After Ecclesiastical Civilization
27 May 2012
In the painfully slow process of the formulation of a secular world view having started from civilizations that, throughout the world, have been permeated by religious significance — so much so that each of the world’s major religions roughly correspond to each of the world’s major civilizations — one of the walls against which we repeatedly crack our heads is that of the traditional sense of grandeur that is so perfectly embodied in the religious rituals of ecclesiastical civilization.
For many if not most human beings, this grandeur of ritual translates into intellectual grandeur, and, again, for many if not most, this equation of religious grandeur with human honor and dignity has meant that any deviation from the traditions of ecclesiastical civilization have been treated as deviations from the intrinsic respect due to human beings as human beings. That is to say, many Westerners (and possibly also many elsewhere in the world) express indignation, outrage, and anger over a naturalistic account of human origins. The whole legacy of Copernicus is seen as invidious to human dignity.
Among those in the sciences and philosophy, it has become commonplace to attribute the strongly negative reaction to naturalism (especially as is touches upon human origins) as a reaction to the re-contextualization of humanity’s place in nature in view of a naturalistic cosmology. Anthropocentric cosmology is here treated as an expression of overweening human pride, and the need to re-conceptualize the cosmos in terms that make human beings and human concerns no longer central is not only a necessary adjustment to scientific understanding but also serves as a stern lesson to human hubris.
In other words, the scientific demonstration of the peripheral position of humanity in a naturalistic cosmos is understood to be a moral good because it, “brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes” (to quote Thucydides). Science is a rough master, and by formulating scientific cosmology in these unforgiving terms I have made it sound harsh and unsympathetic. This was intentional, because this formulation comes closer to doing justice to the visceral intuitions of the indignant anthropocentric than the usual formulation in terms of a necessary correction to human pride.
Seen in this way, both anthropocentric-ecclesiastical civilization and Copernican-scientific civilization are both related in an essential way to a conception of human pride. Both conceptions of humanity and of civilization have a fundamentally conflicted conception of pride. In ecclesiastical civilization, human pride in species-being (to employ a Marxist term) is magnified while individualistic pride is the sin of Satan and central to the fallen nature of the world. In Copernican civilization, human pride in human knowledge is magnified — and I note that human knowledge is often an individualistic undertaking, but see below for more on this — but pride in species-being is called into question.
In ecclesiastical civilization, pride in species-being is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, pride in species-being is identified with humility, and the whole of humanity is dismissed as sinners. In Copernican civilization, pride in knowledge — epistemic pride — is raised to the status of metaphysical pride and is postulated as the organizational principle of the world. But, of course, the epistemic pride of science is often identified with epistemic humility. As Socrates once said to Antisthenes, “I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak.”
Individualistic pride is closely connected to the heroic conception of civilization, and as civilization continues its relentless consolidation of social institutions integrated within a larger whole of human endeavor, the role (even the possibility) of individual heroic action is abridged. Individualistic pride in this context is even more closely connected with the heroic conception of science, which is (as I have pointed out elsewhere) already an antiquated notion.
When civilization was young and scientific research was the province of individuals, not institutions and their communities of researchers, almost all scientific discoveries were the result of heroic individual efforts. Science, like civilization, is now a collective enterprise, and just as the story of civilization was once told as the deeds of kings, so the story of science was once told as the deeds of discoverers. Such authentic efforts could still be found in the nineteenth century (in the person of Darwin) and even in the early twentieth century (in the person of Einstein). But it is rarely the case today, and will become rarer and possibly extinct in the future.
Pride in species-being (in contradistinction to individualistic pride) is something that I have not spent much time thinking about, but when I think about it now in the present context it seems to me that this represents a heroic conception of the career of humanity — a kind of collective heroism of a biological community striving to overcome adverse selection. Thus, if the world is magnified, how much greater is the glory of the species that triumphs over the deselective obstacles thrown up by the world? Religion magnifies the anthropocentrically-organized world in order to magnify the species-being that has been made the principle of the world; science magnifies the Copernican decentralized world in order to magnify the knower whose knowledge has been made the principle of the world.
As ecclesiastical civilization slowly, gradually, and incrementally gives way before Copernican civilization, novel ways will need to be found to supply the apparent human need for a heroic conception of the career of humanity as a whole. It will not be enough to insist upon the grandeur of the scientifically understood universe. We have seen that religion, science, and philosophy can all appeal to the grandeur of the world in making the case for a unification of the world around a particular principle. The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life.” Nietzsche wrote even as he was losing his mind, “Sing me a new song: the world is transfigured and all the heavens are filled with joy.”
Scientific knowledge is now a production of species-being, but I don’t think that science as an institution can bear the heavy burden of human hopes and dreams and expectations. Perhaps civilization, which is also collective and a production of species-being, could be channeled into a heroic conception of species-being that could serve an eschatological function. This seems like a real possibility to me, but it is not something that is yet a palpable reality.
If those who will someday formulate a future science of civilizations also see themselves as engineers of the human soul, i.e., that they conceive of the science of civilization not only descriptively but also prescriptively, they will want to not only formulate a doctrine of what civilization is, but also what civilization will be, can be, and ought to be. If civilization is to be a home for human hopes, then it must become something that is capable of sustaining and nurturing such hopes.
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