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).

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2.5. Church and State

General remarks

“The world has heard enough of the so-called rights of man. Let it hear something of the rights of God.”

~ Pope Leo XIII[1]

The relationship between Church and State involves two questions: one of power and one of knowledge. From the point of view of the State, it is a question of power and who is subordinate to whom. From the point of view of the Church it is a question of truth, and whose knowledge is closer to the Absolute and must, therefore, be considered superior to the other. The failure to understand these differing points of view is the perennial source of conflict between the two spheres. The Church understands itself as the bridge between the absolute and the relative, between Eternity and Present, between Truth itself and temporal confusion. In this role it clearly sees itself as superior from a logical point of view to all other social bodies in knowledge, since it is attached to “the source” while others receive the knowledge thus drawn. The State, on the other hand, which tends to conceive of all social institutions in terms of power, cannot help but be jealous of an authority which claims to hold this directing knowledge. It feels this as a threat to the exercise of its power, whether or not the threat is real, and is perpetually seeking to dethrone the spiritual authorities in such a way that it no longer has to reconcile the exercise of its power with the dictates of their knowledge. It loathes being responsible to a body that is, from its unique point of view, so utterly weak. And so the two social groups, which in the end represent two necessary social functions, tend to exist in tension, although at certain periods throughout history they have, by understanding themselves and their respective functions properly, harmonized in their purposes and achieved the unity dreamed of by St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante. The purpose of this section is to examine the nature of this relationship. We will also seek to understand the problems that arise when the relationship between the two is denied, destroyed, or inverted. This will lead us not only to questions of religion and politics, but to questions regarding the nature of law and justice itself.

[1] Tametsi Futura Prospicientibus, 13.

Knowledge and action

 “All action that does not proceed from knowledge is lacking in principle and thus is nothing but a vain agitation; likewise, all temporal power that fails to recognize its subordination to the spiritual authority is vain and illusory: separated from its principle, it can only exert itself in a disorderly way and move inexorably to its own ruin.”

~ Rene Guénon[1]

To state the question in its simplest form, the Church and the State represent to separate functions, these being knowledge and action. Understood in this way, it becomes blatantly obvious that there exists between the two a relationship that is not “separate but equal,” but rather “hierarchical.” This is because human action must proceed from knowledge. Knowledge, for rational beings, is the principle of their action in the physical world.

Now clearly one could respond that “action” takes place all the time, through the growth of plant life, for example, that has no origin in thought. This objection can be answered by taking a more comprehensive view of reality.

According to the traditional understanding of the cosmos, all beings are “thoughts” of the Creator, and Creation is the expression through act of the Mind of God. And so, from this point of view, the existence of the world itself has its origin in thought, which is to say in the “knowledge” of God. This is why Christianity says of Christ, the Logos, that “through him all things were made.” Because Christ is the “Word” of God, he is the mind of God expressed through existence, and hence it can be said that he is “the Lamb of God sacrificed from the beginning of the World.” This is the relationship between knowledge and action in terms of the macrocosm.

Man, for his own part, is called a “microcosm,” reflecting in himself the structure of the macrocosm. Thus, while brutes (irrational animals) do indeed “act” upon the world in various ways, they do not participate in rationality. The knowledge from which their activity proceeds has its origin in the laws of nature, to which they are passive. Their action has its origin in knowledge, even though it is not their knowledge. That is why plants and animals, although alive and acting, do not reflect the universe in the way that man, who is the “rational animal,” contains it within himself.

Human action, if it is properly human, which is to say rational, proceeds from knowledge. Although it is possible for man to act on a brute level, and to go on living on a vegetal level, this is not human action properly speaking. All human action proceeds from knowledge, and this knowledge is found in the human being himself and is not, as was the case with the brute, a passive or “instinctual” participation.

In summary, we can say with Guénon that action without knowledge is not human, but rather an animal type of knowledge. If man does not subordinate his action to knowledge, then his action is disordered. He is acting either irrationally or “non-rationally,” and thereby degrades his action to the level of the brute.

[1] Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, p. 28-29.

The caste system

 “The principle of the institution of castes, so completely misunderstood by Westerners, is nothing else but the differing natures of human individuals; it establishes among them a hierarchy the incomprehension of which only brings disorder and confusion…In effect, each man, by reason of his proper nature, is suited to carry out certain definite functions to the exclusion of all others…and thus the social order exactly expresses the hierarchical relationships that result from the nature of the beings themselves.”

~ Rene Guénon[1]

The properly ordered social body, because it is a unity of the human order, has a structure that is analogous to that of the human body, composed of differing parts each contributing in a unique way to form a coherent and harmonious whole. This is why throughout traditional societies we find the various members of the social body, along with their corresponding functions, being symbolically represented by the human body.

The traditional world acknowledged the diversity among human beings. No one was born as a blank slate, capable of performing any task with the same aptitude as his neighbor, as if mankind were a homogenous mass of identical “atoms.” The egalitarian outlook has no place in the traditional understanding of society. “Caste” is the result of this anti-egalitarian understanding. It is nothing more than the acknowledgement that men differ in aptitude and inclination, and that these differences correspond to the functional needs of society in such a way that, if they are acknowledged and ordered properly, all men in a society can be assigned a “vocation” that fits their nature and allows them to realize their potential to the greatest degree possible.

This system has its equivalents in all traditional societies, from the Christian Middle Ages to Japan. However, the Hindu caste system in India, because it is the only one with which modern men are vaguely familiar, will be used an example here, although its underlying assumptions and its categories must be understood to be universal amongst the other traditional civilizations. The terms for the Hindu castes (varnas) are the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras. Returning again to Guénon:

…the Brahmins represent essentially the spiritual and intellectual authority; the Kshatriyas, the administrative prerogative comprising both the judicial and the military offices, of which the royal function is simply the highest degree; to the Vaishyas belongs the whole varied range of economic functions in the widest sense of the word, including the agricultural, industrial, commercial and financial functions; as for the Shudras, they carry out the tasks necessary to assure the purely material subsistence of the community.[2]

If we choose to represent this “social body” symbolically, the Brahmins form the mouth, the Kshatriya the arms, the Vaishya the thighs, the Shudra the feet.[3]

Translating these functional groups into more familiar terms, such as those of the Medieval West, we can speak of the priestly class (Brahmins), the nobility (Kshatriyas), the “third estate” (Vaishyas), and peasantry (Shudras).

While the study of each of these four principal castes would be beneficial for the modern Westerner, our purposes make it necessary to focus on the divergence between the first two only: the priesthood and the nobility, the “Sacerdotum” and “Regnum,” or in other words the Spiritual Authority and the Temporal Power. The third and fourth classifications are, after all, subordinate or lesser subdivisions of the nobility.

The Spiritual Authority and the Temporal Power are, as should be clear at this point, the representatives of “knowledge” and “action” respectively, and therefore these are the categories we really ought to have in mind when we are considering problems of “Church and State,” even if the latter terms are specific to the modern world.

[1] Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power, pp. 8-9.

[2] Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines, pp. 154-155.

[3] Rig-Veda, x. 90.

Spiritual authority and temporal power

“Ineffable providence has thus set before us two goals to aim at: i.e. happiness in this life, which consists in the exercise of our own powers and is figured in the earthly paradise; and happiness in the eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of the vision of God (to which our own powers cannot raise us except with the help of God’s light) and which is signified by the heavenly paradise.

Now these two kinds of happiness must be reached by different means, as representing different ends. For we attain the first through the teachings of philosophy, provided that we follow them putting into practice the moral and intellectual virtues; whereas we attain the second through spiritual teachings which transcend human reason, provided that we follow them putting into practice the theological virtues, i.e. faith, hope and charity.

These ends and the means to attain them have been shown to us on the one hand by human reason, which has been entirely revealed to us by the philosophers, and on the other by the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets and sacred writers, through Jesus Christ the son of God, coeternal with him, and through his disciples, has revealed to us the transcendent truth we cannot do without; yet human greed would cast these ends and means aside if men, like horses, prompted to wander by their animal natures, were not held in check “with bit and bridle” on their journey.

It is for this reason that man had need of two guides corresponding to his twofold goal: that is to say the supreme Pontiff, to lead mankind to eternal life in conformity with revealed truth, and the Emperor, to guide mankind to temporal happiness in conformity with the teachings of philosophy…

But the truth concerning this last question should not be taken so literally as to mean that the Roman Prince is not in some sense subject to the Roman Pontiff, since this earthly happiness is in some sense ordered towards immortal happiness.

