The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the most brilliant and dangerous minds of the 19th century. His uncompromising and often brutal ideas smashed the comfortable presuppositions and assumptions of religion, morality and science. His was a world not just bereft of God but almost of humanity, breathtaking in both its post-religious starkness and its originality.
Bettany Hughes goes in search of the beliefs of a man whose work is amongst the most devastatingly manipulated and misinterpreted in philosophical history. Nietzsche’s dislike of systems and of seeking truths left his ideas ambiguous and sometimes incoherent. It was this that made him vulnerable to interpretation, and as a result his thoughts – which warned against the very notion of a political system like totalitarianism – were manipulated to strengthen its ideals.
Vocally opposed to anti-Semitism, his anti-Semitic sister made sure he became the poster boy for Hitler’s drive for an Aryan ideal. Anti-nationalistic, he came to symbolise a regime he would have loathed. His philosophical quest led him to isolation and ultimately madness, but his ideas helped shape the intellectual landscape of the modern world.
Lecture 3, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, of UGS 303, Ideas of the Twentieth Century, at the University of Texas at Austin, Fall 201300:01today we’re going to be talking about00:04relativism and in two particular00:07incarnations one person who is a00:10proponent of relativism the other an00:12ardent folk relativism these are two of00:14the most important thinkers of the00:16latter part of the 19th century stay in00:18some way set up the problematic of the00:2020th century their ideas have a huge00:23impact on thinkers throughout the 20th00:25century and so looking at the contrast00:27between them I think can help us to00:28understand the kinds of issues that00:30people are wrestling with as the 20th00:32century dawned before we get to those00:34thinkers themselves let’s think about00:36relativism all by itself I’ve been00:38talking about these two level theories00:39where there’s a manifest image of the00:42world more or less as we find it and of00:44ourselves as we find ourselves it’s one00:46that’s characterized by a conception of00:48ourselves as rational beings governed by00:50some kind of moral law taking00:52responsibility for actions because we00:54see ourselves as causally responsible00:56for those actions we see ourselves as00:58doing things we are so we see ourselves01:00as acting freely we think of ourselves01:03as using practical reason figuring out01:05what means to take in order to attain01:07our goals however according to the01:09scientific image we’re really just01:11beings governed by causal laws that01:13seems to be a completely value-free01:15image it doesn’t make any sense to ask01:17whether it’s basic laws or conditions01:19are right or wrong and it looks as if01:20things are either purely determined or01:22at best determined to some degree and01:25then affected with some degree of01:26randomness well it’s easy for theories01:30like that to lead to relevance where one01:32looks at the manifest image the values01:34that are expressed there the conceptions01:35of rationality and you say look really01:38that might be right only given a certain01:41way in which things are working at the01:43base level and so in content one to01:45think that truth itself is relative to01:48something or other now there are a lot01:50of different forms of relativism you01:51might think that what is true is01:53relative to an individual person that01:55certain things could be true for you but01:57not true for me you might think things01:59are relative to a society so what is02:01true depends on a certain particular02:03society and its concepts you might think02:06it’s dependent on a culture or what some02:09authors have referred to as02:10interpretive community a community may02:12be much smaller than a given society may02:15be much larger than it that adopts a02:17certain conceptual framework and so you02:19can think of things as relative to a set02:21of concepts that we use for02:22understanding the world finally you02:24might think of things as relative to a02:26certain historical period a certain02:29certain historical epic or era and that02:31particular version as we’ll see you is02:33called historicism but in any case the02:35idea here is that things aren’t really02:37universally and absolutely true they’re02:40only true relative to something or other02:42now certain things people often think02:45are relative to individual people and02:48it’s relatively uncontroversial that02:50they are for example if I say mushrooms02:52are yummy I think that’s true but you02:56might disagree right you might hate02:57mushrooms and so in fact when I was in03:01elementary school I used to trade kids03:03for mushrooms and for peas they would03:05often serve peas and was like I love03:07peas peas are awesome and so I have03:10trade people deserts and rolls and other03:12things like that to get pee so I do peas03:13and then people say why don’t we use pee03:15so I just get lots of free peas so I03:17just have a big mound of peas I thought03:19that was fantastic03:20okay now I spill my guts about testing I03:23love you but in any event up you know so03:27peas are yummy mushrooms are yummy those03:29things are true for be on the other end03:30they might not be true for you or it03:32might be that you love other kinds of03:34things that I despise like what um those03:37rubbery horrible things that calamari03:42what yeah I don’t see a long eating like03:44calamari to meet calamari are disgusting03:47you might as well just eat rubber bands03:49and so in any event things like that we03:52certainly yeah all right this is yummy03:54that’s not me that’s relative to an03:56individual person we ordinarily think03:58but there are lots of things we don’t04:00think are relative to a given person or04:02to a given society what are some things04:04that are candidates for real absolute04:05truth not dependent on you or me not04:08dependent on a historical era not04:11dependent on a particular set of04:13concepts or a certain culture or its04:15framework one of the things that might04:17be absolute truth yeah good the law of04:21gravitation you might think that’s04:22something that’s really true at all04:23times that04:24places it’s not like what gravity is04:26true for you but it’s not true for me I04:27just find myself rising into the air I04:29put glue on my shoes right it’s not like04:32that no it applies across the board or04:34at least we ordinarily think so yeah04:36mathematics good two plus two is four04:39that’s something it seems to be true no04:41matter who you are it’s not like well04:42two plus two is four in Austin but the04:44closer you get to Waco the more it04:46starts shading on no it’s not like that04:49right it’s true all over the place other04:51cabinets yeah good the laws of physics04:55in general it’s not just gravitation04:57force is mass times acceleration for04:59example that seems to be true across the05:01board right we don’t say well you know05:03forces now mass times acceleration but05:05if you go back to the 19th century it05:06was something else05:07no we tend to think that’s something05:09that applies at all times and places in05:11all cultures in all historical epochs05:13are there other things yeah you saw oh05:16you sucks we’ve talked about that one05:18that might be although already kept05:23thing a counterexample oh yeah okay I05:30think therefore I am that’s when we05:31talked about earlier too and that’s05:33something you might take to be universal05:35as we mentioned it’s really not05:36necessarily true at all times in all05:38places but every time I can say it right05:41every time it’s thought or uttered it’s05:42true05:43so the relativist has a tough row to hoe05:45the relatives has to say look I’m not05:47just talking about things like peas or05:49yummy I’m talking about all of that05:51everything truth itself is relative and05:54that’s something that at least doesn’t05:56seem to be true in our common sense05:58appreciation of the world so what kinds06:00of arguments to relativists give what06:02can they say ultimately this position06:04goes back to the thought of Derek Hale06:07who wrote at the beginning of the 19th06:09century he’s very influential and we06:11would read him if his writing was06:13intelligible but it’s very very06:16difficult in any case he lays out a06:19series of arguments that increasingly06:21tempered evil toward relativism06:23throughout the later part of the 19th06:24century and then the 20th century now06:26what are some of these arguments the06:29first is that he rejects what he refers06:31to and later authors like Sellars06:33referred to as the myth of the Gibbon he06:35calls it in medias06:36he says there is no such thing as06:38immediacy there is no such thing that is06:40simply given to us an experience now06:43what does he mean by that06:44well cut earlier had drawn a sharp line06:47between sensibility and understanding06:49between what we perceive and then the06:51concepts we use to analyze what we06:53perceive you might say what am i06:54proceeding right now well a classroom06:57full of people and so you could06:58characterize that maybe in terms of07:01things that have concepts in them like a07:03classroom full of people right I’m using07:05concepts classroom people but I might07:07think look I could characterize this in07:10a way that has nothing to do with that I07:11might just for example take a photograph07:13and then I could say here’s what I’m07:15looking at here’s what I’m perceiving07:16and that would be something that seems07:18to be free of concepts however Hegel07:21says there isn’t such a sharp line to be07:24drawn when I perceive all of you I don’t07:26just see this swirling mass I don’t just07:28see a bunch of pixels or something like07:30that it’s not just a bunch of rods and07:32cones on the retina being activated my07:34mind immediately sorts things into07:36objects I see people I see desks and07:39tables I see a camera I see a variety of07:41things in front of me and I immediately07:43categorize those in terms of concepts I07:45have so this claim is there really isn’t07:48a sharp line between sensation and07:50cognition in sensing the world in07:53perceiving the world07:54I am already categorizing it he says07:56I’ve already classifying things using07:58concepts so there’s a sense in which07:59people who have totally different sense08:01of concepts actually perceive things08:04differently they see things differently08:06because one is seen let’s say just08:08shapes another is seeing people and08:10that’s a fundamental difference so he08:12argues that our perception of the world08:14is concept Laden even the most basic08:16levels there is no level he thinks we’re08:19we’re just perceiving things before we08:20get to conceptually analyzing it or08:22before we think wait what am I seeing08:24now there’s an obvious argument on the08:27other side wait sometimes I do right08:29sometimes I perceive something and I08:30don’t know what to think about it so I08:32looked at a scene I say what is that or08:34I look at a Jackson Pollock painting and08:36I say what is that my father for years08:40had what a lot of people thought was a08:42print of a Jackson Pollock painting08:43behind his desk in his office at work in08:47fact the painter in