P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 184
3rd April 2014
Edited by Donovan Roebert
I. 'The Evolution of New Religious Movements Through Secularisation'
by Catherine Nickford
II. 'Origins Shrouded in Myth' by Raam Gokhale
III. 'From Socrates to Snowden: Riding Freedom's Horse to Nowhere' by
Culture, Myth and Liberty
The three essays selected for this issue deal, in their different
ways, with the question of the 'something humane' that has been lost
in the process of individual and social development in the long wake
of Nietzsche's 'death of God' and the association of this
announcement with the poststructuralist 'death of the author'.
The problem, of course, is as old as the hills, or at least as old as
civilisation itself. For us postmoderns it begins with the (German)
reaction to what was perceived by some as the dehumanising traits of
Enlightenment thinking, and it gathers momentum, in several distinct
phases, from the earliest period of the Industrial Revolution. This
is not the place to trace its modern course through Hegel, Feuerbach,
Marx, Husserl, Heidegger etc. -- to the problem as it presents itself
in the wake of the poststructuralist hyper-relativisation of humane
values. Suffice it to say that we haven't yet come to grips with most
of its ramifying implications.
The following articles, then, are arguments for re-examining our
situation, not in terms of novelty but of what we have largely
abandoned or expelled from our traditions of religio-mythical thought
In 'The Evolution of New Religious Movements through Secularisation',
Catherine Nickford considers the question of the abandonment of the
religious impulse (famously and wrongly predicted by Lenin) and
attempts to answer it by examining a variety of religious
manifestations arising stubbornly in today's context of an
Raam Gokhale, in 'Origins Shrouded in Myth', takes a playful look at
the many latent meanings and functions of myth, and succeeds, by his
lighthearted and inconclusive approach, in bringing home the truism
that the mythos, in its many elusive and ambiguous forms, continues
and will continue to be one of the most powerful tools for
orientating the humanisation of societies.
My own piece, 'From Socrates to Snowden: Riding Freedom's Horse to
Nowhere', makes an informal survey of the changing meanings of
liberty in the highly politicised and indeed ideologised discourse of
postmodern society. Are politically formulated and enshrined liberties
and rights in any sense adequate to the deeper and, I would say, more
genuine need for those special freedoms involved in becoming fully
human? And what do these kinds of freedom, whose basis is
'disinterestedness', mean in any case?
In selecting the articles for this issue I've steered clear of narrow
particularisms, preferring the pieces that speak in outright, general
terms that laypersons might find interesting as well as stimulating
I hope that I've succeeded in putting together a small sequence of
relatively simple reminders as to the many-sidedness and depth of the
problems of dehumanisation, always in the offing in our troubled world
order and constantly affecting, most often in unconscious ways, the
societies and individuals struggling to make sense of them and of the
concrete lifestyles they impose on us.
About the Editor:
I. 'THE EVOLUTION OF NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS THROUGH SECULARISATION'
BY CATHERINE NICKFORD
The term 'secular' derives from the Latin word 'saecularis', meaning
'belonging to an age'. The Christian doctrine that God was not
subject to time, but rather exists outside of time, led to the
Mediaeval Western culture in adopting the word 'secular' for the
purpose of indicating separation from specifically religious affairs.
Secularity in its most common meaning has therefore come to signify
'outside of religion'. In current political, social and philosophical
discourse, it refers to a government obeying civil laws as opposed to
religious instructions such as the Islamic shariah, the Catholic
canon law or Rabbinical law, independently from any religion and not
favouring any particular religion.
The term 'secularism' was first used by the British writer George
Holyoake in 1851. Although the term was new, the general notions of
free thought on which it was based had existed throughout history. In
particular, early secular ideas involving the separation of philosophy
and government with religion can be traced back to the Averroism
school of philosophy. Holyoake invented the term 'secularism' to
describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion
without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. Holyoake
argued that secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is
one independent of it. Secularism does not say there is no light or
guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in
Secularisation is credited both to the cultural shifts in society
following the emergence of rationality and the development of science
as a substitute for superstition. At the most basic stages, this
begins with a slow transition from oral traditions to a writing
culture that diffuses knowledge. This first reduces the authority of
clerics as the custodians of revealed knowledge. As the
responsibility for education has moved from the family and community
to the state, two consequences have arisen. Firstly, the collective
conscience is diminished and secondly, through the fragmentation of
communal activities, religion becomes more a matter of individual
choice rather than an observed social obligation.
The issue of secularisation is discussed in various religious
traditions. The government of Turkey is an often cited example,
following the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and the foundation
of the Turkish republic in 1923 through the emergence of the
secularist nationalist reform party, the Young Turks, who had their
origins in secret societies of progressive medical university
students and military cadets. This established popular sovereignty in
a secular republican framework, in opposition to a system whose
authority is based on religion.
Today, most people think that something has happened regarding the
importance of religiosity in everyday life since the nineteenth
century but nobody is quite sure how to generalise it. This became a
chief concern of social scientists and theologians of the 1950s, 60s
and 70s, many of whom quickly became busy celebrating the death of
God, the rise of the secular city and the general triumph of
secularisation theory. Europe and America seemed to be throwing off
the chains of that old-time religion, becoming increasingly secular
as they became more and more 'modern'.
In spite of this, there appears to have become a vast global
resurgence of religious movements over the last decade which has
caught many people by surprise. To most, it has come as a surprise
because according to modernisation myth religion was supposed to be
headed towards a continuous path of secularisation and privatisation.
This myth presents us with several options for the fate of religion in
the modern world, but neither a return of religion as a public force
nor its ability to shape people according to its own ethos and instil
in them a new habitus is among them. Very few people expected religion
to disappear completely, assigning religion to a legitimate space in
the private sphere. Some imagined that national ideologies or civil
religions would replace religious traditions and that religious
values would permeate modern societies, leaving behind the
traditional forms of religion. However, few were prepared for the
global resurgence of 'spiritual' religions as public forces and
powerful shapers of religious subjects. A primary example may be seen
as the emergence of the ancient-based religion of Wicca that was
developed and popularised by Gerald Gardner approximately 50-60 years
ago. What began as a movement largely based on theosophy and esoteric
Rosicrucianism, flourished into one of the largest movements within
the New Age era, at a time when there was a huge reaction against
what some perceived as the failure of Christianity and Secular
Humanism to provide spiritual and ethical guidance for the future.
Bryan Wilson (1991), however, contends that the secularisation
process has now gone so far that it is virtually inescapable. He
argues that rather than being evidence of the resurgence of religion,
new religious movements are actually evidence of secularisation. They
should not be regarded as revivals of a tradition, but rather they
are more accurately regarded as adaptations of religion to new social
circumstances. Not one them is capable, given the radical nature of
social change, of recreating the dying religions of the past. In
their style and in their specific appeal they represent an
accommodation to new conditions. Thus it is that many new movements
are themselves testimonies to secularisation. They often utilise
highly secular methods in evangelism, financing, publicity and
mobilisation of adherents. Very commonly the traditional, symbolic
and aesthetic concerns of traditional religion are abandoned for much
more pragmatic attitudes and systems of control, propaganda and even
doctrinal consent which are closer to styles of secular enterprise.
New religious movements, according to Wilson, indicate the extent to
which religion has become inconsequential for modern society. Modern
society is dominated by impersonal, bureaucratic models of social
control; consequently charismatic leadership persists only in the
interstices between institutional orders, in the narrow space that
remains for collective behaviour, spontaneous faith and unconstrained
obedience. Religion, according to this perspective, has been reduced
to an attractive consumer item. Spiritual shoppers choose from a
variegated and provocatively packaged assortment of spiritual
products, but one's personal consumption choice 'has no real
consequence for other social institutions, for political power
structures, for technological constraints and controls'. These new
religious movements therefore 'add nothing to any prospective
reintegration of society, and contribute nothing towards the culture
by which a society might live'. All of them co-exist only because the
wider society is so secular.
The direct social impact of these cultic preferences is slight. The
small numbers of people who get involved do so in a selective way.
Like consumers, they believe themselves to be in other spheres of
their lives and they feel able to decide what works for them and how
involved they will become.
Many are of the opinion that religious movements offer no great
system or clear-cut framework of morality, and little social
relevance. In short, these movements are often believed to be
marginalised, superficial and relatively insignificant forms of
religion that mirror cultural developments and reflect, through their
preoccupation with self-improvement, human potential and healing
techniques the empirical concerns of contemporary secular society. It
is this insignificance and the diffuse nature of religious movements
that hinder their effective promotion and duration, which means that
they are unlikely to impede secularisation.
One may also see that interest in alternative movements is small.
