This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3| Volume 4 | Volume 5 | Volume 6

1.1. The Purpose and Use of This Manual

The reason for writing

This collection of notes was produced at the request of my wife and for the sake of posterity. In that sense it was originally written for my family. I offer it here, with some hesitation, on the assumption that someone else might find it edifying even in this poorly edited and barely organized form.

The scope of the project, which I envisioned as a kind of ‘manual for life’, has always been ludicrous. Namely, a work of synthesis integrating the various areas of knowledge necessary for understanding oneself and the reality in which we find ourselves entangled.

Now, after having put years of work into it, I am at peace with the fact that it will never be ‘complete’ in any real sense. The last print version was over a thousand pages long, and much of what I intend to include is still missing. I can only guess at how preposterously large the project might be before mortality brings it to a point of abrupt termination. When it is all said and done, I suspect that it will only amount to a loosely organized collection of notes, a minor contribution to a much larger, more comprehensive work that could only ever exist as an aspiration.

Beyond the fact that my goal was utterly unreachable from the start, I have the happy distraction of children and the demands of my ‘normal job’. These responsibilities force me to be somewhat selective in what I have included thus far. I have also been limited in how much I’ve been able to refine the content once written. There is a definite unevenness in the flow, and a lack of balance in the subject matter. At one point I will gloss over a complex issue, and elsewhere I will dwell in excess on some trivial matter that seemed important to me at the time.

All that is to say that the reader should be prepared for a complete lack of discipline especially when it comes to editorial work. My situation being what it is, I have never had the money or the desire to work with an editor. If circumstances provide for it, I suppose a proofreader could help a great deal, and perhaps the edition you have in front of you will have that benefit, but I doubt it. Most likely you will find errors, unfinished sentences, and odd notes that were obviously scribbled as reminders for me to put something somewhere but which I never addressed. Some of what I have written I have never read a second time. In that way, this project will have some of the characteristics of a diary, which might be incredibly annoying to some, but helpful to others.

Organization of the work

The organization of the manual is currently as follows:

The first volume (if you happen to be using the print version) contains a few introductory sections on present conditions and the basic outlook on the world that we have adopted. These are followed by a topical introduction to the modern world, its peculiar mythology, and its institutional issues. Next, an example, via the Catholic Church, of how a traditional religion might attempt to adapt its teachings to the present situation. We then move into doctrinal studies and commentary on various traditional religions. The doctrinal portion concludes with a series of studies focusing on spiritual anthropology and aspects of human differentiation. Third, there is a group of sections titled ‘Counsels’. These are distinct from the rest of the manual not only in subject matter but also in tone and style, being more conversational and personal. It would be safe to assume they are a bit more approachable for general audiences. There, we will deal with subjects like the awareness of God, self-understanding, the difficulties of contemporary social life, and some advice on political participation.

Preliminary warning

Due to its subject matter, this manual is not intended for general audiences. No book on metaphysics and doctrine could possibly be ‘popular’ in terms of readership. The content demands a level of familiarity with history and world religions, as well as a natural aptitude for dealing with abstract concepts. That is why I must insist that the mental discipline and flexibility that is required to understand what I have to say is not possessed by the average reader. This should not be taken as an insult to anyone, for the same reason that it is no insult to suggest that the average reader probably cannot rebuild a carburetor or transplant a kidney. Every specialized area of knowledge is naturally exclusive to those whose mental attributes coincide with the demands of the specialization. It is easy to see how this is true when it comes to open heart surgery, and this is why we do not often encounter an untrained individual who wants to attempt the procedure. Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to see when we are dealing with abstract ideas and systems. Take, for example, political philosophy, a field which is rife with contradictory concepts and competing ideologies. In such a context it is very difficult to know when you’ve gone astray or even completely botched the job. Unlike open heart surgery, the incompetent philosopher can quite easily avoid seeing the fact that he has murdered his patient. He can only disfigure his ideas, and ideas cannot sue for malpractice.

