Tradition And Modernity In The 1920s (III)

excerpts Chapter III. Reason and rationalism under accusation  2 The truth is that any objective examination of the ideological phenomenon that we are studying cannot avoid the conclusion that things were quite similar in France and Germany. By entering the territory of some philosophical and ideological motifs that have been often used these last years we will be able, we believe, to offer our readers a faithful image of the actual proportions of the above-mentioned reality, providing them with the tools that will enable them to make the necessary comparisons. Descartes was, undoubtedly, a genuine black sheep for the irrationalistic trends of all kinds. Let's choose a few edifying examples from the available material. The first ample essay published by Nae Ionescu in The European Idea is devoted to Descartes. It was in May 1921, Motru was still strictly surveying his review, and Nae Ionescu, mindful of not annoying his boss, and still not adopting the extreme positions of later years, was very moderate in his assessments. He consequently specified that Descartes was the father of European rationalism and that, in spite of the shock of the war, this tradition was going to be continued. "European man will therefore remain for a long time the rational, pragmatic man of Cartesian philosophy."[1] This was, certainly, a neutral, blank statement of fact. But wasn't this statement of fact an epistemological assessment in nuce, as well? Five years later to the day the neutral description of 1921 was tainted by well-defined negative connotations. What had previously been an assessment in nuce was to become a full-fledged evaluation: "After all, the entire life of the modern history of culture is dominated by the Renaissance and the Reformation and above all raises the giant, towering figure of Descartes… today's European world is, directly or indirectly, the world of Descartes. The perverting of the concept of reason, subjectivism, arithmetic individualism and scientific nominalism, freethinking, democracy, socialism, economic or political liberalism, all the major elements of present-day existence, all the «conquests» of the modern spirit in its fight against the «despotism of dogma» and «religious absolutism» can be inferred from a simple syllogism of the fundamental statements on which Discours de la méthode and Regulae ad directionem ingenii are built.[2] This is a dramatic change of perspective that discloses Nae Ionescu's genuine abhorrence of Descartes, and of both the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the rationalistic philosophy of the 19th century[3]. In the same year the chief editor of Cuvântul solemnly declared, in order to avoid any possible ambiguity, that he considered himself enrolled in a sort of great anti-Cartesian crusade: "What we are actually doing, for the time being, is just to wipe out rationalism; what I'm talking about is not genuine rationalism, with which mysticism has always lived at peace, but Cartesian rationalism, which is a reversal and, further on, an adulteration by one-sidedness of the genuine one. We are simply wiping it out: in philosophy, by the anti-intellectualist trends… in politics, by the close scrutiny of the parliamentary and democratic regime… by favoring the organic political theory at the expense of the contractual one… in art… in the religious life as well"[4]. Crainic had no different ideas on Descartes and his philosophy. Here is his opinion, as he made it public in 1931: Cogito ergo sum is the false dogma on which modern individualism is based. Cogito ergo sum is the philosophical transcription of the sin of the first man who, instead of living his life, took advantage of it and tried to forcefully unravel its secret through individual knowledge, replacing thus the divine… Descartes is the philosophical father of individualism and his doctrine is the source of the modern error that changed the world into hell…"[5] As we can see, a crucially important theme in the European sociological thinking, in the philosophy of culture, had been, since 1900, the opposition between the "Orient" and the "Occident", between "culture" and "civilization". Those thinkers who were hostile to the modern, industrial civilization suggested the Orient possessed the only genuine cultural model that was truly beneficial to the human being and to mankind as a whole. Naturally, the Orient, which was then lagging behind the Western societies and displayed tribal or mediaeval forms of civilization, was thus presented as a valid alternative to the industrialized capitalist society. From the stem of this topic another one emerged, that of the antinomy between "culture" and "civilization", this line of thought anathematizing modern civilization and praising "culture", which was facing the onslaught of civilization. The solution to the problem was, they believed, the oriental model, or the rural environments where "culture" had not been adulterated by the development of "civilization". This subject had been a favorite one particularly with the representatives of the German sociological Romantic school, who were all anti-capitalist and anti-industrialization thinkers, obviously supporting the small, closed agrarian communities (Chamberlaine, F. Tönnies, M. Weber, then Spengler, Keyserling and