how he got away with it

In a lovely remembrance of Kołakowski, Roger Scruton muses on the question of how the Polish thinker “got away with” his incessant assaults on the sacred cows of modern academic thought. His critiques were persistent and incisive, and yet he made very few, if any, enemies. Scruton concludes,

Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understanding to the arguments of others.

And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he “got away with it” — that he never entered the foreground of others’ judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life’s project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.

To be the “sceptical friend” of those with whom one argues — that’s not a bad ambition.

critique and myth

In a famous footnote to the Preface of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote,

Our age is the genuine age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination.

Kant’s purpose here is to announce the sovereignty of critique, its power as a universal solvent of all claims to legitimacy and truth, and indeed the Western intellectual world for the next two centuries largely endorsed that sovereignty and paid due fealty to it.

What rational critique does above all is the dispelling of myths, and what we are seeing in America right now, as I have suggested in this essay, is a powerful restoration or recrudescence — depending on how you assess it — of mythical thinking. This is occurring chiefly among (a) the white-populist Right and (b) the black-liberationist Left, along with its various encouragers and supporters in the media and the universities.

This “return of the repressed” leads to a question, or set of questions, concerning cause and another concerning consequence:

  1. Is the return of mythical thinking a result of the failure of critique or rather its success? That is, are those now taking their bearings from coherent and compelling myths about the order of the world people who have never been exposed to, never been initiated into, the power of critique? Or are they people, or the pupils of people, who have followed critique into the moral and emotional deserts it inevitably produces and then turned away, looking for oases? Another way to put the question: Does critique when successful create the conditions for its repudiation?
  2. Is the current return to myth an evanescent or a lasting phenomenon? Are we looking at a widespread repudiation of the liberal order — of which critique, and socio-political practices related to it, like proceduralism, are essential parts — or is this moment just a temporary flare-up of impatience and frustration sparked by people who spend far too much time online? A moral panic that has come but will soon go? Perhaps the social and political structures built by liberalism are strong enough to resist the current upheavals and, over the long term, retain their power.

UPDATE: A while back I wrote, “If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kołakowski.” So I took my own advice and re-read his great essay “The Idolatry of Politics,” originally delivered as the NEH’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities in 1986. It was later published in The New Republic, but I think that once-vital journal has deposited its entire history in the Memory Hole; fortunately I was able to find Kołakowski’s original typescript at the NEH website. Who says government is good for nothing?

The whole essay, which if you read actual codex books you can find in Modernity on Endless Trial, is brilliant and full of fascinating thoughts that I may well return to — it was Kołakowski who originally got me thinking about the diverse and subtle powers of myth to shape political life — but for now I want to call attention to one passage near the end of the essay. Again, remember that this was written in 1986:

In political decisions and attitudes people can appeal to the divine law, to the natural law and the theory of social contract, or to the feeling of historical continuity of which they are agents even if they revolt against it. It appears that we are about to lose all those three reference points; thus we either reduce politics to the technical rules of success or try to dissolve our existence in a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another, or else we are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices. I believe that we can be cured but not painlessly.

These sentences have been proven true, in the following ways:

  1. Our culture has indeed lost the three “reference points” for thinking and acting politically, largely because of the complete abdication of social responsibility by our educational system.
  2. Some experiencing this loss have indeed taken refuge in finding “technical rules of success,” in flourishing-by-bureaucratic-regulation. The neoliberal core of the Democratic Party, and the elite universities that provide that core its ideas, take this view of the world.
  3. Others — the populist right and liberationist left I mention above — have found their compensations in “a mindless and fanatical devotion of one kind or another.”
  4. Still others, and maybe the largest number, “are escaping from life into drugs and other self-stunning devices,” the most effective of those devices being social media, television, and video games.

How can politics be done under these circumstances?

