06 April 2009

Obama: By Interfering in Your Lives I Fulfill Mine

Barack Obama gave a speech in France; (this is the transcript: REMARKS BY PRESIDENT OBAMA AT STRASBOURG TOWN HALL) the ideas in it being more suitable to the docile serfs of Europe than self-reliant Americans - but Obama hopes to change that.

The most revealing part came at the end in the question period. What he said in the body of his speech can then be better seen in light of this. Here is his answer to a question:
But having said all that, I truly believe that there's nothing more noble than public service. Now, that doesn't mean that you have to run for President. (Applause.) You know, you might work for Doctors Without Borders, or you might volunteer for an -- or you might be somebody working for the United Nations, or you might be the mayor of Strasbourg. Right? (Applause.) I mean, they're all -- you might volunteer in your own community.

But the point is that what I found at a very young age was that if you only think about yourself -- how much money can I make, what can I buy, how nice is my house, what kind of fancy car do I have -- that over the long term I think you get bored. (Applause.) I think your life becomes -- I think if you're only thinking about yourself, your life becomes diminished; and that the way to live a full life is to think about, what can I do for others? How can I be a part of this larger project of making a better world?

Now, that could be something as simple as making -- as the joy of taking care of your family and watching your children grow and succeed. But I think especially for the young people here, I hope you also consider other ways that you can serve, because the world has so many challenges right now, there's so many opportunities to make a difference, and it would be a tragedy if all of you who are so talented and energetic, if you let that go to waste; if you just stood back and watched the world pass you by.

…but you'll have a great adventure, and at the end of your life hopefully you'll be able to look back and say, I made a difference.

Let's see if we understand this. If, according to President Obama, you think only about yourself, how to improve your life and pursue your goals, you get “bored.” Not making a difference in others’ lives is “letting the world pass you by” - after deciding that improving and living your own life is “boring” and “unfulfilling.”

Please, Mr. President, speak for yourself. There is no justification to project your emptiness on everyone else.

How Obama descibed himself is exactly like what Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead about "second-handers": "They have no self. They live within others. They live second-hand." The reason is because they "have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation - anchored to nothing ...the source of his actions is sattered in every other living person." Obama concluded that prime concern with his life was boring and diminishing - and that is what must happen if one goes about living one's life as a second-hander lives. "He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has suceeded. He can't say about a single thing: 'This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me.' Then he wonders why he's unhappy. Every form of happiness is private."

Holding that the individual pursuit of happiness is necessarily ultimately “boring” is not based on reason - nor is deriving from that that serving 'the greater good' brings fulfillment to one’s life.

Notice that none of these “noble” public servants, like our Comrade President, ever explain how merely shifting perspective and purposeful effort from oneself to the collective transforms “boredom” and “emptiness” to “a larger purpose.”

If it is true that being concerned with oneself is boring and ultimately empty, then it is true for me, you, him, her - everyone. If the individual life has no meaning and satisfaction to offer how can any collection of lives mean more when they are made of - individual lives that are meaningless? Why do things for others if they themselves are individual nothings like you are? Imagine a group of people who share this view getting together and saying, “we all have been pursuing our lives and goals and found them boring, so to fulfill and enlarge our lives we’ll serve the good of all.” This is utterly bizarre, even surreal - but this is what this view necessarily implies. If one person's life equals zero, or, 0 x 1 is equal to zero, then how does 0 x 1,000,000 (for that many people's lives) equal something larger than zero? Concern only with yourself diminishes your life - but concern with others who have “boring” and “diminished” lives equals: enlarging your life!? How is the sum worth more than all its individually worthless parts? Comrade President’s conclusion is a whopping non-sequitur, so “making a better world” is not “a larger project,” according to his own premises. It is just as "diminished" and “boring” - if not more so! - as is making his own life better.

Even putting that aside for a moment, just how is a “noble” public servant going to achieve his goal of "making a difference" in others’ lives if they are similarly “bored” and “diminished” by being concerned with themselves? What can he do for them that they cannot? There is nothing moral or noble about this. What gives Obama the right to take it upon himself to use others as a means of removing boredom from his life by meddling in their affairs? To think that he finds that to be a “great adventure”!

