Friday, January 1, 2021

Religion in the Democratic State—Philosophical Non-sense

~by David Aiken~



Remembering back to the dramatic terrorist activity in the Paris of 2015, at least one conclusion of that terrorist news cycle is now at hand: the Charlie Hebdo terrorism trial, which was held this fall 2020 in Paris, from September 2nd to November 10th, has reached its verdict for those implicated, with sentences ranging from four years to life in prison.

In 2015, as if it were just yesterday, Phrontisterion published an essay around a Charlie Hebdo editorial by Riss.

In democratic society the philosophical problem of religions, any and all religions, is really
quite spectacular and deadly serious. The question was perhaps best considered, and articulated to the Anglo-Saxon world, by John Locke in his 1689 text, A L
etter Concerning Toleration; and that question remains clear and relevant at the outset of this new year 2021: what to do with religions in societies with a democratically organized mandate?

In a philosophical nutshell: Religions, which are structurally authoritarian by nature, are antithetical, and therefore philosophical hostile, to democratic societies. In theory at least, democratic societies must seek to replace the authoritarian tendencies of human animal society, with a reasoned egalitarianism. This is the very essence of the secular society. This is also the very nut of the difficulty.


§ March 2015: In response to the tragic events of February 7th at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The new century is yet in its adolescence, and in a moment of historical Necessity the rallying cry – “Je suis Charlie” – has been heard in the streets of France. The contemporary translation of a still youngish idea, this cry goes to the heart of the democratic ideal: to unite “free hearts, free foreheads” around the notion, barely more than two centuries old, that men will be happier when allowed to live out their lives in freedom, that liberty and equality will yield a greater harvest of human joy and fulfillment than any form of tyranny, whether of religion or of state. To borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s rhythms—we are now engaged in an historical wager, to test whether Men so conceived and so dedicated in Liberty, can long endure.


The following text is Phrontisterion’s translation of Riss’s Editorial from February 25, 2015 (CH #1179), the first edition of Charlie Hebdo to appear on the newsstands after the slaughter of its editorial staff by religious fundamentalists in Paris on February 7th.


“For a long time I thought that the worst thing that could happen to a political cartoonist would be to be poisoned, which is what happened to Daumier and Philipon under the reign of the old fool Louis-Philippe. So when Charb, Luz, or myself, young cartoonists, would propose some sketch to satiric newspapers at the beginning of the 1990s, there was nothing to fear, because the benevolent angel of our craft was hovering just above our heads: the sacrosanct Freedom of Expression.


With just our cartoons we were hoping to laugh and to make others laugh; but after several years, and after drawing all the famous celebrities in laughable situations, a question came to our minds: to caricature, to make drawings—at the end of the day what is the purpose of it? After all, a drawing is just a drawing. Just a little scribbled something that tries to be humorous all the while hoping to get someone to think. To laugh and to make one think: this is what makes an ideal caricature! The pleasure of surprising the reader by taking an unusual point of view, by doing a little side-step that obliges the reader to look at things obliquely, from an angle that is unfamiliar, different from mainstream seeing.  The exaggeration and the embellishment, which are the much-criticized stock in trade of the political cartoonists at “Charlie Hebdo,” are nothing more than a means of exploring roads less traveled by.


It is perhaps this that the assassins of January 7th could not tolerate, those who, if truth be told, never really tried to do anything. They just allowed themselves to be coddled by the comforts of a religion that already has all the responses, and that allows one to dispense with thinking and doubting; because doubt is the worst enemy of religion. There can be no more doubting when one has chosen to enter into a newspaper office in order to kill everyone.


The cartoonists and the editors at “Charlie,” on the other hand, spend all their time doubting. About everything, and especially about themselves, their talent, and their inspiration. Which sometimes makes them infuriating. Wolinski wondered after the fire in 2011: “Have we perhaps gone too far?” Only an honest man asks this type of question. Never a killer. Wolinski had the courage to put his his own doubts on display. He chose to make the expression of his vulnerability an art. This is why a cartoonist will never become a killer, and why it is dishonest to make the violence of the assassins comparable to the so-called “provocations” of the cartoonists by proclaiming, “they were asking for it.”


In order to doubt, though, one needs others, all those who do not think like you do. How boring it would be if everyone thought like us! The killers of January 7th must sure have lived in a sad world… an inflexible world where any head that is out of place gets decapitated, where any discordant voice is cut off. So, imagine, for these of little brain, even just the idea of making pint-sized cartoons about the prophet! These miserable wretches threw away the lives of others in order to forget that they had thrown away their own. As Luz wrote on the front cover of “Charlie,” we should almost forgive them just for being what little they were.


Despite the floods of encouragement and support, it is still right for us to wonder who really has the courage to lead in this battle. Because, frankly, who wants to fight against blasphemy, who wants to defy those who are religious, if it is only to end up being protected by the police 24 hours a day? No one. Everyone came out in support of “Charlie”: “Keep it up, guys! We’re with you!” But how many will dare to draw and to publish blasphemous cartoons? Too few. The crowd has come out in support of  “Charlie” like the crowd backs the bull in the ring, because who knows, perhaps one day, exhausted by the banderillas, “Charlie” will also die to the rousing applause of the admiring crowd.


