Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the History of Philosophy

Source: Alexandre Kojève, Essai d’une histoire raisonnée de la philosophie païenne. 1. Les Présocratiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), pp. 186–95.

Cover image from ‘After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer’. Photo by Victor Nieuwenhuijs. Via artmap.

The Evolution of Philosophy in the Pre-Kantian Period

If philosophy ‘in its potential’ is the effective discourse that poses (explicitly or implicitly) the Concept as a question or ‘hypothesis’ (sup-posing, in so posing it, only the intention of talking about it in the proper sense, i.e., in a ‘coherent’ manner), the philosophical ‘act’ is the act of understanding a discourse that (having been put forward or taken up) gives an (explicit or implicit) response to this question. Now, the Concept as such is the (one and unique) set of everything that is the (de-finite) ‘sense’ of a particular notion and/or the (de-terminate) ‘essence’ of a particular object, to the extent that this set is itself neither ‘sense’ nor ‘essence’ (being neither of them any more and/or being neither of them yet). It is therefore only possible to talk (explicitly or implicitly) about the Concept by distinguishing it (even if only implicitly) as the set of notions (whether or not they have been developed in discourse) and as the World that these objects constitute when taken as a set. In other words, if, per impossibile, ‘Everything’ was merely an Object or merely Discourse there would not be a Concept that could be spoken of at all. For in the first case there would only be an ineffable and mute ‘Essence’ of the World, whereas in the second Discourse would only have a ‘Sense’ that would not be the sense of anything and would thus mean nothing. Consequently, Philosophy can only become ‘actual’ in and through an (explicit or implicit) discursive distinction between Sense and Essence, which allows us to pose (explicitly or implicitly) the question of the Concept as that which, being ‘in itself’ neither the one nor the other, can be (or ‘become’) the essence of an object (integrable in a World-That-Is-Spoken-Of) and/or the sense of a notion that can be developed in discourse (integrable in the Universe, i.e. in a World-Where-We-Speak). 

In fact and for us (at least since Hegel), Object is distinguished from Notion or, if we prefer, Essence differs from Sense uniquely in that, in an object, the essence is ‘bound’ to its body in a bi-univocal and indissoluble, that is, necessary fashion, whereas the sense of a notion is ‘bound’ to its morpheme in a perfectly arbitrary manner, as a modification of the morpheme does not necessarily (i.e. always and everywhere) entail a modification of the sense, which remains, besides, always and everywhere the same. It would in principle make no sense at all to talk about a ‘necessary’ relationship without also talking about an ‘arbitrary’ relationship (even if only to ‘deny’ it); or, inversely, to affirm the ‘arbitrary’ character of a relationship without at least ‘denying’ the ‘necessary’ relationship, i.e. without also talking about the latter in some way. But in fact we can only talk explicitly about a single one of these, while talking about the other in a purely implicit manner. Likewise, we can talk about one in an ‘adequate’ (i.e. ‘definite’ and ‘non-contradictory’) way and about the other in an ‘inadequate’ way (i.e. ‘indefinite’ and ‘contradictory in its terms’). At any rate, at least when talking about it for the first time, it is necessary to talk about one before talking about the other.

Now, if Philosophical Discourse is necessarily addressed to somebody (even if only to the philosopher themselves), it also always and everywhere talks about something. More precisely, this Discourse (also) talks about itself, as a discourse talking about something (to somebody). Philosophical Discourse therefore (also) talks about something that is not itself and, consequently (since virtually it talks about everything to everyone), about that which is Non-Discourse, or, in other words, the Object. It is in any case easy to see that Philosophy can only, in fact, talk about Discourse in general, and in particular about the discourse that is Philosophy itself, after having talked about what the Discourse (that it talks about) talks about, i.e., about that which altogether constitutes the Cosmos or the World-Where-We-Live (in talking about it). In other words, Philosophy must begin by talking (explicitly) about the necessary and bi-univocal ‘relationship’ between Essence and Body in the particular objects we are talking about, that is, in the Object (-That-Is-Spoken-Of) as such, i.e., in every object (we speak of) whatsoever. For a certain time, therefore, philosophers could only have spoken implicitly about the arbitrary relationship between the Sense and the Morpheme of the Notion as such, or of a particular discourse that develops any particular notion. In its beginnings, philosophy could, in any case, only talk about this relationship in an ‘inadequate’ fashion, even after having attained discursive ‘adequacy’ in talking about the non-arbitrary relationship.

It very much appears that this is effectively what we see over the course of the history of Philosophy, at least to the extent that we know of it. Doubtless the beginnings of Universal History are lost in the night of the Palaeolithic era (if we do not go even further back to wooden tools). But all that we know about it (by analogy with existing ‘primitives’, for example) leads us to believe that the Discourse on the Concept which is Philosophy was preceded by discourses that spoke uniquely about ‘relationships’ that were supposed to be necessary, while ‘being ignorant of’ those that are arbitrary.

It is indeed evident that History could not have begun with a so-called ‘magical’ period in which men could only speak of ‘arbitrary’ or ‘magical’ relationships between essences of the mana type and bodies of the ‘animate’ type, or between words and their senses. For if it was so, or else if Man had not needed to work to live and had been only an Animal, or else if Work had been indispensable for his survival, the human species would have disappeared following the ‘mutation’ that had given birth to it. In actual fact the stupidest and most ‘primitive’ men have certainly never doubted that a tame pig will not transform into a tiger and that pulling on an object or calling to a person will, as a general rule, cause them to draw nearer and not move away or flee. By contrast, there is nothing to oppose a priori the idea that in the beginning men only spoke of necessary relationships, with claims relating to arbitrary relationships only coming much later. Either way, we know no one who does not, in speaking, act as if, for them, at least in certain objects the essence is bound to the body in a necessary fashion. By contrast, who has not acted as if all relationships were necessary, going as far as to say that even the relationships between senses and their given morphemes also have a necessary character.

Moreover, explicit discourses on arbitrary relationships seem always and everywhere to have come after those that talk about the bi-univocal and necessary character of the relationships in question. It seems that ‘miracles’ only began to be spoken of, or ‘discussed’, when the idea of a ‘natural law’ had effectively been formulated. In any case, the ‘miracle’ is always and everywhere spoken of as an ‘exception’, which, by definition, supposes the ‘rule’. As a general rule, by contrast, discourses on necessary relationships ‘are ignorant of’ the existence of arbitrary relationships and thus only talk about them implicitly.

At any rate, adequate discourses about bi-univocal relationships are, in fact, very old indeed, while those relating to arbitrary relationships only became adequate with Hegel. Until then, these discourses not only had an in-definite sense, but were developed in such a way that what they said in the end contradicted everything they affirmed at the start. It is therefore only possible to define the sense of the notion of the Necessary in opposition to the notion of the Arbitrary, but, inversely: it was only as the Non-Necessary that the Arbitrary could be defined discursively.

