Sunday, 20 February 2011

Prophets of Doom: The Triumph and Freedom of the Will

Two parts of an essay by Tim Heydon

Prophets of Doom:
David Bentley Hart and the Triumph of the Will

Part 1: Radical Individualism and Opening the Road to State Terror

Modern Freedom means the Limitless Freedom to Will. Unleashed from the Guiding Hand of Christianity and Tradition, the Freedom to Will can Mean the Freedom to Will Terror

Christianity Has Made Us – So How Can We Imagine a Non-Christian World?

It is difficult for us, living as we are at the end of nearly two millennia of Christian Civilisation, fully to grasp quite how revolutionary Christianity was in the transformation of attitudes in the ancient world, or to imagine what it might mean if those attitudes were to disappear, as disappearing they are in the West.

The World of Rome and the Christian Revolution

In his book ‘Atheist Delusions; The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies’ the theologian David Bentley Hart does a terrific job of bringing out the impact of Christianity on the ancients, transforming a world in which an individual’s worth was predicated on his or her power or lack of it to one in which every individual has intrinsic worth. Roman society was built on a rather Nietzschean hierarchy of power in which the most powerful of all, the Roman Emperor, could be worshipped as a god while the lower orders were of little account individually and slaves had no personhood whatsoever. The latter were powerless things, like Christ before the powerful Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate.

Hart says , ‘the new world we see being brought into being in the Gospels is one in which the whole grand cosmic architecture of prerogative , power and eminence has been shaken and superseded by a new positively anarchic order; an order in which we see the glory of God revealed in a crucified slave’.

Hart’s Answer to Christopher Hitchens and his Ilk: Western Civilisation

The title of Christopher Hitchens’ book ‘God is not Great’ is subtitled ‘How Religion Poisons Everything. ’ After a remarkably entertaining exposure, touched with more than a soupcon of asperity, of the paucity of Hitchen’s intellectual capabilities (and those of Dawkins), Hart asks, ‘Does he (Hitchens) really mean precisely everything?"

Would that apply then – confining ourselves just to things Christian – to ancient and medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses and hostels? To the golden rule, ‘Love thine enemies’? ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’? Prophetic admonitions against oppressing the poor, and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need? To the music of Palestrina and Bach, Michelangleo’s Pieta, ‘ah bright wings’; San Marco’s mosaics, the Bible of Amiens and all the gorgeous blue stained glass at Chartres? To the abolitionist movement and contemporary efforts to liberate Sudanese slaves? And so on and so on? Surely it cannot be the case that if only purged of faith these things would be even better than they are; were it not for faith it seems fairly obvious, most of them would have no existence at all.’

Our Future: the Idea of the Sunny Uplands of ‘Progress’ is Likely to Lead to a Totalitarian Hell.

Hart holds out little hope for the West in the dawning age of secularism. He asks, ‘What evidence is there for the idea that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward free of the constraining hand of archaic faith will naturally make society more free, more humane and more rational than it has been? It is rather difficult… to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives (‘an unprecedentedly vast collection of corpses’) have already been swallowed up in the flames of ‘Progress.’ The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity. For the most part all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities… The process of secularisation was marked from the first by the magnificent limitlessness of its violence.’

Radical Individualism and the Triumph of the Will

The tale of the modern nation-state’s struggle for liberation from the ‘shackles’ of religion and tradition should be located within the larger narrative of the triumph of the will.

Like most of the defining ideas in our culture, perverted though they may have been in the modern era, the emphasis on freedom of the will has its origins in Christian theology, but Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, spoke both as the heir of the late Scholastic tradition and for modernity when he said that the true image of god within human beings is the godlike liberty and incomprehensibility of the will.

Modern Ideas of Freedom are Nihilistic

Hart argues that the modern notion of freedom is essentially nihilistic, ie freedom is to be found in the individual subject’s power of choice, rather than in what is actually chosen. Neither God nor nature nor reason provides the measure of an act’s true liberty, for an act is free only when it is done in defiance of all three.

