In this American Reflections essay (of several parts), an attempt shall be made to look at certain important aspects of the history and current conditions of the ultimate ideas of man and the cosmos in the United States of America. It is impossible to come to any deeper understanding of the intellectual, cultural, social and moral life, conditions and problems in the USA today without substantive understanding of this greater history. Considering major views in this history of ideas of the cosmos in which man was thought (to use a Biblical expression) to “live, and move, and have his being”, from the original European colonial settlers, on the Atlantic coast of North America, up and until the current chaotic conditions of a hyper-pluralism of beliefs in California (with its world-wide influence today) on the Pacific Ocean – will be instructive and fundamental in our attempt, in American Reflections, to move towards some deeper understanding, insights and comprehension of this great complexity called the United States of America. From the religious version of the ancient cosmos at the time of the foundation of Harvard College (1636) in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of New England, through the aristocratic humanitarianism and deism of Jefferson at Monticello, to the acosmic, earthly pluralism of Hollywood, California, is an important and interesting story to understand; one which can only be simply sketched in these ‘notes on the lost cosmos of American culture’.
Or, to say it in other words, somewhat playfully, in the form of a seemingly strange, though in fact real question: what is the relationship of God to a can of Coca-Cola?!
But first, a personal, anecdotal introduction to the “cursed questions” of man and world in America...
When I was a student (at 18 years of age), in a private high school in the USA; as we were then considered by the school’s educational program to be “young adults”, we had a supposedly more serious, thoughtful, “philosophical” class entitled something like: social science. This was towards the end of our last high school year (the 12th grade in the USA school system, before one may go on to university study), when, in that class of 53 students, we discussed the question as to whether man was a “fallen angel” or a “risen ape”. About ninety-five percent of the class were enthusiastically, even aggressively convinced that man was a “risen ape” and not a “fallen angel”. We – and this author was amongst the ‘pro-ape students’ – looked forward to that class period when the various small groups into which we had divided, would present their arguments in support of the idea of ape or angel. Most of the students were very excited at the impending opportunity to enjoy destroying the arguments of those who were, most thought, so silly and naive as try to argue that man was some sort of “fallen angel”. We were passionately prepared to attack their ideas – whatever they might be: “what about wars? murders, crimes and violence? and even the obvious pleasures that millions in the USA felt watching the rough and even somewhat brutal American-style football?” They had, we knew, no chance against such arguments. Man was a “risen ape”; Darwin was right, Dante was wrong.
At that time we had – even though it was our final year of high school – only the very foggiest of notions about who Darwin and Dante might really have been historically, or how their views of man and world might relate and contrast, or have affected the world. Also, it occurred to none of us – not even the teacher – to even think to consider that both of these two views might be true concerning respective parts of the story of mankind’s origin, evolution and history. And in any case, we in fact knew little enough deep about either of these fundamental views of man and world.
There was only one single group (out of six or so groups) which chose to present arguments supporting the idea that man was a “fallen angel”; and they were to do their presentation last. Every one of the other, the ‘pro-ape students’, were waiting eagerly for them to conclude, so that “discussion” could begin. Just after they have finished their presentation – done, by the way, by one of the few serious, well-read and bright students in the class – and the rest of the students were ready to bombard them with counter-arguments against their angelic nonsense... the school bell rang (indicating that we must go to our next class). A collective cry of thwarted passions went up in that room at this unexpected turn of events. The ‘pro-ape students’ considered this as a great lost opportunity to defeat the ‘pro-angel group’.
This small boy’s war, between the pro-angel and the pro-ape groups, never took place. They were, as we said, “saved by the bell”. The following Sunday different bells, Church bells, rang; and probably 95% of the very same students – who that same week had avidly argued and supported the “risen ape” theory of human origins and human nature – quietly went, as usual, to their various religious services (which of course assumed the angelic). The questions of ape or angel were – and are – deep, serious and real; but we young students were truly at that time “uncursed” by them.
This minor, somewhat silly, though typical confrontation (from about thirty years ago in the USA) concerning serious, deeply contrasting views of man and world, reveals many interesting aspects in the cultural and social psychology of America. Man as a “risen ape” coming, as generally presumed, from a purely material origin and universe – through a rather ungracious, natural survival of the fittest; or man as a spiritual creation, fallen from some divine spiritual origin and cosmos. To us young boys – it was an “all-boys” school (i.e. boys only) – it was just a playing with ideas. And yet this episode reveals unresolved, if peaceful tensions and conditions, in deeply contrasting views of man and world in America. But to us students, whether we were apes or angels, our daily lives were hardly affected at all. We did not go to war – verbally or physically – with each other; we did not lay awake at night worrying about whether we were advanced stages of evolved slime, or degraded levels of spirit. (But we certainly continued to go to our churches for the religious service!) Few of the students might now even remember the debate, or consider the episode as of any importance, either then, or in their eventual adult lives, families and business careers. Apes or angles – most just ignored or forgot the question, and went on with typical American lives unaffected. (The world-famous American “know-how”, is not necessarily based on a deep and clear “know-why”!)
This particular contrast, of ape and angel – amidst the overall story and question of the ideas of the cosmos and man in America – only began of course in the latter half of the 19th century; though it deeply affected all that came afterwards in America and the rest of the world. Though we young students were far from tormented by such questions; most people in the USA today nonetheless of course have ideas of man and the cosmos in their heads, as they go about their daily lives. This American Reflections will try to look at some of the fundamental history and aspects of this problem.
Long before there was the idea of the “risen ape”, there was the spiritual idea of man, the “fallen angel”, towards which we shall next turn our attention.
The specific, deep problems, questions and changes relating to the idea and meaning of the cosmos and man, which came about due to the Darwinian theory of human genesis and evolution, did not of course begin until the latter half of the nineteenth-century – though science was clearly already heading in the direction of such challenges. The Origin of the Species was first published in 1859, but it was nothing less than a watershed event in human history and culture. All that had come before, and all that would come afterwards, was affected deeply in some way or other. As Professor George Gaylord Simpson of Harvard University, in an introduction to a republication of this work by Darwin, wrote:
The book ... is one of the most important ever written. No other modern work has done so much to change man’s concept of himself and of the universe in which he lives. Before Darwin the physical sciences were already well established. They had abandoned the magical and supernatural in seeking to understand the operations of the physical universe. They had developed the basic principles of all truly scientific investigation: that natural causes should be sought for natural phenomena, and that scientific theories must be testable... However, the most important phenomena, those of life, were not yet approached in that fully scientific way. The usual attempts to explain the nature of life, the diversity of things, their marvelous adaptations, and other fundamental aspects of the living world were still metaphysical, at best, and often frankly supernatural. This was true even of the few evolutionists who preceded Darwin...The Origin of the Species changed all of that. Here at last all the aspects of life are approached as natural phenomena, to be explained by natural causes embodied in objectively testable theories.
The “frankly supernatural” to which Professor Simpson refers, is, of course, generally speaking, the idea of a spiritual origin of mankind – the “fallen angel” – and the cosmos.
If man is derived ultimately from some divine spiritual source – in Europe this was of course articulated in the Bible’s book of Genesis where man was created by divine fiat – mankind has a very different identity, and lives in a very different world, than if, as leading elite scientists like Professor Simpson naturally still argue today, man was derived from an original primal source of matter, plus chance, over enormous ages of time in a purely material universe. This question, of the material or spiritual genesis of the world and man – however little, or few, people may actively think on these things in their daily lives – nonetheless still in fact shakes the very foundations and structures of human culture, intellectual and soul life today. For whether we are created by divine fiat in the “image of God”: a creation become “fallen angel” become man, or the product (the “image”) of matter and chance: material accidents become apes become man (a Noble prize-winning scientist on a BBC interview recently defined man as a material “complex adaptive system”) – the nature (the spirit?) of man and the world must then unavoidably be understood in profoundly different ways. Cursed questions! (Cursed answers?)