Let Caesar therefore show that reverence towards Peter which a firstborn son should show his father, so that, illumined by the light of paternal grace, he may the more effectively light up the world, over which he has been placed by Him alone who is ruler over all things spiritual and temporal.”

It is for this reason that man had need of two guides corresponding to his twofold goal: that is to say the supreme Pontiff, to lead mankind to eternal life in conformity with revealed truth, and the Emperor, to guide mankind to temporal happiness in conformity with the teachings of philosophy…

But the truth concerning this last question should not be taken so literally as to mean that the Roman Prince is not in some sense subject to the Roman Pontiff, since this earthly happiness is in some sense ordered towards immortal happiness.

Let Caesar therefore show that reverence towards Peter which a firstborn son should show his father, so that, illumined by the light of paternal grace, he may the more effectively light up the world, over which he has been placed by Him alone who is ruler over all things spiritual and temporal.”

~ Dante Alighieri[1]

Dante’s words speak for themselves here. In the Western world the relationship between the Spiritual Authority and the Temporal Power has been expressed by that between the King and Roman Pontiff at various times in Europe. Indeed, the very title “pontiff,” according to St. Bernard, denotes its function:

The Pontiff, as indicated by the etymology of his name, is a kind of bridge [pont] between God and man.[2]

That is to say, the Pope was to represent the tether between the worldly and the eternal. He was a mediator between heaven and earth, and this is why he was able to christen as well as depose noblemen who failed to acknowledge the proper social order.

[1] De Monarchia, III.16.

[2] Tractatus de Moribus et Officio Episcoporum, III, 9.

The separation of church and state

“Men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, not less than individuals, owes gratitude to God, who gave it being and maintains it, and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice—not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion—it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So, too, is it a sin in the State not to have care for religion, as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for States are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, should hold in honour the holy Name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it . . . . “

~ Pope Leo XIII[1]

The doctrine of the separation of church and state, which is extolled in America by both the religious and non-religious alike, for opposite reasons, is the political result of the victory of the temporal power over the spiritual authority. For there is no such thing as “separate but equal,” and once separation by law becomes institutional, then the party responsible for making and maintaining the law immediately rises to supremacy.

In the same Encyclical he cites as reprehensible these views:

The State (civitas) does not consider itself bound by any kind of duty towards God. Moreover, it believes that it is not obliged to make public profession of any religion; or to inquire which of the very many religions is the only one true; or to prefer one religion to all the rest; or to show to any form of religion special favour; but, on the contrary, is bound to grant equal rights to every creed, so that public order may not be disturbed by any particular form of religious belief.

Again, in his Encyclical Libertas, 20 June 1888, he teaches:

This kind of liberty [liberty of cult], if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith…. Civil society [civilis societas, quia societas est] must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness—namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engraven upon it.

Likewise, Pius X wrote in his Encyclical Vehementer nos, ll February 1906:

That the State should be separated from the Church is an absolutely false and most pernicious thesis. For first, since it is based on the principle that religion should be of no concern to the State, it does a grave injury to God, He Who is the founder and conserver of human society no less than He is of individual men, for which reason He should be worshipped not only privately but also publicly.

[1] Immortale Dei.

Protestantism and secularism

“If the human race were not condemned to see things reversely, it would select for its counsellors theologians amongst the generality of men, and the mystics among theologians, and amongst the mystics, those who have lived a life most apart from business and the world. Among the persons whom I know, and I know many, the only ones in whom I have recognised an unshaken common sense, and a prodigious sagacity, and an amazing aptitude to give a practical and prudent solution to the most difficult problems, and to discover a means of escape in the most trying circumstances, are those who have lived a contemplative and retired life; and, on the contrary, I have not yet discovered, and I do not expect ever to discover, one of those who are called men of business, despisers of all spiritual, and, above all, divine speculations, who would be capable of understanding any business.”

~ Juan Donoso Cortes[1]

Take the words of Cortes, which represent the old view of knowledge which taught that those men closest to the absolute would obviously be the most discerning in any order, and compare this with Luther’s view:

…you have people under you and you wish to know what to do. It is not Christ you are to question concerning the matter but the law of your country…Between the Christian and the ruler, a profound separation must be made…Assuredly, a prince can be a Christian, but it is not as a Christian that he ought to govern. As a ruler, he is not called a Christian, but a prince. The man is a Christian, but his function does not concern his religion…Though they are found in the man, the two states or functions are perfectly marked off, one from the other, and really opposed.[2]

And so, in the fashion of Luther, men like Jefferson could learn to see any priest who walked outside the church doors as a trespasser, useless in everything except the administration of the sacraments. And because no right-thinking clergymen would ever accept this absurd limitation, anti-clericalism was the result, and Jefferson, along with his comrades, would have to see priests as enemies of thought and freedom:

In every country and in every age the priest has been hostile to liberty; he is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.[3]

Thus, the notion of a beneficial “wall of separation between church and state” has its roots in liberal philosophy, and in fact this idea follows very naturally from its basic premises. So inevitable was this conclusion that we find it rearing its head not only in the political philosophies of John Locke and J.S. Mill, but even from religious reformers such as Martin Luther, whose advice we have cited above.

And while the Catholic Church had warned kings that “through this crown, you become a sharer in our ministry,” the secularism of Luther was to become the unconscious status quo in all the later liberal-democratic regimes with which Protestantism would form an unhealthy union. In nations built on this philosophy, even those Catholics who wished to participate in public life would have to sacrifice their principles to the liberal altar. Consider the following statements of the Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, which we have mentioned elsewhere but which are worth citing again, and consider how perfectly they mirror the thinking of Luther, while at the same time flatly contradicting the teachings of Kennedy’s own Church:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute… I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me…Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision…in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.[4]

[1] Juan Donoso Cortes, Essays, 61.

[2] Luther’s Works (Wiemar Edition) XXXII, pp. 391, 439, 440.

[3] Letter to Horatio G. Spafford, 17 March 1814.

[4] Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association delivered Sept. 12, 1960.

Religion and economics

 “The Catholic Church, that imperishable handiwork of our All-Merciful God, has for her immediate and natural purpose the saving of souls and securing our happiness in heaven. Yet in regard to things temporal she is the source of benefits as manifold and great as if the chief end of her existence were to ensure the prospering of our earthly life.”

~ Pope Leo XIII[1]

It is common to hear complaints of religious figures such as the Pope making suggestions about economic theory, as today it is assumed that the two spheres have nothing to do with one another. This warrants a comment on the understanding of economic activity and its history, particularly with respect to “origins stories” which go to form modern assumptions about such things. According to the conventional wisdom, money originated in a completely naturalistic fashion—from the ground up, almost like man from ape, based on a purely biological and necessary logic of efficiency. This gives the impression that the transcendent realm of religion is at the opposite end of reality from the science of money. If we ignore Smith’s theses, however, which according to contemporary scholars[2] is a reasonable thing to do, we can explore other options that turn this paradigm on its head. For example, we can consider the view that, as readily acknowledged, money was originally in the power of religious authorities. It is well-known that the earliest economic transactions are temple artifacts.

At any rate, even if the economic secularists were correct in their history, the reality is that, as Pope Benedict XVI suggested, every economic decision has a moral consequence. Economics is not a science, and while economics are responsible for technical applications, their applications and their approach in general are circumscribed within a moral framework, which is to say they must be circumscribed by the principles of religious truth. Hence, the Catholic Church states with certainty:

 [T]here resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters …Even though economics and moral science employs each its own principles in its own sphere, it is, nevertheless, an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from and alien to each other that the former depends in no way on the latter.[3]

[1] Immortale Dei, 1.

[2] David Graeber refutes the conventional wisdom very well in his Debt: the first 5000 years.

[3] Quadragesimo Anno, 41-42.

Liberalism and the privatization of truth

 “For the Liberal the spiritual center of gravity was in the individual, and the realm of private opinion and private interests was the ideal world. Hence, when the Liberal spoke of religion as a purely private matter it was in compliment rather than in derogation. To separate the Church from the State—to keep religion out of politics, was to elevate it to a higher sphere of spiritual values. But today in the democratic world, these values have been reversed. The individual life has lost its spiritual primacy, and it is social life which has now the higher prestige, so that to treat religion as a purely individual and personal matter is to deprive it of actuality and to degrade it to a lower level of value and potency. To keep religion out of public life is to shut it up in a stuffy Victorian back drawing room with the aspidistras and antimacassars, when the streets are full of life and youth. And the result is that the religion of the Church becomes increasingly alienated from real life while democratic society creates a new religion of the street and the forum to take its place.”

