Conversation #4: Tradition and Modernity

Tradition and Modernity
This issue is probably the most difficult and at the same time the most important one, because it is the tension between tradition and modernity that is at the root of most if not all of the tensions that exist in the world today. And our panel is eminently qualified to discuss this important topic: Michael Jones, who represents the traditional Catholic position; Rashid ben Isa, French Islamologist and former advisor to UNESCO, comes from the Perennialist founded by Rene Guenon, and Kevin Barrett who is a convert to Islam from Christianity. We start the discussion with each participant giving a definition of tradition and modernity.

Michael says that tradition is a literal handing down of knowledge, where the priesthood literally laid hands on initiates as a ritual of the passing down of sacred knowledge from one generation to the next. Modernity is an inversion of this tradition. Quoting Augustine, Michael says that there are thus two choices open to man. The City of God, which is the love of God to the extinction of man, and the City of Man, which is the love of self to the extinction of God. And the rejection of the former necessarily entails the adoption of a negative culture: the rejection of tradition necessarily results in what Michael characterizes as “enslavement to the Jews”.

Rashid makes a distinction between Tradition with a capital T and traditions with a small t. Tradition literally means to perpetuate, and modernity, which comes from mode, means to change. Hence, the challenges is the reconciliation of the two: perpetuation in change. The Perennialist tradition attempts to do this by providing a framework that is inclusive of all traditions, and enables a dialogue between all traditions without judging any one. The task at hand is to preserve the truths of each tradition unsullied by the flow of changes and the ravages of time.

Kevin said that it was interesting to note that the study of religion in American academe has, until the recent Neocon-inspired backlash, been dominated by the methodology of the Perennialist tradition, which was founded by and elaborated by a bunch of European crypto-Moslems. They felt that Islam was the best preserved tradition and the one which was most open to the idea of multiple traditions. Kevin defined tradition as the passing down through the ages of trans-human wisdom, and he emphasized the prominence Islam gave to reason in both its revelation and in its tradition.

Mark stated that there are perspectives other than the Abrahamic or revealed traditions which must be taken into consideration in this discussion. He mentioned the Chinese tradition, which is a very old one indeed, and told an anecdote about Cho En Lai who, when asked by Henry Kissinger what he thought about the French Revolution, said that it was “too early to say”. Mark went on to say that the crisis of modernity is ultimately about the fact that the way moderns live now is fundamentally different than how humans have lived throughout most of human history. And these changed conditions affect the way we relate to one another. The key questions, according to Mark, are Where do the rules governing social relations come from? And What should they be based on?

I pick up on this point and say that different worldviews (cosmologies and anthropologies) lead to different values and value priorities, which in turn lead to different value systems, legal foundations (sources of law and constitutional laws), which in turn lead to different legal systems, types of communities and indeed, civilizations. A modernist/ materialist/ atheist worldview will lead to an entirely different set of values and laws than a traditional/ spiritual/ theist one. And so one cannot and should not be judged by the yardstick of the other and vice-versa. For example, one of the important differences between these two societies is that one is communitarian, directed and purposive, whereas the other is libertarian, individuated and lacking in a common purpose. This difference alone will make all the difference in an evaluation of all of the hot-button issues such as the rights of minorities, religious or otherwise, women’s rights, gay rights, punitive criminal law, etc.

Rashid adds that good and bad are not scientific concepts; science cannot help us here. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not tell us how to act. Questions as to how one is to act fall within ‘the Great T’, Tradition. Other names have been given to it, the Absolute, sacred science (to distinguish it from empirical science), and higher wisdom, to name a few. Furthermore, there are shared values common to all traditions, that make fair trade, for example, possible: to give full measure, etc. Now the conflict between tradition and modernity occurs when there is something new that goes against all tradition. In France, there is already something in the law that allows for homosexual union, pact solidaire, it’s called. But the gay pride movement is not satisfied with this. They want to take pride in it, and they want it to be recognized as marriage proper. And this is something that is against all traditions, and is, in fact, counter-cultural.

