29 June 2017

The dew is particularly luxuriant this morning

I’m currently reading the Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋繁露》 partially authored by the great Confucian philosopher Dong Zhongshu (but in fact a compiled tradition beginning with him), in translation by Drs Sarah Queen and John Major. I’ve only worked through about three chapters so far, and am having some difficulty keeping straight the multiple layers of commentary that make up the work (the Spring and Autumn Annals 《春秋》 itself, supposedly written by Confucius; the Gongyang Commentary 《公羊傳》 on the Annals; and then the Luxuriant Dew 《繁露》 commentary on the Gongyang tradition, named after the first chapter of the book). Dong offers a reading of the Spring and Autumn Annals which attributes political-philosophical and moral meanings to what it includes in the record of the State of Lu, what it excludes, and how it refers to the actors involved. But I am finding it so far to be a rich, profound and insightful work of political philosophy.

The Spring and Autumn Annals itself is a work of history so laconic that it would easily meet the approval of the most parsimonious Spartan king. But the oral traditions which accompanied it, one of which was, according to Ban Gu’s Book of Han, transmitted from Confucius’ disciple Zixia to the Gongyang family, whose descendant Gongyang Shou committed this oral tradition to writing during the Han Dynasty, attributes great depth of meaning to the way in which Confucius described (or glossed, or concealed) events and people. The idea was that the history was a template for rectifying names: recording events as faithfully as circumstances and proper feeling would allow, but also approving or disapproving the way in which historical figures conducted themselves by attaching or refusing to attach titles to them. The Gongyang Commentary takes the form of a question-and-answer catechesis to each passage, pointing out and clarifying vague, unclear or perplexing points.

The Luxuriant Dew, then (at least in these first few chapters), takes the form of several similarly catechetical dialogues between Dong Zhongshu – or another authoritative master of the Gongyang Commentary – and his students, with them raising questions or objections about certain inconsistencies or moral quandaries raised by the Gongyang tradition. And he tackles some fairly concrete questions of statecraft, including those of war and peace.

Dong Zhongshu is by no means a consistent pacifist in the way Micius is, but he is certainly (particularly given his violent Western Han political context and particularly when compared against even other classicists and philosophers of the time) a ‘dove’ who treats war with a singular detestation, as he believes Confucius also does in the Spring and Autumn Annals.
Someone raising a question said, [The Spring and Autumn] records battles and attacks in great detail. Why, then, are there no expressions indicating that it despised such battles and attacks?

The answer is:
[When the Spring and Autumn records] meetings and assemblies,
    large states [are described as having] hosted small states;
  [when the Spring and Autumn records] battles and attacks,
    [states] mentioned later [are described as having] hosted the ones [mentioned] first.

If the Spring and Autumn did not despise warfare, why would it place the state that initiated the aggression in an inferior position? This was an expression indicating its hatred of warfare.
How great is the harm suffered by the people during warfare! Examine its intentions and observe its precepts, and you will discover that the Spring and Autumn despises those who rely on force rather than virtue and those who coerce and devastate the people, but it cherishes those who rely on humaneness and righteousness to win the submission of the people. An Ode declares:
“Spreading the virtue of his governance throughout the lands.”
This is what the
Spring and Autumn considers to be praiseworthy.
At the same time, in a way very similar to Orthodox social thought on the subject, even though he does not and will not grant that war can be righteous or just, he believes that there can be greater or lesser degrees of justice even within war, and that observing these degrees is very important:
In the case of prearranged battles, the Spring and Autumn praises the fact that [the two sides] arranged the battle in advance; it does not praise the battle. There is evidence that this is so. The Spring and Autumn loves the people, and warfare kills them. What pleasure does a noble man derive from killing what he loves? …

Compared with a deceitful assault, a prearranged battle is considered righteous. Compared with [the alternative of] not fighting, a prearranged battle is not righteous. Therefore no alliance is better than an alliance, and yet there are references to praiseworthy alliances. No battles are better than engaging in battle, and yet there are references to praiseworthy battles. Within an unrighteous act, righteousness may dwell. Within a righteous act, unrighteousness may dwell.
Indeed, the emphasis on degree, on proportion, on reasoning by analogy, recurs throughout the opening chapters of the Luxuriant Dew. In no other way, Dong believes, can the profundity of the Way truly be grasped:
Someone said: The Way of the Spring and Autumn is to observe what brings confusion to people and offer explanations to greatly enlighten them. Now Zhao Dun was a worthy, but he did not follow the principle [of punishing the assassin of his lord]. Everyone saw his goodness, but no one saw his crime. Thus because of his worthiness, the Spring and Autumn expressly associates him with this great evil and implicates him with strong criticism to cause people to think deeply and look into themselves, reflecting on the Way, so that they say, “Oh! The great duty of the ruler and minister and the Way of father and son indeed extend this far!”
But the reliance on analogical reasoning only gets one so far when looking at the Spring and Autumn. Whereas Socrates’ student Plato veiled the truth in its higher forms beneath shades of irony and by giving both sides of an argument brief flashing glimpses of that truth, Gongyang Shou’s student Dong Zhongshu takes a somewhat different approach, but with similar intent. There’s an apophatic subtlety to Dong Zhongshu’s commentary, that not only places as much emphasis on what is left out of the narrative as on what is stated explicitly, but even warns against taking what is left in the narrative too literally, or applying a legalistic mindset to its distinctions. The moral truths of the Spring and Autumn Annals are not something that can be approached merely by the consistent application of a hermeneutic, no matter how rational. Perhaps this is why Dong’s approach has been considered ‘mystical’.
An Ode declares:
“The flowers of the cherry tree, how they wave about!
    It is not that I do not think of you, but your home is far away.”
Confucius commented: “He did not really think of her. If he did, there would be no such thing as being far away.” From this, we see that you must observe [the
Spring and Autumn’s] guiding principles and not take its words too literally. When you do not take its words too literally, you will head toward the proper path.
There are two things, then, which stand firmly and implacably in the way of the Gongyang tradition of Confucian classicism being considered a form of ‘fundamentalism’ – a charge which has sadly lighted upon certain latter-day Gongyang scholars, with more or less encouragement from their critics. Firstly, the Gongyang Zhuan is an oral tradition. The reason the Gongyang Zhuan is considered a ‘New Text’ is precisely because it was transmitted orally by catechesis from Zixia down to Gongyang Shou. There is no written ‘text’, no ‘original’, to be given divine sanction and infallibility: indeed, this was precisely the critique of Gongyang studies by the ‘Old Text’ followers of the Zuo Zhuan. Secondly, there is this apophatic tendency, this moral imagination, at work within the tradition itself, warning followers precisely against the attribution of infallibility to either the Spring and Autumn or to the Gongyang commentary. I’ve noted before that Jiang Qing, implacable though he may seem wherever his nemesis of Rawlsian liberalism rears its head, also adheres to this kind of apophasis about his own project.

Still looking forward to sinking my teeth further into this great foundational text, begun by one of Confucianism’s greatest advocates and a firm ‘social justice’ philosopher. The spring and autumn dew is sure to reveal many more of its luxuriances.

28 June 2017

Ah, the refreshing taste of melting Alpine snowflakes

Honestly, I thought the ‘social justice warriors’ would be the first to respond in umbrage to my last piece, but no, it looks like the libertarians are even thinner-skinned. I got a mini-essay in response to it, posted on Facebook (just the venue for the sort of thing, you know) from a certain Herr-Professor-Doktor affiliated with the Acton Institute, with a great deal of harrumphing and dusting of the scholarly weeds, as is the normal case when a man with such high academic position who is very firmly attached to a pet theory is thrown into a snit. I shall fisk the thing with all due prejudice.
the author suffers from a lack of understanding on a number of levels, particularly about both Mises and Hayek, and would have benefited no end just reading some things from them,
Oh dear. It turns out I actually have directly read Mises’ Praxeology (from which I post some relevant quotes here), which happens to be precisely the concept and the conceit which I was linking to the social constructivism of Berger through the work of Schütz on Weberian sociology. As for Hayek…
particularly Hayek’s The Counter Revolution of Science whose first part is a dense trouncing of social-science, and the second an excellent historical essay on the roots of the social sciences in the materialist determinism of such as Diderot and Baron d’Holbach, up through Condorcet. Hayek (as well as Mises) were both violently opposed to social constructionism
Ah yes, the second most-favoured ivory-tower tactic of name-dropping voluminously to intimidate the critic with a miasma of pseudo-citations and blather. Unfortunately I am not fazed.

Getting to the heart of the matter: believe it or not, I am indeed familiar with the thesis of The Counter Revolution of Science. And on a surface level, it would appear that Hayek is attacking ‘constructivism’. But the idea which Hayek labels ‘constructionist rationalism’ is, in fact, more commonly referred to as the much-earlier Enlightenment tradition of positivism: the idea that social truths and orders can be deliberately built up through the correct application of scientific thinking. To a certain extent, as a fellow critic of the Enlightenment, I do actually agree with Hayek’s assessment of positivism – to a point. But here, the allusion is a blatant red herring. Note that when modern-day regressive-leftists attack biological gender as a ‘social construct’, they are very much not granting it a basis in scientific rationalism. Clearly the latter form of ‘social constructivism’ is not what Hayek is criticising. And when the modern-day ‘social justice warriors’ attack not only the ‘social sciences’ but also the ‘hard sciences’, they are using logic which looks and smells distinctly Hayekian: these ‘social constructs’ of brute biological fact are oppressive. They are totalitarian. They allow government to control us. They turn us into serfs.

Coincidence? Perhaps. I believe in coincidences. Coincidences happen every day. But I do not trust coincidences.
seeing it as one of Marx’s chief fallacies, and this comes out in CRoS, as it centers on Henri Saint-Simon and his secretary, August Comte and their quest for a new society and a new “man,” via “social science.”
That’s exactly right, Doktor Jenkins, but it does not prove your point. Believe it or not, I did take an undergraduate philosophy-of-science class. Comte Henri de Saint-Simon was indeed one of the great pioneers of the aforementioned scientific positivism. Though indeed a figure of the Enlightenment (and thus to be treated with some suspicion), Saint-Simon was not a constructivist in the sense that the term has been used in sociology for the past fifty years, or in the sense that modern regressive leftists are using it now. No, this particular postmodernist madness has a far more proximate source, Doktor, and you’re ignoring it.
Hayek does make the tenuous assertion that Marx drew more heavily from Saint-Simon than from Hegel or Feuerbach. We generally think of Hayek in connection to his theory of prices or his Constitution of Liberty, but this is far and away I think his most important book.
Fair enough. It’s not doing the legwork you want it to here, though.
I would also recommend Paul Gottfried’s The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium. Gottfried was Marcuse’s student at Columbia and at a number of places besides the above monograph traces the origins of “cultural Marxism.” (Gottfried realizes the difficulty of the phrase, coined, ironically, by German Marxists in the 1930s as disdain for the members of the Institut für Sozialforschung at Goethe Universitat in Frankfurt. The orthodox Marxists took those at Frankfurt as nothing by ashamed Bourgeois who hated bourgeois institutions, but cared little for economics, though this isn’t wholly true). Since the agenda of Horkheimer et al., was writ large before Mises ever emerged on the scene, the author might want to rethink matters.
Au contraire, Herr-Professor-Doktor. Such an assertion merely adds to my suspicion of the ultimate irrelevance of the Frankfurters to our present plight, and of their impotence to address it. Horkheimer himself was too much a neo-Kantian with an exaggerated belief in the power of objective discursive reasoning to confront and dissuade irrational social behaviours such as those associated with totalitarian government and religion. If anything, the teleology of his thought would be located among those of the nouveau atheist clique who still believe that our problems are the result of not thinking clearly enough with the scientific method. Bourgeois indeed, but not reg-left.
Another book is Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.
Ah, Scruton. Yes, I am familiar with his work. And no, for similar reasons, I do not find its poor aim altogether convincing, nor do I find this particular book the best representation of Scruton’s thinking (as he has seemingly gotten crankier and lazier in his old age). I am not the only idiosyncratic conservative to think so, either.
Both Scruton and Gottfried have baggage, but the coincidence of Marx and Hegel's notions of antithesis and alienation, and the direct path to the place of alterity in modern cultural commentary that they trace (and which I think true, as does Tristram Engelhardt)
  1. More pointless namedropping.
  2. Huh? Hegelian-Marxist dialectic and analysis of social alienation are precisely what the regressive left are not doing, as I thought was clear by now. ‘Gender is a social construct’, therefore gender does not exist as an objective biological reality, is not dialectical in the slightest. It’s a bad-faith monological assertion of the individual against reality and against any possible social synthesis outside of total conquest (or total denial).
  3. Just because you think something, doesn’t make it so, Herr-Professor-Doktor. You and Tristram Engelhardt can think that what kids these days are doing is unreconstructed Marxism (or that you identify as unicorns) all you like; it still doesn’t make it true.
leaves this essay as nothing but a kind of guilt by association smash-up: Berger used a suspect term (and how he was using it isn't made clear) and he had an indirectly indirect connection with Mises, ergo, cultural marxism (whatever it is) is a child of Austrian economics. That wouldn't pass any class I taught.

OH NOES! A failing grade in a class I never took and never intended to take? The horror, the horror! I guess I’d better rethink my entire life and turn in all my degrees, diplomas and tassels now, bowing before the superior wisdom of the great Herr-Professor-Doktor!

Well, consider that raspberry blown. Suffice it to say I’m not impressed with such an academic ad baculum, particularly coming from someone who gives a response this convoluted, this utterly insubstantial and this utterly disconnected from the actual history of ideas that feeds into postmodern expressions of social hysteria. As I think it’s been pointed out before, there is far more of Derrida, Husserl and Heidegger at work in modern sociology classrooms than there is Marx, who is uniformly seen as stodgy and out-of-date. Again, I can attest to this first-hand.

And the very fact that the postmodern deconstruction concept was present in the work of Schütz when he presented his paper on the Aufbau of Weberian sociology, and that he was motivated to seek clarification on unifying history with sociology there of all places by the direct influence of von Mises, should raise our suspicions about the role of the Austrian School in the rise of postmodernism in the humanities – not just œconomics. That isn’t simply a guilt-by-association argument: the parallels are simply too strong. The Austrian methodological conceit that human œconomic behaviour is completely subjective and that its laws can be determined in a state of individual isolation, dovetails far too neatly with the parallel gender-ideological assertion that human sexual behaviour is also completely subjective and that sexual preference and presentation can be determined in a state of individual isolation. Austrian œconomics doesn’t only dissolve institutional analysis; it also dissolves any sort of empirical basis for understanding œconomy, just as gender ideology dissolves any sort of empirical basis for understanding sex.

Even if, as this good Herr-Professor-Doktor would have us believe, this amounts entirely to a string of coincidences and innocent associations devoid of any insidious meaning, the entire Austrian approach to œconomy deserves to be subject to the same scrutiny and scepticism, for the same reasons, as all other forms of Derrida- and Heidegger-derived deconstruction.

23 June 2017

The Austrian roots of the regressive left

It’s commonly acknowledged that one of the major hallmarks of the (re)activist postmodern identitarian campus left, or the regressive left, is that it assumes the ‘social construction’ of certain facts – including, but not limited to, the scientific method and biological gender. Many of the opponents of the regressive left, particularly those on the political right, assume that the idea of ‘social constructivism’ comes from Karl Marx via the Frankfurt School (hence the intellectually-lazy snarl of ‘cultural Marxism’).

