Blue ribbon blues
My kid, then a fifth grader at the local public school, came home one spring afternoon with a fistful of blue ribbons. Boy, was I proud. My son had been blessed with athletic ability! Regional championships, college scholarships, and Olympic gold exploded in my mind like so many fireworks on the Fourth of July. I clapped the kid on the back and congratulated him on what must have been a series of stellar performances.
He shrugged and said, “It’s no big deal. Everybody got blue ribbons.”
I refrained from pointing out the absurdity of a track meet where every participant won each event they entered. It wasn’t the kids’ fault; they didn’t make the rules. I walked away scratching my head.
My son is now a thirty-year-old man. Everything happening these days—the dictatorship of relativism, extremist organizations like BLM gaining political clout, the tilt towards a tribalism tinctured with totalitarian tendencies—germinated in that blue-ribbon moment of so many years ago.
It had been my responsibility to teach my son that the purpose of a track meet, or any other competition, was to celebrate excellence, not to promote some crazed vision of an emaciated equality. I failed on that point. I had inadvertently bought-in to the notion that self-esteem was the single most important ingredient in the formation of a healthy human being. I hadn’t given the topic much thought and blindly accepted that the maintenance of self-esteem was a new cardinal virtue. The blue ribbon track meet served as a wake-up call.
Virtue doesn’t come easy and must be earned through continuous practice. The kind of self-esteem the public schools were and are promoting by handing out blue ribbons like sour candy, the once symbols excellence drained of meaning because everybody wins, is too easy. It is given and not earned. There is no gift in this kind of giving. In the seeming banality of a track meet where there are no clear winners, evil forces strive to suffocate human excellence. The people that pedal this gift-less giving are convinced that our human nature does not exist and human identity is constructed primarily through language. They are wrong.
Philosophy versus Evil
German-American political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) was a man who believed in the power of philosophy. For an introduction to his thought, get a copy of Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, not only for a lesson in the history of political philosophy but to orient yourself to our present conundrum. For Voegelin, philosophy’s role was none other than saving humanity from evil.
Philosophy, in Voegelin’s view, serves the good, and it is this good that works to vanquish the evil found in systems forwarded by the likes of Karl Marx, whom Voegelin called a “swindler,” Hegel, whom he called a “con-man,” and August Comte, a grand wizard of positivism. Following the tradition begun by Socrates, Voegelin did not suffer fools who masquerade as wise men. Neither can we. Not if we hope to wrest Western civilization from those who would see it destroyed from the inside.
Voegelin defines philosophy as that which is “the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order.” It is akin to Plato’s contemplation of the Good and St. Thomas’ contemplation of God. In other words, the natural order of being depends on the transcendental nature of Being for its existence. This truth, which is still self-evident to many, has now been perverted by reductionist systems expounded by Comte, Marx, Hegel, and those of similar ilk.
The philosopher’s calling is that of a warrior. “Protecting philosophy against perversion is vital to the larger task of protecting human existence itself against perversion and tyranny,” writes Voegelin. “The issues are matters of life and death.” This may sound like hyperbole to those who have been indoctrinated into what Cardinal Ratzinger labeled “the dictatorship of relativism.” When truth is relegated to a relative valuation of subjective experience by large swaths of a population, the term “perversion,” like the blue ribbons my kid “won” at a track meet, is emptied of meaning. Perversion is then free to become both ubiquitous and invisible. It gnaws like termites at the fiber of the society it has infested. Twenty-five fifth-graders all carrying fistfuls of blue ribbons home is an apt illustration of the metaphor. It is the perversion of excellence.
Voegelin argues that, “Philosophy springs from the love of being; it is man’s loving endeavor to perceive the order of being and attune himself to it.” Natural law is written onto the hearts of all human beings. The enemies of this attunement, this tuning into the heart, are those who would see love of being perverted into love of self. They are Gnostics. They were with us long before St. Augustine wrote City of God, a formable tome designed to push Gnosticism back to the darkness from whence it came. Each era of Western civilization has been threatened by some form of Gnosticism. Ours is no different.
The wolves in our midst
EWTN’s documentary, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, showcases a contemporary Gnostic in the person of Saul Alinsky (1909-1972). Author of the infamous Rules for Radicals, Alinsky was no lover of being. He was, however, the godfather of a system of community organizing we have seen play out in the streets of Seattle, New York, Portland, Chicago, and others in 2020. Alinsky was a progenitor of the contemporary American radical leftist ideology that has given rise to political organizations such as Black Lives Matter. He is a fitting example of Voegelin’s Gnostic who “desires dominion over being.”
Voegelin understood that men and women like Alinsky, in order to seize control of being, required systems to carry the plan out. “The building of systems is a gnostic form of reasoning, not a philosophical one,” observed Voegelin. Martin Heidegger, the German “philosopher” who was an unapologetic Nazi, constructed such a system in his notoriously difficult treatise Being and Time (1927). Hans Jonas, a contemporary of Voegelin, through the application of Gnosticism, laid bare the nihilism lurking in Heidegger’s work. Neither Heidegger nor Alinsky would qualify as philosophers in Voegelin’s view. They were both Gnostics who created systems to dominate being.
