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On Nationalism and National Conservatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, Politics on October 16, 2019 at 6:45 am
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Estados Unidos no es una nación: el problema del «conservadurismo nacional»

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Essays, Historicism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics on October 9, 2019 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here at Mises.org in July 2019.

A principios de este mes, nombres prominentes del movimiento conservador se reunieron en Washington, DC, para una conferencia sobre el «Conservadurismo Nacional». Entre los oradores se encontraban personalidades como Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance, John Bolton, Michael Anton, Rich Lowry, Yuval Levin y Josh Hawley. En representación de la academia estuvieron F.H. Buckley, Charles Kesler, Amy Wax y Patrick Deneen. Otros escritores y pensadores conservadores participaron en los paneles. Las dos figuras más asociadas con el conservadurismo nacional — Yoram Hazony y R.R. Reno — hablaron durante el plenario de apertura.

¿De qué se trata este conservadurismo nacional?

La respuesta sucinta es el matrimonio del nacionalismo con el conservadurismo. Los organizadores de la conferencia definieron el nacionalismo como «un compromiso con un mundo de naciones independientes». Presentaron al conservadurismo nacional como «una alternativa intelectualmente seria a los excesos del libertarismo purista, y en fuerte oposición a las teorías basadas en la raza». Su objetivo declarado era «solidificar y dinamizar a los conservadores nacionales, ofreciéndoles una base institucional muy necesaria, ideas sustanciales en las áreas de política pública, teoría política y economía, y una extensa red de apoyo en todo el país».

Suena interesante. Sin embargo, ni el conservadurismo nacional ni el nacionalismo —independientemente de las distinciones entre ellos— pueden arraigar en los Estados Unidos.

La diferencia entre un país y una nación

¿Por qué? Porque Estados Unidos no es, y nunca ha sido, una nación. La generación de los fundadores se refirió a Estados Unidos como un sustantivo plural (es decir, «estos Estados Unidos») porque varios soberanos estaban bajo esa designación. George Tucker llamó a Estados Unidos un «pacto federal» que consiste en «varios Estados soberanos e independientes». Si su punto de vista parece irreconocible hoy en día, es porque el nacionalismodentro de los Estados Unidos está muriendo o está muerto, y los Estados Unidos lo mataron.

Los Estados Unidos de América en singular es un país, no una nación. Contiene naciones dentro de ella, pero no constituye en sí misma una nación. Las naciones implican solidaridad entre personas que comparten una cultura, idioma, costumbres, costumbres, etnicidad e historia comunes. Un país, por el contrario, implica acuerdos políticos y territorios y fronteras gubernamentales.

Desde sus inicios, Estados Unidos se ha caracterizado por el fraccionalismo y el seccionalismo, los choques culturales y las narrativas en competencia – entre tribus indígenas de lo que hoy es Florida y California, Wyoming y Maine, Georgia y Michigan; entre británicos y franceses y españoles y holandeses; entre protestantes y católicos y disidentes ingleses y disidentes e inconformes y denominaciones disidentes; entre el calvinismo de Cotton Mather y el racionalismo de la Ilustración que influenció a Franklin y Jefferson. Los Estados Unidos también han experimentado numerosos movimientos separatistas, entre los que cabe destacar la secesión de los Estados que formaban los Estados Confederados de América.

Estados Unidos no es una nación.

Una nación consiste en una cultura homogénea de la que sus habitantes son muy conscientes. Por el contrario, los Estados Unidos de América son, y siempre han sido, culturalmente heterogéneos, y consisten en una variedad de culturas y tradiciones.

Mientras los puritanos de Nueva Inglaterra desarrollaban ansiedades de brujas, una nobleza plantadora se estableció en Virginia. Mientras la esclavitud se extendía por el sur, los cuáqueros americanos —desterrados de la Colonia de la Bahía de Massachusetts— predicaban la abolición y el pacifismo en Rhode Island y Pennsylvania. Mientras tanto, la industria surgió en Filadelfia y Boston. Alrededor de 60.000 leales abandonaron los Estados Unidos al final de la Revolución Americana.1 En muchos aspectos, la Revolución Americana fue la guerra civil antes de la Guerra Civil.

Mientras que William Gilmore Simms escribió novelas y disquisiciones sobre temas y escenarios del Sur, lidiando con el significado de la frontera emergente en Occidente, Nueva Inglaterra se caracterizó por el Romanticismo y el trascendentalismo, por autores como Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Melville y Hawthorne. Mientras Walt Whitman cantaba America en todas sus multiplicidades, María Ruiz de Burton escribía ficción que reflejaba su trasfondo y perspectiva mexicana. Décadas más tarde, Langston Hughes escribiría que él también cantaba en América.