Given the millions who have been lost to the churches and, given the
decline in the power of the Christian churches to stigmatise
alternatives, the number of people who have shown any interest in
alternative religions is small, the commitment of most is slight, the
most popular products are those which are the most secular and most
consumed by people who are seeking more to their relatively mundane
Some theorists argue that the general model of secularisation, and in
particular its interpretation of new religions, is fundamentally
mistaken. They believe that more significance needs to be accorded to
the fact that, in line with the global trend of a gradual upsurge of
religion and along with streams of 'fundamentalist' religion, there
seems to be a subtle yet ubiquitous growth of new religions in the
In their general thesis, Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge
believe that as religion is so psychologically and socially
interwoven with the human condition, it is unlikely to ever
disappear. Similarly, in a recent revision of his secularisation
thesis, Peter Berger, after predicting that the world of the 21st
century will be no less religious than it is today, asserts that 'the
quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical
existence in this world has been a perennial feature of humanity' and
that it would require something close to a mutation of the species to
extinguish this impulse for good. It is therefore reasonable to
deduce that if mainstream religion loses authority, new forms of
religion will evolve to compensate. Consequently, any apparent
disappearance of religion is illusory. However, to accept this
general position does not require an entire rejection of
secularisation. Rather than to deny the existence of secularisation,
perhaps it should be understood to be part of a recurrent process.
Secularisation is occurring constantly in all religious economies,
through which sects are tamed and transformed into churches. Their
initial transcendental nature is reduced and worldliness is embraced.
Secularisation also eventually leads to the collapse of religious
organisations as their vague conceptions of the supernatural leave
them without the means to satisfy even the universal dimension of
religious commitment. Thus, we regard secularisation as the primary
dynamic of religious economies, a self-limiting process than
engenders revival (sect formation) and innovation (cult formation).
It seems that secularisation theorists who regard new religions as
evidence of the ultimate demise of religion in the modern world fail
to recognise that secularisation is only a stage in a large process,
a stage which will be followed by the increasing significance of new
In their compensation thesis, Stark and Bainbridge believe that human
beings are primarily motivated by what they believe to be 'rewards'
and they try to avoid what they regard as 'costs'. These 'rewards'
may be specific goals including good health or material enrichment,
or they may be more general concerns such as answers to questions of
ultimate meaning. However, individuals are often thwarted by what
they desire, not infrequently in terms of wealth and status which are
always in short supply. They may subsequently turn to that which
constitutes the conviction that a reward will be obtained in the
distant future, or is some other context which cannot be verified.
This is the essence of religious belief. It provides an unverifiable
future, especially after death. It compensates for what cannot be
obtained in this lifetime. At the same time, people may seek to
answer the ultimate questions such as whether there is an existence
after this life, or what is the overall purpose to life. Thus, the
human need for religion endures even in the face of rationalism and
science. Since religion deals with ultimate questions of human
existence, religion will still frequently be formulated in
transcendental or supernatural forms and display a belief in
spiritual entities. Many new religious movements proliferate as a
means of dealing with the very different needs of individuals in
today society, perhaps related to psychological and emotional needs,
the fulfilment of human potential and matters of health and healing.
Indeed, Jung tried to explain the idea of Deities by alluding to them
as numinous archetypes that form a dynamic substratum common to all
humanity, upon the foundation of which each individual builds his own
experience of life and develops a unique array of psychological
Stark and Bainbridge believed that religious revival and innovation
is stimulated by supply and demand. Because of secularising forces
within organisations, they argued religious entities that can offer
powerful enough compensation are sometimes in short supply. This is
because, over time, religious organisations tend to become more
rational and secular. In doing so, they lose supernatural
credibility. Human beings, however have a fairly constant need for
powerful religious compensation. When these 'compensators' are in
short supply, new forms of religion emerge that can meet the demand
by offering the rewards necessary. In other words, while there is
evidence of secularisation the history of religion has exhibited
patterns of cyclic decline and regeneration rather that a one-way
Although there will always be dissatisfaction with, and departure
from, secularised world views and from religions that dilute
supernaturalism, there will always be re-enchantment as internally
secularised religions and world views which are unable to provide
credible compensators will decline and be replaced by new groups and
spiritualities which either revive traditional compensators
(sectarian religion) or develop new compensators (cultic religion).
This is why secularisation is a 'self-limiting process'. The
religious appetite, it would seem, is irremovable. Secularisation
will always be accompanied by the formation of sects, or
increasingly, cultic networks of individuals and small localised
groups which constitute, in turn, the beginning of new forms of
super-naturalistic religion. Peter Berger, who once believed that
modernity would lead to a decline in religion has now recanted and
admits that he made a mistake; 'The big mistake which I shared with
almost everyone who worked in this area in the 1950s and '60s was to
believe that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion...'
('Protestantism and the Quest for Certainty'). Modernity as has become
increasingly clear, is not necessarily linked to secularisation. It is
so in a few areas of the world, notably in Western Europe, and in some
internationally visible groups, notably the humanistically educated
intelligentsia. Most of the world today is as religious as it ever
was and, in a good many locales, more religious than ever.
Instead of leading to a decline of religion, modernity according to
Berger leads to religious pluralism. Modern developments including
mass migration and travel, urbanisation, literacy and the new
technology of communication, have brought about a situation in which
different religious traditions are present to each other in a
historically unprecedented manner. Due to this religious pluralism
'religion loses it taken-for granted status in consciousness'. Berger
proposes two options. They can either accommodate themselves to the
situation and come to terms as best they can with the plausibility
problem by modifying their product in accordance with consumer
demands, or they can refuse to accommodate themselves, entrance
themselves behind whatever socio-religious structures they can
maintain or construct and continue to profess old objectives as much
as possible as if nothing had happened. In the face of this, the
prospects for attributing much in the way of social and cultural
significance to the continued emergence of New Religious Movements is
The 'religious economy' model has a different opinion to Berger
regarding pluralism. According to this approach, a religious economy
consists of all the religious activity going on in any society.
Religious economies are like commercial economies in that they
consist of a market of current and potential customers, a set of
firms seeking to serve that market and religious product lines
offered by various enterprises. Like commercial economies, religious
economies thrive when they are allowed to operate without government
inference. Deregulation leads to pluralism, pluralism leads to
competition, competition to a specialisation of product and
aggressive recruitment, specialisation and recruitment to a higher
demand, and higher demand to greater participation. Thus, as a
natural consequence of the invisible hand operating unencumbered by
state regulation, over time the diversity of the religious market
will reflect the very diversity of the population itself.
Robert Bellah claims that religion has and will continue to play a
public role in modern societies. Bellah belongs to the Durkheim
tradition, whose aim is to explain social unity in modern,
specialised societies. He has developed a theory or religious
evolution based on differentiation, postulating that religion has
developed through five historical stages: primitive, archaic,
historic, early modern, and modern. He believes that society rests
upon a morally religious understanding. The function of religion,
according to Bellah, is to give meaning and motivation to society.
For that reason, religion is a universal phenomenon. Even when
prevailing religious symbol systems are rejected, the solutions of
individuals and groups to fundamental problems of orientation and
identity may be viewed as religious. Thus he considers unbelief to be
Jose Casanova refutes the claim that modernity necessarily relegates
religion to the private sphere of individually held beliefs and inner
feelings, interpreting the emergence of new religious movements in the
public sphere as a reverse movement, or re-privatisation of the
historical pattern of secularisation in the modern West.
Andrew Greeley believes that new religions are a challenge to
secularisation, as he believes that religion will always have a part
to play in people's lives. People will always need to endow their
world with ultimate meaning and that religion alone can provide this
meaning of life. Greeley writes 'the basic religious needs and the
basic religious functions have not changes very notably since the
late Ice Age'. The five main persistent functions of religion,
identified by Greeley are: the provision of a meaning system allowing
man to cope with the 'questions of the Ultimate', the provision of a
feeling of social belonging; the integration of the forces of
sexuality into the rest of human life; the provision of a mystical
channel with 'the powers that are real'; the provision of leaders'
supporting the common man in his attempts to 'wrestle with the
One sociologist who has rejected the idea of the eventual
disappearance of religion is Thomas Luckmann, who predicted that as
the individual consciousness becomes detached from traditional social
contexts, people develop a sense of individual autonomy. As a
consequence, traditional Christianity makes way for more or less
'invisible' and 'privatised' forms of religion. Luckmann believes
that the modern Western trend towards secularisation is merely a
decline in traditional religious forms and institutions. Certain
fundamental questions still, and always will, confront human beings.