And, behold, precisely at the time when “Charlie” is getting ready to make its appearance again, an almost identical assassination attempt occurs in Copenhagen, with fewer mortalities but the same objectives: to silence those who believe in the liberty of expression and to exterminate the Jews. Those who try to find explanations for the killers, not to say excuses, by blaming the cartoonists for “throwing oil on the fire,” what rationalizations will they find in order to lessen the responsibility of these anti-Semitic murderers? Because the Jews who were the victims in the Hyper Cacher or in Copenhagen did not draw any caricatures of Mohammed; and yet they were assassinated. To accept such violence is already exasperating, but then to have to listen to more or less accommodating pseudo-intellectual speeches, is just intolerable.


The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are, first and foremost, attacks against a modern conception of the relationship between individuals, against diversity in ideas and among men. For centuries religions fought violently against precisely these values; and one had the impression that the modern world had been able to reason with these retrograde religions and their hegemonic intention to control men and minds.  The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen suggest that more time and more blood will yet be necessary before all religions finally accept, for good, this non-negotiable framework of democracy.”



Further reading:






(Reprised and reworked from an original essay, entitled A Wager on History, published on Phrontisterion on April 1, 2015)

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Philosophical Enlightenment Versus the Spirit of Jihad

~by David Aiken~


All the ideas and principles that surround the enlightenment start-up project of “a more perfect union” & the philosophical articulation of “We the People,” are drawn from an American version of the Civil Society organized around the foundational idea of Freedom. This idea was crafted for the West and handed down to subsequent generations, and finally to this present generation, from the Enlightenment philosophes of the 18th century, who referenced of course, every school child learns this, the Greek philosophers.

We Americans have been wearing these hand-me-down ideas, with some tweaking and amending, for almost 300 years. Now, though, it would seem that play period is over, and that we must once again take up our studies about civics and history and philosophy with some degree of due diligence; because if Jefferson is correct:

The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny],” are to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes (Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779. FE 2:221, Papers 2:526).


Yet it is not enough for civil society, however diversely it may be composed politically, simply to celebrate its’ cornerstones of civil freedom without also guaranteeing the ongoing relevance of those cornerstones as civil and civic values. To encourage precisely this type of constant relationship between philosophical values and an evolving society, Jefferson encouraged the creation of a specific type of education, which even today constitutes the bedrock of a distinctly American program of liberal education—namely the study of politics, and history, and of philosophy for virtue.

The value of [general knowledge] to a republican people, the security it gives to liberty by enlightening the minds of its citizens, the protection it affords against foreign power, the virtue it inculcates, the just emulation of the distinction it confers on nations foremost in it; in short, its identification with power, morals, order and happiness (which merits to it premiums of encouragement rather than repressive taxes), are considerations [that should] always [be] present and [bear] with their just weight. (Thomas Jefferson: On the Book Duty, 1821).


I have written elsewhere that if ‘We the People’ desire to continue enabling a Jeffersonian vision of a civil society, which must be anchored in the ongoing intellectual training of democracy’s gatekeepers, then we who teach in the Liberal Arts

must continue to insist upon the study of those subjects that keep our eyes riveted upon Power of all sorts, and upon the subtle permutations of power into tyranny. We need to study history, and politics, civics and current events in order to keep before our eyes the (…) institutions whereby Men define and govern themselves; and we need to study foreign languages, philosophy, religions, mythologies and literatures, and all the sciences in order to understand that it is through various and diverse languages and “stories” that we as a people initially begin to frame, and then to flesh out, our political and social institutions, which in turn become reflections of the intellectual life of the American demos.

            Why do we do this? Because, ‘[i]f the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education’ (Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 1818. FE 10:99).


So, increasingly, today’s incarnations of the civil society stand at a fork in the road of the History of Civil Society, as so many before us have stood, where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” On the one hand is the road “less traveled by,” the Civil Secular Society, which was taken by the American enlightenment philosophes, which they also sought to protect for posterity by articulating and then transmitting the freedoms of enlightened [read: non-religious] education and the open society [read: freedom from religion]. On the other hand, is the return to some form of a religious or sectarian expression of Theocracy—to a model of Society that, while perhaps structurally, i.e., superficially democratic, because it tolerates unenlightened and obscurantist elements within and without, is a political model that is at least partially closed, which is to say autocratic, by any definition.

            Let me state for the record books of History that, “as the night the day,” it necessarily follows that within the paradigm of the Civil Society as an idea, the Spirit of Enlightenment must finally oppose the Magical or Religious Spirit, which is replete with Neanderthalic mores (to borrow a rather felicitous expression from a recent Salon article). The democratic model of society must not lend credibility to the Spirit of Religion in the civil space because “Doing so lends credence to faiths that, by any humane standard, long ago discredited themselves and should certainly not be legitimized with Washingtonian pomp and reverence.”


The American version of the civil society is framed around the foundational ideas of the freedom to express, and the freedom to believe or not and to practice or not, religion; but that New Colossus, the American statue of Lady Liberty, which was once fresh and original but which is now somewhat tarnished and dinged, no longer necessarily stands beside the “golden door” to light our way—Lady Liberty and her torch, to the degree that She has become too tolerant of the Spirit of Religion, may have become the anchor dragging us to our philosophical graves. The outcome depends entirely upon our response, as representatives of Civil Society, to the various autocratic interests soliciting our interest, among which is certainly religious jihad in all of its forms, interests that are seeking to gain control of western societies’ free and open thought life.


