Another trend of Russian consciousness is a similarly one-sided – spiritual, religious – Slavophilia: the idealistic one. The Russian idealist movement is not ascetic. It asserts the ‘flesh’, the ‘material, progress, public-mindedness’. But its pathos is in the spirit, in religion. On questions of the governmental and social ways of Russia, its answers are hazy and often self-contradicting.
And also thus:
The significance of Slavophil doctrine in the development of Russian self-consciousness is enormous. The tragœdy of the Slavophils was that their religious views were alien to a significant part of the Russian educated society; that their political views were unacceptable to the Russian public. The history of Russian identity in the nineteenth century is the history of a movement for Russian liberation. Any spiritual movement that does not coincide wholly with the liberation movement loses many chances for success and recognition. This is what happened to the Slavophils. They only took part in the liberation movement and occupied only the most moderate positions within it. Sometimes they entered into a fierce struggle with it. For this, the Russian public could never forgive them. That's why the main ideas of Slavophilism—about the special ways of Russia’s development; about the universal significance of the principles inherent in it; about the new word which it will tell the world—only indirectly penetrated into the Russian consciousness. The Slavophils’ opponents, with their resolute rejection of religion, with their political radicalism, won brilliant victories over the Slavophiles in the Russian public [sphere]. But the ideas of the Slavophils, noiselessly and often imperceptibly, penetrated into the very camp of the opponents, seized them from within and dominated the Russian consciousness almost completely.
And he sums up:
Chaadaev, Herzen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, the Slavophils, [the Pochvenniks], the Westernisers, the Populists, the Idealists – all are the face of the same Russian consciousness, always equal to itself in its own depths; always identical to itself. On the surface, the Russian consciousness seems torn, divided, reeling between ‘Russia’ and ‘the West’; in it, it seems there are ‘two souls’. But that’s only on the surface. In her true depth, the Russian consciousness is one and whole. In it, there is one soul, one idea, one truth: the Russian people, its special ways, its special purpose among mankind. It is impossible to understand the Russian consciousness in the old period, without understanding and without looking at her ‘soul’.
For Bunakov, the ‘Russian idea’ is indeed a religious one, an Orthodox one. It simply cannot be otherwise. Even among the atheists and anarchists he studies there is a kind of burning religious fervour, a peculiarly Russian and Old-Believer fervour, that cannot be suppressed. But to ignore wholesale, or (worse) to misappropriate and misinterpret, the social and œconomic implications of the ‘Russian idea’ and the Slavophil legacy – to ignore the ‘populist’ and ‘social’ side of that idea, to ignore the familial-communal labour truth, that of the artel’ and the obshchina, that rests so close to the core of sobornost’ – is to do that legacy a grave act of philosophical desecration. What Saint Ilya sets out to do with his political-philosophical work, is to restore and reorient (er, so to speak) the original wealth and vitality of creative meaning in Slavophil thought: retrieving the religious-governmental, Orthodox ‘end’ of that thought from Solovyov and the idealists, and reuniting it with the syndical socioœconomic ‘end’ which had been carried off by Chernyshevsky and Mikhailovsky.

The other interesting part of his writings, and this he delves into briefly in the third part of his Ways of Russia series, is the emphasis he puts on the geography of Russia and how its historical experience has turned much of the standard logic of Western development theory – including Marxist development theory – completely on its head. The urban, commercial œconomy of the Garðaríki did not sustain itself, did not advance naturally, but instead turned abruptly in an agrarian direction with the fall of Kievan Rus’, where the entirety of Russia pretty much remained until the reforms of Peter the Great and his descendants. He warns both the Bolsheviks and the Whites who would force Russia to develop along capitalist lines:
The historical ways of Russia are the ways of an agricultural country. Her centuries-old connexion with a crushed East, her centuries-old break with a blossoming West hovers over her. Overcoming Russia's historical past will be every bit as hard as overcoming the hardships of Russia's natural conditions. This may be mourned. But not to take this [past] into account in your constructs would be the greatest mistake.
In this sense, then, Bunakov is, perhaps not a full-fledged ideological Eurasian like Georgiy Vernadsky, but perhaps a proto-Eurasian in his approach both to the continent and to political œconomy. He absolutely retained the Russian populist idea that Russia’s œconomic and social development could happen along humane lines – but that it did not have to, and should not, follow in the footsteps of Western industrial capitalism and imperialism. He pointed instead to the agrarian roots, to the fact that Russia occupies a bridge between East and West and that its ties to the East should be neither ignored nor belittled. This is a lesson which the modern heirs of the Paris clique, tragically, seem over-eager to forget. But the ties between, for example, Russian and Chinese forms of both left-wing populism and ‘revolutionary conservatism’ – those which Khomyakov suspected in his historiographical work, those which Solovyov feared and prophesied against, and those which Bunakov began to indicate in the Ways of Russia – those ties should be of particular interest and worthy of study today.

