28 September 2020

The historiosophies of Hegel and Spengler, compared

Again, going back to Hegel and reading him with a bit more subtlety than I was wont to before, I am finding that he is indeed a much more complicated thinker than many of his conservative critics (even the Russian ones) allege. This much is true: he did believe that history had a progressive direction, and he did believe that we are moving towards truth. But he did not buy so wholly into the Whiggish myth of progress as some might imagine – which may be one reason why he continues to be so broadly misunderstood. He didn’t proclaim an ‘end of history’. Hegel did not pretend to know what the truth was or what the final unfolding of the Logos in history would look like, even if in his more chauvinistic moments he imagined that the German nation – what with its refined sense of social responsibility and its balanced constitutional Prussian monarchy – might, at some point in the future, attain to it. Also: the commonly-perpetuated idea of his system consisting of a triad of ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ in a continuous upbuilding form is not actually Hegel’s but Fichte’s – this ‘triad’ plays no rôle in Hegel’s philosophy of history. For Hegel the process by which the Logos unfolds in history is swathed in the mystical – much like Hölderlin’s! – and it is incomprehensible except in retrospect:
Wenn die Philosophie ihr Grau in Grau malt, dann ist eine Gestalt des Lebens alt geworden, und mit Grau in Grau läßt sie sich nicht verjüngen, sondern nur erkennen. Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.

When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey-in-grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva begins its flight, only when the shades of twilight are gathering.
Hegel’s philosophy of history does posit an objective dimension, something which is not seen in the ontological grounding of the historiosophies of Liang Shuming or Oswald Spengler. Liang Shuming’s fundamental understanding of the workings of the cosmos – his metaphysics and ontology – was Buddhist, derived from Yogācāra and had as its basis a profound consciousness of the impermanence of any singular truth. Spengler’s ontological grounding was derived from Goethe and Nietzsche, and had an existentialist dimension: he agreed with Liang in his consciousness of impermanence of truth, but also claimed that the truth was something which had to inhere in the ‘great man’ in history. They have a similar form, however, to Hegel’s. Hegel does find within the tragœdies of history – the birth and life and death of civilisations – steps toward this truth. Hegel’s ‘reason’ may be cosmopolitan, universal and absolute; but the concrete instances through which this reason proceeds are entirely subjective: and here he is actually more in agreement with Spengler and Liang than he is with a rationalist and optimist like Kant. Hegel had little truck with democratic peace theory in his day. He would have far less with the neoconservative fever dreams of an eternal Pax Americana, despite some of these people attempting to claim him for themselves.

Even if he did not use the triad which is famously – though wrongly – attributed to him, Hegel saw reason unfolding in history through successions of historical stages, each one containing the seeds of its own destruction. This is something that Marx, by the way, borrowed directly from his teacher and never really revised, even when he ‘stood Hegel on his head’. It is to Hegel’s credit that his understanding of this unfolding did not shy away from instances of historical tragœdy.

It’s first necessary to understand that Hegel saw the unfolding of reason in the human life in terms similar to those of Confucius. The moral life is bound up in Sittlichkeit: one learns to be moral through the concrete habits and rituals of a particular setting. The child learns to be moral within the ambit of her family. As the family interacts with neighbours, reason is elevated to the level of the Gesellschaft, the civil society. And as forms of civil society come into contact with each other, reason becomes the responsibility of the state. For Hegel, this is the highest expression of human reason, as it develops organically within the human life. Hegel shares, at least in this case, in the romanticism of Spengler (which is in fact also the romanticism of Goethe, Hölderlin and – by Spengler’s logic – Plato), insofar as he considers the development of reason, even within states, to be an organic, living process – a natural extension of the imperfect reasoning of the individual.

He was well aware, indeed painfully aware, that instances of concrete reason expressed within states would come to loggerheads with each other. Hegel was not a pacifist, and still less an advocate of Kant’s ideology of democratic peace. For Hegel, the fact of the existence of states lent itself to a realist understanding of foreign policy. Even if there was an absolute, an objective truth out there, it could only ever be imperfectly grasped by the organisms of states, cultures, civilisations… and wars between states were the result of this imperfect striving after reason. Even so, Hegel is trying to bridge romanticism with realism in a particular way. Hegel does not (and with good reason!) want to give up the ultimate teleological bent of his project. Despite his doubts about the ability of reason to be finalised within history, he is still far too good a rationalist – still too good a disciple of Kant – to be able to bring to bear an ontological critique of Kantian Vernunft.

Spengler approaches history from a similar direction, but he radicalises the imperfection of human reason when he cites Goethe and his philosophy of becoming – in fact, an iteration of Platonic philosophy – as inspiration for his approach to history. By focussing entirely on the specific, the concrete, the living expressions of culture, in other words – rather than fixed principles which are for him the forms of the non-living – Spengler is adapting a sceptical, non-objective ontology similar to Liang Shuming’s yogic dharmism and, in a more attenuated way, Konstantin Leont’ev’s highly-stylised and -æstheticised Byzantinism. The wry echoes of Friedrich Nietzsche in the thought of all three men are not accidental… but there is another, unacknowledged source for this ontology. Spengler begins describing time in ways that carry eerie echoes of his French contemporary, Henri Bergson. Spengler comes to strikingly similar conclusions to Bergson in L'Évolution créatrice, about the ways in which the intuitive approach to history (which he prefers) is at odds with a ‘mechanical’, ratiocinating, frame-by-frame historical analysis.
We know it to be true of every organism that the rhythm, form and duration of its life, and all the expression-details of that life as well, are determined by the properties of its species. No one, looking at the oak, with its millennial life, dare say that it is at this moment, now, about to start on its true and proper course. No one as he sees a caterpillar grow day by day expects that it will go on doing so for two or three years. In these cases we feel, with an unqualified certainty, a limit, and this sense of the limit is identical with our sense of the inward form. In the case of higher human history, on the contrary, we take our ideas as to the course of the future from an unbridled optimism that sets at naught all historical, i.e. organic, experience, and everyone therefore sets himself to discover in the accidental present terms that he can expand into some striking progression-series, the existence of which rests not on scientific proof but on predilection…

I was originally brought to reflect on this
fundamental question of our world-consciousness through noticing how present-day historians as they fumble round tangible events, things-become, believe themselves to have already grasped History, the happening, the becoming itself. This is a prejudice common to all who proceed by reason and cognition, as against intuitive perception… Life, perpetually fulfilling itself as an element of becoming, is what we call ‘the present’, and it possesses that mysterious property of ‘direction’, which men have tried to rationalise by means of the enigmatic word ‘time’.
Personally, I feel am closer to Hegel (and Plato, and thus also Marx) on this question than I am to Spengler (or Bergson). I do acknowledge the Logos, as an objective Truth that precedes and undergirds the entire cosmos, and which lies in wait for us at the end of all things. But that is not to say that Spengler does not have a point. The question of personality in history is something which Spengler takes very much to heart, examining the force of personality in the ‘great men’ of history: Cæsar, Napoleon and Cecil Rhodes. Hegel was clearly not immune to this sort of historical thinking either, having famously peered out from Jena toward a certain Corsican on horseback! But Spengler looks directly to this kind of dynamism and force of the individual will in history in itself, stamping marks upon entire epochs, particularly enjoying the majesty of the power vertical and the flourishing diversity of forms and modes of life that takes place underneath it. He is drawn, just as Glaukon in the Republic is drawn, to question the ability of justice to provide the fine things in the life of a city.

We have a need for both the Hegelian, and the Spenglerian-Bergsonian, attitudes toward history. We should never fool ourselves into believing glibly that our current social order is in some way the most important, most moral, most rational. Spengler’s bucket of cold water on that conceit is fully warranted – but so are his (and Bergson’s) gentle reminders that we historians are not so much clock-winders and calendar-turners as we are custodians of a living garden as well as of botanical samples that were once alive. I would like to think – but I cannot know for sure until I’ve finally tackled Hegel’s Geschichtsphilosophie itself – that the elder German would agree. Spengler’s here-and-now, present-focussed historical consciousness is badly needed in our day, as both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ fool themselves into believing we can either reason our way backward to a more rational point of national glory in our past, or reason our way forward painlessly into an ever more-liberated Gnostic-libertine ‘woke’ future. But we can also use a modified Hegelian assurance that there is an end, that our work even if not complete does have a certain final form. Even – and especially – if we do not know what that is!

