The Odyssey of Theodicy

The Odyssey of Theodicy (A Metacriminal Career)

            For the theist, a theodicy of some sort is generally required in order to resolve the apparent contradiction between a benevolent divinity and the existence of that which is deemed evil in His creation. Leibniz coined the term in 1710, but Levinas, amongst other contemporary writers, have stated forcefully that theodicy is, not a false problem, as the atheist would have it, but rather a kind of ‘blasphemy’; an insult to Godhead, given that one is imagining that God is Himself ultimately responsible for evil. Of course, it depends on the kind of God one invokes, for even Yahweh, the object of Job’s resistance as well as that of the post-Holocaust Jewish writers in the history and philosophy of religion, is not a God of love and grace, but rather one demonstrating some kind of vengefulness and ‘jealousy’. Certainly, the Hebrews had placed themselves in a liminal condition, by first electing a specifically ethnic mascot God but without giving Him the moral scope to ethically wax and wane along with human action in the world. Yahweh was still a God beyond history, a divinity of the Act, and not of action. It is only with what is referred to as the ‘new covenant’ that we see a God, not only on earth for the first time, but also one that declares only the good and only love and those for all, through the enlargement of grace and the mechanism of forgiveness.

            It is with this later advent that the problem of theodicy more truly arises. For the antique Gods, evil was something that humans dealt with, even if it was itself dealt by the Gods themselves on a regular basis. Good was rare, and so the bad, if not the outright evil, was something one could generally expect. The barbarian was beneath good and bad, and thus could be considered evil simply in his presence in the world. For the Greeks, this amounted to almost everyone else. They excerpted the Egyptians from this blanket indictment simply because they are aware of this civilization’s astonishing accomplishments. But for the Egyptians, the only evil which did exist was the soul’s recidivism, expressed as one not having lived up to one’s innate abilities over the life-course. For the Greeks, the greatest evil was hope, since it proffered a sense of false consciousness to anyone who maintained it overlong. It is of great interest, given the historical career of humanity’s inhumanity, that something such as hope has retained not only its significance in our collective imagination, but also its very being in a world of evils. For the theist, this is a sign that God is Himself not dead, at least not yet. For the atheist, hope is presumably a more evolutionary designed trait, though equally proprioceptive in its oft tacit presence in our lives.

            It does seem a tad irresponsible to ascribe to any sort of divinity the origin and malingering presence of what is called evil. Indeed, Ernst Becker suggests that very term is now archaic, made anonymously ‘banal’ by Weberian dynamics, including and especially  Entzauberung, of which such banality is presumably a part. It suggests that the good as well becomes, if not utterly banal, at least blithe and circumstantial, and following from this, uninteresting outside of the specific action in which it occurs. Was this then the social and historical destiny of the neighbor figure, one may ask? However this may be, the idea that it is a God’s fault that evil exists seems to me to be pathetic, a kind of avoidance behavior, so if theodicy were an ethical issue rather than simply a logical problem due to the presence of a certain kind of ontological model, I would be inclined to agree with Levinas and company. But just as we cannot murder any God based upon a Theoditical condition from which we appear unwilling to ourselves egress – such and act would be a mere rationalization set up against historical forces, as well as way in which to preserve our human ego in the face of those same large-scale and discursive dynamics – we cannot be content simply to kill ourselves either. For a human death does not meet either the design specifications, or meet up with the higher drama, of a deicide. If we ‘decide to deicide’, if you will, then it must be due rather to an acceptance of a different kind of human insight and perhaps also maturity. Somewhat ironically, the death of God has everything to do with the life of Man.

            In this, theodicy belatedly becomes a false problem, since it rests in the belief that there is not only Godhead but that this same divine presence is for the good, and is itself the good. These are two very broad assumptions, and anyone who attempts their dual leaps of faith, since they involve two quite different questions, must immediately also acknowledge that the human heart is rather the seat of evil, and thus sets itself up in opposition to that divine. More clear-headed is, I imagine, the idea of godhead but without any specific ethical rider placed upon it. Another form of being, certainly, but without an historical interest, human history being so defined by ethical action in real time. This is a more contemporary view of divinity, and it is expressed in popular culture through the science-fantasy professional ethic of the ‘prime directive’ and like policies, which specifically disallows advanced cultures to influence their more primitive cousins, though in theory it would apply to any kind of cross-cultural encounter. But more seriously, it is also expressed in psychopathology, wherein the person who imagines God is speaking to them, or equally so, extraterrestrials hounding them, is labeled as schizoaffective. In a word, we are not, in our modern scene, to think ourselves favored in any manner imaginable, for it is this idea, lending itself to the sense of both a superiority soteriological as well as material, which is the very root of all evil in the social world.