These questions and problems relate to what Luckmann calls the
'dominant, overarching values', their social-structural basis and the
functioning of these values in the life of the individual. Therefore,
there can be no secularisation as people will always be confronted
with these fundamental questions which can only be answered by
Jeffrey Hadden believes that the assumptions within secularisation
constitute a doctrine or dogma rather than a well-tested theory 'a
taken-for-granted ideology rather than a systemic set of interrelated
propositions'. Hadden argues that benign neglect, rather than
confirming evidence, kept the claims of secularisation intact for so
long. The idea that religion would shrink and eventually vanish was a
product of the social and cultural milieu of its time, fitting the
evolutionary model of modernisation. The emergence of new religious
movements and the way that religion remains entangled in politics
suggests that secularisation is not happening as predicted. He argues
that those who claim that secularisation has occurred have exaggerated
and romanticised the depth of religious practices in the European past
and also simultaneously underestimated the power and popularity of
religious movements in the present era, exemplified by an evangelical
revival in America and New Age spirituality in Western Europe.
It appears, then, that there is truth to both the secularisation and
anti-secularisation theories. Some hold that the position of religion
has not changed as proponents of secularisation theory proposed, and
that religion is going to carry on being a fundamental reality in the
foreseeable future. Religion is infinitely adaptable and will continue
to change, sometimes radically, sometimes in the direction of
trenchant conservatism. There appears to be little to suggest that
religion is going to disappear or diminish greatly; something
identifiable with religion and continuous with what is ordinarily
known as religion in the past, will persist. In summary, religion
will bend but not break under the pressure of change in the 'outside'
world it inhabits. Not only do new religious movements offer ways to
react against secularisation, they also provide spiritualising
interpretations of secular values, frequently claiming to do so in a
more up-to-date way than conventional faiths.
Bellah, Robert N. 1970. Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a
Post-traditional World. New York: Harper & Row
Berger, Peter. 1992. A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of
Credulity. New York: Free Press
Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press
Greeley, Andrew M. 1989. Religious Change in America. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press
Hadden, Jeffrey K. 1969. The Gathering Storm in the Churches. Garden
City, NY: Doubleday
Luckmann, Thomas. 1967. The Invisible Religion: The Problem of
Religion in Modern Society. New York: Macmillan
Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of
Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley:
University of California Press
Wilson, Bryan. 1982. Religion in Sociological Perspective. Oxford:
Oxford University Press
(c) Catherine Nickford 2013
II. 'ORIGINS SHROUDED IN MYTH' BY RAAM GOKHALE
A Dialogue Exploring the Philosophical Roles of Myths
'If Vishnu exists, I am his avatar.'
-- Kedar Joshi
'Science, religion, history, philosophy all spring from
myths just as mere facts arise from universal truths.'
-- Raam Gokhale
'It is a myth, not a mandate, a fable not a logic, and
symbol rather than a reason by which men are moved.'
-- Irwin Edman
Scene & Players: Ram, Kedar, Sushama are at Sushama's spare house
Sushama: Myths, legends, fables, fairy tales share many common
elements. I can guess why you've chosen to focus on myths but I'd
like to hear it from you just the same.
Ram: OK. Legends, like King Arthur, can have origins in actual
historical events. Fables, like Aesop's, have a moralizing component.
Fairy tales, like Cinderella, strive to entertain children. Though all
at their best utilize explanatory elements, only myths have as their
raison d'etre the goal of explaining some pre-existing reality. For
example, the only word among them ambitious enough to go after
'Creation' is 'Myth'. Nearly every culture has a creation myth, a
Kedar: Well, besides explaining a pre-existent reality, myths can
also serve as propaganda, a story to bring about a new social order.
I'm reading a book called Asura that argues that the Hindu myth
Ramayana is a bit of propaganda intended to justify the oppression of
India's native Dravidians by the invading Aryans.
Sushama: Yes, the lure to propagandize is compelling even for
philosophers. For example, let's not forget Plato's propaganda myth
in The Republic about how philosopher-kings, guardians and everyone
else have respectively gold, silver and iron in their souls.
Ram: Maybe we can generalize by saying myths are in the business of
supplying meaning to facts, whether the meaning is elicited from the
facts themselves or imposed from without as in the case of
propaganda. But even propaganda myths strive to explain given
facts... they just might not be the best explanations. And being in
the business of explanations, it's not surprising myths are the
origins of all of mankind's explanatory endeavors, namely science,
religion, history and philosophy. Their origins are not only shrouded
in myths, they're also enshrined in them.
Sushama: Isn't that putting the cart before the horse, Ram? People
surely have the idea/concept/theory before they dress it up in a
Ram: Good point. Let me rephrase: the origins of explanations lie in
myths largely in the sense that that was the preferred mode of
setting down explanations in ancient times.
Sushama: Then I agree. Thales, the first philosopher recognized as
such in the Western tradition, probably owed his famous, 'All is
water', fragment to the Babylonian myth of creation. All Thales did
was to leave their god Marduk out of the picture. This might suggest
that the myth came before the idea. But the Babylonians probably
viewed water as constitutive of everything before they set it down in
myth. The idea came before the myth, and maybe before Thales.
Still myths clearly have played a role in philosophy (a little lost
in her own thoughts): in Empedocles' reign of love for instance the
connection with myths and mythologizing seems to resurface. And
certainly Parmenides' proem with its invocation to the goddess is
styled after Homer. And of course, we've mentioned Plato who's
chockfull of myths from the Charioteer to the Cave. And even in the
modern period, myths play a role from Hobbes state of nature to Marx'
dialectical materialism. And more recently philosophers like Richard
Rorty, Hilary Putnam and Daniel Dennett have freely used modern day
'myths' to illustrate philosophical points...
Ram: Uh... thank you Sushama for that summary of the role myths have
played in the Western tradition but perhaps we should turn to a
tradition where the connection with myth is alive and kicking, namely
the Hindu tradition that our friend Kedar wants to address.
Kedar: Oh, where to begin? I suppose at the beginning... If I may
quote the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad,
'In the beginning was the self, the Purusha (the male principle),
alone, afraid, wondering what made him lonely and fearful. If there
was loneliness and fear, there could also be company and pleasure.
Restless, he split himself.'
I should mention that there is also the Advaita Vedanta school of
Hinduism that maintains that the undifferentiated Brahman is the only
reality, that all differentiation is Maya or illusion.
Sushama: This differentiation cuts pretty deep. For example, the
Rigveda has a passage translated as, 'in the beginning, there was
neither what is nor what is not'. This addresses the fundamental
divide Parmenides would later discuss in his proem, though it doesn't
take the latter's counterintuitive plenum position.
Perhaps because the differentiation is so fundamental, the so-called
illusion, is an independent 'reality' in itself, identified with the
always-existing feminine force in nature, namely Maya, just as
Brahman is the masculine.
Ram: Interesting. The beginning is the very beginning. A creation
myth has to explain everything, even how any differentiation at all
arose. Thus the Bible's Genesis describes how the world was first
without form and void until God separated/differentiated the heaven
and the earth, light and dark, water and land.
And curiously, in Christianity, like in Hinduism, there is an
alternate creation myth where the differentiating element is also a
separate and distinct god: the New Testament's, 'In the beginning was
the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.' If I may be
so bold, the Word, being in essence language, is the differentiating
element, here distinguished like Maya in Hinduism, as a deity in
Sushama: Well, the Christian holy trinity -- the Father, the Son, and
the Holy Ghost -- are all masculine. One is left wondering how
something as significantly distinct as the feminine arose. Surely not
just out of Adam's rib?
Kedar: Like the creation of the world aren't there two myths in
Christianity about the creation of man? A Garden of Eden in which Eve
was created from Adam's rib and an Eden where Adam and Eve were
created at the same time, both from dust?
Ram: True. Still even if 'Eve' was 'coeval' with Adam (pardon the
pun), a female deity is not coeval with God as in some forms of
Sushama: Hinduism seems grander for that in some ways... though
having male and female deities couple to produce creation is also
part of the cosmogonies of many primitive people.
Kedar: In anthropomophing the forces of nature, Hinduism may've been
trying to placate the common run of religious-minded people. The
doctrines at their core however are profoundly philosophical:
regardless of the attribution of male and female, everything is one
and many at the same time. Different forces or deities are posited to
explain the two aspects. And since the tendency towards the 'many' is
a fecundity, it seems reasonable to describe it as female and the
tendency to be one with the male.
Ram: Hmm... I remember reading how creationists in the US drew
support from the fact that the big bang theory became the accepted
theory in cosmology. They thought a beginning view of creation
supported the Genesis account better than the preceding steady-state
theory. But I think modern day physics with all forces identified
with their field particles and nothing, no God, not even time,
outside the primordial atom supports the Hindu creation myth better
than a Biblical creation with a God and time outside creation.
Kedar: The time-scales used in Hindu cosmology -- on the order of
several billions of years -- also come surprisingly close to modern
physics as noted by the likes of Fritjof Capra and Carl Sagan. For
example, Capra wrote as follows (borrowing Ram's laptop, looks up a
'This idea of a periodically expanding and contracting universe,
which involves a scale of time and space of vast proportions, has
arisen not only in modern cosmology, but also in ancient Indian
mythology. Experiencing the universe as an organic and rhythmically
moving cosmos, the Hindus were able to develop evolutionary
cosmologies which come very close to our modern scientific models.'
