Days of Intellectual Decline?

Matthew Phillips, writing over at Mondoweiss, says something very interesting about the nature of ideas and intellectuals in America in a piece examining comments made by Congressman Anthony Weiner on Israel at New York University. I’m not going to deal with the substance of Weiner’s comments, but rather this:

Consider the prominent American Zionists of the past century, those who were tasked with explaining their understanding of Israel to fellow Jews. From men as different in orientation as Louis Brandeis to Arthur Hertzberg, these men—whatever one might think of their views—were often deeply learned, approached Zionism seriously, and were informed in their understanding of Israel by some very broad, liberal values. Who are their most visible heirs today? Democrats like Anthony Weiner, Joe Lieberman and Alan Dershowitz? All three are not merely dishonest but dishonest in an easily demonstrable and clumsy way. More that, none, I would venture, are sincerely interested in Zionism, or concerned with the fate of the Israeli people—in fact, their careerism shines through everything they say; they have clearly played up their Zionist leanings for the sake of their constituents or their reputation. Of course, times have changed, and as Israel’s behavior in the world has gotten cruder its more sophisticated backers are perhaps no longer up to the task. But it really does not bode well for Israel that, as the Baird-Wiener “debate” further revealed, the historically important task of protecting Israel’s image in the U.S. has now fallen almost exclusively into the hands of careless and vulgar propagandists.

I do not know if popular ideas were always vulgar. I do know that intellectuals rarely influenced the world directly, but were “translated” for popular consumption by newspaper editors, commentators, and radio broadcasters — things that tend not to survive well. Books and essays by theologians and philosophers do. For example, while Sayyed Qutb did concoct many of the ideas that have been taken up by Islamist Revolutionaries, it would be inaccurate to state that Qutb is behind Revolutionary Islam, since his ideas were mashed together with others by many preachers (who put their own spin on Qutb, or who even made his ideas their own) and writers and editors. So, I have no idea whether the Zionism of Brandeis and Hertzberg were “popularized” by the careless and the vulgar.

Yet Phillips notes something interesting. There is a significant lack of intellectual rigor and thoughtfulness in American politics today. And there has been for some time. On the outer edges there is some, but what intellectual rigor there is on the left and right seems not to percolate to the center, where the right remains dominated by ignorance, fear and outrage, and the left by a tawdry spirituality and sentimentality for “justice” and “equality.” Politics has always been emotional, and there has always been a role for the polemicist, but it is as if all that political activity has become these days is identity politics and self-righteous assertions of virtue (“Yes We Can!” and “Change We Can Believe In!”). I’m not even sure I see real, live operative ideas anywhere anymore. All that seems to remain is the vulgar. And the violence of the state.

What I don’t know right now is how true that’s always been.

On Revolution and Bad Food

I have some problems with the politics and promises of The Enlightenment and modernity, but I also realize they are very attractive and that there is no going back. Abbas Milani notes this about Iran for The National Interest, but he could be saying it about any state or society struggling with the promises of modernity and Enlightenment:

While the leftist, centrist and clerical opposition to the shah “overdetermined” politics to the detriment of cultural freedoms, the ruler, for his part, failed to understand what increasingly became the clear iron law of culture: men (and women) do not live by bread alone, and when a society is introduced into the ethos of modernity—from the rule of reason and women’s suffrage to the idea of natural rights of citizens and the notion of a community joined together by social contract and legitimized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular will—then it will invariably demand its democratic rights. That society will not tolerate the authoritarian rule of even a modernizing monarch capable of delivering impressive economic development. The shah tried to treat the people of Iran as “subjects” and expected their gratitude for the cultural freedoms and economic advancement he had “given” them. But he, and his father (and before them, the participants in the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century), had helped develop a new cultural disposition by creating a parliament and a system of law wherein the people considered themselves citizens and thought of these liberties as their right—not as gifts benevolently bestowed upon them.