~ Christopher Dawson[1]

What is observed here by Dawson has also been observed at length by figures such as Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that in liberal democratic regimes religious truth undergoes a transformation in several ways: it becomes a matter of consensus, which is something that happens to all truth in individualistic democracies; it becomes influenced by materialism, since democracy turns men’s mind toward the material world overall; and it becomes an oversimplified expression of rationalism and “intuitivism” through which the individual confuses his own prejudices and guesses with “self-evident truths.”

[1] Christopher Dawson, Beyond Politics (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1938).

The weakness of secular government

 “Now a government is secure insofar as it has God for its foundation and His Will for its guide; but this, surely, is not a description of Liberal government. It is, in the Liberal view, the people who rule, and not God; God Himself is a ‘constitutional monarch’ Whose authority has been totally delegated to the people, and Whose function is entirely ceremonial. The Liberal believes in God with the same rhetorical fervor with which he believes in Heaven. The government erected upon such a faith is very little different, in principle, from a government erected upon total disbelief, and whatever its present residue of stability, it is clearly pointed in the direction of Anarchy.”

~ Seraphim Rose[1]

What has been said above regarding ambulatory law and divine law is complemented here by the words of Rose. Perhaps the only perspective we need add to the above observation about the self-impoverishment that results from the adoption of liberal principles is that of Donoso Cortes, who added that such societies are not only weakened but plummeted into chaos:

Liberalism explains the evil and the good, order and disorder, by the various forms of government, all ephemeral and transitory; when, prescinding, on one side, from all social, and, on the other, from all religious, problems, it brings into discussion its political problems as the only ones worthy by their elevation of occupying the statesman, there are no words in any language capable of describing the profound incapacity and radical impotence of this school, not only to solve, but even to enunciate, these awful questions. The Liberal school, enemy at once of the darkness and of the light, has selected I know not what twilight between the luminous and dark regions, between the eternal shades and the divine aurora. Placed in this nameless region, it has aimed at governing without a people and without a God. Extravagant and impossible enterprise! Its days are numbered; for on one side of the horizon appears God, and on the other, the people. No one will be able to say where it is on the tremendous day of battle, when the plain shall be covered with the Catholic and Socialistic phalanxes.[2]

[1] Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age, part II, ch. 1.

[2] Donoso Cortes, Essays, 64.

The true end of human society

 “It is, however, clear that the end of a multitude gathered together is to live virtuously. For men form a group for the purpose of living well together, a thing which the individual man living alone could not attain, and good life is virtuous life. Therefore, virtuous life is the end for which men gather together…Yet through virtuous living man is further ordained to a higher end, which consists in the enjoyment of God, as we have said above. Consequently, since society must have the same end as the individual man, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God.”

~ St. Thomas Aquinas[1]

The ultimate purpose of social life is not simply the “good life,” but lies beyond this life entirely, within the hereafter. This adds to the list yet another reason why the Spiritual Authority must be considered superior to the Temporal Power, since it directs man toward his ultimate end, while the Temporal Power directs him only to a relative end. This is why St. Thomas says that all human functions have contemplation as their superior end, “so that, when considered properly, they all seem to be in the service of those who contemplate truth.”

But even while saying this, it is important to remember that this reasoning is only a secondary proof as to the superiority of the Priestly caste over the Nobility. I stress this because today few in the Western world would agree that the ultimate end of society is the vision of God. I want the reader to understand that, even denying this purpose, the supremacy of knowledge over action still remains a fact, and cannot be refuted even if one adopts a purely atheistic point of view.

[1] De Regno, Bk. I, Ch. 3.

Symbols of the relationship between Church and State

“Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord’s feet, heard his word. But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? Speak to her therefore, that she help me. And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

~ The Gospel of Luke

The account of Mary and Martha from the Gospel is the most well-known illustration of the “two paths,” contemplative and active. Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, are also symbolic of these two paths. The biblical accounts are instructive in several ways, but the theme is universal in traditional literature.

Merlin, the Druid, and King Arthur represent the same choice between two paths, and identify the hierarchical relationship between the two parties: Merlin has knowledge and acts as Arthur’s advisor. Merlin knows all things, even the future, while Arthur has been “chosen” to carry out the plan on the physical plane. St. Thomas himself explicitly refers to the relationship between the Druids and their relationship with their kings when teaching about the proper relationship between royalty and priesthood.

We should also mention the ancient parable of the two men—one blind and one lame. The two form a partnership where the lame man, physically weak but gifted with sight (knowledge), is carried by the blind man who is gifted with physical strength (action). The two are clearly mutually dependent for the exercise of their functions, but it is the lame man who plays the guiding role, and the action of the blind man has its origin in the counsel of the lame man. This is precisely the relationship between the priesthood and the royalty, for while the royalty must depend upon the guidance of the priest, lest he act blindly and in vain, the priest must be protected from disturbance and the vicissitudes of worldly affairs if he is to carry out his function of contemplation and discernment.

Revolt of the aristocracy

 “Just as Martha complained about Mary so in every age active persons have complained about contemplatives…I think that worldly-minded critics who find fault with contemplatives should be excused on account of their ignorance…As certainly as Martha was ignorant of what she was saying when she protested to the Lord, so these people understand little or nothing about the contemplative life.”

~ The Cloud of Unknowing[1]

In order to understand the historical process that has led to our current situation, we must return again to the story of Martha and Mary. As the account suggests, the contemplative life, being “beyond” the realm of action, is incomprehensible to those whose vocation does not include that sort of knowledge. Thus, while the higher always, at least in potentiality, includes the lower, the lower does not include the higher. This is why men called to action will always display a tendency to usurp, or at least to ignore, the guidance of those responsible for knowledge. The Temporal Power will always attempt to throw off the so-called chains of the Spiritual Authority, so that it can act according to its own desires. This is the revolt of the aristocracy, and it is the first stage in a chain reaction which leads to the ruin of civilization altogether and ends in a return to barbarism. This chain reaction, which begins when the royalty undermines the priesthood and usurps its role, is called the “regression of the castes.”

[1] Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 18-19.

Regression of the castes

“A progressive shift of power and type of civilization has occurred from one caste to the next since prehistoric times (from sacred leaders, to a warrior aristocracy, to the merchants, and finally, to the serfs).”

~ Julius Evola[1]

Although there are examples of this process (the “regression of the castes”) everywhere in history (India and Japan present obvious examples), let us stick to the phenomenon as it has unfolded in Europe, since that civilization is more familiar to Western audiences.

King Henry VIII provides for us an excellent example of the first stage of regression where a secular power refuses to acknowledge the authority of the sacred, and then claims the role of the spiritual authority for itself. We must remember, King Henry did not simply break from Rome, but also established a new church—the Church of England—of which he himself was the head.

However, as suggested earlier, the process of revolt cannot stop once it has begun. This the way of all revolutionary movements: they cannot be stopped, and they sooner or later boomerang and destroy those who initiated them, repaying their hubris with a self-inflicted and violent death. We are reminded here of Phaethon’s attempt to take the reins of his father’s chariot which led inexorably to his own demise. And so the regression must continue downward until it can go no further, which is to say, until it propagates through all four castes and levels the structure of human society to the ground.

Once Henry VIII’s project was complete, it was only a matter of time before the revolutionary spirit took hold of the next caste in the hierarchy, which was the caste responsible for economic activity. In the economic revolution that was to follow, Henry VIII and the rest of the noble class along with him were to be consumed in the very blaze of rebellion which they themselves ignited. This second stage of regression, the revolution of the “third estate,” can be seen in the great revolutions of America and France, and in the increasing power of the merchant and financier classes that came during the Industrial Revolution. Their political ideas, it must be remembered, despised the notion aristocracy above all else.

During this period the validity of royal authority was called into question, and rightfully so, for without spiritual authority above it, it had rendered itself completely illegitimate. The third estate, inspired by the successful rebellion they had just witnessed, rebelled in their own turn. Now the roles of priesthood and nobility became dispersed amongst the populace, and the age of democracy began.

Some might protest at this point that the revolutionary period we are describing was a revolution for the “common man,” and a victory not for the wealthy, but for all. This thesis is propaganda plain and simple, for any survey of the events reveal that men lost rights and independence both in France and America (by measure of taxes and forced participation in the perpetual wars that would follow). The democratic era benefitted above all the moneyed classes, for democracy has always been a machine fueled by dollars more than by ballots.

This era, because ruled by those whose aptitudes are of the economic order, comes to be dominated by economic ideology, profit, trade, and productivity, because such is the ruling mentality of the merchant caste. All considerations, all political discourse, gravitates toward economic considerations. Government is no longer directed by statesmen but by those with the highest economic aptitudes.

Those who are most economically oriented, which is to say, those who can make the most money for themselves or for society at large, become the new aristocracy and gain for themselves the esteem previously reserved for royalty and priesthood. Society becomes a plutocracy.

Morality itself devolves to promote and esteem the virtues of moneymaking and economic success. Society’s highest virtues at this point will be “productivity” and “hard work.” Western civilization is currently within this stage of regression, as should be clear enough to the contemporary reader, and is moving slowly but surely to the last and final stage of hierarchical disintegration, which has reared its head intermittently but has thus far been only partially successful. Here we refer to the ideology of socialism.

Socialism, the revolution by which the merchant caste self-destructs and is finally overthrown by the laboring classes, brings the regression to its end. Civilization is then leveled to the ground, both figuratively and literally, for socialism even more than democracy is a leveling obsession.

In short, the Middle Ages marks the last “normal” civilization to exist in the west. It fell at the Reformation when the spiritual authority was displaced and exiled. The royal authority, once rendered illegitimate by its own actions, was eventually dismantled by the rising merchant class, leading to the current age of Capitalism. Next the laboring classes, because they sooner or later perceives the illegitimacy of the authority lorded over them by their moneyed masters, revolt in turn, completing the process and bring civilization to a natural end.

[1] Revolt Against the Modern World, p. 327.

Faith and reason placed in opposition

“Reason is directly opposed to faith and one ought to let it be; in believers it should be killed and buried”

~ Martin Luther[1]

Luther’s ridiculous statement above can be explained as follows.

An interesting consequence of the rise of rationalism is that it renders anything that cannot be strictly “rationalized” irrational, and what is irrational is not true. Thus, any “supra-rational” truths are no long the highest forms of knowledge, but they cannot be considered knowledge at all. And so the work of Aquinas was, it seems, in vain, as Luther teaches us that:

You must abandon your reason, know nothing of it, annihilate it completely or you will never enter heaven. You must leave reason to itself, for it is the born enemy of faith…There is nothing so contrary to faith as law and reason. You must conquer them if you would reach beatitude.[2]

[1] Erlanger Ausgabe, XLIV, 158.

[2] Tischreden. Weimarer Ausgabe, VI, 6718.

Knowledge vs. belief

“To him who feels himself preordained to contemplation and not to belief, all believers are too noisy and obtrusive; he guards against them.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche[1]

Once a proper view of knowledge is destroyed and belief becomes “irrational,” it also becomes intolerable. Let us pause to comment again on the traditional view of knowledge.

It has been said that when the gods appear to men they always adopt forms that will be comprehensible to the nature of those to whom they appear. This is the distinction—to adopt Catholic terminology—between the “Church teaching” and the “Church taught.” Although the Second Vatican Council modified this teaching, adding that the laity does play a role in the development of doctrine, it is clear that their participation is largely, if not wholly, unconscious. They participate as members of an unerring collectivity:

The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office. It spreads abroad a living witness to Him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give hour to His name (cf. Heb. 13,5). The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. Jn 2,20, 27), cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when “from the bishops down to the last member of the laity,” it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals.[2]

When the connection between belief and knowledge is severed and associations, churches, and entire religions are based on nothing but beliefs held in common, which is to say, a religion of consensus rather than of doctrine, then religion becomes what is more properly termed “superstition,” which is a “belief” for which there is no longer anyone who understands the reason. When this occurs, the mob of “believers” tends to become assertive and obnoxious, and we can begin to understand Nietzsche’s complaint. In fact, we can understand most of Nietzsche’s complaints if we allow that he was observing a decadent Christianity—one which had, by rejecting the notion of Spiritual Authority, severed its own spiritual jugular. Nietzsche watched it in disgust as it writhed in its death throws, having become a “faith without knowledge,” or as was said earlier, a superstition.

This is the inevitable situation once the caste responsible for knowledge is functional destroyed. Then only ignorance and a sort of “zombie Christianity,” dead but still walking, can remain.

[1] Beyond Good and Evil, 112.

[2] Lumen Gentium, 12.

The essence of barbarism

 “Leveling is the barbarian’s substitute for order.”

~ Nicolas Gomez-Davila

“Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.”

~ Japanese anti-Western slogan

To call a people “barbaric” is to describe the state of its soul, condemning its mentality or philosophy as one of godlessness. The insult may have nothing at all to do with superficial material conditions such as technological development. A rich man can be a barbarian as easily as anyone else.

The Japanese traditionalists expressed just this when they made their anti-western slogan: sonnō jōi or “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.” By barbarians they referred to the Western powers with their extravagant wealth, their vulgar manners, their secular governments, and their materialistic attitudes. In this slogan they not only sought a rejection of these “barbarian” ideals, but also a return to proper spiritual hierarchy, headed by a divine emperor. However, once the flood gates were rammed open by American battleships in 1853 and the forcible modernization of Japan was commenced, a new slogan was created: fukoku kyōhei or “enrich the country, strengthen the military.”

The depth of the transformation is evident. Reverence for spiritual authority is dropped in favor of “enrichment,” while the growth of a “military”—sheer technological power—is adopted in place of a traditional warrior class. This “barbarian” evolution has also been condemned by another word, “infidel,” which means precisely the same thing. Infidel, in Islam, does not refer to Christian or Jew or even to Hindu. Islam considers all these “people of the Book” and calls the revelations they received valid. Infidel is reserved for “unbelievers”—for the godless. Thus, when Islamic extremists call Westerners infidels, the term has nothing to do with religion, but rather the absence of it.

In response, we Americans call our accusers “religious extremists,” which is a term the modern world has created for anyone who does anything in the name of God. We use it within our own borders against Christians who reject abortion and homosexuality. Soon, no doubt, the term “religious extremist” will come to mean anyone who expresses any spiritual sentiment at all, which is to say, anyone who is not a barbarian.

Rationalism and the invention of religion

 “Embedded in the Enlightenment’s (re-)definition and elevation of reason is the creation and subjection of an irrational counterpart: along with the emergence of reason as both the instrument and essence of human achievement, the irrational came to be defined primarily in opposition to what such thinkers saw as the truths of their own distinctive historical epoch. If they were the voices of modernity, freedom, liberation, happiness, reason, nobility, and even natural passion, the irrational was all that came before: tyranny, servility to dogma, self-abnegation, superstition, and false religion. Thus the irrational came to mean the domination of religion in the historical period that preceded it.”

~ Roxanne Euben[1]

As strange as it sounds, the concept of religion as it has been handed down to us is itself a creation of the modern world. When civilizations were ordered on the basis of action informed by knowledge, which is to say, where the superiority of knowledge to action was acknowledged in the social structure itself, there was no question of “religion” as a separate entity, muscling its way in against other entities vying for power in the social sphere. The traditional world saw reality itself, at all levels, as a sacred experience. There was no level of activity that was not permeated by some higher significance. Everything was connected in a concentric circles, at the center of which sat transcendence, and this is why even crafts such as saddle-making had “theologies” and “initiations” for guild members only. These practices sprung from their perception of reality and not from the dictates of a religious power imposing them where they did not belong. For men of this mentality, there was no such thing as “spiritual life” vs. “ordinary life,” with the two cleanly separated into a dichotomy.

With the Enlightenment and the rise of Rationalism, that was all to change. Descartes rationalism is itself based on a mind-body dichotomy, or if not based on it, its practical effects were centered on this either/or. Once this doctrine of division was introduced into philosophy and then to the people, it is easy to understand that any practices, principles, or persons who are concerned with immaterial realities such as the soul would be relegated into the “mind” sphere and away from the realm of the body.

This was in line with the rationalist outlook but it was also very convenient for Enlightenment propaganda. The Enlightenment needed its own “founding mythology” in order to justify itself to itself and to future generations. Because the pride of the Enlightenment was its being “rational,” it clearly required an irrational “other” which it could claim to have conquered: this is religion. And so, the rationalists did not conquer religion so much as they re-structured the modern man’s view of the world in such a way that religion would be compartmentalized and rendered impotent. In this way, religion, as imagined in the modern world, is a child of rationalist propaganda.