            And so we circle back, in a sense, to the Hebrew critique of those who seek to escape from the confrontation with their own character, exemplified in Babel. As Sherlock Holmes put it, ‘those who attempt to transcend their own nature tend to fall below it’, and in the context of that particular adventure, this epigram would apply equally to a Darwinian world as to one Augustinian. The Babelian aspiration, to find a way not only to be like the Gods actually are, but also, and as a necessary outcome of this false dialectic, to escape the problem of internecine theodicy – why is a being such as myself given to both good and evil, and sometimes at once? – is equally a rationalization of our finite powers as it is a hoped-for egress from our human finitude. The recognition that we are not Gods, at first a deflation and even an embarrassment or yet a shamefulness for antiquity, becomes in our own day a way in which we understand that the Gods also are not us. It is perhaps this converse statement that, more than anything else, provides the opened space wherein which deicide can eventually occur. When it does, we also gain a fuller comprehension of the Christian autohagiographic similitude; that the God of love is no longer divine but has become human, though in a way only a God could effect. It is this act-into-action, no longer metaphoric but quite real as defined by what one can know of history by definition, that should provide for us the role model given the stakes; we too must become human. Only in so doing will we gain a lasting appreciation for our finitudinal condition, one by which a fragile future for our species becomes much more plausible than it is at present.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, religion, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Technical and the Ethical

The Technical and the Ethical (what they share, and what they don’t)

            It is commonplace to hear that our morality has not ‘kept up’ with our technology, or that the latter proceeds at a more ‘rapid’ pace than the former. But seen from the perspective of action in the world, morality and technology occupy the same relative place to what is technical, or involves technique, and what is ethical; morality in action or conscience enacted. Both morality and technology proceed from our Promethean humanity. We require external prosthetics, from the simplest of wooden and stone tools of our distant ancestors to the quantum accelerators of our own day, in order to make a culture at all or indeed to survive the night. The domestication of fire was key to these regards. Morality is an idealized prosthetic, an extension of our mental life into the world, just as technology extends the capacities of our bodily form. It is plausible that our very idea of ‘embodiment’, a theological term but also one phenomenological, originates in this early distinction between our physical and mental capabilities and endurances. For to feel ensconced in a material vehicle as something other than is the world might well play on an ancestral sensibility brought about by that very duet of prosthetic extensions; I am more than I seem to be.

            Is this ‘more’ defined only by our evolving extensions, or might it also be the case that embodiment is of the essence of things in this matter; that I have not only made myself into a ‘more’ in the life I know and share with other human beings, but that I am also to be more, perhaps in a further life, or, to extend the logic of extension itself, a further part of this life? Conceptions of the afterlife, in their earliest form, saw it as a mere transition between earthly lives, a kind of eternal recurrence, not necessarily of the exact same thing, as in Nietzsche’s radically life-affirming formulation, but simply as another round of something similar; similar, especially in social contract cultures wherein this earliest idea of existential extension arises. Even with rudimentary social stratification, political power, and the presence of consistent material surplus, this first afterlife is not altered. What we observe is an inclining difference in burial rituals rather than the abandonment of the rites of passage in general. But with the advent of sedentary mass cultures we do see the idea that some have different destinies in the afterlife than others. Yet even here, the essence of the purpose of the afterlife, though altered from its primordial recurrence theme, remains consistent for all who thus enter it; some kind of evaluation is at stake, and that of one’s conscience and not one’s essence.

            By this point, an idea that must have been percolating within our ancestral breast for eons has appeared bodily in the world: the sense that embodiment as a locus for technological and moral extensions has a purpose beyond itself. Not only is life to be extended, but so also is its meaning. In this, we humans are gifted with the fuller sense of the Promethean ethic. Indeed, it was not so much the ability to live in ignorance of our own deaths as did the Gods themselves, though for us as a limited period, that riled the Greek pantheon, but rather that mortal life should have a meaning beyond itself. And this idea, implicated in the gift of the demigod, essentially annulled the difference between Gods and humans; both had now indefinite existences from which purpose and meaningfulness might be gleaned. Worse still, from the divine perspective at least, was that meaning itself for an omniscient and omnipotent being was not truly relevant, or at the very least, occurred in whole cloth as with everything else such a being would bring into being with its own presence. For us, rather, making meaning as we go along, though long the order of the quotidian day, abruptly upshifted itself into the essence of life, the very reason that we lived at all.

            What fills the conceptual as well as experiential gaps between technology and morality and actual human life in the world is, respectively, technique and ethics, the technical and the ethical. What they share is their fundamentally ad hoc basis: both technique and ethics responds to a specific circumstance, as often as not unpredicted or at least, unexpected. And just as there is not a one-to-one correspondence between morality and ethics – the idea that the former contains timeless principles as ideals and the latter is the space of real-time action wherein what is good in one case might not be in the next, and so on – so there is no levels-identity relation between technology, an umbrella term for anything prosthetic in culture, and technique, the actual use of tools and as well the skills involved in the construction thereof. Ethics is not morality simply brought down to earth, but rather moral ideas enacted and thus modified in the world on an ongoing basis. If such an image rapidly becomes blurred, we understand that ‘life is vague’, as Gadamer sagely notes, though it sounds like a mere truism and might even contain a nascent sense that ‘this life’ is vague when compared to some other life. Just so, the very ad hoc character of human life – we are constantly faced with differing circumstance and indeed, the very sense that life is mostly circumstantial both in action and in essence; we often meet our mates by chance, we do not ask to be born, etc. – forces upon us a reckoning: if our extensory apparatus seeks to ameliorate the chance quality of existence, if our extended sensibilities based upon prior experience purposes itself as the assuagement of our limited conscience  – conscience can no more predict the future with due certainty than can technique itself – then might it be the case that because we our aware of ideals in the first place, that there is another kind or form of life within which such ideals actually exist?

