Eagleton Gets It

Terry Eagleton is my favorite Marxist. Why? Because he is honest. I also think he would just be a great guy to sit down and have a beer with.

Here he notes the rather shallow arguments of those who praise the “secular.” My only gripe is his treatment of postmodernism in only its secular guise. He is correct that the secular postmodernism first to come out of France was of the type to call all meta-narratives into question, even the modern meta-narrative, which of course is what bothers Eagleton. But, one could argue that such was the logical outcome of the “modern” anyway as it destroyed any objective basis for “Truth” in the first place. Once that “acid” as Dennett called it begins to eat away at meta-narratives (I’m sure he was only thinking of religious meta-narratives) it is only a matter of time before it eats yours too (and why Dennett’s idea is so self-defeating). Clearly though there are other types of postmodernism and ones I think Eagleton himself would agree with.

Another interesting point he makes is that the very usage of terms such as “good” “evil” and “moral” in the West are invested with and refer to the Judeo-Christian narrative as to their meaning and once that narrative is “smoked” out and we are rid of it, it turns out we empty our moral vocabulary of any meaning or significance. I would say that “Moral” then becomes marks on a paper or a sound one makes with his mouth when voicing the word, but nothing more—there is nothing behind it—we might as well say or write “boo.” Secularists thought the words alone would do—like magic incantations. They forget the words only make sense when invested with and tied to a powerful and moving narrative people actually believe to be true. A word like “evil” must have a referent more powerful than, “I really don’t have a good feeling about this, but I can’t tell you why. Oh, wait a minute—I feel differently now—never mind.”

He ends his piece with the same thought I have had many times and have posted here, and that is how both the religious fundamentalist and the secular fundamentalist are simply the two sides to the same coin. If only that coin could roll into a drainage pipe, wash out to sea, and be lost forever in the greater ocean of moderation and rational thought.

Kitcher asks himself why people should need to be united by a belief in some “transcendental entity” (his use of both terms is inaccurate) rather than by their mutual sympathies. “What exactly,” he enquires, “does the invocation of some supernatural being add?” A Christian might reply that it adds the obligations to give up everything one has, including one’s life, if necessary, for the sake of others. And this, to say the least, is highly inconvenient. Anyone, even a mildly intelligent badger, can entertain “mutual sympathies”. The Christian paradigm of love, by contrast, is the love of strangers and enemies, not of those we find agreeable. Civilised notions such as mutual sympathy, more’s the pity, won’t deliver us the world we need.

Secularisation is a lot harder than people tend to imagine. The history of modernity is, among other things, the history of substitutes for God. Art, culture, nation, Geist, humanity, society: all these, along with a clutch of other hopeful aspirants, have been tried from time to time. The most successful candidate currently on offer is sport, which, short of providing funeral rites for its spectators, fulfils almost every religious function in the book.

If Friedrich Nietzsche was the first sincere atheist, it is because he saw that the Almighty is exceedingly good at disguising Himself as something else, and that much so-called secularisation is accordingly bogus. Secular thinking, too, had to be demythified. “God had in fact gone into hiding,” Robbins observes, “and now had to be smoked out of various secular terms, from morals and nature and history to man and even grammar.” Even Nietzsche’s will to power has a suspiciously metaphysical ring to it.

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15 Responses to Eagleton Gets It

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Speak of the devil! I was just reading a lengthy review of Eagleton by John Gray, which I am sure you would appreciate. I can send you the full text if you like.

    “Another interesting point he makes is that the very usage of terms such as “good” “evil” and “moral” in the West are invested with and refer to the Judeo-Christian narrative as to their meaning and once that narrative is “smoked” out and we are rid of it, it turns out we empty our moral vocabulary of any meaning or significance.”

    Oh those Greeks- they didn't know anything about ethics or morals. Oh, those Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Hindus- they probably spent their days eating their children and killing themselves, perhaps burning each other at the stake for good measure.

    I know you like Christianity, but … you are not dealing with a full deck here.

    “They forget the words only make sense when invested with and tied to a powerful and moving narrative people actually believe to be true.”

    Nope, language is perfectly functional outside of Hollywood epics and blockbusters. I recognize that you and Eagleton can't seem to do without absurd narratives of utopian salvation … but really, we can do better! Rational thought would be a start, indeed.

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  2. Darrell says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Oh those Greeks- they didn't know anything about ethics or morals. Oh, those Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Hindus- they probably spent their days eating their children and killing themselves, perhaps burning each other at the stake for good measure.”

    Well, read a little closer. I said in the “West.” Further, no one said the other cultures knew nothing about ethics. The facts remain that the West has been formed by the Judeo-Christian narrative as to morality and ethics. We could say the Greeks influenced us with philosophy and political theory, but those were long co-opted and taken up into the Christian narrative. And obviously the other cultures you mention were of little or no influence as to ethics in the West.

    However, all those cultures did base their morality and ethics upon transcendent objective narratives and not in any way you have suggested. I think you were going to reveal to us an ancient culture or people who did not and we await that revelation.

    “Nope, language is perfectly functional outside of…”

    Clearly not. Language would only be guttural sounds or marks on a page (if written) without the narratives (whether secular or religious) that give them meaning, significance, and context—the referents inherent in their use. An obvious truth.

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  4. Burk Braun says:

    I think you will find Confucianism to be one of the more thoroughly secular great ethical traditions, all focused on what humans want (as are all the others, incidentally!). Many made of Confucius a superstitious totem, but I doubt that merits your badge of “transcendent”.

    Anyhow, if you are merely defending the existence of narratives, without bothering to defend their truthfulness, I am not sure how much you gain. That people can live by the most bizarre stories is hardly in dispute. The question is whether they must, and whether they might not be better off living under a mostly-true and benign narrative, as is available in this, our current modern age.

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  5. frthomas says:

    “Nope, language is perfectly functional outside of Hollywood epics and blockbusters. I recognize that you and Eagleton can't seem to do without absurd narratives of utopian salvation … but really, we can do better! Rational thought would be a start, indeed.”

    Burk that is one of the most ridiculous things you have written… Language/words and the communication they are designed to facilitate are inseparable from the “narrative” or “meaningful frame of reference” of the communicator and his/her audience be it religious, philosophical, or scientific. I can't believe you would contend such a thing.

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  6. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, frthomas-

    You and Darrell are doing a simple bait and switch- claiming that the context of language implies the need for Christianity. I agree that language exists in a context of meaning and reference. But that hardly necessitates, as I said, Hollywood/theological blockbusters of absurdly inflated narrative. Much more modest approaches to reality will do fine as a frames of reference.

    Like science, for instance. Indeed, it is easy enough to argue that the basic story of validated cosmic origins and evolution makes a vastly transcendent and satisfying narrative for us. It certainly transcends our individual lives, even if it doesn't give one the whipped topping of everlasting life, hell, heaven, second comings, etc…

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  7. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    This has become a little awkward. Every one of your assertions has been rather easily dismissed. If you remember the point, it was whether or not people/cultures came to their views of morality by simply noting their subjective feelings or by reference to objective narratives—religious or otherwise. And every reference you have made, whether to Uncle Tom’s Cabin or now Confucianism, have undermined your view and supported mine. Not only that, but your view is entirely a-historical and removed from anything we know either of ancient cultures or the present day. It is a fantasy.

    As to Confucianism, here are some quotes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “Confucius' teachings and his conversations and exchanges with his disciples are recorded in the Lunyu or Analects, a collection that probably achieved something like its present form around the second century BCE. … Confucius believes that people live their lives within parameters firmly established by Heaven—which, often, for him means both a purposeful Supreme Being as well as ‘nature’ and its fixed cycles and patterns…”

    “Confucius also claimed that he enjoyed a special and privileged relationship with Heaven and that, by the age of fifty, he had come to understand what Heaven had mandated for him and for mankind.”

