© Brendan Triffett 2018-2019
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.
With each passing year, there is less rest in the world. As one controversial event after another incites a reaction and its counter-reaction, the spirit of restlessness gathers more momentum. As radical progressives are mobilised into action and society folds under the pressure of their utopian demands, the peace of God withdraws into oblivion. We descend further into cultural amnesia and even psychosis. We forget what it means to rest. We are cut loose from our true centre. We become enemies of God, strangers to the Logos. Our habitual way of being turns into a feverish hatred of the divine order – that order where alone there is peace. In Michael Ende’s fantasy novel The Neverending Story, “the Nothing” (das Nicht) threatens to destroy the entire universe. I find this to be a poignant illustration of our contemporary situation. As time goes on, the spirit of restlessness gains more territory, and more of the goodness in the world is threatened with destruction.
My hypothesis is that nothing will be saved if we forget the rest of God. Culture cannot be redeemed if we simply look outward at the enemy, adopting a stance that is primarily defensive or polemical. Where the Good is not desired and enjoyed for itself, where the True is not contemplated in itself, there is no humane “society” or “civilisation” worth defending. The spirit of restlessness can only be defeated if we rest in God. We must remember how to dwell, how to belong, how to be in harmony – which above all means being attuned to the eternal, divine harmony.
Revolutionaries want to undo our visceral connection to the God in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). How will we resist this ideology and save ourselves from the all-consuming “Nothing”? By abiding in the divine order, by centring ourselves in the Logos, by practising the divine rest. By remembering our belonging in God. Political or “worldly” opposition to evil is secondary. Our resistance is primarily an interior state of being – the supernatural habit of peace. By abiding in the divine order we will have an unconquerable quietude, an immovable strength.
That is not to say that we don’t need to go into battle against falsehood and evil. But when people begin to subsist on their militant zeal – when they begin to love the battle for its own sake – they begin to lose sight of what they were supposed to be fighting for. The transcendent order disappears from memory. Our vision of God gets mixed up with and even reduced to the impulse to obliterate the enemy. We have to keep our spiritual bearings.
Here I think we can take a page from Plato’s Republic. (No more than a page, because Plato’s utopian vision tends toward totalitarianism in some respects.) Logos, Eros and Thumos are the three co-ordinate principles of a society; likewise they are the three co-ordinate principles of the soul. Logos is reason. Eros is love in the sense of passionate desire. Eros is focussed initially on visible things. But it graduates to a higher form of love when it seeks the transcendent and universal, in accordance with Logos (see also Plato’s the Phaedrus and the Symposium). Thumos is anger and courage, the determination to preserve oneself and to maintain one’s honour, the drive to overcome obstacles and enemies. In the perfect society the philosophers rule because they are the strongest in reason. The philosopher-king writes the laws. The laws organise the city as a whole in accordance with the rational Ideal. Those who are strongest in Eros are more sensuous; they have feet of clay. They are in charge of agriculture, the various arts and crafts, and reproduction. Those who are strongest in Thumos are given their roles as the protectors – the soldiers and police of the society. They maintain order in the city through force. Thumos protects the city from external enemies and suppresses lawlessness within the city walls. Thumos has its place in Plato’s Republic, but it is subordinated to Logos. The highest office in the Republic is the contemplation of the heavenly order of things. Everything else that happens in society only has its value by participating in the heavenly order.
There are two points we can draw from this. On the one hand, it would be naïve and sentimental to think that Logos and Eros are all we need in the world. The most precious things in life are the most vulnerable things in life. Consider the innocence of children. Consider the gifts of tradition and cultural memory. Consider moral sensibility and the rule of law. Consider the heights of spirituality – in particular, the supernatural gifts of faith, hope and love. Barbarism is on the rise again. It has assumed a new, post-Christian form. If this new barbarism has its way, it will eventually rid the earth of all of these precious things. Whatever sanctifies us, and indeed whatever humanises us, would disappear. My first point is that it would be irrational and irresponsible to think that these sacred things will simply fend for themselves. My second point is that Thumos understood as the act of defending what is sacred is no replacement for holy desire (Eros) and contemplation (Logos) in respect to the sacred.
Let me be clear: there are forces of entropy and malevolence on this earth. We must be vigilant against these forces. We have to carve out and defend a space for the Good in the world. We have to prepare and protect a field in which sacred things may take root and grow. Labour are vigilance are required to preserve the gift of divine order in the midst of an ever-threatening chaos. All this has been said before, of course. There is one inspiring public figure who comes to mind immediately: Winston Churchill.
