There is no doubt that the spirit of the Grand Inquisitor inhabits our souls — all of us. In America, whether you live on the right side of the street or the left, every day is Judgment Day.
As an afterword to yesterday’s newsletter about Carl Schmitt, I want to direct your attention to an incisive New York Times profile, published today, of Blake Masters, the 35-year-old, extremely right-wing venture capitalist who last night defeated his Arizona Republican Party rivals in the state’s U.S. Senate primary. Masters will face off against incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly in November’s general election.
This piece, authored by journalist and podcaster Sam Adler-Bell, traces the path along which former libertarians such as Blake Masters, J.D. Vance, and Curtis Yarvin (founder of the quite openly fascist Dark Enlightenment philosophical movement) — accompanied by their sensei, Peter Thiel — journeyed toward the dream of a technocratic totalitarianism. A Fellowship of the Ring for our times.
Like Adrian Vermeule and an increasingly large percentage of the Federalist Society membership, all of these guys, especially Thiel (who is German-American), are deep into Carl Schmitt. They’re far smarter and far more sinister than Donald Trump. They love philosophy, they completely “get” Carl Schmitt, and they’re determined to bring him to America. To appreciate what this might look like, this Blake Masters essay is a must-read.
Adolf Hitler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Carl Schmitt were all born within 15 months of each other. Wittgenstein and Hitler, born only 6 days apart, may have briefly attended the same school together (there is much speculation about whether young Hitler would have disdained and perhaps thrashed young Wittgenstein, “a stammering, precocious, precious, aristocratic upstart”).
Schmitt and Heidegger, of course, grew up to serve Hitler in the Nazi regime. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein grew up to became Bertrand Russell’s student, Elizabeth Anscombe’s teacher, and what some regard as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.
Schmitt embeds his political theology within a traditionalist Catholic metaphysic that requires human communities to construct their identities as an aversive response to preexisting evil in the world, against which the good they conjure and internalize can define itself. For Schmitt, we need to meet the enemy before we can know the friend. We need Satan to summon God.
Schmitt makes it clear this enemy cannot be imaginary. We need to make it real. We therefore need substantive (not procedural) law to identify substantive evil and bring to life a substantive enemy into which we can compress and then destroy this substantive evil. In other words, we need a scapegoat, the alien Other. The material world is Schmitt’s philosophical battleground on to which he projects the righteous violence of his imagined political community.
Wittgenstein, on the other hand, hitched his star to the anti-Christian (some might even say Antichrist), Bertrand Russell. While himself tormented by Kierkegaardian religious doubt, the logical methods introduced by Russell intoxicated young Ludwig, and upon their wings he flew far, far away from the material world.
Unlike Schmitt’s political theology with its tethers to a politics of physical violence, Wittgenstein’s innovation was to organize his political and moral philosophy around ordinary “language games.” For Wittgenstein, language does not reflect a preexisting object realness in the world. Language invents this realness, constructing a “reality” in our minds that may or may not have anything to do with what we know to be objectively true. Because, in fact, there is no objective truth. There is only the arrangement of words and the meanings we attach to them in our minds.
Language games can be, and generally are, benign. They are never completely untethered from something real. Indeed, Wittgenstein argued for an approach to understanding language that situates words in the very specific histories and contexts and communities that produced and used them.
In recent politics, however, a disembodied, fully untethered language has attached itself instead to dark emotions that create their own reality, with none of the framing and constant, subconscious reality-testing that occurs offline.
Online political discourse — compulsive and attenuated — is increasingly about asserting what is real, without demonstration, without evidence, without self-awareness, without the pleasure of discovery, of learning something new, of changing one’s mind. The underlying emotion in a vast amount of this communication is disgust.
Consider a very Schmittian article that Adrian Vermeule published in First Things in 2017, entitled “A Christian Strategy.” The essay is ostensibly a handbook of advice on political tactics for would-be future Cardinal Richelieu’s. What readers will not be able to forget, however, are Vermeule’s vast reservoirs of contempt for liberalism, with its smug, cosmopolitan, parasitic elites — presumably including those with whom he consorts every day at Harvard — whose supercilious pretenses to virtue conceal the most grotesque and vile forms of intolerance. No moreso than with the militantly “progressive” sort who now overrun Harvard and other elite institutions.
Liberal intolerance represents not the self-undermining of liberalism, but a fulfillment of its essential nature. When a chrysalis shelters an insect that later bursts forth from it and leaves it shattered, the chrysalis has in fact fulfilled its true and predetermined end. Liberalism of the purportedly tolerant sort is to militant progressivism as the chrysalis is to the hideous insect.
What is especially curious about this language is that is so self-regarding. Vermeule is like a handsome fellow who interrupts conversations to look at himself in the mirror. Am I still as beautiful as I was ten minutes ago? Vermeule cannot avoid stopping to admire the baroque brilliance of his own prose; the capacity of his logic; the virtuosity with which he stalks, seizes, and disembowels his prey.
Vermeule — so in love with the sound of his own voice, so caught up in the emotions it calls forth, so impressed by the philosophical and literary mastery he demonstrates in every single sentence — could care less that its empirical foundation is a rancid jumble of memes, anecdotes, prejudices, and biases. The language itself is all that matters, the feeling-states it evokes, the truths it asserts. Because reality is only what he says it is. The words are the reality.
But what also matters, perhaps even more than Vermeule’s remarkable rhetorical performance — he’s a Harvard law professor, of course, so one would expect nothing less — is the extent to which those who oppose him on the liberal-progressive left also use almost identical language, with almost literally the same intense levels of aversion and disgust, to characterize Vermeule and his ilk.
I do it myself. We all do it. We live within our emotions. We think and reason through our emotions. We allow our emotions to shape our sense of reality — what we love and trust, what we hate and fear. Like Vermeule, like Steve Bannon, like Peter Thiel and Blake Masters, we hatch enemies from our mind, shape them into words, and turn them loose on the world.
Now, I’m not saying we’re exactly the same. But there is no doubt that the spirit of the Grand Inquisitor inhabits our souls — all of us. In America, whether you live on the right side of the street or the left, every day is Judgment Day.
And this is really the point of “Modern Moral Philosophy,” the landmark essay published by analytic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe in 1958 in the British journal, Philosophy. Anscombe studied with Wittgenstein at Cambridge during the war years. He chose her to translate Philosophical Investigations from the German. When she died in 2001, her remains were buried corner-to-corner with those of Wittgenstein, who had died a half-century before.
In “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Anscombe, who was herself a very devout Catholic, systematically destroyed the assumptions of those philosophers who used a moral vocabulary to assess and understand and classify human behavior. In the essay, she made three claims that were at the time quite shocking: 1) moral philosophy cannot proceed without “an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking;” 2) conceptions of “moral obligation” and “moral duty” should be jettisoned as survivals of earlier conceptions of ethics that no longer exist in any meaningful sense; and 3) British writers of moral philosophy dating from Henry Sidgwick, a utilitarian moral philosopher in the latter half of the 19th century “are of no consequence” as none stray beyond the bounds of the most conventional and superficial wisdom of the day.
Anscombe argued that use of “moral” as an adjective muddied the waters because it had become disembodied. In the absence of any specific and embedded tradition grounded in human emotions and human needs, the term had come to mean both everything and nothing. She proposed instead using terms more concrete and rich in ethical meaning, such as “just” and “courageous” and “truthful,” around which debate about action and behavior could more securely settle.
Anscombe’s logic is very subtle and beyond my ability to neatly summarize, although I have to say I’m drawn to the pre-Christian Aristotelian flavor of the argument, which is conversational, unassuming, and disarming. Her insistence that we not tokenize “morality” might generally apply to criticisms today of virtue-signaling.
At the same time, she is obviously mindful of the historicity of language. She associates “morality” with the idea of law as pedagogy, instruction, and command. This applies specifically to notions of divine law which, devout Catholic that she was, conceivably could have drawn her in a more “Schmittian” direction, with the state cramming morality down people’s throats.
But she does not. Instead, Anscombe associates the immanence of a divine law that might justify such action with a moment in history that has passed. She inhabits a moral universe in which virtue and flourishing possess the meanings implied within much of Thomist natural law moral philosophy, but also clearly disdains any contemporary effort to systematize and legislate such qualities, valuing the substance over the form.
In the end, I think Anscombe is like the domesticated Shire hobbits who want to keep things simple and live out their days in peace, siring robbits, drinking beer, eating meat pies, and smoking fine pipeweed. There is in her none of the “bachelor” hobbit who takes the path of the Fellowship. She wants to live the language, not speak it.
What I am reading today.
The Violent Fantasies of Blake Masters (NY Times)
The Computer Scientist Challenging AI to Learn Better (Quanta Magazine)
The Amazing Brain: Seeing Two Memories at Once (NIH Director’s Blog)
School districts facing 'crisis' teaching shortage (Washington Post)
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Wikidworld. Reimagining Western Civilization.
Season 1: Dark Enlightenment
Episode 5: Political Theology
Part 4: Elizabeth Anscombe’s Non-Moral Philosophy
Date: August 4, 2022