So where exactly, Comrade President, does your “fulfilling” of your life by “nobly” “making a difference” in mine end, and my liberty to live my (not-boring) life begin?

Public service is most noble? Look around. Is the ACORN voter-fraud group Obama worked with, noble? What about corrupt, career politicians who serve the public as a phony way to really serve themselves? Is the corrupt Rod Blagoevich “most noble” for being a public servant? How about Barney Frank and Chris Dodd who brought us the mortgage fiasco? What is noble about the countless other “public servants” of their ilk?

What this adds up to in the "noble " practice of serving that "larger purpose" is explained by Comrade President in the body of his speech:
We also know that the pollution from cars in Boston or from factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, and that that will disrupt weather patterns everywhere. The terrorists who struck in London, in New York, plotted in distant caves and simple apartments much closer to your home. And the reckless speculation of bankers that has new fueled a global economic downturn that's inflicting pain on workers and families is happening everywhere all across the globe.

The economic crisis has proven the fact of our interdependence in the most visible way yet. Not more than a generation ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that the inability of somebody to pay for a house in Florida could contribute to the failure of the banking system in Iceland. Today what's difficult to imagine is that we did not act sooner to shape our future.

Now, there's plenty of blame to go around for what has happened, and the United States certainly shares its -- shares blame for what has happened. But every nation bears responsibility for what lies ahead, especially now, for whether it's the recession or climate change, or terrorism, or drug trafficking, poverty, or the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we have learned that without a doubt there's no quarter of the globe that can wall itself off from the threats of the 21st century.

The one way forward -- the only way forward -- is through a common and persistent effort to combat fear and want wherever they exist. That is the challenge of our time -- and we can not fail to meet it, together.


This is our generation. This is our time. And I am confident that we can meet any challenge as long as we are together.


...our fates are tied together -- not just the fate of Europe and America, but the fate of the entire world.

The rest of the speech, like the above excerpts, casts every problem and proposed solution through the perspective of collectivism. We are all interdependent, we are all responsible to and for each other, even if separated by an ocean, and collective action is the only way forward. We need more "noble" government officials interfering in and controling as much of our lives a they can. He says nothing about individual freedom and flourishing - other than primary concern with it bores and diminishes oneself.

Then Comrade President gives us insight in to his larger philosophical beliefs:
We know that transformational change is possible. We know this because of three reasons: First, because, for all our differences, there are certain values that bind us together and reveal our common humanity: the universal longing to live a life free from fear, and free from want; a life marked by dignity and respect and simple justice.

Bound together in our humanity and common values, in a utopia of effortless existence: a heaven on earth with the negative safety of not fearing and not wanting and having unearned dignity and respect. Like a second-hander, he means "dignity and respect" as coming from others, not oneself. Then one has "dignity and respect." How is that vision of society supposed to inspire anyone? What rational person would want that pathetic fantasy world? And where in Comrade President's utopia does independence of purpose and values along with the struggle to achieve and earn them fit in? How can it in a world of men who lack desire to grow one's own mind and self because they have automatic dignity and lack of want? Of course, he fails to answer how dignity and respect are possible for induividual lives that are necessarily "boring" and "diminished."

Next, Comrade President reveals where his philosophical roots lie:
Our two republics were founded in service of these ideals. In America, it is written into our founding documents as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In France: "Liberté" -- (applause) -- absolutely -- "egalité, fraternité."

America was founded on the principles of individualism, that a man is free to live his life as he sees fit provided he violates no-one's rights; that he must work to support his life and reap the fruits of his own labor; that government exists as the means of securing these and similar ends - a far cry indeed from the stagnant, heaven on earth he mentioned.

