Intellectual Swindlers

Eric Voegelin’s Science, Politics, and Gnosticism presents a diagnosis of the mental illnesses plaguing modern political societies, and a remedy to boot.

With ingenious simplicity, Voegelin outlines the differences between the pursuit of genuine science (Greek: episteme) and its counterfeit (so-called gnosis).

The first, exemplified in Socratic philosophy and Christian theology, “is concerned with the truth of things that everyone talks about”: virtue and other conditions of happiness.

Though men can be—and are—confused about such things, their opinions are rooted in “the order of being that is accessible to knowledge” by anyone making the requisite effort.

With the help of intellectual discipline and heavenly grace, these opinions can be refined and enlarged to constitute a non-negligible guide to living a healthy human existence.

Gnosticism, by contrast, hawks a manmade simulacrum of knowledge, whose origins and end are precisely opposed to those of science.

To the gnostic mind, the “order of being” is inherently hostile to human happiness, and the latter is only to be obtained by a systematic negation or conquest of reality.

“Knowledge,” in this view, is nothing but a weapon by which man becomes his own Savior through the destruction of the order that has been given to him.

Of course, the eradication of the world as we know it could not have a liberating effect unless man were also to fulfill the role of Creator, substituting an alternative order of his own.

That man cannot create himself—or the world—is, however, self-evident. How then does the gnostic mind persuade its adherents to sign up for its program of collective suicide?

Voegelin’s answer is shocking, but well documented. He begins with Karl Marx, who anticipates that some of his readers may raise “tangible” objections to his blithe assertion that man creates himself.

In response, Marx sneers that “for socialist man” such questions are “a practical impossibility.”

In other words: those with the temerity to challenge the foundations of Marx’s ideology will not be welcome in the faculty lounge, or even in society itself, once they have succumbed to the charms of his false philosophy (or to those of the secret police).

Through these and similar passages in a host of eminent authors, Voegelin demonstrates that many of the most esteemed modern intellectuals—from Hobbes and Comte to Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger—are in the end nothing but “intellectual swindler[s].”

And that is not all. What could possess men of that intellectual caliber to propound theories they know to be unsupportable?

As it happens, “possess” is an apt term, for the only plausible motive—and one that is upheld by close examination of their writings—is a hatred of “the order of being” so desperate as to drive them to attempt what they know to be impossible.

Since the transcendent root of the “order of being” is nothing but the divine intellect and will—that is, God—we see that much of what comprises modern philosophy is motivated by an opposition to what is that can only be described as diabolical.

What lessons are we to draw from this analysis? Stay tuned for further commentary.

Praying With the Whole Soul

Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s The Soul of the Apostolate is justly regarded as a modern spiritual classic. It began with a 1907 pamphlet presenting a model for the reconstruction of the French Church after a period of persecution, and gradually expanded into an essential guide for anyone doing apostolic work in the modern world.

The argument of the book is simple enough: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Ps. 126:1). Nothing we do for God will have any solidity unless we are doing his work with his help. To do his work we must know his will, and to have his help we must ask for it. Therefore the soul of every apostolate is prayer.

Praying well is difficult in an environment where even the devices are “smart,” and all the brain and circuit power on the planet is directed toward our distraction from the one thing most needful. For many today, this blogger included, even thinking about what makes prayer effective can be daunting, which may explain why finishing this little lucid book took me more than a decade.

The gems in Chautard’s treasury are many, but I would like to focus on his recommended method for morning mental prayer. I must confess that attempting to pray by formula has seldom seemed to do me much good in times past. But this time around I was finally able to grasp the conceptual clarity and practical power in Chautard’s breakdown of “how to meditate.”

Chautard describes meditation as a four-step process. First, one selects an article of faith, gleaned from scripture or the saints, and contemplates it with the mind’s eye. Then one expresses a desire to live in accordance with it. Turning to the various obstacles that interfere with this pious wish, one resolves to overcome them by harnessing the saving power of Truth. Finally, acknowledging that without Christ we can do nothing, we end by begging the Lord to grant success to our efforts.