27 September 2020

Holy Hierarch Flavian I, Patriarch of Antioch

Saint Flavian of Antioch
القدّيس فلافيان الأول، أسقف أنطاكية

Today in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate one of the early holy Patriarchs of Antioch, the predecessor to our beloved Patriarch John X (Yazigi): Saint Flavian. Flavian was the thirty-third in the apostolic succession of the hierarchs of Antioch, the immediate successor of Saint Meletios.

Flavian [Gk. Φλαβιανός, Ar. Falâfyân فلافيان] was a native Syrian of Antioch, born to a wealthy family around the year 320. His father died when he was quite young, and left him the heir of a rather sizeable patrimony. Although he was robbed of a father in his life and although his mother exercised little control over him, Flavian was nonetheless not particularly disposed to the prideful, riotous excesses of other wealthy young men, and Saint John Chrysostom praises him in his homiletics as having been sober and simple in his wants from an early age. He was close friends with Diodoros, a young man of Antioch who would later become a priest, and thereafter a bishop in Tarsos (and one whose theological writings would influence Mâr ’Ishâq). When a mild form of the Arian hæresy began cropping up in Antioch, Flavian and Diodoros left their homes and lived in the wilderness as hermits.

An Arian bishop named Leontios ‘the Eunuch’ arrived in Antioch, having replaced the exiled Orthodox bishop, Saint Eustathios. It is a testament to how weak the Nicene, Orthodox faithful were in numbers, that they were disparagingly called ‘Eustathians’ at this time, after Eustathios. Before he departed, the holy Eustathios besought his flock to remain in unity with each other and to follow his successors. The Orthodox ‘Eustathians’ were at this time led by Flavian and Diodoros – still laymen, but who managed to attract a sizeable following. Flavian and Diodoros held meetings of the Orthodox faithful outside the city walls, in the open air and on the slopes of Mons Silpius around the tombs of the martyrs, for the church properties all belonged to the wealthier Arian party. During these meetings Flavian and Diodoros reintroduced the practice of antiphonal singing to the Orthodox Church in Antioch.

The hæretical bishop Leontios was not particularly pleased with this. He attempted to proscribe the meetings at the tombs, and bring the Orthodox ‘Eustathians’ back into the churches. Flavian and Diodoros did not resist this edict, and the followers of Eustathios went back into the churches – though in so doing they gained still more followers while not compromising the faith revealed at Nicæa. A frustrated Leontios was, in the words of Blessed Theodoret, ‘compelled to retrace his steps’.

This time was a particularly tricky one in the church of Antioch, as a messy four-way schism ruptured the church of Christ in the wake of Eustathios’s exile. There were the professed Arians, who had a steady supply of bishops and considerable financial and institutional clout given to them by a succession of Arian-leaning emperors starting with Constantius II.

The majority of the Nicene followers of Eustathios, including Flavian and Diodoros, accepted the election of the gentle Saint Meletios as the Patriarch of Antioch. Meletios was by temper mild and sweet, and he discoursed primarily on ethics. Most of the Nicene Christians in Antioch had no objections to such a man, who at the very least they trusted not to manipulate or persecute them as Leontios had.

However, Meletios was objectionable to the Eustathian Zealots because he also early on enjoyed the support of some moderate members within the Arian party, and for a long time would not speak openly on Christological matters. Some of these Zealots broke away in schism from Meletios, under a priest named Paulinus who was consecrated a bishop by a Sardinian churchman named (I kid you not!) Lucifer Calaritanus. These Eustathian Zealots considered themselves to be, and behaved as, an underground church in resistance. One further offshoot of these extreme Eustathians led by a man named Vitalian, out of reaction against the reigning Arianism, took refuge in an opposite hæresy – that of Apollinarios of Latakia.

Saint Meletios, like Saint Eustathios before him, was banished from Antioch on the orders of Emperor Valens, who conducted a harsh persecution on the Orthodox faithful in that city. Meletios had appointed the two friends Flavian and Diodoros to the diaconate and later to the priesthood, and in his absence as well the Orthodox flock he led was fed with the body of Christ and heard the word of truth rightly divided. Once again the Orthodox gathered in the ravines and caves and mountains outside the city. But they were not without sufferings. The soldiery under Valens had orders to beat, humiliate and disperse the meetings of the Orthodox under the priests Flavian and Diodoros. And yet they persevered through these trials, strengthened in faith, until Valens met his end in 378.

His successor, Emperor Gratian, with good intentions attempted to return the churches to the Orthodox Christians and affect reconciliation between the moderate Nicenes under Saint Meletios – who had for the past decade been openly professing an Orthodox Christology – and the zealous followers of Paulinus. This attempt did not succeed. Paulinus was recognised by Rome and Alexandria; Meletios by Constantinople and Jerusalem. Flavian was instrumental, however, in persuading Gratian’s governor that Saint Meletios was the rightful claimant and should have charge of the churches.

Flavian accompanied Saint Meletios to the Second Œcumenical Council called by Emperor Saint Theodosius. Meletios, however, reposed in the Lord before the Council was completed. In the wake of Meletios’s passing, Flavian was elected bishop of Antioch and consecrated by his friend Diodoros over the objections of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. There was some controversy surrounding Flavian’s accession to the Patriarchate. Two church historians record that Flavian had promised not to seek the archepiscopal see in the event that either Meletios or Paulinus reposed, and Paulinus – as well as the bishops of Rome and Alexandria – cried foul to the Emperor. For most of his tenure as Patriarch of Antioch, the Roman and Alexandrian prelates shunned Saint Flavian as forsworn and illegitimate.

As bishop, however, Flavian behaved himself with admirable discretion. He converted his father’s mansion, which he had inherited in his youth, into a hospital for the sick. He also gave up all his personal funds and divided them among the poor in Antioch. In 386 Patriarch Flavian ordained John Chrysostom to the priesthood. In the following year, Antioch rose up in a tax revolt against Emperor Theodosius and destroyed his statue in the city. The emperor’s well-attested wrath (as witnessed later in the hippodrome massacre at Thessaloniki) threatened the city with harsh reprisals. Saint Flavian personally went to Theodosius and managed to cool the emperor’s temper sufficiently to ward off any violent demonstrations against Antioch’s citizenry.

Flavian’s bishopric and reputation among the churchmen in the West were saved entirely owing to his friend and fierce advocate, Saint John Chrysostom, soon to be Archbishop of Constantinople. It was Chrysostom whose golden tongue managed to convince Pope Saint Siricius of Rome and even the paranoid Pope Theophilos of Alexandria to reconcile with Saint Flavian and recognise him as a brother-bishop. Saint Flavian, for his part, returned Saint John Chrysostom’s loyalty when the saint came under attack in the Roman court. Saint Flavian protested even until his very last breath, the ill-treatment, deposition and exile of his friend. The blessed repose of Saint Flavian in 404 was peaceful and without illness or pain. He had been bishop of Antioch for twenty-three years. Holy archbishop Flavian, benefactor of the sick and defender of Christ’s flock against hæresies, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!

24 September 2020

Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Thekla, Protomartyr of Antioch

Saint Thekla of Antioch

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church, the twenty-fourth of September, we commemorate one of the holiest women of Antioch and of the Early Church, Saint Thekla of Antioch, who was a follower of Saint Paul and a bold witness among the pagan Greeks and Romans. The great deeds and holy life of Saint Thekla illuminated many thousands of souls in the Near East, and bore witness to the divine illumination and the unburning fire of Christ. She did this even as she repeatedly showed herself proof against the flames of lust and the flames of fire with which the pagans tried to scorch her. With great celebration together with the Christians of Syria we honour her memory today.

Saint Thekla [L. Thecla, Gk. Θέκλα, Ar. Taqlâ تقلا] was born in the city of Iconium [which is modern-day Konya in Turkey] in the year 16. Her parents were rich and illustrious, and Thekla grew up into a marvellous beauty whose affections were highly sought-after. Her parents found it not difficult at all to arrange a suitable match for her, a youngster by the name of Thamyris. When Saints Paul and Barnabas came into Iconium to preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection, Thekla was intrigued and wished to join the crowds to hear them. Her mother Theokleia, however, forbade it, and kept her confined to the house. However, the will of God for this his martyr could not be so easily thwarted. The young girl found that she could go out onto the balcony from her room, and the air carried the words of the Apostle from where he stood to the balcony where she sat, for three full days and three nights while he preached.

St Paul’s preaching enthralled and electrified Thekla, and she was especially drawn to Paul’s preaching on the subject of chastity. She began to desire with her whole heart to serve the Lord and to embrace Christ crucified and risen. Both Thekla’s mother Theokleia, and her betrothed Thamyris, noticed the abrupt change in Thekla’s demeanour, and they went to the governor of Iconium to complain about Saint Paul’s preaching. In order to pacify the crowd, which was growing more and more incensed by the preaching of the two apostles, the governor had Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas arrested and thrown into prison.