The new word which Russia was to have spoken to the world remains as yet unspoken. But if ever there was a word that was lost that should be retrieved – impossible though that may proverbially be said to be – this new word may be it. Blessed New Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky, pray to God for us!

03 May 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 5.1: fantasy, glamour and erotica

Once again, I got some very helpful pushback on my last article in this series from a gentle reader of the blog who wishes to remain anonymous. In short, this reader felt that I cut off far more than I could justify in my attempt to harness Platonic thinking against, er, ‘adult entertainment’. He believes that I ignore the ways in which erotically-charged art, or rather art that is meant to speak to some desiring element in our souls, can in fact have positive effects on our psychē and point us to things beyond itself. He fears that with my particular Plato-inspired complaint about erotica – to wit, that it offers us a simulacrum of reality which dissociates the desiring part of our soul from what can truly satisfy it – glosses too much. In particular, he fears that it would consign to the outer darkness, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth, forms of performance (gymnastics, figure skating, dancing, acrobatics, acting), representation and storytelling (especially fantasy literature) that do speak to the desiring part of our soul and yet should be preserved.

First of all, directed against my read of Plato, this might be a fair complaint – particularly if I was being careless in my argumentation and too-sweeping in my characterisation. But against Plato himself, that seems like a tall order. After all, in order to get Glaucon to come around to his point-of-view concerning justice, Plato’s Socrates has to both entertain and enlighten him with not just any old story, but a myth, a flight of fantasy. The tale of Er is apparently Plato’s pure invention, and it creates with loving and colourful detail an entire world corresponding to the afterlife and the fates of the great personages of Greek history and epic poetry. It’s hard, in fact, not to see in the tale of Er a prototype of the great speculative works of Tolkien and Lewis! But this færie tale which Plato tells, is clearly not an exercise in mere entertainment or ‘enchantment’, but is aimed at an end: which is to bring the desiring part of Glaucon’s soul, the dangerous appetite Glaucon has for the tyranny which he himself illustrates with the myth of Gyges, into agreement with the noetic part. The grandiose, panoramic vision of the many-coloured eight wheels of the universe, governed by the Fates Lachesis, Clotho and Atropos, and the migration of souls before them, joining themselves to their new lives. This vision clearly does have an sensuate, even erotic aspect to it – sublimated but still very much present. The eye of desire is lifted upwards by this tale, into alignment with that of the nous.

The goal of this færie tale is worth keeping in view. Socrates, a story-spinner who can be likened to the painter of couches he lambastes the very book before, is presenting Er’s epic, ‘high-fantasy’ vision of the afterlife not as mere escapism, nor as a vehicle for the consumption of anything. No – Glaucon’s erotic urges are much more sublime (and much more dangerous) than that! In the beginning of the Republic he objected in the strongest terms to Adeimantus’s first ‘city of necessity’, which served only the needs of the belly, rejecting it as a city of swine. What he desires – or rather, what he thinks he desires – is glamour: those fineries of the city that can service the need of the human soul for beauty beyond the satiation (including sexual) of the proximate bodily desires. It is only from the basis of this desire for glamour that the need for an auxiliary class arises – and thus, it is only from within Glaucon’s more fevered city that the philosopher (or the king who can philosophise) can truly emerge. The desire for things beyond the merely animal is indeed the vantage-point from which Socrates attempts to direct these dangerous youths – like Glaucon, Agathon and Alcibiades – to the really real in the first place: transcendental forms like beauty and truth and good.

