Ways of Judgment (O’Donovan)

Note: I read this book 14 years ago. I found the review in my archives. I wish I still had the book so I could review some of his arguments.

Oliver O’Donovan (hereafter OO) argues that the authority of government resides in the act of judgment (3-4). The thrones of the world are subordinated to the task of witnessing to the New Jerusalem. This is commonly, if sometimes misleadingly, called “Christendom.” I do not think OO intends to promote Christendom.

Judgment is an act of moral discrimination that establishes a new public context. Furthermore, judgment must be public in character. Private individuals (e.g., vigilantes) can never speak for the whole. Given the above definition of judgment, we can define punishment as “judgment enacted on the person, property, or liberty of the condemned party” (107).

OO’s discussions of judgment and punishment, always in a communal context, necessarily lead to discussions of international judgment. OO ultimately challenges our idols of democracy and the “liberal rights” tradition. We eventually see that all political orders are failing (and fading) and in their dimming light we see the rise of a more lasting–eternal–order of international judgment: the kingdom of God.

This is tangential to his larger argument, but the claim that all political orders are fading should strengthen the Christian’s conviction that he is a pilgrim.

Pros: As always, OO is judicious and balanced, writing from the mountaintops and not troubled with petty disputes. His use of Scripture, while sparse at times, is always timely and refreshing.

Cons: Much of this book will not make sense unless the reader is familiar with OO’s other two works, *Desire of the Nations* and *Resurrection and Moral Order,* both of them demanding (but rewarding!) reads. OO can be dense and the reader is tempted to shout, “Just get to the point!” Perhaps. Either way, it does make for slow reading. I had to read this book twice.

The Social Contract (Rousseau)

The best cipher to understand Rousseau is to see his General Will as a secular retelling of the Christian doctrine of divine simplicity.  Did Rousseau intend it like this? No. But it amounts to the same thing and in places he uses the same language.  Imagine the Carolignian Shield.  Place the General Will in the Center where the divine essence should be.  The persons will be the state, government, people, etc.  It doesn’t matter what you choose, since the only thing that matters is the General Will.


The Good

There isn’t much that is good in Rousseau, but I need to be fair and try.  I think he recognizes the difficulty of “rights-language” and trying to speak of abstract rights.  He also understands the difficulties a government faces when it tries to legitimize itself after a violent revolution.  He also introduces categories like “alienation” which will be huge when we get to Marx.

Flow of the Argument

When I am alone, I have all my rights and freedoms.  This is alienation from everyone else, though. If I band together with others, I (and they) have to cede my rights (and Rousseau is clear that you are ceding all of your rights, I.6).  The result is when you give yourself to everyone, you give yourself to nobody.

General will: this functions as the divine essence for Rousseau’s politics.  When each person cedes his rights to the general body, “this act of association creates a moral and collective body.”  And you don’t have any choice. You are compelled to be free (I.7).

We need to see what is happening here.  Rousseau is clear that you are giving up all of your property (1.8), but that’s okay: you are getting it back in the form of security.  The state, however, is still “master of all their goods by the social contract, which, within the state, is the basis of all rights” (1.9).

Sovereignty is the act of the general will (II.1).  The will itself is not divided; you only receive the effects of sovereignty.  Does this sound familiar? This is concept-for-concept the Christian doctrine of divine simplicity.

He has some historical surveys on laws and republics.

One of the effects of this secular divine essence is the creation of a (divine?) person. This is the state, who has “absolute power over all its members” (II.4).

Out of nowhere Rousseau asserts that “representation” is incompatible with the general will.  This seems to strike at the heart of democracy, but he’s right. If sovereignty lies in the general will, which is indivisible, then how can it be mediated through the people (III.15)?

The Bad

This is totalitarianism.  The General Will is never wrong.  Rousseau says as much. “The general will is always right and tends towards the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are equally correct” (II.2).  Translation: anything bad that happens is because of the people, not the general will.

The General Will can never exercise particular actions, otherwise it would be a particular willing.  Rousseau never really gets around this problem. This seems to imply that the General Will is too abstract to be useful.  He doesn’t want to say that, though, since that would make his General Will irrelevant. (And as Cambodia showed, it was all too painfully relevant).

I don’t think he ever solves the problem, but he does raise a relevant point:  the General Will must have a General Object. What is this object? I don’t know.  I think, though, it is some abstraction like “freedom” or “democracy.” This kind of makes sense.  Have you ever wondered how tyrannical states like North Korea, Revolutionary France, China, and Cambodia could call themselves “republics” and “democracies?”  They were being consistent. If all democracy really means is the abstract object of the General Will, why not call it that?


1) His evidence for this primal state of man is tenuous.  In fact, it is never offered and we have no real reason for believing it.

2) The moment is General Will acts, it is no longer general.  It’s always going to be represented (which he says is impossible) by someone or group. As Gordon Clark noted, ““He seems to be torn between an infallible general will that cannot express itself and an expressed majority vote that is not infallible…” (Christian View of Men and Things, 121). This is why the elite classes in Communist societies were always very wealthy and well-fed.  Communism didn’t apply to them.

This is a terrible book.  It is even more terrible because it is very well-written.


Review: The Balkan Wars

One reviewer described this book as “Not sufficiently anti-Serb for the Ministry of Truth.” That’s more profound than he realized. Gerolymatos argues that the Kosovo myth functions as a prism through which Serbia would forever understand its struggles with outsiders (Gerolymatos 8). He makes the neat argument that even after the Battle of Kosovo and the death of Holy Prince Lazar, Serbs and Greeks had numerous opportunities to annihilate the Ottomans. Not simply win battles, but to eradicate them from the planet. When Timur the Lane destroyed most of the Ottoman empire, the creme of officials and army were trapped at the Straits. Greeks and Serbs rallied them across. Even Timurlane couldn’t imagine why they let that chance slip by. That wouldn’t be true if Kosovo were indeed the final point of medieval Serbian independence.


Ottoman Era: Creating a Mythology

The sack of Constantinople ended a “universal Hellenism” and began to create a specifically Greek consciousness (69-70).

He argues that the Ottoman rule actually made the Greek Church (better called the Phanariot Church) more powerful. Other Orthodox jurisdictions temporarily disappeared, leaving the Phanariot Patriarch as Patriarch over all the East (Russia excluded). Indeed, the Patriarch assumed the role of a vizier. Of course, it also made the Patriarchate dependent on the Sultan for its survival (sort of throws a new light on the “Caesaropapism” charge).

Most importantly, no matter how brutal the Ottomans were (and he doesn’t pull punches), there was always collusion between between Muslim and Christian (81). This is best illustrated in the person of Ali Pasha, the Ottoman strongman who was by far the most interesting persona in the book. Pasha’s life represents the problem of the Balkans: he exploited divisions and weaknesses to make himself more powerful. This meant, ironically, defending and strengthening some Christian communities (if only to weaken his Ottoman rivals).

Modern Failures

Among the many reasons modern Western politicians fail to understand the Balkan crisis is the critical role of “land” (167). Men die and identify themselves for what they believe in, who they are, and where they are–and not for pious platitudes chanted on CNN.

One key failure, perhaps earlier than the “Modern” period, was the Great Powers’ ignoring of Macedonia. According to the author, “Macedonia was a microcosm of the Balkans” and a strategic pathway for all cardinal directions (207). The Powers gave it back to the Ottoman Empire without regard for future upheavals.

He sees economic success as the only way to combat the fatigue of war (245). Time will tell.


I enjoyed the endnotes almost as much as anything else in the book. They were a veritable bibliographic feast. If you read this book you will know infinitely more political science than the news anchors on CNN.


Some of these criticisms might seem overly nitpicky, but that’s only because this book is so good and well-written.
*He notes that the Koran said a city that did not surrender would be subject to three days of pillaging (253 n2). I don’t dispute that, but where is that referenced?
*He is more or less fair in his handling of Kosovo. He acknowledges Milosevic engaged in cruelties but points out America’s own role in intervening: a) establishing an anti-Russian, anti-Serb state in the heart of the Balkans, b) conveniently allowing transit to Western and Central Asia. Serbia had to be destroyed for the Neo-Con/Neo-Lib world order to flourish.

4th Political Theory


The phrase that best sums up Dugin’s approach is “Negating the Logic of History.”  Dugin begins by listing the three most common (and modern) ideologies:

    1. Liberalism: the individual is the normative subject
    2. Fascism: race or nation is normative subject
    3. Communism: ClassThe second and third options failed, leaving liberalism in charge.
    4. 4th political theory: Dasein is the acting subject.

Liberalism is the broad, architectonic worldview that hinges on several assumptions (the challenging of which will entail a drone strike). Classical Liberals defined freedom as “freedom from.”  There should be no ties on an individual’s will.   It is these individuals, acting alone but taken as a whole, who form the circle of liberal action. Lacking a telos by definition, liberalism is hard-pressed to explain what we have freedom for.

Against this Dugin posits Heidegger’s Dasein as the acting subject of the 4th Political Theory. Dasein is a way to overcome the subject-object duality.  It is inzwichen, the “between.”

One valuable insight of Dugin’s is his pinpointing the bigotry of Western liberals.  All societies must accept liberalism in its current manifestation.  What if you don’t want to?  Well, if you don’t have natural resources you are probably okay.  Otherwise, look out.

Liberal ideology is necessarily evolutionary.  The concept of progress takes one from barbarism to technologism and the more refined way of life of the markets. This is what Dugin calls “The Monotonic Process:” the idea of constant growth, accumulation, steady progress by only one specific indicator (60).  In other words, in a system only one value (x) grows.  Only one thing (or a small group of things) accumulates.  Applied to either machines or biological life, this is death.

Modern political options have all seen progress and time in a linear fashion.  Even more so, because of time there must naturally be progress.   By contrast, Dugin suggests that

T1: Time is a social phenomenon with its structures arising from social paradigms (68).

By this he wants to safeguard the idea that there can be “interruptions” and reversals in the flow of time.  History does not simply teach the march of progress upon earth (borrowing and adapting Hegel’s phrase).

Nevertheless, and perhaps unaware, Dugin remains close to the linear view.  He does note that time is “historical” (70) and from that draws a very important, Heideggerian conclusion:  it cannot be objective.

Why not? The acting subject, the historical observer (whom we will call “Dasein,” but this is true also of the individual in liberalism) is finite.  He doesn’t have a god’s-eye view on history. Of course, that’s not to say it can’t be real or reliable per the observer, but we don’t have the Enlightenment’s dream of a god’s-eye application of reason to reality.

Dugin then analyses how Leftist and Conservatism evolved in the 20th century.

Finally, he ends with a dense and staggering discussion on the nature of time.  Kant denied that by mere perception we have access to the thing-in-itself.  Therefore, if the being of the present is put in doubt, then all three moments (past, present, future) become ontologically unproveable. From the perspective of pure reason, the future is the phenomenon, and hence, it is (157).

Kant puts time nearer to the subject and space nearer to the object. Therefore, time is subject-ive.  It is the transcendental subject that installs time in the perception of the object.