There are certainly differences between the various forms of civil society that evolved in Europe, and Civil Society as it was philosophically articulated and constitutionally enshrined in the early days of the American colonies. Principal among these differences is the notion of pluralism as a philosophical value. In American civil society pluralism is neither a primary philosophical nor political value; nor, by extension, should it be construed to be a significant pillar of western civil society in general. Pluralism is a derivative or secondary value in America, because it is premised first and foremost on the deliberate intellectual assent to a certain set of core civil principles, which are of primary importance.

            When and where there is intellectual assent about the philosophical foundation, goes the American version of Civil Society, then the edifice of state can be constructed upon it. What is important in this American version of the story of pluralism is that Individuals came together from all over the world in order to build their lives around an idea. This, in fact, was the opportunity in the Land of Opportunity. The individuals were of plural origins, from anywhere and everywhere, but the idea of We the People was always primary and singular; therefore, it was predictable that while there would be disparity or plurality in public discourse among all the diverse opinions concerning deity and morality, culture and alcohol, politics, death and taxes, etc., it was philosophically untenable that there should be discord about the core values articulated in the Constitution.

            That premise, of course, was sorely challenged during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency by a fratricidal war (1860-1864) among American brothers mutually grounded in a single philosophical premise, and he famously questioned, “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived (in liberty) and so dedicated (to the proposition that all men are created equal) can long endure.” Spoiler alert: the answer was ‘Yes’, but not without a fight. Thus, the idea of a common philosophical foundation or premise –freedom, was reinforced in the American mythology: first comes assent to a philosophical idea, then comes trying to work out the particulars about how we who share that common intellectual foundation can live together practically and functionally within the confines of social Freedom.


Civil societies in Europe, of course, each have their own unique history, and the evolutions of the idea of Civil Society among and between the various “European peoples” seems to have necessitated an early transformation of the natural I-Thou status quo into a structural social value, thereby guaranteeing some degree of protection for material diversity and pluralism. This was in order to ensure the peaceful cohabitation of the various tribes, clans, ethnic groupings, or who- and what-ever else one might wish to stick in this category of ‘outsider’ living among ‘Us.’

            Even the umbrella document that acts as an ad hoc constitution for member states of the European Union, the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), identifies inhabitants of the member states as “the European peoples,” with the following values, which prevail in civilly defined western democracies:

Lisbon: The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.


It is inadequate, however, to call pluralism a value where other and more fundamental “ideological,” or idea-based values do not also hold sway, where there is a philosophical vacuum, as it were. As a political value or idea, the European conception of pluralism simply cannot compete against the ethnically unalloyed society or the society that has been purged of religious diversity, which clearly stand stronger in their homogeneity than the state structured around plural groups with competing personal or clan-oriented interests. In other words, socially, every form of authoritarianism, whether theocracy or monarchy or oligarchy, or… ad infinitum, is a naturally stronger cohesive unit than a democracy.

The historical advantage that backlights cultural pluralism, at least in America, which is the first State truly founded upon an “open” or freedom-based philosophy, is not that any and every material cultural group could go to America for the better life, but rather that All and Sundry were drawn to the philosophical concepts that grounded the possibility of America as an Idea – to the freedoms that framed her as a land of opportunity. The world’s diversity was drawn to the American idea like insects to a light; they were fascinated by the idea that it was possible to live in society as self-determining free men, and they voted with their feet, choosing to leave the various forms of autocratic, theocratic, totalitarian and authoritarian societies that were their homes, in order to participate in the new philosophical experiment that was America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.


Obviously, there will be many analyses of and responses to crises, where the idea of Civil Society stands at an historical fork in the road. Some, like French academic Didier Raoult, reflecting upon the Charlie Hebdo massacre (2015) by Islamic fanatics, perceive the natural end of the idea of Civil Society and the promise of some future religious social reality:

It is not all over; but the “peace and love” that illuminated my youth is certainly gone. One cannot allow the enchantment of a generation of “dunces” (to paraphrase J. K. Toole), which never grasped the failures of the Marxists and those of the Enlightenment (Rousseau’s universality), to lead us into a civil war by invoking an ideal that was never able to become a substitute for religion.


For this thinker, the plurality that is France is reducible to a simple material-geographical state of being, which has no grounding in an idea or principle: “It is France’s language and her culture, which are constantly changing and being transformed, which unify [the French state].”

            For others, such as Inna Shevchenko, the leader of the topless, anti-religion activist group Femen,

Steadfast belief in the inerrancy of religious dogma, coupled with… convictions that the dogma’s many mandates are meant to apply to all humanity, clash with principles of secular governance and Enlightenment-era precepts that oblige us, at least ideally, to sort out our problems relying on reason, consensus and law.  (…) [W]e cannot “adapt” here, especially under threat of violence. We must unabashedly stand by reason, the rule of law, and secularism.


At the end of the day, the philosophical choice is actually quite simple: if a country wishes to represent the values of the Civil Society within its borders, then it must stand by the Civil cornerstone of secularism, which means that any religion, all religion, must relinquish its claim to the Public Space, and must finally yield to reason in Public Discourse and the articulation of Public Values. Civil Society will either oversee the decline of the Spirit of Religion and Autocracy within its boundaries, or it will be ultimately consumed by that Spirit and thereby cease to be Civil. We cannot travel both roads. And, not choosing, is choosing.


