I recently just finished Terry Eagleton’s newest work on culture and atheism from the Enlightenment through the Idealists, Romantics up to Modernism and Post-Modernism. As usual, Eagletons’ dry English humor dotting an excellent narrative of thinkers makes the book an enjoyable read. Granted I said thinkers, not necessarily good thinkers. Many were blind-sided, or foolish, in their attempt to build their atheism. Ultimately, their attempts were nothing more than Nietzsche’s criticism that they had murdered god but trying to hide the body and wash their hands. That they acted in bad faith, denying the divine but still fashioning a world out of him, like a Canaanite myth of old.
Anyway, let me chart out a summary and leave my own comments along the way. I don’t think Eagleton quite, or even Nietzsche, grasps the rank Paganism that reigns amongst humanity and that the ‘religio’ to Christ stands outside any other proclamation of an Almighty. But we’ll return to that.
Within modern Europe, the first attempt at a serious atheism was done by the Jacobins of the Enlightenment. These were people of the middling class of lower aristocrats and wealthy merchants. They would meet in salons and cafes, and convene clubs to foment their new opinions and philosophies. Let it be known that with them, as with all groups I will mention, there were many strands and dynamics. My broad-brush does not apply to all, and some thinkers in one era would easily fit in more with a later mood.
The Enlightenment saw itself as a liberator to all the monarchy and priestcraft that had gone one through the centuries before. There was a clarion call to the mythologized, and sterilized, past of Rome and Greece, an era declared to be the pinnacle of human virtue and reason. The latter was the chief concern. Enlightenment thinkers believed (I use this word specifically) that Reason (capital R) was the prime axis upon which man and cosmos turned. Within a frame of Newtonian physics, everything was mechanical and understandable beneath the magnifying glass. Humans were inherently good, evil only flowing forth from ignorance.
However, these new elite had mixed opinions to how the ‘masses’ could receive such a view. Could abstract and naked Reason stand alone before the soul humanity? Voltaire would try and hide his philosophy from his servants. The answer was no.
This would be a recurring theme through every movement of thought to hide the dead god somewhere else. There would be a respectable argument for the double-standard. The elite could receive the end of superstition and the death of god, but the peasants could not. They must be left with their rites and rituals even if they’re contrary to reason, culture, art, whatever may be the case. Thus philosophers would argue vigorously, from a position of unbelief, for the reasons to believe.
Anyway, even for these so-called Enlightened men, nude reason would be too much of a shame. Ultimately, it’s not because we blush for a naked Athena that reason had to be clothed in ritual, but because she has no body. Reason could not be contemplated abstractly, because reason is nothing but a created ordinance engaged with by created beings. Our minds may be immaterial, but our minds are tethered in corporal bodies.
Thus the Enlightenment attempted to strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest, but only left new monarchs and clergies. The French Revolution executed the king, closed Notre Dame, and banned the worship of God, only to install a republican emperor, re-open the ‘Temple to Reason’, and compel worship to the Supreme Being. Reason had become a new god to replace the old French state-church. Robespierre would be a new Moses, descending from a farcical psuedo-Sinai in Paris, with new commandments for ‘liberte, egalite & fraternite’.
The next stage was during Athena’s quick rise and demise in the halls of Olympus. The next Greek god to replace the decrepit Jove was that of Apollo. The Idealists and some Romantics posited a turn towards the proclamation of universals outside the purview of an naively triumphalistic Rationalism. Kant and Hegel were some of the architects, but they took many forms and types, and they would rubbish one another. There is a diversity at work here that does not fit any simple categorization. I’ve not read Kant or Hegel directly, let alone many of the others.
Suffice to say that what cohered them was a rejection of reason as absolute, and a general turn to something more external. Culture, or some sort of spirit of the times, was what drove things and stood in as the next non-god to fill in the transcendent void. Culture and Civilization were the things that went all the way down, beyond the scrutiny of picking apart. This was not celebrating the hum-drum of peasant and village life, but in praise of high-culture. Art was the sacrament that signified this untouchable and unquenchable spirit. Still, there was little appreciation that the common-breed could ever appreciate such things.
Yet as much as these culture-critics would despise the crass materialism and unreflective blandness of the capitalistic bourgeoisie, they were situated only on account of it. The fortunes to produce such culture were found in the neo-imperial wealth of the industralists. Thus many worshipers of Apollo would sneer at the rat-like behavior of the democrats and politicians, and would engage in civilizational acts, which were seen as distinct. They were lovers of Nation, not state, Nature, not environment. All of these, too, would function as forms of divine transcendence. I think of Wagner’s opera in honor of the Volk, or Lord Byron’s comical adventure to liberate Greece. Or even Wordsworth’s devotion to Nature in his poetry.
Ultimately, even these would suffer beneath the hammer of Dionysus, the anti-Christ, as he styled himself. Nietszche would want nothing to do with these false attempts to prop up the dead Almighty like a sequel to Weekend at Bernie’s. What the world needed was an Overman, one who was not afraid to peel back the fantasies of Reason, Nature, Culture, Spirit, Nation, Whatever, and look straight into the Abyss. Embracing Nothing, and the foundationlessness to morals and civilization, would be the one who would stamp his mark, and not the signet ring of a dead noble, onto his decrees.
