In my earlier post, “Assessing Brother Nathanael’s Racial Political Theories” I mentioned that I have been receiving inquiries about Nathanael Kapner, an online influencer who goes by the name “Brother Nathanael.” These inquiries are not of mere trivial interest given that for many years friends have regularly told me they give money to Brother Nathanael’s “foundation.” Up until now, I hesitated saying anything, even after Brother Nathanael made baseless claims about me. But with him becoming more vocal in heterodox teaching, I finally felt I needed to share my research.
In my previous post I assessed Kapner’s theories of geopolitical conflict, concluding that he makes the same mistake as wokeness by resuscitating the hate-based tropes of the ancient world, which would recast all problems through the lens of group conflict. Through a hate-based discourse that includes scoffing, scorn, and racial pejoratives, Brother Nathanael offers an online space for people seeking cathartic rage against offender groups, whether immigrants, liberals, Jews, or those he reels off here. I suggested that this modus operandi fails to do justice to the incarnation in numerous specific ways, and thus fails the test of being truly Orthodox and biblical.
But while my earlier critique was important, it remained insufficient. Because Christianity is incarnational, it isn’t enough to simply assess teachings in terms of their truth-content; rather, we must also assess if a pattern of messaging is virtuous.
In understanding the role of virtue in assessing a pattern of messaging, it is helpful to think in Aristotelian terms. Aristotle identified three levels through which a speaker can appeal to an audience. By attending to these levels, we can distinguish a genuine thinker from a mere demagogue or hack. These levels are
- Logos. This is the speaker or writer’s appeal to reason and is related to our word logic.
- Pathos. This describes the speaker or writer’s ability to engage the sympathies of the audience/reader.
- Ethos. This describes the speaker/writer’s character: his virtue and personal grounds for reasonableness, trustworthiness, and reliability.
In terms of Pathos, Brother Nathanael scores 100%, because he is a master when it comes to engaging the sympathies of his audience. But what about Ethos? That is, does he exhibit the type of virtue that would lead to grounds for reasonableness, trustworthiness, and reliability?
This question need not address virtue in a general sense. For example, we need not inquire about Brother Nathanael’s personal character, godliness, prayer life, etc. Rather, we can limit our inquiry to those virtues that are relevant to Brother Nathanael’s claims about himself as a purveyor of information. Brother Nathanael claims to have insight into news and political events. To be successful in fulfilling these claims, he must possess a degree of epistemic virtue. So our question needs to be: does Brother Nathanael exhibit epistemic virtue when working with information? If he turns out to be deficient in epistemic virtue, then that throws into question his reliability as an interpreter of current events.
What is Epistemic Virtue and Vice?
I realize that the concept of epistemic virtue may be foreign to some of my readers, so a little background will be helpful.
In the ancient tradition of ethical inquiry—whether Hebrew, Chinese, Greek, Roman, or early Christian—ethics was primarily about persons, and only secondarily about actions. Among the fundamental questions of moral philosophy were:
- What kind of person do I want to become?
- What does a flourishing human life look like?
When applied to citizens in the aggregate, this line of inquiry constituted the central political question, namely,
- What character traits in citizens will foster flourishing in the city?
Within the ancient world, the answers to these questions always involved some account of the virtues: qualities like courage, kindness, wisdom, honesty, integrity, temperance, patience, etc. While not everyone agreed on what constituted virtue (e.g. for Aristotle, humility is not a virtue whereas the church fathers see it as one of the highest virtues), there was a common consensus that through dutiful habits, educational formation, and proper spiritual practices, we can develop the right attitudes and traits necessary to become well-ordered and mature human beings.
In this older tradition of virtue reasoning, the specific virtues constitutive of a worthwhile human life were understood to be rooted in a person’s vocation. The virtues that would be constitutive for a ship builder to flourish would be traits like industriousness and conscientiousness. A warrior would need dispositions like courage and fortitude to flourish. To apply this framework to the vocation of a thinker, we want to ask, “What virtues lead to flourishing as a good thinker and truth-finder?” Or, focusing the question on the type of right thinking relevant to working with contemporary information, including news and political events that are the subject of Brother Nathanael’s video commentaries, we need to ask,
- What character traits, attitudes, and dispositions help foster wise habits when working with news and political events?
- What character traits are necessary for responding to and working with contentious and controversial information, including current political events?
In attempting to answer these questions, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, but can draw on a tradition from the classical period through to the Christian era that highlights a set of epistemic virtues (also called intellectual virtues) that are constitutive of truth-acquisition and wise information use. When we add to these virtues the insights of contemporary psychology and neuroscience, we arrive at the following set of traits and attitudes:
Metacognition, fair-mindedness, confidence in reason and desire for consistency, truth-loving, inquisitiveness, intellectual humility, even-handedness, reflectiveness, tenacity, courage, prudence, tolerance for ambiguity, prayerful, non-dismissive consideration of arguments, honesty, charitable interpretation of opposing arguments, carefulness, curiosity, slowness when analyzing information, thoroughness, critical thinking, awareness of one’s own biases and potential for being mistaken, attentiveness, honesty, patience, cognitive empathy.