the bill08:49had just had this table and he had08:51spilled paint on it over the years and08:53finally decided to get a new table08:55my father said kind of that tabletop08:56hung on the wall people thought it was a08:58Jackson Pollock never Oh09:01and so you might say yeah you know what09:03is that well it might just be drips of09:04paint maybe it’s something else in any09:06case you might think I can look at it09:08and analyze it pet it in terms of well09:10yeah I don’t want to see analyze it even09:13I can just tell you what I is I’m seeing09:14before I have any idea of how to09:18categorize what I’m seeing but Hegel09:20says no even the most basic levels my09:22concepts are already involved so he says09:25the concepts we have shaped the way we09:27perceive the world but of course what we09:30perceived is the world so it follows09:32that our concepts shape what the world09:35is there is no way to really separate09:37the world as it is from the world as it09:40seems to us there’s no sharp separation09:42between two terms the comp use09:44appearances and things in themselves09:46yeah to go from the way we perceive the09:51world to that is the way the world is09:54because you may not receive there as09:56being any gravity but there still is09:58gravity I feel that he makes a couple10:00jumps oh that don’t have any sort of10:02logic to just what he wants me to be10:05okay good yes how good is this as an10:08argument actually Hegel is advancing it10:10kind of as an argument10:12um I say kind of as an argument because10:14sometimes I think he’s giving you10:16arguments sometimes I think he’s really10:17trying to get you to undergo a Gestalt10:20shift he’s trying to say you’ve been10:21seeing the world this way I want you to10:23see it this world way think about it10:24this way instead and the arguments don’t10:27actually leave much of anywhere if we go10:29carefully here we can say well all right10:31there’s the first sort of argument that10:33really we can’t perceive things in a10:35family of concepts the concepts do shape10:37what we proceed and we can ask whether10:39that’s true or false right is that true10:41or is it false that’s a complicated sort10:44of question um you might think it’s sort10:48of obviously false because we can after10:50all take photographs and say there10:51that’s what I’m seeing um on the other10:54hand you might think well if you analyze10:56what the brain is doing maybe there10:58really isn’t a very10:59it may be the moment information is11:02transferred from the retina for example11:04my conceptual apparatus and parts of the11:06brain that involved that are already11:08operating on and so from that point of11:10view it seems like a complicated neuro11:12physiological problem whether these are11:14different components in the brain or11:15whether they get all mixed up and it’s11:18not obvious which way it goes one would11:19really have to know a lot about the11:21brain and how it works to be able to11:23tell that there is some evidence that11:25actually these things are at certain11:27levels intertwined a good example is a11:29kind of case where people show words11:35that denote colors like the word orange11:38but it’s in blue and they ask you to11:41read it aloud okay and they keep doing11:44this there’s the word read re D but it’s11:46in green and so on and it freaks people11:48out they find it hard to do that’s some11:51evidence that perception and cognition11:52are kind of mixed up together at some11:54level but in the end you’re right as an11:56argument that’s not much of an argument11:58would really have to get into the12:00neurophysiology I understand how this12:01works but now let’s look at this step12:03suppose it’s true that the concepts we12:05have shaped the way we perceive the12:07world does it follow that there’s no12:10difference between the world as it is in12:12the world as we perceive it well it12:15doesn’t seem to pong right that is to12:18say I might say and in fact here’s the12:21skeptical argument that I think12:22underlies this position the skeptical12:24argument is this I can’t really tell to12:27what extent the way I’m perceiving the12:28world reflects the way the world really12:29is and to what extent it reflects the12:32contributions of my own cognitive12:34apparatus how much is what I’m seeing12:37really a matter of the way the world is12:39and how much of it is really being12:41contributed by my mind by my brain in12:44reconstructing data and then projecting12:46something that may or may not actually12:48reflect the way reality is well the12:51skeptics worried I can’t tell I can’t12:53tell what is really my own contribution12:55and what is really there in the world12:57and so they said the best thing to do is12:59to spend judgment who knows what the13:01world is really like Hegel is trying to13:03respond to that but he’s saying hey the13:05world is as I perceive it13:06he’s what is known as an idealist he13:09thinks everything in the world is mine13:11dependent the whole world it’s just a13:12projection of the mind so that’s the13:14underlying view that we’re going to be13:16getting to and that in a nutshell is his13:18argument for it he thinks that’s the13:19only way to avoid that skeptical13:21argument now most philosophers have13:23thought that can’t be righted but a13:26consistent theme in the course as we go13:28along will be precisely that question13:30the question of realism versus idealism13:33the realist says the world really is a13:36certain way we’ll talk about this much13:37more next week but the realist says the13:40world is a way a certain way13:41independently of how the mind goes13:43things are as they are independently of13:45what we think about and so there are at13:48least some mind independent facts the13:50idealist says no actually everything13:53depends on the mind and so there’s no13:54such thing as a mind-independent world a13:56mind independent fact Hegel is an13:59idealist so he’s trying to say actually14:01the only way I can beat the skeptic it14:03is to think appearances and things in14:05themselves are just the same forget14:07about the worlds it might be14:08independently of our ways of perceiving14:09it because actually there’s no such14:11thing the world is just what we can14:13struck through our minds now most people14:16think look there’s something deeply14:18wrong with that and so we’re going to be14:20considering the battle between the14:21realists an idealist throughout the 20th14:23century but it does become a major focus14:26and not just in philosophy but also in14:28literature in the arts to what extent is14:31the job of the artist for example to14:32reflect the way the world is and to what14:34extent is it just to project some idea14:36out of the world and it can become14:37reality just by being thought up by14:39being projected we’ll see all sorts of14:41people taking different attitudes about14:43that fight but I think your various oops14:45I’ve gone on too long the iPad says14:48bored now um but no I think it’s a very14:51insightful point to say look there is a14:52kind of argument here for this but14:54there’s also a huge jump and it’s not at14:57all to your how we’re supposed to get14:58from babby but if it’s true to that15:00so we’ll be fighting throughout the term15:03I mean not you and I but the various15:05thinkers we read about will be fighting15:07about whether that kind of job makes15:08sense or whether it doesn’t15:11now Hegel has a supplementary argument15:14which is this idea about the social15:17character of thought he thinks human15:19thought is15:19essentially social why go because I15:22learn my concepts from the people around15:26me I learned it by learning my language15:28and I get that set of concepts in other15:30words by learning a certain language15:32that is taught to me by other people so15:34how did I learn English well I just grew15:37up in a household that spoke English15:39really some rough approximations there15:41too I grew up in Pittsburgh so it was15:44only a rough approximation we said all15:45sorts of weird things but anyway that’s15:48something that is crucial we’ve learned15:50our concepts from other people that’s15:52not to say we can’t then start doing15:54things ourselves to some extent but we15:56do it with the raw material thought15:57that’s given to us in a certain social15:59context he says so in learning our16:02language we learn basic categories of16:04thought and we learn them from other16:06people at a particular time in the16:08context of a particular society so what16:11call it an earlier philosophers16:13generally from as stemming from our very16:15nature as knowers and in that respect as16:17being universal as applying across the16:19board to all of us as beings who were16:21rational beings capable of knowledge16:22heygo sees as reflecting a specific16:25social background and again we’ve got a16:27contrast here between people who say16:29look there are certain things that are16:30just true about human nature no matter16:32what true about human perception true16:35about human cognition no matter what and16:38others say well it depends maybe people16:40in ancient China really perceive things16:41differently maybe they really thought16:43about things differently maybe they16:45reason differently and so on and so one16:47group is going to say look all of these16:49things stem from human nature that’s16:51pretty much constant over time at least16:53within local time maybe in geologic16:55evolutionary time it’s different16:57but others are going to say no no it can17:00change from place to place from decade17:02to decade and so what one group is going17:05to see is Universal another group will17:07see is variable and relative well one17:11last point then he calls his own view17:12historicism17:13he says philosophy is its own time17:15raised to the level of thought what any17:17thinker is doing is really just giving17:19you a picture of how things look at that17:21particular time from the point of view17:23of that particular society or culture17:25so he says philosophy combines the17:27fiight in the infant the relative and17:29the absolute he does think actually at17:32some level you can17:33absolute truth but it’s not at the level17:35of describing what the world is like17:37it’s describing the way these historical17:39progressions of thought go and so he17:41thinks he could actually give you laws17:43that are universal and absolute but one17:46level up they sort of meta laws but17:48we’ll get to that more in a moment well17:52the ancient relativist was protagonist17:56he was the person who introduced this17:58into Western philosophy and he said very18:00famously man is the measure of all18:01things of things we talk about they are18:03the things which are not that they are18:05not he meant by the way each individual18:08person not mankind although many18:10relatives have taken it that way but he18:12really meant no each individual person18:14is the measure of what is and what is18:17not so is it warm or cool in this room18:22depends right some of you might say18:24actually I’m kind of warm others might18:25say I know I think it’s cool well he18:27says yeah you’re the measure of that so18:29it might be warm for you and cool for18:31that person and that’s just the way it18:33is there’s no such thing as the way18:34things truly are so for tigris argue18:37well oh yes I repeat that I said we’re18:41going to concentrate on the thought of18:42two figures