The genius of this approach appears when we consider how it mirrors the makeup of the human soul itself. Our little logos (reason) is illuminated by a sunlike spark emanating from the Divine Mind. Our often wayward eros (desire) is harnessed to lend new strength to our feeble efforts to do good. Our thymos (fighting spirit) is conscripted to wage war against the cares, pleasures, and worries of life that may otherwise derail our best intentions.

To this natural wholeness is added an invitation for Christ to dwell in our soul, so that its elements, wounded by sins original and actual, may be healed and enabled to achieve supernatural success.

On a practical level, this method provides us with certain “marching orders,” which can be called to mind throughout the day, especially in moments of anxiety, perplexity, anger, or boredom, reminding us of the presence, power, and pleasure of our God.

In some cases, this can make the difference between a vague desire to serve the Lord, and a concrete effort to love him with one’s whole being.

For details, I recommend the book itself, which can be found here.

Two Yawns for (the Spirit of) Vatican II

The documents of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated as they were by men entrusted with the governance of Christ’s Church, are worthy of a respectful hearing, and faithful submission where appropriate. Thus my (quasi-heroic) effort above to suppress a third yawn.

Nonetheless, as Dom Alcuin Reid advises in his incisive essay (link below), the practical significance of the Council for Catholics today must be placed in its proper perspective.

As the good Prior and renowned scholar points out, the Council “occupied itself with pastoral aims—principally how the Church could more effectively preach the Gospel in the modern age,” and therefore “defined no dogmas and decreed no anathemas, but outlined policies which were judged to be expedient at the time.”

As Reid himself avers, not everything “judged to be expedient” at the time of the Council has proven so with the benefit of hindsight. And as Dear Reader is likely to have noted, we are no longer living in the 1960s. What is expedient now is by no means solely determined by what the Council Fathers were dreaming in the Age of Aquarius.

And yet, Reid laments, we are now entering the sixth decade of a reign of terror in which faithful Catholics are routinely badgered by the Spector of a delusional super-dogmatic Council, whose concocted authority is the supposed source justifying an endless series of destructive acts meant to ravage the Church from within.

As this blog has previously noted, God cannot contradict himself, or authorize his representatives to do so. This means that any Council, no matter how dogmatic, must be “interpreted in a hermeneutic of continuity with the Church’s Tradition, including”—but not limited to—“the dogmatic definitions of the other twenty Ecumenical Councils of the Church.”

Attempts to dismantle Catholic Tradition in the name of the Council are thus doubly deceptive, since a) this was not the intent of the Council, and b) no Council intending to do so could possess the authority to do it.

Though the Church’s juridical structure is a practical necessity and (when rightly used) a sign of its authenticity, law and adjudication are means and not ends. Catholicity is defined by adhering to what the Church has believed everywhere and always. Attempts to enforce ideas or practices contrary to this rule cannot bind the well-formed conscience.

If “an angel of heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you,” St. Paul advises the Galatians, “let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).

If that “angel” is instead a polyester prelate, the anathema most certainly holds. But if said hireling attempts to disguise his diabolical intentions with appeals to the vapors of a Council hijacked by hippies in a previous century, the most fitting response may be one charitable yawn, followed by another.

And then: prayer and fasting.

Read Dom Alcuin Reid’s article here.

Asking God and Intellect to Rule

Image by Goran Horvat from Pixabay

“One who asks law to rule,” Aristotle observes, “seems to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast.”

By god, Aristotle means the supreme intellect, whose superiority consists partly in not relying on a limited supply of brain cells, and partly in being free of the passions whose power so often “perverts rulers and the best of men.”

In this life, law cannot actually replace the rule of men, for men make the human laws, and even natural and divine law must be enforced here below by human beings, with all their beastly inclinations.

