Monday, November 23, 2009


When Nietzsche uttered his famous words “God is dead” he was under no illusion about the significance of the phrase. He meant more by it than some possible victory achieved for atheism by the scientific spirit and the mechanistic-deterministic-materialistic dogma. The phrase was a strange mixture of exultant triumph and horrified regret, for Nietzsche knew that it indicated an event of world-shaking importance. He knew that the complex cultural achievement that the phrase encapsulated would lead to a shattering of almost everything that had held human life and human society together for many centuries and that this shattering would leave in its place a vacuum that nothing seemed ready to fill. To that extent he had an understanding of the consequences of God’s demise that the little media-atheists of today do not even begin to appreciate.

So what was it that disappeared with the death of the Almighty? What evaporated was any notion of a moral or rational world order or indeed any detectable structure at all to human life in a world seen as completely contingent, accidental, not to say chaotic. Why was that important? It was important because, in Europe at least, the entire structure of society had depended for the entire span of its history upon the sense that an all-powerful, beneficent God took personal interest in the affairs of men, directed them to a certain extent, rewarded those who did well and restrained those who did evil. The entire history of Christendom, and indeed of the world, was considered by the most eminent authorities to be of a piece with the universal history of human salvation. The history of the world had a definite shape. It started with the Creation and the Fall, it included the rise and fall of the Chosen People, it was decisively altered through the redemptive life and death of Christ and it was moving towards some divinely planned consummation at the end of time, when God’s plan of salvation for the human race would finally be entirely revealed. All world history was, from the point of view of European Christianity, the outworking of a divine intention and a divine purpose. Governments, civil authorities and religious authorities were all regarded as instruments of the divine plan and commensurate respect for them was fostered.

But not only did the powerful and privileged have their role to play, the common man did, too. Of course, the role of the common man was to be conscious of his position, not to get above himself and to preserve due respect for his superiors, for after all, the hierarchical social order was instituted by God, too. For the entire medieval period, this overall structure to the world held people intellectually in its grip. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, other movements were gathering momentum, movements based on quite different attitudes to man and nature, but the essentially medieval world-view continued to exert its power well into the nineteenth century. Even in the middle of the twentieth century, the great psychologist C. G. Jung could still say that Europeans were still plunged in medieval values up to their ears.

But those other non-Christian movements alluded to above were to win the day in the end. In the fifteenth century, a new optimism and self-confidence was born in response to a re-discovery of the classical authors of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, but also a large number of lesser figures, had already, well before the rest of Europe had any culture to speak of, developed a view of the world that considered it as a rationally ordered whole, in which the road to salvation lay perhaps, not in yielding to the plan of a personal God, as much as arriving at the right rational understanding of the entire system by personal effort and reflection. Both Plato and Aristotle postulated an intelligent co-ordinating principle to nature that to be understood required nothing more than the application of the human intellect rightly trained in logic and dialectic. For the Greeks, salvation, happiness, a perfect social order and everything else of value in human life were there to be obtained by human effort, principally by the effort of the intelligence. They were almost infinitely optimistic in the ability of man to comprehend and master the world and achieve his own salvation.

Now while most of the theories of these philosophers had been gratefully adopted by the Christian Church since its becoming the official church of Europe, after the reign of Constantine, the element of self-redemption in them was distinctly played down. The moral world-order of the Greek philosophers was grafted on to Christianity, but the Church was never happy with the element of rationalism in this. For the Church, man could never be the author of his own salvation – that was something that was to be delivered to him by the grace of God, the saving work of Christ and the mediation of these benefits by the priesthood. The Church had a vested interest in keeping the population of Europe in a state of credulous submission, submission to the grand vision of meaning, maybe, but submission in which it could be manipulated for a variety of political ends. The confident self-sufficiency of the Ancient Greeks was definitely not an idea that medieval Christianity encouraged on anyone’s part. It is all the more remarkable, therefore that the Renaissance, having rediscovered this essential idea, developed from it a new optimism in human nature, a new interest in the world and a new determination to explore both to the limits with nothing else but the human intellect. It was this movement that eventually brought about the Reformation, the splitting of the Church into many factions, the resultant weakening of the centralised religious control over daily life and the rise of the scientific spirit. The Reformation reawakened the spirit of personal enquiry in matters religious and this led ultimately to the Enlightenment with its enthronement of unaided human intelligence as the only authority in the universe. The Enlightenment led to all the philosophical and scientific discoveries that ushered in the modern age and it was this irresistible movement, driven by the determination of people to think for themselves, that brought about the state of affairs in which Nietzsche pronounced his celebrated phrase, “God is dead.”

The effect of all this on the European mind was electrifying. Everything suddenly seemed possible by human effort alone. The physics of Newton seemed to have delivered into our hands a method not only of perfect understanding of the world order, but also of its complete manipulation. Whereas in the past, man had had his life mapped out for him by authorities whose power was rooted in the notion that they were delivering the will of the Almighty, now man could decide for himself; he was free to be and to do whatever he chose, within the limits of what is possible. We just had to discover what was possible. Whereas in the past, the human person had had its structure and essence defined for it by the entire system of which it was a part, now, modern man was free of all that and at perfect liberty to make and re-make himself in whatever form he pleased. The dream of the Comte de Laplace included the notion that even the knottiest moral problem of humanity could now be decided, not by appeal to tradition, revelation or authority, but merely by calculation. It seemed that paradise was almost visible just ahead, and not the paradise of the Church in some ill-defined, celestial place, at some unknown future time, but rather an earthly paradise achieved by the wit and effort of man alone. The optimism of the nineteenth century in the ability of man to achieve his own salvation was unbounded. This was the century in which the Utilitarian philosophy flourished and in which the Socialist movement was born. The spirit was definitely meliorist: things could only get better since the human intellect had been freed from the trammels of entrenched religious authorities with their irrational superstitions and fantasies concerning the nature and destiny of human life. The word ‘modern’ acquired a value-laden meaning that suggested that all previous historical epochs were merely periods of error to be superseded by the arrival of the truth.

Nietzsche, however, who summed up this entire phase of European history in his negative, funereal, ominous phrase, knew that something altogether less encouraging was entailed. He knew that the optimistic spirit of melioristic Utilitarianism, the optimism of men of ‘modern ideas’ was grounded in something of an illusion. It was as if prisoners had suddenly been released from their bonds and were dashing out with loud cries of victory into the sunlight. Their glee would be understandable, since the dungeon had been exchanged for the pure air of freedom. Possibilities seemed limitless. What Nietzsche feared was that this freedom from the intellectual tutelage of the divinely directed world-order was freedom to very little or nothing at all. It was as if the prisoners had rushed out of their cells and beyond the walls of the prison only to find themselves in a waterless, foodless, trackless desert. It was for this reason that Nietzsche set himself the task of taking upon himself all the consequences of the sudden meaninglessness of the world after the death of God a meaninglessness rendered all the more stark by the growing influence of the Darwinian narrative. Not only had any overall moral or rational structure to the world vanished, any form or shape to human life had vanished with it. The moral world order had disappeared and with it, for Nietzsche, so had the rational world order upon which it depended. Life after the death of God was shapeless, formless and directionless. In the words of Dostoyevsky, “everything is permitted,” and if everything is permitted, nothing has value.

Nietzsche set himself up as the prophet of the coming nihilism – the view of the world that claims that nothing has meaning or sense or value and everything is essentially shapeless, worthless and chaotic. Nietzsche knew that the psychological consequences of such a catastrophic shift in attitudes for the common man and for the powerful were disastrous. The departure of meaning from the world meant that meanings derived from social structures were a mere pis-aller and the self was in effect left with no other resources for the achievement of happiness than those of the self. The self was free, but it no longer had any sense of direction. Whereas formerly it had fitted into an entire world-order, now it was left scratching around trying to find any little structure at all into which it could scuttle and in which it could find a sense of meaning.

For this reason, Nietzsche developed his vision of the world as a monstrous self-devouring, self-regurgitating system of undirected energy, without end, beginning or purpose, eternally self-repeating, cyclic and absolutely unredeemed by the slightest glimmer of sense. Within such an “Eternal Return of the Same”, he proposed that the only role for man, the only duty for man, the only meaning for man was that of self-creation: man had to push his Will to Power to the limit; he had to will to become the next thing in evolution: the Superman. Although Nietzsche claimed to be persuaded by the scientific view of the world, the element of teleology in this appeared to escape him. But then he was not renowned for his respect for purely scientific logic. This vision of the self-creating, self-fulfilling human self became the only replacement for the Church’s vision of the human soul as given and designed by God to be saved by obedience to him and to fulfil a destiny decided by him.

And that is essentially where we are today, though the picture has become decidedly more complex as a consequence of our increasing acquaintance with non-European cultures. The Existentialist movement, particularly in its European form, developed a vision of human life as thrown together by chance, endowed with an intellect that served simply to discover the senselessness of existence, situated in a world of things to which it had no possible relation, going nowhere and meaning nothing. Such a life, for the Existentialists, could only be made tolerable by means of a kind of revolt. The revolt was to be a revolt against the cruel absurdity of a senseless existence and it was to be a revolt that asserted the identity and value of human life in the face of anything that an inanimate and unfeeling world could throw at it. There was no point, the Existentialists argued, in taking cowardly refuge in little ready-made systems of second-hand values, in what little meaning could be salvaged from the ruins of the Christian world-view. Such a policy was snivelling, inauthentic and unworthy of the self-declared dignity of man. The only decent policy, according to them, was to shake one’s fist at the meaningless cosmos and create oneself, entirely by one’s own efforts, and with this self-creation, help others to create themselves.

For a world devoid of values, this was no mean accomplishment. This was quite a set of values. The values of self-help and niceness to others seemed to come out of nowhere, bolstered as they were by the human spirit of defiance. But it didn’t help much. It sounded like so much loud, hearty singing designed to raise depressed spirits. We were still unhoused, orphaned, alienated and alone. We were still confused, disoriented and unconvinced.

The Post-Modern movement with its eclectic, ironic spirit followed hard on the heels of Existentialism, but essentially served up a diet of warmed-up and unsatisfying left-overs. All sorts of formerly oppressed and slighted groups began to flex their muscles in the pervading ‘anything-goes’ atmosphere. The youth culture came and went. Deference disappeared entirely from public life and for good. Church, monarchy, aristocracy, class – all of these traditionally valuable structures became material for stand-up comics, no more than ridiculous pretensions appropriate to a world structured by illusion. Splenetic little atheists began crawling out of the woodwork all over the place and gleefully enunciating their negative truth, convinced they were on to something new, but actually just ignorant of the history of the matter.

And so here we are in the twenty-first: unless one embraces a traditionally religious structure, nothing is in essence of any more value than anything else. And yet the world has not come to an end. The ruling values are those of materialism and consumerism despite much hand-wringing about the state of the planet; and although many agencies, including western governments, try to recommend traditional values, the embarrassment is palpable. The mass media, in cahoots with the industrial-commercial complex, foster conspicuous consumption and the accumulation of things as the meaning of life, but actually as the motor of the political and economic machine. People go along with it, but they are not fooled. They know that there is something amiss.

There is a void at the heart of modern increasingly mechanised, increasingly controlled human life that is troubling. Traditional value-systems still exist, but they are becoming more beleaguered and therefore more fundamentalist, more strident and less intellectually persuasive as they batten down the hatches against the surging tides of relativism. Everyone knows that consumption and materialism only palliate the pain. As we enthuse about the wonders of technology, we choke in the effluent from our industry. There is something deeply wrong with human life in the twenty-first century and there is not even a diagnosis of the problem, let alone the suggestion of a cure. The meaning appears to have gone from life for good, but we remain the creatures we always were: creatures who crave structure and meaning, not only to our individual everyday routine, but to the world at large, to the universe as a whole, and if we cannot have this, we feel ill. So what is the future for meaning?

The answer to this question would be equivalent to finding the Holy Grail and there is no pretension to do so here. We have tried scientific meanings, tried the perfect parallax of mind, world and language, hindworld, foreworld and midworld, and it has not worked. Of course, it was doomed from the start. How could anyone possibly find solace in a theory, in a bunch of sentences or mathematical equations, particularly given the undeniable fact that theories come and go and no possibility of a definitive one was either envisaged or desired? How could the banal, repetitive mechanism of some clever-dick ‘proof’ possibly satisfy? A mechanical world-system is a tomb in which to be buried alive. That is the sense of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return of the Same”. So if meaning is not to be found in some formula, some incantation, some form of words or symbols, even some very big binary number, where on earth can it be found?

Since we’ve tried all the formulae, it can only be in praxis, in an activity, in a discovery of a connection between self and world between hindworld and, not foreworld, but hyperworld. Only in the establishment of a living, dynamic link between the self and the universe, a link of great intimacy, a non-mechanical link that establishes for us, for all time, the conviction that we are at home in the universe as a whole, can we begin to shed our alienation, our sense of disorientation and confusion, our sense of worthlessness and anxiety and begin to live. It may well be that there is an arduous road of apprenticeship to be followed along which all the midworld structures – including practices – considered to be redemptive have to be studied, if only then afterwards to be found to be inadequate, laid aside, emptied of the possible illumination they provide, and transcended. But the end of the process cannot be a definitive state of some absolute ‘knowledge’ in an exhaustive theory of the world, a linguistic structure, an orthodoxy, a dogma. If it can not be a form of words, then it can only be praxis. What the nature of that praxis is, is by no means easy to discover, but some start towards its discovery can certainly be made by considering notions such as ‘contemplation’, ‘meditation’, ‘revelation’ and the like within the context of a general examination of the nature of creativity.

No comments: