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Desacralisation of the world. Europe’s modern history from a conservative perspective

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The Enlightenment initiated the process of desacralisation of the world. As a reaction to this process, voices started to be heard at the end of the eighteenth century that the Enlightenment worldview – rationalistic and even mechanistic – is a threat rather than a promise. Czeslaw Milosz writes in The Land of Ulro that three writers defended the pre-Enlightenment world with particular zeal: Swedenborg, Goethe and Blake. Blake rejected the notion of progress and the desire for human perfection which he perceived as the signs of arrogance and pride. He saw in the Industrial Revolution the seeds of Satan’s future kingdom. Bacon, Locke, and Newton were for Blake an anti-trinity.

Imagination holds the central place in Blake’s system of thought. Only imagination reaches the realm of transcendence from where all sense and meaning are coming. Imagination allows us to see the spiritual reality which, according to Blake, is superior to other forms of reality. Blake banishes those who are devoid of the faculty of imagination to a desert, the land of Ulro, where everything is relative and meaningless. This is the land of ”scholars, advocates of Newtonian physics, philosophers, also almost all the painters and poets. As well as their successors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, until the present “(Czeslaw Milosz The Land of Ulro).

Novalis also looks backwards. In Christianity or Europe, he blames Reformation for initiating the process of man becoming alienated from his spiritual side:

The initial personal hatred of the Catholic faith gradually passed over into hatred of the Bible, of the Christian faith, and finally of religion in general. Still further, the hatred of religion extended itself quite naturally and consistently to all objects of enthusiasm. It made imagination and emotion heretical, as well as morality and the love of art, the future and the past. With some difficulty it placed man first in the order of created things, and reduced the infinite creative music of the universe to the monotonous clatter of a monstrous mill, which, driven by the stream of chance and floating thereon, was supposed to be a mill in the abstract, without Builder or Miller, in fact an actual perpetuum mobile, and the mill that milled of itself.

Reformation destroyed medieval universalism and the cultural and political unity of Europe. Pope ceased to be God’s vicegerent for the whole world, Rome ceased to be the centre of the world, or axis mundi, the place of transcendence in which heaven and earth meet in one spot. One was allowed to read the Bible on one’s own, which led to different interpretations of the holy text and, ultimately, to its irrelevance. Lutheranism removed wonder and mystery out of religion.

Humanists played a similar role. They wanted a religion with a minimal set of dogmas and ceremonies. They contributed to the erosion of the position of the Church. One can see them as predecessors of deists of the Enlightenment who saw in God a watchmaker rather than the loving father.

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Enlightenment thinkers were satisfied with the natural order of things and did not seek divine sanction and legitimacy for the world. The characteristic feature of Enlightenment is the abundance of utopias. The starting point of any utopia is the negation of the Fall and the original sin which apparently contaminates human nature. Enlightenment thinkers believed that it would be enough to change external conditions to reveal the natural goodness of man and his ability to arrange his environment according to rational principles. They gave man the right to correct natural and social order. The emancipation of the human mind meant that man’s humility before God was not justified any longer. Reason was believed to be able to eradicate evil. Critics of the Enlightenment say that this vision of the perfect society is full of over-simplifications, reductive, overly rationalistic and one-dimensional. Speculative models ignore the complexity of reality, the multiplicity of conflicting motives in people’s lives, with their spontaneity and randomness, and the weight of tradition. The world of utopias of this kind is therefore based on false premises. Their harmony is artificial and unrealisable in the real world. Attempts to realise utopias invariably end in human suffering and misery. Nikolai Berdyaev warns that:

Utopias seem to be much more achievable than we formerly believed them to be. Now we find ourselves presented with another alarming question: how do we prevent utopias from coming into existence? … Perhaps a new century will begin, in which intellectuals and the privileged will dream of ways that eliminate utopias and return to a society less perfect and freer.

Totalitarian states created by national socialists and communists should be seen as a warning from history. They turned individual human beings into manure for a new, perfect society. Totalitarian order strips a person of its individuality and harmonises an individual with a leader, a collective, a mass, an idea. A person becomes an empty vessel and all sense and meaning comes from a leader of a collective entity.

It is rather surprising that war criminals produced by totalitarian regimes were often ordinary men and women.  Hannah Arendt writes about Eichmann that:

Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal.” “More normal at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that Eichmann’s whole psychological outlook, including his relation with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends, was “not only normal, but most desirable.

Stanislav Vincenz blames the French Revolution for elevating violence to the sphere of politics. The French Revolution, in which the philosophy of the Enlightenment comes into fruition, is an important point in the process of desacralisation. New laws demanded the death of the king who personified the existing political order. The demarcation line between sacrum and profanum was crossed and politics became emancipated and desacralised. All sorts of social experiments were now possible. Politics imposed itself on the common good which was now determined by a narrow group of revolutionary fanatics. Revolutionary order was based on institutionalised violence which sometimes took form of state terror whose aim was to pacify its own citizens.

Vincenz writes in In the Upper Highlands:

The new revolutionary laws are indeed splendid, Papa was dethroned and had his head chopped off. His place was taken by a drunkard from the street who gives people Papa’s wine and bread.

 

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The regicide was a form of deicide. Destruction of a political order also meant the re-valuation of all values and even their reversal. The aim of the revolution was a new social order. The state took the place of God as a source of new sacrum. Social unity was achieved through the physical elimination of groups considered as enemies of the state and the intimidation of the rest. Vincenz describes freedom as “liberte – an office to cut  people’s heads off … and who does it? Herod of officialdom, his salary grows and grows and he is paid for each head separately”.

Vincenz’s aversion to revolution is more understandable in the broader context of politics. The French Revolution is the result of the belief in the magical power of politics. The myth of the revolution offers an easy path to the creation of a new order of eternal bliss although it requires a denial of Christian values. During the French Revolution, politics assumed the leading role in society and its importance has been growing ever since, until it filled all aspects of life in totalitarian societies. Vincenz rejects the supposedly simplistic idea of a radical change of the society through politics. His proposal is of quite another kind. Vincenz stresses the longing of humanity for transcendence. Politics only brings problems – political engagement is not for decent people.

The French revolution turned European politics upside down, while the romantic movement played a similar role in European culture.

Milosz writes in The Land of Ulro:

We have to go back there, to that time in the history of Europe when its destiny still hung in the balance, before the split into the world of science – cold and indifferent to values, and the inner world of man. This split can be perceived first at the end of the eighteenth century and then it becomes the main trait of the Romantic crisis of European culture.

 

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Romanticism destroyed the ideal of harmony in culture and introduced into it elements of chaos. Its rejection of the idea of unity went so far that even individuals lacked a sense of identity. Literary characters are often doubles, people without shadows, the living dead, and superfluous men – people torn between conflicting desires, suspended between heaven and earth, and between self-adulation and self-hatred. There is no balance either in Nature, either.  Landscape in painting ceases to be a pleasing background and moves to the fore, dominating the human figure placed in the world of chaos and chance. Romanticism was a reaction to the advancing rationalism and the disappearance of sacrum during the period of Enlightenment, when moral norms were losing divine sanction and religious categories were being replaced by secular ones. Rationalism stripped the world of mystery and deprived an individual of free will, turning him into a slave of biology and politics. European culture had been demythologised. Conflict became the central characteristics of human relationships and of man’s place in the world. Even an individual personality ceased to be a coherent whole.

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Novalis writes in Christianity or Europe:

The learned man is by instinct the enemy of the clergy. The learned man and the clerical classes, once they are separated, must struggle to the death, for they strive for one and the same position. This separation advanced ever further, and the learned man gained the more ground the more the history of European humanity approached the age of triumphant erudition, whereas knowledge and faith entered into more decisive opposition.

This phenomenon, called by Max Weber disenchantment (die Entzauberung der Welt), could lead, according to its critics, to chaos, profanation of all areas of sacrum and, ultimately, to the psychological decay of man. It was only natural that people reacted to the feeling of emptiness by sacralising the domains other than religion – science, art, politics, and economics. The harmonious world arranged on the basis of religion was replaced by a supposedly happier and better world of secular humanism and we still live in this world.

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Truth in postmodern times

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The classical theory of knowledge is based on the opposition of knowledge and opinion. Plato says that opinion (Gk. doxa) is inferior to the genuine knowledge (Gk. episteme). Opinion is an expression of a belief which is not always justified. Only by rational examination of a belief we can determine whether it may be accepted as knowledge. Knowledge is therefore a collection of justified beliefs that correspond with reality. In other words, knowledge is about how things really are while opinion is how things appear to be. Most people go through life holding several basic unstated convictions about the nature of the world: the world exists independently from our minds; our minds mirror the world; objective knowledge about the world is possible; knowledge transcends individual experience; it can be expressed in words; it is fundamentally different from opinion.

Yet, nowadays, these convictions are being questioned by postmodernists who claim that knowledge is constructed and not discovered and should not have universal pretensions. Post-modernists give themselves freedom to create their own world view, not constrained by objectivity and rationality. The question of truth, is once again at the centre of our attention.

Postmodernists want to give people total freedom in expressing their views about the world. In the past, knowledge was built from coherent and testable statements that corresponded with reality. Hence, broadly speaking, there were three theories of truth depending on what characteristic was stressed (the correspondence, the coherence and the pragmatic theories of truth). Postmodernists not only rejected these theories but, quite simply, they lost interest in truth. What they want is a kind of individualistic pragmatism: I believe in what is good for me; I create my own version of the world; I do not have to justify my opinions and can change them any time because I am my own authority. All ideas are permitted. Postmodernists want to replace philosophy, which is a love of wisdom, by philodoxy, which is the love of opinion.