¿Qué hay de los samoanos en Hawaii, los refugiados cubanos en Florida, los descendientes de esclavos negros de África y el Caribe, los isseis y los nesi sanseis, los criollos en Nueva Orleans, las comunidades judías ortodoxas, los gullah en las llanuras costeras y el país bajo de Carolina, los athabaskans de Alaska, los amish, los puertorriqueños, los inmigrantes de Colombia y Perú y Guatemala y Honduras y Panamá y Nicaragua? ¿Tienen un patrimonio común?

Estadounidenses unidos por la ideología, no por la nación

La noción de los nacionalistas conservadores de que el libertarianismo ha dominado al Partido Republicano es extraña a la luz de la marginación de Ron Paul por parte de ese partido, las guerras extranjeras orquestadas por los republicanos y el crecimiento constante del gobierno federal bajo el liderazgo republicano. Los nacionalistas conservadores proyectan una caricatura de los libertarios que, en 1979, Murray Rothbard refutó a fondo (audio aquí, texto aquí). El libertarismo de Rothbard es compatible con el nacionalismo, e incluso podría ser una condición necesaria para el nacionalismo. Los nacionalistas conservadores, además, buscan vincular su programa con Russell Kirk, quien, de hecho, advirtió contra «los excesos del nacionalismo fanático».

El nacionalismo conservador está equivocado, basado en una falacia, a saber, que los Estados Unidos son una nación.

Pero Estados Unidos no es una nación.

Si el pueblo de Estados Unidos está unido, es por un sistema de gobierno, la Constitución, el republicanismo y los conceptos de libertad, control y equilibrio, separación de poderes y estado de derecho. En otras palabras, Estados Unidos es un país cuyo pueblo está conectado, si es que lo está, por el liberalismo. La historia de los Estados Unidos ha sido la destrucción del nacionalismo, no el abrazo de éste.

Los conservadores nacionales celebran la grandeza y la homogeneidad en lugar de la verdadera nación.

Dado el énfasis en la soberanía, el autogobierno y la autodeterminación que caracterizan a los movimientos nacionalistas y la retórica, es de esperar que entre los conservadores nacionales se presenten ardientes argumentos a favor de la secesión, tal vez para una nación independiente del Sur, la desintegración de California o la independencia de Texas o Vermont. En cambio, los conservadores nacionales celebran la grandeza y la grandeza, socavando así las asociaciones de grupos y las identidades nativas basadas en culturas, costumbres, prácticas, idiomas, creencias religiosas e historia compartidas, fenómenos que existen en distintas comunidades locales en todo Estados Unidos.

Los Estados Unidos de América —el país en singular— es demasiado grande, el alcance y la escala de su gobierno demasiado grande para ser objeto de un verdadero nacionalismo. El pueblo de los Estados Unidos no está unido por una ascendencia común, solidaridad étnica o valores uniformes. Estados Unidos no es una «nación de inmigrantes», «una nación bajo Dios», «la primera nación nueva», o una «nación excepcional». Ni siquiera es una nación. Los conservadores nacionales pasan por alto o ignoran esa realidad por su cuenta y riesgo. El conservadurismo nacional que prevén para Estados Unidos sólo puede conducir a la supresión del nacionalismo real.

Estados Unidos no es una nación. Tratar de hacerlo así acabará con cualquier nacionalismo que quede en los Estados Unidos.

  • 1.Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles (Random House, 2011), p. 6.

Review of Stephen Budiansky’s “Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.”

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Historicism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on September 25, 2019 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in Los Angeles Review of Books.

Do we need another biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who served nearly 30 years as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and nearly 20 years before that on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court? He has been the subject of numerous biographies since his death in 1935. We have not discovered new details about him since Harvard made his papers available to researchers in 1985, so why has Stephen Budiansky chosen to tell his story?

The answer may have to do with something Holmes said in The Common Law, his only book: “If truth were not often suggested by error, if old implements could not be adjusted to new uses, human progress would be slow. But scrutiny and revision are justified.”

Indeed, they are — both in the law and in the transmission of history. Holmes has been so singularly misunderstood by jurists and scholars that his life and thought require scrutiny and revision. Because his story is bound up with judicial methods and tenets — his opinions still cited regularly, by no less than the US Supreme Court as recently as this past term — we need to get him right, or at least “righter,” lest we fall into error, sending the path of the law in the wrong direction.

A veritable cottage industry of anti-Holmes invective has arisen on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum. No one, it seems, of any political persuasion, wants to adopt Holmes. He’s a giant of the law with no champions or defenders.

