The translatour of Orotius
In tyll his Cronicle wryttis thus
That quhen the Sonne is at the hycht
Att nonne when it doith schyne most brycht
The schaddow of that hydduous strenth
Sax myle and more, it is of lenth
Thus may ȝe iuge in to ȝour thocht
Gyfe Babilone be heych or nocht.
The translator of Orosius1
In chronicle has written thus,
That when the Sun is at the height,
At noon, when it doth shine most bright,
The shadow of that hideous strength,
Six miles and more it is in length;
Thus may ye judge within your thought
If Babylon be high or not.
—Sir David Lyndesay, Ane Dialog betuix Experience and ane Courteour
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2016 has been a rough year so far, and seems poised to go on being rough. There was the mass shooting in Orlando in June, the single largest mass shooting and the biggest hate crime in our history.2 Rather a disappointment than a tragedy is the fractured outworking of the pan-Orthodox Holy Synod in Crete last month. A failed rebellion in Turkey has caused hundreds of deaths, thousands of arrests and detentions, and has brought about talk of reinstating the death penalty from the Turkish president. The hideous spectacle of the Trump campaign goes on (brightened somewhat by his hilarious choice of logo): this egotistical and bullying piece of human slime, threatening to sit in the Oval Office and apply his long history of bankruptcies, lying, and incompetence to the government of a nation of hundreds of millions and the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Less immediately disastrous, though to me even more sickening, is watching masses of evangelical Christians, the people who raised me and first taught me to know and love Jesus,3 talk themselves into voting for Trump on the fantasy premise that he is in some way pro-life or otherwise better than Mrs Clinton4; or, more nauseating still, watching them embrace him with enthusiasm as a populist and a nationalist, not to say a xenophobe and an aspiring war criminal (as it is written, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you). And worst of all, maybe, are the ISIS attacks in Zliten, Jakarta, Brussels, Baghdad, Istanbul, and Nice, and their continued terrorization, enslavement, and mass murder of Christians, Jews, Shiites, Yezidis, Kurds, Copts, women—anything with a pulse that isn’t themselves—in Syria and Iraq.
It’s a challenge to believe in any earthly justice, peace, or decency in times like these. It’s a challenge to hope for them, even. The merely rational desire to erect a good, free society looks from here like it’s coming to pieces. The only alternatives, to my knowledge, are despair and mysticism, each of which comes in two forms.
The most obvious is despair in its simplest, plainest form. Give up on the notion of a good society, now or ever, and submit to the darkness: by trying to carve out an enclave for yourself that can’t be defended but might go unnoticed, if you’re careful; or by trying to become the biggest, or smartest, or fastest, or richest bastard around so that you can at least have the advantage; or by just accepting the horror and committing suicide, literally or spiritually. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick, but if you let the heart die, you don’t feel sick any more, right? So you … win?
This form of despair seems relatively uncommon among Americans. We are an incurably upbeat people; there’s a reason that lines like ‘We must do without hope’ didn’t make it from the Lord of the Rings books to the silver screen. What we are very prone to is the complex and deceitful version of despair, which is utopianism.
We all know the person, liberal or conservative (but let’s be honest, probably liberal), who believes that enough education, enough democracy, enough gender equality, enough freedom for the market, enough regulation of the market, enough gun control, something, will bring our society blissful harmony. Let us build a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. You see this constantly in the United States today. The frequent expressions of astonishment that we haven’t come further away from barbarity with respect to racism, or sexism, or social responsibility, are a symptom of it; How can this awful thing be happening in 2016? rests transparently on the premise that evil should weaken and fade of its own accord as time goes on, which is as utopian as premises get.
