Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Of God, godlessness and dominant reason

This last weekend I had to daunting prospects. I had to complete two punishing training sessions in the dungeon (my own private gym) totaling well over twelve tons and finish reading the Systéme de la Nature by noted XVIIth century French philosopher and notorious atheist Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. Both endeavors I contemplated as being as far from pleasurable as any voluntarily undertaken activity could be, and most assuredly I was not attempting any of them to increase my happiness, well-being, amusement, merriment, entertainment, enjoyment or pleasure. Rather the opposite, I expected both activities to be a hard, painful, protracted slog full of anguish, suffering, struggle and potential disappointment.

Man, were they disappointing indeed. On Saturday evening I attempted to train and had to stop after just the warm-up sets (front squats with the empty bar), as I had such an acute case of muscle soreness in quads and adductors (from previous low bar back squat session three days ago, being old just sucks that way!) that there was no question of attempting the work sets afterwards. I had to go back home, the proverbial tail between my legs, limping all the way as a cripple and gasping at any short flight of stairs I had to climb.

But that was not the worse part of it. Back to the Systéme, the edition I had purchased clocked in at 501 imposing pages, and by Friday night I had read the first 241, so I only needed to go through 270 pages of dense French philosophical prose. It is interesting to note that the Baron was born in Germany, and I think that it shows in a French prose which is a bit more stilted and less prone to fancy constructions than your average encyclopaedist. Much easier to mentally translate for a not-that-expert speaker of the tongue of Molière. But of course, the relative difficulty of grasping the meaning of the text had nothing to do with the inherent unpleasantness of the task. What made it a truly foreboding prospect was the certain knowledge that the opinions presented by the good Paul-Henri would be as diametrically opposed to mine as conceivable. Not only that (reading people who think very differently from yourself is almost an obligation of an intellectually curious, honest researcher that is more interested in truth that in confirmation of his own bias), but I knew those opinions would be adorned by the most tiresome rhetoric, shrouded within the most blatant grandiloquence, to hide the deficiencies of a not-too-subtle logic.

Before I delve deeper in the reasons for my distaste of poor Paul-Henri’s writing, I have to recognize this is to a certain extent an instance of the pot calling the kettle black, as any reader half familiar with my usually convoluted arguments (amply displayed in this blog) has probably had more than his share of circumlocutions, rhetorical devices and tortured (and not too easy to follow) logic…

Be it as it may, the fact of the matter is that when the Baron gives us his opinion on believers in general he never addresses them as “bad”, or even as “bad and evil”. They are unfailingly “bad, evil, astute, cruel, cowardly, befuddled, ferocious, besotted and silly”. Just one epithet would never do for him, and finding less than four or five synonyms is already difficult, as he probably judged a shorter declamation wouldn’t convey as effectively the full amplitude of his bile. Of course, long series of similarly meaning epithets are only one of the peculiar quirks of d’Holbach’s style. Like in the Iliad certain whole sentences tend to unfailingly appear accompanying some names, even when the close proximity of their appearance makes for a grating redundancy. So human action is repeatedly described as “without the agent’s participation, in spite of him”; the idea of a deity is regularly referred as “lacking any coherent content, just a set of negative qualities put together without much care”. The first time you read such sentences you may find them witty (or not, I didn’t), but after reading them for the fifty fifth time you feel like jumping through the window to meet your maker and be assuaged that all that flapdoodle was exactly as unfounded in sound reasoning as it sounded.  

Why on the Lord’s green Earth did I undergo such unpleasantness, you may ask. Well, Hume famously attended some of the séances at the baron’s highly literate salon, and the Scot is said to have asked the French if he thought there ever was a true atheist (to which the Baron even more famously replied that in his table alone at that very same moment he could count sixteen). My own interpretation of Hume is that he never entirely abandoned the argument from design (see the final declaration of Philo, the supposed mouthpiece for the author, at the end of the Dialogues concerning natural religion, where after driving Demea nuts, and out of the scene, with his supposed skepticism, he recognizes to Cleanthes that “a design, a purpose, are evident in the world” -now most scholars attribute that final statement to irony and Hume’s love of equivocation, but I call BS, and maintain that this is the closest he ever came in writing to expressing his real view… why? Because he was a sharp cookie, that’s why), so I wanted to understand better the differences between Saint David and some contemporary philosophers that seemed to be much more uncompromising in their rejection of religion than him.

And boy, were they uncompromising. The whole tract by d’Holbach is a virulent, vitriolic denunciation of the uncountable ills that religion causes unto society. I recently had read the (much more nuanced, that’s the advantage of historians over polemicists) Le problème de l’incroyance au XVIe siècle. La religion de Rabelais, by Lucien Fevbre, in which he essentially concludes that there were no atheists (nor could there be) back then, and I wanted to better grasp what had changed in those two centuries for such an exemplar to appear.

