The metaphysics of history (2): Greece, Christianity, and the cycles of God and of silence

st jerome 2

The question of one or many throws a long shadow across history.  At the dawn of every age God speaks with perfect clarity from his sacred mountain, ordering existence.  Morality and politics breathe the same divine air.  The state is a theater of perfection for the history-making and history-interpreting classes, who believe with unshakeable confidence that the performance will continue, unchanged, forever.

Later ages look on this moment with awe and regret, as a paradise lost.  A single direction has ascended to the universal, and there is no consciousness of any other.

Inevitably, however, passage of time and the evolution of events must impose new perspectives, each more distant than the last from the archaic starting-point.  The voice of God gradually grows faint and confused, and, in a terrible hour, begins to sound like childish babbling, before going altogether silent.

This is a period of desperate intellectual effort, as brilliant minds seek to demonstrate an identity between the new and the old, between doubt and certainty, between silence and God.  Their labor is fruitless:  with nerve-wracking strain, the burden of faith is rolled up to the heights, only to roll down again at the slightest touch from history.  Elites are exhausted, bewildered, demoralized.  Religious sects and schools of philosophy proliferate, and humanity, exiled from paradise, fractured and dispersed, retreats into individualism and hedonism.

Such historical mood swings have behind them the force of necessity.  Because we are partially blind, we will pursue to the last mile our own brightly lit civilizational path.

***

The Greeks penetrated into the universal more deeply and with greater clarity than any people before, and most since, yet at the end their best minds could conjure nothing deeper than living in a tub or chasing pretty boys.  The Greeks had awakened to the meaning of human directionality.  The dream of Olympus, of the eternal, dissipated abruptly, and all that was left, in the light of day, was the contingent, in the form of customs, conventions, and implausible stories.

The reaction to this disaster was philosophy.  Reason was to restore what history had broken.  No other human activity, not even modern science, has benefited from a more sustained application of genius over the centuries than the search for absolutes in the Greek and Western philosophical tradition, beginning with Plato but still evident in the call for total commitment of the existentialists  and, more remotely, in our determination to “save the earth.”

For all the unquestioned brilliance of the philosophers, their enterprise was doomed from the start.  We cannot reason our way back to paradise, or stitch an ideal of perfection out of subtle syllogisms.  In a real sense, the endless multiplication of schools became their refutation.  The philosopher argued desperately for the one, but served the many.

The Christian centuries pursued the universal and eternal with an intensity that would have been condemned as hubris by the Greek mind.  At the high tide of faith, morality and politics shed the human organism like a leprous skin, and sought to reorganize humanity into a congregation of souls – that is, of portals to eternity.  The state was allowed to endure, but only as a sort of customs office, to assist in passage to a better place.  Yet the magnificent edifice of Christianity was at the end abandoned to materialists and utilitarians, people who, in a literal sense, had lost their souls.

As was the case with Greece, the loss of vital energy stemmed from internal causes.  The primitive Christian impulse to treat the realms of the universal like newly-conquered territories, open to colonization, was dissipated in the encounter with new directions and perspectives.

We would be mistaken to suppose that Christianity was overthrown by the arguments of science or rationalism.  Causation moved in the opposite direction:  science and rationalism were intellectual offspring of a Church that had lost its way.  Churchmen were converted out of the primitive ideal, in the first instance to philosophy, then to classical paganism, finally to modern comfort.

Every turn of the screw subordinated the soul to the claims of the body.  The faith of flagellants and desert mystics can be said to have expired, quietly, in an air-conditioned church.

Christianity’s exhausted retreat from Heaven breached a hole in the logic of Western life that has yet to be repaired.  We still espouse, with some zeal, Christian principles like equality and love – but we have lost the justifying metaphysical framework, so our moral and political ideals are now unconnected to our understanding of the world.  They seem to float in mid-air.

The history of the last two centuries, particularly in Europe, has been that of a string of desperate attempts to stitch a universal one out of a contingent, materialist many.  Self-contradiction unto absurdity has not prevented this enterprise from convulsing the world and drowning it in blood.

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