You’ve addressed a number of significant points each of which alone I’d like to consider in detail. But like standing before a great buffet, your points all look equally tempting. So for now I’ll just squeeze small portions of every one on my plate. Later we can stuff ourselves a la carte as we wish. And then call for the dessert cart!
- Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” both offended and distressed me when he was president. And now, years later, despite the geopolitical success of his weaponized words, I still find his usage unacceptable, even if it was successful by way of the school of Sun Tzu. Or, even more importantly, the academy of Middle Earth.
Evil is an absolute word. You defined evil as “chaos.” Milton does something similar in his neologism “pandemonium” as it’s now used. But far worse than an absolute confusion, evil signifies a wanton perversion centered on a world perversity. Meanwhile, you’re right in thinking that the Soviet Union wasn’t absolute — absolutely bad or absolutely anything else. No human matter ever is.
But there’s a greater problem with Reagan’s pulpit-like pronouncement of the USSR’s deplorableness as absolutely evil rather than historically despicable. The opposite of evil is good. If your diametrically opposed enemy is absolutely bad, that must mean you’re absolutely good.
Consider how bad it can be for humans to be absolutely good. If you’re absolutely bad, at least you know there’s room for improvement. Whereas if you’re absolutely good, you’re already perfect! But perfection is never the stuff of a republic. There’s any number of reasons for that, the foremost of which is prudential. When humans think they’re perfect, they become obnoxiously complacent. And then they trip and fall. Of course such failure is a good corrective when all else fails. The arrogance and the snobbery of ideological contentment deserve to fall if only for the sake of taste. Nonetheless, success is preferable to failure, especially the personal success of the republican life. Why strive for someone else’s absolute failure when you can design your own personal triumph?
- To possess a universal morality or anything else absolute requires an essential ingredient: a universal universe. That might sound like a word trick or an editor’s error, but it’s neither. When I look at nature and humanity, I see no such universality. Not since Newton’s infinite determinist mechanics — which was displaced by quantum uncertainty and a finite relativity time-space — has an absolute universe been certain, plausible, or even credible.
Indeed, the concept “universal” is now an expired idea. To see in detail what all such vitally expired and happily retired concepts look like as a group, see my Reality 101.
And notice in passing that you committed a small error of conceptual logic. If the word “universal” is a retired concept, then its opposite, “relative,” is likewise now pensioned off. “Absolute” and “relative” are a pair — like “winning” and “losing.” If no one ever loses at a game, then no one wins it either. It’s not a game then, but something else. In America, such “games” are socialist self-esteem training exercises in mandatory inclusiveness centered on mediocrity. They’re meant to encourage incorrigible failures and confuse the potentially outstanding.
Ever since the definitive displacement of Newton’s universe from the status of absolute truth, nothing has been absolute. Not even geometry. You can now choose between varieties of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries as you please. Einstein did.
And now, if you look back at my last post, you’ll see that the word “relative” was used by me only on behalf of people who, chorus-like as in a Greek tragedy, chant the daily mantra with energetic incomprehension. I haven’t used that word for world conceptual purposes for years. To call things relative is an invitation to civic laziness. But laziness isn’t liberty. Liberty is a daily exercise in responsible power.
- You’re right in recognizing humanity’s advantage in believing in and submitting to an absolute morality. The absolute is safe, secure, invariant, reliable and commanding. But it’s also an opportunity for sloth, dogma, haughtiness, intolerance and slaughter. I prefer discussions with people who aren’t world-certain about the universe or humanity or anything else, especially themselves. And that includes me and the discussions I have with myself — thinking. Such open conversations are as pleasant and adventuresome as they are revelatory and inventive, and as polite and playful as they are exploratory and innovative. Conversation is a tryst of ideas. And then there are the orgies of invention.
