Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities: A Deep Dive

Although Friedrich Nietzsche makes references to it in much of his earlier writings, his first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals most thoroughly outlines the philosopher’s famed concept of the disparity between master-slave moralities that are found within human societies, and how this disparity—and the ensuing conflict from it—greatly influences our perception of moral values in modern times.

Nietzsche begins his prose by denouncing the basic tenants of utilitarianism, the ethical position that the value of an action’s goodness is innately correlated with the utility it holds for maximizing the collective well-being or happiness of a group, as nothing more but the ‘idiosyncrasy of the English psychologists”[1] (undoubtedly, a reference to English utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but also sociologists like Herbert Spencer).

Nietzsche’s attack on utilitarianism is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It distances him from the other leading secular moral philosophies of his day, ensuring no confusion will arise in the reader’s mind about Nietzsche’s allegiances on account of his own irreligious convictions. 2. It gives him the opportunity to explain the primary objective he is hoping to achieve through his essay. The first reason is self-explanatory, and a minor add-on to the greater context. The second, on the other hand, cuts to the core of the matter in how Nietzsche’s criticism of utilitarianism stems from his desire to seek the origin of human morality (to trace its genealogy), and explain how and why good and bad have come to be assigned the values they currently possess; the modern function of moral values—defining good as that which increases happiness—is of no importance to Nietzsche’s project.

To Nietzsche the claim that utility is the measure of morality would have been something to reject instinctively, since he spent a great deal of time showing how mankind willingly subjects itself to a number of moral virtues that hold no utility to its happiness whatsoever (his extensive critique of religion is a good example of this); hence, he would argue, that to maximize utility could not have been the origin of our morality, but exists solely as an arbitrary ethical maxim of modern times.

Instead, Nietzsche proposes a far simpler origin for moral values, one in which what he calls the aristocratic nobility “seized the right to create values and to coin names for values.”[2] To support his proposition, he makes large use of the etymological roots found across differing languages in relation to the moral conception of good:

I found they all led back to the same conceptual transformation—that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” ‘with a soul of a higher order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebeian,” “low’ are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”[3]

Here, Nietzsche is plainly stating that modern thinkers are approaching the issue of moral values backwards, mistakenly attributing the origin of concepts like good to the lower ranks of society, rather than the high-ranking nobility, who alone [according to Nietzsche] held the creative aptitude to assign meaning to such values. The reason why this is little explored is explained by Nietzsche as a result of the ineptness of modern thinkers to contemplate the topic objectively due to their reasoning having been polluted.

With regard to a moral genealogy this seems to me a fundamental insight; that it has been arrived at so late is the fault of the retarding influence exercised by the democratic prejudice in the modern world toward all questions of origin.[4]

In other words, most of us are too blinded in out idealistic devotion to populist sentiments about the virtue of egalitarianism, and other such “democratic prejudices,” to ever consider the possibility that the origin of moral values resides within a much more exclusionary, hierarchal framework—that it is the privileged who rightly define the good, because the downtrodden are too sickly in conscience to possess the capability to do any such thing; hence, all they create will by definition be bad.

This line of reasoning reinforces much of the same preference for the individual few, over the herd-instinct masses, found throughout Nietzsche’s other writings. As Nietzsche probably sees it, his willingness to bluntly state that the lowly, underprivileged members of society are a representation of the decadency—not the preservation—of good moral values, would have been an affirmation that, unlike his contemporaries, he is not afraid to explore the genealogy of human morality from all conceivable angles. To support his case, Nietzsche makes extensive use of his academic training as a philologist, and offers up a plethora worth of linguistic examples to support his aristocratic-origin proposition (sections 5, 10, 11, 15, and a brief note on the importance of linguistics on the subject, by Nietzsche himself, can be found in section 17).

A fair criticism of Nietzsche’s method would be to point out that (with the exception of a handful of examples) the etymological evidence he presents is largely Eurocentric, and therefore might be deemed as insufficient to explain the origin of all moral values. Of course, it is unlikely that Nietzsche would have seen this critique as much of a counter to his ideas, since his goal is to show the true origin of the modern values we currently hold. And given the influence Westernization has had on the rest of the globe (even by Nietzsche’s time) the philosopher would most likely have made the point that the morals of Europe have also largely been imposed as the morals of the world [for better or for worse].

As mentioned, Nietzsche points out that the origin of words like good, light, noble, courageous, all trace to an aristocratic root, whereas words like “bad,” “ugly,” “dark,” “cowardice,” all trace back to the lower plebeian masses. It is clear that Nietzsche sees more worth in aristocratic over plebeian values, however he does also state that this highest caste will also inevitably splinter itself into contending knightly and priestly sects,[5] out of which a conflict between concepts of “pure” and “impure” will emerge, causing a rift in the aristocratic value judgment. Given Nietzsche’s hostility towards all things religious, a decent argument can be made how this description is a subtle critique of this perceived higher aristocracy, whose superiority the philosopher appeared to have been praising hitherto, but is now admitting to a defect in its structure; namely, the emergence of this priestly aristocracy:

There is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternative between brooding and emotional explosions, habits which seem to have as their almost invariable consequences that intestinal morbidity—must one not assert that it has ultimately proved itself a hundred times more dangerous in its effects that the sickness it was supposed to cure?[6]

It is telling that Nietzsche does not attempt to blame the emergence of the priestly aristocracy on a corruption of the higher caste by the lower masses, leading to the conclusion that this unhealthy sect is a natural product of the nobility itself—leaving room for the assessment that the noble aristocracy is ultimately unstable. As to why Nietzsche chooses not to state this observation openly, one can only speculate that since he sees the influence of the priestly morality as a far more detrimental force on the values of the modern world, he reasoned that its direct refutation held more urgency. Or, perhaps, this subtle hint of a critique against aristocratic morals was an appetizer to an upcoming larger work Nietzsche was planning (i.e. his never written tome The Reevaluation of All Values), which might have included a broader critical assessment of the higher caste, too. Whatever the case, Nietzsche is clear in his assessment that the priestly aristocracy is a natural branch-off from what he calls the knightly-aristocracy:

The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies—but why? Because they are the most impotent.[7]

At this point Nietzsche’s narrative can become a bit murky, and care must be taken in order to thoroughly follow along, without falling into the trap of generalizing and misreading key parts of the text.

Having proposed that the aristocratic nobility is the only plausible contender to serve the role of being the original arbitrators of goodness, and subsequently all moral values, Nietzsche then goes on to suggest that the perversion of this true origin of moral concepts must have arisen from within the aristocratic caste, too—namely, the impotent priestly aristocracy—because the lower masses are not capable of assigning any sort of unique value judgment on their own, unless they are guided by the corruption or stupidity of greater minds.

Now, is the part where Nietzsche’s essay gets very controversial, by which I mean statements like the following:

The Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical evaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness.[8]

Famed Nietzschean writer, Walter Kaufmann, is adamant about the fact that Nietzsche’s views here should not be confused with the ramblings of a bigoted anti-Semite, on account that Nietzsche’s reference to the ancient Jewish people places them amongst the superior aristocratic nobility, and not with the inferior herd-like plebian masses. In chapter 10 of his biography of the philosopher (conveniently titled Nietzsche) Kaufmann explains that, to Nietzsche, ancient Jerusalem (and its inhabitants) served as a representation of the priestly-aristocratic values, in contrast to ancient Rome’s (and its inhabitants) knightly-aristocratic values. Thus, Nietzsche’s mistakenly attributed anti-Semitism is actually just his desire to give historical context to his ideas. And, of course, Nietzsche, who sees himself as the foremost opponent of Abrahamic values, decided to go right to the originators of what he deems to be the cause of today’s ignorance and degeneration of moral values.

[Note: Personally, I don’t consider it my job to defend Nietzsche’s views against charges of bigotry, and the fact that the man often seemed to go to great pains to be misunderstood by the layperson is his problem, not mine. Having read his writings, and being aware of his personal bouts with everyone from his sister, to former friend Richard Wagner, to even his own editor, over their adherences to anti-Semitic prejudices, it would be disingenuous of me to act as if I find the charge of this specific bigotry against Nietzsche in the least bit convincing. On the other hand, it is no secret that Nietzsche openly professed a deep prejudice against all things religious, in particular all things Christian. Thus, as he must have seen it, since his aim is to attack the heavily Christian influenced morality of his day, it would be incomprehensible for him to not mention (and denounce) the precursory faith to Christian values.]

To Nietzsche, what sets the (“knightly”) aristocracy apart from the masses is its ability—one might even say compulsion—to exhibit a great sense of physicality to meet its need for self-affirmation, to act in accordance to one’s creative impulses, and to do so unashamedly. The priestly-aristocracy is different, in that it’s impotence on matters of physical assertion causes it by necessity to retreat to the concocted realm of spirituality, in a spiteful attempt to satisfy its creative compulsion. In doing so, the priestly aristocracy inverts the aristocratic values-equation by surreptitiously redefining moral concepts into spiritual terms. Meaning that where it was once understood that it is the strong, the noble, the cunning, and the healthy that stand as embodiments of the morally good, it is now perverted to a monstrosity of contrary assertions:

Wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God / and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned![9]

This, Nietzsche argues, is the birth of the slave revolt in morality. And he attributes its origin squarely on the emergence of Abrahamic moral virtues, beginning with Judaism, but perfected by Christianity, with its emphasis on the meek and mild, and the wish to place hope in the sheepish entrance of a heavenly kingdom, rather than an affirmation of life incarnate. Leading to Nietzsche’s proclamation, “What is certain, at least, is that sub hoc signo (lat. “Under this sign”) Israel, with its vengefulness and revaluation of all values, has hitherto triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.”[10] And this is the moral tradition the modern world has inherited today.

Nietzsche anticipated the protestation that such an assertion would bring out in his contemporaries, and faces the charge of anti-egalitarianism that his views are guaranteed to arouse headfirst. The philosopher attributed this reflexive defensiveness as a symptom of how deep the poison of the slave revolt in morality has permeated into the core of social consciousness; declaring that even his fellow irreligionists (so-called “free spirits”) are also helpless to its affect, mockingly stating, “Apart from the church, we, too, love the poison.”[11]

Nietzsche summarizes the psychological development of this slave mentality as follows:

The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed.[12]

It would be a mistake to translate Nietzsche’s usage of ressentiment to refer to a simple emotion of “resentment” or jealousy exhibited by the impotent priestly aristocracy against their active knightly counterparts. It is better thought of as a mode of reaction against hostile external stimuli. The priestly slave moralists are too impotent to act spontaneously and are therefore entirely dependent on perpetually exerting themselves against what they perceive to be hostile external forces. In contrast to their noble counterparts, whose moral mode of valuation does not seek out an opposition in order to validate its own convictions, slave morality tries to compensate for its inferior position by reassigning its own weaknesses into purported strengths, which is done by decrying the strengths of its superiors as wicked and sinful—everlastingly depending on the acts of the supposed sinner to give itself relevance. All of this causes a shift in the moral pendulum, and a subversion of what was once good (being strong and active), to mean what is now good (being meek and passive). This subversion is at the heart of ressentiment.

Nietzsche acknowledges that this does not mean that the noble mode of valuation is infallible, in any sense, only that when it commits, “blunders and sins against reality, it does so in respect to the sphere with which it is not sufficiently familiar, against a real knowledge of which it has indeed inflexibly guarded itself.”[13] Meaning that the noble mode of valuation makes mistakes, but out of ignorance, not malice.

This sounds like another subtle criticism by Nietzsche against the noble aristocracy, expressing that their disposition can cause them to express a certain degree of naiveté about the common man of the lower orders. Presumably, because when one looks at an opponent from a higher plane, it becomes too easy to forge a falsified image of one’s enemies. However, this does leave the question open as to why the noble aristocracy seems to not be able to properly evaluate the morally corrupt priestly (“slave moralist”) caste, which resides within the same higher ranks of the intellectual hierarchy? The answer Nietzsche gives to this question is that since noble man “live in trust and openness with himself,” he is left defenseless against the underhanded slave moralist, because, “a race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree.”[14]

Despite common misconceptions, Nietzsche does not see cleverness as a needed trait of the noble individual, seeing it as less essential to a healthy mind than the possession of sound instinctive cognition. Another point of clarification is also the issue of whether or not ressentiment ever appears in the psych of the noble man. Nietzsche’s position is that if it does, the great physical exertion of the nobility will cause it to be exhausted before it has any chance to corrupt the noble man’s mind. The inactive, and impotent, slave moralist, on the other hand, has no means to relieve this poison from its body, and thereby inevitably becomes consumed by it.

Nietzsche is thoroughly convinced that modern culture is completely infiltrated by its unwavering devotion to slave morality, as demonstrated by the domestication of man:

The meaning of all culture as is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, then one would undoubtedly have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment through whose aid the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and overthrown as the actual instruments of culture.[15]

For Nietzsche, the cultural progression of mankind over the centuries has in reality been a regression of man’s true nature. With every step forward representing a step further into the abyss of a decadent moral framework:

We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent.[16]

The slave revolt of morality has spread its impotence over the masses, in fact, has given leverage to the lowly plebian ranks, and now we lie content with our mediocrity and herald our indolence as a show of virtue against barbarianism:

To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.[17]

Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed. Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.

Also, according to Nietzsche, religious and spiritual expressions are the primary venue by which this slave revolt, this ressentiment, was made possible. The moral shift of emphasis on an unearthly paradise, the call to be mild and meek in face of opposition, while simultaneously proclaiming one’s spiritual superiority on account of one’s physical weakness. And, above all else, to claim this faux-superiority by proxy of an otherworldly Being, who will issue a final judgment on the submissive slave’s behalf, is to Nietzsche the perfect expression of what he calls ressentiment; primarily, because this is the very origin of the slave revolt of morality:

In faith in what? In love of what? In hope of what?—These weak people—some day or other they too intend to be the strong, there is no doubt of that, some day their “kingdom” too shall come—they term it “the kingdom of God,” of course, as aforesaid: for one is so very humble in all things![18]

Or, as the philosopher put it in a more historical context:

“Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome”:–there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.

Personally, I remain largely unconvinced by Nietzsche’s a priori attempt to glorify ancient Rome as a last remnant of sound moral value,[19] as it ignores the fact that much of Rome’s claim to conquest was shrouded in myth and superstition. Which brings up the subsequent issue of whether Nietzsche’s emphasis on physical assertion as a buffer against spiritual thinking holds much weight under historical scrutiny (though it should be acknowledged that Nietzsche is right about ancient Rome not placing much value on passive-aggressive virtues like humility and modesty).

As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche’s statement that a corrupt priestly caste will branch off from the aristocratic-value judgment, is a base admission that the noble aristocracy is not all too stable to withstand long-term opposition, in particular because it exhibits no trait in wanting to subvert its moral opposition. Bringing up the question of just how superior their moral-value truly is, if it is incapable of surviving the assault of a weak and impotent foe? But, undoubtedly, these would have been seen by Nietzsche as minor objections to his primary goal of overturning the popular conception that what we in the modern world perceive as morally good, is an absolute reflection of reality, and to contemplate about the possibility that our judgment has been clouded through generations worth of social conditioning. Furthermore, I will give credit to Nietzsche for not laying claim to the final word on the subject, and urging readers to not cease the quest for the origin of moral values here:

Whoever begins at this point, like my readers, to reflect and pursue his train of thought will not soon come to the end of it.[20]

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, section 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, section 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, section 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, section 8.

[11] Ibid, section 9.

[12] Ibid, section 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, section 11.

[16] Ibid, section 12.

[17] Ibid, section 13.

[18] Ibid, section 15.

[19] Ibid, section 16.

[20] Ibid, section 17.

Treatise on Blasphemy

Blasphemy - What Is It and Why Is It So Deadly? Bible Truths

Recently the Republic of Ireland held a referendum to repeal longstanding blasphemy offenses in its country.  While blasphemy still stands as a finable offense in the Republic under the 2009 Defamation Act, the referendum is still a demonstration that, as far as the Irish people are concerned, charges of blasphemy ought not to be a part of punishable civil law in their nation.

Friends of my adopted homeland here in the United States usually have a conception of Western Europe as being made up of a set of predominantly secular and progressive cultures.  And speaking as someone who spent many years growing up in Western Europe, this conception isn’t wholly unfounded.  As a result, it might astound many Americans to hear that some of these secular, progressive, ultra-liberal, borderline lefty countries still have enforceable blasphemy laws in place.  Granted, the actual enforceability of such laws is largely theoretical in nature, given that they are usually undermined by far more salient laws allowing for the freedom of religious expression and the freedom to believe in accordance to one’s personal conscience.  Thus, blasphemy laws currently exist as a vestigial organ in European law books; without practical purpose or application, but still present nonetheless.

“If these laws are unworkable, than why even bother to fret about them with referendums at all?  Why not just continue to ignore them, and get on with your blaspheming ways?”

This could be a reasonable response, but it misses an important point concerning blasphemy laws.  Putting aside the fact that it makes perfect sense to oppose the criminality of blasphemy on principle alone as unbecoming of any modern democratic nation, there is also the issue of the frailty on which the laxity of these laws currently exist.  To put it more plainly, the reason blasphemy charges are unworkable in most of the European nations that have them is precisely because the current sociopolitical climate is too secular and progressive to enforce them.  However, as any student of history knows, sociopolitical climates are anything but static.  So what happens if the political pendulum swings too far to the right, towards a political faction that views the protection of religious sensibilities as far more important to a nation’s cultural well-being, than the free expression of its citizenry?  Suddenly, these outdated blasphemy laws that have had no real thrust in civil law for almost two centuries, become a very powerful weapon in the hands of reactionaries all too eager to use the existing rule of law to conform society to their line of quasi-pious thinking.  And this is a potential threat both believers and unbelievers alike ought to be concerned about.