As an individual I can remember things from my childhood; but I cannot remember things from my father’s childhood, or his father’s, or his… For longer-term recall, or collective recall, we need resources and education, and we need to study our past historical experiences deliberately, to learn how to value a time and its ideas, which really belonged to someone else. As with individuals, so it is with nations. We are born into our cultural soup, and we absorb everything naturally; so we learn the ‘ways’ of our cultural soup naturally, and we tend to forget that we ‘learned’ everything, because it all seems so natural to us. Then that cultural soup changes as new ingredients are added, as, over time, different chefs take over the tasks of spicing and cooking. With time the original cultural soup is gradually changed, sometimes augmented, sometimes diminished, sometimes on high heat, sometimes on low. Equally, and in keeping with the simile, the edges of an original national identity will necessarily become blurred with the passage of time and the accretion of new and diverse members with their new and diverse thoughts and ideas and ways of viewing the world.

            As it goes in the lives of individuals, so, also, it is inevitable that there will come tipping-point moments in the life of a society. It is also predictable that societies which have been framed around a materially porous national identity, as their material compositions are influenced and transformed through various immigrations, will confront in the course of their history changes of a fundamental nature. The idea of the Civil Society as it was created in the young America, however, is not grounded in any form of evolving historicism of its various ethnicities; rather it is framed around an unchanging core of ideas – it is a true philosophical ideology in the most positive sense of that term. 


So at this moment in the history of the American version of ‘We the People’, as the American national identity is being so fundamentally challenged, not by any form of material immigration, but by the malign growth within the Secular Civil State of the Religious and Theocratic Mind, which is pernicious to the very concept of the open Civil Society, the People, the e pluribus unum, needs to continue studying the ideas and the arguments that created the original national identity of the American People– otherwise that Unum is destined to become irremediably lost in the famous Santayanian aporia -- "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" [George Santayana (1905) Reason in Common Sense, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason]. Hence the absolute importance of a broad liberal arts education in the Civil, Secular Democracy, as opposed to a form of education that specializes either in the transmission of a religious world-view, or in narrowly defined specializations—with a potential social yield of a “confederacy of dunces.”


There is no necessarily correct or right form for a religion. Each religion is ultimately authoritarian or autocratic in structure to whatever degree it is framed around some External Authority and not grounded in the value of the civil state—the individual. History shows that the Spirit of Religion will remain true to itself; this is the nature of the beast. So, it is a media-driven Null Set {}, the nonsensical rhetoric of non-thinking minds, to say that some certain form of a religion, such as its moderate or its extremist expression, is more or less desirable than some other form of that religion. It is no more possible, or meaningful, to argue that moderate Christianity is the most desirable form of Christianity, than it would be to argue that an extremely liberal form of Christianity or an extremely fundamentalist form of Christianity is most desirable.


            On the other hand, though, it is absolutely possible to make the argument that only the moderate and assimilating form of a religion, such as Christianity or Islam or Judaism, is conductive to all parties thriving in the civil secular democracy, and that it is therefore the most desirable form of that religion within the civil and secular society. Hence the philosophico-theological quandary when a Civil servant, in the form of an American president, for example, makes indemonstrable utterances on intractable religious issues (from Salon): “…Obama launched into what so riled conservatives — musings about faith being, as he put it, “twisted and misused in the name of evil.””  No matter the speaker, on this subject, so saith the Bard, this type of speech is nothing more than a meaningless “tale /Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing.”


In their expressions of the Civil Society, France and America share in having laws on the separation of church and state, which is certainly a defensible ideological foundation for the secular state. The French version was not legislated until 1905, some 125 years after the American version, and finally constitutionally enshrined in 1956; so it is the later variation on this theme. There is, however, an interesting nuance to note between the two different conceptualizations of separation of church and state. In the original American idea, it is question of the ‘exercise’ or public practice of religion, but this is not specifically the case in the French application of the principle of laicity. In a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling (‘Hobby Lobby’), for example, Justice Kennedy wrote:

In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts. Free exercise in this sense implicates more than just freedom of belief . . . It means, too, the right to express those beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community.


So, while the American government may not interfere in the free exercise of religion in the public space, the French state has simply chosen not to intrude at all in the question of religion.


It would seem that the place of Religion in the American Civil Society is finally being taken to the next level of challenge, which is to say that John Locke’s original anti-religion argument, which he published in his 1689 Letter concerning Toleration, is finally being taken seriously. In his letter Locke argues for the complete separation of church authority from civil authority because, he says, a civil magistrate is not qualified by his civil office to make competent distinctions between competing religious authorities with competing claims. This argument was sufficient, at the time, for the framers of the American Constitution to separate the interests of state from the interests of church in the young republic. 

            Locke’s argument was recently resurrected in an essay at The Immanent Frame entitled “The Impossibility of Religious Freedom,” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, professor of law and religious studies, who follows Locke’s thinking, and then some, by making a vigorous and compelling argument against even the very possibility of Freedom of Religion, at least as a category under the law. “Big “R” Religion is a modern invention, an invention designed to separate good religion from bad religion, orthodoxy from heresy—an invention whose legal and political use has arguably reached the end of its useful life.” Her conclusions are incisive:

The legal and religious fictions of religious freedom have become lies designed to extend the life of the impossible idea that church and state can still work together after disestablishment. There is no neutral place from which to distinguish the religious from the non-religious. There is no shared understanding of what religion, big “R” religion, is. Let’s stop talking about big “R” religion.