In contrast to a world of open words and liberated ideas, there are conversation realms of fixed phrases enforced by idea referees who possess concept books with rules for everything and penalties to match. Marx in Moscow was like that. Of course, such recitations are just solos and choruses in cantatas of correct speech regimes. I’m sure you’ve had “melodic conversations” in which the inmates of ideas sang variations on themes of barred opinions.
And in particular, political conversation in America is typically couch-complacent with social catechisms and economic dogmatics. But the 2016 presidential election was especially sedentary and obese with idea fealty. My favorite channel then during that campaign was WOFF. And for all too many everyday conversations in America — conversations I never tune into — my default channel is the same. I just click the remote of my mind to “off” all such possible totalitarian conversations. Even a polite “No” could be too dialectically confrontational and engagement-acknowledging of such unconversations.
- Your reference to Marxism as a “failed pseudo-religion” is probably defective on two points.
First, I don’t think any established religion ever fails. Businesses can fail and disappear. But religions are more like the arts. An art style or a body of work may fall into desuetude or contempt, but it doesn’t go “out of business.” Of course, it may get obliterated by some calamity, natural, political, or military.
Mozart was dismissed in the Romantic 19th century as a composer of facile classical diversions and passionless room music. But the empty immensities of the crowd of Romantic composers now sound like the blustering pomposities they actually are rather than the grand passions they supposedly were. Raff and Reger were such composers — composers I can like. I once composed a set of variations on a theme of Reger. And meanwhile Mozart has now become so rediscovered — “the greatest composer!” — he has even warranted a blockbuster movie. If you haven’t see it, notice when you do that the wigs look more like pastel dust mops than the authentic headgear of the time. Such is the vitality of art, real wigs would have looked authentically — boring! And be advised, Salieri is no more an empty buffoon than Cecil B. De Mille.
As for religion, not even Gnosticism was obliterated by the most vigorous efforts of the early Church to eradicate it from the earth. In the 19th century, presumably “lost” — i.e., burnt — writings of Gnosticism were discovered in Egypt. Since then, the emotions of that religion have been rediscovered in the spirit of humanity. And Gnosticism is now enjoying a renaissance amongst worshippers.
And go look sometime at the dialectical theology of Soviet Marxism. Only the Middle Ages’ monotheistic theology can match it in detail, analysis — and bulk. The spiritual infrastructure of the mandatory worship of materialist equality is intact and preserved on sagging shelves.
Second, as you can see, I don’t think Marxism is a pseudo-religion. During the Cold War, the West identified Marxism as a fake or false religion: an ungodly state allegiance system disguised with the rituals and trappings of piety. But as you know from my political course as well as my Republic, Marx was unconsciously the founder of an actual religion. This religion didn’t believe in Zeus and Athena like the ancient Greeks did. Nor did it believe in Jesus and Mary as the medieval Europeans did. Rather, it believed in Freedom and Progress as all advanced 19th century people did— with the peevish exception of neo-gothic petty-craft fanatics in England.
A religion that believes in concepts and history might sound strange and even impossible. But who is to say what a religion must believe to be religious? Must a religion salute anthropomorphic personalities that can be made public in marble statues, painted images, golden words? Isn’t something trans-verbally invisible — the pure concept, as Hegel would say — loftier and lovelier for religion?
And notice that Marx’s problem with the capitalism wasn’t that capitalism was the greatest creator of progress in all world history. After all, Marx said so himself in The Communist Manifesto! See especially Part I. And he said so better than anyone else ever said it — at least until my Republic. No, what Marx accused the capitalists of doing was keeping their amazing creation all to themselves. They monopolized progress! And Marx only wanted progress to be enjoyed by — everyone. Indeed, Marxism is the democracy of progress. There are only two problems with that politics of history. One, the United States consists of republics, not democracies; and, two, democracies are abominable governments. That’s why America has always been so opposed to the world democracy of progress prophesied by Marx. Of course the American founders weren’t opposed to progress. They even found it in politics (Federalist #9). But they prudentially advised against all hallelujah end-of-history enthusiasms that promise humans angelic natures. Thus the Founders defended against the abominations of Marxism even before Marx was born.
