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Tag Archive: Western Civilization

Modernity is simply the time of realized nihilism

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2011 (2:00 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, January 28th, 2011:

David Bentley Hart, from the just released February 2011 volume of First Things, discussing Martin Heidegger’s reading of the centrality of nihilism in Western civilization’s cultural history and its philosophical tradition, in an article that appears to be available to non-subscribers on the website:

Modernity, for Heidegger, is simply the time of realized nihilism, the age in which the will to power has become the ground of all our values; as a consequence it is all but impossible for humanity to dwell in the world as anything other than its master. As a cultural reality it is the perilous situation of a people that has thoroughly—one might even say systematically—forgotten the mystery of being, or forgotten (as Heidegger would have it) the mystery of the difference between beings and being as such. Nihilism is a way of seeing the world that acknowledges no truth other than what the human intellect can impose on things, according to an excruciatingly limited calculus of utility, or of the barest mechanical laws of cause and effect. It is a “rationality” of the narrowest kind, so obsessed with what things are and how they might be used that it is no longer seized by wonder when it stands in the light of the dazzling truth that things are. It is a rationality that no longer knows how to hesitate before this greater mystery, or even to see that it is there, and thus is a rationality that cannot truly think.

I found this article to be a very useful exposition on the thought of Heidegger, a writer I’ve never had much success trying to read – in part because of the denseness of his writing, and perhaps more so than I’m completely comfortable admitting because of a personal revulsion against his well-known involvement with Nazism. But I’ve also lacked a broader understanding of what he was trying to get at, and this article sheds some light on that. I’m not sure I won’t still walk away from an encounter with Heidegger shaking my head in incomprehension, but perhaps I’ll give him another try.

Mobilizing Useful Idiots Around the World to Take Up the Cause

Posted: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 (6:30 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, January 5th, 2011:

Stephen Kinzer, writing in The Guardian on December 31, on the professional Human Rights movement’s loss of direction since its emergence some 40 years ago or so:

The actions of human rights do-gooders is craziest in Darfur, where they show themselves not only dangerously naive but also unwilling to learn lessons from their past misjudgments. By their well-intentioned activism, they have given murderous rebel militias – not only in Darfur but around the world – the idea that even if they have no hope of military victory, they can mobilise useful idiots around the world to take up their cause, and thereby win in the court of public opinion what they cannot win on the battlefield.

This is an interesting article, and one that is commendable at the very least for its ability to infuriate both America-hating lefties, and pro-Western gunboat diplomatists of either military or cultural ilk.

Although Kinzer treads dangerously close to broadly condemning human rights interventions as inherently neo-imperialist, he makes some great points about the narcissism (my term, not his) of the human rights movement, and the extent to which its self-important nobility can be – and are – played as tools by some of the world’s worst characters.

I’m not sure if the movement has changed as much as Kinzer thinks it has, or if he has simply outgrown it. I asked myself the same question several years ago, when the shiny “Save Darfur” posters started appearing on the lawns of the guilt-ridden wealthy in the snazzy suburbs I spend my days in, and I knew instinctively that I could no more trust the hand-wringing advocates for “justice” in that conflict than I could trust the hand-wringing advocates for sillier and sillier global warming solutions in humanity’s last great battle for land to live upon!

This is not to say that there aren’t real problems in the world, which call for solidarity, and even military intervention. But identifying problems, and understanding problems well enough to construct useful treatments, are very distinct matters. Kinzer identifies the problem as a deficient definition of human rights, and suggests a hierarchy of rights to clarify priorities. I don’t disagree on either count, but would place the root of that deficiency in a widespread refusal to recognize the origins of human rights in our Creator God.

Human rights are a Western construct? Well, yes and no. They are a product of Western civilization, because they are practical outgrowths of the Judeo/Christian theology that forms the foundation of Western civilization. Stripped of their roots – that is, stripped of their true meaning – they surely can become fodder for fools, as well as anything else can.

A Saint for Our Age

Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 (11:33 pm), by John W Gillis


Today was the feast day of Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe, and I spent a lot of time thinking about him. When Maximilian was canonized by Pope John Paul II, the pope proclaimed him The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century. He was a great evangelizer and defender of the faith, as well as a protector of Jews and a fierce critic of Nazism – a witness which eventually landed him in Auschwitz as a prisoner.

It was there that his legend was cemented. In retribution for an attempted prisoner escape, the deputy commander of the death camp ordered ten men from Maximilian’s barracks to be sent away to be starved to death. One of the men cried out in grief over his family, and Maximilian stepped forward to take his place. The man survived to personally see Maximilian canonized 41 years later.

