Tyranny and the Modern State Cult

Submitted by Imperium Press

Not a “gay science”, I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.

Carlyle’s famous epithet for economics has become its unofficial title, but political science could just as well lay claim to it. Is there any other “science” so contested? With so little self-awareness of its own role in its subject matter? With such a dismal predictive track record? If a life must be lived forward but understood backward, how much more so for the ephemeral babble of politics? One is tempted to abandon the whole business of political science on realizing that it has reached its apotheosis in the birth of “human rights”, and to agree with Bernard Crick’s assessment of it as a “caricature of American liberal democracy”.

And yet there is cause for hope. We can take comfort in the small victories. Politics is not unintelligible; we need not throw our hands up and say “it’s complicated” before an ocean of disconnected facts—we have some tools in our arsenal.

One such tool is etymology. The more one looks into the roots of words, the clearer things become (and where you find a sea change in the sense of a term, put a bookmark, because this is a telltale sign of its being penetrated by structural conflict). The Latin term for “ought” is “debeo”, cognate with our “debt”, and synonymous in the Latin with “to owe”. Why ought you do anything? Because you are obligated by a debt—here, the radically social, embedded, and corporate character of morality starts to come into focus. This becomes still clearer on the Germanic side of the ledger, where “guilt” grows out of Old English “gieldan” (cognate with “gild” and “yield”), meaning “to pay for”. Indebtedness as a metaphor for normativity is starting to look less and less like a metaphor.

History helps in understanding politics too of course—which is why it is being toppled as we speak. Nietzsche said the future belongs to those with the longest memory, and this is something Moldbug knew very well. In fact Moldbug seems like something of a 21st century American Confucius. Like Moldbug, the old man of Lu was born into public service and spent time plying his trade to local rulers, with mixed results. He said of himself “I transmit but do not innovate. I love antiquity and have faith in it.” Moldbug surely did innovate—nobody on the right was talking about the continuum of public and private power in 2010—but his major contribution has been in excavating long buried thinkers and texts absent from serious discourse, unfashionable figures like Carlyle, Filmer, Jouvenel, List, Froude, and others who have experienced a renaissance partly of his making.

This is best exemplified by Moldbug’s article Slow History Extravagaza, where he simply urges us to read old books, whole and unframed. If tradition means giving a vote to that most marginalized of all classes—the dead—then looking into our own tradition is about the most democratic thing we can do. But don’t let that dissuade you. What makes reading old books on their own terms so problematic is that you risk concluding that old people knew things. Worse, that they knew more than we do. This is positively satanic for the progressive; if old scholarship beats new scholarship, what ground does he have for his millenarianism? No wonder he is out in the street toppling statues. If he had his way, he would topple your bookshelf too.

One of the things that old people knew is that nothing really changes. We’re not the Socialist New Man, or the Fascist New Man, or any kind of New Man really. We’ve barely changed at all psychologically since the Lower Palaeolithic, which means that we still need the same things from our social order: a sacral centre of attention, a robust family structure, clear boundaries between stranger and familiar, and a way of handing down these things through time. Politics is downstream of culture, but there is a whole lot upstream of that, without which we are inevitably going to laspe into inanities like that the French Revolution happened because “the people” at some point decided to throw off the yoke of “tyranny” because the “arc of history” bends toward “progress”. You might as well just say “because teleology” and call it a day, except then you might have a point.

What’s upstream of culture is a long sequence of precedent and development that can be found in just those old books that you’re not supposed to read (except with the 45 page introduction telling you why they’re merely a product of their time). This sequence is, as you have guessed, known as history. History has uncanny parallels with the present, and the deeper the reading, the less canny they appear. This is not something mysterious, but simply down to the fact that we’re not all that unlike, say, the classical Greeks. Not only that, but we have inherited many of our categories from these old men who knew things, and these categories tend to persist in forms invisible to us, forgotten—sometimes purposefully so—but not for that reason any less real.

The Greeks have bequeathed to us many of our categories, but among the most important is that of tyranny. Liberalism is allergic to tyranny the way Rome was allergic to a king, the way communism is allergic to capitalism; of the many ways to characterize liberalism, you won’t go too far wrong in thinking of it as nothing more than a recipe to stave off tyranny. The etymology of the term is obscure, going back to mythic times in the shape of Gyges of Lydia, a usurper who attained the throne by artifice and trickery. But the term does not enter the lexicon in any sustained way until the time of the popular tyrants, late in the history of the Greek city-states, and not long before their being made vassals of a foreign power. The tyrants come very late indeed, after structural conflict had hollowed out these once cohesive societies, a structural conflict that will itself seem eerily familiar in its broad outlines, if not in its details.