That, in its modern guise, has its roots in the French Revolution and is expressed in its egalitarian-collectivist slogan that perverts the concept of liberty. The American ideals and the French ideals are not the same, but like many collectivist-statists who want to stealthily impose the shackles of French "liberte" on free Americans, our Comrade President package-deals the two as if they are related. "Freedom from fear and want" came from FDR, who in turn got those phrases from the Soviet constitution. (We know how free from fear and want Soviet citizens were!) And it is the French Revolution that gave us communism and socialism (not to mention political terrorism). It is the French Revolution that served as the model for communist revolutions and coups from Lenin's in Russia to Pol Pot's in Cambodia.

It is highly worrisome that an American president is inclined philosophically to the egalitarian-collectivist-statist ideas that led to and grew out of the French Revolution. Obama's words are eerily similar to those of the villans in Ayn Rand's novels. But those are the kinds of philosophical ideas that are suited to people who find placing prime concern on one's own life to be "boring and diminishing" and therefore need to find a "larger purpose" of "making a difference" in the lives of others.
What if, hypothetically, all our lives were fabulously successful and problem-free, Comrade President? What would a handful of "noble" public servants like yourself who got bored by pursuing your own diminished lives do to "serve a larger purpose"? You all would have no real reason to interfere in our lives and lacking that, you would be facing utter irrelevancy in your own - deservedly so.

What to do then?

That's easy. Simply concoct "problems" and "crises," "fears" and "wants" that (allegedly) can only be addressed by government interference and government-imposed collectivism.

This way out of your own irrelevance you then publicly rationalize as "serving a larger purpose than oneself."

How noble.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No. 2

Here is a brief review of an old, out-of-print book by a scholar of long ago, just one of many, many great, old books I have acquired that do not deserve to be forgotten. I started these reviews because I am sure there are other bibliophiles out there who can enjoy learning from them as much as I have.

I believe that the inexpensive old books I have discovered in used book stores and library sales are, in both the subject matter itself and in how it is presented, superior to what scholars and intellectuals publish today. Old books offer a dirt cheap way to give oneself a great education. I have learned from old books so much important material that, if I read only newer books, I would hardly be aware of, if at all; material that is essential to a good education.

For instance, it was mainly not through my formal education, but through my self-education that I came to see how history is often distorted and misrepresented by people and groups who have certain social/cultural/political agendas, such as Christians responding to the new rise of atheism by claiming that atheism leads to totalitarianism and mass-slaughter as in Soviet Russia. Well, here is one book that thoroughly and comprehensively looks at Russia's path to communism - and it is a history that does not quite corroborate what the Christians like to assert about the matter.

Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism, by Avrahm Yarmolinsky; Collier Books, 1971; 349 pp.

The road to Lenin’s communist Russia of 1917 actually began in 1790 when Alexander Radischev’s book, A Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, was published. “While informed with the spirit of Western Enlightenment, the book [A Journey] is deeply rooted in the native soil. Never before had the seamy side of Russian life been so boldly exposed” including “that the gaudy façade of Catherine’s rule conceals a corrupt and cruelly oppressive regime” (13).

Radischev was an official in the Russian government. As a teenager he was sent to Germany to study and he eagerly absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment‘s thinkers, especially the French philosophes. Radischev, though part of the nobility, was an egalitarian democrat who wanted the serfs emancipated and he saw industrialism as evil. He believed it was for the future generations to make his vision of Russia a reality.

It is not known why the official censor let the book slip by and be published but the consequences of his neglect were tremendous and far-reaching for his country. Radischev was sentenced to Siberia but the ideas of revolution were planted.

The explosive nature of Radischev’s book is evident by seeing the historical setting it was in, which was that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In Russia, Catherine II “opened schools, encouraged book publishing, sponsored a periodical press, though only as long as the satire in which it indulged remained innocuous. A peasant uprising at home and the turn events were taking in France helped put an end to her flirtation with liberalism. The regime which started out as enlightened despotism ended as despotism tout court. But she could not wholly undo, what was, in part, the work of her own hands“ (18-19). After the French king was executed Catherine wanted everything French “exterminated.”