Blasphemy isn’t simply the act of professing one’s disbelieve in religious claims, whole cloth.  Blasphemy is the very nature in which all religions profess the very doctrines that make up their faiths.

Whenever polytheistic faiths, like certain sects of Hinduism, profess the existence of multiple gods, they are blaspheming against monotheistic religions which insist that there is only one god, and none other (and vice versa).  Within the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, when Christians profess that Jesus Christ is the foretold messiah, they are blasphemy against the Jewish faiths that claim that the messiah is yet to come (and vice versa).  When Muslims claim that Jesus, though a prophet and a messiah, is not the son of God, they are blaspheming against a central claim of Christianity.  The Catholic Church’s stance on the supremacy of the Roman papacy is blasphemous to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant rejection of Catholic ecclesiastical authority is blasphemous to Catholics.  The Methodists are blasphemers to the Calvinists, and just about every Christian sect considers Mormonism a heresy.

The obvious point here is that to take away the right to blaspheme is to make it impossible for religious pluralism to exist within a society.  Perhaps this is fine as long as your religious opinion is the dominant one in the society you inhabit, but what happens if you find yourself just short of the majority opinion?  What if a population shift occurs, and the very laws that enforced the thin-skinned sensibilities of your religious persuasion becomes the means why which the new dominant line of thought undermines your right to religious expression?

I could stop writing now, and end on this appeal for mutual cordiality between people of all faiths, and how it is in everyone’s self-interest to oppose blasphemy laws, but I fear it would leave things very much against the spirit of healthy discomfort that blasphemy really should elicit in a person when coming across it.  On that note, allow me address the elephant in the room that needs to be brought up when concerns regarding religious offense of any sort, in law or public discourse, rears its head.

Undeniably, religions make bold claims for themselves.  Claims that offer definitive answers on matters concerning life, death, morality, with a wager on possessing a monopoly on Truth with a capital T.  And they are always keen to wrap this all-knowing, all-encompassing bit of absolutist wisdom in a garb of self-proclaimed humility, as if to say, “No, no, don’t mind me…I’m simply professing to know the answers to all of life’s mysteries, ready made with the consequences (read: threat) that will befall you if you don’t follow along with my modest creed.”

In short, religions by their inherit design simply claim to know things they couldn’t possibly know.  But I, in turn, admit that I don’t know.  I don’t know what the answers to life’s mysteries are; nor do I know which of today’s mysteries will remain mysterious forever, and which might become common knowledge for subsequent generations to come.  I don’t know which moral answers yield the most objective good for humanity; nor can I say for sure that such answers are even completely knowable.  The truths I do know come with a lowercase t, held provisionally in accordance to forthcoming evidence and reasoned arguments, and I don’t know if I can do anything other than to reject the grammar of bolder Truth claims when confronted with them.

It is precisely that I don’t know that I am left with little recourse than to examine, question, dismiss, disbelieve, and (when I see fit) deride those who do claim to know, but offer hardly a dearth of evidence for their claim.  It took centuries of debate and bloodshed of previous generations of thinkers for any of us to be able to enjoy this simple — yet powerful — privilege to skepticism.  A privilege I do hold up as my right, and which I will speak up for without hesitation or apology.  What you call blasphemy, I call critical thought.  And if anyone can appeal to traditions as a means to protect religious sensibilities by legal means, I am fully within my right to appeal to the tradition of cultural and intellectual pushback towards religious doctrines and religious authorities that has made it possible for any sort of interfaith (and non-faith) social cohesion to exist in the modern world.  A tradition that includes both the right to the profane and the blasphemous, which cannot be allowed to be abridged in a democratic republic, for as long as one wishes to be part of any nation worthy of the claim.

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Hypotheses non fingo, hypothesis non egeo

“A god without dominion providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature.”[1]

Much of the 18th Century Enlightenment can be explained by the approach framed by one man, Sir Isaac Newton, whose emphasis on analysis and observation served as a model for future scientific generations that sought to follow in his footsteps.  But unlike many of the minds that would succeed him, Newton was a devout believer in divine authority, and saw no reason to dissever the word of the Almighty from the laws of Nature—ultimately deducing them to be one and the same.  Although Newton saw no contradictions in appealing to the supernatural as a valid explanation to matters of scientific inquiry, the empiricism of 18th Century France began to direct science further away towards the realm of strict materialist rationalism.  In the late 18th and early 19th Century, mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, admiringly called the Newton of France by contemporaries, was the embodiment of the latter sentiment; working relentlessly to understand and solve the minute details Newton had either overlooked or deemed divinely guided.

Laplace’s work was an ambitious attempt to account for how the solar system works; hence appealing to agents beyond the scope of man’s intellect (meaning his intellect) was not just unsatisfactory, but downright unacceptable.  This naturalistic mindset is best illustrated by the oft repeated exchange he had with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802: the story goes how upon receiving one of Laplace’s latest manuscripts aiming to systematically account for the functions of the universe, Napoleon turned to the mathematician and asked Laplace why it is that he had written an entire book about the intricate details of the universe with no mention of God in it, to which Laplace answered bluntly, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”[2]  This exchange reveals much about Laplace’s personal weltanschauung concerning the utility of accepting metaphysical analyses.  Ironically, it also further imitates Newton’s legacy by setting a precedent; a standard of doing science that influenced the subsequent generation of European thinkers to come.  Except in the model set by Pierre Simon Laplace, theology and deities could have no role in scientific reality.

In Laplace’s quest to decipher the mathematical properties of the universe, he committed himself wholeheartedly to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation as proposed by the English natural philosopher in his Principia Mathematica.  To Laplace, if there existed a concept that could bring all the functions known to science at the time together it was gravity as described by Newton, and it is of importance to note that when it comes to his mathematical calculations, Laplace is a strict Newtonian.  And the system he deduced to be at work from all this was self-operating, and firmly set, rendering appeals to the supernatural redundant in the highest degree.  Thus, Laplace must have been baffled to know that Newton himself was not as strict a Newtonian as Laplace was, because despite laying out a mechanical approach to understanding the cosmos, he still left room for a supernatural agent—i.e. God—to not just set the mechanism in motion, but also tinker with it as the he saw necessary.[3]

One particular case that Newton noted as evidence of occasional divine intervention in the solar system concerned the gravitational interactions of Saturn and Jupiter, whose strange pattern of accelerating and decelerating as they revolved on their orbits produced certain mathematical irregularities that suggested that the planetary system would become unstable over time.[4]  And it is in this sort of an apparently scientific anomaly that Newton asserted that the hand of God is required to sustain and stabilize the system into order.  Laplace could not accept Newton’s conclusion on this problem, and would spent a significant amount of his professional career providing mathematical evidence as to why Newton was wrong to presuppose divine assistance when his own work points to quite the opposite.

Laplace’s earliest attempt to answer the dilemma posed by the Jupiter/Saturn problem, presented in 1773, resulted in his conclusion that the gravitational attraction mutually exerted by planets was negligible, even nil.[5]  However, he did not find this answer satisfactory, and presented another—what he considered more thorough—explanation a decade later to the French Academy of Sciences, in his famous 1785 paper, Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et satellites.  Here, Laplace approached the Jupiter/Saturn problem by stating that the discrepancies observed in regard to planetary orbits, and how their motions affected the relative stability of the solar system, can be accounted for mathematically because they do in fact regularly reverse themselves when one maps out their motions on a long-term basis, proving the system to be stable after all.[6]  Though we know today that Laplace’s calculations exaggerated the stability of the solar system (there exists quite a bit of irregularity in the cosmos), his unyielding pursuit of a naturalistic explanation to the problem gives a lot of insight into his staunch determinism, where every event is caused by a verifiably preceding event and will result in a predictable consequent, excluding supernaturalism from its framework.  It is the principle around which Laplace would strive to orient his scientific career, and establish his personal ideals under.

By 1802, the year of his famous encounter with the First Consul of France, Laplace was 53 years old and highly regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians in France.  He had survived the turmoil of the French Revolution that had taken the lives of so many of his colleagues by always maneuvering himself in the right political circles, but never associating himself to any one group closely enough to suffer their eventual downfalls.  Throughout the mid-late 1790s, Laplace began to have an increasing presence within political circles, starting with a string of leading positions in the founding of the Bureau des Longitudes (created in 1795 for the advancement of astronomy in the French Republic) and the Institute National des Sciences et des Arts (serving as a successor to the defunct Academy of Sciences, organized for the purpose of utilizing science for the benefit of the new Republic).  Laplace’s role as a leading figure in France’s scientific community made his inclusion in these activities a necessity for the state, and brought him closer into the spotlight of the national scene, meaning closer to the man who was accumulating more power within France, Napoleon Bonaparte—the recipient of Laplace’s blunt statement about God’s absence in the workings of the universe.