Michael: Gay marriage is a product of reform Judaism. It would not have happened without the efforts of Rabbi Saperstein. His wife was the head of the news room at NPR (National Public Radio), so they orchestrated a propaganda campaign to destroy the social order, using the homosexual as the new avant-guard of the revolution.

But let’s go back to the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive modalities and the use of science as an alternative magisterium. So what happens when you decide, as Henry VIII did, that you are tired of the authority of the magisterium? England is the classic example of this because of the Reformation, which was, in essence, a looting operation, followed by the theological explanation, which came later. And once the new order was in possession of the loot, i.e. the property of the Church (which owned 40% of the property in England which was put to social use), then the authority of the magisterium become intolerable. Hence, the need to come up with a new source of authority. And as there was no source of authority, the Elizabethans had to come up with a police state, which was headed by Walsingham. This begat a Puritan reaction in the 1640’s, who in their turn instituted their own new order. But that dominion had no legitimacy either, and lasted only ten years, before the people revolted against the Puritans and brought about the Restoration. In fact, the people were so sick of the Puritans that they dug up Cromwell’s body and hanged his dead body, losing his head in the process. But the sovereignty of the ancien regime still had no moral authority or legitimacy, its Restoration notwithstanding, because the powers that be were still in possession of the massive amount of wealth and property that had been looted from the Catholic Church, and they did not want to restore that to its rightful owners, and submit to the authority of the magisterium, so they needed to come up with a new source of authority, and this was the moment of the Glorious Revolution (1688), when they came up with a new magisterium, and the new magisterium was science.

Arash: [38:27] Yet, the new magisterium purported to be merely descriptive and not prescriptive…

Michale: The thing you have to realize about English culture is that it is always duplicitous. This is why they call it perfidious Albion. Because it is always Masonic and it is always duplicitous, so there is always going to be two truths. So what purports to be descriptive is really prescriptive. Newton claimed, “I frame no hypothesis” hypotheses non fingo. I’m just describing things as they are. There are two forces: inertia and gravity, and if it was just inertia, things would just shoot off into space, but since there is gravity, things go around in a circle. And what is a circle? A circle is perfect motion. Now this is where it enters into the prescriptive realm, and not just any prescription or normative system, but it is basically a reversion to the ancient system of Empedocles, which Newton obtained, because he was an alchemist and was heavily involved in alchemy. The two giants of the English Enlightenment, John Locke and Isaac Newton, collaborated on alchemical experiments.

Kevin: [39:52] How is [Newton’s theories on] gravity and inertia prescriptive?

Empedocles said there is love and strife.

But what is prescriptive is perfect or circular motion. This is where we get to the prescriptive element, because now we have a universe that takes care of itself all by itself. And then the next step [in the transformation of the magisterium from the old to the new is to take that deism] and apply it to the economic order, which is what Adam Smith did. And so what you now have is self-interest [inertia] and competition [gravity]; and guess what? When you put these two together, you get perfect circular motion. Again, you get a self-regulating system. And this is the essence of modernity: the rejection of the only authentic magisterium, which is the Catholic Church.

The Anglican Church’s failure to establish an alternate magisterium [led to] the new magisterium of modernity, which is nature itself, which is science, which is perfect motion, which means that you don’t have to intervene, which means that you don’t have to take back the stuff that I stole from the Church three centuries ago… So the first corollary to this is: do not interfere in the economy: do not impose the moral law on the economy. The Invisible Hand will straighten everything out, and this will eliminate the need for any moral intervention in life. And there is a straight path from there to gay marriage! And modernity and science are the vehicles that allow that to happen. [42:13]

Mark [44:18] I am concerned that the analysis thus far has been too West-centered.