Western liberal ideas were penetrating Russia, especially in its army after the war with Napoleon. Yarmolinsky tells how in 1820 that “the French ambassador wrote that he could not think without horror of what would happen to Europe if forty million Russians, still half savage and brutalized by slavery, conceived a desire for freedom and proceeded to shake off their chains. True, the dangerous notion hadn’t yet entered the heads of the lower orders, but it was already inflaming the well-born” (31).

Secret societies began forming, mostly of military officers. These societies were born of disapproval with sundry political and military matters and were the forerunners of the later communist/anarchist terrorist and revolutionary groups.

A group of insurgent army officers who planned to overthrow the czar in December, 1825 (the “Decembrists“) composed a tract called The Orthodox Catechism. The text is vaguely reminiscent of America’s Declaration of Independence but is heavily religious and collectivist. In it all Russia’s misfortunes are attributed to its government so the authors call for the formation of a republic because that is the form of government consistent with divine law. They assert that Jesus Christ must reign on earth as he does in Heaven; and the death of the czar is a sign from God for the Russians to free themselves from their slavery. The establishing of a new government is the army’s responsibility.

At the same time, among the Russian intellectuals two schools of thought about Russia’s direction developed, the Westernists and the Slavophiles.

The Westernists thought that Russia would progress similarly as the Western Europeans had. They strongly favored institutional reform as a means of progress. Vissarion Belinsky was the most prominent of them. He called the Orthodox Church a “toady to despotism” that was “foreign to Christ, who was the first to teach mankind the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity” (72).

The Slavophiles “were romantic doctrinaires who found in German philosophy sanction for their distrust of the intellect, their religiosity, their traditionalism. They believed that Russia possessed a culture distinct from and superior to that of the West” (69). They were populists in claiming that the Russian peasantry embodied the Orthodox faith and its sense of equality and brotherhood. Slavophiles held the lofty conviction that Russia could achieve no less than her own and the world’s salvation.

Alexander Herzen, who was prominent among the revolutionaries’ thinkers, was in the Westernist camp, envisaged a secular Armageddon in Europe that would bring in a new socialist society consisting of a centralized state, order (instead of freedom), and collectivism.
Nikolay Chernyshevsky was also one of the most important thinkers among the revolutionaries. He advocated enlightened self-interest, which meant identifying one’s happiness with the happiness of all. Man is the plaything of circumstances so his society is morally responsible for what he becomes. He also loathed laissez-faire and wanted to see the people living in phalansteries similar to those dreamt of by Fourier. After the publication in 1863 of Chernyshevsky’s fictional story, What’s to be Done?, about the heroically selfless “new men” of the future communism, his influence on radicals and revolutionaries - including on Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the next century - became tremendous.

Of the many terrorist groups in Road to Revolution, one was especially fanatical: “Half a dozen of the more audacious spirits discussed at length a plan for forming a terrorist band. They called it Hell. Each member of this secrecy-shrouded body was to be a dedicated and doomed man. He had to give up his friends, his family, his personal life, his very name” (137).

Dmitry Karakozov was a youth who was considered for the group and was fascinated by the possibility of daring action and self-immolation. “The cause of the common people was his ruling passion” (138). He tried to assassinate the czar but his pistol shot missed. This episode ended in much delicious irony.

That the czar’s life was saved was taken as proof of divine favor falling on him and the Russian people believed Karakozov was an angry serf-owner seeking revenge. Even a joint resolution in the U.S. Congress congratulating the czar for surviving the assassination attempt condemned his would-be assassin as an “enemy of emancipation.” Karakozov’s comrades were arrested and while in jail he vainly wrote to the czar pleading for his life to be spared. “On 3 September, two days after the verdict had been pronounced, Karakozov was hanged by one of the peasant’s for whom he wished to lay down his life” (141).

Like many of the early groups of Russian terrorists and revolutionaries, the Karakozov episode shows how they were often amateurishly inept to the point of hilarity. Often they were more dangerous to themselves than to their intended targets, and their many attempts to “rouse the masses” to revolt simply fell flat.