A lot of Laplace’s influence in the early 19th Century can be attributed to his personal relationship with General Bonaparte, who upon seizing power in 1799 appointed the mathematician as his minister of the interior. This gave Laplace his first taste of true political power (even though Napoleon soon regretted the decision, as the ministerial post proved to be a poor match for the meticulous scientists).  Later in life, Laplace would comment how when it comes to politically ambitious individuals, “rather than crave their lot, I am more likely to pity them.”[7]  Though he relieved Laplace as minister of the interior soon after appointing him, Napoleon ensured Laplace’s position in a more politically ceremonial role in the newly forged Senate in late 1799, naming him secretary of the Senate in 1800, and eventually chancellor of the Senate in 1803.  Laplace used his sway in politics to benefit science and its practitioners, and indeed it appears as if his primary actions involved the advancement of scientific institutes,[8] earning him much praise from the rest of the academic world.[9]  This is very much in contrast to his idol Newton, who mostly shied away from the public eye all through his life.  Also unlike Newton, Laplace did not care to allow potential successors to arbitrarily follow in his footsteps, but sought to carefully select the best and the brightest to be included in his scientific projects; founding an elite social club for budding scientists called the Societe d’Arcueil in 1806 to promote what is referred to today as the Laplacian program.  The Laplacian program of precise experimentation and consistent mathematical theory set-up by the Societe would influence the direction of French scientific learning for nearly two decades, only fading out close to Laplace’s death in the 1820s as the group virtually imploded in its overreaching quest to account for everything in existence.

The standard by which Laplace was eager to frame and promote the study of science was a clear reflection of his own ambitious attempt to explain the nature of the various components, and how they operate to make up all the matter surrounding life and the universe.[10]  Thus, the only logically consistent position this sort of mindset could lead to for someone like Laplace is that as far as he is concerned the laws of nature are static, leaving no room for miracles of any sort, chiding past and contemporary scientists for straying away from what he thought ought to have been their better judgment and slipping into the realm of unfounded superstition.[11]

Laplace clearly idolized Newton, and was thoroughly committed to Newton’s theory of gravity as a universal truth that gives a sufficient account of how the solar system functions.  But he never shared Newton’s strong religious convictions, and never understood how a mind so great as to practically invent physics, did not reach the same metaphysical conclusions Laplace himself had done through his own work on calculating the cosmos.[12]  Whereas Newton asserted that the observation of peculiar patterns in the motion of planets and other celestial bodies was a sign for the occasional suspension of natural laws to validate the necessity of a Supreme Being’s oversight in the ultimate structure of the universe, Laplace saw these same peculiarities as natural consequences of these very same laws Newton was willing to suspend, seeing no function for God to play in what he considered to be a wholly deterministic system.

Laplace was a young man he was dubbed the “Newton of France,” but, unfortunately, Newton had not left a lot of unexplored domains for his intellectual heir to discover, leaving the ambitious Frenchman to be content with exploring the areas where his forbearer had been negligent: working out the minuscule details that combine to make up the grand picture.  To a devout believer such as Isaac Newton, the presence of God within our reality is the grandest of all explanations; to a man like Pierre-Simon Laplace, focusing on the minute workings of the larger framework, the concept of God can never reach more than a hypothesis.  A hypothesis that might be satisfactory to the philosophically inclined, but to Laplace, the empiricist, the scientist, it is a hypothesis for which there is no need.

[1] Newton, Isaac.  1687.  Principia Mathematica. “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy, Rule IV”.

[2] Hahn, Roger. The Analytic Spirit, ed. Harry Wolf. “Laplace and the Vanishing Role of God in the Physical Universe” (Ithaca, 1981), p. 85.

[3] Newton, Isaac. 1776.  Principia. General Scholium.

[4] Gillispie, Charles Couston.  Pierre-Simon Laplace: A Life in Exact Science (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1997, p. 47.

[5] Hahn, Roger.  Pierre Simon Laplace: A Determined Scientist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 2005, p. 78.

[6] Laplace, Pierre Simon.  1785.  “Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et des satellites.”  A detailed account that helps to clarify some of the technical jargon of Laplace’s conclusions can be found in Chapter 16 of Gillispie’s book, titled “Planetary Astronomy”, p. 124-145.

[7] Hahn 2005, p. 130.

[8] Hahn 2005, p. 133-134.

[9] Monatliche Corrospondenz zur Beforderung der Erd-und Himmels-Kunde 6, 1802, p. 272-278

[10] Laplace, Pierre-Simon. 1801. Mecanique Celeste, p. 121-122.   

[11] Moniteur Universal. 28 January 1795, p. 530.

[12] Hahn 2005, p. 201.

The Tower of Babel: An Alternative Perspective

When people speak of a need for their faith in God/s, they almost always come around to expressing how–though they’ll readily grant that organized religion, as an institution, may at times fall short of the ideal–the faith and grace of the Almighty still resonates in the hearts of all mankind (whether they acknowledge His omnipresence or not), and serves as the one true guiding force by which we may hope to find solidarity; through which we can strive to attain peace of mind, and (ultimately) peace on Earth, as surely as we are to find it in the coming hereafter.

When looked through the scope of the narrative found in the Book of Genesis, important events like man’s banishment from Eden, and the subsequent Great Flood meant to purge the world from the sinfulness that man had spawned in the world thereafter, are further reassurances of the need man has for God’s eternal presence in his life, without which he is doomed to be lost to both personal solace and eternal salvation.  Moreover, if we dwell further into the Christian perspective, it is in the figure of Jesus Christ–wherein God became man, and died at the hands of man, for the sake of absolving said man of his sin so that he may once more gain eternal life in Heaven at the side of his Creator–where we find the long awaited mending of the rift between man and his spiritual soul, and bring peace between the physical and metaphysical realms.

Given all of the above, the Tower of Babel stands as a rarely explored peculiarity to the common narrative.  The story of the Tower begins in the first verse of Chapter 11, in the Book of Genesis (this is after the banishment from Eden, and after the Great Flood had already taken place):

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

The whole earth was of one language, and presumably of a common understanding, as evident by the fact men journeyed and lived in some sort of union.  Though subtle, the placement of this story at this point of the Book is very significant in its relation to the theological underpinnings explored at the beginning of this post.  The story continues:

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

So united was man in his pursuits, he begins to set the stepping stones for architecture and human innovation by improving on common building techniques.  A symbolic act indicating the advent of greater civilization meant to sustain a decently sized population.

4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

The common theological perspective is that this verse signifies how, rather than a symbol of man’s ingenuity, the Tower is a symbol of man’s pride.  The emphasis being on the hubris of mere men wanting to make a name for themselves by reaching the realm of God by earthly means, rather than spiritual ones, thereby making mockery of the very concept of salvation through the grace of God.  This reasoning is satisfying to many faithful, but rings hollow on a number of accounts.  The first of which being that nowhere in the verse is there any reference to God, his grace, subverting his grace, or even wanting to reach Heaven to reside there against the wishes of God.  At it’s most basic interpretation, what the verse does demonstrate is a wish to push human innovation beyond its limitations, to surpass our natural inhibitions and master it to our advantage.  And if this is a grave sin, then one might as well deduce all modern technological achievements to be sinful (and if you’re reading this post, by means of some technological device, one can safely assume you are not of this opinion).  Furthermore, such speculation is rendered moot by the subsequent verses, wherein God clearly states his reasons for disapproving of man’s construction of the Tower:

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.

6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

The construction of the Tower isn’t the problem for God.  His concern is the implication it holds concerning man’s collective potential to rise higher than his nature (where nothing “they plan to do will be impossible to them”).  There’s no mention of man’s pride–his hubris, if you will–nor is it even hinted that God’s concerns rest in anything other than his own self-interest, as he only identifies two contentions he holds with man’s construction of the Tower: 1. They are doing it as one people, 2. the construction of the Tower symbolizes man’s power to be limitless.  Now, God’s solution to this problem is a simple one.  Since 2 stems directly from 1, he sets out to undo 1:

7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Bible scholars will easily identify the Tower of Babel as being a clear example of an etiological myth, meaning a myth/story/legend meant to explain the origin of a phenomenon (i.e. think of the tale of how man received the gift of fire after Prometheus stole it from the Olympians).  In this case, the phenomenon being explained through the legend of the Tower of Babel is the origin of the diversification of languages.  Acknowledging this, from a philosophical/theological perspective, the actions of God as a character in the narrative are far more interesting of an indication of the dynamic between man and the Divine.  Because, for those who take this narrative seriously, God’s actions are not just responsible for the diversification of man’s languages, but also man’s segregation into different tribes, many of which undoubtedly grew to become opposing tribes, which inevitably led to these tribes waging war on one another on account of these differences.  Therefore, as the instigator of the tribalism among men, God can be credited as the direct catalyst of the warfare that came about as a result from said tribalism.  That is, if one takes the narrative seriously.  For those with a more scholarly interest in the subject, the greater plot implications between the characters are still equally intriguing.