For some critics, Holmes is the paragon of states’ rights and judicial restraint who upheld local laws authorizing the disenfranchisement of blacks (Giles v. Harris, 1903) and the compulsory sterilization of individuals whom the state deemed unfit (Buck v. Bell, 1927). This latter decision he announced with horrifying enthusiasm: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” For other critics, he’s the prototypical progressive, decrying natural law, deferring to legislation that regulated economic activity, embracing an evolutionary view of law akin to living constitutionalism, and bequeathing most of his estate to the federal government.

The truth, as always, is more complicated than tendentious caricatures. Budiansky follows Frederic R. Kellogg — whose Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Legal Logic appeared last year — in reconsidering this irreducible man who came to be known as the Yankee from Olympus.

Not since Mark DeWolfe Howe’s two-volume (but unfinished) biography, The Proving Years and The Shaping Years, has any author so ably rendered Holmes’s wartime service. Budiansky devotes considerable attention to this period perhaps because it fundamentally changed Holmes. Before the war, Holmes, an admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, gravitated toward abolitionism and volunteered to serve as a bodyguard for Wendell Phillips. He was appalled by a minstrel show he witnessed as a student. During the war, however, he “grew disdainful of the high-minded talk of people at home who did not grasp that any good the war might still accomplish was being threatened by the evil it had itself become.”

Holmes had “daddy issues” — who wouldn’t with a father like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the diminutive, gregarious, vainglorious, and sometimes obnoxious celebrity, physician, and author of the popular “Breakfast Table” series in The Atlantic Monthly? — that were exacerbated by the elder Holmes’s sanctimonious grandstanding about his noble, valiant son. For the aloof father, the son’s military service was a status marker. For the son, war was gruesome, fearsome, and real. The son despised the father’s flighty ignorance of the on-the-ground realities of bloody conflict.

Holmes fought alongside Copperheads as well, a fact that might have contributed to his skepticism about the motives of the war and the patriotic fervor in Boston. His friend and courageous comrade Henry Abbott — no fan of Lincoln — died at the Battle of the Wilderness in a manner that Budianksy calls “suicidal” rather than bold. The war and its carnage raised Holmes’s doubts regarding “the morally superior certainty that often went hand in hand with belief: he grew to distrust, and to detest, zealotry and causes of all kinds.”

This distrust — this cynicism about the human ability to know anything with absolute certainty — led Holmes as a judge to favor decentralization. He did not presume to understand from afar which rules and practices optimally regulated distant communities. Whatever legislation they enacted was for him presumptively valid, and he would not impose his preferences on their government. His disdain for his father’s moralizing, moreover, may have contributed to his formulation of the “bad man” theory of the law. “If you want to know the law and nothing else,” he wrote, “you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct, whether inside the law or outside of it, in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Budiansky’s treatment of Holmes’s experience as a trial judge — the Justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in those days presided over trials of first instance — is distinctive among the biographies. Budisansky avers,

[I]n his role as a trial justice, Holmes was on the sharp edge of the law, seeing and hearing firsthand all of the tangled dramas of the courtroom, sizing up the honesty of often conflicting witnesses, rendering decisions that had immediate and dramatic consequences — the breakup of families, financial ruin, even death — to the people standing right before him.

Holmes’s opinions as a US Supreme Court Justice have received much attention, but more interesting — perhaps because less known — are the salacious divorce cases and shocking murder trials he handled with acute sensitivity to evidence and testimony.

Budiansky skillfully summarizes Holmes’s almost 30-year tenure on the US Supreme Court, the era for which he is best known. He highlights Holmes’s dissenting opinions and his friendship with Justice Louis Brandeis, who was also willing to dissent from majority opinions — and with flair. For those looking for more detailed narratives about opinions Holmes authored as a Supreme Court Justice, other resources are available. Thomas Healy’s The Great Dissent, for example, dives more deeply into Holmes’s shifting positions on freedom of speech. Healy spends a whole book describing this jurisprudential development that Budiansky clears in one chapter.

Contemptuous of academics, Budiansky irrelevantly claims that “humorless moralizing is the predominant mode of thought in much of academia today.” He adds, “A more enduring fact about academic life is that taking on the great is the most reliable way for those who will never attain greatness themselves to gain attention for themselves.” Harsh words! Budianksy accuses the French historian Jules Michelet of rambling “on for pages, as only a French intellectual can.” Is this playful wit or spiteful animus? Is it even necessary?