    “…Confucius revered and respected the spirits, thought that they should be worshipped with utmost sincerity, and taught that serving the spirits was a far more difficult and complicated matter than serving mere mortals.”

    So, wrong again. Clearly there is a sense of an objective narrative here regarding “heaven” and “spirits.” This informed and shaped his view of ethics and morality. He was never saying, “Look, this is just the way I feel about stuff so go and do likewise” and everyone followed him. No, they followed him because this teaching came from “heaven.” Did it resonate with their “feelings?” Of course. But the resonation wasn’t “just because;” it was due to its objective content and referent. (Continued)

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  8. Darrell says:

    (Continued)
    “Anyhow, if you are merely defending the existence of narratives, without bothering to defend their truthfulness, I am not sure how much you gain. That people can live by the most bizarre stories is hardly in dispute. The question is whether they must, and whether they might not be better off living under a mostly-true and benign narrative, as is available in this, our current modern age. “

    As I’ve already said many times, the truthfulness of any narrative, including your own, is another issue. We have been focusing upon how people/cultures come to their views of morality. Clearly, historically and present day, people come to their views through objective sources and sources usually related to transcendence. You keep wishing otherwise.

    And this is where you view comes into play where you ask “whether they must.” And that is why I said it is fine for you to throw out an opinion that people “ought” (how ironic!) to see things your way and view morality as a subjective taste, but the “fact” is that they don’t and never have done so historically. You have not given us a shred of “evidence” (Again, how ironic!) to believe otherwise.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    How are you able to so misread things? No one said that the context of language needed Christianity. And then, you go on to make our point! Yes, whether it is philosophical naturalism or Christianity all language exists in an objective narrative that gives it meaning, nuance, and significance.

    The point (Focus on what people are actually writing rather than what you think they might be writing—please, just try it once) was that the morality and ethical language of the West is infused and informed by the Judeo-Christian narrative. Once emptied of that narrative (Eagleton’s point) it becomes weightless in a sense and meaningless. If we try and fill that language with a new narrative (Secularism) that tells us morality and ethics are subjective, we find them still to be weightless and empty for obvious reasons. “Bait and Switch?” What are you talking about? There isn’t a conspiracy under every bed. You are disagreeing to things you don’t need to. How about just trying to read people in a rational manner. Good grief.

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  10. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    The issue is that you take the Christian infusion as being far more influential than it is. We have infusions from Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Marx, Aristotle, Cicero, .. the list goes on endlessly. Just because we were under the dictatorial heel of the Catholic church for several long centuries, and thereafter under various faint embers of protestantism.. doesn't make them the be-all and end-all of cultural, let alone moral, influence. It just tells you how incoherent Eagleton is if he takes your position, since it is rather the opposite of Marx's position.

    Narratives get taken over, rise and die as time goes on, hopefully in part due to their accuracy in addition to their imaginativeness.

    And to top it all off, defending a manifestly false narrative, just because it is long-standing … the Nazis would have loved that rationale, had they remained on the scene long enough to use it!

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  11. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “The issue is that you take the Christian infusion as being far more influential than it is. We have infusions from Lewis Carroll, Dickens, Marx, Aristotle, Cicero, .. the list goes on endlessly.”

    Wrong. Not only do I but so do most historians, sociologists, philosophers, you name it, regardless of whether they think it true or not. It is the main influence, period. Everything else is derivative or negligible. Marx, Aristotle, and Cicero have had little or no influence as to our morality and ethics as found in the West. Carroll and Dickens were entirely influenced by the Judeo-Christian narrative. Your ability to cite sources that help me and not you is uncanny.

    “And to top it all off, defending a manifestly false narrative, just because it is long-standing … the Nazis would have loved that rationale, had they remained on the scene long enough to use it!”