            This speculation should be familiar from Peter Berger’s 1967 argument concerning the possible reality of the afterlife, whatever its culturally defined character. It has its germ in James’ legendary Gifford lectures of 1901, wherein ‘the reality of the unseen’ is of great moment in the career of belief. Not just this, but as well, and rather more darkly, ‘the sacrifice of the intellect’, must also be had if one is to authentically adopt a religious suasion. At some point, reflection must cease, reason give itself away, in order for faith alone to carry the day. The idea that due to our ability to at least imagine an ideal way of life, which at once does away with the need for both the technical and the ethical, is suggestive of ‘another’ world or yet an otherworld where the very idea of the ideal is also moribund. We do not of course reiterate any of this argument here. For us, ideals arise through the human ability to make history; though ad hoc in its action, life remains to be lived by a being who is possessed of both memory and anticipation; two sibling, if contrasting, phenomenological dispositions of Dasein. Because of this, we are able to say to ourselves, ‘well, that was different, but it reminds me of the time when I…’ and such-like. Or, by way of comparison, ‘I have never experienced anything the like…’. All culture, all history, is only possible by way of the constant remarking upon the difference between what is similar and what is contrasting, and indeed how and by how much such experiences do in fact contrast. Technique is not only technology in use but also the reflexive process through which the former is modified by having become part of a human life; for now, technology has no life of its own. Ethics, rather, is not only morality lensed by action in the world but is as well its own domain, and this is the point at which the technical and the ethical part ways.

            For what they do not share with one another is autonomous form and thence formulation. The technical, the realm of technique alone, is always enthralled to the task at hand. It cannot compare itself to its ideal. One does hear, ‘well, if all other things had been equal, this would have worked’. Applied scientists, who should be wiser than all of this, are often the source of this plaintiff. But one also hears another refrain, one that only partially quotes the original source, and that is ‘for all action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Yes, ‘in a closed system’, as the actual text concludes. Human life, history, culture, and the world at large are manifestly not such closed systems as Newton ideally described for his local physics. Those who misuse this famous epigram, speaking in part of his second law of thermodynamics, do so to make simplistic human relations, especially those political, in order to manipulate others. In so doing, however, they have, perhaps inadvertently but nonetheless bodily, moved from the technical to the ethical. They have expressed what is of the utmost for our shared humanity; not at all our ability to extend our physical capabilities through equally material prosthetics but rather our inability to know our ends, both singular and indeed collective. Its is only ethics which speaks, Janus-like but without duplicity, to this human dilemma and not and never technique. In doing so, we are brought face to face with the existential import of being able to at once have an awareness of how we would ideally act ‘if all else was equal’ and the ‘system was closed’, and thus the equal understanding that we must in any case take action without direct recourse to either ideals or to an ideal world.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Good-in-Itself versus the Good-for-Oneself

The Good-in-itself versus the Good-for-Oneself (an excursus in grounded meta-ethics)

            The term ‘meta-ethics’ first presents an inherent contradiction. Ethics is, by definition, about the space of action in the world. It is grounded only in the sense that it occurs in medias res, on the ground, whilst running along. It is perhaps typical of analytic philosophy to make the goal an ‘in itself’ and then the means to it quite contextual. The leap of faith is simple enough: can we establish a principle – in this case, about the essence of morality – based upon all that is unprincipled in itself. This faith does not, perhaps ironically, include a moral judgment, for ‘unprincipled’ is meant to suggest only that which is relative to condition. Think of Durkheim’s understanding of ‘deviant’, which was highly statistical, and in which the normative was equally seen as simply that which most people in fact do, or believe. It is the same, and even more so, for his kindred concept of ‘pathological’, which is deliberately contrasted with the stark and even jarring term ‘normal’, so disdained today. The social fact, to again borrow from the same thinker, that everyone is ‘normal somewhere’, belies without entirely betraying the sense that our shared condition is not experienced in an identity relation with itself. But if one seeks a principle, one would either have to assume that there are actions which lend themselves to a choate whole as in a structure made of differing but corresponding elements, or that at some point, with the presence of enough of a certain kind of action or sets of actions, that a Gestalt belatedly arrives which can be thenceforth named ‘morality’, or some other like category.

            As a hermeneutic thinker, I am cautious about such claims. Ethics is never by itself, or thus an ‘in itself’. It is quite unlike physics in these regards, which, though certainly not acting in the proverbially ‘closed system’, it is nevertheless highly predictable in its correlative effects, and can be, with great aplomb, analytically worked out backwards, as it were, to specific precipitates and even ‘causes’. Now it is not that ethics so named is random, entirely spontaneous, or improvised on the spot every time. Clearly, there is some relationship between the action of the good and the good in principle, and it is thus a matter of discovering more exactly what that connection may be, how it has altered itself over time, and how living human beings perceive it. But unlike the formal study of meta-ethics, what I will suggest here is that we begin quite inductively and without any principled goal in mind, by attempting to understand a Verstehen of Verstandnis, if you will, which ultimately returns to a Selbstverstandnis. This ‘selfhood’ is not, in the end, oneself, but rather about the self as it is currently experienced and acted out by our contemporaries in the world as it is. Insofar as it is not overly personal nor overtly subjective, this selfhood should contain within it at least a semblance of a principle.

