Freedom and Fate in Western Thought

I’ve observed a constellation of ideas that has been a part of Western thinking for a long time, but became most influential beginning with the Enlightenment.

It has to do with notions of freedom and determinism (specifically in terms of materialism and mechanism, environmentalism and communitarianism/socialism) along with heretical views about God and Nature, specifically such views as deism and pantheism/panentheism. It, of course, involves criticisms of biblical literalism and the rise of modern biblical studies in general, the Enlightenment idea being that faith and revelation doesn’t trump reason.

An early origin of this constellation has to do with the Stoics. They dealt with the problems of human fate. It was from the Stoics that the early Christians inherited natural law.

Freewill was a major issue for Christian theologians in those first several centuries. Augustine was heavily impacted by his experience as a Manichaean, and through this he introduced elements of Manichaeism into Catholicism. He particularly struggled with evil and freewill. This led him to a compromised position of Original Sin and the necessity of the Church as a proxy to enforce God’s will and hence enforce social order.

Later on, the Reformation era was a major factor in setting the stage for the Enlightenment. Take Erasmus as an example. He helped form modern biblical criticism and the humanistic tradition. He also was involved with a famous debate with Luther about freewill.

My focus on these ideas, however, isn’t as directly related to religion. The specific constellation of ideas can be seen in Hobbes’ writings, but more clearly takes form with Spinoza and Locke (the latter two born in the same year).

Spinoza and Locke represent the two sides of the Enlightenment, radical and moderate. Locke isn’t part of my main focus at the moment, although he forms an obvious context for most people in thinking about the development of the Western tradition. Instead, the more radical Spinoza has been on my mind. This constellation of ideas can be seen in the entire Enlightenment tradition and represents a core element, but it is most clearly manifest in the radical Enlightenment with its tendency toward deism.

In light of Spinoza, Hobbes has come to my attention. Hobbes is a precursor to the moderate Enlightenment, but he does share at least one thing in common with Spinoza. Both were determinists.

Hobbes saw human nature as dangerous. So, he put forth a secularized version of the Leviathan/Commonwealth where government takes on the role once held by the Church. 

Spinoza, however, saw human nature as having the individual capacity for moral good. So, he saw a kind of freedom to be had in knowledge and self-awareness. Certainly, Spinoza was the first advocate of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and democracy. Spinoza was also an early materialist which was related to his views of mechanism and determinism.

About a century later, Paine came on the scene. Paine was indebted to Spinoza, at least in his later work but probably in his earlier work as well (Spinoza’s influence on English deism was well established by the time Paine was born; the influence on Paine probably being a combination of direct and indirect as Spinoza’s influence was wide-ranging across all of the Western world, including influence on Locke). Paine’s radicalism, maybe more than any other single factor, inspired the entire revolutionary era from Europe to North America.

Many early American radical thinkers had notions of America’s destiny. Paine saw it as being a revolutionary fire that would spread across the world and so a destiny not limited or owned by just Americans. Others have seen this destiny differently such as an American Manifest Destiny. Either way, it forms the background to the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and freedom.

Lincoln was inspired by Paine. Also, Lincoln was involved in a social circle that included many radicals: spiritualists, communitarians, free-soilers, abolitionists, feminists, left-wing revolutionaries, etc. Lincoln developed a more determinist view of humanity and history which he at least partly got from Robert Dale Owen, the son of the famous socialist. It was because of Lincoln’s determinism that he thought that slavery was fated to end.  Lincoln believed in natural law which closely relates to the deist Nature’s God which is the divine imminent in the world and in each person, hence all are equal (Lincoln was aware of Jefferson’s deism and his original draft of the Declaration of Independence that declared all people equal, no matter their religion, race or gender).

If freedom is part of natural law, then it is destined to be. God isn’t arbitrary. God’s will is the law of this world, i.e., natural law. As such, all of the world chafes at the reigns of oppression for, from this view, it is unnatural and unsustainable.

During Lincoln’s life, Marxism and socialism were having great impact. Many of the left-wing revolutionaries in Europe had immigrated to America, some even joining Lincoln’s administration or the leadership of the Union army. More of Marx’s writings had been published in a Republican newspaper than anywhere else in the world and that newspaper was regularly read by Lincoln. Marx was another thinker who was influenced by Spinoza, and some Marxists today have attempted to rehabilitate Marxism by way of Spinoza.

Socialism is closely related to environmentalism for the environment includes both the social environment and the natural environment. This also brings us to the whole deep ecology angle which relates to the Nature’s God of the deists and so goes back to Spinoza. The original influence on deep ecology came from a philosophical pessimist, Peter Wessel Zapffe.

There is the common idea of the environment influencing or determining human behavior, an idea that was implicit if often submerged in the Enlightenment project. Different theorists go in diverse directions about this environmental influence, but it has becoming increasingly central to the ideas most clearly formulated by the first Enlightenment thinkers.

Ideas about freedom have a close history with ideas about fate.

This reminds me, as many things do, of the Trickster archetype. There is the liminal space between seemingly polar concepts. They are secretly connected and can’t be divided for it goes beyond mere philosophy.

This is moreso about human nature than about any particular ideology. This constellation of ideas can lead to many ideologies. What makes me wonder is the factor that causes these ideas to constellate in the fist place. What is their affinity?

In the Trickster archetype, there are issues of egalitarianism in terms of bringing the high down low and there are issues of charisma that offers a vision of egalitarianism and empowerment. Thinkers such as Paine and Lincoln certainly weren’t lacking in charisma.

I’m not sure what all this adds up to. Just some thoughts rolling around my head.

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

Biblical historicism and anthropogenic global warming, these are two of the most important issues. They clearly portray the two sides of religion and science, belief vs fact.

I don’t want to get complicated with this post as it would be easy to do so, or at least I don’t want to waste the space explaining the detailed background (something I’ve done many times already). Trying to explain the history, demographics, and psychology behind it all is complex. For my present purposes, I simply want to use these examples to show a trend.

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I’ve observed many trends in recent years. The trends in biblical studies and climatology interest me because they are so symbolic. Their symbolism allows for a deeper trend to be seen, a trend that I perceive as including or causally related to these many diverse trends.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how the general public has become increasingly supportive of liberal views, especially what in the past had been considered liberal or even radically leftwing: drug legalization or decriminalization, health care reform with public option or single payer, better government regulation, decreasing inequality, etc.  Oddly, the majority of Americans support these liberal positions even as they label themselves as ‘conservatives’.

So, liberalism has become the new conservatism, by which I mean it is the new public opinion status quo and it is the conservative inclination to defend the status quo. As the old guard of reactionary conservatives dies off and as the younger moderate conservatives come to defend the former liberalism (specifically 20th century liberalism), this will free up the liberal-minded to take on new liberal positions which will be partly defined by the direction in which the leftwing leads.

Nonetheless, the shift isn’t clear. It’s not about liberals defeating conservatives. What is going on is more profound. The very notions of liberalism and conservatism are shifting.

No one can know where to the shift will ultimately lead. If anything, the shift is best understood in terms of something like Spiral Dynamics. Liberals defend science and conservatives defend religion, but not necessarily for intrinsic reasons. Rather, it’s the historical circumstance that puts these two political movements in defense of these two social institutions.

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Two events got me thinking. First, I was having one of my standard debates about climatology science with a conservative. Second, I was looking at biblical studies books from these past few years. The first is irrelevant other than giving my thinking context for the second.

The book that really got me thinking is a book I haven’t even read, but I did read several very in-depth Amazon.com reviews and the author is someone I’m very familiar with through his other work. The book in question is Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth and the author is Bart D. Ehrman. Even some of the reviewers who agreed with the author’s conclusion didn’t agree with his way of defending it, instead some even thought he had fallen into the traps of apologetics that Ehrman had previously criticized.

Most interestingly, some reviewers noted that it seemed Ehrman was on the defense. This is a new event in biblical studies. Belief in a historical Jesus has been the academic consensus, given that most biblical studies academics are believers and those who aren’t believers are typically former believers. Biblical studies is the only academic field that is so dependent on belief, as both a starting and ending point. The field itself and many if not most academics in it began with apologetics, Ehrman included.

Another academic that began with apologetics is Robert M. Price. Like Ehrman, Price went from believing apologist to non-believing scholar, the apologetics having led to the academic study which in turn led to doubt. The difference between Ehrman and Price is that the former couldn’t let go of the last remnant of biblical literalism (i.e., belief in a historical Jesus) and the latter could let it go. Price, although often a fence-sitter holding no allegiance to a single theory, has gone even further in recent years. He once held to the historical position until he looked at the mythicist position in detail, but Ehrman apparently has refused to look at it in detail and prefers to protect his beliefs by dismissing out of hand anything that would challenge it. The irony in this is immense considering Ehrman is one of the most well known enemies of apologetics.

Anyway, none of that is my concern here. All that interested me is how it has become clear that the table has turned. Mythicists are no longer on the defense and instead historicists are. The arguments and criticisms presented by mythicists has become an insurmountable challenge, as demonstrated by the increasing number of mythicist scholars – besides Robert M. Price, there is: G.A. Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, etc. Add to this the Gnosticism scholars and the disagreement with academic consensus keeps growing.

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Consensus is an interesting thing in academia.

As I pointed out, biblical studies is the only academic field so fully dominated by believers. The contrast with climatology is immense. Conservatives agree with the biblical studies consensus despite the lack of evidence and conservatives disagree with the climatology consensus despite the surplus of evidence. Their criticisms of science are inconsistent and self-serving. They aren’t being anti-intellectual out of principle (as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, no one is ever anti-intellectual about all issues). Conservatives simply realize that in certain cases the facts contradict their beliefs and so they pragmatically prioritize the latter, even as giving lip-service to the former.

Belief and fact are two very different worldviews. We have lived in a world, despite all the changes, that has remained held in check by ancient beliefs. However, we are finally coming to a point when those ancient beliefs are being challenged.

This is tremendous. Even many non-believers have been unwilling or undesirous of challenging the belief in a historical Jesus. Almost everyone wants a historical Jesus, just as long as it is their preferred version – for example: God born in human form to save mankind, travelling philosopher, enlightened wisdom teacher, failed apocalyptic preacher, political revolutionary, etc. To challenge this belief is to challenge a core assumption of all western civilization.

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There is one historical detail I will add as my concluding thought. I add it partly for the simple reason that it comes from another book I’m reading: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel. As I said, I want to avoid the complexity to the extent I can, but I feel compelled to give a brief view of it.

There was no single Enlightenment (the reason for why there is no single classical liberalism, i.e., liberalism prior to the 20th century; also, why there still is no single liberalism; and, furthermore, why there is no single conservatism). Radical Enlightenment, according to Israel, began in the 17th century with Spinoza; and the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment (such as Paine) led to the reformist progressive liberals and paved the way for socialism. The moderate Enlightenment was a reaction to the radical Enlightenment and led to what Corey Robin calls ‘reactionary conservatism’.

I bring this up to clarify a point. We all are children of the Enlightenment, liberals and conservatives alike. This relates to Hofstadter’s observation that no one is absolutely and consistently anti-intellectual, at least not any modern post-Enlightenment person. The point that is clarified by Israel’s book is that the moderate Enlightenment proponents were wary of reason even as they respected it. They wanted the positive results of reason, but they also wanted to make sure reason was subjugated to religious belief, to hierarchical authority, and to social order. They didn’t want to destroy the aristocracy, just re-create it so that it would be less oppressive and more meritocratic. Both sides argued for reason, although one side argued more radically.

As such, we are still fighting the battle between the radial Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Should faith be subjugated to reason? Or should reason be subjugated to faith? Should we follow reason as far as it will go? Or should we withhold reason when it gets too close to what we deem fundamental?

For the first time in American history, the radical Enlightenment may be getting a foothold in public opinion and hence in mainstream society. Religion has never been weaker and science has never been stronger.

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If my observations are correct, this will be an earth-shaking shift and American society will never be the same again. Most people don’t notice the changes, not even most experts in their respective fields. That is the nature of such changes. They go below the radar for they can’t be understood within the present context. It’s a paradigm shift. The ideas planted centuries ago may be finally coming to fruition or at least experiencing a major growth spurt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the proposed shift will make those on the left happy. It’s not to say that it will make anyone happy. We will all be challenged by it. The precise results can’t be predicted.