Michael [47:33] The essence of the modern crisis is science [as we know it], and its contradiction of tradition. You have to have a sophisticated understanding of science and how it was used by Newton to destroy tradition. [In other words, science as the] New Magesterium. As a matter of fact, it is not merely Western; it is English!

Rashid: It is not science [in itself] but the misuse of science, its ideological use and extrapolation.
Michael: there is no history of science without the misuse of science. Newtonianism is an ideology!


Rashid [49:38] What kind of institutions are we to build if we are to be true to our claim of being linked to our tranditions? Iran makes such a claim. Rashid then goes on at some length to describe the Iranian system of Velayat-e Faqih, and how it is different from other so-called “Islamic Republics”, and its unique role in the world today. [54:05]

Mark gives an excellent summation of the current political situation and the crisis that we are in, starting with the destruction of the Ottoman caliphate, the Hapsburgs, the Romanovs, etc., at the end of the First World War, the failure of the Soviet Marxist model, and the fact that the other alternative, liberal democracy, is also obviously in a deep crisis. And this, he says, is why the alternative Iran offers is important. [56:33] Everyone says tradition is good; no one disagrees with that. But if tradition is to be maintained, it must be overtly defended and implemented, and not just taken for granted. But the American system takes tradition for granted and does not legislate to maintain it; rather, its laws foster individualism at the expense of community: the pursuit of happiness of each individual.

In such a society, Mark continues, it is impossible to hold on to tradition. If tradition is not defended with concrete laws, then it will be done away with. And that is why things like gay marriage and so forth are inevitable. If you say that the most important thing is the happiness of the individual, then the question becomes, Why shouldn’t men be able to marry other men? Why shouldn’t women be able to marry other women? Why shouldn’t brothers and sisters be allowed to marry? Or Mothers and sons? Or whoever? Everything that makes an individual happy should be permitted.

Rashid interjects that polygamy is of course excepted from this general rule, to everyone’s amusement.

Mark: But this is why Iran is so interesting, because Iran doesn’t just say it is an Islamic republic, it is acting on it. Iran takes tradition seriously, because Iran says that if tradition is important, it has to be defended with laws, not just words. And this is also why Iran is intolerable to the United States, because it tells it that its whole model of society is wrong. [1:00:05]

Iran puts a premium on the criterion of whether a decision or action is morally right. Kevin and Mark enter into an exchange where they talk about how people in the US don’t even understand this. Kevin cites the example of Ayatollah Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons, and how Americans simply assume that this is just more talk coming out of the mouth of just another politician, because they do not understand the concept of traditional authority and its parameters, and so they end up projecting their own mentality onto the incomprehensible Other. Mark added some historical depth, saying that a similar crisis occurred in the 1930’s and 1940’s, where Hitler or Mussolini said things that they meant, and Americans would not believe them because they equated their words with the words of Franklin Roosevelt, whose words they could not count on as representing anything he really meant. And the same thing is true of George Bush and Obama: no one takes them seriously.

Kevin: [4:45] This has practical and strategic significance in the real world of power politics. You can see the same paradigm played out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy where everyone wants to grab that ring and rule the world, and the good guys want to grab hold of the ring in order to get rid of it, and this puts the bad guys at a disadvantage because they cannot imagine that anyone would ever want to destroy the Ring of Power. So the good guys end up winning because the bad guys’ failure to see that anyone can actually act in this way. Likewise here, I think that Iran actually has a strategic advantage, paradoxically, because of its morality which can’t be understood, so that in the game theory of its opponents, no allowance is made for Iran acting in the way that it actually does. So morality acts to add a paradoxical twist to game theory, which normally assumes that the most duplicitous and selfish person always wins the game. But this turns out not to be the case because the immoral person cannot see or is blind to the way the moral person behaves, whose behavior, therefore, is unpredictable to the immoral party. [5:51] A similar phenomenon can be seen in the 9/11 truth movement, where the planners did not believe that there would be anybody with the moral character to risk his career and his livelihood to speak out about what they did on that fateful day. [6:54]