The true merit of the rule of law is not that it enables law to rule us without us, but rather that it structures our self-rule so as to check what is beastly and encourage what is godly in our nature.

Law brings out the best in us in several ways. To begin with, the drafting of laws invites us to search for our wisest men and let them craft the rules by which all (themselves included) must abide, assuming that we carry through with the bargain.

When, in the course of human events, we encounter peculiar or unanticipated problems, even the wisest laws will not have anticipated all the relevant details. In such cases, the rules must be adjusted or amended by “law-guardians” and “servants of the law,” whose study of and respect for the law has trained them to apply timeless principles to peculiar situations.

These men need not possess the genius of lawmakers, but they should at least have proven themselves their apt and dutiful students.

Finally, law refines our nature by dividing political authority into “certain offices,” none of which is able to rule alone, thereby preventing any particular faction within society from capturing government as a whole. The price of fulfilling one faction’s desires will be compromise with those of others, whose aversion to injury will stimulate them to object to the most objectionable features in one another’s plans.

What we call separation of powers, and checks and balances, work if and only if several elements come together: wise laws; education in those laws; and free and intelligent negotiation among men holding office under those laws.

When these desiderata hold, the hope is that the beastly desires of one group will be called out by another, and the native intelligence of the offenders will enable them to recognize their folly, and modify their demands.

They may then return this favor to their fellow citizens, when necessary.

The rule of law therefore presupposes citizens capable of reasoning soundly about public matters: that is, of deliberation.

How can we cultivate this virtue? As my piano teacher told me ages ago: practice makes perfect!

If we hope to restore our republic in the foreseeable future, daily exercises in deliberation are in order.

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Good News About Evil

Evils are so thoroughly overcome by good, that though they are permitted to exist, yet good can exist without evil, but evil cannot exist without good, because the natures in which evil exists, in so far as they are natures, are good.

And evil is removed, not by removing any nature, or part of a nature, which had been introduced by the evil, but by healing and correcting that which had been vitiated and depraved.

~ St. Augustine of Hippo

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One Last Hurrah!

As Aristotle observes, the weakness of human nature renders even the most fulfilling of activities tiresome.

If, as Josef Pieper reminds us, the greatest thing we can do is to celebrate the greatness and goodness of our Creator and Redeemer, it nonetheless remains a sad necessity that any particular celebration (or cycle thereof) come to a close.

And yet, on this final day of Christmastide, I hope we will find the time for at least one further note of glorious joy.

In that hope I offer this piece composed by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) and performed by Les Favorites and Vocalensemble Rastatt under the direction of Holger Speck:

A Perfect Hatred

The man who lives according to God, and not according to man, ought to be a lover of good, and therefore a hater of evil.

And since no one is evil by nature, but whoever is evil is evil by vice, he who lives according to God ought to cherish towards evil men a perfect hatred, so that he shall neither hate the man because of his vice, nor love the vice because of the man, but hate the vice and love the man.

For the vice being cured, all that ought to be loved, and nothing that ought to be hated, will remain.

~ St. Augustine of Hippo

Sufficient Virtue for Self-Government?

In these days of increasing acrimony and mutual mistrust, how does one apply a prudent realism to politics without succumbing to a poisonous cynicism?

Some have taken comfort in James Madison’s reassurance that, though “there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

Taken in context, Madison’s words are neither a promise nor an equivocation. Rather, they are an indication of what is at stake in the “experiment” of self-government.

“Republican government,” Madison continues, “presupposes the existence” of “sufficient virtue among men” to “a higher degree than any other form of government.” Sufficient, that is, to “restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Madison is far from believing that we can assume the existence of “sufficient virtue” for self-government in any given populace. To the contrary, he observes that every political community finds itself plagued by factions: combinations of citizens “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Factions reflect the “degree of depravity in mankind” on account of which we are all-too apt to devour one another.

The root cause of any disease is the key to finding its cure. Factions arise from the fallibility of human reason, whereby the opinions of men are distorted by selfish (and short-sighted) passions. To overcome faction requires nothing more (or less) than rising above such passions and reasoning clearly about the “true interest of [our] country.”