Yarmolinsky’s history of Russian radicalism ends in the 1890’s with the emergence of the major Marxist political parties.

Of nearly all the Russian revolutionaries, from the intellectuals down to the terrorists, three characteristics of them are salient.

First is how they saw their revolution in religious terms.

A few brief but very interesting examples from the book are representative of the communist revolutionaries' religious mentalities. In the early 1830’s when they were university students, Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Ogarev were seduced by the ideas of French socialist thinkers Saint-Simon and Fourier (whose socialist ideas were inspired by and meant to replace Christianity). They swore on the Bible “to dedicate their lives to the people and the cause of liberty ‘upon the basis of socialism‘” by forming a secret society (67). There was Vera Figner with her “ideal of the prophets and martyrs of the socialist evangel” (180). Michael Bakunin’s followers held “a dream of freedom and equality on earth which was a substitute for a lost faith in heaven” (184). In the 1870’s were one group of revolutionary propagandists who pored over the New Testament and “dreamed of a new faith that would at once steel the intellectuals with fresh courage and enlist the religious sentiment of the masses on the side of revolution.” They believed “a revolutionary was most effective when he suffered for the cause“(187). Yarmolinsky quotes one terrorist after an assassination: “Let my blood, too, be the seed of Socialism, just as the blood of the early martyrs was the seed of the Christian Church” (257).

Secondly, just like contemporary terrorists they were fanatical nihilists who reveled in death, destruction, and martyrdom. For instance one revolutionary pamphlet stated, “We must devote ourselves wholly to destruction, constant, ceaseless, relentless, until there is nothing left of existing institutions.” And here is another especially evil quote from the terrorists’ literature: “We prize thought only in so far as it can serve the great cause of radical and ubiquitous destruction” (152). Then there is Sergey Nechayev’s infamous, The Catechism of the Revolutionary, which describes the revolutionary as a “doomed man” who has, literally, only one interest: revolution, so he can “destroy this vile order.” Some of this rhetoric, also like statements of terrorists since then, is undoubtedly hyperbolic bravado and propaganda - but it expresses some amount of profoundly held conviction, nonetheless.

Thirdly, they were second-handers, some of them abjectly so. Nechayev was a basket-case of second-handedness.

In order to be seen as a hero by his comrades he faked his imprisonment, faked his escape from his faked imprisonment, and even faked being killed by the police. “His ascetic habits - he lived on bread and milk, and slept on bare boards, at least while staying at the homes of his followers - could not but make an impression. Those he did not fascinate he ruled by fear…He arrogated to himself the right to destroy those who did not see eye to eye with him” (157).

One cell member was disobedient to Nechayev and doubted the existence of a mysterious, secret “Central Committee” Nechayev claimed he attended and would then give them orders from (he was, indeed, its only member). Nechayev and three other cell members murdered him. “For years the cry to kill the people’s enemies had repeatedly been raised by the handful of would-be liberators. The only victim turned out to be one of their own small number who had aroused the leader’s hostility” (159).

Nechayev was eventually arrested and was to be sentenced to Siberia, but his pseudo-heroics only made things worse for himself. During his sentencing he shouted, “Down with the Czar!” and “Long live the free Russian people!” and similar insults to the authorities. “As a result, the Emperor changed the court sentence to solitary incarceration for life in the Fortress of Peter and Paul” (165).

Road to Revolution is a very interesting, informative, and readable book on the Russian revolutionaries before Lenin, from their intellectual theories and religious inspirations to their bloody actions. For anyone wanting to learn about this subject, Yarmolinsky’s book is required reading. More important, considering how often Christians attempt to tie atheism, rationality, and secularism to the totalitarian bloodbath of communism, Yarmolinsky’s book is an effective debunking of that assertion. Russian communism and its horrors were, to a very large extent, clearly consequences of irrationalism and secularizing the Christian religion.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No.1 
Old, Obscure, Great Books Review: No.3 

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No.1

If anyone wants a good education, I say a significant portion of that would come from old books. I have accumulated quite a wonderful - and large - collection of them. I have learned so much from the scholars of decades ago; learning that would be almost impossible were I to read books solely by today's scholars, who tend to be concerned with trivia and are not all that scholarly (though there are some exceptions). As one way to help save those wonderful old books from a much undeserved oblivion, I am, starting with this post, selecting a few for brief reviews. I am sure there are, besides me, plenty of others out there who would find them to be of value.