Thus, to summarize the whole plot:  In a world following man’s banishment from paradise, following the Great Flood–a world just about all theologians and the faithful identify as being fallen and plagued by sin–humanity managed to surpass these great odds stacked against it and unite as one people, and coexist in such unity that it not only survived, but thrived in the harsh environment on the basis of its ingenuity alone.  According to the Bible itself, this great human unity did not need an appeal to the Divine to be achieved, nor did it require a blood sacrifice on the part of the Creator to bring peace and solace to the hearts of man.  And, amazingly, it was not man’s sins that halted this progress.  Nor was it man’s inherent wickedness that tore at the base of this serenity.  It was God, Himself.  Why?  In accordance to the story it can be simply put as God being afraid of man.

As heretical at it might sound, this underlying fear of man’s potential is not an uncommon theme throughout ancient mythology (when stories like the Tower of Babel would have been crafted).  The lineage of the Greek pantheon is a direct testament to this very concept.  The Titans were deposed by the very Olympians they had spawned, just as the Titans themselves had deposed the ancient gods that preceded them.  Given this tradition of cyclical deicide, it is not a farfetched interpretation to read the constant demand the Olympian gods place on being revered and worshipped by mankind not as a testament of their strength, but as a revelation of the fear that their own creation–man–will one day follow in the same traditions that all the higher beings in their history have done, and depose the makers that made them.

Aristotle could never rationally fathom way any god would be concerned with the daily happenings of a lower order of beings like mankind, and proposed a deity that took a laissez-faire approach towards human endeavors.  But perhaps Aristotle was not thinking creatively enough.  For what are gods without worship?  How many gods throughout the ages have met their fate in the graveyard of mythology simply because man stopped minding them any attention?  From this perspective, the prospect of man turning both inward to his own strength and ingenuity, as well as to that of his fellow man, is antithetical to the interests (and downright survival) of any halfway competent God.  And the God of the Book of Genesis is no exception to this, as shown by His own conduct in story of the Tower of Babel.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Religion and Atheism

In defence of slavery: Nietzsche's dangerous thinking | The Independent |  The Independent

Believe it or not, there actually exists some contention in Nietzschean circles about the philosopher’s religiosity (or lack thereof).  While most people maintain that Friedrich Nietzsche was undoubtedly an atheist, a few commentators see his creeds against Christianity as being indicative of a deeper understanding of the mystical; leaving room open for a belief in the divine.  Adding to the possible confusion for some readers comes from the writings of certain cranks (i.e. Thomas J.J. Altizer), who promote a wholly bizarre “Death of God” theology that stretches Nietzsche’s writings to absurd lengths.

But the best way to put the issue to rest is to go straight to the source himself.  In his final and most autobiographical full book, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche begins the second chapter, “Why I am so Clever,” by plainly stating his position on religious matters.

He states:  “‘God,’ ‘immortality of the soul,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘beyond’–without exception, concepts to which I never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child.  Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them?”  Here, he clearly sets his worldview as being completely divorced from what one would call religious sentiments, and, one could argue by the inclusion of ‘beyond,’ as devoid of the supernatural in general.  It is important to bring attention to the way Nietzsche claims to have never “devoted” any time to anything vaguely religious, because it is vital in understanding the manner by which he addresses theological positions in his writings.

Some have quoted the next paragraph in the text, where Nietzsche says, “I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event,” to indicate that Nietzsche might have still held to a spiritual sort of mysticism.  But this is unfounded in the actual text, because it places too much emphasis on the first part of the sentence, while ignoring the last.  Nietzsche qualifies that his did not know atheism as a result or event, precisely because his unbelief was not the product of some grand epiphany; he did not lose faith, because he never had it to begin with.  He goes on to explain, “it is a matter of course for me, from instinct.  I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer.”  To Nietzsche, disbelief is his natural disposition, his inquisitive nature demands him not to accept anything more.

I mentioned earlier that it is noteworthy how Nietzsche never bothered to entertain any notion of the supernatural, and how this sentiment affected his approach to theology.  Unlike other prominent atheist writers of the 19th Century, who saw fit to argue against the existence of deities and religions, Nietzsche never bothered to engage or refute any of the arguments for the existence of gods.  He repeatedly affirms that gods do not exist, but his affirmations are meant to be taken as solid proclamations, rather than logical arguments.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche would have considered such engagements as insulting to his person, because to him, “God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers–at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us:  you shall not think!”  To even go so far as to refute the standard theological arguments would have been too big of a concession in Nietzsche’s mind.  To him the nonexistence of gods was a given fact, unworthy of debate (a position that greatly influenced later existentialists thinkers, like Jean-Paul Sartre).

This might seem odd, since anyone who has read Nietzsche can attest to the fact that he spends a multitude of pages mentioning God.  Indeed, it can be argued that the topic seems to be somewhat of an obsession to the philosopher, even if he claims to not devote any time to it.  However, one must be very careful here.  In much of his writings, Nietzsche’s atheism takes on a very post-theistic tone (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, etc.), where he asserts the death of God, not as an actual entity, but as a psychological concept.  Primarily, because that’s all gods are to Nietzsche, man-made concepts, whose humble origins have been forgotten.  What he discusses in his writings is not any sort of deity recognizable to the religious, but the role, power, and influence the concept of God has had on the psychology of humanity, as well as how modernity is leading to the gradual (and unavoidable) erosion of this concept from our psych, as supernatural suppositions become more and more untenable in contemporary discourse.

In these regards, Nietzsche’s post-theistic atheism is a unique take on the issue on religion and God, but one should avoid assigning to it any deeper meaning than even the philosopher himself intended.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 1.

The specific translation I used for the quotes in this post, come from Walter Kaufmann’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 1967 (2000 reprint), The Modern Library: New York, pages 692-693.

The Euthyphro Dilemma, and Socrates’ Guilt

Socrates holds a special place in the ranks of philosophy for having enough wisdom to declare how he can only claim to know that he knows nothing.  This statement reflects how the purpose of the Socrates-character throughout Plato’s dialogues serves as an inquisitor to those around him, proposing questions for the sake of establishing clear and concise definitions from his contemporaries, rather than issuing ethical proclamations of his own.

However, it is apparent that through his inquisitive prose, Plato does in fact have Socrates indirectly pronounce several positive decrees on ethical and spiritual matters.  The importance of this is best seen in Euthyphro, where just before standing to defend himself against charges of corrupting Athenian youths through impious teachings, Socrates questions the piously motivated actions of Euthyphro by boldly asking whether he knows that a matter is indeed pious because the gods command it, or do the gods deem a matter pious because they recognize it to be pious in its own right.  Unbeknownst to Euthyphro, Socrates has really planted a trap, in which any answer given will be unsatisfactory to truly define the origin of piety, dispelling the notion of divine commandments, and indirectly giving credence to the impiety charges that have been raised against him in the dialogue.

The central argument of Socrates’ exchange with Euthyphro is made when Socrates asks of his contemporary, “Consider the following: is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious?  Or is it pious because it’s loved?”(Plato, Euthyphro, 10a).  Here, Socrates is raising a valid distinction between something that is loved, and something that is loving; the former being defined by the will of a secondary participant, while the letter being defined by its own essence that is merely recognized to be so by a secondary participants.  In terms of what is being discussed by Socrates and Euthyphro—is piety loved by the gods because they recognize the nature of what is pious, or because they themselves decide on what is to be considered pious—attention must be given to define what in fact piety is.  Namely, do the gods decide what is pious, making their will the defining quality of piety, or do the gods just recognize something to be objectively pious, placing the defining quality of piety independent of the gods’ will?  Euthyphro immediately dismisses the first interpretation (10d) on account that it would render piety as an arbitrary impulse of the gods (who often disagree over what is to be considered pious, and occasionally even change their minds on what they previously considered to be pious), which means that piety does not exist as an independent component; nor can a concise definition of piety be established, if it is warrant to change through the whims of volatile and capricious deities.  Thus, the only option remaining for Euthyphro is to insist that if a matter is to be called pious it must be universally so (accepted by all the gods), meaning that it must be an essence that stands independent of the gods’ will.  Leaving the philosopher with the second option, that the gods recognize something to be pious not because they have deemed it so, but because they are recognizing the independent of nature of piety.

