Tarnishing the Splendor of Truth


The eccentric French footballer Nicolas Anelka— once of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Chelsea etc., now of West West Bromwich Albion– celebrated one of his goals against West Ham the other day by performing la quenelle, a quasi-nazi salute invented by French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Politically correct journalists are now suggesting that he should  be hounded out of the game for this.  Now, in this case the PC establishment has a point; anti-semitism is obviously evil, and making fun of the unspeakable evil of the שואה is horrible. But why is it that even when the PC machine is in the right there is something distasteful about the way it exercises its power? Anelka has claimed that la quenelle is not anti-semitic, but only “anti-système,” against the establishment and its manipulative and hypocritical system of power.

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Anelka is presumably wrong about the original meaning of la quenelle, but he has perhaps hit on the secret of its bizarre popularity. Probably most people who make la quenelle do so not so much out of animosity toward the Jewish people as out of animosity toward the power of  le système.

Aladair MacIntyre’s discussion of emotivism in After Virtue can help to understanding what is going on here. MacIntyre describes how the Enlightenment project of grounding morality–after abandoning both Aristotle and Revelation–failed. Modernity is marked by a lack of a shared basis for morality, and by intractable disagreements between rival moral traditions. The theory of emotivism–that moral judgements have no objective meaning but merely express arbitrary subjective approval or disapproval together with an appeal to share such an attitude (so that “honesty is good,” really means something like “honesty: YEAH!”)–makes little sense as a universal claim, but is actually a good description of the way moral language is in fact used in our cultural situation. Perhaps few people today would in fact claim to be emotivists, but moral terms are in fact used in a emotivist way by “the system.” MacIntyre notes the shrillness with which people argue about moral questions on which there is no agreement, and no movement toward agreement. I have long thought though that his point is shown even more clearly by the shrill, and almost panic rage with which those are attacked who dare to disagree about some moral judgement about which there is almost universal agreement. In an emotivist culture a great deal of importance comes to be put on cataclismic events toward which almost everyone — regardless of their moral theory — tends to have the same emotions. Hence the tremendous importance of the Shoah in the contemporary social imaginary. It is no accident that the “reductio ad Hitleram” argument is so over used nowadays; Hitler’s crimes are among the few things about which their is almost universal moral agreement.

So I think the strange popularity of the quenelle has to do with what its song calls “a wind of liberty” (un vent de liberté), a feeling of freedom that comes from mocking the firmest support that the manipulative, emotivist system has got.

So far I have been examining the discrediting of a just cause through association with arbitrary and manipulative power only in our contemporary emotivist culture, but James Chastek recently argued that this sort of thing happens in every culture; that this is “the world” in its NT sense:

Christians occasionally daydream about winning the culture over for Christ. But this would mean that belief in Christ would be policed and encouraged in the same way that our current cultural beliefs are: by manipulation of the levers of power to control spoils, intimidate dissent, and coin new taboo words and thoughtcrimes that can immediately condemn without argument and persuade without reason. [..] The closest idea of “culture” in [the Gospels] is “the world”, which persuades not by reason and freedom but taboo, intimidation, usurping parental education, control over the principles of discourse, etc.

As an integralist I’m of course somewhat cautious of this line of thought. Can’t one distinguish between an exercise of cultural power that is irrational, and one that is actually helps people to see the truth? Take the taboo in our culture against cannibalism say — doesn’t it seem that in fact just makes it easier for people to see the natural law that is inscribed in their hearts anyway? Chastek does in fact acknowledge this in an earlier post:

Taboos are the human law at its most powerful – they are the most perfect and powerful tool for what St. Thomas calls the power of law to lead to virtue. Mere statutory laws bridle behavior; taboos actually restructure thought and form the will.

Nevertheless it is worth thinking carefully about what is meant by the world. The scripture readings for this season show us in a striking way how secretly, in what weakness and poverty, the Light of the world chooses to come into that world.  “No one works in secret, but he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (John 7:4) Thus the Lord’s doubting relations. And St. Jude at the Last Supper asks:  “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” (John 14:22) The answer seems to have something to do with the world’s obsession with human glory. “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) Concern for the glory that comes from other men is the obstacle to seeing the light of Christ: “Many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.” Ratzinger has a wonderful reflection on this in a retreat that he preached to the priests of the CL movement. St. John is playing on the double meaning of “doxa” (glory). Doxa meant originally “appearance,” “splendor,” but from this two opposite meanings are developed. On the one hand doxa means opinion, the semblance of truth, what merely seems but is not. On the other hand it means the the splendor and glitter that comes from the truth itself: the glory of the Lord. The great attraction of the doxa of men is, as I have argued before, that it allows us to hide from our own misery. Hence people build up a semblance of themselves, an “image” for the sake of the opinion of others. They act not according to the demands of the good, but according to the expected reaction of those with influential opinions. In order to preserve their own image they have to respect and further the common doxa. Thus as Ratzinger argues,

The rule of opinion, of untruth is set up. The whole life of a society … comes to be dominated by a dictatorship of untruth, of the way in which things are presented and reported rather than of reality itself.

Thus the humility, poverty, and powerlessness with which the true Light enters the world seems necessary in order that people might be freed of their enslavement to the doxa of this world. But there is of course a paradox involved here. As Chastek points out in yet another post, to work toward the evangelization of all is to work toward a “Christian culture.” But the more people are convinced by Christianity the more hypocrites there will be who go to church out of respect for the doxa of the Christians. And one sees people trying to attain to influence in the Church for the sake of worldly influence. History is full of that sort of thing, and any integralist theory has to come to terms with it. One hardly needs reminders of just how much the splendor of the Gospel can be tarnished through its association with the worldly. I was recently reading an account of the Vienna Geserah, a persecution of the Jews in 15th century Vienna, and it is truly heart rending to read of how certain people decide, after torturing rich Jews for their money, try to “proclaim the good news to them:”

Afterwards they took Rabi Meinsterl with his two sons. And they flogged the sons with thorns till the blood ran down, and the father they hung on chains and made a fire under him, till he told them where his money was. After this they wanted  [the father and his sons] to convert [to Christianity], but they laughed them in the face and said: “You fools, shall we exchange a living God for your foolishness?” And so they tortured them till they died a holy death.