            What remains, as Clifford Geertz reminds us, is for us to work on creating new fictions together, political, legal, and religious…


We must not delude ourselves: ‘keeping faith’ with the ideas of the Civil Society comes at a cost. How much are we willing to yield up to someone else’s desire? How much are we willing to yield up our right to be offensive or offended, to be critical or to be criticized? Are we really willing to become all that the Other desires? What will happen when, not satisfied with western democracies’ principles of an open society, others choose to take offense at the way we dress? At our access to consumer products and to credit purchases? At the gods we may or may not worship? At the cars we drive? How far can the open society yield to the closed society? How far will western civil democracies submit to the fatwas and other whims of religious clerics camping in Yemen?

            At some point, we either stand with the principles and ideas of Civil Society, or we must be prepared to yield our ideas and principles to those who wish to stand with their own vision of the world, and to impose that vision on everyone else. The ideas and principles of Civil Society have defined the various countries of the democratic west for several centuries at this point; but peoples have been moving and borders have become porous; some are forced to leave the country of their birth and culture, others choose to leave. And in the movement of peoples between countries, like the camel of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, they enter into the west carrying cultural burdens that are, quite distinctly, not western and not necessarily democratic. In and of itself, this very practical reality is neither a good nor an ill; but it is in this way that hard choices are imposed upon us – does the immigrant travel, like the escargot, with his culture on his back, bringing his old home into his new, or does he abandon what he was in that other place in order to become something new in this place? And we, who were born in a democratic and open society, what do we expect from the visitors we receive – that they should cease valuing the ideas that held sway in their home, that they should become as us? So, to some degree, the religious questions that have begun to trouble the west should also inform our thinking about other matters, such as immigration.


There is more than one kind of jihad. There is, obviously, a very physical jihad where one sweeps over the opposition to impose rule. And there is the philosophical jihad, where one world-view attempts to impose itself upon another.


What can we learn from the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015, and those that have come about subsequently? The first edition after the massacre, depicting Mohammed, was already described by a British national Muslim cleric as an act of war. Just as many religious fundamentalists have been called to jihad by radical Islam, so Charlie Hebdo’s resolute and tenacious stance on the non-sacred depictions of Islam’s prophet, can be seen as a declaration of secular jihad, which is grounded in the idea that the open and secular society, as it is envisioned in Enlightenment philosophy, is a preferable political society to one grounded in an authoritarian belief, be it of Christian kings or others from the community of believers, or of radicalized Islamic clerics, or any manifestation of the Religious Mind. The Spirit of Religion is, inherently, a variation on the colonizing themes of empire – it wishes to create a kingdom of God in the world of men. Resistance is not futile!


Further reading:


·      A brief fun video summery of John Locke’s philosophical solution to the presence of religion in civil society:


(Reprised and reworked from an original essay published on Phrontisterion on March 1, 2015)


Saturday, November 7, 2020

7 November 2020 -- A Beautiful Philosophical Ideal

 Friends far and wide:

The American philosophical vision continues to live, of a land created for the People, where real people, the great unwashed instead of autocratic ruler/s or other decision makers, get to determine which values will govern their present, and their futures. That vision survived the test of this presidency.

But the job is not yet finished with the removal of this pathetic figure of a man. For the American vision to continue to thrive, the majority of Americans, those who voted in this election against the ugly non-philosophy of the last 4 years, must find ways to wrest control of their land from the hands of fanatical minorities, some of whom wish to transform America into a Christian theocracy with Old Testament moral values to be imposed upon All & Sundry, and some of whom wish to pump her wells dry for their own monetary gain. Such as these must be shown the door, or the great battle for the soul of America will have to be thought and fought over and over again, with the very real possibility that America loses that battle in the end. In which case she will simply take the place that waits for her upon the podium of all the other autocratic states in world history. 

As it is, tonight, America is intact. She continues to exist as a truly free nation for real and truly free people. Tonight, we must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder, as we did in this election to get rid of this tyrant, to fight the other fights that await us around the corner. There is a pandemic to beat down; our neighbors to help out; our lives to get back; our country, our states, our neighborhoods to reconstruct from the ruin of this pathetic man and his allies.

United we stand.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Space of a Man

~by David Aiken~


Borders & Edges.

            Every-thing is just so frustratingly approximative—so imprecise and fluctuating in a very-vague kind of way. This is true of all things, of those things of a physis sort (re: nature & the natural) as with things of a kosmos sort (re: intellect & the interpretative).  For a refresher course on this distinction, have a look at the Phrontisterion essay on Anti-conversion in “An Existential Moment” (February 2013).


   Trying to determine the exact boundaries or edges of physical things, for example, which seem so very clear and so very observably present to our senses, is notoriously difficult in this rather hazy kind of world of ours. The classical illustration of this idea for students of philosophy is the good old-fashioned table (or chair): my body tells me that the table is one sort of a thing—it is solid, ponderously weighty, and does not seem to be going anywhere at any given speed; it seems to just want to hang out in the space that it presently occupies. In contrast, however, my mind tells me that the table is also a constituted, and therefore composed kind of ‘event’—it is made up of an unimaginable number of invisible, itsy-bity teeny-weeny other-things that are all zinging around at warp-speed, and which are not at all concrete and stationary like the table-thing of which they are the composing elements. Now which of these two tables, the one that is speaking to my body or the one that is comprehended by my mind, is the most nearly-true definition of this particular table at which I sit and write? It seems obvious that both ‘truths’ are somehow implicated in the ‘thing’ that is this table, but only one of the truths is actually experienced by me. From one point of view—the body’s, the edges of the table seem quite distinct from the edges of me the writer, but from a second point of view—the mind’s, both the table and I seem inseparably implicated in the dance of sub-physical, invisible other-reality that frames the symphonic composition of things-in-the-world that are even now presenting themselves to our senses as visible and therefore stable. As World

            In contrast to our table, language is obviously a very cosmetic (i.e., from kosmos) sort of thing. And although it is the primary tool by means of which humans speak out their recognition of the world, it is also perhaps one of the more disturbingly approximative forms of identifying and articulating object-events. One has only to look at the idea of denotations and connotations, which sets the boundaries for words. The denotative world of a word is actually quite straitjacketed and narrow, and has therefore at least some degree of precision because it is more exclusive, while a word’s connotative world is infinitely richer and inclusive, brimming with associative images and suggestions, and overflowing with emotional and figurative relationships. The word ‘invitation’, for example, is denotatively a “written or verbal request inviting someone to go somewhere or to do something,” as in a wedding or birthday party invitation. Connotatively, however, an ‘invitation’ lives in an entirely different space –it is an incitement to venture out into strange new corridors of the world, a bidding to try new things, a giving of permission to go through doors that stand open but which may, at first blush, seem to us forbidding and ominous.


Toward Enlightenment.

            In the historical intervals that have followed upon the heels of Enlightenment in the West, we are offered rare glimpses into an interpretative world, a kosmos, that is almost entirely illuminated and articulated by purely human categories of thinking. Enlightenment created ‘The Individual’. This was obviously the case in the first period of Western Enlightenment in ancient Greece, which gave rise to philosophy as the very first human scientia of things natural, and also in the second period of enlightenment in 18th century Europe, which superintended the fairly radical dethronement of the Religious Mind, and the gradual enthronement of the rational and thoroughly human Mind as the measure and meaning-giver of man in his world.

            In the first period of Western Enlightenment, the “Space” where The Individual “happens” (—for there are some philosophers who make the case that Socrates was in fact the West’s first individual and that he taught a philosophy where the individual mattered as individuum—) can be measured on a gradation that separates two influential Greek thinkers from the classical period: on the extreme rationalist end of our Scale of Individuality there is the Greek architect-philosopher, Hippodamus (498-408 BC), who originally hailed from Miletus in Asia Minor, and on the spiritualizing end of that scale there is the famous Athenian philosopher, Plato (ca. 428-347 BC).

            According to the Wiki-world on Hippodamus, we discover how, through this first urban planner, Man presumed to impose upon the real topography of the real physical world of hills & valleys and streams & rivers, the rationalizing and abstracted geographical grid-frames of strictly human and cosmetic thought. This was the birthright of rationalism, perhaps already at its worst.

Hippodamus… was an ancient Greek architect, urban planner, physician, mathematician, meteorologist and philosopher and is considered to be the “father” of urban planning, the namesake of Hippodamian plan of city layouts (grid plan). […] According to Aristotle, Hippodamus was the first author who wrote upon the theory of government, without any knowledge of practical affairs. His plans of Greek cities were characterised by order and regularity in contrast to the intricacy and confusion common to cities of that period, even Athens. He is seen as the originator of the idea that a town plan might formally embody and clarify a rational social order.


On the other hand, although his dialogue The Republic has been almost entirely co-opted by political philosophers and re-constructed as some kind of feeble humbuggery disguised as a rational ‘theory of state’, Plato in fact allegorizes for us in The Republic, through the analogy of the State, the interior structures—the types of Souls—that can be found among Individual Men. Parenthetically, however, neither this idea nor this metaphor originates with Plato, because we find already a earlier incarnation of both in the nature poem of the Pre-Socratic philosopher-poet, Parmenides. Or, in the even more ancient notion of Hindu castes.

            If we follow out the broad strokes of the narrative in Plato’s Republic, though, Plato’s initiatory intent throughout his mythical “republican” allegory becomes obvious, an idea that can be said to be confirmed through later usage not only by the Christian apostle, Paul, who appropriated and employed the structure of that allegory to good effect in his New Testament letter to the Church in Corinth (I Corinthians 15:45ff), but also through usage by later Neo-Platonic philosophers, such as the late 5th century Boethius, who, in Book IV of the Consolation of Philosophy, divides man’s life journey into either a descent toward the embodiment of the life of the beasts (evil) or an ascent toward becoming gods (good).

            At a very basic level, in his Republic Plato means to portray for us, in the Gyges myth (Book II), the ‘earthy’ man (Paul’s psychikon or soulish man, i.e., a man like the First Adam/Man; I Cor. 15:46-47) who burrows into the earth and discovers, but does not grasp the importance of, the limitations of earthly dreams and aspirations. Allegorically speaking, as an alternative to the life of burrowing and tunneling into the bowels of the earth, Plato tells us in Book VII a second story in the form of an allegory, the well-known allegory of the Cave, where we learn about the second man, who seeks enlightenment (Paul’s pneumatikon or heavenly/spiritual man, a man like the Second Adam/Man; I Cor. 15:46-47), who struggles to free himself from the earthly Cave, and who, during his ascent out of the earth-womb, discovers the higher and indeed the highest truths in, about, and behind the World. In Plato’s final myth in the Republic (Book X), we discover a character, a Phoenician, whose name is Er. In this last republican myth Plato hopes for the Reader to understand that the choice is given to each of us as to how to live, either as the earthy man or the sky-bound man—the only choice that necessity imposes upon us is that we necessarily must choose the direction of our journey: either our lives will be as diggers and burrowers in the darkness, or as climbers toward the sunlight and the stars. Choose—we must; but in which direction? That is both the reader’s rub, and the philosophical reason behind Plato’s writing of the Republic!

