Wasting Time

It would appear that I have been wasting my time. If John Carroll is right, and I think he is, the humanities I attempted to pass on to the younger generation are dead. Indeed, they have been dying for some time. I have suspected this, but Carroll’s argument in The Wreck of Western Culture is very persuasive.

Bear in mind that I do not agree with everything I read. Indeed, I have been trained to read with a critical eye. But Carroll makes a persuasive case and given that the signs he points to are all around us and I have even noted many of them myself, there’s little more to be said.

The humanities have traditionally included the fine arts, literature, philosophy, history, and other endeavors now regarded as “elitist” and generally ignored. And there’s the rub. Carroll saw the creations flowing from those endeavors grow and thrive as Western Civilization worked its way from ancient Greece through Christianity, especially during the Dark Ages, to the Reformation which sought to bring new life to the basic tenets of Christianity that were dying from the intolerant nature of the Catholic Church with its purges and Inquisitions. The Renaissance and then, especially, the Enlightenment brought about an explosion in human creativity and invention; in the process it was insisted that religion is superstition and man is free and capable of solving all problems with his reason alone. In Descartes’ words, we need only heed “clear and distinct” ideas to answer all the questions that can possibly be raised. The avenue to absolute certainty does not lie with revelation; rather, it lies with mathematics and empirical science.

With modern science came longer, less painful lives, but also the industrial revolution, and eventually capitalism and all have transformed culture while at the same time disenchanting our world, dismissing out of hand all of the things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in science.  Humanism, as it came to be called, lasted several centuries and eventually was given a death blow by such thinkers as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin who insisted that humans are not truly free and even reason is not sufficient; economics and natural selection govern everything. Regarding Darwin, Carroll notes,

“The new scientific picture of the world is utterly dispiriting. . .. . in the shoes of Darwin the joyful bird song at dawn is transformed, at best, into intellectual curiosity about a species sending his warning signals in defense of its territory. Once one begins to think like this — about birds, newborn babies, romance, death — the magic is compromised.”

Marx’s influence may have gone even deeper. As Carroll put it:

“The cultural consequences of Marx were that selfishness and economics rule, that culture is merely a cloak disguising base bourgeois motives; unconsciously, the gods of culture have betrayed us, so let us annihilate them. . . .No honor, no trust, no fidelity — nothing but greed.”

Now whether or not one agrees with Carroll’s rather bleak pronouncements, they do give us pause. Careful studies back up the signs I have pointed to in numerous blogs, especially of late, making it clear that those of us who have been teaching the humanities (in my case for over 40 years) were fighting a rear-guard battle, because the humanities were expiring even as we tried to breath life into the dying corpse. Students, and a great many professors simply do not care. The colleges and universities are now overrun by barbarians who have embraced a nihilistic attitude toward everything in the past. It is time to “do-over.” And their behavior, including their unqualified postmodern commitment to such thing as political correctness, has become the way to do things. We will eliminate the dead, white European males and replace them with like-minded men and, especially, women who will indoctrinate the young properly. Meanwhile the streets are overrun by self-absorbed seekers of more and greater profits who couldn’t care less about the past or the heights to which the human spirit can aspire.  Brace yourselves: we have entered a new era.

To be sure, we see around us the decaying corpses of the dead, white European males and the great works they created and which are now regarded as past their prime and not worth our effort. At best, they will be museum pieces visited by a decreasing number of people as time passes, those few who still care. So along with a Christianity that was based on love of our fellow humans and adherence to those virtues that make it possible for us to lead a good life, we turn our backs on the humanism that raised humanity to great heights, created extraordinary works of beauty and imagination while influencing a great many people and giving birth to, among other things, modern science — which survives independently, largely reduced to technical expertise and invention. And never asking moral questions.

So it goes. I guess I have suspected it for some time now. But it is hard to admit that the things one fought for have “come a cropper” as the Brits would say. The humanities have had their day. But what really rankles is the obvious fact that what is taking the place of the humanities and Christianity is nothing more and nothing less that a vapid nihilism, a new barbarism, nesting comfortably in an egoism that seeks only pleasure and which cannot see beyond the eradication of what has been in the name of the new and the now.

The time has come to accept the facts that have been announcing themselves loud and clear for some time now.



Humanism Revisited

I recently posted a blog that focused on John Carroll’s remarkable book The Wreck of Western Culture, which is more about the death of humanism than anything else. I now want to explicate what I believe are some of the central tenets of Carroll’s thesis. I find them most interesting and thought provoking.

