The Third Way, 40: Kohelet, 4 – Riches, Power, and Injustice

“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”  Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond.

“Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton

“At no point does the [Biblical] picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order.  What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), p. 71.

Twenty-first Century humanity is obsessed with the inequities and injustices, real and imagined, of its own society.  Outrage is the tone of the age.  When it comes to considering the claims of a Creator, or the mere existence of a Creator, the principal objection is the existence of evil in the universe.  After all, don’t all the believers in and defenders of a Creator present this Being as infinitely good and loving, or at least benevolently neutral? 

Even pantheists and panentheists come in for scorn and mockery as they try to explain their concept of divinity being inextricably entwined in the very fabric of the Cosmos, indeed as the very fabric itself.  To achieve this, the Cosmos must be in proves of becoming a sort of living thing moving itself towards a sublime summation of all that is in a sort of infinite, amorphous, quasi-conscious bliss of ecstatic communion.  It is amazing to watch how even the great icons of Cosmic science (e.g. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking) seem to edge ever closer to this sort of “numinous universe “à la Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)”.  (Once more we run up against the restless human heart with its God-shaped vacuum at its center, as per Augustine and Pascal. . .)

According to the prevailing meta-story of our current culture, if we opt for a personal Creator, we are simpletons and moronic dupes relying on a phantasm because of our moral and intellectual weakness.  Or, if we opt for an impersonal sort of idolization of the Cosmos moving itself towards numinescence and awakening, we are still fools because we can’t bear the weight of being mere burps of an amoral, meaningless, completely random explosion.  In that case, isn’t “evil” really a meaningless concept?  Things just are what they are—no morality involved.  The “laws” of physics and evolution apply at all times and in all places—survival of the fittest, strongest, most adaptable, luckiest, etc., gyrating in the great quantum.  How can the quantum mass of particles and energy have a moral outcome? 

Nonetheless, in our more thoughtful moments when we can absent ourselves from surfing and tweeting, most of us still can’t avoid or evade a nagging sense of something being dreadfully amiss, out of order, off-center, wrong!  There just shouldn’t be this (or any) degree of suffering and pain involved, especially inflicted on the innocent and defenceless—at least among ourselves and, by extension, other living, sentient beings.  Pain as a survival mechanism, perhaps, but as a moral agent. . .?  And, as our hearts and souls tell us as we lie abed a-night alone with our fragility and vulnerability, the greatest wrong, which we see when we watch those we love go through the hardness of life and unprovoked and unmerited strife, pain, and affliction, is death!

But we repress this horror.  We scientifically rationalize: death is part of the natural order; it is the evolutionary order and rule.  It is the agent for elimination of the weak and of renewal and change to make way for the stronger, faster, better which is ever-emerging.  Life needs death – otherwise the planet could never support life if nothing ever died!

But we are still left with an insoluble paradox: why do we, the pinnacle of evolutionary consciousness and incarnation of cosmic self-awareness, have this agonizing, unshakeable sense of unfairness, inequity, injustice?  And death is the “unkindest cut of all”!  How is this innate capacity to conceive ineffable ideas like justice, good, and beauty, and their opposites, of any evolutionary benefit?  How did we ever evolve such conceptions? 

Perhaps they are a means to preserve our species by restraining us from indiscriminatingly slaughtering one another and other species.  They subdue our innate aggressive and competitive instincts; they control our intellect’s capacity to create destructive instruments. 

Until recently, these “controlling mechanisms in the human psyche” were almost universally accepted as instilled by humanity’s Creator (or creators in polytheistic societies).  Remove the sanction of the Creator watching and reserving judgment and, it seems, the only sanction and restraint left is Mutual Assured Destruction (the 1970s MAD principle during the Cold War) which will result from excessive anti-social behaviour.  As the question has been framed, “(How) Can we be good without God?”  Nietzsche proposed that, honestly, we can’t because there is no motivation to be “moral and good” without a Judge waiting to pass sentence.  It all boils down to social convention, not conscience.

Can we be good without God?  Aristotle (see his masterpiece The Nichomachean Ethics)and modern secular philosophers answer “Yes!”  But it still begs the anterior question: “How do we even have a concept of good to begin with?”  And within that, “How do we have a global, almost universal understanding, across all cultures and times, of many elements of what ‘good’ means?”

Fundamentally, there are only two, diametrically opposite, answers: (1) evolution made it happen for reasons we can only dimly speculate about, or, (2) the universe’s Creator made us that way for His/Her own reasons.  And the main argument against the second choice is that evil and wrong and pain and suffering exist.  Surely an infinitely wise and good Creator would not make such a flawed Cosmos, one in which cruelty, deliberate evil, the infliction of pain and suffering abound.  If the Cosmos is a reflection of the Creator’s nature, the Creator Him-/Herself must therefore be a cruel, unworthy being.  And who would want to serve such a God?

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient sage, once more.  Solomon-Kohelet does not defend the Creator, even though he continually acknowledges Him/Her.  Instead, he observes (very dispassionately, like a modern social scientist) the world as it is with all its apparently random outcomes.  The “good and just” sometimes suffer evil and calamity in the same way as fools and criminals; the unjust and wicked too often seem to live easy, fat, comfortable lives while the innocent, the good, and the just suffer.  He never facilely resorts to blaming God for this state of affairs, nor does he ever mention a ‘devil’, a demon, or any other supernatural entity as an instigator; such things just are.  But he still has something to say as to why they are as they are, and his insights are right on target to this day.

In short, the perpetrators of most of the afflictions and injustice humans fall prey to are other humans.  He does not deal with what we call “acts of God”.  His concern is what he observes about the treatment of our fellow humans, one to another, one upon another.  “I realized that all effort and achievement stem from one person’s envy of another. . . . something else under the sun that is pointless: the situation in which a solitary individual without a companion, with neither child nor brother, keeps on working endlessly but never has enough wealth. . . .”  And, as to the zealous young person determined to prove him-/herself greater than any predecessors, attaining acclaim and power (royalty in his language) and all that: “Nevertheless, those who come afterwards will not regard him highly.  This too is certainly pointless and feeding on wind.”  (See Chapter 4 of the Biblical book Kohelet.)

Not doing life alone is always better: “Two are better than one, in that their cooperative efforts yield this advantage: if one of them falls, the other will help his partner up.”  A wise, poor youth is better than an old, arrogant king who no longer listens to anyone’s advice—the corruption of power theme again, which he knew well firsthand.

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

“Watch your step when you go to the house of God.  Offering to listen is better than fools offering sacrifices, because they don’t discern whether they are doing evil.  Don’t be impulsive, don’t be in a hurry to give voice to your words before God.  For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.  For nightmares come from worrying too much; and a fool, when he speaks, chatters too much.” (4:17-5:2)

Thus, the Creator is not intervening to stop people from acting like fools and doing wrong to one another, but He/She is quite aware of it.  We sail along in our ambitions, self-centered goals to “get to the top”, prove others wrong, accumulate what we covet and make our mark with little or no thought of what we’re doing and, more particularly, how we’re doing it.  Perhaps there is some token gesture towards the Maker here and there—“fools offering sacrifices”.  They are fools because there is no desire or attempt to “discern whether or not they are doing evil.”