Human societies, cultures, literatures; entire civilizations; social and political organizations; customs and mores; religions and philosophies; and a thousand other things that go to make our organized human world, are based ultimately on fundamental ideas and assumptions as to the nature of man and world. This is not to say that most people go about their daily lives having established for certain, and determining their actions, by the facts of whether they are derived ultimately from either matter and evolved apes, or from some “frankly supernatural” source. While there are certainly people in America today (as there have been since the first colonists arrived in North America) who believe that every single word of the Bible is inerrant, and divinely inspired (some reading it so, that they believe the world began only some 6 thousand years ago – that Darwinism and evolution are false); most American perhaps tend more or less unreflectively to believe that both a spiritual (Biblical, or Koranic, or other religious view) of man and cosmos, as well as the material, evolutionary one, are somehow true.
What is certainly true, as all historical evidence makes irrefutably clear, is that for the vast majority of human history – in the world’s various historical and living cultures and civilizations – man thought, understood and believed himself to derive ultimately from some sort of spiritual source. (Some cultural anthropologists, by the way, claim that now all cultures that have ever existed on the earth in human history, have been discovered, are basically known, or are already under study.) Explain it, as was done during the past three or four centuries by often disbelieving scholars and authors of religious and cultural history in Europe, in the following ways: as the illusions of the childhood of mankind; as myths conspiratorially created by power-hungry priests and rulers; as misunderstood legends of ancient kingly chronologies; as the mere epiphenomenal superstructure to the economic realities; as the adaptation of the early, weak, ignorant and frightened human psyche to death, the powers of nature, and the dangers of the world; overwhelmingly, the understanding of human origins and the cosmos which we find in history has been that it is of a spiritual nature.
While such a view and understanding of the cosmos and man was not completely undisputed and unchallenged in earlier times (e.g. the view of Lucretius); the majority of human history has been lived during times when humans – in their various cultures, religions, lores and beliefs – believed in a spiritual origin and history. In other words, the questions of matter or spirit go to the very deepest core of the questions of human identity, life, history, and meaning. If the material explanation of human life and the universe are true, mankind is, and has for a very long time been – it should be frankly admitted – a rather profoundly foolish “complex adaptive system”.
As a historian of what in the USA is generally called “intellectual history” –which is basically the history of ideas in human history – I would like to encourage my readers to more deeply acquaint themselves with the complex of ideas related to the spiritual idea of man and cosmos. If one simply opens an objective encyclopedia, and traces the origins and full history of any of the major ideas of man and the world that are present in any of the world’s cultures today – except perhaps for the grand ideal (and I state this sarcastically) that the goal and purpose of mankind and human history is to finally build a civilization of and for ‘Man, the Happy Consumer’ – one is eventually of course led back, by the trail of ideas, to their earliest origins, their sources. And whether one traces back any of these ideas of man and the world in the Occidental or the Oriental worlds, or even the native tribal religions in the Western Hemisphere, for example, one will come upon a discernibly common set of ideas as to the nature of man and the cosmos. Though in my experience and view these facts are – even if treated as just one theory concerning human cultural origins and history – inadequately recognized, appreciated and presented in the general intellectual and academic cultures (in spite of the fact that one simply needs to do serious research in a modern encyclopedia concerning the history of any idea to prove that it is so); the basic structural ideas of man and world for the Occident and the Orient worlds, as well as for the tribal, shamanic views of man, nature and cosmos, show a common order, a common cosmos. And whether one compares the Hindu view of man and world (the foundational view for the Oriental world) to the Iranian view of the same (seminal for the Occidental world), to the tribal cosmology of North American tribes in Massachusetts, California, or Argentina (which ideas scholars trace back to the Central Asia area from which these ideas of man and cosmos are understood to derive), one can discern the same basic spiritual ideas of man and cosmos. (Some scholars debate whether these ideas stem from a common source – monogenesis – or from several independent sources – polygenesis.) In any case, if the spiritual view of man is some grand illusion; it has at least clearly been a consistent one over great spans of space and time in human history!
Dante’s Divine Comedy is in fact a Western representation of this ancient cosmos. One which can be readily compared to, for example, Hindu cosmology, those of the various branches of Buddhism, or even most Native American Indian views of the upper, middle and lower worlds. (These ideas will be developed and documented in coming parts of this and future American Reflections.)
Science votes for matter; history voted for spirit!
Many of those of my fellow students – who had just months before so enthusiastically argued that man was risen from the apes, but attended church services regularly nonetheless – found ourselves seniors graduated after 12 years of human schooling, going to our freshman year of university study, with, among other serious deficits, essentially no real systematic exposure to or substantial knowledge of the history or fundamental ideas concerning man and cosmos in Western civilization, of which Dante’s Divine Comedy is a well-known example and representation. We could not, at our graduation, have given an unembarrassing, general account of Western Civilization’s history – political, cultural or intellectual – if we had wanted to (which we did not). We had, for that matter, been given, or acquired, no real sense or knowledge of anything such as an intellectually-objective conception of the cosmos and of man; and, in fact, we would have been surprised to learn – could we then have realized it – that any such thing(s) had ever existed. Our ideas – amongst which were jumbled those of apes and wealth, work and women, wine and angels – existed at the time somewhat like vague forms floating around in a breezy, ill-defined, foggy space where there was no necessary or definite ground or gravity. Neither our surrounding shared American culture, nor its general intellectual life, helped us much to clarify such problems, as it did not place much crucial value (monetary, social or spiritual) on such knowledge, or on being deeply or broadly educated or learned. (Had anyone stated that they were pursuing truth in all areas of human knowledge and life, we would certainly have thought such an individual mad.)
While our various traditional churches had, of course, tried to convey to us – amidst our preponderatingly secular daily lives – some soft, religious beliefs as to the cosmos, man and human meaning, by making mention of such consoling (“Dantean”) beliefs as of God, man and salvation, spiritual worlds (heaven and hell), life after death and angels; whatever we had learned in 12 years of formal education – admittedly somewhat other and less than what our teachers had perhaps sometimes tried to teach us – had had comparatively little successful to do with being well-educated, knowledgeable or wise, or giving us an understanding or idea of our place in the cosmos or history. We were, in psychological fact, what one might describe as “intellectually unlocated” in the cosmos and time – though this did not prevent us from a subjective emotional and physical enjoyment of life. (We shall return to these characteristics in future American Reflections). Whatever motley array of ideas and notions we had socially or individually absorbed, acquired, found or been given (by culture, church, family, friends or schooling), were those with which we tried to make whatever sense of life we from time to time might have seriously needed. Though, at graduation, we could pretentiously re-articulate such grand titles of humanity’s ape ancestors as Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal Man, Australopithecus africanus, and similar such regurgitations; we had at best in fact acquired only the smallest smattering of knowledge in literature, history, ideas, languages, etc; and had anyone stated such well-known names of angels as Seraphim, Thrones, or Archai to us, or asked us to describe the impact in America of bourgeois values or the Enlightenment on, say, Christian beliefs in “original sin”, the Fall or “redemption”, we would have looked on them as the bluffing fools we were.
We had, essentially, received no real developed, intellectual view of the world, mankind, life or history – which could not but leave our ideas decided by the very common culture around us, and appropriated by our own subjectivities. And we, moreover, didn’t really notice. Our ways of thinking were, for examples, pervasively affected by the Age of Reason, and subsequent science; our attitudes to knowledge and truth by American Pragmatism; our relation to nature by a combination of 19th century Romanticism and tales of American pioneers; our concept of “happiness” and social propriety in life stemmed from the 17th and 18th centuries, as, in origin, did many of the values, interests, occupations and character of the culturally-decisive American middle class to which we belonged. The first “TV generation” in American history – which deeply affected our sentiments and feelings about human relationships and life, we nonetheless also generally unquestioningly accepted the pre-scientific teachings of our churches as to the ultimate nature of life and human existence. But of all these and other facts we understood little; and perhaps next to nothing clearly. Society, “the American way of life” and the surrounding motley culture carried us along as its sort of uncritical, passive participants. We believed mostly what we heard or were told – with prideful individualistic variations of course.
We simply more or less just unconsciously accepted the experienced physical-material, natural and social worlds (middle-class values and mores, “the American way of life”, etc.), “life” and personality (a soul inside their body) to be the primary, and certainly the only necessary, reality. And we were content to suppose that there must probably likely be some higher, ultimate meaning “above” (related to God and heaven) – but this was very vague and of little immediate use or interest to us. What – for dramatically contrasting examples – Plato had described as the world of shadows, and the ancient Hindus (with their grand divine cosmogony, cosmology and chronology – of which, of course, we knew absolutely zero) considered maya, or Christianity as the fallen world, we unreflectively experienced as unquestioned daily reality; and our lives, interests and goals were all devoted to succeeding, enjoying and playing in it. While our Darwinism had been mere young boy’s bluster; our substantial ignorance of most of the history and fundamental ideas of man and cosmos in Western Civilization and was very deep, real and thorough.
We were not generally too deeply worried – in our typical passive human condition – about any eventual possible future in some vestibule to hell, or any infernal or purgatorial worlds of the (to us) very remote Divine Comedy. We just generally presumed that we were more than less moral and good (not being, in any case, too puritanically thoughtful of our sins, nor especially bad people). The physical, the mundane world, and “the pleasures that flesh is heir to” – in the forms of large homes (filled with the standards of comforts, appliances, etc, of our socio-economic class); families, social life and pre-established social patterns; cars and parties; innumerable material playthings; and lots of physical activities and enjoyments in nature – in short, the popular “American Dream”; all had for us such a strong, unquestioned presence and unreflected reality in our lives, as to preclude or prevent most thoughts, imaginations or worries of any other worlds (divine, hellish – or pre-hominid). History and ideas were far less real, or important to us, than our psychological and physical enjoyment of the physical, natural and social worlds – “life”. And for what, anyway, did one need any deep ideas (as to the nature and meaning of man and cosmos) in order to live happily? (Our churches gave us any “answers” that we might want to pay attention to in times of trouble.) “Enjoying life” (“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – Thomas Jefferson) – which was the accepted, assumed goal of human existence – did not, it seemed to us (though we did not think about this), require deep knowledge or reflection on it. What one needed for that was dollars! Lots of dollars! These were just the obvious facts of life. Not knowledge of the paths to blessedness through Dante’s worlds (or of Darwin’s scale of nature with its very different “virtues”), dollars were the means to true success and happiness. And we knew exactly how to pursue and achieve this (popular) “American Dream”. For what, we might have asked (in our unaware spiritual bewilderment), did we need with a serious world-view, deep knowledge or wisdom? We wanted to be wealthy – very wealthy (and of course to enjoy our wealth). Had anyone told us that we should more want to be knowledgeable, learned or wise, we would have had a hard time imagining really just what this might have meant; and would likely have looked on the person with secret suspicion.
Our goal in life, eventually, was a job where we could be successful, i. e. make lots of money. We treated books and ideas as if they were mere accessories to real life, “extras” to the real goals and enjoyments of life. Prayers and “going to church” (as it was expressed) were at least precautions (in case God actually did exist, and pay some attention to us); or perhaps they were just good habits passed on from old traditions (and we were surely not so bold, or stupid, as to consciously and deliberately neglect the religion and prayer we gradually neglected). Basically we just accepted the world, without much thought or question, as it was presented to us.
Thus we happily arrived for our first year of “higher education”. Perhaps it would help redeem us?
Semi-literates, at very best, we left our homes generally considered to be the best of our city; and, likewise so imaging ourselves, made our way to the next phase in the course of our socially well-planned lives: the university. There, social expectations were (except in perhaps a few individuals’ cases) that we would seriously play for the first two years, and then play serious for the last two; after which, as was socially foreordained, we would return home with our final girlfriend (whom we would marry), and begin our adult life (home and family) and career (most probably in father’s business). (Some students did actually discover the necessity to study for some practical university degree during the last two years, so that they could get a good, high-paying job.) In general, we knew how to make money in this life; but, aside from “enjoying life”, we did not know much about why. I don’t recall anyone ever expressing such a strange notion as to how glad they were to be learning at the university – or that they wanted to understand life and world. We accepted the world as it was presented to us, and seldom did any of us find occasion to try to understand it, or seek for some higher meaning – though we were ambiguous as to apes and angels, the churches were there for that if we needed them).
At our university, beer and women, footballs games and beer, fun and parties and women, were the major subjects seriously pursued by most of my fellow students – who also sometimes went to class, though seldom prepared with anything like having read the assigned materials. The otherwise troubling situation of a regular regime of almost monthly exams in most classes (otherwise sometimes regarded as places of learning), was, in most (though not all) cases, alleviated by the well-known, illicit student archives, where a well-stocked supply of previous (and regularly repeated) class exams (with answers) for most classes were easily available. Perhaps there were some students who did not even know of the archives, and had not seen the answers before the tests were given!? In any case, the test questions were seldom a surprise to most “intelligent” students; and their test scores and class grades were generally admirable. (Perhaps – though I don’t recall anyone supposing this at the time – some students even refused to see the answers before the tests?!)
(While it is, of course, not at all possible to use this single, though certainly typical example, to characterize all universities, colleges or students in the USA, then or now; prior and recent investigations of cheating – and “educated illiteracy” – in American education, at all levels, continue to indicate that such troubling conditions are still common and pervasive. A recent report documenting very high levels of cheating in American high schools – amidst the best students – was recently released and reported on the “Voice of America” radio (November 14, 199). Future American Reflections will consider these symptoms of the social crisis in the USA.)
The illicit archives were surely quietly known to the faculty and administration of this university, as they were so easily available. I don’t recall that copies of tests even cost money; they were just a part of university life, like keg-parties after football games. But this university game, this social facade of study and examination, was probably satisfactory to all parties involved: students could play as much as they wanted, and need not be too troubled by worrisome books, tests and grades (in such things as Western Civilization, History, Literature, English, Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, etc.); faculty could expect passive, high-scoring, happy students; the administration of the university (which liked large numbers of contented, unprotesting students), would have been likewise understanding. And of course the parents – if they had not done the same thing twenty years or so before – were more concerned that their children enjoy the university, get their wildness out of them (during these young years); and then return home (well-educated or not) with good grades (if possible) and a university degree (normally in some very practical, professional, lucrative subject) to begin their real, adult life with work, family, and home.
Symptomatic of our “education”, in literature class, we had been assigned to read The Brothers Karamazov – most university students in the USA will, in theory, have been exposed (some, happily, to better result) at least to this particular Russian work – but it was so long and complicated; and then there were those overly numerous, impossibly-long, strange Russian names, which were impossible to remember – so that we could easily confuse the characters and roles of say Fyodor and Alexei (and Alyosha!), or Ivan and Dimitri (and Mitya!). And if there was a choice between a fun party with drinks and music, or reading this book for class? And what was the use of reading The Brothers Karamazov anyway? (It was basically treated as just another work from a foreign culture, with a plot and themes we would need to learn in order to pass an exam in literature class.)
Fun, wives, a university diploma, some learning, and the long-term goals of the acquisition and enjoyment of wealth – these were apparently the necessary elements of university education needed for one’s future life and success as an adult in our culture. Accumulation of money, property and things, not culture, knowledge or wisdom, were the main, seldom-questioned life interests, tasks and goals. Ideas such as that the experiential mundane world, essentially, was shadows (as for Plato) or maya (as for the Hindus), or a fallen place and time of spiritual trial (as for Dante), or that man was advanced slime, were ideas that at most flitted around from time to time in little developed areas of our “educated” mental life. My fellow students were, and considered themselves, “educated” – after four years of study – but they were far from redeemed from their youth’s prior cultural ignorance and intellectual dislocation. Perhaps in the mature years of adulthood and success?