Shortly after returning to college to major in philosophy my intellectual curiosity grew quickly - and in many directions. What I was learning in college just was not enough for me. I had all sorts of questions about things, especially how ideas influenced Western history from its literature to its politics. I quickly saw that I had my own studying to do outside of college and that my work was cut out for me. As a student, I was quickly disabused of the notion that my professors would be of some help in guiding me toward the matters I was interested in that went beyond classroom material. Disappointed, also, with the books I found in the latest Ivy League book catalogs and with what was in the book stores, I came to the conclusion that old books might be what I need.

I shortly found that to be the correct conclusion.

Learning how to find good, old books was a bit difficult at first, as was identifying exactly what I was interested in. I was going in blind to new territory and found my way as I went and learned to use these old scholars as my guides until I could find my way through all this new, strange, complex, and wonderful "intellectual territory" on my own. I was enthused that with the right old books I could give myself an excellent education - and it would be dirt cheap!

Anyhow, here is my first semi-random round-up of such gems. As far as I know, these books are long out of print - unfortunately; but there are copies out there to be found.

Nationalism: Its Meaning & History (revised ed.), by Hans Kohn; Anvil, 1965; 191 pp.

This is a great little overview of nationalism from its 18th century origins to its 20th century manifestations. The first half of the book is Kohn's very concise and, at the same time, thorough, history of modern nationalism the world over. The second half of the book consists of short, primary source excerpts on nationalism from the writings of Machiavelli, Hegel, Mazzini, Napoleon, Dostoevsky, Renan, Nehru, Wagner, Mussolini, and others.

Kohn explains how the Enlightenment's nationalism that was of a benevolent, cultural nature was changed through a succession of historical events and the rise of new ideas, in to the collectivistic and militaristic nationalism of the last century - which still lingers in some ways. One of the most significant factors in this transformation was the French Revolution. The climate of ideas in revolutionary France led to a religious-like worship of the nation. "In all the communities in France an altar of the fatherland was erected with the inscription: 'The citizen is born, lives, and dies for the fatherland.' Before it the population assembled with patriotic songs, took an oath to uphold national unity and to obey and to protect the supreme law giver, the sovereign people" (p.25).

Especially significant in fostering the new conception of the nation was education: "The French Revolution established the first comprehensive system of national education to raise virtuous and patriotic citizens. Education was for the first time regarded as a duty and chief interest of the nation...[to] realize the unity of the fatherland and the union of its citizens" (p.26).

When nationalism spread from the West to the third-world it was easily adapted despite the vast cultural differences between the two. Kohn shows why this is so without, for whatever reason, explicitly naming it: third-world cultures were predominantly religious, therefore a religion of the nation was easily accepted. This, as Kohn does point out, was then used to assert independence from the West.

Dictatorship: Its History & Theory, by Alfred Cobban; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939; 352 pp.

It is with the 16th century political philosophy of Jean Bodin that Cobban begins his history of dictatorship that culminates in - well, the year he wrote this book says it.

Bodin gave a secular justification for the state, one aspect of which was deriving sovereignty from the will of society instead of the will of God. This was a preliminary step toward ending the notion of the divine right of kings which had long been the basis of governments. Cobban takes the reader through the history of philosophical and political developments that incrementally led to modern totalitarianism: the 18th century's "Enlightened despots"; the political philosophy of Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Sieyes; the French Revolution's terrorism and "dictatorship of liberty." This period climaxes in Napoleon. With his ascendancy "arose, in the modern world, the idea that one man might himself represent the will of the people, and be invested with all the authority of the most despotic ruler in the name of democracy. The idea of sovereignty, freed from all restraints, and transferred to the people, had at last given birth to the first modern dictatorship" (p.86).