Republican government works when a society’s institutions foster a public discourse able “to refine and enlarge the public views” in accordance with virtues such as “wisdom,” “patriotism,” and “love of justice.” When “men of factious tempers” and “of sinister designs” are able “by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means” to dominate the channels of public discourse, they may hope to “obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests of the people.”

To deny the reality of this danger today, given the profound degradation of our public discourse, is sentimentalism rather than patriotism. To despair, however, would be cowardice. If we are willing to learn from them, Madison and other “enlightened statesmen” can still teach us how to combat faction through the study and practice of civic virtues.

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A Name for Nothing

Divine providence admonishes us not foolishly to condemn things, but to investigate their utility with care; and, where our mental capacity or infirmity is at fault, to believe that there is a utility, though hidden, as we have experienced that there were other things which we all but failed to discover.

For this concealment of the use of things is itself either an exercise of our humility or a levelling of our pride; for no nature at all is evil, and evil is a name for nothing but the want of good.

~ St. Augustine of Hippo

Disambiguating Christmas

Irrepressibly joyful as the season is, Christmas remains an occasion of recurring conflict for contemporary Christians.

One challenge is to “keep Christ” in what often passes as “X-Mas” or “the Holidays.”

Yet even those intrepid souls resolved not to banish the Babe of Bethlehem (once again) to the outskirts of civilization face a further, and one might say more fundamental, question: precisely when Christmas is to be kept.

Eons ago, after reverting to the faith of my youth, I chanced upon a disc of what purported to be “Christmas music” by J. S. Bach. On closer inspection, the contents turned out to be cantatas for the Sundays of Advent. Years later I would discover that Bach had, of course, written exquisite pieces for Christmas, properly so-called.

It was my first encounter with a conundrum that has long since become an old if annoying acquaintance: the conflation of Christmas with its anticipatory season, such that, just when a Christian is ready to break out the eggnog and tinsel, that spicy beverage is no longer sold in supermarkets, and the neighborhood alleyways are scattered with undecorated evergreens.

In countercultural circles, it is agreed that the keeping of Christmas is to be preceded by the keeping of Advent, and hence to commence when the rest of society is turning from candy canes to chocolate hearts.

In those same circles, however, there seems to be far less certainty concerning the vexing question of when it becomes appropriate, or even obligatory, to lovingly place Christmas back upon the shelf.

Though I am no authority when it comes to matters calendrical, two decades of familiarity with the traditional Roman Missal have convinced me that answering this question requires a careful parsing of the multiple senses in which the word “Christmas” is rightly employed.

From the broadest to the narrowest, these uses are as follows:

The Christmas Cycle of connected commemorations begins with the first Sunday of Advent and ends on February 2nd, with Candlemas. In this sense, all of December and January are Christmas, and we can calm our nerves by reflecting that the world is not yet (completely) insane.

Next comes Christmastide, beginning on the Vigil of the Nativity (December 24th) and ending on January 13th, the Octave of the Epiphany and Baptism of our Lord.

Said Christmastide can be subdivided into the Christmas season, or “twelve days of Christmas,” from Christmas Day to Epiphany Eve; and the Octave (and also the Season) of Epiphany.

Since Christmas itself has an Octave, the next-smallest unit of Christmas is that eight-day period.

Finally, we have Christmas Day itself, weighing in at a mere twenty-four hours, but punching (as they say) far above its weight.

Of course, Scrooge is perfectly right to insist that the man who honors Christmas in his heart will “try to keep it all the year.”

And on a similar note, one may observe that every Mass is in fact Christ’s Mass, pointing to the greatest possible meaning of the phrase.

As for my family, notwithstanding the sadness of the event, our tree generally comes down on January 14th. But a little light burns in our hearts until February 2nd, and I’d like to think it never goes out completely in the remainder of the year.

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