Jacob Taubes

I stand before the universe a less embarrassed man today. For it appears that I am in good company among those temporarily fascinated, if not intellectually seduced, by the late Jacob Taubes. Having first gleaned he was an academic charlatan from comments made by Seth Benardete in his book-length interview, Encounters and Reflections, I stopped paying Taubes much mind over a decade ago. Not that there is much to mind. His dissertation, Occidental Eschatology, is the only book he published in his lifetime; a volume of fragments under the title From Cult to Culture is also available in English, as are his late-life lectures on St. Paul’s political theology. To his credit, Taubes had interesting things to say on a variety of topics, though it appears that several them belonged to other people. He made enemies throughout academia during his lifetime, yet somehow managed to temporarily teach at some of the most prestigious schools in the world. Skilled in the art of self-promotion, Taubes got extraordinarily far while accomplishing very little, which is why he has long been ripe for biographical treatment in the form of Jerry Z. Muller’s Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes (Princeton University Press 2022).

At first blush, it may seem strange that Muller dedicates over 600 pages to an intellectual who never bothered to pen nearly that much in his lifetime. Taubes’s few ideas, cobbled together as they were from the superior works of thinkers such as Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas, and Gershom Scholem, probably don’t deserve extensive treatment, but Muller gives them all a sympathetic read while never losing sight of where Taubes lifted them from. Muller also spends a great deal of time examining Taubes’s bountiful shortcomings as a human being. A notorious philanderer who had no problem spreading vicious gossip while stabbing his modest circle of friends in the back, one of the most puzzling aspects of Taubes’s career is how relatively successful it was despite his destructive behavior. As Scholem observed, Taubes lacked both academic and moral self-discipline, yet he somehow managed to draw devoted students up until his death in 1987. Muller’s book provides ample material for those interested in unlocking this mystery.

It is probably not possible for someone like Taubes to exist today. The dictate to “publish or perish” is substantially stronger today than it was half-a-century ago. With the advent of social media and electronic databases, it is relatively easy to pin down plagiarism and unmask phonies. What Taubes had going for him, namely an encyclopedic recall of variegated subjects across disciplines, is less impactful today than it once was. Were Taubes operating at the height of his powers in 2022, he would make for a fun person to follow at Twitter and have around at parties to stir the pot, but probably not much else. As for his atrocious reputation for womanizing and betrayal, no doubt Taubes would be ripe for cancellation in the contemporary world.

At the same time, there are still lessons to be drawn from Taubes’s life. It remains disturbingly easy for self-professed intellectuals, regardless of ideological stripes, to present themselves as radically more than they are. Jordan Peterson comes to mind. So, too, does Rod Dreher. On the lower-rungs of the success ladder rest any number of online Catholic grifters, and among the left, the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post are flooded with pop analysts whose hyperbolic ravings about the “end of democracy” and a well-orchestrated (as opposed to painfully inept and embarrassing) conservative conspiracy to rid every one of their rights pass for critical commentary. Few of these folks ever achieve great success in academic, but why bother when clicks, re-tweets, podcasts, and books bound for the bargain bin can keep one plied with white wine and oysters until the cows come home. Certainly Jacob Taubes could appreciate that.

Hart on Theological Education

I told myself (mostly in private) that I would not fall into the habit of turning this web-log or anything else I write into marginalia on David Bentley Hart, that cantankerous theologian who revels in being one of the most polarizing figures in contemporary Christianity. However, I cannot help but repeat this morsel from his Substack, Leaves in the Wind, wherein he captures an opinion I first heard expressed by Owen “The Ochlophobist” White many years ago:

While my next article (just a few days hence) will indeed, as promised, concern allegorical readings of biblical myths, it will not be followed by a reflection on the dismal state of current theological education. The reason for my change of mind is simple enough: it was a boring idea. And I can sum up the argument here in very few words: the erstwhile “Queen of the Sciences,” who demanded of her subjects that they undergo a thorough training in multiple languages (ancient and modern), as well as philosophy, history, biblical scholarship and hermeneutics, and any number of other disciplines before they could enter her service, has now become a dithering, doting, indulgent grandmother, handing out degrees with blithe wantonness, like molasses cookies she’s just baked for her visiting grandchildren.

Leaving to the side the fact that White is a critic of the “cult of Hart,” the observation that theological education means radically less today than what it may have meant 50-100 years ago still seems lost on most people. I cannot speak for what goes on in Protestant haunts, but around the Catholic watercooler stands a cadre of professional grifters who compose social-media posts, online articles, and podcasts that are as needless as they are vapid. The only amusement that may be drawn from this deplorable reality is when these “defenders of the Faith” turn on each other over the silliest minutiae involving peripheral theological points that mean next-to-nothing to their readership. And these poor readers…many of whom, I suspect, are understandably confused, dejected, and hurt by the ongoing crisis (crises?) in the Catholic Church, are left to sift through this morass of mediocrity in search of answers that are simply not there. The temptation to learn all that is allegedly worth knowing through sound bites quickly replaces any zeal for thoroughgoing research.

A Critique of Integralist Thinking Worth Reading

Originalist legal scholars William Baudes and Stephen E Sachs have issued a scathing critique of administrative law scholar-turned-integralist guru Adrian Vermeule’s recent book, Common Good Constitutionalism. The review, which is slated to appear in the Harvard Law Review, is available in draft form from SSRN here. Though lengthy, the article is well worth reading both for the detailed way it takes apart Vermeule’s flimsy constitutional theory and how it (perhaps unwittingly) exposes larger problems with (neo-)integralist thinking generally. Here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

[W]hile [Vermeule’s] forceful writing will win him wide readership and some applause, it also keeps him from engaging carefully with alternative views or recognizing potentially shared ground. Opposing views are composed of “myths,” “shibboleths,” “chatter,” “horror,” and “panicky, bewildered outrage” (pp. 18, 34, 62, 67), while his own views are pugnaciously, though inconsistently, expressed. A rhetorical pose in which common good constitutionalism must always be victorious, its enemies always cringing and pitiful, lends itself more to political than to intellectual advance.

Some readers might not mind. They might favor common good constitutionalism for the outcomes it promises to license, or even just for the combative posture it lets them take. We have little to say to these readers: one doesn’t need to read a book to lobby for preferred outcomes or to start fights online.

As another critic of integralism recently told me, much of online integralism (which is the only “place” it seems to actually function) is little more than rhetorical posturing with critics tarred n’ feathered as “liberals” who, in the integralist imagination, are unrepentant enemies of God’s Holy Church. Integralists may at times try to present their positions as cogent, sane, and supported by the clear and unambiguous magisterium of the Catholic Church, but a disproportionate amount of their already thin intellectual resources is directed to ridiculing their opponents rather than developing a positive program for socio-political reform. To the extent Vermeule’s book is intended to remedy this lacunae, it must be adjudged a failure, not only for the reasons articulated by Baude and Sachs, but the numerous others presented by the work’s numerous critics. At the end the day, the “common good” (at least in integralist hands) remains a conceptual empty vessel into which its proponents may pour in any number of policy positions ostensibly backed by divine and natural law. It is telling that few if any Catholics outside of the narrow integralist circle have come to Vermeule’s defense.