It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to reread some of these great Greek dramas for the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. I had forgotten just how excellent are so many of them, and the works of Sophocles are by no means the least. It is a shame that we will not be returning to Sophocles again for several years in the reading plan.
I once presented Antigone, in a somewhat simplified version (not because of ability but because of time), to my 8th graders as an outstanding early example of a point that Martin Luther King would make so eloquently in 20th century America: that the law of man is not the law of God and that when the two come into conflict it is God’s law that must be followed.
Rereading the drama in whole again I began to reflect on the way that ideas are born, live and change, and sometimes, though very rarely, die in history, and on the way that small innovations can have profound ramifications in the least likely places. Would there, in short, have been a Civil Rights Movement in the modern United States had it not been for Sophocles?
Of course, Sophocles is not the only exemplar here. There seems to have been a movement during this time toward a new way of thinking about God, man, and the world; I believe it was Huxley who coined the term “Axial Age” to refer to this era of nearly universal and significant change in outlook. Christopher Dawson’s thought on the centrality of religion to culture has also often focused on this era, though I’m not sure that he chose any special name for it. There was a movement, it seems, from nature-centered religions (and, therefore, cultures) which saw human activity as necessitating an imitation of nature. Dawson links this to the early agriculturalists who found that through imitating the natural processes of plant growth they could produce their own fields of crops. The result was a worship of nature, and the belief in nature as the standard for human activity, including in the moral sphere.
It was during this Axial Age, however, that there is a widespread recognition of the insufficiency of nature as a model for human activity. Man, now settled agriculturalists, began to look for another standard, an extra-natural or supernatural existent from which could be derived another set of standards transcending the order of the merely natural. In China, the result is Lao Tzu’s notion of the Tao — natural, yet transcendent at once. In Mesopotamia, the transformation of the tribal warrior-deity Yahweh into the Supreme God of all nations, surpassing even his own name, in the thought of the Prophets. In India, the movement away from the simplistic materialism and crass magician tricks of the Vedas toward the intellectualizing, complex, and mystical Hinduism of the Upanishads. And, of course, in Greece, the movement away from the relatively simple worldview of Homer toward the philosophy of Plato, aiming toward another world as the true.
Bertrand Russell was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. It is a shame that his is not a household name, nor nearly as readily recognizable to the average layman as are those numerous lesser thinkers like Freud. That is an oversight, however, that is still correctable, at this short distance in time from the end of Russell’s remarkable life. And this book, a sort of “best of” of Russell’s long career, is a wonderful place to begin that corrective.
Herein are some of Russell’s best essays and chapters on every topic he wrote upon, among which are nearly every topic available for men to discuss. There are, among others, selections from his writings on mathematics, on philosophy, on religion, on politics, and on science. Each of them contains his characteristic British wit and humane wisdom.
When Russell is at his best, he is absolutely brilliant. When he falls short, however, he falls short. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming that Russell had, and one that runs throughout the entire length and breadth of his works, is his consistent inability to see that he himself was a proponent of the very philosophies which led to the calamitous events of World War I and the subsequent degradation of Western Civilization, events he identifies correctly as the great catastrophes that launched us into the current age. It is disappointing that Russell never realized this, and it certainly would have tied up the numerous loose ends and self-contradictions within his worldview had he done so.
He was, nevertheless, a genius of great magnitude and this, his collected greatest hits, is a perfect place to begin to delve the depths of that genius.
Though it has never, by its very nature, possessed the ability to thrive and create new systems of thought, atheism was once a radical and fascinating philosophical position with some interesting potential as a portal to exploration of the innate human tendencies to doubt and despair. This 18th century project took on its most energetic and interesting forms near the close of the 19th century as thinkers like Nietzsche sought to envision a world that was truly devoid of God, a world that Shakespeare already imagined in the 17th century in his tragedy of King Lear but which Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky brought into even finer detail when such a world really seemed, if only for a brief moment, intellectually feasible.
Alas, the golden age of atheism did not last long. Perhaps it was fated so by the nature of atheism itself. When doubt becomes the new certainty it takes on all the staleness of the old and ostensibly outworn orthodoxies. When something as radical as atheism trickles down and is taken up by those who don’t understand it and, whether through ignorance or cowardice or, more likely, a pitiful combination of both, don’t wish to live out their supposed intellectual convictions in any meaningful way, the inevitable result is the vapid and utterly unconvincing — not to mention uninteresting — wasteland of atheism at the dawn of the 21st century.
While atheism was certainly never a viable philosophy, logically speaking, it was a worthy exercise in absurdity that could have, had it been able to maintain its vigor, plumbed the depths of doubt. It could have been an opportunity to delve into the abyss, even if for just a brief moment. It could have been a worthy project. But, it seems, the gods fated for it to become another bourgeois puritanism under the auspices of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al. — a cabal not even good enough to be evil.
What David Bentley Hart provides in this book is a final beautifully ornate, hand-sculpted nail in the coffin of a philosophical position that committed suicide with an overdose of tranquilizers quite some time ago. Hart takes up an argument that, in just over 300 pages, comes down to this: Plato already demolished atheism — didn’t you hear?
Now, I must immediately add: that last statement is not to say that this book is not worth reading. On the contrary, it is essential reading for anyone interested in the question of the viability of authentic doubt in the modern age as well as anyone so insipid that he can’t conjure the modesty to avert his gaze from the horrible collision of clown cars we call atheism. I hope, for your sake, that you are over the former sort, though it must be admitted that almost all of us are of one of those two sorts — or, perhaps, both at once.
What makes this book an essential contribution to the discussion of God are two aspects of it especially. First, there is Hart’s delightful ability to uncover the great similarities at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions, to discover beneath the dross of accumulated cultural artifacts the shared human experience which underlies the search for the Divine by anyone in any culture. As the title of the book has it, he is writing about the experience of God — not just in the great visions of mystics and saints but in the everyday experiences of goodness, truth, and beauty — which are (or, should I say, which is) God. Second, and as important, is Hart’s ability to make the ancient relevant. We have developed the unfortunate belief that old and irrelevant are synonymous. Hart’s look at ancient ideas through contemporary experiences is a precious reminder that they are not.
The Monk’s Tale, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, presents an interesting challenge to Aristotle’s famous assertion that “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” The moralizing monk of Chaucer, however, presents a series of short biographies of powerful men and their respective downfalls that his listeners might “be warned by these examples, true and old.” In so doing, Chaucer’s monk calls into question Aristotle’s contention about the limits of history. By transforming history into poetry Chaucer has universalized the otherwise singular historical personage, thereby raising history to the level of the philosophic and gravely important occupied by poetry.
There are, however, some reasons to object to Chaucer’s derivation of morals from historical events. Descartes, for example, asserts in his Discourse on Method that “those who regulate their conduct” by the examples provided in history, “are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance.” Descartes’s objection, though, extends wider than the purview of this essay in his rejection of extracting guidance for present conduct not only from history but from literature and poetry as well. Descartes rejects the moral guidance of narrative in a more general sense. He worries that because a narrative may be fictional or extravagant it may inspire a reader to the impossible. Given his allusion to Don Quixote, who did just the sort of thing about which he expresses his worries, however, it may legitimately be wondered whether a world full of men who imitate the Romances and so live their lives according to a strict code of honor and valor, virtues universally ascribed to Don Quixote by the other characters in his eponymous novel, would be such an undesirable place after all. Descartes’s statement brings him close to rejecting the study of history and literature altogether. If the past were indeed as distant and foreign as Descartes holds it to be, it might be legitimate to do so. Thucydides seems closer to the mark in his assertion in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “there is … no advantage in reflections on the past further than may be of service to the present.”
That the past is of service to the present seems self-evident, though Descartes may find room for disagreement. The means by which the past can be of service to the present, however, is a subject of debate. Dewey repositions the historical as the singular, for example, in his attempt to use the education of the young in history as a means by which to provide them with the impetus and ability to alter current social conditions. In his Education and Experience, Dewey claims that “the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.” Dewey, then, agrees with Chaucer in his belief that the experience of the past is a necessary source from which to learn how to act in the present. Dewey departs from Chaucer, however, in his beliefs about the nature of this knowledge. Whereas Chaucer sees the past as a mine filled with examples to be imitated or avoided, Dewey desires the student of history to study the root causes of the problems of the present in order to change them in the future.
There is at issue here a divergence in understandings of human nature as well as of a man’s place in society. Chaucer’s view relies upon an understanding of the immutability of human nature. Man must be the same sort of creature today as he was long ago for Chaucer’s use of the past as a source of moral guidance to be practicable. As a society consists of just such creatures, while the particulars, such as technology, government, and custom, may differ greatly in various eras, the essential nature of society qua society does not change. While a man or a society may be improved, in Chaucer’s view, the essential nature of man and society, generally, abides. Dewey, on the other hand, adheres to an ideology which seeks the improvement of man and society generally. Within this framework, history can be little more than a record of the follies of unimproved individual men and societies within the wider narrative of gradual improvement of man and society over time.
More than Dewey, Marx submerges the individual within this social and general paradigm in his view of history. For Marx, history is much more the record of the effects of abstract, general, and impersonal forces, what he calls “the natural laws of [a society’s] movement,” than it is of particular persons or peoples. If the great forces behind any given society are indeed abstract and impersonal, however, Chaucer’s extrapolation of moral guidance from history is misguided and unnecessary.
Chaucer’s moralization of history is only legitimate within the framework of the philosophy of history he espouses, one in which history is the record of the chosen activities of particular persons whose nature does not differ substantially from the persons of earlier or later ages. Chaucer’s very ability to draw meaningful guidance for persons in the present from the activities of persons in the past, however, also stands as an argument against the lack of utility in historical study as believed by Descartes, the belief in history as a record of the causes of society’s ills espoused by Dewey, and the impersonalization of history attempted by Marx. It may, in addition, belie Aristotle’s belief in the inferiority of history to poetry. Through his universalization of history, Chaucer, the great English poet, was able to raise history to the dignity and relevance of poetry.