Kohelet is not here discussing the “great evils”—natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars and slaughters—which everyone can see and abhor while condemning the human perpetrators when appropriate.  That is another discussion.  At this point he is concerned with the petty evils of everyday life, our habitual mindsets, attitudes, and self-centered behaviours that inevitably injure those around us.  The “fool” is the one rushing and toiling along thoughtlessly, heedlessly as if there is no responsibility, no accountability, and no consequences.

If we live like this, we will spend our lives “chasing after wind” and never seeing it because we have never bothered to “go to the house of God”—turn towards the Creator.  Some of us still pay lip-service in that direction in order to appease our consciences (or please someone else, or create a good impression as part of our public persona), but this is “fools offering sacrifices”.

The only way to escape this trap, this treadmill of “feeding the wind”, is to mindfully, deliberately, and humbly turn to the Creator and begin to listen, even more than you speak, “For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.”

There is much more insight Kohelet offers.  We will pick it up in the next session.

The Third Way, 39: Kohelet, 3

“As modern beings, the theological explanation of “facts” cannot be true for us.  No events or persons can be special, as conduits to a different dimension of reality. . . .  Yet nearly everything else in Christianity – and the most cherished ideals of the secularized worldviews which were derived from it, and which still largely inform our present lives – follows from the truth of these facts: theologically, the covenant of God with man, the reality of human sin, the promise of deliverance and salvation; politically and morally, the unconditional goodness of simple existence, the dignity of the person, the equality of all human beings.  Disbelief must, of necessity, dislodge belief.  But. . . .”

Peter C. Emberley.  Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), p. 7.

Our 21st Century Western spiritual, emotional, and psychological schizophrenia is described here by Emberley.  In his prelude to the above statement, Emberley lays out the whole psyche of our age, having adopted the scientific, reason-alone approach to understanding existence and any purpose for it.  As he explains  “. . . it has brought us to the recognition that the sacred is no longer a dimension of our consciousness, but an abandoned stage in the history of human consciousness.  Recognition of the innate goodness of individuals, and the potential for limitless perfectibility, renders ideas of human sin and evil, or the need for divine consolation and intervention, unnecessary.” (p.6)  Accordingly, we 21st Century wise-ones hold that, if we can analyze them, we can also figure out how to fix the problems of life and society without appealing to any supernatural agent for assistance, wisdom, or comfort.

And that, of course, is the whole case for ditching any supernatural or mystical element in diagnosing any claim to have witnessed or experienced such things.  Such “events” must be aberrations and delusions which may amount to a form of mental illness (as they were often treated in the Soviet Union and still are in pseudo-Communist, neo-Fascist China).

Even so, insisting and declaiming and psychologising about people’s mistaken hope in spirituality doesn’t seem to convince billions of people today, or explain why the great mass of humans over thousands of years disagreed that that other “dimension of our consciousness” is not really there at all and never was.  We simply can’t be convinced that all mystical sense and experience was/is nothing but a superstitious hope that some imaginary super being will vouchsafe to intervene and save us from ourselves or the natural forces we cannot control.

As a Professor at Canada’s Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Emberly is certainly one of those enlightened, reasonable, rational modern people who knows better.  Yet he cannot help being fascinated as he observes people on pilgrimage in India, or Arabia, or Rome.  Hosts of extremely well-educated and sophisticated, progressive people (who should know better?), “quite suddenly are on spiritual walkabout.  Whether they seek consolation, spiritual ecstasy, an exit strategy from everyday busyness, or hope. . .” (p.7)

Maybe they just irrationally “got religion!” (and will eventually get over it) and we can just move on shaking our heads in amusement at their baffling resort to discredited superstitions.  After all, religion was once all very well in its proper place, like a birth ceremony such as baptism or circumcision, a wedding, or a funeral, but smart people gave it little thought otherwise.  But even though we no longer have much regard for formal, institutional, traditional religion, a large majority of heart-hungry humanity still thirsts for ‘authentic spirituality’.  It seems that many really smart people also feel the pull of the “God-shaped vacuum”, as Pascal called it in his Pensées.

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient guide who is so in tune with our modern malaise. That is why, from even his blasé, jaded perspective, there is no point in engaging in an endless, fruitless, frustrating debate about the existence of a Creator.  Contrary to our dominant, cutting edge view held and propagated by the who’s who of current scientific understanding, we in fact still do “have need of that hypothesis.”  The heart and soul starve without nourishment, and the dry C-rations of evolutionary astro-physics and macro-biology leave these sensitive parts of the human entity starving and withering away. 

Thus, as Kohelet moves forward in his roller-coaster tour of the state of the human heart and soul, he recognizes the paradox and dilemma of what we experience and what our innermost being tells us even in the face of what too often appears as “chasing after the wind.” 

“I have seen the burden God has laid on humanity.  He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in their hearts; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.  I know that everything God does will last forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.  God does it so people will revere him.” (3:10-14)

Here is the paradox: this creation, this Earth, so cosmically improbable and tiny with its teeming life, is incredibly beautiful.  We awake and awestruck humans perceive it, but in our struggle to survive, thrive, and understand we are burdened beyond bearing.  Our burden is not merely like that which other creatures know—to find sustenance and reproduce.  It is much greater, the burden of yearning for much greater things—“eternity in our hearts”.  All around us we see the manifestation of this eternity—the infinity of the universe and the sense of complete wonder of it all, from the tiny to the immense, and an innate awe of its Creator, a being we intuitively know had to have made all this.  There is an order of things and being that is vastly greater than this mundane scrabbling and quarreling about “I, me, me, mine,” as the Beatles put it fifty years ago.  My stuff, my rights, my anger at the wrongs you’ve done to me (but not the ones I’ve done to you), my right to be outraged, to have recompense, to get back, to have my turn on top. . . .

What Kohelet is saying is that none of that will bring you the peace you crave and or wholeness your heart and soul hunger for underneath all the competing, consuming, and condemning.  Truly, we “cannot fathom what God has done [and is still doing] from the beginning to the end.”  Contentment and “happiness”, one of those “inalienable rights” the Creator has endowed us with according to the American Fathers and the Enlightenment “lights”, is an inner state found at least in part by “doing good” to others, not in endlessly chasing stuff and fame and fortune and renown and prestige and pleasure and vengeance, which are counterfeits that Solomon calls, from his own super-sated experience, “chasing after the wind”.  Finding satisfaction in simple toil, in work, in doing things well according to what you’ve been given (or decide) to do, that is a key.  But to get there, it has to be seen for what it really is—not a burden but “the gift of God”.

It is no good for us to endlessly “kick against the goads” as Jesus once told Saul of Tarsus he had been doing.  Saul had inflicted great pain and suffering on many others in his own battle to somehow win God’s favour through his zeal.  So too with so many of us—if only we could get them to see things “the right way”, to act “the right way” (and the right way is, of course, my way).  When we remove the Creator as the source of all good things, which means all of creation which He/She made “very good” from the very beginning, the only lens we have to determine the “right” way from the “wrong” way is how I/we have analyzed things should go, how we feel about things, especially when it comes to how the rest of humanity does goes about life.