Carroll correctly views humanism as the heart and soul of Western Culture — at least since the Reformation and until quite recently. The Protestant Reformation itself was an attempt to revitalize a moribund Christianity in the form of a Catholic Church that had become corrupted beyond belief and rested on bland formulas and empty promises. When Luther visited Rome as a young man he was horrified and he attempted to bring new life to what he believed to be the central beliefs of Christianity. He insisted that reason and free will were vapid notions and that we can only find our way if we follow God totally and without question — blind faith, if you will. Calvin later emphasized those same principles, but in the meantime the Renaissance was aborning with its total commitment to the very things that Luther and Calvin denied: free will and human reason. The result was humanism and it dealt what was for all intents and purposes the death blow to a fragile Christianity though there are faint traces of the faith here and there — especially among the poor.

The Renaissance gave birth in turn to the age of Enlightenment which brought us the liberation of the individual — the “I” of Pico della Mirandola. This is the “I” that can achieve greatness through the community and in partnership with others of like mind. And without supernatural assistance. This is the “I” that embraces such values as honor, courage, and integrity. The result was modern science, the industrial revolution, modern medicine, free education for all, democracy, and “widespread prosperity.” Unfortunately, as Carroll sees it, the “I” has degenerated into “me” — the self-absorbed individual who feels no need of another and assuredly not God. The industrial revolution has brought us polluted air and water and a planet at risk; science has degenerated into technology; medicine has become a business, as has education; and democracy has become oligarchy as the wealthy make the decisions that are largely ignored by those who don’t understand the duties of citizenship. And “widespread prosperity” has devolved into a very wealthy few and a great many deep in debt.

Modern culture, if we can call it that, is therefore, in Carroll’s view, the remnant of a barely breathing Christianity and a dead humanism that has degenerated into an incoherent melange. The free will and reason of the humanists has become license and calculation as reason is no longer prized but has been replaced by a mind that figures profit and loss while playing mindless games on electronic toys (that’s my addition of Carroll’s thesis, but I think it is in the spirit of what he had to say in 2008.

Carroll has provided us with a careful examination the corpse, as he sees it, and is a bit short on prognosis. But he holds out little hope for a disenchanted culture centered around the self and its pleasures. However, there is more to be said and it was put nicely in a comment by one of my fellow bloggers, John Fioravanti:

 I understand the definition of humanism presented here, but I have always associated the term with a genuine concern for the well-being of humanity. I rejected organized religion over a decade ago, but I’ve not rejected the belief in a superior being and creator. If our lives are empty and meaningless it is because we don’t focus our attention or our efforts beyond ourselves. I believe we need to become a real human community, obliterate the silly, artificial political borders and establish a global government that will prioritize the environment and more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth. It is a dream.

I think John is right. We need to come out of ourselves and help build communities that care about one another. It is not clear how we go about this or how we can do this with a population that has turned its back on fellow-feeling and on reason itself which is simply a small candle in the darkness which we must in the end acknowledge. In the end, we must come out of our selves and admit that there is something beyond the self, something greater than any one individual, something through which we can find meaning and purpose. It starts by reaching out to the others around us.

Because I Can

A comic I regularly read in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in this insane world gave me pause recently. One of the characters is bragging that he has a new app on his smart phone that flushes his toilet at home when he is not there. His friend asks why he would want to do that and he answers: “Because I can.”  Aside from being amusing, my friends, this is the technological imperative in a humorous vein. We do things without asking why simply because we can.

Strictly speaking, however, we aren’t doing much of anything. The character in the comic simply presses a button, as so many of us do to make things happen. And then we take pride in the fact that “WE” can do remarkable things. It’s not we at all, of course, but the device we hold in our hand that allows us to perform those minor miracles.

Gabriel Marcel, years ago, wrote of the pride folks feel when they see an airplane lift off into the clear sky, the sense of pride they have in seeing their fellow humans free themselves once again from the pull of gravity and take off into the great beyond. He warned us that there is something seriously wrong with this pride we feel. Again, we feel pride in seeing something someone else has done, not we ourselves — though even the pride we feel in our own accomplishments can be problematic.

In fact, pride has always been a problem. It was so for the Greeks who warned about an excess of pride, or hubris as it was called. There was a certain appropriateness in feeling the pride of being a Greek, of course — after all as such we are not “barbarians” (the name they used to refer to everyone else). But anything beyond that, anything in excess of the allotted amount, if you will, leads inexorably to tragedy. This was the point of the Greek plays that showed us again and again what happens when humans begin to think they are gods. There are things we can do as humans and there are things we cannot do — and things we should not do; we need to continue to remind ourselves what those limits are.

The Christian religion also had problems with pride, listing it among the cardinal sins — not just an excess of pride, but any pride at all. After all, we are creatures of God and whatever pathetic accomplishments we might list on our résumé are ultimately the result of God’s powers and gifts. We can take no pride in doing anything we do because the good that we do is God working through us. We must, rather, become humble.

To be sure, the Christian proscription holds little sway these days, as indeed does the Christian religion itself. We have shown ourselves unwilling to answer to the Christian demands for sacrifice and vows of poverty and we are even less likely to refuse to allow that we don’t accomplish great things ourselves — or take pride in the work of other human beings: we are not about to pass along the credit for human accomplishments to an unknown force about Whom we have serious doubts.

