a man who wanted to turn the whole world into a factory

Comments about secular modernity, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, classical liberalism, capitalism and nationalism from David Bentley Hart (in conversation with Jason Micheli) on Episode 230 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast: David Bentley Hart— Once Upon a Time. This is my own transcription (used with permission but noting that all errors are my own):

The word socialism can evoke shivers of anxiety among Eastern Europeans as well because they’ll associate it with the rhetoric of the state communism that they labored under for so many decades. But on the whole, most nations, Western European nations, Canada …recognize that this is a word with a certain flexibility of connotations.

Christian socialism, I would point out, antedates Marxism. I’m not a great fan of Marx. The early Marx was something of a romantic—soaked in nostalgia for a sort of pristine world in which labor was not separate, was not alienated from the products of its hands. That Marx I like because he was still basically a pre-Raphaelite without realizing it. But the Marx who …wrote the last words of volume three of Das Kapital really is a man who wanted to turn the whole world into a factory. I mean, basically, he was no different from a corporatist capitalist. He just wanted one big corporation. If you look at what it actually says, he elevated labor over play, productivity, over leisure. …He becomes the ultimate capitalist by the end of Das Kapital. So yes, I thoroughly despise a fully developed Marxism, and I think it actually is to be blamed for the tyrannies of the Soviet period, that it was not a completely accidental alliance, that there is some real Marxist logic that went into creating the Soviet Union.

So what is socialism? Socialism is a much older, much broader, much wider tradition in Egnlish Christian thought and American Christian thought too. There was a form of socialism that, for one thing, doesn’t even have a political shape that we can recognize anymore. It was neither left nor right in our terms today. …The great father of Engilsh Christian socialism—not the first of them but the one who wrote the most compelling defences of the morality of Christian socialism—was John Ruskin, and he was an arch-Tory. He thought he was fighting against liberalism, what we would call classical liberalism. America, however, has two political parties that are classical liberal parties. John Stuart Mill could have invented either one of them depending on whether that day he was thinking in economic terms or social terms. The Republicans are Millian liberalism with an emphasis on his economics and presuming his liberatarian social theory. The Democrats are Millian liberalism emphasizing his social theory but excepting his free market economics. Their largely, in the grand scheme of things, indistinguishable from one another. The Christian socialist tradition, however, was a serious attempt to understand [the gospel]—not out of some nostalgia for a vanished golden age of Christian justice. (John Ruskin may have loved things medieval, but he understood the injustices of medieval society as well.) It was an attempt to take the gospel seriously, not only as some private morality to be crowded out of the public sphere into the realm of private fixation, but actually as a way of living together as an actual social picture of a real possible social ethos, a politics, a communal truth, a politics of love—one that …would be productive, that loved and even venerated labor and craft and trade but within a human framework not dominated by joint stock companies (as they had been called then and we would now call corporate structures) that reduce human beings to the commodity of labor and are devoted only to making a profit for their shareholders no matter what the cost either to workers or to the natural order or to society. To me there is no other politics that a Christian can adopt in the modern world without in some sense relinquishing one’s commitment to the gospel to some degree, and I really wish that Americans were not so neurostemically afraid of this word.

