April 7th 2018


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Free trade agreements leave us even more dependent on China

EDITORIAL Why Russia re-elected Vladimir Putin

CANBERRA OBSERVED Empty seat last vestige of minor parties' party

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals take power but plan for none for SA

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Sexual exploitation at Oxfam symptom of culture of death

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM General protection gives a false sense of security

PHILOSOPHY AND CULTURE On celestial politics

GENDER POLITICS Trans ideology awash with big money from big biomed and big pharma

REGIONAL AFFAIRS Taiwan stands up to Beijing's bullyboy tactics

CINEMA Outstanding film follows St Paul to his death in Rome

HUMOUR An Appetite for Diamonds: Porphyry Volpone investigates

MUSIC Power playing: Technique v musicality

CINEMA Peter Rabbit: More Bugs than Beatrix, but lots of fun

BOOK REVIEW We're doomed; but we're not alone

BOOK REVIEW Subcontinent set for Asian century

LETTERS

NATIONAL AFFAIRS The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

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PHILOSOPHY AND CULTURE
On celestial politics


by Brian Coman

News Weekly, April 7, 2018

Polish-born philosopher and writer Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009), like many European intellectuals of his era, began his adult life as a Marxist. As a schoolboy in Poland, he witnessed the Warsaw Ghetto and his father was killed by the Gestapo.

It is hardly surprisingly that, as a young adult he became an enthusiastic supporter of communism and saw it as providing a new and permanent order of peace and prosperity. Very quickly, though, as the inexorable logic of the ideology worked itself out, the iron grip of Stalinism was to produce human misery which, both in scale and barbarity, was to eventually match and perhaps even overtake that which had preceded it.

St Michael applies the remedy.

Kolakowski, again like so many of his intellectual contemporaries, was to change his attitude to communism very rapidly. He began to criticise the system and, in 1966, was expelled from the Party. Soon after, he went into exile, occupying prominent university positions in both England and America.

He was a prolific writer, with many books and essays to his credit. As a philosopher, Kolakowski wrote important works on the history of positivism, commentaries on the philosophies of Husserl, Bergson, Spinosa and Pascal, and works on many more general aspects of philosophy, both modern and ancient. He was especially interested in metaphysics and part of his reason for studying positivism was to investigate its fruitless attempt to purge philosophy of all metaphysical content.

But from quite early in his career, Kolakowski was intensely interested in religion; or, more precisely, in those murky areas between philosophy, science and religion. He had a knack for writing about “the big questions” in religion and philosophy in a way that was both entertaining and lucid and, above all, accessible to the non-specialist reader.

That he should have been so interested in religion is unusual for he professed no particular faith as far as I know, and was widely regarded as an agnostic. Others, though, regarded him as a non-practising Christian and it is certainly true that he often defended Christianity and, in particular, Catholicism.

Here, I would like to concentrate on just one essay published by Kolakowski in 1987 and entitled “Politics and the Devil”. It takes, as its starting point, traditional Christian concepts of good and evil, particularly as we see them developed in the writings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas.

Kolakowski then invites us to examine the whole of Western history, since the time of Christ, as markers or waypoints in the great struggle between good and evil – between God and the devil. And he does this, very largely through the lens of politics.

It may, at first, seem strange – even childish, some would say – to interpret history in this fashion. But then, you must have some principle of interpretation since that collection of data which constitutes history does not supply its own interpretive guide.

We apply various principles to it. Marxists see all of history as part of the class struggle, whereas many others see it through the idea of progress. Indeed, the idea of progress is now the dominant approach in the secular West, hugely bolstered by some sort of primitive Darwinism.

“Every day in every way”, so they tell us, “we are getting better and better”. But, of course, what they mean is “better off”, not “better”. In other words, they focus exclusively on our material circumstances and completely ignore our psychological and spiritual circumstances. If the latter are taken into account, then Kolakowski’s methodology seems to me to be eminently sensible.

