I’m becoming an N. S. Lyons fan. “A Prophecy of Evil: Tolkien, Lewis, and Technocratic Nihilism” is the latest installment in The Upheaval, the mysterious author’s Substack. (He writes under a pseudonym.) This extended essay provides an arresting account of the deepening crisis in the West. By Lyons’s reckoning, Lewis and Tolkien were right. We are in the grip of a grim, despairing rebellion against reality that imagines itself to be the engine of moral progress.
Lyons notes “the disenchantment and demoralization of the world produced by foolishly blinkered intelligentsia” and “the catastrophic corruption of genuine education.” Our public culture provides ample evidence of “the inevitable collapse of dominating ideologies of pure materialist rationalism and progress into pure subjectivity and nihilism.” The transformation of the thin truths of scientism into something dark and despairing has daunting political consequences. It’s tempting to avert our eyes and read another book on the genius of our Founders. But dark powers are abroad, and their grip is strengthening. We ignore at our peril an “inherent connection between the loss of any objective value and the emergence of a perverse techno-state obsessively seeking first total control over humanity and then in the end the final abolition of humanity itself.”
Lyons devotes the main body of his long meditation to an exposition of C. S. Lewis’s dystopian sci-fi novel, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, with side references to Tolkien’s world of elves, hobbits, and malevolent forces. Lewis wrote the novel to give narrative form to his 1943 lecture series that became The Abolition of Man, which warned of the nihilistic trajectory of modern rationalism.
Lyons lays out Lewis’s argument. Rationalism stipulates that we can believe only that which can be proven. This intellectual rigor promises wonderful and transformative social consequences, delivering us from the uncertainties and conflicts that characterize our common life. After science purifies our discourse, everyone will affirm truths certified by fact-checkers (peace!), and we will enjoy the fruits of technological progress (prosperity!).
We are told, furthermore, that rigorous objectivity eschews moral and metaphysical judgments, to say nothing of theological claims. No more comforting myths! We must recognize that empirical reality is all of reality. This raises the obvious question: By what lights shall we navigate as we build our new Kingdom of Reason? Our efforts will be in accord with what we “value.” This widely used word points inward to what the self feels strongly about, not outward to conformity with what is real. And so, we’re oddly poised between an inert world of facts and an ethereal world of subjective “values.” Thus our present age: We have acquired tremendous technical mastery over nature, including human nature, while falling back on feelings and desires as the authorities that guide this mastery. As Lyons summarizes: “Starting from the insistent attempt at pure objectivism we arrive at pure subjectivism. From Modernity, we derive Post-Modernity. From the Goddess of Reason we receive the Marquis de Sade.”
The slide toward Sade is not automatic. We are created in the image of God, which means we have what a disciple of St. Thomas might call a built-in “connaturality” with reality. As Lewis recognizes, we need to be subjected to a great deal of propaganda in order to be turned from the natural human impulse to affirm the Tao, the moral order of things, or what Lyons calls “the Normal.” As they say in literature departments, everything needs to be “queered,” and the best tool for queering is language, which can be distorted, manipulated, and subverted. Ideally, children will be trained to use words against their natural meanings.
Consider the notion of one as opposed to many. (This is my example, not Lyons’s.) The distinction is fundamental. What is singular is not plural; an individual is not a multiplicity. By any reckoning, affirming this distinction is indispensable for anyone who seeks to adhere to the Normal, which begins with the proposition that things are what they are, and not what they are not. Now imagine a seemingly innocuous shift in language, one in which people start to use plural pronouns (they, them, their) to refer to a single individual (he, him, his). That would be a tremendous advance in “queering” our imaginations.
Why would educators encourage children to misuse language in this way? Although Lyons does not directly consider today’s imperatives of inclusive language, he outlines themes in Lewis and Tolkien that suggest an answer. Although the English language is an unruly organism, and “they” has an interesting and varied history, there can be no doubt that its pervasive use in the singular today stems from the fact that “he” and “she” speak a truth about our humanity: the fact that we are men and women, rather than generic human beings. From time immemorial, this fact has been regarded as joyous (see Genesis 2:23). But the Normal is not simplistic, nor does it always meet our desires; it is not happy-clappy make-believe. Put simply, the Normal is not “utopian.” It is concerned with the way things are, rather than with how we imagine they might be made better. Therefore, the Tao recognizes that the reality of the sexes is fraught, and our relations are often sour, bitter, and tragic.