Unfortunately, the Frankfurt School of critical theory offers itself up as an easy punching bag given the schoolmarmish, sourpuss commentary of people like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer about everything related to the production of culture, or the over-the-top activist pose of Herbert Marcuse (which is often linked to modern campus-activist praxis). And red-baiting is of course an old and venerable sport in American politics – the new Birchers baying after ‘cultural Marxism’ don’t even have to put away their Cold War paranoia! But for all its flaws, the Frankfurt School never actually gave itself up to the insane ‘narrative’ relativism in morals or to the subjectivism in epistemology that have become the hallmarks of the regressive left. Nor was its rationalistic social critique directly responsible for laying the groundwork for ‘social constructivism’. (Heck, these days the foremost representative of the Frankfurt School, Jürgen Habermas, has become a vocal defender of the Christian religious tradition as a repository of humane civilising habits – can you imagine a campus leftist doing the same?) Of course the hardline Marxists have been far too wedded to dialectical materialism to even consider ‘social constructivism’ as anything but an annoying distraction, spurred by frustrated radicals’ inability to achieve actual revolutionary goals.

The actual roots of social constructivism lie elsewhere, though. But the actual history of the ideas of social constructivism is not a comfortable one for the American political right, though, because several highly-revered intellectual figures of the American political right are much more directly responsible for the rise of subjectivism, relativism and the idea of ‘social construction’ itself.

As with any intellectual genealogy, it’s best to start with the first known instance of an idea. The idea of the ‘social construct’, and with it, the sociological theory of constructivism, first appeared with the libertarian sociologist Peter Berger and his co-author Thomas Luckmann in their book The Social Construction of Reality, which has been a key text in American sociology departments and classrooms since it was first published in 1966. The text’s conceit was to take ‘taken-for-granted realities’ and deconstruct them as projects or fictions sustained by iterated interactions between individuals, but not possessing any reality of their own. Also notable about the text was that it downplayed the role of the scientific method as just one stream of social knowledge among many, and at that one whose source was largely controlled by a small group of privileged experts. (Sound familiar?) The philosophical traditions cited by Berger and Luckmann as intellectual inspirations for The Social Construction of Reality were, in a word, not Marxist. Berger and Luckmann invoked the names of Scheler, Heidegger, Husserl, Weber and Mead – none of whom were Marxist, and two of whom utterly hated Marx (for different reasons). We can see here that the philosophical traditions of American pragmatism and European postmodernism (which at the time of Berger’s and Luckmann’s book was busily reorganising itself into poststructuralism) have left indelible marks on social constructivism. But the biggest direct intellectual influence on The Social Construction of Reality was the thinking of Peter Berger’s doctoral advisor, Alfred Schütz.

Schütz, like Berger himself, was born in Austria. But he was a member of the private seminar, and a very close friend of, a certain Austrian œconomist named Ludwig von Mises. Schütz’s early sociological work was deeply influenced by von Mises’s praxeology, and was largely an attempt to reconcile Weber’s sociology with von Mises’ a priori, subjective and individualistic approach to œconomic theory. The parallels are not exact, of course, but one can easily see how Schütz’s attempt to deconstruct certain data-based approaches to the sociology of œconomics to suit radically anti-evidential Austrian-school assumptions of the way œconomies are supposed to work, works in the same way as regressive-left attempts to deconstruct empirically-based approaches to other fields of knowledge. Indeed, the ties between social constructivism and Austrian praxeology have been made explicit by both historical (including Friedrich Hayek) and modern proponents of Austrian School œconomics. The real problem with the regressive left, with its emphasis on social constructivism and identity, is that in its origins and in its behaviour, it isn’t a ‘left’ at all.

Undoubtedly, modern regressive-left activists and ‘social justice warriors’ would be horribly offended (so much the better!) by my intimation that they are engaging in what is fundamentally a neoliberal capitalist project. But, by claiming both biological and social realities like gender as ‘constructs’ and dissolving them from there into an endless array of mutually-incommensurate consumer ‘identities’, that’s exactly what they’re doing. That’s not only true from the history-of-sociology perspective which traces the concept of the ‘social construct’ back to its partially-Austrian School roots. It’s also from the perspective of practical politics that deconstructing social and empirical realities like gender has the concrete effect of atomising society according to identity, and making genuine dialogue about the common good prohibitively difficult in the process.

If the left is to regain its footing, it needs to take better stock of its own principles. In order to build a broad-based movement on the principles of œconomic fairness and equity, we need to look at facts. We can’t go haring off after these libertarian bread-crumbs in an attempt to sound more-radical-than-thou, on a trail that leads into the intellectual wasteland of moral relativism and epistemic closure.

21 June 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 5.2: où est la différence?

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that yours truly has more than several weaknesses – several vices – several flaws, both intellectual and moral. Part of the reason writing this portion of the series on realism and the pelvic issues has proven difficult is that it does explore several of my vices in depth and rather lays them bare. But a young man who aspires to be a lover of truth, and who thus allows himself to be interrogated by Plato’s Socrates (or, indeed, by Christ!), must eventually run up against the limits of his own nature, personality, habits and thinking, and be confronted with the questions his own soul poses to him. The questions must be put forward honestly.

I put forward the argument in the previous section of this series, that sexually-arousing and -exploitative images and scenarios are examples of dishonest mimēsis that substitute themselves for reality, that present themselves to the ‘belly’ in ways which directly bypass the discursive faculty. In addition to degrading the displayer, they also thus make sōphrosunē impossible to achieve for the viewer. But as, for example, a listener of heavy metal music, what right have I to make such a claim? Isn’t that kind of distorted, asymphonic music an even greater danger to the soul, particularly in light of Simmias’s argument to Socrates in the Phædo (and one no less intuitively true for Socrates having found its flaws) that the soul is a dynamic harmony? Is it not also a mimēsis that distorts reality, bypasses reason and engages the ‘belly’? Plato himself, after all (if we are to take his indictments of the poets, musicians and rhapsodes in the Republic and Ion at all seriously) understood quite well the effects that music can have on the impressionable soul.

Let’s continue, then, with our assault upon metal as a genre, and play it in its heaviest and most downtuned possible key (pardon the riffs). Music – the name itself, deriving from the Muses, the givers of an inspiration which is not the result of ratiocination or physical practice, but instead of a form of ‘divine madness’ (compare Phædrus) – is a gateway to the soul that likewise bypasses reason in the listener. Plato understood this. In the Republic Socrates argues against the presence of lyres (or of any other such many-stringed or curiously-harmonised instruments) in the beautiful city, because ‘rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful’. If musical harmony will impart grace and self-control, inward harmony, to the soul, need it be spelt out what the asymphony, bombast and anger of heavy metal music will do? When put this way, how is a transgressive aural titillation of the wrathful thumós any better at all than the transgressive visual titillation of the epithumía?

Personally, I’m not sure it is. I find I have but few grounds for preferring my own vices to those of anyone else. The best I can do is point to the honourable exceptions: to those bands which specialise in deeper, complex harmonies and themes which speak to those higher, philosophical aspirations of the soul than the expression of anger and extremity of pain. (And in heavy metal, at least, those bands are not few.) I’m thinking here of Threshold, Tang Dynasty, Hammers of Misfortune, Edenbridge, Queensrÿche, whose music may stand on its own harmonic and lyrical merits without any need of a defence from me.

