First and last things

Hegel points out somewhere that at one time men started the day by praying or reading the Bible, while in his day they started it by reading a newspaper. Today I suppose they mostly turn on the TV or radio or go online. Whatever the specifics, Hegel’s general point is an important one. When you start a day or anything that matters the point is always to get in touch with where things stand, and how you do that depends on what you think your setting is and what you think is real.

God is the ens realissimum, the Most Real Being. You could turn that around, and say that whatever you think is most real is what you think is God. How men deal with that issue changes from time to time. The classic Christian view is reflected in the Treaty of Paris (1763), ending the Seven Years War, which begins “In the Name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” In contrast, the beginnings of the Declaration of Independence (“When in the course of human events”) and the U.S. Constitution (“We the people”) suggest that by the time they were written history and therefore human activity had become the basic reality. (At least that was so at the highest and most formal level of thought. In slightly more local and day-to-day settings, for example the drafting of state constitutions, men continued to appeal to God.)

What can such a change possibly mean? Is it our thinking and activity that unconditionally makes things what they are, so that man is really divine? Something of the sort may have seemed reasonable to Hegel, who was heir to a fully functional high civilization (based however on principles other than his own), and may have thought that as a philosopher he was entitled to make of it what made sense to him. It might have seemed then that Consciousness (in effect, human culture) was progressing in history, and the time had come in which it could become self-consciously self-sufficient.

Two hundred years later that’s not at all how things look. If human thought is the standard, then human thought has no standard. “Spin” becomes the basic principle of all things, and spin can do anything. We’re all familiar with the view that things don’t really happen unless they get in the newspaper or on TV, that the news that defines our common public setting, and therefore objective reality, is what the New York Times puts on its front page. So necessary is an ultimate standard that defines reality that the feeling that what appears in print or on TV is what is real persists even if we know how news organizations work and how accurate their stories really are.

Hence the utter triviality of our public life, in which process and appearance substitute for substance. Science is supposed to give us harder realities, but it really can’t because the methodological limitations that give it its power and reliability mean that it can’t engage with most of what we have to deal with. If scientists won’t believe in rogue waves when they haven’t been observed and measured in accordance with scientific protocols, how much can it tell us about human and social issues?

Still, older understandings of reality and ways of knowing persist, as they must for human life to be possible at all. Progress is never as unequivocal as people believe. Even today formal public events often begin with formal invocations. Those invocations may not have any religious content (as at the college commencement exercises I attended this spring), but sometimes they do, and even the form shows a recognition of a need for something beyond what is officially considered sufficient for a rational grasp of things.

What doesn’t work doesn’t stay. We cannot act rationally unless we can put our thoughts and actions in a setting, and modernity gives us no setting that allows us to make sense of what we are doing. For my own part it seems likely we’ll end up with something like Spengler’s Second Religiousness. When all adventures and fantasies are played out there always remains the ultimate, so the ultimate is what we’ll end up attending to. To all appearances the Alpha and Omega will turn out to be the final human concern as they were the first. We’re just built that way.

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