Of course, it is highly unfashionable today to speak of the devil as a reality. He is simply a cartoon character with horns, pointy ears, and a pitchfork. Even in church sermons, he is rarely mentioned. But, of course, as Kolakowski knows only too well, if you are prepared to accept “The Good” as an objective reality – that is to say, as somehow standing above mere human subjectivity – then it is difficult not to do the same with evil. Socrates may have thought that evil was mere ignorance of the Good, but history has supplied us with many highly knowledgeable perpetrators of evil deeds.

Corruptio optimi pessima – the corruption of the best is the worst. That little motto has proved itself true over and over again through history. This, after all, is to be expected if one understands the traditional Christian idea of Satan – that he is incapable of creating but must rather rely on “turning” creation to his own ends (I know not why Satan or Lucifer is traditionally depicted as a male, but radical feminists will no doubt be pleased. By the same token, this should give pause to gender-change advocates).

With this background, Kolakowski then turns his attention to the history of the West. The birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ obviously created problems for the devil, so he managed to initiate the early persecutions. This, of course, backfired as the blood of the martyrs became the glory of the Church.

Very soon, though, the devil persuaded certain of those within the Church that they needed to assume greater and greater temporal powers – especially through politics. In the end, this split the Church – first between East and West, then many centuries later, between Catholicism and Protestantism. Round two to the devil.

But, as Kolakowski points out, during all this God was not idle. There were effective counter moves which prevented the devil from outright victory. The missionary work and charitable organisations set up by Catholics and Protestants alike was an outcome not foreseen by the devil. Another obvious move was the Counter Reformation. Still another that comes to my mind is the sacred music of J.S. Bach – hardly what the devil had planned!

The defeat of totalitarianism last century might also be seen as a victory for the Good, but that victory was far from complete.

Thus we see these two forces opposing each other right through history. At the moment, it seems that the devil is on a winning streak. In fact, the vehemence of the recent attacks on traditional Christian morality in the West are difficult to explain in any other way. The secular state, which came in with a promise of “freedom of religion” seems to be transmuting itself into a different sort of totalitarianism – a totalitarianism which persecutes the spiritual rather than the temporal, all the while proclaiming freedom and liberty for all. A poisoned chalice indeed.

Two things the devil cannot abide:
beautiful singing and being laughed at.

What is particularly noteworthy about this current attack on the Good is its range of activities. We tend to think of it purely as an attack on Christian morality but it is much more. In the traditional philosophy of Being, first laid down by the ancient Greeks and then greatly enlarged by the Medieval scholastics, Being had certain attributes – Goodness, Truth, Beauty, and Unity. All of these attributes are now under attack.

I can think of no better example than that given by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) in a review of Christopher Hitchens’ The Missionary Position – an ugly little potboiler directed against Mother Teresa of Calcutta. After a very good demolition job on Hitchens, Leys ends his piece by recounting an experience of his in a city café.

He was at a table by himself, toiling away at some essay. The radio was blaring away with muzak, pop songs, stockmarket reports, football results, etc. Suddenly, and with no human intervention, the radio tuned itself to another station playing the opening bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet. The other patrons, who until this time had been chatting, drinking coffee or playing cards and were oblivious to the radio, suddenly paused their activities and turned, frowning, towards the source of this sudden intrusion.

One of them quickly re-tuned the offending device and all returned to normal.

Leys ends his piece with this commentary on the event:

“True Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a ï¬Â‚air as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete – but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness. Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge; obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all these are ï¬Âercely active forces that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule.

“In every department of the human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity. If this is true in the realm of aesthetics, it is even more true in the world of ethics. More than artistic beauty, moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species. The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human nature.”

I might add here, as a postscript to that commentary by Leys, that these “fiercely active forces”, merely by asserting themselves as active forces, require a certain source which stands above mere human emotion. This was as obvious to Leys as it was to Kolakowski. And it is, I think, obvious to anyone who seriously grapples with the problem of evil in the world.




























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