Mike [12:10] The problem here is that we are dealing with a totally exploded, failed system in the United States. It is every bit as failed as the Communist system in its inability to act in accordance with its own principles. So we are in a situation which Cicero was describing in Rome, where everyone is complaining about the disease, but nobody wants to take the remedy. That’s the situation; that’s the crisis: the United States regime is nothing but pure hypocrisy! Pure hypocrisy top to bottom! [12:57] Mike then goes on to cite the example of Obama giving the Kennedy Medal award to the members of Led Zeppelin, despite the fact that they were notorious for having sex with underage girls. He then asks, would they give such a medal to a priest who had sex with an underage girl? No, they would not. This, Michael says, is just one example of the utter hypocrisy that pervades America today.

So the whole system is bankrupt. But what’s the remedy then? Well, the Ayatollah (Khomeini) has proposed a remedy that works. It works because you have ethnic and religious solidarity: an actual nation-state. [15:07] When I tried to articulate a position about the moral order and how to restore it in America, my “fellow Americans”, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, jumped down my throat the minute I talked about it, because they wanted to know who the moral authority was. Who is the Archon?! Well we don’t want an archon!! We don’t need an archon in America because we live in a self-regulating mechanism where the Individual and the Invisible Hand and all these other fictions collaborate to bring everything out.

I venture: “Because America has become so atomized by its radical individualism that it is no longer a society in the proper sense of the word.

“So what are we going to do about it?” Mike continues? “We’re going to preserve that fiction of the narcissistically-empowered individual, when really they’re really totally atomized nothings who are ruled over by the plutocratic powers. So it’s plutocracy is what it comes down to. And truth, in America, is just what Thrasymachus said, it’s the opinion of the powerful. And that is what the American experiment in ordered liberty has landed us. In other words, it failed! [16:23]

The discussion takes on a less theoretical bent at this point, and everyone starts to give their opinions about what the most likely scenario is for the future of the United States. Rashid says that Guenon’s theories allow for each people to go back to their own tradition. Michael thinks that Catholicism is the only possible way forward for the US. I state that Catholicism in particular and Christianity in general have failed, and that Islam is the only way forward (but that this will be a slow and painful process). And Kevin says that one of the strengths of the US is its ability to accommodate religious pluralism, at which point Michael says that pluralism has failed, and that it is tantamount to hypocrisy. And then the discussion veered into whether the United States and Europe is more likely to go back to its Christian roots, to become traditional Catholics, or to become Moslem. [31:54]

Mark: [32:07] Everyone seems to be conflating tradition with religion, and that is not accurate. Mark then brings the matter of nationalism into the picture, stating that he thinks nationalism is a stronger force than religion, with which assertion Mark and Rashid disagree. Mark then makes his larger point that the essence of the conflict between tradition and modernity is the conflict between humans as social beings and humans as individual beings, and the fact that individual choices transcend familial traditions, national traditions, religious traditions, etc. And the question is on what basis do communal interests trump those of the individual’s, and the discussion here has mostly indicated that the basis is religious. But it is possible that non-religious traditions or traditions not rooted in the revealed religions can offer alternate ways of resolving the community-individual conflict.

Break [42:42]

After the break, a general discussion breaks out in which various issues that are on the fault-line between modernity and tradition, including women’s rights, the roles and responsibilities of women in the family, women’s presence in the universities and the workforce, birth control policy and the promotion of birth control, the reality of gay relationships and its extreme promiscuity and the stark realities of single-parent families vs. its portrayal in Hollywood.

Next up for discussion is the issue of gender identity and the functions that each gender has performed traditionally (child-rearing and homemaking being the main ones), and the difference between these roles and the functions which modern women who are highly educated chose to perform.

We end with a foray into the realm of Dostoyevsky’s famous quote, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” The unthinkable becomes not only thinkable, but possible. Incest; cannibalism… Everything is reduced to an economic exchange.


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