            Let us begin then by taking a familiar example in which the contrast between action and order may be glimpsed. It is very often the case, in teaching undergraduates of any age or possessed of any credo, that they imagine that their personal experience can by itself generate facts, or that what they have known is the whole of social reality. Long ago, when I was still myself possessed of a sense of experiential superiority, I responded to a hapless young student who, in reacting to the statistic about youthful marriage which, at the time, had it that 85% of marriages entered into before the age of 26 ended in divorce, objected that her parents had been high school sweethearts, meeting one another at age 14, married at 18, and were yet together some decades later. Congratulate them, I replied, they are part of the 15%. This generated buckets of belly-laughs from the rest of the class and I am sure the poor thing was humiliated. That I only felt some minor bad conscience about it years later, suggests that ethics, at least of the pedagogic variety, had been conspicuously absent in this specific case.

            At the same time, such an event served the wider case quite well, as it pointed out, rather pointedly, that one’s own experiences were not enough to understand fully the human condition. Now, if we take the same sensibility to ethics, we might argue that since one’s own actions in the world are not representative of any kind of morality which might be known by other means, they are also not the fullest expressions thereof. What is meant by this latter remark? If one does not know the good, one cannot be either a representative of it, nor can one express it through one’s actions. This is a moral statement, and as such, it evaluates the value of the principle, not by its enactment, but rather, to borrow from Foucault, by virtue of its ‘enactmental complex’. The status of morals in society is one of the salient variables for analytic philosophy’s idea of what meta-ethics might be. The term ‘status’ implies both its state and its value, what it is in itself and how we esteem it, even if we do not precisely know what it is, or what else it may be, unto itself. The old-hat problem of our perception of the world comes immediately to mind, but morality, as Durkheim for one stringently reminded us, is not of ‘this’ world at all. It is social alone, for, as he calls it, ‘there is no other moral order apart from society’. Before Vico, one could read ‘not of this world’ as implying an otherworld; in the premodern sense, one of divinity but also one of spirit. With the Enlightenment, ‘spirit’ disconnected itself from the divine, became ‘objective’, as it were, and whether dialectical in nature or more simply existential, the one thing it no longer was, was essential;  spirit had become its own deep deontology.

            Now however this may strike us, one day as liberating, the next, alienating, and either way, certainly as a foreground to our favorite modernist expression, that of ‘freedom’, the deontology of morality did little enough to thenceforth favor ethics as any kind of ‘in itself’. Ethics, in our day, is more often thought of in the context of business, the white collar professions, medicine, or the law. We do not regularly hear of ethics as a stand-alone discourse, and when I tell people that I am an ‘ethicist’, or that is one of my philosophical areas of study, they always ask, ‘do you mean professional ethics or business ethics or…’ and so on. It is clear enough that ethics, recently divorced from morality, has accomplished what Aristotle began only through the sleight of hand of popular language in use. And while morality is itself shunned as both dreadfully old-fashioned as well as avoided since it is perceived as a prime candidate for interpersonal conflict, ethics has almost vanished entirely from the ‘open space of the public’. And if one gets a bemused response to being an ‘ethicist’, just think of how people might react if one introduced oneself as a ‘moralist’!

            The foregoing should not be seen as a digression. Just as personal experience does not in itself comprehend the world, the actions based upon each of our individuated experiences cannot in fact construct an ethics, let alone a morality. In our day, the quest for principles is either a mirror for the ventures in technique and technology which seek indefinite perfection – research in stem cells, in artificial intelligence, in extraterrestrial contact, in cybernetics or cyber-organicity including portable or downloadable-uploadable consciousness – or it is simply another one of the same type. The moral objection to each and any of these is that they are the latter-day Babel, and can thus only be the products of an arrogant but still mortal mind which seeks to be as a God already and always is. One could ask the question, in return, ‘are moral objections always in themselves moral?’ but this would take us beyond the scope of this brief commentary. Instead, though not in lieu of, let me suggest that meta-ethics as framed by analytic thought is fraught with a problem similar in likeness to that of making something perfect, or at least, superior to what it had been. One, we are not sure if morality is in fact superior to ethics: the timeless quality of moral principles is obviated by history. History slays morality just as disbelief murders Godhead. We know from both our personal experience and our more worldly discourses thereof, that what is good for one goose is not necessarily good for the next, let alone the ganders, diverse in themselves.  Two, what is it about the character of ethical thought, and the witness of ethical action, that necessarily requires us to hitch it up to a more static system of principles? We have already stated that ethics is not about the random, and if we take our proverbial chances in the world each day, we do so with the prior knowledge that almost all others are very much aware of doing the same thing, and thus as a society we are alert to a too egregious over-acting, and that of all kinds. Durkheim’s sense of the source of morality again comes to the fore: here, morality is understood as a working resource which expresses its historical essence through the action of ethics. As such, there is nothing to be gained by esteeming morality for its own sake or even contrasting it with the discourse of ethics in a manner that exalts its status.