When Saint Thekla heard of this, she stole out of her house and used her golden bracelets to bribe Paul’s gaoler, and having gained admittance to his cell, fell at his feet and kissed the chains and shackles that bound him. She spent hours kneeling at the feet of the Apostle, listening to him discourse upon Christ, upon His good news to the poor, and upon the virtues of faith and hope and love. She was gone long enough that her mother and her affianced grew worried, and they asked her servant where she was. The servant said that she had gone to visit one of the strangers in Iconium, who had been imprisoned. From this they were able to gather that she had visited Paul. At this, Thamyris and Theokleia went again to the governor, in a crowd of mingled Jews and pagans, and demanded that Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas be stoned at once and expelled from the city (Acts 14:19). The sentence was carried out, and they were left for dead outside the city, but the Lord preserved them both.

The governor scolded Thekla for her foolishness, and ordered her to return home to her mother and to her fiancée. Thekla refused, however, saying that she wished to retain her virginity and to serve the Lord Christ always. Her mother implored Thekla with tears, and then breathed threats against her which mounted in their severity, but still her daughter refused to return home. This sent her mother into a rage, and she demanded of the governor that the girl be severely punished if she did not obey him. The governor granted Theokleia’s request, and threatened Thekla that if she did not return home at once, she would be burned at the stake. The young martyr, however, was not moved by such threats, and would not forsake her Heavenly Bridegroom.

The governor then arranged for a stake to be righted in the arena, and Thekla approached it herself without fear, seeing a vision of the Lord beckoning her to Him, giving her strength. She was tied to it, and the fires were lit under her. But no sooner was this done than black clouds began to brew above her, and the skies opened up with thunder and lightning, heavy rain and hail. The fire around her damped down and died at heaven’s command. In embarrassment and anger, the governor then commanded that Thekla be banished forever from the city, and thrown out at the same gate that Saint Paul had been.

There, Thekla met Saint Paul, and told him of her trial and of the wonder by which she had been spared from death by fire. She asked the Apostle to baptise her, but Saint Paul, having a præmonition, refused the young girl, saying that God would accomplish this in His own time. However, the Apostle allowed Thekla to travel with him to Antioch. As they were entering the great city, it so happened that a young man of means named Alexandros chanced to see Thekla’s face, and was consumed with a desire for her. Alexandros tried to force himself on her, but Thekla fought him off, and being protected by God the force of Alexandros came to nothing. He was publicly humiliated – by a young girl at that – in front of the city. His pride could not endure this. He went before the governor of Antioch and demanded that Thekla be put to death for having shamed a nobleman. This governor agreed, and declared that Thekla was to be fed to wild beasts in the colosseum. Thekla asked only that her virginity be preserved until then, which the governor allowed. She was given into the custody of a high-born woman named Tryphaina, who kept her in her house until her day of execution.

Thekla was led to the arena, and a lioness was loosed upon her. Instead of attacking her, however, the proud animal instead went to her feet and curled up like a tame house-cat. The crowds were astonished. Next a bear was set loose upon Thekla, but as the animal attacked her, the lioness reared up and did battle with the bear, killing it. A lion was then set loose, and the lioness again did battle to protect Thekla, but though she managed to kill the lion, the lioness herself succumbed to her wounds. Then all manner of beasts were unleashed upon Thekla, who by this time had managed to free herself and dove into a pool where the aquatic predators were kept. In this manner she was baptised in Christ, and the water animals left her alone. Alexandros asked that the saint be given over to him, and he had her strung between two bulls to be torn apart. However, as this punishment was being prepared and the bulls were urged in opposite directions, by a wonder of God the bonds that held Thekla slid free of her wrists and ankles, and she emerged from them unharmed. She was again released into Tryphaina’s custody, where the noblewoman took care of her for eight days more. Thekla preached the good news of Christ to the noblewoman, and Tryphaina sought to be baptised along with all her house. Tryphaina gave Thekla many rich presents when she departed – gold, jewels and silks of immense worth.

Again Thekla went to seek out Saint Paul, who was then preaching in the town of Myra on the Lycian coast (now Demre in Turkey). She told him of everything that happened to her since they had come to Antioch, including her baptism in the pool full of aquatic beasts. Saint Paul marvelled at Thekla’s faith, and blessed her. Thekla gave to Paul all of the gold and jewels and precious things that Tryphaina had given her, to be distributed among the poor and hungry and homeless as the Apostle saw the need. She then departed back into Syria.

Saint Thekla lived for many years in the Syrian mountains, in holy solitude and prayer and vigil. She passed her life in such a way, præfiguring the disciplines of many great ascetics and anchoresses who would come to grace the Syrian deserts. However, clearly she retained much of her beauty well into middle age, and despite the harsh mode of life that her discipline enjoined upon her. She was seen by a pagan youth as she was praying amongst a lonely outcrop of rock, and inflamed by an evil desire the young man attempted to rape her. As he cornered her, Thekla prayed to Jesus Christ that He would protect her as He had done so often before. At that moment a cleft opened in the rock behind her, and Thekla was able to slip through it and out of the reach of the evil-minded young man.

Saint Thekla continued in her devotions until the age of ninety, praying in seclusion in a cell on a lonely mountain pass in the southwest of Syria. Her bodily needs were met by a holy well that sprang up there as she prayed, whose waters had restorative properties. She was not unknown to the people there, and she gave wisdom and comfort to the people who came to her, and in particular the young women. She managed to convert many of the outlying villages and towns to Christianity. When she reposed in the year 106, a group of young women came to her cell to honour her, and built a complex around her anchorage where they could live as virgins consecrated to the Lord. This complex would become Dayr Mâr Taqlâ, a Patriarchal Monastery of the Church of Antioch consecrated in 1935, situated in the Christian village of Ma‘lûlâ in southwestern Syria – one of the few places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken as a living, vernacular language. It has long been a site of pilgrimage for Orthodox and other Christians in Syria, and is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Saint Thekla is venerated broadly throughout the Christian world, however, not just in Syria. She is taken as a symbol of feminine strength by the Christian women of Ægypt, many of whom went on to preach the gospel of Christ to their fellows. Among the Catholic and Anglican Christians of the West she is honoured as well, being the patron of Tarragona in the Catalan country of Spain, of Chamalières in France, as well as of a cathedral in Milan, Italy. Her cultus even spread as far as Wales – not an unknown thing by any means – where there is a Llandegla and a holy well named in her honour in the Welsh northeast, in Clwyd. It is and ought to be a matter of deep shame for the Christians of the West – including those of the UK and France – that the neoconservative and neoliberal elements in their governments all colluded in a brutal attack on Saint Thekla’s earthly homeland, and funded and supported the Sunnî radicals who would murder her followers and despoil her resting-place.

Because this was one of the holy sites of Christianity which was most affected by the civil war in Syria. The three thousand Christians of Ma‘lûlâ were persecuted and forced out of their homes in September of 2013 by the radical militants of Jabhat an-Nuṣra, who burned and looted the homes and holy places of the people living there – and the Dayr Mâr Taqlâ was not exempt. Many priceless icons and relics dating back hundreds of years were smashed or plundered. An-Nuṣra also kidnapped twelve of the nuns of the Dayr, though forty of them stayed in the monastery until the town could be liberated in April of the following year by the soldiers of the Syrian Arab Army and Ḥizbu’llâh. Our selfless Shi‘ite and ‘Alawî brothers restored the monastery of Mâr Taqlâ to the Orthodox nuns; we owe them our deepest thanks, and the faith of these followers of ‘Alî ibn ’Abî Ṭâlib puts to shame the faith of us Christians in the West. Forgive us sinners, Saint Thekla! Holy mother of the Church, equal to the Apostles, pray unto Christ our God that we may be saved!
Apolytikion to Saint Thekla, Tone 4:

You were enlightened by the words of Paul, O Bride of God, Thekla,
And your faith was confirmed by Peter, O Chosen One of God.
You became the first sufferer and martyr among women,
By entering into the flames as into a place of gladness.
For when you accepted the Cross of Christ,
The demonic powers were frightened away.
O all-praised One, intercede before Christ God that our souls may be saved!