…There is this journal that you may know of: First Things. …The editorial staff has embraced the new nationalism or some form thereof. …They are so staggeringly unsophisticated in their analysis of the failures of liberal secularism that they don’t understand that nationalism is always and can only be the last terminal stage of the very modernity that they think that they are struggling against. …It’s tertiary syphilis. …It’s all based on, among other things, a handful of bad metaphors about boundarylessness. …One of my neighbors signed it, Patrick Deneen, and he should know better, but he doesn’t. …This is my complaint about First Things. I spent twenty years trying to convince them that economic and social liberalism are two manifestations of the same essentially voluntarist understanding of the good. …I threw around all of the inflammatory rhetoric about nihilism and how this differs from virtue ethics and elevating greed. I wrote against marriage of Christ and mammon and all that, and I was just always the sort of curmudgeonly eccentric. So along comes someone like Patrick Deneen and at the very moment that they are waking up to the fact that at least some of this critique might have had virtue but instead of going in the direction that I thought was the obvious alternative, which is the embrace of a kind of radical Christian ethos that recognizes the nation state and the corporation …as matasticies of certain vices that Christianity is meant to heal us of, they went to embrace nationalism on the grounds that boundarylessness is the problem. Of course it isn’t. …We have plenty of boundaries. …That’s basically what modernity is. It’s ever more narrowly opposed boundary until there is nothing left but the isolated consumer and the nation state and the dialectic between them. Modernity and the corporation, they love national boundaries and national sovereignty. They love labor markets split between the legal and the illegal, the foreign and the domestic, the wealthy and the poor. They thrive on national identity and division, and what Christianity preaches is a real universalism …in which the statement that there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, …man and woman, husband and wife …really is a political statement. …It’s about the breaking down of the boundary between Jew and Gentile, between law and nations. Instead of that understanding of just how radical Christianity is, how much it detaches us from loyalty to the nation state, to the folk, to the imperatives of the people, they’ve gone quite the opposite direction and basically allowed themselves to become patsies of the worst aspect of late modernity which is nationalism, the reductio ad absurdum of the modern project, or actually, let’s be honest, the reductio ad malum of the modern project. There is no nationalism that can be anything other than that.

a ruin—but an entire ruin

From my daughter Nessa this evening: “I just reread my, so far, favorite scene in Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë:

Descending the laurel-walk, I faced the wreck of the chestnut tree…. The cloven halves were not broken from each other, for the firm base and strong roots kept them unsundered below…. They might be said to form one tree—a ruin—but an entire ruin.

“You did right to hold fast to each other,” I said, as if the monster splinters were living things and could hear me. “I think, scathed as you look, and charred and scorched, there must be a little sense of life in you yet, rising out of that adhesion at the faithful, honest roots. You will never have green leaves more—never more see birds making nests, and singing idylls in your boughs; the time of pleasure and love is over with you; but you are not desolate; each of you has a comrade to sympathize with him in his decay.”

even as the day softens away into the sweet Twilight

This has been my Object, and this alone can be my Defence–and O! that with this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE might conclude!—the unquenched desire I mean, not without the consciousness of having earnestly endeavoured to kindle young minds, and to guard them against the temptations of Scorners, by showing that the Scheme of Christianity, as taught in the Liturgy and Homilies of our Church, though not discoverable by human Reason, is yet in accordance with it; that link follows link by necessary consequence; that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own horizon; and that Faith is then but its continuation: even as the day softens away into the sweet Twilight, and Twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the Darkness. It is Night, sacred Night! the upraised eye views only the starry Heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the awful depth, though Suns of other Worlds, only to preserve the soul steady and collected in its pure Act of inward adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from Eternity to Eternity, whose choral echo is the Universe.

From: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Princeton University Press, 1983., Vol. II, p. 247-8. II, Chap. 24, Conclusion.

a man who fails to pursue self-knowledge is and remains a danger to society

A man who fails to pursue self-knowledge is and remains a danger to society, for he will tend to misunderstand everything that other people say or do, and remain blissfully unaware of the significance of many of the things he does himself.

E. F. Schumacher in A Guide for the Perplexed.

Top 50 Movies of 2010-2019 by Joshua Gibbs

(Not sure if he’ll publish this list elsewhere, but I’ve gleaned it from his Facebook page where he posted one by one.)

1: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2013), dir. Wes Anderson

1: “Eat Pray Love” (2010), dir. Ryan Murphy [a joke before the final reveal]

2: “The Master” (2012), dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

3: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), dir. Tomas Alfredson

4: “The Tree of Life” (2011), dir. Terrence Malick

5: “Under The Skin” (2013), dir. Jonathan Glazer

6: “Blade Runner 2049” (2017), dir. Denis Villeneuve

7: “A Bigger Splash” (2015), dir. Luca Guadagnino

8: “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” (2019), dir. Quentin Tarantino

9: “Black Swan” (2010), dir. Darren Aronofsky

10: “The Social Network” (2010), dir. David Fincher

11: “Phantom Thread” (2017), dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

12: “First Reformed” (2017), dir. Paul Schrader

13: “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (November 2009), dir. Wes Anderson

14: “Enemy” (2013), dir. Denis Villeneuve

15: “Ida” (2013), dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

16: “It Follows” (2014), dir. David Robert Mitchell

17: “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017), dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

18: “Arrival” (2016), dr. Denis Villeneuve

19: “Frances Ha” (2012), dir. Noah Baumbach

20: “Dunkirk” (2017), dir. Christopher Nolan

21: “Lady Bird” (2017), dir. Greta Gerwig

22: “Prometheus” (2012), dir. Ridley Scott

23: “The Lobster” (2015), dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

24: “The Witch” (2015), dir. Robert Eggers

25: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), dir. The Coen Brothers

26: “Melancholia” (2011), dir. Lars von Trier

27: “Somewhere” (2010), dir. Sofia Coppola

28: “Gravity” (2013), dir. Alfonso Cuarón

29: “The Revenant” (2015), dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

30: “Juliet Naked” (2018), dir. Jesse Peretz

31: “Nightcrawler” (2014), dir. Dan Gilroy

32: “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (2011), dir. Lynne Ramsay

33: “Skyfall” (2012), dir. Sam Mendes

34: “Carol” (2015), dir. Todd Haynes

35: “Prisoners” (2013), dir. Denis Villeneuve

36: “Barbara” (2012), dir. Christian Petzold

37: “12 Years A Slave” (2013), dir. Steve McQueen

38: “The Meyerowitz Stories” (2017), dir. Noah Baumbach

39: “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), dir. Wes Anderson

40: “Deathly Hallows Part I” (2010), dir. David Yates

41: “Never Let Me Go” (2010), dir. Mark Romanek

42: “While We’re Young” (2015), dir. Noah Baumbach

43: “Locke” (2013), dir. Steven Knight

44: “Paterson” (2016), dir. Jim Jarmusch

45: “Inception” (2010), dir. Christopher Nolan

46: “Drive” (2011), dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

47: “The Favourite” (2018), dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

48: “Sicario” (2015), dir. Denis Villeneuve

49: “Force Majeure” (2014), dir. Ruben Östlund

50: “The Beguiled” (2017), dir. Sofia Coppola

the book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad

It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by a majority of the people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.

G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.

we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things

Modernity is what comes …when Christianity has been displaced from the center of a culture and deprived of any power explicitly to shape laws and customs, and has ceased to be regarded as the source of a society’s highest values or of a government’s legitimacy, and has ceased even to hold preeminent sway over a people’s collective imagination. …Modernity is not simply a “postreligious” condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society. …The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things—they would never have occurred to us—had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.

From David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009). Recalls Fr. Stephen Freeman and others who say thatCharles, helpful. Thank you. This question brings to mind a claim that modernity is best understood specifically as a heretical distortion of Christianity. Also brings to mind this point by Charles Taylor that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible” (and Lewis describing post-Christian culture at the bottom of this post).

all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing

David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009) lakes up a theme that he’s gone much farther with in recent articles:

Those of us who now, in the latter days of modernity, are truest to the wisdom and ethos of our age place ourselves not at the disposal of God, or the gods, or the Good, but before an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills, whose decisions are their own moral index. This is what it means to have become perfect consumers: the original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world—and thus we are free.

Earlier in this same chapter of Atheist Delusions, Hart put it this way:

To be entirely modern (which very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. This is not to say it is to have no beliefs: the truly modern person may believe in almost anything, or even perhaps in everything, so long as all these beliefs rest securely upon a more fundamental and radical faith in the nothing—or, better, in nothingness as such. Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.

David Bentley Hart picks up this theme again years later in The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (2013):

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the only truly substantial value at the center of the social universe: the price tag.

our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition

In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane gives a gripping account of knowing with our bodies (in comparing the writings of French philosopher Merleau-Ponty and Scottish writer Nan Shepherd).