I think from the Platonic perspective, then, there is certainly a place for ‘high fantasy’ (whether in literature or in theatre or in film) and other art forms that can indeed direct people to reflection on the really real. To give one example: can one look at the Russian Olympic women’s synchronised swimming team in last year’s competition, and not think on what sobornost’ can look like in physical motion, or what love of neighbour can look like? In his critique of the poets, Plato’s Socrates is far from denying their power (or indeed borrowing it for himself!); he instead excoriates the abuse of their gifts for directing the desiring part of the soul, for the purposes of cheap entertainment or, worse yet, for confusing people as to the nature of the good in themselves. It is not a denial of the poet’s art (or the painter’s art, or any other artistic craft) in its entirety.

But to clarify: my primary critique of erotica in my previous piece was precisely that it was dissociative as well as imitative. In disingenuously presenting the airbrushed fantasy of sex as ‘real’ – that is to say, in passing off a shadow on the wall of the cave as the object itself – it directs the desiring part of the soul away from the noetic part. The unrealistic expectations it arouses within the viewer makes sōphrosunē impossible to achieve, and may even make it prohibitively difficult to maintain a normal relationship. Given Socrates’ polemicisation against Homer for appealing to the spirited parts of the souls of his audience, and making the sanguinary Achilles an object of emulation to be rationalised, how much more then would he object to the lowering of the nous to the service of the many-headed beast, in a way that is yet more dissociative?

But fantasy (and that includes performative as well as poetic storytelling) does not have to be, and in most cases is not, dissociative in this way. No one reads Lord of the Rings expecting to go out and find elves and orcs in the real world when they put the book down. But in my own experience, Tolkien fans do take to heart the idea that maybe – just maybe – even a small act of commonplace decency and courage and justice, done by an ordinary person, can perhaps stave off the darkness for one more day. And if the færie tale of Er’s voyage into the afterlife left an impression upon Glaucon – indeed, if Socrates’ ‘tale was saved and not lost’ (which he clearly meant in more ways than one) – we may perhaps infer that Plato felt the same way.

01 May 2017

Mountain bandits, hedge-priests and the Unia

Carpathian oprishki опришки

On this International Labour Day (which is also the day on which the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenia was supposed to take place in past years), I would like to write a post about this people without a nation, who have always and ever been friends to the international labour movement, and who themselves have both suffered from exploitation and have fought against it with banditry, and later with labour activism.

Before I begin this post, I should probably make a full disclosure. I lived through my graduate career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; I was chrismated into the Holy Orthodox Church in the Moscow Patriarchate; and I now attend an OCA parish in Minneapolis. (That means, of course, that I do have a ‘side’ as far as the following issues I’m highlighting here are concerned, and I’m sticking to it.) I’m taking a Slovak class in the very same church which Holy Father Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre established. I live, in a literal and physical sense, very close to ground zero for a lot of the issues I am about to discuss. It is not my desire to cause offence or scandal or division, given that there are many good people of strong faith and good will, some of whom I know personally, who attend parishes aligned with the Unia. At the same time, of course, the truths of the history, and the ecclesiological, the cultural and the class issues that go along with it, should not be ignored.

The history of the Union of Brest-Litovsk is a very long, very ugly, very bloody tragœdy, and no one – not the Orthodox Cossacks, nor the Catholic Poles – comes out of it with clean hands. It is necessary, though, first to note who was affected, and where the impetus for a political union of the Orthodox Church with the See of Rome came from. The Orthodox believers living under Polish rule were spread in a wide crescent stretching from Polotsk and Mogilev (both in modern-day Belarus) down to Poltava (now in the modern-day Ukraine) and westward into the Carpathian mountains, stretching into the Rusin areas of what are now Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. They all regarded themselves as ‘Русь’ and all spoke Eastern Slavic languages; but the term which entered common English usage, under influence from the Latin, was ‘Ruthene’ or ‘Ruthenian’. Residents of the Carpathians, who called themselves ‘White Croats’ at the time but who would eventually call themselves ‘Русь’, were in fact among the original mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs.

