Saturday, September 19, 2009

Fear of Freedom

What happened to Greek rationalism?

Mining another gem from the local Catholic library, I found Oxford Don E. R. Dodd's 1951 classic, The Greeks and the Irrational, recommended by blog correspondent Wayne Dynes. A pleasure to read, with both erudition, wit, and generous notes/references, the book is about the various cults, religions and mind-sets afoot in ancient Greece. Especially about how the Greek religion gradually transformed from the classic/archaic conglomerate of honor, militarism, and the irrational daemon at one's side ... to a split between intellectual rationalists and the mass of people who regressed to various branches of magic. In Dodd's telling, the former were still not entirely rational, but enough to scoff at the old beliefs, to radically twist and revise them (as Plato did), and to inspire centuries of respect and even (ironically) abject devotion. The people, now deserted by the leading intellectuals (or vice versa), regressed bit by bit into magic.

This split is illustrated in the trial and execution of Socrates, the founding event of recorded philosophy and paradigmatic episode of anti-intellectualism. The trial signalled the breakdown of societal consensus on religion when, after the long and disastrous Peloponnesian war, Athens sought scapegoats and also a theological explanation for why they had been deserted by their civic gods (shadows of 9/11). Even though Socrates was largely traditional in his own religious beliefs as far as they are known, his relentless skepticism was provoking and irritating, and Dodds proposes that the citizens were right to decry his influence on callow students who might not have had as firm a moral grounding and take skepticism to unhealthy, nihilistic lengths. Dodds points out that Socrates was far from the only person persecuted for blasphemy and disbelief at this time, after heresy was outlawed circa 432 BCE. Others were Anaxagoras, Diagoras, and Protagoras, and, Dodds speculates, possibly Euripides as well.

Dodds spends his final chapter (entitled "Fear of Freedom") on the fate of rationalist philosophy after the high point of Socrates/Plato/Aristotle (not to mention Eratosthenes, Archimedes, and Hipparchus). What caused the slow and tortuous decline in knowlege and philosophy, leavened only by a few bright spots like Plutarch and Plotinus, culminating in almost complete retreat into magic, astrology, alchemy and supernaturalism through the dark ages? Was the culture of Rome the problem, or economic factors, or other cultural currents in Hellenism?

To understand the reasons for this long-drawn-out decline is one of the major problems of world history. We are concerned here with only one aspect of it, what may be called for convenience the Return of the Irrational.
Other scholars have emphasized the internal breakdown of Greek rationalism. It "wasted away," says Nilsson, "as a fire burns itself out for lack of fuel. While science ended in fruitless logomachies and soulless compilations, the religious will to believe got fresh vitality." As Festugière puts it, "on avait trop discuté, on était las des mots. Il ne restait que la technique." To a modern ear the description has a familiar and disquieting ring, but there is much ancient evidence to support it. If we go on to ask why fresh fuel was lacking, the answer of both authors is the old one, that Greek science had failed to develop the experimental method.

Dodds then flatters Marx with some respect for the economic theory that it was slavery that insulated Greek intellectuals from the need to seriously engage in practical or applied science, which is to say, in technology, which was the missing motivation for developing the experimental method as a matter of doctrine and practice. Greek intellectuals remained for the most part content to be deductive and philosphical. But then says:

I find it hard to be certain that their religious outlook would have been fundamentally different even if some scientist had changed their economic lives by inventing the steam engine.

If future historians are to reach a more complete explanation of what happened, I think that, without ignoring either the intellectual or the economic factor, they will have to take account of another sort of motive, less conscious and less tidily rational. I have already suggested that behind the acceptance of astral determinism there lay, among other things, the fear of freedom- the unconscious flight from the heavy burden of individual choice which an open society lays upon its members. If such a motive is accepted as a vera causa (and there is pretty strong evidence that it is vera causa to-day), we may suspect its operation in a good many places. We may suspect it in the hardening of philosophical speculation into quasi-religious dogma which provided the individual with an unchanging rule of life; in dread of inconvenient research expressed even by a Cleanthes or an Epicurus; later, and on a more popular level, in the demand for a prophet or a scripture; and more generally, in the pathetic reverence for the written word characteristic of late Roman and mediaeval times- a readiness, as Nock puts it, "to accept statements because they were in books, or even because they were said to be in books."

I'd disagree a bit, because as Dodds portrays throughout the book and alludes to in connection with his ambient time, a flight from freedom/rationalism is perennial in the human condition. Atheism is repugnant not because it is false, but because it is true- it puts the human in a mature relationship with himself and his surroundings, neither subject to its mysterious demonic meddling, nor able to buy favors with propitiating offerings and occult thoughts. It represents an achievement of consciousness over unconscious longings and fixations. This supreme achievement, (or dry disenchantment), which can also be called freedom, is existentially bewildering and uncomfortable. Humanity's emotional language is anything but dry and maturely objective, however. In any age, it takes work and dedicated cultivation to maintain rationalism.

In our own age, the position of science is secure not because of its congeniality or due to alterations in human nature, but entirely because of its successes both theoretical and applied. If science had not afforded the United States the most productive agriculture, the most remarkable conveniences via electrification and now the internet, and the most awesome weapons ever deployed to kill our fellows, its position would hardly be so culturally secure. Each success has created further impetus for education and increased appreciation for the gifts of rationalism. But its counterpart is never far behind, ready to take the field when an academic discipline (think philosophy, English, subatomic physics) reaches such esoteric heights that, whether it has actually lost its rational way or not, it has lost popular rapport if the general educational system fails to keep up.

Creationism is a small example of this dynamic. Few phenomena are better attested than evolution, yet its dry and mechanistic implications for origin myths and the nature of humanity itself are so contrary to our narcissism (image of God, indeed!), that without a thorough commitment to intellectual integrity, people won't buy it (or won't buy it in its entirety- see even the new director of the NIH).

Not for naught do "Muslim" and "Islam" mean subservience- submission to god, to patriarchy, to the status quo, to the theological and political leadership of the so-called scholars and Imams, and to a confused and repugnant text. Such an antithesis of freedom is deeply comforting to innumerable people, not only Muslims.

  • More work by E. R. Dodds
  • Searle writes about postmodernism, relativism, and its own whacky version of freedom- freedom from facts.
  • Fascinating RadioLab episode on parasites... check out the toxoplasma segment at the end.
  • Disturbing compilation of our commitments in Afghanistan.
  • Tom Tomorrow does health insurance.
  • Incredible assignment of blame from a former Lehman employee. As though she and her own company bore no guilt for its own bankruptcy. Caveat laboris!
  • A source of all that wingnut Beck-sterism, to the right of the Birchers.
  • TARP and the Bush White House
  • Tempest among the local captive oysters. Note however, that Corey Goodman, while an all-around super-smart guy, is a molecular biologist, not an ecologist with any kind of expertise on oyster or marine habitats.
  • Excellent macro-analysis of oil and the future.

Postscript: A very simple concept seems to have been lost in the current health insurance debate, and that is whether insurers should have the right to refuse insurance to anyone. Obama's speech indicated a willingness to set up "high risk pools" as per John McCain. This only makes sense if insurers have the right of refusal (or right to price policies differently) to clients, based on any metric other than ability to pay. I think insurers should have no such right. They should compete on uniform price and on plan features over the minimum- that's it. Here is an interesting view of the debate from inside corporate PR.


  1. I will have to disagree a little bit - I think the "serenity prayer" has a lot of truth in it, and it is definitely about the benefits of surrendering at the appropriate times. It is not surrender itself, but finding the right time and place. It's not about faith itself, but the abuse of faith - when it is used as an excuse to avoid knowledge - I think that is the immaturity you're speaking of.

    I recognize my use of faith is different than many Westerners. Faith is not belief. It is positive outlook of trust when confronted with the unknown - just one definition.

  2. Sorry, I forgot to mention just how much I enjoyed your entry. How fascinating to try to understand what happened to the world leading into the Dark Ages.

  3. Hi, Steven-

    Thanks for your kind words. Even skeptical Hume-eans and scientists have "faith" that the sun will come up tomorrow. No one knows for sure, for divination is not open to us. But yes, given a little knowledge, we can come up with guestimates of how the future will go (that the sun will indeed rise, with high probability), and given a little optimism, we can face complete unknowns (i.e. fate) with maturity and hope.

    But positing occult knowledge of end days and afterlives is unworthy of us, as are the communist utopias and similar triumphs of desire over reality.

  4. I agree with where you are coming from.

    However, I am open to wild possibilities - after all (ha), the afterlife exists in some form or another, whether it's in the memories of others, the continuation of our energy, the ripple effects of our present choices or the possible eternal existence of every moment in time that has ever happened or ever will happen.

    But, OF COURSE, turning any such idea into a dogma completely sucks.

  5. Fascinating discussion so far, guys.

    I agree with Steven as to the "proper" approach to faith - having that hopeful outlook that things will be as they should be, essentially. God need not be omniscient; God need only know the laws of physics and a thing or two about human nature, and it is simple enough to predict, on the whole, what will happen tomorrow, or in ten year's time. We are capable of the same prediction, but it takes a little faith to believe the prediction will come true, no matter how likely.

    I love the post, Burk, and I think you're very right in asserting that a loss of "connection" between the intellectuals and the masses can end up having disastrous effect (witch hunts). I agree that atheism is repugnant, "not because it is false, but because... it puts the human in a mature relationship with himself and his surroundings." But there are other outlooks that provide this opportunity as well, and atheism can be taken too far the other direction - to the point where we no longer believe the world has any sway over us. It is the rational man's superstition: by knowing the world (in a scientific manner), we have conquered it, and by conquering it surely we must control it. I know this isn't your personal view, but it is easy to see how the innate sensibility/maturity of the individual involved has a large sway on their eventual outlook, be it fundamentalist or atheist.

  6. Hi, Kelly-

    You raise an important question. But my take on it is that psychologically, this is a kind of projection, similar to the claim that atheists have no morals. To put it more bluntly, atheists make themselves into god. This may be true of some, and is a particular risk for the newly converted, since conversion to any new belief can lead straight to compensatory extremism.

    More specifically, the fear is that lifting the various guilt-anchors of religion, like original sin, or ongoing pennance, or the need for salvation, or the superiority of prophets over ourselves, etc. would lead to psychological inflation and lack of humility. As you rightly say, this is a mirror image of fundamentalists who, by claiming to follow the teachings and salvational doctrines to the letter feel themselves better that other believers let alone infidels, winding up perhaps with a "special" relationship with their deity, reprising in a way the old "chosen people" complex of Judaism and others.

    But this is a risk only in a world where religion is the dominant worldview and basis for comparison. In a non-religious world, there is no template of god that we would be copying or emulating. There would also be no doctrinal sources of guilt whose lifting would create transitory dangers. We would be faced with the world in a realistic way, which still gives us plenty to be humble about. The old saw is that the more we know, the more we realize we don't know. That is true for the sciences, and as we have learned is true of financial and political systems as well. The desire to always know more and thus have control over our destinies (like in the case of global warming) is not a bad thing in itself. What we need is yet additional doses of realism about our moral and intellectual capabilities to really know what is best.

    Take eugenics, the ultimate instance of hubris. There is no question that we could remake humanity with even minor alterations in breeding. The biology ("-genics") is clear as can be. The issue is whether we have any criterion for the "eu-" part- what might be a better human or a worse one. That is totally up in the air, is subjective in the extreme, and ends up being quite unanswerable. So the answer ends up being that there is no "knowing" what is best, because it is not a matter of knowledge at all, but of feeling, art, values. Cultivation of those values has been the province of religion, but mixed in with all sorts of unholy truth claims, patriarchalism, and other problems. It would be far better to use the full range of arts, blogs, scholarly discourse, news, music, etc. as our means of cultivation. (Which incidentally is the key reason to be wary of corporatizing all our media).

  7. Good points, and I agree. If I were a member of a church, I'd be as interested in hearing a sermon based on a Times Op/Ed as I would one based on Scripture.

    I think a problem in perception is that, while many atheists are very spiritual and open to possibilities, when confronted with dogmatic religion, many atheists adopt an attitude of "fighting fire with fire." It's not a wholly unreasonable approach given some of the extremes of literalist religion, it's just that to an agnostic or an open-minded person of faith, the enemy is a dogmatic attitude, wherever it comes from. Therefore the "spirit" of the atheist comes to resemble the "spirit" of the fundamentalist. And many people, myself included, judge the spirit as just as important as the content of an argument.

    Another similarity between the conservative theist and atheist is they both agree on what God is. God is THIS. One believes and the other doesn't. Once again, there is a "third rail" out there seeking to discover what God is. Therefore any argument basing God on THIS may not resonate.

    Of course, since I resist defining God as THIS, I usually agree with the atheist in any debate - ;)

  8. Burk - Agreed, certainly. If one was not working within the confines of our society and culture as it already exists, things would (could) be different. But we're stuck with what we have, in that sense - we can't remake our past (no matter how much fundies in Texas want to!), but we can shape our future. In that light, society is a tad like one big human being, who needs to work out (via a "personal" brand of psychology) how best to become whole, healthy, happy and productive. And, as Steven and I have both mentioned, the way to go about this change is not to take a "dogmatic" stance on either (or any) side, but to approach the future (as the three of us certainly do) with humility, willingness and an openness to possibility.

  9. On that note - what a horribly preachy comment! My apologies :-)

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