But would there not be exceptions to the realm of erotically-charged art, as well? I would not deny the possibility. In fact, going all the way back to my rapidly-escalating tiffs with Mr Cal P— in the comments section of my very first entry in this series, I showed myself more-than-willing to make exceptions even where erotic depictions were concerned. Can certain sensually-appealing, physically-beautiful examples of the human form arouse us to an awareness of the higher things? I would actually argue, yes. In fact, I might even go so far as to point to Plato himself – to the Symposium – for an argument to the same. It’s not enough, as commentators on Plato from Jowett to Bloom have made clear, to look only at what Plato’s Socrates says, but also what he does. And Socrates does erotically admire sensual, physically-attractive young men: Alcibiades, Charmides, Agathon, Glaucon and Adeimantus. He is not averse to seeing them naked in the palæstra, and remarks on the physical beauty of Charmides’ body before he proceeds to make his soul known by questioning him on the nature of sōphrosunē. And then, what are Socrates’ speeches in Phædrus if not a kind of new, philosophical love-poetry to replace the older, self-serving odes? Could we not imagine also a new, philosophical form of sensual art, one that directs our vision upward rather than downward? (And would not some of Plato’s own myths and depictions of the afterlife count?)

As I attempted to make it clear before, Plato is not a hater of erōs or the physical body as such. The example and lifestyle of Socrates shown in the Symposium ought to be ample proof of that, even if it is followed by the Phædo! He is, after all, a realist, not a prude. He understands that in the harmonised man, the reasoning part of the soul must dialectically convince (not bludgeon or starve or suppress) the willing and desiring parts of the soul, and bring them to an agreement. I don’t think he’d object in a blanket way to sensuality or eroticism in art, but I think he would absolutely question the purposes it serves, even (and especially) in those instances where a more noble aim is intimated. And so should we. I’m more than happy to grant a small handful of ennobling exceptions. But when a hundred-billion dollar industry – fuelled by drugs, torture, emotional and physical abuse, and leaving behind it the human detritus of shell-shock, impotence, divorce, emotional flight and worse – those questions of what corporate eroticism and titillation is doing to our souls, both individually and as a polity, become pressing.

20 June 2017

An intriguing electoral study

Here are the data for those who still see themselves as the ‘reality-based community’ to consider. And here are some interpretations of the data that I think follow logically.
  1. Populists form a key constituency. We are legion. The major divide is still between liberals and conservatives, but those of us on the œconomic ‘left’ and the social-cultural ‘right’, according to this study anyway, form 28.9% of the electorate (whereas libertarians, who unsurprisingly have a lot more clout among rich donors, make up only 3.8% of the total voter base). We, not the libertarians, are the great, silent group of swing voters. And this time, much to my own chagrin as one of the few ‘other’ voters, we swung hard for Trump.

  2. The donor class is libertarian. Or rather, more accurately, both parties are dragged in a libertarian direction by their wealthiest campaign contributors and lobbyists, who are uniformly more œconomically neoliberal and socially more liberal than the rank-and-file. One need only look to the Koch brothers and Adelson on the Republican side, and to Soros and Bloomberg on the Democratic side, for anecdotal suspicions. These data, however confirm that suspicion. Sanders supporters were right to suspect that big money and corporate campaign contributions do skew our politics.

  3. Sanders would have won, or at least have done far better in terms of popular vote than Clinton did. Interestingly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), there wasn’t that much difference between Sanders and Clinton voters on œconomic issues. But Sanders had greater appeal among the populists – among the culturally-conservative, union-member inland working class – than Clinton did, which is precisely the demographic which caused her to lose ground to Trump in the ‘blue wall’ states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania. Clinton lost four out of ten of us populists who had voted for Obama. That speaks to a catastrophically poor campaign strategy and something like malicious neglect.

  4. The disconnect between the Democratic establishment and voter base lies in social issues. Traditional Democratic voters care about addressing inequality. This study shows, in fact, that we care a lot about it. Quite a few ‘red’ states would be more-than-receptive audiences if universal health care, full employment and other bread-and-butter issues were floated. But the more Democratic politicians piss on the third rails of identity politics, the more they lose us. The more bile they spew at œconomically-egalitarian folks who ‘cling to guns or religion’, who think unborn babies should be protected or who have no problem with traditional gender roles, the more they lose. The more they shove crappy trade deals down our throats and the more jobs they ship abroad, the more they lose. The more they encourage gender ideology and the identitarian trend in politics, the more they lose. And they will find that the more they blame Russia for these completely-solvable problems with their campaign strategy, the more they will lose.
A big hat-tip to the Realist Left blog for the link to this study; it is most intriguing!

19 June 2017

The response of the awakened East

Reading the second of Blessed New-Martyr Ilya Fondaminsky’s Ways of Russia essays, I am struck immediately by two impressions. The first is that he imbibed some of the more controversial elements of the Slavophil historiography neat. He is convinced that Russia is the spiritual (and material) descendant not of mediæval Greece alone, but of the pre- and proto-Slavic Iranian-Scythian culture. This conviction he takes straight from leading Slavophil philosopher Aleksey Khomyakov. He finds in this legacy a source of great, but raw and untapped, spiritual and creative energy, one which the actual Slavophils failed to unearth and use fully. The second impression is that – along with Berdyaev – he wants to retrieve the key insights of the Slavophil legacy, and even retain the civilisational ‘messianism’ for which they are subjected to much scepticism, but (particularly confronted with the rise of the Bolsheviks) without the optimistic assurance in Russia’s destiny which has led them to be charged with a certain degree of nationalistic naïveté. He believes that the Eastern character of Russia, together with its post-Petrine openness to the West, will combine and reconcile themselves in a grand synthesis within the Russian soul. Then – and only then – will Russia have its ‘new word’ to speak to the world. But the moment for that synthesis is ‘not yet’, and ‘not soon’.

Saint Ilya takes a very long view of the history of civilisation. In order to shed meaningful light upon the ‘reawakening’ of the East in his own day, he draws on the clashes between East and West going back to the Classical world and the conquests of Alexander the Great; he stands in awe of the civilisational heights to which Classical Greece ascended; and he understands that even the spiritual life of the Greek-inflected West has not yet been fully finished or played-out. At the same time, his sympathies are clearly with the civilisations of the East. He is convinced of the ancient vitality of the Indian and the Chinese lifeways: ‘Their accumulated values were so great, their spiritual foundations so deep, that only for a short time did they submit to the influence of the West’. In his view, ‘Christianity’ itself ‘is the response of the awakened East to spiritual enslavement by the West’. He notes and applauds the ‘revival’ of traditional spiritual culture that is still taking place in both the Near East and the Far East:
There is work to clear the layers [of dust] from religious and philosophical systems from their periods of decay; to learn old art, old literature, to revive them to newness of life. Just as with the renaissance in the West, a renaissance in the East is not only a rush for the new. First of all it is a return to the classical period of the past, it is immersion in the fountainheads of the national spirit. As yet there is no genuine spiritual creativity. But it will happen; it must… The awakened East creates its own, reveals its soul, reveals its understanding of the world. ‘The Night of Asia’ is passing. The ‘one’ ‘universal’ civilisation is being torn apart before our eyes. To shreds. The world again becomes diverse and colourful.
He even cites Gu Hongming in the defence of this ad fontes project of renewal! And he identifies the creative genius of the Russian people with the Iranian-Scythian earth out of which the Slavs sprang. Saint Ilya passes harsh judgements upon the Greece of Alexander and the Western colonial powers who seek to build a ‘universal’ civilisation – seeing in the pretensions to universality and globalism, no matter how well-intentioned, the signs of creative exhaustion and civilisational decay. For him, the unrooted, atomistic bourgeois liberalism of the modern West, much like the all-homogenising pretensions of the Imperium Rōmānum, is a lawless impulse which can never rightfully be realised.

But it would be a mistake to characterise him as a narrow nationalist. (Small wonder: Saint Ilya detested fascism with a vengeance, and gave his life in solidarity with the Jews under fascist oppression.) In Saint Ilya’s thinking, Russia’s placement on the world stage, situated on the basis of the old, Eastern Iranian-Scythian culture and in constant contact with the Black Sea outposts of the Greek and Latin West, gives it a unique and uniquely-cosmopolitan outlook. Russia is marked with certain Iranian civilisational principles: a ‘solar’ monotheism (matched with a ‘solar’ monarchism); personalism; a communitarian ethos; a preference for the spoken word, the слово. These characteristics – so precious and so needful in Saint Ilya’s thinking – were, ironically, reinforced both by contact with Byzantium and by contact with the Mongols; only to be buried in their penultimate expression in the Petrine reforms. ‘Now,’ Saint Ilya writes, ‘[the old Eastern culture] must be sought in the very depths of the life of the people.’ But they can be brought out, ironically, only with the help of interaction with the intellectual ferment of the West, to ‘adapt some of the Western spiritual conquest to the Eastern worldview’. The clashing interactions of the Iranian-Scythian and the Byzantine-Roman worlds which birthed the kaleidoscopically colourful, brilliant and in many ways deeply radical culture of Kievan Rus’ where the two overlapped, are not things to be thrown aside thoughtlessly, either in the name of universalism or of parochialism. If an all-embracing, all-expansive, rootless globalist homogenisation is the sign of spiritual death of civilisations, no less so is the externalised, self-isolating homogenisation of the modern nation-state. Instead, the primary cultural ferment happens locally, on the borders, on the peripheries, in the ‘wilderness’. The product of Black Sea localisms and Silk Road transnationalisms, buffeted by Byzantine, Mongol and Polish colonialisms, the Russian civilisation has the potential to unite within herself the civilisational principles of West and East—but, as Saint Ilya was speaking, ‘not yet’.

The questions Saint Ilya asks about the ‘ways of Russia’, and his subsequent historical and cultural analyses, find some ready parallels in the Sinosphere not only with the slightly-earlier eclectic conservative radicalism of Gu Hongming, but also with the Daoist-inflected neoleftism of Wang Hui. This should not be a surprise, since they approach many of the same questions about the destiny of their respective cultures, from a counter-hegemonic perspective conditioned by long historical awareness. But in Saint Ilya’s thinking, a somewhat Tolkienish turn is taken in that the grand civilisational narrative begins from very local sources, even sources most scholars would think unworthy of note! He writes:
Only in adjacent areas was a mixed Scythian-Hellenistic form of culture created. The closer to the Greek cities and shores of the Black Sea, the stronger the Hellenic influence. The further into the interior of the country one went, the stronger the influence of the East…

This culture is weak, ‘provincial’; it did not create large independent values. It cannot be compared, not only with the ‘great’ cultures of the Near East and of Greece, but even with the smaller Hellenised cultures of Western Europe. But its importance for the history of Russia is enormous. It was the cultural foundation for the civilisation of Kiev. Scythia helped organise the Kievan state. When the movement of peoples in southern Russia ceased and a certain calm was established, the old culture revived and served as midwife to the new Kievan civilisation.
Some very interesting historical and cultural insights from a profound New Martyr of the Orthodox Church. He offers a Slavophilia shorn of Katkovite expansionist and triumphalist dreams; a Slavophilia of the margins of civilisation; a Slavophilia that looks to ‘peaks in the distance’ from the standpoint of a Russia-that-was. Even if the liberal perspective would no doubt judge Saint Ilya Fondaminsky as far too fond of what it would no doubt term ‘Oriental despotism’, he nonetheless argues with passion for a renewed culture, a just culture, that can draw from Oriental sources.

18 June 2017

Has this blog shifted left?

On my Facebook page, I got a comment from a deeply-respected reader of this blog to the effect that it seemed I was going ‘soft’ on socialism. I had actually described myself as ‘Orthodox, monarchist, socialist – in that order’, and in light of my recent post on RH Tawney, this seemed to be a cause for concern.

Let me clarify my position, then. I don’t think the shift, if there has been one, has been that drastic; it’s more a shift in emphasis than in conviction. To some of my gentle readers, it may confirm what they had long suspected; to others, it may allay some of their concerns. As long as this blog has been active, I have considered myself a ‘man of the Left’, albeit one with a strong Tory streak. My biggest objections to socialism in the main, were its tendencies toward materialism and toward urban chauvinism, but I’ve also had a long-standing appreciation for the post- (or non-)Marxist socialisms of people like Ruskin, Morris, Berdyaev, Bulgakov, Vonnegut, Fei, Wang and Miyazaki. The fact that there are Orthodox saints and martyrs like Blessed Ilya Fondaminsky and Mother Maria Skobtsova, whose socialist-revolutionary instincts never really went away on conversion, but in fact led them to a self-sacrificial embrace of Christ in the concentration camps, heartens me quite a bit as well.

I still do have a significant level of respect for distributism – and particularly for Chesterton and Mihalache. At the same time, the cliquish tendency among distributists to artificially distance themselves from their closest cousins (the guild socialists and the social-credit movement) has become somewhat irritating to me. I do understand the differences and their importance – I have, after all, read Mitrany’s book and understand its critiques, even of the ‘democratic’ socialists who threw peasant movements under the bus for the sake of ideological rigour. I also understand the ideologically-motivated, malicious and dishonest desire on the part of distributism’s ideological foes to tar it with a ‘red’ brush. I know exactly how this causes a certain level of defensiveness on the part of distributism’s committed defenders. At the same time, it strikes me as equally dishonest to understate or ignore the importance of the Oxford Movement and the left-radicalisms of Cobbett and Morris on distributism’s development in the West (Chesterton did, after all, love him some Cobbett!), or of narodnichestvo on its development in the East, through transitional figures like Svetozar Marković in Yugoslavia and Constantin Stere in Romania. German revisionists like Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein were notably influential on the most successful distributist statesman of the Green Rising, Bulgaria’s Aleksandar Stamboliyski.

The other reason my thinking has taken a more Fabian turn of late is precisely this: distributism requires a far fuller and more cogent awareness of its radical roots if it is to retain its character. Allan Carlson, in his book Third Ways (a read I highly recommend, by the way), not only engages fruitfully and in interesting ways with the legacy of Karl Polanyi and the forgotten story of how Ellen Key’s ‘Swedish socialist housewives’ battled against the creeping ideology of defamilialisation. He also issues a stern warning to the would-be torchbearers of distributism and Christian democracy in our age. He notes the sharp turn of the Christian Democratic parties in the 1950’s away from the Catholic personalist radicalism of Emmanuel Mounier and Stephen Borne toward a bureaucratised, bourgeois ethic:
As early as the 1950s, Christian democracy as a vital worldview entered another period of crisis. The youthful excitement, energy and sense of positive Christian revolution evident in the 1940s dissipated… In Italy and West Germany, Christian democratic parties consolidated their hold on power at the price of their vision. By the early 1960s, they were increasingly pragmatic and bureaucratic, self-satisfied defenders of the status quo. Ambitious office-seekers, rather than Christian idealists, came to dominate the parties. Movements for ‘moral and spiritual renewal’ became simply mass parties of the right-of-centre. When a new ‘crisis of values’ hit Europe with particular force in the 1960s, the Christian democrats were unprepared to respond. They appeared by then to be old and discredited guardians of a new kind of materialism, the very opposite of what the movement’s visionaries had intended.
It’s precisely this turn in the Christian democratic movement in this country – the American Solidarity Party – that I’m most coming to fear. The party builders in many of the state-level outfits seem more concerned with building a big tent of the centre-right, than with challenging the Lockean presuppositions of our mainstream politics and articulating a genuine alternative to the two big parties. My explorations into Tawney and Cole, and my turn toward the saintly Bunakov for inspiration, comes straight from Carlson’s warning and example. Perhaps a good hard shot of Fabianism (of the localist, industrial-democratic variety which also takes virtue ethics seriously) is just the thing needed.

14 June 2017

Some thoughts on From Up on Poppy Hill

WARNING: This post contains movie spoilers!

