The world is powered by symbolism. It drives and propels history. As Jonathan Pageau, for instance, points out here, Al-Qaida brought down the World Trade Center on 9/11 precisely because of its high symbolic status. They saw it for what it was - an expression of America’s most deeply held beliefs and values. In other times and cultures, Al-Qaida or their equivalents would have chosen a different target - a cathedral or a royal palace or an ancient stone circle. But they had done their homework and knew that economics and commercial exchange held the keys to the US psyche. They intuited that striking at these highest values would have a seismic long-term effect, altering the relationship between the government and the governed, exposing the inherent contradictions of Western society, and ushering in a process of unravelling and disintegration. Twenty years on, who could say that they were wrong?
The West today is a civilisation barely worthy of the name, its lifeblood poisoned by a witch’s brew of extreme decadence and technological tyranny. The tapestry that once wove us together and told our collective story has been decisively unpicked. We drift along listlessly in a sea of uncertainty and have no idea as a people of who we are, what we stand for, and where we are going. It is hard to know how to push back - how to pin down and define an enemy whose attacks seem to emanate from everywhere and nowhere. What do we even call this slippery set of structures which assails us? Post-modernism? Wokeism? The successor ideology? Who and what are we who fight it? Conservatives? Traditionalists? Reactionaries? Post-liberals? Unlike in The Iliad, say, where Homer tells us plainly who is fighting who and why, it is not always obvious today who the combatants are, who is friend and who is foe, and what the stakes truly are in this great 'Battle for Being' raging all around us.
Part of the problem, of course, is the nature of our age - the acid bath of post-modernity, which corrodes and dissolves all fixed meanings and identities. But this is not the full story. St. Paul, long ago, discerned the deeper truth: 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.' (Ephesians 6:12) As the hard materialism of the modern, industrial era, forged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, melts away, so we sense a welter of chaotic forces tugging us this way and that with no pattern or stability or overarching set of values. These are the 'fissures in the great wall' already observed by Rene Guénon over seventy years ago. (1) The demonic and the infra-human surge through, but at the same time a space is cleared which makes it easier to discern the fundamentally spiritual nature of the struggle.
This is a war which cannot be fought on the level of political parties or legal proceduralism. That would be to play within the rules of liberalism, the ruling mentality which must be transcended. Symbolism offers us a more creative path - understanding and acting upon a symbol's latent power to change the historical narrative and set a new dynamic in motion. How do we do this? Violence against an enemy symbol à la 9/11 is clearly out of bounds. We cannot wage war with the Devil by adopting his weapons lest we morph into demons ourselves. Symbolic gestures such as storming civic buildings or burning contentious flags are equally pointless in their own way as they are purely reactive and serve only to reinforce the dominant narrative.
What we need, more than anything, is a unifying symbol, something we can focus on and meditate upon, alone or in a group, online or off, until we tap into the deep reality underlying it and the image becomes manifest in the world. There are numerous possibilities, but none better to my mind than this Roman coin struck to commemorate the relief of London in AD 296 by the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, the husband of St. Helena and father of Constantine the Great.
In 286, the Romano-Belgic naval commander, Marcus Carausius, usurped control of Britain and part of northern Gaul and declared himself joint-Emperor. His claim, unsurprisingly, was rejected, but the Roman authorities found both Carausius and his successor (and assassin), Allectus, obdurate opponents, and it was a full decade before imperial rule was restored. The Anglo-Welsh poet and artist, David Jones (1895-1974), refers to this episode in his epic poem, The Anathemata(1952) and in a footnote reflects on the coin's wider significance:
He (Constantius) is mounted and with a lance, his horse stepping from a gang-plank of a boat at a turreted gateway inscribed LON, where a kneeling female figure greets him with welcoming arms. The words REDDITOR LUCIS AETERNAE (Restorer of the Eternal Light) are inscribed above the figure of the Emperor. Although this may but commemorate a chance victory in a war of rival generals, none the less Constantius, at that moment, was the outward sign of something and was himself the implement of what he signified, namely: in the domain of accidental fact, the saving of London from immediate sack; in the domain of contemporary politics, the restoration of Britain to unity with the West; and in the domain of perennial ideas, the return of Britain to the light of civilisation. (2)
These are the 'controlling hands' that renew the wasteland, bring order out of chaos, and restore the primal pattern to a land which had wandered off after strange gods, far from the divine, eternal source of light. David Jones, throughout his oeuvre, invites us to explore that fertile terrain where Catholicism meets and interacts with the deepest strata of history and mythology. In The Anathemata we see this develop over the course of millennia with specific reference to the island of Britain. But his theme is universal - it is the symbolic reality, not the physical location or the individual personage, that is definitive. In what Jones calls the domains of 'accidental fact' and 'contemporary politics' the historical record gives us reason to believe that Carausius was a capable and popular ruler. But this has strictly limited significance when set against the domain of 'perennial ideas', and it is this, says Jones - this 'light of civilisation' - that Constantius symbolises and incarnates.
This, I believe, is our vocation too, here and now in 2021, in thought, word and deed, in matters great and small, each of us a Redditor Lucis Aeternae, shining the ancient, holy light - ever old, ever new - onto the ruins and fragments of what was once the West. If we can connect, therefore, to the archetypal theme at the heart of this engraving - the ‘Return of the King’ - then it can become for us what the vision of the cross in the sky was for Constantine before his rout of Maximian at the Milvian Bridge. In Hoc Signo Vinces. By this sign, conquer.
Look again at the coin and the body language of Constantius and the representative of London. The Emperor arrives as a liberator, not just a conqueror, and as such he is gladly welcomed into the city. He comes not to subjugate but to rescue and redeem, and this again is the pattern we should seek to follow. Harsh, bitter judgmentalism has no place in the salvific, healing work we are called upon to perform. Compassion, forgiveness, and humility should be our watchwords, and with these the empathy to feel and share the human suffering ushered in by civilisational collapse - feel it in the marrow of our being; feel it to the point of tears. So much beauty and nobility going down into the dust, so much degradation and perversity, so many blighted lives, so much stunted potential. We carry our neighbour's cross. We do not stand aloof in splendid isolation. ‘Without a vision the people perish.’ But any transformative vision, any New Jerusalem, is worthless unless accompanied by the beating of a massive human heart.
Our manner, our attitude, our bearing, will all make it plain that a life informed by order, hierarchy and tradition gives a man or a woman the optimum chance of finding meaning and fulfilment. It will soon be crystal clear, as Joseph Ratzinger prophecied as long ago as 1969, that secular liberalism leads to a dead-end at best and suicidal despair at worst. He foresaw a new age of persecution, which will push the Church back to the catacombs. There, in extremis, she will find again her original purity and be rebaptised with that Pentecostal fire which will give the lost and abandoned of that time exactly what they need:
A great power will flow from a more spiritualised and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. (3)
Only at this stage, with a critical mass of 're-traditionalised' people, can we start thinking about society, moulding and shaping it so that it reflects and embodies the Heavenly order. Public life, step by step, will be re-orientated towards the Divine, with the Good, the Beautiful and the True serving as the ruling principles of political thought and action. Because this is a society based on love, all minorities will find their place easily and naturally in the wider whole. It is not a question of some tick-box 'duty of care' to an abstract citizen or individual, but rather the attention and respect that every son and daughter of God commands by right. By the same token, this will not be a society that essentialises the exception as ours likes to do, using minority groups as battering rams to reduce age-old understandings of anthropology to rubble. What we are looking at is something more akin to Dante's Paradiso, where each of the blessed finds his or her proper level in the hierarchy of Heaven. There is no envy, no resentment, no restless striving after something 'better.' Everyone is facing the same way, towards the source and fount of life that bestows upon us purpose and direction - 'the love,' as Dante puts it, 'that moves the sun and the other stars.'
Here is our model; here is our goal. But it will take time to get from here to there. Turbulence too. 'We can count on terrific upheavals' as Ratzinger also warns us. But this is all as it should be. Nothing of lasting value springs up instantly and without difficulty. Think, for example, of the peregrinations of Aeneas and the bloody war he had to wage against the Latins to set the story of Rome in motion. Some Catholic Integralists, especially in the US, seem to wish to short-circuit this process, aiming to seize control of the State in as short a time as possible to impose their worldview on an untransformed populace. This approach will reward us with a sticking-plaster at most. It is too rational and head-based, unable to engage with the heart of the matter - the metaphysical malaise that engenders a vacuum of values and sets the stage for the multiple firestorms now engulfing us: spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, and political. Something more profound is needed to kickstart the restoration - a high act of the Imagination; unforeseen and unrepeatable - at once archaic and future-facing, both pre-and-post-verbal (if such a thing is conceivable), and in the closest and most intimate of relationships with the sacred.
It is time to choose our symbols and to choose them well. After Constantius, remember, comes Constantine, inaugurator of the long golden age of public faith that built Hagia Sophia in the East and Chartres Cathedral in the West. That civilisational paradigm has run its course now, and it is not our task to resuscitate it – to follow 'an antique drum' as Eliot has it in Little Gidding. We inhabit a world of clashing, competing narratives, and the onus is on us to fight and win the Battle for Being anew as those royal figures did seventeen hundred years ago. Our vision is grounded in and inspired by the past, but our eyes are fully focused on the future, which remains an open book as always, inviting the winner to write his story on its pages.
We are at the start of a long and exacting journey, but this is the only road to take and the only place to be. The future is born this very minute, at the midnight of history, in the débris of the Constantinian settlement and the silence of abandonment and apparent defeat. It begins in stillness, with the contemplation of an image which unfurls into a symbol – the rallying-point and spearhead of a new culture and aesthetic - fresh, bold, and radical. It ends in victory and renewal, then begins again.
Redditor Lucis Aeternae. The Return of the King.
By this sign, conquer.
(1) See especially The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (1945)
(2) David Jones, The Anathemata (Faber and Faber, 1952) p.134.
(3) See here for the full transcript of this 1969 radio address.