What is our goal as a species? What is our long-term vision for mankind? Do we have one? Where are we going? Does anyone know?
We don’t ask these questions in the modern Western world because we’re afraid of them. We’re afraid because we can’t dismiss them as unimportant – they’re self-evidently important – but we can’t answer them either. We have no answer because this is the domain of religion, and we got rid of all that.
And we should be afraid too. A society, a culture, a people without vision, without a vision, without a collective dream, without a higher goal to strive for is doomed – it will die, it must die.
We live in a societal ship, and we’re out at sea. We’ve made living conditions on the ship quite good, and that’s not nothing, but we aren’t going anywhere now, and we can all feel it. A ship can only drift for so long before the crew goes mad. Soon they will fight and kill each other. They will even sink the ship just to end it all. Others just step over-board.
This is approximately where we are now. We’ve got to set our sights on a new destination if we are going to survive.
Without something transcendent to keep us aloft, as wind under our wings, we will descend, we must descend. Because we’re the fallen species – because we’re conscious and mortal – and because suffering and death are inevitable, the downward pull of gravity is always present. Without a higher hope, without transcendent goals, vision, and values – we don’t just coast along, we don’t maintain elevation – we fall. And it’s a long way down…
Having lost our North Star, we’ve come to believe there are no stars. Having lost our sense of the transcendent, we’ve come to think there is nothing transcendent. We think we’ve reached the final enlightenment – that it’s all meaningless. This is nihilism, the false enlightenment. This is the default metaphysics of the modern West – a metaphysics which guarantees decline.
And nihilism wants totality. It’s not content to simply assume or believe there is nothing great, it wants to assert it, it wants to make it so. If anything at all were allowed to be meaningful it would break the whole world view which says that there is no higher meaning. So like a broken-hearted person who wants to deny the existence of “true love”, nihilism wants to erase everything beautiful, meaningful, and transcendent.
The closest thing we have now to a North star now might be “progress”. And it’s not just scientific or technological progress, though those are major manifestations of it — it seems to be progress in the abstract.
We need there to be progress. There seems to be this ever expanding black hole somewhere just outside of our field of vision. We’re not fully conscious of it, and we won’t admit it’s there, but we feel its presence in the form of growing anxiety and uneasiness. We sense that the only escape from this void is more progress, more things, faster, more.
This is most clear of course in the technological and material realms. The modern Western world promised greater material wealth for each generation. This was the American Dream. But the American Dream is long dead. Younger generations expect they will be worse off than their parents.
Maybe this is one of the reasons younger generations have turned to radically progressive politics. They’re not experiencing personal growth and empowerment in their personal lives so they achieve it collectively. And what happens in this realm when the desired “progress” is achieved? It keeps demanding more. It doesn’t know what else to do. It never stops. It can’t stop.
What does it say about us that we must have progress? We must not be very happy about the current state of things. Something has clearly gone wrong.
This religion of progress may be a natural, though deeply inadequate, replacement for the Christian way that we’ve lost. Progress places salvation in the future, at some utopian future state. Christianity does the same with heaven and the afterlife. Neither wants to live and exist in the present.
Christianity discovered the power of maximal acceptance of suffering and responsibility, and has as its model-ideal Jesus Christ – the ultimate victim. This Christian way of being worked well, and dominated for a long time.
But it seems there is a problem with the Christian model (at least with the late Christian model). This Christian worldview is defined primarily in opposition to oppressive forces – it is defined by something outside of itself. The danger in doing this is that your entire philosophy and worldview starts to collapse if the oppressive forces wane. If you build your entire identity around fighting against some dragon, what happens when you finally kill it? In killing the dragon you also kill your identity.
… Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.
Christianity, being a “slave morality”, developed in an environment where there was absolutely no shortage of oppression and suffering. Finally, after thousands of years of subjugation, many of us have stepped out into a mostly free, extremely wealthy, liberal society – we’ve arrived, we’ve slayed the dragon… But, our universe and metaphysics and entire world was defined by the dragon – in killing it we also killed God.