As Lyons explains, Lewis and Tolkien understood that the deepest perversions of modernity stem from the conviction that we can and should “fix” the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better if we had the joy without the tragedy, the happiness without the hardship? Shouldn’t we use our reason (and our social and political power) to improve our imperfect humanity? To stay with my example of inclusive language, which, though not a grave moral matter, is telling in its logic: Why can’t we alter the significance of the male-female difference, making it into something that does not matter? Many think we can effect that transformation, which is why they speak of “partners” instead of boyfriends and girlfriends, or husbands and wives. Now we see those on the cutting edge of progressive linguistic protocol putting their “preferred pronouns” in their email signatures and using such terms as “pregnant people” and “chestfeeders.” The ambition behind these changes is to create a new world with words, a constructed world in which our biological, embodied existence recedes into irrelevance.
A constructed world is an artificial world, and Lyons does a marvelous job of drawing out the progressive preference for the artificial. Dr. Filostrato, one of the characters in That Hideous Strength, aims to replace living trees with artificial ones. He insists upon the improvements this substitution will bring: no messy leaves to rake, always green, no need to worry that the tree might die. Why not improve society in the same way? Shouldn’t we allow experts to guide social relations rather than relying on old norms? Parents ought not to repeat the ways of their own fathers and mothers. We need scientific approaches to childrearing! Indeed, why are we satisfied with the human genome? It’s prone to birth defects; worse, our DNA dooms us to death. Wouldn’t it be better if we replaced human beings with artificial persons confected by genetic engineers?
It would be easy to dismiss this question as absurd. Lyons is not so naive. The great power of“A Prophecy of Evil” rests in the extensive quotations Lyons provides from prominent contemporary “post-human” theorists who, far from marginal, are well-funded and feted by establishment institutions in the West.
The World Economic Forum is popularly known as “Davos,” the name of the Swiss town where oligarchs, technocrats, and Masters of the Universe gather for its annual meeting. The Forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab, has been emboldened by pandemic lockdowns, which he regards as dress rehearsals for an epochal transformation. He argues that we must gather our strength for the “Great Reset,” an expert-led global initiative that will “finally” change “not only what we do but who we are.” (I wrote about Schwab and the “Great Reset” in the February 2021 Public Square.)
Yuval Noah Harari offers a more fulsome account than does Schwab, who is largely satisfied with sweeping claims. The bestselling author regards the expansion of new technologies that allow for biometric surveillance as a fait accompli, and he foresees their extension to all aspects of life. Expanded technological control will allow for experts not just to reinvent society, but also to redesign the human condition. “We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens,” Harari writes, “because in the coming generations, we will learn how to engineer bodies and brains and minds.” This engineering project aims to transcend God’s creation. “Science may enable life, after being confined for 4 billion years to the limited realm of organic compounds, . . . to break out into the inorganic realm.” This transformation of living things (including humans) into artificial designs entails a paradoxically immanent divinization, Harari argues. “We are really acquiring divine powers of creation and destruction. We are really upgrading humans into gods.”
One pauses over the “we.” Who, exactly, is the agent? And who is the patient? There is a word for a society in which a few—the experts—act upon the many with the aim of transforming their very being. It’s “totalitarianism.”
And then there’s the super-rich Martine (né Martin) Rothblatt. Lyons draws attention to his 2011 book, From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form. Rothblatt is straightforward in affirming that the fulfillment of the promise of freedom means acquiring the ability to overcome God’s creation. Why accept the limitations of male and female? Why allow the body’s mortality to limit us? We will be in bondage until we become authors of our own psychological and biological condition. Freedom means overcoming reality’s power to define us.
As I’ve already noted, this aspiration may be delusional, but it is more commonplace in our society than we often allow ourselves to admit. The regular use of “they” as a singular pronoun, as well as other “inclusive” terms, establishes a verbal freedom from reality. “Partner” and other substitutions seek to avoid reference to the male-female difference; they are minted and insisted upon because they promote feminist and queer-liberationist goals of equality. In the main, proponents of inclusive language are not advocates of Rothblatt’s radically libertarian conception of freedom. But there is less difference than one imagines, for they, too, seek to erase in order to write anew. Both parties treat our created condition as something to be overcome so that we can redesign culture (feminism, gay liberation), or our bodies (transgenderism), or even our humanity (transhumanism), in accord with what we imagine to be our better, more just, and more humane conceptions. We deem that which is to be wanting, and we use the powers we possess to bulldoze and build anew.
The desire to bulldoze, to annihilate, turns the various -isms into nihilism. The rage of negation arises from a sentiment that deems it better not to be than to exist under God’s terms. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan puts it succinctly: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Better to walk the path toward nothingness than to live under the limitations of being a creature.
By Lyons’s reckoning, the glamor of evil has gained a strong hold on the imagination of the West. He provides a remarkable quote from the transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, who, though not as famous as Harari or as rich as Rothblatt, says boldly what a growing cohort implicitly thinks. The context is a public conversation with Paul Kingsnorth:
I’d like to bring to your attention an issue with nature and biology that transhumanists have: that it’s fundamentally flawed, and likely even immoral to perpetuate, given its tendency to predation, disease, and death. Simply said, all nature and biology, from plants, to wildlife, to people, are something to be overcome and totally replaced with the synthetic. No one with even the slightest bit of compassion would ever create a world like ours, filled with so much suffering. It must all be undone, and remade with technology, justice, and equality.
“It must all be undone.” As Tolkien recognized, these are fighting words. Life must be smashed—so that life can be remade.
Heretofore, revolutionary utopianism aimed to undo society so as to prepare the ground for its remaking. The feminism that drives us to use “partner” operates in this Jacobin tradition. Now, however, our postmodern age has its eyes on our bodies, even on our humanity. The shift from “he” to “they” seems innocent enough. It came suddenly in a collective spasm of anxiety about inclusion. But the verbal change is not innocuous; it greases the slippery slope. It “queers” speech about human beings, who have bodies that are either male or female. This queering prepares our imaginations for the hormonal, surgical, and eventual genetic remaking of the human race.
My friends often express the conviction that transgenderism has “gone too far.” They’re confident that women will not put up with males competing against them in sports. I’m not so sure. There are some feminists who have courageously spoken against transgender ideology. But for the most part, progressives endorse transgenderism. They may have misgivings. I have a hard time believing that Ivy League presidents don’t harbor doubts. But they affirm transgenderism nonetheless, confident that it marks the next stage in the battle for liberation. And establishment liberals are right. Transgenderism underscores the logic of abortion on demand and physician-assisted suicide, techniques by which we refuse the limitations imposed by our bodies. Thus, solidarity on the left is not simply the usual practice of mutual support in a political coalition. It flows from a deep philosophical agreement in favor of “queering” the Normal so that we can build back better.
I don’t want to overstate the existence of a conscious agreement among progressives. Few manifest Istvan’s explicit hostility to reality. But they are captive to talk of “the social construction of reality” and other postmodern nostrums, all of which manipulate and transform what is into something we can manage. Because reality is “constructed,” we are instructed that we must take hold of the process and engineer a better world. If our preoccupation is with “social justice,” we’ll aim for what we’re told is a more equitable reality. If freedom is our priority, we’ll set out to construct a more “open” reality. These ambitions seem like the pinnacle of idealism: inclusion, freedom, a better future! But appearances can deceive. The slate is not blank, which means that erasure—destruction—is the essential first step toward a “better future.” Lyons sees that today’s progressive ideologies nourish a dark nihilism.
Consider the 1619 Project. It’s naive to imagine that this initiative aims to correct the historical record. As its proponents readily admit, the 1619 Project is an engine of destruction. The goal is to discredit our inherited historical consciousness, which is deemed “white,” so that something new can take its place. But the “new” does not exist, so the emphasis of the 1619 Project falls on negation: That which exists should not exist. We are thrust over an abyss of nothingness, deprived of something real, a collective memory we have inherited, for the sake of what will never come, a “pure” history that can be true only for perfect beings, which is to say for something other than human beings.
Note well that statue topplers have erected nothing to take the place of the heroes now deemed offensive. The 1619 Project and the various progressive social movements operate in the same metaphysical neighborhood as transhumanism. One could easily revise Istvan’s blunt statement:
I’d like to bring to your attention an issue with history and society that black activists (or feminists, or gay liberationists, or proponents of other progressive causes) have: that it’s fundamentally flawed, and likely even immoral to perpetuate, given its tendency to predation, injustice, and oppression. Simply said, all history and society, from nations, to marriage, to every aspect of morality, are things to be overcome and totally replaced with the synthetic. No one with even the slightest bit of compassion would ever create a world like ours, filled with so much injustice. It must all be undone, and remade with diversity training, justice, and equality.
1619 Project propagandist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Zoltan Istvan share a nihilistic sentiment: “It must all be undone.” And the diversity consultants and those who train us in multiculturalism, like the transhumanists, promise to engineer a synthetic, artificial world.
Lyons calls for courage in the face of a growing nihilism. He’s right; we need that virtue. Too many of us want to believe that things are not that bad. We use preferred pronouns, thinking that to do so is just simple kindness—niceness. We look back at the lockdowns and regard them as basically well-meaning and necessary, if perhaps a little excessive. We don’t think much about what is going on in Canada, where physician-assisted suicide has been expanded. (See Ephraim Radner’s Back Page, “Slippery Slopes,” in this issue.) We refuse to entertain the obvious explanation for the shocking regularity of brutal mass shootings, overdose deaths, declining birth rates, and rising rates of depression and suicide: that a disordered, nihilistic society produces disordered, nihilistic souls. I find myself quoting Charles Péguy, as I have a number of times in these pages: “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”
To courage I’ll add wisdom. That’s a tall order, for wisdom entails understanding the highest truth of things, which we can attain only as a gift from the Holy Spirit. So I’ll revise my counsel. We should aspire to wisdom, which, as Scripture teaches, begins with fear of the Lord, not hostility toward his good works. If we’re to defend ourselves against modern nihilism, we must attend to what is real: seek it, see it, savor it. Instead of raging at what God has created and regretting what his providence has caused and allowed to transpire, we should tremble in awe. The great antidote to nihilism is gratitude. It does not preclude critical reflection or efforts to reform society. But it brackets them with love’s affirmation: It is good that you exist.
Saint Constantine School
Houston was in the midst of an early November heat wave when I visited the Saint Constantine School. My day began with the two hundred or more lower-school children. Gathered outside in the warm sunshine, they recited the Pledge of Allegiance, listened as school president John Mark Reynolds reflected on what it means to be made in the image of God, and recited the morning office in accord with the liturgy of the Antiochian Orthodox tradition.
The lower grades of the Saint Constantine School operate on a 3/2 schedule. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays focus on academic subjects. Tuesdays and Thursdays are dedicated to sports, crafts, and other hands-on activities. My visit was on a Tuesday, and after morning prayer, the kids happily dashed off. Some gathered in the garden to dig in the dirt. A class of fourth-grade girls took up their crochet hooks as they sang “Angels We Have Heard on High,” breaking into four-part harmony for the second stanza.
Reynolds describes the school’s approach as “in harmony with the Eastern Orthodox Church,” making for an educational philosophy that is broadly Christian and unapologetically classical. Great Books anchor the curriculum for the middle and upper schools. The educational structure of the trivium and quadrivium informs the instruction. Biblical knowledge and theological study are emphasized.
The school does not lead with culture-war issues. The stated goal of the school is student formation in the Christian tradition combined with academic excellence, knowledge of Western culture, and love of beauty. But these days, a forthright affirmation of the differences between boys and girls requires an institution to take a stand, which the school is not afraid to do. At the high school level, boys and girls go on separate quarterly retreats. Boys discuss the virtue of manliness; girls ponder what it means to be a woman.
In recent years, there has been a great upsurge in Christian classical schools. But the Saint Constantine School, established in 2015, stands out. Atop the pre-K through twelfth-grade program sits a four-year college that offers intimate seminars and weekly one-on-one tutorials, culminating in a BA in English or Orthodox Studies.
Although still in its early stages of growth (twenty students are currently enrolled), the four-year BA is not an add-on. Saint Constantine’s founding faculty members are former university-level teachers and administrators. From the outset, the ambition of the school has been to build an integrated intellectual culture that emphasizes the vocation of teaching. Everyone teaches. And everyone who teaches does so for the whole school, not at this-or-that grade level. The upper-school biology teacher, who has a PhD, offers seminars at the college level. At times, Reynolds (PhD in philosophy and longtime denizen of academia) teaches middle-school students.
As someone who spent twenty years teaching undergraduates, I found this commitment to teaching at all levels refreshing. Today, universities are filled with faculty who imagine that their research is more important than classroom instruction. The greatest ambition of the typical university professor is to attain a perch that allows him to avoid teaching altogether. This mentality misjudges the vocation of the intellectual. Yes, there are contributions to be made in publication. But more often than not, a person with an advanced degree makes lasting contributions to the life of the mind when he sparks in young people a love of his subject matter. I’ll never write anything of lasting significance about a great figure such as St. Augustine. But I can introduce students to his genius, and in that way contribute to and sustain the Great Conversation, which is the life-blood of a living culture.
The financial model—educational excellence with modest fees—marks another remarkable feature of the Saint Constantine School. The college charges an astonishing $10,500 annual tuition. Fees for lower, middle, and upper schools are in the same range. It’s amazing what can be done at a reasonable cost when one forgoes the country-club amenities of today’s universities—and requires faculty to administer and administrators to teach.
We know that our mainstream system is broken. The educational culture at most universities is toxic. The great works have been abandoned. Fees are ridiculously high and students graduate with burdensome debt. Fortunately, there are alternative institutions, many of which advertise in our pages.
We need more institutions to replace those that have betrayed our educational traditions. This is why I left the Saint Constantine School cheered. It provides a model for growing the Christian classical counterculture, not just for pre-K through twelfth grade, but for undergraduates as well. Indeed, John Mark Reynolds is scheming as I write. A branch campus will open in Pittsburgh in 2024. Launch committees have been formed in Denver and Dallas. May they meet with every success!
WHILE WE’RE AT IT
♦ N. S. Lyons’s reflection on C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and transhumanism recapitulates a long-standing conservative concern that modern culture trains us to love our ideals, not the real things of the world. Richard Weaver gives succinct expression to this criticism in his autobiographical essay, “Up From Liberalism”:
The denial of substance is one of the greatest heresies, and this is where much contemporary radicalism appears in an essentially sinful aspect. The constant warfare which it wages against anything that has status in the world, or against all the individual, particular, unique existences of the world which do not fit into a rationalistic pattern, is but a mask for the denial of substance.
♦ I suppose Edmund Burke put the point more pungently:
Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man.
(With the term “metaphysician” Burke means one who engineers a perfect world in thought, not someone who contemplates the universal.) He goes on to say of such a mentality, “It is like that of the Principle of Evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil.”
♦ Karl Marx felt the desire to annihilate. Here is the young Marx expatiating on the role of criticism. (The emphases are in the original; Marx never misses an opportunity to weight the words he hurls.)
Criticism is not passion of the head, it is the head of passion. It is not a lancet, it is a weapon. Its object is its enemy which it wants not to refute, but to exterminate. . . . Criticism appears no longer as an end in itself, but only as a means. Its essential sentiment is indignation, its essential activity is denunciation.
♦ Rob Henderson writing on his Substack (Rob Henderson’s Newsletter) about the peculiar deference baby boomers give to young people: “Older adults crave validation from the youth, which is one reason they are mocked. Young people sense their desire to be seen as cool and deprive them of this by taunting them.” Worse, “energetic young conflict entrepreneurs” seize the initiative and intimidate baby boomer leaders of institutions and companies, driving the woke agenda into a commanding role in the marketplace and government. Henderson doesn’t see any relief on the horizon. “Older adults want to be on the side of youth. [They are] desperate to pencil themselves out of the ‘old’ category. Every parent wants to be the ‘cool parent’; every professor wants to be the ‘cool professor.’” Not my colleague Mark Bauerlein. The titles of his two recent books about Millennials: The Dumbest Generation and The Dumbest Generation Grows Up.
♦ Henderson provides a marvelous quote from Ian McGilchrist:
In the old days young people went to university to learn from people who were perhaps three times their age and had read an enormous amount. But nowadays they go in order to tell those older people what they should be thinking and what they should be saying.
♦ The sexual revolution has done more to create a hostile environment for Christian proclamation than old-fashioned scientific rationalism ever did. How do we respond to today’s sexual orthodoxies? We should begin by gaining a clear understanding of biblical teaching on the subject. To that end, I recommend a course of study offered by the Center for Christian Studies, “Glorify God with Your Body: Christian Sexual Ethics.” It begins on January 9, 2023, and runs through the end of February, in person or by Zoom. Founded by Keith Stanglin, the Center is our partner for the annual First Things lecture in Austin, Texas. It provides good resources for those seeking a sound understanding of Christian teaching. Find out more at christian-studies.org.
♦ I should mention that First Things contributing editor Carl Trueman will join Keith Stanglin and others to teach the Center for Christian Studies course on sexual ethics.
♦ Abraham Joshua Heschel: “We who ceaselessly toil and strive to rule the atoms and the stars fail to grasp what it means to be a man.” True today, and all the more so when we ceaselessly toil and strive to “be inclusive” and fail to grasp what it means to be a man—or a woman.
♦ David L. Schindler passed away in November. In the 1990s, Schindler locked horns with Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, the neoconservative leaders of the first decades of First Things. He criticized what he thought was our too complacent Americanism. By his reckoning (in this he anticipated Patrick Deneen and others), the “logic” of American life and thought is all too congenial to abortion, euthanasia, and secularism. After all, “choice” is a great American praise word. The title of Neuhaus’s last book, American Babylon, suggests that time may have softened their differences. On the few occasions when Schindler and I met, when I was a young theologian who knew very little, he was unfailingly kind and generous. He was a man of deep theological knowledge, with a systematic mind the power of which one rarely encounters. May he rest in peace.
♦ In the last election, men favored the GOP. Exit polling suggests that 56 percent of men went Republican and 42 percent went Democrat. Women went the other way: 53 percent Democrat to 45 percent Republican. But marital status is a more significant factor than sex. Married men were even more likely to vote Republican, and married women favored the GOP by a margin of 14 percent. Unmarried women, by contrast, are hard left. That cohort went for Democrats by a massive 37-point margin. This cohort is growing. A recent Pew study shows that a rising proportion of American adults are unmarried. Among Americans aged twenty-five to fifty-four, in 1990 the percentage who had never married stood at 17 percent. By 2019 that cohort had grown to 33 percent. Living in New York City, I’m aware of the significant number of college-educated, professional women who are reaching the middle stages of life and still are not married. Many won’t ever marry. One wonders: What is it about progressivism that appeals so strongly to this group? My guess is that they interpret their frustrations as having been caused by “society.” In a certain sense that’s true. A triumphant Rainbow Reich has dissolved the traditional patterns of life that once brought men and women together and set them on the path toward marriage and parenthood. But the very same Rainbow Reich claims to usher in a “more inclusive” future, one in which single women are promised that their “identities” will be affirmed and their grievances addressed. The falsity of this promise bids fair to be the most destabilizing force in American politics in the coming decades, for it advances the very trends that lead to the frustrations and grievances of unmarried women.
♦ I’ve followed the FTX cryptocurrency caper only at a distance. It’s not clear to me whether the digital currency company’s founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, is a crook in the Bernie Madoff mold, or whether he’s simply a wildly incompetent windbag. Anonymous sources suggest that billions were transferred from FTX customer accounts to another Bankman-Fried entity, Alameda Research, a trading firm that got upside-down on cryptocurrency bets as prices fell. Until recently, the CEO of Alameda was Bankman-Fried’s ex-girlfriend Caroline Ellison, who apparently worked with Bankman-Fried on these fishy financial transactions. As everything fell apart, insiders reported on the ten-person “cabal of roommates” who slept with each other and took Adderall to fuel the manic pace of trading. Bankman-Fried, who made a name for himself as a proponent of progressive causes and “effective altruism,” admitted that his public positions were designed to win favorable treatment from investors and regulators. In that adventure he was successful, it seems. The criminality, cynicism, and moral disorder of this debacle are, perhaps, all too common. More remarkable is the way in which so many Establishment heavyweights fawned over Bankman-Fried. I suppose the fact that FTX was the second-largest donor to the Democratic Party in 2022 (more than $70 million) helped win him plaudits from the Great and the Good.