Although (explicit) discourses on the necessary relationship of Essence and Body necessarily imply discourses on non-necessary relationships, the explication of the latter will not be adequate straight away. In the beginning their implicit character initially led them to be purely and simply ‘unknown’, and then to be explicated [wrongly] as ‘negative’ discourses. In other words, arbitrary relationships were not initially spoken about at all, and subsequently they were only spoken about in order to ‘deny’ them. So, for quite a long time, people spoke of the necessary relationships between the essences and bodies of objects, but denied the existence of non-necessary or arbitrary, that is, ‘magical’ relationships. It was only after a certain point that they began to talk about both (while talking in an adequate fashion about arbitrary relationships), and it was only much later that they spoke explicitly (in an always inadequate fashion) about arbitrary or ‘magical’ relationships by [wrongly] explicating their universal character, that is, by ‘denying’ the existence of non-arbitrary or necessary, that is, ‘natural’ relationships.

In these two ‘negative’ or ‘exclusive’ cases it was impossible to talk about the Concept (given that this is, by definition, neither Sense nor Essence) and thus to develop its notion through Philosophical Discourse in the proper sense of the word. Except that in the second case Philosophy was renounced (in a ‘definite’ and thus, in principle, ‘definitive’ manner), while, in the first, one did not philosophise yet (postponing ‘indefinitely’ the beginning of Philosophical Discourse). Either way, Philosophical Discourse took flight from the start of adequate discourse on the bi-univocal and necessary character of the relationship of Essence and Body in the Object.

Philosophical Discourse, in other words, began to be developed from the very moment it was discursively admitted that, alongside the necessary relationships which had been spoken of up to that point, there were also non-necessary relationships that one would have to talk about from then on. Now, given that the discourse relating to necessary relationships was adequate, it could not have been a question of saying that certain ‘objective’ relationships were not necessary while the majority were. It is only possible to talk about non-necessary relationships by talking about something other than the Object in which the Essence is necessarily bound to the Body. In other words, what were spoken of were ‘non-objective’ or ‘subjective’ non-necessary relationships. For a long time, in fact, subjective relationships were only spoken of in the context of Man himself and, in practice, what was initially in question was uniquely the arbitrary relationship between Sense and Morpheme in (human) Discourse. But this was enough to make a Discourse developing the notion of the Concept possible. And, at a certain point, this Discourse was actualised as Philosophy.

As far as we know, all this happened for the first time in Greece, at the time of ‘Thales’. It was there, in this era, that the actually arbitrary character of the relationship between Sense and Morpheme was discursively revealed in the ‘epistemological’ form of the affirmation according to which one and the same given morpheme could have, case by case, a ‘true’ or ‘false’ sense. Doubtless this discursive form made it particularly difficult to adequately develop the notion arbitrary-relationship. For, setting aside the (neglected) case of the lie, Man was supposed always and everywhere to seek the ‘Truth’ and to avoid ‘Error’. Consequently, the arbitrary could only be defined initially as non-necessary in the sense of accidental, that is, unpredictable, so that the relationship between the sense and the morpheme of a discourse presumed to be ‘true’ was defined as ‘necessary’ or ‘natural’. This made it possible to speak of the Person-Who-Speaks as an Object(-That-Is-Spoken-Of), that is, as an Animal, whose Essence is, by definition, bound to its Body in a necessary manner, treating cases of people who ‘are mistaken’ when they speak in the same way as ‘monstrous’ objects or ‘diseased’ animals. This is what occupied Philosophy for many centuries, preventing it from ‘progressing’ as Anthropo-logy.

In any case, this fashion of talking about the Concept by admitting the necessary character of the relationship of Essence and Body in the Object and only recognising the ‘arbitrary’ character (in the sense of non-necessary or non-natural) of the relationship between Sense and Morpheme in the Notion (in Discourse) in the case of discursive ‘errors’ characterises in a ‘specific’ or ‘essential’ manner all of ‘ancient’ or ‘pagan’ Philosophy, i.e. the whole of philosophical Discourse developing the sense of the notion concept by affirming that in everything that is spoken of the Concept is an essence bound to a body in a bi-univocal or necessary manner, while it is only in that which is said that the Concept is bound in a ‘non-necessary’ manner, as a sense, to a given morpheme, with the ‘accidental’ character of this relationship resulting in the fact that it does not hold always and everywhere, the notion or the discourse being called ‘false’ in every case in which there is no relationship whatsoever between this notion or this discourse and the Concept [which is to say, in fact and for us, but wrongly, that the ‘false’ can only be a pseudo-notion or a pseudo-discourse, stripped or deprived of any sort of sense whatsoever].

This ‘Hegelian’ manner of re-presenting the history of Philosophy makes it possible to define a priori (though after the fact) an ancient or pagan period that is perfectly well defined from a ‘logical’ point of view, even if in fact and for us it actually has a rather fluid chrono-logy, given that we do not know its precise date of origin and that there are as a matter of fact still ‘pagans’ today, so that it is impossible to foresee their ‘definitive’ disappearance. And, a contrario, it is possible to define a Christian period, similarly chrono-logically ‘indefinite’ with respect to its ‘historical’ origin and its ‘probable’ end.

From its origins, Christianity has presented itself as a sort of Para-thesis situated in the Universe between the Hellenic Thesis and the Hebraic Antithesis. Saint Paul proclaimed Christian wisdom as the double negation of those contrary theses (‘unto the Greeks foolishness, unto the Hebrews a stumbling-block’). But if radical mysticism appears to have accepted the Silence to which the Pauline negation of the antithetical couple is equivalent straight away, discursive Christianity strove from the start to substitute for the neither-nor of Saint Paul the classical Para-thesis both-and, i.e. the incomplete [partiel] and more or less biased [partial] double affirmation of the contra-dictory theses supposed by Christian discourse.

From the start Christianity also fit into the Hellenistic frame in the sense that Hebrew dogma was expressed discursively as Christian doctrine in a Universe dominated by Hellenic discourse. In other words, in and through the Christian Para-thesis, the Anti-thesis of Judaism supposes as posed the pagan Thesis stated by the Greeks. It is therefore by denying Paganism that Christianity is affirmed. But it is distinguished from Judaism as a parathetical compromise in which thetical Paganism is only partially denied so as to be completed by what is retained from antithetical Judaism. The proportions taken from the one and the other have varied over time, at the rate and to the extent that the ‘contradiction in terms’ inherent to Christianity taken and understood as a discursive Para-thesis has been explicated.

From the point of view that interests us here, two Judaic myths excluded the possibility of any philosophy whatsoever. On the one hand, the myth of the creation of the world ex nihilo by an act of ‘free’ will on the part of the Parmenidean One-All-Alone affirmed (at least implicitly) the arbitrary character of the relationship between Essence and Body in everything that exists-empirically as an Object. On the other hand, the myth of the creation of Discourse by Adam, who named every single object as he saw fit, established (explicitly) the arbitrary character of the relationship between Sense and Morpheme in the Notion ‘in general’.[1] Now, if every relationship is arbitrary, there is as little sense in talking about the Concept as there is if every relationship is necessary. And, to the extent that the thetical dogma of Hellenic Science affirmed the necessary character of every relationship whatsoever, the total negation of this necessity (i.e. the ‘affirmation’ of the non-necessity of every relationship) by the dogma of Hebraic Theology constituted an authentic Anti-thesis.[2]

Monotheism in a sense predestined theological Judaism to its parathetical (Christian) compromise with scientistic Paganism, because, for Judaism, the relationship between essence and body in objects depended not (as was the case for ‘magical’ Paganism) on the arbitrariness of the essences themselves, but uniquely on that of the unique ‘transcendent’ Essence, called ‘God’. If one could, per impossibile, eliminate God from Judaism, every relationship in the World would be as necessary for this atheist Judaism as for the ‘secular’ Science of the Greeks. In other words, it would be enough to submit the will of the single God to a necessary ‘law’ to make ‘Judaic’ dogma coincide with the scientific dogma of the Hellenes. Inversely, it is enough to introduce in the ‘iron law’ (ananke) recognised by the latter an element of ‘free will’ (or of ‘conscious and voluntary’ action) to make this dogma take on a (more or less) ‘Judaic’ (i.e. theological) coloration. And Christian parathetical dogmatics strives to do precisely this.