            For the philosophical comparison in a history-of-ideas kind of way, Plato’s earthy man or sky-bound man are also conceptually anticipated (QED) in Jainism, in the Śvētāmbara (White-clad) and Digambara (sky-clad) traditions.


The one constant in the enlightened Greece of antiquity is the shift of philosophers and poets away from narratives that are grounded in stories about the gods. And in that shifting away from the Religious Mind, it is possible for us to cherry-pick illustrations of those thinkers who leaned toward the rationalizing interpretative framework of Hippodamus just as easily as one can find illustrations for those who tended to spiritualize Man after the way of Plato and his followers.


In the second period of Western enlightenment, the “Space” of The Individual is measurable by the progression of the democratic ideal from its small Western cradle to its pervasively global nesting grounds; and the cornerstone for this enlightenment vision is, obviously, the idea of The Individual. As an idea, The Individual replaced the idea of the Divine Right of Kings (Phrontisterion essay, February 2015).

The model for the democratic vision, of course, is European enlightenment, and flows organically from the beheading of the idea of the divine right of kings. When the one king is dead, then ‘We the People’ is assigned the burden of kingship – each one his own little bit. Upon reflection, though, in the democratic model how does one so tie the power of state to the individual, both philosophically and functionally, that the state is ensured a long, even if complex life? Historically speaking, the model of democracy in the west, inspired by the ideas of enlightenment, began life moored to several fundamental principles: participation in the vote; freedom of expression; separation of religious interference from the function and power of the state; and a press that badgers those holding office in order to inhibit the easy spread of corruption.


At some point in our reflection there must unavoidably arise an ambiguity, or perhaps it is only a tension, between The Individual conceived of as physis or as kosmos. Up until this point in our reflection, we have been considering The Individual primarily as a cosmetic entity, as an historical idea whose boundaries have been greatly expanded around the periods of enlightenment in the West. This conclusion is generally confirmed among historians of ideas working in just about every field. In his book Escape From Freedom, for example, the social psychologist Erik Fromm (Ch. II) agrees that as an idea, The Individual emerges as a post-enlightenment phenomenon (although he only refers to one period of Western enlightenment, forgetting the phenomenon of Greek philosophy as an enlightenment), maintaining that what he calls the ‘process of individuation’ or the ‘emergence of the individual’ “seems to have reached its peak in modern history in the centuries between the Reformation and the present.”

            However, there is also a more denotative aspect to the idea of The Individual, and that becomes clear when one begins to wonder what it means to be, essentially, “an” individual; what is that ‘whatever’ that is cocooned inside the more connotative elements that accrue to people as a result of their particular historical circumstances? Is there some essential quantity, or quality, that all men share as humans, which also makes them specifically individual? Is there such a thing as an essential and therefore irreducible human nature?

The two general philosophical theories on this question, which Phrontisterion examined in “The Existentialist ‘Project’ & the Ostensible ‘Problem’ of Existence” (November 2013), might be characterized as the Camusian position and the Sartrian position. Camus, following Nietzsche and others in the mainstream of Western philosophical thought, thinks there is an essentialness to men, which, when considered as a collective, makes it meaningful to speak of individual men as collective Man. Sartre, in contrast, depicts man as, essentially, an empty set = {  }, that he is a bundle of possible choices linked to a specific space in time for a while, then not. In this respect, Fromm (op cit, 13) is Sartrian in his thinking about The Individual, for he writes:

It is not as if we had on the one hand an individual equipped by nature with certain drives and on the other, society as something apart from him, either satisfying or frustrating these innate propensities. […] The most beautiful as well as the most ugly inclinations of man are not part of a fixed and biologically given human nature, but result from the social process which creates man. […] Man’s nature, his passions, and anxieties are a cultural product; as a matter of fact, man himself is the most important creation and achievement of the continuous human effort, the record of which we call history.


So, up to this point in our reflection we have gained the idea that the history of Western enlightenments has been consistently marked by a shift in the boundaries of men’s view of both themselves as specific objects, as individuum, and of themselves as individual role-players in their world. Both historical shifts toward Western Enlightenment, first in ancient Greece and then in 18th century France, have been characterized by a vision of human reality wherein otherworldliness has yielded the right-of-way to a this-worldly interpretation and expression of Man in his world, with a resulting progression in thinking from the Religious Mind to the Rational Mind.


Away from Enlightenment.

            History pauses for neither man nor idea, however, but turns itself over and over constantly in response to “another shake of the kaleidoscope,” to borrow on Maurice Gee’s felicitous expression [Plumb, p. 142]—which only goes to show, once again, the prescience of old Heraclitus the Obscure, that rJei√n ta» o¢la potamouv di÷khn: “It is the way of things […] that, like the currents of the river, the whole [thing] just streams along” (D/K 12, vol. 1, p. 141; cf B12, 91). And as if in historical response to a free-wheeling period of Free-Thinking that followed hard on the heels of the first period of enlightenment, and which has come to be celebrated as the birth of Greek philosophy, along came the onslaught of the Christian Church. And philosophical enlightenment gave way before it.

