The Hero's Life

or, A sketched response to Sayyid Qutb.

The New York Times Magazine ran a piece by Paul Berman entitled "The Philosopher of Islamic Terror." Mr. Berman's study of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, presents the reader with a needed understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. It also produces for us a challenge: who in the West can respond to the deep questions raised by Qutb? "The terrorists speak insanely of deep things," Berman writes. "The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. . . . Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion?"

A full response to Qutb's writings is the work of years, and beyond the scope of this piece. What is attempted here is a sketch of what such a response should look like. In effect it proposes a synthesis of Qutb with Western philosophy, recognizing that large parts of his argument are echoed in the Western, and particularly the Anglo-American, tradition. With only a few changes, the Islamist can slide seamlessly into our own tradition, reinforcing and strengthening the healthiest and--per Mr. Berman--sanest parts of our philosophy. The Islamist willing to accommodate us becomes one of us, an ally, even a brother in arms.

Can they be convinced to make accommodations? With the right philosophy to guide us, I think they might be convinced.

I. Socrates & Qutb

Qutb's central complaint with the United States was its doctrine of the separation of church and state. Secularization led to a supreme discontent, a sense that human nature was betrayed. Science and God were not meant to be enemies, but rather science was meant to be a means of looking for the truth of God. The mistake, Qutb felt, had come in the days of the early Christian church. Outraged by the persecution of the Jews, Christians had turned away from the old Jewish Law and allowed Greek philosophy to replace it; overwhelmed by the prolificacy of the Romans, the early Christians retreated into a private realm of spirituality, and let the state go its own way. The modern separation of church and state was, he felt, an extension of this earlier theological mistake.

There are two things to be said about this. The less important is that this analysis is wrong on a number of historic points. A fuller argument would enumerate these, but here we are not interested in rejecting Qutb's argument. We are interested in sketching ways to reply to it that will allow us to absorb it into our own tradition of philosophy.

To do that we need to deal with this question of the Islamist disdain for Greek philosophy. Curiously, there are strong parallels between Qutb's life and that of Socrates, and between Islamist and Platonic ideas about the life well lived. One line of attack, then, should be to attempt to draw the Islamist into that Greek tradition.

The first way to do this is to demonstrate that, for Plato, philosophy was a continuation of the heroic tradition, a battle every bit as worthy as those found in Homer. In this way, it was a struggle exactly parallel to that of the jihad: a war fought through words, but a struggle that was just as heroic and compelling as any other. Plato himself is our strongest and most seductive advocate. Eric Voeglin showed how heroic language was often used in the Platonic dialogues. In my Master's thesis, I looked at how Socrates was often portrayed as Odysseus specifically, and how Plato used the formal language of battles and duels to exalt the business of philosophy. This is just the language we will need to move the hearts of jihadi.

For someone who believes in a philosophical duty of jihad, entering into such a struggle can hardly be resisted. Furthermore, Plato and Aristotle spoke to precisely the concerns that we see cited again and again: courage, honor, virtue, and living the good life in the face of danger. Socrates, like Qutb, was sentenced to death primarily for his particular philosophy, and like Qutb refused a chance to escape, going willingly to his death for a point of philosophy. If philosophers educated in the Greek tradition are willing to undertake a study of Islam, that they may be able to speak to the concerns and issues that Islamists will raise in reply, it ought to be possible to draw Islamists into such a debate. We have a large store of them in Cuba, in fact, who have nothing else to do just now. Taliban in particular were students before they became fighting men. Educated about the majesty of the Greek tradition, when they are finally released they should provide an organic means of spreading the story of Socrates among Islamists, and carry on the work of engaging them in a jihad of words and ideas instead of guns and bombs.

II. Ingeld & Christ

If we succeed in engaging them in a Western style philosophy, what will we say to them? How do you argue with the claim of divine revelation? It is not unlikely that fanatics will, at some point, simply fall back upon assertion in the place of argument. How to break that cycle?

The answer lies in the Anglo-American tradition--indeed, its roots are in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. In 797, Alcuin, a famous early leader of the Anglo-Saxon church, wrote to remonstrate the monks of Lindisfarne for their indulgence in heroic literature. "What has Ingeld to do with Christ?" he demanded, Ingeld being a Germanic king of heroic cycles now largely lost. Alcuin was ignored, however, and the story of Ingeld remained so well known that the Beowulf poet did not feel any need to tell it at length, but only made sidelong citations to it.

Alcuin was serious, and in him we see the kind of early Christian that Qutb despised. Yet Alcuin's voice carries to us so strongly across the centuries only by accident of fate. His writings survived. What did not survive was this, apparently very strong, poetic tradition of Ingeld and other Germanic hero-kings. If we look past Alcuin, we see that very many monks and priests were not separating sacred from secular: they were singing songs of hero-kings in the very monastery.

The answer to Alcuin's rhetorical question is this: Ingeld and Christ are to us as father and mother. Honoring one and despising the other is unhealthy. Qutb understood this: but so did we. The radical divide between church and state does not date to Alcuin's times, except insofar as it was being advocated by certain hard-headed priests. The general run of the populace seems to have understood the relationship between Ingeld and Christ.

This traditional understanding of the relationship between sacred and secular was long preserved. After the Norman conquest, a monk named Geoffery of Monmouth wrote another piece that carries down to us today. It was "The History of the Kings of Britain," a long tale of hero-kings, including Arthur himself. The Canterbury Tales demonstrate a smooth blending of the sacred and the secular, and indeed the Christian and the pagan, as in the "Knight's Tale." Shakespeare drew gladly from all such sources. Sir Walter Scott, in _Ivanhoe_, shows the principle appreciated in all its full-throated glory in the meeting between Richard and the Holy Clerk of Copmanhurst. Nor can anyone read G. K. Chesterton's magnificent _Orthodoxy_ , first published in 1908, and fail to see that there remained fully sacred men. You do not need to be a Christian to think so.

In fact, Chesterton's _Orthodoxy_ is similar to Qutb's writings in that it is a firm rejection of Modernism, except that Chesterton was around when Modernism was being born. If Qutb writes hysterically about how Modernism was affecting the Middle East of his day, Chesterton writes with foresight about how the movement would affect the world for a century to come. Reading the early chapters, one sees that Chesterton not only accurately predicted the problems that would arise with Modernism, but accurately predicted the development of Post-modernism as well.

Nor was Chesterton the last of his tradition. J. R. R. Tolkien invoked the tradition with as great power as anyone, using his deep learning to evoke meaning from the words of dead languages--especially Old English, Old Norse, and the other Scandinavian tongues in which the tales of Ingeld had been written.

This is the tradition that answers Qutb. In the Norse sagas, in the Beowulf and other Old English poems, in Sir Thomas Malory and Scott and Chesterton, and in Tolkien's Aragorn, there is a common reply to boasting: 'We shall put it to the test.'

III. Putting it to the test

This a formula, as Tom Shippey points out in _J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century_, central to the old heroic ideal. It is Beowulf's response to Unferth's challenge. It occurs endless times in the Norse sagas of gods and heroes. Odin wagers his head with giants over the answers to riddles, or the speed of horses. The champions of king Hrolf Kraki swear to flee neither fire nor iron--nor do they, when put to the test by Odin. In the epic "Battle of Maldon," men fight and die beside their fallen chief rather than flee and betray the oaths they have given. Arthur is praised for placing his body "in adventure, as other poor knights do." Chesterton, in his introduction to _Orthodoxy_, says "Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel." Aragorn replies to Boromir's demand to know if he has the arm of Isildur as well as his sword, "We shall put it to the test one day."

This is the reply to assertions of certain knowledge. It is a hero's answer, and it is Socrates' answer. It was, in its way, Qutb's. Students of Qutb will know how much he made of the Arabic discovery of the scientific method--which is only another way of putting belief to the test.

