April 24, 2010
Liberty and the Death of God
The long, slow Death of God began on May 23, 585 B.C., when Thales of Miletus (625-545 B.C.) correctly predicted a solar eclipse. That the birth of Western philosophy on this momentous day ultimately led to the so-called Death of God is not explained by the hoary, worm-ridden chestnut that religion and rational thought cannot coexist. It was rather the early seeds of materialism, planted by Thales and later thinkers, which caused philosophy's cradle to be made, in part, from the wormwood of secularism.
Other pre-Socratic philosophers, notably the mathematical mystic Pythagoras (c. 570-490 B.C), took a decidedly non-materialist tack, and some even included an explicitly divine principle in their systems of thought. So the die was cast, and the tension between philosophical and religious thought became a kind of "white noise" that often went unnoticed for its ubiquity.
Socrates (470-399 B.C.) claimed to be possessed by a daemon (spirit) that told him what to say, and his disciple, Plato (427-347 B.C.), recorded Socrates' belief that the ever-changing material world was a mere reflection of eternal Ideas (or Forms), notably in Republic and Timaeus.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) argued that the activity of god, nous (thought), was the goal toward which men should strive. Half a millennium later, Plotinus (c. 204-c. 270) described nous as a divine, foundational intellectual principle.
The late classical and medieval periods were naturally chock full of God-talk. Indeed, God played a fundamental role for thinkers as diverse as the Jewish Maimonides, the Muslim Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and numerous Christian philosophers, including Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.
If one were to regard philosophy as a football game, by the 13th or 14th century, God would have been 1st and goal on the materialists' two-yard line (with three timeouts remaining).
Then came the fumble.
In 1453, Constantinople fell. Accompanying the loss of this last remaining pillar of the Eastern Empire was the westward flight of many scholars of the ancient world, along with countless manuscripts previously unavailable even in the great monastic libraries of Europe. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were the most direct results of this mass exodus.
Europe began to see a general intellectual realignment away from Theism (the belief in god as a divine person) toward Deism (the belief in an impersonal divine order, often identified as "Providence"). This wave of classical pagan thought rushing into Europe caused the dominant paradigm to shift from the Judeo-Christian conception of god as a divine person back to the pagan notion of god as a transcendent, divine principle of origin and order.
René Descartes' Discourse on the Method (1637) and Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) exemplify this paradigm shift. The former produced the famous maxim, "Cogito, Ergo Sum" ("I think, therefore I am") and the latter purported to prove God's existence based on the idea of God that Descartes found in his own mind.
The literary conceit of the Meditations was that they took place on six consecutive days, during which Descartes sequestered himself away from all human contact, in order to think -- hence "meditations."
Descartes first dismantled (or, in today's parlance, "deconstructed"), then rebuilt his entire belief system. God's role was little more than to serve as an epistemological surety, guaranteeing that all of Descartes' "clear and distinct" ideas were true. Unlike the theistic god of his medieval predecessors, Descartes's deistic divinity played only a supporting role philosophically, and no spiritual role at all.
At the end of the six days, Descartes saw that it was good.
And on the seventh day, presumably, Descartes rested.
Despite his admiration for both Cartesian thought and religious practice, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) concluded that God's existence could not be proven. He also restricted religion to what could exist within the limits of reason alone. If you've ever been to a Unitarian service, you have seen what Kantian religion looks like.
Kant's most famous, and rebellious, intellectual descendant, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), fetishized the divine as "Spirit" and "Reason," which he regarded as the prime guiding forces of history. Christological imagery featured strongly at the end of his Phenomenology of Spirit (a topic treated at length in my book on the subject), but in the end the death of what Hegel called "the Divine Man" led not to moral salvation, but intellectual enlightenment. For Hegel, the death of the Divine Man was the Golgotha of Spirit, which allowed it to shed its dependence on both imagistic thinking (Vorstellung) and god-talk. Spirit could thus think for the first time in the terms of Reason itself.
That deadly dialectician Karl Marx (1818-1883) ditched the "Spirit" side of Hegel's philosophy in order to establish dialectical materialism -- i.e., the free play of competing economic and social forces. This move would prove to be nothing short of cataclysmic. Marx was the first major Western thinker to advocate a thoroughgoing philosophical materialism that denied any place for God, spirit, or mind.
As Marx understood, and intended, pure materialism of this sort does not lead to the Death of God; it is the Death of God.
Everything was now permitted, because there was no transcendent moral standard against which one's actions could be judged. History was just the collision of differing points of view, the clash of wills -- like so many faceless and nameless atoms.
Following a similar line of thought, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) claimed that only the Death of God allowed man to go beyond good and evil. Nietzsche described the event as both terrifying and profoundly liberating. With God dead and buried, there were no longer any moral standards; there was only the Will that could impose itself successfully against other, weaker Wills, by any means necessary.
In fine, when there is no external standard to which a man may appeal, he is entirely at the mercy of whoever manages to obtain power over him.
In George Orwell's 1984, Comrade O'Brien describes The Party as "the priests of power," with power itself as their god. Power is simultaneously the method and goal of this new secular religion. As O'Brien tells Winston Smith, "Power is not a means; it is an end. ... If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever"[i].
I've been seeing that picture quite a bit, lately. It is the quintessence of the present-day power-mad, anti-intellectual radical left. In "killing" God, the left was merely taking out the competition, Tony Soprano-style -- and now they've upped the ante.
That metal-on-metal sound you hear every time you are careless enough to waste precious, irredeemable seconds watching CNN, MSNBC, or Robert Gibbs' smarmy mug is the left sharpening its knives for Liberty herself.
If we are unwilling to defend her, or prove unequal to the task, may we die in shame for the shackles to which our fecklessness will have doomed our progeny.
The author holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and rhetoric from Emory University and is currently an Associate Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea. He may be reached at email@example.com.