The Quarrelsome Man

A quarrel’s but a line baited with truth,
Self-defense, a lure to swallow the hook;
Rising up, now sinking, in chaotic abyss,
Finding no harbor from that Old Crook.

Without a master free from such passion,
Consumed by the hunger of those he will find;
Like the venom of that beast long forgotten,
Be wrecked as by rot in his arrogant mind.

Evil spirits ravish then this poor soul,
Hooked both by the tongue and the throat;
A quarrelsome man spills his soul on his foe,
Brought forth by the sword from his own gloat.

Notes from Underground

This is best criticism of reason as a solution to the problem of evil, especially our own sin. I think this is also a good commentary on those of us who struggle philosophically (not merely as a practical matter) with Romans 7.

I’ve broken up the text with a bit of commentary. In each passage I highlight a few phrases that seem most important. Effectively he proves that reason has not been, nor can it provide, the answer.

First on the nature of reason’s mastery of desire (that is, what it would mean to freewill if reason mastered desire through reason):

Our choice is usually mistaken from a false view of our advantage. We sometimes choose absolute nonsense because in our foolishness we see in that nonsense the easiest means for attaining a supposed advantage. But when all that is explained and worked out on paper (which is perfectly possible, for it is contemptible and senseless to suppose that some laws of nature man will never understand), then certainly so-called desires will no longer exist. For if a desire should come into conflict with reason we shall then reason and not desire, because it will be impossible retaining our reason to be SENSELESS in our desires, and in that way knowingly act against reason and desire to injure ourselves. And as all choice and reasoning can be really calculated–because there will some day be discovered the laws of our so-called free will–so, joking apart, there may one day be something like a table constructed of them, so that we really shall choose in accordance with it. If, for instance, some day they calculate and prove to me that I made a long nose at someone because I could not help making a long nose at him and that I had to do it in that particular way, what FREEDOM is left me, especially if I am a learned man and have taken my degree somewhere? Then I should be able to calculate my whole life for thirty years beforehand. In short, if this could be arranged there would be nothing left for us to do; anyway, we should have to understand that.

Then on to the nature of reason and its limitations:

You see, gentlemen, reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even if it goes wrong, it lives.

So then he turns hard against reason’s mastery for a very particular case:

But I repeat for the hundredth time, there is one case, one only, when man may consciously, purposely, desire what is injurious to himself, what is stupid, very stupid–simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible. Of course, this very stupid thing, this caprice of ours, may be in reality, gentlemen, more advantageous for us than anything else on earth, especially in certain cases. And in particular it may be more advantageous than any advantage even when it does us obvious harm, and contradicts the soundest conclusions of our reason concerning our advantage–for in any circumstances it preserves for us what is most precious and most important–that is, our personality, our individuality. Some, you see, maintain that this really is the most precious thing for mankind; choice can, of course, if it chooses, be in agreement with reason; and especially if this be not abused but kept within bounds. It is profitable and sometimes even praiseworthy. But very often, and even most often, choice is utterly and stubbornly opposed to reason … and … and … do you know that that, too, is profitable, sometimes even praiseworthy?

Now he proposes a better understanding of human nature based on our disparity between moral compass and life (I just love the line about being an ungrateful biped which seems to fit with our problems arising through failing to give thanks):

Gentlemen, let us suppose that man is not stupid. (Indeed one cannot refuse to suppose that, if only from the one consideration, that, if man is stupid, then who is wise?) But if he is not stupid, he is monstrously ungrateful! Phenomenally ungrateful. In fact, I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped. But that is not all, that is not his worst defect; his worst defect is his perpetual moral obliquity, perpetual–from the days of the Flood to the Schleswig-Holstein period. Moral obliquity and consequently lack of good sense; for it has long been accepted that lack of good sense is due to no other cause than moral obliquity.

Let’s get some history:

Put it to the test and cast your eyes upon the history of mankind. What will you see? Is it a grand spectacle? Grand, if you like. Take the Colossus of Rhodes, for instance, that’s worth something. With good reason Mr. Anaevsky testifies of it that some say that it is the work of man’s hands, while others maintain that it has been created by nature herself. Is it many-colored? May be it is many-coloured, too: if one takes the dress uniforms, military and civilian, of all peoples in all ages–that alone is worth something, and if you take the undress uniforms you will never get to the end of it; no historian would be equal to the job. Is it monotonous? May be it’s monotonous too: it’s fighting and fighting; they are fighting now, they fought first and they fought last–you will admit, that it is almost too monotonous. In short, one may say anything about the history of the world–anything that might enter the most disordered imagination.