So the fundamental missing link in any hope for our quest is to find, to go back to, the only worthy and reliable starting point—the Creator and the nature of what He/She has made.  And, from there, to confess, to agree, that what He/She has done, which reflects His/Her inevitable nature, is “unfathomable from beginning to end”.  This puts us in our proper place—humble, without arrogant hubris, and in need of facing this great, unfathomable Being with reverence, with respect, with a sense of awe—just as we look into the heavens which He/She “spoke” into being and stand in awe, or as we look deep into the micro-universe and behold in awe.

If we can get this proper beginning perspective and still our hearts and minds and souls to receive this roaring-loud, super-Technicolor truth which dazzles our eyes and overwhelms our ears when we unblock them, we will find the first place of rest and begin to be able “enjoy our work because that is our lot.  For who can bring him/her [us] to see what will happen after him/her/us?”  (3:22)

It is a matter of doing our best to honour the Creator and the creation with what we know and have, in order to “do good”—leave something good to those coming after us.  Nevertheless, we can’t control them or keep them from being fools.  They too have to face the Creator and be accountable.  They too must find their way to the first level of rest, the first repose in understanding and accepting who and what they really are and were made to be.

Peace and harmony can never truly begin to take root until we turn around and face the Maker.  That is Kohelet’s first lesson.  It is as true now as it was three thousand years ago.

The Third Way, 38: Kohelet, 2

“When the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying yes or no.”  

Socrates

“Humanity has to travel a hard road to wisdom, and it has to travel it with bleeding feet.” 

Nellie McClung

As Qohelet begins his inquiry into futility, he follows the path of both Socrates and Nellie McClung (or rather, he blazed the trails they trod after him).  We are very fortunate that the rabbis later wisely incorporated his musings into that ancient mini-library we now call The Bible.  We now get to read this great sage’s reflective journal, full of the questions he asked himself and the lessons he gleaned as he nears the end of his life-journey with much scarred feet.  If we come with open minds, we can easily recognize ourselves, or at least our times, in his journey.

But just how scarred can his feet be when he lived a life of great privilege and unfettered ‘self-actualization’, as we would now progressively call it?  He had it all, starting with royal blood and great wealth from birth, which only increased over his lifetime.  Add to that almost unlimited power, lakes of fine wine, a huge harem of the most voluptuous women, and the best live music every day—as much as and more than his appetites could ever crave of all these things.  He had fame, renown, and prestige, and was feared by all his rivals.  He could indulge his slightest whim and explore any question he pleased, ordering slaves and servants and ministers to fetch and remove, build and destroy.  Tribute flowed into his coffers from as far as Mesopotamia, southern Arabia, and East Africa, and his traders and merchants moved far and wide to satisfy his curiosity and bring him things he had never seen or perhaps even heard of.

Yet when he had enjoyed all this to the max, his heart was empty, untouched.  Like all great tycoons, he discovered that once you have it all, what’s left?  He discovered that he had been trying to fill a vacuum that no amount of ‘stuff’, admiration, adulation or sycophancy could fill.  No amount of cheap sex could bring the peace and harmony of spirit that one real loving relationship could bring.  No amount of wine or other intoxicants, fine food, beautiful clothing, posh dwellings, brilliant live entertainment, or partying could do more than give a temporary reprieve, be more than a ‘fix’ to relieve the inner hunger and briefly salve the soul-wounds perturbing his conscience.  He read many treatises and listened to many readings; he collected advisors and composed his own proverbs, but his heart and soul remained incomplete.  He tried religion, lavishing immense treasure on it, hoping its ceremonies and rituals would bring favour and comfort, but they did not do that or give peace. 

When it was all said, done, and explored, he still sighed that, “It is all futile and chasing after the wind.”  He realized that when he died, all that he had accumulated would just be passed to a successor who would probably behave like a fool and retain none of his hard-earned wisdom.  No amount of trying to educate a son-successor could prepare him or prevent his becoming a fool if that son’s heart was unreceptive and he chose to behave like a typical young idiot who thinks they already know more than their parents.

As a good Israelite king Solomon knew how to rule according to God’s idea of good government.  He wasn’t supposed to use his position and power to accumulate stuff and lord it over the people like a tyrant, as the kings of the other nations did.  But bit by bit he had contravened virtually everything he knew not to do:  gathering an enormous harem to show off his power and indulge every sexual fantasy; imposing heavy taxation to pay for all his great projects; levying heavy tribute on the conquered provinces, guaranteeing that they would become rebellious in the future; building lavish personal dwellings even more ornate than the much-gilded Temple; erecting powerful fortresses and garrison towns to display his military might and cow any opposition; amassing state of the art chariot forces on top of all that.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired …. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind …” (2:10-11)

Having acquired everything wealth, power, and ambition could give him, he finds it empty.  Yet, as he predicted, three thousand years later we still find these pursuits to be the main goal of life for masses of folk all over the world. Granted, most people do not usually chase these goals on the same scale as Solomon (although the several hundred wealthiest people on Planet Earth today could probably directly relate to a great deal of what he said), but from the USA to China, India, and Kenya, people are still seeking “more and better” of whatever peculiar portion of Solomon’s universal lust for ever more has “turned their crank”. All modern economic theory is built on this covetousness.

Empty-hearted and soul-starved Solomon then reverts to something from his youth. He had once told God something was worth more than any of that other stuff. God had told him he would grant his wish, plus give him all the other stuff he hadn’t asked for. His wish had been for wisdom to rule well and be a godly king.  Now, several decades later he says, “Then I turned my thoughts [hello, Socrates] to (re)consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.  What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?”  His conclusion?  “Wisdom is better than folly … but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both [the sage and the fool].”  So, “What do I gain by being wise …. This too is meaningless.”  Whether sage or fool “in days to come both will be forgotten.”  Both must die and disappear from memory.  He confesses to then being very low. “So I hated life … all of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (2:17)  Existential despair anyone?

Much like Solomon, most of us in the West speed along from one thing to the next hoping to “get ahead” and find the sweet spot when all the material concerns seem to look after themselves.  Occasionally we find ourselves with a little too much time, and a few deep questions rear their heads. So to escape them we turn to distractions and amusements, hoping they will go away and leave us alone.  But eventually reality crashes in on us, “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it …. All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  [Retirement shock, anyone?] This too is meaningless.”

He is brought up short, standing on the precipice of despair about it all, like what French signature existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called la Nausée.  For most people in the rudderless West today, where is there to turn at such pregnant life moments?  They have no resources within themselves capable of landing anywhere, and the current dominant meta-story underlying our culture and society says there is really only random evolution in back of it—a process so huge, even if true, that it can give no comfort at all at a personal level.  The old myths about a Creator reaching out to the beings He/She created in His/Her own image have been shown to be empty, haven’t they? 