Miyazaki Gorô’s From Up on Poppy Hill is a fine piece of animated cinema. It is not usual Studio Ghibli fare, of course. The soundtrack alone, heavy on 1960’s kayôkyoku 歌謠曲 jazz-and-blues tunes, is already far removed from the epic, sweeping orchestral compositions of his father’s films, and sets the tone for a film which is much more subdued in tone and substance. But it certainly has Ghibli hallmarks (and those of Gorô’s father Miyazaki Hayao) stamped all over it. A sweet, innocent young romance; a spirited female lead with a strong sense of responsibility; the lack of a clear villain among the characters; the tragic interplay between old traditions and new technologies; a wistful love for the life-ways of an earlier age; the fascination with and enchantment of mundane details in a unique kind of magical realism. And also, very much like in his father’s work, there is a subtle-but-persistent left-wing critique of modern Japanese society which runs through the film, and a sensibility (albeit one refreshingly devoid of postmodern cynicism) regarding the deprivations associated with œconomic ‘development’ which calls somewhat to mind the filmography of Jia Zhangke.

The plot revolves around two interconnected themes: the fate of two children of war-ravaged naval families in the decades immediately following the Second World War and the Korean War, and the planned demolition and replacement of Konan Academy’s Quartier Latin clubhouse, an ancient, decrepit (but well-loved by its members) school building, to make way for new facilities in light of Tôkyô’s hosting of the Olympic Games. High school senior Kazama Shun publishes a poem about junior Matsuzaki Umi (called by her French cognate nickname ‘Mer’) in the school newspaper, about the signal flags she raises every morning in memory of her dead father, which he sees flying every day as he takes a harbour tug to school. Later the same day, Shun leaps off the clubhouse roof as a stunt designed to draw attention to the student-activist ‘cause’ of keeping the old clubhouse intact (something which fails to impress Umi). The two eventually bond and develop a romantic interest over their shared work in that ‘cause’; but their relationship becomes complicated by their war-torn family pasts.

Kazama Shun turns out to be a war orphan who was adopted by the local electrician in order to keep him from ‘falling between the cracks’. After hearing about how Umi’s own military father Sawamura was killed (by a mine off the coast of Korea during the war) and seeing an old picture of Sawamura with two of his shipmates, Shun begins to suspect that he and Umi are biological siblings. Shun tries to distance himself from Umi on discovering this, but their feelings for each other continue to grow. When the board of the school votes to tear down the clubhouse and they have to travel to Tôkyô together to argue to the school chairman for it to be kept, Umi confesses her love to him, not caring about the incestuous implications. And Shun reciprocates.

Shun’s story, though, gets ‘a little complicated’, as Umi’s mother Ryôko later reveals to her. Shun’s family was wiped out in the atomic blast that incinerated Nagasaki, his mother died in childbirth, and his father Tachibana, Sawamura’s shipmate, was killed in a similar accident several years before. In the MacArthur years, Shun had to be adopted ad hoc by the Matsuzaki family in order to avoid being sent to an orphanage, at which point he was given to the Kazama family (who had recently lost their own child). Umi is moved to tears at finding out Shun is not her biological brother, and Ryôko arranges for Shun to meet the third serviceman in the photograph. The Quartier Latin is saved from destruction by the chairman, who is impressed both by the students’ dedication to their old clubhouse and particularly by Umi’s manners. The final scene, where the last living friend of Umi and Shun’s respective fathers greets the two children as though ‘seeing [his] old friends again’, ends the film on a bittersweet-but-hopeful note.

Despite these complications, the sweet and natural relationship between Umi and Shun is never once presented in a prurient, fetishistic, exploitative or transgressive way. Instead, it may be best to see it as a remark on how traditional Confucian morals and right relationships – even those between friends and siblings – were literally blown apart by the wars and the social and cultural upheaval of its aftermath, with the pieces left to be retrieved as best the survivors could. Indeed, the anti-war themes and broader cultural commentary can be seen poking out in multiple places, some quite obvious.

There is a school debate scene early in the film in which Shun denounces the pro-demolition students as being ‘just like the old men who run this country’, and declaims that ‘there is no future for people who worship the future and forget the past’. For defending an old building on grounds of historical and cultural memory, Shun is branded an ‘anarchist’ and dragged down from the stage by the pro-demolition crowd. The debate devolves quickly into fisticuffs after that (stopped only by the school president in order to fool the teachers who come to investigate). But the scene illustrates very nicely how, in East Asia, particularly in Japan and particularly in the wake of the Meiji era, the concerns of the hard left and the concerns of the traditionalist right have gone merrily hand-in-hand against the presentist, liberal-‘conservative’ bureaucratic-corporate-military-political establishment. Miyazaki Hayao’s films also show the same kind of confluence of leftist anti-militarist and anti-capitalist concerns with perennial traditionalist ones, though seldom in such a forthright way as here.

The artistry of the film is, as to be expected from anything put out by Studio Ghibli, wonderfully intricate, lovingly crafted with great attention to the realistic small details, from the rusty old tugboat to the lush greenery of Coquelicot Manor’s backyard, from the rice fields and beaten-up old shops with their hand-painted placards standing alongside dirt roads to the newfangled neon-lighted neighbourhoods with new trolleys rolling through. They are presented side-by-side, without judgement and with equal care. But there is some true love, inspiration and Ghibli magic aplenty bestowed on the old Quartier Latin, a Victorian mansion with ornate wood panelling, stairways and railings, balconies and stained-glass windows, an old clock-tower with a kanji clock face, subdivided ramshackle, overrun with dust and cobwebs, overflowing bookshelves and lined with stacks of old newsprint, with bits and pieces of every high-school student boy’s hobby one can imagine. The clubhouse is practically a character in its own right, and one you come to care more and more about as the film goes on, and the main characters put more and more work into renovating it… and, of course, this intimate love for the old fits very well with the theme of the film.

From frame one, From Up on Poppy Hill is not your ‘typical’ Ghibli film. It was not received as enthusiastically by foreign audiences as Miyazaki Hayao’s other films. But it’s by no means to be considered a ‘lesser’ one for its lack of fantastic supernaturalism. Indeed, the domesticity and historical grounding of the story allow the film to delve deep, and ask questions as trenchant and meaningful as those Porco Rosso, Nausicaä and Mononoke-hime did.

13 June 2017

Random thoughts on the UK elections

  • Many heartfelt congratulations to Mr. John Baron, MP of Basildon and Billericay, on his electoral win! It’s immensely gratifying to me that one of the very few actual Tories who actually deserved to keep his seat, in fact did.

  • From the perspective of Labour: Mr. Jeremy Corbyn’s showing in these Parliamentary elections, though slightly disappointing, still demonstrated what I have been saying for quite some while, e.g. in my open letter to my cousin across the pond two years ago. Labour voters – particularly younger ones – want a party with principles. And Corbyn, who is not my ideal candidate for several reasons, nonetheless gives voice to a firm set of Labour principles – things like generous welfare benefits, renationalisation of utilities, people’s QE, détente and armed neutrality. These may have a retro, Old Left flavour to them, but if there’s one thing heavy metal has taught me, some things never die. The party of Blair is dead and gone, and – frankly – good riddance. Long live the party of Corbyn.

  • From the perspective of the Conservatives: these elections were a completely-avoidable humiliation which they should have seen coming a mile off, polls notwithstanding. Twice now, first in Cameron’s referendum on Brexit and just recently in the new elections called by May, the British electorate have meetly and rightly punished the Conservatives for their smarmy, self-important, hubristic and completely-misplaced confidence in the outcome. Ms. Theresa May basically assumed that, with Corbyn as her opponent, she didn’t actually have to campaign at all – and Rod Liddle aptly called it ‘the worst Tory election campaign ever’.
    Still more remarkable was the decision to force demented people to sell their own houses, if they can remember where they are, to pay for their own care. Followed very shortly by an embarrassing U-turn. This was passed off by the Tories as an example of pristine honesty, of nettles being grasped in an admirably transparent manner. But, like much of the current Tory campaign, it smacked to me of two things — complacency and arrogance. It suggested yet again that Theresa May called this election convinced that almost nothing she could do or say would prevent the inevitable landslide. I think she was horribly wrong about that.
    And, of course, she was. Just as the Conservatives did not forgive Cameron for Brexit, nor will or should they easily forgive May’s stunning, Dunning-Krugeresque display of arrogance and incompetence.

  • Further reasons for rejoicing: Nuttall, true to his name, failed to win a single seat, thus permanently consigning him and his party to the electoral rubbish heap in the wake of the EU referendum, and Salmond and Sturgeon got their richly-deserved drubbing as Scots turned back to both the Conservatives and Labour. Nothing but good in the fact that the ethnic-nationalist parties have not only not gained, but have actually lost, from throwing themselves to each extreme side of the argument on the EU referendum.

  • Again, this election and its outcome were not a surprise to those of us who were paying attention. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to the media who have been covering the populist resurgence in Europe or the upset politics of Trump and Brexit from the beginning. Ordinary people – not just May Day activists – are tired of austerity. Ordinary people – not just Stop the War and Media Lens – are tired of the torrents of blood and treasure being spent on endless wars of choice, and the torrents of propaganda being used to gin them up. Ordinary people – not just Britain First and UKIP – are tired of politicians importing right-wing Islamist radicals from countries we’ve invaded, having those radicals attack them, and then having politicians turn around and call them bigots when they complain. Ordinary people – not just the fringe elements – are tired of having their genuine concerns dismissed in favour of cosmeticised élite politics-as-usual.

  • For the record: I am not, here, taking the side of the ‘ordinary people’ in every instance. I understand that the many can and often are on the wrong side of the argument. But I do note that the now-open conflict between the democratic and oligarchic elements in the polity, on both sides of the Atlantic, opens the door for some very distasteful elements that cannot be easily contained. British politicians would be wise to take note and adjust, not only their rhetoric but their whole orientation toward their constituents.

Iraqi Christians are still being treated like dirt

This is utterly vile.

The neoconservatives in the Bush Administration lied bald-faced to the American public, lied to the world, destroyed Iraq as a united country, and in so doing placed the vulnerable ‘living stones’ of the region in mortal peril.

The Great White Hope of Real America that Never Was, with many of those same Bush-era neoconservatives at his side (people like Pence, Sessions, Haley, McMaster, Powell, Bolton, Billingshea, Sullivan), is now committing the same acts of grave and heinous evil on some of the most vulnerable displaced people on the planet. People whom he has promised to defend. And now he’s throwing them straight under an oncoming bus – now that they’re no longer politically convenient and now that he thinks no one is watching.

These people’s lives matter. They are our brothers. They are our sisters. And yet they have no home, no means, no protection. They have only their faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ, and for that they are hated and despised, beaten, mutilated, shot, stabbed, blown up by their neighbours, and they are coldly shut out and thrown to the dogs by our government. Ours. How much longer must these blameless people suffer for our sins, we who would claim a common faith with them?

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us sinners.

12 June 2017

Irony, holiness and machiavels (or, why Moscow?)

Ivan I Kalita ‘Moneybag’ of Moscow

In my arguments online with various Central European nationalists and Uniates (yes, I know, total and unhealthy waste of time – but occasionally entertaining in a ‘they say the darnedest things’ kind of way), there seems to be no sorer point than the fact that Moscow, rather than Kiev, is the acknowledged ecclesiastical centre of the Slavic Christian East. Usually – but wrongly – this is blamed on some kind of political shenanigans or on that eternal bogeyman of ‘Russian imperialism’. Naturally in the current-day political climate such misreadings of history become ever more common.

Never mind, of course, that ‘Russia’ as a united polity, let alone as an empire, did not even exist until 1721, or that Moscow as the diocesan centre of the Rus’ predates that polity by nearly 400 years, when Moscow was still a third-rate city-state governed by a knyaz rather than a tsar. The claim that the Patriarchate has historically been the handmaiden of ‘Russian imperialism’ is even more amusing when one considers that the last few early-modern Patriarchs of Moscow were a constant hamper on Tsar Pyotr I’s ambitions for a unitary centralised and cæsaropapist state, and after an argument on the subject of beards he had it broken back down to a Metropolia and converted into a bureau of government. The mundane, often comic realities tend to toss buckets of cold water on Central European nationalist persecution fantasies.

But it’s still an interesting historical question: why is the centre of the Orthodox Church of the Rus’ (that is to say, of the East Slavs) in Moscow, and not in some other city? Why not in Tver, or Vladimir, or Novgorod? Indeed, why not in Kiev? The answer, as it turns out, has its amusing points, though it’s hardly a convenient one for nationalists of various stripes – whether Polish or Ukrainian or even Russian. But then, the ideology of nationalism generally has an insufficient appreciation for irony, and the ecclesiastical history that begins in Kiev and ends in Moscow is nothing if not ironic.

Romanticism about Kievan Rus’ aside – a romanticism I myself sometimes indulge in, by the way – the vast bulk of the rulers of Kievan Rus’ who came after Saint Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise (with a handful of honourable exceptions, such as the stern-but-fair Andrei I of Rostov) were, shall we say, not the very best of men. For the most part, they were petty, quarrelsome, greedy and duplicitous princelings. The want of quality in these bickering rulers, particularly in light of the shining virtues of their predecessors, was a particular cause for lament in the Tale of Igor’s Armament:
  Усобица княземъ
на поганы я погыбе.
  Рекоста бо братъ брату;—
“Се мое, а то—мое же”.
И начаша князи про малое
“Се великое” молвити, а сами
на себе крамолу ковати.
а поганіи со всѣхъ странъ
прихождаху съ побѣдами
на землю Рускую.
О, далече зайде соколъ
птиць бья къ морю.
  А Игорева храброго полку не кресити!

  The discord of the princes
ruined them against the Pagans.
  For, brother spake to brother;—
“This is mine, and that is also mine.”
And the princes began to pronounce
of a paltry thing, “this is great”;
and themselves amongst them to forge feuds;
and the heathens from all sides
advanced with victories
against the Russian land.
Oh, far has the hawk followed,
smiting the birds into the sea!
  And Igor’s brave host will rise no more!
Kiev’s importance as the political centre of a united Rus’ quickly declined as local princelings began taking control of their own postage-stamp states (usually centred on one of the fortified cities that gave Garðaríki its name); the result was something not entirely unlike the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of Chinese history. The political-cultural centrality and primacy of the Kievan state among the Rus’ was reduced to a symbolic role. Even that centrality and primacy soon transferred, on account of Saint Andrei’s brilliant rule, to the city of Vladimir, although the ecclesiastical seat remained – in spite of Saint Andrei’s efforts to the contrary – firmly in Kiev. Vladimir’s power was in turn broken by the onslaught of the Mongols.

As for Moscow: the grasping, thieving, petty and opportunistic nature of the later Rus’ princes, poetically summarised by the anonymous author of Igor’s Armament, was certainly reflected in the early history of Moscow as well. Russia historian Robert Crummey writes:
The early princes of Moscow are shadowy men. [V. O.] Kliuchevskii, a lecturer renowned for his verbal portraits of historical figures, remarked, ‘All princes of Moscow up to Ivan III were as similar as two drops of water so that the observer sometimes has trouble deciding which of them was Ivan and which Vasilii’. He then went on to describe them collectively as cautious, calculating, petty men with no soaring visions and no morally edifying qualities. There is some truth to his observations. The sources give us very little direct evidence of the personal features or ideals of Moscow’s rulers. Moreover, their actions – and those of their rivals – suggest that they were all, to some extent, greedy and ruthless men. A world of incessant warfare and political intrigue required such unpleasant qualities for survival.
Among these vicious princes, it so happened that one of them was in the right place at the right time, and – more importantly – behaved in an uncharacteristically generous way to the right person (and afterward never stopped bilking that act of generosity for all it was worth). Ivan I ‘Moneybag’ of Moscow was certainly of a piece with his contemporaries, and he is described thus by Dr Crummey:
To generations of historians, Ivan I has been the epitome of the early rulers of Moscow. His actions reveal him as a crafty and ruthless opportunist, an ambitious and grasping landowner and tax-collector. In his career, we see little of the visionary and absolutely no signs of a chivalrous crusader. He pursued limited goals by devious means. Yet his unattractive personal qualities equipped him well for the political struggles of his day.
The aforementioned ‘right person’ for whom he stepped out-of-character was a Galician hermit by the name of Piotr, who had been elected Metropolitan of Kiev (against his wishes) by Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II and Œcumenical Patriarch Saint Athanasius I, under the following circumstances:
When the office of metropolitan became vacant in 1305, the Patriarch of Constantinople rejected Michael [of Tver]’s hand-picked candidate and instead selected Peter, the abbot of a monastery in Galich in south-west Russia. From the Patriarch’s point of view, the appointment made very good sense, for in addition to Peter’s strong personal qualifications, the choice headed off an attempt by the ruler of Galicia to set up a separate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Under Peter’s leadership, the Eastern Orthodox Church would remain united throughout the Russian lands.
I’m shocked, shocked that a Galician prince would seek to subvert the Orthodox Church and set up his own. It’s not like that ended up happening over and over and over again in the coming centuries. Sarcasm aside, though, instead of accepting the decision of the Œcumenical Patriarch meekly, Michael of Tver made himself an enemy of the new Metropolitan Piotr and attempted to have him deposed by fair means and foul. Even though Piotr had taken the omophor unwillingly at Yuri’s behest, he still did not take kindly to assassination attempts or having his authority undermined, so he did what any self-respecting Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church would do in such circumstances. He made a deal with another prince who was willing to offer him protection, settled down and continued his work. And that prince was Ivan ‘Moneybag’. The result was predictable:
In 1325, after years of cooperation with the house of Moscow, Metropolitan Peter moved his residence to Ivan’s capital and prepared a tomb for himself in the new stone Church of the Dormition. Peter’s acts had lasting significance. From that time on, Moscow was the residence of the head of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and its princes played the role of primary protectors of the Church. Moreover, in 1339, Peter’s successor Theognostus canonised him. Moscow became a pilgrimage centre and even Peter’s patron, the unscrupulous Ivan I, acquired an aura of sanctity in the eyes of later generations!
Metropolitan Saint Theognostus, in fact, was the one who really put the last nail in the coffin of Kiev’s ecclesiastical status and the political ambitions of the Princes of Tver to succeed Kiev; as the glorification of Metropolitan Saint Piotr along with the fact that Theognostus himself took up Piotr’s residence essentially assured that all future Metropolitans of Kiev and All Rus’ would rule from the Kremlin as long as the title lasted.

But that process had been started far earlier by Metropolitan Saint Piotr himself. And Piotr would not have been elected Metropolitan if Yuri of Galicia hadn’t been a particularly impious selfish jerk and threatened the Œcumenical Patriarch with schism. Which means that ‘Ukrainians’ – and not just any, but Galicians – are to thank or to blame, depending on your perspective, for the fact that Moscow rather than Kiev (or Tver, or Novgorod, or Vladimir) is the ecclesiastical centre of the Rus’. And as you choose, you can attribute this result either to the scheming calculations of Ivan I, or to Blessed Metropolitan Piotr’s peacemaking and church-building labours in and from Moscow, without which Ivan I would be little more than a footnote.

The logic of the world and the logic of the Church thus often intertwine, intersect and contrast themselves. Symphonía is not always pretty, and it can be both ironic and remarkably messy that way, but it’s still the most preferable way of ordering the political lives of the Church and the State.

11 June 2017

The Christian radicalism of early Kievan Rus’

Prince Saint Vladimir Svyatoslavich of Kiev

On the day commemorating Prince Saint Vladimir’s coronation, it’s needful to remember the distinctions between Vladimir’s early reign as a pagan prince and his reign following his baptism in 988. The adoption of Byzantine, Orthodox Christianity in the lands of the Rus’ meant a profound shift, a metánoia, not only in Saint Vladimir’s notorious sex life, but much more broadly in the political and social institutions of Kievan Rus’. Here is what Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia says about the legal, institutional and systemic changes implemented by Saint Vladimir:
Vladimir placed the same emphasis upon the social implications of Christianity as John the Almsgiver had done. Whenever he feasted with his Court, he distributed food to the poor and sick; nowhere else in medieval Europe were there such highly organized “social services” as in tenth-century Kiev. Other rulers in Kievan Russia followed Vladimir’s example. Prince Vladimir Monomachos (reigned 1113-1125) wrote in his Testament to his sons: “Above all things forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man” (quoted in G. Vernadsky, Kievan Russia). Vladimir was also deeply conscious of the Christian law of mercy, and when he introduced the Byzantine law code at Kiev, he insisted on mitigating its more savage and brutal features. There was no death penalty in Kievan Russia, no mutilation, no torture; corporal punishment was very little used…

The same gentleness can be seen in the story of Vladimir’s two sons, Boris and Gleb. On Vladimir’s death in 1015, their elder brother Svyatopolk attempted to seize their principalities. Taking literally the commands of the Gospel, they offered no resistance, although they could easily have done so; and each in turn was murdered by Svyatopolk’s emissaries. If any blood were to be shed, Boris and Gleb preferred that it should be their own.
The case gets put even more starkly in the original book Metropolitan Kallistos quotes here, Eurasian historian George Vernadsky’s authoritative book on Kievan Russia:
As we know, Vladimir the Saint was a pioneer in this field [of public welfare] as in many others. Even granting that the chronicler exaggerated the neophyte prince’s Christian zeal, we must admit that he laid the foundation of public charities in Kievan Russia. At least some of his descendants followed his lead and the distribution of food to the poor became an essential feature of every important state and religious festival, even if not made continuous. As an example, on the occasion of the transportation of the relics of the martyr princes Boris and Gleb (1072) the sick and poor were fed for three days. In 1154 Prince Rostislav of Kiev distributed all of the estate of his uncle, which the latter had bequeathed to him, among the churches and the poor.

That the princes generally considered the care of the poor as part of their duties may be seen from the words of Vladimir Monomach’s “Testament”, already mentioned, in which he advises his children: “Above all things, forget not the poor, and support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man.” From the last phrase it may be seen that a new idea is here expressed: not of mere charity but of a social policy having as its object the protection of the underprivileged. As we know, Vladimir Monomach himself entered upon such legislation.
The example of the profound, deep-reaching way in which Orthodox Christianity transfigured the Kievan Rus’ and its institutions in a more humane, welfarist and pro-poor direction should itself be informing the social thinking of the Orthodox Church today. Indeed, in several contexts, it already is. But from those Christians, particularly American Christians who value abstract notions of liberty over a more classically-Christian understanding of the responsibilities, prerogatives, right relationships and natural limits of the state, some deeper reflection is required. Saint Vladimir the Great was well aware both of his own weaknesses and sins, and also of the need to cultivate virtue, not merely for himself or among the boyars, but generally. He radically restructured the laws of his state such that they would not indulge his vicious propensities for cruelty, and also such that his people would have moderate means enough to pursue their own virtues adequately. And he pursued his own prerogative as necessary, even against the bishops of the religion he had taken on, when it came to capital punishment, torture and mutilation.

The example of Kievan Rus’ is one which must prick our consciences and stir us to self-reflection. What sorts of men does our society produce in abundance? What sorts of men do we want our régime to encourage, or to discourage?