This hostility to truth leads to confusion and detachment from reality. In the postmodernist world, we are stuck in a limbo between objects and words. Our verbal utterances do not reflect what really is because there is nothing behind the words. To Nietzsche, there are no facts: only interpretations. To Derrida, there is nothing outside the text. According to postmodernists, truth is dead. Richard Rorty, American philosopher and a self-confessed pragmatist, dismisses questions about the nature of truth as pointless. He claims that, so far, nothing interesting has been written about the subject. The Platonic tradition with its questions about the nature of Truth, Beauty and the Good is not worth continuing because these big questions have lost their relevance. For post-modernists, grand questions about the nature of reality and our place in the universe are pointless. There is no truth; there are only provisional statements that are neither valid nor invalid. Distinctions between good and evil, beautiful and ugly and true and false are not discernible any more. No-one has the authority to utter definitive statements. No group of people can claim that they know what reality is. We apparently create meaning and do not discover it.

We are being told that we live in times of absence of grand narratives. Platonism and Aristotelianism, two grand narratives on which European or Western civilisation is based, are said to be dead. Platonism is based on the belief that behind the world of appearances there is a domain of ideas of which material reality is a mere reflection. Plato thought that we live in the world of Becoming where everything is in a state of flux but that we aspire to access the world of Being where pure and abstract ideas reign. Our perception of reality is, according to Platonists, based on clear boundaries between sacrum and profanum. Our lives have temporal and spatial limitations but we refuse to recognise them. In Christianity, which absorbed Platonism through Neo-Platonism, there is a tension between our bodies, dragging us down, and souls, lifting our spirits upwards. One can make similar observations of dichotomy between Becoming and Being, vertical and horizontal, sacral and ordinary, carnal and spiritual in many aspects of our lives.

Postmodernists want to get rid of this allegedly antiquated worldview. They insist that there are no ideals behind appearances; there is only Becoming and no Being; profanum and no sacrum and everything is ordinary. People are motivated by base instincts, human behaviour is just a power game and nothing is serious any more. Postmodernists distrust Reason. For Platonists, belief in Reason (Logos) is the core itself of philosophy. Socrates linked Reason with the Good. God was for him good and rational; He created an orderly world and gave us mental powers to discover this order. The orderly character of the world may be hidden behind layers of appearances and might be difficult to discover but it is nevertheless there. Western civilisation is based on faith in God’s reasonableness and goodness.

Postmodernists are attached to cultures and distrust civilisation. As truth is necessarily supra-cultural it can only flourish in an atmosphere in which civilisation is valued more than cultures. What is true must be true in all cultures. We now live in a Romantic period when feeling is more valued than thought. We are being told that all cultures are equal and that they are superior to civilisation. Cultures are supposedly warm and human-friendly while civilisation is cold, brutal and destructive. Cultures are a testament to the diversity of human experience while civilisation is apparently a simplistic invention of the Enlightenment when Reason was glorified, if not deified as during the French Revolution. Feelings are considered superior to Reason which, embodied in science, is being blamed for destroying Nature.

According to post-modernists, ordinary people know very well what is good for them. Those insisting on canons, standards and values are branded as elitists whose motives are highly suspicious. What they supposedly want is to create an intellectual apartheid. The majority of people are not willing to scrutinise their opinions and to look for truth at any cost. Stephen Hart describes the road to truth, in ‘The Wayfarer’, as a pathway ‘thickly grown with weeds’ where ‘each weed was a singular knife’. No wonder that ‘none has passed here in a long time’. The democratisation of truth and moral norms, when only the majority has the power to legitimise them, is the source of today’s relativism.

Platonism was as a shield against crude pragmatism, scepticism, relativism and irrationalism. Postmodernism has opened a Pandora’s box with all these plagues. Truth has been one of its first casualties. Russian and Islamic propagandists thrive in this environment. They put so much effort into their propaganda because they are aware that confusion makes people defenceless.

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Knowledge and its enemies

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Christianity. An introduction in 1000 words

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)

As a syncretic religion, Christianity is difficult to analyse. There is no agreement among Christians themselves as to its essence, hence there are many Christian churches. To probe into Christianity, one has to examine its history.

Within the first few centuries, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, evolved into a religion with universal aspirations, incorporated Greek philosophical ideas into its doctrine, and became a state religion. Christianity stands therefore on three pillars – Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy and Roman administration. Correspondingly, its foundation texts are written in three languages – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, while the Latin translation of both texts had been used in the Catholic Church for nearly two millennia.

