Saturday, February 28, 2009

de Maistre and Radical chic

Theists daydream about crushing modernity, in favor of "Radical Orthodoxy".

One of Isaiah Berlin's finest works (see the side-links) was his essay about the intellectual outlook of Joseph de Maistre, the staunchly conservative Catholic Savoyard who lived through the French Revolution and wrote whitheringly against it, against modernity, against rationality, and against all points un-Catholic.

His great insight was about the dark side of human nature- how people want to be in chains, want to sin and be forgiven, want to sacrifice their lives on the altar of authority, and thus need and want to be led by their betters, or indeed by anyone with plausible authority. He saw clearly the acidic nature of rationality and atheism, which would wash away the veneration of throne and altar as divine manifestations, imperturbable and unanswerable, which best undergirds such patriarchal, hierarchical systems. He despised the French revolution, yet was fascinated by power, legitimate and illigitimate. One can see clear affinities with Machiavelli, even as de Maistre hewed devotedly to the Roman Catholic church (see fideism). He knew that to see through the contingency of such institutions and theistic rationalizations was to destroy everything- to destabilize the delicate threads of society, with no assurance that anything at all, or at any rate anything worthwhile, was ready to replace them.

Echos of de Maistre's philosophy, which was highly influential in its time, especially in reactionary Russia and restoration France, continue down to our day, through Fascism, opposition to Vatican II, Opus Dei, and most recently, in a curious phenomenon that calls itself "Radical Orthodoxy" (RO). Not coherent enough or palatable enough to be a philosphy, RO calls itself a "sensibility", and seeks the usual conservative dream of universal subservience to clergy and church- of stability promised by verities imbibed unthinkingly and enforced ruthlessly. A medieval world where being outside the church is literally unthinkable, and atheism but a rumor from far away and long ago.

de Maistre's views were a powerful antidote to the enlightenment faith in human rationality, which did indeed have an excessively sangine view of our (or at least revolutionary Frenchmen's) ability to reshape society to the ideals of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, instead authoring a rather sanguinary episode that was saved (depending on one's view of him) only by the Machiavellian hand of Napoleon and his even more sanguinary excesses abroad (admittedly, in response to the relentless aggression of the horrified theo/auto-cratic enemies of the French revolution).

Optimism or pessimism about the human condition- that is the question. In the end, even de Maistre knew he was waging at best a holding operation, since the progress of the sciences and rational thought was so demonstrable and invigorating to so many, despite the missteps along the way. It was left to the next century for the full excesses of each extreme to be made explicit in the death-grapple between Germany, with its romantic religion of Volk und Blut, and the Stalinist dictatorship of the proletariat. Each partook in some measure of both extremes, claiming rationalist sanction by way of various pseudosciences (race studies and eugenics on the one hand, and historical determinism on the other, among many others), while also feeding deeply on romantic irrationalist attitudes, including leader-cults and nationalism, to create updated terror-states.

Thankfully, other political systems have cast a less harsh light on the possibilities of reason in the guidance of human affairs, but the modern age remains deeply discomfiting to those who are not at home in the ultimately self-determined and meaningless nihilism of fully realized modernism. This nexus of self-made meaning, rampant liberty, and penetrating skepticism offend those who seek timeless truth and structure in their inner and outer lives, however illusory.

Thus Radical Orthodoxy, a minor theological revolt from the Anglican church that sidles up to Rome, (indeed holding a recent conference right by the Vatican, with the howlingly misleading title "The Grandeur of Reason"), and offers patently irrationalist mystical maunderings to communicate its "sensibility". A sensibility which offers a critique without criticism- a cry of protest against modernism without rational content, as far as I can tell (or Mr. J. Irwin either, who was there). Which seems, at base, to wish its way back into the early middle ages, when life was good for the clergy, everyone knew their place, and none of the doubts introduced by the Renaissance had yet reared their head, let alone the utterly corrosive skepticism of modernity. Indeed, they have something of a bone to pick with the eleventh century pre-scholastic Duns Scotus, [ed. note- a correspondent points out below that Scotus was 13th-14th century, and taught at the height of scholasticism] and his excessive use of reason! No community will be conceivable outside the church, and while the church will be perfectly humble and humanistic, somehow nothing could be done or authorized without its sanction.

What is the Grandeur of reason, in their eyes? Well to quote Irwin, "What brings this reductionism to pass, it is claimed by both [pope] Benedict and Radical Orthodoxy, is the ‘self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable’." The grandeur of reason turns out to be its extension and broadening into faith- thus giving blind faith the name "reason" just because, well, reason has a nice ring to it in this modern age, doesn't it? Apparently the outright proclamation of faith, pure and simple, is unappetizing for theologians who call themselves "thinkers", so their answer is to slap the sticker of reason on whatever they happen to hold as faith, and hope no one notices.

The self-applied moniker of "Radical" is not RO's only claim to chic, for they are self-avowedly postmodernist as well. Whatever claims to deconstruct modernism and reach beyond the horrors of penetrating rational thought is their friend, and postmodernism is certainly that, since in most understandings it attacks the very capability of humans to understand anything, as per Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault, to the point that their own writings demonstrate what they set out to prove. It is a fellow obscurantism with which the RO theists feel very much at home. All the same, they appear blind to how postmodernism is even more thoroughly critical of the "logocentrism" and other universal narratives that RO wishes to shelter from thought than it is of the residual certainties of modernism.