The rise of the scientific worldview was obviously hard on Christianity. We found our Sun – now merely one of countless other stars – to be the center of our solar system rather than Earth. The “heavens” became a void filled with dead matter and governed by clockwork mathematics. The diversity of life, and even the origins of human beings, seemed now to be the work of blind evolution rather than God…
But, was it these revelations that really killed Christianity? If it were just a matter of disagreement with material facts it would seem the system could have adapted and survived. Maybe what really killed Christianity was the wealth, prosperity, and freedom that science and The Enlightenment brought. We ran out of struggle. The story stopped working. We killed the dragon and it collapsed our whole world and metaphysic.
This would explain why Christianity still does relatively well in poor places. They still have struggle, so the religion still works. The most prosperous and free places are the most atheistic. They also seem most desperate to seek out and find injustice. We still live in the shell of Christianity after all. Our universe is still more Christian than it is anything else. So we don’t know what else to do now except to find new dragons. We need oppressors and we will find them, whether they exist to the degree imagined, or not.
Nietzsche thought that the solution to this problem would be to define our own values – that we would need to come up with a morality and metaphysic and higher purpose and all that on our own. This would be a positive “religion” that can stand on its own, that does not exist only in contrast to something else, as Christianity does.
A morality must be a playable game. If a large group of people follow the rules (play the game) of a moral system and thrive as a result then the moral system has high fitness. Moral systems compete, just like memes compete, just like genes compete.
Nietzsche thought there were fundamentally two types of morality: slave morality, and master morality. The Greeks operated under a master morality, where the highest good is in power, greatness, and glory. Slave morality inverted master morality and put the virtues accessible to the slaves (who developed it) at the top – sympathy, modesty, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, obedience, and compassion.
Christianity is/has a slave morality. The central figure of Christianity – the ideal person, the embodiment of Christian ideals and morality – was also the ultimate self-sacrificing and persecuted victim. Christianity believes that the optimal strategy for group survival and flourishing is for the individual to emulate Christ. You should take on the sins of the world, adopt maximum responsibility, and bear your cross. – And you should accept any suffering and persecution that comes with that.
Nietzsche thought there was a danger in the Christian slave morality. It’s not that adopting responsibility is dangerous, but elevating persecution, suffering – even weakness – to the place of highest ideals is.
Finally – this is what is most terrible of all—the concept of the good man signifies that one sides with all that is weak, sick, failure, suffering of itself…the principle of selection is crossed – an ideal is fabricated from the contradiction against the proud and well-turned-out human being who says Yes, who is sure of the future, who guarantees the future—and he is now called evil. — And all this was believed, as morality!
So what? It all seemed to work out OK more or less, and we’re not Christian anymore so why does it matter? Well…
For a long time we were Christians and we ran Christian code on our minds. But not all of the code was enjoyable to run – some was demanding and oppressive. God wanted sacrifice, chastity, forgiveness, humility, and other annoying things. These aspects of the software required the most work to reinforce – but people inside the church knew, intuitively or otherwise, that without those parts the religion and the society would degenerate. So the task of the church was to continually drill the demanding parts into our heads and reward us with visions of heaven.
Once we killed God though, we stopped running the annoying parts of the Christianity code. No more taking on the sins of the world, no more cross-bearing! – We also, more reluctantly, gave up some nice stuff like the promise of heaven – at least until a replacement could be found under a different name.
What we didn’t realize, and still don’t realize, is that we never stopped running most of our Christian code, we just stripped out the stuff that annoyed us – which were the important parts… We’re atheists (supposedly), but we’re still more Christian than we are atheist. We live in the inanimate shell of Christianity.
We’re still operating under the Christian slave morality, but we took out the judgmental parts. We don’t like personal sacrifice, we don’t like humility, we don’t like modesty, we don’t like being compassionate to our enemies – so we got rid of all that. Now the morality we’re left with elevates persecution as the highest virtue – but persecution was never the point, persecution is not good in itself. The point was to take on responsibility and accept persecution if it comes.
So, we entered the 20th century with a corrupted morality that ascribed moral superiority to the poor, suffering, and oppressed – regardless of whether that suffering was the unjust result of the adoption of some great personal responsibility – conditions which led to the development and proliferation of Marxism.
What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism. This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here… For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.
Is the West a “river that wants to reach the end”? Are we unconsciously desperate to end it all? We seem to be existentially tired. We seem to want self-immolation.
We know that our society is sick. We may not be able to articulate exactly what has been lost, but we feel it — we cannot help but feel it. Material wealth has been no substitute for the soul we’ve lost.
Are we seeing, and acting out, the cultural immune response to a sick society? The ideas and memes that have become dominant in the culture seem almost perfectly designed/evolved for cultural and societal self-immolation. If the culture appears to be converging on the shortest path to suicide, then maybe that is the desire driving it at bottom, somewhere in the collective unconscious.
When the conditions of an individual’s life become unbearable they can make the decision to exit. But what does a culture do when the conditions of its “life” become unbearable? A culture can’t commit suicide in one action. It has to invert its values, it has to corrupt itself – whatever it takes – until it dissolves and dies.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Western culture appears to be dissolving itself. A culture cannot persist without a soul. The options then, are to revive the soul we lost 150 years ago, forge a new one from scratch, or to self-terminate. It seems that we cannot go back, so we will need to forge a new soul.
Jesus was born to a virgin mother. What that means is that he had no father. What that means is that he started over – he was brave enough to re-consider the foundations of the culture. He created something new, he became something new – he did not have a precedent. He was not an instance, or variation, of some already existing template for how to be and how to live – he had no “father”. His birth to virgin mother was a miracle because it is a miracle to invent something truly new. It takes a rare person in rare circumstances to step out of their cultural context and see a new way.
And so it was with Christianity. It was a new thing. It was a new civilizational operating system. Jesus represented and embodied a new way to operate, which as it turns out, was actually a very effective way of being in the world for large groups of people – and so it spread. Societies running the Christianity code did well compared to others – they endured. This doesn’t necessarily mean Christianity is the optimal societal operating system, or that it is “true”, it just means it worked well in a certain time and context.
Jesus died and was resurrected. What does that mean? Maybe it means that Jesus (the man) did in fact die, but because of how he lived, because of the power of his philosophy, and because of his dramatic sacrifice and death, he was emulated in others after death. So Jesus died but was subsequently “born again” – resurrected – as an ideal, or “spirit”, inside other people.
The dark side of the masculine spirit is oppressive, judgmental, tyrannical, and violent. The ultimate manifestation of the masculine shadow for the West was in Hitler and the Nazis – and in some sense Hitler is the central mythological figure of the modern West. World War II was like a really, really bad psychedelic drug trip for the Western psyche – the kind that may break a person’s psyche — a trip which we still haven’t recovered from. We became so afraid of the masculine shadow that, rather than carefully guarding against a resurgence of the dark side of masculinity, we responded by suppressing masculinity itself.
But we need the strong masculine spirit. We can’t just dispense with it. The masculine spirit is what allows us to correct course when course correction is least popular and most necessary. The masculine spirit stands up to the mob – and sometimes you really, really need people to stand up to mobs. When masculinity is wholly suppressed the mob will inevitably rule – which can turn out just as bad, or worse, than the thing we were trying to avoid.
Suppressed masculinity also has a way of getting revenge on the world. It doesn’t just recede into the background and become neutral. Suppressed masculinity creates weak men, and weak men are very dangerous. Weakness and powerlessness causes resentment, hatred, and will to destruction and murder – weak men get their revenge.
Having some belief in the mystical/transcendent can make life bearable. If you believe there is nothing beyond what we see then life can start to look like a pretty desolate landscape of status games, entertainment, distraction, and limbic system satisfaction until the death of the individual, and then ultimately the heat death of everything. What is the point – especially if you find yourself not doing well in those status games and material pursuits?
When the hierarchies are everything what are you supposed to do when you’re low in them, and there seems to be no upward mobility? When the transcendent is stripped away, the hierarchies become everything and the people low in them become motivated to burn it all down – which is obviously not long-term stable.
The reason it’s hard for people to “just be confident” is that it doesn’t work like that. We all know we’re in a hierarchy (especially men). Your confidence signals your position and status in the hierarchy. You can perhaps learn to fake that confidence, but your position can’t be faked – people will find it out. So it’s a bit hopeless.
Belief in the transcendent provides a solution because it places the status games as subordinate, or even counter to, the real game. The status and wealth games become mini-games, distractions, or traps, within the larger, more important, more consequential game. Then the individual who believes in the transcendent can be happy and confident in themselves, even if they have low social/wealth status, because they can believe they are playing the real game properly.
Belief in the transcendent also tends to remove the individual from the center of focus – you become part of a much larger project, you become a part of something greater. Without the transcendent you are the center of your universe, which promotes self-consciousness and narcissism. If you are the center of everything then how can you be confident when you’re so flawed?
Modern Western culture is very much Oedipal Mother. The Oedipal Mother is always protecting, coddling, and sheltering her children from danger and from the world. The world is dangerous of course, but in sheltering her children she undermines them. Over-protected children become stunted and weak – they never grow up, they remain children.
For a person or society to manage the difficulties of life they need to become strong. Over-protection never works because the only way to achieve some level of “safety” is to confine yourself to something resembling a prison. And that doesn’t work anyway because the horrors of life come for you regardless – we are mortal after all.
The world does have horrors though, so the Oedipal Mother is not wrong to want to protect her children – she just takes the wrong approach (sometimes for selfish reasons). The only true protection is to accept the horrible situation, to accept mortality, and to develop the necessary strength to face it head-on. The Good Mother facilitates the development of strength, competence, and independence in her children – and ultimately she encourages them to leave home and face the world (a great personal sacrifice).
When we had our religion and spirituality we had a home. We were sure of our place in the universe. We had a complete narrative describing why all things exist — why we exist, what our arc had been thus far, and what it should be going forward. We had a deep sense of our history and destiny.
Then we began to inspect every story, every fact, every belief. And it all seemed to unravel in our hands. We pulled on the thread and our cosmos spun apart. The home that we had been living in collapsed and we found ourselves alone and naked in a barren land.
Every people thus far have lived in a world infused with meaning. The natural world had purpose and spirit; man had a destiny. We are the first to live in such a cold world.
If God does not exist, everything is permitted.
— Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov)
Mathematicians expand the universe of mathematical knowledge by very carefully proving theorems to be true or false. Every conjecture must be consistent with all existing mathematical “reality”, all the way down to the fundamental axioms.
If a single false theorem is allowed to enter this mathematical matrix of knowledge then anything within the entire structure can then be proven true or false. Given a false theorem, 1+1 can be proved to equal 3. It’s not just that some portion of the system becomes poisoned, rather, the whole thing becomes untethered. A single lie corrupts the whole structure.
Do we have a similar situation in morality?
Without God, there is no bedrock to morality. Everything can be argued and dissected. No firm, flat ground exists, every place is a gradient.
Suppose you object to X. Why X? Why there? What about this and that hypothetical situation? Can you rationally defend objecting to X? How do you know X is bad? Is that not cultural conditioning, bias, error? — and a million more questions and doubts. There is no morality truly grounded in logic and reason.
Even if we have some set of values which correspond to a vision for the future, some place to arrive at, two people can have entirely different beliefs about the path to get there. Maybe the vision is good, but short-term sacrifices need to be made? — A specific military action required? Maybe some people would have to die — but only for the greater good of course.
Given the right “facts” and the right arguments and beliefs about how the future might unfold, anything and everything is then permitted. Every rule can be bent beyond recognition.
Without some God to backstop the values and set hard rules, there’s simply no firm ground at all. Some kind of unassailable faith is needed to protect the values against death by dissection.
Removing God — or a similar deeply system of faith — from the structure doesn’t just corrupt or alter some aspect of it, it throws the entire matrix into fluidity and chaos.