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.

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.

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.

the Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live

From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man by Saint Paisios the Athonite:

Question:

Geronda, why does St. Cyril of Jerusalem say that the Martyrs of the last days will surpass all Martyrs?

Answer:

Because in the old times we had men of great stature; our present age is lacking in examples—and I am speaking generally about the Church and Monasticism.  Today, there are more words and books and fewer living examples. We admire the holy Athletes of our Church, but without understanding how much they struggled, because we have not struggled ourselves.  Had we done so, we would appreciate their pain, we would love them even more and strive with philotimo to imitate them.  The Good God will of course take into account the age and conditions in which we live, and He will ask of each one of us accordingly.  If we only strive even a little bit, we will merit the crown more than our ancestors.

In the old days, when there was a fighting spirit and everyone was trying to measure up to the best, evil and negligence would not be tolerated.  Good was in great supply back then, and with this competitive spirit, it was difficult for careless people to make it to the finish line.  The others would run them over.  I remember once, in Thessaloniki, we were waiting for the traffic light to cross the street, when I suddenly felt pushed by the crowd behind me, as if by a wave.  I only had to lift my foot and the rest was done for me.  All I am trying to say is that when everybody is going toward the same direction, those who don’t wish to follow will have difficulty resisting because the others will push them along.

Today, if someone wishes to live honestly and spiritually, he will have a hard time fitting in this world.  And if he is not careful, he’ll be swept by the secular stream downhill.  In the old days, there was plenty of good around, plenty of virtue, many good examples, and evil was drowned by the good; so, the little disorder that existed in the world or in the monasteries was neither visible nor harmful.  What’s going on now?  Bad examples abound, and the little good that exists is scorned.  Thus, the opposite occurs; the little good that exists is drowned by an excess of evil, and evil reigns.

It helps so much when a person or a group of people has a fighting spirit.  When even one person grows spiritually, he does not only benefit himself, but helps those who see him.  Likewise, one who is laid back and lazy has the same effect on the others.  When one give in, others follow until in the end there’s nothing left.  This is why it’s so important to have a fighting spirit in these lax times.  We must pay great attention to this matter, because people today have reached the point where they make lax laws and impose them on those who want to live strict and disciplined lives.  For this reason, it is important for those who are struggling spiritually, not only to resist being influenced by the secular spirit, but also to resist comparing themselves to the world and concluding that they are saints.  For when this happens, they end up being worse than those who live in the world.  If we take one virtue at a time, find the Saint who exemplified it and study his or her life, we will soon realize that we have achieved nothing and will carry on with humility.

Just as in racing, the runner speeding for the end line does not look back toward those lagging behind, but fixes his eyes forward, so too in this struggle we don’t want to be looking back and thus left behind.  When I try to imitate those who are ahead of me, my conscience is refined.  When, however, I look back, I justify myself and think that my faults are not important compared to theirs.  The thought that others are inferior consoles me.  Thus, I end up drowning my conscience or, to put it better, having a plastered, unfeeling heart.

strange vacuum covered by this truly demonic word

Today no one, except the peculiar and esoteric race of men called “liturgiologists,” is interested in what was in the past a major preoccupation for Christians: the feasts and the seasons, the cycles of prayer, a very real concern about the “kairos“–the time of liturgical celebration. Not only the average layman, even the theologian seems to say: the world of Christian “symbolism” is no longer our world, all this failed, all this is gone and we have more serious affairs to attend to; it would be unthinkable, ridiculous to try to solve any real “problem” of modern life by referring it, say, to Easter or Pentecost, or even to Sunday.

…The real tragedy of Christianity is not its “compromise” with the world and progressive “materialism,” but on the contrary, its “spiritualization” and transformation into “religion.” …Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded.

…We must understand, therefore, that the intensive, almost pathological, preoccupation of our modern world with time and its “problem” is rooted in this specifically Christian failure. It is because of us, Christians, that the world in which we live has literally no time. Is it not true that the more “time saving” devices we invent, the less time we have? The joyless rush is interrupted by relaxation (“sit back and relax!”), but such is the horror of the strange vacuum covered by this truly demonic word, “relaxation,” that men must take pills to endure it, and buy expensive books about how to kill this no man’s land of “modern living.”