After Napoleon the stage is largely set for Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their lesser copies. In the paving of the way for them Cobban traces the development of nationalism and the impact of thinkers like Fichte, Hegel, and Marx. The idea of natural law, important in Enlightenment political philosophy of liberalism, is ended, Cobban argues, by the German Romanticists. The circle is closed, so to say, when Lenin's power-grab in Russia is modeled on the French Revolution.

In his summary of dictatorship, Cobban observes: "This is a return to government by faith: nationalism is the new religion, and the dictator is Pope and Emperor rolled into one"(p.283). And "there is a real spiritual principle in modern dictatorship, which makes it more than a mere technique of government. The new totalitarian dictatorship is powerful not because it rules men's bodies, but because it controls their minds. Its essential aim is, as we have suggested above, the identification of Church and State" (p.284).

The book also has an appendix on Greek, Roman, and medieval Italian dictatorships.

The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (revised & expanded ed.), by Norman Cohn; Oxford University Press, 1970; 412 pp.

Bluntly, the reader of this book is in for a wild trip! The subject matter - medieval end-of-the-world movements - is as creepy as it is comical, but Norman Cohn is very much the serious scholar who actually broke open a new area of study with this book's first edition.

Cohn's focus is on what he termed "revolutionary millenarianism" and "mystical anarchism" in western Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries, and in the ending of the book he briefly draws parallels between them and the 20th century's revolutionary communist movements. Of these Christian revolutionaries and anarchists, Cohn examines their histories, their doctrines and the ideas that originated them, the problems they caused for religious authorities, and their influence on theologians.

Cohn sets the larger context of medieval messianic cults in its distant origins: ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings and how they influenced the Church Founders. Apocalyptic writings merged in the Christian mind with the ancient pagan notions of a long-lost state of nature, and the yearning to return to it, resulting in the vision of an end of the world and a new millennium. In history this idea has had formidable power.

Between the early Christian centuries and the 11th century there were who knows how many messiahs, and Cohn gives some examples of them before they became more prolific in the centuries his book concentrates on.

After not many tales of messiahs one can see a familiar pattern which is universally applicable: a self-proclaimed messiah gathers a following, even if it remains small, claims to have supernatural powers and witnesses claim likewise. Next he promises them some version of a new, heavenly world and they come to heads with the authorities who kill the messiah and many of his followers. Bewildered survivors nonetheless believe their messiah will return in the future to triumph in bringing in the millennium. "So it came about that multitudes of people acted out with fierce energy a shared phantasy, which, though delusional, yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they could live only through it, and were perfectly willing both to kill and to die for it. This phenomenon was to recur many times, in various parts of western and central Europe, between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries" (p.88). Every generation of medieval Christians experienced this; sometimes it was on a small-scale, sometimes it was on a large scale.

There were also the "mystical anarchists," the "amoral supermen" of the Free Spirit and similar sects (Cohn compares them to Nietzsche's notion of the "superman") who claimed to be one with God, who is good and divine, and therefore, they were above all morality. They were already saved so they could do anything they pleased - and they did, as Cohn chronicles for us.
Another religious angle some medievals took on the world's imminent end was premised on self-punishment. They believed that if they beat their bodies to bloody pulps, the punishment in the afterlife would not be as severe. This culminated in mass - and public - self-flagellating processions that would usher in the Second Coming.

Cohn concludes, "The old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one, and this tends to obscure what otherwise would be obvious. For it is the simple truth that, stripped of their original supernatural sanction, revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still" (p.286).

The Pursuit of the Millennium is an in-depth look at those who took Christianity seriously and to its logical conclusion - over and over and over again, despite the horrific results of so doing. It is a history demonstrating how faith, if strongly held, is immune to reality.

Old, Obscure, Great Books: Review No.2 
Old, Obscure, Graet Books Review: No.3