Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Trouble With Modernity

People, said T.S. Eliot, have to be able to believe in something larger than themselves, which is usually defined in religious terms because only religion can tell us in language that we can understand how we ought to live. Socrates thought that philosophy could satisfy this need, but what is one to do when the philosophers can't agree? Reason alone can lead us in too many different directions. When Christianity came along, the philosopical tradition was too fragmented to compete.

The trouble with Christianity, despite its vast appeal and many virtues, is Hell. No religion, even Islam, is as punitive as Christianity. Even unbaptized infants, according to Calvin (who, I suppose, was only trying to be consistent) are damned. My mother, brought up as a strict presbyterian, gagged on the doctrine of infant damnation and rebelled. She was not alone.

The trouble with modernity (I offer a rough definition in the Introduction to my book, SHAKESPEAREAN QUESTIONS, which appears as my first posting) is that it saps the foundations of religious belief, while offering little in return for the loss of "certainties beyond the grave." Which is why so many still believe, defiantly, that the bible gives us the word of God about everything that matters including how we should live. Now these are voices crying in the wilderness, it being now a generally accepted democratic principle that no one, and no single text, offers privileged access to the truth or truths about how we should live.

Our current difficulty with Islam is a case in point. The rule of law is pretty basic for us and them, but our law is secular and their law--Shari'a law--is based on the Koran. Shari'a law is more than a law code; it is about how people should live. When Arab armies conquered the middle-east and north Africa in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, they made no attempt to convert their new subjects to Islam, but they did demand that everyone should accept Shari'a law. The restoration of Shari'a law as the only law of the land--or indeed, the world--is the principal object of Jihadists today.

Spinoza was considered an atheist for identifying God and Nature. Now, as a consequence of the way modern science has changed and enlarged our understanding of nature, nature for many of us is all there is: no providence, no immortal souls, no essential differences between us and other sentient creatures. The fact that such creatures exist at all on this little, lonely planet is a matter of blind luck. "The stars," as someone says mournfully in one of Tennyson's poems, "blindly run." Naturally, this is a view of the universe and nature that most people find unacceptable.

Monday, December 24, 2007

That is no country for old men . . .

Sailing To Byzantium (by W.B. Yeats. Notice that Cormack McCarthy's allusion to this poem is unscrupulous, as is his tendentious book and movie which inform us that the country is going to the devil and to prove it shows us the devil himself, incarnate as the man from nowhere, Chigurr; he's even got his own little thunderbolt.)

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--those dying generations-- at their song,
The salmnon-falls, the mackeral-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born or dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monumments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past or passing or to come.

W. B. Yeats

I thought of this famous poem of escape after I had written the following poem of my own:

As the old year drags
and the holy days sag
toward their usual conclusion,
and the fastidious mind gags
on its xmas stew of dreck and delusion,
Kathy and Piers make their escape--
NOT by plane, that's clear
(Abandon hope all ye who enter here)--
across the sublime landscape,
now not quite imaginable,
of the ancient prarie ocean.

Yeats' poem is modern, all the books agree about that. So what does that make mine? (Assuming it deserves to called a poem at all.) Postmodern? I don't think so.

I don't think I like Yeats' poem as much as I used to. The artifice of eternity (whatever that means) shrinks into something profoundly trivial, a stupid, mechanical bird singing to stupid people.

The phrase 'artifice of eternity' is ambiguous but the point is clear enough: eternity, like everything else is a human invention. It was Yeats, after all, who said (in 1919) that humanity has invented the whole shebang, "lock, stock and barrel, out of [its] bitter soul."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Defining 'modernity' (continued)

Spinoza could not have known that the deductive system of his great book, ETHICS, may very well be incomplete, that statements can be formulated that cannot be proved zor disproved within its system of definitions, axioms and theorems; or that the incompleteness of the ETHICS may be incorrigible. (And, I suppose, there are great falsehoods whose falsity cannot be proved either.) We owe this insight into the nature of deductive systems to the work of Kurt Godel (with an umlaut over the 'o' I think) who proved in 1931 that any axiomatic system sufficiently rich to contain the natural numbers is incomplete in this way. Bertrand Russell had made a similar discovery--much to his horror-- in his attempt to place logic, and therefore, knowledge, on an absolutely secure foundation.

(The question is: what would a modern logician make of Spinoza's logic?)

One makes what one will of such findings. They strike me as quintessentially modern, like Einstein's proof that the speed of light is an absolute limit and that things are not located in space or time but only in space-time. Or Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Or Planck's constant which seems to define the smallest possible units of time and space.