The Degradation of the Idea of Liberty. Freedom as Consumerism

Where is the ascendancy of the modern Idea of Freedom as Pure Spontaneity of the Will leading our Culture, Hart asks? At an ordinary, everyday level, it obviously leads to a degradation of the very idea of freedom, its reduction in the public imagination to a fairly banal kind of liberty, no more –though no less- significant than a consumer’s freedom to choose among different kinds of breads, shoes, televisions, drugs, drinks, sexual activities and relationships, political parties or religions.

The Death of Shared Obligations and Common Cause - the Decay of ‘Community ‘ (and therefore National Sentiment)

At the level of conventional social behaviours it leads perhaps towards a decay of a shared sense of social obligation or common cause, or towards an increasingly insipid and self-absorbed private culture, or towards a tendency in society at large less to judge the laudability of particular choices by reference to the worthiness of their objects than to judge objects worthy solely because they have been chosen. (eg ’a woman’s right to choose’)

From the Banal to the Terrible

All this is both obvious and rather vague, but the modern concept of Freedom can lead to other more terrible things as well. For what the will may will, when it is subordinate only to its own native exuberance, is practically without limit.
Although pure spontaneity of the will is an illusion (we must actually will something), something dangerously novel entered our culture when we began to believe that the proper end of the will might simply to be willing as such. Nor does the truly liberated have to confine itself to the adventure of discovering and inventing itself. Collective will is so much more exciting than an individual’s will, at least if it can be disciplined and marshalled for some collective purpose.

With no Transcendent Source of the Good, the Capacity for Evil is Limitless

Furthermore if there is no transcendent source of the good to which the will is drawn but only the power of the will to decide what ends it desires, then no human project can be said to be inherently irrational or abominable. If freedom of the will is our supreme value, after all, then it is to all intents and purposes our god.

And certain kinds of gods (as our pagan ancestors understood) need to be fed.

Part 2 will show how radical individualism leads to state control.

The Freedom of the Will - Part Two

‘As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends correspondingly to increase. And the dictator … will do well to encourage that freedom. In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope, the movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate.’ Aldous Huxley: ‘Introduction to ‘Brave New World’.

In Part One, we saw how the Triumph of the Will, increasingly unconstrained by religion and tradition, leads to a ‘society’ - our society, if society it can be called - which instils deep prejudices in favour of the self and the ego and its freedom to Will.

In this nihilising, individualising world, there is a diminishing sense of ultimate purpose. Meaning is evaporating leaving a residue consisting of what is immediately self-indulgent and the practicalities of achieving self-indulgence in food, sex, relationships, social status (power) – in anything and everything. Life is thought of as merely an extended version of a trawl round the shops, the ‘existential supermarket’ from which lifestyles can be selected like soap powders and without much deeper or more meaningful consequences. Such trends as the destruction of the character of the country through mass immigration and cultural relativism are of subsidiary or little concern.

The Triumph of the Will can lead to State Terror

We saw how in the Triumph of the Will, because the freedom to Will takes absolute precedence over any of what many think of as moral considerations (the example was given of ‘a woman’s right to choose’ to have an abortion) could lead to terror of the kind practiced in the last century by tyrants such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao as well as to more beneficent scenarios. (If one is a pessimist about human nature and believes in the existence of the human capacity for evil or Original Sin, as Christians call it, for which the existence of the aforementioned individuals and their regimes is surely ample proof, one is likely to believe that the eventual outcome is probably the evil one). But what is the mechanism by which individuals’ freedom to Will is translated into State Oppression and thus opens the way to state terror?