Budiansky might have avoided occasional lapses had he consulted the academics he seems to despise. For instance, he asserts that the “common law in America traces its origins to the Middle Ages in England […] following the Norman invasion in 1066,” and that the “Normans brought with them a body of customary law that, under Henry II, was extended across England by judges of the King’s Bench who traveled on circuit to hold court.” This isn’t so. Writing in The Genius of the Common Law, Sir Frederick Pollock — “an English jurist,” in Budiansky’s words, “whose friendship with Holmes spanned sixty years” — mapped the roots of the common law “as far back as the customs of the Germanic tribes who confronted the Roman legions when Britain was still a Roman province and Celtic.” In other words, Budiansky is approximately one thousand years off. Rather than supplanting British customs, the Normans instituted new practices that complemented, absorbed, and blended with British customs.

The fact that Budiansky never mentions some of the most interesting researchers working on Holmes — Susan Haack, Seth Vannatta, and Catharine Wells come to mind — suggests willful ignorance, the deliberate avoidance of the latest scholarship. But to what end? For what reason?

It takes years of study to truly understand Holmes. The epigraph to Vannatta’s new edition, The Pragmatism and Prejudice of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., aptly encapsulates the complexity of Holmes’s thought with lines from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Budiansky recognizes, as others haven’t, that Holmes was large and contained multitudes. Holmes’s contradictions, if they are contradictions, might be explained by the famous dictum of his childhood hero, Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Holmes was consistently inconsistent. His mind was expansive, his reading habits extraordinary. How to categorize such a wide-ranging man? What were the defining features of his belief? Or did he, as Louis Menand has alleged, “lose his belief in beliefs”? Budiansky condenses Holmes’s philosophy into this helpful principle: “[T]hat none of us has all the answers; that perfection will never be found in the law as it is not to be found in life; but that its pursuit is still worth the effort, if only for the sake of giving our lives meaning.”

Holmes was intellectually humble, warning us against the complacency that attends certainty. Driving his methods was the sober awareness that he, or anyone for that matter, might be incorrect about some deep-seated conviction. During this time of polarized politics, self-righteous indignation, widespread incivility, and rancorous public discourse, we could learn from Holmes. How civil and respectful we could be if we all recognized that our cherished ideas and working paradigms might, at some level, be erroneous, if we were constantly mindful of our inevitable limitations, if we were searchers and seekers who refuse to accept, with utter finality, that we’ve figured it all out?

The United States is Not a Nation

In America, American History, American Literature, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Politics, The South on September 11, 2019 at 6:45 am

The original version of this piece appeared here in Mises Wire

In July, prominent names in the conservative movement gathered in Washington, DC, for a conference on “National Conservatism.” Speakers included such luminaries as Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance, John Bolton, Michael Anton, Rich Lowry, Yuval Levin, and Josh Hawley. Representing the academy were F.H. Buckley, Charles Kesler, Amy Wax, and Patrick Deneen. Other conservative writers and thinkers participated in panels. The two figures most associated with national conservatism — Yoram Hazony and R.R. Reno — spoke during the opening plenary.

What is this national conservatism all about?

The succinct answer is the marriage of nationalism to conservatism. The conference organizers definednationalism as “a commitment to a world of independent nations.” They presented national conservatism as “an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to theories grounded in race.” Their stated aim was “to solidify and energize national conservatives, offering them a much-needed institutional base, substantial ideas in the areas of public policy, political theory, and economics, and an extensive support network across the country.”

Sounds interesting. However, neither national conservatism nor nationalism — whatever the distinctions between them — can take hold in the United States.

The Difference Between a Country and a Nation

Why? Because the United States is not, and has never been, a nation. The founding generation referred to the United States as a plural noun (i.e., “these United States”) because several sovereigns fell under that designation. St. George Tucker called the United States a “federal compact” consisting of “several sovereign and independent states.” If his view seems unrecognizable today, it is because nationalism within the United States is dying or dead—and the United States killed it.

The United States of America in the singular is a country, not a nation. It contains nations within it, but does not itself constitute a nation. Nations involve solidarity among people who share a common culture, language, customs, mores, ethnicity, and history. A country, by contrast, involves political arrangements and governmental territories and boundaries.

From its inception, the United States has been characterized by faction and sectionalism, cultural clashes, and competing narratives — between Indian tribes in what is now Florida and California, Wyoming and Maine, Georgia and Michigan; between the British and French and Spanish and Dutch; between Protestants and Catholics and English Dissenters and nonconformists and splintering denominations; between the Calvinism of Cotton Mather and the Enlightenment rationalism that influenced Franklin and Jefferson. The United States has experienced, as well, numerous separatist movements, including, most notably, the secession of the states that made up the Confederate States of America.

The United States is not a nation.