But in refusing to take seriously the warnings about pride and about its possible excesses we flirt with disaster. This is especially true in this nuclear age and it is also true in our industrial age when we see the waters around us rising, islands in the Pacific disappearing, and the tundra and ice caps melting, yet we simply ignore those things because we are confident that somehow at some point some human being or other will figure out how to deal with the problem and it will go away.

I sometimes wonder if the success of the space program — which takes us all away from this earth, and even promises the possibility of travel to other planets — has not been one of the major factors in causing so many people to somehow debase the earth, to deny, or at the very least ignore, the awful things we are doing to the Mother us all. Like the man watching the plane lift off into the sky, we take pride in the fact that human beings are no longer “tied” to earth. Our collective chests swell with pride. The earth is simply one more satellite circumnavigating the sun and when it has become wasted we will simply colonize another planet either in this solar system or one not so very far away. The games we play and movies we flock to assure us that this is a possibility.

It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But I do wonder — just as I do wonder how so many people can ignore the fact of climate change and blindly assume that somehow it can be fixed. After all, we are humans and there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it! There’s that pride, my friends, there lies the germ of tragedy. The Greeks knew.

Guest Blog Post

The following comment by Jerry Stark expanded and improved upon my attempt to explain the notion of ressentment. It is extremely well done and helps us understand the mind-set of those who follow our sitting president and worship at his shrine. I post it here with Jerry’s permission.

The concept of ressentiment is intriguing, especially when applied to our current circumstance.

Nietzsche’s (pre-postmodern) claim was that morality is defined and established by the powerful and inflicted upon those whom they dominate. He further argues that new moral regimes can emerge out of a process of ressentiment, wherein those who are viewed as social inferiors by the powerful, and who have come to view themselves as socially inferior, develop a resentful hatred against those they view as elites — their “betters”. Ressentiment is not about class consciousness; it is about the revenge of the unworthy.

Ressentiment is characterized, in part, by a thoroughgoing refusal to accept conventional definitions of good, bad, and evil. Further, according to Nietzsche, ressentiment bears within it, implicitly at first, a new definition of good, bad, and evil. As ressentiment spreads throughout the populace, a populist revaluation becomes more explicit, more refined, and more powerful. If the morality of the extant elites is displaced, then a new moral order emerges to reflect the new social order that gives rise to it.

Nietzsche does not claim that the new moral order will be better or more virtuous than the pre-existing order, only that it will be chronologically newer. . . .

Though I seldom turn to Nietzsche for philosophical insight, what intrigues me about the notion of ressentiment are (1) the parallels between Nietzsche’s concept and our current political situation and (2) the possible morality that might emerge from it. I offer four points to this discussion.

First, the self-perception of disempowerment and cultural displacement, not economic insecurity, are driving forces behind support for Trump’s campaign and his presidency. This takes several forms, often overlapping: (1) White ressentiment at being culturally displaced by non-whites; (2) Male fear of being politically and economically displaced by women or of falsely being accused of sexually insulting or assaulting women; (3) Christian evangelical fear of being culturally displaced by non-Christians and non-believers.

The way Trump has manipulated and magnified these fears has been nothing short of masterful. It matters little that this reveals less about his mastery of politics than it does about his own pathological narcissism. What matters is that he has turned ressentiment into a political weapon, a political strategy, and a form of political governance – all at the same time.

Second, an emergent morality comprehensively dismissive of previous norms of moral conduct emerges out of this populist ressentiment, guided, of course, by those who stoke the fires of fear and who dismiss conventional notions of good, bad, evil – and even truth. It does little good to appeal to so-called “common morality” in response to the anti-morality, anti-truth dispositions of populist ressentiment. Any attempt at reasoning, be it logical or moral, will be dismissed. Any attempt to counter unfounded claims will be disregarded as false, a priori [italics added].

The parallel between Nietzsche’s conception of populist ressentiment and Trump’s dismissal of any truth, fact, or morality other than his own could not be clearer.

Third, a key element of the replacement of the old moral order is the extent to which significant portions of the existing elite accommodate to the values that emerge from popular ressentiment. What appears clear is that the wealthy and powerful, for the most part, are willing to accept Trump-guided ressentiment as a political framework if they get what they want: power and money. Every successful fascist regime has made peace with the wealthy and the powerful. They are useful.

Some members of this country’s elite will feel they can moderate and manipulate Trump. Others will accommodate to Trump in the pursuit of specific policies consistent with their interests, all the while holding their noses. Some will actively support and endorse Trumpism. Finally, some will actively oppose it. The relative balance of these different segments of the political and economic elite can be of decisive importance to the consolidation of the new regime of Trumpian anti-morality and anti-truth.

Thus far, the wealthy and the powerful have received more than they could have hoped for: a rubber-stamp Republican Party; a president who wants, to a pathetically obvious degree, to be accepted by them; a federal judiciary and Supreme Court that are increasingly pro-corporate at every turn; an insanely expensive and profitable permanent war economy; a decreasingly problematic (for them) regulatory system; a government increasingly insulated from the policy risks of potentially democratic influences upon government decision-making, legislation and regulation.

Fourth, the outlines of a new morality become clear. The morality of Trumpism is based upon a number of premises that counter traditional morality and knowledge:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

The extent to which Nietzsche would agree with these anti-moral premises is not the issue (though it is likely he would agree with several). What matters here is whether Nietzsche’s concept of “ressentiment” is relevant to an understanding of the current situation in this country.

Sadly, I agree with Professor Curtler that it is.

Even more sadly, we have heard this all before.

As Things Now Stand

Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.

Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.

In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”

“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”

To prepare us for this insight, we are told that

“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”

Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.

I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place


Decline of the West


This is a slightly modified and updated version of a previous post.

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its

“vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization.

In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages, though this sounds much like Spengler’s “organic” view of civilizations.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which many of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military which enjoys the lion’s share of our annual budget, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress and their determined attempt to turn this democracy into an oligarchy.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy. This is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security” born of the fear of terrorism.

Selective Reading

While I try very hard not to read or discuss (and certainly not to write about) the current political situation and about the many problems we face that I simply cannot remedy, the following headline and brief story jumped out at me because it has so many ramifications:

What would Jesus do about climate change? According to one self-described Christian, not much.

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson fired off a tweet Wednesday saying his savior called on him to be a good steward for the planet… but that concept doesn’t extend to global warming.

Erickson then sat back in his comfortable easy chair and read the comments that followed his tweet. He was mostly amused by those he felt misunderstood what “stewardship” means. In fact, of course, he is the one who misunderstands what the word means. Given that we are dependent on the earth, on the air and water and on protecting our home as much as we can, the word reflects the obligation this places upon us to care for the earth and seek to preserve it for future generations. This is what “stewardship” means. And if global warming threatens the earth, as it surely does, then it follows that stewardship involves an attempt to curb global warming if at all possible.

I cannot speak about the obligation that Christians, in particular, may or may not have to respect their planet as I can recall no passage in the New Testament that seems to address this topic. But the love we are directed to have for our fellow humans would seem to imply a concern for the planet on which we all live and upon which our lives depend. I suspect the version Mr. Erickson reads is not the one I used to read so carefully.

Once again, we have a “self-described Christian” making it clear that he has his own interpretation of what the Lord has told him to believe and how to act. This is the attitude that has turned so many against the Church even though, by the way, many of Erickson’s fellow-Christians objected strongly to what the man tweeted.  The notion that each of us is privy to the Word of God and can interpret the Bible for ourselves is at the root of many misunderstandings of just what that book says and, even more to the point, what it intends. But when Jesus says that there really are only two laws, that we love our neighbors and that we love God, two things become crystal clear: Love is the main directive of the New Testament and love implies a determination to sacrifice our own pleasures and desires in order to helping others.

There are many ways to interpret the Gospels — and even the four books do not agree with one another in every respect. But the main message is clear and it would appear that it imposes obligations upon us to love one another and this would seem to imply caring for the planet upon which we all depend. But this is not the end to the story because Christianity — in its many guises — is only one religion among many and the messages that are set forth in the many Holy Books of those religions frequently are at odds with one another. But the central message of all of them, it would appear, is that we are not alone on this earth and we must take others into account and do whatever we can to help them when we can and love them if we are able. The notions of hatred and prejudice that many find in such books as the Old Testament, for example, are not to be taken for the heart and soul of the doctrine that all Holy Books, including the Old Testament, preach: care about one another and do not put yourselves first.

Mr. Erickson is deluded and finds in the New Testament a doctrine that supports his desire to ignore global warming. He finds solace in the words he is convinced he reads there. But others are unable to find those words which seem to be in direct conflict with the words that most people do find there. We can only feel sorry for the man while at the same time we can understand how it is that an ordinary man can find support for his biases wherever he is determined to seek it. It is called “selective reading,” closely related to selective hearing. It’s sadly not uncommon.

Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

Dostoevsky Redux

I am reposting a previous piece of mine that received little or no response — not because of the lack of response but because (a) it’s one of my favorites  (b) Dostoevsky has always seemed to me to be one of the deepest minds I have ever sought to fathom, and (c) I have nothing new to say at this point!

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming to earth. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom. As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary precisely because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no adequate answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we sophisticated modern folk cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of pervasive corruption within the Church, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and warfare — and the benefits accruing from the scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted during their longer lives to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices.

Ivan Karamazov would understand — though, in the end, he went mad.