That was two decades ago, and over the years, most of my fellow students eventually became rather successful in acquiring their full-fledged “American Dreams” (in the popular sense that is). On the shelves of their great, well-furnished houses, expensive morocco leather-bound copies of great books by Dante, Darwin, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, Plato, Emerson, et al, often came to play a vital role in their lives, as decoration; though they are seldom needed for any other uses such as reading. Neither the educational institutions, nor the churches, nor the political state, had done much if anything to prevent their possessing and reading these “home decorations”; but some sort of powerful, pervasive, cultural, social and spiritual state of being apparently did – since it was rare that any of them ever found need or time to read them (either as students, when knowledge and ideas competed with fun for attention, or as adults when they competed with work, family, success and life). But they had successfully achieved the aspirations of their youth (with the help of their education): the good, “the blessed life”, the “American Dream”, in this mundane comedy – however little attention, be that undecidedly as “educated”, church-going, risen apes, fallen angels, or passive humans, they may ever have given to the divine.
The result of this mundane story was that the popular “American Dream”, which these people had pursued, had most often been achieved. But to the degree that worry, thought, knowledge and understanding of history, literature, religion, poetry, music, art, proverbial lore, etc – of the ideas of man’s place in the cosmos and history and culture – help to develop “greatness in our own individual souls” and a discovering of the “abiding values of life” (James Truslow Adams), they had in truth developed little enough of the nobler “American Dream”.
There was something wrong with me – fortunately or unfortunately – by the time I began my first year of university study, I was actually interested in the subjects I was studying – or some of them, anyway, in learning and understanding more. Most of my high schools friends were bemused, amazed – or moderately disdainful – that I would spend so much time actually reading the university books, and studying and preparing for exams and so on. As I have clearly recognized for many years since then, at that time I was little more than a typically uneducated, provincial American boy – from which condition it took me about a decade of serious study to escape, and from which most of my former fellow students, in their subsequent, successful lives (“American Dreams”: money, houses, etc.), rarely found the need, time or interest to redeem themselves. But I was unusual in that I – very vague though my understanding was – did have some sort of real urge and need to learn and understand more of the world, myself, life, and so on. As to my fellow church-going, pro-apes students, their educations were directed more towards fun, wives and eventually wealthiness. As to me, at the time one close friend worriedly told me to “stop thinking”, I was changing too much. I even took a class in philosophy...
A common title for an introductory class in philosophy in universities in the USA is “Philosophy 101”. As stupid as I was at the time of my freshman year in university, I suppose I was impressed by the word “philosophy” itself – for I certainly had little to no actual knowledge (and this was surely typical) as to whatever its actual contents might have been. And so, amidst a real smorgasbord of introductory freshman classes, I, three times a week had what at the time I would presumably have thought to be a class in “deep ideas”.
The characteristically smallish class was taught by the Chairman of the Philosophy Department, a tall, lanky, gray-haired man in his sixties, who even then, in my dimness, I felt must have seen livelier days. In that unofficial though important student category of boring and lifeless, this class was in close competition with a large class called “General Business”. As best I can recall now, the “Philosophy 101” class began as a sort of tedious, abstract series of lectures on “introductory logic”. The class in business – attended mostly, as I soon recognized, by mentally inert football players and their fans, who were often recovering from their fun the night before – was in fact more boring than the philosophy class, which however itself was simply incomprehensible to me. Whatever that philosophy professor was saying, I could not understand it at all. Certainly he was speaking clearly, sensibly and logically; I simply could not – even after my prior expensive, private school “education ” – at that time understand him, nor the “deep ideas” in philosophy at all. I dropped the class. It would be many years – around a decade of later, serious study – before I would be trying to understand the details of the first introductory “philosophy classes”, that of Pythagoras.
