Orthodox Survival Course, Class 14

Orthodox Survival Course

St. Irene Orthodox Church

Rochester Hills, Michigan


Revised Notes for Class 14. Please discard the earlier version.

Class 14 – The Renaissance: Timeline Overview. Topic 1: Some Key Bad Ideas from the Start

Timeline Overview: Renaissance to Enlightenment to Revolution

Tonight we will begin our section on the Renaissance, which for convenience’s sake we will say lasts roughly from 1300 to 1600. Of course, many conventional timelines show the 14th and 15th centuries as the “late Middle Ages,” and there are reasons for this, especially if you are considering the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, and Scandinavia, which remained “medieval” in various ways longer than the dynamic Italian and French cultures, the seedbeds and exemplars of all future European development. But for our purposes, since we are working on acquiring an Orthodox overview of the vast sweep of Western culture, it is most useful to zero in on the 14th century, and on Italy, as the key period and key place marking the transition to the Renaissance.

In my earlier proposal for a syllabus of Part II of our course (see the end of the notes for Class 10), I put forward the Reformation and Counter-Reformation as separate topics, but after further reflection, I think we’ll treat them as sub-topics within the Renaissance period. As with our earlier sessions, I’m not sure how long we’ll take on the Renaissance: Remember, you are here with me in the initial formation of our course, and we are going to take things as they come and adjust as we see fit.

Though, as we said, the real transition in the West from Orthodoxy to something else really took place in the 12th to the 13th centuries, yet the consequences of this transition were probably not foreseen by the men who caused it, men who believed – tragically and mistakenly – that they were laying solid foundations for a “Thousand Year Reich,” so to speak, of a genuine Christian civilization under the benevolent rule of the Pope. But that was not in fact the result. In the Renaissance, we will see, with dismay, shockingly different “Consequences” of the “Ideas” of the Western High Middle Ages: the collapse of the delicate Idealistic (to use Sorokin’s term) synthesis of the High Middle Ages into an open, unapologetic, self-adulating, no holds-barred Sensate culture marked by anthropocentrism rather than theocentrism, the shift from Truth to Power as the driving force of culture and politics, Superstition replacing Faith and Reason, the glorification of carnal passions, the elevation of the individual and his quest for human glory, and the misdirection of Science from its ancient pursuit of truth in the service of man’s spiritual and intellectual telos – i.e., virtue – to the “progressive” pursuit of power over material phenomena, in the service of comfort, pleasure, and the manipulation of the masses of people by a self-serving oligarchy of occult “insiders,” with this vast technological enterprise being funded by the alchemy of a usury-based financial system. It is as if one of those vast yet delicate Gothic cathedrals, so heartbreakingly beautiful in its dynamic upward thrust to pierce the heavens, suddenly got dizzy, lost its dynamic balance and collapsed into a pile of rubble. Meanwhile, the un-dynamic and un-progressive older brother of the Gothic cathedral, that old-fashioned “boring” Byzantine church sitting solidly on the ground – i.e., the Orthodox civilization – still stands silent, still, and unchanged, “left behind” in the “march of progress,” quietly living on in the monasteries and agrarian societies in the vast backwaters at the eastern end of the Western world: the Ottoman Empire and Old Russia (i.e., Russia before Peter I).

The headlong, frenzied race into passion and fragmentation initiated by the Renaissance will be, as we will see, temporarily arrested by the attempt of the “Enlightenment” (roughly the 17th and 18th centuries) to create a new stasis by means of “reason,” but, being merely man-made, without spiritual truth and power, without repentance, still marked by great hubris, this brittle, make-believe “reasonable” world of Newtonian science and rationalist philosophy will be crushed into a thousand pieces by the demonic power of Revolution, beginning in 1789.

During these last two periods, of “Enlightenment” and Revolution, the Orthodox East will once again encounter and be greatly affected by Western European man, and the latter’s bad Ideas will begin to have Consequences for our fathers, as well. It is essential to our survival that we understand what then happened to the Orthodox, leading right up to our own time.

The Renaissance, Topic 1: Some Key Bad Ideas from the Start – Three Pancakes and Occam’s Razor

So we will see that bad ideas in High Middle Ages led to worse things in the Renaissance. I’d like to go back and review three key transitional ideas that we have alluded to or spoken about in passing, that led inevitably to the collapse of that delicate Idealistic structure of 13th century Western Christian culture into the fragmented free-for-all of the Renaissance I call them the three “Pancakes,” because each one involves “pancaking” two realities into one, smashing together and confusing distinct realities.

