From Eternity to here: A brief note on the retreat from ontology and the rise of conventional norms

Posted on May 29, 2022

Before there was Post-modernism there was Modernism…and it was already too late

There is a general feeling among non-mainstream thinkers that the world has fallen victim to the wicked genius of certain philosophers, among whom Friedrich Nietzsche frequently gets top billing, but including many others among the thought leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries, and accelerating, both in awfulness and volume, into the 21st. While there is a certain obvious validity to this, it obscures the more basic point, which is that the Western intellectual tradition came up against a fundamental dilemma which eluded solution. That dilemma was the antinomy between the ontological and the epistemological modes of thought, and it was lack of a resolution to this problem which left the door open to all those notorious nihilist thinkers. This is hardly an original insight of mine, and if one studies the philosophical tradition closely you are likely discover that many greats of its cannon (Edmund Husserl comes to mind in this connection) struggled with the problem, albeit with limited success.

Now all of this may sound terribly abstract, but everything you see in media and read in the news, the multiple and accelerating crises, result (however ultimately, indirectly and at great remove) from the abandonment of an ancient form of thought which some modern philosophers have termed ontological. Ontological thinking grants, without question, the primacy of reality. However the dominant style of thinking today begins by doubting the existence, or at least the nature, of reality, and bringing it before the bar of human thought, reason, and feeling.

Our social reality has become the construct of epistemological thinking

One is tempted to shrug one’s shoulders, but here lies a key to understanding the justification for all of our institutions and our ways of life. In ancient times reality made human beings, but today human beings make (or at least attempt to make) reality. This empowerment of the human race, initially so attractive yet always threatening to turn into a nightmare, didn’t begin with the latest pronouncement of governments or international NGOs. It began in the quiet reflections of Western intellectuals during the 18th century “enlightenment” and even much earlier. Regardless of its origin, in substance was a shift to epistemological thinking.

The shift to epistemological thinking in the West (for here we are not speaking of traditional India or China or elsewhere, albeit today “West” is to some degree everywhere and everyone) lead to a kind of “metaphysical anxiety.” How so? Well, fundamentally, once the sphere of human knowledge replaces reality as the starting point of thinking, the thinker is no longer a grateful participant in a world of other beings. Instead the thinker becomes a pioneer pushing the back the darkness of the unconscious universe, dwelling in a clearing called “science.” Without the heroic efforts of the human thinker, the universe literally has no mind. Hence the anxiety of the classical “heroic” atheist, the disowned ancestor of the contemporary postmodern nihilist.

To be sure, metaphysical anxiety is only a major problem for metaphysicians, a small sub-set of humanity. However the subjectivist orientation to knowledge implies that human social institutions are also constructs of the human mind imposed on reality. Now, the nature and legitimacy of social institutions is of concern to everyone. Furthermore, it follows that, if knowledge is a human construct, then the constitution of human societies is a sort of poetry. Modern (subjectivist) thought informs us that human beings invent the laws of their societies. When the heroic virtues were more in style than today, the favored narrative was that great and wise elders invented the laws and imposed them on their communities. More recently, a less heroic and more collectivist theory has held sway. Social institutions are developed over long periods of time by incremental group experimentation. This is generally referred to as the theory of cultural evolution. Most recently, with the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of oligarchs, the heroic notion of conscious cultural revolution has made a comeback.

The people who call themselves conservatives tend to be those who are clinging to the model of gradual cultural evolution. With few exceptions both the conservatives and the progressives (or rather the oligarchs who mask their interests under the banner of progress) are agreed that human institutions are anthropogenic. If “culture” means human-made (anthropogenic) social forms, then conservatives want slow culture and progressives want fast culture. It seldom occurs to anyone that there is any alternative to anthropogenic social forms, or that human institutions originated out of a transcendental, supra-human root.

The Eternal Law and its cultured despise-ers

To lift a phrase from the deeply subjective Schelermacher, it is those who are “cultured” in the most profound sense who despise the idea of an eternal, objective, and universal law. Any such belief is dismissed out of the court of acceptable opinion as, at best eccentric if not dangerously fanatical. Indeed, the notion of an Eternal Law is easy to ridicule. The image which, under one guise or another, makes it claim on the imagination is that of Tablets suspended from Heaven, perhaps jade tablets engraved with unalterable letters. Such tablets can neither be amended not controverted, and the implication is that, if they ever existed, they would constitute an intolerable tyranny over the human mind.

The image symbolizes two weighty, but surmountable, objections to an Eternal Law, namely the existence of time and space. It is as if we are confronted with a block universe such as that posited by Parmenides. Now even Plato rejected the literal formula of Parmenides, but before we get to Plato and reflective thinking (note that I see no contradiction between reflection and objectivity) it might be better to make a detour around the philosophers, and look at the “vulgar” thinking of the human race, before it was affected by either Greek philosophy or Israel’s special contact with the Source.

