Saturday, January 27, 2007


Dear Reader,

I hope I never become famous. I certainly do my best in this blog to ensure I never will.

Yours truly,

Humanism, the Modern Temper

Dear Reader,

Man, Nature, and God: what are the relations among these three? What is the rightful source of values, morals, behavior, culture, civilization? In short, what is the source of rightful authority?

In the Modern world of science and the market, Man (the human, not the male) is the source of authority. Nature, whether conceived of as mechanistic, relativistic, or quantum, is conceived of as a realm of causes and effects, of forces and precipitates, of things in motion, whether those things be matter or energies, and we rightly recognize that mere things in obedience to mathematical laws can hold no moral power over us. The Modern conception of a hammer is neither moral nor immoral. It can be used for good or evil or neither. Its moral quality must be imposed upon it by Man based on how it is used. Likewise a rock, or a gun, or a brick, or electricity, or any other thing, and to the Modern mentality Nature contains nothing but things and therefore is incapable of being the source of rightful authority. Nature is our playpen, our toy, our tool, our resource-pool, our realm over which we rule as kings and impose our moral (or immoral or amoral) will.

Likewise, to the Modern mentality, concerned above all with pragmatism and immersed in the reductionistic frameworks of mathematics, physics, and other hard sciences, God cannot be the source of rightful authority, because as the Modern mentality has purged Nature of values so it has purged the cosmos of super-nature, the realm of the Gods that the Modern mentality inherited from its Medieval parents. By proving either the nonexistence or at least the irrelevance of any realm beyond a reduced Nature obedient to natural laws, the Modern mentality effectively defined away the Medieval God. The Modern mentality is atheistic, or agnostic if it prefers not to be pinned down (which is a stereotypically Modern preference), or religious in a fashionable cultural sense only. A genuinely religious Christian, someone who genuinely derives his moral guidance from God, either retreats from the world of Modern power or is quickly nailed to a cross or sent to Guantanamo. In the Modern world, invocations of God by the mighty are never honest, never genuinely religious, always calculated and predatory manipulations of religious individuals for nihilistic purposes. To the truly Modern, the religious impulse is just another natural resource to be studied, harvested, or harnessed as a source of power. In science and the marketplace, God has been reduced to a handle on other human beings, much to the dismay of the genuinely religious among us, and every effort to reverse this historical direction has only succeeded in further corrupting many churches by making them the pawns of the powerful.

Which leaves only Man himself as the remaining realm, our source of moral authority. This is the dream of Modern democracy and the Free Market, that human needs will be met and human virtues uplifted for the betterment of the world, that an educated population will become wise custodians of the world for future generations. We hope that enlightenment will lead to a better world, but increasingly we have to struggle with the reality that value-free power is more typically put at the disposal of immoral or amoral human agents who believe in nothing at all. Science itself increasingly demonstrates the futility of appealing to Man as a reliable source of moral authority, since Man can be almost anything depending on how he is educated. We are not wolves, who have a predictable culture worldwide wherever we find ourselves, who have an instinctual center that lets us be accurately described as a whole as well as individuals. We are Homo mimesis: imitative Man, who is so remarkably malleable, so astonishingly natural as an actor who assumes roles reflexively, that we cannot even be sure when we are being authentic and when we are just playing a role we have learned.

Indeed, the scientific investigation into just what may genuinely be called essential to all human beings turns up surprisingly little of any help in establishing a moral center based on humanity. Man may be raised to light himself on fire to protest the slaughter by his own country of foreign people he will never meet, to give his life for strangers, or he may be raised to machine-gun down naked and starving Jewish prisoners by the dozens day after day and go home each night to a nice dinner with his family and no qualms whatsoever about resuming the slaughter in the morning. Man may be raised to sacrifice everything for the sake of the truth, or to sacrifice everything to protect lies. There is no there there (as Gertrude Stein famously said of her childhood home Oakland), no center from which to draw moral authority, and that is precisely the pattern of Modern morality. By apotheosizing Man as the God over nature, as the God over himself, as the God over God himself, we have upraised precisely the kind of moral vaccum that would create the world in which we find ourselves. Torture camps, nuclear bombs, electoral corruption, religious hypocrisy, self-serving rationalization, appeal to abstract conditions that do not actually exist, a lazy and self-indulgent unwillingness to do the real work of cultivating personal excellence, a capitulation to existing conditions and institutions, a belief that being a responsible citizen requires no more than holding down a job, consuming market goods, raising children, and occasionally voting, and an eagerness to demonize anyone and everyone except ourselves as responsible for this mess: all of these things flow directly from our moral vacuum. The great Modern craving for entertainment and distractions is a craving to look away from what we have wrought, never to look at it, to tell ourselves any kind of fantasy about ourselves and our situations but never to come to grips with what we have done by exalting ourselves as our own moral authority. Our future looks less and less like Star Trek and more and more like 1984, Brave New World, V for Vendetta, or The Matrix but with us as the machines who enslave and prey upon and delude ourselves.

If we are to have a future, we must find a moral center, a source of authority. Intellect and reason can do many interesting and useful things, but establishing a moral center is not among them, since there is no moral basis that cannot be questioned and torn to pieces by reason; reason is a tool, not a moral compass, and its teleology left unrestrained is ultimately nihilistic. The tools we used to free ourselves from Medieval superstititions we hoped would save us from Inquisitions and Crusades in this new era of enlightenment, but instead we have moved on to Holocausts and the promise of Apocalypse. We have moved from slaughter motivated by religious hysteria and corruption to slaughter motivated by industrial calculation and corruption. If there was ever a species in need of a wise God, it would be these mimetic, chattering apes.

Most people assume this will all sort itself out, and they naturally fall into three mentalities; I personally know examples of all three. Some of them believe in scientific prophecies about the great forces of history sweeping us forward to evolve. Others believe God will fix everything, or that none of this matters because there is another world somewhere that we haven't wrecked yet and can retreat to after we total this one. The third group believe other people will fix things, that the ingenuity of (other, usually future) people (or their institutions) can solve any problem we will ever face. All such faith in the future is hybristic. It is all an attempt to sweep our responsibilities under the rug so we can justify not doing our best to make a better world, and all of it is predicated on an arrogant assertion that the future is ours to dispose of, that we can nominalistically declare what the future will be and it must obey, that our chosen article of faith commands the cosmos. Even if there are great forces of history sweeping us along, it does not follow that they exist to please us, to make things better for us; if the fossil record is to be believed those forces of history swept most species to extinction, so the scientific assumption would be that they are sweeping us too to extinction unless we do something about it. Likewise, even if there is a God it does not follow that his purpose in the cosmos is to wipe our noses and change our diapers; maybe God needs us to grow up and has figured out that if he cleans up all our messes for us we never will; and maybe Heaven is for people who have grown up, of whom we have few examples. Likewise, other people will not fix things because they are all busy assuming we will, and frankly when you come to understand the structure of our society well enough you learn that it is precisely no one's job to address the kinds of problems that are sweeping us along; everyone is busy doing other things.

In short, the future is not our plaything. A genuine scientific attitude begins with humility, especially about what cannot be tested and evaluated, and the future by definition is out of reach. Likewise, a genuine religious humility recognizes that the future is God's to dispose of, not ours, and to dictate terms to God about the future is to claim God's omniscience as one's own, the very kind of nihilistic arrogance typical of Modern atheism. There is no sound moral ground for arrogance about our future; it could go well or ill for us. Our responsibility is to culture ourselves to meet whatever comes as well as we can, something we cannot do if we have invested our moral center in Man.

Yours truly,

Postscript: In the interest of exploring alternatives, in the next couple of posts I will spend some time with each of the European alternatives I know anything about, the Medieval investment in God as a moral center, and the Classical investment in Nature as a moral center. The centering of my discussion in European religions and history is not done out of any myopia about the importance of European history and culture but rather because I am incompetent to write meaningfully on any other, fascinated though I may be by them.

Postpostscript: When Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It that All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, . . . he may have had the stages of life in mind, but here and elsewhere the Bard hints at his great comprehension of the fundamentally mimetic nature of our species. He expresses this truth clearly and beautifully, though it is in our nature to dismiss even the greatest artistic formulation of our essential nature as mere entertainment rather than incisive truth. Ultimately, it is that shifting, imitative, Protean nature of Man that makes us unreliable as a moral authority.