The classical Greek city-state was a development long in coming, and had its genesis much earlier in the Bronze age, before the Greeks had even reached the mainland, before their language was even recognizably Greek. Back when the ancestors of the Greeks were one tribe dwelling among many who would eventually become the Norse, the Celts, the Iranians, the Hindus, and many others, their social order was based on the family. This little social atom, sufficient and entire in itself, needing nothing from others, was of course constituted as all societies are: as a theocracy. And its sacral centre was the hearth. This hearth was the symbol of the continuity of the male line, a line of ancestors venerated as gods reaching back to the high gods themselves—this hearth may have burned without interruption for thousands of years, and the little society gathered around it had as its king, high-priest, and supreme magistrate a single man: the House Father. This House Father was alone fit to administer the rites and to pronounce judgement on his family; he was absolute monarch and supreme pontiff of this little society, and would pass this office down to his own eldest son as his father had to him, and so on back through time immemorial.

In time, this little society expanded to where the branches of the extended family could no longer live under one roof, nor even in a little hamlet. At this point the family had become what the Greeks would later call a genos, and what we call a clan. But still, presiding over the hearth, at the centre of the religious life of the clan, was a chief House Father, that latest in a long line of deified ancestors, and who would himself become such an ancestor in death. Not only did this clan chieftain preside over his own hearth in his home, but also over the common hearth at which this extended family would venerate its common ancestors.

As time marched onward this process continued; the society expanded to comprise multiple clans until it became a tribe. This collection of clans had at its head a hereditary chief among the clan chieftains, one House Father primus inter pares, presiding over his own hearth, that of his clan, and that of the tribe, who now pointed to a single deified ancestor as their founder and constitutor: the hero. At this point no body politic stood above the tribe, but in time multiple tribes coalesced to form a larger body, one still constituted by the principle of religion, and which has a familiar ring to it—we have arrived at the city.

At all points in this long development from the Pontic to the Peloponnese, two facts must be kept in view. The first is that the stranger was utterly excluded from the life of the family. As he was not descended from the shared stock, he had no right to be present at the hearth, no place in this association. He was utterly outside the sacral order of this society. The second fact is that as the branches grew, the younger siblings who could not enjoy the benefits of primogeniture fell further and further from the centre of religious life. They were not at first excluded—they at least had a place at the hearth—but would always find themselves at the margin with no hope of escape. And as years turned into centuries, some of these more remote branches of the original family fell outside the sacral order altogether, whether by neglecting their rites, committing some polluting act, enslavement, or otherwise. There grew up an underclass, or really a class of non-persons, whose ranks swelled in time, and who resented those on the inside. In Rome these were the patricians vs. the plebeians; in Greece, the eupatrids vs. the thetes.

The eupatrids, the class fit to preside over the city’s hearth, were protective of their office. This was probably not callousness; these pious men considered their office a matter of religious scruple, and wished to see it maintained, something the thetes simply could not do. But resentment drove them to try. Through a long series of revolutions in the various Greek city-states, concessions were exacted. Originally the laws were unwritten—the thete not only could not change them, but was not even permitted to know them, as they were sacramental formulae forbidden to him. The code of Draco, proverbially harsh, was simply the old laws of hereditary religion reduced to writing; this was a significant step. A far more drastic step, however, was taken by Solon in carrying out his reforms. Rather than by observing the age-old distinction along the lines of the genoi, the clans, Solon established a new division by wealth, which weakened the clans (the same was done to the same effect at Rome, giving birth to the equestrian order) and established an aristocracy of wealth. Still, this aristocracy lacked the sacred character with which the ancient eupatrid lineages were clothed. Something more was needed to displace them.

Solon’s constitution had made all Athenians a part of the assembly, but we have not yet fallen into an abject state of democracy—this would have to await the tyrants. Resentment of the lower classes had shifted from religious privilege to resentment of wealth, and a line of usurpers mobilized them against the eupatrids. This line culminated in Cleisthenes, a eupatrid whose family was so villainous as to be unfit for the priesthood. Despite this, Cleisthenes thrust himself into power and carried out the final reform and coup de grace for the old religious aristocracy. He replaced Solon’s division with a mere geographical division, that of the demes. And here we finally arrive at democracy—rule according to the demes, where the hereditary worship that had centred these societies for millenia was replaced by a farcical imitation, imposed by a ruler whose only claim on authority was one of naked power in wielding the masses against legitimate religious intermediaries.

This mobilization of the masses by a central authority against its intermediaries will be familiar to readers of Jouvenel, who exhaustively showed this high-low vs. middle mechanism to be behind the transition from absolutism to parliamentarianism. In ordinary times, when the power of the state is expanding and consolidating, we get the alliance of the social centre (the “high”, official power) with peripheral elements (the “low”, the mass of people) against official power’s intermediaries (the “middle”, unofficial power) to weaken them—high-low vs. middle. However from time to time we see an alliance between this “low” periphery with rogue “middle” intermediary elements who feel emboldened to challenge the power of the state—middle-low vs. high. These extraordinary reversals are later called “revolutions”. This is precisely the mechanism that drove the English Civil War, where frustrated parliamentary elements mobilized the mass of people against the king in response to his own centralization efforts.