It goes without saying that there was great diversity. Now the proponents of “culture” i.e., the anthropogenic theory, have made this their primary brief against the ubiquity of the Eternal Law. Now if we were faithful recorders of our local informants, in whatever century, sea or continent (excluding only modernity) we would never find a case (speaking in historical translation of course) such as “Ah yes, that man Ludwig Feuerbach! That is exactly our theory too, since our gods are nothing but bad dreams brought on by indigestion, and as for our deepest moral principles, we devised them out of the cunning of our own intellects.” The normal informant would be, rather, what we call “naive.” We need not be naive ourselves, but at least we ought to make the data of consciousness our primary source for investigation of comparative world views. If we allow ourselves to do so, we find wide areas of agreement on fundamentals of right and wrong throughout history and across the globe. We find evidence, however incomplete and fragmented, of an Eternal Law.

What we do not find is uniformity. Indeed, why should we have expected uniformity in the first place? For the proponent of anthropogenic institutions, this is always intended to provoke a surprise. We, the lay public, are supposed to be amazed at the diversity of indigenous human customs, and devoid of any possible explanation for this remarkable fact. To rescue us from this plight the proponents of “culture” offer a spectrum of theories within the respectable bounds of immanent anthropogenic thought. The more spiritual thinkers (according to the humanist sense of “spiritual”) envision tribes of poets spreading across the planet, each inventing a new song. The more materialist thinkers see tribes of heroes, each wrestling like Hercules, with a different climate and environment and forging new technologies, the mental aspect of which can be designated, in shorthand style, as “culture.” These are vastly entertaining narratives, the plausibility of which have placed them among the officially sanctioned ideologies of modernity.

However there are severe problems confronting these ideologies, and the modernist world-view in general. The most severe of all involve our present situation, in which modernity has come to the end of its tether. However at the moment I want to concentrate on problems concerning the origination of human institutions. Note that all the anthropogenic theories bracket out any consideration of the supernatural, ostensibly invoking some sort of “Occam razor” notion of explanatory elegance, but as most people tacitly recognize, in fact projecting elements of the modernist political-theological program back into the historical and ethnological records.

The first thing to be recognized is that the anthropogenic claim to a monopoly on explaining human diversity is simply false. The true explanation is obvious and amply seconded by all accounts in the historical and ethnographic records of the human race. Diversity is the outcome of intermediating spirits of time and place. Now assuredly, there is no more precious treasure than ethical monotheism, such as we have received through the deposit of revelation. Yet as Maimonides himself would council us, the very brilliance of our monotheistic heritage has blinded us to those shady aspects of human origins, of which the ancients, in the darkness of their own minds had a surer intuition. Though the ancients (and here I mean in particular the ancient Greek philosophers) were not enlightened by revelation, they at least gave an honest accounting of reality as best as they could understand it. In this sense they are different from the moderns, at least the unbelieving moderns, those who are seeking to deconstruct the results of revelation and make diversity a cause for disbelief in the Eternal Law.

A second, and final objection to Eternal Law should be at least briefly mentioned here. We have seen how the obvious accounting for diversity is provided by a brief and economical admission of intermediary spirits into any comprehensive ontology. By “economical” I mean not getting sidetracked into a substantive concern with the nature of the spirits on the philosophical level, which would only deflect from the argument against the anthropolgenic theories. Yet even more important than accounting for human diversity is giving adequate consideration to human thought, choice, and action. If, in fact, the Eternal Law robbed humanity of its essential characteristic of rational action (praxis) then its critics would be correct in labeling it a tyrannical monstrosity. On the contrary, it would seem more likely that it is modernity, not the Eternal Law, which is transforming the human race into an aggregate of soulless robots.

While a comprehensive argument to that effect is beyond the scope of this writing, suffice to say that human praxis is part and parcel of maintaining the Eternal Law. The key point here is that the refutation of anthropogenic theses is not at all prejudicial to human freedom. Human beings must, if fact, exert themselves, if they are to play their proper part in the discovery, reception, and administration of the Eternal Law, since such a Law could only apply to humans (not e.g., angels) if it were adapted to the small-case “laws” of a human commonwealth. This, again, was easier for the ancients to see than for the moderns to grasp. Modernity, founded on a subjective basis, conceives of societal creation as human construction project, or in the case of post-modernity as deconstruction. The ancients, with their ontological bent, saw legislating for the community as a discovery process, and a search into transcendental principles.

Hence Plato, having stated the case for organizing human society on the basis of trancendent ideas in his dialogue Republic, reverts to more practical, action oriented prescriptions in his Laws. He even talks about the need to amend the laws of the commonwealth, and for active legislation in some cases. In what sense does this differ from modern, secular notions of positive law? It differs in the same way that metaphysics is different from poetry. Plato’s legislator never strikes out on his own, and his laws are never innovations, but rather reforms and returns to the primordial archetypes of the ideas. Even in a hypothetically normal world of “evenly-rotating” generations, this reforming of the laws of the commonwealth in the direction of Eternal Law would be a demanding task, due to the entropic quality of all existence, inclusive of human society. In our times, dominated by subjective, anthropogenic thinking, it would require truly heroic vigor.

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