Pancake 1 – Man: Reason and Nous, Soul and Spirit. The Scholastics, and what became “Roman Catholic” anthropology generally, do not distinguish carefully between the logos in man regarded as dianoia – the discursive, analytical intellect – and the logos regarded as nous – the synthetic, intuitive, and, properly speaking, spiritual intellect. They “pancake” them into one reality, “reason,” ratio or intellectus. Another word for one’s nous is pneuma– spirit – regarded as the highest faculty of the psyche, the soul, and with its own distinctive function, that is, to act in the invisible realm of the angelic universe through direct, undeluded and synthetic spiritual perceptions. From this point on, this intellectual confusion creates a bad theological method – that of dialectic, with primacy given to kataphasis instead of apophasis, and to the analytic over the synthetic and tradition-based method – as well as lack of spiritual discernment: the Western “saint” cannot distinguish between that which is merely of “the soul,” psychological, and that which is genuinely of “the spirit,” spiritual. By opening the door to endless dialectic and analysis, this confusion leads to theological unraveling. By opening to the door to endless delusory psychological experiences, this confusion leads to complete lack of spiritual discernment.

Pancake 2 – The Church: Organism and Organization. The full-blown papal ideology “pancakes’ the organism of the Church – Her life – into the organization of the Church – Her outward structures, with the latter controlling and dominating, or, in worst cases, substituting for the former. How do you know you are in the Church? Well, you are under the Pope. How do you know you won’t spend more time in Purgatory? Well, the Pope has granted you an indulgence. How do you know someone is really a saint? Well, the Roman Curia has gone through a specific legal process and declared it so. As we know, the Orthodox respect the ancient administrative structures, ancient sees, territorial synods, etc. (which is why we are fighting about them all the time!), but the Orthodox have never identified the structures with the Church. They are in service to the Church; they are not the Church. This confusion in the West will lead to the Church being cynically regarded as just another competitor for earthly power in the race to see who will create the new, “progressive” bright future of a New World Order, Heaven on Earth. In the Renaissance, we will see the spectacle of the popes marching at the head of armies to kill Christian men and sponsoring adventures in astrology, alchemy, and usury to bring about a “better life” on earth.

Pancake 3 – God: Absolute Divine Simplicity

We do not have time, given the broad scope of our course, to give adequate treatment to the so-called Palamite controversy of the 14th century, but we need to summarize at least the points that make up its outcome. Remember how we spoke earlier of Anselm of Bec and the famous slogan of his Proslogion: “fides quarens intellectum”. The idea here is that faith is a “leap in the dark” without evidence and without logic, and that we have to correct this defect in faith with the more sure knowledge coming from experience and reason. This, in germ, is the basic idea of the “Anti-Hesychasts” who opposed St. Gregory Palamas. St. Gregory summarized centuries of the teaching of the Orthodox Fathers when he taught that

1. Theology is grounded in the direct experience of the saints, whose nous has direct contact with the uncreated energies of God.

2. Therefore, a prerequisite assumption is that God’s essence and energies are distinct, because the nous must simultaneously experience God in reality, to avoid agnosticism, without experiencing the divine essence, which would result in pantheism.

3. This knowledge is more, not less, sure than the results of the empirical experience and analytical reasoning of the scientists and philosophers.

The “Latinophrones,” or “Anti-Hesychasts” taught the opposite, that theology is the result of applying philosophical reasoning to natural and supernatural revelation, that God is Absolutely Simple, actus purus – His essence and His energies are “pancaked” into absolute identity – and that scientific and philosophical knowledge is more certain than the knowledge gained from spiritual experience. This “leap” from trusting the Saints and Tradition to trusting “reason” will result in the humanism and worldliness that will characterize the Renaissance, which, we will see, will be an age not of reason but superstition, because…

…by undercutting the basis for undeceived spiritual knowledge, the Anti-Hesychasts undercut the basis for the functioning of reason itself, which is known to exist only by Divine Revelation. This is where the Orthodox parted ways with the Scholastics. But at the same time, over in England, William of Ockham is parting ways with the Orthodox and the Scholastics, and the Great Race to the Bottom of Western thought is off and running!