[1] Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 34.

Eternal law

 “Eternal law is the plan of government in the Chief Governor, all the plans of government in the inferior governors must be derived from the eternal law. But these plans of inferior governors are all other laws besides the eternal law. Therefore all laws, in so far as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law. Hence Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 6) that ‘in temporal law there is nothing just and lawful, but what man has drawn from the eternal law.’…

“Human law has the nature of law in so far as it partakes of right reason; and it is clear that, in this respect, it is derived from the eternal law. But in so far as it deviates from reason, it is called an unjust law, and has the nature, not of law but of violence.

~ St. Thomas Aquinas[1]

When the various humanisms of the Enlightenment era made man the measure of reality, they also reduced law itself to an expression of man’s opinion; and where it was not man’s opinion that made the law, it was a disfigured form of “natural” law that degraded man by equating his laws with those of biology. Before all these transformations, there was Divine Law.

Divine law was the legal superstructure of all other forms of justice. All other levels of justice, all other types of law, had to make reference to divine law in order to remain legitimate, in order not to deteriorate into nothing more than a “form of violence.”

Because in the traditional world it was taken for granted that eternal law was the “given” standard to which human law must conform, any ruler, in order to remain legitimate, had to at least pretend that his law was derived from the divine one. He may have been able to abuse his power, but he could only go so far. He had built-in accountability. This is the primary difference between divine sovereignty and popular sovereignty—that while the former makes absolutism impossible, the latter is by nature absolutist, since it answers to nothing but itself.

[1] ST, I-II, q. 93, a. 3.

Divine sovereignty

“[P]opular sovereignty may give birth to a more formidable despotism than divine sovereignty. For a tyrant, whether he be one or many, who has, by hypothesis, successfully usurped one or the other sovereignty, cannot avail himself of the Divine Will, which shows itself to men under the forms of a Law Eternal, to command whatever he pleases. Whereas the popular will has no natural stability but is changeable; so far from being tied to a law, its voice may be heard in laws which change and succeed each other. So that a usurping Power has, in such a case, more elbow-room; it enjoys more liberty, and its liberty is the name of arbitrary power.”

~ Bertrand de Jouvenel[1]

The stock argument has been that divine sovereignty has the effect of fueling the growth of arbitrary power. Yet in its place today’s popular governments, if indeed we accept for a moment that they really are popular, make the law follow the “general will,” and the general will is the very definition of arbitrariness.

In trying to escape the limited arbitrariness of the king—limited because answerable to a transcendent standard—the modern world has enshrined a sort of collective arbitrariness that is far more powerful since the collective, unlike the king under divine sovereignty, answers to no higher law than the consensus it finds among its members. This, according to Jouvenel, is the weakness of popular sovereignty—that is answers to nothing but itself and is therefore absolute:

For a Power which lays down the good and the just is, whatever form it takes, absolute in a quite different way from one which takes the good and the just as it finds them already laid down by a supernatural authority. A Power which regulates human behaviour according to its own notions of social utility is absolute in a quite different way from one whose subjects have had their actions prescribed for them by God. And here we glimpse the fact that the denial of a divine lawgiving and the establishment of a human lawgiving are the most prodigious strides which society can take towards a truly absolute Power. So long as a supernatural origin was ascribed to law, this step remained untaken…All the great civilizations were formed in the framework of a divine law given to society, a law which even the strongest will of all, that of the wielders of Power, was powerless to shatter or replace.[2]

[1] Jouvenel, On Power, p. 47.

[2] Jouvenel, On Power, pp. 220-221.

Religion and egalitarianism cannot co-exist

“Hierarchies are heavenly. In hell, all are equal.”

~ Nicolas Gomez-Davila[1]

“In Hell there is Democracy, in Heaven there is a Kingdom.”

~ St. John of Kronstadt

Hierarchy is the reflection, not only of earthly reality, which is never egalitarian, but also of the celestial order, which is, after all, a kingdom.

Many of the prejudices against traditional social structures stem from the modern mania for equality at all costs. Egalitarian systems cannot allow a vertical dimension to exist, and so they are by nature antagonistic to religious principles.

All religion implies transcendence, which implies a vertical dimension, which in turn implies hierarchy. Egalitarian democracy (and socialism, for that matter) denies this dimension, only allowing for differences to exist on a “horizontal” plain. Men can be “different” but they must always be “equal” from a hierarchical perspective. Anything else is repugnant to the egalitarian mind, which abhors vertical diversity, whatever it may preach about diversity in other respects. Religion and egalitarianism are therefore mutually exclusive, although this does not prevent the mass of individuals from attempting to entertain and apply both at the same time. Such is the primary source of what is called “cognitive dissonance” in our contemporaries.

[1] Davila, 2013 edition, p. 203.

Egalitarianism and caste

 “Every non-hierarchical society splits in two.”

~ Nicolas Gomez-Davila[1]

We can also point out another major contradiction that should be obvious by now but which, due to the willful blindness of the disciples of modernity, is rarely acknowledged. I am speaking of the fact that the “form” of the caste has not ceased to exist, but has only been reduced in its complexity, and the chasm between its groups widened tenfold. While the castes of India were four, and within those four susceptible to indefinite subdivision, the one that came to replace it and which rules the lives of men today has only two: those who own, and those who do not. This is not a Marxist doctrine, but a commonsense doctrine apparent to anyone who takes an honest look at the present situation. All of the complaints about “inequality” are legitimate, even if those who speak of such things have no idea what the real cause of the inequality might be. They imagine that problem is hierarchy, and that the solution is greater equality. It does not occur to them, because they have been too long imbued with egalitarian propaganda, that it was the desire for equality which brought about this disaster, and that a functionally organized social hierarchy is the only solution for the vast inequality and concomitant injustice that offends them.

[1] Davila, 2013 edition, p. 169.

Orthodoxy and heterodoxy

“I am becoming orthodox because I have come, rightly or wrongly, after stretching my brain till it bursts, to the old belief that heresy is worse even than sin. An error is more menacing than a crime, for an error begets crimes…”

~ G.K. Chesterton[1]

Perhaps the reason religion has come to be so despised is because it has been reduced to two things: behavioral standards and emotional comforts. That is to say, it has been reduced to moralism and sentimentality, or at least the sort of religion with which our American churches and religious political activities acquaints us seems to fit this bill. So used to this are we that it is difficult to imagine what else religion could or ought to provide besides judgments about sinful behavior and the comfort that comes from “being saved.” But there was once something more, and this missing piece is what is signified by the term “orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy is the body of religious truth, be that Scripture or Tradition. It is a supra-moral standard, in the sense that morality can be drawn from it but is not its essence; it is also beyond sentimentality because its purpose has nothing to do with emotional comfort or acceptability.

A civilization loses orthodoxy when it begins to say “I’m spiritual but not religious,” or, what’s worse, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship!” Neither of these statements is capable of comprehending Chesterton’s realization: that there is an evil worse even than sin. This evil is embodied in the concept of heresy, which is as foreign to modern society as orthodoxy. This makes perfect sense because the two imply each other and make no sense in isolation. Departure from orthodoxy is heresy, and the absence of heresy is adherence to orthodoxy. Both of these refer to the truth of the doctrine held by the believers. It concerns knowledge in its purest form.  The loss of orthodoxy and heresy together, therefore, also implies the loss of a society’s concern for knowledge of this order. Such a civilization has descended along the path indicated in the famous Taoist passage:

When the Way is lost, there comes goodness, when goodness is lost, there comes morality.[2]

When Protestantism rejected the concept of orthodoxy, which was necessary for its insistence on private interpretation, it predestined itself to descend into the “vague mist of platitudes” that C.S. Lewis warned against. Now it is no wonder the people loathe its presence in their midst. They see it for what it is: a set of shallow conventions adopted to get a set of superficial emotional comforts. In the ages of orthodoxy these had always been secondary products, derivations from the truth that was the only truly inviolable thing. Disconnected, they become ends in themselves, pleasant to easily satisfied minds, but slowly losing their appeal to the many.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “The Diabolist,” Tremendous Trifles.

[2] Tao Te Ching, ch. 38.

Slouching toward mediocrity

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course there are many courageous individuals but they have no determining influence on public life…Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”

~ Aleksander Solzhenitsyn[1]

St. Thomas characterized democracy as the worst of the good regimes, but the best of the worst. In other words, democracy only has great merit if you place it in the context of tyranny and chaos. If a regime were going to go bad, it would be better if it were a democracy, because democracy, for better or worse, hovers around mediocrity. But for this same reason democracy limits itself, if it is good, to being only slightly good. The floor its nature sets is also a ceiling. This is why St. Thomas ultimately chose monarchy as the best form of government. St. Thomas was not a pessimist. He did not build his philosophy in an effort to escape the possibility of evil, but to offer the possibilities of greatness.

That is the fundamental difference between the democrat and the monarchist: that they both know that the evil monarch poses a greater threat than the evil democrat, but the latter believes that it is worth the risk because of the possibilities for greatness that monarchy opens before society. The horizons for a monarchy are automatically more extended in both directions. When offered the choice between the dual possibility of greatness and evil, on the one hand, and the assurance of a comfortable mediocrity on the other, the man who chooses the first is the monarchist and the man who chooses the security of mediocrity is the democrat.

When God created the angels he knew that this implied the possibility of devils. He thought it worth the risk. In the act of Creation, God, the cosmic monarch, showed man the path of courage. Modern man chooses instead the path of cowardice. If God had been a democrat, he’d have created very little. He certainly wouldn’t have created man. He’d have stopped at the creation of vegetable life, and perhaps a few low animal species: for here he could have been guaranteed a comfortable mediocrity, for animals cannot become devils. But this was not the way of the Creator: he wanted saints, and if he had to suffer death on the cross at the hands of a few devils, he’d suffer it. This was the way of courage—the way of the King. “Power corrupts!” the democrat shouts. “So be it,” replies the Creator as He gives him the gift of power. Saints he would have, and devils too, but devils for the sake of the saints. The democrat chooses to have neither (and in fact he has neither heretic nor martyr in his regime), and he pats himself on the back for achieving this comfortable mediocrity where none can rise or fall, and where every horizon is dictated by cowardice.

[1]Harvard Commencement Address delivered on June 8, 1978.

Orthodoxy and heresy die together

 “Liberalism…transgresses all commandments. To be more precise: in the doctrinal order, Liberalism strikes at the very foundations of faith; it is heresy radical and universal, because within it are comprehended all heresies…”

~ Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany[1]

Heresy, from an etymological standpoint, means nothing more than “to choose for oneself.” Obviously, then, the word is entirely appropriate for one who departs from orthodoxy to blaze his own trail. Heresy, then, implies the existence of orthodoxy, which is its counterpart. In the past, every heretic believed himself to be orthodox. The two terms are related to one another, in the same way that “to be inside” of something implies the existence of an “outside.” But with Liberalism something altogether new was introduced to man. It was a heresy, to be sure, but for the first time it was a heresy that made no pretenses at orthodoxy. It was, in fact, the first heresy to more or less explicitly reject orthodoxy as a valid conception. And because orthodoxy signifies those beliefs which are true, to render it invalid is to render incomprehensible the traditional notions about truth and error.

To quote again from Fr. Sarda:

[Liberalism] repudiates dogma altogether and substitutes opinion, whether that opinion be doctrinal or the negation of doctrine. Consequently, it denies every doctrine in particular. If we were to examine in detail all the doctrines or dogmas which, within the range of Liberalism, have been denied, we would find every Christian dogma in one way or another rejected—from the dogma of the Incarnation to that of Infallibility.[2]

But Fr. Sarda will not leave his analysis incomplete. The explicit denial of the legitimacy of dogma carries with it an implicit affirmation of a “new dogma” which is both universal and negative in its character:

Nonetheless Liberalism is in itself dogmatic; and it is in the declaration of its own fundamental dogma, the absolute independence of the individual and the social reason, that it denies all Christian dogmas in general. Catholic dogma is the authoritative declaration of revealed truth—or a truth consequent upon Revelation—by its infallibly constituted exponent. This logically implies the obedient acceptance of the dogma on the part of the individual and of society. Liberalism refuses to acknowledge this rational obedience and denies the authority. It asserts the sovereignty of the individual and social reason and enthrones Rationalism in the seat of authority. It knows no dogma except the dogma of self-assertion. Hence it is heresy, fundamental and radical, the rebellion of the human intellect against God.[3]

The victory of liberalism meant the extinction of the concepts of both heresy and orthodoxy, which really represented nothing more than the primordial duality of truth and falsity. The old positive-negative pair was then replaced with a single, universal negative which rendered the previous paradigm illegitimate and, further, assured that anyone indoctrinated into the negative dogma of liberalism would be completely unable to understand the old terms. Man was left to sit alone in the privacy of his home, asking with Pilate “What is truth?”[4]

[1] Liberalism is a Sin, ch. 3.

[2] Liberalism is a Sin, ch. 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John 18:38.

Tolerance and the heretic

“Tolerance consists in the firm decision to allow others to scoff at everything that we pretend to love and respect, provided that they do not threaten our worldly comfort. As long as others do not tread on his corns, modern man—liberal, democrat, progressivist—tolerates them to besmirch his soul.”

~ Nicholas Gomez-Davila[1]

Religion represents the highest of truths, and so the decision to ignore religion is the decision to subordinate the higher truths to lower ones. One expression of this is an over-zealous belief in the pseudo-principle of tolerance, which is passed off as a respect for others, but is really just another kind of materialism.

As Davila suggests, it is a reversal of values and allows disdain to the higher for the sake of peace with respect to the lower orders of life. But there is also a reverse side of this principle of “tolerance” and it is that it cannot be tolerant. Or, to say it another way, tolerance can only tolerate a void. Its only guiding principle is that no one claim to have a principle or at least that no one claim their principle be true.

The result is a censorship of such an extreme degree that anyone who believes in any kind of absolute truth perceives themselves as some sort of persecuted minority. We shall discuss this below.

[1] Davila, 2013 edition, p. 149.

Persecution myth and persecution mania

When opinion is ordained the measure of law in society, then every individual whose opinion does not align with current law imagines himself to be (and in fact is) a persecuted minority.

The notion that the general will, which is to say the general opinion, rules the day and is the engine of law in society, imbues the popular mind with a pronounced sense of inclusion or exclusion depending upon whether or not their opinion falls in-line with that of the majority in the most recent election. Said another way, by defining justice in terms of opinion, it becomes impossible to explain to the individual whose opinion is in the minority that he is justly ruled by the opinions of others. He cannot accept the fact that opinion is the standard of law, but that it happens to be his neighbor’s opinion and not his. And so no matter how deeply he believes in democracy, he feels oppressed when it becomes obvious that the general will is not his, and is therefore not as general as it was explained in theory.

The result is that every time the political process does not conform to the will of an individual he feels that injustice has been done. Even if he is only one of six million other voters, he expects to feel at least that the election went 1/6,000,000th his way. But it didn’t go his way at all. In short: he feels persecuted. He feels what every losing party expresses in every modern election.

When law is tied to an objective standard of justice, then the man who gives his input on the matter knows that, whatever his own opinion, the standard is outside of him and that he cannot change it. If he votes, he attempts to vote in favor of an objective and external truth. It is not his opinion, nor is it the opinion of the majority that determines justice in this case, and even if the man loses he may feel that an offense to justice has been committed, but not that it was offense against him personally. He may condemn the political process, but he will not feel it necessary to play the martyr.

Today everyone plays the martyr. Every party, politician, and voter plays the martyr. Even the Christians, who should know a bit about martyrdom, play the martyrs in the petulant game of opinionation. Who can really blame them, though? Once you’ve adopted the premise of popular sovereignty there is no other possible way that things can end. Anything short of complete consensus creates a persecution mania. That’s why gay couples and anti-gay religious groups can carry out demonstrations on the same street at the same time, both crying “persecution!” And they’re right.

Law becomes subjective and ambulatory

“The end of political Power is to realize the Law.”

~ Leon Duguit

Such was the opinion of the political philosophers of old. Today, whatever the rhetoric, there is no such thing as law, in an objective sense. There is only the will of the majority, and the law is a reflection of this will. It is nothing of itself, but changes as the will changes, and there is no political principle to be found which suggests to us that this will adheres to or makes any effort to discover such an objective rule.

