Tag Archives: Romanticism

The Modern Age in Search for “God Surrogates”

Even before “the death of God” announced by Nietzsche the modern age has been in search for various unsatisfactory surrogates for the Almighty invented in the post-Enlightenment era. In his book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton writes, “The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to tome as forms of displaced divinity.” In this book Eagleton examines the limits of the Enlightenment, the legacies of the Idealists and the Romantics, the Crisis of Culture, the Death of God, and the challenges for Modernism and Post-modernity.

If I were to draw a “mental map” or “cosmogony” of the territory that encompasses the various dimensions of our “ultimate concerns” I would begin by placing Spirit and Nature at the top and bottom the page, so to speak, with Interior Subjective Reality on the left side and Exterior Objective Reality on the right side. *Note: Synonyms for “Spirit” include Freedom, Geist, the sublime, the life force, the ineffable, essence, Being, Process, creativity, the abyss and the Absolute.

What is the relation between Spirit and Nature? This is a primal question. In “metaphysical dualism” Spirit and Nature (Mind and Body) are two separate realities. In various forms of “metaphysical monism” either Spirit reduces to Nature, or Nature is an emanation of Spirit, or both are regarded identical. In Panpsychism Spirit and Nature remain distinct but inseparable. For “metaphysical agnosticism” the question of their relation is regarded as either unknowable or meaningless.

The Left side of our cosmogony is aligned with the Right Brain, with art, poetry, Romanticism, existentialism and the realm of inwardness, passion, subjectivity, participation, quality, sensibility, and taste, in short, the intimate “first person” account of reality. The right side is aligned with the Left Brain, with science, technology, the Enlightenment, positivism, and the realm of outwardness, rationality, objectivity, detachment, quantity, utility, scale, in short, the third person detached account of reality.

In the four corners within the nexus of Above: Spirit, Below: Nature, Left: Interior and Right: Exterior I would place Ken Wilber’s four quadrants: In the upper left quadrant is the internal individual sector of Intentional Purpose. In the external individual sector is Behavioral Action. In the lower left quadrant is the internal collective sector of Cultural Traditions. In the lower right quadrant is the external collective sector of Social Institutions.

Then in the center I would place the integral vision of the universal human in the fullness of his/her identity and in all his/her relations. This integral vision includes the eight dimensions of the body, senses, emotions, imagination, reason, volition, conscience, and intuition.

Terry Eagleton’s thesis is that in the absence of God in the modern secular age various ambitious but inadequate attempts have been made to find God surrogates. These include each of the elements that I’ve just listed in my cosmogony. The Enlightenment generation set forth their surrogates in such ideas as Reason, law, science, progress and democracy. Idealists and Romantics set for counter-surrogates in such ideas as Spirit, Transcendence, Being, Essence and Process.

As the jacket of the book puts it, “Eagleton goes on to discuss the state of religion before and after 9/11, the ironies surrounding Western capitalism’s part in spawning, not only secularism but also fundamentalism, and the reasons while the various surrogates for the Almighty have shown themselves to be unsatisfactory.” One must read his book in order to see why he claims that each of these ambitious attempts to postulate a God surrogate is inadequate. In many cases these various attempts serve to borrow from the Judeo-Christian tradition and to smuggle various new “god concepts” through the back door. His point is that it is harder to be a true atheist than many modern secularists realize.

Eagleton’s astute survey of modern intellectual and cultural history disserves a close reading. Another book that explores much of the same territory is “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God,” by Peter Watson. The two authors reflect different perspectives on the various attempts to find or create meaning, purpose, value and hope in the modern (and post-modern) world after the cultural “death of God.” However, Eagleton’s book makes more clear than does Watson’s the radical consequences for humanity if we take Nietzsche’s atheism seriously. Eagleton maintains that most atheists today are still living on the borrowed memories, theological concepts and assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even when they deny and repudiate this tradition. This is true in different ways of the Enlightenment generation and also of the later Idealists and Romantics.

Another curious theme that surfaces in both books is that some modern atheists experience an inner crisis and return to some kind of religious orientation, even as some religious types experience an inner crisis and turn to some kind of atheistic orientation. The traffic flows in both directions. In any case it is a curiously complex, multi-sided and paradoxical age in which we live.




Living Cooperatively in a World of Values Pluralism


One of the core ideas of Isaiah Berlin is the concept of “values pluralism.” Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he was the author of many books, including Against the Current, The Roots of Romanticism, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and the Hedgehog and the Fox.

