Science will never be used cheifly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin. […]
…Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness. These are not just inferences from history. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.
Like Nietzsche, Heidegger was a postmonotheist – an unbeliever who could not give up Christian hopes. In his great first book, Being and Time, he sets out a view of human existence that is supposed to depend at no point on religion. Yet every one of the categories of thought he deploys – ‘thrownnes’ (Dasein), ‘uncanniness’ (Unheimlichkeit), ‘guilt’ (Shuld) – is a secular version of a Christian idea. We are ‘thrown’ into the world, which remains always foreign or ‘uncanny’ to us, and in which we can never be truly at home. Again, whatever we do, we cannot escape guilt; we are condemned to choose without having any ground for our choices, which will always be somehow mysteriously at fault. Obviously, these are the Christian ideas of the Fall of Man and Original Sin, recycled by Heidegger with an existential-sounding twist.
We think our actions express our decisions. But nearly all of our life, willing decides nothing. We cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so.
In our time, Christians and humanists have come together to make tragedy impossible. For Christians, tragedies are only blessings in disguise: the world – as Dante put it – is a divine comedy; there is an afterlife in which all tears will be wiped away. For humanists, we can look forward to a time when all people have the chance of a happy life; in the meantime, tragedy is an edifying reminder of how we can thrive in misfortune. But it is only in sermons or on the stage that human beings are ennobled by extended suffering.
In the Greek world in which Homer’s songs were sung, it was taken for granted that everyone’s life is ruled by fate and chance. For Homer, human life is a succession of contingencies: all good things are vulnerable to fortune. Socrates could not accept this archaic tragic vision. He believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man. So he re-envisioned the good to make it indestructible. Beyond the goods of human life – health, beauty, pleasure, friendship, life itself – there was a Good that surpassed them all. In Plato, this became the idea of the Form of the Good, the mystical fusion of all values into a harmonious spiritual whole – an idea later absorbed into the Christian conception of God. But the idea that ethics is concerned with a kind of value that is beyond contingency, that can somehow prevail over any kind of loss or misfortune, came from Socrates. It was he who invented ‘morality’.
We think of morality as a set of laws or rules that everyone must obey, and as a special sort of value, which takes precedence over every other. Morality consists of these prejudices, which we inherit partly from Christianity and partly from classical Greek philosophy.
In the world of Homer, there was no morality. There were surely ideas of right and wrong. But there was no idea of a set of rules that everyone must follow, or a special, super-potent kind of value that defeats all others; but even the bravest and wisest of men go down to defeat and ruin.
We prefer to found our lives – in public, at least – on the pretense that ‘morality’ wins out in the end. Yet we do not really believe it. At bottom, we know that nothing can make us proof against fate and chance. In this, we are closer to the archaic, pre-Socratic Greeks than we are to classical Greek philosophy.
For us, nothing is more important than to live as we choose. This is not because we value freedom more than people did in earlier times. It is because we have identified the good life with the chosen life.
For the pre-Socratic Greeks, the fact that our lives are framed by limits was what makes us human. Being born a mortal, in a given place and time, strong or weak, swift or slow, brave or cowardly, beautiful or ugly, suffering tragedy or being spared it – these features of our lives are given to us, they cannot be chosen. If the Greeks cold have imagined a life without them, they could not have recognised it as that of a human being.
The ancient Greeks were right. The ideal of the chosen life does not square with how we live. We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-time authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen. The time and place we are born, our parents, the first language we speak – these are chance, not choice. It is the casual drift of things that shapes our most fateful relationships. The life of each of us is a chapter of accidents.
The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom. Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen.
Outside the Western tradition, the Taoists of ancient China saw no gap between is and ought. Right action was whatever comes from a clear view of the situation. […] For Taoists, the good life is only the natural life lived skillfully. It has no particular purpose. It has nothing to do with the will, and it does not consist in trying to realise any idea. Everything we do can be done more or less well; but if we act well is is not because we translate our intentions into deeds. It is because we deal skillfully with whatever needs to be done.
If my piece submitted to the Gods & Radicals journal gets accepted, my only hope is that it contributes to the discussion just now beginning of how fundamentally antihumanist cultures gave birth to religions and worldviews that we, as polytheists, revivalists, and reconstructionists, aim to reproduce in our own lives. I have often sensed a struggle to reconcile ancient antihumanist understandings with the humanist overculture we all have been born into (those of us in Western-influenced countries, at least) when I read personal blogs and less-personal articles and catch glimpses into strangers’ spiritual hopes and fears, loves and losses.
If polytheism is to really grow into its own, then this is a philosophical CF that we can’t afford to avoid. I think Sarenth Odinsson was on the right track with his recent post If Your Paganism is Anthropocentric, I Don’t Want Your Paganism. Dver constantly hints at this with her seeming misanthropy. It’s a subtle trend, but I personally think this needs to be openly discussed much more, especially if we’re to set ourselves proudly and firmly apart from the world-rejecting religions and salvation doctrines both religious and secular.
We need to know what we’re talking about, we need to know what the repercussions of those words are, their history and lineage. Our ancestors were not humanists. They had no concept of progress, nor the individual. The real question is can we worship their Gods and still maintain our indoctrinated humanist ideals? Can we have our cake an eat it too? I don’t think so, and frankly I think it would be foolish to try.
And that’s exactly why polytheism is so powerful and radical in Western societies today; to acknowledge the Gods and spirits, to give voice to the wisdom of our ancestors and other ancient peoples is to turn our back on a lot of what our contemporary world is. And I’m not talking just politics– I’m talking about how we fundamentally conceive of ourselves here and what it really means when we say we are powerful.