of the later 19th century18:45the first of them is Fyodor Dostoevsky18:47pictured there he is one of the greatest18:50Russian novelists indeed one of the18:51greatest novelists in any place in time18:55Friedrich Nietzsche who will be our18:57second thinker rated reading Gustav C18:59among the most beautiful strikes of19:01fortune in his life and so does this he19:03actually had a significant impact on19:05Nietzsche and we’ll see some specific19:07ways in which that’s true they do19:09however come to completely opposite19:11conclusions Dostoyevsky’s works were19:15banned in Russia after the communist19:17revolution they are great works are in19:21some ways the pride of Russian19:22literature in Russian culture but in19:24another way they were taken to be highly19:26subversive to Lenin and Stalin x’19:28paradigm why well does TF ski is a19:31concern what do I mean by a conservative19:33I mean somebody who believes in order19:36delivery what does that mean well they19:38believe in Liberty they believe in19:40freedom that is a fundamental pull it19:41in human value and so there should be19:44liberty for people to follow their own19:46conceptions of the good however that has19:49to take place within a framework of19:51order within a framework of the rule of19:53law for example in terms of formal19:55institutional structures but also in19:58terms of an informal structure of social20:00institutions and Ben Burke unknown in20:03conservative called these little20:04platoons so things like families20:06churches clubs other voluntary20:09organizations as well as more formal20:11institutions like universities companies20:13and so forth all create a kind of social20:16structure that is important to the20:18maintenance of social order so the idea20:20is roughly that liberty freedom is a20:22fundamental human value but not really a20:25sort of license in fact john locke20:26expresses this very nicely he says the20:28state of nature is a state liberty but20:30not a state of license and what he means20:32is liberty but I don’t just mean do20:35whatever you want I mean do whatever you20:37want within a certain structure that20:39keeps people from colliding with other20:41people and harming so that’s roughly20:44what will mean in this course anyway by20:46being a conservative and thus vfc20:48clearly is what he is not conservative20:51in another sense sometimes people use20:53that term just to mean don’t make any20:54changes where I keep things as they are20:56and that wasn’t his view at all in fact20:58he was a social reformer young when he21:00was young he was a socialist and a sort21:02of liberal utopian he was arrested by21:04the Tsar and sentenced to death he was21:06in front of a firing squad when suddenly21:08a note came from that is bizarre21:10commuting his sentence to four years21:11hard labor in Siberia that destroyed his21:14health and really for the rest of his21:15life he was sick most of the time as a21:17result of his experiences there suffered21:20greatly from malnutrition and other21:22kinds of problems he was chained the21:23entire four years when he wasn’t21:25actually physically working the only21:27thing he was permitted to read was the21:28New Testament which ended up having a21:30huge impact on his fall in any case he21:33did attack feudalism21:34he attacked Russian society at the time21:36he tried to break down barriers between21:38social classes and that sense was viewed21:41as an enemy of the Czar well what’s the21:45positive side he argues that21:47Christianity actually is essential to21:49ordered liberty and so what we get here21:50is an argue21:51in favor of religious values his version21:55is really Orthodox Christianity that is21:57to say the Russian Orthodox Church but I21:59think a lot of what he says applies just22:01a religion per se he thinks it is vital22:03that you have some basis for thinking22:06that people have dignity that people are22:08valued and in fact they are equally22:10valuable as children of God he thinks if22:12you don’t have that you’re in big22:14trouble22:14now as well see when we get to Nietzsche22:16he says no no you’re better off without22:18it22:18however the CFC is going to say that is22:22the foundation for you might say22:25enlightenment conceptions of humanity22:28and of human dignity and human liberty22:30and human equality all of that depends22:32on a certain kind of foundation and if22:34it’s not there then he sees that there22:37will be a major source of social trouble22:39in fact he saw Christianity at this time22:41as in decline and he thought that22:43presented a serious danger22:44precisely because without it there isn’t22:47any foundation for a belief in human22:48dignity or equality so we’re going to22:52look at one chapter of one of his22:54greatest novels The Brothers Karamazov22:57there’s a page of it if you want to read22:59it in the original ok this chapter is23:06known as the Grand Inquisitor chapter23:08and here’s the basic set Jesus comes23:10back to earth during the most intense23:12period of the Spanish Inquisition the23:14crowd recognizes and he starts23:16performing miracles he cures a blind man23:18he raises a girl from the dead23:20here’s a famous painting of Jesus23:22healing the blind man it’s the Spanish23:26Inquisition he’s going to meet the Grand23:28Inquisitor who burned a hundred people23:29at the stake that day is going to burn23:31100 more the next day um that’s pretty23:33depressing and in general this is fairly23:35depressing so I thought maybe you would23:37like to be cheered up about that here’s23:39a famous view of the Spanish Inquisition23:49okay24:22Spanish Inquisition a surprise oh yeah24:56okay well in any case Jesus comes back25:01okay so we have the second cup Jesus25:03comes and starts healing people and so25:05on to the Grand Inquisitor who is the25:07head of the church here in the head of25:08the Inquisition sees this and he arrests25:12him he takes him to prison and tells him25:14that he’s going to be burned at the25:16stake the next day and then the very25:17people clamored to see him today will25:19throw logs on the fire tomorrow so this25:23is a pretty bleak situation now why does25:26he do this25:26there’s by the way an artistic rendering25:28of and being questioned by the Grand25:30Inquisitor well the Grand Inquisitor25:34says look you’re nothing but trouble and25:37here’s why you gave the people freedom25:39freedom to believe or not to believe25:41have faith or reject it but that has25:45brought the people nothing but torment25:46that was nothing but trouble because it25:49put responsibility in people’s hands so25:52the Inquisitor says what the church has25:55done much better the church is taken25:57freedom away assigning to the Pope all25:59authority to determine the Word of God26:00and not even Jesus himself now has the26:03right to change everything so he said26:05look the church is taken away freedom26:07but for the sake of happiness26:08people are happier we tell them what to26:10do they do it they’re like happy sheep26:12and so the contrast throughout this is26:14really freedom versus happiness to what26:16extent should you interfere with26:18people’s freedom for the sake of26:19happiness and the structure of this26:21really has to do it mirrors the26:23structure of the three temptations in26:26the best pictured here or here and so26:29there are three parts of the story as it26:31evolves Jesus is there in the wilderness26:33and Satan comes up to him and offers him26:37three temptations the first temptation26:39is if you’re the Son of God tell these26:40stones to become bread well in dusty s26:43keys rendering this Ivan is the26:45character who’s telling the story and26:47Ivan thinks that this is an offer to26:48look here’s a way of making people have26:50feed people okay you have the power to26:52actually turn stones into bread and give26:54the people all the food they want and26:56all the food baby jesus answered it is26:59written man shall not live on bread27:01alone but on every word that comes from27:02the mouth of God27:04now the inquisitor says look hey you27:08gave people too much credit in the end27:10people are going to lay their freedom in27:12our feet and say to us make us your27:14slaves but feed us now in Ivan’s view27:17he’s the one telling the story that’s27:18what people want they want to be fed27:20they want to be taken care of they are27:22what freedom they don’t want choices27:24they don’t want responsibility they just27:26want to be like children a child comes27:29into the room it says I’m hungry give me27:31food if you say well you want food go27:34get a job we don’t say that to children27:36right but we might say that to adults27:39and so his thought is what most people27:41want to be my children they just want to27:43be fed they just want to be taken care27:44of them Cara27:45they don’t want freedom they don’t want27:46responsibility here’s an ancient27:50Egyptian text that actually makes this27:51point rather nicely called the27:53instruction of any a father is giving27:55his son advice about how to live goes on27:57and on giving his son all this advice27:58the son says well all your sayings are28:00excellent but doing them requires28:01virtues like your makeup I’d have to be28:04a good person I’d have to actually work28:05at this this would be a pain in the butt28:07and the father goes on and says look son28:10here’s what you’re supposed to do do28:12this do that and someone gives all the28:13sensible advice and finally the son says28:16look you my father you were wise and28:17strong of hand the infinite is what28:20his wishes for what nurses him looks at28:23you when he finds his speech he says28:25give me bread and Ivan is basically28:28saying that’s what people are like28:29they’re like the son in the story and by28:31the way it just ends there you can28:33imagine the father thing oh but that’s28:36how it is give me bread so I’m it as in28:39effect saying look people are like the28:40son in this story they’re not like the28:42father they want to be taken care of28:44there’s a saint give me bread oh there28:48is an Egyptian thing or people28:51harvesting wheat why is that there28:54because actually it’s not a trivial28:56point what’s the first thing people do28:58when they become friends what’s the29:00first thing when a romantic relationship29:01starts what do people do they feed the29:05other person right you go out to dinner29:06or something like that no that’s not29:09what so what you said I’m going to29:10really good um and so you know feeding29:14someone is an important way of taking29:15care of them of establishing a certain29:17kind of relationship well in any case I29:20even think people are like the Sun they29:21just want to be taken care of they want29:23to be sheep they want to be children29:25they don’t want to grow up and as you29:27can see I found many wonderful paintings29:29of sheep well here’s the second29:33temptation pick yourself Satan takes29:36Jesus up to the roof of the temple and29:37says throw yourself off the angels will29:39save you if you’re the son of God throw29:43yourself down from the top of the temple29:45it’s written the Angels will save you29:46Jesus says it’s also written don’t put29:47the Lord your God to the test well29:50here’s how the Grand Inquisitor takes29:52that he says look you did expect too29:54much it’s not just that people want to29:55be fed they want to be led you had a29:58chance to become a great religious29:59leader