By “values pluralism” Berlin meant that open societies are characterized by different value constellations that are in competition and conflict with each other, and that not all human values can be fully realized and integrated at any given time and place in a single culture. Choices must be made between them within the body-politic, and so there is an “agonic” element in the struggle to realize multiple values. Four examples he gives of competing and divergent values include liberty and equality, spontaneity and security, happiness and knowledge, mercy and justice.

Certainly when any of these values is made exclusive and absolute an ideological monism results, and that monism enters into lethal conflict with opposing values. We see this in the ideological extremes of our American political landscape today between the right-wing libertarian Tea Party Movement and the left-wing communitarian Occupy Movement. Both sides share in common a sense of being alienated independent outsiders to the forces of concentrated institutional power. The right-wing distrusts the public sector of state power, while the left-wing distrusts the private sector of corporate power. But they also diverge sharply from each other in fundamental ways. There is a vast chasm between the right-wing ideals of an independent warrior culture and the left-wing ideals of an independent artisan culture. The difference is as great as between the values of ancient Sparta and Athens. They co-mingle no better than oil and water, which is to say not at all.

However, it also needs to be said that not all cultural values necessarily need to be made absolute, ideological, dogmatic and totalizing. Rather, they can come to live in a dialectical tension, a perpetual “push-pull” that, while agonic at times, may also create a more dynamic and adaptive, pluralistic and pragmatic society.

In his book, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind: International Cooperation and its Importance for Survival, Geert Hofstede outlines a set of core cultural value polarities that can enter into lethal conflict but that if moderated and qualified can live together in dialectical tension. Those value dualities include excellence and equality, the individual and the collective, assertiveness and modesty, certitude and ambiguity, short-term goals and long-term goals. Values exist within a large complex that includes rituals, heroes, symbols, and traditions, all of which are subsumed under practices. As children we learn our values not so much consciously and explicitly as unconsciously and implicitly. As Hofstede puts it, “Values are broad tendencies to prefer contain states of affairs over others. Values are feelings with an arrow to it: they have a plus and a minus died. They deal with good vs. evil, dirty vs. clean, ugly vs. beautiful, natural vs. natural, abnormal vs. normal, paradoxical vs. logical, irrational vs. rational.”

Closed ideological and totalitarian societies, whether religious or secular, tend to set up a values monism in which only one set of values is allowed freedom of expression, while opposing and counter-balancing values are viewed evil, regressive, perverse and false. Open, inclusive pluralistic societies allow divergent and counter-balancing values to co-exist in a perpetual relationship of dynamic tension. In such societies everyone must make compromises because no one gets everything they want. When the irreducible differences in visions, values, beliefs and practices significantly outweigh the commonalities, those societies fall into lethal conflict and civil war. When the exclusive values and interests of the few, usually the rich and powerful, eclipse the values and interests of the many, usually the poor and oppressed, than that society will begin to collapse into violence and anarchy. We see this today in numerous countries, including Iraq and Syria.

An absolutely dualistic “winner-takes-all” approach to values will always produce a conflict orientated individual or culture. For example, if one regards the various temperament types as either good or bad, right or wrong, then one must set up a conflict between such polarities as Introversion and Extraversion, Intuition and Sensation, Feeling and Thinking, Perception and Judgment. The mentality is, “If you are of an “opposite” temperament type from me then you are creepy, alien, strange, weird. Indeed, you are probably the Enemy.”

The same polarizing drama plays out in various areas of life. In higher education it plays out in the polarizing attitudes that often characterize those who are exclusively committed to the study of the sciences or the arts, philosophy or literature, sociology or psychology, history and mythology. Temperamental preferences become idealized and hardened into competing kinds of intelligence, as competing epistemological methods, and even as competing metaphysical assumptions.

It is in the realms of metaphysical assumptions that we see the full power of the polarizing human tendency played out. For some years now I’ve been fascinated to watch the competing worldviews of dualism, idealism, materialism and panpsychism play out their drama of competition and conflict. Each worldview tradition has established its own self-validating network of values, rituals, heroes, symbols, narrative, myths, metaphors and practices. Each demonizes and stereotypes the competing worldviews. A non-ideological ironic pragmatist, or for that matter a post-enlightenment romantic or existentialist might find each of these worldview visions and its associated values persuasive and appealing on its own terms, but falling short of anything like an absolute truth that excludes all other partial and qualified truth-claims. Rather, the pragmatic and pluralistic attitude will be, “We have met the enemy, and he/they may be partly right.”