UPDATE 2: In response to a friend who asked, “Does the return of mythical thinking signify a natural recognition that something sacred must inform shared life? And can the proceduralism you long to sustain adequately honor a communal recognition of what is truly sacred?” I replied:

My answers are Yes and Definitely Not! But I would add that proceduralism is a means of reckoning with a plurality you can’t erase, not a means of honoring the sacred. Indeed, the idea that the political realm is supposed to be both the school and the panoptic enforcer of absolute values is the belief that binds Sohrab Amari and Ibram X. Kendi. They only differ on the details. 😉

I prefer a political order that is as ignorant of the sacred as it possibly can be. John Adams thought that only a virtuous people could thrive under our Constitution, but he did not think it the job of the government so constituted to make them virtuous.

And I agree 100% that critique is not what it claims to be. As MacIntyre says, it is the tradition that denounces tradition; as Gadamer says, it is constituted by a prejudice against prejudice. Its claims to be above all traditions and all prejudices is a self-glamorizing fiction. But my post isn’t about the fundamental character of critique, it only concerns the relationship between the reign of critique and the re-emergence of mythic thought.

That said, I could have made it more clear in the post that I do not take critique at its own self-valuation, or even self-description; but many have, and their credulity has been immensely consequential for our social order.

defilement and expulsion

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’d like to pair that brief reflection with an essay I published around the same time, in which I made this claim: “For those who have been formed largely by the mythical core of human culture, disagreement and alternative points of view may well appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.”

It is this sense of defilement that makes people want to cast out wrongdoers, to expel the contagion they carry. It seems increasingly common on the right to cast all this in Girardian terms — my friend Rod Dreher does this a lot — but that wouldn’t be quite right even if Girardian terms were valid, which they are not. (The nearly absolute uselessness of Girard’s thought is patiently and thoroughly demonstrated by Joshua Landy in this essay.) The scapegoat is by definition innocent; the malefactors our punitive society casts out are not, but their crimes are so small in comparison to their punishment that they seem like scapegoats.

But if we understand how the experience of defilement functions we will also understand its punishment. The University of Virginia has an honor code which punishes violators with the “single sanction” of expulsion: one either has honor or one does not. Similarly, the woke social order has a single sanction: either your presence does not defile me or it does, and in the latter case the response is and must be expulsion. This is what Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University learned when he used the n-word in class — or rather, quoted James Baldwin doing so. This he was removed from the class he was teaching and then suspended from all teaching, “pending the outcome of a formal review.” The separation of the source of defilement from the community must always be the first step, when one’s responses arise from what Kolakowski calls mythical core.

If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kolakowski.


From all the irrefutable testimonies of human misery there is no logically sound path to the great heavenly Physician; from the fact that we are sick it does not follow that we can be cured. It is possible, as Pascal repeatedly argued, that the human condition, including all its sorrows and evils, as well as its splendours and greatness, is unintelligible and meaningless unless it is seen in the light of sacred history: creation, sin, redemption. If so, it appears that the admissible options are: a meaningful world guided by God, spoilt by men, healed by the Redeemer; or an absurd world, going Nowhere, ending in Nothing, the futile toy of an impersonal Fate which does not distribute punishments and rewards and does not care about good and evil. Promethean atheism might appear, on this assumption, a puerile delusion, an image of a godless world which rushes on to the Ultimate Hilarity.
— Leszek Kolakowski, Religion

“the death of gods is a chain reaction”

A mythology, if it is to be effective, must be all-encompassing. The death of gods is a chain reaction; each drags another down into the abyss. Abyssus abyssum invocat. Hence the necessity – of which experienced priests are well aware – of maintaining the mythology as a system in which every detail is equally important and equally holy. The logic of mythology is familiar to every priest; it is there in his mind when he says: today you will miss Mass, tomorrow you will curse God, and the day after that you will become a Bolshevik. This is why only Stalinism, because it was all-encompassing, was a viable mythology. Stalin’s priests said: today you will admire a painting by Paul Klee, tomorrow you will cease admiring socialist-realist architecture, the day after that you will start to doubt the leap from quantity to quality, and the day after that you will renounce your loyalty to Caesar. And since Caesar’s rule is the rule of the people, you will be an enemy of the people. So by admiring a painting by Paul Klee you become an enemy of the people in potentia; you are ‘objectively’ an enemy of the people, a spy and a saboteur. The power of this strategy, confirmed by centuries of historical experience, is undeniable. And its collapse had to be as total as its rule had been: a chain of divinities, collapsing like a pack of cards. What folly to imagine it was possible to extract just one!