Dayr Mâr Taqlâ

20 September 2020

The four classical Chinese beauties

From left to right: Xi Shi, Yang Guifei, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan

I did not note this until recently, but on this blog, it seems I have given each of the historical four great Chinese beauties of antiquity (Si Da Meinü 四大美女) her own blog post here. I feel I should not leave this happy incidence unremarked, particularly given my recent treatment of how a certain unnamed Wei beauty commemorated in the Odes seems to have touched off an entire prophetic-reformist tradition in Chinese philosophy on account of her influence over the imagination of the young Bu Zixia 卜子夏. If I were feeling a trifle frivolous, and sought to indulge for a moment my apparently incorrigible desire to draw comparative links between Chinese and classical Western philosophies, I could point out that each of the four beauties in Chinese literature appears to correspond to a Platonic-Aristotelian ‘cardinal virtue’. And since I just made for myself such a pseudo-exculpation, I’m gonna go ahead and do just that:
  1. Shi Yiguang 施夷光 (also Xi Shi 西施) points to the virtue of moderation, or temperance. She exhibits a stern self-control, and also a fierce devotion to the Yue merchant fisherman Fan Li when she is given to Fuchai of Wu. She does not allow herself to be swayed by Fuchai’s affections, but delivers him over to Yue, even though it almost certainly means her death.
  2. Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 points to the virtue of audacity, or fortitude. Though most of the women in Han Yuandi’s harem were appalled and frightened by the idea of being sent into Xiongnu territory to wed a khaghan of that people, Wang Zhaojun understood the benefits of peace, and although it saddened her deeply to leave China and the idea of entering the Xiongnu frightened her, she agreed to leave and be married to a foreigner she had never met.
  3. Ren Hongchang 任红昌 (also Diaochan 貂蝉) points to the virtue of justice. She allowed herself to be used as a honeypot, seducing both Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu and urging the latter to kill the former, to save the Han Dynasty and to put an end to a bloody, murderous tyrant. In the popular telling of her story, she is motivated primarily by patriotism and by filial piety.
  4. Yang Yuhuan 杨玉环 (also guifei 贵妃) points, albeit in an ironic way, to the virtue of sense or prudence. She did not exert any particular sound sense herself (except possibly when she showed appreciation for Minghuang’s gifts to her), but her tragic fate shows the way in which Minghuang ought to have done: he should have paid closer attention to state affairs, and not allowed Yang’s family to accede to high office.
This may be something of an exercise of philosophical whimsy on my part. However, it’s worth mentioning that each of these women was highly celebrated in traditional poetry (such as, to give one example, Bai Juyi’s ‘Song of Everlasting Regret’) and the popular operatic tradition, not so much for their abstract virtues as for their skill. Even the traditional Ru, despite their reservations about the female powers of suasion, had no objection to women being cultured, as evidenced by Ban Zhao’s literary output. And each of the four beauties did demonstrate a particular literary or artistic skill, being similar in these cases to Greek courtesans. Xi Shi, for example, was brought up ‘ignorant’, but she proved to be a skilled singer and dancer. Wang Zhaojun was a skilled pipa player, and is always depicted together with her instrument. Diaochan was deft at embroidery and was placed in charge of arranging the ornaments of high officials (which is how she earned her nickname, which means ‘Sable Cicada’). And Yang Guifei was not only a singer and dancer but was also apparently well-read and a witty conversationalist.

The other dimension of the poetic and operatic admiration for these women was the tragic bent of each of their lives. Despite their beauty being so intense that, in the realm of idiom, Xi Shi’s looks could cause fish to sink (西施沉鱼), Wang Zhaojun’s could cause geese to fall out of the sky (昭君落雁), Diaochan’s could shame the moon (貂蝉闭月) and Yang Guifei’s could cause flowers to hide themselves in embarrassment (贵妃羞花) – each of them seems to have gotten a tragic ending, at least in some versions of each woman’s tale. Yang Guifei was scapegoated for a political crime that was none of her own doing. Diaochan was, at least according to some versions of the story, killed by Guan Yu because her beauty was deemed too dangerous to him and his sworn brothers. Wang Zhaojun lived a long life with two husbands who dearly loved her, but still spent her life in exile from China. And Xi Shi – depending on which source you cite – was either killed after Yue’s invasion of Wu, or else ran off with Fan Li and spent the rest of her life quietly on a fishing boat on Lake Tai.

Despite being immortalised in song and poem and opera, in truth the main lesson, possibly a trifle Machiavellian, to be drawn from the beauties of Chinese history is that it could be highly dangerous for a woman – even a woman possessed of charm and physical pulchritude – to draw too close to men with high political power… unless she could be assured of wielding that power herself, like the Empress Wu Zetian 武则天. The classical Ru tradition would likely take strong exception to my philosophically-syncretistic attempt above to associate each Chinese beauty with a relevant Western virtue, as the followers of Confucius – particularly after the Tang Dynasty – have tended to frown upon such powers in women. This is analogous to Plato’s well-founded distrust of the ‘knack’ of Greek hetairai for telling men what they want to hear, as a potential danger to men’s self-control and thus to good order in the state. But Confucius himself seems to hint that it is not men’s desire for beauty that is itself evil, but the incorrect ordering of it: if it causes him to abandon the rites, justice and benevolence then such a desire becomes evil. But if, on the other hand, he is able to sublimate it the way Bu Zixia did… then such desire can deepen and quicken the pursuit of correct things – goodness for its own sake, and truth.

16 September 2020

Holy Father Dōrotheos, Venerable Abba of Palestine

Saint Dōrotheos of Gaza

Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we venerate Saint Dōrotheos of Gaza, one of the great monastic fathers of Palestine in the sixth century. Saint Dōrotheos is a beloved saint among Palestinians and Syrians, for he belonged to them. He is particularly beloved, however, for the numerous spiritual writings and advice to new monks – written in a lucid, clear and understandable style – that he left behind him. His books are counted among the spiritual classics. This is one of his three feast days, the other ones being on the fifth of June (in the Russian tradition) and the thirteenth of August (in the Romanian tradition).

Saint Dōrotheos of Gaza [Gk. Δωρόθεος, Ar. Dûrûṯiyyûs دوروثيوس] was apparently born to a certain degree of standing, having been given a fine education and being thirsty for worldly knowledge from a very young age. He recounted that when he was young he didn’t want to study, approaching books as he would wild beasts, but he eventually came to acquire, with God’s help, the habit of diligence in his studies. It got to be so that he did not care what he ate or when he slept. He listened to his lessons to the exclusion of all else, including the exhortations of his friends, and at night he retired to his room and read deep into the middle of the night. These studious habits stayed with him and he acquired a great store of knowledge.

They also served Dōrotheos well in the monastery, into which he came when he was still young. He proved even thirstier for the perfections of the monastic life, than he had for the knowledge of the world. He prayed and kept the fasts, eating only bread and boiled heads of grass with water once a day, and stood in vigil as long as he had sat in study poring over books. One of his first obediences at the monastery was to stand at the door greeting those pilgrims who came inside and showing them the hospitality of the monastery. In this way Saint Dōrotheos gained both a knowledge and a love – these two things coming together with him as they should – of people from all and sundry walks of life. He began to understand the burdens and temptations of people, as well as their spiritual struggles. He also worked with his hands, building up cells for the other monks from stones he gathered himself, or weaving baskets to sell for the necessities of life. But he had little time to sleep, catching only short dozes between the end of his work and the beginnings of his prayer. He would see to the pilgrims’ needs as long as he could, and then go off to vigil, where he asked one of the brothers to wake him and another to keep him awake as the vigil was sung. He said of himself that he clung to these brothers as a man would cling to that which would save his life, for his salvation depended on them.

Saint Dōrotheos served as the cell attendant for Saint John the Prophet for ten years. He served the elder monk with complete love and obedience, kissing the doorpost of the cell the way one would kiss a relic of the Holy Cross. Dōrotheos once revealed to Saint John the trouble of his heart, that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven he would have to face much trouble. But the elder monk comforted Dōrotheos and assured him that mortifying his will and keeping obedience to the Fathers as he had been doing were a delight to Christ. He was also a devotee of Abba Zosimas the confessor and spiritual father of Saint Mary of Ægypt, who lived at the same monastery for a time.

His disciple, Saint Dositheos, said this of him: ‘Towards the brethren labouring with him he responded with modesty, with humility, and was gracious without arrogance or audacity. He was good-natured and direct, he would engage in a dispute, but always preserved the principle of respect, of good will, and that which is sweeter than honey, oneness of soul, the mother of all virtues.