The dialogue continues with Euthyphro ceding that something that is pious is loved because it is pious and not pious because it is loved (10d).  Once again, Socrates has cornered Euthyphro, as this explanation is no better than the first in defining what truly piety is.  The issue here is that if the gods merely love something pious because they are recognizing its piety, then one must grant the conclusion that there is a standard of piety completely separate–and possibly even above that–of the gods.  Therefore to define piety as that which is loved by the gods, serves as no definition at all of what is objectively pious, or as Socrates puts it:

If the god-loved and the pious were really the same thing, my dear Euthyphro, then, if the pious were loved because it’s pious, what’s god-loved would in turn be loved because it’s god-loving; and if what’s god-loved were god-loved because it was loved by the gods, the pious would in turn be pious because it was loved by them.  But, as it is, you can see that the two are related in the opposite way, as things entirely different from one another (11a).

The dialogue ends soon after with Euthyphro leaving Socrates without looking to resolve the dilemma.  The whole exchange between the two philosophers is more than just a practice in analytics, as Socrates likes to portray his mode of reasoning, but implies something much deeper than Plato is willing to blatantly say in his writings: i.e. the gods cannot be the source of piety.

It is no accident that just as Plato’s Socrates-character is scheduled to defend himself against impiety charges he gets involved in a discussion concerning the definition of what is pious.  Although Plato’s other dialogue, Apology, depicts the details of Socrates’ trial, Euthyphro serves as a superb piece of insight for what sort of reasoning might have lead up to the accusations being levied against the philosopher.  In Euthyphro, Socrates strongly implies that any divine origins that are likely to be attributed towards piety are unsatisfactory to tell one the actual definition of what it means to be pious, and where this meaning comes from—for the various reasons mentioned earlier.  While Socrates does not attempt to positively state what the true essence of piety is, he does successfully conclude what it cannot be.  Before the main argument of Euthyphro is presented, Socrates asks, “Could this be the reason / I face indictment, that when people say such things about the gods, I find them somehow hard to accept?”(6b).  Hence, from the beginning, Plato seems to be giving little concern to deny the charges made against Socrates.  Socrates freely admits that the orthodox characterization of the gods appears to him beyond belief, and hints that they may very well be the workings of poets and painters (6c).  This sort of bold heresy spoken by Socrates serves to convey to the reader the amount of seriousness (or lack thereof) that Socrates is giving to his accusers.

After the main crux of the argument between Socrates and Euthyphro has abated, Socrates steps out of character for a moment and tries to define piety as something that is part of what is just (12d). This definition is not meant to be conclusive, or even adequate, but simply a means by which to further engage Euthyphro into the problems of the earlier discussion.  However, it is telling that Socrates’ sole attempt at defining piety would have him label it as a subset of something else; deeming it dependent on a greater concept.

This raises another possible quandary in the prose, though albeit an unspoken one: just how much value does Socrates hold for piety as a virtue?  It is never explicitly addressed by Plato, but it is a question that might very well be a key factor driving the narrative.  After proclaiming doubt in the various stories about the gods, he subtly rejects Euthyphro’s invitation to discuss the veracity of these tales (5d).  He effortlessly picks apart the idea of paying devotion to the gods as ultimately incoherent (13a-14a).  And he never fails to (patronizingly) point out the inadequacy of Euthyphro’s responses to his questions, “You see, when you were just now on the point of answering you turned away.  If you had given the answer, I’d already have been adequately instructed by you about piety” (14c).  All of these points converge to form the image in the readers mind that Socrates’ interest in wanting to find a suitable definition for piety is not his sole motive in his discussion with Euthyphro.  That perhaps he is also eager to dismantle the notion that piety has any knowable definition, and therefore, can have little practical use as a claimed virtue.

C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, “Men Without Chests”: A Critique

C.S. Lewis | Biography & Facts | Britannica

C.S. Lewis may very well be one of the most prolific writer’s of the 20th Century, having gained eminence through his apologetics writings (Mere ChristianityThe Problem of Pain, etc.) and the popular children’s book saga The Chronicles of Narnia.  In his 1944 lecture compilation, The Abolition of Man, Lewis sets out to defend the reality of universal, absolute human values, against what he perceives to be the relativistic subjectivism of modern society. His first lecture, “Men Without Chests,” attempts to raise the reader’s consciousness to the prevailing menace that Lewis insists is eating away at the essence of humanity, and the method by which it permeates into popular thought.

Lewis sets up the lecture as a critical response to a pair of elementary textbook authors (referred to as Gaius and Titius), and the faulty reasoning by which the prose in their work (referred to as The Green Book) is irreparably corrupting the minds of young children with its promotion of subjectivist values.  Lewis makes sure to clarify that he does not believe the authors to be doing this out of intentional malice, “I do not want to pillory two modest practicing schoolmasters who were doing the best they knew: but I cannot be silent about what I think the actual tendency of their work.”[1]  In this view, the authors are as much a product of the greater problem they are propagating, than the root cause of it.  Lewis presents his first case against the authors by quoting a section from their textbook, “‘When the man said This is sublime, he appears to be making a remark about the waterfall…Actually…he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feeling,’” which they clarify with, “‘This confusion is continuously present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’”[2]  Lewis takes issue with these two statements for two specific reasons: firstly, it will teach a young student, “that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker,” and secondly, “that all such statements are unimportant.”[3]  Lewis goes on to acknowledge that neither of the authors have actually stated this much in so many words, but Lewis, “is not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind,”[4]  since Lewis has already conceded that the authors are as unaware of the harm they are causing, as the young pupil is of the harm that is subconsciously being done to him.[5]  Lewis’ position is that the reduction of emotive language to the realm of subjective thought is a subversion of the greater essence of humanity; it cuts out man’s soul, long before he is able to fully appreciate the transcendent reality of his emotional experiences.[6]  Lewis sees this as going well beyond providing young minds with a proper education, and calls such tactics as an attempt to debunk emotions on the basis of commonplace rationalism, “They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from traditions that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotions.”[7]  An action Lewis loathes, because “by starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”[8]

What Lewis is doing here (as he does in most of his apologetic works) is setting up a false dichotomy, infused with imaginative hyperbole: either educators teach a student to give full credence to the objective truth of his emotional introspections, or they “have cut out of his soul.”[9]  Lewis presents no logical, coherent argument to support any of his claims, other than his own subjective opinion that he is clearly right on this matter.  It is not self-evidently true how explaining to a young student that our tendencies to attribute traits to inanimate objects is a reflection of our own personal feelings about the object and not an actual attribute of the object, will cause them to develop long-lasting character deficiencies.  When I stub my toe on my coffee table, my instinctive reaction is to curse the table for hurting me.  I know that the table is not alive; I know that the table didn’t actually set out to hurt me; I know that the table is not malicious; I know that the foul words I’m attributing to the table are a subjective emotional response, and not an actual reflection of the table itself; I know that the table cannot hear or sympathize with me, but I still can’t help but animate the inanimate object.  Why?—Because I’m human, and I can’t control the chemistry in my brain that dictates my responses to the stimuli of my environment.  Knowing and recognizing this reality has not hindered, or stunted, my emotional development, nor has it done so for anybody else.  And even if it did have negative repercussion to our human psyche, this still would not be an argument against the veracity of our emotional attributes to the surrounding world being an entirely subjective experience.  As it stands, Lewis’ entire reasoning for opposing this view rests on the basis that he finds it unpleasant and harmful.  To which the only salient response can be, so what?  The veracity of a claim does not depend on its supposed bleakness and implication of unpleasantness.

Lewis also tries to give further authority to his position by claiming how, prior to modern times, all men believed that, “objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval and disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”[10]  Prior to modern times, men also attributed the occurrence of epilepsy to demonic possession, instead of a treatable neurological disorder; the mistaken beliefs of the past need not hold credence to us in the present, especially as we gather more information and knowledge about the world.  Also, the claim that objects can merit approval and disapproval is a baseless assertion.  Objects can cause us to respond towards them in one manner or another, but they do not merit our response, since objects are devoid of any kind of intent, and thereby, do not/cannot strive to live up to anyone’s conceived expectations.  Not to mention, out responses to objects are entirely dependent on the context of the situation we find ourselves in, and likely to change under different circumstances.  Hence, our emotional responses remain a subjective experience every way one wishes to look at it.

At times, Lewis seems to acknowledge that emotional attributes are person-specific, he states [quoting Plato], “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses.  It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”[11]  So, to clarify, our emotional responses towards objects (or anything else for that matter) are objectively true, but we need to be trained in order to feel the “right responses”?  Does that not imply that if my initial emotional response to an object strays from the response Lewis considers to be the “right response,” my emotional response is not objectively true to begin with?  If my emotional responses have to be trained to follow suit with that of others, are they even still my emotional responses anymore?  Am I not just subverting my emotions in favor of someone else’s?  And if that’s the case, how can I trust that Lewis’ interpretation of what constitutes the right emotional responses are anymore trustworthy than my own?

