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

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                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.

The Third Way, Part 2: Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

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Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

redeem – 1. buy back; recover by expenditure of effort or by a stipulated payment. 2. make a single payment to discharge (a regular charge or obligation0. 3. convert (tickets, bonds, etc.) into goods or cash. 4. Theol. Deliver from sin and damnation. 5. make up for; be a compensating factor in … 6. (foll, by from) save from (a defect). 7. refl. Compensate for past failings, esp. so as to regain favour. 9. Save a person’s life by ransom. 9. Save or rescue or reclaim. 10. fulfill (a promise).

redemption – 1. The act or an instance of redemption; the process of being redeemed. 2. Christianity – humankind’s deliverance from sin and damnation. 3. a thing that redeems.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002, p. 859.

            In the first part of this series, we began discussing the Progressive version of humanity’s future.  We cited Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as a quintessential statement of that vision.  Accordingly, we find that this redemption comes through the human capacity for recursive reason and language allowing us to “deepen our capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration”. 

                Thence begins a process he describes in this way:

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Humanity finds itself ‘endowed’ and ‘blessed’ with the resources it needs – recursive reason and the capacity for language being the most salient, it would seem.  On the physical side, one might add begin bipedal and so having upper limbs free to develop prehensile fingers and thumbs with which to manipulate, mold, fashion, and create new things born in our recursive reason (imagination).

As we remarked in Part 1, this progressive tale of redemption partakes of a religio-mythical aura and vocabulary.  It develops its own symbology.  It adopts the language of faith, but asks us to leave behind the connotations of ‘primitive superstition’ which only breeds ignorance and bigotry and division.  If human nature is endowed, who, or what, is the endower?  If it is only the blind forces and chances of natural laws and processes, how is this an endowment?  How is it a ‘blessing’ rather than the mere ‘luck of the draw’ directed by ‘natural selection’?  Endowments mean a gifts, which means there is a giver.  Is the endower mere time and chance, accident?  Statistical near-impossibility? 

So much of evolutionary thought and language reverts to quasi-personification, as if there is a real directing force or (unconscious?) mind built into ‘nature’.  The quantum universe paradigm presents a model of random directionlessness and chaos at the sub-atomic level.  But somehow, despite the seeming chaos, it gives birth to stupendous and stupefying evidence of order and purpose – not just on Planet Earth, but everywhere we can perceive.  There is no way to calculate the ‘odds’ against such an outcome.

As many of our top astro-physical theorists and speculators would have it, the Progressive tale posits endless Big Bangs, so given enough Big Bangs, I suppose this universe could happen once.  We just happen to be the lucky ones this time around – sentient beings with all of these incredible endowments who can self-awarely contemplate our own ultimate futility.  So we must consider ourselves blessed by this eternally self-replicating Big-Bang cycle so that we can pleasurably ignore our meaninglessness. (But so many of us don’t enjoy our brief sojourn in consciousness before out atoms scatter into the wasteland of entropy.) 

So what is the ‘heroic’ tale of our ‘redemption’ in our blessed age of Enlightenment when we can finally fathom just what we are? What does our lonely little idiosyncratic terrestrial blip in an quasi-infinite universe amount to?  Are we left with a reprise of ancient Epicurean philosophy (“eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”) softened by John Stewart Mill’s compassionate Utilitarianism?  Epicureans believed it was best to live and act as if there is no afterlife, no God or gods to whom we must give account.  Enjoy life to the maximum without harming others, respecting their right to enjoy life to the max too, as long as they respect yours.  In other words, as we now say, whatever two consenting adults agree they can and want to do with one another in private, within a few limitations like not killing each other or causing each other permanent injury, so be it.  As for the rest, be prudent and enjoy! Mill’s modification comes with the principle of trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number in all things, when such things go beyond our personal and private lives – as in developing a more compassionate society.