This is ground on which many Islamist principles can be combated. It has already been noted in several places that Islam imposes stringent laws on warfare, which condemn many of al Qaeda's tactics, especially toward noncombatants. Any movement which claims to serve moral principles, but ends up planning to capture and murder kindergartners, is a movement vulnerable to the challenge of being put to the test. This is the truer in the Islamist case given that Islam itself condemns their methods.

Islam is a faith that calls for its followers to be heroes in the service of Allah. This heroic challenge, this challenge to enter into philosophical jihad, ought to prove irresistible--it certainly has with the Muslims I have known. That we can entice them to battle is certain. That we will be victorious is not. There are two things that philosophers must be prepared to do in order to make this work.

The first is that we must study and become steeped in their lore as well as our own. It is necessary to be able to recognize when they have entered into a defense that can be challenged on Islamic grounds. This is certainly not the only way to combat ideas--logic will do as well, and history. But, in this case, it has a special power because of the authority which they ascribe to the Islamic tradition.

The second is that we must ourselves adopt this heroic tradition, first to last. It will not do for philosophers to carry on arguing Realism v. Post-Modernism. You must be ready to be put to the test. In order to enter into the lists, one has to be willing to abide the result. Whether or not words and concepts can actually describe The Truth is a debate which has now been had, and must be set aside. Here is realism enough: the Islamists currently believe that it is necessary to kill us, our families, and our children. If they are to be beaten in the realm of ideas, you must believe in the ideas you bring forth. They are your weapons. They are your only weapons. They are as real as a sword.

IV. Common Complaints

The Islamist believes that the West wishes to eradicate Islam as a real faith, forcing secularization upon them. It is necessary to convince them that this is not true. In point of fact, it is not true. There has never been a society as eager to hear and consider new views as the West. Muslims can, and do, find that they are perfectly welcome and can become full participants in Western society. They are not asked to abandon their faith, but only to personalize it: to apply its principles to themselves, but not enforce them on their neighbor.

The most devastating philosophical differences between Islamists and the West at first appears to be a question of liberty. What we perceive as women's liberty, the Islamist sees as a moral horror. There are many such complaints: the so-called "bin Laden's letter to America" cites homosexuality, fornication, gambling, and the drinking of intoxicants, among other flaws it finds in the Western way of life. Qutb in his day cited racism and the Indian wars as proof of America's moral failings.

Ultimately, however, all of these complaints have an answer in one voice or another within America itself. No Islamist need feel alone in voicing condemnation of gambling, which is illegal in many states. Fornication is a specific offense against state law in Georgia. Southern Baptists are so utterly opposed to drinking that many deny that Jesus drank wine. Condemnation of the Indian wars is now part of the standard text of American history. Racism is widely denounced. Even on the question of woman's liberty, there are voices to be found who will support positions even more extreme than those of the Islamist.

Berman notes that, for Qutb, the central problem with America was its separation between church and state. There are many Americans who agree fervently. Qutb wrote that "a final offensive [is] actually taking place now. . . to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed and to replace it with secular conceptions[.]" That point of view, different only in which religion "this" one might be, is echoed regularly in articles from the National Review, to the neopagan, to the Jewish World Review.

The Americans who hold these views are not enemies of the state. In many cases they are among the greatest patriots the state knows. Neither the readership of National Review, nor the congregation at a Southern Baptist church, is likely to be the source of anti-American sentiment. They, like Qutb, feel that the division between the secular and the sacred is a powerful source of disharmony in modern life. Yet, their response is opposite: to love America regardless and try to change her from within, rather than to hate America and seek her destruction. Another of the old heroic concepts explains this oddity.

V. Frith

"Frith" is an Old English word, of the same root as "friend." It refers to the driving ethical concept in the old heroic saga, a kind of communal bond between a man and his family, his friends, his gods (or, if he were a Christian, his God), his neighbors. As every man and every woman had each a network of these frith-bonds, so then every family was bound by each and all of them together. In this way, neighbors and communities, families and friends would defend and uphold each other.

