Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Short History of Bad Ideas (II): Blueprint for Paradise

- Continued from Part I: "The Victims" -

So what is the origin of the terrible ideals that are supposed to deliver us paradise on earth, but give us hell instead?

We need to understand first of all that in Western culture the conceptual framework historically has been based on the ecclesiastical organizational model. God's proxy on earth i.e. the Church, reflects the cosmology of God as the central and omnipotent Ruler of Heaven, while an equally absolute, sacred power governs day-to-day business in the world of humans. In other words, before the invention of clubs and societies, people with paradigm shattering ideas set up rival pseudo religions.

- Caption: dome of St Peter's Basilica, Rome -

This Christian 'cultural DNA' has been the model for a host of alternative philosophies, theories and concepts, aiming to recreate heaven on earth, or at least along the lines of their particular version of Paradise. Schools of thought - sometimes virulently Deist, agnostic or atheist - were recreated in this way, with its particular central theme in the role of the godhead: it gave birth to nationalism for example, in reverence to the nation; statism with the government at the center of worship; while Communism hailed the urban proletarian class, Nazism doted on Teutonic blood and soil; and so on, and so forth. The most 'successful' pseudo denominations cleverly incorporated and cultivated mystical memes into rituals, and social and political theory.

In France in 1842 Auguste Comte completed the ultimate irony in this respect: a vast pseudo religion called Positivism, an irrational, agnostic cult replete with pagan mysticism centered on reason and science (we've written about it some time ago when in search of the origins of postmodern self loathing). Even the fairly innocent fuzziness of Naturism - now categorized a lifestyle - as recently as the last century retained pseudo-religious elements.

- Caption: Dome of the Aghia Sophia, Constantinople: God replaced by Allah after the Ottoman-Turkish conquest in 1453 -

While Utopianism and progressivism are features specific to the Counter-Enlightenment and to a lesser extent to the radical branch of the Enlightenment (more in a later part of this series), striving for the best possible world seems to have been part and parcel of the Western mindset since time immemorial.

Because of its success, building on Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman civilizations, and because discoveries hierarchically rest on earlier evidence - to Westerners the passage of time has the appearance of an endless time-line in which progress seems inevitable. But some who went before us might have burst this particular bubble: historical evidence points in another direction: that every civilization at some time comes full circle (also read "Understanding Change" by Dr Sam Holliday of the Armiger Cromwell Center). Even the megalomaniac Adolf Hitler thought a thousand years was the outside limit of his Third Reich!

Back to our secular pseudo religions, it is hard to draw the line where all these forms of inclusive and exclusive collectivism lead relatively harmless lives - say limited to fund-raising for needy brothers and sisters, ritualistic mumbo jumbo and other such activities - and where precisely the threshold is crossed to more pernicious developments. Where's the point that the hive mentality becomes lethal? The true believers will always advocate the extreme and go beyond the tipping point in seach of their Utopia.

Collectives come in two variations: those who want to keep their club exclusive to those of ethnic, geographical or religious identity or characteristic; the inclusive ones are more universal in nature and seek to forcibly include others in their tribe. For the latter a line definitely not to cross, is moving from voluntary participation to compulsory incorporation; or worse, when submission to the whole becomes the individual's moral duty, in effect making dissent a vice and coercion a virtue. For the exclusive variety a culture of intolerance and supremacy at the expense of others marks the boundary of acceptable behavior. But one might ask the scorpion, why does he sting.

It should be noted that no cultural relativism is required for the rest of us to prevent either variety from spinning out of control. Quite the contrary! Now's the time for defending the good standing between us and potentially evil collectives: liberty!

In the transnational setting a relentless drive is being exerted to shift rights from individuals to collectives. It's a retrogressive trend supported by a coalition of collectivists - Muslim religionists and their postmodern allies. One tactic thrown into the battle is transfering reponsibility away from the citizen to the (nanny) state. It will require ceaseless vigilance if we are to preserve individual freedom for future generations. 

Collectivism can best be understood in terms of a tribe. A tribe is a totalitarian society in miniature. The original purpose of living in 'flocks' is the natural protection of safety in numbers, but then something goes haywire. The bullies take over and become an elite. They say the tribe exists for its own sake or for the sake of the leaders, who by then claim demigod status so they can use the group for their own dark purposes. The personal lives of the hive members - already irrelevant to the whole - are forcibly put into the service of the entire group and its elite.

Now, one particular philosopher of the Counter-Enlightenment - Jean-Jacques Rousseau - had very romanticized ideas about the tribal way of life. Instead he saw advanced civilization as the source of evil: culture only serves to corrupt the naturally good inclinations of man, or so he thought. To Rousseau, no disease ridden hobbit abodes, no mass starvation and elderly, aged thirty; no human sacrifices, head shrinking, scalping, witch hunts, trials by fire and water, or brutal warfare and the ravaging of maidens! Leaving his deluded ideal of man in his primitive state at that, would have been bad enough!

In order to appreciate the evil nature of what Rousseau thought up next, a proper understanding of the following is necessary. What brought him to it we'll never know: the totem or tribal spirit, some mystical notion regarding 'group souls', or a Plato inspired quest for the whereabouts of abstractions perhaps? Enlightenment chronicler Jonathan Israel (“Radical Enlightenment” p. 720) just mentions Rousseau was “elaborating in close dialogue with predecessors”, while underscoring that his is a “far more developed conception” than Spinoza's or Diderot's ...
... Rousseau furnished his collective with a living animus of its own which he called 'common will'. How it might be tapped is unspecified, but it is supposed to find its realization in the context of “civil society under the state“.
At this point it gets worse: Rousseau's animus is not just infallible, it also has the monopoly on moral judgment; moreover, its verdict is absolute. Rousseau fanatically opposed the ethics systems of tradition and revealed religion, but of the moral relativism posited by other Deists, he wanted no part!

Rousseau's public animus, the collective 'common will' is of an altogether different nature than the collective individuals' 'common good': it is the only criterion for moral judgment, leading to the conclusion that man has “the obligation” (meaning that it is enforcible) “to subject himself to the sovereignty of what serves the interests of society as a whole” (p. 720).

Enter the modern, totalitarian collective we heard so much about, specifically during the first half of the last century. Unfortunately for millions and millions of victims (Part I), the human sacrifices to the hive and its leadership, Rousseau's vile idea of an organic, ethical collective has inspired many, including an American hero of environmentalism, as we shall see later on in this series.

- To be continued in Part III - 

- Filed on Articles in "The Dystopia of Paradise" -


RatePoint Business Reviews