July 3, 2021

1. Greek Decadence

In his book The Greeks and the Irrational, E. R. Dodds tells how the Emperor Julian took a walk in starlight as a boy, and fell into “a state of entranced abstraction.”1 In an earlier issue, I said that Julian “embraced a pagan-Hermetic ‘religion of the world.’” Worship of nature may be positive and healthy, but it often gives way to fear of nature; nature is often viewed as the realm of the devil, the realm of evil spirits.

According to Dodds, the view that nature is one leads to “cosmic optimism”; this view can be called monism. The opposite view is dualism; dualism says that the world is divided between the divine and the diabolical; dualism often leads to “cosmic pessimism.” During the Roman Empire, dualism gradually prevailed over monism.

The adoration of the visible cosmos [Dodds writes], and the sense of unity with it which had found expression in early Stoicism, began to be replaced in many minds by a feeling that the physical world — at any rate the part of it below the moon — is under the sway of evil powers, and that what the soul needs is not unity with it but escape from it.2

Julian, who reigned around 360 AD, was one of the last monists, one of the last cosmic optimists. Julian broke with Christianity, which was dualist, hence Julian was called “Julian the Apostate.” (The first emperor who embraced Christianity was Constantine, who reigned around 320 AD.) One of the last great philosophers in this period was Plotinus, who wrote around 250 AD; Plotinus rejected both extreme monism and extreme dualism, he tried to “construct a system which shall do justice to both tendencies.”3

Dodds admires Aristotle, and he tries to answer the question, Why did the rationalism of Aristotle, which reached a high point about 325 BC, gradually lose its vitality? Why did Irrationalism finally overcome Rationalism? “To understand the reasons for this long-drawn-out decline is one of the major problems of world history.”

Dodds begins by describing the heyday of Rationalism. He speaks of,

the great age of intellectual discovery that begins with the foundation of [Aristotle’s] Lyceum about 335 BC and continues down to the end of the third century [i.e., continues down to 200 BC]. This period witnessed the transformation of Greek science from an untidy jumble of isolated observations mixed with a priori guesses into a system of methodical disciplines. In the more abstract sciences, mathematics and astronomy, it reached a level that was not to be attained again before the sixteenth century; and it made the first organized attempt at research in many other fields, botany, zoology, geography, and the history of language, of literature, and of human institutions.

This was the Hellenistic period, a period of “cosmopolitan culture.” The city-state could no longer stifle individuality. Though the city-state had lost the power of self-government, and had become part of a larger empire, this was “the nearest approach to an ‘open’ society that the world had yet seen, and nearer than any that would be seen again until very modern times.”

It seemed that Rationalism was making man more than mortal, making man god-like.

It is in this age [Dodds writes] that the Greek pride in human reason attains its most confident expression. We should reject, says Aristotle, the old rule of life that counselled humility, bidding man think in mortal terms; for man has within him a divine thing, the intellect, and so far as he can live on that level of experience, he can live as though he were not mortal. The founder of Stoicism went further still: for Zeno, man’s intellect was not merely akin to God, it was God.

But the heyday of Rationalism gradually ebbed away. In 200 BC,

Greek civilization was entering, not on the Age of Reason, but on a period of slow intellectual decline which was to last, with some deceptive rallies and some brilliant individual rear-guard actions, down to the capture of Byzantium by the Turks [in 1453 AD]; that in all the sixteen centuries of existence still awaiting it the Hellenic world would produce no poet as good as Theocritus, no scientist as good as Eratosthenes, no mathematician as good as Archimedes, and that the one great name in philosophy [i.e., Plotinus] would represent a point of view believed to be extinct — transcendental Platonism.

Surely there was some sort of decadence, but what was the root cause? Dodds speaks of a “fear of freedom — the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members.” He calls his chapter “The Fear of Freedom,” and as an epigraph for the chapter, he uses a quote from T. H. Huxley: “A man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.”

I’m skeptical of Dodds’ explanation. Writing around 1950, Dodds thinks there’s a “fear of freedom” in the contemporary world, and he transfers it into antiquity.4 He doesn’t explain why the fear of freedom set in around 200 BC, why Aristotle’s age didn’t fear freedom, why Pericles’ age didn’t fear freedom, etc.

I’ve argued that decadence is caused by a death-instinct in society, a decline of the life-instinct. In his book The Age of Constantine, Burckhardt tries to explain decadence in antiquity; Burckhardt uses the phrase “natural energy,” which is close to “life-instinct.” Burckhardt wrote, “The need for superstition was grown the more desperate in the degree that the natural energy with which the individual confronts fate had disappeared.” Burckhardt saw the importance of energy, and he saw that decadence is a shortage of energy. I think that Burckhardt’s “natural energy” is a better explanation than Dodds’ “fear of freedom.” One could argue that a decline of “natural energy” (life-instinct) is the root cause, and the fear of freedom is one consequence of that root cause.