It is also important to understand that these people, these Rusins, from the late Middle Ages forward were basically treated like dirt by everyone who claimed rule over them, whether Polish or Magyar or German. They were overwhelmingly peasants, and, in the Carpathians at least, they were peasants who were given the poorest land to farm, usually with tax incentives from the Polish government (which often came with strings attached, though this was not apparent at the time). They were poor farmers and shepherds, but at least – some of the time – they were relatively independent. This independence they maintained through their own village commune structures (similar and directly parallel to the ‘black’ Russian obshchina община and the Ukrainian hromada громада), their own conciliar leadership, and especially their own Orthodox churches. It’s unclear anymore whether these churches were governed by their own bishops. As Lemko-Rusin social historian Dr. Simeon Pyzh put it: ‘It is certain that in the monasteries and churches the monks and priests copied books, kept chronicles and received and recorded letters and documents; but after acceptance of union with Rome the Uniate clergy did not preserve these documents. On the contrary, it destroyed them, so that not even a trace of the old faith would remain.’ But the few surviving histories record that they were under the omophor of Constantinople (not under the Metropolitans of Kiev or Moscow).

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was modernising itself by the 1580’s; the powers of the nobility, the szlachta, were being supplanted by a growing bourgeoisie. The Commonwealth occupied an enviable maritime position on the Baltic coast, and its urban élites were growing in power and influence as a result of Baltic sea trade and as a result of the opening of the inner Commonwealth lands to prospecting, speculation and mining enterprises in rock salt, lead, iron and precious metals. The story of Polish enclosure is a sad and familiar one to students of English history or of European history more generally: in order for them to retain their traditional privileges and status alongside these nouveaux riches, the nobles began adopting their methods, enclosing commons, revoking village rights, forcibly buying out the richer peasants (and robbing the lands from the poorer), and taking taxes in ever-larger cuts.

At the same time, the religious wars of the Continent were making their influence felt even in the traditionally-tolerant Commonwealth; and the Latin Counter-Reformation through the Society of Jesus was exercising a strong influence on the Polish princes and szlachta. The confluence of these two impulses, œconomic and religious, led the rising Polish bourgeoisie as well as the modernising gentry to look hungrily at the lands occupied by the Carpathian Rusins – there were commons to appropriate, there were taxes to levy, and there were converts to make that would add to the piety, prestige and purses of the landlords.

However, the peasants living in these areas were as stubborn and reticent as they were poor, and given to Robin Hood-style social banditry when they were squeezed too tightly. The Rusin bandits (called zbuytsi збуйцы ‘highwaymen’, or else oprishki опришки ‘brigands’) generally took to the forests and foothills and would prove a thorn in the side of the Polish, Austrian and Hungarian nobility for centuries. Some who came from the eastern part of Transcarpathia even sought out and joined the Cossack uprisings against the Polish state. These latter, of course, were as much religious as social banditry – the Cossacks in rebellion were devoutly and violently Orthodox and utterly opposed to the Catholic nobility. Rusin bandits were notably present in many of the peasant uprisings against the Habsburgs and the Polish state, including the Hussite wars and the rebellion of Francis Rákóczi.

Thus, in order for this exploitation to be effective, first the independence of these difficult-to-manage foothill villages and communes had to be broken. The Rusin villages and communes of the Carpathian foothills were, as many rural Eastern European villages have been through most of historical memory, centred around church life, and the Orthodox Church and its parish priests had been to that point one of the great props of Rusin independence or semi-independence from an officially-Catholic state. Thus, they were to be co-opted or they were to be removed. Even if it was not the only motive, figuring heavily in the impulse to the Union of Brest-Litovsk was the œconomic exploitation of these poor but irksome hill-folk.