Such a revolution was driven into existence in Greece by the popular tyrants, rogue elements of the religious aristocracy who were often frustrated at their own exclusion from the sacral centre, as in the case of Cleisthenes. Standing outside of the state cult, the only hope for men who could not preside over the state cult legitimately was to preside over it illegitimately. At first this was impossible due to the awe felt by even the man in the street toward the city’s hearth fire. But with the debasement of this sacral centre, by Solon’s reforms elevating wealth above priestly office, the ground was laid for its eventual defeat. These tyrants stood for just the opposite of the venerable, immutable, ancient priesthood. Where the state cult based on the ancestor cult stood for hierarchy, tradition, rank, patrimony, and privilege, the tyrants stood for equality, enfranchisement, freedom, and leveling. A Milesian tyrant, when asked for advice in governance by a Cornithian tyrant, replied by striking off the heads of grain higher than the rest. These elements—priest and tyrant—were separated by an unbridgeable gap, not just in method, but in theology.

Today we of course do not have a prytaneum in the middle of our city that serves as the common hearth and centre of religious attention. But does this mean we are any less religious for it? Ours is a creed, yes, but not a “religion”. The proposition in our proposition nation is truth-bearing, but we do not capitalize the T. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, but ours is no longer the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And yet the religious element in our civilizational ethic, however distorted, has become all too clear in recent days. We see puritanical celebrants asking forgiveness, congregations singing, swaying, and chanting, and preachers holding out the doctrine of equality. We even see great men prostrate themselves and kiss the feet of the holy figure, the marginalized identity. The cardinal virtues have not simply been forgotten, but replaced—by openness, tolerance, diversity, and inclusion. The husk, the form of our theology remains, but the pith, the content has been replaced.

This is the error committed by so many conservatives: no revolution has brought this about. It is not simply a matter of returning to the postwar years, or the Edwardian era, or the time of the founders. The rot was present right from the start; we have followed the liberal recipe to the last jot and tittle, but the result has been a radioactive nightmare. The state cult of progressivism was written across the face of our constitutions, and could never have turned out otherwise. Never, that is, except by the will of a tyrant.

It has become clear even to the conservative, that pitiful man in the wilderness, that America is not the land of unlimited opportunity he once thought. Not just anyone can grow up to be President someday—there is a limit to the sort of man who shall be permitted to preside over the modern state. And if by some oversight the wrong sort of man should “hack our democracy” and thrust himself into the priestly office, if he must perform the rites illegitimately, he shall be made to perform them scrupulously. He shall not be permitted to innovate or deviate. He shall speak the right formulae, at the right time, in the right place. He shall be indistinguishable from a progressive, whatever may be in his heart. Liberalism, whose tradition is revolution, is right to regard this tyrant, this reactionary, as a revolutionary threat to itself.

Liberalism is the recipe for staving off tyranny, because liberalism too is the state cult, and the tyrant the man unfit to preside over it. Our state cult is not that of the Greeks—ours is a bizarro version of the Greeks’, where resentment and leveling stand in place of tradition and hierarchy—but the categories remain intact. Liberalism thrives on artifice and delusion. It calls for a balance of powers, but constantly centralizes power. It offers fortune cookie paradoxes in place of firm foundations—we are united in freedom, leniency is justice, appeasement diplomacy, diversity our strength. It demurs as an empire, yet as the “international community”, wields the most impressive imperium in human history. The Greeks and Romans, for all their flaws, at least understood their theocracy as a theocracy, their empire as an empire, and their state cult as totalizing and inescapable. It is this formalism, this rectification of names, that characterizes traditional Indo-European social orders, and the absence of which makes liberalism so pernicious—the most potent symbol of the tyrant is what it is by no accident of history. The tyrant is the avatar of this order; he wishes to formalize power, to establish hierarchy, to restore tradition, and to re-draw the boundaries that separate stranger from familiar. He can never be integrated within liberalism’s theology, and so must be excluded from its priesthood.

All this paints a truly dismal picture, but there may be cause for hope after all. History is complicated, but it lies open to us in a way it did not for the ancients—we know more about our past than any other people ever has. It will take a rigorous excavation of history, along with our terms and categories, to come to a full picture, to know ourselves, and to be rid of this grotesque state cult. The road will be hard, but if we can reconstruct a prehistoric language common to the Greeks, Romans, and Hindus, we can reconstruct the long path that led us to where we are. We can trace Ariadne’s golden cord out of the labyrinth—but we must first put aside our hubris and consult those men who knew things.

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