The Russian history Rostovtzeff (dubbed “Rough Stuff” by his Wisconsin students) tried to explain the decline of ancient culture by pointing to social class rather than “natural energy.” Rostovtzeff was born in 1870, about 50 years after Burckhardt. He lived in Russia during the Russian Revolution, and he may have been predisposed to emphasize social class.

Rostovtzeff said that the fall of ancient civilization contains “a lesson and a warning” for our own civilization. He asks, “Is it possible to extend a higher civilization to the lower classes without debasing its standard and diluting its quality to the vanishing point? Is not every civilization bound to decay as soon as it begins to penetrate the masses?”5 Rostovtzeff believed that the power of the aristocracy — political, economic, and cultural power — gradually declined, and civilization as a whole sank to a lower level. He speaks of, “a gradual absorption of the higher classes by the lower, accompanied by a gradual leveling down of standards.”

Dodds makes the opposite argument, Dodds says that ancient culture was too exclusive, it failed to permeate society, “Hellenistic thought suffered from too little popular education.”6 I think Rostovtzeff’s argument is stronger than Dodds’.

Burckhardt speaks of a decline of “natural energy,” and his view agrees with my theory of decadence. But my theory says that the life-instinct should return, renaissance should eventually replace decadence. This didn’t happen, decadence persisted. Rostovtzeff’s theory helps to explain, not the onset of decadence, but its persistence.

There may be another factor behind the decline of Greek rationalism. Aristotle and his students were exploring a new world, the world of science. Novelty led to enthusiasm. But eventually the novelty wore off, the enthusiasm petered out; it seemed that everything had been done.

As enthusiasm for science dwindled, intellectuals became interested in popular trends like astrology and Hermetism. Hermetic thinkers like Bolus developed “the theory of occult properties or forces immanent in certain animals, plants, and precious stones.” Dodds says that this theory “deeply influenced the thought of later antiquity and the whole Middle Age.”7

Dodds concludes his chapter by saying that, while Aristotle had some appreciation of irrational factors, antiquity was generally incapable of understanding or controlling the unconscious. But modern psychology (Freud, Jung, etc.) enables us to manage the unconscious, and overcome our “fear of freedom.” I’m very skeptical of Dodds’ theory. I agree that modern psychology is an important development, but I see little chance that psychology can overcome the ills of our civilization.

The decadence of ancient civilization is one of the major puzzles of world history. Burckhardt’s theory (a decline of “natural energy”) and Rostovtzeff’s theory (the domination of society by the proletariat) are equally good solutions to this puzzle, while Dodds’ theory (the fear of freedom) seems to have little value.

* * * * *

Dodds says that Plato had some appreciation of irrational elements in human nature, and Aristotle went further, Aristotle had more appreciation of irrational elements. But this development ground to a halt around 250 BC. Early Stoics like Zeno and Chrysippus went back to the “naive intellectualism of the fifth century.”8 They revived the argument that the passions were “merely errors of judgement.” They turned away from the “objective study of man as he is,” they were preoccupied with the ideal sage, the sage who was “untroubled by hope or fear.” Dodds concludes, “This fantastic psychology was adopted and maintained for two centuries.” I’ve argued that repressive morality, Stoic morality, is characteristic of decadent periods.

One philosopher who dissented from dogmatic rationalism was Posidonius. He pointed out that character is at least partly innate, not the result of knowledge or ignorance. He also pointed out that “irrationality and evil” are “ineradicably rooted in human nature.”9

While most Stoics were going back to a “naive intellectualism,” Epicureans and Skeptics were moving in a similar direction. “Both schools would have liked to banish the passions from human life; the ideal of both was ataraxia, freedom from disturbing emotions; and this was to be achieved in the one case by holding the right opinions about man and God, in the other by holding no opinions at all.”10

All three schools — Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism — paired rational ethics with rational religion. Instead of viewing the gods as arbitrary power that must be appeased with acts of worship, they viewed the gods as remote, calm, rational. One might say that the gods were becoming remarkably similar to the philosophers!