Consequently, the Religious Mind would hold intellectual sway in Western History until the rise of the second period of enlightenment in Europe, in the 18th century. And in the period following the second period of enlightenment, which is the swinging door connecting to our contemporary world, it would seem that, once again, the Religious Mind is seeking to subjugate or vanquish entirely the free-thinking enlightenment ways of Western Nations and Men. The children of the first enlightenment yielded the floor to the Religious Mind of the burgeoning Christian sect and its beliefs. But at our moment in the historical flow of the West, we, the children of the second enlightenment, are certainly not obliged to make the same choices as their intellectual forefathers. For better, as for worse.

            The Western notion of freedom, which is rooted in the rationalistic notions of The Enlightenment Individual, is not an absolute or eternal value, identical for all men at all times. Not all cultures articulate or value freedoms in the same way; and while the desire to be free may be arguably innate, as Fromm [op cit] thinks, he also suggests that “the human aspect of freedom” coexists within a coterie of deadly rivals, which include the longing for submission, and the lust for power. So, when all is said and done it would seem that far from being static and fixed, the idea of freedom for the individual remains a negotiable quantity—philosophically & politically.


Our natural world (physis) spins out on a long thread of heat-releasing entropy… an ongoing give-and-take between order and disorder—and we must make our peace with that. But then this physis-principle must also reasonably hold for the reality that is created by and anchored in the human mind—the kosmos. Such, anyway, was Friedrich Nietzsche’s intuition and insight.

The Age of Religion yields to the Religious Mind, which then yields again to the Age of Reason, which seems to want to, once again, yield to the Religious Mind… and on and on in ceaseless flow like Siddhartha’s eternally flowing river. Which then yields again historically to whatever paradigmatic frame arises that can impose itself in the mix and jostle. And the whole of human history, like the currents of the river with all of its nooks & crannies and ebbs & flows, just keeps streaming along, sometimes quickly sometimes slowly; for human history also plays in the streams of entropy where order (The Age of Religion) submits to disorder (The Age of Reason), and then disorder to order, in a constant dance of ideas.  What is disorder, after all, but the intrinsic nature that frames the essential idea of “freedom”?


So, what does it mean to live in the West, inside the Western mindset, governed by Reason and the principles of the Rights of Men? And what happens when there is no longer even a general consensus about the value of the enlightenment mindset (kosmos-disorder), but where the children of enlightenment begin to imagine alternative mindsets other than living in an environment of reasonable enlightenment? Where it becomes possible to imagine cohabitation between the Religious Mind and the Rational Mind? Between order and disorder?

            The Sophists of Plato’s day believed they could improve other men through their wise teaching, but Socrates whole-heartedly disagreed with them (Apology 20B). Yet, if we are to believe Socrates, who is after all Plato’s great ethical hero, and if we really cannot improve one another through wise teaching, then at the end of the day we are left, truly, with only The Individual, who must discover and practice his own virtue. For Socrates, of course, the ideal practice was to follow Justice. If we side with Socrates on this idea that the individual is alone to unveil himself through his practice of virtue (i.e., rightness or justice), then it becomes important for the rest of us, as both spectators and players on the theatrical stages of life, and to whatever degree we wish to exemplify virtue, to take our cues from other fine actors. One man can make the difference. But the cost of making the difference can be exacting, as the pacifist journalist, Jean Jaurès, discovered, who was practically the only man in the whole of France to publicly stand against France and her imperious desire, at all costs, to enter the first world war with Germany. The cost to Jean Jaurès was his life, assassinated from behind in a restaurant. 


Have the democratic nations of the West really reached the effective and unsuccessful end of Enlightenment Reason as the framework for self-governance? Is a society governed principally by Reason really just a dystopia patiently awaiting the inevitable return of halcyon days of ordered innocence and goodness dripping like manna from the hand of one god or another? This seems to be Western history’s prophetic narrative, to judge the future of the West by its intellectual history.

            By way of concluding, neither optimistically nor pessimistically, but realistically: in an article entitled kant’s depression, the author suggests that Immanuel Kant anticipated precisely this very unsatisfactory end-point of human reason:

“… What Kant doesn’t consider is that reason might actually be connected to depression, rather than stand as its opposite. What if depression – reason’s failure to achieve self-mastery – is not the failure of reason but instead the result of reason? What if human reason works “too well,” and brings us to conclusions that are anathema to the existence of human beings? What we would have is a “cold rationalism,” shoring up the anthropocentric conceits of the philosophical endeavor, showing us an anonymous, faceless world impervious to our hopes and desires. And, in spite of Kant’s life-long dedication to philosophy and the Enlightenment project, in several of his writings he allows himself to give voice to this cold rationalism. In his essay on Leibniz’s optimism he questions the rationale of an all-knowing God that is at once beneficent towards humanity but also allows human beings to destroy each other. And in his essay “The End of All Things” Kant not only questions humanity’s dominion over the world, but he also questions our presumption to know that – and if – the world will end at all: “But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all? And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?”

            The implication in these and other comments by Kant is that reason and the “rational estimation of life’s value” may not have our own best interests in mind, and the self-mastery of reason may not coincide with the self-mastery of us as human beings (or, indeed, of the species as a whole). Philosophical reason taken to these lengths would not only make philosophy improbable (for how could one have philosophy without philosophers?), but also impractical (and what would be the use of such a “depressive reason”?). What Kant refers to as depression is simply this stark realization: that thought is only incidentally human. It would take a later generation of philosophers to derive the conclusion of this: that thought thinks us, not the reverse.


Further reading:



(Reprised from an original essay published on Phrontisterion on 01/09/2015)