The 20th century was nothing if not the stage for the full flowering of Enlightenment deism into outright atheism, and its attendant religiously-flavored inanities. Maximilian’s sensibilities were very much shaped by his experience of the hostility of Europe’s public order toward the Church. As waves of nationalism, socialism, and finally National Socialism, reverberated through the remnants of Christendom, sweeping away traditional meanings of community, the vacuity of the “Enlightenment” project was once for all exposed in the unimaginable darkness of abject brutalities, culminating in the misanthropic hell holes of places like Auschwitz.

Maximilian, in the very midst of the madness, responded in the only way the Church can. He followed his Lord in offering his life, not only for his neighbor, but for his neighbor’s family.

It’s no accident of history that the descent of civilization into various barbarisms in the 20th century has left the 21st century with a legacy of broken families, the destigmatization and social embrace of fornication, a view of sex even within marriage that is radically divorced from its organic meaning in fatherhood and motherhood, the utter collapse of nature’s most fundamental bond of love in the unspeakable crime of abortion, and now, even the attempt to erase the memory of marriage from the consciousness of humanity by perverting its meaning, so that future generations will not even possess a word by which to distinguish marriage from other, non-covenantal, and even explicitly self-centered, domestic arrangements. There will be no thread binding the family together that is left unrepudiated, except the duty of children towards parents – and the wheels of “progress” are already moving to dismantle what remains of that, as society prepares to implement the mirror-image function of abortion in Kevorkianism.

It turns out, it seems, that the family and civilization do not so much support each other, as reflect each other in different historical permutations of the same reality. The family is to civilization as the fetus is to the adult. You cannot destroy one without destroying the other. This is the true crisis of our age, as John Paul II (and his successor) understood as well as anyone. And that Maximilian of Auschwitz is also the patron saint of families is no coincidence.

We need more men like Saint Maximilian with the courage, and the prudence, to offer their lives for the sake the family. The truth is that the world is not so much saved one soul at a time, as one family at a time.

Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.
Acts 16:31 (NAB)

Modern Scholar series (part I)

Posted: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 (10:14 pm), by John W Gillis


In the spirit of always trying to look on the bright side of things… One of the advantages to spending two hours or so each weekday commuting to and from work is the opportunity it affords me to listen to audio books. I was in the local public library over the weekend, and noticed that they had a new title from Thomas F. Madden in Recorded Books’ Modern Scholar series. Unsurprisingly, the series overall is a bit of a mixed bag, but, having listened to all of Madden’s volumes so far, I can vouch for the quality of all of them.

These are not actually recorded books, but sets of about seven hours worth of lectures on various subjects – in Madden’s case on the history of Christianity, broadly speaking. Madden’s work is by no means overwhelming – these are survey-level mini-courses, and an overlap in subject matter among his volumes leads to some redundancy, but he does a nice job of walking through the material briskly while still demonstrating the complexities of the historical situations. I was particularly impressed with his agility in avoiding fashionable, oversimple cliches in his surveys of the Crusades and the Inquisitions – each of which he managed to cover fairly comprehensively in what would amount to about three weeks worth of classroom lectures in a traditional undergraduate environment.

I’ve been able to fill some gaps in my knowledge of European history while listening to these CDs, and it struck me a while back just how fundamental this knowledge is to understanding the world we’ve inherited from the ancients, the medievals, and the early moderns. And yet, where is this knowledge to be found in our culture? I know so many people who have absolutely no clue about any of this – including many with college educations. What little previous knowledge I had of this history was almost entirely gained through personal reading over the years. As a product of the public schools, I had almost no exposure to this – beyond, perhaps, memorizing the details of major military skirmishes, and of changing political fault lines. I certainly was offered no clue as to how the set of ideas we call the modern world (if we can still call it that) was forged in the interplay of the ideas of our cultural ancestors.

Maybe teenagers are too young to grasp human history as the story of ideas, but if that is true, then our system of education teaches history to the wrong people. Actually, I think that is true, and it suggests a gaping question regarding how we might rectify the problem of a rampant ignorance of the meanings of ideas. And when the Daily News Product is feeding us political ‘debate’ that tries desperately to find the right marketing mix of ‘change’ branded slogans and ‘experience’ branded slogans – all in an attempt to manipulate the election of the leader of the free world – we’d be hard pressed to show that ideas are not in crisis in our culture. Ideas are packaged for consumption – as trivia.

“For $10,000 and a weekend in Barbados with an upscale hooker: Who was the father of Charlemagne?”

This series is a good place to at least start rectifying the problem – Madden’s volumes are, at any rate.