But what can we NOT say about history (and about human nature itself):

The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat. And, indeed, this is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbors simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one.

What does this mean? What are we saying, but that in our ingratitude we ruin ourselves.

Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with strange qualities? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary– that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.

How far will man go to prove that he is not merely the keys of a piano? (Here is the triumph of the stupidity of man.)

And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object–that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated–chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!

Back to freewill:

You will scream at me (that is, if you condescend to do so) that no one is touching my free will, that all they are concerned with is that my will should of itself, of its own free will, coincide with my own normal interests, with the laws of nature and arithmetic. Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!

And now from me: So then we are ungrateful, impossibly so. There is no other condition for us but to be an ungrateful biped who, to prove himself that he is not a piano-key will deliberately do something harmful to himself, to others and even the whole world. Reason cannot meet this. Even if reason could be made to meet it, we would simply abandon reason so that we might continue to do it.


My Father’s Grandfather now sings from the grave;
I beg inspiration from your God to intone.

This seed seeks remembrance, the fruit of your tree;
That fell to the soil once sprouted, now grown.

North of Angel City, to the land of the hells;
A willing servant by spirit-wind blown.

Speaking for the broken, beaten in dry lands;
A man stood condemned for what he condoned.

Find a wife, add a daughter, and a son; this seed;
Such great fruit summoned the tree that had sown.

While still a bud, he learned words of power;
Calling forth fish by command from sea-foam.

But the calling had grasped him at his core;
Their divine energy animated his bones.

First in sight of the sea and scrubbed hills;
Then in the great valley he spoke under their domes.

Wife called the blind, saw to his two children;
Loved safe in the castle he carved from the stone.

Kept his good house and looked out for his needs;
So in the stead of the damned he might stand alone.

At him empty men spoke spears of cold fire;
Made outlaw unjustly, homeless he roamed.

“I have come not to seek myself but my brothers;
Grace give to the dead, to the living unknown.”

He said, “Fear not, those weak from this hunger;
For together our feasting and singing atone.”

Famine, envy and spite burst forth to do battle;
Thus knowing his fate, the scars he bid welcome.

By heaven’s good gift, each barb turned a blessing;
A lifetime of cuts carved an old face winsome.

He saw the invisible, heard the voice of the mute;
With each hand clasped made friend the lonesome.

Now this seed speaks the last truth you have given;
And repay the debt by writing this tome.

Father sang Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty;
Ever ringing out, long after God took him home.

Radiance of the Father

By the light which shone upon mount Tabor
That those yet in darkness lost could be found
Of your own will but in obedience
–to the Father; you suffered, crucified

Show us that happy way, that graceful light
Brothers let us attract God without guile

Your glory still enlightens your disciples
–as far as we can bear that vision
We have learned to cast out our sinful eyes
And better blind in the kingdom, we see

For the greatest of the least little child
With a curse to them that keep him from you
That great weight as you bore voluntary
Should be a chain firm ’round their cruel necks

Show us the golden way now uncovered
It is easy for the lowly of heart

We will then become as children so that
We might sit in the midst of all the saints
Even in front of him who is the Christ
The very Radiance of the Father

Beware Modernity

Wade the shore of Phlegethon, soul cold beyond fear
Starved gaunt of self-knowledge by dream’s malnutrition
Reality’s freedom exchanged for hunger’s fantasy

Narcissus detects no regret reflected in empty eyes
A will so enfeebled that it cannot pierce its heart
He’ll depart this life alone without friend or foe

Depleted storehouses stand as echos of Esau’s folly
The land falls into ruin with the gardener’s death
His dry bones feed no soil but poison the stream

A vital capital pumped through his empty carcass
Drawn by harlot organs absent of soul’s restraint
The wealth of nature exhausted by the logic of profit

Had he escaped this blue pearl the stars would dim
All the sky would flicker and in time’s measure fade
An effort that heaven’s golden horde cannot satisfy

Woe prisoners of Dis with eyes that chew young sisters
Betrayers of a noble virtue the wretched inhospitable
Death has come already to the host that eats his guests

Death, for him, becomes life because he has no other
His will to live deserts him and his passions flow
An addiction worse than death bites as he consumes himself


Make no mistake, the way out of this mess is obedience.

Everything else is the gyrations of a collective cultural epileptic fit. These manic outbursts have nothing to do with being human, or in fact much of anything. It is anti-culture and nothing or no one has ever had to deal with such a beast before.

I hear the words of some who say (with that “nothing is new under the son” tone of voice) that the Roman empire as a first cosmopolitan sociological laboratory was similar, but it wasn’t. Nothing like what we are going through right now has ever happened, nothing remotely like it.

We no longer live in communities, we no longer live together at all. For the first time in human history, more adults will go to bed alone tonight than go with a spouse. More children are raised in fractured (and soon even single) homes than stable ones, forget having extended “clan” relations around.

We have begun to play with the fundamental categories of human nature, not by some accident of the fall, but by intent. We are in a feedback loop of distorted self caused by the nascent ascendancy of man over his own nature.

We’re wrestling about talking about whether or not Church life fits into this mess, but that’s the rhetorical equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. What does life look like at all, when life can look like anything? I didn’t come to Orthodoxy for protection from post-modernism. (I’d rather have post-modernism than modernism any day of the week as at least the post-modernist knows he’s ill, he’s just in despair about it–which is exactly half the delusion the modernist suffers from.)

Back to the beginning. Obedience. This is what it looks like. How can we obey (or understand what healthy obedience looks like) when we don’t even demand our children respect adults by calling them Mr. and Mrs. How do I genuinely use the term “Master” or “His Grace”, if I call my own mother “Sheila”?

But obedience is it. It is the answer. The only way to recover this is to do what Christ did. Empty ourselves of our demigodhood, and do not count ourselves as equals. Obey, not as slaves, but perhaps at least as well as we listen to our new clergy in the medical profession (faith follows function). Obey as our parents obeyed their grandparents. Obey as they obey us. This isn’t subservience, this is, this must flower in mutual love.

This is a mutual obedience, formed by real bonds that really suffers for one another and really ruins a whole family when one member throws the common life into a fit.

It does not matter whether the tones are Byz or SATB in the key of F. Our priests wear what they wear at the altar because if they didn’t they’d be naked, and they might as well wear just about what the guy they remember doing it wore.

Is Orthodoxy in America troubled beyond Owen-ian repair? Of course not. There is no way up, but through. Admit the EOC and a dozen like them, the chips will fall as they may. In 200 years all of this will be summed in a few pages on some history book. It will say, “there was a time when…” and later, “but then there was this and that development…” and then finally, “so now we are past that but have to deal with these new problems.”

And life will go on, as will the Church until the Eschaton.

Again I say, if we are cursed with a freer will (or as I understand it, a never more dangerously enslaved will) let us use that freedom to lay down our slavery and bury our dead bodies in obedience to one another.

Even if it hurts. Especially when others do not return the “enlightened” gesture. Evermore until in the flesh we die.

Three Lamps Full

Who’s lights burn bright into the night, but those with oil?
Linger still the wait of blows, three lamps full endured.

Fruit of blooded ground born of Wonder-working George.
Now in four day procession loft his banner high.

Christopher suffered of torments;
Theonas gloried Christ as God;
Anthony with his brothers burned;
Still three lamps full light up the night.

Now brothers let us prepare for the Bridegroom comes!

Untainted Glory

Patriarch of Constantinople

Of the great city, that center of spheres
You were born and raised its eminent son.
Noted as judge of men in high repute
Then given to advise the empire’s head.
Led first astray embracing heresy
Then recanting took the heavy schema.
From the lowly repentance monastic
You were recalled to sit upon the throne.

They thought you a servant of thrones of men
But your heart had long belonged to your God.
Holy Tarasius restored union
And the icons of Constantinople.
Hailed high from Rome to Alexandria
Your zeal sealed the end of iconoclasm.
Held the council against the threatening mob
Yet gracefully reproved your enemies.

You endured these controversies and lies
Judgments too wise for the narrow to see.
Scandalizing pious busybodies
Though you offered them their pound of your flesh.
Loyal you did receive disloyalty
Friendly you received only animus.
In thoughtful wisdom you tempted the fools
And in forgiving brought judgment on your self.

What a struggle for peace and unity,
What a strong heart for your brother fellows,
What a hope of that sainthood foretasted,
May our mistakes be as blessed as yours!

And may we know that untainted glory.