The Great Irony: How Radical Individualism Leads to State Control

David Bentley Hart does not go into this but the writer Theodore Dalrymple sets out the means very succinctly in his book ‘In Praise of Prejudice’:-

‘What starts out as search for increased if not total individualism ends up by increasing the power of governments over individuals. It does not do so by the totalitarian method of rendering compulsory all that is not forbidden – a process that in all human history has gone farthest, perhaps, in North Korea – but in destroying all moral authority that intervenes between individual human will and governmental power. Everything that is not forbidden by law is, ipso facto, permissible. ‘There is no law against it’ becomes an unanswerable justification for conduct that is selfish and egotistical.

The Politicians and Judges become the Moral Arbiters

Thus it is the law, and those who make it and who administer it who are the moral arbiters of society. It is they who decide what is permissible and what is not. And so all stigmas are removed from conduct that is too expressly and actively forbidden by religious belief and by custom and we are asked to acquiesce in Political Correctness.

Politicians and Judges become Gods, at least in their own Eyes

But that is not the end of it. Human Nature being what it is, the law givers (think that lying egomaniac Tony Blair, the insanely arrogant and incompetent Gordon Brown, the evil bully and liar Alistair Campbell and the harridan, half-mad obsessive Harriet Harman), and the judges to whom is delegated the task of deciding what constitutes good and bad behaviour and attitudes, enjoy their power. They actually come to believe that they deserve it. Because there is no other source of effective collective authority, such as the Church, they believe that they have been chosen for their task because they possess rare qualities of insight into how people should live their lives. And since their power it is infinite and they think themselves infinitely responsible for the welfare of the people, they come to regard themselves as infinitely good. They become god-like in their own eyes at least.

The Drug of Power and Creeping Centralised Authority

Radical Individualism - the Freedom of the Will – is thus not just compatible with the radical centralisation of authority but is a product of it. The individual is free to get on with his life as his whim dictates, but, however, within increasingly narrow limits. The ability to wield prescriptive power is one of the most powerful of drugs. Since there is no buffering, intervening power between the individual and the state, the power of the governing elites is free and they have the motive to insinuate it into every nook and cranny of an individual’s life. So decision –making in life is divided into two spheres: the one being about the serious business which is left to the sovereign power of the state, the other the increasingly narrow sphere of private affairs.

The State’s Attack on the Institutions which limit its Power

The State, meaning the horrible creatures who have managed to insinuate themselves into political office, (You have to be very odd to have a driving ambition to order others around in the way our present Politicians do), citing the drive to the untrammelled Freedom of the Will of Radical Individualism in the context of secularised nihilism, launched an attack on all the intervening authorities which stood in the way of its power to control our lives such as the family, the church and to a lesser extent the professional organisations. All organisations such as these, (and this applies to some Political Parties also) have in any case been melting away as secularism drains meaning and purpose and radical Individualism destroys collectivity. In the absence of their mediating influence, we have become accustomed to expect and to accept the central direction of our lives.

What is the Future for Our Country?

What is the future for our country in the light of these trends? Can it survive its nihilism and creeping Fascism ? Heidegger, who held out little hope for Western Civilisation is the subject of the next edition of ‘Prophets of Doom’.

This is part 2 of Tim's Prophets of Doom Series
No 1: ‘Pitirim Sorokin’ and ‘A Christmas Message of Hope’ Parts 1&2

1 comment:

Alex said...

That the search for increased individualism leads to increasing state control seems, on the face of it, a paradox. In American folklore if not history, the pursuit of individualist goals is closely associated with resistance to state interference.

But, to paraphrase some observations made by Kenneth Minogue: The history of European liberalism in the nineteenth century shows that once the concept of welfarism became rooted in liberal thought, then the business of government, or "society", included the provision of necessary conditions for individual self-fulfilment.

In the twentieth century, liberalism began to roll back the allegedly oppressive conventions of bourgeois society. This repudiation of ancient and familiar moral boundaries was understood to be a further advance in liberty. New oppressions were discovered leading to successive "liberations" which involved the rampant legislation of civil rights. In this way, the exercise of moral choice by individuals was supplanted by the guidance of a nursemaid state.

What began as an enthusiasm for individualism will end in a form of totalitarian supervision.