Monday, October 21, 2013

116. Reason in the rise and fall of civilizations

According to Cioran[1], when civilizations emerge, the new religion, values, myths, ideology, or doctrine, are vigorous, vital, clear, hard, simple, and compelling. In time, tested by earthly realities of complexity and variability, they develop nuance, differentiation, refinement, tolerance of diversity and individuality, and become soft, more pliable. Culture strays from nature, and instincts are subdued by reflection. This is next experienced as degeneration, decadence. Too clever for its own good. Diversity is seen as confusion. And then the old doctrine becomes vulnerable to a takeover by the next more hardy vision looming on the horizon.

According to Cioran, decline is accompanied by intellectualization and erudition: myth is replaced by science, song by discourse, and emotion by reason. That may have been the case in the decline of ancient Greek culture in Hellenism and in the decline of the Roman Empire. But does it apply to current times?

It seems to me that the Enlightenment, since Descartes, especially in its radical stream, initiated by Spinoza, constituted a new culture at the peak of which, in the 17-18th century, myth was replaced by science, finesse by geometry, emotion by reason. Central values became reason, truth, freedom, and democracy.

And now we seem to be in a stage of decline where those Enlightenment values, right or wrong, are surrendered for the return of emotion, idolatry, myth, hype, and post-modern relativization of truth and freedom. In which lies the decadence? 

Consider the supposedly ‘degenerate’ values of diversity, individuality, tolerance, nuance and change? Early, 16th century humanism celebrated those, notably the philosophy of Montaigne. They were briefly institutionalized in the reign of Henri IV, who instituted the Edict of Nantes for the sake of religious tolerance. According to Toulmin, in his Cosmopolis, in the 17th century those were replaced by dogmatic doctrine, and intolerance, and the Edict of Nantes was repealed, under the pressures of religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, as in the 30-year war. Under the polarization of Protestantism versus Catholicism there was no room for nuance: one had to choose sides.

Thus, in the Enlightenment we see an emerging civilization at odds with Ciorans thesis. It is not vigorous myth at the peak, followed by the decadence of reason, but a peak of vigorous reason, with universalistic, pure ideas. Presently we see, I propose, a decline, with departures from reason and argument, and a reopening of the gates for myth, emotions, hype, and delirium. There, I propose, lies the degeneration.

So, what next? Are we in wait for a new, more vigorous culture? Would that require hard myth and ideology without nuance or differentiation, as Cioran claims? Does culture require unreason, intolerance and repression to be vigorous? Or could we, perhaps, think of, and hope for, a revival of the 16th century humanist combination of reason and tolerance, with a dynamic interplay of universals and individuals, the general and the specific, as I have argued for in several places in this blog? Could this not be vigorous?     

[1] From Rumanian origin, Cioran mostly lived and worked in France.