Nihilism and “Post-Truth Politics”
I awoke this morning to this article by Zoe Williams in The Guardian (“On the spectrum of deceit, ministers have gone off the scale“) about the degeneration of political speech and practice in the UK. And although her focus is “post-truth politics” and the democratic deficit there, it seems to be the trend everywhere, including here in Canada where a “culture of lying” has become pretty much entrenched in political speech and practice.
What Williams calls “post-truth politics” is what I have been calling “post-Enlightenment” or “death of God” politics. Let’s say that “Truth” is another one of those higher values being ground down by the dynamics of our “two centuries of nihilism”, as Nietzsche forecast it.
Is this tendency simply, as Rosenstock-Huessy suggested, a case of cowardice and a general failure of nerve? Another aspect of what Christopher Lasch once called “the culture of narcissism”?
Untruthfulness is inherent to the narcissistic condition. And the culture of narcissism that Lasch explored (in a book by that title) in the late 70s is another facet of nihilism. What Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne called a “culture of lying” (Williams’ “post-truth politics”) and what Lasch calls “the culture of narcissism” belong to one and the same dynamic of civilisational nihilism and self-negation.
So, it is with some bemusement that I read this paragraph that opens Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, from the very first chapter entitled “The Human Aspiration“,
“The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation, — for it survives the longest periods of scepticism and returns after every banishment, — is also the highest which his thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality. The ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration; today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings. The earliest formula of Wisdom promises to be its last, — God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.”
God (Universality), Light (Enlightenment), Freedom, Immortality (Life), Truth, Bliss (Joy) — these seem to be precisely those “higher values” that are currently being devalued, becoming emptied of meaning and potency, and especially where mere lip-service is paid to them even as the reality and conduct is something else altogether. Bliss? We seek, rather, intoxication. Freedom? Too much of a burden, too scary, too much responsibility. God? Deader than a doornail, but we’ll pretend otherwise as it keeps the masses governable. Life? A curse, a veil of woe and troubles. In fact, we’re busy de-lifing the planet into a sixth extinction event, such is our cynical contempt and loathing for Life (as Nietzsche saw as being the core of the nihilistic dynamic). In any case, there’s always the consolations of money and a self-indulgent consumerism. I may not have much in the way of freedom and political rights any longer, but by God I’ve got “purchasing power!” The Citizen being an extinct species, his place is now taken by “the Consumer”, whose social strength or weakness ebbs or flows with the transient fortunes of the economy, stock-market, and GDP. So the political powers-that-be would have it.
We seem to be doing everything but preparing to return to our primeval aspirations and longings. So, what gives Aurobindo the confidence that we are so poised to outrun and overcome the present nihilism and the degeneracy of a decaying age and era? The human aspiration looks more like a human expiration.
Aurobindo provides reasons for his confidence that what we might call “the next development in man” is in the offing. It has to do with what I earlier raised here as the strange “double-movement” of the times, best expressed, perhaps, in a paradox of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “the road down and the road up are the same”. This is the same coincidentia oppositorum of Nicholas of Cusa and is also reflected in Nietzsche’s paradoxical faith that the devaluation of values (nihilism, death) is also a re-valuation of values (genesis, or resurrection). This paradoxical faith is also Jean Gebser’s, who sees in the manifold crises, destruction, and nihilism of our times what he calls “an essential restructuration” of consciousness leading towards “the integral consciousness”, which is clearly the same as Aurobindo’s “supramental” consciousness.
Aurobindo’s positive argument is based on this “coincidence of opposites”, and which corresponds in understanding to what Carl Jung termed “enantiodromia” (in deference to Heraclitus). Enantiodromia means, at the extremity of any action that exceeds a limit there is a reversal of fortune. It is the karmic law (and is connected with the Greek notion of “hybris“). This is Aurobindo’s argument, equally. What he calls “rationalistic Materialism”, which has been the driver of both our material progress, but also our nihilism, has now exceeded the limits of its possibilities, and having pushed beyond the limit of its possibilities must now undergo, in the Heraclitean-Jungian “enantiodromia“, a mutation or transformation.
“In emerging, therefore, out of the materialistic period of human Knowledge we must be careful that we do not rashly condemn what we are leaving or throw away even one tittle of its gains, before we can summon perceptions and powers that are well grasped and secure, to occupy their place. Rather, we shall observe with respect and wonder the work that Atheism has done for the Divine and admire the services that Agnosticism has rendered in preparing the illimitable increase of knowledge. In our world error is continually the handmaid and pathfinder of Truth; for error is really a half-truth that stumbles because of its limitations; often it is Truth that wears a disguise in order to arrive unobserved near to its goal. Well, if it could always be, as it has been in the great period we are leaving, the faithful handmaid, severe, conscientious, clean-handed, luminous within its limits, a half-truth and not a reckless and presumptuous aberration.”
In other words, the process of nihilism in our time is the self-negation of the Modern Era and its philosophy of “rationalistic materialism” (what Jean Gebser calls “the mental-rational structure of consciousness”), but which self-negation is also an essential restructuration, for having pushed to and beyond the limits of its possibilities, it finds it is no longer coherent nor sustainable. It becomes dis-integrate.
This isn’t necessarily a conscious process at all. In their book The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul, Mario Beauregard & Denyse O’Leary showcase the numerous self-contradictions now rampant in the materialist philosophy, showing how materialism “leads to major disconnects in thinking” or cognitive dissonance. Amongst numerous examples, they cite one which I find quite significant. After rigorously defending the determinist and mechanistic model of consciousness against free will, nonetheless, psychologist David Barash confessed,
“I suspect that we all — even the most hard-headed materialist — live with an unspoken hypocrisy: even as we assume determinism in our intellectual pursuits and professional lives, we actually experience our subjective lives as though free will reigns supreme. In our heart of hearts, we know that in most ways that really count (and many that don’t), we have plenty of free will, and so do those around us. Inconsistent? Yes, indeed. But like the denial of death, it is a useful inconsistency, and perhaps even one that is essential.” (cited, p. 231)
Beaumont and O’Leary, citing this passage, recall an old rabbinical saying, “Have you ears heard what your mouth just said?”
The self-contradiction here between thought and experience is pretty stark — self-contradiction resulting in de-coherence, dissonance and disintegration leading towards eventual self-negation at the extremity. It is within this very condition of unsustainable self-contradiction (“hypocrisy”) that our authors (Nietzsche, Aurobindo, Gebser) detect the incipience of a new “restructuration” of consciousness and a new revaluation of values.
This kind of self-contradiction is now the general condition of the culture, and where outright lies and deliberate distortions of fact can be euphemistically excused and rationalised as “political truth“, then one understands that the culture is deep in the process of nihilism, of incoherence, dis-integration and, finally, of self-negation.