Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mervyn F. Bendle on "Existential Terrorism" and the "Augustinian Paradigm"

City of God
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've just read Mervyn Bendle's article "Existential Terrorism: Civil Society and its Enemies," Australian Journal of Politics and History (Volume 52, Number 1, 2006, pp. 115-130), which is available online through subscription. Here are the first three paragraphs, which clarify Bendle's point that much contemporary terrorism, the prime example being Islamist terrorism, aims at undermining the very possibility of civil society, that "social realm between the family and the state," and which also assert, though without yet clarifying, some connection between this contemporary terrorism and the thought of St. Augustine (page 115):
This paper relates a central trend in terrorist strategy to the history of attitudes towards civil society. Contemporary terrorism increasingly eschews attacks on political, military, diplomatic or corporate targets, and instead selects targets within civil society designed to maximize civilian deaths and injuries. This existential terrorism seeks to undermine the taken-for-granted ontological security that makes everyday life possible. This paper seeks to identify and analyze the origins and meaning of the ideological world-view that gives rise to such a terrorist strategy.

Civil society is the social realm between the family and the state composed of interrelated networks of intermediate institutions, including businesses, unions, voluntary associations, educational facilities, media, the Internet, charities, and churches, and that accommodates the free play of economic and cultural forces, and individual and group interests and differences. The importance of civil society is widely recognized in the social sciences, as Fukuyama notes: "Today [. . .] virtually all serious observers understand that liberal political and economic institutions depend on a healthy and dynamic civil society for their vitality." (Francis Fukuyama, Trust (Harmondsworth, 1995), p. 4.)

A vital aspect of the current crisis is that contemporary terrorism targets not only people and institutions that operate within the realm of civil society but civil society itself, i.e., terrorism targets the very possibility of an autonomous realm of everyday life, a social space of spontaneity, freedom, and difference. This impulse was manifest in the policies of the Taliban -- Al-Qaeda's Islamism in action -- but it is found in any group, regime, or society that has fallen ideologically under the control of what might be called the "Augustinian paradigm" of civil society. The present exploration of this situation provides insights into both contemporary terrorism and the nature of civil society. (page 115)
This is an intriguing insight, namely, that "contemporary terrorism targets . . . the very possibility of an autonomous realm of everyday life, a social space of spontaneity, freedom, and difference," in short, it targets civil society's very existence. Bendle finds this targeted attack on civil society by Leftists and Islamists, whose critiques of civil society are apparently interconnected, though Bendle doesn't demonstrate precisely what these links are. He does note the Left's post-1968 turn to the "Third-World" out of disappointment over the proletariat's nonrevolutionary character (page 127), but he doesn't clarify the Left's precise ideological impact on Islamism despite asserting that Islamism was influenced by Marxism-Leninism (page 116).

Bendle's identification of the "'Augustinian paradigm' of civil society" as culpable for the targeting of this "autonomous realm of everyday life" might seem odd, but he has already explored this to some extent in his article on "The Apocalyptic Imagination and Popular Culture," published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture (Fall 2005, Volume 11). Perhaps we can excerpt, for clarification, the specific work by Augustine that Bendle holds responsible for the terrible devaluation of civil society, namely, The City of God:
Book XIV Chap. 28: "Of The Nature Of The Two Cities, The Earthly And The Heavenly"

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, "Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, "I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength." And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God "glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise,"--that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride, -- "they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things." For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, "and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever." But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, "that God may be all in all." (Paul Halsall, editor, Medieval Sourcebook: Augustine (354-430): The City of God: excerpts on the Two Cities)
In Bendle's reading, this Augustinian tradition of two cities gives rise to a pessimistic view of civil society, the locus of evil and impurity, over against the optimistic view of a utopian, pure society someplace up above or sometime in the future. Two aspects are emphasized by Bendle as characteristic of the "Augustinian paradigm": 1) totalism and 2) apocalypticism. Concerning the former, both Leftists and Islamists (though also Fascists, he notes) deny civil society its autonomy and seek to replace it with a different, totalizing system in which everything is controlled by the Leftist state or by the Islamist elite. Concerning the latter, Leftists and Islamists claim access to a 'revealed' truth of the utopian society to come, especially if the path to that future society is blazed by apocalyptic violence.

Clearly, this interpretation of Augustine's two cities is a controversial one. I'm not yet persuaded Bendle's is the most reasonable reading of Augustine, and I'd need to see more on this point. The interpretation looks to me to be of a radicalized Augustinian tradition. But even if this interpretation were the most reasonable, I'd really want to see how Islamism is heir to Augustine. Is there supposed to be a direct line from Augustine to Islamism, or some influence via Leftist ideology (or via Fascism?), or is the "Augustinian paradigm" an ideal construct describing a system of thought that can arise within different traditions without direct or even indirect influence?

