Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Brief History of Thought

In his bestselling book A Brief History of Thought French humanist philosopher Luc Ferry asserts that the paramount philosophical question throughout the history of civilization has been the question of how we find meaning in life when death looms for all of us.

He calls this the question of "salvation," and in his book he surveys the answers proffered by the ancient Stoics, Christians, Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche and the post-moderns, and comes, after much meandering, to the disappointingly tepid conclusion that salvation consists in loving others until we die. In considering others, he argues, we achieve a kind of transcendence without the metaphysical baggage of God.

Ferry himself anticipates the complaint that his conclusion is unsatisfying:
You might object that compared to the doctrine of Christianity - whose promise of the resurrection of the body means that we shall be reunited with those we love after death - a humanism without metaphysics is small beer. I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity - provided, that is, that you are a believer.
So why does Ferry settle for what is really a hopeless, meaningless "humanism without metaphysics"? Because he simply can't, or won't, bring himself to believe that there's more to reality than matter and energy:
If one is not a believer - and one cannot force oneself to believe, nor pretend to believe - then we must learn to think differently about the ultimate question posed by all doctrines of salvation, namely that of the death of a loved one.
Ferry is correct, of course, that one cannot compel belief, either in oneself or another, but what he might be asked is whether he sincerely wants the Christian message to be true. Regardless of his disbelief, does he hope that he's wrong? Many if not most people who claim not to believe that we'll in some sense exist beyond death and that "we shall be reunited with those we love after death" by their own admission do not want such a notion to be true. They don't believe the Christian proclamation, and they don't want the world to be the sort of place where such claims are in fact correct.

I suspect that the person, on the other hand, who wants those propositions to be true, who is open to them, is much more likely to find belief slowly creeping over him than those others whom C.S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce as having, "their fists clenched, their teeth clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see." They refuse to allow themselves even to hope that there really is salvation in the Christian sense.

Ferry doesn't seem to be this sort of person, though. He writes at the end of his book:
I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting [than any of the alternatives] - except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But were it to be true I would certainly be a taker.
He seems to recognize, even though he doesn't explicitly say it, that unless what we do in this life matters forever, it doesn't matter at all. If death is the end of individual existence then nothing we do has any genuine meaning or significance.

If Ferry's being honest with his readers and himself, if he really is open to "the Christian proposition," then I suspect he's closer to faith than he might realize.

The Bigger Danger

In a recent column Dennis Prager argues for the fairly obvious proposition that leftism is a religion, but in the course of his argument he asks a very interesting question.

Specifically, he wonders why people on the left fear big corporations but are enthusiastic about big government.

The left is generally supportive of Occupy Wall Street which is hostile to big business and reviles the Tea Party which fears big government. So which fear has most justification? Here's Prager:
No rational person can deny that big governments have caused almost all the great evils of the last century, arguably the bloodiest in history. Who killed the 20-30 million Soviet citizens in the Gulag Archipelago -- big government or big business? Hint: There were no private businesses in the Soviet Union. Who deliberately caused 75 million Chinese to starve to death -- big government or big business? Hint: See previous hint. Did Coca Cola kill five million Ukrainians? Did Big Oil slaughter a quarter of the Cambodian population? Would there have been a Holocaust without the huge Nazi state?

Whatever bad big corporations have done is dwarfed by the monstrous crimes -- the mass enslavement of people, the deprivation of the most basic human rights, not to mention the mass murder and torture and genocide -- committed by big governments.... That the left demonizes "Big Pharma," for instance, is an example of leftwing thinking. America's pharmaceutical companies have saved millions of lives, including millions of leftists' lives. And I do not doubt that in order to increase profits, they have not always played by the rules. But to demonize big pharmaceutical companies while lionizing big government, big labor unions and big trial law firms, is to stand morality on its head....

There is yet another reason to fear big government far more than big corporations. ExxonMobil has no police force, no IRS, no ability to arrest you, no ability to shut you up, and certainly no ability to kill you. ExxonMobil can't knock on your door in the middle of the night and legally take you away. Apple Computer cannot take your money away without your consent, and it runs no prisons. The government does all of these things.
But, we're often told, big business is greedy and greed victimizes and hurts the masses. A powerful government, on the other hand, is necessary to keep business from exploiting the poor and to insure an equitable distribution of a nation's goods. Prager's not impressed with the objection:
To which the rational response is that, of course, government also does good. But so do the vast majority of corporations, private citizens, church groups, and myriad voluntary associations. On the other hand, only big government can do anything approaching the monstrous evils of the last century.

As for greed: Between hunger for money and hunger for power, the latter is incomparably more frightening. It is noteworthy that none of the twentieth century's monsters -- Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao -- were preoccupied with material gain. They loved power much more than money.
The left craves power through big government, the right craves freedom, including freedom in the marketplace. Which of the two is more dangerous?