others). M. Tazerout, a scholar who was very well acquainted with this trend in German sociology and philosophy, and who was the translator of Spengler's book into French, noticed in the preface to the translation of the above-mentioned book something that was indeed striking: "The entire German speculation after the great revolution of 1789 has been stuck in these opposites and has not yet managed to disentangle from them: the opposition between Orient and Occident, and the one between culture and civilization. The Occident, in a wide sense, is Europe itself, opposed to Asia, a continental antithesis that represents the dead end of all our textbooks of elementary geometry… for the first time in history, the word Occident is not used by Spengler to oppose Asia against Germany, but to oppose Greek and Roman antiquity to the historical cultures of our planet."[6] Tazerout's last remark does not change the essential facts about Spengler's theory. Whether it had as first term of the antithesis the Greek and Roman antiquity or Germany, this theory brought about a wave of interest in and admiration for, the Orient, which represented a more modern instantiation of Rousseau's idea of the return to nature. Who could question (even less challenge or reject) the fact that our country has a peculiar geographic position at the border between the Orient and the Occident? Romania was for centuries, at great material expense and with the sacrifice of many lives, an outpost of the Occident at the border of the Orient. This has not altered, but, on the contrary, fortified, the national identity of the Romanian people. As the Romanian people was placed at the crossroads of two different civilizations, its identity began to be shaped as early as the hazy times of its ethnogenesis, a peculiar identity that combined, according to historian Vasile Pârvan, features that belonged both to the Northern type and to the Southern one. An intelligent and balanced view of this problem is to be observed with the Romanian poet Ion Pillat, a supporter of the ethnic character of art and one of the most faithful contributors to Gândirea, one of the outstanding literary reviews of the period between the two world wars. Writing about the peculiarity of Romanian Romanticism in 1931, the erudite poet made some considerations that can undoubtedly be extended to the entire Romanian culture. "The antithesis between the Orient and the Occident is still valid for Romanticism, too… for us (Romanians – our note) this problem becomes even more complicated since we are a people of Latin origin living in Eastern Europe, so we cannot be integrated in the Slav Romanticism – from which we are separated by sensitivity, language and race – as, on the other hand, we cannot completely assimilate Western Romanticism – from which we are separated by our geographical position, our history and our forefathers' religion, orthodox Christianity[7]. As our Middle Ages – or we should rather say, feudalism – continued into the 19th century, Pillat continues, and as we did not have a well founded Classicism, the Western opposition between Romanticism and Classicism was translated in this part of the world into the antithesis "Turkish and Russian autocracy versus Greek-Anacreontic literature and assumed different aspects. Romanticism thus fatally survived in this country much later and this was a real blessing" as it "represented our people's liberation in spirit and in deed from the darkness of the Oriental Middle Ages. With us, Romanticism played the role the Renaissance had played three centuries before in the West[8]". These are, as one can see, perfectly reasonable remarks that had the merit of acknowledging both the Latin heritage in our culture and the Oriental tradition. Pillat's opinion differs radically from those extreme views which considered that Romanian spirituality exclusively and permanently belonged to the Oriental cultural sphere, thus placing it, to paraphrase Pillat, in the darkness of the Oriental Middle Ages. Before we make some comments on these extreme views, however, we should refer to the lack of precision, even the ambiguity of the concepts of Orient and Occident, following a dissociation made by the Romanian writer Mihai Ralea. We are talking here about an ambiguity that is both mental and geographic. Which is, indeed, the border separating the western from the eastern worlds? Strictly speaking, Spain is a Western country, but its culture includes far more oriental elements than that of Italy, for instance. The whole Mediterranean basin is, after all, a mixture of Western and Eastern cultural influences that can be hardly separated. How about mentalities, then? Distinctions are equally difficult to make and relativity is at home. How many civilizations can be considered totally pure from this point of view? It's a common place, we say it again, that they are rather of a mixed type, the result of a natural spiritual interaction. What was Italian Renaissance if not the revival of the Greek ancient tradition? Even the so-called Greek miracle was, in its turn, a complex phenomenon where we can identify a lot of Oriental latent elements: we should remember that the Greeks were, then, a "northern" nation in relation to the people of the Middle or Far East. Not to mention that there are a lot of mystics both in the Orient and in the Occident. This represents therefore a very complex and intricate problem that cannot be treated in a Manichean or dogmatic manner. Nichifor Crainic held completely different views. Since 1923 he had tried to alter the spiritual map of the country placing it exclusively and permanently in the Orient. Anticipating Keyserling in 1927, he spoke as early as 1924 of the missionary role of Romanian Orthodoxy after the socialist revolution of Russia. "The old routes of the Orient are opening up to us again. The Orient itself is opening them up for us. We are thus offered the opportunity to expand culturally and this expansion has been part of the program of Gândirea, as our review has been promoting it for more than a year now. Linked to the Occident by the idea of our Latin character, we are linked to the Orient by faith. Our Latin character is our reception channel, the vein through which the pulse of Europe throbs in our blood. Orthodoxy is the channel through which we offer the world the superior products of the Romanian spirit; as we are placed at a crossroads in Europe, these products will naturally flow to the Orient."[9] It is not difficult to understand from that that, according to Crainic, the peculiar character of the Romanian spirituality is strictly of Oriental origin, since it is the only one that generates autochthonous values, while the Occidental component is the channel through which we receive foreign influences. Other thinkers, who were themselves staunch supporters of the idea of national specificity, developed fundamentally different opinions as to this problem: Titu Maiorescu, Garabet Ibrăileanu, Nicolae Iorga, Constantin Stere, Mihai Ralea, Lucian Blaga, Camil Petrescu, Al. Dima and many others. And these are all people whose sincerity is beyond doubt, people to whom we cannot deny the right to express a valid opinion in this field of the philosophy of culture, an opinion that was original, authentic and unadulterated. Six years later, however, when the intellectual trend initiated by Gândirea had already become a philosophy of culture and defined itself by absolutizing Orthodoxy, the Latin element is completely obliterated, the emphasis being now on the Orient This was largely due to Nichifor Crainic. This is what he wrote in his essay The Sense of Tradition: "If the mission of the Romanian people is to create a culture resembling this nation, this statement requires the solution provided by a direction, an orientation. Those who preach our 'orientation' towards the Occident are actually advocating some sort of nonsense. The word orientation itself includes the word Orient and means facing the Orient, guiding oneself in relation to the Orient… and as we are geographically placed in the Orient and as, through our religion, Orthodox Christianity, we are the guardians of the truth of the Oriental world, our orientation can only be towards the Orient, that is towards our own self, towards our legacy, of which we proved to be worthy. Our own culture can only develop organically in the environment provided by our land and our spirit. Westernization means the denial of our oriental character; the nihilism of pro-European trends means the denial of our creative potential. Which means after all the denial of a genuinely Romanian culture." [10] We should note the cheap attempt at deriving the meaning of the verb to orient and of the noun orientation from the concept of Orient, as well as the reduction of the oriental component of our culture to Orthodoxy. (The literary critic G. Călinescu proved in 1941, like many other scholars, that the oriental dimension of our culture is of Thracian origin and therefore much anterior to Christianity in general and to its Orthodox variant in particular.) We no longer come across the phrase – still acceptable to Crainic in 1924 – "placed at a crossroads", which presupposed the Latin component and the contacts with Western Europe. Crainic bluntly asserts now that we are geographically placed in the Orient, thus performing an absurd transfer both geographically and spiritually.[11] The beginning of Nichifor Crainic's essay A doua neatârnare (The Second Independence), in which he fiercely polemicizes with E. Lovinescu after the publication of the third volume of the latter author's History of Romanian Modern Civilization, is a thorough and simplified summary of all the opinions then in fashion, regarding the opposition between culture and civilization: "Industrial development and modern machines… represent European civilization. Indifferent to race, faith or geographic distinctions, its expansive tendency is represented by leveling. Where it doesn't exist, it is required by mathematical necessity. Underdeveloped countries are those that do not have modern machines. The developed ones are those where machines have reached the highest levels of development. American civilization is unmatched from this point of view. The machine is the very core of civilization. When we in Romania, or people in countries like ours, speak of a civilizing process, what we primarily mean by that is industrialization.