When we add in our modern and post-modern scientific and technological prowess, the fruit of our recursive reasoning and linguistic endowments, we find our capacity to explore how these guiding principles can be applied and reshaped exponentially expanded.  So we shall not ‘go gently into that good night’ meekly accepting our eventual extinction at the hands of relentless entropy and the Big-Bang in reverse in fifty billion or so years – or whenever our sun gives up the ghost and goes supernova.  But we may yet recursively reprieve ourselves by solving the mysteries of interstellar travel in the interim, and so find a new haven to prolong our ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ existence, knowing full well that, along with everything else that lives, we will die as a race in some distant tomorrow.

If I have caricatured the Progressive epic in my interpretation, this ‘true Progressive myth’ (Pinker’s term, not mine), I do not think I have been out of step with the spirit of it.  We will ‘eke out’ our redemption, bit by bit, step by step, hopefully finding the right balance not to extinguish ourselves or irretrievably ruin our little jewel of a planetary home. We will all learn how to get along and help one another to be as content as possible.

Having, I hope, given a succinct and just description of this ‘true’ (because founded on science and reason) mythological vision of Progressive Redemption, let us consider it from the religious angle.  The Enlightenment Progressive will here protest, “Objection!  We are not practicing a religion or engaging in superstition and pseudo-scientific quackery!”

Perhaps not, but perhaps so, even if it is not ‘religion’ in a sense you choose to consider religion, as Andrew Sullivan so cogently explains in his article “America’s New Religions” (New York Magazine)cited in a previous post on this blog.  This is not a semantic game of setting up a straw man and tearing it down to make the other point of view appear ridiculous by implication.  Progressivism has taken on many of the trappings of a religion without appealing to a Deity.  That is why Progressives so frequently find themselves attracted to Buddhism, at least the brand of Buddhism which does not deify Siddhartha Gautama.  (Actually, most Buddhists do deify him.)If Christianity would relinquish its claim and attachment to a divine Jesus, no doubt many Progressives would esteem him and his teachings (minus his own inconvenient claims to be God’s Son, which, as N.T. Wright has so forcefully and convincingly demonstrated in his epic work, he really made) in the same manner.

For the Enlightenment ideology, once we get past the earlier philosophes and scientists like Locke, Hume, Descartes, Newton, and Galileo, etc., etc., (even Kant was still a Deist), as Stephen Hawking famously put it in A Brief History of Time, when it comes to the suggestion of God, “we have no further need of that hypothesis.” Interestingly, Hawking’s conclusion flew in the face of his own admission a little earlier in that work that the evidence as it existed seemed to suggest design and a Designer.  However, as a scientist with a commitment to (faith in) scientific reason’s powers, he simply could not bring himself to accept that conclusion.  He invoked his own Deus ex machina.  Somehow, sometime, our reason and logic, our ‘recursive reasoning endowment’, will lead us to the truth and we will find the Holy Grail – ‘the Theory of Everything’ – which will tie up all the loose ends.

Does this sound a little like religious faith?  Hebrews 11:1 in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  It is not anti-reason or superstition to believe in something as yet unseen but for which we find convincing substance and evidence –for example, the conviction that my life-partner of 45 years loves me.  I cannot “see” this love except by the evidence of action and experience.  This is not always scientifically demonstrable.  A whole host of non-scientific ‘evidence’ goes into it.  Yet it is quite reasonable for me to believe that it is so. I experience the substance of it every day.

The Enlightenment Progressive has chosen a faith-position, just as much as the Theist.  Defining his premises to exclude other approaches to reason and the same body of evidence a priori does not, as Captain Picard in Star Trek Next Generation puts it, “make it so.”  Defining the universe so that only that which can be ‘reasonably concluded/accepted/posited’ by ‘recursive reasoning’ (please read as Enlightenment Progressivism defines it) does not really define what cannot really be delimited and perceived by human minds.

We can explore chemistry and physics and psychology forever but still not know what life is, what consciousness is, what self-awareness is, what moral intuition is, why we innately experience awe and reverence, or where any of this comes from – and, beyond all that, why it became at all.  To say it is a result of purely cosmic processes and chemico-electrical activity fits the materialistic, ‘reason and science alone’ paradigm for knowing, but denies the experience and intuition of individuals and societies since humanity emerged into the light of day.  Even some animals seem to “get this” at times, apparently stopping to mourn and pine in the presence of death and loss, expressing individuality and personality.