Like Hegel before him, who constructed an equally impenetrable system designed to enslave being in his quest to appropriate the ultimate wisdom of Absolute Knowledge, Heidegger’s work attempts to conflate temporal being with divine Being to change the nature of both. Voegelin was not fooled by such ploys: “The nature of a thing cannot be changed; whoever tries to ‘alter’ its nature destroys the thing. Man cannot transform himself into a superman; the attempt to create a superman is an attempt to murder man.” Man, of course, by his very nature, is incapable of Absolute Knowledge. Temporal man has never been and will never be omniscient or omnipotent. Humans do not create reality but rather live through it. This doesn’t stop the Gnostics from trying. Gender Studies—along with Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory and other spinoffs of the Frankfurt School—attempts to blur boundaries situated in reality prior to human definition. They see themselves as gods who create a separate reality constructed from words. This false reality is where, as Heidegger put it his Letter on Humanism, “language is the house of Being.” Heidegger’s house is really a would-be cage. Gnostics attempt to blend the word of man with the Logos that is God. Hubris is in opposition to human excellence.
Armed with Nietzsche’s maxim, “If there were gods, how could I endure not to be one? Therefore, there are no gods,” Gnostic theorists develop and deploy systems designed to dominate being. These systems are fated to eat themselves alive like a sex-spent salmon. Unlike salmon, whose bodies dissolve into the reality that spawned them, Gnostics seek to destroy reality. The death factories in Nazi Germany, in which the sole product was human ash, is but one example of an irrational system attempting to change the nature of man by killing him.
New cardinal virtues such as self-esteem require new parables to explain them. In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” the title character is a rebel fighter par excellence. He is a highly intelligent, good looking fourteen-year-old, a seven-foot tall athletic god. This won’t do in a society where the concept of equality reigns supreme. Agents of The United States Handicapper General’s Office have unleashed and now enforce a plague of equality laws which reduce society to a slobber of mediocrity.
The Handicapper General, one Diana Moon Glampers, is at a loss when it comes to handicapping Harrison. He outgrows the handicaps—thick glasses to half-blind and cause whanging headaches, ridiculous amounts of dead weight attached to his body, a rubber nose to make him appear a fool—as fast as they can dream them up. Because the system cannot contain his virility, Harrison is arrested for suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government.
When Harrison manages to escape from authorities, he invades a state-run television studio where handicapped ballerinas are being filmed. He tears away his handicaps like scraps of garbage and declares himself Emperor. The Emperor requires an Empress. He strips away the sole volunteer, a timid young ballerina, of her handicaps. She is blindingly beautiful. Newly unencumbered musicians play their instruments and the Emperor and Empress dance the dance of transcendence as they float some 30-feet above the floor on waves of unleashed human creativity. They kiss the ceiling as one.
Enter Glampers. She carries a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fires both barrels and Harrison and his Queen are dead before they hit the floor. Equality is restored.
Vonnegut’s vision of dystopian equity paints the title character as a hero. Youthful, brilliant, strong, and beautiful, Harrison rises up to free his people from an imposed equality of a heartless system that would alter human nature through scientific-technological means. Once he does so, he declares himself Emperor. He is the Artist/King, a dancer who defies gravity, a boy who would be a god.
Vonnegut’s tale is possessed by a Nietzschean spirit that disguises hubris as heroism. The young Harrison is an iconoclast full of sound and fury who would beat back an evil system and its attempt to dominate being. Bravo for Harrison, though the attempt fails. The system is simply too strong. Vonnegut’s Superman is a tragic hero. Nietzsche would be proud.
“Harrison Bergeron” spotlights two sides of the totalitarian coin: collective and individual. On the one hand we find a governmental system attempting to alter human nature based on a will-to-power disguised as social justice. On the other, we have an individual that would alter human nature by defying all laws, natural, human, and divine, through sheer force of will. Harrison Bergeron could no more bear not to be a god than he could stooping down to Diana Moon Glampers or succumbing to gravity itself.
Vonnegut, a self-described atheist, posited no exit from the will-to-power that defines Gnosticism in this story. Human creativity, whether one is an individual like Nietzsche or a governmental system like China, is incapable of transcending nature. If there really is no escape from the will-to-power as “Harrison Bergeron” shows, then all is lost. “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” A system that attempts to erase individuality is as hellish as one that casts the individual as radically autonomous. The two are one and Gnosticism makes three in this unholy trinity.
Back to the races
I have often regretted that I failed to march over to the public school to ask on what authority the administrators had decided to hold a track meet where there were no winners. I know now, after teaching at a university for many years, it wouldn’t have done much good. The rough Gnostic beast had begun its juggernaut slouch toward America decades before my kid came home from a track meet clenching a fistful of limp blue ribbons.
In a country where The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture can unabashedly display a chart that assigns traits such as hard work, self-reliance, delayed gratification, being on time, and politeness derogatorily to “white culture,” it may appear like things are too far gone. On dark days, it seems like that to me.
Most days, though, I trust that reason will be the deciding factor in the centuries long war between the Philosophers and the Gnostics. There can only be one winner in this contest. I’m not talking about human reason that can be used to build systems designed to enslave being. I have faith in the Logos that transcends being but is imprinted on the natural order. This is the Logos of the Ancient Greeks. It is also the Logos of the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” Subverting reason by divorcing it from the transcendent is a perversion of love. It is blasphemy that can only lead to the triumph of nihilism.
Eric Voegelin celebrated being “through love of divine Being as the source of its order.” In this sense, all who love Being can be seen as philosophers. The fact that human nature cannot be reduced to a system is a testament of our faith in God. It is our armor against the nonsense of perverse reasoning employed by the Gnostics. So take heart, you lovers of wisdom. We are many. We are strong. With right reason we nourish hope; our continued faith inspires it. We are still in the race against the New Gnostics. Race to win.
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