"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Cyclical Nature Of History–And The Irrelevance Of Moral Judgment

American progressives believe that progress is possible if we, the caretakers of society, the environment, and human communities, invest in a better future.  Conservatives on the other hand understand that history repeats itself because of the ineluctable and irreversible human nature that drives it; and there is no such thing as progress.

Even a cursory glance at the historical record shows that this is true.  Although the cast of characters has changed, no epoch of history has ever varied from the script.  Territorialism, protective self-interest, expansionism, and acquisitiveness have been the rule since the Paleolithic.

Jan Kott, a well-known literary critic, noted that if one read all of Shakespeare’s Histories in chronological order, the central plotlines would all be the same.  English monarchs,  royal legatees, bastard sons, and pretenders to the throne; Spanish queens, French kings and dauphins, the Pope,  Irish and Scottish upstarts, and the Holy Roman Emperor all fought during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. 

English history is only for starters.  Nothing from Persepolis, Athens, Ancient Rome; or as far back as Mesopotamia and Mohenjo-Daro was any different.

Persistent utopians point to the Pax Romana as a corroboration of their view that world peace is possible; and that under the right conditions, human society can be harmonious and rhythmic.  While no historian disputes the 200 year peace, few dismiss the geopolitical, military, and economic supremacy of Imperial Rome which led to and maintained it.  Peace, like every other social phenomenon, is a either a function of complete parity or complete dominance.  Rome, thanks to a combination of savvy diplomacy, mutually-beneficial tax laws, brilliant bureaucratic
management, military strength; and canny understanding of the power of imperial charisma, gods, and ritual, assured this peace.  When the balance of power shifted – as it always does – the influence of Rome waned, empire disintegrated, and the post-Roman violent world was ushered in.

In other words the Pax Romana was a completely understandable and unremarkable phenomenon in world history; and is not the only one.  The Persians, Assyrians, Turks, and Mongols also ruled with hegemony. 

The Sasanian period of Persia which lasted over twice as long as the Pax Romana covered a territory which included present-day Iran, Iraq, Eastern Arabia, the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt, large parts of Turkey, much of Central Asia, Yemen, and Pakistan.  It was the high moment of Persian culture and perhaps the apogee of its cultural and geopolitical influence.

Predictably, the Sassanid Empire did not last.  Imperial power had passed its pull date; and all the pillars of  great empire slowly but surely eroded and eventually collapsed.  Human civilization returned to normal – internecine and international wars, continual territorialism, and pre-Machiavellian politics.

If history is cyclical – and there is ample evidence to show that it is – then what moral obligation does any nation or citizenry have in refuting it?  The war against ISIS should never be considered a moral struggle – an attempt to clear the road of reactionary, immoral elements – but only one of practical expediency.  ISIS threatens Western hegemony and economic control; and in its war to establish a Salafist theocratic caliphate degrades America’s democratic exceptionalism and moral authority – the supposed underpinnings of its regional authority.  It should be countered by all means; but never should the response be considered moral.

Environmentalists have framed the climate change argument in moral terms.  We human beings would be derelict in our responsibility to protect the Earth which has given us its bounty.  It is not enough for committed activists to warn against short- and medium-term assaults on the productive capacity of the planet.  Such venal appropriation of Earth’s resources is tantamount to cosmic rape; and violation of the compact between it and its caretakers can only result in Armageddon.

The truth is nothing of the sort.  The so-called ecological balance so cherished by environmentalists is a result of both insolence and disregard and intelligent response.

A program on the BBC (BBC World Service Newsday Extra 12.18.12) convened a group of international scientists to debate the future of space explorations.  The term ‘humanly habitable environments’ was of no interest whatsoever as they talked of  the ‘post-human’ era – one in which genetically-modified human beings, intimately and functionally integrated with intelligent robots, and once-and-for-all linked through a mind-computer interface – would be even more dominant and supreme.  So-called environmental concerns will  be of no worry to near-future geneticists, computer engineers, and robotics planners.  The new post-human humans will be quite at home within new environmental realities and then some.

Moral concerns about the environment, therefore, are irrelevant.  Man will be genetically engineered to  thrive in new environments whether on Earth or remote planets, so no tears need be shed over the seeming dislocation of moral purpose.   Man has always done well in his dominion over the world and will continue to do so.

Within Abrahamic cultures, it seems very hard to take things lying down, regardless of the weight of history.  While Hindus and Buddhists seem to understand the irrelevance of human action within a material world which is illusory at best, Christians always seem to fall over themselves to make a better world.

This is surprising, given the fact that Jesus Christ himself has said that grace is bestowed, not earned (viz. Martin Luther), and that belief in Him is all that is necessary to attain the Kingdom of Heaven.  Devout Muslims, through a faith of absolute submission to Allah , also reject the notion of human enterprise.  Jews have always seen respect of The Law as a way of mediating Man’s arrogance and perpetuating God’s presence on Earth.

Yet the demand for rectitude – for folding every secular struggle within a moral context – continues.   Only Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and a raft of other minor amoral philosophers have argued the contrary.  Nietzsche contended that the only validation of human existence is the exercise of human will.  Morality is  irrelevant in a meaningless universe, he said.  Rising above the herd and declaring the supremacy of the individual is all that matters.  “I am!” is the only cry of any validity.

“There can be no morality without immorality”, said Ivan Karamazov  in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  Morality is not absolute, only relative.  There is nothing inherently good about conformity to current moral mores; only service to practical, temporal ends.  Yet, given our  narrow, venal, and self-serving nature, we human beings need the hope of eternal salvation to keep us on the straight and narrow.   It is understandable why politicians frame their anti-ISIS policies within a moral context; and why environmentalists invoke the authority of a higher jurisdiction to support their cause; and why citizens on both sides of the political spectrum demand righteousness.  Yet,  it is surprising nonetheless.

Image result for images ivan's devil karamazov

If history is indeed cyclical; if the course of human events has always and will always follow a predictable path; and if the fiery sermons of preachers, rabbis, monks, and imams fail to encourage a common morality; then why are we bothered?

Morality has always been a comforting cloak against the cold; a ticket to heaven; and a safe heaven from opportunists.  If it feels good; if it affords some spiritual cachet; and if it bestows some status within progressive communities, so be it.

Just don’t expect the rest of us to kneel at the moral altar of universal righteousness.  There is no such thing. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.