The universe cannot be reduced to a sort of time-chance, dissonant (from the statistically predictable outcomes of the behaviour of the basic energies of whatever is) chemico-physico-atomic-subatomic strange ‘machine’.  The human species cannot be reduced to a sort of accidental conjunction (unless the ‘law of natural selection’ eleminates the chance) of heterogeneous elements that display extremely unusual characteristics because of strange electro-chemical activity in a gelatinous mass of cells located in its uppermost appendage (our heads).

Progressive ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’ suggests the best possible future as a least-painful, most comfortable, safest possible sort of existence for the greatest possible number, perhaps with a little adventure thrown in from time to time to add a little ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ (which seems to be a necessary stimulus for progress to continue).  The goal seems to be survival for the species for the longest possible time-span.

Is this enough for our species to thrive?  Or is it really a chimera which would, in the long run, stultify and smother who and what we really are?

We will continue to explore this in our next instalment.

The Third Way: Part 1

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The Progressive (Enlightenment) Road

Introduction

This post initiates a new series in this blog.  It will be entitled “The Third Way”.  This series is a sequel to the series of posts under the title “The Demise of Christendom” which extended over eight parts. 

For readers who have not read “The Demise of Christendom”, that series surveyed the journey of Western society and culture over 1700 years, during which the prevailing paradigm of the West’s identity as a society was assumed to be based on the values and story of Christianity.  As we moved through the ‘History of Christendom’, as we may term that long saga, we recall that the model of ‘Christendom’ was flawed from the beginning, having attempted to marry (Roman) imperial, coercive power, as per the typical world order born millennia before during pre-Christian times, with ideals born and derived from the example and teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.  Jesus’ saying that his Kingdom “is not of this present age (way of doing, being, ruling, ordering – the term is kosmos in Greek and is often mistranslated as ‘world’)” was suborned by the temptation that, with the aid and authority of the government holding ‘the power of the sword’, the ‘Kingdom of God’ would be established on earth[i] before Christ’s promised return.

I will not recapitulate the whole story of how that illusion collapsed and finally and only recently has faded to mere phantom memories.  Anyone desiring to learn more of that story is invited to peruse “The Demise of Christendom”.

The Progressivist Road 

I begin this series with an extensive quote from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.  Pinker is a highly acclaimed Harvard academic of the first rank who enjoys a well-earned, positive international reputation.  As a prominent point-man and proponent for the Enlightenment and its undoubted contributions to the material improvement of humanity, Pinker has produced a sort of ‘manifesto’ for Progressive Ideology.  It is presented as the true faith and only real hope for humanity to avoid self-destruction, or devolution, or even the complete annihilation of life on earth.  Here is how he concludes Enlightenment Now, his magnum opus, his ‘manifesto’:

“ …. human nature has … been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption.  We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively[i], to have thoughts about our thoughts.  We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity.  We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

“These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power.  The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word.  Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts.  And our puny rational faculties been expanded by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.  Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril.  But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others have yet to be conceived.

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one.  But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

“This heroic story is not just another myth.  Myths are fictions, but this one is true-true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have.  We believe it because we have reasons to believe it …. it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (Viking, 2018) pp. 452-3

It is not my desire to dissect Pinker’s projection of humanity’s future in detail here, as tempting as that is.  However, I invite the reader to note a few salient points.  First is Pinker’s use of religious language to speak about the kind of future he hopes for and aspires to for Humanity and Planet Earth.  He says “human nature has been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption. [Emphases are mine.]  He speaks of humanity’s having received ‘endowments’, and anthropomorphizes concepts such as ‘history’ and ‘journalism’, endowing endowment with some sort of autonomous power [which hints at a kind of magical thinking].

