International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   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 Donovan Roebert



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 and sensibility.

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 invincible-seeming secularism.

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 and entertaining.

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.

Donovan Roebert


About the Editor: https:---



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 secular truth.

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 lives.

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 West.

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 religions.

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 characteristics.

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 decline.

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 greatly diminished.

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 impossible.

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 ultimate'.

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 religion.

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




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 enjoying tea.

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 cosmogony.

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 story.

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 itself.

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 Hinduism.

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 quote):

'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.

Ram: Interesting.

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 Brahma.

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 Krishna.

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 lies.

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 million gods.

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, 'Hinduism'.

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 reason.

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 what-is.

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




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 social 'liberty':

     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

     Rousseau: 1946:32
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 death.

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 Industrial Revolution:

     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...
     On Liberty
     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 natural habitat?

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: 109)

'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 self-image.

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 itself).

There's an even bolder statement of human dignity made by Gianozzo Manetti (1396-1459) in reaction to Pope Innocent's De miseria humanae conditionis.

     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 correctnesses.

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
     the shepherd.
     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 stability.

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 'absurd'.

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
     to express.
     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
     Leaning together
     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 study.

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 survival?

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
     little society.
     On Corporate Bodies
     Hazlitt: 1821

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 for itself.


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(c) Donovan Roebert 2014


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020