But if monotheism predestined (religious) Judaism to undergo a parathetical ‘compromise’ with (scientistic) Paganism, Christology caused (moralising) Christianity to promote this compromise. Indeed, give or take a few ‘miracles’, the Judaic God incarnate (as Logos) underwent the necessity of the relationships in this world and consecrated them to some extent as necessary. Throughout the duration-extension of the World, essences are related in a bi-univocal and necessary manner to their respective bodies in all objects whatsoever, to the same extent that this whole was the world in which the God incarnate lived, or would have to become such a world, or indeed already was.[3] In other words, the Christian World where the Judaic God lived incarnate is a Cosmos of Hellenic science which has received an ‘end’, i.e. a goal and final term, that determines its own beginning. The Christian parathesis of the ‘telos’ which is the (‘free’) ‘Jewish’ God incarnate in a (‘necessary’) ‘Greek’ body naturally accords with the parathetical teleology of pagan philosophy inaugurated by Plato (following several ‘precursors’) and developed by Aristotle (the two of them each having a series of ‘successors’), in which scientistic ‘necessity’ is tempered by a magical, moreover residual, ‘voluntarism’. Except that, for Christian dogmatics, the incarnation itself is an act of absolute ‘freedom’ of the same type as creation ex nihilo, while the Greek telos is a (‘final’) ‘cause’ rather than an end proper (which is not a re-commencement). In any case, it is the pagan parathesis of ‘natural’ theology that, over time, opposed the parathetical Christian Theology of the Incarnation.

In any case, the dogma of the Incarnation (which sup-poses that of the Creation) caused Christianity to institute as a (third) dogma a simple error of interpretation concerning an evangelical text talking about the ‘Holy Spirit’ (in the sense, of course, of the one and unique Judaic ‘God’). Having had to distinguish between the (Biblical) Creator God and the (Pauline, if not evangelical) Incarnate God, Christian dogmatics had no reason to oppose introducing a third divine ‘hypostasis’, encouraged by the parathetical (Neo-Platonic) philosophy of the time. But once the Catholic dogma of the Incarnation had identified the Incarnate God with the Creator God, there was moreover no reason not to identify the ‘third God’ with the other two. And thus there was established the dogma of the Trinity, considered to be just as fundamental as the dogmas of the Incarnation and the Creation. It is the discursive development of the dogma of the Trinity, i.e. of the trinitarian (rather than unitary or dualistic) structure of Being-That-Is-Spoken-Of, that made it possible for (Christian or Kantian) Philosophy to be transformed into Hegelian Wisdom. But, in the meantime, i.e. during the ‘Christian’ period in the usual sense of the term, Philosophy (which remained pagan) excluded from its discourse the discursive development of the dogma of the Trinity, which opposed it as a specifically Christian Theology.

In summary, in and through Christianity, the (pagan) philosophical thetical Para-thesis, in which the Thesis of Philosophy predominated, as well as the (pagan) anti-thetical Para-thesis, which contradicted it and in which the Philosophical Anti-thesis predominated, were each posed as sup-posed by Christian Theology, which op-posed them by pro-posing in their place the dogmas of the Creation, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. And we may say that the Christian period of Philosophy is constituted by the discursive process that progressively transformed the thetical and antithetical pagan Para-theses of Plato and Aristotle into the synthetical Parathesis developed fully by Kant.

But, for a long time, the para-thetical philosophies developed by Christians (not to speak of Jews and Muslims[4]) remained thetical or antithetical, i.e. ‘pagan’ in the philosophical sense of the term and in fact more or less Platonic or Aristotelian. Beginning from the supposition of the pagan philosophical para-theses as fixed discursive facts, Christian (or Jewish or Muslim) theological dogmas were formulated to take their place, which would oppose them to the least possible extent (ecclesiastical censorship ensuring that they were not purely and simply suppressed by placing themselves in complete agreement with philosophical Paganism). When the maximum in this order of ideas was more or less attained, there followed a revision of the mutually contradictory pagan philosophical Para-theses (each of them also contra-dicting itself), which aimed to reduce to a minimum the opposition between the (pagan) philosophy that had been supposed and the (Christian) theology that it was felt necessary to propose in their place. And it was at the point that the discursive possibilities of this revision of properly philosophical and purely pagan discourses (alongside the revision of properly theological and purely Christian discourses) were exhausted that a ‘synthesis’ of pagan Philosophy and Christian Theology became possible, which soon constituted the Christian Philosophy developed fully (as an in-definite discourse, to be sure) by the great theologian of Christianity, Kant, as the great philosopher of the synthetical Para-thesis of Philosophy ‘in general’.

Thus, in opposing as a whole the Philosophy of the pagan era to that which was developed over the course of the Christian (and Judeo-Islamic) era, it is necessary to distinguish within the latter what is called the medieval period, during which Philosophy proper (i.e. the Discourse speaking of the Concept) remained pagan in the sense that it did not overcome the stage of the thetical and anti-thetical philosophical para-theses, from what has been called the modern period, in the course of which the synthetical Para-thesis of Philosophy, which can with reason be called ‘Christian’, was progressively elaborated.

Whence the subdivision of the present Section A into three Parts, which I propose to entitle in the following fashion:

  1. Antiquity and the Accomplishment of Pagan Philosophy
  2. The Middle Ages and the Setting in Opposition of Pagan Philosophy and Judeo-Christian Theology
  3. Modernity and the Early Signs [Prodromes] of Christian Philosophy

[1] Doubtless Adam did not name God himself. The tie between sense and morpheme is thus necessary in the name(s) of God (this name being consequently a sign and not a notion proper). Moreover, Adam understood the language of God before he named things. It can thus be said that, for Man, Sense is necessarily bound to Morpheme in (‘sacred’, i.e. in fact Hebrew) Discourse. But if God’s act of creating the World is arbitrary, the creation of language (by him) is just as arbitrary. The ‘Logos’ that is co-eternal to God seems to be a parathetical idea (in fact Stoic-Philonic) that pure (implicitly antithetical) Judaism did not recognise. For Judaism, God created what he wanted and called it what he wanted (regardless of whether he did so before or after the creation).