All of this is not even to mention the problem of historical and cultural prejudice. Prejudice is, in our view, a natural and healthy sentiment, which should be expected in most people to some degree, as this is what helps to protect a civilization from disintegration. It is necessary to be a ‘tribe’ and to prefer one’s tribe to all others. Nonetheless, these sentiments, although natural, are not permissible for the philosopher. The philosopher must be able to set aside his ‘worldly’ loyalties in pursuit of the truth, in the same way that a physician must sometimes set aside the natural human distaste for blood if he is to adequately pursue the health of his patient. In order to even begin to discuss traditional doctrine, the student must adopt an attitude of sincerity, which is to say openness to change and to contradiction, and this is first and foremost to become vulnerable, since it implies that if the truth destroys a belief we hold dear, that we will permit that belief to be destroyed, no matter the pain. That is why sincerity of this kind is so rare, and so difficult to maintain. Even when we say we wish to hear the truth, we do not typically lay aside the armor of our prejudices. This vulnerability is the essence of what it means to ‘have ears to hear’. Are you willing to risk having your preconceptions deconstructed? Can you stand by and watch your ideological golden calves be melted down and poured in the dirt? Can you set aside a lifelong education that has always assured you that the modern world is the greatest of all possible worlds, that the United States and its ‘immortal principles’ are the height of human achievement and nobility, that all humanity before us was primitive and ignorant, and all that history really has to teach us is how pitiable they were, and how great we are, and how we ought to pity them for not being like us? If you can’t, then we cannot even begin to discuss the nature of medieval Christendom, or the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, since you will have already ensured your own deafness to their value.

These are the challenges presented by the content of this manual, and this is why I am taking time to suggest that what I write is not for everyone. Here I will echo D.H. Lawrence, who said that it was “a mistake of our mistaken democracy that every man who can read print is allowed to believe that he can read all that is printed. I count it a misfortune that serious books are exposed in the public market, like slaves exposed naked for sale. But there we are, since we live in an age of mistaken democracy, we must go through with it.” That is what I am doing—I am “going through with it.” I feel safe in this, because the primary audience I have in mind is my children, and they will, if they wish, have an adequate preparation. But it may happen that this manual is also read by someone else, and that might not go so well. This is not arrogance, nor ‘intellectual pride.’ It is experience, and I have accumulated quite a bit of experience, all of it proving to me that even basic logical problems can be insurmountable obstacles for most people, especially when prejudices or preconceived notions are involved. Whether this is because they can’t understand or don’t want to try because it demands too much vulnerability and takes too much work, I can’t be sure, but the result is the same: they do not understand. Of course, I am less distressed than Lawrence. Not burdened by any kind of fame, I don’t have to worry about my work being ‘exposed naked’ before the public. I think it is very unlikely that anyone outside my small circle of acquaintances will ever read this. I am for the most part safe—safe from being listened to but not heard. Still, I wanted to offer this note to any and all readers here at the outset: this manual will be meaningful only for a very specific type of person. I won’t hold any grudges if you decide now that you simply aren’t of that type. If you aren’t, and you choose to proceed anyway, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The use of the aphoristic form

Flip through a few pages and you will notice that this book isn’t written as a continuous and progressive treatment of a particular subject, nor is it neatly divided into chapters that connect and build upon one another. I decided early on that a ‘linear’ approach would not be possible for this project, mostly because I tend not to think that way, allergic as I am to systems, and also because the subjects I plan to address are much too numerous and varied for a linear approach. It would be a waste of time to try and create an artificial ‘flow’ between thoughts that are blatantly incongruous. That is why, in order to include as many subjects as possible, I have sought to ‘condense’ rather than to ‘develop’. I have aimed more for ‘aphorism’ than ‘essay’.

The aphoristic form is also practical. Modern life is almost universally chaotic and hurried. Few of us are able to make time for lengthy works of non-fiction, and when we do find the time, we often lack the endurance it takes to work through long essays and chapters. Aphorism, material that is condensed into bite-size segments, is more effective for people like you and I, since it is neither lengthy nor demanding, and is yet still capable of acting as a support for deep reflection because an idea conveyed in a few sentences is something you can ‘take with you’ to unpack even after you put the book down. Such brevity makes the thought more digestible while you are working the night shift at a pharmaceutical plant watching vials of medication sprint past you on the conveyor belt. Aphorism is the salvation of the modern thinking man who might wish to develop his mind in the face of a mind-numbing routine.

Add to this the fact that most people who write, write too much, myself included. Given this tendency, the standard approach of selecting a very broad chapter title and then spewing forth thirty pages of text is not very considerate of the reader who knows what they are looking for and simply wants to find it. Things used to be done differently. There was a time when the table of contents told us almost everything we needed to know about a book. Look at some of the classics like Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”, or Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”. You will open the cover to find a sophisticated table of contents that makes approaching such lengthy works more manageable. Compare this to a modern scholarly work which might run for five hundred pages and only be divided into a few chapters, with the table of contents providing almost no indication of what the reader is going to find therein. It seems that Tocqueville understood that a person might not be interested in reading every single thought that he felt inclined to write, and so he divided his ideas into compact sections and this in turn permitted a descriptive and therefore useful table of contents, allowing readers to get within a page or two of the information they need without having to scan through a whole chapter and still come up with nothing but a headache.

