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Orthodoxy and the Mob

Orthodoxy And The Mob

In Matthew 22:21, Jesus is quoted as saying “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” in response to the question as to whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. This points to a tragic aspect of human existence and that is the need for social organization, and social organization involves lies and coercion. Human history is an appalling resumé of scapegoating and murder. The world of Caesar is the exterior world ruled by determinism and the absence of divinity. At most, signs and symbols of divinity intrude upon us and give us respite from brutality. Sigmund Freud pointed to the ways in which social reality constrains our wishes and desires, but he could only identify motives from below, the sex drive, the death wish, etc. Thus, he was unable to comment on the ways in which our spiritual nature is frustrated by social existence. Spiritual aspiration drives us too. In a compromise with phenomenal reality, we find it necessary to punish and imprison murderers and sadists when, spiritually speaking, they have already organized their own prisons of hatred and loathing. The entirely non-spiritual desire for revenge which factors into the justice system has even caused us to imagine God the Father creating an eternal hell – the existence of which would mean the failure of God and a limit to his desire to forgive, and an end to the possibility of redemption. As Berdyaev points out, we project sociomorphic items like Judge, Punishment, Lawmaker, Ruler, onto God – importing social categories relating to the fallen world around us into ultimate spiritual matters.

Satan is the ruler of this world – the realm of Caesar. We find it necessary to construct hierarchies of authority to minimize violence. When all are equal, all become each other’s rivals. But Personalism, the notion that every human soul is a microcosm, a world unto itself, made in the image of God and sharing in God’s divine freedom, admits of no hierarchies. And then the hierarchies that we do construct often have precious little to do with merit. He is taller than him, she is prettier than her, they are wealthier than them, this individual has letters after his name, this one does not. How many people who have people with authority over them at work find that the spiritually and epistemically superior are ruling over their mental and moral inferiors? Frequently, it is the reverse. College administrators, that bloodsucking plague upon the planet, are the social superiors while being moral midgets, the more so the more orthodox they are. Henry James writes: “Life is, in fact, a battle. On this point optimists and pessimists agree. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy.”[1]

Socrates at his trial said that the one thing he wanted to promote was to worry more about your own soul than social success. In the Kingdom of Caesar social success is paramount, in the Kingdom of God, it is irrelevant, and even contraindicated, social success providing more opportunities for exploitation than social failure. There is even the well-known phenomenon of the economically successful regarding themselves as God’s favorites when God’s real favorite was crucified.

The tragedy is that it is not possible to simply import spiritual criteria into social existence. The fantasy of anarchy, the abolition of all governments and armies, in the name of unalloyed freedom effectively tries to do this very thing. But, abolishing the army would simply put the innocent and weak at the extreme mercy of the strong, ruthless, and uncompromising, and there is plenty of that as it is.

Tradition is a set of practices that have been found to work. Typically, trial and error is involved and usually no one can say for sure why it works or predict what would happen if it were changed. If there is any connection between tradition and truth that is happenstance, and the truth it embodies is just a truth about social existence, not about reality spiritually conceived. An intellectual tradition is an oxymoron. The history of popular ideas is no guide to the nature of divine truths. Intimations of the existence of a divine reality seem to occur spontaneously within the human breast, but the interpretations of the nature of that divine reality are in error the more they are sociomorphic in nature. Knowledge of the truth is the mission of the individual Person and is a creative activity dependent on the state of that person’s mental and moral development, their imaginative and creative ability, and the nature of their deep-rooted intuitions. Reciting rehearsed statements is not to know the truth.

In the terrible clash between the spiritual and the physical; between the noumenal and the phenomenal world, in the experience of great beauty, the noumenal penetrates the phenomenal world and makes its existence known. Beauty fills us with an intimation of our spiritual home, and so does the Truth. Truth is known in and through Freedom. “I come in my own freedom to know the truth which in turns liberates me.”[2] No authority can constrain me to know. “I cannot be liberated by force.”

Just as love, friendship, and creativity require Freedom, for their existence, so does Truth. Truth is the way and the life, it is not an extraneous thing that commands allegiance and forces recognition. The idea that truth is an object wielding authority over us, that it forces us to give up freedom is wrong. Berdyaev writes “I believe in the scandal and stumbling-block of freedom. Freedom itself is a constituent and basic element of truth as it gradually reveals itself in and to me. The freedom of my conscience is an absolute dogma, in the face of which no midcourse and no compromise are possible.”[3] The truth appears in different guises as one makes his spiritual journey. The best course is a self-guided one reading whatever interests the individual, leaping from stone to stone in crossing the river, letting your nose be your guide. There will be false starts and dead ends, and it makes sense to try to benefit from others’ experience in their reading, but only if those others are congenial to you. And then those others can suggest directions, but it is still necessary for you to walk on your own two legs along the path.

Unfortunately, the Church, schools of thought, academic journals, the machinations of democracy, the family, all revolve around “consensus” or the exercise of power and force. And consensus is a truly terrible thing that is essentially inhuman because impersonal. In fact, it is anathema to the Person. Berdyaev’s choice of words, describing freedom as a scandal and a stumbling block connects freedom to the anathematized scapegoat. The scapegoat is an outrage to the mob. The mob functions precisely on consensus, on shared agreement about who the guilty one is – but truth, about which the mob does not care, has nothing to do with the mob. Even if by chance the mob were correct about something the truth is not something that can be shoved down someone’s throat. Here I am picturing the grotesque form of murder depicted in the execrable The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover where the victim has the pages of a book forcibly inserted into his esophagus, one by one. Scapegoating involves murder or ostracism, and is ideationally connected to in-groups and out-groups – between the accepted and the anathematized. It is a social fact that the Church probably needs dogma as a way to distinguish those within the Church from those outside it. And this distinguishes the theologian from the philosopher. The philosopher is devoted to wisdom and truth. The theologian is committed to a set of dogma that determines the sort of theologian he is. If Spirit and revelation are connected, and revelation is an ongoing event, then dogma is anti-spiritual, because anti-freedom.

Spirit lives and breathes partly within the human breast where we probe and question it. Prayer, meditation, and reading, can make their vital contributions. Truth, as the way and the life, is not “out there,” but “in here.” “Knowledge is an approximation to truth wrought out of personal experience.[4]” Truth has spiritual existence and spirit is the realm of freedom. It comes to be known through feeling, will, and intellect. Demonstrations and proofs have precious little to do with it. Demonstrations and proofs exist for those who have different intuitions from our own. Since every demonstration takes some truths as axiomatic, as self-evident starting points, demonstrations have no power to force agreement. It makes more sense to announce your current thoughts, feelings, and positions on a topic, and mostly leave it at that. Berdyaev comments that Kant compromised his creative genius by focusing on demonstrations. The alternative Berdyaev describes as “creative dogmatism.” By that he means not a rigid adherence to a fixed position, but simply asserting your intuitive perception of things without scurrying around trying preemptively to defend it against all objections, or trying to prove it in a way with which no one can possibly fail to agree – in a throat-shoving manner. It is a more honest modus operandi. Demonstrations and proofs are an attempt to force agreement, and strong arm the stumbling block – he who asserts his devotion to freedom and freedom of conscience. The proper way to communicate your thoughts is by inviting others to share your insights. This method is made legitimate by the fact that “man is capable of knowing and understanding only in virtue of his being a microcosmos, a point in which the whole world converges, and though he be a mere atom in space and time, his destiny has yet universal significance and value.”[5]

The history of the Church has seen it make alliances with the strong, the rich, and the powerful, and even attempt to wield temporal power itself. In that way it secured its continued existence. If instead the Church had sided against the powerful and the exploitative this would have been far more consistent with Christianity, but also terminal. Hank Williams has a song lyric “I’ll never get out of this world alive” and that, oftentimes, seems to be the fate of truth and spirit in this realm. Church councils hashing out the finer points of Church dogma, or horse trading about which books of the Bible will be included and which apocryphal, is very much giving unto Caesar.

The notion of the peer-reviewed journal is not at all compatible with truth. It is understandable that people are afraid of any old rubbish being published, but it is a troubling example of social conformism. It is very much the “consensus” mode of thinking. It is odd that there is even the officially recognized error called “the fallacy of popularity.” Something being popular is not evidence that it is true, but maybe acknowledging that fallacy is not very popular!

Berdyaev notes that “the philosopher’s situation is truly tragic in the face of almost universal hostility directed against him…both religion and science are its avowed enemies.”[6] Religion and science are supported by social institutions and consensus; the creative, spiritual, philosopher is not. As a result, we have “Socrates condemned to drink hemlock…Giordano Bruno burned at the stake…Descartes forced to seek refuge in Holland…Spinoza excluded from the synagogue.” Just as philosophy was gaining some freedom from religious institutions, and tradition, science entered the picture and the philosopher was expected to kowtow to scientific dogma. In this way, the world has united against the philosopher speculating freely. He is constantly a figure of resentment.[7] Science is as jealous of philosophy as religion; both claiming to have a doctrine to replace philosophy.[8] Theology is collective socially-sanctioned philosophy; creative philosophy, individual. Thus, the many versus the one.[9] Orthodoxy is the mob. Philosophy can never claim to represent orthodoxy and should not want to. Technically, something is not a heresy if it is not claiming to replace Church dogma. But since theology and philosophy cover the same ground – the meaning and purpose of human existence and its connection with the divine, with great philosophers seeking to “regenerate the soul through knowledge,”[10] theologians feel their authority to be challenged by philosophers and seek to shut them up.

Recently, after the pandemic generated transition to online teaching, I was surprised to find some of my “remote” students actually embracing scapegoating. Presumably, given the popular consensus, these two students would be anti-bullying, and anti-lynching, and even anti-microaggressions, the concept of microaggressions suggesting some utopia where all the horrors of the world have been solved, bloodthirsty murder and ostracism quelched, permitting our attention to turn to the tiniest little nuances of pained feeling – though, of course, microaggressions being precisely identified by their causing tiny pained feelings with no interest shown in the intentions of the “perpetrator,” the concept is radically dystopian. When I can say you have no right to offend me, you are my prisoner and I your warder.

After spending years reading and thinking about scapegoating as described by René Girard, I had actually forgotten that anyone might announce that he was pro-scapegoating. But Caiaphas’ statement “Better that one man should die than a whole nation perish” is of course the consensus view; i.e., the view of the bloodthirsty and heartless mob. The fact that it violates “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the most elementary notions of justice evinced by dicta like “Do not kill the innocent” does not seem to bother them. It certainly is inconsistent with the idea that the individual Person is the highest good and must be put above abstract categories like “nation,” “humanity,” “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” “the common welfare,” “human flourishing,” etc. It is tempting to give a consequentialist argument that in a society in which scapegoating is countenanced, and the innocent murdered when socially convenient, it could happen to each one of us at any time, thus each one of us would live in fear, but that is just to give into pragmatics instead of following morality. To use social consensus against itself, perhaps it should be pointed out that to scapegoat is to lynch and to lynch to scapegoat, and lynching is wrong…



[1]From Henry James’ essay “The Sorrowful World of Turgénieff” (1878)

[2] p. 53, Self-Knowledge, Semantron Press, Berdyaev.

[3] Ibid.

[4] p. 83, ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Berdyaev, Solitude and Society, p. 3.

[7] Ibid, p. 9.

[8] Ibid, p. 4.

[9] After finishing my PhD, I planned to study theology, only to find that theologians were truly second-rate as philosophers. Rudolph Bultmann’s The Gospel of John seemed promising, but was, in fact, tedious and exhausting.

[10] Berdyaev, p. 6.

Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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