Much has been written about the failure to assimilate Muslim populations, particularly in Europe. This highlights a particular mode of thinking that needs to be addressed, multiculturalism. Multiculturalism can mean two things, one of them healthy, the other destructive. Multiculturalism of the first sort needs to be encouraged, as it opens spaces for those who--like the Islamist--feel ill at ease with Modern life. Multiculturalism of the second sort needs to be assaulted and eradicated.

The first sort of Multiculturalism is that practiced by the Anglo-Saxon monks. It is Ingeld and Christ, existing in happy cohesion. The Muslim in the West ought to feel pride in his Islamic heritage, but as a member of the West he ought also to love the West. It is not necessary to be uncritical to love a thing, nor is it necessary to be blind to its faults. It is only necessary to -love it-. As an American of Korean and Irish heritage ought to love both his Korean father and his Irish mother, and Korean and Irish culture, so he ought also to love America.

The second sort of Multiculturalism is the business of choosing sides. Like a child of divorce picking one parent to love and the other to hate, this is destructive to the bonds of community. It is destructive even if one of the parents is a right bastard. These bonds are what allow us to rest comfortably in common defense. They must be preserved at all costs. Multicultural exercises designed to demonize the West, Western heritage, Christianity, or America, ought to be no more acceptable than exercises in demonizing Koreans, Jews, or Africa. Those who love America will want to change her, whether they be Muslims or Southern Baptists. This is to the good. But those who hate America must be sought out by philosophers, challenged, and put to the test. There is evidence enough to defeat them.

The building and maintenance of frith bonds is a central duty of heroes. The story of the death of King Arthur as it has come down to us is the story of the end of such bonds; so too are the Icelandic sagas. These are tales of warning, traditional tales rooted in oral poetry that stretches back beyond our ability to conceive. They are the wisdom of the ancestors of the West, and ought be heeded.

VI. Conclusion

What will the jihadi make of all this? It is an alien tradition, one that raises claims to authority outside of the Koran. That is a thing against which Qutb warned, a thing he saw as a kind of paganism. But we in the West have done well with paganism. Multiculturalism isn't really new to us, as Alcuin demonstrates. The old heathen ways never went away. Ingeld and Christ remain as parents to us in the West. There are those who have been fully secular, and those fully sacred, but those who have held the floor with the sanest and healthiest vision are those--Chesterton, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Scott--who have been both. All these men loved elves, but none gave us reason to think he despised simple farmers.

The Islamist who finds himself a guest of the United States, in college or in GitMo, is likely to have plenty of opportunity to be drawn in. They need to go away with some answers from us. First, they need to be shown that our tradition of philosophy is one that resonates with their own. Second, they ought to be shown that tolerance isn't only for 'gamblers, drinkers of intoxicants, fornicators and homosexuals,' but also for Baptists, Republicans, and Muslims. They need to be made aware that their longing for a sacred community is echoed in many Western minds, and that they will find natural allies in unexpected places--as long, that is, as they fight in the hazel-fenced field of ideas. If they do, they will become brothers in arms, bringing us new perspectives and ideas. They should also know that if they do not, we have a living heroic tradition as old as their own, and will fight and die rather than surrender.

Finally, they need to be shown how vigorous and warlike the Western philosophical tradition is. Jihadi ought to love it. Once they see that at least some of us can be swayed by a good argument, they might never leave it again. Thrasymachus of Plato's Republic is a perfect example of the high joy that comes from the combateers of ideas, who fell upon Socrates and companions 'like a wild beast,' and swore they were not of the force to defeat him. Well, he and his boast were put to the test.

Living the hero's life is an exercise in joy. Putting yourself to the test is the finest way to live. Courage will be needed. It has been found before: indeed, if we look, it never went away.

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