An alternate schema of historical idealism


[Note: I'm not saying that I believe what is written in this essay.  I'm entertaining this schema as an experiment, to see what follows from it.]

In ancient and early classical Greece, the good was identified with the pious.  Then Socrates and Plato came along, and posed the rather devastating challenge to this world, enshrined the Euthyphro: what is the pious, and why is it pious?  Do the Gods will the pious because it is pious?  Or is it pious because the Gods will it to be?  If what we call piety is merely pious because the Gods will it to be, this implies a kind of arbitrariness to piety - and to consider piety to be arbitrary is, itself, a bit impious.  On the other hand, if we assign an ontological priority to piety, what results is a kind of demotion of the Gods.  They know that what is good is good (presumably because of their omniscience, or something like it), but they don't get to decide what is good.

Socrates had performed the most dangerous act of philosophy: questioning piety.  A loss of innocence for the human race.

Platonism ushered in a new era for humanity, in which a cosmic principle - the Good - is at the top of the Chain of Being, and the Gods occupy some lower place - perhaps one of little ultimate significance.  Plato may have coined the term "theology" (θεολογία, theologia, in Book II of the Republic), and this theology was developed by other thinkers.  For Aristotle, God does nothing but self-contemplation; for Epicurus, the Gods definitely exist, but it is rather pointless to concern oneself with them, because they are entirely self-sufficient and it is nothing but hubris to imagine that they care about you and your petty concerns - besides, you have more important things to concern yourself with, etc..  

There's another wrinkle to this, which is that The Good, which occupies the highest rung of this cosmic ladder, is extremely difficult to know, and may be ultimately unknowable.  In Plato's famous "Allegory of the Cave" in the Republic, we are seeing mere shadows, of rather dubious being, until we can climb out of the cave and encounter daylight - but even here, the Form of the Good (which is the Form of Forms) is represented by the sun, high up and far away, so that even after we have emerged from the cave, we cannot reach it.  The Good is the most uncanny and vexing problem for us, and many dialogues, searching for a meaning, end aporetically.  (One way of saying this is that it seems the Good both is and is not identical with truth, with justice, with skill, with piety, etc., etc..)

Some people, in the wake of Socrates - Christian theologians, for instance - will try to reconcile the cosmic order with piety by making the Good itself into God.  We see parallel traditions attempting something similar among Jewish and Islamic thinkers, and in fact this struggle is much older than Christianity: in particular, we can see certain philosophers - Stoics, Middle Platonists, and Neoplatonists, among them - attempting some kind of identification between God and the Good.  Thus, all of the distinctions and complex layering of reality into "nous," "intellect," etc..  Eventually, this becomes a mysticism in which the unknowability of the Good is transformed into the unknowability of God (see Meister Eckhart, etc.).

Another tactic, not entirely unrelated to the above, is the (pseudo-)Aristotelian or (pseudo-)Epicurean attempt to identify the Good with happiness, or with pleasure, respectively.  (I put "pseudo-" in parentheses because some scholars may dispute that this is what those venerated thinkers were up to.)

Still another tactic, not totally separate from the others already mentioned, would be to identify the Good with Nature.  This is the strategy employed by Spinoza, for instance, and again we can see predecessors for this among the Stoics and others.

Aristotle believed that everyone pursues their own conception of the Good.  Thus the conflict is not so much between good and evil as it is between different conceptions of the Good - and if the Good is identified with God, then that would include conflict between differing conceptions of God.

So, what is it?  Is the Good identical with piety?  With God?  With nature?  With happiness?  With pleasure?  All of the above?  None of the above?  The riddle is not solved, and different conceptions of the Good will inevitably come into conflict.  But as one skims over history, one cannot help getting the sense that often, these conflicts - the Crusades, for instance - are nothing but an acting out.  The Christians lash out against a supposed external threat because they cannot face the fundamental incoherence of their own conception of the Good.  All of these people in these historical conflicts have no clear positive conception of piety, of what it means, where it comes from, its consistence and persistence, and so on, and the best they can do is to act negatively, to attack (what they percieve as) impiety.  This is the via negativa: they can only state what God isn't (it's not those idols worshiped by those guys over there, etc.), never what God is.  Thus, witch-hunts, etc..

Eventually, a new celestial hierarchy emerges.  The new idealism, which we can call the Enlightenment, appears in the wake of a climax of violence (the Knights' Revolt, the Peasants' War, and finally the genocidal 30 Years' War - not to mention Bloody Mary, etc.), and, subsequently, another wave of violence that demonstrated the utter arbitrariness of the sides drawn during the first (the "Stately Quadrille," including the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, (Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia) and the subsequent 7 Years' War, which in the United States is called the "French and Indian War" and lasted 9 years), first articulated by people like John Locke, then later the Encyclopedists, and finally is fully codified in the work of people like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson.

