Monday, January 12, 2009

Thomas Bertonneau now writing at The Brussels Journal

I am greatly pleased to see that The Brussels Journal has acquired the services of one of my favorite essayists, Thomas F. Bertonneau.

A few quick notes on Bertonneau's latest contributions:

In his previous outing for TBJ, Bertonneau reviewed Sylvain Gouguenheim’s recent book, Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chr├ętienne, a work which seeks further to dispel the PC myth that the Renaissance in Europe was highly indebted to Islamic scholarship. Bertonneau writes:
Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners – Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold – to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term Dark Ages to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic assertions of the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term Dark Ages insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. And yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are – to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film – ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them.
The jolly idea of Muslim competence in classical learning, as Gouguenheim argues, rests on a misunderstanding: what Islam knew of Greco-Roman wisdom, which it possessed at no time extensively, it knew largely thanks to Syriac scholars. “The Syriac [Christians] were in effect the essential intermediaries of the transmission into Arabic of the philosophical texts of the ancient Greeks,” who generously gave far more than the reluctant takers took. Obtuse westerners betray their lack of discrimination and their poverty of real knowledge in failing to differentiate between Syriac culture and the Arabic-Muslim culture that, by means of the Jihad, conquered and cruelly stamped out Nestorian (and Coptic and Byzantine) society.

Unlike their Muslim beneficiaries, however, the Syriac Christians could assimilate the full range of Greek logic and speculation. The Johannine Logos stemmed from the Greek Logos and the Christianity of the Patres – whether Greek, Latin, or Syriac – therefore comported itself as a rational theology; already in Late Antiquity, Cappadocians and Syrians stood out as the chief developers of Neo-Platonism; emperors both Pagan and Christian sought counsel from the professors of Antioch’s renowned Daphnaeum. In a chapter on “Islam and Greek Knowledge,” Gouguenheim notes that for Muslims, on the other hand, the Logos constituted an inassimilable scandal, subversive of the absolute submission to Allah’s commands, as articulated in the Koran, that the name Islam denotes. Islam kept of Greek thought “in general [only] that which could not come in contradiction with Koranic teaching.” Furthermore, “Greece – and so too Rome – represented a world radically foreign to Islam, for reasons religious, but also political”; and, unlike the Latinate and Frankish peoples, “Muslims did not interest themselves in the languages of those whom they had conquered” because “Arabic was the sacred language par excellence, and that of revelation.”

More aggressively, “Muslim rejection – or indifference – to Greek knowledge manifested itself again through the destruction of the cultural centers that were the monasteries, the Muslims not acting in this way any differently from the Vikings.” One could remark here, however, that the Vikings at least had the decency after two centuries to cease their predatory behavior and settle down as members of Christendom.

Multiculturalists and Islamophiles have pointed to the Abbasid establishment in Spain (Andalusia) called the Bayt al Hikma or “House of Wisdom” as proof of Muslim enthusiasm for classical learning. Gouguenheim demonstrates that this is another “seductive” misunderstanding, to which the fanciful eagerly yield. The “House of Wisdom” never functioned other than as a Koranic school, and even in that capacity it enjoyed only a truncated existence.
Christianity was ready, moreover, to receive, not only the philosophy, but also certain basic political principles, of the ancient Greeks, particularly of the Athenians, such as “liberty, reason, and democracy.” Christian Europe in the medieval centuries was, indeed, in a position to admire from the ancient heritage – and to adopt critically – whatever might enhance its Gospel-based conviction of the free will of the individual. Thus the Attic achievement in particular lies at the elective root of a paradoxically self-identifying European culture. Islam knows only that it is Islam whereas Europe, when at its best, has always understood that it is itself and yet something else at the same time. A European sense of intellectual insufficiency and need gave unexpected strength to the progress and consolidation of the medieval mind. Europe would prove itself “permeable” in a way that Islam could not – convinced as it was of its own perfection ab origine. Thus, concludes Gouguenheim, “the Hellenization of medieval Europe was the fruit of Europeans,” who discovered, on their own, their filiations with the ancient societies.

Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most significant publications of the last few years. It is, I believe, destined to become a classic – not only in its original French, but also in the other European languages, once it has been translated. It dispels a myth, an invidious one that has long been central to the perverse palaver of western self-hatred. For those who, like me, command their French a bit unsurely, Gouguenheim’s prose is a miracle of balanced sentences and clear meaning. I would say that Gouguenheim’s study has a potentially large audience outside the academy and could become something of a popular success in the Anglophone nations.

All among us who fear we have entered a new "dark ages" and that only a renewal of the eighteenth-century spirit can save us, would do well to spend some time with this essay and the works to which it refers. Those familiar with Bertonneau's other writings might assume the writer is himself fearful of a looming darkness, but he certainly seeks the roots of our proper modernity in the full length of our Western history and not in some singular moment of englightenment. It is remembering the many events of our civilization's renewal that will kindle our passions and help us renew iconic models and a sense of our purpose in dark times.