In my own experience, an aphoristic approach is best when dealing with the areas of ‘wisdom’ and spirituality, because these things tend to suffer when subjected to too much analysis, which always ends in systematizing. Think, for example, of the style of presentation adopted by all of the great teachers and prophets, from Christ to Buddha to Muhammad. These teachers did not produce lengthy discourses. They produced proverbs, parables, and ahadith. Think also of the Tao Te Ching. This is why the Hindus take such pains to condense their doctrines into the most concise form imaginable, such as what you find in the Brahma Sutras.

This manual is a work of pointillism, in the sense that there is a vision of reality that I wish to convey, but it is a partial vision, and so I can only convey it in fragments, like pieces of a puzzle that can never truly be completed. Aphorism allows me to provide as many pieces as possible, however small, without demanding that each piece fit directly into the one that comes before or after it. I have only collected as many pieces as I could, and there will be gaps for you to fill as you are able. My sole purpose is to show you a certain constellation of ideas, rather than a full and unbroken picture of the cosmos. Always know that whatever this manual has to offer, it can only amount to a collection of notes for a book that, in the end, cannot exist.

The use of discourse

It is a modern dogma that ‘the free exchange of ideas’ leads automatically to truth, hence the emphasis in modern regimes on ‘free speech’ and our high esteem for ‘public discourse’. This belief is so obviously false that nothing short of a lifelong indoctrination in bad philosophy could get humanity to believe it for as long as they have.

I’ve never seen any reason at all to believe that on the social level truth prevails over falsehood, or good over evil. The ‘good guys’, guardians of truth and justice, do not just win automatically by some sort of natural law. That is fiction. The facts, on the contrary, tell us in gruesome detail that things work in the opposite manner, and the lie tends to get the upper hand. We should recall that Christ was crucified by popular demand, which is to say, he was murdered democratically, and his Apostles martyred after him. Socrates was sentenced to death by a jury of his peers.[1] In other words, the objective pursuit of justice and truth are not instincts embedded in human collectivities, particularly in democracies where passions and tribalism rule supreme. In fact, we could say that it was Pilate, the representative of royalty and empire, who tried to save Christ by way of ‘public discourse’, but the crowd would not have it, even to the point of releasing a known criminal just to make sure their scapegoat was executed. Things have not changed much in two thousand years.

To act according to justice is to act against one’s inclinations and even against one’s own interests, and that is why it is so rare on the individual level, and virtually non-existent when it comes to crowds. Yes, according to Christian doctrine, we are told that in the long run justice will have the last word—Christ will return—but that only proves the point, since that moment of justice comes after the end of the world. Justice is not found within the timeline of the worldly narrative—it is an ‘afterword’, a divine intervention that restores a world in shambles.

Every election season I am given more proof, as if I needed it, that lies, given the light of day, have the strategic and tactical advantage over truth. The truth can be a hard and unpleasant thing to swallow. It also imposes restraints on those who possess it—and sometimes those restraints are severe. Modern societies worship freedom first and foremost, and nothing places limits on one’s freedom like strict fidelity to the truth. Who would accept such a burden when it is much easier to just pull a set of ready-made opinions from the internet or the television? We can add to this problem the very real asymmetry between the statement of a lie and the effort required to correct the lie. It is easy for one person to make a mistake, but very difficult for another person to decisively correct it. Anyone can make a false claim, or a dozen of them, in just a few minutes, but it might take another person hundreds of pages of research and reasoning in order to truly demonstrate that those claims were false. The adherents of truth are quickly overtaken by the deluge.

This is similar to what was written by George Horne in his Letters on Infidelity:

“Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject…people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers.”

Finally, there is the problem of emotional well-being. Solomon was stating a universal truth when he said: “With great knowledge comes great suffering.” Ignorance is always more more comfortable. The truth is very hard to obtain–lies are easy. They require zero work, and they can be as flattering as we want them to be. Especially in hard times, who can blame people for preferring the fiction when the facts are so awful?