There is no time because Christianity, on the one hand, made it impossible for man to live in the old natural time, broke beyond repair the cycle of the eternal return. It has announced the fullness of time, revealed time as history and fulfillment, and has truly poisoned us once for all with the dream of a meaningful time. There is no time, on the other hand, because having announced all this, Christianity abandoned time, invited Christians simply to leave it and to think of eternity as of an eternal rest (if not yet “relaxation”). To be sure, one can still adorn the meaningless time with “beautiful symbols” and “colorful rites,” preferably “ancient.”

…The cross of Christ signified an end of all “natural” rejoicing; it made it, indeed, impossible. From this point of view the sad “seriousness” of modern man is certainly of Christian origin, even if this has been forgotten by that man himself. Since the Gospel was preached in this world, all attempts to go back to a pure “pagan joy,” all “renaissances,” all “healthy optimisms” were bound to fail. “There is but one sadness,” said Leon Bloy, “that of not being a saint.” And it is this sadness that permeates mysteriously the whole life of the world, its frantic and pathetic hunger and thirst for perfection, which kills all joy.

From chapter three in For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann (48-49, 54).

our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous

It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motor-cars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous. And this which is true of the apparent physical bustle is true also of the apparent bustle of the intellect. Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say “The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognised by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment,” you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the grey matter inside your skull. But if you begin “I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out,” you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

From chapter VIII, “The Romance of Orthodoxy” in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

old nurses

A flash back to some earlier Chesterton today that reminds me of many passages by Lewis such as this and this.

That is what the moderns mean when they say that the ancients did not “appreciate Nature,” because they said that Nature was divine. Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.

From the “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

an offering for the Dryads

C.S. Lewis in “Is Theism Important? A Reply” from the Socratic Digest (1952):

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, “Would that she were.” For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

Marble relief of a bull prepared for sacrifice. 1 century AD.
(Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Credits: Ann Raia, 2006.)

I heard this first passage last week in a lecture by Ken Myers. This second passage (also by Lewis, from Prince Caspian) caught my attention over the weekend as I read to my kids. In it Doctor Cornelius shares his hope that the “old days” might be restored. (He even gives Caspian a touching little regimen to follow: “be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people … gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more … search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts … are perhaps still alive in hiding.”) As Lewis watches the dissolution of a post-Christian West, he is longing for a pre-Christian world.

In reflecting on this, it strikes me that every child starts out with the potential to make a devout pagan. Childish worlds are full of wonder and fear of the most passionate and lovely kinds. They are capable of being overwhelmed by a world that “is charged with the grandeur of God.” In some respects (particularly given the plasticized and fast-paced modern lives that we tend to live), it could even be said (by way of analogy) that the primal paganism in children must first be guarded and nurtured before they can start maturing into true Trinitarian Christianity.

From Prince Caspian, chapter 4:

“Never in all these years have we forgotten our own people and all the other happy creatures of Narnia, and the long-lost days of freedom.”

“I’m – I’m sorry, Doctor,” said Caspian. “It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

“I am not saying these things in blame of you, dear Prince,” answered the Doctor. “You may well ask why I say them at all. But I have two reasons. Firstly, because my old heart has carried these secret memories so long that it aches with them and would burst if I did not whisper them to you. But secondly, for this: that when you become King you may help us, for I know that you also, Telmarine though you are, love the Old Things.”

“I do, I do,” said Caspian. “But how can I help?”

“You can be kind to the poor remnants of the Dwarf people, like myself. You can gather learned magicians and try to find a way of awaking the trees once more. You can search through all the nooks and wild places of the land to see if any Fauns or Talking Beasts or Dwarfs are perhaps still alive in hiding.”

“Do you think there are any?” asked Caspian eagerly.

“I don’t know – I don’t know,” said the Doctor with a deep sigh. “Sometimes I am afraid there can’t be. I have been looking for traces of them all my life. Sometimes I have thought I heard a Dwarf-drum in the mountains. Sometimes at night, in the woods, I thought I had caught a glimpse of Fauns and Satyrs dancing a long way off; but when I came to the place, there was never anything there. I have often despaired; but something always happens to start me hoping again. I don’t know. But at least you can try to be a King like the High King Peter of old, and not like your uncle.”