instead of being crucified you30:01could actually shown people that perform30:03these miracles right in front of the30:05Pharisees for example you could have30:07done this in such a way you’d been30:08acclaimed universally as a great leader30:10but you wanted love given freely you30:13didn’t want adoration from slaves who30:15were just impressed by miracles you30:17wanted people to make a free choice30:18you wanted too much it was too much to30:20ask and so he says look people are30:23really slaves they want to be told what30:25to do they don’t – please you’ll be30:27kinder to them if you have less respect30:29for them the third temptation Satan30:33offers all30:34kingdoms of the world in their splendor30:35in other words you could be a great30:37political leader you can establish30:39utopia on earth and Jesus says away from30:41me Satan30:42now the Inquisitor says that’s a good30:45painting away vermin30:48well by the way I want to decided I30:51would grow a beard and I did I looked30:54like Satan I imagined that I would look30:57like a fluffy teddy bear and I did my30:59awful it was very very me Oh afraid31:02myself and changed it off31:04well anyway – yeah the quiz that are31:08saying look you could have done this you31:09could have established a utopia on earth31:11why didn’t you do it because that’s what31:13the church is for me to do now we’re31:15trying to make people happy we’ve taken31:17over your role the church tells people31:19what to do it makes them happy it31:21doesn’t respect and it treats them like31:22children but that’s what they want and31:24so everything works out very well the31:26church even lets its children sin it31:29tells them it’s okay we’ll all be31:30forgiven in the end and so people were31:32happy to give up the freedom to be fed31:35they oh they’re even allowed to sin what31:37more could you want they’re happy31:38children no well yeah that makes31:42everyone happy the Grand Inquisitor says31:44well almost everyone31:45there are those who actually have to31:47leave the Sheep there the Shepherd’s31:49they are the ones who have to act freely31:51they’re the ones who take responsibility31:52they are the ones who suffer so that the31:55rest don’t have to so they’re going to31:57be thousands of millions of happy babes31:59notice children again and 100,00032:01sufferers who have taken upon themselves32:03the curse what curse the curse of the32:05knowledge of good and evil so here we32:08see dust yes keep recognizing what I32:09called last time the vision will be32:11anointed this idea that there are a few32:13people who are actually capable of32:15exercising leadership of taking32:17responsibility of making decisions for32:19everyone else and that we’ll all be32:20better off if just a few people lead all32:22the rest well with all that is good and32:25evil you might recognize that that’s32:27what constitutes the fall of man no32:31vision of Illinois here’s the idea some32:34people are going to fall they’re going32:35to have this knowledge they’re going to32:36have the responsibility leave the rest32:38it’s gotta be tough for them but then32:40the others can remain in the garden only32:41a few people to leave the garden the32:43rest can be happy sheep back there in32:45the garden will follow the rules up32:46there do what belted with that old32:48though remain a flock of sheep and so he32:50says really that would be for the best32:52well as we mentioned last time there is32:55a kind of problem here I called the32:57paradox of the other the vision cuts the33:00anointed ones the leaders those who33:01actually fall from the knowledge they33:03need to take responsibility and make33:05people happy what’s going to guide their33:07decisions actually the Sheep it turns33:09out are going to be the only ones who33:10have the norms well the values are33:12capable of evaluating what’s good and33:14bad they’re the only ones with the norms33:16that could help to guide them so we’ve33:18got kind of paradox and the way33:20Dostoyevsky understands this is that33:22those who pride themselves on having the33:24knowledge of good and evil actually are33:26in the least position good to understand33:28what they really are they’re the least33:30equipped to make decisions they’re the33:31least equipped to guide others so the33:33people who think hey I could be a33:35shepherd I know what’s going on I33:36understand the world says they’re the33:38last ones you should trust they are in33:40fact in the worst position right yeah33:42good why because they’ve cut themselves33:44off from these values the idea is that33:47the values are part of the manifest33:48image they said forget the manifest33:51image that’s the realm of the sheep33:52that’s illusion look at the underlying33:55reality but in that underlying reality33:57there aren’t any valleys and so all of a33:59sudden how do you make choices you want34:01to lead the Sheep where do you lead them34:03well gosh actually that’s a matter34:05that’s only defined in terms of that34:08manifest image and the signs ever given34:09to there’s no you know go to the physics34:12class and say but where where should the34:14rocket go now in practical terms we can34:17say we’re for shooting this at bars so34:18it should go to Mars but that’s a matter34:20of this the manifest image our Bulls our34:23purposes if you look just at the science34:25you say to a physicist well where should34:28Rockets go I mean in general just tell34:31me about rockets like what should Roger34:32Tribby and where should go we can ask34:35where what human beings are right it34:37ought to be and what we shall we should34:38live our lives but if we just say where34:40should Rockets go that doesn’t make any34:42sense there’s no way of an answer34:43in terms of the scientific image so his34:46point is that really well as CS Lewis34:49puts it later the leaders those34:51self-styled leaders becomes men without34:53chess they cut themselves off from34:55everything that might have given them34:56some ability to tell good from evil so34:59the very people who want to lead are35:01those least equipped to lead now he35:03thinks it’s vital to hold yourself35:05accountable to something outside35:06yourself to find an anchor outside35:07yourself and again that means you either35:10have to take yourself as defining values35:11or think that something else defines35:13values there’s no other way so in the35:16entity are you yourself or it’s35:17something outside you whether it’s God35:19or something else there’s going to be35:21something outside you to which you’re35:23accountable the Socialists he says35:26thinks it could be mankind Ted thinks35:28you could set up heaven on earth but he35:30says that doesn’t ultimately work why35:33well he thinks really in the end either35:37it’s yourself or God you might think the35:39universe is about you or you might think35:41it’s about something else35:42higher than you why isn’t mankind that35:46sort of intermediate thing well he says35:49here’s the problem today if you think35:51most people are sheep what respect do35:53you have for man you could think this if35:55you really thought mankind had dignity35:57and was worthy of respect but if you cut35:59yourself off from God he thinks you have36:01no grounds for thinking that and so he36:03sees this as collapsing basically you36:05say I care about mankind but wait a36:08minute why should I care about bad guys36:10if mankind isn’t important because of36:12something else then he thinks in the end36:14that slips back into just valuing36:17yourself because you’re very vision is36:19one that disrespects mankind the things36:22of people is nothing generally so it’s36:24built on disrespect and therefore he36:26thinks it will in the end crumble so36:28that’s his argument for this sort of36:29conclusion so in the end he says all of36:32this collapses into narcissism in the36:35end your values can be rooted only in36:37yourself you’ll have nothing to guide36:39your decisions by your own impulses and36:41your own desires and so that’s the36:45position Network36:47now yeah well there’s lots of images of36:50that oh well one more thing I better not36:53skip over there is a place in the novel36:55earlier where Ivan is saying if God is36:58dead then everything is permitted he37:01does think God is dead so he concludes37:03that everything is permitted in other37:05words that there are no rules there’s no37:06such thing as morality there’s no such37:08thing as now that he can do anything he37:10likes that really exemplifies this37:13collapse into narcissism if there isn’t37:15any external anchor Dostoevsky thinks37:17then we just become the centres of our37:19own universes and there is no value37:21outside of ourselves our own impulses37:23our own desires so in the end he says37:25we’re in the sacrificing part of37:28humanity for the sake of the rest37:29so the Inquisition he thinks is actually37:32the natural result of that line of37:34thinking that says we’re doing it for37:35the sake of mankind for the sake of37:37happiness he says look that ends in the37:39Inquisition that ends in the gulag 10037:43years well not quite 50 years before the37:45gulag actually came into existence he37:47sees that’s where that line of thinking37:48goes so anyway I’ll skip the rest and37:51let’s talk about Nietzsche Nietzsche is37:54inspired by this and inspired by this37:55idea of the death of God but instead of37:58being deeply disturbed by it he’s37:59excited by he thinks this is both38:01dangerous but also thrilling and that we38:03are in a position like it or not of38:05having to reconstruct our own values38:07from the resources of ourselves38:11Nietzsche is explicitly a historian he38:14thinks that truth is relative to a38:16historical period and he goes much38:18beyond Hegel in thinking that even at38:21some higher level this is true there’s38:23no such thing as some higher level where38:24we can see the march of history and38:26understand it in anything like absolute38:28terms so here is a way of getting the38:32contrast Hegel as we’ve seen advocates a38:34historical relativism he thinks the38:36truth of the world relative to a time38:38and a place but who does claim to38:40uncover these absolute general and38:42dynamic meta-level laws he says look38:45thought does develop in certain ways the38:47way the Greeks for example precede the38:49world is different from the way that we38:50proceeded on the other hand I can tell38:53you a story about how thought progresses38:55and changes so he thinks that although38:57the truth of the world are relative to a38:59tie38:59place the truths of up thought he thinks39:02he can see from his Olympian height I39:04had described so we might describe it39:07this way there are all these theories we39:08have about the world they keep changing39:10and truth about the world is relative to39:13those on the other hand we can construct39:15theories about theories themselves ask39:17what is the nature of human knowledge39:19what is the nature of human history and39:21he thinks there we can actually come up39:23with some absolute theory some absolute39:25truths not about the world but about the39:27way we think about the world nietzsche39:30goes further oh yes there is this head39:34this idea of how is the logic progresses39:36we have a thesis then we realize it39:39doesn’t quite fit the facts we formulate39:40an antithesis and in the end it doesn’t39:42fit the facts either so if we synthesize39:45them into