Ram(taking back the laptop): Yes, I remember reading that in The Tao
of Physics. Though science does weigh against making the primordial
elements in any way 'sexy': sex differentiation didn't originate till
life and certainly 'creation' had been around a long time, contrary to
the Hindu athropomorphing tendency.
Sushama: Perhaps the most charitable interpretation of Hinduism is as
Kedar was suggesting: male-like and female-like forces are only used
to characterize the one and the many aspects of creation in
retrospect; the primordial entity in itself is described as nirgun,
that is devoid of any characteristics.
Ram: OK. Hindu myths make a pretty good stab at philosophy. How about
historical accuracy? Do the Ramayana and Mahabharata myths/legends
have their basis in historical fact?
Kedar: Hold on. You're jumping from philosophy to history. Hinduism
is not done with science. Having explained the origin of the
universe, Hinduism also draws support from evolution's origin of
species. The ten avatars of Vishnu range in order from fish, to
tortoise, to boar, to Narasimha, a beast-man, to Vaman a pygmy form
of man -- this curiously parallels human evolution. Only later do you
get into the quasi-historical avatars of Parashuram of the iron ax,
Ram of the bow and arrow and Krishna of the sudarshan chakra, the
Frisbee-like weapon of power. Only then do you have the historical
ninth avatar, the Buddha, who showed humanity the path to
enlightenment, to be liberated from the world of suffering.
Kedar: Well some say co-opting the Buddha as the ninth avatar was
another instance of Hindu propaganda. If Christianity had been
popular in ancient India, Jesus might've been regarded as the tenth
avatar, just as Islam co-opted Moses and Jesus as prophets in their
own right, though Mohammed is their last and greatest prophet.
Sushama: So much for 'history'. Getting back to 'science', Hindu
mythology's view of evolution is very much in the zeitgeist here in
India but we must anticipate a facile objection to it: modern
homo-sapiens appear in the story of the lion-man Narasimha and also
the pygmy Vaman which wouldn't have been the case if these avatars
were supposed to be evolutionary stages.
Of course, this is too facile because the myths are stories first not
scientific theories. But to lay some claim to have insight into the
latter, it is sufficient they contain allegories to modern theories
-- and this they surprisingly do.
Ram: That leaves a big question: HOW? We've formulated our theories
of the origin of the cosmos and of species in the light of
observation and experimentation. What did the ancients do?
Kedar: Well one theory is aliens or ancient astronauts; our ancestors
were visited by aliens who they viewed as gods and these 'gods' gave
them insight into the nature of things not to mention how to build
the pyramids, a feat we'd find hard to duplicate today. Didn't Von
Daniken's Chariots of the Gods first propose this idea in the 70's?
Sushama: Impressive Kedar. I would've thought you too young to know
this reference which was all the rage once. Still if you're going to
be knowledgeable about old books I think you can pick better ones.
Kedar: Well myths, even myths about the origins of myths arise in a
historical context. We started dreaming up Roswells and Chariots of
the Gods at the dawn of our own space-age. That's when we must look
up original sources.
Sushama: I prefer to think the origin myths were original to the
original myth writers, lost though they may be in antiquity. Only
human writers, not aliens, could do justice to the interplay of
characters, motives and emotions that are woven through the twin
tapestries, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
We are capable of great insights -- philosophical and scientific as
well as artistic -- when we do not have distractions like the sights,
sounds and smells of the cities we live in, the laptops, smart-phones
and other gadgets we're more often slaves to than masters of, the
social networks that blanket us but provide little warmth. We --
Indians, Greeks, Babylonians, Egyptians, etc. -- were great once not
because some futuristic aliens helped us but because we have always
had the capacity for greatness as long as this so-called future
doesn't stand in our way.
Ram: Very eloquent Sushama. Our capacity for greatness may not have
only been manifested in insightful story-telling. My grandmother used
to tell me that Hinduism's 330 million gods, far from being a farcical
contradiction to the Vedas' monotheism or at most dualism, was an
allusion to the fact that there were once that many 'god-like' men
and women. She also used to say -- many Indians today believe -- that
things like the brahmastra of the Mahabharata was an atom bomb, the
secret of which was known to the ancients. That knowledge led to
their destruction just as it will lead to ours. Then we would start
over, an endless cycle of creation and destruction, day and night of
Kedar: That's not quite right. The current cycle of Brahma didn't end
with the great war depicted in the Mahabharata. It has continued to
today's kaliyug at the end of which the last avatar of Vishnu, Kalki,
will arrive destroying all immoral people marking the end of the cycle.
Sushama: From your quote at the beginning of the dialogue I gather
you see yourself as Kalki?
Kedar: Not necessarily. Vishnu can have many minor avatars besides
the ten main ones of the Vedas -- for example, the girl Mohini who
served immortal-life-giving nectar only to the gods but kept it away
from their enemies, the asuras.
For me, I believe my purpose is to do philosophy and possibly through
political means, contribute to the destruction of evildoers like any
avatar of Vishnu. Remember Kalki has to survive to the end of kaliyug
which may be a long way away; besides there are some who believe
kaliyug hasn't even started yet; anyway all this may be beyond my
lifetime which I expect to be short in any case.
Ram: OK philosopher-king avatar, what exactly is an avatar of Vishnu?
I mean if we're not restricted to ten and for all we know there could
be 330 million, or whatever is the current number of 'god-like'
individuals to borrow my grandmother's idea... what exactly is an
avatar? Could I be an avatar? Could Sushama be an avatar, now that
you've reminded us there can be female avatars of a male god? Can
that guy from the movie Avatar be an avatar?
Sushama: Good point, amusingly put! Remember Advaita Vedanta's famous
equation, 'Atman is Brahman'? God is in all of us, the world is
ensouled with Him or rather It. This is consistent with a difference
between Christianity and Hinduism: God in the latter doesn't exactly
create the world; he splits and becomes the world. In fact the
etymology of 'Brahman' is the root brh which means to grow or swell.
This 'becoming' is why evolution is consistent with Hinduism in a way
it isn't with Christianity.
So the one has become many... but, through meditation or yoga, any of
us can become 'self-realized' and return to the One. This gets back to
our potential for greatness that I waxed poetically about earlier.
Kedar: Well an avatar of Vishnu clearly has to be different than the
common run of men. While ordinary men through self-realization may
live the Hindu version of the good life with the Gita's different
stages, only an avatar of Vishnu directs traffic as it were on the
road of history; everyone else is merely another car pivoting around
the cones or ignoring them at their peril. In this way, Hindu
mythology, as does the Christian one, does the job of history and
eschatology as well as philosophy and science.
Still the difference between an avatar and a human may only be a
matter of degree. Lord Ram as elaborated in his birth-myth was only
half-Vishnu since Kausalya his mother-to-be ate only half of the
payasadan given to the childless King Dasharatha; the other queens
ate smaller portions and hence their sons, Ram's half-brothers, were
lesser percentages of Vishnu.
Ram: So you seem to be saying that the difference between an avatar
and an ordinary human may be quantitative, of the amount of
'God-stuff' in each but the amount of 'God-stuff' can't be increased
through meditation or yoga; it can only become self-aware which
admittedly is a good thing in itself; still the gulf between an
avatar and an ordinary human can't be bridged, that a Krishna can
impart self-knowledge to an Arjuna but an Arjuna can't thereby be a
Kedar: Yes it is a matter of degree. But quantitative differences
have a way of becoming qualitative after crossing some threshold
level. Lord Ram and me for that matter, have a portion of Vishnu but
moreover that portion is sufficient to give the avatar the paramatma
of Vishnu which ordinary humans lack.
Ram: Interesting... and certainly consistent.
Sushama: Oh c'mon! In trying to understand the consistencies in
Kedar's positions, Ram always seems like he's justifying them. I'm
sure that's not his intention in this case -- it's just the typical
pitfall of philosophers.
For my part, I still have to ask, what makes you think you are an
avatar of Vishnu?
Kedar: The reasons are astrological...
Sushama (cutting off Kedar): Hence open to interpretation...
Ram (cutting off Sushama): Or entirely dubious...
Kedar: I expected as much. Anyway, I'm quite ambivalent about my
quote, 'If Vishnu exists, I am his avatar.' On the one hand, I phrase
it conditionally, like a reductio, because I often doubt Vishnu
exists. On the other hand, certain astrological and other reasons
lead me to think I might be an avatar of Vishnu, albeit minor. Yet
again, since humanity and the kaliyuga, in some ways, appear to be on
the brink of apocalypse, I, who, on certain rational assumptions,
thinks of himself to be a serious avatar of Vishnu, might just be
none other than Kalki, Vishnu's tenth and final Maha-avatar.