[Merleau-Ponty] argued that knowledge is ‘felt’: that our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition. Consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricably intertwined. The body ‘incarnates’ our subjectivity and we are thus, Merleau-Ponty proposed, ‘embedded’ in the ‘flesh’ of the world. He described this embodied experience as ‘knowledge in the hands’; our body ‘grips’ the world for us and is ‘our general medium for having a world.’ And the material world itself is therefore not the unchanging object presented by the natural sciences, but instead endlessly relational. We are co-natural with the world and it with us–but we only ever see it partially.

…‘Place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both are altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.’ ‘The body is not … negligible, but paramount,’ she elsewhere declares, in a passage that could have come straight from Phenomenology of Perception. ‘Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.’

…‘This is the innocence we have lost,’ she says, ‘living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.’ Her book is a hymn to ‘living all the way through’: to touching, tasting, smelling and hearing the world. If you manage this, then you might walk ‘out of the body and into the mountain’, such that you become, briefly, ‘a stone … the soil of the earth’. And at that point then, well, then ‘one has been in’. ‘That is all,’ writes Shepherd, and that ‘all’ should be heard not diminutively, apologetically, but expansively, vastly.

this connection between the universal and the parochial

In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane has much to offer regarding the connectedness of place and language. Patrick Kavanagh’s insight that the local parish is our only access point to Aristotelian universals is profound (see last excerpt in this post). To share a frustration, Macfarlane’s claims often exaggerate the powers of language alone to tie our hearts to the land and to enable us to hear the voices of the earth and water forms with which we live. It seems to me that this kind of attention and love cannot be separated from the norm of lifetimes spent in faithfulness to a particular place across generations. His collection of writers devoted to places and their peoples, however, is a powerful beacon amid the storms of modernity.

The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘ field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in his 1903 essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’–meaning indifferent to the distinction between things. It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people able to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The ethno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of ‘long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human–environment interaction for millennia …accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge mostly unrecoverable.’

…[Basso, author of Wisdom Sits in Places (1996)] became especially interested in the interconnections of story, place-name, historical sense and the ethical relationships of person to person and person to place. Early in the book, Basso despatches what he calls the ‘widely accepted’ fallacy in anthropology that place-names operate only as referents. …The Apache understand how powerfully language constructs the human relation to place, and as such they possess, Basso writes, ‘a modest capacity for wonder and delight at the large tasks that small words can be made to perform’. In their imagination geography and history are consubstantial. Placeless events are inconceivable, in that everything that happens must happen somewhere.

…For Weber, disenchantment was a function of the rise of rationalism, which demanded the extirpation of dissenting knowledge-kinds in favour of a single master-principle. It found its expressions not just in human behaviour and policy–including the general impulse to control nature–but also in emotional response. Weber noted the widespread reduction of ‘wonder’ (for him the hallmark of enchantment, and in which state we are comfortable with not-knowing) and the corresponding expansion of ‘will’ (for him the hallmark of disenchantment, and in which state we are avid for authority). In modernity, mastery usurped mystery. Our language for nature is now such that the things around us do not talk back to us in ways that they might. As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework. We have become experts in analysing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. The former is important; the latter is vital. Martin Heidegger identified a version of this trend in 1954, observing that the rise of technology and the technological imagination had converted what he called ‘the whole universe of beings’ into an undifferentiated ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) of energy, available for any use to which humans choose to put it. The rise of ‘standing reserve’ as a concept has bequeathed to us an inadequate and unsatisfying relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves too, because we have to encounter ourselves and our thoughts as mysteries before we encounter them as service providers. We require things to have their own lives if they are to enrich ours.

…Patrick Kavanagh (1904–67), the great poet of the Irish mundane, was sure of the parish’s importance. For Kavanagh, the parish was not a perimeter but an aperture: a space through which the world could be seen. ‘Parochialism is universal,’ he wrote. ‘It deals with the fundamentals.’ Kavanagh, like Aristotle, was careful not to smudge the ‘universal’ into the ‘general’. The ‘general’, for Aristotle, was the broad, the vague and the undiscerned. The ‘universal’, by contrast, consisted of fine-tuned principles, induced from an intense concentration on the particular. Kavanagh often returned to this connection between the universal and the parochial, and to the idea that we learn by scrutiny of the close-at-hand. ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism,’ he wrote:

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields–these are as much as a man can fully experience.

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