something new and then that39:46becomes a new thesis and it keeps39:47happening again and again on tables39:50picture of thought so that’s a very39:52quick picture of sort of what that39:53Universal progression looks like but39:57wait a minute what if thought doesn’t39:59change in rational law governed ways40:01what if there isn’t Absalom any absolute40:03way to characterize this progression of40:05thought that’s what Nietzsche thinks we40:08have theories about the world they keep40:09changing and truth about the world is40:11relative to those but actually our40:13theories of a theories keep changing too40:15and so even our thinking about thinking40:17even our thoughts about knowledge about40:19history those keep changing too was the40:21Greek conception of history the same as40:23the medieval conception was that the40:25same as our conception of history was40:27the Greek conception of the human mind40:29the same as a medieval conception or the40:31same as our consumption nature says no40:33in fact he starts out as a professor of40:35classics and so he’s concerned with that40:37contrast between his conception in the40:3919th century and ancient Greek40:41conceptions he says look it’s different40:43all the way down or all the way up if40:45you want to think of it that way it’s40:46not just that we had different physics40:47different theories of the world we had40:49different conceptions of humanity40:50different conceptions of knowledge40:52different conceptions of history so he40:55says we’re really forced to become a40:58relativist all the way through and in41:01fact he thinks that if we try to41:03understand how thought progresses will41:05not only be relevant we’ll recognize the41:07pattern is basically irrational he says41:10we don’t move from one conception41:12from one theory to another theory on the41:14basis of evidence reason we usually do41:16it on the basis of power and so history41:20is driven on his view by the will to41:21power but that’s an irrational force it41:24is not a rational one it’s not that we41:26formulate a hypothesis look at the41:27evidence say well that doesn’t quite41:28work out let’s think of the opposite41:30that’s Hegel’s picture Nietzsche says no41:32what happens is people in a theory and41:35eventually their students overthrow them41:37and say that’s nonsense41:38but that’s a power struggle that has41:40nothing to do with the reason so41:44Nietzsche starts from a kind of two41:46level theory he does say nearly all41:48philosophical problems once again raised41:50the same for its own form of question41:52they did 2,000 years ago how can41:54something develop from autonomy for41:56example reason from the unreasonable41:58feeling from the dead logic from the42:00illogical disinterested gaze from covens42:03wanting altruism premio is some truth42:05from error what does he mean she’s42:08speaking at the manifest image at that42:10level we talk about truth we talk about42:13reason we talk about feeling we talk42:15about beauty we think about helping42:18others however at that base level none42:20of that is really there there are just42:22particles moving around according to42:23laws there’s no reason there’s no42:25evidence there’s nothing like that42:27there’s no appreciation for beauty all42:28there is at that level is just particles42:30bouncing off one another how does all of42:32that arise from that sort of foundation42:36he says well it doesn’t happen42:38rationally it doesn’t happen according42:40to any discernible laws it’s ultimately42:42irrational and what we view as42:45remarkable glorious colors of the42:47intellect really arise from despised42:49materials in other words just purely the42:51interaction of these material particles42:54so in the end he says we have to be a42:56historian but philosophers automatically42:59think of man as an eternal being as if43:02Humanity is always the same this is it’s43:04not true actually everything that43:07philosophers say is true only of a43:08limited period of time so he ends up43:12being a relativist says there are no43:14eternal facts there are no absolute43:16truths well the world as we perceive it43:22he says after all it’s nothing like this43:24right we think of it as containing43:25value is containing people who were free43:27agents but even apart from that we see43:29it as consisting of objects but actually43:31says according to our really scientific43:33picture in the world it’s not consisting43:34of objects there are these fields they43:37interact in complicated ways somehow we43:39see continuous objects out of all of43:41that but it’s not clear that the worlds43:43anything like what we perceive the world43:45we know it he says is really nothing but43:47a bunch of errors and fantasies so what43:52does this mean about science well he43:53says it has to become plain it has to43:55develop new ways of seeing and interpret43:57in the world but doesn’t really progress43:59rationally the best thing that an44:01intellectual of any sort scientist a44:02humanist can do is think of new ways of44:05seeing the world the world after all he44:08says is just a projection that goes back44:10to that point I made earlier about44:11idealism but now something he’s picking44:14up from Dostoyevsky directly he says God44:17is dead okay this is his most famous44:20pronouncement really after Buddha was44:23dead his shadow was still shown for44:25centuries in a cave a tremendous shiver44:27inducing shadow God is dead but given44:30humans that they are there may be caves44:31for thousands of years in which a shadow44:33is show and we we still have to defeat44:35his shadow now what does he mean by this44:38claim God is dead44:42by the way this high magazine finally in44:48the 60s picked up of us it only took44:50them about 80 years to read philosophy44:53but anyway he tells a story he says if44:57you not heard the madman a little44:58lantern the bright morning random45:00article cried incessantly I’m looking45:01for God I’m looking for gone this is45:03just like the story where Diogenes runs45:05looking for an honest man okay so this45:08madman runs into the square of looking45:10for God there’s a painting of him doing45:12that so try this Scott to the west wall45:16run out there45:16lunchtime chop I’m looking for God45:18actually there are people saying I found45:19a beauty45:21but okay what happens in this story well45:25there are many who stood together they45:26start making fun of the guys he lost did45:28he wander off like a child or does he45:29keep himself hidden is he afraid of us45:31did he go to see that he emigrate well45:33they laughed and yelling disorder45:34Nietzsche who was by the way the son of45:37a Lutheran45:37master is here echoing Elijah taunting45:40the priests of Baal first Kings Elijah45:43says much of the same thing before even45:46has the pillar of fire start on Mount45:49Carmel and then drives them off and45:51kills them but anyway the madman jumps45:54into their midst and Pierceton with his45:56gaze where is God he cried I will tell45:58you we killed him you and I we are all46:01his murderers now at this point they46:04come back and the madman goes on god is46:07dead god remains dead and we killed him46:10how can we comfort ourselves the murders46:12of all murderers is it the size of the46:16to large for us don’t we have to become46:17gods just to appear worthy of it now46:21notice what he’s saying does this idea46:24of God dying make any sense46:25well I’m a classical conception No right46:27God is an eternal being this idea that46:29God cannot doesn’t really make any46:31classical sense but what he’s saying46:33really is look religion is dying God as46:36a force in human life as a force in46:38human culture is dying he sees a belief46:40in God in Europe as fading out and so46:43he’s looking forward to a few days46:45without religion actually it’s in that46:47respect much like Dostoyevsky’s vision46:50of a future without religion dusty fcc’s46:52christianity and decline in russia and46:54says that’s big trouble46:55Nietzsche says I see Germany God also46:59done religion as a diminishing force in47:02culture and now what does it mean don’t47:04we have to become gods just to be worthy47:07and that’s a classical idea of sin47:09actually we try to become God but he47:11says we may have no other choice so is47:13God dead well Nietzsche’s saying yes47:16here’s a poster I like God is dead47:19the titanium proves he is dead God in47:23any case Nietzsche says so what do I47:26believe in the final analysis that the47:28weights of all things have to be47:29determined afresh in other thing we have47:31to start over again figuring out what is47:33valuable what is right what is wrong47:34what is just what is unjust all of that47:37has to be rethought from the very47:38foundation tough and how do we do it47:41what does my conscience say he says you47:43are to become the person you are here’s47:45how you are to reconstruct it not on the47:47basis of a God47:48religion upside you from yourself and so47:51the chief virtue of people who follow in47:53each in the 20th century is authenticity47:55but first us DFT would answer that’s47:58back to that head back to narcissus next48:01week we look at a variety of other48:03things and on Wednesday your first paper48:04when we do
It’s not what the Religious Right thinks it is.
Claims of moral decline are a perennial feature of conservative rhetoric. But in recent years, pro-Trump Christians have emphasized a new reason to be afraid. The United States, they say, is devolving into such wanton “paganism” that the country may not survive. The true America awaits rescue by the Christian faithful, and in such an existential struggle, nearly any means are justified—even reelecting a morally abhorrent president.
Examples of this rhetoric are not in short supply, among pundits and even in more scholarly work. In an essay praising Donald Trump’s “animal instinct” for “order” and “social cohesion,” Sohrab Ahmari opposed an America of “traditional Christianity” to one of “libertine ways and paganized ideology.” These are our only choices, he insisted. Between such incompatible enemies, there can be only “war and enmity,” so true believers should be ready to sacrifice civility in the battles ahead to reconquer the public square. Rod Dreher has speculated that Trump, while unpalatable, could be a divine emissary holding back the horrors of Christian persecution, like the biblical figure of He Who Delays the Antichrist, an implicit nod to old pagan enemies. “If Christians like me vote for Trump in 2020,” Dreher warns, “it is only because of his role as katechon in restraining what is far worse.” Though in a calmer tone, Ross Douthat entertained similar ideas in his column “The Return of Paganism,” wondering if the pantheist tendencies in American civil religion could morph into a neo-paganism hostile to Christian faith.
Douthat cites a recent book by law professor Steven D. Smith, Pagans & Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac. According to Smith, what we know as “secularism” is actually ancient paganism in modern guise. Since paganism is inherently anti-Christian, this means Christians should oppose both secular politics and secular universities at any cost. They are not fighting against a neutral arbiter, but against the wiles of pagan Rome redivivus, a strain of this-worldly sexualized spirituality nearly eradicated by Christianity, but now mutated and all the more lethal.