What is today called ‘dialogue’ is just an exchange of lies to see which lie will prevail, a competition to see which configuration of errors will get to be in charge of the country for a time. Political debate is just a sentencing of each man to his own darkness. ‘The free exchange of ideas.’ Nonsense. We watch the debates, we cringe at the childishness of it, we turn red in the face with the screaming pundits, but the pursuit of truth really has nothing to do with it. It is just a gladiatorial match. The people watch as the proponents of terrible ideas fight for the right to implement their idiocy as law. We might pick a side, claim that one of them is right and the other wrong—but we really do not care in the end who was right—we care that our man won and that theirs did not. The Romans would pick a man to root for, but it was not about the man, it was about the gore. It is about tribalism. It is about finding a scapegoat for the violent anguish of a frustrated people. The modern world is inherently violent—it displays this on every level. Thus, in the realm of ideas it is the combat that matters, and we’ll see truth itself dead in the dust before we’ll close the Coliseum.

[1] Although in the case of Socrates, he certainly appeared to be egging everyone on, as if martyrdom was his goal all along and he’d accept nothing less. That does not excuse the crowd, however.

Avoidance of apologetics

Another thing we might as well get out of the way concerns what we would call the “persuasive” approach, wherein the writer writes in order to convince the reader that his position is rational, defensible, and valid. In popular Christianity this is called ‘apologetics’—which has as its goals the defense the faith and the ‘winning’ of converts. It should be obvious already that I am making no effort in this work to be ‘scholarly’ in what I write here, but I would like to go further, so that it is plainly understood, and say that I’m not even trying to be particularly convincing, especially from the point of view of Christian apologetics. To be truthful, I will admit that ‘the defense of the faith’ was once a soul-sucking concern of mine—I made serious efforts to demonstrate to others the truth of what I saw—but I have matured (a little) since then, and these days I want no part of it.

I have no wish to convince anyone who does not wish to be convinced. I merely offer this collected data, with the understanding that my readers will take or leave it as is appropriate to each. If anyone becomes persuaded by anything written here, it is not a ‘success’ chalked up on my side of the scoreboard, and it may be just as likely that the person I persuaded was merely fickle or credulous, in which case little good has been done for either of us. If I digress into argumentation, it should be taken as nothing more than that: a digression.

The “apologetic” attitude automatically impoverishes dialogue, especially the kind of dialogue we are trying to have here. Some things can only be stated with approximate clarity, but never demonstrated with certainty, and in these cases it is always up to the individual to do the inner work required to integrate the data, or else, through discernment, to ignore what I’ve said as incomprehensible or incorrect. Often, and contrary to the assumptions of egalitarian education, there is no explanation capable of making the idea comprehensible to all—there are only intimations which can lead those capable of travelling. Why this is, and what that means for doctrinal exposition, I will explain later. For now, please know that my position is that when it comes to doctrine, ‘apologetics’ is an utter waste of time. It profanes the sacred and confuses the student by drastically over-emphasizing the importance of rationalist argumentation.

Against political programs

Please don’t mistake this manual for a set of instructions on how to rebuild the world. The world cannot be saved except by completing its course, which is to say, its descent. Such is the doctrine of the apocalypse and it is a good teaching. Anyone who tells you we are not involved in a process of decomposition, anyone who promises you that thanks to Progress we are actually better off, more wise, and more moral, than any heathen society before us, is selling you the antithesis of what every religion in the world has stated since the beginning of time: the doctrine of the religions is that things get worse, not better, and then it all ends. The only thing we cannot know is when things end, since this could be tomorrow or in a million years.

As sojourners, we are at best fighting nobly for an already lost position, and our civilization, like any other, will have its day and then pass away. Anything else is utopia. Let go of that pleasant dream as soon as you can and waste no more energy and passion on it. The point here is not to depress you, but to drive home the fact that you cannot ‘share the truth’ with your society in any comprehensive sense. The writing contained here is for you, not ‘mankind’ and not ‘the world’; it is to help and to guide you as you try to learn about yourself and the created order, which in turn will help you pursue the only thing that really matters—the Truth, the Absolute Truth. Therefore, if I spend hundreds of pages talking about the world, about political ideas, or about the economy, know that this is not to encourage you to become politician. It is conceivable that you might be called to such a vocation, but it is only barely conceivable, since by and large it is impossible to go near what is today called ‘politics’ without being poisoned on contact. I might explain the proper constitution of governments, but it is not because I want someone to develop a political program based on what I have written. If I offer suggestions that sound like they could be implemented in your present social context, it is not my intent that you should implement them, and if a person were to form a political party based on what is taught here, I would probably die of disgust, or, if already dead, roll over in my grave.

