Thermidor

© 2017 Thermidor Magazine.

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Materialism, Truth, And Power

A hallmark of our Modern world is the belief that nothing except physical matter exists, or conceivably can. The materialist world-view regards the transcendent, the eternal, and the Divine as ridiculous pre-scientific superstition, and religion as extremely dangerous to public order. Anybody who admits to believe in God or otherwise expresses an interest in the spiritual side of life is liable to be at once derided as a laughably soft-headed fool and a dangerous subversive obviously plotting with Moscow to bring down the rule of law, abolish modern medicine, and install a theocracy.

A dreary, half-literate Philistinism rules everything. Experimental natural science is held up as the sole and exclusive form of valid knowledge, and everything else relegated to the status of the “metaphysical”, a neologism which serves to mark the outside of positive knowledge, a junkyard of non-knowledge into which the erstwhile highest forms of human intellectual accomplishment are hauled off and abandoned as so much obsolete scrap: theology, history, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, classics and the humanities. Academics are entirely divided between strictly technical instruction and research in STEM fields and the development and dissemination of political propaganda serving the immediate partisan ends of the day. The creative arts are reduced to graphic design and commercial advertising. Anything that has no immediate instrumental utility to the ends of material profit and power is derided as either a contemptibly effete and economically unproductive waste of time (according to Conservatives) or a politically pernicious barrier to the furtherance of human equality (according to Leftists). Both Conservatives and Leftists alike are united in deep hostility to all spiritual values and a fortiori to intellectual life more generally, and in their commitment to “progress”, defined exclusively in terms of quantitative increase of physical health, GDP growth, technological innovation, and the killing power of the State.

The received wisdom has it that the hegemony of monist materialism is the product of an ever-ongoing process of societal "rationalization" or "evolution." Drawing on mixed metaphors of biological growth/maturation on one hand and Darwinian natural selection on the other, this hypothesis envisions a teleological process of self-perfection in which the social system as a whole, over the course of its development, inexorably tends towards progressively increasing efficiency and efficacy in its workings, the better to optimize its functional adaptation to its environment. Thus over time, values, beliefs, and practices which promote effective techno-instrumental control over the environment are adopted at the expense of the "non-rational": the sacred, the supernatural, the speculative, the aesthetic, and everything else that either cannot or does not strive to produce immediately tangible and quantifiable material results. All the latter, though they may have had some adaptive utility at more rudimentary stages of human social development, are doomed by the design of evolution to eventual obsolescence as so many useless vestigial appendages, non- or even maladaptive, and accordingly shed by the social organism in much the same way that the mature frog sheds the tail that propelled it as a tadpole.

Rationalization/evolution is supposed to have taken place through a slow but steady process of melioration, punctuated by revolutions against the non-rational when the latter acted as fetters to progress as opposed to its mere detritus. Little by little, Man's ability to master his surroundings increased; and as his mastery increased, so did his self-confidence. Man became aware that he was not altogether abjectly dependent on the caprice of the natural world, but the master of his own destiny, and so gradually began to cease to anthropomorphically project his own agency onto that world. As the disenchantment and demystification of the world progressed, magical operations carried out on signs started to give way to truly efficacious mechanical operations carried out on material things by means of tools. Promethean innovators, through the daring audacity of their example, proved to a populace cowed by superstitions that various ancestral ghosts, gods, and other putatively fearsome entities were, in fact, powerless to enforce stultifying taboos and ritual prohibitions against technological innovation, at least in this life. Learned men, in consequence of this fact and the practical utility of the new discoveries, eventually came to see what a waste of time it was to engage in speculation concerning a life beyond the boundaries of time and space given in the senses, and turned their attention from unproven and unprovable opinions concerning phantasmagoria nobody can see to observable and measurable facts nobody in possession of his senses can fail to notice. Useless Scholastic disputation based on empty tautologies shored up by appeal to authority was thus challenged by the rise of experimental natural sciences, whose empirical results anybody could verify or falsify for himself.

The scientists, the story continues, found a natural ally in the surging democratic masses, with which they formed a symbiotic relationship: the scientists helped deliver the masses from superstitious mental thralldom to kings and priests, and the masses in turn, once they liberated themselves and the State from the tyranny of kings and priests, created a safe space for science to work by enshrining Constitutional guarantees of intellectual freedom against religious and political persecution. The dividends of the new secular freedom in the form of dazzling subsequent advances in medicine and booming material prosperity made speculative questions about the afterlife and theodicy less and less relevant since men had less and less cause to either fear death or resent life. Religion itself was forced to evolve and transcend itself as a result; the substantive ethical core of Christianity in the form of universal love, tolerance, and equal rights for all regardless of race or creed came to be set free from the obsolete metaphysical dogmas, irrational prejudices, and sectarian bigotry that hitherto held it back.