Lewis’ response to this is to posit the existence of a universally recognizable “greater thing,” that he identifies as the Tao, “It [referring to the Tao] is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself.”[12]  It would be completely appropriate to stop Lewis right there, and point out the disingenuous way he is presenting an Eastern concept–the Tao–as if it was congruent with the monotheistic, Abrahamic, worldview of the West.  (Although, his following sentence does a better job of characterizing the Tao, “It is the Nature, it is the Way, the Road.  It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.”)[13]  It is of importance to note that no warrant is given by Lewis to justify this sleight of hand, where he tries to misconstrue the Tao by associating it with his Christian conception of a conscious “Creator,” and in particular his desire to designate this creator as a “Him.”  Lewis’ motivation here is to demonstrate that since our emotional responses are kind-of-sort-of similar across cultural lines, we must collectively be appealing to a universal, objective, authority as a point of reference:

And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).[14]

But Lewis has failed to logically establish that out approvals and disapprovals are recognitions of anything but our own subjective experiences.  It certainly has not been shown that our value judgments are any indication of an objective order (or arbitrator of any sort).  Not to mention that Lewis’ only defense against the prevalence of divergent emotional responses to particular situations/objects seems to be a weak call for the need to “train” people to have the “right responses.”  The question he continuously ignores to definitively answer is why, if he is right, people’s experiences are not convergent on all matters of emotional responses?  And even on matters where they do converge, people will often demonstrate no unified reasoning for their responses.  It can be said that my observational experience that the sky is blue is objective; no one absent of some kind of physical or neurological disorder would deny that the sky is blue.  However, my emotional experience that the sky is sublime is not objective, since another person can honestly say that his emotional experience is that the sky is dull; or he could agree with me that the sky is sublime, but for a varying array of reasons that have nothing to do with my own experience. Neither one of our subjective claims holds more merit than the other.  And no resolution on the matter can be reached, since we can both accuse one another of not being “trained” to hold the “right response” towards the sky.

A frustrating part about Lewis is his apparent inability to differentiate between the objective fact of a matter (such as the fact that I happen to have feelings XYZ about an object), and the subjective response that stems from it (the actual emotions cause by feelings XYZ, the specifics of which, in any particular situation, are unique to me alone).  He states, “It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else,”[15] in an attempt to make his notion of an absolute objective value sound assertive.  But being assertive doesn’t make an unfounded claim any more true, because even if one grants the veracity of his statement (namely, that we judge things as reasonable only as they pertain to other things), this admission does not warrant the stipulation of any sort of objective, or absolute, greater value judgment.  Our interactions with our surroundings foster the values and emotional responses we attribute to objects/matters; meaning that we are the fundamental arbitrators of our perceptive values.  Furthermore, our values and emotional responses change as we gain more information and data about out surroundings.  No universally objective point of reference is needed.  This does not invalidate the reality of our emotional experiences, but it is nonsensical for Lewis to claim that the mere existence of our emotional experiences must also confirm the existence of some kind of objective source for our emotions.

Towards the end of the lecture, Lewis begins to settle into a string of fallacious and bullying tactics against his detractors:

Either [Gaius and Titius] must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment like any other, or must set themselves to work to produce, from outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life, because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it.[16]

“Which may cost him his life,” here Lewis is either keen on overdramatizing matters, or he is the most deranged man that has ever lived.  Telling a student that the emotional attributes he assigns to inanimate objects (which was the point that Lewis started his argument on), is not in reality a reflection of the objects themselves, but a subjective value that reflects on the feelings of the person making the attributes, does not, in any way, rob said student of the emotions he is experiencing.  Lewis has not established, in any way imaginable, that this is the case.  Being able to understand the subjectivity of one’s emotional experience will not render one as some kind of blasé automaton, since the emotions we feel are involuntary to begin with (we can’t stop feeling them).  Lewis tries to squirm out of the fact that he has not logically presented his case by stating, “In battle it is not syllogism that will keep reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of bombardment”[17]  This, combines with his call that emotional response that diverge from what he perceives to be the “right response” must be trained to conformity, is evidence enough to assume that Lewis is a man who doesn’t accept the fact that a person is not obligated to give even the slightest credence to his subjective, emotional diatribes, absent of any logically coherent, and consistent, argument.

To some readers this might sound especially harsh, but they might want to read the manner in which Lewis addresses his opponents, “It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals.  This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence.”  The last line is particularly ironic, since such form of fallacious engagement is best characterized by Lewis himself, “a perceived devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other.”[18]  The message Lewis is presenting to the reader here is that one cannot disagree with what he has said, because only those who accept his premises of an absolute, objective, value have any basis upon which to argue about truth.  Of course, this is completely dishonest and unfounded to anyone who does not already agree with Lewis’ [subjective] point of view.

The authors of the textbook he has been arguing against don’t say that there exists no means by which to perceive truth, nor is there any rational extension by which one can make such a claim (this is another one of Lewis’ retreats to fallacies).  Instead, what they rightly say is that one’s personal feelings on a matter are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating reality, because reality is not contingent on the perceptions of any person’s emotional response to it; nor does it ultimately care about your meager opinions.  But Lewis cannot accept this, which is why this entire lecture can be summarized as follows: “I don’t like the implication of X, therefore X needs to be wrong.”  His entire justification of the objective truth of emotional responses collapses into one giant emotional response; one subjectively giant emotional response.


[1] Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. “Men Without Chests,” Harper One: 1944, p. 1-2.

[2] Lewis, p. 2-3.

[3] Lewis, p. 4.

[4] Lewis, p. 4-5.

[5] Lewis, p. 5.

[6] Lewis, p. 9.

[7] Lewis, p. 13.

[8] Lewis, p. 14.

[9] Lewis, p. 9.

[10] Lewis, p. 15.

[11]Lewis, p. 16.

[12] Lewis, p. 18.

[13] Lewis, p. 18.

[14] Lewis, p. 19.

[15] Lewis, p. 20.

[16] Lewis, p. 22.

[17] Lewis, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, p. 25.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Political Utility of Religion

500 Years and Counting: Why the World Is Still Terrified by Machiavelli |  The National Interest

Niccolo Machiavelli is one the many writers in history fortunate enough to be extensively quoted by individuals who have little patience to actually read his large body of work.  Most (in)famous of the man’s oft cited prose is his 1513 political tract advising ruling figures on how to govern, simply titled The Prince.  In it he boldly states that when it comes to exercising one’s authority, the ruler needs to adhere to the basic principle that the ends always justify the means; with the ends always being a retention of power, and means being whatever will bring about that desired end.

Although at face value the work is a clear promotion of totalitarianism, there exist several peculiarities with the way Machiavelli formats his dictatorial learner’s manual.  For instance, despite it being address to the ruling classes of society, the book is actually written in the plain Italian of Machiavelli’s day, making its sensitive instructions to rulers available to the very commoners whose exploitation Machiavelli is encouraging.  Granted, literacy wasn’t too high among the lower classes, but for a manuscript aiming to teach governing sovereigns how to be more deceitful, one would think that Machiavelli would at least have bothered to make the message a bit more cryptic to the masses (possibly by writing it in Latin, which was already in disuse outside of aristocratic functions).  Even stranger is the fact that only six years later Machiavelli wrote Discourses on Levi, a political book that enthusiastically taunts the superiority of democratic republicanism over monarchical forms of governance; completely contradicting the authoritarian advise he offers in The Prince.  It’s possible that between 1513 and 1519, Machiavelli changed his preference from despotism to republicanism, but I think it is also very likely the allegations labeling The Prince a clever work of political satire should not be so quickly brushed aside, as it appears to be the most plausible answer to account for the discrepancies mentioned above.  If it is true that The Prince is nothing more but a satirical revelation of the aristocratic mindset, meant to convey to the lowly subjects the true nature of their rulers’ motivations, then Machiavelli deserves to be acknowledged as the greatest writer in all of history for composing a piece of satire that continues to fool people (scholars and laypersons alike) to this day.

Although Machiavelli’s politics might be evasive, his views on religion appear to be fairly consistent throughout his writing career.  In The Prince, Machiavelli refers to religion as a tool of the ruler, to be used as a method by which he can convince the masses of his benignity.  Machiavelli makes it clear that the sincerity of the ruler’s piety is of no importance:

Every one knows how praiseworthy it is in a Prince to keep faith, and to live uprightly and not craftily.  Nevertheless, we see from what has taken place in our own days that Princes who have set little store by their word, but have known how to overreach men by their cunning, have accomplished great things, and in the end got the better of those who trusted to honest dealings (Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince.  Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York) 2004 reprint, p.83).

Machiavelli does not dispute the notion that faithfulness is a popular virtue, but he is arguing that while the Prince (i.e. the ruler) should take care to be seen as ideally faithful by his subjects, his actual actions need not be limited by any pious restraints.  In other words, if left to choose between preserving one’s crown and staying true to one’s religious principle, the competent ruler will always choose the former over the latter, “a prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed” (Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 84).  While Machiavelli’s words sound odious to our most basic sentiments concerning decorum and public honesty, it needs to be remembered that the writer is merely stating a fact that holds true for almost every person living, then and now.  Few of us are unwilling to amend even our most cherished convictions if opportunity demands it of us.  I will even go so far as to say that every single person, functioning in society, has at one point or another been faced with a situation in which s/he has gone against a core principle s/he claims to adhere to.  Of course, when confronted with our obvious hypocrisy we will find some way to rationalize it away as irrelevant, but what Machiavelli is advising is for the Prince to fully embrace his hypocrisy as a necessary part of his position.

