Descending into Chaos

The medieval Christian conception of the great chain of being, so ably described and analyzed by Arthur Lovejoy and E. M. Tillyard, has been one of the most resonant concepts addressing mankind’s unique position in the cosmos. Situated between the divine and the earthy, the angelic and the bestial, the spiritual world and the physical creation, the human being is understood as a hybrid being consisting of a “higher” nature and a “lower” nature in perpetual conflict with one another. It is a metaphor that makes good explanatory sense.

Thus, we are tugged in two antithetical directions, toward reason, order and imagination on the one hand and envy, resentment and malice on the other, toward the tablets on the mountain above and the calf in the wilderness below. The gravity of degradation, alas, is always stronger than the upward flight of intellectual clarity and moral commitment. This will never change, but the choice and struggle between the angel and the animal within us, between logic and appetite, is what constitutes the essence of human identity, and the intermittent victory of the former over the latter is what constitutes the essence of human potentiality -- that is, of the truly human.

What applies to the individual person may also bear on the political dynamic. It is, for example, the explicit theme of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which the proper hierarchy of the state is reversed and order is supplanted by disorder, rule by regicide and social convention by political anarchy and moral disarray. The established hierarchy of the given order of things represented by the chain is overturned: hawks are hunted by owls, tame creatures run wild (II, iv). And as Banquo remarks when he sees the witches:

What are these,

So withered and so wild in their attire,

That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,

And yet are on’t? …

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.” (I.ii)

The restoration of community and decorum -- the climb up the chain -- begins when Birnam Wood marches toward Dunsinane Hill, deposing the usurper and reclaiming the moral heights.

Today, one might say that the fraught experiment in republican governance is, on the grand historical scale, a collective effort to ascend toward a higher form of social organization than that initially represented by the state of nature as Thomas Hobbes depicted it in Leviathan, where “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In the terms of the 2nd Century B.C. Greek historian Polybius in The Histories, who developed the concept of classical republicanism, we would say that democracy is a higher form of civil and political order than oligarchy or autocracy. Democratic and republican governance represent an attempt to move up the links of the political chain of being toward the ideal of civic responsibility and individual flourishing.

Decadence is a staple of the human condition, but there are times when the forces of debasement and corruption seem far more conspicuous and irreversible than at other times when they are in approximate abeyance. And this, I believe, is one of those times, especially when observing the cultural and political scene in our own advanced and presumably enlightened countries.

We have remarked the gradual, now accelerated encroachment of the socialist nightmare on the American dream, the rapid breakdown of public order following the COVID pandemic so egregiously mismanaged by our political and medical classes, the destructive riots of various groups of domestic terrorists joined by the unproductive elements of society, and the racist hysteria leading to the eruption of social violence and hatred of whites. We have watched good people being “cancelled” by their moral inferiors. And we have seen our political authorities either foment the mayhem or retreat into their bunkers of silence and inactivity. These are the people descending the chain of being into the terrain occupied by the rabble, sinking from the realm of communal order into the realm of turbid misrule.

Heather Mac Donald speaks clearly and acerbically about “the current tolerance and justification for vandalism and violence” and “the elite betrayal of the principle of law,” deplores the “high-volume delegitimization of American justice and the incessant drumbeat about white supremacy,” and concludes, “These are no longer the warning signs of a possible breakdown of civilized life. That breakdown is upon us…Unless new leaders come forth who understand their duty to maintain the rule of law, the country will not pull back from disaster.”

She is obviously right but is anybody listening? The precipitous plunge from lawfulness to indiscriminate turmoil, from structure to chaos, from civility to barbarism is indeed upon us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote back in 1969-70 of “the credulity, even the vulgarity of the supposed intellectual and social elite of the country,” and added, “I know there is an authoritarian Left in this country, and I fear it.” He had every reason to.

The corrupt politicians polluting Washington, D.C. and many blue state executive branches, the raving mobs infesting Twitter, the domestic insurgents, including their subsidizers and political enablers, laying waste the nation, the professoriate that has indoctrinated two generations of students with leftist twaddle and deprived them of a legitimate education, the academic fellows and media experts signing virtue-signalling petitions against their betters who have offended the idols of mediocre conformity, the race hustlers, the Democrat vote-riggers, the lying journalists who have betrayed their mandate and write and report only to misinform and propagandize, the censors who operate the digital platforms, the radical feminists who control the university, the civic institutions and the public square, the scientists who betray the rule of objectivity to ensure government grants, transgender advocates pushing sex-reassignment surgery (worthy of Banquo’s befuddlement), the “whole sick crew” to quote Thomas Pynchon’s V -- these are the dwellers of the feculent swamp, or in common parlance, “bottom feeders.” I do not have the Christian forbearance to regard these people as just sadly deluded. In my mind, they are complicit with evil. Or at best, they are hurtling down the chain of being toward the feral depths and taking a culture, nation and civilization with them.

If they are allowed to drag us down into the moral and intellectual rot that is their natural home, democracy will have given way to ochlocracy (mob rule) or to despotism, republicanism to tribalism, the bestial will have overtaken the angelic, and the shining city on a hill will have become the fetid marsh of political decay. “Stars, hide your fire,” declaims Macbeth, “let not light see my black and deep desires.” The great chain of moral integrity and political order is disintegrating as we watch and the question now is whether Birnam Wood will march toward Dunsinane once again.

Graphic credit: Needpix

David Solway’s latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London. A CD of his original songs, Partial to Cain, appeared in 2019.