The shift from a dualistic, polarizing absolute ideological approach to political philosophy would mean that the conservative and liberal, the libertarian and communitarian, or at least some of them, might be able to transcend their ideological dogma to the extent that they could see at least some value in the other social, economic and political camps. When narrow, dogmatic, sectarian ideologies run either the executive, judicial or legislative branches of government, the voices of passionate moderates and radical centrists, of principled pragmatists and consensus builders is silenced. Such a condition is toxic and destructive to an open democratic society.

Returning to Isaiah Berlin’s idea of value pluralism, it is not hard to recognize that different societies and cultures, like different individuals and families we meet, express their own unique sets of dominant values and practices. Some individuals and collectives prefer what I call the “left-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of rationality, logic, objectivity, detachment, the external third-person account of the world. They love math, science and technology. Other individuals and collectives prefer the “right-brain” approach to life. They champion the values of passion, paradox, subjectivity, participation, the internal first-person account of the world. They love music, art and literature. Many “left-brain” types are drawn to business, finance and politics, and to all things mechanical, strategic and military. “Right-brain” types are drawn the sensuous, aesthetic and ecstatic. The left-brain rational types seek the Stoic, Utilitarian, Productive, Quantitative, Dutiful and Heroic Life, while the right-brain types seek the Epicurean, Romantic, Creative, Qualitative, Desirous and Picturesque Life.

These are two casts of mind, two ways of life. This, then, is the society and world of value pluralism in which we live. Perhaps some values are complementary, while others are contradictory, and still others are so remote and dissimilar from each other as to be incommensurable. Whether we choose relate to different values as primarily complementary, competitive or incomparable is yet another tacit value commitment. My own temperamental preference is to follow the counsel of E.M. Forester wherever possible, who famously said, “Only connect.”

Maxim: Don’t try to reason with a “happy drunk!”

Happy Drunk

Here are a few cautionary maxims for today’s Socratic Gadflies who have no plans to drink hemlock.

Don’t try to reason with a happy drunk. He’ll hate and despise you for it.

Don’t try to wake up one who insists on sleeping. He’s likely to slap you.

Don’t try to convince someone who believes without any doubts that he has found “The Truth” and therefore that there cannot be other great truths, or that his understanding of “truth” may be limited and partial rather than total and comprehensive.

Don’t try to reason with a man who is committed in principle and practice to irrationality and absurdity, especially if he cloaks his irrationality behind a veil of rationalism and rationalization. Nothing is more crazy-making than using critical reason to deny reason and rationality, or denying the primal experience of subjectivity and consciousness, along with our experiences of narrative, aesthetics and intersubjectivity to deny the fundamental reality of subjectivity and consciousness. If “matter and the void” is all there is, that who is it that is speaking? How does an irreducibly conscious and relational being know that these subjective and inter-subjective experiences are not “really real” but merely the ghost in the machine, the epiphenomen of originally dead and mindless matter? Has one not used “rationality” to argue for the fundamentally irrationality of our minds?

Don’t try to convince anyone whose “final vocabulary” is a dogmatic,  ideological and exclusive commitment to any single intellectual discourse and language-game, whether it happens to be that of science or religion, philosophy or literature, history or mythology, psychology or sociology, economics or politics. Any of these intellectual domains can become a fixation and fetish that undermine the rich and diverse ecology of mind. Our educational system today is increasingly based on narrow academic and technical specialization. Many educators and scholars live in bunkered silos that isolate them from the culture-at-large.

Don’t try to reason and dialogue with those who prefer to live exclusively in only one intellectual discipline and have an ideological axe to grind. They will not see the point in cultivating other intellectual disciplines and critical perspectives since they’ve already made up their minds and are committed to “brand loyalty.”

Don’t try to get a “One Note Charlie” to play all the notes, chords and harmonies and dissonances of the musical scale, and to play many genres of music in a wide variety of keys and registers.

Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely  committed to the dogma of exclusive bottom-up causality, of matter influencing mind but mind having no causative agency since it is a mere epiphenomenon of matter.

Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma of exclusive top-down causality, of mind influencing matter, but matter being merely an illusion of universal mind.

Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma that the mental and physical dimensions of experience are two entirely separate and non-overlapping realities.

Don’t try to broaden the perspective of anyone who has fallen insanely in love with one and only one explanatory principle that he applies mechanistically to all domains of knowledge and realms of life experience. Sometimes “multiple explanatory dimensions and levels” may be more helpful than forcing a single descriptive explanation upon all phenomena of experience.

Don’t try to convince those who are content spending all their free time watching TV and listening to the radio that reading good books and articles that invite them think more deeply about life may be a better and more rewarding use of their time. Those who prefer to be zoned out and have made this the habit of their lives will resent those who try to get them to think about anything at all.

Don’t try to explain to those who are content to live “unexamined lives” that “it is better to be Socrates discontent than a pig content.” They will tell you that “the examined life” is  over-rated. Instead, they will explain that what matters is to live instinctively and sensuously in our appetites and egos as noble savages. They will tell us “to stop thinking and have a good time.” Their hedonistic counsel is “to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

When does it occur to either the “rationalist” or the “sensualist” that it is possible to integrate the entire ecology of our being, including the natural, sensuous, emotive, imaginative, cognitive, volitional, ethical, intuitive and spiritual dimensions of our lives?

Don’t try to broaden and expand the sensibilities and tastes of the exclusively  partisan purveyors of “high-brow” classical culture who are contemptuous and condescending toward “middle-brow” bourgeois pop culture and “low-brow” bohemian folk culture, or of those who exclusively identify themselves with either of these two other cultural levels of experience and expression. Each has his own “elective affinity” with different sensibilities and tastes.

When does it occur the partisan purveyors of high-brow culture, middle-brow culture and low-brow culture that each speaks in its own distinct idioms and dialects, and that each “cultural brow” has something unique to contribute to the greater ecology of being?

Today’s “Socratic gadfly” who values “the examined life” encounters as many intellectual, cultural, civic and social “mind-fields” as Socrates did in his day. What we have today that was not available to Socrates is a better understanding of the role that biological genes and culture memes play in the formation of different metaphysical assumptions. It would seem that these are rooted in pre-verbal feeling and in what Michael Polanyi calls the “tacit dimension” of “personal knowledge”, and are only secondarily cognitive and empirical. We have a genetic and psychological predisposition as well as cultural and societal preference for holding a particular set of metaphysical and epistemological beliefs, as well as aesthetic tastes, ethical norms, economic interests and political values.

Today’s “Socratic gadfly” who would avoid the hemlock experience had better be prepared to encounter these irreducible differences between individual persons and fiduciary communities. He had better recognize the common tendency of human nature to see and interpret everything through the lens of one’s own predispositions, assumptions, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is no neutral and independent “view from nowhere.” All human knowledge and experience is physiologically conditioned, psychologically influenced, historically situated and linguistically expressed. It is precisely this humbling knowledge of our ignorance and limitations that makes the Socratic gadfly so irritating and perplexing, especially to those who are content to live “unexamined lives” of metaphysical and epistemological slumber. Once we begin to ask the fundamental questions of life we realize that we stand in the presence of Great Mysteries in which there are no easy answers. Here are the Socratic Questions: What is the nature of prime reality and the phenomenal world in which we live? What can we know and how can we know it? How are subjective introspective experience, intersubjective relationships, and knowledge through rational theory and empirical observation related? What are the further reaches of human nature? How ought we to live? What is our vision of the good society? What is our potential for transformation and renewal? For what can we strive and hope?

Here are a few positive maxims:

Cultivate the examined life, even if those around you prefer to remain unconscious, medicated and asleep.

Stay open to the primacy of “immediate experience” in all its paradoxical radiance and pre-linguistic plenitude where the gifts of silence, contemplation, music and art “speak” in the ineffable language of the soul that like the Tao must remain unspoken.

Seek to make meaningful and creative connections between all the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience that constitute the rich and diverse ecology of being.

Learn to speak with at least minimal fluency in all the liberal disciplines rather than putting all your eggs in one basket.

Master at least two intellectual disciplines, preferably one that is right-brain dominant such as music and arts, and another that is left-brain dominant, such as the physical and natural sciences.

Try to give “equal time” to the intellectual and creative disciplines of philosophy and literature, to ideas and narratives, concepts and conversations, theories and stories, paradigms and metaphors, principles and personalities.

Become  conversant in the cultural paradigms of the primal, traditional, romantic, modern, post-modern, and trans-modern perspectives. Include the intuitive and perceptive, authoritative and fiduciary, idealistic and aesthetic, rational and scientific, eclectic and ironic, pluralistic and integrative.

Develop a healthy respect for intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, introspection and observation, perception and judgment.

Appreciate the perennial human dialectic of pluralistic and integrative impulses, that is, the movement “outward” from the One to the Many, and the counter-movement “inward” from the Many to the One.

Finally, become a Socratic Gadfly if you must, but remember that drinking hemlock is bad for one’s health.