            The virtuous must be decided not by a grounding, but rather on the grounds of all that which is at first needful of some kind of adjustment. How we access the frames by which we make ethical decisions is certainly of interest, but I suspect that most people do not refer to principles in so doing. Instead, they rely on what has worked for them in the past, their ‘previous prejudices’, which can appear to them as if they were a set of principles in spite of what we have just observed about the essential parochiality of personal experience. In a word, prejudice is not principle. Certainly, morality attempts, and mostly in good faith I imagine, to overcome the individuated quality of merely biographical self-understanding. All the more so is it not present to mind when we act. It is not that morality is utterly moribund, a relic alongside other ontotheological constructs fit only for the museum of thought and never for the world as it is, but we would do better to work on a more effective discourse concerning ethics and specifically, ethical action, with the only pseudo-ideal present perhaps the irruptive figure of the neighbor in mind. This anti-socius works against the moral order of society and thus momentarily stands outside of ethical discourse as well. But the action of the neighbor serves as an expression of the essence of our truly shared condition and as such, reminds us of the radical authenticity that must be present in order for ethics to have any reality at all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Neo-Conservative Thought

Neo-Conservative Thought

            Revelations are necessarily mythical and sub-rational; they express natural forces and human interests in a groping way, before the advent of science. To stick in them, when something more honest and explicit is available, is inconsistent with caring for attainable welfare or understanding the world. It is to be stubborn under the cloak of religion. These prejudices are a drag on progress, moral no less than material; and the sensitive conservatism that fears they may be indispensible is entangled in a pathetic delusion. It is conservatism in a shipwreck. (Santayana, 1954:484 [1906]).

                Half the world looks backward. The fact that the past can be known only incompletely allows me to fill in what is unknown with my desires. The future, by definition, should be the fuller home of the imagination, rather than the past, but because it cannot be known at all, at least ahead of time, dampens my enthusiasm for self-projection. At some further point, I shall no longer exist; I shall become a part of the past. Could the penchant for backward-looking in our time be an expression of an auto-memorial, a way in which to preserve the selfhood of what I am, a preparation for ‘mine ownmost death’?

            In Mannheim’s famous essay, ‘Conservative Thought’, he suggests that the recent history of rationalization has made the present into a series of functions, almost autonomic, and that quite literally. These ‘self-naming’ processes in fact have no precise names. The poet of the past suddenly speaks to the experience of the present. I suffer the ‘insolence of officials’ in Weber’s bureaucratic organizations, for instance. I endure the ‘slings and arrows’ in romance and in the casino, perhaps. And I am myself more outraged than fortune is itself outrageous. Mannheim explains that the ‘one-sided emphasis upon rationalism’, while it ‘repudiates concrete and vital forms of thought by no means’ extinguishes them (1953:87), and that these forms have not ‘sunk into the past’ but have rather been ‘preserved’ in some occlusive manner. But for Mannheim, simply defining conservatism as being part of a tradition and holding to certain precepts thereof is not enough, for this is something characteristic of every human being (ibid:95). Instead, ‘being conservative’ both partakes of this basal layer of consciousness, not entirely conscious of itself and certainly not usually questioned in the action of everyday life, as well as taking concrete action in an entirely new way, concomitant with our own times (ibid:94). By making myself a part of a social action in the present I reach far beyond mere tradition, even though I might be accused of reproducing something of it, either in part or, insofar as it can be known, being both a relic and reliquary, out of whole cloth (ibid:97). In doing so, I may be semi-consciously ‘retarding’ progressive social change or even retrogressing it (ibid:99). On top of this, my action of this sort in the social world depends upon my social location in a steeply hierarchical culture: “In a word – traditionalism can only become conservatism in a society in which change occurs through the medium of class conflict – in a class society.” (ibid:101, italics the text’s).

            It is by now old hat to identify conservative action among the polar bookends of hierarchical or stratified society; the elites desire to ensure the ongoingness of their status, the marginal simply desire to have a voice. Yet is this enough to fully understand the pressing political penury that conservative persons state they ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ in modern culture? An openly retrogressive movement seeks to return to a past that has been historically lived at one time or another and thus can be more or less documented as having been part of the species experience. That such an identification can be made entails that the period in question not be temporally too far afield or chronologically distant from either our present-day understandings and sensibilities. Conservative thinking demands a reckoning with the disjunction between past and present, but at least it is not making things up as it goes along.