- You’re right that I was referring to religion with the discretion of indirection. There are three reasons for that.
First, religion has taken a severe beating in the last several centuries. Advancements in philosophy, science, mathematics, manufacturing, agriculture and medicine have greatly reduced if not outright eliminated the cosmological claims of all religions about nature, humanity, and the universe: of the groveling poverty of a pathetic humanity in a piddling or despicable universe, and the countervailing absolute redemptiveness of the heavens. Meanwhile, notice that our civil and civic American sensibility is always to be the republican Samaritan: to uplift the downtrodden, not only for the sake of charity, but to keep the superlative from achieving supremacy. Excellence everywhere, yes — haughty hegemony, never! Thus I reach out my hand in first aid to religion.
Second, insofar as socialism is an actual religion, it’s imperative to have other religions around to actively compete for humanity’s spiritual allegiance — if only to prevent a communist monopoly of possible belief. As Napoleon said about the effectiveness of a whiff of grapeshot on the democratic mob, so a whiff of religion causes the socialist crowd to choke. The tactic is obvious. Socialism is intolerant of all religions before it. That’s because socialism is an intolerant religion. Socialism insists on the monopoly of its world knowledge: of its final historical truth which it pronounces and promulgates with terminal universality. Indeed, whenever socialism has acquired political exclusivity — as in the Soviet Union — it’s as dogmatically intolerant as any totalitarian religion past or present. And then, with the management efficiencies and communication technologies capitalism has made available even to civilization haters, socialism becomes even more monstrous. Stalin killed more people in the name of Marx than Christianity ever killed in the name of Christ. And Mao killed more people in the name of Progress than any Church ever killed in the name of Love. In a logical pinch, socialism’s proof is a pistol to the nape of the neck.
Third, as a philosopher I’m not in the business of believing. For me, belief is the hobble of knowledge. At the same time, I’m delighted by the civil diversity of religion in America: as a preventive to any state belief system of deity or idea; and for the happy fact of the sheer diversity of humanity’s spiritual engagement with the universe. In my immediate family, I count Christians, Jews, and Hindus. But I don’t count myself amongst them even as we cheerfully co-exist in a secular state. Or, rather, 51 states! And we do so without legislated dogmas whose arguments are coercions, and without adjudicated beliefs whose proofs are punishments. On the point of religious tolerance I’m one with the Founders: intolerance for intolerance! And that’s not a logical contradiction or ontological paradox, but just one of the power imperatives of political liberty.
- Finally, let’s return to the absolute. The absolute may be an appropriate measure before and after death, but it’s immaterial in the self-limiting political interests of a living republic. You refer to a contemporary American advocate of moral absolutism. I no longer argue about the absolute — or with it, either. Instead, I ask why any man — or woman — would want such a thing. Don’t they trust themselves to think and judge the world by and for themselves? Don’t they trust their fellow men and women to do the same to the limits of their abilities? Don’t they trust their hearts and minds to compete in the marketplace of ideas to be seen and be heard? Or would they rather lord themselves over others? Or be lorded over? Or lord over themselves with a gilded despite because they’re spiritual serfs in the mire of muddy souls? And do they really loathe their fellow republicans so much they need to live in fortified compounds emblazoned with gated names like “Open Acres”?
None of these dispositions is fit for a republic in which the confidence of success is founded on successful republicans. Thus America has outlawed lords. Absolute mastery is for slavish failures whose hope someday is to win.
Maybe that’s why religion traditionally doesn’t laugh. As Marx would note, until the capitalist invention of abundance, most people’s lives consisted of the lifestyle of scarcity: of a squalid struggle whose failure meant death, and whose success meant another tomorrow of more ugly struggle.
What is needed now in an age of amazing abundance and astonishing knowledge are religions in which humanity can spiritually laugh — laugh world joyously with grateful celebration — because humanity is no longer afraid of nature or itself, and because humanity can now love the universe without lying.