While the philosophers were worshipping philosophical gods, the masses were sinking deeper into superstition. Dodds says that “a diffused anxiety among the masses” is evident in prayers and amulets. He mentions an amulet meant to protect you from “‘unclean spirits’ hiding under your bed or in the rafters or even in the rubbish-pit.” What range there is in human nature! From a god-like study of the cosmos, to being afraid of what’s under the bed! Every house, every animal, every person was believed to contain demons; all the pagan gods (in the opinion of Christians) were demons, and Christ’s mission was to deliver man from demons.11

Since the city-state had been replaced by empires, the old local gods were losing their importance. Dodds compares the worship of city gods, in late antiquity, to contemporary Christianity, “a social routine, without influence on goals of living,”12 a stale, lifeless religion. But even a stale religion can drag out its life for many centuries. Dodds speaks of the “vis inertiae that keeps this sort of thing going — what Matthew Arnold once called ‘the extreme slowness of things.’”13 Dodds says that bulls were still “sacrificed in Megara to heroes killed in the Persian Wars eight hundred years earlier.” Rituals are still performed long after “they have ceased to mean anything.”

Since the city religion was losing its vitality, individuals were trying to satisfy their need for religion by private paths. “Small private clubs” sprang up, “devoted to the worship of individual gods, old or new.... These associations served both social and religious purposes.”14

Religion was ceasing to be a public matter. “The thoughts of men were increasingly preoccupied with techniques of individual salvation, some relying on holy books allegedly discovered in Eastern temples.”15 One thinks of the Hermetic texts, which were ascribed to an ancient sage, Hermes Trismegistus.

After 200 BC, philosophy became a quest for salvation, rather than a quest for truth; philosophers abandoned “any pretence of disinterested curiosity.” Both Stoics and Epicureans scorned science, even suppressed it, if it didn’t contribute to calm, detachment, ataraxia.16 Marcus Aurelius said that a philosopher was “a kind of priest and minister of the gods.” The transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages was underway.

2. The Origin of Covid-19

About six months ago, I said that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was being misused. The phrase “conspiracy theory” shouldn’t be used as a synonym for “false theory”; every theory, including every conspiracy theory, should be judged on its merits.

Now we’re finding that a “conspiracy theory” about the origin of Covid-19 may be true; the theory that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan is becoming more and more credible. There’s a superb article about the “lab leak hypothesis” by Zeynep Tufekci. Bret Stephens wrote an excellent piece about how the mainstream media dismissed the lab-leak theory.

Conservatives are feeling vindicated. Prominent Republicans like Tom Cotton were early proponents of the lab-leak theory. Fox News always treated both Cotton and the lab-leak theory respectfully, while the mainstream media dismissed the lab-leak theory as a fringe theory, a conspiracy theory. Facebook, which banned Trump, also banned discussion of the lab-leak theory, then reversed its policy in the face of mounting evidence that the lab-leak theory deserved serious consideration.

Tufekci wrote in the New York Times, “On Feb. 19, 2020, 27 prominent scientists published an open letter in The Lancet. They decried ‘conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin.’” Doubtless 27 prominent psychologists would sign a letter saying that telepathy shouldn’t be investigated, and 27 prominent English professors would sign a letter dismissing the Oxford Theory as a “conspiracy theory.” The establishment subscribes to certain fashionable positions, and shuts its eyes to evidence that doesn’t support these positions.

3. Glenn Loury

In a recent issue, I praised the pundits Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell. I should mention a third black conservative, Glenn Loury. Loury is a professor at Brown. Loury is 72, Steele 75, and Sowell 90. Loury says,

I’m a registered independent who’s playing both sides of the street, so to speak....

The Democrats are nothing without blacks voting 95%, 90% for their candidates. They would lose control of everything. Biden wouldn’t be president today if James Clyburn were not able to corral enough black votes in South Carolina’s Democratic primary to get him out of the hole.

So here’s what I see. I’m not a professional political scientist, so you can take it for what it’s worth. They’re buying black votes by waving a bloody shirt of racism. That’s what they’re doing. They’re selling this idea that George Floyd’s death was yet one of another of another of another racist state killings of black people.... White racists are coming to get you. They’re in your police department. They’re right around the corner. And we are the only thing between you and a noose around your neck....

The Georgia Election Integrity law is not just Jim Crow, it’s Jim Eagle. “They want to put you all in chains.” That’s a quote from President Joseph Biden.... If we fall for this, we’re fools....

Barack Obama... let us down.... He should have stood for law and order when Baltimore was burning down, when Ferguson, Missouri was burning down, instead of splitting the difference and saying they have legitimate grievances.... He should have turned to Black America... and said, yeah, there’s racism, but you know what? We need to pull up our socks.... We need to stand up straight with our shoulders back, as Jordan Peterson puts it. We need to take care of our kids. We need to get busy. Racism is not the first or the second or the third issue confronting us....

He could have shut up some of these people, like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Instead he invites them for cozy talks, etc. Shut’em up by saying, my occupying this office, commander-in-chief of the most powerful military on the planet, the agenda setter for this great republic of 325 million people, gives the lie to your talk about oppressive denial of the integrity of black bodies....

I heard Michelle Obama [say] that she worried that her daughters... might be set upon by rogue police officers because they’re black and they might be mistaken for somebody.... She knows that what she said is untrue. So what is she doing? She’s playing you Negroes.... She’s enacting a trope, a narrative in the service of a political program, which is to keep you on the reservation, afraid that the boogie man racist is gonna come and get your children. She’s not worried about her children being harassed on Martha’s Vineyard by a cop because they’re black....

It is a comfortable place to be if you’re black. I’m a victim. They wouldn’t let me get the Nobel Prize because I was black.... That is getting old. But we need our leaders — I’m talking about African-American leaders — to point away from that. And they’re not doing it.

Loury is somewhat concerned about a “white supremacy” movement: “Ultimately, the monster is white identity politics. I fear that social justice warriors will overplay their hand, and that this will result in a backlash, in anti-black sentiments.”

4. John McWhorter

Loury does a podcast with another black academic, John McWhorter. Like Loury, McWhorter is conservative on the issue of race, but he isn’t a diehard Republican; McWhorter says he never voted for George W. Bush, and he says he supported Obama. His views clash with the mainstream media, so his blog appears at Substack (Loury is also on Substack).

McWhorter teaches at Columbia; his specialty is Linguistics, but he ranges around the humanities — music history, American Studies, etc. Among his books is The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. McWhorter gave a TED Talk called “4 Reasons to Learn a New Language.”17 One might call McWhorter a member of the American aristocracy; his full name is John Hamilton McWhorter V. His father was a college administrator, his mother a college teacher. McWhorter is 55.18

McWhorter argues that AntiRacism and Black Lives Matter are a new religion, the “dominant religion” among “Blue State Americans.” He cites a memo that circulated among NYU faculty, a memo saying, “Our first guiding principle is that participation in political movements such as Black Lives Matter is analogous to a decision to attend a religious or spiritual gathering.” McWhorter says, “One might picture this written by a black theologian. But it was an especially rich thing to see coming from a white statistician!!!” McWhorter says that, instead of demonstrating, liberals should focus on “real change on the ground for real people who need help.”

McWhorter says that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a priest of the AntiRacism religion; Coates “most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.” The NewYorkTimes writer A.O. Scott “perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is ‘essential, like water or air.’”

McWhorter continues:

Even [David] Brooks has gotten the religion, critiquing Coates’s book while also making sure to say that “every conscientious American should read it.” Brooks, here, is genuflecting, as America now does in general to Antiracist scripture.

McWhorter writes,

It is inherent to a religion that one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief. Certain questions are not to be asked.... For example, one is not to ask “Why are black people so upset about one white cop killing a black man when black men are at much more danger of being killed by one another?”

....The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege... is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.

McWhorter thinks we should focus on practical policies: “Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history.”

Whites should do penance for their sins, while blacks revel in being victims. McWhorter says,

Being a professional victim feels good.... Always having someone to blame things on is nothing less than an emotional balm. This is why black victimology catches on with other groups.... American culture is now shot through with this unfortunately fashionable drug....

Many blacks are trained to adopt the mantle of victimhood in any public discussion but in private are not bedeviled by such notions at all. I actually believe... that deep down most black Americans agree with people like Shelby Steele and me. We just have to get used to speaking out loud.

The notion that most black Americans agree with McWhorter received support from the recent election for NewYork mayor. Blacks supported the more conservative candidate, ex-cop Eric Adams. Are conservatives the “silent majority” within the black community? Eric Adams was

shunned by affluent voters in Manhattan and by young hipsters in Brooklyn and Queens.... He ran way ahead... in heavily black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.... Black and Latin homeowners with families and jobs know their neighborhoods can be destroyed and their lives ended by violent criminals. They want more rather than less policing in their neighborhoods. “White liberals are more left-wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue,” Democratic pollster Davis Shor argues, “even on racial issues or various measures of ‘racial resentment.’”19

© L. James Hammond 2021
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1. Ch. 8, p. 264, footnote 72 back
2. p. 248. The earth was believed to be below the moon; on the other hand, the planets, the sun, and the stars were believed to be above the moon. The world below the moon was called the “sublunary” world. back
3. Footnote 72. In an earlier issue, I discussed how Hitler followed Julian. back
4. I’m accusing Dodds of doing what he accuses another scholar of doing: “When a well-known British scholar assures me [Dodds writes] that ‘there can be little doubt that the over-specialization of science and the development of popular education in the Hellenistic Age led to the decline of mental activity,’ I fear he is merely projecting into the past his personal diagnosis of certain contemporary ills.”(p. 250)