I want to convey knowledge to you and at the same time prepare you to endure the suffering that comes with that knowledge, and that means that I need to talk about every aspect of worldly life, how it can best be lived, how to understand the things you will encounter, what psychological and spiritual pitfalls to avoid, and how to interpret certain mysteries. It does not mean that I wish for you to change the prevailing order, because in most respects it is what it must be and cannot be ‘saved’, only contemplated and endured.

Athanasius contra mundum

One of my difficulties throughout has been to steer away from the tone of an Athanasius contra mundum. To question the worth of one’s own civilization is a vocation that calls for a certain temperament, and this temperament very easily starts to display a lack of appreciation for beauty and a proper love for man and the created order. What is ‘given’ is never good enough, and so on, and the virtue of gratitude withers in the face of a world that is far too easy to criticize. Not to mention the fact that any person who has been placed in this world at this particular time also possesses the right to exist in this particular ambience and to make some kind of peace with it. Because the hermit or prophet cannot find this peace does not mean that they are permitted to deny it to others, but sadly it is my impulse to do so—to grab everyone I see by the shoulders and ask ‘how can you be so satisfied?’ This is not healthy, and ought to be avoided at all costs. I say this now as a personal admission, but also because the reader might share my temperament, and they too ought to watch out for what comes with it. A chronic lack of appreciation for an imperfect humanity, simply on the grounds that it is not perfect, is a habit which, left unchecked, not only destroys empathy and gratitude but also makes needless enemies. For example, in Rene Guenon, to whom I myself owe a great deal, these qualities resulted in a tendency toward condescension and tautology when it came to certain points of doctrine. Some would say he even displayed a form of paranoia, and this is certainly not helpful for students or for opponents. Criticism ought to be carefully counterbalanced with the presentation of a positive doctrine whenever analysis of worldly disorder can be set aside.

What to include

Before moving on from matters of basic orientation, I will add that one of my struggles here has been the question of what to include and what, for the sake of space, to leave out. Some of this is made easier by the limits of my own knowledge: there are some subjects I had intended to cover but cannot due to incompetence. In other cases, I’ve simply had to prioritize. For example, it is easy to see that in dealing with the great traditional religions of the world, I have spent far more time on three in particular: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Other traditions, namely those of the Far East, will hopefully receive some attention, but I must treat them far less extensively. The reason for prioritizing things in this way is that Christianity and Islam are closest to us, as men of the modern West. Because they are more familiar, what I wish to say about them will be more readily understood. Also, due to the predominant role these traditions play in today’s affairs, it is necessary to comprehend them properly. As for Hinduism, I dwell on it for a number of reasons. First, an ‘alien’ point of view is sometimes extremely useful when trying to bring new light to an idea that is too familiar to the student. A particular error regarding Christian doctrine might be so embedded in our Western ‘mental vocabulary’ that it is impossible to exorcise by discussing the idea directly, and in such a case it is very effective to choose instead a corresponding idea from the Hindu tradition, and explain it properly, and then once the new conception has been nurtured in the mind of the student, it is possible to reveal that this is also the proper way of understanding the corresponding idea in Christianity. In addition to this pedagogic concern, which is purely utilitarian, the Hindu tradition deserves priority in itself given that it is the most ancient tradition and, doctrinally speaking, the most fully developed. The Hindu doctrines will, throughout this study, prove to be an endless resource for arriving at a more complete understanding of many points that are only partially developed in other traditions. Regarding all of this, I will explain more when the time comes to look at doctrine straight on, and not waste any more space here.

At some points I will simply direct the reader to some other work where what I wish to say has been said better by someone else. In fact, in almost every case someone has said what I want to say elsewhere and more clearly. At one point I thought it would be reasonable to simply compile a massive, annotated bibliography and leave it at that. But my desire was that you could formulate a framework for your life without having to thumb through a whole library of material. You can, of course, go that route, but this manual should enable the reader to get by if he has this and nothing else. Suffice it to say that nothing of what you’ll read here is ‘original’, and that’s a good thing.

I will frequently include direct quotations from other works, but in many cases, for the sake of space, I will point in the direction of source material via footnotes. My general approach has been to condense the Traditional Doctrine as much as possible, and to include only what is needed in order to grasp the nature, location, and extent of that wellspring. If something falls into that category but cannot be conveyed in a page or two, I will refer you elsewhere so that you can find what you need. Another reason for including so many footnotes and citations is a matter of honesty. After all, you need to know who your ‘influences’ are. This does not mean that I am a devout disciple of every person I quote, but it does mean that I take them seriously.