Looking at the class backgrounds of the Unia’s architects as well, the pattern becomes much clearer. Adam Tyczkowicz, Michel Rohoza and Cyril Terlecki (the diplomatic and clerical architects of the Unia), as well as Josyf Rutsky and the infamous Jozafat Kuncewicz (the brutal, sadistic, inquisitorial enforcer of the Unia against the peasantry in subsequent decades, shamefully ‘sainted’ by the Latins), all came from and supported the interests of the szlachta gentry class, which stood most to gain from co-opting the Orthodox churches in Subcarpathia. Kuncewicz was mentored by wealthy merchants who supported the Unia for their own ends. Piotr Skarga, a member of the Society of Jesus and a key figure in the Counter-Reformation policies of the Polish realm, was another nobleman who had the ear and the implicit trust of King Sigismund Vasa when he advocated for the arrangement (though, in fairness to Skarga, elsewhere he advocated leniency toward the peasantry). The local priests who joined the Unia were usually enticed by the prospect of better relations with the secular nobility. Charitably speaking, many of them may have thought that by approving the Unia they could more effectively speak for their villages. Certainly individual Uniate parishes occasionally did mount some subaltern resistance to the demands of the Latinate Polish and Hungarian clergy, but this was not to prove the norm from subsequent experience.

The entire enterprise of Uniatism was guided not only by the gentry but by the worldly wisdom of the urban bourgeoisie and the educated trades – lawyers, merchants, university-educated churchmen. It was from the start a collaboration between the Polish państwo and the Latin clergy. As Dr Simeon Pyzh summed up in his Short History: ‘the Polish Pans, spiritual and temporal, brought the rural population in the Carpathians œconomic oppression and slavery’. On the other hand, the parish priests and the two bishops who rejected the Unia were not noblemen or wealthy merchants, but low-born, and sympathised strongly with the beleaguered peasantry. One of the handful of Carpathian clerics who resisted and polemicised against the Unia, Fr Mihajlo Andrella, did have considerable education, and wrote in a mishmash of Latin, Hungarian, German and his own Rusin language. But it is noteworthy that his writings are described as ‘chaotic’: eristic, rough, vernacular, and in a populist hedge-priest style.

It is crucial to point out that most Rusins, even under the Unia, continued to resist Latinisation, colonialism and expropriation of their customary lands. But for all that, Byzantine-Rite Catholicism in Eastern Europe remained a bourgeois, gentry-led phenomenon: a tool of the exploiters retained and imposed for their benefit through the centuries. For this reason in particular, they attracted the most support from governments and were never lacking for powerful patrons; in latter years, the Uniate Catholics who found themselves in Ukrainian lands have drifted, not toward agrarianism or distributism, but toward the ugliest possible forms of racial chauvinism and bourgeois nationalism. By contrast, the Orthodox holdouts in Carpathia and elsewhere in the lands of the Русь which kept up their links with Constantinople and later Moscow, retained their strong peasant character. Even when, under Austro-Hungarian persecution and exploitation, many Rusins came to America, they were strongly drawn to the labour movement as they found themselves being again exploited. The notorious ill-treatment of Saint Alexis Toth at the hands of Archbishop John Ireland, right here in the Twin Cities, led directly to many Rusin-Americans leaving Byzantine-Rite Catholicism for what would later become the Orthodox Church in America, for reasons which were often connected to œconomic as well as ecclesiastical ill-treatment, as the faith of Abp John Ireland came to be seen as the faith of the Irish mine bosses generally. In Pittsburgh and the surrounding coal-mining areas, the Rusins were prominent in the IWW and the UMWA. The leaders of the Lemko Association and the later Carpatho-Rusin societies, including Dr. Simeon Pyzh, were to a man socialists and union men – some pro-Soviet, others far less so. During the Second World War, Lemko and Rusin organisations in the United States (which were majority-Orthodox by that point) were stridently anti-fascist.

I freely admit my own biases, political as well as theological. I do hold out (and I do use the Latinism with a tinge of ironic humour) a ‘preferential option’ for the working class, and particularly the rural working class – and the Carpathian Rusin people have always and overwhelmingly belonged to that lower stratum of society, whether under Poland, Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union or America. It is little wonder that many of the Rusins welcomed even the limited autonomy they were allowed under the interwar Czechoslovak state, and that even within that state they gravitated either toward ‘green’ distributist peasant politics, or else toward a ‘redder’ agrarian socialism. But again, I’m putting this historical commentary out there, and the class-based and ecclesiological commentary as well, not to impugn the faith or the good will of the men and women who adhere to the Byzantine Rite in communion with the Church of Rome. That’s neither the point nor the intention of this essay. I am instead attempting, in my own limited way, to put forward one true but neglected aspect of the historical record.