Perhaps meditation and mindfulness can help.  But, as healthful and beneficial as these practices can be in bringing personal rest and internal calm and self-acceptance, what are we reaching for through them?  Typically, we say we seek connection with something greater than superficial self, once we move beyond the physical preliminaries.  They may become another quest to find “the true self” or even the “Greater Self”, or the “Non-Self”.  We will leave a discussion of this quest aside for the moment.

Having meditated long on these perplexing issues and examined his own mind, having dialogued with himself and read his own wayward heart after all his striving, here is where Solomon lands.  “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner [not a popular word any more, but one that begs for explanation beyond the usual knee-jerk reaction of outright rejection within our culture] he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over …” (2:24-6)

We are left with many questions to explore from Chapter 2, and as this episode of “The Third Way” ends.

The Third Way, 37: Kohelet, 1

“Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”

Book of Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

The Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew) in the Jewish Bible (the “Old Testament” to most Christians) addresses almost every existential issue we moderns and postmoderns contend with.  The title roughly translates in English as “the Teacher” or “the Preacher”.  The long-held traditional view is that the author was King Solomon, modestly described in the Bible as “the wisest man who ever lived”.  Modern Biblical critics heartily dispute his authorship, citing the practice of ancient Jewish writers to attribute the name of a well-known, respected and venerated historical figure to their work to give it authority. 

The book is remarkable regardless of its authorship.  Its tone and content seem to have little in common with anything else in the Bible.  Its closest kin is The Book of Proverbs, also attributed by the ancients to Solomon, as was another anomaly, The Song of Songs.  The subject matter of these three treatises is neither historical nor prophetic, unlike most of the rest of the Jewish Bible, at least marginally.  They are grouped in a sort of ‘miscellaneous’ category, “The Writings”, along with Psalms, Job, Daniel, Lamentations, the two books of Chronicles (heavily historical, but with a strongly theological bent), Ruth, and Esther.  Some of these, like Lamentations, Ruth, and Esther, clearly relate to a specific historical episode.  ‘Solomon’s’ writings are stand-alone, although their style and content very much reflect the culture in which they were penned.  For purposes of simplicity in this discussion, we will call the author Solomon.

So what is it that makes Ecclesiastes particularly relevant for our time?  The author has a very postmodern perspective in his approach to finding meaning.  He summarizes and reflects upon his own life-journey, or at least the kind of journey a person such as Solomon might well have traveled in his quest to find meaning and purpose in a world which appears to encompass no inherent meaning at all.  His musings sound an awful lot like the choices people make today to fill in their emptiness as they seek to escape futility and despair.  (The Hebrew words translated as ‘meaningless / meaninglessness’ could be just as readily rendered ‘futile / futility’.  The old English rendering was ‘vanity’.)

The one (very important) difference with the typical post-modern seeker is that the ‘Teacher’ simply declares that there is a Creator.  Yet even assuming that there is a God, the whole business of existence still seems meaningless when we get down to the nitty-gritty of what life is like for most of us.  As we have seen repeatedly in this blog, multitudes today reject a Creator as a starting point, thus making their quest for meaning that much harder, perhaps even truly and finally “meaningless” and “futile” in the spirit of Solomon’s opening thrust.

Over the centuries many pious souls have questioned why this book, with its cynicism and incipient hopelessness, is even in the Bible.  Personally, I am very glad it is.  It brings a strange sort of comfort, a gut-level “reality check” to the tendency to turn the Bible into a super-spiritual, other-worldly story-book easily dismissed as having little to do with real life.  It does not offer easy answers, but instead some common-sense, practical life-advice, reminding us that the Creator, with His/Her baffling ways, is going to remain a mystery, and that I am not God, despite how much I might like or pretend to be.  It tells us that He/She does not owe us explanations, although He/She may occasionally condescend to provide one, even if only dimly and partially.  The other very significant insight it offers about the Creator is that He/She must not be confused or confounded with the creation or any creature, however wonderful or great.

Solomon first observes that, to all appearance, life flows along in an ever-repeating cycle.  Round and round everything goes: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”(1:4)  Human life follows the natural pattern; the sun rises and sets endlessly; the wind goes round and round; water flows endlessly into the sea but never fills it.  (There are remarkable hints of some understanding of the patterns of air currents and the hydrologic cycle, and no hint of superstitiously attributing such affairs to the caprices of some supernatural force.)  “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The language is often beautifully metaphorical and the composition in the original is quite poetic, but the tone could not be bested by the strongest 20th C existentialist or 21st C postmodern cynic.  “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”(1:11)  Historically, Solomon himself is a good example of this sage reminder of our illusion of personal importance: other than he, whom else do we remotely remember from the 10th C BCE?

What evidence does Solomon offer that there is a Creator to give even a shred of meaning to this seemingly age-old, endless merry-go-round?  He does not offer any within the Book; he simply declares that there is One.  Is he just making a typical, weak-kneed leap of blind-faith?  Is he just caving in to the ancient cultural milieu to unquestioningly accept gods and goddesses everywhere?  There is no hint of polytheism or reference to demons or other entities haunting humanity’s daily existence. He has at least advanced to holding to only one God rather than many.  But how can anyone as wise and intelligent and observant and perceptive as he seems to have been take such a superstitious fundamental position, not even deigning to argue it for future generations to consider?  Perhaps in his wisdom he had resolved that you simply cannot argue anyone into believing in God.  If people cannot (or willfully refuse to) see the Creator in the creation and in the amazing things that are done every day ‘under the sun’, how can the most strenuous argumentation show them?  We of the West have conclusively demonstrated this over at least the last 500 years.

In 1806, the French Enlightenment scientist Lamarck told Napoleon, who had an insatiable desire to know what to believe about ultimate things, that the “God-hypothesis” was no longer required by science to explain the universe because some day Reason and the Scientific Method would explain everything, including how things began.  As a man who believed that God/Providence had chosen him for great things, Napoleon was not convinced.  In the 1980s and ‘90s, in his teaching Stephen Hawking echoed Lamarck.  He put it in print for posterity in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time.  He declared this dogmatically, despite admitting that a Creator was the most efficient and satisfying answer to the most basic ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.  It is fascinating to observe that the basic argument has not changed in 3000 years, despite all the new knowledge and sophistication in methods of inquiry. 

Napoleon’s answer to Lamarck echoed Solomon, believing that God was still real and had chosen him specifically for great things.  Solomon simply accepts that no other conclusion than that there is a Creator is plausible, despite the apparent everyday banality of everything.  If Solomon had pursued this issue, he could and (I think) would make his case from historical and personal experience more than any appeal to logic and observation of the natural order, as eloquent as that is for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.”  After all, Israel’s whole history was a demonstration of it.  His own father, King David, was a direct witness of it, if the stories were to be believed.  He, Solomon himself, had encountered this Being of beings when he had built and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem.

The argument from personal and historical experience is considered among the weakest by logicians and empirical scientists.  It is an ancient debate, but still a decisive one for many.  But in courts of law personal, eyewitness testimony outweighs almost everything else, although photographic, audio, genetic, and forensic science can now often provide powerful corroboration (or refutation) of personal testimony.  It is interesting to note that when we discuss questions of a spiritual nature, we somehow find personal testimony and experience inadmissible, or perhaps evidence for some sort of psychological derangement of those adhering to it.  We are quite as selective in our dogma of a mechanistic, purely materialist model of the universe as any medieval or ancient authority was in the dogma of God’s existence and the supernatural nature of reality.  We are quite as capable as these died-in-the-wool ‘agents of superstition’ of eliminating and ignoring masses of data which run contrary to our accepted models and paradigms. 

As Solomon said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The model of reality we must seek, the way ahead in our time of so much spiritual turmoil, must be one which gives us the best match with what we observe in the outer Cosmos as we learn about it and meshes with what we know and experience in the spirit and in the history of humanity.  And this tells us that we are not mere accidental ciphers emerging from chaos with delusions of grandeur. 

Perhaps this was the basic reason Solomon shrugs off the cynical perspective on the most basic of all issues, that of ultimate origins, even as he seems to adopt it with respect to how we experience life.

We will see more of what he has to say next time.

The Third Way, 36: “The Cloud of Unknowing”

“He [the Creator] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for the infinite and love of what is immortal.  These sublime instincts are not the offspring of some caprice of the will; their foundations are imbedded in nature; they exist despite a man’s efforts.  Man may hinder and distort them, but he cannot destroy them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

“By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer, or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. . . . For Marx the death of God had been a project—something to be achieved in the future; for Nietzsche it had already occurred: it was only a matter of time before “God” would cease to be a presence in the scientific civilization of the West.  Unless a new absolute could be found to take its place, everything would become unhinged and relative. . . . The [19th] century that had begun with a conviction of boundless possibility was giving way to a nameless dread.  But, Nietzsche believed, human beings could counter the danger of nihilism by making themselves divine.  They must become the new absolute and take the place of God.  The God they projected outside themselves could be born within the human spirit as the Übermensch (“Superman”) who would provide the universe with ultimate meaning.  To achieve this we had to rebel against the Christian God. . . . As an incarnation of its will to power, the Übermensch would push evolution of the species to a new phase so that humanity would finally become supreme.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada, 2009), pp. 256-7.

“Nameless dread.”   That is how Karen Armstrong aptly describes the spirit which descended on the West’s intellectual and spiritual “überclass” as the 19th C ended and the 20th dawned.  The Law of Karma certainly seems to apply.  In Biblical terms, when we “sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind.”  Truly, “You reap what you sow.” 

The dominant view in the West’s intelligentsia had (and remains) determined to divest itself of all the vestiges and encumbrances of prescientific “superstition.”  But, despite all their most strenuous and constant efforts, then and now, they have not been able to remove “eternity” from their (or most of humanity’s) hearts.  De Tocqueville, a brilliant French sociologist, political scientist, and student of human nature who was so fascinated by the great American experiment in representative democracy as it evolved in the early 19th Century that he spent two years in America to observe it, was speaking of the peculiar role of religion in the new, rapidly growing nation when he wrote the quote above.  Seldom has anyone been so prescient about a nation’s fundamental character and the tensions it would have to resolve in order to survive and flourish in the future.  And seldom has any writer so pointedly and precisely described the truth about the essentially spiritual nature of the human soul.

In the 21st C we find ourselves in a “Cloud of Unknowing”, as the Medieval mystics called it.  The essence of reality escapes us despite all our scientific sophistication.  The more we discover about how the natural universe seems to work, the more we discover about how incomprehensible, how fundamentally inexplicable it all is.  We simply drive the ultimate questions back one more step every time we think we have discovered an elusive primal pre-particle or some echo or trace of the moment of ‘creation’ — the Big Bang, if you prefer — (without God, of course, thank you!).  Creation ex nihilo, spontaneous and without any apparent reason or cause, without any point of origin or ultimate purpose or design.  Somehow, it just appears, and in the same instant explodes, like an abracadabra moment.  Supposedly, this is not sorcery or superstition or even “faith-based” assertion.  We are told over and over again that it is indubitable scientific ‘fact’.

But the hunger for eternity remains in the heart, and even the most determined rationalist still sees what is in awe and stupefied wonder.  Having entered the “Cloud of Unknowing” we now see that, with no other point of common reference, it can only begin with the self, the consciousness each individual has of itself residing in and being part of something much greater.  So where to start? 

Enter mysticism, yoga, mindfulness meditation, or whatever label and technique of probing beyond the mere scientifically observable phenomena (which are awesome enough in themselves but stand outside us). We now face a smorgasbord of choices which, we are told over and over, all lead to the same ultimate destination.  You amy choose one and adhere to it almost exclusively or mix and match from the buffet. Only begin from “emptiness”, where the mind loses its attachments and distractions, the multitude of encumbering sensations that block the ability to penetrate beyond self, beyond the boundaries of a body and this physical realm that holds our true being captive to time and space.  Becoming “awake and aware” of being alone, “just being”, that is the place of meeting, the place of becoming one with the oneness of all things, of knowing, if only for a moment, how I too am one with the One.  No longer just this isolated sliver of awareness adrift on a cosmic ocean searching for its true place of rest, but One with the One-in-all.

This is Hinduism’s highest goal, what they call Brahman.  Buddhism names it ‘extinction’.  For both, abiding in the restful bliss of this state is nirvana.  It is the end of karma and all strife, and obviates any need to return to this illusory realm, maya, to continue the fruitless cycle of birth and rebirth.  The most direct route to enter this state is raja yoga — rigorously practiced, guided meditation, as led by a master, a guru. For Western dabblers and samplers, enter gently via some introductory classes, then grow/go deeper.

But is the human mind really capable of such stillness, such “extinction”?  Are humans really “made” to lose their individual awareness and be ultimately absorbed into anonymity and a sort of “pure being” without awareness?  Or is this too an illusion?  Is the Cosmos mere “maya”, a sort of karmic maelstrom-agglomeration of eons of outcomes based on all choices since the One exploded and countless errant entities went astray from the One? Or is extinction and Brahman another kind of maya?

The human predicament of the 21st Century is that we answer both “Yes!” and “No” to these ultimate questions at the same time.  On the one hand, the materialist West with its scientific and technological prowess tells us that this Time-Space continuum, however multi-dimensioned it may be in theory, is all there is.  It had a beginning and it will have an end.  Who we are in it are a sort of freakish accident that has gained self-awareness, against all probability.  We have seen how demoralized and rudderless we have become traveling this road.  In contrast to our schizophrenia, the greatest of all gurus once said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. . . . You cannot serve two masters.”

Our “sublime instincts” demand that there be a meaning beyond simple recognition that we are an accidental blip with no more significance than any other outcome of what we call “evolution”, that our true destiny is to become “extinguished” in the great cosmic “Om”.  If extinction of self is what we are here for, why do we so stubbornly hunger to know and to be known as persons?  The guru emerging from the deep meditative state remains a self with awareness.