Occam’s “Razor” and Nominalism – Finally, we are coming around to the great villain in Richard Weaver’s narrative of the fall of the West: Nominalism. And we have to agree with Weaver: It’s a huge problem. Like “Anti-Palamism,” Nominalism, though one finds it before in various authors, really “takes off” in the 14th century, with the teachings of an English Franciscan friar, William of Ockham (or “Occam”). While Anti-Palamism undercuts human knowledge indirectly, by undercutting the divine-human mechanism of Revelation, Nominalism undercuts the possibility of human knowledge directly, by denying the existence of the “universals.”

Occam’s “Razor” is the nickname for an epistemological axiom attributed to the friar William: ” Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.” As a methodological assumption for scientific work, that’s a pretty good rule: Keep it simple; throw out whatever is actually extraneous to your hypothesis. The problem is that Occam, and later many other thinkers, applied this rule to the age-old “problem of the universals,” and came up with what came to be called “Nominalism,” that is, “Name-ism,” the idea that when we call two horses by the same name – horse – it’s not because there’s such a thing as horse-ness that the horses have in common, but simply because we noticed that these two things are kind of the same and so we’ll call them both “horse” for convenience.

So what is this “problem of the universals?” A “universal” is anything predicated of more than one individual: “Man,” for example, as predicated of Peter and Paul. The “problem” is this: Does the word “man” signify something that really exists or is it just a notion, a tag, we apply to the two individuals pragmatically, for convenience’s sake? Is there such a thing as human nature, or is that a notion, a linguistic convention we can change at will? Is there such a thing as a “nature” of anything? There are three possible answers:

Nominalism – Nominalism is the idea that the universals are just names (nomina) that we give to individual substances that seem to be kind of the same. There is no such “thing out there” as human nature, horse nature, house nature, star nature, etc.

Extreme Realism – Plato combats this idea, which obviously leads to skepticism, cynicism, and the abuse of power, and which he associates with Socrates’ opponents, the sophists, with a radically opposite idea: the universals are so real that they have a separate existence in the World of Forms (τα είδη). When we perceive “humanness,” our mind is experiencing anamnesis (remembering again) of the “true world” in which our souls pre-existed before being “imprisoned” in the flesh and the delusory world of matter. There is a soteriological problem here, however: When you leave the body and re-enter the world of the forms, how does your “humanness” encounter Humanness Itself and not get absorbed by it? Thus Platonic soteriology is ultimately not different from the Hindu idea of the absorption of the individual into the One.

Moderate Realism – this is the solution of Aristotle, which in modified form is taught by the Holy Fathers.. The universals do exist, but they exist only as instantiated in individual instances. “Humanness” does exist, but we see it only in examples like Peter and Paul, not in itself. But where did our minds get these ideas? Why are we able to perceive the universals? The answer is most beautiful and satisfying: Our minds are made according to the image of the Logos, the Primordial Word of the Primordial Mind, in which, according to His energies, are found the logoi, archetypes or patterns, of all created things. The universals are created natures made after the image of the logoi, and our mind, created after the image of the Logos, can naturally perceive them. When a Christian attains theoria (the second stage of spiritual life, in which the passions are healed and the mind perceives reality accurately), he starts to perceive the logoi of all things as well as the created natures made after the pattern of the logoi.

The Scholastics, with their beloved Absolute Divine Simplicity, have a hard time explaining why the universals are not created or eternal archetypes with an existence separate from individual created instances and from God, which would throw them back into some kind of Platonism or even (if the archetypes are uncreated) polytheism, or, if the universals really do belong in the mind of God considered as pure essence, are not therefore necessarily merely notions in our own minds, since all distinctions within the divine essence are notional, not real, and this throws them back into some kind of Nominalism. The Holy Fathers, by contrast, most notably St. Maximos the Confessor, can explain the universals, as being created natures made after the pattern of the uncreated logoi, which are uncreated energies of the Logos.

But both the Orthodox and the Scholastics oppose Nominalism.

We will see how the skepticism engendered by Nominalism will infect every aspect of religion, philosophy, politics, and culture in the Renaissance and succeeding ages. If you cannot know the natures of things as they really are, then real knowledge is impossible, and the pursuit of science is not to conform the mind to reality, and the passions to the mind, but to conform reality to the demands of the will dominated by the passions. This Satanic inversion is the basis of all modern culture, a sobering thought that should really motivate us to stay “out of the mainstream” and “off the radar screen,” and really stay close to the Church.

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