On the topic of religion, Machiavelli considers it important for a ruler to exhibit the outwardly qualities that are popularly associated with the practice:

A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities above named, so that to see and hear him one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good, faith, integrity, and religion.  And there is no virtue which it is more necessary for him to seem to posses than the last (Machiavelli, The Prince, p.85).

Special attention should be given to Machiavelli’s word choice at the end of the above quote; note he says it is necessary for the Prince to merely seem religious, not to be personally sincere about it.   The reason being that people look for commonality when identifying with other individuals, and religiosity is a widespread system by which a variety of people pledge some base level of identification with one another.  Hence, an open proclamation of religiosity by the ruler is a key way for him (or any public figure for that matter) to retain support from the populace.  But it is inevitable that at some point the ruler will be faced with having to violate some religious decree, and according to Machiavelli this is perfectly acceptable, as long as he gives of the impression of being pious it is enough to convince the masses; actions are meaningless, “Everyone sees what you seem, but few know what you are, and these few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the State to back them” (p. 85).  This is especially true for leaders who gain endorsement from the main religious institution, like the church, since such organizations often hold the final word on what is pious and what is not (religious belief itself is usually a secondary concern in these sort of church-state relations, if it is a concern at all).

It needs to be remembered that Machiavelli’s aim is not to teach how to deceive the common folk; rather what the writer is doing is measuring the worth of a Prince/ruler by the merits of his efficiency, “Wherefore if a Prince succeeds in establishing and maintaining his authority, the means will always be judged honourable and approved by everyone” (p. 86).  People don’t mind being lied to as long as it is a blissful experience.  Nor do they care about the piety of their leaders actions, as long as her/his words align with what they want to hear and their living standard remain comfortable.

I suspect–though I can’t be sure–that Machiavelli’s other aim was to openly document the method by which the lowly masses are kept content by their deceitful figure heads.  Perhaps his intention was to alarm the common man into action, but judging by the way political leaders to this day swoon their constituencies by a never-ending array of appeals to their personal piety (all while being documented adulterers, liars, frauds, cheaters, warmongers and war-propagators, and a whole lot of other “moral” transgressions), I doubt we really want anything else but to be deceived.  Or as Machiavelli himself put it, “”men are so simple, and governed so absolutely by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes” (p.84).

Bibliography

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince. Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York), 2004 reprint.  Original publication 1513.

Goethe’s Prometheus and the Heretical Legacy of the Enlightenment

Human Origins According to Ancient Greek Mythology | Ancient Origins

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stands as a unique figure in modern intellectual thought.  A polymath in the true sense of the word, it is difficult to ascribe to him one conclusive description without leaving out an array of equally apt titles.  His was an artist, a poet, a politician, an amateur scientist, and (by proxy of the collective legacy of all of the above) a philosopher.  Equally remarkable is the man’s place in history as a thinker heralded by both the materialist strands of the Enlightenment tradition, and the counter-Enlightenment Romantics of the 19th Century.  By all accounts, the fact that Goethe personally embodied the various opposing ideals of his times probably went a long way in fostering such a bemusing repute amongst his admirers.

He was (by 18th Century standards) a religious heretic, meandering between pantheism, Abrahamic estoricism, and a great deal of what would now be called classic humanism.  Yet, although his spiritual beliefs were heterodox, his politically leanings rested largely within the  conservative tradition, always viewing the revolutionary efforts of his days with a high degree of suspicion, and a consistent aloofness.  Regardless of where the man’s personal leanings stood on an issue, it is undeniable that Goethe’s widespread appeal to such varying audiences stems from his foresight in capturing the mood of the era he was living in for the sake of aesthetic posterity, and the intellectual benefit of the generations molded by the developments of said era.

As mentioned, Goethe himself held to rather undefinable religious positions throughout his active life.  Nevertheless, he had no difficulty in identifying the ideological struggle between traditional religious structure and the emergence of various heretical ideals that have come to symbolize the Enlightenment for many modern observers.  Published in 1789 (just as the Bastille was about to fall in France), “Prometheus” stands as a poetic allegory to the spiritual transition/tension sweeping through religious and politically revolutionary circles throughout Europe.

Conspicuously composed as a diatribe by the rebellious deity Prometheus against an uncharacteristically impotent Zeus (i.e. God), the work begins by declaring the sky Creator’s feebleness in comparison to the earth-dwelling Prometheus.

Now you must leave alone
My Earth for Me,
And my hut, which you did not build,
And my hearth,
The glowing whereof
You envy me.

The divergence from Greek mythology here is of no small significance.  Goethe’s Prometheus is not the tortured deity of antiquity, but a stand-in for the Enlightened spirit of mankind.  During this era the intellectual and technological advances were often seen as either moving away from Divine interpretations, or standing in outright opposition to religious orthodoxy (though it should be noted that many of the figures of the time did draw on their firm religious convictions as inspiration for their work, albeit usually more from a spiritually individualistic, rather than a strictly traditionalist perspective).  Like Enlightened man, Prometheus reclaims the title of Creator away from Zeus (“Now you must leave alone My Earth for Me”–note the capitalization of Me, apropos to the Western custom of using He when referencing the Almighty), and affirms his position as the keeper of his house (“my hut, which you did not build…”).  Furthermore, he accuses the God of envy against the dominance he–Prometheus (i.e. mankind)–has secured for himself on Earth, in direct contrast to the traditional Abrahamic position that man is granted dominion on Earth by God.

I know of nothing poorer
Under the sun, than you, you Gods!
Your majesty
Is barely nourished
By sacrificial offerings
And prayerful exhalations,
And should starve
Were children and beggars not
Fools full of Hope.

Goethe is illustrating the popular sentiment amongst the irreligious sects of his days, comparing the growing turn away from the Divine as a starvation of the gods, except for “children and beggars” still foolish enough to turn to prayer in time of need.  The allusion here is twofold; firstly, it draws on the growing Enlightenment critique that supernatural matters are too childish and superstitious for those with intellectual depth to concern themselves with.  Secondly, it implies how Gods, exhibiting a constant demand for worship and sacrifice from on above, are therefore the more dependent entities in comparison to Prometheus (i.e. man), since their relevance rests on recognition from the earth-dwelling mortals.

Should I honour you? Why?
Have you softened the sufferings,
Ever, of the burdened?
Have you stilled the tears,
Ever, of the anguished?
Was I not forged as a Man
By almighty Time
And eternal Fate,
My masters and thine?

The misotheistic aspersions at the start of the quote are a rhetorical framing of the fatalistic powerlessness endemic to existence; in which the concept of omnipotence is rendered incoherent, as gods and men are left equally susceptible to the entropy of time and fate (referred to as masters of both the Divine and the mortal).  However, despite the recognition of cosmic fatalism, the tone of Goethe’s poem elicits a staunch resolve to stand high in defiance to the harsh realities of life:

Do you somehow imagine
That I should hate Life,
Flee to the desert,
Because not every
Flowering dream should bloom?

With these lines, the prose is drawing on the mindset that harsh reality is preferable to wishful thinking, and that one’s life is better spent creating order out of the inevitable destitute amongst us.  This is a reflection of the optimism that surrounded the mood of the Enlightenment, where the leading belief among prominent thinkers was how man had reached the time to cast off the restrictive practices of old, that he can revere himself through investigation of the natural world, and use his knowledge to create a better world in life, rather than praying for one to come hereafter (whether or not in hindsight the terrors of the later French Revolution serve as a testament against this Enlightenment era notion is another matter altogether).

Prometheus finishes his monologue by affirming the greater spirit of man, to not deny his greater and (one would presume) earthly faculties, but above all else to not look towards the heavens on which to bestow one’s reverence.  In short, it proclaims man as the heir to the counter-Divine legacy of Prometheus:

Here I sit, I form humans
After my own image;
A race, to be like me,
To sorrow, to weep,
To enjoy and delight itself,
And to heed you not at all –
Like me!

It ought to be remembered that Goethe is simply putting into prose a dramatized sentiment that captures one facet of the era he lived in, and it would be a mistake to conflate the poet’s personal convictions with those found throughout “Prometheus.”  The Enlightenment was a time of great progress in human understanding, but it also stood as a transitional phase where revolutionary ideals threatened to collide (and, indeed, did collide) with traditional austerity.  Goethe’s role as both a participant, detractor, and historian of the era survives as an invaluable transcription of an intellectual tradition all of us in the modern world have inherited (for better or worse).