It may sound strange to call this despair but that is what it is. Utopianism has no hope; that is, it lacks the supernatural virtue of hope, which looks to the next world both after and within this one for a pattern and a purpose. It fails to recognize two things: first, that no matter how healthy, smart, well-adjusted, and entertained we get, human beings are always going to want something that this world can’t satisfy—a fact attested by the impulse toward religion and mysticism that, while not present in every person, is observably present in every age, culture, class, and vocation. And second, that no matter how well-off we get, human beings have that pesky little problem of being free to do (or at any rate attempt) what we like; and another observable fact is that, sooner or later and no matter how nice things were to start with, somebody decides to exercise that freedom to screw the pooch. Or, more briefly: nice things don’t stay nice forever, because people.
That’s the appeal of utopia. It holds out the darling illusion that, if you just fine-tune the system enough and have all the right parts, it can solve the problem of people being people. That the system was designed, and must be built and operated, by people is generally not much attended to; which is how you get things like the Committee of Public Safety (bodycount: approximately 42,000). But the idea that the misfortunes and pain of the world can be eliminated by adequate control—and that the only alternative to thus eliminating them is to be overcome by them—dies very, very hard. And that idea is born of despair, like that J. K. Rowling represented in Voldemort.
‘You do not seek to kill me, Dumbledore?’ called Voldemort, his scarlet eyes narrowed over the top of the shield. ‘Above such brutality, are you?’
‘We both know that there are other ways of destroying a man, Tom,’ Dumbledore said calmly, continuing to walk towards Voldemort as though he had not a fear in the world … ‘Merely taking your life would not satisfy me, I admit—’
‘There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!’ snarled Voldemort.
‘You are quite wrong,’ said Dumbledore, still closing in upon Voldemort and speaking as lightly as though they were discussing the matter over drinks. … ‘Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness—’5
I’m a leftist myself, and, more to the point, a human. I get the appeal. Indeed, part of the reason I’m an anarchist is to steer clear of utopian statism,6 because it’s only too plain from history, and my own heart, that neither human beings nor the institutions we build can be relied upon in the long run. Sometimes not even in the short run. The thing that worries me about fellow leftists today, especially the younger ones, is that, when utopianism comes crashing down around their ears—when their world less regresses, than gives in to the temptation, of barbarism—it may just break their spirits. The path of least resistance for the disillusioned utopian is to succumb to the simpler form of despair; it’s easier to move from one kind of despair to another than it is to move from despair to hope.
If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do? cried the psalmist. The alternative to despair is mysticism: i.e., in this context, seeking for or appealing to some kind of meaning and rightness that lies outside the world we experience,7 that isn’t subject to the corruptions and waverings of humanity. All of us seem to be born with this bent, all or as near as makes no difference—the playground cry That’s not fair is as dogmatic as a papal bull, and as unmoved by mere brute fact as the most pie-in-the-sky utopianism. In those who stick to it, or return to it, mysticism seems to take two chief forms.
First, there’s the kind that most people think of when they hear the word mysticism, the Quietistic form.8 Many Eastern religions are representative of this: Buddhism and Jainism, with their emphases on escaping suffering by renouncing and ignoring those concerns that most mortals spend their energy on and whose notion of bliss is the eliminating of all passion, are representative. The philosophy of Epicurus, whose views on pleasure defined the simple absence of pain as higher than any positive pleasure, has a family resemblance too.
There are lots of intellectual arguments against that kind of mysticism, but my gut reaction to it is simply that it seems horribly boring. If bliss not only requires but consists in forsaking literally everything I’ve always cared about, why is bliss desirable?9 Why is it even called bliss? An apple sounds more interesting; even, or especially, if every apple is the Forbidden Fruit to such philosophies. The Beatific Vision that Catholicism claims to offer is admittedly thought to be different from an apple, but any any rate it’s more like an apple than it is like nothing. I can be interested in something that surpasses my imagination, but not in something that’s just irrelevant to it.
