The Island of Universal Reason In the Ocean of Madness

You may recall from the former Dark Age Blog, that I traced the historical decay of the Enlightenment principle of Universal Reason into its presently completely objectified and quantified mode as the World Machine of the Global Economy. This is the exhausted form of Universal Reason which had formerly been considered as practically identical with the Mind of God — God being conceived by the Deists as The Great Architect, First Cause, and Grand Systems Engineer of the Great Cosmos in the form of the cosmic clockwork mechanism now actualised as “World Economy”. It also justified the proud (but ultimately faulty) definition of Man as “the rational animal” created in the image of Universal Reason (a.k.a. God).

In some ways, there was not much really new in this conception, since Norse myth (amongst others, including Buddhism) already conceived of the cosmos as a “Mill o’ the Gods”, or as the Great Wheel of Time and Space. We also find the cosmos imagined as a great machine and Juggernaut (the Hindu Jagganatha or “Lord of the Universe”) crushing everything beneath its giant wheel in some of the poetry of Omar Khayyam. It is also still the preferred image and interpretation of Albert Einstein who, as mentioned in the last post, confronted the paradoxes and ambiguities of Quantum Mechanics and probability theory with the objection that “God does not play dice with the world”.

As so much else, the secular principle of “universality” has its source in monotheism. It’s impossible to think of Universal Reason without that earlier foundation. This is why Nietzsche’s declaration of the “death of God” comes at the expense, also, of the secular principle of universality and attends his forecast for “two centuries of nihilism”. This was very prescient of Nietzsche, who (rightly or wrongly) many consider to be the first post-modernist. There is a certain irony in the fact that much of neo-conservative ideology claims (or pretends) to be influenced by Nietzsche. So did the fascists, of course, until Nietzsche’s patent detestation of racists and anti-semites became something of an embarrassing contradiction for fascism along with its radically perverse misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s “overman”. Nietzsche already knew that the incipient disintegration of the Modern Era and its table of values was afoot. “Incipit tragoedia“, he poignantly wrote. “The tragedy begins”. And much of what Nietzsche wrote was an attempt — an experiment — to formulate a viable successor to the disintegrating Age and to serve as practical guidance for those about to descend into the deep, dark woods of his two centuries of nihilism. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” was Nietzsche’s principle of faith — in fact, a new formulation of the significance of “faith” as a real power that guides us into an unknown future and as a principle of immunity against despair at the surrounding gloom.

It is this same conviction that the Modern Era was disintegrating which informs William Butler Yeats’ great and disturbing poem The Second Coming, penned just after the Great War of 1914-1918 (subsequently rebaptised as The World War). “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. What is that “centre” if not God conceived as Universal Reason, symbolised also in the poem as the Falconer?

(Former readers of The Dark Age Blog will forgive me for redundancy here, as it becomes necessary to revisit a few themes from TDAB for new readers to The Chrysalis).

The decay of Universal Reason into the reductionism of mere instrumentalising rationality (sometimes called “techno-science”) and its quantification as the World Machine of Global Economy parallels the debasement of the meaning of “universality” into signifying little more than universal homogeneity and uniformity, attended also by the confusion of the meanings of “integration” and “assimilation” (they don’t mean the same thing). The Global Economy is a deadening and fatal caricature of Universal Reason which now rather resembles Allan Ginsberg’s Moloch depicted in his famous poem Howl. And as the principle of Universal Reason has declined so has the power of propaganda increased correspondingly. Equally has the pursuit of entertainment eclipsed the goal of enlightenment. All these factors signify that the Modern Age is exhausted of all further possibility, and that its core values have decayed beyond recovery or repair.

This is a “withering from within”, as the Christian social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it, and as he described it (much like Ginsberg’s Moloch) in his book The Christian Future, or the modern mind outrun, published in 1946:

“The future of our economic order and the future of Christians are in conflict. This conflict seems to be decided at the outset in favour of the economic order. For the great languages of Church as well as State, of the Bible as well as of the Constitution, are losing their power in a daily process of advertising, commercialization, mechanization. People become indifferent to the hullabaloo of all verbiage…. A powerful hand has lifted up the particles of the human race and now puts them down again under a new horizon of existence. We see this horizon as dimly as the eastern sky one hour before sunrise; yet it determines already the lives and livelihood of all of us despite our nation or denomination. Granted that twelve generations or so lived happily within “Church” and “State” (the very word “State” is not older than 1500) and got their orientation from these two sources of light; this no longer is true.
We are unemployed, impoverished, inflated, killed, moved around, in nations great and small, in Churches free and orthodox, because of a new ‘within’. Against this new ‘within’, the millions find little protection, either within their nation or within their Church. Global economic cooperation is the new ‘within.’ Neither the New Deal nor the GOP nor Hitler nor Stalin can guarantee prosperity because the globe is not governed by any one statesman. The Great Society, this speechless giant of the future, does not speak English (neither does it speak Russian). And it is this Great Society which claims all of us who have to make a living, as her material, her victims, her assets or liabilities in terms of capital and labor.
The two world wars were the form of world revolution in which this new future reached into everybody’s life; the nationalist and communist ideologies with their dreams of revolution were checkmated and are mere foam around the real transformation. The real transformation was made by the wars and it make the Great Society final. She is the heiress of State and Church.” (pp. 4 – 5).

More specifically, we might add, it is the Corporate form that is now the specific institutional heiress of State and Church, whose functions it now also assimilates and appropriates to itself (just as it has assimilated and appropriated virtually all scientific activity) under the guise of deregulation, privatisation, and of “private-public partnerships”, which are, in effect, a usurpation and co-optation. Needless to say, “economism” is the prevailing ideology and the new common sense of this “new within”.

In fact, it is this “common sense” that now displaces Universal Reason from the centre, just as Entertainment eclipses Enlightenment. Yet somehow, we need to liberate the value of reasonableness from beneath the dead hand of this new “common sense” and of a reductionist instrumentalising rationality that enslaves rather than liberates. At the same time, we need to promote the meaning of universality to a higher and more immediate experience of shared existence and life, which Nietzsche attempted to do by making the Earth itself this universal centre in human experience. “Be true to the earth”, he pleaded. It’s good advice, but seems to fall slightly short as a value for promoting a sense of shared existence. It is a consciousness of the shared mortality of all living things, including our Earth, that acts to arouse empathy and compassion as the direct experience of a universal adequate for our emerging Planetary Era.

But this development may well be forced upon our plastic conscience by future events if we do not now take steps to develop it within ourselves willingly and voluntarily. And nothing interferes with the realisation of universal compassion than the great problem of our day — human narcissism, also in large part only the decayed remnant and standing ruin of the Cartesian cogito.

2 responses to “The Island of Universal Reason In the Ocean of Madness”

  1. Kevin D. Keck says :

    Funny to be reading this right after having come across The Atheist Apocalypse.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Ah, the mockery… the mockery…. But it seems so appropriate.

      It’s all been seen before, this Atheist Apocalypse. It was called “French Revolution”. The first revolutionary parade through the streets of Paris was led by The Goddess of Reason, who was Science, Progress, and Equality, and Notre Dame cathedral was rebaptised as The Temple of Reason.

      So it’s hard to know whether this comic is sardonic retrospective commentary on Late Modernity, or merely recapitulating old cliches that have already lost their traction.

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