— Leszek Kolakowski, “The Death of Gods”

the experience of free will 

I think it’s generally known that one wing of the New Atheism, led primarily by Jerry Coyne, has made the denial of free will a major cause. Well, so have Calvinists! (Just for somewhat different reasons.) I think all aspects of the Great Free Will Debate are illuminated by this wonderful passage from Leszek Kolakowski’s magisterial book on Pascal and the Jansenist controversy, God Owes Us Nothing:

The belief that everything is preordained by God is psychologically compatible with the belief that I am free in my actions. Personal freedom is an irresistible and elementary experience; it is not analyzable any further because of its elementary character. The former belief acts as a source of trust in life: God rules and orders everything, thus everything is directed toward a good outcome, even if we cannot know or see the cunning tactics of providence. This psychological compatibility proves doubtful when exposed to theological scrutiny, and the task is then to make a coherent, logically sound whole out of the two experiences.… The most elementary facts of experience – “I,” existence, freedom – once converted into theoretical concepts, tend to resist logical examination and are therefore threatened with a verdict of theoretical annihilation; indeed, they have on many occasions been denounced as figments of the imagination. Still, they do not vanish from experience; they stubbornly refuse to evaporate, all philosophers’ condemnations notwithstanding. To accept all-embracing providence without denying the irresistible experience of freedom is psychologically possible even for people who cannot be accused of having simply failed to learn their first lesson in logic; they do not necessarily feel mental discomfort because they believe in, or experience, both. But to unite both in a consistent “theory” seems hopeless, and when theologians ultimately admit that there is a “mystery” in combining providence and freedom, they do not claim to explain anything, but accept the inadequacy of “human reason.” Rationalists normally shrug off the idea of “mystery” (as distinct from something not yet known) as a verbal cover for simple illogicality. However, when people think of ultimate realities, the experience of mystery, which often includes a logical helplessness, may be intellectually more fruitful than rationalist self-confidence that simply cancels metaphysical questions, relying on doctrinal dogmas. To be sure, we have only one logic at our disposal but we are not sure how far its validity can extend when dealing with those ultimate realities.

on moderation in consistency

My liberal friends complain about my conservative views, my conservative friends about my liberal ones. Some of them seem equally puzzled about where I am coming from and where I am going.

The fact of that matter is that I find myself moving largely against the prevailing winds, which means that I cannot make intellectual progress except by tacking back and forth, back and forth. This is why my friends see me moving in one direction and and then another. But it also means that whatever direction I am headed at the moment does not indicate the general path I’m following.

The one trait that can never emerge from this method is consistency, and it is difficult to convince people that certain forms of inconsistency are features, not bugs. Twenty-five years ago Leszek Kolakowski pointed out the “unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we try to be perfectly consistent when we try to think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life. More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.”

Kolakowski’s pawnshop metaphor is a brilliant one, but if I were to stick to my own, I’d say that it is the epitome of foolishness to decide, when trying to move against the prevailing winds, to pick a direction and stick with it. Either you become lodged in “dogmatic immobility,” or you drift insensibly backwards, or, worst of all, you pretend that a starboard tack is an established course and sooner or later run aground on the rocks.

Kolakowski calls his essays “appeals for moderation in consistency” and concludes that they are therefore “not edifying.” But surely this is to take too narrow a view of what is edifying. I can be edified by the awareness that I am homo viator, a wayfarer, one on the journey — one who knows my destination but has not yet arrived.

To change the metaphor once more: “Thinking too has a time for ploughing and a time for gathering the harvest,” says Wittgenstein. But there are also long periods in between, waiting for what one has so carefully planted to come to maturity.