My ambivalence regarding my quote is connected with my uncertainty
about myths. You remember the title I suggested for the dialogue:
'Myth -- Reality, Illusion or Fiction?' I'm not sure where the truth
Sushama: Reality, Illusion or Fiction... sounds like Goodman's Fact,
Fiction and Forecast.
Ram: One of the reasons I rejected it, the main being it sounds too
much like a textbook... not at all the urbane, witty tone I always
strive for... which by the way you're killing Kedar!
Sushama: Ha, Ha! But Goodman's Fact, Fiction and Forecast is witty
and urbane Ram. Similarly Kedar's title sounds intriguing: even an
illusion as a genuine appearance is more real than fiction; the three
indeed are the three possibilities for myths.
As for restoring your desired tone may I suggest this would be a good
point to introduce the 'Great Man' theory of history you wanted me to
research. The way to step down from Kedar's too lofty plane of gods
to mere mortals would be by a detour through heroes.
Ram: Yes, young men can be ambitious even heroic, but delusional
that's a form of insanity.
Sushama: Now you're killing the urbane tone, Ram. All three of us are
crazy in our own way. Anyway, the great man theory.
The great man theory was first formulated by Thomas Carlyle. The idea
is simple: history is driven, shaped by great men and women; history
is nothing more than the biography of great persons. And indeed,
after the theory, there were many 19th century encyclopedias of
history that read like a collection of biographies.
The definitive counterargument to this theory was formulated by
Spencer who said that such great persons are the products of their
societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the
social conditions built before their lifetimes.
Ram: I didn't know about Carlyle vs. Spencer but both their ideas are
developed in Tolstoy's War and Peace. Napoleon is first seen as a
great man who shapes history only to turn out to be at best a
diminutive embodiment of the collective will of the French people
who, abstracted as infinitesimals, can be summed up in a sort of
historical calculus. The historical calculus is envisioned capable of
even predicting history's future course.
I also remember coming across this idea in Asimov's science fiction
novel, Foundation, with its science of psychohistory.
Kedar: Uh, getting back to Hindu myths, the avatars of Vishnu
definitely fit into the great man theory. Vishnu says he will return
periodically to free Mother Earth from her burden of evil which like
dust on furniture has a tendency to accumulate. So an avatar acts
contrary to the masses rather than merely reflect them. Still there
is a concession to the Spencerian sort of counterargument as well. As
humanity degrades further and further throughout the different epochs
or yugs, the avatars become less and less pure good. Lord Ram
operated within the means, adhering to principles despite tragic
consequences to his father and later wife. Krishna believed the ends
justify the means as exemplified by his devious methods of killing
the enemies of his cousins the Pandavas. Kalki influenced as he would
be by the current kaliyug would presumably be even worse. An avatar,
or a 'great man' shapes history but is also shaped by it.
Ram: Hmm... reminds me of Einstein's explanation of his theory:
'Space tells matter how to move and matter tells space how to curve.'
Sushama: Interesting analogy. If history is space and human beings
flimsy or weightier matter depending on how great they are, maybe God
is light, having a dual nature: God having a tendency to be one and
many at the same time just as light is a single wave and many
particles at the same time...
Sorry. I got carried away. Anyway like space, matter and light, an
avatar's work is never done. Thus even after Kalki, the whole thing
starts again and more Vishnu avatars would be needed to rid the world
of the never-ending accumulation of evil. Sometimes I wonder: is the
whole system rigged to provide Vishnu job-security?
Kedar: Very funny Sushama, but now you're being too witty and urbane.
Vishnu doesn't need job-security. Vishnu's job is a dream job --
literally! In fact, I was torn between my Vishnu-avatar quote and the
following: 'I am God; I am asleep; and Kedar Joshi is my dream'.
In Hinduism, Vishnu sleeps on the ten-headed snake Shesh in the
eternal ocean and from his navel, Brahma appears and creates the
world. Vishnu has ten major avatars in the world created by Brahma at
the end of which the cycle either begins again or, if it has cycled
through enough times, Shiva destroys the world.
My personal interpretation of Hinduism is that the world is just a
dream of God -- call him Vishnu if you like. This is the view of many
yogis like Paramhansa Yogananda who said 'God consciously dreams His
cosmic play and is unaffected by its dualities.'
Sushama: Well that's one view. But in the Gita, we find a competing
dualist picture of the world, where matter is real as the body of God
and is not an illusion though the forms it takes are. And in Hinduism
you can find adherents of every other interpretation, even the 330
Still, I too find the dream interpretation compelling. It unifies and
makes sense of a lot of separate strands in Hinduism. The idea that
the sensory world is Maya makes sense if the illusion is someone's
dream. The triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh (Shiva) -- which by
the way you reference and reverence when you say the three-letter AUM
-- makes sense because an initiator, dreamer, and awakener is needed
if the world is a dream. And why Brahma the creator should be
demoted, unlike the Christian Yahweh, to just growing out of Vishnu's
navel makes sense because what causes a dream is secondary to deities
like Vishnu and Shiva who show humans how to deal with life though it
may be only a dream.
But isolating one strand as essential to Hinduism may be contrary to
the spirit of the religion which, like the Gita's three ways to God--
of devotion, knowledge and good deeds -- intentionally resists
unification. I even have a problem with there being a single word,
Ram: Still the dream interpretation is the most interesting from a
philosophical viewpoint. Let's focus on that.
But tell me, does Brahma grow out of Vishnu's navel like lint? Or
does the swelling/growing root brh mean the birth of Brahma is more
of a burp than a big bang? I'm just trying to assess how far to take
the etymology and the demotion of the creator...
Sushama: Really Ram -- neither lint nor burp, more like a lotus. But
there is the myth of how Brahma, is cursed for his vanity in creating
the world by not even having a single temple dedicated to him.
Ram: Interesting. Brahma is demoted but Brahman is exalted. Both are
creators; are they the same or different?
Kedar: Brahma is the creator of the universe which, having both good
and evil components, does not redound to the glory of the creator.
The Brahman of the Vedas on the other hand is nothing less than the
ensouled undifferentiated reality of the universe. It doesn't create
the universe so much as is the universe in its true form. It is so
worthy of praise that the adherents of both Shiva and Vishnu try to
appropriate Its job for their own deity. Shiva-ites claim that the
underlying undifferentiated reality is Shiva and Maya the illusion
maker is Shakti, Shiva's consort. Similarly Vishnu-ites cite the
Bhagvad Gita's cosmic form of Krishna having both godlike heads which
issue life and demonic ones which devour life as proof that Vishnu is
the ultimate, undifferentiated reality.
Ram: I'm sorry. I'm not sure why Brahma is needed if either Vishnu or
Shiva fulfill his role or why Vishnu or Shiva are needed if Brahma can
be identified with Brahman and fulfill his role.
Sushama: Well we've already mentioned how the logic of dreams
requires three entities.
For a deeper reason, perhaps we can look to the Rigveda passage I
alluded to earlier. It says the reason the world was created may be
known to the creator or maybe even he knows it not. This by the way
is also like a dream whose why's and wherefore's we often do not
know. And even in Kedar's passage, the Purusha splits itself because
undifferentiated it is lonely and fearful, not out of any moral
Either way, a moral purpose is lacking. There is no prescription for
humans for how to deal with the world of illusion. Shiva and Vishnu
represent two different responses to how to deal with Maya. Shiva
advocates escaping illusion through meditation into a state of
awakening or opening the third eye. Vishnu through Krishna advocates
a disinterested devotion to duty, that is, living the dream, playing
the hand you're dealt to the best of your ability.
Ram: OK so Vishnu and Shiva are two answers to a problem posed by
Brahma, the purpose of creation or, translated to the human scale,
the problem of how to live the good life if the world is an illusion.
Brahma is demoted because he has no satisfactory answer to the riddle
posed by his own creation. Is that it?
Kedar: Partly. Brahma is also demoted because he isn't purely good.
Each positive brings with it, its negative, a what-is-not comes with
Ram: I guess every religion has a problem of evil. Why is there evil
in the world if God is omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent?
Christianity also deals with this problem by on the one hand demoting
God -- by giving him an equal and opposite number, Satan as he's
depicted in the story of Job -- , or on the other hand, making some
evil necessary for giving man a choice, a choice for which he may be
rewarded or punished. It's all part of God's overall plan which is
for the greater good of humanity.
Kedar: If God has a plan, I don't see how man has a choice. So much
for free will in Christianity. Also in the dream interpretation of
Hinduism, characters in a dream don't have free will. They only seem
to the dreamer to have it.
Ram: This is getting close to the contingency vs. determinism
dialogue I want us to have at some point so let's skirt that for now.
Sushama: I think Christianity's second answer is not tenable. Not all
evil is necessary for giving humans a chance to exercise free will.
Natural disasters kill untold innocents. Does that fit into God's
overall plan for the greater good of humanity?