This process destabilizes the whole system:

The life of democracies has been marked by a growth in the precariousness of laws…anything that might have checked the immediate translation into law of whatever opinion was in vogue, have everywhere been swept aside or rendered powerless. The law is no longer like some higher necessity presiding over the life of the country: it has become the expression of the passions of the moment.[1]

By attaching the process of legislation to a machinery so fickle as the majority will, democracies develop what can be called “ambulatory law”—a form of law that never stands still, never proceeds along the straight course, but is constantly shifting, reversing, and at war with itself. The Middle Ages knew nothing of this difficulty; for them the law was fixed, the rule a premise. But from the time that the divine law was rejected as superstition, and custom as a mere routine, the law had to be made. And so we end where Jouvenel predicted, with a deluge of fictional legislation:

Loud and clear we proclaim it— the mounting flood of modern laws does not create law. What do they mirror, these laws, but the pressure of interests, the fancifulness of opinions, the violence of passions? When they are the work of a Power which has become, with its every growth, more enervated by the strife of factions, their confusion makes them ludicrous. When they issue from a Power which is in the grip of one brutal hand, their planned iniquity makes them hateful. The only respect which they either get or deserve is that which force procures them. Being founded on a conception of society which is both false and deadly, they are anti-social.[2]

James Madison himself saw this coming, but because the cause lay in his own principles, he could only lament the inevitable effect:

The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?[3]

[1] Jouvenel, op. cit., p. 236.

[2] Ibid., 326.

[3] James Madison, Federalist Papers, #62.

Legalism and social decay

 “Dying societies hoard laws like dying people medicines.”

~ Nicolas Gomez-Davila[1]

“Once we suffered from our vices; today we suffer from our laws.”

~ Tacitus[2]

The great aphorist continues: “There are two symmetrical forms of barbarism: that of the nations who have nothing but customs and that of the nations who respect nothing but laws.”[3]

Here Davila argues for a cycle of ascent and descent as civilizations approach justice and then descend away from it. For if we examine the most primitive societies, we find that they are ruled mostly by customs. These customs may be good or bad, and to say that a society is ruled mostly by customs is not necessarily to imply that it is unjust. But the point is that these customs are followed as customs, and that for the most part the communities that live according to their dictates do not have a specific, objective, or transcendent standard of justice by which their lives and institutions are measured. They’re system is, in this sense, rigid and relatively mindless. It has no room to change or develop according to the vicissitudes of history.

As a people begin to rise from this arrangement, leaders in both worldly and transcendent affairs begin to raise the standard and begin to form a higher notion of justice than pure custom. Again, the customs may be good, but as the culture develops and the intellectual life flourishes, a philosophy emerges that tells these people why the customs are just, and enables them to understand those cases where custom may have become unjust. They have moved “beyond custom” and approached objective law. As an example of a civilization which had reached such an apex, we can look at the Middle Ages, where men of Aquinas’ quality were developing the most nuanced understanding of justice the world had yet seen. Again, we stress that this did not replace custom, for custom was in many cases a just and stable reality; but they were able to transfigure custom and place it, when it was good, in an overall and objective system of justice, traceable all the way through nature and to eternal principles. In short, they took what was mindless and connected it to the mind of God himself.

Now let us move forward. Over the next half-century we see a severing of this connection between law and the eternal. We see law, or “sovereignty,” divorced from the eternal and connected to the popular—to the general will, without any direct reference to the transcendent. The curve, after reaching its apex and the height of its coherence, begins to descend. Immediately law loses the stabilization that objectivity had provided, and begins to multiply. It rises in complexity and, in addition, becomes the sole standard for life. When law was an aspect of the divine, it was possible for it to be reinforced by the various other forces in man’s life, such as his personal conscience and his religious sentiments. However, now that law was answerable only to itself it becomes the sole rule of what a man ought to do. This causes law to be multiplied further because those actions which were once governed by the unwritten laws of religion were nullified and then openly transgressed. Legalism ensues, and whatever moral imperative is left out of the written laws is publicly permissible. And so the society that had once risen to the intellectual heights of Thomism descends into the legalistic superficiality of perpetual lawsuits over spilt coffee and wedding cakes.

Soon the old basis of law is forgotten altogether, and the multitude of laws become once again mindless, and the cycle completes itself—from barbarism to barbarism—entering back into custom. Hence Chesterton’s saying that “Over-civilization and barbarism are within an inch of each other.”[4] This new custom, however, because it is inorganic, cannot pretend, like the customs of old, to be even a precursor to justice.

[1] Davila, 2013 edition, p. 185.

[2] Annals, iii. 25.

[3] 107

[4] Illustrated London News, Sept. 11, 1909.

Marx’s opium and American Christianity

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

~ Karl Marx

Karl Marx’s immortal jab—that religion is the “opium of the people”—can only be appreciated when placed within a minimum of its original context, which is provided above.

Here Marx was obviously criticizing society more than religion. He did not stand with the New Atheists, who view religion as a disease which, in itself, spawns evil in the world. Instead he suggested that the world has its own evils, and that religion had come to be adopted as a warm blanket in the face of a cold reality. An illusory warmth, to be sure—like a draught of whiskey on a winter night—but the important point is that Marx’s condemnation in this instance was not of religion as such, but of religion as an escape from reality.

For Marx the problem with religion was that it obscured important issues. It held out to the people a false happiness which, if embraced, could obscure the reality of social evils. Such an “illusory happiness” any sane man, atheist or not, would seek to abolish:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Taken in this sense, the Marxian diagnosis is pregnant with two implications that are easily overlooked:

First, we are given no reason to believe that the diagnosis applies always and everywhere, but only to a specific case. Religion may, under certain conditions, serve the function of an anesthetic; but this is not necessarily the nature of religion itself. In those specific cases, when religion-as-anesthetic becomes the rule, we are to interpret this occurrence as an indication that “soulless conditions” exist in that society. In short, Marx is condemning a diseased society for using religion as a form of escapism.

Second, if we are dealing with a case where a diseased patient is clinging to religion merely in order to delude himself and avoid the reality of his situation, then religion as it is in that specific case ought to be abolished, not because it is in itself an evil, but because it is being made use of in a perverse fashion. It is providing a veil behind which an illness is allowed to fester.

It occurs to me that this observation contains a timely insight which, properly applied, would allow us to disentangle the web of chaos, hatred, and confusion that surrounds religion in America. In fact, it allows us to take a somewhat novel position: by adopting the insight of Marx, we can make a case against religion America, while at the same time defending religion in general. The essence of the argument involves making the distinction between diseased and healthy religion, and resembles the surgical necessity of removing diseased flesh so that new, healthy growth can take its place.

To borrow Marx’s words, we will argue against “religion as the illusory happiness of the people” in hopes that, in doing so, we can make room for an authentic religious life in a society for which that sort of life is not currently a possibility.

Because the most obvious symbol of religious expression in society is the church building, we might begin with a few comments on the church itself as an independent, dedicated structure.

As members of the “house church” movement are happy to remind us, the early Christians did not worship in churches—buildings constructed for, ornamented toward, and dedicated to, the celebration of a liturgy. They worshiped in homes, we are told. So far, so good.

We do not find actual “churches” until around the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 AD). Now, regardless of whether or not you accept the authenticity of Constantine’s conversion, or how you interpret its cultural significance, it is undeniable based on archeological research that it was during this period that the church-as-dedicated-structure began to appear.

And so, we can say without much room for debate that the church building represents the ornamentation of a society which has become thoroughly infiltrated by the spirit of the faith. It could not have appeared before this point, which is to say that the church is the “fruit-ion” of the long organic process of conversion, and it implies a preceding period of growth and cultural flowering, nourished by real and deep roots.

Such an architectural phenomenon was entirely appropriate to the Roman Empire of Constantine’s period, given its stage of cultural development. The construction of these buildings was proper to the society where they appeared.

To this period we might also compare the Europe of the Middle Ages, which was even more completely saturated by the Christian religion, so much so that it has been given the name “Christendom.” As with the churches which appeared in the Empire of Constantine, the apex of Christendom gave birth to its own structures which were completely appropriate to its personality, and these we call cathedrals.

The point of all this is that the architectural expression of religion springs from the religious life of the civilization as a whole. Churches cannot arise before, or persist after, the religious spirit that gives them birth. Just as every church or temple grows up as the ornamentation of a living organism, so it ought to decay and disappear along with the cultural life that sustained it.

According to this interpretation, it is only natural to expect that with the dissolution of Christendom we should no longer see the construction of cathedrals. In fact, insofar as the cathedral persists in the absence of Christendom, it is an anachronism, of interest only to the antiquarian. Left without roots it can only ossify.

This brings us back to our present situation. No modern nation-state is culturally Christian (and this remains true regardless of what proportion of the citizenry professes the Christian religion). Nonetheless, in countries like the United States, we still see the proliferation of church buildings. In fact, we’ve even seen the emergence of mega-churches—a phenomenon which flies in the face of everything we’ve said so far.

If the church building was the final manifestation of a vigorously Christian culture, it ought to have been the first thing to disappear when that culture died out. That it did not do so—that churches and even mega-churches continue to rise on our horizon—demands an explanation. If these structures do not owe their existence of a living, religious culture, then what sustains them?—for by all rights they should be dead and gone.

To answer this question we must keep in mind Marx’s lesson: that religion under certain conditions can take on an unnatural form of life which has little or nothing to do with its normal purpose. Even dead religion, corpse that it is, may still be propped up in order to comfort or deceive those who will not accept its death, and who wish not to see the reality of a world where their god is dead. In such cases, we find the opiate religion.

Utilitarian religion and zombie Christianity

In order for religion to be distorted and bent to such a purpose, its original end must be obscured.

In our case, this has been achieved by reducing religion to its use value. Once a thing is judged merely by its usefulness, it can be made us of for anything. Tocqueville observed long ago that religion in America almost immediately took on a utilitarian guise. Even among the clergy, he reported, virtue was not taught as something holy or beautiful, but as something useful to oneself.

Naturally the utilitarian attitude permeated government institutions as well. The common courtroom practice of “swearing in” the witness before hearing testimony is symbolic of the whole phenomenon: here religion—in the form of an oath on the Bible—is utilized in a way that does not imply any confession whatsoever on the part of the government itself regarding the truth value of the text. The book is used purely as a device to manipulate the conscience of the witness. A more spiritually patronizing situation is difficult to imagine, but it shows us to what degree a secular government can enjoy religion, not as good or true, but as useful. “Useful religion” then leads directly to the situation Marx condemned.

Religion is, etymologically, supposed to be a means of reconnecting with reality (re-legio). It is therefore a technique to be condoned or condemned based on whether or not it serves that purpose. But if the value of religion is reduced to its social use, both from the point of view of the believer and in the eyes of the government, then it becomes impossible to distinguish between uses that are proper and those that aren’t. As Marx perceived, religion can be very useful as an anesthetic, rendering society numb to injustice and compliant in the face of oppression. Such a use is, of course, the opposite of that for which religion is intended, but it is comforting to the believer and helpful to the State, and so both parties drink readily from the Dionysian cup.

Under these conditions, religion has ceased to “re-connect” its followers with reality, and instead it distances them from it. Religion becomes anti-religion; Christianity becomes anti-Christ.

What, then, is to be done? Various movements have appeared which, sensing the artificial nature of Christianity as it is, fight others and each other in favor of a particular form which they believe to be the ideal. On the Protestant side, this movement is represented by the migration toward the “house church.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are vocal Catholics for whom nothing but the Latin Mass will do.

The mentality that these two very different groups share is their insistence on formalism. They each believe that there is a permanent form of religious expression which is “proper” to Christianity, which has presumably been lost in modern times, and which must be re-instituted in order to return Christianity to health.

Neither of these groups seems willing to take into account the full implications of history as a process—one which contains no two moments that are exactly the same. They each deny the uniqueness, not only of person and place, but also of time itself.

The idea that each time and place has its own organic idiosyncrasies, occurring in its period and its period alone, is something that they either cannot or will not take acknowledge when formulating their ideals. The “house church” was proper Christianity, and that is all its proponents need to consider. It is seductively simple, but extremely shallow. Again, one may say that the Latin Mass was the ideal form, in which case it becomes irrelevant where we are and who we are and when we are—all that matters is that we ought to conform to that simple norm.

Neither of these will allow for the possibility that what was a completely natural and appropriate religious phenomenon for the first-century or the medieval Church is no longer either ideal or even proper for 20th-century America. And to force such an alien form onto into the present is an act of violence.

Church, as a social phenomenon, if it is to remain valid and healthy, must ultimately take into account to the world-historical conditions of the people whose souls are to participate in it. At one time it would have truly been an offense against the European soul to demolish one of its Cathedrals; in our day it would be an offense to build one.

And yet we are still faced with the reality of the mega-church, and the thousands of other modern churches that continue to rise out of soil which we have declared sterile. On this point, at least, we can agree with both the traditionalist Catholics and the radical Protestants: these churches are unnatural; they should not be here. What are they?

The optimist might claim that the persistence of church buildings in the modern world is a triumph against the times, proof that the Church is immortal and “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” That is flattering and noble. But it looks to the keen observer more like playing pretend. More and more isolated from political realities, divorced from the everyday life of the modern world, the church-goer of today tends to leave the sanctuary more naïve than when he entered. If something is happening there, it isn’t re-legio.

Within the church building itself he engages in strange activities. He volunteers for “ministries”—artificial supplements to the Christian diet, the necessity of which proves how impossible the believer finds it to live a normal Christian life outside the walls of the church. And because these activities are artificial, they tend to be redundant, and because redundant, also tedious. But the supplement must be taken, and new “ministries” must be invented all the time, lest the believer be left with the suspicion that the lifestyle he treasures is not a possibility for him.

This is why, in response to complaint that Christianity is dead in our government, we would be inclined to reply: “Yes, it is, but in the Churches it is un-dead.” It lives there within those walls, but it is a most unnatural life, hermetically sealed at best.

The post-Christian West has turned out to involve, not a return to pre-Christian barbarism, but instead an advance to a new kind of strangeness. It is the age of what Sam Rocha has dubbed “Zombie Christianity,” where Christianity does not go extinct but rather persists as an untimely abomination. It is really no wonder that Christianity is viewed with suspicion by the outside world.

Toward an organic expression of religious life

There is no normative form of religious expression, but only that which accords with the doctrine bequeathed to a civilization and proper to the men who are participating in it. The revelation is objective, and if its principles are respected and retained, its secondary adaptations may be culturally numerous. This does not mean that any arrangement can adequately express the faith, for it does not originate in the subjective, but only that any number of arrangements can do so.

The church as a dedicated worship structure is appropriate only to those civilizations whose spiritual capital is such that it brings these out naturally, of its own accord. In secularized times, church buildings become not only artificial but misleading to both believers and non-believers. It is hard enough to discern the reality of our situation without millions of believers, stumbling-drunk on Marx’s opiate-religiosity, arguing to the contrary, congratulating themselves on their ‘Christian nation’, just because it allows them to go about their secular business with a good conscience.

We ought to recoil in disgust from the rising mega-church because, perceiving the absence of sufficient spiritual capital in our cultural substrate, we sense that its growth is unnatural.

Every church building in America is an anachronism. They ought to please only the antiquarian. To everyone else they should appear strange and even repellent. The fact that they are not recognized as such is evidence, not of some remnant of spiritual vigor, but of an unprecedented capacity for self-deception on the part of the American people.

This is why it would perhaps be the healthiest of possible catastrophes if somehow or another all the churches were razed to the ground. The believer would suffer, to be sure, just as the alcoholic suffers when his bottle is taken from him. But perhaps without his church walls to blind him, the believer would finally have to face with courage the cold discomfort of his world as it is. A spiritual wasteland.

Then and only then could he hope to conquer the real problems that oppress him; only then could he build something real and proper to himself, because only then will he have truly been “re-connected with reality.” He will have escaped the religion of Marx and re-discovered the religion of Christ. Perhaps then, by returning to the beginning, he could embark on a path that ends with the construction of a Cathedral. But the point is that whatever he does will be congruous with an actual spiritual reality—and it will be alive with his life.

In sum, we can say that Churches only enter the historical scene after Constantine converted. So it is no exaggeration to say that the political presence of Christianity preceded its architectural presence. This order of things, however, is incomprehensible to an era which imagines that Church buildings can and should exist within society but “outside politics,” and that the former will somehow influence the latter by some sort of emanation of righteousness. Each new Church built in America is an insult to the faith, an example of Christian delusion, an act of imaginary activism and vanity. They serve the same function for society at large that the window garden serves for the average man’s home: they give his wife a place to vent her sentiments, while he goes about his business. Churches are the window gardens of a secular civilization. Anachronistic ornaments which look good and make certain individuals feel good, but they only imitate the function of the institution they have tried to copy.