Smith is only the most recent Christian author to invoke the specter of paganism. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, wrote Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society on the eve of the 2016 election, apparently anticipating a Clinton victory. The book’s title alludes to T. S. Eliot’s 1938 essay on “The Idea of a Christian Society,” in which Eliot condemns the rise of “modern paganism.” Reno told his readers to view 2016 in light of 1938. “Would the West seek a Christian future or a pagan one?” he asked. “We face a similar decision today. Will we seek to live in accord with the idea of a Christian society, or will we accept the tutelage of a pagan society?” Yuval Levin called Reno’s book a “call to arms against a postmodern paganism.”
This charge of looming paganism exerts a twofold political function. First, it
- rationalizes Trumpism, casting our situation as a state of emergency that threatens the survival of U.S. Christians.
- Second, the sacrilege of pagan religion prevents Trump’s supporters from indulging in political moderation by making that seem like a form of apostasy. It’s probably not a coincidence that “paganism” is on the rise just as Christian conservatives decide whether to support the current administration in an election year. It is challenging to explain how Trump’s policies are Christian. It is far easier to label his opponents as pagans, and thus align the president with Christianity by default. But there are fundamental problems with the conservative narrative of a resurgent paganism.
In the first place, the term “paganism” only works in this maneuver because it is vague and perspectival. It always has been, ever since Christians invented it. Ancient Christians stuck the name on those who continued the traditional rites of Greco-Roman religion rather than adopt the true faith. Indeed the largely urban Christians meant it as a mild pejorative for the rural country bumpkins, the pagani, who lived far from imperial centers and persisted in their benighted worship of the old gods. In our terms, the first “pagans” lived in flyover country and clung to their traditional religion.
Since “pagan” has come to mean “un-Christian,” every invocation of “pagan” brings with it an implicit understanding of “Christian.” The meaning of the former is parasitic on the latter. Misunderstanding the essence of paganism, therefore, also means misunderstanding the demands of Christianity, and vice versa.
More left-leaning Christians might well agree with Smith and Reno in one sense: there is indeed an ascendant paganism afoot in our country today. It threatens the social and moral fabric of American public life and contends directly against the voice of Christian truth. One can brook no compromise in resisting it. The difference comes in how that paganism is defined. The debate is not whether paganism is real, but where it lives, how it appears, and what it does. If conservatives have mistaken its location, they might be training their weapons in the wrong direction.
Much hangs, then, on accurately discerning the meaning of “modern paganism.” Let us consider three proposals: Steven Smith’s recent version, T. S. Eliot’s original version, and another timely version from First Things.Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of divine immanence in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.
Steven Smith suggests that secularism is not a neutral space, but conceals its own religious identity, which is essentially pagan. It venerates the sacred within the natural world, knows only the cycle of birth and death, and thus celebrates a libertine sexuality. As opposed to Abrahamic religions that affirm the “transcendent sacred,” paganisms old and new prefer the “immanent sacred.” Smith delves into the emergence of Christians in the Roman Empire and vividly evokes the oddity of Christianity in the ancient world, heeding the scholarship of Peter Brown, Jan Assmann, and Kyle Harper (but Edward Gibbon most of all). Smith then applies his ancient model to American constitutional law and finds it confirms conservative positions on religious freedom, public symbols, and sexual norms.
But there are serious problems with Smith’s argument. Since the 1970s, scholars of religion have largely retired the vague categories formerly used to organize speculation about comparative religions—sacred and secular, immanent and transcendent, holy and profane, this-worldly and other-worldly. Major religious traditions are massive and multifarious in the ways they sustain rituals, ethics, and beliefs. Their communities cut across languages, continents, empires, and epochs, teeming with exceptions and discontinuities. The blunt tools applied by Smith are simply not up to the task of uncovering the essence of one religion, let alone two or three, and they are certainly not able to trace the notoriously complicated history of the “secular.”
For the sake of argument, though, let us grant Smith his chosen terms, and even focus on his central claim, that Christianity can lead the way in challenging modern secularity, since it insists on the “transcendent sacred” in a way that secular paganism does not. Smith’s proposal rests upon a fundamental analogy: paganism is to Christianity as immanence is to transcendence. Christians pray to the God beyond the world; pagans encounter divinity inside the weft of nature.
Even a cursory knowledge of Christianity is enough to refute this analogy. It is true that Judaism teaches the absolute transcendence of the one God, as do Islamic theologians today, and as did Neoplatonist pagan philosophers in antiquity who sought a divine One beyond every thought, word, and image. By contrast, orthodox Christians claim that God arrived and now eternally resides within the fabric of nature, as the Creator enters into creation in the body of Jesus Christ. To cite Smith’s definition of “paganism,” it is Christianity, in fact, that “refers to a religious orientation that locates the sacred within this world.” The Christian belief in the Incarnation is nothing if not a belief in the “immanent sacred.”
The new Christian movement distinguished itself from Greek philosophy, Roman cults, and Jewish faith alike by affirming an extensive and peculiar list of divine incursions into immanence: the Incarnation of God in the body of Jesus; Anne’s immaculate conception of Mary; Mary’s virginal conception and vaginal birth of the Son of God, making her Theotokos; the real flesh of Jesus suffering on the cross, against the Gnostics (Tertullian); the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic bread and wine, also against the Gnostics; the Resurrection of the body after death; the bodily assumption of Mary; the martyrdom of the body as bloody birth into heaven (Perpetua) or as the grinding of flesh into bread (Ignatius of Antioch); the church birthed through the bleeding side wound of a dying Jesus; the church as maternal breast suckling the Christian with milk; the union of Christ and Christians as the exemplar of which sexual union is the image (Ephesians 5, Origen of Alexandria). Above all, the scandalous immanence that might have sounded pagan to Jesus’s disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6). The enemy of these traditional Christian teachings is not sacred immanence, but rather a gnosticism that dematerializes and disembodies the real presence of God within creation.
The radically immanent sacred of Christians scandalized the Romans. As Ramsay MacMullen observes, Christians worshipping a new transcendent deity would have passed unremarked. But the Christian belief that Jesus was neither prophet nor sage but a fleshly God would have been mocked by pagan intellectuals as a risible error. The late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: “In the philosophical traditions, an ultimate and radically transcendent deity was often postulated, but you did not typically engage that transcendent deity directly.… But there was a still more unusual and, in the eyes of pagan sophisticates, outlandish Christian notion: the one, true, august God who transcended all things and had no need of anything, nevertheless, had deigned to create this world and, a still more remarkable notion, also now actively sought the redemption and reconciliation of individuals.” For pagan intellectuals, Hurtado concludes, “all this was, quite simply, preposterous.”
For instance, in his work On the True Doctrine (178 CE), the pagan philosopher Celsus is ready to accept that God exists, creates all things, and transcends nature. But in shades of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Celsus laughs away the claim that God was incarnated in Jesus, or that the body could be resurrected. “I mean, what sort of body is it that could return to its original nature or become the same as it was before it rotted away?” he mocks. “And of course they have no reply for this one, and as in most cases where there is no reply they take cover by saying ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’ A brilliant answer indeed! But the fact is, God cannot do what is contrary to nature.”
Christian philosophers saw the divide similarly. Tertullian admits that pagan philosophers might even discern that God exists by their own lights. But they always miss that God descended into a virgin and was made flesh in her womb. Augustine reports that he learned from the pagan philosopher Plotinus that the Logos was transcendent—but only Christians taught him how the Logos embraced the human body in all of its weakness and vulnerability, and its awful exposure to the whims of imperial violence.
To put it bluntly: paganism cannot simply mean divine immanence. On the contrary, Christians were the most conspicuous defenders of that principle in the ancient world. It was pagans who derided Christians for violating the self-evident truths of divine transcendence.The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by T.S. Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny.
A better starting point for defining “paganism” is T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society,” written in the dark days of 1938, where he proposes that the greatest enemy of modern Christianity is “modern paganism.” Reno and Smith alike summon Eliot as a sober authority in perilous times, but neither presents Eliot’s own account of the term in question. So how did Eliot define paganism? It’s important to stay as close as possible to his own words.
First, Eliot says paganism embraces an authoritarian politics that confuses religion and nationhood. The “distinguishing mark” of a Christian society, Eliot writes, is its productive “tension” between church and state, but pagan society seeks to “fuse” them. Pagan culture “de-Christianises” individuals gradually and unwittingly, as authoritarianism creeps in. Soon, he warns, one’s hymns are no longer to God alone, but also to the dear leader.
Second, Eliot says that modern paganism incites ecological destruction. The Christian lives in harmony with nature; the pagan destroys public resources for private profit. “Unregulated industrialism” and “the exhaustion of natural resources,” writes Eliot, lead to “the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale.” In a formulation that strikingly anticipates Laudato si’, he puts it succinctly: “A wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God.”
Third, modern paganism imposes a puritanical public morality. It promotes, in Eliot’s words, “regimentation and conformity, without respect for the needs of the individual soul” and “the puritanism of a hygienic morality in the interest of efficiency.” According to Eliot, in fact, modern paganism will even attempt to elevate the status of Christian identity in society. But paganism embraces Christianity not because it’s true, but because it consolidates the nation and discourages dissent. He notes that authoritarians have always celebrated public morality. They want, in a way, more morality, even if their priorities are haphazardly formulated. Eliot warns that such a moralistic Christianity is not only a perversion of the faith: “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian from a pagan society.” Such versions of Christianity might even “engender nothing better than a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
The resemblances between the modern paganism feared by Eliot in 1938 and conservative politics in 2020 are uncanny. The “paganism” that future Christians will need to identify and resist, he warned, will appear as
- unrestrained capitalist greed; as
- authoritarianism seeking to weaken democratic norms; as
- callous environmental degradation; as a
- superficial Christian moralism seeking to fuse church and state; and as a
- petty “sanctimonious nationalism.”
