It is some time since I wrote Aristocracy of the Spirit, particularly in the light of some of the Russian stuff (translated into English or French) I have been reading over the years. I must admit that I am not too keen on this word used to describe a highly desirable disposition in the human spirit. It is an analogy based on the Greek ἄριστος meaning excellent or best, the notion in Plato of the Philosopher King or the rule of wisdom he advocated. When we speak of nobility or aristocracy, we think of people born into certain families with or without their ancestral property or wealth. These, along with the clergy, were the guillotine-fodder of the French revolutionaries. We now live under the shadow of a new kind of elitism, that of the extremely rich and sometimes with nefarious agendas as is often the subject of conspiracy theories. The political class are often associated with the banking elite as is the case in France since the election of Monsieur Macron to the Presidency. The kind of aristocracy that interests me is the sort that can be accessible to anyone, even from the modest social classes – it is something internal, not given by your family or the privileges coming from wealth earned through hard work or ill-gotten.
There is another term, little different from Berdyaev’s (however that is said in Russian), which is nobility of the spirit. I have just begun reading Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, a book written in German and translated into English. I am impressed so far by the reference to Thomas Mann (who lived through the Nazi terror) and Spinoza who experienced the tyranny of institutional religion in his time. Pope John Paul II wrote a lot about human dignity and freedom, since he himself had lived under both Nazism and Communism in his native Poland. This Pope was heavily criticised by traditionalists for his universalism, personalism and humanism, but few had really made the effort to read and understand his philosophical works. I am not yet far enough into Riemen’s book to be able to offer criticism or thought it will doubtlessly provoke in me. Going through the various critics’ reviews, it seems to address my line of enquiry.
I am sick and tired of what passes for politics and the erosion of the social contract by the lack of interest of our elites in the common good. Even those who call themselves socialists operate according to a “post-modern” or nihilistic agenda. I read about so-called “antifas” in America, and then about Klu Klux Klan rednecks and others spouting similar ideologies that are roughly equivalent to Nazism. So much hatred, ignorance and prejudice that can only lead to war and death on a massive scale. Conservatism and radicalism are tired ideologies, both sides of the Atlantic. Bring back the Russian Empire or the French Monarchy, or the British Empire for that matter? Many entertain such nostalgia, but the seeds of the hatred against those regimes were there before they were brought down. Thomas Mann is quoted:
The sole corrective for human history. Without nobility of spirit, culture vanishes.
It seems to be a precious pearl that is forgotten, or has never been thought of since the days of Plato! Like in the 1920’s and 30’s and to the end of World War II, our human dignity and freedom are again in peril, whether it be from the misuse of high technology by some kind of “Big Brother” regime à la Orwell or the Islamic caliphate ruled by brutes that have not evolved in any way since the days of the Crusades.
Yesterday, I was snooping around for ideas about the old Gnostic notion of three kinds of people: materialists, establishment conformists and those seeking a spiritual way through institutional religion and not much more – and finally the spirituals, those who either had mystical gifts or a clarity of knowledge that made them critical of both. Much of what the old Gnostics believed in was quite bizarre, and condemned by the Church – to the extent of persecuting and killing people belonging to Gnostic communities. The establishment must have had much to fear! But, this notion of people who have no interest in or knowledge of the finer things of life is something we all observe in our own lives. Some people are only interested in money and the status symbols that money can buy. Others become “possessed” by their electronic gadgets – I use a laptop and a smartphone, but they are simply tools to me. My phone is a miniature computer and contains a GPS receiver – and makes my life easier – but I can still think and live as I did before.
I have been very concerned about the notion of “establishment conformity”, the mainstream of society. How institutions like the Church of England and the RC Church can change just about everything and gut the most revered liturgical traditions – and then demand submission and conformity in the name of authority – is beyond me. They played the card of attracting materialists and not merely the old institutional churchgoers of civic religion, and alienate anyone who has really understood the underpinnings of everything. Berdyaev’s notion of the “aristocracy of the spirit” bowled me over, and then I looked further afield into other cultural and philosophical ideas, especially from German Idealism and Romanticism. There is a dialectic between the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the Romantic eras that preceded and succeeded it. We arrived at a new industrial and rationalistic era, but now one that excluded rational thought and honesty of speech.
One thing that bedevilled much of my adult religious life was being attracted by the liturgy and an artistic culture through which God would speak by love, truth and beauty – and then finding that the real motivation of traditionalist groups was to annihilate the “others” or at least deprive them of freedom and dignity. I was deeply shocked to find some French traditionalists supporting agendas of dictators like Pinochet and Franco (sometimes even Hitler!), and only had a profound understanding of such a mentality when reading the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoievsky, which is a part of his immense tone The Karamazov Brothers. This spirit ultimately comes from the same nihilism as atheism, and is the epitome of evil.
I have also come to a stage in my life when I need to discover Nietzsche and try to understand him profoundly. I’ll start with Human, all too human, then Thus spake Zarathustra and then Beyond good and evil – and finally I’ll get of copy of The Antichrist. I’m sure I will discover what he really meant by the Ubermensch and the role of the will, two notions that were completely perverted by the Nazis, partly through Nietzsche’s sister being enamoured of the Nazi movement in its early days. Nietzsche fundamentally embodies man’s decision to go it alone without God, and that the idea of God was dead. He had once been a theology student and son of a Lutheran pastor. In reality, he sought man’s transcendence, but unfortunately by refusing God his. There was something of an intuition in this soul on fire, which drove him to the hell of madness. The transcendentalism of self-reliance reminds me of the Americanism of Walt Whitman and that movement in nineteenth-century New England. I believe that I will find something more inspiring in Thomas Mann’s ideas expressed through Riemen’s book.
Presented in this way, I do believe that nobility of spirit is something that can be a basis of true culture, not something preserved in a museum but truly part of life. The odds against such an aspiration are staggering, but it is the kernel of the Gospel message. Christ embodied this nobility even if he lived in a modest working family and conveyed the highest virtues of humility and prudence.
Spiritual nobility was found in some of the greatest saints of the Church like Vincent de Paul, Francis and our own slum priests of Victorian England. They didn’t only give food and money to the poor, but raised them to beauty through their acceptance in the parish church and its services. The Workhouse abused the poor and condescended to them in their caricature of charity. The slum priests accepted the poor into their hearts. This is but a part of this nobility that can restore and redeem human nature.
I will forge ahead in my interest in true philosophy, but also my notion of vocation as a priest and a human being in such a marred world. I refrain from usurping anything, but I can say that I feel called to think and write in this direction as I have been allowed to understand and know. As I get further through this book, I will doubtlessly express things in new and different ways as I bring together the new input into a reflection in my mind that essentially goes back to my childhood in its crudest forms.
When someone does touch the sacred treasure (or whatever analogy we are going to use), others are not going to like it! We have to be gentle like doves and cunning like foxes and wolves. We have only to read the Beatitudes to know that if we are persecuted and suffer, we are near the Kingdom of God.
You see, Adso, the step between ecstatic vision and sinful frenzy is all too brief.
Thus I leave this posting with this admonition by Fr William of Baskerville to his young apprentice in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The way is precarious, and what goes up can come crashing down and make a lot of noise. We have to be warned. That book (which I am reading yet again) is a fine study of what can go wrong with religious men and the lust for knowledge without possessing the Key. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest – as my old schoolmaster exhorted his pupils as he quoted from the Prayer Book.