Why do we have such an ineluctable drive and ability to study the wonder of what exists to the very limits of the Cosmos, to learn, to fashion it in new ways, to admire it and stand in awe of it?  Finally, why do we insist on attributing meaning to it if, ultimately, there is no final purpose, or only a purpose which, as individuals, can satisfy nothing of our natural sublime hunger since we will not even be aware when all is resolved in ‘the One’, or when ‘evolution’ reverts to devolution and extinguishes everything once again?

This hunger, this innate predisposition for eternity which lives in the very core of our being, cannot, indeed will not, be denied.  When we deny it, what is becomes horribly ugly.  Once more, de Tocqueville nailed it: “Man [humankind, if you prefer] may hinder and distort them [the sublime instincts], but he cannot destroy them.”

The Third Way, 35: The Allure of Rome, Part 14 – Finale

“The spiritual state of our time is characterized by curious paradoxes.  On the one hand, modern man is a naive realist—even a dogmatic absolutist—the material, sensual data being to him unquestionable reality.  If he speaks of reality in terms of indisputable certainty, he points to the material world, to the world of space, filled with matter.  But it so happens that modern science has shattered and riddled this compact conception of the world in such a way that modern man, without giving up his naive conception of reality, has at the same time become a sceptic…. Reverence for the quantum is, so to speak, the new version of the golden calf.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, 1.  (London: Nisbet and Co., 1947), p. 31.

Brunner’s observation on the spiritual state of the world post WW2 is no less true 72 years after he pronounced it in a lecture in Scotland all those years ago.  Our sceptical, postmodern, progressive intelligentsia insist on the one hand that no such thing as “spirit” exists, or at least plays any role in what we experience.  Yet they appeal to the invisible absolute all the time in the domain of science; the unseen quantum and the unfathomable random govern all while we somehow, in complete contradiction, observe what seems like organized and analysable phenomena on every side.  We have the conceit that only today do we really know anything worth knowing (yet don’t really know what we profess to know)—even as we discount and eliminate whole categories of experience and accumulated wisdom that we cannot fit into these extremely narrow and limited models.  As Brunner puts it, “… the material, sensual data [are] to him unquestionable reality.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”  (Quoted in Metaphors be with you, an a-to-z dictionary of history’s greatest metaphorical quotations by Dr. Mardy Grothe.  HarperCollins, 2016, p. 191.)  Despite the likelihood that our long history with Rome will not teach us much, if anything, Rome will not go away, either in life or in this blog.  We ignore the weighty heritage we have received from it at our peril—yet ignore it we largely do and probably will continue to do in future.  Similarly, just as Rome will not go away, neither will our heritage from Christianity, as much and as vehemently as so many might like it to. 

The EU’s atrocious and gratuitous revision of the historical record in 2003 (see previous blog) notwithstanding, Europe is saturated with cathedrals, universities, institutions, ideas, ideologies, cultural treasures, memories good and bad, and consequences so deeply and complexly intertwined with its present that all the wishing in the galaxy cannot make it go away.  Europe, the birthplace of the West, is the product of an ancient super-state that lasted over 500 years.  But it is just as much, and perhaps even more, the product of an ancient faith that has infused its spirit and inspired so much of what it stands for that it is culturally and civically suicidal to abandon it.  Nonetheless doing its best to abandon it, the West slides ever deeper into hopeless confusion about what it is and who it is and who we, its sons and daughters, really are in our heart of hearts. 

But there it is: the city of Rome with all its reminders of past glory remains one of the top five tourist destinations in the world.  Europe from the northern reaches of England to the west bank of the Elbe in Germany, from the coast of Portugal to the Bosporus in Turkey, remains filled with Roman ruins and monuments that the curious dabbler and serious student can visit for the rest of their lives and never reach the end.  Much of the Middle East has all kinds of Roman remains as well, but conditions for touristic or scholarly visitation there are less than conducive at this juncture. 

Like the city of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church still stands and is likely to continue to do so, despite its beleaguered reputation and the disdain of multitudes.  It is good that it should, both as a historical institution that encapsulates so much of the West’s heritage and history, and, when it actually succeeds in acting more like what Jesus was aiming at, as a positive social and spiritual voice.  Protestants, Roman Catholicism’s wayward progeny, will also remain around, and they would do well to cast fewer stones at their living progenitor.  “Those who live in glass houses” and all that…

The West emerged from the ancient twin colossi of Imperial Rome and the Imperial Roman Church after a thousand years of struggle and reconfiguration.  That millennium, conventionally called “the Middle Ages”, was an adventure in figuring out what to do with the massive mountain of Roman remains — material, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, sociological, psychic, economic, cultural, etc., etc. — filtered by each of the successor people’s existing and developing characteristics as they emerged from barbarism.  Even conflicted Russia, on the cusp of where Europe meets the Orient, could not escape.  Japan, which decided 150 years ago to create a hybrid of Western and its own indigenous society, did not escape. 

Even China, still officially idolizing the likes of Marx and Mao, has not escaped and cannot escape.  After all, Socialism, Marxism, and Communism are derivatives of a progressive, utopian view of life and history rooted elsewhere, as is Capitalistic social democracy.  That “elsewhere” is a Biblical conception of linear time from Creation to Final Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end, when all things will be resolved in love, peace, and justice for all, regardless of any distinction.  (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” wrote the Apostle Paul.)  And the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth is the core message of Jesus and Christianity, at least when it is not suffering from amnesia.  That message has, by and large, been disseminated world-wide by the missionaries of the West.  Unfortunately, it was taken abroad much alloyed with other baggage which had wrapped itself around it and so became much confused with it.  This contamination has led to enormous negative side-effects which have greatly obscured the fundamental positive story of who Jesus is and what He did and is still doing.

As unpalatable as it no doubt is to some billions today, the reality of our global human society and current path of social evolution is that most of our major ideas and governing practical paradigms have emerged from the West’s specific ethos rooted in Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman soil.  It may not be politically correct to admit it, and it may be debated and denied among the academic hoi-polloi, but the human ecology and landscape of the 21st century is as it is because Rome and Judeo-Christianity have made it that way.

 That is why Brunner says justly, and as aptly now as when he first said it, that our progressive evolutionary paradigm is actually terribly naive and fundamentally flawed.  It is a dead end as a road of hope.  After all, what is the ultimate purpose?  Death and extinction lie at the end of it—however long from now that may prove to be.  There is nothing else, and all the struggles to make life better, more tolerable, more just, more equitable, are based on an ideology that is rooted in concepts of a perfect society borrowed from a faith that the same people who, nominally and perhaps really, strive for it profess to despise.

When they cannot face this they demonstrate a lack of integrity.  It is they who become guilty of the sin of willful ignorance of which they love to accuse the supposedly blindly naive and superstitious believers in a fundamentally good and beneficent Creator.  They cannot honestly face the reality that without a Creator their quest is only a plea to lessen misery while existence lasts.  There are so many contradictions in this that it would take a great volume to elucidate them all. 