Saint Dōrotheos left behind him a significant body of homilies and discourses, as well as several letters and a catechetical text. He drew from many of the insights of his fellow monks, particularly the elder ones. Elder Barsanuphios and Saint John figure prominently in these works, as well as the sayings of Abba Zosimas. These writings are clear, direct, and of a practical orientation, and are considered to be classics of spiritual instruction because their advice is as suited to laymen as it is to monks, and to lower-class people as well as to upper-class. He speaks in the unpretentious, unstudied voice of the common people, something remarkable for a man of his education and philosophical background – though not unknown for the advanced monks of the Thebaïd and of the Palestinian monasteries, who approached with love all who came before them, no matter what their station in life. He reposed in the latter half of the sixth century, after sixty years of ascetical labour. Saint Dōrotheos of Gaza, approachable and kind and self-effacing elder and spiritual teacher to many, pray unto Christ our God for the salvation of our souls!

15 September 2020

A look back at Hegel

For various reasons, I’ve been seeing if I can take stock of certain of my intellectual formations and habits of mind. One of the biggest ones is the impact reading GWF Hegel – who I idol-worshipped as a college student, and later rebelled against – had on me, and what stuck with me from him. Going back and reading some of my old textbooks and articles from my college days has been interesting, if a bit wince-inducing considering my immaturity. My college philosophy professor, Dr Chris Latiolais, correctly diagnosed – when I reacted with a kind of overbearing disgust to some of the ideas that I encountered in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche – that a lot of what drove my philosophical inquiry was a political anger against George W Bush and Dick Cheney. I had been looking for, and thought I had found in Hegel’s thinking, something of a radical answer to the ills of an American culture that had produced neoconservatism… and something of a way out. Of course, had I been a bit more astute as a college student, I might have noticed that the neoconservatives themselves had onboarded more than a few of Hegel’s conceits – but when one is younger and more self-assured of one’s own rightness, such delicious ironies are rather lost.

One of the drawbacks of putting my philosophical and religious ideas onto a blog like The Heavy Anglo Orthodox, is that it’s necessarily fragmentary, and I often have to go haring back to fetch one or other particular fragment and hold it up to the light to determine its worth. Hegel was a systemic thinker – which I very much am not. This blog post does not purport to be a full and exhaustive treatment of that system, or of its impact on the way I think or act; it’s more than anything a bit of a retrospective on the ways in which some of the more salient points of Hegel’s thinking have guided me to where I am now.

So, in that spirit, looking back at what Hegel was doing, I can certainly see how deep the impressions of certain elements of his thinking on my intellectual development have been (and still are)! For one thing, even though Dr Latiolais tried to steer me in a direction he thought I was headed anyway – into the Marxist ideas of the New Left – my basic philosophical instincts have nonetheless remained ‘right’-Hegelian. The conceit that most drew me back ad fontes to Plato a couple of years ago, for example, was completely Hegelian. I had been convinced of two things: firstly, that we had arrived at a disastrous, civilisation-breaking moment in our history; and secondly, that we weren’t going to politicise our way out of it without some kind of grounding in metaphysics. I realise now that I was simply slipping, again, into a well-travelled wake that my Swabian shangbei had ridden long before me, writing as he was from a vantage-point in which the European ancien regime was breaking apart and in which forms of scepticism like those of Hume and Kant were ruling the day in intellectual venues.

Like Hegel, I desired a rational understanding (or Begriff) of my world and of my cultural moment – the failures of liberalism in particular. And like Hegel, I felt sure that there needed to be a metaphysical grounding for that understanding. And so, just as Hegel seems to have set out to redeem the metaphysical neo-Platonist and Christoplatonist tradition from Kant’s wicked sceptical clutches (and as Marx later set out to redeem Aristotle from Hegel’s idealist clutches!), so too I was setting out to redeem Plato from those who were reading him as an apologist for obscurantism, tyranny and unfreedom – and possibly in the process finding within Plato a kind of key for ‘discerning the times’. As I said after my year of reading Plato, I found much, much more than that: I found a questioner and a doctor for some of my own intellectual and personal vices and hang-ups. In this way the broad outlines of my philosophical process still seem to have some resemblance to Hegel’s.

Other aspects of Hegelian thinking have always been kept near the forefront for me. The rather messy idea of Sittlichkeit (the situated ethical life), articulated both in Hegel’s Phänomenologie and in his Philosophie des Rechts, has always been close to the surface of my embrace of both epistemological and ethical communitarianism: our awareness of moral commitments in fact stems from, and depends on, the concrete, down-and-dirty exigencies of lived customs, traditions and habits. It is, in fact, the single most charming point of his philosophical system for me, and it reflects what is most beautiful in Hegel’s southern German upbringing: I cannot help but feel that Hegel must have had something in mind, of the hospitality and warm-heartedness of the old Swabian Sitten when he came up with this term. Hegel propounded his Sittlichkeit, in part, as a response to the categorical imperative, the absolute Kantian Moralität which was to be fully derived from the powers of reasoning. I was not slow – growing as I had been in awareness of Chinese philosophy – to connect the Hegelian Sittlichkeit in my thinking with the Confucian concern for liyue 禮樂 or ‘rites and music’, which Confucius held to be the intermediating force by which the self’s sense of right and wrong was to be tutored.

For Hegel, as for Confucius, a person’s sense of right and wrong is conditioned first by her contact with her family, and the concrete habits they build together. Thereafter, ethical behaviour is conditioned by a broader circle of neighbours and contacts, the Gesellschaft or ‘civil society’. Only thereafter, when differing neighbourhoods and bodies of civil custom come into contact with each other and have to deal with each other do common ethical guidelines become codified in the field of law – under a state. Hegel’s concentric circles of ethical development share something very much in common with Zengzi’s Doctrine of the Mean, which places the primary burden for moral development upon the family.

But it was precisely this awareness of similarity and overlap between Hegelian ethics and Confucian ethics – though not an identification of the two with each other – that made me begin to rebel against Hegel on certain points. Hegel himself had a certain patronising and belittling attitude toward Asia and its civilisational potentials (a belittling attitude which sadly extended to the Eastern Roman Empire), which he inherited (I believe) from his French tutors and which he bequeathed to his pupil Marx – who himself would come back to revise that belief. I could begin to see his shamelessly-triumphal attitude toward history, and his arrogant attitude that it was the German worldview and German values that should and must prevail in the teleological process of history. In fact, a more careful study of history itself in various places of the world led me to doubt the idea – which I attributed to Hegel, but on which point Hegel was in fact much more subtle than I previously gave him credit – that the teleological outcome of human history had been foreordained and we were all being inexorably swept toward it. I rebelled particularly against the idea that reason – Vernunft – was something which consisted in itself without being attached to a personal, sittlich agent. Here, I suspect I may have been guided by a naïve or simplistic reading of Hegelian ideas. At the same time, I could not deny the justice of the Slavophils’ semi-Schellingian critique of Hegel, that he did more than a little indulge a certain sense of German chauvinism, and that he was indeed carried away by the self-evident perfection of his own rationality. To him, the future of humankind did belong to German state and the German idea, just as for the neoconservative readers of his pupil Fukuyama, the future did and must belong to the American state and the American idea.

Still, I think Hegel may have been far more cautious on the historiosophical point than his critics – particularly those in the vein of Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, whom I also consider to be influential on me – have given him credit for. Hegel did believe that there was a telos to human endeavour. He was a firm believer in the Absolute, in the Logos, just as his classical masters were. Here I can hardly blame him. And he did have a firm, postmillennarian belief in reason and believed reason to be the impelling force driving us toward that telos. I do demur from Hegel here on Orthodox Christian, personalist grounds, but let’s give him his due and consider his position honestly. I suspect that it’s a caricature, driven by careless readers approaching him from a hermeneutic of suspicion, that he subscribed to an idea that the final triumph of reason was something that would be circumscribed within history and fully accessible to (German) knowledge. For Hegel, situated customs, traditions and habits were the place from which all moral progress had to start – and these things did limit the knowledge available even to rational, deliberative states like Germany. Hegel was, on this point, neither the monstrous totalitarian nor nearly the hyper-modernist archapostle of Progress with a capital ‘P’ that some of his critics make him out to be.

Even in this discussion, though, I’m inadvertently showing additional layers to my Hegelian philosophical upbringing in the sense that I have long had this interest in the inner workings of history and the social-historical ways which impel human movement on the scale of societies and nations. Hegel’s style of thinking has guided me in these directions, more so than his stated philosophy of history, or his concrete commitments to particular political forms. Here too, though, Hegel’s socially-minded constitutional monarchism is something with which I still tend to sympathise… for similar reasons, I confess, to those on which I still find his concept of Sittlichkeit to be beautiful and right and good.

