Dei alieni coram me

One of the secret-handshake teachings of Straussianism is that ancient gods followed political power. If your city was conquered the natural thing to do was to start worshipping the conquerer’s gods. This wasn’t out of fear or shallow piety (though these didn’t hurt) but because hoping that the gods would remain when a city fell would be like us thinking that the DMV would remain when the city fell. Religious and state functions were seen as part of the same civic reality. Religion was not “really political” any more than the political was really religious, but they were so tied up that one could not live without the other.

Political states demand some transcendent reality which cannot survive the death of the state. That I call it “a transcendent reality” reflects the gods of our own state, which are in fact wholly impersonal abstractions. In the (Western) world before the French revolution I would have said they need the church or Christ; in the would before the Reformation I would have said they needed the priests and sacraments; after the Revolution we needed “God” – that being who annuit coeptis of the novus ordo saeclorum.

Back to the wholly impersonal abstractions. The “God” of the age of Revolution was the source of rational self-interest, rugged individualism, national patriotism, and (let’s just say it) white male supremacy. All these things died off for different reasons: Rugged individualism demanded a whole lot of free land  (free of all but Indians, of course); national patriotism could never survive the wars of 1914-45, which convinced everyone that if nations could do this then we were better off without them; rational self-interest can’t survive an honest evaluation of how most persons collectively act (the death-drive of the wars made this clear, and was later backed up by the new economics, sciences of behavior, and cult of advertising). So we no longer believe in “God” and he has to make way for the new boss. At the moment “the transcendent reality” might be being born, or perhaps he’ll just remain a transcendent reality, but initial signs point to him being a dionysian god since his spiritual power is palpable and obvious whenever a question of sexual liberation comes up. Any time we consider how a court might rule or what policy a school board might institute or what a pop singer might sing about or what a company will give millions of dollars to advance it is a foregone conclusion that they will work to advance sexual liberation. All these gods or transcendent realities come with the sense of inevitability, and so open up new vistas of possibility and the active hope that we will finally get it all just right. The new gods have smiled on our efforts and give us real hope where everything else is just a wish or a daydream with, as we now put it, “no evidence” for its truth. The gods give you lots of money too.

In the face of all this the First Commandment comes as a shock and an almost impossible challenge. There can be no denial of “the other gods” – who could deny their spiritual power? The command is that this palpable spiritual power be secondary to us. But secondary to what? Turns out, to the god with no evidence, whose advance is not felt as inevitable, and whose church is a cult of inevitable failure and humiliation. Even its god has gone on record as being disgusted with it and leaving it to die.

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3 Comments

  1. Zippy said,

    July 21, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    I would like this twice if I could.

  2. John B. said,

    July 21, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    I’m confused by this:

    “Political states demand some transcendent reality which cannot survive the death of the state. That I call it “a transcendent reality” reflects the gods of our own state, which are in fact wholly impersonal abstractions. In the (Western) world before the French revolution I would have said they need the church or Christ; in the would before the Reformation I would have said they needed the priests and sacraments; after the Revolution we needed “God” – that being who annuit coeptis of the novus ordo saeclorum.”

    What did you have in mind when you said “which cannot survive the death of the state.”? The Byzantines and other Christians who lost their states to the Ottomans didn’t give up on priests and sacraments, for example.

    • July 21, 2017 at 4:46 pm

      What did you have in mind when you said “which cannot survive the death of the state.”?

      You should ask the Straussians!

      As I understand the point, and expressing it in the modern mode, social order is oriented to a value that is rational and ennobling while not resting on either an individual or collective act of willing. The highest value does not exist because we agree on it or someone says it is so, nor is it something irrational since it is being called upon to make certain decisions rational and good. In this sense, the value can’t be “natural” either. The usual way of understanding this is as making it a spiritual value or, in the older language, a decree of the gods. In the ancient world the social order-spiritual value nexus (SOSV) was much more interpenetrating than it is now, or so the Straussian thesis goes, but this helps us to see the SOSV that is integral to any social order, or, from another angle, the religion that is implicated in state power.

      To get to your point: I simply don’t know enough about Byzantine culture to know what changed about its SOSV when the Arabs showed up. I know what has happened to my own SOSV when the Sexual Revolution showed up, or to the ancien regime when the French Revolution showed up, and there is a definite spiritual shift in both, even while it is clear that something called France and something called Christianity didn’t just disappear. But this is what I’m talking about in the quotation you cited from the OP.


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