Many of these virtues are discussed in the book of Proverbs. One recurring epistemic virtue taught in Proverbs is intellectual humility. Let’s look closer at this particular epistemic virtue.
The Virtue of Epistemic Intellectual Humility
The concept of intellectual humility is much more than just “I could be wrong, and should keep that in mind.” Rather, intellectual humility stands as an antidote to the following vices that often influence how we interact with information and ideas: arrogance, vanity, conceit, egotism, hyper-autonomy, grandiosity, pretentiousness, snobbishness, presumption, haughtiness, self-righteousness, domination, selfish ambition, and self-complacency. In short, intellectual humility connects the moral and epistemic aspects of humility. The humble person does not clamber for the “entitlements” associated with intellectual status/ recognition, nor does his obsession with having to be right (selfish ambition) lead to defensiveness, shortcuts in research, hastiness, caricaturing opponents, and insensitivity to detail.
A person with intellectual humility is aware of the limitations and uncertainties of his knowledge. He heeds the injunction not to lean on his own understanding (Pr. 3:5), and not to be wise in his own eyes (Pr. 3:7; 12:15). A person with intellectual humility resists the urge to jump prematurely to the security of firm yet false conviction, but will faithfully endure the struggle of limited knowledge or lack of knowledge in order to search out matters diligently and thoroughly.
Not so fools, who are credulous, jumping to belief or disbelief. According to Proverbs, fools are opinionated, leaning on their own understanding, wise in their own eyes, and loving the confidence that comes from a sense of certainty even when they remain ignorant and unlearned. It is not untypical for fools to mask over or distract from their ignorance with rhetorical flourishes that include silliness, scorn, contempt, and scoffing.
Fools will often justify their inattentiveness to wiser voices by claiming to be an independent thinker, to have a well-honed BS detector, to have a nose for sensing what is really going on. Yet for all his presumed independence, the fool is a slave to ideology—simple ideas that purport to explain the world and people, but function as a substitute for knowledge, a buffer for genuine engagement with the complexity and uncertainties of life and society. (To read more about ideology, and how it functions to short-circuit critical thinking, see my article “Fashionable Fascists.”) Whereas the wise are open to the riddled character of human life—the patterns that have to be puzzled out and understood over time—the fool gravitates towards simplistic explanations that never really acknowledge the true complexity of the world and its problems.
In his simplicity, the fool lapses into epistemic vices like caricaturing, oversimplifying, misrepresentation, and inattention to detail. A fool never delves deep enough into a subject to truly understand and explain why an idea he disputes might make sense to good and wise people, or why an idea he has adopted might be disputed in good faith by others. Rather, he gains just enough understanding of opposing viewpoints to make cheap shots and to engage in cavalier dismissal of contrary information.
Wisdom and foolishness are not just the province of individuals. A recurring theme in Proverbs is also that there can be systemic, structural, cultural, and institutional pressures that are conducive to either wisdom or folly. For example, the text shows how a country with a foolish ruler, a home with a quarrelsome wife, a city under the influence of scoffers, or a family without access to education, are all environments in which foolishness is naturally at home.
A contemporary example of how vices are naturally at home in certain contexts is the informational ecosystems of social media and video platforms (YouTube, Bitchute, etc.), which probably comes closest to how the village market or city gate functioned in the time of Proverbs. These environments are the natural soil for foolish practices including confirmation bias, selective exposure, intellectual laziness, and groupthink. Given that success in the online world is usually correlated with the metrics of engagement, and given that engagement tends to increase when people’s passions are stirred up, the very context of online video publishing tends to promote perverse incentives.
How Perverse Incentives Drive The Brother Nathanael Foundation
Brother Nathanael’s output is a prime example of the types of perverse incentives that the internet encourages. His online videos are the primary means through which he amasses supporters, who can then make tax-deductible donations to his non-profit. But this business model, which depends ultimately on the metrics of engagement, only works by generating crisis and anger, and by reducing current controversies to terms that can be understood with a few simple ideological tropes. By oozing scorn, mockery, and contempt, and mixing in crass humor and toilet talk, Brother Nathanael is able to tap into a growing contingent of right-wing extremists, often young men who live alone and have already been radicalized by other online voices.
I have traditional Catholic friends who regularly donate to the Brother Nathanael Foundation and encourage me to watch his videos and even invite me to his events, and yet it is significant that what they seem to like about him is precisely his lack of epistemic virtue. Rather than appealing to the thoughtfulness of his listeners, he focuses on scoring rhetorical points against the groups he hates, whether Jews, democrats, globalists, or homosexuals. Instead of engaging in reasoned analysis, he merely reacts. Using a rhetoric of contempt, he promotes a type of Manichean worldview in which the complexity of our nation’s conflicts become mere proxies for the war between Jews and Christians, white nationalists vs. black immigrants, etc. Thus, his fans come away from his videos, not more thoughtful and virtuous, but riled up in anger, and thus all the more eager to donate to his non-profit.
