15 March 2012


At one point during the polish film Decalogue 1, a son comments to his aunt that his father thinks the point of working hard is "to make things easier for those who will come after us".  In a film ostensibly about idolatry this statement demands some reflection.  First, we note that "ease" and "difficulty" are terms used to describe the means employed to reach an end.  Thus the father's explanation of life's purpose is transparently circular and illogical: we live so that they might also live, but with less difficulty.  Ease of living is the desired end, and ease of living is presumably understood to mean a lack of physical struggle, material want, etc.  But what would happen if material want were finally eliminated?  What would the point of living be then?  The question sits unanswered, and one suspects a kind of cold Hobbesian reply: there is no purpose; life is a succession of vanities pursued out of whim and impulse.  Human desire is endless because it is not directed toward anything and simply casts about from one chance object to the next.

Of course, the father doesn't say that, probably because he thinks rarely of such things or has not bothered to dig into his own fundamental moral views.  This much seems clear from his conversation with the son.  But one wonders about idolatrous worldviews generally: do they always rest on this sort of formally empty account of human fulfillment?  There's a popular essay by David Bently Hart that was published in First Things a few years ago entitled "Christ or Nothing".  Is Hart right?  Are we stuck between Christ and nihilism?

My inclination has generally been to answer this question in the negative.  Not all moral/philosophical alternatives to Christianity amount to a fundamental denial of the existence of goodness in things.  Most of the popular alternatives in the west today do in fact amount to nihilism, but it seems to me that a sincere classical pagan might qualify as something rather different.  And, rejecting Hart's hypothesis that paganism has become impossible in the modern world, I can at least imagine a person who occupies a middle ground that would put him in Dante's first circle. 

Nihilism, though, does seem difficult to escape on philosophical grounds, especially given the predominance of philosophical idealism and methodological skepticism.  The result of skepticism in particular seems to be that any way of understanding the good will take shape more as a construction from key concepts than as a discovery of some fundamental mode of being.  This follows from the skeptical penchant for extreme conceptual parsimony.  Consider some examples.  Modern physics seems to be a mere ode on the categories of quantity and place, reducing all other categories to these.  Biology on the other hand looms increasingly large over the human sciences, shooting out threatening clouds of conceptual darwinism that seems to promise a materialist psychologism — a term I'm coining here for the reduction of all intellectual phenomena to psychological facts arising from darwinian impulses which can in turn be reduced to material phenomena.  This habit of collapsing distinctions and reducing everything to a single categorical structure (cf. Kant, Hegel, etc.) ends up rendering true the modern prophecy (cf. Kant, Heidegger, Foucault, Gadamer, etc.) that the world depends for its being upon the predetermined structures of the mind.  And in such a world, where one can easily change views and shift around conceptual supports, goodness is all too quickly brought under the service of whim and convenience.  The virtues suffer and character decays and we end up with a bunch of unanchored norms that no longer have any binding value.