My preliminary conclusion is that, in the first place, Locke appeared, with a plausible view of how human understanding could develop mechanically (impressions give rise to perceptions which are stored as memories and can then be retrieved as ideas, without anything like free will being required as having any explanatory power… never mind that what you explain ends up being a pale cartoon of how the mind works, as phenomenally experienced through introspection). Then Galileo and Newton appeared, explaining how a few, simple, mathematically formulated laws could explain the major motions of the cosmos (never mind it could only offer relatively crude approximations to very simple mechanical phenomena which left out as non explainable much more than what they could describe). And in the meantime, of course, the great religion wars that ravaged Europe until the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 happened, giving a (deserved) bad name to revealed religion (Christianity) and church teachings.

So from a very crude psychology, an even cruder (but supremely confident) physics and some sociological observations (let’s remember that in July 1766 Francois-Jean Lefevbre, le chevalier de la Barre, was tortured, beheaded and burnt at the stake (not that at that point he would have minded) for not taking his hat off in front of a procession and owning Voltaire’s dictionnaire philosophique) the author concludes, as forcefully as possible, that no spirit is necessary to explain the functioning of the human mind, that furthermore no spirit is required to explain how nature works and hence, that there is no spirit at all, and that believing in such fairy tales is not just wrong, but supremely pernicious.

Again, the logic is pretty crude (the good Baron gets all excited trying to refute Clarke, which could be done quite elegantly, and then directs some poorly aimed and wholly unsuccessful broadsides against Descartes and Newton, but he doesn’t seem to put his heart as much on it, probably thinking that the argumentation against Clarke had already done all the heavy lifting and was enough) and, apart from practicing my French, it wouldn’t have been that illuminating, hadn’t it been for a small fragment I found near the end (in page 416):

I’ll try to tidy it up a bit in my translation (my north American readership has soared recently, so that’s the less I could do for them):

They realize soon that the Gods of Olympus are much less to be feared than those of Earth; that the favors of the later provide them a well-being much surer than the promises of the former; that the riches of this world are preferable to the treasures that heaven reserve to its favorites; that it is more advantageous to conform to the views of visible powers than to those of powers we will never see

There you can see (I may even say, there you can admire), in as clear and condensed a version as you can dream of, the transition from the dominant reason of the previous age to the new one.
Remember (Abridged History of Western Thought) before the modern era the dominant reason was summarized by the following three commandments:

1.       The goal of life is to save oneself (in the afterlife)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined by birth (so there is no point in trying to improve one’s place in it)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (first and foremost to survive, having enough food, shelter and health; afterwards things like belonging to a group, and even acquiring some mastery in a recognized pursuit, from humanistic disciplines to crafts as prescribed within the guild structure –what MacIntyre called “a practice”- were welcomed)

But, thanks to Hume (between others, and remember Hume was in turn strongly influenced by Locke and Hobbes, which are also direct predecessors of d’Holbach) that framework for understanding ourselves and coordinating social efforts successfully was replaced by the following (economic reason):

1.        The goal of life is to satisfy desires (as only emotions, or in his words, “passions”, can move us, and those passions can only be explained as the impulse towards feeling pleasure and avoiding pain, which is what desires consist in)

2.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined mostly by birth, but it can be slightly improved by “moral worth” (as defined by social consensus)

3.       People may pursue a number of different, sometimes conflicting desires (survival in a peaceful time is more of a given, so things like recognition, justified by an innate “sympathy” can play a greater role)

There is little doubt that the components of a dominant reason are themselves hierarchically ordered. Changing the agreed and generally accepted idea of what a life well lived looks like is more difficult (and has a greater impact on how people do in fact live their lives) than changing the criteria of who deserves more recognition, who orders and who obeys. And changing those criteria is in turn more difficult (and thus such change is more momentous, has a greater impact on citizens’ lives) than changing which desires are socially sanctioned (and thus what kids are, from the earliest age, trained to desire, to manifest and to publicly pursue). And what the presented text isolates for us is, as close to the source as possible, the exact moment in which the new dominant reason is so extended, so universally accepted, that a very cultivated writer can present it as if it were a universal, everlasting, self-evident truth.

Because of course, for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and for the Germanic tribes that overturned their civilization, and for the medieval Europeans that built over the ruins left by it, and even for the renaissance intellectuals and noblemen that rediscovered the great works of their remote ancestors the expression of d’Holbach would have been unintelligible, and completely devoid of sense. For them there were no “gods of earth” (matter) which could compete with the Olympians, or which could be feared/ questioned/ given allegiance to. A lot of things had to happen for the unimaginable to become the received wisdom, to the point of soon being unquestionable, just part of the intellectual landscape.

So maybe the effort was in the end well worth it, as the puzzle of how economic reason came to be is now a bit clearer. Also, I came back to the gym on Sunday and completed my front squats and bench presses as planned (it still amazes the difference 24 additional hours of recovery can make). Which for me is the final validation of how wrong the utilitarian world view (and the accompanying fatalism/ determinism about how the human mind works) are. I didn’t read a supremely boring, supremely predictable old French text because I derived any pleasure from it, as Bentham (and Jevons, but that will require a separate post) would have it. I didn’t go (twice!) to the gym because any sort of convoluted felicific calculus showed me that was the course of action I would derive more satisfaction from. Far from it. I did it because both were difficult, unpleasant things to do, but both would, in their different and even somehow incompatible ways turn me in a slightly better person. Stronger and may be wiser. But not definitely happier.

Who gives a damn about happiness, anyway… 

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