Today, not really a finished essay, but some musings on the problems that fundamentalism, unrestrained capitalism, and post-Modern thought have presented us with….
There’s no point in going on about “the fall of the west” or “the end of civilization,” but we do seem to have entered an era of intellectual dissolution. The bald fact of the present state of American culture is that many people, perhaps a majority, have faith in superstitions and variants of failed religions, because these seem to justify, or at least allow, the brutalities of our continually expanding commerce, in a way that reason cannot. Thus the significance of the present historical moment, at least in America, is found in the retrogression, however bedecked in the garb of civilized thought, to a state of tolerated unknowing.
And here note the unpleasant truth about myths of earlier cultures: myths are not a form of knowing, a myth is a reassuring explanation for those who cannot know, because knowledge seems to lie outside of the range of their experience or intellectual resource. ‘Apollo flying across the sky’ is not any kind of knowledge about the sun; praying to saints for healing has nothing to do with medicine.
Humans believe in gods when they cannot know that the possibility of rain arises within a global weather pattern; they know that there is something about the rain that they do not know, so they reassure themselves that, after all, rain is just the gods weeping.
But what comes as a matter of surprise, although we have ample historical evidence to justify its prediction, is the fact that knowledge, once known, can yet become feared as untrustworthy. Once this occurs, it ceases to be knowledge, since it can no longer be said to be known, with any degree of certainty. It becomes just another story. “God determines the course of climate change” seems just as good a narrative as “human pollutants contribute to climate change,” and far more reassuring.
When this happens, the society in which it occurs loses some of its claim to be civilized. I.e., it becomes less of a society in which responsibility toward others having like knowledge is assumed and informs social practice. We are sometimes promised by theoreticians in the arts that this sets a stage ripe for a new creativity; but history demonstrates the opposite in its examples. In a society that was formerly civilized, knowledge and judgment may be wanting, but any innovations in potentially destructive technologies remain – but only as destructive. (The use of the plowshare may very well be forgotten, but the use of the sword, never.) This allows the survivors of a fallen civilization considerable capacity for suppression of any new, civilizing or creative thought.
However, it takes considerable energy to continue to manufacture, learn, and utilize tools, the origins of which may be buried in myth, because their originating principles no longer make sense. Today, fundamentalist Christian ministers reassure their congregations that meteorological scientists who warn us of a ‘warming of the earth’ (really a warming of the oceans, with considerable potential harm to the climate as a whole), resulting from the degradation of the inhabitable atmosphere, do so only for political reasons, and only to scare us. This is as much as to deny the ground of the science that gives us the weather report in the news media, on which we frequently depend for information concerning traffic conditions, or even what clothes that might be comfortable to wear. It really must take some effort, on the part of the fundamentalist Christian, to believe in these weather reports while discounting the science that produces it as just so much propaganda. Eventually, this sort of response will exhaust the respondents; the stress of such cognitive dissonance will need to be relieved, possibly in the radical denial of all information as anything other than propaganda; and claims of knowledge will be treated as mere appeals to adopt one ideology or other among those competing in the marketplace for propaganda.
The propaganda itself then takes the place of knowledge, its adjudication determined, not through reason but through power. ‘If the powerful decide that rain falls because gods weep, who am I to disagree? If they decide that a loincloth is the appropriate rain-wear, what other court of appeal have I? That this leaves me at the mercy of better-dressed police directing me to the site of my commercial labor, is this not all to the better? Is it not just this commercial labor that gives life meaning? Therefore, god wanted this for me, he wanted police to assist me in finding meaning, he wanted the powerful to determine this for me.’
Absurd reasoning; but not absurd that it doesn’t reflect, in simplified form, that used to govern serfs in the middle ages, or something similar, however secularized, used to govern workers in the Soviet Union.
Such reasoning cannot sustain a culture forever. It is not simply the fallacious logic of it, which merely confuses already confused minds. But there is a will to reasoning, found among intelligent and educated men and women, that will not be satisfied by it. And these will ultimately notice that such fallacious logic produces no reason – and no purpose. Reasoning is always teleological, and false reasoning inevitably debunks its own professed teleology. (‘How could providing satisfaction to the powerful ever get my life meaning? What god could demand this of me? If this were the natural order, why need police?’ – and so forth.)
Amidst the crumbling ruins of the ideology of the Western Roman Empire (depicted by Petronius, and analyzed by Augustine), people eventually simply lost any sense of purpose whatsoever. They simply stopped going out to the fields to plant or harvest. Why bother? It was no longer known which god guaranteed a good crop, or which guaranteed that there existed any fields not immediately visible. Eventually, they planted what gardens they could in their immediate vicinity, sufficient only for their imminent survival, and abandoned hope for seasonal crops that could be widely distributed. They seem to have lost the claim to reliable knowledge that there could be any such.
This did not, as some ‘post-Modern’ wits pretend, ‘delegitimate’ the powerful, it merely reduced their exercise of power to that of brute force. Only a healthy and vigorous reasoning confronts the powerful on the question of their legitimacy, because only a strong reasoning can encourage the reasoner to say, ‘no, I cannot accept the myth, it does not make sense, there must be a better explanation.’
Speaking truth to power is always dangerous. But the alternative is blind acceptance of the status quo – a resignation to the shadows played against the wall in Plato’s cave. An unexamined life, that, as Socrates once put, is not worth living.
We are the inheritors of the Enlightenment, which helped put an end to one set of all powerful overlords, while unleashing science, social experimentation, the opportunities for individuals for self-realization and self-fulfillment. Unfortunately, it also unleashed an all-devouring market economics which inevitably transmutes the gold of our dreams into grubby green bills. Worse yet, it sanctions any irrational myth that can be adequately advertised and sold.
The “age of reason” seems coming to an end, the knowledge of its artefactual documents receding into the shadows of mistrust and superstition. People are very glad Modernity got them to this point – so many new toys to play with! But after all, it is the gods that govern daily life, the gods who create desire and grant wealth, and ever threaten to take that wealth away. Thus ceremonies of supplication must be performed (e.g., the mass purchase of luxury commodities for gift-giving at the beginning of winter), in order to reassure the gods that, regardless of what we can know, we still prefer to believe in their beneficence.
But although the purveyors of such myths continue to ritualize their success – now with the “news media’ parading human sacrifice in the Mideast in a form of ‘terrorist’ porn, while narrating the mythology of banal class oppression, in the hopes of generating desire for the circus that electoral politics has become – Protestant capitalism, as a way of life, may be exhausting its resources in the maintenance of an illusion of unceasing wealth, autocratic control, and eschatological preclusion. (‘Apocalypse is at hand, and we will get there first! – go USA!’) In this danse macabre information flies about in all directions, but much of it stripped of reference, of meaningful value, of any claim to reason or knowledge, such as are needed to ground social and political action. Eventually, the exhaustion will be felt as a dwindling sense of purpose Eventually, Americans may even forget what constitutes wealth, and whatever they wanted from it. (‘A better life for our children’ – what could that mean? And why have children?)
One phase of history appears to be ending; and with it its claims to logical certainty. What was true, now seems false. We do not know for certain what might be true tomorrow.
Yet some of us still feel the desire to learn, to know, to understand. It is not enough for us to accept the conventional wisdom of our day, to bow our heads and sleep-walk our way to work and then to stores to find new toys to play with. The ‘news media’ can no longer convince us with its circuses.
Although sometimes we are promised we are at the end of philosophy, discovery, innovation; but that may just be another myth, intended to guide us according to the will of distant gods. Instead, consider instead that we may indeed be at the very dawn of a new civilization, with reasoning and knowledge and discovery yet undreamed.
Every bell tolling mid-night also tolls the noon in another time-zone. The human spirit’s capacity for invention is not to be given over to the shades of tragedy. ‘Post-Modern’ is only pre-something-else.
Myths are always of the past, because they never change. The reasoning mind, even when it thinks through the past, is always looking forward.