I do not intend to subject the rationalization-evolution hypothesis to a punctilious fisking here, but to set the tone for the analysis that follows by drawing attention to a remarkable assumption of this hypothesis, namely that the material and the non-material are always locked in a radically antagonistic, zero-sum death match from which only one can emerge alive and supreme. The possibility of ontological pluralism has been ruled out at the outset, and for no good reason the hypothesis can define. The minute science/technology and religion come into contact, either the truth of religion immediately dissipates into so much ignorance, error, and opinion, or the truth of science is suppressed. (Here the rationalization-evolution hypothesis, symptomatically, takes the boasts of materialist monism at face value in the very process of trying to explain it, and so shows the skin it has in the materialist game). Each increment of scientific/technological progress is simultaneously a defeat for religion and the "metaphysical", which must retreat to precisely the extent that science advances in some kind of territorial war. It is almost as though the point of experimental science is less about verifying empirical theories than falsifying religion; less about building a corpus of positive knowledge of the natural and material world, considered as its proper epistemic domain, than negatively relegating other forms of knowledge to the status of "metaphysical" non-knowledge; less about uncovering physical laws of motion than in proving that there are no other kind. In other words, notwithstanding the ostensible function of generating practical adaptations, experimental science comes across in this account as above all interested in ontology, to wit in securing an ontological monopoly for material reality against all other conceivable types.

Here the rationalization-evolutionary hypothesis has admitted in spite of itself that there is much more to the ascent of monist materialism than a process whereby the social organism progressively approximates optimal adjustment to its environments as it reaches developmental maturity. There was also a struggle for power, a striving for mastery not only of this social organism as a whole over its external world, but of that organism's own internal structures and functions over one another. I shall say that the hegemony of materialist monism, far from being explicable in terms of society securing internal homeostasis or equilibrium in the face of challenges from the external environment, is in fact the expression of an underlying profound inner disequilibrium, of pathological anatomico-physiological dystrophy, distortion, and imbalance. The sacred was not a structure that became devoid of adaptive function and then, having outlived its usefulness, just shriveled up and fell off as developmental maturation went through its paces, but was rather crowded out and choked off by a process of unchecked, tumor-like abnormal growth of the secular. Against the Darwinian hypothesis of the ascendance of materialist monism as the index of its adaptive utility, then, I propose a Nietzschean counter-hypothesis in which the will to dominate is the driving force, and in which the ascendance of materialism is the index of its utility to the ends of power- namely, the rise of totalitarian secular political power in radical antagonism to the traditional social order.

The traditional social order was intensely pluralistic, an internally-differentiated corporate social body made up of asymmetric and non-interchangeable social organs at once indelibly interdependent and highly self-sufficient. This corporate social order was presided over by throne and altar, King and Church, each representing two interpenetrating but distinct aspects of Sovereignty, the Divine and the earthly. This ancient Indo-European bifurcation of Sovereignty was, in European Christendom, codified in the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority, civitas Dei and civitas terrena, and the image of two swords given Peter by Christ, one standing for the Church and the other for the Crown. The two sovereignties administer two ontologically distinct planes of reality: the one infinite and sacred, the other finite and profane, which planes of existence intersect in the being of Man, who possesses both an immortal soul and a perishable physical body. The Church, pace Augustine, is responsible for providing the soul with the means of attaining to its ultimate destiny, namely salvation in the eternal world to come; in the meanwhile, the temporal power is responsible for the preservation of the physical body in the present, time-bound material world with all its hazards and dangers.

Thus human conduct was governed by two principal instruments: the administration of rites, sacraments and doctrine on the spiritual side, and the administration of secular law and order, pax et justitia, on the temporal. Sovereignty, then, could not be identified with the exercise of strictly temporal, juridico-political power; the latter was but one modality of public authority, and by no means singularly privileged. On the contrary: since the material plane, which is bounded by time and populated by corruptible and corrupt phenomena doomed to eventually disintegrate and pass away, is circumscribed by the eternal realm of immutable and incorruptible forms, and by the Sovereignty of God, which is cosmically final and incapable of being circumscribed, it follows that the exercise of political power in this life is strictly subordinated to the overarching final telos of salvation in the next. Political power is thus never something exercised for its own sake, but is assigned the role and function of helping to secure the ends of salvation by creating, amidst the chaos of earthly life, a safe space for the Church to do its job of administering the means of salvation.

The temporal power, in discharging this function, was strictly bound by the sacred, by Divine and natural law, and the customs and usages of hallowed and venerable ancestors. The legislative and administrative/police powers of the State were accordingly severely restricted, and the reach of royal power ended where the rights and privileges of the Church, the corporation, and the family began. The juridico-political, in keeping with the theological view of its role in the cosmic scheme of things, was an adjunct force in social life relative to religion, which was the paramount mechanism of social unity and cohesion; if the temporal power was in no position to provide a whole lot of centralized power, planning, and administration, it was because this society, whose functions were primarily coordinated and regulated by ritual as opposed to positive law, simply didn’t need it.

This social order, however, was doomed to eventual undoing by the very distinction between temporal and spiritual authority on which it was predicated. On the one hand, the Church was a public authority co-equal with the State, an expression of Sovereignty in its own right (as opposed to a strictly voluntary “private” association” of “civil society” operating beneath a unitary and secular Sovereign power, which it was to eventually become). On the other hand, the State, whose power was held to be have been delegated downwards by the Divine as opposed to upwards by the so-called “people”, was by definition invested with the sacred (as opposed to a purely profane creature of convenience made and unmade by the very “civil society” it supervenes, which is what it eventually became). There was no way that airtight, non-overlapping divisions of jurisdiction between Church and State could possibly be assigned under these terms; in particular, the problem of just which one is the final authority on Earth was inevitably raised, and could not possibly be theoretically solved under the terms in which the problem was posed.

The logically inescapable insecurity of power gave way, by the late Middle Age, to a struggle for decisive supremacy- one that the Church wound up losing. Consequent centuries saw an ever-increasingly totalizing ascent of the political at the expense of religion in a process that is still ongoing. The Crown hypertrophied as though on steroids, and metamorphosed from a royal household to a progressively depersonalized “public” monopoly power in radical opposition to the powers and privileges of the Church, the aristocracy and ultimately, the Crown itself. This public power is self-referentially political, styled as the pure essence of the political self-begotten of the political, viz. in a political act of political association (the “social contract”) with no theory of Divine origin or rite of chrismation upon which its legitimacy depends. In this closed and self-sufficient tautology of legitimation in which the political is legitimate because politics, State power is its own last end, not a means to the transcendent ends of salvation, and is to be exercised for the sake of aggrandizing the State in this life without being hamstrung by Divine or natural law in the process. This is the doctrine of raison d'Etat, which seeks to identify the objective power-interests of the State and develop and deploy the most efficient and effective evidence-based means of realizing them, without any regard whatsoever for moral considerations. Power is thus reduced to a calculus of this-worldly advantage for those who subject themselves to it, and for the State that wields it; it is accordingly interested in the immediate material plane of existence alone.

The public power is thus wholly and purely secular, and as such not just the final, but the only source of legitimate authority; and its power, contra certain cherished Liberal boasts and wish-fulfillment beliefs, cannot possibly be limited in theory or practice, since it cannot be circumscribed or assigned a limiting case by the extra-political. To wit, all non-State actors are deemed “private individuals” wholly devoid of legitimate authority; and any extra-legal exercise of authority by any of these private atoms over any other is liable to be identified as both an intolerable outrage against the State monopoly of power and a grave species of injustice and oppression (e.g. “social inequality”, "patriarchy", etc.), and accordingly either already a criminal offense at positive law or on its way to becoming one.

Where the King, in the traditional social order, is styled a leading part or organ of the corporate social body analogous to the head of a human body, increasingly the depersonalized and generalized conception of the "public" power of the State in terms of a disembodied and disinterested principle of pure positive law ("the rule of law not men") is held to be the very constitutive principle upon which the existence of the social, as an assembly of "private" atoms by nature incapable of maintaining orderly and equitable relations amongst themselves under their own power, depends on in an absolute sense. Extra-legal relations between the atoms are deemed anarchy in right and in fact, by definition a state of war destined to end very badly for its combatants (the Hobbesian "state of nature"). In biological terms, then, the juridico-political is regarded as analogous not to any organ in particular, but organic life itself. It is not just a specialized function within a body; it is that body, considered as the vital principle of its organic unity as a body. In this respect, the public power takes over the place of the Divine as it figured in the religious conception of "the mystical body of Christ."

The Church, of course, wound up on the wrong side of this rigid public/private distinction and was its principal casualty. In the course of arrogating all public authority to itself, the nascent State suppressed the legal powers, privileges, and rights of the Church, murdered its officials, confiscated its assets, took over the social functions (e.g. education, health care, poor relief) it had administered, and expropriated the institutions it built in order to do so (above all, the University); and the Church, wherever possible, was commandeered on a wholesale basis and pressed into servicing the supreme ends of raison d'Etat in an inversion of the traditional Church-State relationship. Finally, under the sign of "toleration", the State declared religion an entirely "private" matter of individual taste with no public significance whatsoever, as long as positive law was unconditionally obeyed. The Church was kicked off the public stage altogether, and became ever-increasingly associated with the domestic and above all, with the feminine, as the most possibly private regions of the "private sphere" in contrast to the masculine and public world of politics and economics. (It is around this time, and for this reason, that the idiosyncratically bourgeois notion that women are both more religious by nature, and morally superior, to men- an inversion of all human thinking on the subject hitherto- really takes off).

Having been reduced to a female, the Church, like any female pace Aristotle, possesses a faculty of reason but no authority, and as a result, is left unable to authoritatively pronounce truth. Aristotle's indispensable insight here is that reason, by itself, is a necessary but not sufficient condition of truth. What separates objective truth from mere subjective opinion is that:

  • objective truth is objective because it is public, binding on everybody; a private opinion is subjective, since it applies to only one person, and has no intersubjective validity.

  • objective truth is true because it can "falsify" challenges with overwhelming physical violence; it can determine who is lying, and see to it that the liar is punished. Opinion is neither true nor false since the person who holds it is no lawful position to resort to arms to avenge it, to demand satisfaction if given the lie.

Those aspects of life and existence which, in the materialist worldview, are considered to comprise the domain of objective "hard facts", as opposed to the "soft" subjects (religion, philosophy, literature, aesthetics, etc.) that comprise the domain of mere sentiment, speculative opinion, and ivory-tower nonsense, have that ontologically privileged status because they are administered by the public power, which delimits objective fact from fiction by the application of State-monopolized physical violence. The modern State expends an awful lot of energy in making official determinations of truth by means of a vast machinery of criminal and civil investigations and proceedings, Parliamentary committees and hearings on this and that, government-funded research, regulatory inspections and oversight, and so on; and nobody in his majority can get through life without making affirmations under penalty of perjury. The only thing the State doesn't make official determinations of truth about is religious doctrine. The State's non-intervention in this area is by no means a sign of its respect for so-called "religious liberty" or "freedom of conscience", which it routinely violates as a matter of principle; on the contrary, by disdaining to officially delimit truth and error in the field of religion and associated domains (philosophy, aesthetics, etc.), the State condemns the sacred to oblivion by marking it out as an area to which the distinction between truth and error cannot possibly be applied, and therefore an ontologically nullity.

Behind the boasts of scientism, then, there stands a methodology more important than the "scientific method," namely the administrative procedures and techniques of the State; and another, much more decisive form of proof than experimental results, namely irresistible physical coercion. For example, the various theories of Darwinian evolution are no less speculative than anything the Scholastics ever came up with, and often far less rigorous; they fail most every test supposed to delimit "hard science" from "metaphysical" opinion; but they have the status of incontestable public truth, because it is illegal to publicly contest them. Through the likes of the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover, positive law completes the "science" here by giving the putative scientific laws of biological speciation a force they cannot provide under their own explanatory power.

In the case of Kitzmiller, the courts made the true meaning and purpose of the hallowed "disestablishment" clause of the Constitution admirably clear: it is there to forbid (Christian) religion from even contending for the possible status of truth by means of a "scientific" hypothesis capable of undergoing a verification test, and thus to altogether disallow (Christian) religion from contesting the status of wholly non-scientific, irrational opinion and sentiment to which it has been condemned by the State for extra-scientific, political reasons. Naive Liberalism likes to believe in something called "intellectual freedom", under which any hypothesis can contend for the status of science fact, if it can get empirical results- but not just any idea can qualify as a hypothesis, which is as much a State-controlled appellation as the labeling on wine bottles and so on.

The official relegation of religion, philosophy, etc. to the status of soft-headed sentiment and elitist ivory-tower chatter hopelessly and contemptibly disconnected from the "real world" of hard fact and practical affairs dovetails with another of the totalitarian secular State's central historic strategies for unseating its old rival: the exploitation of populist anti-clericalism. In any society, plebeian masses have a sort of spontaneously materialist worldview by virtue of their subordinate position in the social hierarchy. The servile castes tend to be marginalized and excluded from full participation in the ritual community, discouraged and, in some cases, forbidden from studying sacred texts and from contemplation of the Divine and of the universal in general, which activities are reserved to the upper classes to the extent that religion is still a public instrument of government. The plebeian mental horizon is accordingly limited to the experience of stimuli in the immediate sensory environment- first and foremost among which is the corporal punishment meted out for disobeying the orders given by superiors, as the means by which the plebeian participates in the universal. The lived experience of religio-philosophical illiteracy, and the sting of the whip produces a crude approximation of materialism, revealingly expressed in such vulgar aphorisms as "the school of hard knocks," and which always goes hand-in-hand with seething, bitter ressentiment towards the priests, and to intellectual and speculative activity in general. Secularizing demotism put this ressentiment to work through a Nietzschean transvaluation in which irreligion and philosophical ignorance and illiteracy are no longer a stigma, but the proud mark of the "practical" man of action who "gets things done in the real world", exalted as the ideal type of man in invidious contrast to priests and scholars, now reviled as inept, effete and socially useless drones and parasites.

This crassly demotic and proudly Philistine populism, in turn, was wedded to a much more sophisticated philosophical materialism by a literate secular intelligentsia that took the part of the bourgeoisie and later, the proletariat against priests and traditional scholars in the hope of becoming a new priesthood of State technocrats administering human affairs via techniques of State planning developed by new disciplines that sought to apply the methods of the physical sciences to the study of Man, that claimed the status of scientific fact for their findings, and thus to have rendered traditional theological, philosophical, and humanistic learning obsolete.

It is clear from the foregoing analysis that the ascent of the materialist world-view is not the result of a teleological process of social evolution, whether conceived in terms of the progress of Reason in history (as Hegelianism would have it), or in terms of quasi-biological, ecological adaptation to the exigencies imposed by the physical environment (as Darwinism would). It is the expression in philosophy of an historic disequilibration and destabilization of society's own internal power structures, and of the struggles for domination that subsequently ensued as a result. Ontology recapitulates ideology; the belief that the material world exhaustively encompasses the totality of being is the artifact of political totalitarianism, which, as J. L. Talmon wrote in his classic, *The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy:

recognizes only one plane of existence, the political. It widens the scope of politics to embrace the whole of human existence. It treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action. Its political ideas are not a set of pragmatic precepts or a body of devices applicable to a special branch of behaviour. They are part of an all-embracing and coherent philosophy. Politics is the art of applying this philosophy to the organization of society, and the final purpose of politics is only achieved when this philosophy reigns supreme over all fields of life.

And in a totalitarian mindset, as we have seen, it is not enough for politics to encompass every conceivable aspect of human existence, but all possible being as well. This mindset therefore acknowledges no limit-case to its power ambitions in the known or knowable universe, as such, it has to be the nec plus ultra of the social pathology of anomie. The rise of totalitarian power can no more be seen as developmental maturity or evolution than cancerous cell division in the biological organism, which likewise amounts to a form of growth that is no longer regulated by any telos or purpose other than to keep growing at the expense of the rest of the organism until it destroys that organism and itself right along with it. This social pathology cannot be scientifically grasped without going beyond the limits of theoretical materialism and characterizing it in extra-material, spiritual terms. The cancer of totalitarian power consists in power refusing its proper purpose, which is to assist in guiding Man to his last end in the next life- something that 20th c. social science, mired down as it was in the categories and concerns of monist materialism, could never quite figure out.

At the same time, though, and as we saw above, the phenomenon has a determinate material etiology in the institutional ambiguity between Church and State in the power structure of the traditional order. The material and the spiritual are not ontologically watertight and non-overlapping, but interpenetrating aspects of Man’s social being. It remains for a post-materialist and post-democratic social science that has yet to come into being to address itself to the urgent task of imagining new social arrangements that can reconcile the earthly State to its proper purpose without the structural ambiguity of temporal and spiritual authority that gave rise to the problem in the first place.