[2] Science as such is in fact the Anti-thesis of the Thesis which is Theology ‘in general’. But in and for Christian Theology, which is a para-thetical or moral Theology, it is Science which is the ‘thesis’ that is (partially) denied by the religious ‘contrary thesis’. Thetical (moral) Christian paratheses are therefore primarily scientific, while antithetical paratheses are primarily religious.

[3] From the moment at which God willed the creation of Man in his own image, he was necessarily obliged to incarnate in a human body (contrary to what certain theologians at the end of the Middle Ages, perhaps following Origen, affirmed, more or less seriously). In other words, in the ‘human nature’ of Christ, a human essence is bound in a bi-univocal and necessary manner to a human body. This makes it necessary to admit that this link is the same in any human whatsoever, being the same always and everywhere, i.e. the same after death and, ultimately, before birth. But the arbitrary character of the Incarnation, i.e. the real presence of the Spirit in the World, caused a ‘sovereign’ or ‘free’ element to be introduced into purely human Man in relation to the necessary relationship between the essence of the ‘human spirit’ and the body of the ‘human animal’. Thus, at the same time as admitting ‘secular’ Greek or scientistic anthropology, Christian Theology affirms ‘alongside’ it a ‘magical’ anthropo-theism that contradicts this anthropology.

[4] In the absence of the dogma of the Incarnation and thus of the Trinity, Jewish and Muslim theologians could only oppose (parathetical) pagan philosophy by proposing in its place the single dogma of the Creation. Since this dogma affirms the arbitrary character of all relationships that are spoken of and so excludes Philosophy as such, it renders it impossible to talk about the Concept. This is why there has never been Judaic or Islamic philosophy anywhere, even a parathetical one, only a (mono-theist) theology. Only Christianity was able to formulate (through Kant) a philosophical (synthetical) Parathesis by the introduction of an equivalent to the dogma of the Incarnation into philosophical discourse. But it was only when the dogma of the Trinity was also introduced (by Hegel) into philosophical discourse, i.e. at the moment when the whole of (Christian) theological discourse was transformed into a single and same philosophical discourse, that it was itself trans-formed (by this very fact) into the Hegelian System of Knowledge.


Sino-No-Futurism (a comment)

Elegy to the reopening of Wuhan.

Image: HighGreat, Lighting the Dawn of Victory (drone celebration of the reopening of Wuhan)

By now the Chinese, by now the barbaric Aras too,
would have passed beneath our yoke …
Rome, if you have such love
of evil, wait until you have forced all the globe
to submit to Latin laws—then turn your hand
against yourself!

—Lucan, Pharsalia I.17–23

To describe the order of the world emerging from the pandemic, Dino Ge Zhang has offered the phrase Sino-no-futurism. My own decomposition of this intriguing term runs as follows.

0 (Futurism): Mass politics is demobilised in quarantine, but thought is not. The idea that catastrophe overwhelms all philosophy, that all thought must fall silent in the face of unfolding disaster, is as attractive as it is wrong. Catastrophe functions as the best and ultimate proof of thought: it is “precisely that which impels us to further assert ourselves within the world” (Moynihan). Beneath its burning shadow decrepit forms evaporate into mist. When it brings a system of thought to failure it is not because the world stopped making sense—it is because the intellectual universe never made sense to begin with.

In different states this impulse is now manifest politically in a new futurism, a futurism of necessity that has already realised tremendous political and economic innovations: the introduction of universal basic income, fantastical new financial devices, coordination of entire sectors of the economy by the state. With striking contempt for the past, governments have struck through the certitudes of neoliberalism and instituted a new dominion of biopolitical emergency before which everything else has bowed its head. Systemically this is a defensive action, not the beginning of a postcapitalist order: yet it represents a qualitative shift in the functioning of capitalism unlike anything seen since the first entry of China into the world-market half a century ago, and perhaps since the Great Depression.

1 (Sino): The West is at last confronted by the nightmare of seeing the image of its future reflected in a mirror it has made alien. COVID-19 has struck a tremendous vengeance for the techno-orientalist fabrication of China as a distant authoritarian society in the future with vast resources at its disposal. Sinofuturity has been pushed to the point of parody as Chinese people witness events they have already lived through unfolding with perfect predictability in the West. Perhaps this is not surprising: nightmares have an unfortunate inclination to become real.

All the more nightmarish for Westerners, China’s empire of data-flows has come to serve an eminently positive function—so de Seta. Politically, this does not so much discredit the “illiberalism” of China’s hydraulic information control as articulate what, in fact, contemporary illiberalism means. Illiberalism is, simply, what the suppression of a virus demands—on this, the sad anxiety over Chinese political methods is entirely justified.

A cyclone of feverish emotion is gathering around this revenant-image even as mass politics itself lapses into impossibility. Polling suggests an absolute majority of Americans want reparations from China; higher numbers still want it to be punished one way or the other. In the academic world it is easy enough to understand the fury of those who had made it their business to market the West to Asians and have suddenly found themselves divested of authority. Yet denial and sickened worry have emerged even among the very people who once embraced the prospect of a world no longer wholly dominated by their culture, or who looked to China itself as a potential model.

Not like this!—the realisation that the game of political speculation has ended and reality has come to take its debt: more than anything else, this reaction demonstrates that a true cultural rupture is taking place.

From China itself an opposite reaction has sprung. Newly justified nationalist disdain for the West’s failures and anger over its accusations have joined for the moment, in many quarters, with fresh confidence in the Party’s exclusive ability to tame the turbulence. The clash between these American and Chinese impulses has increasingly distorted the pandemic into total information war—but the stake is not yet the world; it is the definition of China itself, control of the image at the centre of the maelstrom, and, with it, the pretence to incarnate the destiny of the world.

2 (No): In contrast to its Communist predeceased, however, it is not the declared business of the Chinese government to bring about a future utopia. There is quite enough future already—just as there is quite enough history.

By a strange event one of the more prominent pictures that emerged from China’s coronavirus crisis was an image of a Chinese student in hospital reading Fukuyama. Taken at face value, very little in recent events has in fact discredited Fukuyama’s most infamous hypothesis. The irrepressible transformation of all political problems into technical questions has continued apace, and the pandemic itself has only accelerated this process, throwing down before the world a single, awful technical question to overwhelm every political debate.

What has emerged is not, of course, the pleasant liberal world order Fukuyama himself envisaged in the ethereal sunset of the 1990s. The end we are facing is something else—the wholly technicised world, in which mass politics has retreated into irrelevance behind the closed doors of quarantine and hyperregulated biological control. As governments retreat into arcane committees, freed of direct political accountability, information war is waged through Internet phantoms and flickering conspiracies. This is, in some sense, precisely a reflection of the cybernetic world imagined in the 1990s, though a reflection seen through haze and moonlight. We’ve heard enough of “Dark Deleuze”, “Dark Derrida”, and the like: the question at the heart of the present conjuncture may instead be more intractable: how can we defeat Dark Fukuyama? Should we?

My original title for this post was “A World Where Little Changes”. This will seem bold, even bizarre, in our present context of unimaginable economic turbulence and apparent viral-political upheaval—not least, indeed, in the context of the new political futurism I mentioned above. But the measures taken in response to this crisis are likely to repress further change for a long time to come. The advent of UBI, the coordination of the economy, the massive expansion of central bank involvement—all this amounts to a moment of enormous defensive consolidation, and in the midst of a pandemic there is little that people can do to stop it. They can merely plan around it.

As inefficient as planning-by-central-bank is likely to be—and already has been in Japan—the total consolidation of particular capitals will do much to suppress the effects of the classical cycle of capitalist crisis on the commanding heights of high finance.

If this is decay, we are not in any case reliving something like the fall of the Roman Empire. The world is one—so Jiang Shigong has observed—and there is no human power waiting outside, no great untamed expanse from which peoples can wander in. We face the wages of decay as one species, and within this limitless terrestrial horizon a transition of leadership from America to China, for all their profound political and intellectual differences, would represent only a redistribution of power from one potential pole of empire to another, the signing over of the cemetery in which History is buried. (Chinese leaders seem quite aware of this.)

I don’t believe this conjuncture will last forever. The Typhonic pressures of climate change, for one, continue to gather strength, and our seamless imperial circle is unlikely to survive them. This complacent world of endless paper-driven growth, brought into such shameless relief by the stock markets’ sterling performance amidst endless data of economic collapse, is resilient enough on its own terms, and will almost certainly survive this pandemic quite intact on new and yet more powerful synthetic supports. But reality, in the end, insists on itself.

Such a world cannot physically continue forever. If the new futurism of the coronavirus shows anything truly positive, it is that its intractably crumbling heart may well serve as an eventual exterior to the system itself, and here, only here, welling from empire’s intensive local contradictions, there could be interstices from which new forms will proceed, or old forms brought to fulfilment at last.

The diagnosis should then be—no futurefor now.

Viral Empire

The throne of universal empire may be raised above the ruins of universal catastrophe.

The world is out of joint. Each day brings news of a different sector of the economy buckling under unprecedented pressure; each evening, governments and central banks scramble to plug the holes. With every new financial artifice the economy becomes ever more synthetic. The beast lumbers onwards on bionic limbs.

A fund report recently forwarded to me observes that, while Western markets gyrate upwards and downwards on scales unknown since the Great Depression, investors have taken flight to Chinese equities markets because of their “more policy-driven” character. All of a sudden, capitalists are quite happy to favour planning. And as dollar liquidity evaporates, the renminbi has increasingly borne the currency markets’ load.

The present crisis has had the formal aspect of a world war. Markets have panicked, borders have slammed shut, governments have scrambled to mobilise resources, liberal freedoms have been swept away by the stroke of a pen, and huge swathes of the labour force have been temporarily withdrawn. In some respects, true, the quarantined world is an “anti-wartime economy“: the foremost planning task is to coordinate the shutdown of disparate economic sectors rather than to ensure total mobilisation; the stock of capital is not being destroyed. But in its cultural, political, and administrative implications, the analogy of war is accurate enough.

It is far too early to claim with confidence that this “war” is bringing about the end of American hegemony, yet a new systemic order is clearly in emergence. The virus, as viruses often do, has only accelerated this process. If there is any past model it bears resemblance to, it is the crisis-dampening managerial capitalism predicted in the early 20th century by such economists as Rudolf Hilferding and Joseph Schumpeter. Their prophecy once seemed discredited: Schumpeter’s prediction that the heightening organisation of capitalism meant that crises were increasingly a thing of the past was made only months before the catastrophe of 1929; Hilferding’s warnings of the advent of a general cartel of magnates that would coordinate the entire productive process have looked quaint to modern seekers of market disruption. But things are changing at a drastic pace.

“The tendencies towards the establishment of a general cartel and towards the formation of a central bank are converging,” Hilferding wrote in 1910, “and from their combination emerges the enormous concentrated power of finance capital, in which all the partial forms of capital are brought together into a totality.” We have certainly lived through an era of financialisation, and the crisis of 2008 already threw economies around the world onto the intermittent life support of quantitative easing. Now—as the present crisis involves central banks ever more deeply and directly in sustaining the real economy, and large corporations such as Amazon assume the functions of economic planners in the face of logistical breakdown—Hilferding’s claim about the reorganisation of capitalism around a general cartel deserves a second look.

Is this simply a temporary compensation for an unprecedented crisis, as Keynesians would suggest? The pandemic itself will certainly pass—perhaps in much shorter order than the more pessimistic predictions have made out. (Perhaps.) But the extraordinary fiscal and financial methods that have been brought to bear are unlikely to disappear. The world before 2008 never quite returned, and there is little reason to expect that the world before 2020 will be different. There will, in many countries, be a prolonged period of resolving the ruination of economies so fragile they have barely withstood a disruption several weeks long. (We should be thankful that there have as yet been no great power wars in the era of globalised just-in-time production.) Beyond that, the task for the immediate future appears less as the return to intensive productive expansion than as the administration of stagnation.

This new dispensation will place immense pressure on what remains of the post–Cold War world order led by the West, in every component—the unbearable pressure of a double bind. Disintegrative forces threaten the cultural presumption of Western supremacy; the political power of the United States to compel various kinds of action around the world; the economic world-empire of the Federal Reserve; even—whisper it—unquestioned American military predominance, depending on the actions of other world powers in the days to come.

At the same time, the pandemic has posed administrative problems resolvable in principle only at the order of the entire human species. Certain socialists have argued that the virus is a consequence of capitalism; that the future order must prevent such outbreaks through harmony with nature. I see things otherwise: any subsequent order that successfully coordinates the world will deal with epidemiological and other natural crises the likes of which have never been seen before. Carl Schmitt once observed that the notion of a world-state is absurd as long as humanity is not at war with an alien force. Such an alien force has arrived. Its successors will follow. The throne of universal empire may be raised above the ruins of universal catastrophe. Whose empire? Doing what? Stagnate? Perhaps. The gates of play-history seem almost closed.

A postscript on China. The continuing economic shock to China should not be underestimated, yet at this stage, whatever its early role in the crisis, China seems better prepared to deal with its global effects than most. This does not appear to me simply as a matter of superior planning. Xi Jinping’s government presents itself as an administration that exists beyond the end of history. Rather than the grand organic development that incompetent observers of contemporary China have perceived to flow from the mythical perpetuity of Confucianism, under Xi the past has been packaged as material to be rearranged. The “Confucian tradition”, like any other, becomes a building block in a great political edifice.

As the past itself appears to retreat into impossibility, it may be this temporal stance, more than any other, that holds the key to the construction of the world order that administers the new era of cartelisation. Whether the productive force and the aesthetic impulse are available to resolve this protracted crisis of human acceleration—is a question for another time. Certainly, even stagnation has its providential role.

Ludwig Derleth, selected Proclamations

Ludwig Derleth was a strange figure, a man who wore only black, carried a mask of Napoleon wherever he went, ate exclusively by himself, and refused to speak to more than one person at a time. He hovered on the fringes of successive esoteric intellectual societies in early-twentieth-century Germany, most prominently the Munich Cosmic Circle and the circle around Stefan George, before leaving the country and, after exploring a religious vocation in Rome, ultimately dying in obscurity in Switzerland.