The final response may loosely be called prophetic mysticism. It resembles mere despair, to the extent that it admits, even insists, that this visible world is a vale of tears, and while it can be temporarily improved it cannot be permanently perfected. It resembles Quietistic mysticism, to the extent that it seeks the ultimate purpose of humanity in a realm that transcends the visible world. It even resembles utopianism, in that it is willing to fight or toil for real improvement in the visible world. But it is none of these things, nor is it just a compromise or an alternation between them.
The mark of prophetic mysticism is that, rather than just forsaking or ignoring this world for the sake of the transcendent one that meaning resides in, it locates this world within that one. What we do in this world is not ultimate, and there is more to life and existence than what we see. But that invisible world, that ultimate world, sustains and animates and exalts this visible one. Because the there-and-forever matters more, therefore the here-and-now matters in its own way, for the latter participates in the former, like an apple blossom participates in the tree.
This kind of mysticism is usually theistic, for obvious reasons, though I don’t know that it needs to be. Regardless, I think it’s (1) true, and (2) the only practical response to the world as we see it. To accept all these evils is abhorrent; to pretend they aren’t there, or aren’t powerful, is stupid; to ignore them is repulsive. The only alternative is prophecy.
And what does that mean in the here and now? Primarily this: strive to improve things, because real improvements, while they won’t last forever, are possible. But remember that they won’t last forever, nor be perfect; you’re doing this because better-ness is, as the word implies, better, and small things count too. Don’t pin your hopes on the idea of perfecting this world—it isn’t going to happen, and when you realize that, if you’ve invested everything in a perfect world, that realization will crush you to pieces. But, if prophetic mysticism communicates with any invisible world of ultimate truth at all, then the small things, the marginal improvements, the decision to act on principle instead of merely on advantage, those things are all worth it.
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1Orosius was a priest, historian, and theologian from Roman Spain, active chiefly in the early fifth century, and a personal acquaintance of St Augustine and St Jerome. His Seven Books of History against the Pagans, a formative work for Mediæval approaches to history, is probably what Lyndesay has in mind here, though what translator he means I can’t account for.
2Unless you count all that theft, deportment, and genocide we did to the Cherokee, the Lakota, the Massachusett, the Shawnee, the Ute, &c. But I think they’re cool about it.
3Not, thanks be to God, the people who literally taught me these things; in fact, my mother specified that the only Mothers’ Day gift she wanted from her children was a promise not to vote for the blonde-toupéed beet.
4My parents suggested that this election was paralleled, not to say foreshadowed, by the tale called The Lady or the Tiger.
5Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 718. Cf. basically everything else in the Harry Potter series. (I can’t help wondering whether the simple bluntness of Dumbledore’s You are quite wrong here owes something to Mark 12.24-27.)
6Not that there isn’t a superabundance of utopian anarchists as well.
7I’ve used the term mysticism rather than religion here for a few reasons. One is that, while most forms of mysticism (in the sense I’m using the word) arise in a religious context, that context is sometimes irrelevant and occasionally hostile; Plato, who has been the largest non-Christian influence upon Western mysticism, sought an entirely philosophical form of mystical truth and experience. We now say that Plato’s concept of the Forms ‘has a religious flavor,’ which is really a testament to what a different thing religion is to us than it was to him.
Another is that, while only a minority of individuals or societies are generally irreligious, the number of people who are not consciously or deliberately mystical—i.e., engaged with some idea of the purpose of life that goes beyond security and contentment—is probably much higher. Put more simply, there are plenty of people who subscribe to religions but aren’t noticeably mystical. And conversely, although they probably wouldn’t describe it as mysticism, there are plenty of agnostics and atheists who are thus engaged with a transcendent purpose in life.
8Quietistic, rather than just Quietist, because the Quietists were a thing of their own. History’s annoying sometimes.
9This may betray a failure to understand the (apparent) examples of Quietistic mysticism that I’ve given, such as Buddhism. However, to the extent that these examples don’t treat the annihilation of all familiar desires as the ideal, to that same extent they’ve ceased to have the Quietistic character I’m critiquing.