I'll look around some more, but I might need to shoot an email to Dr. Bendle . . .

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At 2:53 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I can not with any authority comment on Bendle's use of Augustine, but it seems to me that his use is a forced and awkward metaphor, evidently employed to add Platonic "gravitas" to his arguments. That is, name dropping. Why doesn't he more simply and more accurately set forth his thesis and characterize his distinctions sans Augustine, and thereby cleanly direct his reader's focus upon the matter at hand? Moreover, the conversation surrounding Augustine is interesting, but I rather think--that is I know--that the conversation surrounding Locke and Jefferson on these matters is far more interesting, apt, and convincing. As well, we have a range of modern authors and statesmen--Orwell, Huxley, Clemens, Wittgenstein, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Jack Broughton*, FDR, JFK, Salman Rushdie, William Golding, Karel Capek, Alan Sokal, Anthony Burgess, Winston Churchill, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman--who more deftly illustrate and argue for the cultural and political traditions (that is, Western civilization) that Bendle seeks to champion.

As for Augustine: if we talk about him as a defining data point in our understanding of modern Western civilization, isn't it necessary to shift our attention to Augustine's most influential explainers--Luther, Calvin, and (hmm?) Arminius and Socinus? That being the case, does it not then become necessary to look at the thinkers who most correctly and properly evaluated Augustine and refined his ideas into modern secular terms: Milton and Locke?

Indeed, it is though Milton and Locke (and Jefferson) that we can identify the appropriate response to the philosophical conflicts that Bendle draws our attention to. Of course, our own liberal orientations have been clouded by fifty years of continental philosophy, and the ridiculous diversion of various Frankfurters, Straussians, deconstructionists, and similar auto-destructs--like boisterous clowns flopping from a miniature car at the circus--who are determined to save us even if it kills us. As an aside, it is remarkable to observe that as their ideas have now sifted from the universities to the national stage, that the response of the populace has been to purchase ammunition and AR-15 rifles in large numbers, as the long lines of black rifles on the racks at the local sporting goods store serve to tell. According to the proprietor, the sales of AR rifles have never been better, and this despite the current economic malaise. I state this not as an advocate of AR rifles--God no, no and no--but as a matter of simply reporting what I see.

* I include Col. Broughton here because--as his book Going Downtown demonstrates--I believe he is an actual representative "dissenting military industrial complex insider" of the type Francis Ford Coppola seeks to portray in Apocalypse Now through the Marlon Brando character.

At 4:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I see that you have strong feelings on this matter . . . and more.

Anyway, on the so-called "Augustinian Paradigm," we seem to agree. I've posted today (Sunday, September 26, 2010) on this point, so I won't elaborate here since my fingers are getting tired of typing . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:44 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Not really strong feelings. Rather my prose style is somewhat forceful--which has been cultivated through writing fiction and poetry. When I sketch out a thesis I strive to enhance the clarity and logic of my discourse, and thus endeavor to block everything down crisply. As well, cutting my teeth on Orwell, Nabokov and Kubrick films has oriented me within a modernist and liberal world view.

And I've also been corrupted by Milton. So there you are.

At 1:21 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I don't know how this relates (I sense it does relate and I will seek that connection as I reach the bottom of my missive), but both The Economist and Foreign Affairs have recently run anti-Constitution hit pieces:

The perils of constitution-worship

Are Americans too Constitution obsessed?

Evidently the globalists are finding the "Tea Party" to be a source of discomfort, and they have moved from the ignore phase to the attack...

What I find interesting is that the arguments they are advancing against the Constitution reflect the anti-Constitution arguments advanced by our "progressive" colleagues in the academy. Earlier this summer, one of my former professors--who is in many respects an old school Marxist theorist--was criticized by his colleagues for saying something along the lines that the Constitution embodies important progressive elements. He reports, "They called me a 'libertarian.'"

What this means for Augustine . . . I don't know or remains to be seen (and I think will be seen if you slot Bendle in here). But to make a long story short, and to place the conversation within the context of Milton studies, the Marxism we associate with Christopher Hill is not the brand of Marxism that would be favored by many of our colleagues, whose "Marxism," as I've said, seems rather tied to the agenda of the globalist cartels. It is here that we might find some data points which either supplement or resonate with Bendle's polemic. And wether Bendle is right or wrong about Augustine, the characterization he advances regarding a peculiar nihilist epistemological assumption common to various actors on the global stage--as well as their supporters inside the academy--seems worthy of consideration.

At 6:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, thanks again for the comments. One of the interesting things about Bendle is that he actually seems to know what he's talking about when he critiques the Left's association with Islamists. He has sent me a paper exploring this connection, and I may report on it soon.

As for the Tea Party, I don't yet understand it. Some of its spokespersons seem rather questionable to me, but I've not been paying close attention.

I'll have to think about your other points.

Jeffery Hodges

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