This is an extreme and obvious case; forced baptism has always been condemned by the Church, and the perpetrators in the Geserah were obviously motivated by love of money. But the issue is far less clear with in cases of coercing the baptized to fulfill their baptismal promises. How does one draw the line between justifiable coercian and an excessive use of force that discredits the truth of the Faith?

But such cases are not entirely parallel to the case of emotivist outrage with which I began. A closer parallel would be what Charles Taylor calls “the disciplinary society.” The disciplinary society is formed by a  moral, civilizing impulse. It is formed by people impatient of the “two track” Christianity of the Middle Ages, which they saw as restricting the pursuit of perfection to the monastery and being satisfied with lax standards among the many. These people are horrified by the practice of “times of exception” like carnival and “feasts of misrule.” Taylor sees the disciplinary society as contributing to secularization in to almost opposite ways — on the one hand by its success and the Weberian disenchantment that that brings, but on the other hand by the resentment and pent-up violent passions that its iron grip causes. Hence movements libertine and Bohemian movements (most powerfully in the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which had however many predecessors), rise up in protest against the moral discipline of the powerful. This is what the quenelle movement seems to be about. History however seems to show that “the system,” when it is not able to crush such protests, is  able to incorporate them within itself, modifying its codes while consolidating its power. (It will be interesting to see whether Dieudonné is crushed or incorporated…)

So what can we take from all this? One thing I think (mentioned by Chastek) is the importance of the Evangelical Council of poverty. The various movements of hermits, monks, mendicants etc. are necessary again and again to revive the humility which rejects the doxa of men. (And even Giorgio Agamben seems to recognize that this is “anti-système.“) Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic Exhortation seems to be in a part an appeal for this spirit in our own time.

But the conclusion that Chastek draws in his last post is one that I continue to resist. I read him as endorsing a certain kind of secularism; an attempt to insulate Christianity from the world by privatizing it.

The medieval synthesis had all kind of weaknesses and internal contradictions, but it had a what Luigi Giusani calls “a unitary mentality.” It had “a conception of God as pertinent to all aspects of life, underlying every human experience excluding none.”

In this sense, then, the Middle Ages are not to be considered a more interesting epoch than others just because at that time everyone was more devout or capable of behaving in a less morally reproachable way. No, it was more interesting, because it was characterized by a unitary mentality.

The secularization that followed the period of the Reformation “disarticulated” this unitary mentality. And as Giussani shows at great length this disarticulation is itself a great barrier to faith. The attempt to insulate God from public life makes God irrelevant. And, as he writes in another place “Herein lies the cause of the terrible impasse confronting the religious awareness of human beings in our day.” Thus this mode of attempting to escape from the doxa of this world is just another way of surrendering to it. And the emotivist wasteland in which we live is the result.

David Foster Wallace, Dante, and the Stars

At one point in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech (embedded above; transcript here) David Foster Wallace describes in brilliantly vivid detail the frustrations of standing in line in a supermarket. Our default setting, he says is to burn with impotent rage against the dreariness, misery, and stupidity of the situation. But this is not the only option: Continue reading

Taylor’s Secular Age

A Secular AgeA Secular Age by Charles Taylor

Cross-posted from Goodreads. Rating: 4 of 5 stars

It takes a long time, and a certain amount of patience, but it is possible to finish Charles Taylor’s long, heavy book A Secular Age. And it’s really worth it. Taylor’s is in many ways the most insightful account of the genesis of modernity that I have ever read. For it is more than an examination of the “conditions of belief” in our age; it’s an examination of the way moderns see and imagine themselves and society and the universe, and how this way of seeing and imagining came about. A lot of goodreads reviews have complained about the sheer length, the meandering, and the repetitiveness of this work, but I found the length necessary to make his case, and the repetitions helpful to avoid getting lost. The meandering hesitating style seems to me to be used for rhetorical reasons. It a trifle irritating at times, but it allows Taylor to make his conclusions really plausible without having to prove them strictly. Continue reading

Against the American Revolution

Venuleius of Ius Honorarium has posted a mixture of praise and contempt for Christopher Ferrara’s polemics against “Americanism.” I haven’t read Ferrara’s book, but I can guess what it’s like; after all, in my undergraduate days in the USA I was in the business of quoting Diuturnum Illud and Notre Charge Apostolique to bash the founding principles of that proud republic. Venuleius gives Ferrara qualified praise for slamming John Courtney Murray-style attempts at showing that the American founding principles are the cat’s meow, and ought to be adopted root and branch by Catholic social teaching. But Venuleius argues that Ferrara overstates the evils of the American project: Continue reading

Melancholy vs. Depression

In trying to explain the changes in the “conditions of belief” from the pre-modern to the modern (secular) age Charles Taylor makes a distinction between what he calls the “porous self” of pre-modernity and the “buffered self” of modernity. He distinguishes them in terms of the locus of “meaning;” for the buffered self “meaning” exists only in the mind not in external reality, whereas for the porous self meaning is already there in reality and can impinge on us from without. To clarify the distinction Taylor brings up an intriguing example– different views of melancholy: Continue reading