There was a passage in the note on disbelief in disbelief, around the discussion of the avowal under duress, that was somewhat garbled or overly compressed, and that I have sought to address with some edits. A full consideration would involve a complex inquiry into the historical constitution of the self and of the human being as moral being in relation to language – in other words the subject of every blog post and tweet and likely of every conceivable writing from shopping list to hieroglyphic tablet.* In this post I want to put the idea of separation of the avowal of belief from belief itself, of faith as a way of life rather than an occasional oath, commitment, or performance, in broad historical or philosophical-historical context, both to make it more comprehensible on its own terms and at the same time to outline or organize that context.
I had written that, in a typically modern as opposed to pre-modern view, the avowal of faith under duress – “on the rack, at sword point, or over the telephone” – might be taken as less rather than more authentically an expression of faith, but I did not differentiate between the testimony or confession against interest and its self-serving or body-preserving opposite. To be clear, I did not intend an argument for some essential alteration in human nature: Under both worldviews, possibly in one way or another for all recognizably human societies, the exacted or coerced avowal, the avowal in accordance with interest, would be different from the avowal offered against interest, or, in a different way, from the avowal taken as freely offered or devoid of interest, as in “dying declarations” and other exceptions to hearsay rules. Today as ever, we reflexively as well as reasonably treat the confession of guilt as likely more indicative or credible than the predictable claim of innocence. Similarly, that the dying atheist Christopher Hitchens resisted any recourse to faith up to the end was taken as exemplary in regard to his peculiar brand of ardent unbelief, while the believer who refuses under torture to deny Christ would still be thought to be offering impressive testimony in 2013 as in 1013. Nor can we know that, regardless of relative prevalence of certain superstitions, there were really many people 1,000 or 2,000 years ago willing and able to pass such a test, or that there was a measurably higher social expectation of martyrdom except perhaps in certain legendary communities.
Yet the embrace of the more skeptical perspective, that even for Christians martyrdom might be mad rather than admirable, would still typify a more modern concept, roughly under the Straussian model of the modern, whose origination Strauss at different points in his career attributed to Hobbes or Machiavelli. The ancients as opposed to the pre-modern Christians might also view martyrdom as mad, but for different reasons. The classical view, put simply, would be to identify the good with the noble or highest good, the good in itself, worthy of emulation but under an acceptance and assumption that the good in itself would rarely if ever be actualized all across an existing polity. For Strauss, the typically modern notion is of a good commonly accessible, involving a lowering of moral vision in the interest of the broadening of a real horizon. The good for the moderns must be capable of being commonly actualized, which also means it must correspond with actual common capacities. To put the foundational paradox of modernity in simple form: For the typical (Hobbesian or Machiavellian) modern, the rejection of the ideal is ideal.**
Since perhaps only the rarest believer will put up with torture and death to stand verbally by his or her beliefs, an emphasis on actualization progressively de-values the rare and noble exception, whether in the rare and noble individual, or in the rare and noble utterance, and whether embodying the good as the ancients understood it or in its Judeo-Christian inversions. This critique extends to other, perhaps implicitly to all, extraordinary demonstrations of faith or holiness. Withdrawal from society, self-mortification, vows of poverty, or celibacy, or silence – all look increasingly suspect and irrational, as does, fundamentally, the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for a supposedly higher ideal of any kind. Again, this observation is not an assessment in regard to “real people on average”: We cannot assume that real people on average ever have treated the the saints and “holy fools” among them as “role models,” or ever were widely enthused about dying or killing for God, or king, or country; nor, regarding the moderns, can we argue that the willingness to sacrifice has completely disappeared.
The extraordinary or miraculous event also falls under this ideological suspicion of the rare and noble: whether it ever occurred, or, even in the deemed highly unlikely event that it did or can occur, that it can have any bearing on the truth of a teaching. If I can walk on water, or foretell the future, or heal the sick, or come back to life after being crucified, or fast for 40 days, or spontaneously recite exquisite poetry, what would any of these extraordinary abilities or exploits logically or intrinsically have to do with the correctness of my views on war and peace, or family relations, or taxation, or the meaning of life on Earth – or for that matter on my truthfulness and good will? (Ibn Rushd – Averroes – anticipated this utterly disenchanting line of thought, though he was several centuries ahead of his time.) The test of a teaching from the typically modern perspective is that we can make it our own through application of our own powers, to our own ends, not on the basis of authority or of possibly interesting but otherwise irrelevant demonstrations.
Likewise under the concept of the modern nation-state, the last distinctions between pragmatic and moral gradually disappear into “the greatest good for the greatest many.” The same transformation is visible on the semantic surface of this utilitarian motto, in which the “great” and the “good” flatten into merely measurable quantities. The creation of the American state typifies and politically initiates the modern in this sense, and thus in the Straussian world-historical framework represents the culmination of “first wave modernism.” The new popular sovereign – the People – is (or are) interested in its (or their or our) own bodily welfare.*** The state of assembled bodies as end in itself sets aside the spiritual, religious, or other higher aim as a further condition of its inclusiveness of “all men,” each concerned with his or her own “life, liberty, and… pursuit of happiness.” Any political interrogation into the state of our souls is expressly forbidden to the state, and the only miracle that matters is the unprecedented and at the same time extraordinary fact of a state that makes no recourse to the miraculous.
Yet it is always too early to declare these corollaries of liberal-democratic foundational paradox to be simple derogation of religion. The enforced political inattention to the soul can also be taken as a highest attention to the true needs of the soul. The soul in the social-political dimension never appears except as an individual’s expression, or lack or incoherency of expression, of faith, the outwardness of an inwardness. In other words, inwardness as such has no social or political dimension until or except as expressed – until it is no longer inward at all, and thus no longer itself: The separation of church and state becomes the only faithful politics of the soul, the politics of the impossibility of a politics of the soul, because the soul is always other than its supposed political embodiment.
The modern polity in this view relies on a transformed concept of faith that embodies, or that by not embodying anything at all allows for, this Lockean, also high Islamic, political hinge of faith, this notion that faith compelled cannot be authentic faith. For Locke as for the Prophet only faith freely adopted is authentic, in Christian terms salvific. Implicitly, however, this formulation renders any particular statement of faith, whether compelled or freely offered, at most secondary to a never definitively proposable, or non-propositional, only-as-actual state of faith. It is permanently uncertain as far as anyone, including the believer, can say. It must be actualized as a process or a never-completed internal struggle (or jihad), not as an accomplished end state as good as whatever creedal declaration. The political state that instead seeks to compel such an incomplete or simply false declaration, under exclusion of competing alternatives, therefore interferes with the individual’s opportunity to come to faith independently and authentically, or, as in the Old Testament admonition, “with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might”: The state must not substitute its “might” for the individual’s. A state applying “compulsion in religion” is in this sense a state encumbering and endangering salvation, and as much or more for those whom it wins over as for those whom it loses to whatever presumed false belief, to which latter it all along merely furnishes validation by martyrdom.
The paradigm with its mysterious, paradoxical where not completely inarticulable truths evokes the esoteric counter-narratives that have always grown up alongside or in the wake of “established” traditions, a fact that should remind us that “the modern” is not simply an historical period, but a universal latency: Every primary narrative implies its counternarrative. The modern makes a primary narrative of this recognition, and the historical modern may be the political culture that seizes on the resultant common confusion as a substitute for universality. The conservative or more precisely the reactionary conservative at this point may bemoan the loss of the test of faith, and envision a vast pall of ennui, insignificance, and unseriousness descending on a no longer very human humanity, though it may be that this very lack of a test of faith becomes that test.
“The true” for the modern remains what it was for the philosopher of the modern in its moment, a system of truth and not its summation, the magic and not the spell, the whole not the snapshot of the whole. The religious affiliation of no religious affiliation among the so-called Nones may amount to a kind of popularized phenomenology or ambulatory deconstruction, the realized impossibility of the declaratory faith, potentially an actuality of belief independent of whatever verbal reduction or sign, if also potentially a condition of incoherence, of chaos not system, moral infantilization rather than advancement. For good or ill, we seem to reach a point where no avowal, under extreme duress or freely offered, in the form of a statement under torture or a longish blog post or a 600-page treatise or a life’s work, can be taken as definitive.
* that special class of quasi-paradoxical meta-statements
** The trial, sentencing, and suicide of Socrates can be taken as a pre-figuration of the eventual triumph of a democratic and eventually modern perspective over the aristocratic or classical: philosophy like Christian theology also as implicitly its own negation in prospect.
This difference in worldviews means also that the same historical events, can be viewed somewhat similarly, but to diametrically opposite conclusions. Attempting to suspend ourselves between the two prejudices, we can say that the spread of Christianity represented a long transition from the ancient or classical worldview to the modern, that, at its end, dispenses with the last detectable remnants of ancient belief in Christian theology, in favor of what Kojève called Christian anthropology – Christian faith as always implicitly its own negation in prospect (another way to read both the symbolic death of God on the Cross as well as the Abrahamic eschatologies). For a certain kind of conservative, the process is a process of degeneration, the extinction of the best in human beings. For a certain kind of progressive, it is the arc of history bending toward justice.
The same process marks a transition in notions, at the same time a progressive realization of notions, regarding who in a given time and place can be said to typify a culture: A typically modern, liberal-democratic cultural historian might look at ancient Athens for evidence regarding how the average Athenian or even an average Athenian slave viewed or experienced the world, rather than how Pericles or Plato did. The archeologically reconstructed experiences and views of the average Athenian or mass of Athenians, rather than the peculiar notions of its most articulate and privileged citizens, would stand as an at least equally valid or representative Athens. The trial, sentencing, and suicide of Socrates can be taken as a pre-figuration of the eventual complete triumph of a democratic, eventually modern perspective over the aristocratic or classical: philosophy like Christian theology also as implicitly its own negation in prospect.