The medieval Christian conception of the great chain of being, so ably described and analyzed by Arthur Lovejoy and E. M. Tillyard, has been one of the most resonant concepts addressing mankind’s unique position in the cosmos. Situated between the divine and the earthy, the angelic and the bestial, the spiritual world and the physical creation, the human being is understood as a hybrid being consisting of a “higher” nature and a “lower” nature in perpetual conflict with one another. It is a metaphor that makes good explanatory sense.

Thus, we are tugged in two antithetical directions, toward reason, order and imagination on the one hand and envy, resentment and malice on the other, toward the tablets on the mountain above and the calf in the wilderness below. The gravity of degradation, alas, is always stronger than the upward flight of intellectual clarity and moral commitment. This will never change, but the choice and struggle between the angel and the animal within us, between logic and appetite, is what constitutes the essence of human identity, and the intermittent victory of the former over the latter is what constitutes the essence of human potentiality -- that is, of the truly human.

What applies to the individual person may also bear on the political dynamic. It is, for example, the explicit theme of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in which the proper hierarchy of the state is reversed and order is supplanted by disorder, rule by regicide and social convention by political anarchy and moral disarray. The established hierarchy of the given order of things represented by the chain is overturned: hawks are hunted by owls, tame creatures run wild (II, iv). And as Banquo remarks when he sees the witches:

What are these,

So withered and so wild in their attire,

That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,

And yet are on’t? …

You should be women,

And yet your beards forbid me to interpret

That you are so.” (I.ii)

The restoration of community and decorum -- the climb up the chain -- begins when Birnam Wood marches toward Dunsinane Hill, deposing the usurper and reclaiming the moral heights.

Today, one might say that the fraught experiment in republican governance is, on the grand historical scale, a collective effort to ascend toward a higher form of social organization than that initially represented by the state of nature as Thomas Hobbes depicted it in Leviathan, where “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In the terms of the 2nd Century B.C. Greek historian Polybius in The Histories, who developed the concept of classical republicanism, we would say that democracy is a higher form of civil and political order than oligarchy or autocracy. Democratic and republican governance represent an attempt to move up the links of the political chain of being toward the ideal of civic responsibility and individual flourishing.

Decadence is a staple of the human condition, but there are times when the forces of debasement and corruption seem far more conspicuous and irreversible than at other times when they are in approximate abeyance. And this, I believe, is one of those times, especially when observing the cultural and political scene in our own advanced and presumably enlightened countries.

We have remarked the gradual, now accelerated encroachment of the socialist nightmare on the American dream, the rapid breakdown of public order following the COVID pandemic so egregiously mismanaged by our political and medical classes, the destructive riots of various groups of domestic terrorists joined by the unproductive elements of society, and the racist hysteria leading to the eruption of social violence and hatred of whites. We have watched good people being “cancelled” by their moral inferiors. And we have seen our political authorities either foment the mayhem or retreat into their bunkers of silence and inactivity. These are the people descending the chain of being into the terrain occupied by the rabble, sinking from the realm of communal order into the realm of turbid misrule.

Heather Mac Donald speaks clearly and acerbically about “the current tolerance and justification for vandalism and violence” and “the elite betrayal of the principle of law,” deplores the “high-volume delegitimization of American justice and the incessant drumbeat about white supremacy,” and concludes, “These are no longer the warning signs of a possible breakdown of civilized life. That breakdown is upon us…Unless new leaders come forth who understand their duty to maintain the rule of law, the country will not pull back from disaster.”

She is obviously right but is anybody listening? The precipitous plunge from lawfulness to indiscriminate turmoil, from structure to chaos, from civility to barbarism is indeed upon us. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote back in 1969-70 of “the credulity, even the vulgarity of the supposed intellectual and social elite of the country,” and added, “I know there is an authoritarian Left in this country, and I fear it.” He had every reason to.

The corrupt politicians polluting Washington, D.C. and many blue state executive branches, the raving mobs infesting Twitter, the domestic insurgents, including their subsidizers and political enablers, laying waste the nation, the professoriate that has indoctrinated two generations of students with leftist twaddle and deprived them of a legitimate education, the academic fellows and media experts signing virtue-signalling petitions against their betters who have offended the idols of mediocre conformity, the race hustlers, the Democrat vote-riggers, the lying journalists who have betrayed their mandate and write and report only to misinform and propagandize, the censors who operate the digital platforms, the radical feminists who control the university, the civic institutions and the public square, the scientists who betray the rule of objectivity to ensure government grants, transgender advocates pushing sex-reassignment surgery (worthy of Banquo’s befuddlement), the “whole sick crew” to quote Thomas Pynchon’s V -- these are the dwellers of the feculent swamp, or in common parlance, “bottom feeders.” I do not have the Christian forbearance to regard these people as just sadly deluded. In my mind, they are complicit with evil. Or at best, they are hurtling down the chain of being toward the feral depths and taking a culture, nation and civilization with them.

If they are allowed to drag us down into the moral and intellectual rot that is their natural home, democracy will have given way to ochlocracy (mob rule) or to despotism, republicanism to tribalism, the bestial will have overtaken the angelic, and the shining city on a hill will have become the fetid marsh of political decay. “Stars, hide your fire,” declaims Macbeth, “let not light see my black and deep desires.” The great chain of moral integrity and political order is disintegrating as we watch and the question now is whether Birnam Wood will march toward Dunsinane once again.

Graphic credit: Needpix

David Solway’s latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London. A CD of his original songs, Partial to Cain, appeared in 2019.