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Wednesday, December 22, 2004


the rise of the hero-cult

a column by julian sanchez at reason which pooh-poohs the persecution (complex?) so commonly attested by the religious right in america set me thinking.

to pretend that christianity -- and religious feeling in general -- hasn't been driven from the culture at every opportunity is to have missed the narrative of modern civilization. read nietzsche. he wasn't possible even in the age of reason -- and his christophobe rants are now hallowed doctrine in western intellectual life, which has been (supposedly, but as with all inquisitions not truly) purged of the heresy of belief on the grounds that it cannot be proved.

well, of course it can't -- neither can spinoza. does that make it reviling? or unnecessary?

i think we tend to underestimate the profound -- and quite new -- effects of science and secularism on our method of modern thought -- and, consequently, we tend to unconsciously deny the importance of our irrational being (which is to say, the majority of all of us animals).

people have always demonstrated a need for mysticism; belief is so intrinsic to human behavior (even if your belief is scientism) that it is probably hardwired.

as this decadent civilization crumbles under the weight of gross individualism, i think we're seeing a lot of common people who perceive the growing social decay and live in a state of oppressive fear of it -- provoking a primitivist response, an extension of romanticism, that harkens back to that which is perceived to have been lost: mystery.

for many people in america, that mystery means christianity -- or rather, reductive christian cults, many of which are radically reactionary hero-cults and unrelated to the complex philosophical christian tradition. their myopic vision of christianity is virulent and intolerant -- rather the philosophical opposite of locke, whose influence and moderation was so paramount to the american founders and all english parliamentarians following the english civil war.

but the ignorance of history is common to our increasingly illiterate times. in a society fleeing the past, how can they be expected to learn and understand it? so they end up with a half-assed compromise of opposites -- christian nameplate and (unread) book, augustinian mysticism but ironically nietzschean mechanism -- that yields not a faith but a weapon.

for what it's worth, i do make it to the catholic churches of my parents every now and again, even though i am no longer orthodox -- and i could not doubt the existence of benevolent, tolerant christian souls.

what i fear, then, is the place they have been relegated to in this, our society -- and what that says about our society, in light of kant, byron, carlyle and nietzsche.

from bertrand russell, in discussing ethics after locke:

locke, as we saw, believed pleasure to be the good, and this was the prevalent view among empiricists throughout the 18th and 19th c. their opponents, on the contrary, despised pleasure as ignoble, and had various systems of ethics which seemed more exalted. ... kant's ethic is important, because it is anti-utilitarian, a priori, and what is called "noble".

kant says that if you are kind to your brother because you are fond of him, you have no moral merit: an act only has moral merit when it is performed because the moral law enjoins it.

... kant himself was a man whose outlook on practical affairs was kindly and humanitarian, but the same cannot be said of most of those who rejected happiness as the good. the sort of ethic which is called "noble" is less associated with attempts to improve the world than is the more mundane view that we should seek to make men happier. this is not surprising. contempt for happiness is easier when the happiness is other people's than when it is our own.

usually the substitute for happiness is some sort of heroism. this affords unconscious outlets for the impulse to power, and abundant excuses for cruelty. or, again, what is valued may be strong emotion; this was the case with the romantics. this led to a toleration of such passions as hatred and revenge; byron's heroes are typical, and are never persons of exemplary behavior. the men who did most to promote human happiness were -- as might have been expected -- those who thought happiness important, not those who despised it in comparison with something more "sublime".
i think it quite difficult not to see the united states (as an example) as a nation whose people are now, in a way they were not before, bent on our own nobility -- justifying ridiculous desert and jungle crusades against ideas and all the suffering we manufacture, justifying the abandonment of our families in pursuit of suffering for the attainment of some tincture of personal greatness -- rather than seeing the particularity of what we do, when it is a diminishment of responsibility and happiness around us, for what it is.

and i think a great many modern christians -- who profess to admire the love of the beatitudes -- in the end *admire* it, and do not (indeed, can not, as individualist postmoderns) live it.

this search for mysticism and the rise of the hero is very little different, in my opinion, than the ancient rise of eastern cults in the late roman empire as the society of the ancient world began to rot with excessive individual prerogative -- or the italian mystic reverence of ancient thought and the elevation of the prince in the antisociety of machiavellian italian city-states. it is a product of the irresponsibility of an antisociety and the futility and fear that must accompany it.

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