Ram: Yeah Christianity does try to salvage the free-will apology for
evil by its doctrine of original sin so that nobody is really
innocent. But for me the only true answer that Christianity can give
is a less than omnipotent God. God himself admits as much when he
says to Job, 'Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the
earth?' This question greatly diminishes man's power in relation to
God but it also hints at God's limitations: God is kind of saying,
'Do you know what I had to deal with?'
Sushama: In Hinduism one answer to the problem of evil is all
differentiation -- including that between good and evil -- is
illusory; the other answer is God, at least the worship-worthy God
whether Vishnu or Shiva, didn't create the world. I wonder, does that
make him less than omnipotent?
Ram: As my college philosophy professor was fond of saying, 'a little
omnipotence goes a long way.' But seriously, I would like to discuss
the first answer. If evil is an illusion must good be also?
Kedar: Good exists outside the dream in the character of the dreamer
that finds the dream repugnant enough to require intervention. Evil
on the other hand doesn't exist in the character of the dreamer but
only in the dream. Still, I'm not sure: if God had a different
character, what is good and evil in the dream would be different.
As philosophers, we want to say the Good is good independent of
whether God wills it. But Hindu cosmology is so cosmic that there is
no place left for the philosophers' Good to reside.
Sushama: I disagree. Vishnu could have dreams of eating sweet moduks
and be drawn into 'intervening' in them. That wouldn't make gluttony
good. Gluttony would remain gluttony and good good.
Kedar: But these are only concepts that characters in the dream have.
Outside the dream, Vishnu only has likes and dislikes.
Ram: But Kedar, haven't you had the experience of going to sleep with
a problem -- it can be as simple as trying to recall a tune -- and
waking up with the answer? There can be a rightness to dreams. And if
a dreamed character, or the dreamer for that matter, can be right in
an epistemological sense, why not an ethical one?
Kedar: So a dream can be used to judge the mind of the dreamer?
Ram: Why not? Freudians do it all the time.
(They laugh as they realize this is a convenient place to stop)
(c) Raam Gokhale 2012
III. 'FROM SOCRATES TO SNOWDEN: RIDING FREEDOM'S HORSE TO NOWHERE' BY
Assange, Manning, Snowden: their names evoke a pervasive distress
about the erosion of our civil liberties. The corporate media
gingerly handles them while it circumvents the fulcrum that balances
freedom and security. The electorate wavers anxiously. From the
plutocratic point of view it's an untidy but neat situation. It
enables further centralisation of capitalist control whose switch to
tyranny in Marxian theory is today being realised again.
When we ourselves pause to ponder the question we do so mainly in
political ways, to deplore the broken trust between states and the
societies that have allowed them to entrench themselves -- under the
guise of an achieved democracy -- as a corporate-political timarchy.
Having until the alarm went off dreamed of ourselves as citizens,
we're surprised to have woken up to find ourselves helots.
Our outrage, too, is mainly political. For us, as for the
'contextualising' media, Assange, Manning, Snowden are mavericks
whose significance must be politically determined. We think of them
in terms of this impersonal mechanism which, though corroded by
corruption, remains our only means for resolving the dilemma. We ask
only whether the state or the whistleblower has broken the law. Which
of the two is the criminal here?
We seldom ponder the moral dimensions of the matter. There's little
inclination to humanise it. We engage only ideologically, using all
the correctnesses ideology employs to gauge the social dangers. But
of the application of cultural intelligence -- thoughts and
sensibilities involving human meanings -- there is hardly a hint.
That's because it's all about our liberties, we say, and our
liberties, so far as we've been taught to value them, are a purely
ideological quantity. They have little to do with a humane culture
and wouldn't be affected even if we haven't any culture at all.
We've forgotten that liberty doesn't spring from nature, not even
from a rudimentary human nature. It was culture, not politics, that
gave us the notion of freedom -- because freedom is pre-eminently a
moral quality. Politics trudges in as freedom's guarantor only after
culture has done the finer work.
Rousseau's dictum that 'man is born free; and everywhere is in
chains' was really only an ideological slogan whose implications the
philosopher was content to deny in the interests of engineering
The legislator is the engineer who invents the machine...
(and) ought to feel himself capable... of changing human
nature... into part of a greater whole... of altering man's
constitution for the purpose of strengthening it... He
must... take away from man his own resources and give him
instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made
use of without the help of others...
The Social Contract
What followed on this perversion of freedom was the horror of the
Robespierrean republic in which murmurers were set free by the
guillotine. So unbearable in fact were its dictated freedoms that the
liberated populace eventually installed Napoleon as dictator.
Bonaparte was at least recognisably human. He stood for a modus
vivendi distilled from a cultural essence, a liberty that, however
throttled in its utterance, was at least proclaimed in a human voice.
When liberty is estranged from its humane meaning it becomes a
shapeless human right imposed on people who don't know what it is in
itself or what it may properly be good for. The cultural expression
of a people's maturity is debased into a socio-political creed
susceptible to every political manipulation.
In western history the choice for democracy was first made by the
Greeks. At the outset it wasn't a choice for liberty but for the
deeper self-knowledge from which the idea of liberty grows. Of the
undeviating search for this insight our brightest example is
Socrates, who lived and died by the cultured precept that 'the
unexamined life is not worth living.'
What Socrates discovered, looking inward, was a selfhood which
responded to the reasonableness of nature with a contrapuntal reason
and sensibility of its own. The daimon acknowledged that its cosmic
home was worthy of a positive and reasonable response, though nothing
should be left unquestioned. It was for his scrupulous honesty in
questioning all things that his government eventually put him to
The equating of culture with virtue (arete: excellence in the
understanding and conduct proper to humane reason, itself the Highest
Good) and righteousness (dikaiosyne, which may fairly be given as 'the
mind in harmony with its own intrinsic nature and the nature of its
world') probably grates on our postmodern ears. We've forgotten what
culture meant to the man who first defined its humane uses. We think
of it nowadays as anything at all that everybody does. Matthew Arnold
used it Socratically to denote an education steeped in 'the best which
has been said and thought in the world, and a true source, therefore,
of sweetness and light.'
Liberty, for him, must be derived from a cultivation of the moral
mind which crafts mere people into humane beings. Only the humanised
human being can know what liberty is in itself. To discern our
righteous human goals with honest perspicacity is the beginning and
end of Arnold's culture.
Such an attainment has nothing to do with the deculturalised freedoms
demanded from governments: mental freedoms morphed into bills of
rights. Genuine freedom comes by an inward education. We can only
insist on having it politically after we've achieved it in our minds.
The rights granted by constitutions and charters have little
intrinsic humane meaning, which is why they can have no really
liberating effect. J.S. Mill saw this clearly in the period when
social freedoms were being hotly debated in the turmoil of the
He who lets the world... choose his plan of life for him
has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of
imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself employs all
his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning
and judgement to foresee, activity to gather materials for
decision, discrimination to decide... It is possible that
he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of
harm's way, without any of these things. But what will be
his comparative worth as a human being?... Human nature is
not a machine to be built after a model...
Mill: 1985: 123
We may think that Mill is asking the impossible and that would be
true if he asked it of everyone. But not to expect it of anyone at
all is a lethal blow to liberty. The fewer the people who have what
he asks, the thinner will be the idea of freedom's most pertinent,
most personal meaning.
Which brings us to the meaning of meaning itself.
First, we should be clear that meaning has a history too. It changes
with changes in our culture and self-image. Like liberty and
humanity, it has cultural origins which can be perverted by ideology
and dehumanised by becoming estranged from culture.
The humane essence of Socratic meaning was dissolved in the advance
of Christian ideology after it had been institutionalised by
Constantine. From now on the Hellenic daimon would be consigned to
hell. Human nature at its most virtuous was only a heap of filthy
rags which God, through the church bureaucracy, must redeem for a
posthuman paradise. The inevitable result of this radically debased
self-view was destruction of the cultured vision that had preceded it.
From St John Cassian (c.360-435), an early Christian mystic, we hear
the first ominous grumbles against classical culture:
I have been deeply impregnated by literature. My spirit is
so infected by the work of poets that the frivolous fables
and vulgar stories imbued in me from my earliest childhood
occupy me even in my hours of prayer. While these phantoms
play with me my soul is no longer free to aspire to the
contemplation of heavenly things.
in Wolff: 1968: 28
This iconoclastic attitude, supplied with spiritual wings by
Augustine, set the tone for the theocratic ideology that was to rule
the western world to well beyond the Renaissance. The dark and middle
ages that were its ideological offspring had little to offer to the
recultivation of humane meaning. It was stymied by a salvationist
doctrine that penetrated to the most intimate cultural refuge in
every individual mind.
The Church recoiled from reason to embrace a self-image rooted in
irrational faith. And it encouraged a fallow statis of ideas by
holding that its own beliefs were the sum of all wisdom.