The promises of modernity and Enlightenment in so far as government are concerned are very beguiling. They may be outright lies, or they may be completely unachievable ideals — I’m not quite sure which yet. But they are the only game in town. I am not one of the people who believe old and tired adage that democracy is the worst of all possible governments except for all the rest. I am an anarchist with monarchist sympathies, and my ideal government is a pre-nation-state monarchy. But we don’t live in that time. The bureaucratic nation-state is how moderns govern themselves. There are no real alternatives. What most concerns me is the exercise of state power, and the reality that it is no more moral when exercised on behalf of the people than when it is on behalf of God or some embodied sovereign person. In fact, I think power is actually less moral when exercised in the name of the people, but for now, that is neither here nor there.

To an extent, this is what we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, what we see occasionally in Burma, what wiped out the Nepalese monarchy some years ago, what unseated Soviet Socialism in 1989, and what may rock the West at some point in time when it becomes clear that “democracy” is actually unresponsive oligarchy (though I’m not holding my breath; revolution may be impossible in consumer societies). I sympathize with all the folks who rebel — rebellion is my inclination as well — and I wish them luck, but I suspect many will be truly disappointed when, after their democratic revolutions, they discover they haven’t really solved anything.

However, I also know this — you do not tell hungry people that the food is bad.

A Quote Worth Remembering

I can take or leave The Nation’s politics (mostly leave). But I really like it’s longer cultural and historical pieces. This quote from French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss appears in a lengthy essay on the same, and I find it worth remembering:

Other societies are perhaps no better than our own; even if we are inclined to believe they are, we have no method at our disposal for proving it. However, by getting to know them better, we are enabled to detach ourselves from our own society. Not that our own society is peculiarly or absolutely bad. But it is the only one from which we have a duty to free ourselves: we are, by definition, free in relation to the others.

Grace and Nature

I have used this blog in the past to muse publicly on what I am reading. It’s been a while since I’ve done that, but I’m returning to that today.


The book I’m working on today is James Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010). Payton is a Presbyterian pastor (if I read that right) and a professor of church history at Redeemer College in Ancaster, Ontario. It exists in that land between scholarly and popular, with a skew more toward the popular, as he uses it in university courses he teaches and intends it for congregations as well.


He has this to say about the rediscovery of Aristotle by the West, whose writings had not been well preserved in the monasteries of Western Europe:

But [Aristotle’s] works, all focused on the world here below and all of which followed the same pattern of logical analysis and categorization, offered both a curriculum to used and a way of thought to be followed. Monastic leaders decried learning about the world God had made through the works of a pagan, but philosopher-theologians enamored of the possibilities Aristotle proffered for better understanding the world argued that Aristotle could serve as a reliable guide. The defense offered in the thirteenth century by Albert the Great and his student Thomas Aquinas was that we should distinguish between the realms of nature and grace. In the former, all that was needed in order to learn appropriately was using human reason rightly and humbly. Since Aristotle laid out the patterns for using reason rightly, and followed them himself in his multifaceted exploration of the realm of nature, his works could be utilized to study the world of nature God had made. Where Aristotle had transgressed the limits of reason to propound notions which violated the teaching of scripture–for example, the eternity of matter–Christian learning must humbly decline to follow the pagan philosopher and follow Christian teaching instead.

In due course this basic perspective carried the day. It was a significant development: for the first time, nature and grace were contrasted as realms or spheres. (p. 44)

“Nature and grace were contrasted as realms or spheres.” I find myself wondering a few things with this. First, how much of the Christian understanding of “two kingdoms” is a result of this medieval synthesis? I realize this is identified as a Lutheran doctrine, but it really is a Christian doctrine justified by scripture but, I’m betting, having very different roots. You can justify with resort to scripture, but I’m not sure scripture is all that clear on the matter. As an example, much is made of made of this exchange in Matthew 22:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his talk.  And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.  And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (ESV)

A whole edifice of theology has been built on this quote (and a few others) claiming separate “spheres” for God and Caesar. But it’s not clear from the passage that anything aside from the coin itself actually belongs to Caesar. I don’t see the love, loyalty and duty owed to civil government that theologians have grown from this soil.



Anyway, as I read this book, I’m going to keep thinking about this matter of Aristotle and what Payton describes as contrasting realms of nature and grace in Western thinking. I’m not sure we can get rid of these ideas, as Aristotle in the foundation of thought in the West — of modernity, for better or worse — and you cannot destroy or alter the foundation without wrecking the entire structure. I’m not sure I’d want to in any case. There is also much good in it.