Like almost all Enlightenment progressives and their post-modern kin, Pinker does not attribute much, if any, of human progress to the contributions of ‘religion’.  Rather the opposite, if not explicitly, certainly by weighty implication.  He cites a figure of 55 million deaths in wars of religion which the adherents of the major monotheistic religions waged on one another or on pagan miscreants.  In the same quote above, he ends his book [it is the actual last sentence] by saying “knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance”.  I will not dispute his closing statement because I agree with it wholeheartedly, as I in fact do with most of the citation – except to say that it actually requires something more than “only … convictions” which he lists.  Any ‘reasonable’ person would agree with those convictions, including we ‘religious types’ who actually believe we are reasonable – no doubt a largely oxymoronic statement to an Enlightenment Progressive.

Another example of the actually quite religious flavour and fervour of Pinker’s manifesto’s resounding conclusion is his talk of ‘heroic tale’ and ‘myth’.  His use of ‘heroic tale’ is of course borrowed from the (mainly religious) heritage of the West, beginning with the Greeks, whose heroes (such as Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Heracles) were all intimately connected to deities (such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Ares, Hephaestus), the Romans, who had their own parallel pantheon guiding and protecting their destiny, and the Vikings. 

A heroic tale is a specific literary genre involving supernatural elements and the conflict of good against evil, light against darkness, justice against injustice.  It is easy to understand why Pinker and Progressives would frame their story in such terms – to inspire!  The saga of ‘heroic reason’ does not sound very inspirational.  Inspiration needs emotion and enthusiasm, belief in a higher cause, and heroic protagonists who actually act heroically.  Such is the forte of ‘religion’, not science, reason, and logic.  (Not to say that there have been and are no heroic philosophers and scientists.  But even there, conspicuous by absence in Pinker’s heroic tale is the amazing fact that a good many of them were Deists, Theists, and, heaven forbid! – even Christians!  Progressive History is largely revisionist history.)

Then there is the wholly egregious negativism towards a category of story Pinker calls myth.  He implicitly divorces ‘myth’ as he has defined it (“fiction”) from truth, because truth is only attained by the application of reason.  This is the supreme tenet of the Enlightenment.  He wants to have his cake and eat it too – elevating the Enlightenment Progressive Story to the status of the one and only ‘true myth’ – an oxymoron by his own definition.  The problem is that, for us to be converted to (or renewed in our faith in) the Enlightenment Now vision and version of “redemption” – his term – he needs the religious symbolism and language.

He sounds much like Auguste Comte in his invention of the Religion of Positivism as a necessary substitute for (then outlawed) Christianity at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries as the French Revolutionaries, invoking all the most noble principles of the High Enlightenment, devolved into tyranny and mass killing to rival any done by the ‘Christianity’ they so deplored and excoriated.  It seems that appealing to high philosophical principles and the light of Reason and Science alone simply does not inspire much hope or commitment among the ordinary unwashed masses who just don’t know any better.  The ‘truth’ has to be dressed up with religious vocabulary, regardless of the century we find ourselves in.            

In our next instalment, we will discuss the idea of ‘redemption’ à la progressiste


[i]  Unfortunately some die-hards in extremist groups who still identify themselves as ‘Christian’ would still love to take over the government and then use the ‘power of the sword’, as the Apostle Paul called it in the Letter to  of Romans, to create a ‘Christian’ theocracy.  Sorry guys, we’ve been there and done that and moved on.  It was ugly and would be just as ugly second time around.  Look at Iran or Saudi Arabia.

[ii]  “recursive/recursively” – an academic term referring to the faculty of using an ability or skill to improve itself by tweaking it through new uses and situations.  Simply: a fancy way of saying ‘practice makes perfect’ – like a mechanic or musician learns a new, more efficient and elegant way to do old things and then, from that, finds improvements and makes ‘advances’ in their area of expertise.  In this context, we get better at reasoning by reasoning; we get better at communicating by communicating.  We get better at science by applying previous science and trying new stuff with it.  We get better at helping people in real, practical ways by helping them in real practical ways.  All in all, we learn from our mistakes – but there are always new mistakes to learn from.