So, when Hume showed (but of course couldn't prove) that matters of fact can never be established by reason alone,he was establishing a characteristically modern principle.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Defining 'Modernity'

What I've said so far amounts to a definition of modernity. There were, in the 20th century, antagonistic definitions. For German nationalists, WW1 was all about saving the Christian civilization of Germany (and The Holy Roman Empire) from the secular, democratic liberalism of England and America. Then, after that war, when the Weimar Republic put on an inspired demonstration of what modernity and modernism was all about, the German people recoiling in horror ran straight into the waiting arms of Hitler and the Nazis. The future they sang, belongs to us.

Marxists, of course, thought that the future belonged to them. They alone could save the world from the free market capitalism that the principles of democratic liberalism entailed. (I should note that here I'm drawing on an 18th-19th century idea of 'liberalism' as freedom from government control--religious and intellectual freedom as well as economic freedom.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Reason & The Passions

If, as Hume teaches, Reason as Right Reason (with uppercase R) is a fiction, and reason rightly understood is accurate reasoning, i.e. a process of reasoning that contains no contradictions,this fact (if it is a fact) has huge consequences for morality and ethics including politics. For one thing, it means that we have to learn to live with the fact that reason (as Hume says) is and ought to be the slave of the passions. The great problem of government then becomes, as Alexander Hamilton clearly understood, how to use the passions of men in one branch of government to control the passions of others in other branches. Here is Hamilton in Federalist #51, laying out the theory behind the three-fold separation of powers in our government: "the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. . . . Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected to the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Reason--According to David Hume (1711-1776)

The use of the philosophical of word ‘substance’ derives—I think—frrom the Latin word that Cicero used to translate Aristotle’s term for ‘being’ or, morely accurately, ‘what-it-is-to-be.’ Anyway, Hume took a very tough line on that word which had been so thoroughly--and of course intentionally--emptied of all possible sensory content as to become just the sort of empty and therefore,he thought, meaningless metaphysical abstraction he despised. Like certain 20th century philosophers, Hume had a theory of meaning that excluded words or concepts which, by definition, could not be tested or verified. (For that and other reasons which I’m about to get to, Hume was the first modern philosopher—or, at any rate more modern than Spinoza, who in turn was more modern than Decartes etc.) I’m inclined think that that theory of meaning followed, more or less logically, from the great idea that must have occurred to him when he was a very young man (the Treatise of Human Nature was published in 1738-9, while he was still in his twenties): Hobbes was right, reason is merely reasoning from premises to conclusions which is all that it can be if there is no God or if God=Nature; Right Reason therefore is nothing more than common-sense. And if reason is reasoning, it follows—this was Hume’s great idea—that neither matters of fact nor morality can ever be established by reason alone i.e. by reasoning a priori—as he says in the Treatise, statements of fact do not in themselves logically imply statements of moral principle or obligation. Hume condensed the difficult arguments of the Treatise in the shorter, wittier, more commonsensical Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published about ten years later.
A commonplace of intellectual history is the notion that the 18th century was an age of reason. It would be more accurate to say that that century was an age of intellectual warfare, which continues, over the meaning of the word ‘reason.’ Hume’s was the first “critique of pure reason”—written in the most reasonable sounding voice you ever heard. The history of philosophy since Hume is in part a history of attempts to evade his conclusions. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is the greatest of these.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spinoza and The Nature of God--Or Divinity of Nature

As I briefly indicated—too briefly—in my introduction, modernity has always been a contested zone—bitterly contested, from time to time. Consider, for instance, the intense hostility that Spinoza’s ideas instantly aroused, even before he gave them their final form in his (virtually unreadable) Ethics. Shakespeare had implied, in King Lear, that Nature is all there is and Hobbes had come pretty close to saying so, but Spinoza was the first person to say that Nature=God, God=Nature, that everything flows necessarily from the laws of nature, which exclude supernatural happenings, miracles, and providence. [Spinoza also shows why the so-called mind-body, or consciousness-brainstate connection or relationship cannot be explained or explicated for the simple reason—simple to say but hard to understand—that consciousness and brain-states are two aspects of the same thing (or “substance”, to use the scholastic terminology he inherited from medieval and classic antiquity) like the opposite sides of a coin.] Spinoza was (rightly, I think) accused of atheism and expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, and for the next hundred years or more, Spinozaism was the worst intellectual and moral disease that anyone, especially in Germany, could be accused of having.