For that is the point of RO, isn't it? To proclaim, propagate, and enforce an orthodoxy (kerygmatically, as they would say) without skepticism, quarter or second thought. That is why they yearningly look up to the Catholic church, which stands as such a monolith of unappealable, unapologetic, infallible orthodoxy in a sea of doubt and skepticism, even as it quietly steers its ship with the times, claiming to be best friends with the Muslims and Jews after all, casting off limbo with a press release, settling pederasty case after case as quietly as it can, and otherwise reluctantly trimming its course to the critiques of enlightened reason and morality. And the ruby slippers, dresses, and hats- out of this world!

de Maistre would be deeply pleased by the continued appeal of ultra-conservative thought. His battle goes on an on, one golden age replaced by another in the rear-view mirror, and those who have authority based on nothing other than superstition and tradition deathly afraid that the winds of reason will lift up their skirts and blow them away.

Incidental links:
  • Mullahs and the postmodernists.
  • Fascinating and revolting tale of a postmodernist taking it to the limit.
  • The Sokal hoax, uncovering postmodern pretensions and obscurantism.
  • A theist puzzles over RO.
  • A correspondent provides an excellent primer on RO.


  1. "...superstition and tradition deathly afraid that the winds of reason will lift up their skirts and blow them away"

    Pure nonsense...

    Reality is more than but does include, joyfully and rightly, science and logic. Reality is "held" in being by an underlying Mystery to which both you and I deperately need to kneel in adoration.

    "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
    Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 159–167

    Fr. Lazarus

  2. I'll admit I was going a little over the top, seeing as the Catholic church is still a rather big business.

    But why on earth do we "desperately" need to kneel to it in "adoration"? There are plenty of mysteries, like why we dream, and how consciousness works. Kneeling to them is not going to help either them or us. If you feel better doing alot of kneeling, you have plenty of company, especially in Islam, and are exhibit A of de Maistre's philosophy. But don't tell others to kneel to make you feel better.

  3. We need to kneel in adoration for the opportunity to be residents of such a mysterious and wonderful universe that, as a result of a loving creator, has a future beyond the decay and futility we experience in many arenas and many levels.

    As far as feeling better. Kneeling is good for a lot of things, especially dealing with my pride that I all too often ignore by not kneeling to Him who gives me life and hope.

    What makes me feel better about you kneeling is the sense that I have done the right thing in suggesting something healing to someone who might be broken. I believe it is always a good idea to suggest to someone who might need to go to the doctor to go to the doctor. Of course, those who do not perceive the need of a physician will scoff at the person who might perceive the need for a doctor in the other person.

    Affirmed or not, I still suggest adoration of our loving creator and merciful savior. I appreciate it when people show me the truth... I pray I can perceive truth in what you are telling me, whatever that may be.

    God Bless,

    Fr. Lazarus

  4. “…and none of the doubts introduced by the Renaissance had yet reared their head, let alone the utterly corrosive skepticism of modernity. Indeed, they have something of a bone to pick with the eleventh century pre-scholastic Duns Scotus, and his excessive use of reason!”

    First, Duns Scotus was a 14th Century theologian, not 11th and lived during the height of scholasticism, not “pre.” Second, the Renaissance was sparked by the move of Christian Byzantine scholars westward after the fall of Constantinople, so to imply an inherent antagonism between the Renaissance and Christianity is simplistic at best. Third, to speak of Scotus using a “reason” that is clearly intended to mean an enlightenment-modern view of reason, is anachronistic and reveals the writer’s complete naivety regarding the privileging of his own view of “reason” or world-view, thus confirming the very post-modern critique he denigrates.

    I would caution readers that the rest of the post is even more inaccurate than the items just noted.

  5. Thanks for your corrections, Darrell. Since Duns Scotus spent most of his life in the 1200's, dying in 1308, perhaps 13th century would be most accurate of all. Sorry to get messed up yet again by the Xth century nomenclature.

    As Irwin puts it, "Within the premoderns, Scotus lays the foundations for Kantianism by allowing for the ‘autonomy of philosophy’. Against Scotus, Radical Orthodoxy looks back to Augustine (and to a lesser extent Aquinas) as the true source for the evolution of a contemporary ‘post-liberal’ theology.", which I take to mean that the autonomy of philosophy (the grandeur of reason, in RO's terms) should not be autonomous, but tethered inextricably to ... the church.

    More generally, scholasticism prized argument and reason, despite its flawed premises, and thus again is opposed to the RO agenda, which I think is what Irwin and Milbank are getting at. Augustine authored the idea of the invisible church, eventually triumphant, and the perpetual rule of Jesus through the visible church, etc.- typical doctrines of pure faith, not reason- when it became apparent that all the predictions of the second coming were not coming at all.

    Lastly, the origins of the Renaissance do trace to Italy, and partly to the fall of the east. And most Europeans at the time were Christians (could they be otherwise in practice?). But the content of the newly introduced scholarship was far from Christian in the main- it was ancient, Greek, Roman, cosmopolitan, technical, humanist, free-thinking. Much of which RO is steadfastly against.

  6. And, if I may add another thought- one might ask what the difference was between the great fertility of the renaissance and the ultimate sterility of scholasticism. Both used reason as best they could to understand the world and humanity, but one was still captivated by theology, while the other transcended it.

  7. “But the content of the newly introduced scholarship was far from Christian in the main- it was ancient, Greek, Roman, cosmopolitan, technical, humanist, free-thinking. Much of which RO is steadfastly against.”

    No one said the content was “Christian.” Most people know the Renaissance was the revival, the “re-birth” of the “classical” from the Latin and Greek sources. The Church, the monasteries, protected, preserved, and provided these sources back to the culture—hardly something they would do if they feared these sources or wanted them forgotten.

    As to what you think RO is against, I have no idea. Since much of modern secular thought would also be against some of these ancient sources as to the philosophy/ideas they espouse, I’m not even sure what you mean to say that RO is against this scholarship. The point remains: I believe your historical “analysis” is simply as inaccurate as the rest of your post. It is nonsense really.