If he is little known today, however, like many of the members of these esoteric circles his influence appears disproportionate to his memory. In his younger days—as a letter from his own pen reveals—Hans Urs von Balthasar kept a mask of Derleth on the wall of his study, and the Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara cites Derleth as an influence on his own thinking. Though Balthasar later became disenchanted with Derleth’s “integralism”, he continued begrudgingly to respect the man as the immoderate formulator of a “Genghis Khan Catholicism”.

Derleth produced only two substantial works: the “Proklamationen” (“Proclamations”), a brief series of aphoristic pronouncements urging a draconic and warlike renewal of Catholicism executed in two somewhat different editions in 1904 and 1919, and the Frankish Koran, an enormous epic stretching to thousands of pages in its final form. In this post I present some very rough translations from the 1919 edition of the former, and a pdf of the complete German text, which is not otherwise available online.

To the modern reader, the “Proklamationen” appear as a disconcerting inverted image of the liberal Catholicism that has grown to dominate much of the mainstream of Catholic practice. Derleth’s Catholicism is a Christianity composed of all those things—and only those things—that this tendency excludes. Where liberal Catholics focus only on the Gospel’s consoling words to the detriment of whatever is uncomfortable, Derleth focuses monomaniacally on the images of contradiction, division, and pitiless regimentation, making of the Church a structure of domination that demands absolute obedience to “Christus Imperator Maximus”—a strange figure, “no god of war, but war itself”, that blurs disconcertingly into the images of human world-conquerors like Napoleon and Alexander. Where liberal Catholics prize comprehensibility, Derleth writes in a language that fuses the Bible with Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, slipping at points into Latin, hyperbolically archaic, grandiose, and baroque—at times barely comprehensible—in an attempt to revive a “dark-religious” feeling of mystery.

Yet if Derleth demands total submission to Christ’s “supreme power”, it would still be a mistake to read the “Proklamationen”, as Richard Faber has done, as proto-Nazi. The objective of the boundless despotism of Christ appears as the abolition of all the worldly despotisms that can mirror it only poorly. At the same time that revolutionary politics is depicted as the surging “dark powers of Typhon”, Christ himself is made into an archetype of insurrection, the Marseillaise mingling discordantly with the Te Deum. Derleth’s cry against the politics of the masses remains fundamentally, and paradoxically, modernist—a contradiction that touches absurdity in his demand for a “Levée en masse pour l’élite”.

For the Jesuit Fr. Przywara, Derleth stood as the “black-Nietzschean” end-point of a tradition of annihilationist obedience flowing from St. Ignatius of Loyola. This is a tendency that intersects with political currents of dissidence on left and right. A good friend has highlighted the turn of the revolutionary communist Guy Lardreau towards radical Catholicism. The revolutionary function of discipline and obedience is one of the most obvious missing pieces of liberal politics, which organises itself through an atomic and aimless freedom. It finds its archetype—as leftist thinkers from Sorel to Gramsci have equally suggested—in the political form of the Church. Derleth appears as perhaps the purest and most direct distillation of this conceptual identity.

Derleth’s text is infused, however, with a sentiment of history drawing to its end—not in the apocalyptic sense of Luther, but in wearied exhaustion. The explosive language of the “Proklamationen” speaks, in this light, of an interior desperation: a search for anybody who can at last awaken in themselves the “final historical movement”. Derleth himself, of course, was frustrated in his search for an imaginary Church more despotic and more Roman than any before. Yet his continuous signals of contradiction, his relentless insistence on the most discomfiting and radical parts of the Christ narrative, are evocative—and may lead us to re-evaluate the precise function of religion and Catholicism as an impulse to new politics.

Vincent Garton

Proklamationen (1919) (pdf)

Continue reading “Ludwig Derleth, selected Proclamations”

Georges Sorel, “China”


The following article, which I believe is Sorel’s final published work, is now largely forgotten. It does not appear in many of the standard bibliographies of Sorel, and after an extensive search some years ago I could find it only on a microfilm preserved in the archives of the French National Library. Though short, it is undoubtedly one of his strangest pieces, praising the onset of a Bolshevik world order that will overthrow all existing society and closing with an exhortation for a “Mongol invasion” for Europe.

Written as a review of Émile Hovelaque’s Les Peuples d’Extrême-Orient (1920), Sorel’s treatment of Hovelaque—a humanist Sinophile bureaucrat in the French education ministry—is heavily ironic. Where Hovelaque praises China’s “complete” democracy, its advanced culture and its rationalist atheism, Sorel looks forward impatiently to a Bolshevik China that will overthrow all the “conventional falsehoods” of society. Where Hovelaque hopes that with the twilight of colonialism a new era of mutual understanding between East and West has arrived, Sorel hopes that the boiling hatred of East Asia will force Europe to “bow its head” through “violence”.

This is undoubtedly an orientalist piece, yet it stands ominously outside the conventions of early 20th century orientalism. Sorel rejects a racial explanation for the condition of Chinese society, mocking the racial theory that the Mongol invaders were merely Chinese nomads “shaking up” their sedentary brothers. In his typical style, he seamlessly transitions from materialist analysis—situating China’s path as a particular economic trajectory bending towards social revolution—to Nietzschean moralism, seeing in the Asian future a “recourse” that will evaporate the West’s protracted decline into a true social catastrophe.

A century on, for all the bombast of this article, Sorel’s prediction that Asian dominance will arrive in the form of a China that has copied the institutions of Soviet power appears strangely prophetic. Whether China, having now gone through the “convulsions” predicted so many decades ago by Hovelaque, will succeed in triggering the kind of shock that would redeem universal stagnation, the exteriority that Sorel yearned for in his final years, remains to be seen.

Vincent Garton


The excellent library of scientific philosophy directed by Gustave Le Bon has just acquired a volume on China whose reading will be extremely beneficial to philosophers who reflect upon our social future. The author, Émile Hovelaque, is inspector general of public instruction for the English language. He has visited the Far East and has related from there a very lively sympathy for these countries.

Much astonished by the enormous differences that exist between our civilisation and that of China, he has recognised that in order to arrive at a decent understanding of the history of peoples so different from our own from an intellectual point of view, it is necessary to have a good sense of their art. Unfortunately, until recent years Europe has been quite foreign to the Chinese aesthetic, which can only be studied fruitfully in China, in Japan, and in the United States: the European critics considered authoritative have only a mediocre estimation of the ancient masters admired by oriental amateurs; it is fancied that these artists have ignored the elementary principles taught in our schools; in reality, they have dismissed, out of bias, processes that seem to them to introduce prosaicism in their compositions; of really great art, one finds only certain memories in works—for a long time the only known in Europe—that derive from ages in which Daoism and Buddhism had fallen into vulgarity.

Orientals have reflected upon European civilisation much more than is generally supposed. Their modern thinkers accuse it of creating “through its national game [jeu national] injustice, opulence, and poverty to an equally excessive degree, the hatred of classes, mutual contempt and incomprehensions between the castes of the rich and the poor, more closed to one another than those of India, a learned barbarism, a moral anarchy worse than the savagery of the uncivilised” (p. 295). They note that their judgements find a thunderous confirmation in Western literature, of which all the superior works manifest a more and more lively irritation against the existing regime of our society.

“Those of our great writers read enthusiastically by the Orient are prophets as vehement as the soothsayers of Israel, and their inspiration is the same: the inexorable hatred of what is, the infinite aspiration for destruction and a new order.” (p. 278).

Prominent men of the Far East do not allow themselves to be dazzled by the marvels of our industry; they are persuaded that we have applied ourselves to the pursuit of means rather than that of the ends of life. “The ends of life, the meaning of life—in effect, for the Oriental everything is there. One thing alone is important: the interior life; only one culture counts: that of sentiments… Justice and welfare are worth more than the knowledge and domination of natural forces.” We desire knowledge and domination, while the Oriental desires wisdom and interior peace (p. 11–12).

The example of Japan has shown that the Orient “can superimpose upon its profound, unchanged life all the material gains of the West, all our technical processes, all our science, without abandoning anything of its native originality… It has taken from us neither our religions, nor our ideal, nor our customs; and our morality, our sensibility appear in all to it inferior to its own”. (pp. 271–272). Famous Japanese (like marquis Okuma [Shigenobu] and marshal Oyama [Iwao]) say that the last war [World War I] “is only one of the symptoms of our disarray, of the profound disorder of our life, it is only one of the inevitable products of our regimes—not the last. That such a catastrophe could have happened is for them the condemnation of the social order that produced it. For them Europe is going directly into the abyss… Better again than us, they sense to what degree the conquests of humanity, art, gentleness, morality, are feeble and threatened everyday… The Oriental attends this bankruptcy of our much vaunted civilisation and hopes for nothing more than to substitute for our conception of life, so condemned, his own conceptions of life.” (p. 279–280).

Hovelaque is not as pessimistic as these oriental thinkers because he believes that the West may rescue itself by borrowing from the Far East certain precious moral enrichments. “The era of contempt and brutal invasions for the purpose of rapine and oppression is drawing slowly to its end; that of spiritual exchanges and the penetration of reason, of intelligence, of morality opens at last.” (p. 13). In favour of this conception of a new sort of internationalism we can invoke the fact that China has, for some time, brought about social conditions that Europe is striving to produce but has not yet fully achieved; it has nothing of religion engaged in metaphysics, accompanied by mysticism, committed to a place for a sacerdotal hierarchy: for China everything comes back to human reason; nowhere is democracy, in the best sense of the word, so complete. (p. 265). “The least coolie,” Hovelaque assures us, “can not just read and write, but paint and compose poems; he enjoys a refined work of art, cares about beautiful language and good manners, and is profoundly and completely penetrated by the essence of his civilisation, which is the prerogative not of an elite, but of all.” (p. 60).

Everyone has been astonished by the extraordinary permanence of the principle of Chinese civilisation. Invasions, civil wars, the introduction of Buddhism, despotism, imperious and reforming, have changed nothing in society for several millennia. This phenomenon is not sufficiently explained by saying that the race has remained unchanged—the Mongol invaders, it is claimed, were merely nomadic Chinese coming periodically to shake up their enfeebled brethren (p. 115). It is more probable that family status has been maintained because the economic conditions of the country have not changed; but Hovelaque himself recognises that the traditional life of China “will doubtless ultimately disintegrate, like our own has unravelled over the last century” (p. 13); he thinks that the whole of Chinese civilisation will collapse once the cult of the ancestors has lost its authority (p. 129); the question is then raised as to how the moral lessons borrowed from China could be applied to us despite the habits created by capitalism. In any case, Hovelaque foresees that China will undergo all the revolutionary convulsions our own countries have known (p. 269). This whole part of his book dealing with the future of civilisations is full of uncertainties.

I mention here, however, an opinion that seems to me to merit retention. Hovelaque believes that Bolshevism wishes to introduce in Mongolised Russia a regime with great analogies to that of China. “It will be curious to see what repercussion [Bolshevist ideas] will have in China when they penetrate there. In the Kyrgyz, Chinese mercenaries in the pay of the Bolsheviks, they already touch the country’s borderlands. They will find ground there that has been prepared.” He offers the theory that “the future belongs to peoples that find in Bolshevism a momentary modus vivendi.” (pp. 281-282). It is thus through the intermediary of institutions copied from Sovietism that the West will probably have its greatest chance of being influenced by the civilisation of the Far East. A high dignitary of our Ministry of Public Instruction could not go further into this thesis; we are free to propose here a few of the consequences that can reasonably be deduced.

Hovelaque, who seems to grant that the reform of the West will be carried out by intellectual forces alone, says that to make progress in this regard it will be necessary to cause those prejudices to disappear “that have their root in the witless vanity of the White as much as his unfathomable ignorance” (p. 14). This does not seem easy, since, in the course of his voyage, Hovelaque virtually always found the French living in China incapable of understanding realities and duped by prattle (p. 48). But if the reform of the West is to be the result of a Bolshevist conquest, violence becomes its essential factor and European stupidity will have to bow its head.

The Chinese and the Japanese hate and scorn the European, in whom they have learned to recognise through numerous experiences “immorality and profound hypocrisy. It is in this hatred and this scorn that the real Asian danger resides” (p. 273). Hovelaque recounts to us that several times he had to blush for his compatriots, whom the Chinese regarded as “barbarians devoid of reason as much as civilisation” (pp. 61–62).

It seems the Bolsheviks will not fall short of the Orientals in hatred and scorn for the West. The companions of Lenin show it well in the polemics they sustain among the old spiritual leaders of social democracy, which have caused [Jean] Jaurès to tremble. We may well expect that a Bolshevist conquest will eliminate all our conventional lies—socialist lies as much as bourgeois lies.

We pretend to render the Bolsheviks detestable by representing them as new Mongols, but we must not forget that the Mongol princes raised marvellous monuments in all the countries they dominated (p. 111). We would very much need a Mongol conquest to effect the rebirth of great art, today enslaved to the barbarian tastes of the plutocracy.

These few remarks suffice to show how fruitful Hovelaque’s hypothesis is for the future influence of Bolshevism.

Georges SOREL.

Original: G. Sorel, La Chine”La Revue communiste, 1: 5 (July 1920), 429–434.

The limit of modernity at the horizon of myth

The preeminent condition of the present time is aesthetic desperation: the search for the smallest piece of beautiful scrap, the most vanishing hint of a serious ideology, that has not yet been brutally subsumed, commoditised, disenchanted, and ground to dust. If I have been accused of fleeing into the ‘ruins’ of Christianity, such an action ought to be entirely unremarkable: in fact, for the Western mind at least, the entire world is more and more a ruin, and we inhabit it almost as ghosts.1 Mark Fisher cut to the heart of the matter: ‘Capitalism,’ one of his most famous and devastating passages observes, ‘is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.’2 When everything solid dissolves into air, all that is left on the ground is ash.