For the Platonists and their descendants, the Gods had been demoted and replaced by an abstract moral principle, the Good.  For the Enlightenment thinkers, even the Good was demoted, and even this abstract principle occupied a lower and less important rung - above God, but still not at the top.  Hume and Kant, each in their own way, tell us that the Good in itself is unknowable.  The aporetic character of the Good is incorporated into its very conception, undermining it in a fundamental way.  Now what is highest is a kind of negative principle - instead of a positive conception of the Good, it is a kind of conceptual absence - namely, Freedom.  What is highest, what is most worthy of protection, is not The Good, per se, but our rights.

In some ways, this formulation of the cosmic hierarchy is simply the logical development of the earlier structures.  The seed of the Enlightenment view is already there in the Platonic (and perhaps even the pre-Platonic) conception, and everything follows from these ultimate axiomatic assumptions like the solution to a math problem: "We hold these truths to be self-evident."  Thus, Thomas Jefferson's writings constitute the end of history, in every sense: the purpose of history, the culmination of history, the clarification of history.  Jefferson tells us that our rights come from God, and speaks of "Nature and Nature's God," but ultimately one senses that God and Nature don't matter much in his argument - they are window dressing.  What matters, ultimately, is our rights.  And these rights are no guarantee.  They do not guarantee that we will know the truth, they do not guarantee that we will attain the conception of the Form of the Good.  They do not even guarantee happiness, but only protect "the pursuit of happiness," which may ever evade us.

A person living today may not believe in God, but they still assert their rights.  This is the modern celestial hierarchy: Freedom at the top, conceived as a group of rights; below that, the Good, which may or may not exist, and which is for all practical purposes unknowable; below that, Nature, which may or may not exist, and is unknowable; below that, God, or Gods, which may or may not exist (Notice, it's Nature's God, not God's Nature); and so on.  Implied in this conception, and only waiting for someone to tease them out, are existentialism, postmodernism, and moral relativism.

The doctrine of rights is thus the culmination of the history of idealism.  Rights, in this conception, are strange things: they simultaneously can be said to exist, and not to exist.  Or to put it differently, they exist, but not at a material level (for instance, "all [people] are created equal" - we are not all equally tall, or of equal weight, or equally strong, or equally intelligent, or equally rich, or equally liked, or equally happy, or equal in any measurable, physical way at all, but we are nonetheless equal - we have "equal rights," we are equal "before the law").  These rights are not materially real.  They are axiomatic, however.  A person may doubt everything else, but they never doubt their rights - or at least, not without doubting the entire Enlightenment worldview, which is the culmination of the history of the west.  Rights are the holy of holies.  Their existence is not dependent on belief in God or belief in the Good or belief in Nature, but primary.  Indeed, their existence makes possible belief in all of the other, secondary forms of idealism.  Indeed, freedom can be conceived not as a goal, an end to be attained, but as a making-possible, which is nothing in itself and potentially everything.  (In an alchemical mood, we could compare it to the prima materia.)

Thus there is a strange, almost paradoxical character to this schema of history.  The fundamental thing, the Absolute, upon which all the other relative existents depend, comes not at the beginning of the story, but at the end of it.  At its end, history produces its own foundation.

In the development of this history - from the pre-Socratic, mystical world in which the top of the cosmic hierarchy is piety, to the Platonic world in which we managed to make out something even higher than piety, namely the Good, to the Enlightenment world, in which we manage to make out something even higher than the Good, namely Freedom - can be seen as a step toward emptying out the determinate content of the top of the hierarchy, clarifying it, clearing it out, getting rid of all the excess clutter.  Cleaning out the attic, as it were.  At the beginning, it is filled with all kinds of superstitious baubles and trinkets, ceremonial vestments, bells, all kinds of characteristics, in Aristotle's sense, from Hephaestus's limp leg to Athena's owl.  The end of history, which may or may not be fully attainable, has a Zen-like luminosity and emptiness.

Notice that the title of this is "An" alternate schema of historical idealism.  This implies 2 things: first, it's only one of many possible historical schemata.  It's different from Hegel's, in some important ways, though there are some strong parallels, as well.  For one thing, it's much simpler (or more simplistic, if you prefer).  (As an alternative to Hegel's schema, you might call this simple schema the "American patriotic schema of historical idealism".)

Secondly, we are speaking, of course, of historical idealism - not historical materialism, which would have an entirely different schema (or perhaps no schema at all...!). 

One last note, which is perhaps most important of all: this is a profoundly parochial schema, focused almost exclusively on the tradition of the so-called "west".  And by its own negative principle, which shrugs off all dogma and all determinative content, it must open itself up to a larger view of history which includes the history of those parts of the world excluded from it. 


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