Illuminating the Dim Enlightenment

Looking through my archives, I see that I’ve been aware of “The Dark Enlightenment” or the Neoreactionary (“NRx”) movement since at least September 2007, when I slogged through a Mencius Moldbug post and selected some key quotations from it.  I read another post by MM in February 2009 and complained about it.

The September 2007 and February 2009 posts mark the boundaries of a time when I was spending a fair bit of time trying to get a handle on NRx thought. I’d largely lost interest in it by the spring of 2009, though I did bring the movement up again in 2014 in order to mention the snappy nickname for it I’d come up with,”The Dim Enlightenment.” During last year’s US election campaign, the prominence of Peter Thiel in Donald J. Trump’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s decision to give a speech accusing Don John of Astoria of involvement with the “Alt-Right” brought the Neoreactionaries a significant amount of public attention.  The idea that Don John himself is directly influenced by NRx writings is risible, as the Hated Steve Sailer pointed out:

Nonetheless, I have had the vague sense that I ought to take another look at that stuff.

Heaven knows I’m not going to dig my way through another 35,000 words of unedited ramblings by Mencius Moldbug.  Fortunately, I remembered that in 2013 Scott Alexander had written a summary of NRx thought. I hadn’t read it when it was new; the title, “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell,” had turned me away, since “enormous” and “planet-sized” are two things NRx writers consistently do themselves. As it turns out, Dr Alexander’s post is actually rather concise. And it is admirable in its fair-mindedness. Dr Alexander labors mightily to present the best possible case for NRx views, especially those with which he most strenuously disagrees. I chuckled when I saw the point at which his imaginative sympathy finally broke down: “Reactionaries also seem to be really into metaphysics, especially of the scholastic variety, but I have yet to be able to understand this. Blatant racism, attempts to clone long-dead monarchs, and giving a gold-obsessed alien absolute power all seem like they could sort of make sense in the right light, but why anyone would want more metaphysics is honestly completely beyond me.”

Dr Alexander followed this post up with an “Anti-Reactionary FAQ,” which by March of 2014 he was saying he no longer fully endorsed. Still, unless you’re planning to make an academic study of the Neoreactionaries or to engage in an exhaustive public debate with them, I think Dr Alexander’s posts should tell you just about all you really need to know about them.

Dim enlightenment


The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

How not to write a blog post

Here Mencius Moldbug provides an example of what I try to avoid doing when I write a post. 

1.  It’s very long, 32 screens of text. 

2. It starts with a series of acronyms that are neither generally familiar to the public nor explained anywhere in the text. 

3.  It deals with a wide range of topics.  The terms “Right” and “Left” as applied to politics, the advantages of royalism over democracy, Carlyle’s theory of the state, the ongoing financial crisis, the relationship of money to value, the evils of John Maynard Keynes, the supreme importance of a strong state, the virtues of corporate CEOs, the mental illnesses of Hitler and Stalin, the evils of separation of powers, and the impossibility of changing anything for the better. 

4. It contains strong claims about many matters which the author does not appear to understand.  Making an analogy between political systems and stellar evolution, he say that “Betelgeuse, of course, will end in supernova”; a commenter points out that Betelgeuse is not massive enough to end this way.  He lumps all proposals to respond to economic difficulties by loosening the fiscal policy of the government under the label “Keynesian,” then attacks John Maynard Keynes for them, regardless of what Keynes actually said or what theories the proposals in question may actually reflect.  He claims that all systems which divide of powers within the state violate the Roman strictures against  imperium in imperio,  ignoring the rest of Roman political thought and the whole practice of the Roman Republic. 

These four flaws all point to the same thing: the author of this post needs an editor.  An editor would have assigned him a maximum length; would have blue-penciled the acronyms; would have insisted on a coherent arc of development; and would asked the author for the basis of his factual claims.  It’s a shame this person blogs instead of submitting his work to an editor, because the piece contains several interesting points as well. 


A provocation from Mencius Moldbug

Lefalcon seems to be interested in “political theology,” the notion that all political ideologies are really religious doctrines in disguise.  Below, Mencius Moldbug of the “Unqualified Reservations” blog tries to identify the religious doctrine behind the liberal internationalism that animates supporters of things like NATO, the UN, etc.

If you don’t want to follow the link, I’ll put the key paragraphs after the jump: