Tuesday 22 November 2022

Why modern Man's ideologies (and religion) have become more truly negative

It is very striking to me, how negative are people's ideals now; compared with even fifty or a hundred years ago. 

And I mean negative in practice - not just in theory; because there have been negative religious theories for at least a couple of thousand years - yet in practice Christians had strong positive motivations. 

Negative Theology (Via Negativa) was prominent in Christianity (substantially inherited from pagan Romans and Greeks) in the early centuries AD. I mean the ascetic path of opposition to the world, elimination of temptation, and repudiation of "the flesh", which was taken to the greatest extreme by the hermit Desert Fathers. 

The Neo-Platonic theology (e.g. associated with Dionysius the Aeropagite) was one of explicit negation; that asserted we cannot know God except by knowing what God is Not, are dragged down by our instincts and desires. This in general down-rated or rejected marriage, family, creativity as paths to God; due to their excessive risk of temptation by fleshly pleasures - binding us to mortal life, its pleasures and pains. 

These desires were to be overcome by prolonged disciplines of deprivation and chosen suffering; so that we may learn control of them, and ultimately independence from them. 

Yet, in practice, there was at this time also a very powerful yet implicit positive desire for communion with God, to emulate (their idea of) Jesus Christ, and to dwell spiritually in Heaven even while on earth.

Therefore, the true situation was one in which there was strong positive desires that were unconscious and implicit; which were disciplined and shaped by the explicit rituals and practices of a negative nature. 

Through human history, these unconscious and implicit positive instincts have dwindled, until many modern people are hardly aware of them, deny their validity, and often altogether deny their presence. People (especially in The West) are no longer guided by positive implicit instincts towards God, the spirit, higher consciousness... 

Instead we are guided by external human-originated ideals - especially the dominant ideology of 'secular-leftist-materialism' that underpins all of social and political discourse and institutions in The West. 

If an individual rejects the dominant ideology, he must (as a rule) do so by an explicit and consciously chosen act of will. 

Interestingly, even the ideology of left-materialism itself has been subject to the same trends in consciousness. It has gone from containing a considerable largely-unconscious and implicit positive element; to being almost wholly negative in its ideals, and oppositional in its practices. 

When it began to emerge a couple of hundred years ago, leftism often shared in the (mostly unconscious) positive goals of Christianity; so that there were many "Christian socialists" in the UK (from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, as well as Nonconformist churches), who (albeit misguidedly) saw socialism as a means to the end of a more Christian society. These were a significant cultural phenomenon into the middle 20th century. 

Even among the explicitly materialist-atheist leftists of the late nineteenth century - such as the revolutionary communist William Morris and the gradualist Fabian George Bernard Shaw - there was strong (albeit un-theorized, un-grounded) positive assumption concerning the goals of leftism. 

Such Men would argue that socialism was a necessary/ the best means to achieve the kind of society that was 'common-sensically' (by appeal to universal evaluations) regarded as a good environment for positive virtues. 

For Morris that was a quasi-Medieval agrarian society in which the arts and crafts thrived, and were universal - a world of craftsmen and artists, for whom labour was an altruistic joy. 

For Shaw it was a modern industrial society where all were allocated an equal income that made accessible all the higher things in life (arts, sciences etc). The purpose of universal and equal prosperity was to enable Men to pursue 'mystical' goals; such as attaining higher consciousness - en route to a somewhat Platonic world of pure intelligences whose gratification was contemplation, and untrammeled creativity.

For the likes of Morris, Shaw and other early socialists; the desirability of such a society was self-evident; but it is no longer self-evident in 2022. Indeed, such utopian schemes are all-but off the map, seldom mentioned; and so weakly believed (if at all) that such ideals are unable significantly sustain a life or even (noticeably) to influence behaviour.  

What I mean is that - diminishing, but evident until about the middle-20th century - the underlying, even if unstated, belief even on the Left was that if the obstacles to a better and higher life could be removed by socialism (or feminism, antiracism, an economy of common ownership etc) - then a better and higher life would spontaneously emerge - because that (it was assumed) was what Men wanted.

And it was that better/ higher life that was the ultimate justification of leftism. 


Well, that concept has become meaningless, and since the 1960s, as the New Left has focused on negative aims, without any positive sense of where this is going, or what state of society it is trying to achieve, or what people are supposed to do and live-by in a future society. Contra Morris; the arts and crafts, guilds and professions, small villages and farming as a vocation; have all declined catastrophically. And, contra Shaw; Men are more, not less, focused on materialism, consumption and shallow pleasures and dissipating distractions.  

Underlying such changes in both Christianity and Leftism is this waning of the unconscious and implicit, ultimately spiritual and self-justifying, ideal of The Good Life.  

Now we must consciously choose God, Jesus Christ, and to live by the transcendental values of divine creation. These are not longer spontaneously generated from within ourselves. 

On the one hand; we are free-er than Men used to be; because we are no longer subject to uncontrollable drives from unconscious motivations. 

On the other hand; if we do not choose correctly; then we are prone to purposelessness, meaninglessness and therefore despair - in a way that used to be extremely rare, even among the explicit atheists and nihilists of 100-plus years ago. 


Jack said...

I came across someone online expressing his distaste for all heroism in popular films, because he thought heroism was a lie and didn't exist in reality; and that, at bottom, we are all petty, selfish beings. What struck me was that he wasn't trying to make a point or to exaggerate. He sincerely believed this.

I spent several years in the Traditionalist sect of Catholicism, and though I eventually left — it having exhausted me for reasons you allude to (being too negative, anti-self, anti-creative) — it did give me a profound sense of what is humanly possible, and of real historical and practical heroism. Contrary to that online poster's conviction, there really are people who wake up every day with a disciplined mind, intent on accomplishing some great heroic thing, no matter the personal cost. And in the case of the great Catholic saints, you come across people who are godlike in the sheer strength of their character and willingness to undertake great tasks and endure great suffering. I'm grateful to Traditionalism for giving me insight into that more elevated picture of life.

It is disturbing that many have lost this heroic imagination. This is the reason I've never been really critical of the suphero movie craze of the past 20 years; because even if they are artistically mediocre, they at least embody some latent desire in the public to believe in and to witness heroism. Whereas the problem I have with the more sophisticated "art films" is that they frequently embody the anti-heroic, nihilistic values of today's intelligentsia — films which are stylistically brilliant, but morally disgusting and aesthetically repulsive. There is a film called "Synecdoche, New York", for example, which is quite sophisticated and critically lauded, which from start to finish is an exercise in the most morbid, rotten, decayed feelings and sentiments. It is utterly miserable without any of the redeeming qualities of melancholy; just vile.

I think partly why this heroic imagination has faded is that it has been ideologically suppressed. In the postwar period, there was this sense that heroism and heroic values are fascistic and militarist, and there has emerged since this ethos of levelling, lowest common denominator, "common sense" being rational or "scientific", not "taking things too seriously" — this deflating spirit which says that if everyone just kind of gave up and "relaxed", we would have world peace and the end of war. At best, this ethos is a quasi-Taoist appreciation of "going with the flow" and not being artificially forceful. At worst, and it often is at its worst, it's only a cowardly and philistine spirit of surrender to everything vulgar and crass. At bottom, it's fear and loss of faith.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - I agree.

I tried to analyze the domination of the antihero trope in popular culture, in a book I wrote a few years ago - the chapter is called From hero to antihero: https://addictedtodistraction.blogspot.com/

Jack said...

Thank you. I'll have a read.

I'd just like to add as well a thought I've had in the past, one I wish I could broadcast to everyone and especially to those conscious of the west's decadence and despair:— we are still living in the postwar period. I believe historians cut that period off somewhere in the 70s, but spiritually and culturally speaking—we are still in postwar Europe, and the postwar West. I think this is an especially important thing to understand thoroughly and to be reminded of. We have a civilisational case of trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, which is understandable given how traumatised the first half of the century was. Naturally, it's most severe in Europe, and even western Europe specifically.

I think this is important for people on the right to always bear in mind, because I think the gloomy sentiments—as rooted as they are in the reality of our situation— are still nonetheless exaggerated. I say this because our entire postwar culture has been built up in reaction to the World Wars (and to events like the holocaust), and carries all the pain and fear of that negation, of trying to flee the recent past, even our entire history prior to The Beatles. A big reason why we're in such a slump is that we still haven't "gotten over it", and I estimate we won't have until about the centenary, sometime in the 2040s or even 2050s. It was that traumatic. The current generation in charge is the baby boom generation, and in many ways they are the most traumatised generation with respect to the war. And while later generations are more heavily propagandised by the postwar regime than even the baby boomers themselves, at least the postwar trauma itself has been gradually wearing off generation to generation. The point being, that any future western renaissance/revival is entirely predicated on the rejection of, or healing from, this trauma. I think part of the reason why the political right, and really all of western politics, is so despairing—is that it simply cannot envision a life beyond the war, a society without this trauma.

Look at China as a counter-example. They fell into a huge slump after the traumatic period of the opium wars. Yet, for all the evils of Chairman Mao and his party after him, the CCP, they at least revived *some* measure of optimism and hopefulness in the Chinese soul (albeit with all the flaws of an Ahrimanic, communist ideology) so that you get the sense that the Chinese aren't living in a near complete state of despair and existential crisis like we Europeans, even though they're probably suffering more materially than us.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jack - My impression is somewhat different.

I feel that there was a significant and continuing psychological recovery from WWII which was then deliberately (and with malign intent) hijacked and distorted from the middle 60s onwards; since when the history of the war has been rewritten/ remade in memory, from an essentially Jewish and US perspective (eg Herman Wouk's Winds of War) and a near exclusive focus on the NSDAP.

When I was an English child in the 60s there was a considerable awareness of the (equal) evils of Soviet Communism as a system (especially via Orwell) - that awareness has all-but gone.

And from the British perspective the real baddies of WWII were the Japanese; based on their conduct in battles, and the treatment of prisoners - which were known directly by many British families.

This perspective has (except for Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain) now almost wholly been absorbed by the US perspective, which has become more and more Nazi focused (e.g. the streaming channels have probably many hundreds of TV programmes and movies focused on the Nazis, and always more...) - and this of course went along with the exporting of US ideologies and pathologies internationally (perhaps reaching a peak in 2020 when the US psychopathologies wrt race were mandatorily applied across the world).

Something similar happened in Germany - which was, we must not forget, one of the great cultures of modern times; where the healing/ forgetting process was far advanced by the middle 1960s until revived among the young generation as a guilt-cosh with which to beat their elders - and this has eviscerated the German cultural spirit (to the loss of the whole world).

But none of this would have happened if we were not living in the first systemically-secular-materialist societies in history. As Rudolf Steiner foresaw in 1918, this was an inevitable consequence of the (anti-) spiritual decisions made throughout the twentieth century and continuing.