So… even if I tend toward the older Christian belief, that history is in fact a ‘long defeat’ to use Tolkien’s wording, and that the final victory of the Logos is something ever only glimpsed ‘in a mirror darkly’ within history, it is still worth taking stock of Hegel’s system and some of the good points which can be salvaged from it. Hegel’s intimations about the sittlich nature of human ethics actually point to an area in which his belief in Vernunft and Kantian Moralität are conditioned and almost humble! And his unwillingness to ascribe rationality to anything above the state – and indeed, even that rationality only ever imperfectly, because no state was capable of correctly predicting the whole future on its own terms – actually tends to undercut the common caricature of Hegel as being the overbearing chauvinistic triumphalist and determinist par excellence. Hegel is still worth being read seriously, even if reading him is more than occasionally like trying to scale a mountain.

14 September 2020

Labour history is patriotic

As I continue to mull over and reflect on the intellectual legacy of that towering theorist of violence and myth Georges Sorel – and his eerie applicability to our current American cultural moment in which not only our political system and structure, but also the basis of our national mythology is unravelling – I note with chagrin that the American left, fragmented and dispersed and sectarian as it is, has not fully escaped the ‘pull’ of the two duelling mythological ‘frames’ of American historiosophy. Indeed, the left has actually led much of this duel. It’s rather unfortunate that the American left has essentially tied itself to two horses going opposite ways, and is poised to fragment over this issue. It doesn’t need to.

As I have said before, we are currently faced with an attempt by a certain subset of the ‘woke’ élite to rewrite American history in the form of the 1619 Project. There is fairly openly displayed in this ‘framing’ of American history, a religious idea that America was conceived in the iniquity of slavery, and that this iniquity has shaped our national development ever since. There is a germ of truth hidden in this framing – a germ of truth which indeed appeals to my Johnson-inspired High Tory antiracism – but actually the lens of racial determinism through which this germ is examined is fundamentally wrongheaded. This is no accident. Even if the historians who write for the New York Times are not themselves members of this élite (that we know), it is still absolutely necessary to understand that the ‘woke’ élite in fact represent the interests of global capital and want to continue as long as possible for their own benefit the Atlanticist policies of imperialism and exploitation of third-world wealth. The left, if they allow certain strands of anti-Americanism to carry them off in the direction of a 1619 mythology, stand only to lose, as they will be divided from a working class which is in fact highly patriotic, rooted to place and feels itself (justly) to be under threat.

So here it may sound as though I’m taking the stance advocated by the Trotskyite Fourth International, as articulated by Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman and David North at the World Socialist Web Site. Again, though, as I have said before, their analysis is deliberately left incomplete, and has its own problems with presupposing certain forms of historical determinism:
I agree wholeheartedly with Niemuth, Mackaman and North insofar as they hold to the limited argument against the 1619 Project and its central conceit. It is indeed not ‘in the DNA’ of America or Americans to hate each other based on the colour of their skin – either literally or figuratively. The biological and sociological determinism of the worldview behind the 1619 Project is ahistorical and, indeed, morally noxious – for the very reasons they describe.

But the problems begin to crop up very quickly when the authors for the Fourth International stray from this narrow critique into a broader take on world history, and their sweeping and reductive takes on ‘the global history of slavery, which extends back into the ancient world’. For one thing, classical slavery and modern chattel slavery were and are very different institutions, underpinned by very different material conditions. It’s actually something of a travesty, that authors proclaiming themselves to be Marxist overlook this. Any Marxist worth his salt should have a ready materialist explanation for the differences between classical and early modern slavery.
So we can start to see the fracture point even here. We have a ‘woke left’ – a ‘left’ in fact more postmodernist than Marxist – that is both deeply antiracist and also convinced that the American project itself is irretrievably racist. On the other hand, we have a certain fragment of the Old Left, the Trotskyites, who are willing to wed the entire project of class liberation to the mythology of the founding of the American Republic. In this they are quite consciously following in the footsteps of, say, Daniel DeLeon and his panegyrics to the Founding Fathers. Georges Sorel must be chuckling from his box seat in the Great Beyond – he saw the same thing happening in the France of his day.

Now, Georges Sorel was about as ideologically impure, from a standard leftist perspective, as it’s possible to get, having flirted at various points in his career with anarcho-syndicalism and with a certain traditionalist-right intégrisme before embracing Leninism – without ever having given up on the working class and without ever having really altered what he fundamentally believed. Indeed, he is often seen as a representative of the French far right! As a result, significant swathes of the American left are likely to view Sorel – as they would do Lasch or Mailer – as a figure too heavily compromised to be of any use to them. That’s a damn shame. Sorel had placed his finger squarely on the crux of our current predicament when he diagnosed the division within the French left of his day as being one of mythology. It’s true – he had little but contempt for parliamentary socialists whose mouths were ever full of the glories of 1789, viewing them (particularly Jean Jaurès) as opportunistic parasites who would happily sell out working-class interests in pursuit of political and bureaucratic sinecures. But this is somewhat beside the point. Better than any other intellectual figure in late nineteenth-century Europe, Sorel understood the power of mythology in motivating and directing action – and he sought to apply it to the idea of the general strike.

In Sorel’s view, it was superfluous for a man of the French left to seek to appropriate the imagery, the statuary, the religious and mythical symbolism of the French Revolution. The French Revolution itself had defined its mythology on its own: why should the working class be subject to it? For Sorel, such exhausted borrowed glory would be far and away inferior in motivating action – in driving great deeds of altruism, in spurring virtue and excellence and spirited ferocity in battle, in directing and giving meaning to targeted acts of political violence – to a mythology that was authentic and autochthonous to the labourers’ own experiences and history. Sorel sought to build a Mythos of the General Strike, in order to supplant the chimæra that the parliamentary socialists in France had created from borrowed bits and pieces of the glories of the French Revolution. He very much looked forward to a day when the Revolution was rendered politically irrelevant by the General Strike: ‘What remains of the present Socialist movement will be the epic of the strikes.’ Sorel appreciated the power of patriotism: but for him the working classes themselves were sufficiently patriotic in its own self-understanding; they didn’t need validation from the soi-disant caretakers of a past in which the workers and farmers had a limited and indeed often passive (if not antagonistic) rôle.

A similar situation attains in America. The mythology of Jeffersonian liberalism and the Constitutional compromise is a spent force. Its legitimacy has been squandered in the attempts to bring about old Tom’s ‘Empire of Democracy’. The apologists of the American mythos on the centre-right – your Brookses and Frenches and Sullivans – all sound curiously exhausted and beleaguered as they find themselves under sustained assault both from the political left and right, and from the dawning reality of a multipolar world which stubbornly refuses to acquiesce to the ‘requests’ of American military and diplomatic power. The attempts from certain portions of the left to siphon off the last ergs from this ideological dynamo are almost cartoonishly pitiable, and deserve much the same derision that Sorel reserved for the parliamentarian French centre-left.

Still, the left has an opportunity here which it is squandering with its rearguard actions over myth (both the 1619 version and the 1776 version). It’s a non-starter to hector the American working class for being insufficiently internationalist according to the vagaries of an ever-shifting abstract standard – or worse still, for being ‘racist’ and ‘deplorable’ and generally un-‘woke’. But it’s also highly ill-advised to take the Trot line and pander and condescend using the trappings of the American Revolution to a working class that’s, for one thing, sick to death of political posturing. For another thing, we who have always belonged to the working classes will always struggle to see ourselves reflected as a unified power in between the lines of a mythology which by its very nature glorifies almost exclusively Virginia planters and big Boston merchants – rather than dockworkers, millworkers, refugees, religious dissenters, smiths, carpenters, sharecroppers or slaves.

The patriotism of the American working classes is heartfelt and genuine. But the nature of this patriotism is, to a significant degree, pre-ideological. (It’s not quite right to say it’s non-ideological.) The American working classes love their physical places and do not want to abandon them. They love the culture that they grew up in. Ironically, the American working classes see their rootedness as a source of freedom, as a source of dignity and pride. If the left ever wants to have a shot at taking power, it needs to understand this. As it stands, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite understands this very well indeed, even if they are using this understanding for manifestly evil ends. Georges Sorel – in general, not the greatest fan of America himself – would nonetheless advise us, that this is the material from which the new mythos must be built, by which the working class can be spurred to new forms of virtue and excellence and martial heroism.

The left shouldn’t have to pretend to love powdered-wig planters and Boston Brahmin merchant princes to be considered patriotic. Nor should they jettison patriotism altogether because they can’t stand the bourgeois platitudes associated with it. Because here’s the secret: the working class has always been patriotic. Labour history is patriotic. The ones who – willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly – sacrificed the most of themselves to build up this country were always the people on the bottom. A leftist mythos of America needs to start, not from a reference point associated with the upper classes, but instead from a reference point which sees the working classes fighting alongside and for each other, to better each other.
Gabriel Prosser
Organiser of an 1800 revolt in Virginia
by both free whites and enslaved blacks for mutual benefit

08 September 2020

Holy Father Sergios I, Pope of Rome

Saint Sergios of Rome

Today, the eighth of September, is the feast-day of the great eighth-century Syrian Pope of the Roman Church during its ‘Byzantine’ period, Saint Sergios. His family was Antiochian and sources universally acknowledge him as Syrian. He was known in particular for his vigorous interest in the English mission, and thus along with his somewhat elder contemporary Saint Theodore of Tarsos he may be considered one of the vibrant historical threads connecting the churches of Antioch and Old England. Saint Sergios is unsurprisingly venerated by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Sergios [L. Sergius, Gk. Σέργιος, Ar. Sarjiyûs سرجيوس] was the son of Antiochian parents – his father is named as Tiberios in the Latin sources. His family may have been fleeing the Râšidah conquests of the Levant, but they landed in Palermo in Sicily, in which city he was born in the year 650. He was educated in Sicily, moved to Rome in the 670s under Pope Adeodatus II, and ordained as a priest by the friend of the poor Pope Saint Leon II (who is also venerated by Orthodox Christians). He was appointed to a position as the cardinal-priest of the Chiesa di Santa Susanna at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome.

In 687, following the repose of Pope Conon, there was a succession crisis in the Papacy which led to two popes being elected in rapid succession: an archdeacon named Paschal and a priest named Theodoros, who were leaders of competing factions. In the wake of this competition, which threatened to blow up into an outright feud, the priests and cardinals of Rome – in order to broker a peace – chose the cardinal-priest Sergios as a neutral candidate to the Papacy, and he was accordingly elected Pope on the fifteenth of December in that year. Following this, the archdeacon Paschal went to Johannes Platinus, the agent of the Byzantine Emperor in Italy and also the Exarch of Ravenna, with a large sum of money demanding to be reinstated as Pope. Platinus thereafter did what he could to sabotage the pontificate of Saint Sergios – including trying to extort gold from the new Pope, and when that failed, stealing the holy vessels for the Eucharist and claiming they were possessed. (The common people of Rome very nearly revolted against Platinus for this abuse, but he restored the vessels after some more-or-less peaceable bartering.)

In his early years as Pope, Saint Sergios took an active interest in the English mission which had been begun by his predecessor in office Saint Gregory the Dialogist. He defended the reputation of Saint Wilfrið of York and ordered Ealdferð to restore him to his former bishopric in 691. In particular, he enjoyed significant contact with the West Saxon clergy including, likely, Saint Hædde of Winchester. It was at the latter’s behest that Cædwalla King was brought to Rome. Saint Sergios met him there and personally baptised him on the tenth of April; Cædwalla died ten days later of an old battle wound, and he was buried in St Peter’s Basilica. The Syrian pope also, meeting him with great warmth of brotherly affection, anointed and blessed the Northumbrian monk Saint Willibrord, who would carry the light of the Gospel among the Frisians.

Saint Sergios had gotten off on something of a wrong foot with the Exarch of Ravenna, which meant that politically speaking he had to toe a fairly fine line. Emperor Justinian convoked a synod in Trullo which addressed certain disciplinary and ecclesiastical issues – this council is considered a follow-up to the Fifth Œcumenical Council and is thus sometimes referred to as the Quinisext Council. No doctrinal matters were decided at this council, and the Roman pontiffs have generally taken an ambivalent stance on the canons produced. This goes back to Saint Sergios himself.

When the legate of Saint Sergios at Trullo, Basil of Gortyna in Crete, brought back the canons of the council at Trullo for Saint Sergios to sign, he refused to do so on the grounds that they were ‘lacking authority’ and that they introduced ‘novel errors’ in Church. However, later Roman bishops (such as Popes Constantine and John VIII) would later claim that Saint Sergios in fact did accept some of the canons of Trullo and cited them as authoritative. What appears likely is that Saint Sergios accepted the first fifty apostolic canons of the Quinisext Council, but not the latter canons that established Byzantine ecclesiastical disciplines as universally normative.

However, even though he was not willing to give up the local disciplines of the Western Rite, Saint Sergios was keen on maintaining both ecclesiastical and political unity with Constantinople. When Emperor Justinian II moved to arrest Saint Sergios’s legates, John of Portus and Bonifatius Consiliarius – and later ordered the bodyguard of Saint Sergios, a man named Zakarias, to arrest the Pope and deliver him to Constantinople. However, this attempt failed. Zakarias was thwarted by the efforts of both the Exarch of Ravenna and the local populace, and Zakarias very nearly lost his life. However, Saint Sergios himself forgave the Emperor and Zakarias, and did his level best to preserve the peace and good relations with New Rome.

Saint Sergios was not merely a political actor or a particularly active missionary, however. He was a noted lover of Liturgical forms and Church singing. He did much to enrich the life of the Church of Rome and even brought some usages of the Byzantine Rite into the Western Church, acting in the realm of sacred art and music as a bridge between Old Rome and New. He renovated a number of cathedrals in Rome during his Papacy. He was the first Western hierarch to celebrate the Eastern feast of the Elevation of the True Cross in the wake of the discovery of a piece of the True Cross in the Basilica of Saint Peter. He reposed in the Lord on the eighth of September, 701. Holy hierarch Sergios, peacemaker, friend of the poor and of the English Church, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

07 September 2020

Holy Apostle Euodios of the Seventy, Archbishop of Antioch

Saint Euodios of Antioch

Today, the seventh of September, is the feast-day of Saint Euodios, the holy successor of Saint Peter as the primate of Antioch – indeed, the second ever to hold the office.

Little is known for certain of the life of Saint Euodios [L. Evodius, Gk. Ευόδιος, Ar. ’Ifûdiyyûs إفوديوس], except that he was numbered among the Seventy Apostles of Christ (among whom he is also commemorated on the fourth of January), that he was deeply trusted by Saint Peter and that he was revered by Holy Father Ignatios the God-Bearer. He is mentioned first in the epistle of Saint Ignatios to his flock in Antioch: ‘Remember your blessed father Euodios, who was made your first pastor by the Apostles.’ For this reason it is often he, rather than Saint Peter, who is counted the first bishop of Antioch.

The Church tradition has it that it was Saint Euodios who first reclaimed the name of Christians for the followers of Christ, from Antiochians who used it against the new community as a term of abuse. Antioch had been a landing-spot for many Jews who followed Christ, as they fled persecution in places like Jerusalem (where Saint Stephen the Archdeacon was stoned to death); here they began to preach the risen Lord, and they were called ‘Christians’ largely to distinguish them from other followers of the Second Temple faith.

A homily on the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary on the anniversary of her Dormition is attributed to Saint Euodios. In it, he asserts that she gave birth to Christ our God at the age of fifteen. Other writings of Saint Euodios are no longer extant; however, one which is attested indirectly by the fourteenth-century Byzantine Church historian Nikēphoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos is entitled The Star, or The Beacon. Saint Euodios served the Church in Antioch as bishop for twenty-seven years, between the years 39 and 66, and he was suffered martyrdom under the Emperor Nero. Holy Father Euodios, great and glorious apostle of Christ to the Antiochians, pray unto Christ our God for our salvation!

05 September 2020

Hidden motives?

Well, it seems I got quite the response on social media to my last ‘political’ blog post here. Much of it was… let’s just say, uninspiring, but predictable. Allow me to quote some of the responses here, verbatim and unedited, to give my readers some idea of what they entail and the general tone and intellectual quality – or rather, the distinct lack thereof – of their contents.
Seems like you simply suffer of the reveres [sic] of Trump derangement syndrome.

Did I just catch a nauseating whiff of someone’s positive opinion of Donald Trump?
No. Of Putin.

