The Theocratic Age; or, The last days of the American Republic
[ opinion - november 07 ]
In the madness of war and horrific destruction being visited upon the Muslim peoples of the World by the United States and its dwindling allies, it is interesting, but sad, to note how far these once free people have fallen in barely 100 years from their truest ideas as a new war with Iran looms... - Pravda, 17 October, 2007
This is not a book review. It is a notice of the availability of a book that reads like law clerks' notes on the iniquity of the American enterprise, and it is an essay suggesting that our popular, accepted, received way of presenting arguments today gets lost in hyperbole and irony. We expect contention as the right of free people, and so we make our case by lying and cheating. We all know that the rules now include the constant use of the lovers' art, prevarication, which when used to good purpose is called irony, bafflegab, Newspeak, propaganda, euphemism, circumlocution and the inversion of plain truth.
Osama bin Laden's 9/11 attack on the US was not mere evil done by bad people; it was blowback, the CIA's term for "retaliation for covert, illegal violence that our government has carried out abroad that it kept totally secret from the American people," and Blowback Trilogy is the name of a set of books by Chalmers Johnson, published by the same folks who issue Noam Chomsky's political tracts (Metropolitan/Henry Holt).
And now they say it's payback time for the top dog: there is good reason to think that the American Experiment is running its course and coming to a chaotic halt amid the dying of democracy in the United States. Nemesis is the remorseless goddess, the spirit of divine retribution that restrains the insolence of mortals. Prof Chalmers Johnson in his recent book Nemesis predicts retribution that will be part of the decline of Democratic America, the once-shining city upon a hill now coming to an end much as the Roman Empire came to an end with its foreign military bases, private armies, corrupt Congress, endless wars, and dictatorship. Bankruptcy looms because of the three trillion dollar debt incurred with numerous (737? no one knows for sure) costly American military bases that "garrison the globe" in some 130 countries.
Rome, too, lost its democratic heart and then faded away into a dark, chaotic age of princes and paupers. Similarly, with our shrinking middle class we are turning into a society made up of plutocrats and their servants.
Fascism today, theocracy tomorrow, according to many skeptics of the Enlightenment that produced today's waning democracy. It seems we must lose our empire and save our democracy like Britain, or keep our empire and lose our democracy like Rome. Professor Johnson must have been reading Giovanni Vico.
A new theocratic age
During the Enlightenment, Giovanni Battista Vico (1688-1744), Italian philosopher and jurist, predicted that there would be a return to a Divine Age, a theocracy, after the attempts at living democratically failed again. If you take careful note of the prevalence of belief in the American Religion, which is a pervasive gnostic religiosity informing all Americans from Mormons to Holy Rollers and the coming Rapture, he may be right. Today the Conspicuously Religious, the obviously delusional, run the entire American government in its three branches. The executive is tyrannical, the legislators corrupt, and the judiciary packed with cronies of the bosses.
Vico had a theory about civilization and how it is formed and reformed over the centuries. His ideas have become increasingly popular since the Romantics started objecting to the artificiality of enlightened scientific thought and the modern world. Furthermore, Vico's understanding of the humanity of science, his perception of how people create science just as they create civic life, show him to be an original existentialist, and a Christian existentialist, to boot. According to Vico, conventional, organized society, that is, civic life, is invented, planned, implemented, and constructed by people for people just as mathematics and science are reified, agreed-upon, made-up social constructions for people. However, they are not universal truths. For example, geometry and democracy are not found in nature, except as the human mind is in nature. Platonism, the philosophy that says actual things are mere copies of transcendent ideas that are the objects of true knowledge, is mere dreaming, an exercise in metaphysics. Vico was anti-Cartesian; he taught that we only think we understand nature, but because we are a part of nature, we cannot understand it. We cannot step outside ourselves and look at ourselves. We cannot even tell precisely how many speckles make a speckled hen.
According to Vico, the human mind can hardly know itself, much less the world, so everything about science and mathematics, the entire hypothetico-deductive way of thinking is no more real than any other human invention. It is merely man measuring himself and comparing what he finds to the world around him. His truth is what is true for him.
Vico the humanist and jurist taught his students at the university of Naples that unless they were able to argue both sides of any question, like a good debater and lawyer, they were simply maniacs, true believers, or simpletons. In all matters, Vico counseled prudentia, that is to say, prudence, caution, persuasion, wisdom, and practical reasoning instead of enthusiasm and unthinking zeal. To him the Enlightenment was Utopian thinking coming around again as part of the cycle of civilizations. Vico's theory of the cycle of civilizations, based on his profound study of law and languages, states that society goes through stages and changes from theocracy to aristocracy to democracy to theocracy again, and on and on. The three stages of civilization, which are recorded using particular kinds of rhetoric that Vico broadly generalizes, are the divine, the heroic, and the human:
Divine Theocracy Metaphorical Language
Heroic Aristocracy Poetic Language
Human Democracy Ironic Language
The ancient Greeks and Romans were just as intelligent and flawed as we are. To them, metaphors and myths, the figures of speech in which we take the analogies and likenesses of symbols literally, validated the reality of their gods. Like Euhemerus, the ancient writer, they explained history in terms of mythology. They thought in terms of gods and attributes as if they really exist, the way we think of abstractions like honor and fidelity. Theirs was a Theocratic Age. Mars was war. The Roman Aphrodite's Cupid was as real to them as Venus' Eros was to the Greeks. Still today, we find it hard to avoid such airy abstractions.
When you can't get to sleep, Eros vincit insomnia, and Love remains our most important metaphor:
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; And every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. I John 4: 7-8
After a chaotic period, the Heroic Age of aristocracy emerged (and will emerge again), characterized by kings, feudalism, and the eloquent poetry of allusive and suggested likenesses, in discourse the part standing for the whole. For example, look at how the meaning of Blake's lines comes to the reader from the poem 'The Tiger' - "What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry." Hand, eye, frame, and symmetry all mean some things of which each of them is only a part. Understanding and appreciating poetry requires analytic knowledge to share with the poet, a sameness of mind, a universe of discourse, and an intersubjective reality, a cultural sharing, the reason why, for example, TS Eliot, the great poet, was a Royalist and a Catholic. He wept to watch the coming to an end of an Heroic Age with all its clarity and certainty.
The Heroic, Aristocratic Age is followed, after more chaos, by the age of Democracy and its deadening irony, like that of our present discourse where the language can
no longer lend itself to poetry. For example, there is today no difference between the comedian and the politician. Actors like Ronald Reagan, Stephen Colbert, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fred Thompson stand for public office, where they must compete with real jokers like Bill Clinton and Donald Rumsfeld. Everything they say is ironic, that is, an intentional lie or a joke at someone's else expense:
Stephen Colbert, humorist, presidential candidate:
"Like New Orleans, Washington DC is a chocolate city, except it has a marshmallow center with a graham cracker crust of corruption"
Shuffling the members of the Bush cabinet is like rearranging the deck chairs, not on the Titanic, but on the Hindenburg."
Fred Thompson, actor, US senator:
"You can't substitute promise after promise with known violators of prior promises at the expense of protecting ourselves or setting an example"
After two years in Washington, I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood..."
Arnold Schwarzenegger, California governor:
"I saw a woman wearing a sweatshirt with Guess [a brand of clothes] on it. I said, Thyroid problem?
Money doesn't make you happy. I now have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million."
Ron Reagan, US president:
"What makes him think a middle-aged actor, who's played with a chimp, could have a future in politics? [on Clint Eastwood's bid to become mayor of Carmel, California. Reagan played with a chimp in the film Bedtime for Bongo.]
My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to announce that I've signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes." [joking during a mike check before his Saturday radio broadcast]
John McCain, US senator, prisoner in Vietnam:
"I wasn't at Woodstock - I was tied up at the time."
Bill Clinton, US president:
"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the - if he - if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not - that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement... Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no [not at that very moment]. And it would have been completely true."
Al Gore, US vice-president:
"I am Al Gore, and I used to be the next president of the United States of America.
I am concerned about the economy. I was the first one laid off."
George W Bush, US president:
"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
Don Rumsfeld, US secretary of defense:
"Needless to say, the President is correct. Whatever it was he said.
I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and, well, I assume it's what I said.
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."
There is left to us little poetry, only pathetic attempts to reach Jesuitical transcendence such as the labored speeches of Clinton and Rumsfeld as quoted above. We have no transfiguring figures of speech, except the metaphors of science fiction and religion, and thus we are coming full circle back to the Age of Theocracy. Moses' burning bush, Jesus' empty tomb, and the Prophet's ascent from Jerusalem to heaven are science fiction, a search for mythical meaning, just as "space exploration" is the search for a signpost showing the way to God's Heaven.
Here is Harold Bloom's sardonic joke about Vico's ideas...
Vico's new theocratic era would begin in Chaos, "during which the recourse to a Theocratic Age would commence. In my own view, our [20th] Century has enshrined chaos in our long postponement (may it last!) of a New Theocratic Era. After gods, heroes, and humans, there remain only cyborgs, and I gaze in rapt alarm at muscular Terminators crowding out the human." - Harold Bloom, The Western Canon p233
Remarkably large amounts of nonsense are making the rounds lately, nonsense in the ironic mode, which is available only to those who have the impunity to speak their minds, those who are free. In our democracy of free people, irony is the only rhetorical mode left to us, because no man can play poker and win by telling the truth. As Machiavelli counseled the Prince: "Because how one ought to live is so far removed from how one lives...it is necessary for a prince, wanting to maintain himself, to learn how to be able to be not good and to use this and not use it according to necessity." Or, as Dorothy Parker put it:
O life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.
The public life of each individual is a personal political campaign that must be carefully strategized and planned in a two-faced, hypocritical, deceitful, on-going charade, with all of us playing one hand of Texas Hold'em after another. It's dog-eat-dog out there, and so it's a lot of fun listening to the politicians whose every lie gets spread and magnified into real stretchers. We know the rules, and we play the game. The ones who suffer are the ingenuous, simple, honest readers of Pravda (and The New York Times) who think in Sunday school terms.