However, it is wrong to seek conflict for its own sake. It is an abomination to glorify war as such, or to treat it more or less as an end in itself, as the neo-cons do. Don’t get me wrong. The soldier’s act of sacrifice is a noble thing when it is done for a noble cause. War can be justified for the preservation of order. But the preservation of order should never be the mere occasion or excuse to go to war – either with literal weapons, or with words, those metaphorical weapons in the culture wars. The desire for self-preservation, the desire to shame and obliterate the enemy, the desire to win an argument, the desire for honour and respect – these are all expressions of thumos. Thumos can be a noble thing when it is duly subordinated to a higher cause. But when it is not duly subordinated, it becomes a raw energy existing for itself. One fights just because one enjoys the heightened experience of fighting. One goes into an argument for the purpose of inflating oneself over-against the enemy. One identifies with a certain team or movement in order to feel powerful and secure, often by getting revenge.
Consider that newly evolved species of our time, the perpetually angry basement blogger. Members of this species are often weak and insecure as individuals in real life. When they lash out, they unconsciously seek to compensate for this. They are reaching for some sense of power and security. They are trying to undo their hurt and despair by inflicting it on others. Or consider Gimli, that headstrong dwarf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He’s always looking forward to the next occasion to fight something. My point is not that the natural predilection for challenge and conflict is intrinsically disordered – it is not. Boys will be boys, and thank God for that. My point is that the conflictual energy typically associated with masculinity will inevitably turn into something irrational and barbaric when on a grand scale it is turned into an end in itself.
Liberalism tends to exclude the masculine. Sometimes it falsely identifies masculinity with its baser expressions. It then fails to think masculinity in noble terms and rejects it altogether. The so-called “alt-right” by contrast, valorises the masculine. (I am thinking of Richard Spencer and ethno-nationalism here. Progressives often lump conservatives in this same basket. This is either a dishonest ploy of theirs or a demonstration of their ignorance). But the alt-right also fail to think masculinity in noble terms. Both extremes fail to integrate the masculine in the human person and in human society. What then is the solution? I believe Plato already pointed to the solution by including thumos in the Republic as an essential yet subordinate principle.
Moving forward to the Middle Ages, let us consider see how this outline of a solution might be filled out in a Christian horizon. There is something profoundly true about the medieval ideal of chivalry. The knight swears allegiance to his Lady. The Lady, in her purity, embodies a goodness which subsists in itself. Her beauty is other-worldly; it does not depend on manly bravado. Her radiance is an overflowing of spirit – spirit in the sense of a lofty, rarefied pneuma, not a militant energy or thumos. Her attractiveness does not derive from physical strength or swordsmanship or military conquest. As an icon of transcendent goodness and beauty, she gives the knight a reason for his valour. In her presence there is a peace that is not of this world. This peace is a point of transcendence. It gives the restless male energy its heavenly focal point, its higher meaning and purpose. (The Lady is an archetype, so not a direct measure of how a real woman is supposed to be).
Remove this vertical dimension and the male energy descends back into raw polemos. The heroes of Homeric mythology are brutal because they do not know, let alone serve, a heavenly cause. They seek a worldly glory (even beyond their death). Helen of Troy is not a “Lady” in the mediaeval sense. She is not an icon of some lofty and universal ideal. If she were, different parties would be united under her inclusive presence. But in fact they are divided. Helen of Troy is desirable as a prize in a zero-sum battle. In the Homeric approach to life, war is the ultimate context of meaning and glory. War exists for its own sake. The war does not exist for the sake of Helen of Troy. Rather, Helen of Troy exists (in the imagination at least) for the sake of war. She is the necessary precipitating cause for all the glory and tragedy of polemos.
In closing, let me return to my initial point. We have entered into a spiritual Storm. Collective insanity and wilful brutality are on the rise. The “Nothing” is opening up under our feet. The negative vortex threatens to pull all of us in. It wants to negate everything that is true and good and beautiful. What should be my response? Staring at the void in horror? Passive resignation? Apathetic indifference? Some form of escapism? No. I was put on this earth at this time for a reason. I have a duty to resist. But I can’t very well stand my ground spiritually if I have no spiritual ground to stand on.
In this great Storm we must stay attuned to the harmony of the triune God. Before fighting, we must remember first to abide in the divine order. In the peace of God, which the world cannot give (John 14:27). This peace is absolute. It is self-sufficient and non-reactive. It is unaffected by struggle. For God is God simply by resting in Himself. God is not constituted by any polemical relationship. This, then, is our spiritual ground. We must derive our identity from the restful Father, as lovingly adopted sons and daughters of God. We must abide in the restful space of love that the Father opens up for us, and only do battle from there.
If instead I derive my sense of self in the worldly arena of polemos, then my fighting will be counter-productive. It does not matter if my intention is to fight for “the right side”. In my polemical words and actions I would effectively be preaching on behalf of another god. I would be proclaiming that strife is primary, that conflict is absolute, that war is the ground and horizon of being. And that precisely is the message of the Nothing.