Sunday, November 19, 2006

Gadflies and Angry Hornets

I have been upsetting the hive of the web-based magazine, New English Review, and some of the angry bees have been buzzing around this website, although no one has yet, to my knowledge, left a comment. Some of their writers have been engaging in a form of dialogue with me on their website (in their favor, I should add that the New English Review allows for reader comments) and one of them remarked that my interpretation of Jane Austen's Persuasion was "topsy-turvy."

While I will grant that my analogy between "persuasion" and Islamic "surrender" or "submission" was probably far-fetched - the former a secular, the latter a religious sensibility - I don't think my actual interpretation of the novel was incorrect. It would do well for Westerners to recall that Persuasion was a Greek goddess, yet Empedocles (ca. 450 BC) reminds us that : "It is not possible to bring God near within reach of our eyes, nor to grasp him with our hands, by which route the broadest road of Persuasion runs into the human mind." [1]

His next verse recalls that it is the Mind, "holy and ineffable, which darts through the whole universe with its swift thoughts" - and yet, what is this Mind? This is hardly the intellectualized rationalism we have come to identify as the leading characteristic of Western thought, and which is trumpeted by Rebecca Bynum in one of her anti-Islam screeds [2]-- "And reason cannot compromise with unreason without destroying the basis for its existence. By the same token, unreason cannot become reasonable without destroying itself as well."

I have thought a lot about this comment. Bynum's view of reason is the Kantian "pure reason" exaggerated to the point of caricature. I don't know on what plane of Olympianism she pronounces that "reason cannot compromise with unreason," but it is certainly not the plane of history or reality, or even the meaning of the word.

First of all, reason, ratio, implies relation, or the relation of one thing to another, hence the strict opposition between "reason vs. unreason" is misleading, if not false. To remove reason from the nexus of relations is to "idolize" it, to turn it into a mere abstraction that has no more practical or meaningful dimension of energy or work. (In this regard, I note that the message I left in Bynum's Comment box was to the effect that "Reason has to compromise with unreason all the time - that is why it is called reason!)

Reason then just becomes another achievement, another "accomplishment," with which Westerners endlessly congratulate themselves for possessing. And because they already possess it, they never have to question what the use of it presumably entails. This is the a priori assumption of the reasonableness of the Western mind which fosters irredeemable pride. I am reminded once again of Simone Weil's comments on the Western reason - noted in 1937 - in her essay "The Power of Words"--

She writes: ". . . the glossy surface of our civilization hides a real intellectual decadence . . . . " In our speaking and writing we hardly ever use the words (or concepts denoting) limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. The result is the "lethal absurdity" of our political universe which is peopled exclusively by" myths and monsters."

She concludes thus: "The whole intellectual climate of our age favors the growth and multiplication of vacuous entities." [3]

It is my contention that a hothouse display of "vacuous entities" can be seen to proliferate in the digital pages of the New English Review, which, I think, consists of a panel of young and wet-behind-the-ears writers that have latched on to the luminous Theodore Dalrymple as a way of providing themselves with some legitimacy. That these writers come across as insufferably arrogant Brits is the least of it. No, the worst is the pretence of thinking - to put forth articles and opinions in the guise of rational language but without a glimmer of intellectual charity.

The New English Review is a good example of Chesterton's point about the peril against which, rightly or wrongly, religious authority was reared as a barrier: "That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself."

"Religious authority" is perhaps not the only way one can protect oneself from this peril, but it has been proven to be a sure and lasting one. The other way is deeper and more difficult, and perhaps I will try to sketch out some of the lineaments of this "Way" in future posts dealing with the theme of the Soul. But I think it has something to do with what Empedocles, considered one of the "fathers of Western rationalism" said about the heart -- "[It is] nourished in the seas of blood which courses in two opposite directions; this is the place where is found for the most part what men call Thought; for the blood round the heart is Thought for mankind."

[1] Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. ed. Kathleen Freeman, Harvard University Press, 1971.

[2] Rebecca Bynum, "Islam, Predestination and Free Will" - November, 2006, New English Review

[3] From Simone Weil's Selected Essays, Oxford University Press, 1962.

[Reposted and slightly edited]

Saturday, November 11, 2006


I am feeling a little better since the elections, which seem to indicate a desire, on the part of the American electorate, for a return of the Republic. The real work will be a labor of generations, for the Nation has fallen into many bad habits, and the neoconservative-inspired orgy of arrogance and self-righteousness will not be easy to shake. Nevertheless, we can hope - and a thread of reasonable and realistic hope is far stronger than pillars of nationalistic rhetoric.

I wish to complete this phase of my inquiry into the Islamic religion by mentioning Karen Armstrong's book, Islam, as a surprisingly fair-minded assessment. I say "surprisingly," because in the past I was not impressed by Karen Armstrong, this English ex-nun who wrote a very bad book about Genesis. Why is it that so many people in the West denigrate their own religious and cultural heritage and reduce it to trivial-mindedness? S uch people surprise us when they exemplify the best of the Western tradition in their explorations of other traditions.

I would not have expected from this author such a strong, concise, elegantly-written and informative history of Islam, but she has done it, and I am glad to say that my earlier negative view of Karen Armstrong was premature and unfair. The book has been included in the Modern Library series, which is some indication of its quality. Armstrong points out that, in the early days of the formation of Islam, this religion was actually a peaceful and unifying force among the warring Arabian tribes. She traces the ups and downs of this religious inspiration through many of the dynasties. No doubt the Mongol invasions (circa 1200's) had a bad effect, and caused a kind of retrenchment and narrowing of outlook. There is a militant stream in Islam, just as there is in Judaism and Christianity, yet in my cursory readings of the Koran this militancy did not strike me as more excessive or extreme than its counterparts in the other Abrahamic religions.

At the time of these revelations, as now, the Arabic and Hebraic peoples were much entertwined, and perhaps the Prophet's message to the "Children of Israel" is just as relevant today as it was then: "Children of Israel, remember the favor I have bestowed upon you, and that I exalted you above the nations. Guard yourselves against the day on which no soul shall stand for another: when no intercession shall be accepted for it, no ransom be taken from it, no help be given it."

I love this reminder of the presence of the intercessory spirit, and that in mutuality and co-inherence, all the Children of God stand together. These are the kinds of messages that must be heard today amidst the "warring tribes" of the present.

Finally, we can recall that Islam means "submission," a word which often grates on Western ears. But again, before we rush to judgment, let us recall Jane Austen's wonderful novel, Persuasion, in which the theme of "submission" or "persuadability" is taken up most wonderfully. People who have read it will recall that the hero, Captain Wentworth, went through a change of mind on this issue. His lady, Anne Elliott, had been persuaded not to marry him, and he was much embittered because of this, being led in future to seek only "strong-minded characters." Yet in a subsequent flirtation with a stubborn and self-willed young lady, he began to see that the ability to be open to persuasion was not necessarily a sign of weakness, but rather of integrity and quiet strength.

This novel has a timely message for American leadership today, for if we have had nothing else demonstrated, we can see how delusional it is to believe that recalcitrance to persuasion means strength. "Hardness of heart" and a narrow, self-willed stubbornness of mind has characterized our public persona and foreign policy for nigh to a decade, and it is the "elitist" camp followers of the neocons -- whether in First Things or the odious New English Review -- who have cheered and followed.

It is good to see that apparently, the American people think otherwise -- more along the lines of a reformed Captain Wentworth who had the sense to catch his lady on a second try. Thus the "submission" which is Islam is not too distant from this literary portrait of it, or from Catholic "obediential potency" or even the Quaker "tenderness." It seems the glory of the Kingdom teaches spiritual surrender. But even the kingdoms of this world need some of it if they are to endure, and a "surrender" to the claims of truthfulness and the common good are much needed today.

In this regard I would like also to mention Michael Kinsley's recent (Nov. 5) book review in the New York Times, where he says that the main problem in our society today is "intellectual dishonesty." I think this essay is a hopeful sign that perhaps a few in the pundit class are catching on. Deception and dishonesty are an inevitable part of human society, but to embrace them actively will destroy society. The maggots and worms need to be exposed if we are to have a future.

(Reposted; slightly edited)