In Christianity, beliefs are more important than practices. All its Churches make claims to orthodoxy, ie the correct set of beliefs. Christians are indifferent to how they dress and what they eat but focus on what they think. In Judaism and Islam, orthopraxy prevails hence there are strict dietary and clothing rules in both religions while beliefs are relatively simple. In Islam, a declaration of faith is sufficient to become a Muslim. In Judaism, one is born a Jew.

Christianity has strong rational and humanistic elements. These elements are so dominant that some critics of Christianity deny that it is a religion. En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos, John writes in his Gospel. For the Greeks, Logos meant the underlying order of reality. John’s passage can be read as “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God”. Christian God can therefore be understood as deified Logos, or Reason, combined with the personal God of the Jews.

Socrates asks whether that which is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. He answers that the gods only recognise the holiness which already exists in holy things. This thought became the basis of the Christian theology. It equates God with the Good and Necessity. God is benevolent. What follows is that God is not omnipotent. God cannot appear again and declare that the Decalogue will now include new commandments urging believers to rob, rape and murder. Similarly, God can only do things that are not contradictory or impossible. God cannot change what I ate yesterday for breakfast.

One of the papal encyclicals is titled Fides and Ratio, faith and reason, and this combination makes Christianity a peculiar religion. The centrality of Aristotelianism in the Catholic Church prompted Russian emigre philosopher Lev Shestov to declare that Catholicism is a rationalist philosophy masquerading as a religion. Shestov expands on Dostoevsky’s criticism of the Papacy in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky accuses the Church of corrupting the original message of God that his kingdom is not of this world, and sacrificing freedom for earthly welfare.

“Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”. Pope Benedict XVI used this statement by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus to reiterate the Church’s attachment to Reason. The Church cannot accept Tertulian’s Credo quia absurdum because it denigrates Reason. God can be both known through Revelation and rational thought. It is therefore legitimate to seek rational proofs of God’s existence. Shestov writes that Catholics believe that they have the key to the universe and that that key is Reason.

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Jean Fouquet Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, ca 1452

The other central aspect of Christianity is its anthropocentrism. The New Testament says that Jesus was sent to Earth to die for our sins in an act of atonement. Jesus became Man and suffered as a human being for the sake of humanity. His human characteristics are stressed to such an extent that this may not be the case of God becoming Man but Man being celebrated as God. In Western art, Jesus is portrayed first as a baby with his loving mother, then as a merciful teacher and, finally, as a humiliated and suffering individual who is executed together with common criminals. If a Martian landed on Earth and visited art museums and Catholic churches, he would have concluded that Christianity is the religion of Man. Catholicism acquires feminine characteristics through the cult of Mary, the mother of God. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Sensualism of certain saints verges on eroticism. Religious themes in painting, but also in music, provide ample evidence of Christians celebrating beauty in themselves, also physical beauty. There is disarming sweetness in cantatas of Bach and Vivaldi or paintings of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.

By worshiping their God, Christians worship the order in the universe and themselves as deified human beings. Christianity is therefore prone to be perceived in human, rational and, ultimately, secular terms. It is only seemingly a paradox that Christian societies had evolved into modern welfare states. The original Christian promise has found its fulfilment in a secular society which treats Christian principles as its own. Even the pessimistic doctrine of the original sin has turned out to be a blessing, so to speak. Man is born in sin and incapable of perfection. If an individual transgresses against divine and human laws he will be dealt with according to the severity of his transgression, with the aim of rehabilitation rather than revenge. Among Western societies, only the US retains the capital punishment. In Islam, striving for perfection is a religious obligation and those who fail in jihad are harshly punished.

Christianity is unique among religions. It encompasses rationalism and humanism and this combination places it on the antipodes of Islam and orthodox Judaism which are both strictly theocentric. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are oriented towards their holy texts as homini unius libri, or men of one book. Judaism has its reformed branch which originated in Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and mainstream Judaism embraced modernity to the same extent as mainstream Christianity. The fact that most Jews had lived in diaspora in Europe for two thousand years is reflected in the history of Israel which is a state with Western institutions, although with complications of geopolitical nature.

Islam though is past-oriented and anti-modern and will remain so until it revisits the dispute of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), an Aristotelian philosopher, with Al-Ghazali, an enemy of Aristotelianism. Islam diverged from Christianity when Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of blasphemy and infidelity, punishable by death. Al-Ghazali killed the flourishing Islamic civilisation which abandoned Reason and reverted to Revelation, discouraging an interaction with visible and tangible reality and focusing instead on the holy text as the primary aspect of reality.

Christianity chose an opposite path when it opted for Aristotelianism as its core in the thirteenth century, and it made all the difference for Europe and its outposts on other continents. Modern civilisation can only be built on three pillars – rationalism, empiricism and humanism. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity that can be criticised but, on balance, Christianity has played a positive role in the history of the world.

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