So you’re saying that those of us who have witnessed Trump’s deference to Putin on TV and who have been told of his silence on Russian aggression and the payment of rewards for the killing of American soldiers in Afganistan [sic] are just intellectually lazy and basically gullible fools? I say, sir, what are your hidden motives here? Do you believe that the Orthodox Church in Russia is the servant of Putin, in view of his being the untitled Czar of Russia? Are you one of these people who believe that the Church should walk in lockstep with the Emperor, no matter what his title?
Practically all of this is utter rubbish. One needn’t dig very far into my writings, either here, or on Silk and Chai, or on Facebook, to understand that, to put it mildly, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the current president, that I did not vote for him, that I have criticised ‘leftists’ who did support him, and that I have no intention of voting for him this November. And the fact that even a passage like this, in the piece of writing in question:
A historical connexion with Orthodox Christianity does seem to correlate to a certain hostility to capitalism of the sort that Trump represents, although that anti-capitalism cannot be said to be causally linked to the corpus of Orthodox doctrine or Liturgical practice (which is a shame!).
… can be taken as evidencing any sort of warm feelings or latent sympathy for Trump is so far removed from reality or even basic reading comprehension that it rather beggars belief. Particularly when my opposition to everything Trump stands for – greed, corruption, capitalism – is so clearly stated; and particularly when the Caucasian gentlemen proudly evincing such a lack of even the rudiments of basic English rhetoric are soi-disant fans (and one actual family member) of noteworthy English-language rhetorician David Bentley Hart. I’m not entirely sure what that actually says about how Dr Hart interacts with his family and his fan base. Suffice it to say that the most charitable tack in this case would be to not pass any comment at all.

And with regard to the last quote, again, even a modest perusal of my comments on church-state relations on this blog – both in general and specifically – evidence that I give a rather strong answer, and much the opposite of the one the author of the last comment assumes, to the question of: ‘Do you believe… that the Church should walk in lockstep with the Emperor?’ My answer is, quite simply, no. Allow me to direct you, sir, to my following pieces of commentary on church-state relations in Russia, which form a rather consistent thread going back over eight years:
As you can see from a brief perusal of these posts, the common thread that unites them all is an equal-opportunity suspicion of all neatly-hierarchical configurations of the relations between church and state – including all three of papocæsarism, cæsaropapism, and sæcularism. Even with regard to Russian politics in particular, I am very far from being an uncritical supporter of Putin. In fact, I acknowledge and celebrate the instances in which the Russian Orthodox Church does support the civil rights of Putin’s domestic critics and those who protest his policies, as well as the instances in which clerics themselves do this. I am more than happy to see, for example, the Church speak out on behalf of Russia’s social safety net, or on behalf of the unborn, or on behalf of Russia’s indigenous ethnic minorities – and it usually has to critique state policy in doing any of the above. I am more than happy to see the Russian Orthodox Church speak truth to power, and it actually manages to do so far more often than the American churches collectively do with all their much-vaunted (and largely taken-for-granted) supply of freedom from state interference.

A bit more troubling, though, is that it seems that anyone who stops to examine, or seeks to question, the dominant Blob-driven media narrative surrounding foreign affairs in the United States – even doing so from the standpoint of wanting to preserve peace – is taken as having sinister ‘hidden motives’. In fact my motives are quite open. I don’t want America and Russia to go to war. I don’t see anything productive, or useful, or positive in the current frozen conflict, and ‘hot’ proxy conflicts, we seem to be in, all around Russia’s rather broad and wide front porch. I truly do not believe that Russia is intrinsically any worse than any other large nation-state with its own values, its own history, its own path dependencies and its own interests. I truly do believe that war is a racket that hurts ordinary Americans, and that consent is continually manufactured to keep that racket going, whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq or in Syria or in Yemen or in Somalia or anywhere else. Those are my motives; judge them as you please.

And so, in a slightly more civil vein, addressing this comment:
Hmm, I get the sentiment that the media harped on Russiagate to the point of absurdity but I’m not sure why you seem unwilling to admit that, per the senate committee, there seems to certainly have been in regular secret communication with state actors and utilized the intel they received…

I’m not sure what polling data tells us either… I don’t think anyone cares whether or not the majority of babushkas like Trump or not, nor do I think the claim was that the Russian public was helping or something.

Seems obvious that a country we’re (still) a global competitor with would benefit from a bit of chaos and destruction of our trust in our political apparatus (even if that doesn’t make them uniquely evil and the system was already in bad shape).
First of all, I think there is a bit of a double standard here, in the form of a motte-and-bailey fallacy. Russiagate is an archetypical Big Lie in the sense that it posits Trump as a literal asset of the Russian state, and it operates the way most Big Lies do, in simply making elliptical references to this position without ever explicitly articulating it in its most overt way. Repeat it often enough and people will believe it. Take, for example, that recent billboard in Manhattan telling people to ‘VOTE’ – for Biden, naturellementBecause Russian lessons are expensive.

It’s smarmy. It’s a snarl. It actually works on the same level as Trump’s own allusions to Mexico or to Muslims. That is to say: the authors of this billboard know that what they are saying is literally indefensible. If Trump wins reelection, he isn’t going to force us all to speak Russian, nor is Russia going to annex America at Trump’s behest. But by making the insinuation that he will, they are tapping into a broad web of innuendoes that was assiduously built up in the wake of the 2016 election that Trump is actually a Russian asset. It is also subtly making an inference about Russian language, or about Russian culture, that runs under the semiotic surface. Saying ‘Russian lessons are expensive’ in this pejorative context is almost to call Russian-speaking people – not the government, the people – frauds and cheats. It’s to look on the language as dirty, on the culture as dirty, on the people as dirty. Because the people who put up this billboard are, without a doubt, nice lily-white northern liberals, any response to an insinuation of bigotry on their part will be met with a chorus of craned necks, rapid disavowals, fervent hand-wringing and voluble umbrage of various sorts. But there is simply no avoiding the fact that at its root, Russiagate apologias of this sort are an expression of base, ugly, knuckle-dragging xenophobia. So, yes, sir. It is a materially-important fact that the ‘majority of babushkas’ have no love for Trump, have no use for Trump and have no desire to see Trump elected. Because that is the level of discourse we are at right now, sad to say.

But this is what Russiagate apologia looks like at its most kneejerk, scattershot and intellectually-lowbrow: its ‘motte’ form. The ‘bailey’ form of Russiagate apologia – that is to say, the most intellectually-defensible form of the Russiagate myth – is the continued prosecution of the DNC email hacking scandal of 2016. To refresh my readers’ memories, the story goes like this. A hacker, or group(s) of hackers, supposedly working on behalf of the Russian government, managed to access nearly 20,000 emails from a server operated by the Democratic National Convention, and submitted this email archive to WikiLeaks which then published them on its website. This was done, supposedly, with the collusion of certain members of the campaign to elect Donald Trump, with the express intent of discrediting Hillary Clinton and materially compromising her chances of winning the election.

Even at its most intellectually defensible, Russiagate is still a total fiction. As I pointed out before, and as a number of reputable journalists of the American left (such as Matt Taibbi) have pointed out repeatedly, the Mueller investigation turned up nothing and went home. The problem is that that hasn’t stopped the political class from making hay of it for the purposes of distraction. So, when the investigation has already been done, found nothing, and thrown in the towel, it really doesn’t mean that much that the DNC has opened a new lawsuit (after having lost one already) or that a Senate Commission has issued a statement that contravenes much of what the actual investigation it is based on has said or failed to say. At this point, further harping on an already spectacularly-poor showing by the Democratic Party in a national election does little but point to the pathetic impotence of said party: its creative bankruptcy, its lack of ideas, its moral impotence and its abandonment of any semblance of responsibility for its own failures.

Let Trump’s record on Russia speak for itself – it’s voluble enough, and there’s little in it for a peacenik like me to like. Trump has, according to the Brookings Institute (no friend of the administration or of Russia):
  • identified Russia and China as America’s ‘adversaries’
  • restricted exports to Russia
  • repeatedly issued sanctions against individuals in the Russian government
  • authorised provision of lethal weapons to the Ukrainian government
  • bombed Russian and Syrian forces in Dayr az-Zûr (2017)
  • expelled Russian government workers in New York, Washington and Seattle
  • unilaterally withdrew from the INF treaty limiting nuclear armament buildup
  • sanctioned Russian banks providing aid to the Venezuelan government

Saying that Trump is somehow an agent of the Russian state when he continually attacks Russian state instruments and economic interests, often with far blunter instruments than Obama did, is rather ludicrous. That more than anything else, is why I commend the ‘babushkas’ of Russia, and the people of East Germany, Bulgaria and Slovakia, for not buying the cockamamie that the American intelligence community keeps pumping out, for not buying the pusillanimous self-pitying sob stories of the American Democrats, and also understanding that Trump is not their friend. On all points, in consideration of the available evidence, I happen to agree with them.