A nation consists of a homogeneous culture of which its like-minded inhabitants are acutely aware. By contrast, the United States of America is, and has always been, culturally heterogeneous, consisting of a variety of cultures and traditions.

While the Puritans of New England developed witch anxieties, a planter gentry established itself in Virginia. While slavery spread through the South, American Quakers — banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony — preached abolition and pacifism in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, industry sprung up in Philadelphia and Boston. Around 60,000 loyalists left the United States at the close of the American Revolution.1 In many respects, the American Revolution was the civil war before the Civil War.

While William Gilmore Simms authored novels and disquisitions regarding Southern themes and settings, grappling with the meaning of the emergent frontier in the West, New England was characterized by Romanticism and transcendentalism, by authors like Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Melville, and Hawthorne. While Walt Whitman was singing America in all its multiplicities, María Ruiz de Burton was penning fiction that reflected her Mexican background and perspective. Decades later, Langston Hughes would write that he, too, sang America.

What of the Samoans in Hawaii, the Cuban refugees in Florida, the descendants of black slaves from Africa and the Caribbean, the Issei and Nesi and Sansei, the Creole in New Orleans, the Orthodox Jewish communities, the Gullah in the coastal plains and Carolina Low country, the Athabaskans of Alaska, the Amish, the Puerto Ricans, the immigrants from Columbia and Peru and Guatemala and Honduras and Panama and Nicaragua? Do they have a common heritage?

Americans United by Ideology, Not Nationhood

The notion of conservative nationalists that libertarianism has dominated the Republican Party is odd in light of that party’s marginalization of Ron Paul, the foreign wars orchestrated by Republicans, and the steady growth of the federal government under Republican leadership. Conservative nationalists project a caricature of libertarians that, back in 1979, Murray Rothbard thoroughly refuted (audio here, text here ). The libertarianism of Rothbard is compatible with nationalism, and might even be a necessary condition for nationalism. Conservative nationalists, moreover, seek to tie their program to Russell Kirk, who, in fact, warned against “the excesses of fanatical nationalism.”

Conservative nationalism is misguided, predicated on a fallacy, namely that the United States is a nation.

But the United States is not a nation.

If the people of the United States are united at all, it is by a system of government, the Constitution, republicanism, and the concepts of liberty, checks and balances, separation of powers, and rule of law. In other words, the United States is a country whose people are connected, if at all, by liberalism. The history of the United States has been the obliteration of nationalism, not the embrace of it.

National Conservatives Are Celebrating Bigness and Homogeneity Rather than True Nationhood

Given the emphasis on sovereignty, self-governance, and self-determination that characterize nationalist movements and rhetoric, you would expect among national conservatives searing arguments for secession, perhaps for an independent Southern nation, the breaking up of California, or the independence of Texas or Vermont. Instead, the national conservatives celebrate bigness and greatness, thereby undercutting group associations and native identities based on shared cultures, customs, practices, languages, religious beliefs, and history — phenomena which exist in distinct local communities throughout the United States.

The United States of America — the country in the singular — is too big, the scope and scale of its government too large, to be the object of true nationalism. The people of the United States are not united by a common descent, ethnic solidarity, or uniform values. The United States is not a “nation of immigrants,” “one nation under God,” “the first new nation,” or an “exceptional nation.” It’s not even a nation. National conservatives overlook or ignore that reality to their peril. The national conservatism they envision for the United States can lead only to the suppression of actual nationalism.

The United States is not a nation. Trying to make it so will stamp out any remaining nationalism in the United States.

Presidential Appointments to the United States Supreme Court

In America, American History, History, Humanities, Law, The Supreme Court on August 7, 2019 at 6:45 am

Dave Farrow and Allen Mendenhall on the High Costs of Legal Services

In American History, higher education, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy on June 26, 2019 at 6:45 am

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War

In America, American History, Historicism, History, Humanities, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on April 24, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 6, 2019 at 6:45 am

Seth Vannatta identifies the common law as a central feature of the jurisprudence of former United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Holmes treated the common law as if it were an epistemology or a reliable mode for knowledge transmission over successive generations. Against the grand notion that the common law reflected a priori principles consistent with the natural law, Holmes detected that the common law was historical, aggregated, and evolutionary, the sum of the concrete facts and operative principles of innumerable cases with reasonable solutions to complex problems. This view of the common law is both conservative and pragmatic.

Vannatta’s analysis of Holmes opens new directions for the study of conservatism and pragmatism—and pragmatic conservatism—demonstrating that common-law processes and practices have much in common with the form of communal inquiry championed by C.S. Peirce. For more on this subject, download “Seth Vannatta’s Justice Holmes,” which appeared in the journal Contemporary Pragmatism in the fall of 2018.

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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