Yet to declare the king truly dead, instead of his councilors trying to pretend he’s alive and act for him, would create a whoosh of anarchy. Of course, Nietszche, Dionysiac as he was, embraced both the ecstatic joy and agony that such would produce. It was the terror and exuberance of being lost at sea without map, compass, stars, or shoreline. Everything was the same, as it always was and will be, calm and uncaring as the seas, but electrified with newness. Nothing mattered anyway, but we, when properly transcended of our frail moralities and civilities, can play pretend.
Yet, this chaotic Will To Power is a numinous lung-filling spirit. There is an order to the madness, there is godhead to the atheistic, there is the god of the vine laughing in the shadows behind this dancing on the razor’s edge. The lifting up of the Human, including the sewer and gutter, to the Twice-Born is very transcendent and divine act of self-ascension. Even if it doesn’t really matter, it does. It shapes not the Cosmos, but Man still sits on his throne of skulls. God may be dead, but Man is not, hail the new god. Not in the sense that Idealists verged on divinizing a Humanity. But rather in the capability to get beyond Humanity. The Overman was post-Human, he was the ideal of the Hellenic Hero-Cult, he was the new god.
One of Nietzsche’s children was the Post-Modern mood of total demolition and deconstruction. They took not his Dionysus, but they succeeded in bringing down the Apollo of modernism. There was a skepticism of all things universal. There could be no standard of art, or culture, or of civilization. There was no depth. There was not even a capital-H Humanity that could be spoken of. With the death of god, there could come along the death of Man. Of course this would lead to some head-scratching as to the question of “What now?”. Fouccault, a great demolisher of Western constructs, would engage in politics, social marching, and protest, but with little real justification.
Yet, I’d argue to build this meaningless universe would require a stage to set. It might not be much, but as all the gods lay dead on Mt. Olympus, there needed to be Morpheus the Janitor to put the whole thing to rest. The god of sleep needed to finish the job so to speak until the last candle of the human mind, after it had exhausted itself in mask-wearing and play-acting, was extinguished. There was still one god left, even if he snoozed away.
Of course, Apollo would pop in from time to time when some foreign and barbarous divinity would stumble into the marble halls of the Pantheon to raise a little hell. Thus the christic-Pagan West would, under the headship of the US, erupt when Allah rattled the cage. The Soviet Imperium and her gods died, but now an Islamic thorn would sprout to challenge complacency. Not everyone tolerated the Consumeristic monism of a corporate-global capitalism putting the boot over the world.
Of course, unlike Europe, America had never the crisis of conscience over filling the void. Columbia, a personification of the Nation, would reign ever tall, holding all the strands of American life into one bundle. Now there is a unity, that regardless if you’re a Southern farmer, a Manhattan businessman, or a Rust-Belt factory worker, you’re all American and can speak intelligibly to one another about the rites and customs of our civil-religion. Europe, like Hellenistic Greece, squabbled and beat itself around the head with philosophical streams running this way and that. All the while, Rome slowly and steadily grew and conquered the World. You can believe anything you want in America, as long as you believe in America. Verily, Rome is reborn.
As you can see, I’ve dotted this little essay with tongue-in-cheek references to Greek gods. This is because, unlike Eagleton, I’ve never really considered Paganism to have left Europe. Of course, there was the Church present, post Constantine, even at the table of power (for as much as I am ashamed of Ambrose, I would still count him a brother). But generally speaking, even if done in the name of Christ, Europe’s god looked less like the Savior Jehovah and more like the Status-Quo Jupiter. Medieval Christendom, even after the retooling in the Renaissance, was apostate. It was not the pure virgin of Christ, hiding in the wilderness, who was in the spotlight, but a beast-riding whore who opened her legs for all the kings of men.
What was under assault by the Enlightenment was not Jesus but Jove, and Voltaire mocked Leibniz’s god, not Lazarus’. That doesn’t mean the quest for a new god, whether it be Athena(reason), Apollo(culture/civilization/Humanity), or even Dionysus(Will-To-Power), is validated, but we who call the Crucified One the only LORD may put their criticisms to work. Even a Pagan poet could point out that if horses made gods, they’d look like horses. Intellectually speaking, the sun shines on both the just and unjust.
From here, we must confess, for all of men, that indeed, humanity has murdered god and tried to do away with the body. But our god is not the powerless and polite one of the Bourgeoisie. He is the not one whom cultured theologians and philosophers cohere a system from his snoring, burping and farting. Our God raises from the dead, who proclaims a clear “Nevertheless” to the perishing cosmos we inhabit. He sends prophets, not the genteel.
God died, but behold, He lives forevermore. No matter the twists and turns, that is the Good News. That we don’t have to paper over the void, or embrace it in madness, but be pulled through it by our Golden Chain. We don’t fear death, explain it away, or embrace it in ecstatic and cathartic tragedy. Instead we may enter through the Pit and find there is a Lord who has banged down the door and taken the captives free, holding the keys of Hades in His hand.
Such is the foundation of how we may begin to live, of how we may begin to be free, of how we may begin to be truly human. Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ.