Gospel & Universe

The Status Quo

This page traces the development of existential thinking, and suggests that in the Modern Age we've returned to the Ancient and Classical concepts of chaos and uncertainty.

Chaos, from Ages to Age - Existential Origins - Backwards in Time -- Theodicy, 2008

Chaos, from Ages to Age

In the West we often think of the Medieval Christian view of God's Plan as the status quo -- perhaps because it dominated our civilizational philosophy for about 1,000 years, and perhaps because we've been slowly dismantling it for the last 500. Yet the Ancient and Classical notions of chaos and uncertainty may be a more enduring status quo. 

In The Modern Age (1500 to the present) we seem to be returning to the pre-Christian notion that the universe (and whatever distant godly or ungodly forces control it) is a powerful structure that has little regard for humans. This structure is made of things we've identified closely over the last five hundred years, yet also of things we can only guess at, given that our astronomical knowledge has far outstripped our ability to conduct experiments in the far-off realms of space. And just as we've gone from telescope to spectrograph, so we've gone from microscope to particle accelerator. Yet in neither case has magnification resulted in the clarity or integrated meaning many people desire.

As a result, we return -- in what we might call The Modern Age of Existentialism -- to the old human predicament: the forces of the universe (be they gods or mysterious fate) are indifferent to our predicament. As a result, we must find meaning on our own terms.

One lesson about meaning that we might learn from The Ancient and Classical World of the Indifferent Gods is that focusing on art and aesthetics (as opposed to scripture and theology) is not as empty or spiritually vacuous as the Medieval world suggested it was. For the Ancient Greeks, the truths of Fate and Heaven were debatable things, yet the wonders of the human form and the natural world were clear to see.


It's no coincidence that the Modern Age's focus on humanity -- on our human form and on our interactions with the world -- flowered as the Medieval certainties about the World Beyond started to collapse.

In its broadest sense, humanism is the interrupted constant between Ages -- interrupted briefly in the Medieval Age when meaning was codified in a single Book rather than disseminated in amorphous myths and in myriad works of art, literature, history, philosophy, etc. 

In the early Modern Age, doubt and experimentation went hand in hand, yet humans still required, both emotionally and intellectually, a reality that wasn't just molecular, mathematical, material, coincidental, or contingent on an ever-expanding number of factors. This is where Art and the Humanities came in, once again -- albeit in a more secular context than in the Ancient and Classical worlds, where gods, rites, and sacrifices still lent support to belief and action. In the Modern Age, the Arts and the Humanities increasingly provided a secular realm where imagination and freedom of thought created integration, meaning, and beauty. At the same time, however, the Arts and the Humanities also led to dis-integration, a sense of absurdity, and an alienation from the potential beauty of the natural world. This double-edged nature of the modern sciences and humanities cut us free to explore new paradigms, yet it also cut many from the moorings of certainty.

The historical trajectory toward existentialism might be seen in terms of three branches - the first recuperating Medieval certainties (as in Kierkegaard's leap of faith, from an absurd world back to the refuge of religion), the second maintaining a Romantic sensibility (as in Camus' positive take on the rebellious human spirit and its connection to the natural world), and the third reflecting a severe positivism (as in Sartre's notions that we're condemned to freedom and that we're radically alienated from the natural world). 


Existential Origins

Existentialism is formulated in the Modern Period (c. 1900 to 1950) yet it's also the product of ideas developed throughout the larger Modern Age (c. 1500 to the present) as well as ideas developed in the Ancient and Classical worlds. Existentialism has at least six stages of development: 

1) It has deep roots in the Ancient and Classical world, especially the spiritual nihilism of Ancient Mesopotamia and the diverse philosophies, arts, and sciences of Greece. The quasi-existentialism of the epic Gilgamesh (where the hero learns that he has no eternal soul) was largely lost due to the disuse of cuneiform, yet its spiritual pessimism (where the Underworld is a grim, dark realm) appears to have been similar to that of the early Hebrews and Greeks. While this grim eschatological streak was overwhelmed by more optimistic scenarios (possibly from Egypt or later Greek philosophers like Plato), doubt about religion could be influenced by the multiple and contradictory scenarios about the afterlife in the Ancient and Classical worlds, and by the diversity of philosophical, theistic, and materialistic perspectives in the Classical Greek world. 

2) Existentialism has more recent and obvious roots in humanism, which picked up in the late Medieval period and carries on to this day.

3) Existentialism was given impetus during the Renaissance -- named for its renaissance or rebirth of Classical thought. While Augustine and Aquinas had already integrated aspects of Plato and Aristotle into their versions of Christianity, artists and thinkers in the Renaissance explored more fully the import of Platonic speculation and Aristotelian analysis, giving impetus to a spectrum of the philosophic arts, from eclectic idealism to the scientific method. Renaissance artists and thinkers also explored the wider variety of scientific, philosophical, and theological perspectives offered by Classical Greece and Rome.

4) Existentialism consolidated many of its supporting concepts -- such as secularism and empirical analysis -- during the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason), which lasted from about the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th century.  

5) Many of the components of existentialism reached maturity in the late 19th Century. At this point in time, humanism, secularism, and democratic liberalism (advanced by John Locke and John Stuart Mill) combined with the discoveries of Newton, Galileo, and Darwin, advances in Biblical scholarship, and the decipherment of the Ancient scripts of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The early Christian existentialist thinker Soren Kierkegaard wrote Either /Or in 1843. 

6) Existentialism was further influenced by scientific advances and theories in the first half of the 20th century -- for instance, genetics, relativity theory, and the discovery of other galaxies by Edwin Hubble. Existentialism took various forms mid-century, most notably in what I would call the ideology of Sartre (Nausea 1938, Existentialism is a Humanism, 1946) and the philosophy of Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus 1942, The Rebel 1951).


Going Backwards in Time

Here I want to move backward in time, to suggest that Classical ideas of chaos and uncertainty -- which were largely circumvented by Medieval Christianity -- crop up throughout the Modern Age prior to existentialists like Sartre and Camus or agnostics like Huxley:

1500 AD        1900

                   <-- Existentialism (Sartre & Camus)

               <-- Evolution (Darwin)

               <-- Naturalism (Arnold)

               <-- Agnosticism (Huxley)

        <-- Romanticism (Byron & Keats)

     <-- Deism (Voltaire vs. Leibniz)

<-- Renaissance doubt (Shakespeare)


One precursor of existentialism can be found in late 19th century Naturalism, according to which we're hopelessly adrift in a universe of crushing forces. We may be able to understand some of these forces, yet the universe doesn't understand us. It has no inherent meaning, no morality, and no empathy. Nor does it appear to have a guiding spiritual essence. All it seems to have is a blind struggle for survival, based on chance and mutation, as outlined in the devastating discoveries of Charles Darwin, published in his 1859 work Origin of Species.


Matthew Arnold gets at the angst of this situation in his 1867 poem, "Dover Beach," in which he says that The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. Yet now he only hears Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world. He realizes that this is nothing new: Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery. We are left in the same situation as people in Classical times, except that we have no gods and we have an even greater power to destroy ourselves. Arnold ends his poem by suggesting that love may be a consolation: love, let us be true / To one another! He hopes that love will help us find meaning, trapped as we are on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Thomas Henry Huxley was a champion of Darwin, and saw early on that the dichotomy between religion and science was in some ways apparent and in some ways illusory. As I discuss in The Problem with Explanations and Secrets & Mysteries, Huxley argues for an open inquiry into everything, whether from a scientific empirical angle or from a philosophic or religious angle. While his definition of agnosticism is clearly a function of his time period, the basic notion of it is still used today.

Byron & Keats

Romanticism has many forms, yet often it takes the old taboos and challenges them with a hard logic (from the Enlightenment) and with a spirit of rebellion, emotion, and respect for basic human needs and rights (sexuality, knowledge, free speech, etc.). For instance, Goethe and Byron (in Faust and Manfred) redeem the thirst for all knowledge -- that old forbidden apple -- and Shelley (in Prometheus Unbound) redeems the revolt of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind, thus provoking the ire of Zeus.

Sartre takes this knowledge in a dark direction, while Camus suggests the possibility of light. In La Nausée / Nausea (1938), Sartre's protagonist sees the black root of a chestnut tree and realizes that he knows nothing about it. Even the term black that he uses to articulate his lack of knowledge gives him a deeper sense of alienation and meaningless: "black, like circle, doesn't exist [...] I had felt their qualities, cold and inert, slip away, slip between my fingers" (trans. RYC). In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Camus uses a similar metaphor to describe his lack of knowledge: "This world, I can touch it, and I can attest that it exists. There stops all my knowledge; the rest is construction. If I try to grasp this me of which I assure myself, if I try to define it and sum it up, it's no more than water that slips through my fingers" (trans. RYC). While Sartre and Camus are getting at something similar, Sartre is horrified by the world around him, symbolized by the black root of the chestnut, while Camus is challenged by it. I'm tempted to suggest that Sartre is revolted by the world while Camus, like Sisyphus, is inspired to revolt.

Voltaire vs. Leibniz

Going back another century to Voltaire's Candide (1759), we see a very realistic take on the problem of theodicy, that, is on the problem of evil in a world that is supposed to be controlled by a benevolent God. Voltaire takes the optimistic notions of the German philosopher Leibniz and contrasts these with all the nasty things that happen to a fictional group of travellers. Leibniz' stand-in is the character Pangloss, who glosses everything bad to make it seem good. Even after witnessing the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon -- in which 10-100,000 people die -- Pangloss still argues that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire, of course, is arguing that any attempt to philosophize suffering away, or to placate it with consoling visions, is idealistic at best, and callously deluded at worst.  

Theodicy, 2008

The little boy with twig arms

and hydrocephalic brain

bangs his head against the wall

ten hours a day

in that sad room with the urine smell

in the Baker Centre

next to the Bow River

in Calgary

in the winter of 1977

in that sad room

in my head.

If there's a grand reason for that

then there's an answer for everything.

Voltaire attacks the notion of a clear, God-driven Plan for humanity, yet he still believes in the idea of a Deist God. This 'God' winds up the 'clock' of this world and leaves it to run by itself. It operates according to laws and logic -- a clockwork universe in which Newton's equations bring Nature into God's light. Alexander Pope expressed this 18th century optimism succinctly in the following couplet; "Nature and Nature's Law lay hid in Night. / God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light." Unfortunately, the same equations that can measure gravity can measure the impact of the falling buildings during a meaningless act of God such as the Lisbon quake. Sir John Squire responds to Pope's couplet with the pessimism of the 20th century: "It did not last; the Devil howling, Ho! / Let Einstein be! restored the status quo." 

1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbour (from Wikipedia)

1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbour (from Wikipedia)

We may have freedom, but the world can be so brutal that it can seem more like chaos than order. To use Sartre's terms, it can seem more a condemnation than a blessing. This unnerving freedom is underlined at the end of Voltaire's story, when the travellers meet a wise dervish in Turkey. Pangloss asks the dervish the same question Leibniz asks in his 1710 essay Theodicy: Why does God allow evil? The dervish answers, What does it matter if there's good or evil? When His Highness sends a ship to Egypt, does it bother him if the mice on board are comfortable or not?


Going back further to the English Renaissance, we see that many of the questions bedevilling Enlightenment philosophers crop up earlier in Shakespeare. Hamlet suggests a relative morality when he says that there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so (2.2). The Prince of Denmark also suggests a mechanistic model of the mind -- anticipating that of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) -- when he says that use almost can change the stamp of nature (3.4) and when he swears to his father's ghost, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there, / And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain (1.5).

Macbeth, in his darkest hour, anticipates the bleakest of existential sentiments: Life is a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing (Macbeth 5.5). 

In King Lear, Gloucester says, As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport (4.1). King Lear was written closely after the gunpowder plot of 1605 in a society in which Catholics struggled against Protestants, and royalists struggled against parliamentarians. The play is curiously set in a mythic time (the 8th century of the legendary King Leir), which removes it somewhat from its immediate historical context and urges readers to see it in a larger context. While my argument here is neither common nor proven, I find it curious that Shakespeare places the otherwise Modern experience and vocabulary of his characters in earlier, polytheistic times. While Shakespeare may not have meant us to draw any inferences from this anachronism, to me it suggests that Modern, Renaissance humans exist in a world without gods (the Modern world) and also in a universe of powerful forces that don't really care about humans (the pre-Christian Greco-Roman Classical world). 

According to existentialists, we exist without an over-arching monotheistic Power and also without the divine powers that shake the air and rule the waters. There isn't even a Fate that hovers above Zeus, or lurks somewhere in the depths of Odin's well. The gods of Classical and Germanic Europe are far gone, and yet the powers they once represented still hurl their thunder bolts and battle-axes from the sky.


Next: Hitler's Perfect World

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