It is a deliberate choice, quite succinctly put thirty years ago by Stephen Hawking, the supreme icon of postmodern Science.  In his conclusion to A Brief History of Time, the great astro-physicist and cosmologist admits that God is the admittedly most straightforward solution to the existence of time, which represents everything that exists.  But he then completely illogically jumps past his own logic, declaring, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis [God].” 

He is really saying that we (the ‘real’ scientific elite), cannot admit that that is the clear and most obvious and practical solution based on the evidence.  Somehow, sometime, based on pure faith in Reason and Science (the modern, postmodern, Enlightenment substitutes for Castor and Pollux, the twin gods of good fortune and hope in ancient Rome), we will find a non-God answer.  Until then we choose not to turn to God, although He/She/It is the elephant occupying almost the whole room we find ourselves in.  That is what Hawking was really saying without saying it.

As we observed in a previous post, the most admired philosopher of modern times among our intelligentsia is Friedrich Nietzsche, who already saw all these contradictions at least a hundred and twenty years ago.  Like Hawking, he deliberately chose to continue to hold on to them.  Eventually he drove himself to suicide because, as he well knew, his own solutions to our meaningless existence (such as a Superman ruling a Super-race which would emerge to lead humankind into the next exalted phase of evolution) were really soulless and empty.  That ideology was later adopted and personally believed as applying to himself and the German people with vicious zeal by a certain Adolf Hitler and his movement.  We all know the results, but we have begun to forget them to the point that we may well set off down the repeat-history road warned of by Schlesinger’s shortened version of Hegel’s observation: “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.”

Nietzsche’s most famous line is, “God is dead and we have killed Him.”  We live in a culture that thinks that because we declare God, the Creator, dead, that means that, for real, He/She/It is actually dead—never existed in fact.  The old Enlightenment philosophes used to call hard-core religionists “invincibly ignorant” because they seemed immune to all appeals to Reason and Science (the modern “Golden Calf” as Brunner puts it) to make them understand that there is no God and never has been.  No doubt for most of our entrenched postmodern neo-philosophes, people who cling to faith in (to their mind) an invisible, unknowable Creator, of whatever description, still are “invincibly ignorant”.  As we have seen, the shoe fits them as well as and even better than it does those who “cling to faith in a fictitious Deity.”

If turning once more to the Creator is part of our way forward, we must not make the mistake of trying to resurrect past failed approaches to Him/Her.  Yet that may well appear to be the most natural way of going about trying to restore or initiate such a relationship.  Hegel’s and Schlesinger’s warning is just as applicable in this respect.  Christendom (distinct from what Jesus really taught and meant) was not the answer, as we have seen in abundant detail over the course of this blog.  Trying to reinstate some sort of Christian-Secular Hybrid State will never bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Neither will an outright theocracy à la Islam where a Church-State holds all the power and enforces a slew of rules to compel everyone to behave rightly, justly, etc.  Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Krishna and many other great spiritual leaders emphatically denied the road of political power as a way to bring mass ‘salvation’ to the human race. 

The one major and unfortunate exception to this rule was Muhammad.  If history teaches anything about using the sword and harsh laws to compel and sustain belief, it is that ultimately this path will fail, but not before it inflicts terrible suffering and massive death.  Eventually the failure must and will become blatantly evident.  Then, if the oppressors will not mend their ways, and as Jesus once so cogently put it, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

What, then, is the ‘Third Way’ which we seek?  We have seen what it is not and cannot be.  What can and should it be, or, more aptly, what could it be like?  That is our quest.

The Third Way, 34: The Allure of Rome, Part 13 – Back to the Future

                By 1650, it was quite clear that the shattered unity of Christendom was irreparable.  Humpty-Dumpty had fallen and all the Kings’, Emperors’, and Popes’ horses and men could not put him together again.  Surely at this juncture the hankering for Roman-type hegemony would fade into the dim pages of history?  There was now neither an Empire nor a Roman Church to unify the squabbling peoples of the West.

            Besides, a new way forward towards wisdom and understanding, one that was freeing the West from the shackles of religion which had cost millions of lives over more than a century of fraternal war, was awakening hope of a better, saner, and more balanced and rational future.  Everyone needed to break from theological fanaticism and dogmatic condemnation and anathemas.  It was even beginning to be safe to voice such ideas in some places.  The dawning of tolerance and toleration of differences within society was edging over the horizon in a few lands, such as England, the Netherlands, some minor German States (until 1806, Germany was a crazy geo-political jigsaw puzzle of over 300 sovereignties), and Switzerland.  Incidentally, these areas all happened to be Protestant.  If you were a dissenter in a Catholic land, best to keep your head down and your mouth shut, for the Inquisition was lurking and would continue to do so until the revolution in France (1789-99) broke the Church’s secular power once and for all.

This new way was Science, the path of Reason, rational discourse and discovery.[i]  Its early proponents and practitioners had to proceed cautiously, especially if they happened to be Roman Catholic and carried on their research in a Catholic state.  Everyone knows the story of Galileo (although few really know it, but rather a much mutilated version of it).  Incidentally, the real story of the relationship of religion (mainly Christianity) and science is also much mangled and has been caricaturized in stereotypical revisionist textbook accounts more like fable than the historical reality.  (Fake news anyone?)  We cannot really deal with this issue here today, but it would be worth a visit of some length in the future.

            For the increasingly militant proponents of the new knowledge, there were models to admire and emulate and to study ardently in the new curricula being gradually established in the universities.  National Academies were being created to reward research and grant recognition to the best and brightest.  The best-known example of this was England’s Royal Society, whose declared purpose was the promotion of new science, the scientific method, and discovery of all kinds based on rational pursuit of empirical knowledge.  England’s lead was imitated and followed widely and with success in France, the Netherlands, and Prussia, a new, rising power in Germany.

            Aristotle once more came forward, along with a host of other ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers who had dabbled in science (Pythagoras, Hiero, Ptolemy, etc.), and even the Romans, those most practical of ancient people and the master engineers of History.  Cicero, Juvenal, and Lucretius were much admired Roman rationalists.

            What was most admired among these ancient authorities was the ability to think independently, setting aside religious issues and questions.  After all, paganism was so varied that insisting that one set of gods and practices supersedes all others was a completely pointless exercise.  Those eminently sensible Romans simply said, “Believe in whatever gods you choose, or none at all.  Just observe the public ceremonies and acknowledge the ‘divinity’ of the Emperor for appearance’s sake.”

            Thus, we turn once more to the Greeks and Romans, as did many Enlightenment thinkers.  How should we pursue truth?  Well, let’s see how those admirable ancient sages did so.  Let’s discuss their thoughts and proposals.  Let’s study their literary output in depth.  Let’s really understand how language can be used and developed as a tool to express nuance—no better exemplars than Ciceronian Latin and Attic Greek.

            Let us do as Aristotle did, or Euclid, or Pythagoras, or many others, analysing nature and all sorts of subjects with insatiable curiosity and relentless application of observation and classification. 