In the poignant final paragraph of his essay, Eliot confesses that the churning political surprises of the 1930s had left him shaken, not only because of the events themselves, but in the revelation of his own country’s moral poverty. In the face of Britain’s failure to mount an adequate response to modern pagan violence, Eliot felt a justified “humiliation” that demanded of him “personal contrition” along with “repentance, and amendment.” He felt “deeply implicated and responsible” and began to question his country’s frequent claims to moral authority. When Eliot enjoins his readers to fight against modern paganism, it is specifically because its brew of authoritarianism and capitalism were already beginning to charm Christian intellectuals who should know better. Eliot’s final sentences prick the conscience today:
We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends? Such thoughts as these formed the starting point, and must remain the excuse, for saying what I have to say.The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of will.
But there was at least one other account of paganism in the pages of First Things as Trump campaigned for the presidency—this time from Matthew Schmitz, an editor at the magazine. Over the summer of 2016, Schmitz displayed an admirable prescience while Christian conservatives were still hesitating to endorse the eventual Republican nominee. The “faith taught by Christ,” he wrote, “is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord.… In Trump, it [Christian faith] has curdled into pagan disdain.”
At a campaign event in Iowa, Trump shocked the audience by saying that he had never asked God for forgiveness. All his other disturbing statements—his attacks on every vulnerable group—are made intelligible by this one…. Human frailty, dependency, and sinfulness cannot be acknowledged; they must be overcome. This opens up the possibility of great cruelty toward those who cannot wish themselves into being winners. A man who need not ask forgiveness need never forgive others. He does not realize his own weakness, and so he mocks and reviles every sign of weakness in his fellow men.
And here’s another:
In his contempt for losers, he [Trump] embodies one of the most unchristian ideals ever advanced in American politics. With a unique consistency and vehemence, he expresses his hatred of weakness. He ridicules the disabled, attacks women, and defends abortionists. This is the opposite of Christianity, which puts the weak first and exalts every loser…. Liberalism, much as I hate it, has preserved this Christian inheritance. The GOP before Trump, despite all its contempt for the 47 percent, was leavened by the influence of sincere Christians and so was never so sneering. Trump is an altogether more pagan figure.
By 2019, however, in the wake of the midterm battles over immigration and the mythic “caravan” of refugees at the southern border, Schmitz joined others to cheer on the “new nationalism” that Trump promoted at his rallies. Within a few months, Schmitz had decided that Christianity and liberalism could never be reconciled, since modern society—wait for it—had become paganized. “The Church,” he now saw, “is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture.”
If there was an ancient paganism of sacred immanence, it was soon outstripped by the more radical immanence of Christians in their claims of an Incarnation, a Resurrection, and above all the enduring food of the Eucharist. In every Mass the priest washes his hands in imitation of the pagan Pilate, but now as an act of humility and celebration. The Catholic repeats as her own the words of the pagan centurion—Lord, I am not worthy—but now as an intimate prayer on the threshold of Communion. That version of paganism was overtaken and dissolved from within by the Christian sacralization of the body.
But there is another paganism that has survived into the present, and has emerged so vividly in contemporary politics that even First Things in 2016 could not miss it. This is not the paganism of immanence, but the paganism of cruelty and violence. It mocks the vulnerable, reviles the weak, and gains strength through hatred. We don’t have to look too far to discover the “postmodern paganism” threatening American Christianity today.
Last summer the Trump administration argued in court that more than two thousand migrant and refugee children should be separated from their parents, concentrated in crude detention camps with minimal supervision, and locked in chilled rooms with the lights left on all night. The administration has yet to condemn the petty cruelty of some camp guards and instead has mused that such violence might be politically useful. Hundreds of children as young as two are deliberately denied diapers, soap, and toothbrushes for months at a time to punish their parents. Community donations of the same are turned away. Young women are denied tampons. Young children are denied inexpensive flu vaccines, and if they contract a terminal cancer, they are deported without medical care. Chickenpox and shingles are common. Federal contractors win upwards of $700 per day for each imprisoned child. Seven children have died in custody to date, and many more have been hospitalized. Doctors worry they cannot serve in the camps without violating the Hippocratic oath. The camps themselves were continued from the Obama administration, but the withdrawal of basic necessities is Trump’s innovation. What is this if not the very paganism conservatives decry?
This modern paganism ultimately means the nihilistic exercise of power for its own sake, especially power over weak and vulnerable bodies. In its purest form, it is expressed as conspicuous cruelty, both to render one’s power maximally visible and to increase that power by engendering fear. The cruelty is the point. This is the joyful paganism that Nietzsche sought to revive as the Wille zur Macht, retrieving from ancient Rome the glorious pleasure in cruelty that rewards the strong who exercise their strength. This is the reason Italian fascist Julius Evola hated Christianity for its compassion for the poor and weak.
We find this paganism exposed in the ancient world as well, in the Athenian mockery and massacre of the Melians in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, in Thrasymachus’s authoritarian attacks on Socrates in Plato’s Republic, or in Augustine’s shrewd deconstruction of imperial power in The City of God against the Pagans. John Milbank calls this Nietzschean worldview an ontology of eternal violence opposed to an Augustinian counter-ontology of eternal peace. As Schmitz himself suggests, the perfect example of pagan disdain for vulnerability and conspicuous cruelty is the Roman practice of public crucifixion. Pagan is to Christian not as immanent is to transcendent, but as Rome is to the Crucified—a cruel empire to its tortured victims.
But modern paganism can also assume subtler forms, whenever the common good is reduced to ruthless economic competition, confirming Eliot’s fears that we have no values more essential than our “belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends.” The paganism we should fear is not secularism, sacred immanence, or pantheist naturalism. It is power celebrating its violence, perceiving the world empty of everything save the contest of wills, a nihilism ruled by the libido dominandi.
This paganism views moral responsibility as a fool’s errand for the weak, since all that matters is to dominate or be dominated. It sacralizes the emperor as an agent of God, scorns truth, despises the weak, and tortures the vulnerable. And it cloaks its nihilism, to cite Eliot once again, in “a disguised and peculiarly sanctimonious nationalism, accelerating our progress toward the paganism which we say we abhor.”
This 12-minute video is intended as an introduction to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It is not intended as a comprehensive or definitive account of his thought.
The Republican Party is learning what should have been obvious from the outset: Mr. Trump’s chaotic personality can’t be contained.
.. combining it with the awesome power of the presidency virtually guaranteed he would become more volatile and transgressive.
His presidency is infecting the entire party.
.. The Republican Party once championed the principles of liberty and limited government, yet Mr. Trump is indifferent to them.
Republicans once sought to strengthen relations with Mexico; today they delight in antagonizing our neighbor. Not long ago, Republicans made outreach to Hispanics a top priority; today the signals that the president and his party send are that Hispanics are alien, unwelcome, nothing but trouble.
In 2012, Republicans defended Mitt Romney when he said Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat; today they are wholly untroubled by its effort to subvert the 2016 presidential election.
.. Republicans have long argued that human rights should play a central role in American foreign policy, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush’s. Today human rights are viewed at most as an afterthought.
.. At the national level the Republican Party has become a destructive and anarchic political force in American life.
.. Rather than nourishing a sense of gratitude, he stokes grievances.
.. One White House aide, asked by The Washington Post whether John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, could have been more truthful or transparent about the dismissal of the staff secretary Rob Porter, answered honestly: “In this White House, it’s simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don’t even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate.”
.. All of this is antithetical to conservatism. On balance, Republicans are seeking to conserve very little
.. The Republican Party once prided itself as a defender of objective truth against postmodernism. Today, it has become the party of perspectivism — the view, articulated by Nietzsche, that all truth claims are contingent on a person’s perspective rather than on fundamental reality. “It is our needs that interpret the world,” Nietzsche wrote in “The Will to Power.”
.. the institutional expression of Donald Trump’s distorted and impulsive personality.
.. Party leaders who were once willing to challenge Mr. Trump, to call him out now and then, are now far more compliant and therefore far more complicit.
.. Mr. Trump was and remains the people’s choice — evidence that, while the president has accelerated the worst tendencies of the Republican Party, he is not solely responsible for them. He did not appear out of thin air.
.. Americans are longing for a more ennobling, less exhausting political leader.
.. people are tiring of the incessant conflict created by politics these days.
.. But as long as Mr. Trump is president, they will feel this way. He won’t change, and neither will the Republican Party. That’s how institutional corruption happens, from the top down.
Peterson’s idiosyncratic but sympathetic views on Christianity appear to be outgrowths of his ultimately incoherent views about human societies, blending brash political incorrectness with a love of tradition and an enthusiasm for individualism. For modern Christians frustrated by their loss of standing in liberal societies, this makes Peterson, like a stiff cocktail, potent, delicious, and, if enjoyed carelessly or in the wrong context, dangerous.
.. He speaks with a breezy self-assurance, but at the same time he takes serpentine routes to his conclusions – so much so that it’s not always clear even he knows where he’s going until, with a splash, he arrives and all seems to have been made clear.
.. This sense of being on a journey with an unknown destination is heightened by the idiosyncratic nature of his arguments. It’s just weird to get to principled conservatism and appreciation of Scripture from Nietzsche and Jung
.. some – and perhaps a great deal – of what is attracting millions of largely young male viewers to him is not laudable and should not be thoughtlessly applauded by Catholics.
.. Strident denunciations of feminism and anti-racism are not what is missing from our apologetics
.. Jesus Christ is neither politically correct nor incorrect
.. Peterson is at his best and most magnetic when he is almost stammering in awe of the human condition
.. When I hear Peterson speak about God, I think of the late French-American philosopher René Girard.
.. Peterson’s strategy to bring meaning and success to the lives of deracinated young men is an essentially amoral training in interpersonal dominance founded in an uncritical acceptance of the radical individualism that has dominated Western civilisation for the past few centuries.
.. For instance, he argues that the credible threat of violence is essential for earning respect in conversations with men; in one lecture he asserts with his distinctive fatherliness: “If you are not capable of cruelty you are absolutely a victim to anyone who is.”
.. It is true that our present crisis of meaning is related to the inability of many young men to compete effectively in the marketplace, which is for us the primary giver of significance
.. the role of the Church is not to prop up a secular civilisation that has reduced meaning and identity to paychecks and sports teams, but to offer a more beautiful and comprehensive alternative.
.. If the Church is to baptise “Jordan Peterson the internet sensation”, it must be for his reputation as an authentic and awe-filled truth-seeker, not as a politically incorrect provocateur. His sincere reverence for the awesome reality of the human person is a potent antidote for a civilisation whose spirit has been oppressed by secularism and nihilism.
.. striving not for the greatness of alpha status in a world of brutes but for the greatness of communion with the God who is love.
The Perverse Thought of Right-Wing Identity Politics
.. “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization. Soon the only people left in Christianity will be third-world immigrants and a handful of self-hating whites.”
..Hillary Clinton devoted a speech in Nevada to deploring its influence on the election. “These are race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right,’” she charged.
.. Clinton could not name a single member of a movement that, she warned, imperiled American democracy
.. The movement exists almost entirely among anonymous users of the Internet. It has no institutions, no money, no political representation, and no traditional media.
.. It enjoys the close attention of the liberal establishment it seeks to discredit and the conservative movement it intends to displace.
.. “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”
.. The alt-right purports to defend the identity and interests of white people, who it believes are the compliant victims of a century-long swindle by liberal morality. Its goals are not conventionally conservative.
It does not so much question as mock standard conservative positions on free trade, abortion, and foreign policy, regarding them as principles that currently abet white dispossession.
.. Its creed, in the words of Richard Spencer, is “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.”
.. the alt-right represents something more nefarious, and frankly more interesting, than white identity politics.
.. The alt-right is anti-Christian.
.. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it.
.. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.”
.. it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West.
.. Its intellectual birth is marked by the 1918 publication of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
.. While the movement is often accused of advocating racial supremacy, its appeal is more often to cultural difference. A generation tired of multicultural pieties
.. A cultural relativist, Spengler rejects as a “ridiculous distortion” any view that privileges European thought or history.
.. “Each culture possesses its own standards, the validity of which begins and ends with it.”
.. Spengler therefore sees the world as divided into fundamentally different cultures, whose identities he interprets in morphological terms. Cultures are like plants
.. They live through a determined cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. During its lifespan, a culture gives expression to the animating “form”
.. Spengler had no scholarly expertise in non-Western cultures (his advanced studies were in mathematics), and Decline of the West is frequently nonsense as both history and sociology. But its interpretations of cultural artifacts and their hidden symbolic meanings are often brilliant and have enchanted readers for a century.
.. All cultures are unique, but some are more unique than others. “We men of the Western culture are an exception,” Spengler claims. At the heart of his book is an interpretation of the culture he named “Faustian,” a term widely used in the intellectual circles of the alt-right.
.. a single idea permeates the arts and sciences of the West. Its distinctive mark is an intense striving for “infinity.”
.. our culture has uniquely sought to see all things in relation to the highest or most distant horizons, which, in turn, it seeks to surpass and extend.
- The vaults of medieval cathedrals, the
- discovery of perspective in painting, the
- exploration of the New World, the
- development of orchestral music, the
- invention of the telescope and
—in Spengler’s story, all express the Faustian drive toward transcendence.
.. He argues that there is no Christianity without Western civilization. He arrives at this conclusion by claiming the West begins not with ancient Greece or Rome, but with the high Middle Ages and the birth of scholasticism, Gothic architecture, and polyphony.
.. Its cultural achievements are not testimonies to faith in God. They are the monuments of Faustian man’s attempt—in speculation, stone, glass, and sound—to propel himself into infinity. Of this aspiration, Spengler maintains, “the Gospels know nothing.”
.. In the minds and hands of Europeans, Christianity became a religion that affirmed the unceasing expansion of human freedom, power, and knowledge.
.. There is no biblical god for Faustian man, but there is high Christian culture, which is a tribute to his identity.
.. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges.
.. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.”
.. in his 1933 book Hour of Decision, he foresaw the rise of democratic “Caesars” and growing racial animosity. Who will give birth to the next great culture? Not Europeans
.. Spengler predicted the future would belong to the race that had preserved its “strength” in face of the rising “colored menace.”
- If Spengler is the alt-right’s cultural critic,
- Julius Evola is its political mystic.
- Umberto Eco mockingly called him “the magician,” and the
- future Pope Paul VI condemned his writings in a Vatican newspaper
- Evola is the most right-wing thinker possible in the modern world. There is nobody to his right, nor can there be. His influence on the alt-right is detectable in one of its most controversial features: its rejection of human equality.
- “We don’t belong to the liberal family,” writes popular blogger Hunter Wallace. “Nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal.” Here is the movement’s clearest dispute with conventional conservatism
- The alt-right denies that constitutional democracy is worthy of principled veneration. For Evola, its popular acceptance is a sign we are living in a spiritual dark age.
The basic problem with modernity is “desacralization,” the collapse of spiritual meaning in daily life. Work, family, and citizenship are no longer saturated with spiritual importance, but are understood in functionally secular terms.
.. materialism “kills every possibility
.. Spengler’s fundamental flaw was that he “lacked any understanding of metaphysics and transcendence,” which led him to conclude that human cultures are irreducibly different.
.. Evola believed more or less the exact opposite, arguing that there are timeless and universal principles that have provided the foundation for every true civilization. He referred to these perennial truths as “Tradition,” and he traced the disorders of modernity to our loss of contact with it.
.. No, the world had been slouching into spiritual poverty ever since the eighth century b.c., when the world of Tradition began to disappear.
.. Revolt Against the Modern World, claimed that these primordial societies—whose existence can be accessed only by way of myth and legend, not critical scholarship—all operated on the same principles.
.. In a traditional culture, every aspect of human life, every social activity, role, and caste, was dedicated to the service of an otherworldly order; indeed, they were ritual pathways into it. “According to Tradition,” Evola imagines, “every authority is fraudulent, every law unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless . . . they are derived from above.”
.. His key claim is that traditional societies were hierarchically ordered under an absolute ruler, who embodied the sacral order itself.
.. Men Among the Ruins, he argued that political conservatism is intrinsically impossible in a democratic age. True political order can never come from below; it must always be imposed from above.
.. only a transformative leader could elevate humanity out of its degraded state. Such a leader could not appeal to the masses—this was the mistake of the vulgar fascisms of Mussolini and Hitler—but must inspire submission through lofty contempt for democratic norms and popular tastes.
“The presence of superior individuals bestows on a multitude . . . a meaning and a justification they previously lacked,” Evola wrote. “It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around.”
Evola was less clear about what this sacred authority looked like than what stood in the way of its realization.
.. The problem is that Catholicism forbids the sacred state. And a state without absolute spiritual unity is no state at all.
.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s
.. however, no return is necessary if we simply move beyond Christianity altogether. Evola did not believe in a personal deity, but his criticisms of Christianity were political rather than theological. With Benoist, the alt-right becomes explicitly and confessionally anti-Christian.
.. took its inspiration from the failed “conservative revolution” of Weimar Germany.
Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Spengler were its chief figures
.. Most of its members, including Spengler, took sides against the Nazi regime, but they also sought a path for the West beyond the twin evils of American democracy and Soviet communism. Benoist comes from this anti-liberal tradition
.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s
.. attempt to envision a post-Christian future for people of European descent.
.. his 1981 work On Being a Pagan
.. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.”
Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine.
.. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal.
.. Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality.
.. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient.
.. He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead.
.. Benoist’s theology is in the service of a political warning, and it is this, more than his Nietzschean posturing, that attracts the alt-right.
.. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures.
.. Christianity is not our religion.
.. Benoist means that Christianity renders Western culture morally lethargic and culturally defenseless.
.. its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties.
.. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.”
.. Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.
.. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.”
.. Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own.
.. Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it
.. we ought to see ourselves through the eyes of our pagan critics
.. They distort many truths, through both malice and ignorance, and lead young men into espousing views and defending authors they scarcely understand.
.. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains.
.. invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds.
.. identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging.
.. we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation
.. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow.
.. A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance.
.. “The inheritance we receive from Christ,” the late pope argued, “orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal home land.”
.. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones
.. Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement.
.. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.
.. The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict.
.. . For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals.
We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified.
Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.