This flatness of the medieval self-image resembles, startlingly, and
in a number of ways, the faith-bound insipidity of postmodern society
and the ideologised individuals who make up its techno-components.
Only the objects of our faith have changed. We don't look for
salvation to a Triune Godhead but to a triple syndrome embodied in
Science, the State, and the Corporate Oligarchy. The hell they'll
save us from is poverty and anxiety. In the meantime they provide us
with the meaning and liberty that conform us to their system and set
us free to operate within its confines. But to what end?
... you think you cover everything by saying 'We are
free!... ' Freedom, like industry, is a very good horse to
ride; -- but to ride somewhere. You seem to think that you
have only to get on the back of your horse Freedom... and
to ride away as hard as you can, to be sure of coming to
the right destination.
Matthew Arnold, Friendships's garland
in Thorpe: 1969: 133
Have we, 150 years after Arnold wrote these things, come at last to
the right destination? Has it been inevitable that freedom would lead
us to gradual dehumanisation and the correlative destruction of our
It's worth recalling Lionel Trilling's notion that, since politics is
usurping the whole of our intelligent life, 'the only way of enduring
it is to force into our definition of it every human activity and
every subtlety of every human activity... Unless we insist that
politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and
mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.' (Trilling: 1970:
'The unexamined life is not worth living' -- and not being worth
living, how can it be free? If we haven't thoroughly pondered the
questions: 'What is this person I call myself? and what has it been
put here to do?' -- how can we insist on an a priori liberty to be or
do we know not what?
But such introspection becomes redundant in epochs of blind faith.
Today our highest meaning is the security of capital. The Big Bank
Balance is both means and end of our existing at all. Otherwise it's
the darkness of failure. One might argue that it always has been so,
but the argument would be false. Though comfortable survival has
always been desirable, it was only in the 20th century that it became
the sole criterion of success.
For this development we owe much to Science, one of our postmodern
gods. It was science that marched most optimistically in step with
the 'progressively' striding Industrial Revolution. Scientists placed
such exalted confidence in the efficacy of their disciplines to solve
any rapidly ramifying problems, including social ones, that the
religion of scientism was smartly adopted by would-be social
engineers. The baseless belief that science could solve our most
intractable social problems had its most outspoken modern apostle in
the sanguine figure of C.P. Snow.
His 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific
Revolution, set the tone for the precedence of science over the
humanities. It convinced 'progressive' thinkers that science must
displace the literary culture. It was time for Socrates to be tossed
out of the window. And science would see to it.
Here's a passage from that bluff-and-cliche lecture which gives some
idea of Snow's anti-cultural thinking:
... There is a moral trap which comes through the
(cultured) insight into man's loneliness: it tempts one to
sit back, complacent in one's unique tragedy, and let the
others go without a meal.
As a group, the scientists fall into that trap less than
others. They are inclined to be impatient to see if
something can be done: and inclined to think that it can be
done, until it's proved otherwise. That is their real
optimism, and it's an optimism that the rest of us badly
In reverse, the same spirit, tough and good and determined
to fight it out at the side of their brother men, has made
scientists regard the other (literary) culture's social
attitudes as contemptible...'
Snow: 1993: 25
For Snow, the literary culture's 'natural Luddites' must be dispelled
like an evil mist so that science could usher in the techno-utopia in
which we thrive today. His position was challenged by F.R. Leavis
whose Richmond Lecture, Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow,
was sourly received by the scientistic intelligentsia. It's a lecture
which with postmodern hindsight deserves much more attention than it
usually gets. But its most pertinent and portentous message is this:
... the advance of science and technology means a human
future of change so rapid and of such kinds, of tests and
challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible
non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their
consequences, that mankind -- this is surely clear -- will
need to be in full intelligent possession of its full
humanity (and 'possession' here means, not confident
ownership of that which belongs to us -- our property, but a
basic living deference towards that to which, opening as it
does into the unknown and itself unmeasurable, we know we
belong). I haven't chosen to say that mankind will need all
its traditional wisdom; that might suggest a kind of
conservatism that, so far as I am concerned, is the enemy.
What we need... is something with the livingness of the
deepest vital instinct; an intelligence, a power -- rooted,
strong in experience, and supremely human -- of creative
response to the new challenges of our time; something that
is alien to either of Snow's cultures.
Leavis: 2011: 433-434
What Snow failed to grasp was that modernist culture had a quarrel
not with science but with its apotheosis in the heedless optimism of
zealots like himself. They descried in it something very like
medieval religiosity with its potential for spawning indoctrinated
regimes of the kind foreseen in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In fact, the modernist literary endeavour resembles in the gist of
its ideas the revival of humanism in the great Renaissance. What the
modernists saw running to seed in the atmosphere of scientistic
industrialism was the the full, rounded Renaissance culture so
laboriously re-established, and against such great odds, in the teeth
of the medieval theocracy.
Parallels between medievalism and scientism aren't far-fetched. Its
irrational optimism, its appeal to the masses, as well as its
coercive hegemonizing potential are closely mirrored in the enforced
obligation to believe and in the use of belief for cynical ends that
characterised the politicised medieval church.
Two incompatible forces, the reformers and humanists, revolted
against the medieval church. The first were concerned like all true
ideologues with refashioning society by intensifying the ideology,
the second with rediscovering the classical, cultured, humane
The reformists emphasised the depravity of human nature. Their
arch-propagandist, Jehan Calvin, didn't share the Pauline generosity
which placed humanity 'a little lower than the angels'. His was a far
more Swiftian view, though we look to him in vain for satire:
[In the natural man], from crown to sole, no trace of
goodness is found... all our justice is injustice; our
service, filth; our glory, shame. Even the best that arises
from us is infected and vitiated by the flesh's uncleanness,
and is always mixed with dirt. (Humanity is) an indomitable
and ferocious beast (and) an ordure.
Zweig: 1951: 219
In clear-cut contrast the humanist Pico de la Mirandola saw his own
humanity as sui ipsius quasi arbitrarius et honorarius plastes et
fictor (by its own judgement and honour, the maker and shaper of
There's an even bolder statement of human dignity made by Gianozzo
Manetti (1396-1459) in reaction to Pope Innocent's De miseria humanae
After the primal and rudimentary creation of the world...
everything that surrounds us is ours, the works of man: all
dwellings, castles, cities; all the edifices thoughout the
world, which both by quantity and quality seem to resemble
the works of angels rather than of men. Ours are the
paintings, sculptures, trades, sciences and philosophical
wisdoms. Ours are all inventions, diverse languages and
genres of literature, all of which, when we contemplate
their necessary usefulness, compel us to a yet higher
admiration and even astonishment.
De dignitate et excellentia hominis, my italics.
in Enno van Gelder: 1964: 15
But the battle for the renewal of a humane order based on the dignity
of the cultivated individual was lost to the reformist fanatics. The
immediate result was 150 years of brutal wars fought over farcical
points of doctrine. Only after these ferocious ideologies were
exhausted was humanism able to find its feet again in a world grown
sick of holy violence.
It doesn't take much imagination to trace the correlations between
the Reformation-Renaissance dynamic and our own history of the last
century or so. One is easily led to the comparison between Calvin's
'moral' dictatorship of Geneva and the western state that views every
citizen as a potential dissenter or terrorist. Just as Calvin strove
to free his subjects from sin, so the postmodern western state acts
to liberate its subjects from rebellion against its prescibed
Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1831, foresaw exquisitely the rise
of the muscular 'democratic' nanny-state:
Thus, after having successively taken each member of the
community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will,
the supreme power that extends its arms over society as a
whole; it covers its surface with a network of small,
complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the
most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot
clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills,
but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it
rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself
to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things
from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders,
compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally
reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of
timid and industrious animals of which the government is
Democracy in America
Tocqueville, transl. H. Reeve: 2002: 770
In the 20th Century an array of socio-political ideologies eventually
won out over culture. Their combined legacy remains stubbornly with
us. In the West it takes the form of an unshakeable faith in the
trinity of science, technology and capitalism. These gods have their
mediator in an exploitative 'free market' economy which establishes
the rituals expressing our meaning.
We forget that these failing certainties are being advanced in the
abyss of existential meaninglessness. We have no positive metaphysics
to undergird our now very shaky quest for socio-economic and political
Sketching the divagations of existential thought is commonly a vexed
undertaking. Kierkegaard's aphorism, 'all truth is subjective' is the
usual starting point. The tour from Dostoevski to Sartre and beyond is
one too rambling to take here. The pivotal existentialist standpoint
on meaning is that it can't be discovered outside of subjective
experience in a universe that yields no meaningful hints. Our
clueless position in the indifferent cosmos is therefore anxiously
It's a complaint that Jacques Barzun, who called it 'puny', has
ascribed to a 'failure of nerve'. After all, some have been making it
since thinking first began. The Cynics and Sceptics were loud
complainers. Diogenes the Cynic, trampling mud from the streets into
Plato's carpet, accused the philosopher of pride. It was hubris to
presume to discover meaning in the chaotic cosmic sound and fury.
Nearer our own time we find the same Platonic nerve in Albert Camus,
who reclaims our dignity from absurdity's jaws. Though, he maintains,
we share Sisyphus's futile plight, we endure in spite it because we
find existence sufficiently worthwhile to take meaningful courage in
our own hands. This courage to uncover and even to manufacture
meaning is the meaning of being human.
Yet, as in the Reformation's aftermath the dignities of a cultured
humanism were smothered by ideology, so the reclamation of meaning
advocated by Camus, Malraux and others was thwarted in our time by
the scientistic-ideological syndrome.
We hear the croaks of culture's death in the work of Samuel Beckett,
who said of his own work:
... there is nothing to express, nothing with which to
express, nothing from which to express, no power to
express, no desire to express, together with the obligation
in Alvarez: 1973: 136
For Beckett, living in an anti-cultural society given over to its
collective ideologies, meaning could only be a futile waiting from
which death was the only certain rescue. In Waiting for Godot this
interminable hanging about is the obvious crux of the static plot:
VLADIMIR:... What are we doing here, that is the question.
And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the
answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is
clear. We are waiting for Godot to come...
Which echoes the vacuity foreseen by T.S. Eliot in the type of The
Hollow Men (1925):
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless...
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion...
What Beckett rightly perceived was the emptiness of a life
deliberately lived in absurd terms. As a modern endpoint to the many
entertaining games played with the fraught Absurd his contribution
was therefore very valuable.
Not so the bizarre solutions touted by the poststructuralists --
Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes -- who offer only a heavy-weight
emphasis on the absurdity of the Absurd. Their aim is to push us
beyond human bounds into a posthuman twilight zone with its own
transgressive 'liberties'. Their starting point is the reading of
life as an 'authorless text' riding on the fathomless unconscious.
From this hyper-relative textual abyss an infinity of solipsistic
meanings can be sea-changed into 'playful' significancies. Thus they
claim the freedom to validate meanings that transgress the common
bounds of sanity.
The posthuman doctrine has been enthusiastically taken up by a sector
of scientistic scientists whose banner is 'transhumanism'. Here's
James Martin, founder of the School of the 21st Century at Oxford
University, warming to these possibilities:
Human transformation may be the most important of
21st-century cathedrals... one of the landmark
inventions... nanotransponders in our brain... may send
their signals via networks to the entire world of computing
technology... This hasn't been done with humans yet, but
many experiments are underway with chimpanzees. The US
DAPRA (Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) has a
chimpanzee that can use thought to operate a remote
device... It will take much training to become good
transhumans... Brain transponders will become integrated
with other transhuman technologies...
... Brain/ electronics coupling will probably have... become
highly complex before the Singularity occurs. The
combination of the brain enhancement and the Singularity is
awesome to imagine...
Martin: 2006: 347-350
If this isn't mere phantasmagoria we have surely to pause to ask the
question: what untried meanings and liberties have we set our hearts
on gaining by it?
The flux of cultural meaning with its changing concepts of liberty
has meandered across an immense distance from Socrates to scientism.
We've now arrived at a number of watersheds that put us before a wild
array of very complex, very subtle choices.
Our current sense of meaning is a deculturalised one, imposed on us
from without. Our values are mostly ideologically fostered norms.
Their dimensions are political, scientistic and economic insofar as
they unite and define us in discourse. At the level of culture in its
most informing sense we have little in the way of a shared,
intuitively owned field of common reference. Our cultural history
hardly strikes us in any formative way. It's only another object of
So now we must live by ideologies alone, unless we find the will to
humanise them in the light of a resuscitated cultural tradition. The
same holds true for liberty. If we've failed to impress culture on
our ideologies, leaving bare politics to define our liberties, how
can we complain when politicians shrink them on our behalf?
If we're insensitive to the dignitas of cultivated freedom, what can
we mean by resenting our being spied on? We're content after all to
cruise the social networks which desecrate the sanctity of our
private lives. We grasp at every technological novelty, no matter how
dehumanising it proves in the long run. How will we manage then to
dissociate our freedoms from these gadgetries on scientism's altar?
And if without our noticing it our metaphysics has become only a
baffled acquiescence in absurdity, why are we surprised to find that
liberty is leading us towards catastrophe? What could be more
consistent with cosmic absurdity than the scuttling of our natural
habitat for the sake of the artificial systems we've designed for our
Our sense of culture has been so attenuated that most of its residual
value is invisible to the untrained eye. It's virtues have been
replaced by the cant of correctness. We needn't define virtue more
narrowly than Leavis's 'the full intelligent possession of our full
humanity' or, if that wants clarifying, 'the full awareness of all
the implications of everything we do and leave undone.' If liberty is
engendered by virtue before it becomes a 'right', how can we know it
fully unless we are virtuous in this way?
We've also lost the just sense of a cohesive cultural tradition which
ought to have left us strongly conscious of our presence as
individuals-in-society. But we acknowledge only a society made up of
individuals. This socially collocated self-view reduces our liberties
to mere articles of our legislated rights.
Further, western culture is now wholly given over to a majoritarian
tyranny which in practice means something rather coarser than
philistinism. The effect on our liberties of cultural egalitarianism
has been to deprive us of the ability to discriminate among the
spiritual subtleties. Freedom has become a blunt instrument to use
among other things as a bludgeon against incorrectness.
Finally, our culture has been flattened into a pedestrian sameness,
void of the eccentricities of an evolved diversity, culture's
life-giver. Globalised economics has carried culture along with it to
the extent that we now speak of a 'culture' of consumerism, which has
become our raison d'etre.
More than this, and there is much more, there's no room to
contemplate here. But it may help bring home the urgency of the
problem if we recall that, eighty years ago, T.S. Eliot gave us
warning in words almost chilling in their accurate foreboding:
... I see no reason why the decay of culture should not
proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a
period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say
that it will have no culture. Then culture will have to
grow again from the soil, and when I say it must grow again
from the soil, I do not mean that it will be brought into
existence by any activity of political demagogues.
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture
Eliot: 1948: 19
What then in our current discourse do we see ourselves as being at
liberty to do? Will we use any freedoms wrested from the oligarchs to
rehumanise our idea of liberty? Perhaps we should abandon our
political outrage to cultivate first a gravity appropriate to the
scale of our cultural bereavement.
Are our whistleblowers and activists in 'full intelligent possession
of their full humanity' while they agitate for our dwindling freedoms
at the expense of theirs? Is the new urge to revolution aware of its
humane history and dimensions? Do we know that a renaissance is
always the better alternative?
There's a mot about a great Renaissance figure conspicuous by his
absence so far. It's about Erasmus, the 'Prince of Humanists', and is
found in the Epistolae Obscurorum Vivorum (1517):
I tried to find out whether Erasmus of Rotterdam was an
adherent of that party, but a certain merchant said to me:
Erasmus est homo per se.
in Zweig: 1951:1
The Latin is nicely ambiguous. It can mean either that Erasmus was
his own man, or a human being by his own humanity.
By way of contrast we have Hazlitt's sketch of any old ideologue you
care to imagine:
... He must be a... varnished, powdered representative of
the vices, absurdities, hypocrisy, jealousy, pride, and
pragmaticalness of his party... by bustle and
self-importance and puffing, by flattering one to his face,
and abusing another behind his back, by lending himself to
the weaknesses of some, and pampering the mischievous
propensities of others, will pass for a great man in a
On Corporate Bodies
This is the creature into whose hands Assange, Manning and Snowden,
like Socrates and others before them, have fallen. What it must mean
for liberty needs no elaboration. In speaking for the Party it speaks
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1979. The Myth of Sisyphus. Transl. O'Brien, J. Harmondsworth:
1977. Complete Poems and Plays. London: Book Club Associates.
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ENNO V. GELDER, H.A.
1964. The Two Reformations in the 16th Century. The Hague: Martinus
1821. On Corporate Bodies. Table-Talk: Essays on Men and Manners.
2011. Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow: The Richmond
Lecture; The English Essay: A Compendium. Vianu, L. (ed.) Bucharest:
Contemporary Literature Press.
2006. The Meaning of the 21st Century. London: Transworld Publishers.
1985. Essay on Liberty. Himmelfarb, G. (ed.) Harmondsworth: Penguin.
ROUSSEAU, JEAN JACQUES
1946. The Social Contract. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
1993. The Two Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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TOCQUEVILLE, ALEXIS de
2013. Democracy in America. Pennsylvania Electronic Classics.
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1951. Erasmus. London: Cassell
(c) Donovan Roebert 2014
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