[12]" Two years later, Radu Dragnea, polemicizing with Mihai Ralea exactly on this subject (the difference between culture and civilization), advocated the same views, where we can easily recognize echoes of Spengler's work: "Civilization is an outcome, culture is a process; when culture can no longer develop, then and only then, in that twilight moment, civilization and culture become identical, the differences between them are lost." Then, following Berdyaev's and Keyserling's idea that Orthodoxy was the only source of specificity, he added: "Where the Orient and Occident meet a new era dawns on mankind, whether the scholars call it the new Middle Ages, a readapting to the 18th century, or an ecumenical state. There is no other position possible for us between the structural crisis of the Eastern world and the spiritual crises of the Western one."[13] Beside the founding members of the group that formed around Gândirea, we should also mention the names of less important theorists, Sorin Pavel and Marcu Balş, younger people that will make themselves known by signing a despicable reactionary manifesto. Among the many expressions of opposite views as regards this issue we will quote that of Mihai Ralea. After he had attacked in the early 1920s the new trends in the philosophy of culture in his Letters from Paris, and then in the letters from Germany that he published in Viaţa românească, Ralea resumed his attack in 1928 in a (then and now) famous essay on the mission of his generation; "A hateful barbarity has seized our young generations… they have come to despise civilization and its fruits for its technical, comfortable and – they claim – mediocre features. They want to replace it with culture, which is an original, spontaneous response of the soul, above the comfort, technique and democratization of spiritual values… a new dualism has been imagined for some time now in this country: civilization and culture. The former is despised for its mechanical and mediocre character. If this is, however, what they understand by culture, we are definitely for civilization. What our people needs, thirsty for justice and freedom, is not the subjective culture that is the product of the extravagant temperament of some young man who can hardly control his insatiable need for climbing the social ladder. We don't need prophets, we don't need adepts of Nietzsche, we don't need original and desperate writers, we don't need solitary artists; we don't need ideologists with amusing and interesting biases either. If this is the 'culture' of the soul, we prefer the more modest civilization of the matter. What we need as a people, as a nation, are liberty and modern roads, justice and clean streets. We need a few people of character and a few thousands modern toilets… we don't need caprices, as we lack normality. We don't need luxury, as we don't have the bare necessary. This nation must be transformed, humanized in its profound depths. That is what the younger generations of today must understand."[14] Naturally, a wave of abuse directed at the author followed. The most innocuous accusation against him was that he rendered trivial a matter of utmost importance, pertaining to the philosophy of culture. This did not scare Ralea, however, who constantly reasserted his point of view, proving that his adversaries were advocating mysticism and obscurantism, while he claimed that what our people needed was liberty and material prosperity, that is precisely the values of civilization.  Tradition and Modernity in the 1920s, Eminescu, 1980 Z. Ornea (1930-2001), a prominent literary critic and historian, editor, and journalist, is the author of fundamental books on Romanian trends and ideas (Poporanismul, Opera lui C. Stere, Viaţa lui C. Stere, Junimea şi Junimismul, Semănătorismul, Anii treizeci: Extrema dreaptă românească and others). [1] Nicolae Ionescu, Descartes, părinte al democratismului contemporan (Descartes, the father of contemporary democratic thinking), Ideea europeană, II, issue 66, 8-15 May 1921, p. 2.[2] Nae Ionescu, Criza iudaismului (The Crisis of Judaism), Cuvântul, III, issue 509, July 18, 1926.[3] On this subject, see Nae Ionescu, Piatra din capătul unghiului (The Cornerstone) Cuvântul, III, issue 472, June 5, 1926.[4] Nae Ionescu, Sufletul mistic (The Mystic Soul), Cuvântul, July 31, 1926, Apud Roza vânturilor (The Wind Rose).[5] Nichifor Crainic, Gândirea, XI, nr. 2, 1931, pp. 52-53.[6] M. Tazerout, preface to Le déclin de l'Occident, Gallimard, 1948, p. 9.[7] Ion Pillat, Romantismul românesc (Romanian Romanticism), Viaţa românească, XXIII, issue 7-8, 1931, p. 14.[8] Ibid, p. 16.[9] Nichifor Crainic, Pacea Balcanului în protectoratul ortodox (The Peace of the Balkans in the Orthodox Protectorate), Gândirea, IV, issue 1, October 15, 1924, p. 21.[10] Nichifor Crainic, Sensul tradiţiei (The Sense of Tradition), Gândirea, IX, issue 1-2, 1929, p. 3.[11] On the relation between Orient and Occident, see also Anton Dumitriu's remarkable study Orient şi Occident (Orient and Occident), 1943.[12] Nichifor Crainic, A doua neatârnare (The Second Independence), Gândirea, V, issue 1, 1926. Apud Puncte cardinale în haos (Cardinal Points in Chaos), pp. 131-132. See a different translation in this issue (editors' note).[13] Radu Dragnea, Întregiri (Completions) Gândirea, VIII, issue 4, 1928, p. 181, p. 182.[14] Mihai Ralea, Misiunea unei generaţii (The Mission of a Generation), Viaţa românească, XX, issue 1, 1928, pp. 123-124. See a different translation in this issue (editors' note).

by Z. Ornea (1930-2001)