Similarly, in his latest TBJ piece, Bertonneau reflects on the basis of our faith in respect to a great problem of modernity: people's desire to overcome their loneliness by playing the boy who cried wolf, to take the short cut to appearing morally righteous by playing with and denying a proper apprehension of reality:
No period is so richly guilty of abusing the primary ostensive function of language – of shouting Wolf! – as modernity. I recall [Eric] Gans saying once in a throwaway remark during a lecture that modernity specializes in creating specious differences while simultaneously denying the positive reality of actual differences. We can observe such specious differentiation most especially in current social and political rhetoric.

Take the vocabulary of equality, one of the obsessions of the self-denominating democratic societies. Modernity uses – or rather abuses – the term equality in two incompatible and self-canceling ways and in a verbal sleight of exasperating slipperiness. First, modernity posits equality as a moral absolute and as an eschatological project of the saints. Never mind that otherwise modernity hotly denies the existence of moral absolutes or that elsewhere it despises sanctity. Next, modernity claims that any and every instance of inequality signifies a moral offense and an intolerable injustice. The advocates of equality (their dubious name for which is “social justice”) invariably take the opportunity of their allegations to indict putative authors of inequality, whom they promise to chastise for causing the wickedness. Notice that the scheme of leveling all differences requires the difference that the plaintiff always be morally superior to the defendant. It was on this basis of this morally superior attitude, to which he was keenly sensitive, that Eric Voegelin declared modernity to be essentially “Gnostic.”

What agenda stems from the penchant of the levelers? If the inequality or difference in question consisted, for example, in the empirical fact that certain children at the end of twelve years in school spell well while certain others spell badly or cannot spell at all – were that so, the modern subject in his outrage would urgently equivocate between spelling well and spelling badly and he would urgently seek to nominate as generative of the difference any cause that shifts attention from direct linear explanations thereof (some students had better teachers than others or some students simply paid closer attention to their lessons than others) to extrinsic, “third party” explanations that permit the laying of blame against supposed malefactors. (Never, of course, the teachers or the school or the curriculum.) One might encounter the exculpatory claim that makes of spelling an arbitrary standard imposed by a ruling elite to stabilize the existing unjust establishment.
Read the whole thing...

Local readers will immediately recognize the figure of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation in these remarks, that body of professional Gnostics who are so keen to outlaw the duly-elected government's desire to have standardized testing of students, lest the results of these tests be publicized by that most egregious of bad boys, the pro-free market think-tank Fraser Institute, to actually show the concerned public which schools are incapable of teaching certain children a basic competency in maths or letters.

But indeed the ranks of those who would invoke the presence of an absent wolf are legion, "educatedd" by just such wishful teachers, weakening us for the work of properly apprehending harder realities to come.

The Brussels Journal, at least, is getting better and better.


Dag said...

Fjordman at The Brussels Journal has a book available debunking the myths of positive Islamic contributions to the world. He writes well enough, and his book, though grossly expensive for the bulk is thorough and informative. It is, in a real sense, educative.

The Brussels Journal also host our friend and colleague, Tiberge, a sensitive and intelligent writer well worth the time.

My problem with the critique of Modernity as above is that it's selective: we look at the critique and see only one part, the negative part, and see the whole. But what Modernity is, in reality, combines vestiges of the pre-modern, that being the negative, the collectivist, the superstitious, the authoritarian, and pseudo-religious aspects that become eschatological and violent. rousseau is not "Modern" but a throw-back to the feudal. Against the individualism of Modernity, what else can the General Will be but reactionary? All the"progressive" aspects of the Left are reactionary when we look at them closely. And in removing the Left aspects, we are left with Modernity in its beauty and moral rightness for Humanity. Not Gnostic, but Rational; not General but individual: not "equal" but free.

truepeers said...

I don't think that was a critique of modernity so much as a rejection of certain modernist and Gnostic "progressive" myths that lead to a forgetting of the many sources of our Western modernity, a rejection especially of those who would write off the middle or "dark" ages as somehow antithetical to modernity when, uniquely in the Christian West, people were alreay moving beyond the limits of classical civilization and developing what we have come to recognize as a modern outlook.

I'm quite sure Bertonneau is not advocating a return to feudalism: if anything, I think his ideal is something like bourgeois middle-AMerican culture in the first half of the 20thC.

I'm deleting the first comment here which i take it has been left there for commercial reasons. Being modern men, we don't appreciate spammers looking for free advertising space.

Dag said...

I'm perhaps over-protective of the idea of Modernity, which I take as a positive era in history. I accept, after a long life-time of travel and experience, a teleological understanding of history rather than an eschatological one. History is linear, in my understanding of it, from zero to infinity, and the zig-zags and loops are not a dead end at all but mere delays and detours to the telos. Yesterday was good, today is better, tomorrow will perhaps be better still. Thus, the Middle ages cannot be as good as today. The measure is Human freedom and the freedom that comes only from prosperity. Our freedom is out of sync with our prosperity because our prosperity is hijacked by neo-feudalists. It causes Modernity to corrupt. Will changes.

I understand the problem of "Man as the moral ceiling." But in that case, all we have is Man as Gnostic pseudo-Christian, not a man as Man.

This is the sort of thing I prefer discussing person to person so I can back up and correct my mistakes and come to a clearer conclusion with the help of friends. I leave it for now.