            Not so neo-conservative thought. Its ‘enactmentality’ is not retrogressive but rather simply regressive, as it seeks a ‘return’ to a time which is wholly imaginary and never did exist at any known historical time period. That it can define itself as desiring a time out of time, either as the primordial utopia of the Garden or as a revelatory millennialism of the coming judgment, clears its conscience when it must confront the problem of otherness. Not all can be saved. Not all will be saved. Conservative thought takes action on behalf of all of us, for each of us is a product of this or that tradition, the vast majority of which is, once again by definition, both unthought – if not unthinkable given historical precedent – and relatively unconscious. There will always be something or other in a cultural tradition that appeals to me, something known and in its own day perhaps as ‘progressive’ as the forces and actions I may, in my sense of the future, take in my own time. Conservative thinking is thus wholly historical, and it only differs from even the most radical of future-oriented poses and positions because it emphasizes a wider slice of the tradition which all of us share and from which all of us gain the basic self-understanding of the present. But neo-conservative thought needs neither history nor thinking. The one is a burden upon the imagination; the neo-conservative person is moral and not historical, for history trumps morality and in all cases. The second because mythical time is unthinking, both of itself and of history; indeed, any sense of change at all has ceased to exist. When Marx differentiates his ‘atheism’ from that of Feuerbach he declares that ‘for the communist man, the question of God does not exist’, meaning that it is not the mere existence of a divinity that is proposed but the very concept thereof. In neo-conservative thought the question of history does not exist.

            This vanishing act is convenient on at least two counts: one, the future as an unknown factor can be summarily dismissed. The future is something that I am uncomfortable with; I face it with some trepidation, if not outright fear. It is the very expression of the problem change presents to me if I am intent on maintaining anything I have created or gained during my brief existence. I already know that entire civilizations have been erased from the historical record, reduced to archaeological fragments and literary figments. What am I, as a singular person, in the face of such a trans-temporal scourge? Two, change is itself expunged. If there is no history I am left only with time, a kind of inexistence or life that, in its stolid and staid counterpoint to living, needs no longer pose any existential questions of or to itself: Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to my presence beyond what I can myself fathom or ferret out? Life without living, time without history, the present without presence, each of these in turn can fortify the regressive interpretation my harried haruspex requires of me. But in denying history I also deny the other.

            Even if the soteriological suasions of the newer agrarian period religions were all-encompassing – all are to be saved, come as you are – nevertheless there is a boundary to be constructed between the self-appointed gnostic and the one who appears content to live on both blithely and blindly, at once ignorant of one’s specific fate and unknowing of fate in general. It is this second absence that brands me as a person without faith and thus also without wisdom. For the neo-conservative, shrouding his own equally human senses not in the cast-off cloak of conservative thought but rather in the technicolor triage of draconian dreamcoat, a ‘modernist’ such as myself is purely earthbound, trapped in a history not of my own making and running headlong into not merely death but also damnation. And if conservative thinking raises its eyebrows at the LGBTQ2+ presence in our historically and factually diverse society-as-it-is, neo-conservative thought denies its very right to existence. And it must do so, for such otherness that cannot be so readily identified in either primordial time or paradisiacal timelessness is a threat to the inexistential imagination. At once, however, we must allow for the humanity of the neo-conservative to remain as present as possible; like myself who is future-oriented, the one who closes off his own perception of the world in favor of an otherworld, ahistorical and also non-historical, inexistential and transcendental, is expressing the basic human will to life which all of us share.

            In saying this, I am not in any way intending to shore up neo-conservative fantasy. At the same time, it courts both irony and even hypocrisy to deny the humanity of the neo-conservative simply because he has denied his own. Indeed, the duty presented by neo-conservative thought to the rest of us is to help the deluded person back into reality as it can be known. In this, we ourselves must admit that because not all of what is taken to be real can be rationally and factually evidenced in a way satisfactory to science, for instance, that we ourselves should remain open to certain aspects of the tradition out of which neo-conservative thought has extended itself. And it is in the acting and wholly historical space of conservativism that we must encounter the neo-conservative, and we must take upon ourselves that equally historical task simply because the narrowed imagination that desires the end of history presents an existential question to our shared species-essence. But framed by neo-conservatism, it is a false question, presented as a choice between morality and history. While it is the case that no single morality survives historical change, it is a much more open question as to the character of morality itself, which would include the concept of the sacred as Durkheim has defined it, and the presence or absence of Entzauberung, as Weber has defined it. All of us experience alienation in modern life, relatively few of us regress into the stunted stilted stenochoria of stale fairy-tale. The more authentic question, ‘how is morality relevant today?’ is perhaps the most pressing discussion that must take place amongst all persons, since it, with as well a more authentic irony, defines much of our understanding of our own historical epoch.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

The Moralist and the Moralizer

The Moralist and the Moralizer

            …no expedient could be more sophistical than that into which theodicy, in its desperate straits, has sometimes been driven, of trying to justify as conditions for ideal achievement the very conditions which make ideal achievement impossible. (Santayana, 1954:308 [1906]).

                To the unerring question, ‘why is there evil in a world created by the ultimate good?’, the moralist responds not so much by questioning the good in itself but rather the goodness of the good as a consistent and unerring force. To this same question the moralizer calls into question the goodness of the questioner herself. The odyssey of theodicy has these Scyllae bordering its passage and in the responses it receives these other Charybdes through which it must book and negotiate such passage. Today, we might adjust the assumptions that originally undertook to pose the problem of theodicy as a problem and do so in a number of ways at which both the antique moralist and moralizer alike would have trembled. But in so doing, we neither expunge the fact of evil ‘in’ the world nor do we solve the problem this elephantine presence continues to pose for us as a species.

            For moderns, theodicy presents the problem of evil in the world as part of that selfsame world rather than as an import, so to speak, from a specific source otherworldly and also maleficent. Evil, in a word, is possessed of no ulterior or exterior intentionality. One finds today the expression which defines evil as wholly human. Animals, by contrast, are incapable of it just as they know not the good. The moral animal which I am, however, finds the world divided but the more so an imbricated and puzzling mélange of good and evil, a chiaroscuro of light and dark. Indeed, ever since Aristotle attempted both the coinage of ethics and thus its separation from metaphysics, we have been aware of a discourse that works within this odd mix of passion and compassion. Not that the former is always given over to evil nor the latter immediately predisposed toward the good. No, the passions are by their own nature aloof to ethical entreaty, and where and when they are called to account by my existential conscience they are already transmuted into compassions. That we can feel both umbrage and empathy with the evildoer is pressing evidence which compels us to reconsider our own relationship with morality at large.

            That we are ourselves part of this ever-changing admixture of purposeless evil irrupting onto the calculated landscape of ordered goods may be cause for a gnawing despair. How then might we be trusted to confront evil? How then would we be sure we are capable of identifying the good, let alone acting upon it or toward it? In pre-modern echelons of morality, to be noble, to be honorable, to have integrity or even to be ‘holy’ would, by one’s essential character, orient oneself towards the good, while knowing that both the devil and death rode alongside us, the one casting us ever downward to eventually be greeted by the other. In my desperation I might well be tempted to regress in the direction of the older understanding of theodicy. I might wash my hands of the source of evil, implanted in the human soul as it was from without, while resolving to combat it nonetheless and to the best of my still only human abilities. This kind of old-world auto-assuagement actually has no authentic autochthony to it. Instead, it gratifies the ego by suggesting that I am in reality sourced at the least in a value-neutral nature, at best fully in the contrasting good, a flash of light marking the far end of the tunnel of mortal life. For morality, in one of its most specifically historical guises, is meant to assuage nothing less than mortality itself.

            The premodern sensibility calls also into question the idea of the ‘good death’. We do not see emblems of light and the good tarrying with those which threaten at every turn the uncoiled mortality of human beings in action, living in the world. Today, by contrast, we undertake to be the willing vehicles by which a good death can transpire. Assisted suicide for those whose quality of life has waned beyond the pale transform of both doing good in the world and feeling good about being alive, as well as celebrating life in wakeful wakes rather than morosely musing about death in the memorial, are two contemporary examples of how we have adjusted our relationship to both morality and mortality. Death is itself no longer to be seen as either an evil by its own nature nor as the end result of some evil originally unrelated to such an outcome. No, death is instead the completion of being, as in Heidegger, or the closing of a circle, or the utterly natural result of the breakdown of organicity and thus also its miraculous Gestalt of consciousness. And just as is nature neither good nor evil, so too cannot be its confines.

            So far so neutered. Hamlet, in his oft self-aggrandizing soliloquies, was prescient of both the later idea of youth in general – his character is a liminal one more suited to a Goethe perhaps than a Shakespeare – and the yet deeper insight that death in fact has no ‘sting’ to it. For the premodern audience at the Globe we might suggest that this absence was implying salvation, that Hamlet, for all his scheming, was essentially in the good, in the right, and even if his character was half-formed, it was yet forming in the right direction. But today we would offer a different reading: death has no sting because it inherently has no meaning beyond itself. The sting which might have singed the soul of the premodern personage has been dislocated, removed from the weft of essential Being and ported over to the warp of historical beings; for it is the living person who dies in our witness and thus death not only is dispossessed of its patent force, it also loses its own persona as a form of ultimate Being.

            This is one of modernity’s essential ironies: that a living death trumps any possible end, that the afterlife is a mere after-image of life as we know it and can know it. Furthermore, that living-on expresses the will to life, yes, but also speaks against immortality as a manner of degrading both the present and the future, the one as transient and the other as specious. At once mortality, having lost its edge and perhaps also a good bit of its edginess, commits immortality to a belated grave. And through all this once ran the skein of morality expressed in the active ethics of both the imagination enamored by the world of forms and the intellect equally harnessed to that of norms. In short, morality was understood to be as external as was both evil and also death. In altering the essence of the source material from the gold of the gods to the leaden leadership of human history we have practiced a kind of transmutation in reverse. A yet further irony, the Greek melancholia is thus preserved – the antique ages were more heroic and closer to divinity than are our own – but without any sense that this is a ‘bad thing’. To have preserved this other evaluation, which is more truly to be named a judgment, is to cast oneself as a mere moralizer. ‘The whole world’s going to hell’, when in reality certain regions are simply suffering from a momentous demographic shift for which they were ill-prepared. It is a long way, perhaps, from metaphysics to population pyramids, but even so, all of the noise one encounters whilst making the journey from one to the other, from the widest if oft imaginative sensibility to a specifically narrow moment in modern history, betrays the more essential movement away from identifying morality with not only the metaphysical – its sources, its motives, its telos – but as well betrays ourselves to the ‘world game’, which has already and always ‘blended us in’. Indeed, for the modern, to discover the means by which I am so blended is a goodly part of the process which Selbstverstandnis requires of each of us.

            If the moralist may now object that this is at best a sociology of selfhood with neither tendency nor intent at anything more profound, one can immediately agree but with the caveat that such an analytic device is still necessary to self understanding. Now the question arises whether or not it is as well sufficient for the fullest comprehension of what I am. In a world bereft not of morals per se but rather their deeper purpose – if anything, morality is in the way of modernity, a holdover from another age, much as communism theoretically seeks to expose capital as a direct and even auto-mimetic precursor to itself, differing only in its stubborn and staid grip on premodern symbolic forms – mine ownmost being as Dasein need not submit to any final judgment. No Horus awaits me, I must not balance my inexistent soul upon his scales, I need pass through no pearly gates, I need submit no vouchsafe against my sins, and I need no free pass to have lived with such sins in an earthly life so that I might continue to exist indefinitely by vindicated virtue of that unearthly. No, instead, morality is a mere means to a normative end, since ethics, by its own active essence, cannot be counted upon to shore up this or that rule. Oddly, ethics has become more ethereal, by and through its constant jurisprudence, than morality ever could claim to have been.

            Let us now return to the problem of theodicy, but recast in the pragmatism of what we take to be our own history and the more so our own time. Primordially, if there were religions at all, they were without Godhead of any kind. Animism is the most democratic of beliefs. All things contain spirit, the world is a spiritual vessel and thus by definition cannot be divorced from the soulful realm of the ether and of the immortal. In the Agrarian epochs, Gods appeared, invited, as were the Near Eastern mascots, Yahweh included, or uninvited, as in the Eastern pantheisms. The former held an historical, even human interest, while the latter maintained their divine aloofness to all things passing in this world and even the world itself. For the Easterner, the entire teleology of morals was to transcend the ego, so the Gods were understood as much abstracted role models, acting as forces of nature and of time, personified as beings which could not be, if taken as living entities. But in the West, the essential purpose was rather to preserve and ultimately exalt the ego, so our Gods took on the mantle of much more direct and anthropomorphic role models. The egotism of the West conquered the world but it also ended up subjugating itself to its own munificence. We are, in our latter-day modernity, slaves not to mortality as such but rather to all that which compels us to dwell in the cage of iron, velvet-gloved as our keepers may be.

            And would not the transcendentalist of the ‘orient’ murmur in his patent wisdom that such could be the only outcome of the exaltation of the ego? The flexible but yet unbreakable latticework with which we surround ourselves admits neither morals nor ethics, exudes neither good nor evil, and is overcome not by self-understanding alone nor yet by the non-rational. Indeed, it is this last which has entangled us, making us ripe for imprisonment by wholly rational means. The fear of mortality compels an overstatement of experience as vulgar Erlebnis; I must ‘pack in’ to my life as much as possible in the time allotted me. But such a fear, once assuaged and thence overcome by non-rational beliefs, can today be only irrational; it can accept no premodern succor nor can it be overcome, as yet, by hypermodern device. If morality attempted an ill-advised bulwark against history, its better selfhood was indeed historical, for through this interested presence, projected and extrapolated into Godhead in the West, experiential ethics was uplifted into a way of life. Erlebnis thus attained its more noble meaning: as experience in the service of self-understanding rather than as a series of happenstance adventures and misadventures. It is through morality alone that both the Quixotic and quotidian alike become principled and disciplined, and today we have no further need nor indeed justification in making our experience somehow ‘more’ than either, as if ‘packing it in’ could itself be extended to a yet other form of existence, shorn of mortality and morality the both.

            If then there could be a modern morality, its buttresses spring from Dasein’s experience of the world at large and larger than my ownmost being, rather than a self-absorbed contemplation of ‘why I exist’, or even why does the ‘I’ exist. For us, history and morality must come to trust one another without entirely ceding to ethics alone the adjudication of human experience. Morality and history generate knowledge from this Humean wellspring, while allowing ethics to convene and reconvene alongside and in front of their combined presence. Theoditical issues can only be confronted in such terms as these; neither good nor evil are ‘experiences’ that can be passed over without both subsequent analysis and evaluation. That they tinge the everyday without being irruptive to it is both disturbing on the one side – is evil truly normative and thus as structurally likely as is good? – and liberating on the other – good and evil are in fact wholly within my control and that of others like myself. For the modern West, inflated ego packed with mere experience is the greatest evil, history and morality transmuted into discourse, art and science, the greatest good. It remains to be seen if we can, as a culture and as Mitsein, come to terms with this jarring and unsettling contrast of both motive and outcome. That this challenge must be met brings morality, history, and ethics together in novel fashion. Perhaps the very lack of experience we ourselves bring to this opened space of thought and action will be propitious of a new understanding; one that recognizes the truer relations between nature, selfhood, lived time and judgment, all held within a world that is itself an impassive and impartial movement surpassing any and all human history and eschewing any universe of morality. What humanity is, over against this world beyond good and evil, can then be understood not as a countervailing force ranged in confrontation with nature but rather as a practice within that selfsame nature, and I a practitioner, replete with reason as the epitome of what that nature has proclaimed as its highest force.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.