Friday, May 15, 2015

Metaphysics and Politics

I was reading some conservative Catholic philosophy last night — don't ask why, sometimes I just do that sort of thing — when I came across this:
Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.
This is another perfect example of trying to understand politics from philosophical principles, rather than from history. Because that sounds to me like a much better description of medieval than modern politics. Modern politics has tended to be full of moralizing, and medieval politics had a lot to do with ambition and group interest.

Theoretically-minded people -- not just conservative Catholics but libertarians, communists, and others of that ilk -- like to sit down in their studies and reason out how different philosophies ought to work in practice. Conservative Catholics think that their faith sets a much higher value on human life and dignity than secular liberalism does, since they see in their fellow men the image of God, and therefore they think that Catholic societies ought to be more devoted to human welfare and the good of the community and so on. But instead of reasoning, they should look out the window. Actual Catholic societies — medieval Europe, 18th-century Mexico, Franco's Spain — have not shown any special devotion to human welfare. They have at times endorsed slavery, onerous serfdom, wife-beating, genocidal warfare, the torture of heretics, and whatever other governmental sin you care to think of. And then this:
Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.
Again the assertion is made that since Catholicism sets a higher spiritual value on human souls than secular thought, it ought to be more conducive to real equality. On the contrary, equality is a thoroughly modern and secular idea, not much practiced in any society between the Bronze Age and the 19th century; most of the societies in between, including just about all of the Catholic ones, have been aristocratic, with huge differences in wealth and status.

Right now in America conservative Catholics have worked themselves into a fearful lather over the decline of Christian civilization, the demise of the religious world view, and a coming era of intolerance that will effectively banish religious people from public life. They are filling the internet with essays like the one I quoted from, arguing that without faith in the divine nature of human souls something terrible on the scale of Hitler or Stalin is bound to happen. The level of anger and fear is great and seems to be rising.

At the philosophical level I have nothing to say to this. I can't offer any strong philosophical defense of secular morality, and I can't offer any metaphysical reason why people ought to care about each other. I find, though, both in my own head and in my society, that metaphysics seems not to matter very much. I can't explain why I care about my fellow humans, but I do. There is simply no evidence that believers are more ethical than non-believers (or the reverse). Some modern, secular societies (Denmark, e.g.) have shown a regard for every human life far greater than anything achieved in more overtly religious eras; others (e.g., Stalin's Russia) have achieved an almost complete disregard. Certain Catholic societies (18th-century Haiti) have been as bad as any modern totalitarian state. Of all the factors that go into making a society or a government good or bad, religion seems to be a minor one.

What I want to say to worried believers is to stop fretting about theoretical problems and consider the actual situation. Does America really look to you like Soviet Russia? Instead of worrying that assisted suicide will lead to a devaluation of all human life, look into our hospitals and see that we work far harder to keep dying people alive than anyone else in history. Instead of fretting about religious intolerance, glance at any thriving church and see how freely the people come and go, and how loudly they sing their hymns. At the moment gay marriage is an ugly flash point, but that is partly because certain believers have accorded it an importance far greater than it deserves; it does not represent some sort of watershed transition from a Christian to a secular society. Divorced from all that theoretical superstructure, it is simply a political problem to be worked out, like any other. Yes, our society has problems with inequality and brutality and corporate dehumanization; instead of philosophizing about their deep connection to ideas about the soul, work to make them better. You might find a lot of secular people willing to help.


G. Verloren said...


I like to regularly remind myself that there are intelligent, educated, reasonable Christians in the world, who manage to be quite devout but also very much in touch with the realities of the world around them. The best I've personally met (all priests, come to think of it) tend to also be students of history, as well as deep critics of their own religion's failings, mistakes, and potential for improvement.

Christianity is a paradoxical sort of religion after all these centuries of permutation and corruption. It's history has been both astoundingly democratic, and overwhelmingly aristocratic at different times and places, and to different degrees. Factionalism and dissent have plagued it from the very beginning straight through to the modern day.

It takes a massive investment of time, effort, intellect, and mental flexibility to begin to properly understand the whole of Christianity. Modern Americans are so astoundingly far removed from the historical circumstances of Christianity as to be incapable of truly understanding a great many of the things the Bible talks about.

Without at least some degree of study, either scholarly or seminarial, modern readers have no real hope of comprehending the true intended messages of their holy book. It is written chiefly in metaphors based in a larger context and worldview which is entirely foreign to them. They're not "in on the secret". They don't "know the code". Symbolism and imagery which would be plainly obvious to an ancient Judean is utterly obtuse to a modern American. So to understand the Bible, you have to first understand something about Judea in the time of the Roman Empire, and something about the relationships between the Jews and the Romans, and something of the politics and cultural values of the age, et cetera, et cetera.

The parable of the mustard seed, for example, can't be properly deciphered unless you know what a mustard seed is meant to symbolize. The bit about growing to a great size from a tiny seed is plain enough, but there is a hidden subtext that requires knowledge of mustard plants.

The plant in that time was seen as a virulent weed - something which when planted in a field or a garden will overrun the other, actually productive and desired, plants. And while, at a glance, the parable's description of how the mustard plant gives shelter to birds seems nice on the surface, the fact of the matter is that birds are a massive agricultural pest. Jesus is a man who lives in an Iron Age agrarian society, and he is comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to an impossible-to-eradicate weed which destroys crops and orchards, and grows rapidly to a massive size from the smallest of seeds.

This completely changes the nature of his message. If you don't recognize this subtext for lack of context, you miss the subversive meaning that lies beneath the surface - you possess only a superficial understanding. And this is just one of many, many places in the Gospels where stories and parables operate in just this manner - with an uncritical or ignorant reading producing wildly different interpretations than those drawn from a deep knowledge and understanding of the context.

G. Verloren said...


The average American Christian, of course, is uttely ignorant of all this. They don't know their deity has a name beyond "God". They don't know that Jesus was a Jew, that he was illiterate and didn't write any part of the Bible, and that he spoke Aramaic while the New Testament was written in Koine Greek (and that the English Bible is a TRANSLATION, and that some things just don't translate!).

They don't know that the Twelve Disciples are examples of how NOT to be a good Christian, as they're always failing to comprehend Jesus's teachings or disobeying him. They don't know that the Centurian seeking out Jesus for help is meant to be astonishing because the Romans were hated conquerors and a Centurion is a high ranking officer of the very army which violently put down the Jews and sacked their most sacred temple. They think it's just a nice story about Jesus healing someone, instead of being a remonstration towards his followers to accept all faithful, regardless of who they are or what they have done. They don't realize that the Good Samaritan is equally astonishing because to the Jews the Samaritans were a bunch of ammoral, heretical, wrongheaded scumbags - and yet the Samaritan has the basic human decency which the two Jewish Holy Men who preceded him on the road did not. They think it's just a story about being nice to people, instead of being a damning accusation of hypocrisy among the Jewish priesthood - they're so corrupt, even a filthy Samaritan is better than they are!

They treat metaphors and symbols as literal facts. They think the feeding of the multitudes literally was Jesus magically replicating a handful of fish and bread loaves into enough for thousands of people, rather than understanding that the "satisfaction" of the crowd isn't the physical abatement of hunger, but spiritual fulfillment. It's a story about starving people eatting each a few crumbs but being happy despite their hardship because they share the little they have together, and people just. Don't .Get it.

G. Verloren said...

3/2 ?

So yeah, I honestly don't think Christianity has a future beyond a long, drawn out final decline. It's become too bloated and weighed down with the baggage of a thousand different peoples and places and times. It takes too much work to unravel all the nonsense and get to the real underlying messages.

And then once you do, you're left with the teachings of a man whose entire religious movement was about trying to reform Iron Age Jewish society - and that's not exactly relevant to anything these days.

Sure, if you really want you can separate the seed from the chaff and use the stories to draw parallels about certain largely universal values. But the effort involved in removing the waste to get at the fruit is simply too overbearing anymore. As the march of time carries on, fewer and fewer people are going to consider all that effort to be worthwhile - there are other, easier sources to derive the same sorts of values from at considerably less cost.

For my own part, although I've long been an Agnostic, I find as I get older that I have a vague desire for certain values and qualities typically associated with religions, but I've found few that seem attractive - almost always because they have so much additional, unwanted baggage weighing down their core messages. So far the only religion I've found myself drawn to on these terms is a largely derelict one, which has lost most of it's old trappings to become something of a folk mythology. Over the past few years grown increasingly fascinated with Shintoism, and I sometimes think I'd like to involve myself in it casually - certainly not as any sort of deeply religious identity or anything.

I like the idea of a simple, uncomplicated set of comfortable, uncontroversial notions about the world that I don't have to take too seriously. I like the simple symbolism of objects and places having spirits, and that when you treat the spirits (id est, the world around you) with simple reverence and respect, you are repaid with small fortunes and minor joys. I like the thought of passing an ancient tree, or some venerable stone, or a small shrine tucked away somewhere and stopping to admire and reflect on it, and pay a sort of respect to it. The joy I get from finding wonder in the world around me seems largely indistinguishable from an actual blessing, so who really cares if I grant it to myself or if I attribute it to symbolic representations of the things in which I find wonder?