Dodds admits that he’s viewing antiquity through the lens of modern history: “I will not pretend to hide from the reader that in writing these chapters, and especially this last one, I have had our own situation constantly in mind. We too have witnessed the slow disintegration of an inherited conglomerate, starting among the educated class but now affecting the masses almost everywhere, yet still very far from complete. We too have experienced a great age of rationalism, marked by scientific advances beyond anything that earlier times had thought possible.” back

5. Conclusion of Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. Dodds quotes Collingwood, who said that “Irrational elements... the blind forces and activities in us, which are part of human life... are not parts of the historical process.”(footnote 108) Dodds rejects this view, rightly in my opinion. back
6. p. 250 back
7. p. 246. In some respects, I think the Hermetic approach is more profound than Aristotle’s rational approach. On the other hand, the Hermetic approach can fertilize all kinds of superstition, so it needs to be used cautiously.

Dodds is skeptical of the theory that “racial interbreeding” was a factor in the decline of Greek culture. This theory was apparently put forward by N. H. Baynes. Doubtless similar theories have been put forward to explain the decline of Roman civilization. back

8. p. 239. The Roman Stoic Seneca wrote, “Nec philosophia sine virtute est, nec sine philosophia virtus” (Philosophy doesn’t exist without virtue, nor virtue without philosophy). Seneca’s formula leaves no room for impulse or feeling.

Seneca also said that the philosopher’s job was not to find truth, but to help suffering humanity: Ad miseros advocatus es.... perditae vitae perituraeque auxilium aliquod inplorant (You are retained as counsel to unhappy mankind.... Lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance).(quoted in footnote 79) Dodds says that all the philosophical schools made this point; the philosopher is frequently called a physician of souls. One could also view the philosopher as a physician of civilizations — diagnosing the ills of civilization, and prescribing remedies.

Aristotle seems to show some respect for the occult when he says, “Most people consider the mortality or immortality of the soul an open question.”(p. 258, footnote 29) Aristotle was also “cautiously noncommittal” about whether dreams could foretell the future.(p. 120) back

9. p. 239. In an earlier issue, I said that Posidonius believed that everything is connected, the world is an organic whole. He believed in a “unified cosmos and unified human nature.” But he also believed in a “tension of opposites.” Likewise, I’ve argued that everything is connected, but there’s also a tension between opposites, such as life- and death-instincts. back
10. p. 240. Science was becoming dogmatic. When Aristarchus of Samos set forth a heliocentric theory around 250 BC, the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes said he should be prosecuted for impiety. “It seems likely,” Dodds writes, “that theological prejudice played some part in securing the defeat of heliocentrism.”(p. 262, footnote 58) back
11. Footnote 103 back
12. p. 242. Dodds is quoting Abram Kardiner. back
13. p. 243, quoting a letter of Matthew Arnold. Arnold went on to say, “Though we are all disposed to think that everything will change in our lifetime, it will not.”(p. 260, footnote 46) back
14. p. 243. If the city religion was moribund, why was Christianity persecuted for so long? Dodds says, “There was an organized and bitter opposition to the Christianization of the Empire. But it came from a small class of Hellenizing intellectuals, supported by an active group of conservative-minded senators, rather than from the masses.”(p. 260, footnote 47) back
15. p. 248 back
16. p. 265, footnote 77. “Epicurus was particularly frank in expressing his contempt for culture, and also for science, so far as it does not promote ataraxia.... Stoicism too was generally indifferent to research save in so far as it confirmed Stoic dogmas, and was prepared to suppress it where it conflicted with them.... Plotinus is the outstanding exception. He organized his teaching on the basis of a sort of seminar system, with free discussion.... ‘He does not stand on top of a system and preach: he investigates.’”(footnotes 78, 79)

Christian writers continued the tradition of scorning science and culture; they “held all secular learning to be unnecessary.”(footnote 83) The task of the philosopher was to know God and minister to the individual soul. Philosophy was becoming a mere handmaid of theology (ancilla theologiae). back

17. Some linguists argue that one’s language shapes how one sees the world; this is called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.” McWhorter opposes this view, and he wrote a book called The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. back
18. I’m not sure what McWhorter’s ethnic background is. McWhorter may have been born to black parents, then adopted by white parents. back
19. See Michael Barone’s piece in the Washington Examiner back