Because this business model feeds on people’s passions, it must continually excite the bottom of the brain stem (the part of the brain that responds to threats and danger, and is always ready to react) instead of the higher cognitive functions in the frontal cortex (the part of the brain that can process complexity). This is an effective strategy if you are trying to supercharge an ideological agenda, expand a viewer base, or increase donations. But it is a very ineffective way to help people grow in wisdom. Indeed, when information is operationalized for its pragmatic value like this, it becomes almost impossible not to take short-cuts in the analysis and interpretation of information.
Such intellectual short-cuts are most evident in Brother Nathanael’s various theories of history, which are usually based on partial truths that ignore the full complexity of the world. These partial truths are often packaged in elementary logical errors like the non sequitur and the post hoc, ergo propter hoc, yet are presented with such rhetorical flourish that uneducated viewers may not spot the obvious mistakes.
Consider a few examples. He explains dispensationalism as the result of the Scofield Bible. That is partially true, yet as an explanation of current-day dispensationalism it is incomplete to the point of misrepresentation. Or again, in a video defending Hitler, he uses Hitler’s famous “no liquidation” comment to explain Nazi policy towards the Jews and thus to deny that the holocaust ever happened. This is partially true, yet Brother Nathanael never mentions that this note, on Heinrich Himmler’s telephone log on 30 November, referred only to one train load of Jews from Berlin (a point which even the famous holocaust denier, David Irving, now acknowledges). Or again, he has some correct observations about the dangers of AI and how Jews are influential in the tech sector, but then concludes that ChatGPT is “the frontend to a frightening Jewish conceived brave new world.”
Other examples might be brought forward almost endlessly to demonstrate how Brother Nathanael’s oversimplified theories of history and culture lead him to mislead and misrepresent. This problem is not unique to Brother Nathanael, however, for it is common that those who approach history with an activist agenda (whether left-wing or right-wing) end up masking over the ambiguities and complexities of the historical record. History becomes merely fodder for underwriting an ideological agenda, leading to perverse incentives that militate against the practice of more cautious historiographical scholarship.
Similar observation might be made about Brother Nathanael’s various theological channels, where he reduces the complexity of Orthodox theology to trite polemical soundbites, often in the form of jabs against Protestants. His Bible videos are filled with silliness and sarcasm interspersed with proof-texts from scripture or the church fathers to drive home whatever polemical point he happens to be making. It is very engaging, and what he lacks in depth he makes up for in showmanship. But again, it is ideology-driven, in the sense described by Norman Doidge in his Foreword to Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life:
Ideologies are simple ideas, disguised as science or philosophy, that purport to explain the complexity of the world and offer remedies that will perfect it. Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to “make the world a better place” before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within. . . . Ideologies are substitutes for true knowledge, and ideologues are always dangerous when they come to power, because a simple-minded I-know-it-all approach is no match for the complexity of existence.
When the perverse incentives of ideological-driven discourse are added to the incentives that drive the economics of an online influencer, and the result is a toxic mix that is structurally antithetical to epistemic virtue. Indeed, the very medium of Brother Nathanael’s platform and business model is one that implicitly encourages oversimplification and misrepresentation, in addition to other epistemic vices such as intellectual hastiness, confirmation bias, and the selective exposure effect. Consider, if her was a model of epistemic virtue, if he encouraged his listeners to perform careful due diligence on his historical and political claims, and if he offered tools for helping people develop traits like intellectual humility, even-handedness, and tolerance for complexity, then his followers would likely grow bored, and Nathanael Kapner would quickly find himself out of a job.
In my previous post, “Assessing Brother Nathanael’s Racial Political Theories,” I explored whether Brother Nathanael’s racial political theories are consistent with Orthodox teaching. In this article I have focused on whether his pattern of messaging is virtuous, with particular emphasis on the epistemic virtues. I have suggested that rather than encouraging the epistemic virtues taught in Proverbs, Brother Nathanael’s videos exhibit and encourage epistemic vices, including ideology, groupthink, intellectual haste, inattention to detail, confirmation bias, selective exposure, and low tolerance for both complexity and ambiguity. The intellectual poverty that emerges from this deficit of epistemic virtue is then masked over by continual scoffing and shallow silliness.
In terms of Aristotle’s three appeals, we can say that Brother Nathanael does a great job when it comes to Pathos, for he is able to effectively engage the sympathies of donors and hundreds of thousands of viewers, particularly those who already have extremist leanings. Yet when it comes to Ethos (epistemic virtue and grounds for reasonableness/trustworthiness) there is a deficiency, which leads him to be an untrustworthy interpreter of information and current events.
- Assessing Brother Nathanael’s Racial Political Theories
- Antisemitism and the Gospel
- Fashionable Fascists
- Racism and Identity Politics in America Today
- Epistemic Virtue, Discernment, and Buck Johnson’s Podcast
- How COVID-19 Led to a Spiritual Pandemic
- Right-Wing Violence and the Trump Personality Cult