    First, again you misread. No one is defending false narratives. No one is saying because something is long-standing it is true. Focus. The question was how do people/cultures form their views of morality and ethics. Further, you have nothing to say regarding the Nazis and what they could say if they had lasted long enough. You are the very person who has been telling us that if they had been around long enough, their view would then have been considered “moral”—the same if the South would have won the Civil War.

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  12. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    And with respect to Confucius.. this is truly the most pale and transparent theology. If I were to say that heaven mandates my naturalistic view of things.. I saw it through a telescope !.. would that make everything better for you?

    I'll stipulate that humans have historically been hopelessly superstitious, and remain so today. Is that a good trait or a bad trait? Did Confucius claim that his morals had any particular relation with heaven, or just were vaguely mandated through .. blah, blah? The actual program was humanistic, and it cheapens theology (as if!) to think that just slapping a generic “heaven” sticker onto one's philosophy alters that or makes the philosophy in any serious way different.

    Lastly, a perhaps deeper issue is whether there is or can be truth to any claim of heavenly inspiration, if that is the generic fig leaf of Confucius, his followers, and so many others. That is a question of brain science, soul-ism, and naturalism. And the data there do not point to any heavenly influences to anything, rather to brains as fully natural systems.

    This leads to the fundamental asymmetry in the argument- that it sure is easy to make empty claims of invisible inspirations and objective gods, special discernment, etc. But it is awfully hard to prove them, leaving the true rationalist with the conclusion of the enlightenment- that these claims are empty and pointless until proven … which they never are.

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  13. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    So, as I have said now about a thousand times now, it comes down to your belief/faith that there is no God. Otherwise, history and the present day doesn’t support your view at all as to how people/cultures form their morality. To this you object and wish they either would agree with you or realize (the poor souls) what they are actually doing. And you have provided a list of objective sources of morality, even though you don’t think they exist. Okay. Anything else?

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  14. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Yes, there is something else. It is odd that your skepticism would be so absent at this point. If someone says that god told them X, or inspired Y, or mandated Z, then you seem to take them at their word.. presto, correct. Yet naturalism, evolution, etc. get your concentrated skepticism, despite having infinitely higher standards of evidence and logic.

    What gives? The criteria of someone claiming god, objective morals and the like are simply absent- none at all. No end of charlatans have made that claim- from Joseph Smith and David Koresh going all the way back. And been believed. It seems to be human nature.

    So, you would say that is what theology is about- the discernment of correct theology vs wrong theology. But what is the criterion there? It is, as far as anyone can tell, no better. Longevity, perhaps humanism, fruits in human society, certainly not logic or rationalism. It is, at base, what humans find amenable- a narrative that isn't too weird to believe, yet weird enough to satisfy their imaginative and supersitious sides, full of drama and either hope or guilt.. take your pick.

    #
    Very well, we seem to be stuck in a sterile debate. It does very much come down to whether you believe in god and all the disiderata that supposedly flow (by rivers of illogic) from that position. There is an interesting book I will be looking at- “On being certain”, by Robert Burton, which deals with the psychology of self-reinforcement, belief in the absence of evidence, and the like. Also the basic addiction to always being right, which we both suffer from!

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  15. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    As to skepticism, I never said I wasn’t skeptical of other narratives. Again, the point was simply that historically and even now, that is how people form their morality. The purpose of my blog is not to refute the other narratives you speak of. I suppose if a Mormon or Hindu were to show up one day and ask why I didn’t believe in their faith (narrative) I would be happy to engage them.

    “Also the basic addiction to always being right, which we both suffer from!”

    I am guilty as charged. I suppose my only defense (not a very good one) is that I do feel strongly about these issues, especially when someone (Bernard) makes the type of statements he has regarding the Holocaust.

    However, please do not mistake my passion for anything personal. My sarcasm and arrogance are all part and parcel of my weaker character, all of which I will be the first to admit. I disagree with you but I respect you and think of you as a friend.

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