♦ Speaking of blinkered fawning, as I write, the New York Times “DealBook Summit” on November 30 continues to feature Bankman-Fried. He’s slated to appear on a panel with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A guy who oversaw the theft of billions from client accounts serving as a featured speaker a high-level conference: Is our elite really this corrupt?
♦ David Hume: “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” He did not live in the twentieth century.
♦ I do not spend much time thinking about what seems to be Pope Francis’s signature initiative, which Fr. Raymond de Souza dubs “the synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church.” When I do, I find myself harkening to some lines penned by Joseph Ratzinger for an introduction to a reissue of Henri de Lubac’s 1947 classic, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI wrote,
The social dimension which de Lubac saw rooted in deepest mystery has often sunk to the merely sociological so that the unique Christian contribution to the right understanding of history and community has disappeared from sight. Instead of a leaven for the age, or its salt, we are often simply its echo.
♦ The Tablet’s Rome correspondent, Christopher Lamb, recently interviewed Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed his excellency to be president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and grand chancellor of what is now the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. John XXIII’s image of opening the windows of the church and letting in fresh air ranks among the most shopworn clichés in the history of Catholicism. Lamb cannot resist using it in his puff-piece.
As we speak, the early afternoon sunshine is streaming through an open window, and our discussion is frequently interrupted by screaming sirens and the cacophony of Roman traffic. It strikes me as a metaphor for what Paglia is trying to do: while he wants to let some light into the room and hear the noise from the street, some would prefer to keep the curtains drawn and for the sounds of the outside world to be silenced.
I suppose Paglia himself evokes this very tired metaphor. The seventy-seven-year-old Jesuit is the model modern theologian, pining for “broad engagement” that is “more inclusive” and “respects diversity” in order to combat “rigid” and “ideological” positions that are not open to “dialogue.” It’s very tired and tiresome at this late date.
♦ As I’ve written many times in these pages, the Francis pontificate represents the sector of the Catholic Church that’s desperate to sign a concordat with the sexual revolution. (See, for example, “A New Concordat?,” January 2015.) Paglia and others regard this hoped-for concordat as necessary so that the church can pivot away from nettlesome moral questions, questions that bear upon the most intimate aspects of our lives and implicate our souls, in order to concentrate on what really matters, which is social justice.
♦ I have a long row of books by John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian. His meditation on the social history of the twentieth century through the 1960s, A Thread of Years, affected me deeply. He was a marvelous storyteller, paradoxically able to capture that which has been lost. And he had reliably good judgment about human affairs. For example, from The Passing of the Modern Age: “Our world has come to the edge of disaster precisely because of its preoccupation with justice, indeed, often at the expense of truth.” Social justice warriors are doomed to dissatisfaction: “This false priority preoccupies us; we attempt to satisfy our consciences with the thin gruel of worldly justice, limited and rather hopeless as it is.” And they misjudge the human condition: “A man can live with injustice a long time, indeed, that is the human condition: but he cannot long live with untruth.”
♦ After hitting the pause button during Covid, the ROFTERS of Columbus, Ohio, are renewing their vigorous discussions of the latest issues of this fine journal. If you want to join the group, get in touch with Adam Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ Aidan Beveridge would like to form a ROFTERS group in the area of Escondido, California. You can reach him at email@example.com.
♦ Want to find out if there’s a ROFTERS group near you? Go to our list of active groups at firsttthings.com/rofters.
♦ I’d like to welcome Francis X. Maier to the masthead as consulting editor. He has been working behind the scenes for a good while. It’s long past time to recognize the many contributions he makes.
♦ As you receive this issue of First Things, our year-end campaign will be in full swing. I hope you will donate. We are only as strong as the support we receive from our readers. Fortunately, First Things readers are the world’s best—not only intelligent and faithful, but wonderfully generous. Thank you for your support!
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