This condition is not just a consequence of material forces, however, but the product of a specific and ongoing crisis in the perception of time. The ruination of the future, as Reinhart Koselleck first observed,3 began with its unwinding in the Reformation, where the onrush of the Apocalypse impinged increasingly upon the indefinite time of the liturgical calendar; it intensified with the unhinging of history from the future in the Enlightenment; and—we may add to Koselleck—it reached a new turn with the displacement of acceleration from the realm of political to technical phenomena in the nineteenth century. In short, where once the future stretched forwards indefinitely in repetition of the present and the immediate past, it became, first, radically distinguished from the past, then emptied of the fixed, apocalyptic content of early Protestant millenarianism, and finally displaced entirely from human control.

For Koselleck, the temporal predicament of the Enlightenment had inaugurated a modern era of ‘critique and crisis’—critique, because the abyss of the future rendered impermanent all human institutions; crisis, because it invited the Enlightenment intellectual, the philosophe, to hide the void with an ideal future of his own design, and the dissonance between these utopias and prevailing social realities introduced an unbearable gaping disjuncture in the ordering of politics that no institutional setting ever since designed has succeeded in closing. In this regard there was little to differentiate revolutionary from counterrevolutionary—politics had become a war for the future over the ashes of the past. A small-time conservative pamphleteer—one Edmund Burke—described his own destiny with reference to the horrific fate of the Hussite general Jan Žižka, whose skin was flayed and stretched over the drums that would beat the sound of war: Burke’s person was to be ground into the total war against revolution.4 Through this all there has run the feeling of a growing acceleration of events; and where in the early nineteenth century a figure such as Metternich could still see the task of politics as the reordering of time through managerial restraint of social acceleration, in 2018 politics has either given itself over to the fact of this acceleration—or adopted a standpoint far more classically Protestant in its gleeful apocalypticism.5

Grasping this history will shed light on what may seem a strange remark I made in Catholicism and the gravity of horror, viz.:

Under the compressive impulse of recent modernity, however, the distinctively open future of the Enlightenment seems to be coming to a close. What is characteristic of this “cyberpunk” age is the collapse of the boundaries not just between the future and the present—a “future so close it connects”—but also the past: for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed.

The question is this: How does one conceive the future? For enlightened man, the future was to be constructed, a supposition embodied in an endless proliferation of utopian schemes. A quite different answer, however, was provided at the start of the twentieth century by Georges Sorel.6 The future, Sorel saw, is the product of myth, of cosmic suppositions that ground and envelop what is merely human. To ‘construct the future’ is therefore to elaborate a myth. The significance of myth is not, in this sense, in its truth or falsehood, but in its social effects: to call the idea of the end of capitalism, as Sorel did, a myth was not to pass judgement on its propositional validity, but rather to point out what sort of effect it had.

This was not in itself a new idea, and it is all too easy to jump from this idea to the cynical notion of natural religion common to Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, who all see religion as an instrument to be gauged, manipulated, and engineered to produce the most salutary possible effects on society. Yet—and here was Sorel’s critique of the Maurrasian school of integralism, the decisive realisation that distinguished him from Nietzsche and all his predecessors—myth cannot be merely engineered. The fantasy of the speculative philosophe later identified by Koselleck was always just a fantasy, in its full pathological sense. Cynicism itself abolishes the utility of myth; the success of myth depends on the faithfulness of the mystagogue; and fully enlightened man, in fact, even when he imagines he has mastered his mythic ground, sprawls beneath the symbols of a greater myth, which he can barely perceive: the ‘illusion of progress’.

What is more, the illusion of progress is a myth that runs up far too easily against the limits of material production. Already a hundred years ago, Sorel could perceive that this illusion was out of joint with the reality of capitalist development. The determinants of industrial production tend not towards a linear progress up and away from the past—that preeminent, always-disappointed fantasy of liberalism—but to periods of decline and recovery, and finally to a strange recapitulation of the past, a recapturing of previous eras. Grounding himself in an eclectic mix of natural-scientific research, Marxian economics, and syndicalist theory, Sorel foresaw not the indefinite and universal intensification of industrial concentration, but a corresponding tendency of decentralisation, a strange return of the workshop and of the artisan in the context of capitalist technical progress. Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.

With this the Enlightenment predicament comes to an end, and Sorel alights on the horizon of modern social thought, beyond which to think of modernity is itself impossible. The reintegration of the past into the future through the tendency of industrial development towards the circuitous recovery of history—what Sorel identified with Vico’s historical ricorso, the moment of renewal after decline—and the simultaneous reintegration of the future into the present through myth, which becomes identical with authentic natural religion, combine to dissociate the characteristic underlying basis of modernity. The horizon of modernity is the horizon of myth, and its line is broken by the temporally unanticipated dawn of something that—to the horror of liberal minds—looks very much premodern.

All this is to show, at the first and basic level, the importance of myth as the limit of modern social thought—but, more than that, it is also to suggest the importance of Christianity, which demands not just submission to a given prior, as Sorel conceives myth, but to the truth, and which in its fullest form counterposes itself more than any other religion in history to the world as a whole. For the moment, that world remains stuck in what looks like a last phase before ricorso, what Sorel termed decadence, and which Fisher identified with the condition of capitalist realism. It is remarkable, from a theological perspective, that this dispensation bears a close similarity to the ‘empty time’ of the final epoch of the Old Testament. In von Balthasar’s analysis, this empty time was a moment of baited breath, in which the Israelites searched desperately for some measure of recovery of the glory of the Lord with which they had had such immediate contact in the distant past: spreading their search across every different field, through introspective mysticism, through apocalypticism, through the desperate reiteration of blood-sacrifice, they sought to recover an aesthetic experience which seemed, terribly, to have disappeared.

Yet this moment was not, as they thought, entirely barren. Indeed, the unbearable night of empty expectation may in fact be pregnant with the light of a future only dimly imaginable: ‘“For that night” (illa enim nox, Wis 18.6) in which at about midnight the work of redemption and the work of annihilation took place simultaneously,’ says Balthasar, ‘this night remains impenetrable. It is absolute judgment, and—in the very heart of this—the incomprehensible superabundance of grace (Rom 5.15–21). It is the ever greater measure of humanity’s failure, which increases the blood-guilt beyond comprehension, and—therein—the ever greater measure of the mercy of God …’7 Here, however, we have entered the realm of theology proper, where secular social theory and the logic of natural religion must fall silent.


1 Or, as the Holy Father says, ‘Terra, domus nostra, in immensum sordium depositum magis magisque demutari videtur.’ Francis PP., Laudato sì (2015), §21.
2 M. Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009) p. 4.
3 R. Koselleck, trans. K. Tribe, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004); id., Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988).
4 E. Burke, ‘A Letter from the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, to a Noble Lord, …’, in The Works of Edmund Burke, with a Memoir. In Three Volumes (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1857), Vol. 2, p. 193.
5 See R. Jones, ‘1816 and the resumption of “ordinary history”’, The Journal of Modern European History 14 (2016), pp. 119–44; M. Siebert, ‘Linkola, Montana’, Jacobite (July 19, 2018).
6 I have discussed Sorel elsewhere, but Sorel’s Illusions of Progress and Reflections on Violence form the indispensable bedrock to an appreciation of his thought. Further exploration of these features of Sorel’s thought is forthcoming from myself and from Edmund Berger.
7 H. U. von Balthasar, trans. Brain McNeil C.R.V. and Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Vol. VI: Theology: The Old Covenant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 400.