Another subject needing elucidation in the light of science: what kind of government is most admirable and effective?  Two principal models stood out: Athens and Rome.  By far the most effective in all history was Rome.  But by far the most elegant and admirable in principle was Athens.   Regrettably, tumultuous Athens also proved the fragility (folly?) of democracy, whereas Rome had demonstrated five hundred years of continuity and two hundred years of rock-solid stability and relative tolerance, Christians aside, during the Pax Romana, (27 BCE -180 CE).  This was the doing of a series of “Enlightened Despots” (especially those beginning in 98 CE with Trajan and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the remarkable ‘Philosopher-King’, in 181 CE), so that seemed to be a tenable option.

            Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a remarkable best-seller by late 18th C standards, was translated into every major European language.  It was the Enlightenment’s paean to the glory of ancient Roma.  It was a manifesto against the debilitating and nefarious effects of Christianity on the greatest civilization of all time (at least as Gibbon portrayed it).  By inference, it was the negative eulogy of a dying faith, at least as the Enlightenment philosophes conceived the upcoming eclipse of Christianity in favour of rational Deism, the updated version of that most venerable ancient philosophy, Stoicism. 

Gibbon’s verdict was that, like moles and termites eating the foundations of a magnificent edifice, Christianity had sapped the Empire’s moral and martial spirit and its general morale, destroyed the central vision and unity of a truly transnational, tolerant state, and betrayed all that was noble in the ancient world.  In its place, it gave Europe a millennium of Dark Ages (rather than Paradise on earth), religious bigotry, and factionalism.  It was time for the West to free itself from these chains of suppression, ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism.

            Other Enlightenment rationalist writers and thinkers (e.g. Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire) offered many other commentaries based on similar ideas.  They were great communicators and savvy manipulators of the mass media of the age, particularly print in an age of rapidly increasing literacy.  They invented newspapers and popular magazines, pamphlets and broadsheets, and that massive compendium of new learning, the Encyclopedia.  They founded coffee houses, salons, and new clubs to carry their torch and spread their gospel.  The overall tone of these learned works and places was (often not-so) subtly anti-Church and anti-Christian, although rarely overtly anti-Christ.  Once more, all this is far beyond what we can discuss at length here.

            One general effect was to resurrect the legacy of Rome and its Empire, to brush it off and reburnish it, once more making  its “Golden Age” (minus the infection of Christianity) a symbol and ideal which could be admired and even, perhaps, in the right circumstances, partially restored.[ii]

            Let us therefore see some of what we retain from the Romans in our history, besides a lot of interesting scenarios for nifty books, TV series, and spectacular films (The Robe, Ben-Hur, Gladiator, etc.).  Well, we have Latin, to begin with!  One of the Latin synonyms for ‘Emperor’ is Caesar (simply the retention of Julius Caesar’s name as a title).  The Germans and Austrians adapted it as ‘Kaiser’, while the Russians turned it to ‘Czar/Tsar’.  Via Napoleonic France, most of Europe’s legal codes are based on Rome’s massive law traditions as systematized under Justinian (Emperor of the East, 527-565 CE).  Via the Church, administrative and civil service models were to be found in the later empire’s methods, particularly as developed from the time of Diocletian (Emperor 284-305 CE) to Theodosius I (the Great, 379-395 CE).  For more than a millennium the Roman model of education (Trivium and Quadrivium) formed the pattern of western education right to the university level (once more via the Church).

            Imitation and emulation are the greatest forms of flattery and honour.  For 1500+ years Western governments, governors, and magistrates have continually resorted to the Roman model in practice and symbolism.  National, institutional, heraldic, and educational mottos have rarely used any language but Latin.  After the fall of the West (476 CE), for centuries the successor barbarian kings pretended allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople in order to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the former Imperial subjects who formed the mass of the conquered population. 

The barbarian kings relied heavily on the resident Roman educated class to carry on a semblance of orderly rule, then on the Roman Catholic clergy.[iii]  They rather crudely tried to emulate Roman military organization, which had so long defeated them.  The Holy Roman Emperors used the eagle as their power symbol.  Remnants of Roman engineering prowess aided in construction and siege warfare.  These antiquities remained subjects of study then as they remain now.

            Imitators and claimants to the title and prestige of “Imperator” (Latin for Emperor) have remained part of European history, culture, and society since Charlemagne earned the title of “Emperor of the West and Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 CE.  Perhaps the most ardent and successful modern admirer and aspirant to this distinction was Napoleon Bonaparte, self-styled “Emperor of the French” (1804-1814, 1815). He deliberately avoided the phrases “Emperor of France” or “Emperor of the West” to show that his rule was based on the will of the people and his own efforts. 

Like Charlemagne, he was invested by the Pope (1804 CE), although he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head.  Napoleon’s imperial legions used eagles as their martial emblems, like the Roman legions.  His Marshals carried batons with eagle-heads as their authority symbols.  Before being Emperor, Napoleon used the titles “Consul, First Consul, Consul for Life.”  Like Constantine, he made a strategic alliance (the 1802 Concordat) with the (Roman) Catholic Church to unify his people and cement his rule.  As mentioned above, his legal code, the “Code Napoléon”, which is still the foundation of French law and that of much of Europe via the expansion of French domination during Napoleon’s meteoric career, was inspired by and modeled on Justinian’s great code.

The United States has its share of Greco-Roman emulation and symbology, from its sloganry to its eagle, and much else.  Tsarist Russia used the two-headed eagle (facing east and west), an adaptation of Byzantium’s (East Rome’s) imperial symbol.  And the Kaiser’s Germany sported an imperial eagle on its very flag, while Nazi Germany stylized this for itself and had it emblazoned on military uniforms and symbols of power all over Europe.

The legend and mystique of Rome is still much with us, both “late and soon”.  As the West sleepwalks its way into abandoning and losing its heritage, the ghosts of the Caesars and the Eagles haunt us still.

Where does all this leave us in our spiritual meandering and searching for some sense of meaning and contact with the true, the just, and the beautiful? Perhaps there is another echo whispering, one of a resurrected Lord meeting Peter on the Via Appia as he headed into a Rome the Apostle had just fled, and Peter asking, “Quo vadis, Domine?”

Of that, more next time.


[i]  The capitalization of Science and Religion here is deliberate, as, for the “new thinkers” of what became known to us as “the Enlightenment”, they rapidly assumed the status of dogma.  Faith and belief are part of human nature and even our genetic makeup, so simply removing ‘Religion’ from one’s primary worldview does not obviate the need to believe and serve some kind of ultimate truth and reality.

[ii]  It is interesting to see how long this effect has lasted.  As recently as 2003, when the EU was adopting a constitution, its preamble pointedly ignored and virtually outright denied any debt to Christianity in the making of Europe as a society and transnational culture while extolling the great debt owed to the ancient glories of the Greco-Romans.  Revisionist History à outrance!

[iii]  In the year 212 CE, all free residents of the Empire were granted Roman citizenship, thus eliminating all local allegiances and national distinctions.  So a resident of Gaul became a Roman, as did an Egyptian, a Greek, a Syrian, a Macedonian, a Briton, a German, or a Spaniard.