Pythagoras (ca. 570–500 B. C.), who is credited with having created the word “philosophy”, held that before his time, there had been men who were truly wise: sophoi. These earlier men he thought were themselves closer to the “golden age”, when men were, as it was understood, closer to the gods and truth, and thus wiser. As Pythagoras saw it, men in his time could not be so wise; their relation to knowledge and wisdom was more distant, opaque and confused. They could at best pursue, love, strive for wisdom; they were thus only philo-sophers (philo- love of pursuit of + sophia- wisdom), not wisemen (sophoi). Yet these philosophers were still nonetheless fundamentally distinct from those around them. For as Pythagoras distinguished them, there were others who more preferred, loved and pursued fame, while others pursued riches. And in this original sense, there were – also at that time – few enough true philosophers. Philosophy to Pythagoras was related to the ultimate truths of the human soul and the cosmos; what I heard in that introductory “Philosophy 101” class – about 2500 years later – certainly clearly revealed that man had continued since the time of Pythagoras the decline from the golden age: from wisemen (sophoi) to philosophers, to... the businessmen of philosophy?
I have for two decades periodically observed classes, conferences, famous “professional philosophers”, literature and journals in philosophy, in high and low locations, wherever I have lived or traveled (mostly in the West). If philosophy is a love of wisdom, this modern, academic philosophy generally more resembles a love of obscure, irrelevant, erudite, abstract intellectual games, amongst a closed group of professionals. After years of disheartening experience and disappointment in so-called “philosophy”, I, for years, had sought for a suitable word to more truly name that which calls itself “philosophy” today. And after a couple of years of periodically renewed searching, I was surprised and delighted to find in an etymological dictionary, which I always carried with me (in my car so as to be able to look up words I might unexpectedly hear in day-to-day life), the rare word “misosophy” (hate of wisdom). Clearly, some kindred, creative voice, in some earlier time, had also found the need for such a neologism. But it seems to me that an Austrian philosopher – nearer in spirit and dimension to the tradition of Pythagoras than academic philosophy – came even closer to the facts when he applied the simple word “antisophy” (against wisdom) to modern philosophy. And the very sparse and tangential attendance in philosophy classes in the USA’s universities surely speaks loudly for this characterization’s validity.
Frankly, it would occur to few people to seek deeply in heart and mind for a wisdom of man and cosmos in philosophy classes in the USA; the very idea is laughable – or perhaps tragic. Were a real living wisdom, or even just living ideas about such a wisdom (and there surely are some few such professors in the USA, here and there), as to man’s place in the cosmos, as to man’s inner being, a knowledge and wisdom of life, to be truly present in the philosophy departments and classes of the USA, this would be a real vital source to the spiritual and cultural life of the USA! But if it is not there – and in my experienced opinion it is certainly not (you find there scientific intellect, not spiritual searching and soul), yet philosophy should, in principle, have some sophia, some wisdom to offer; where can those, however, few, who sincerely seek a knowledge and wisdom of life and world in fact go?
In fact, many young American “seekers” – as they were and are sometimes called – often went, frequently with incredible American naiveté, to places like India in search of divine wisdom and guidance. Much of the life of the youth of the now legendary “sixties” in the USA – the “hippies” and others – is clarified, in recognizing it as a rejection of and reaction to the apparently inadequate spiritual life of the academic world (and religious world) in the USA of the time. (In fact the academic world does not of course even imagine that it should be “spiritual”, rather of course, scientific.) Indeed, the size, character and scope of the “new age movement” in the USA today, can easily be recognized as a cultural, social and psychological reaction, by those seeking spiritual answers to real, living human questions, as to man and cosmos, which neither the traditional churches (which tend to passive belief and acceptance of their doctrines) nor the academic life (the objectifying intellect which often simply rejects the ideas and longings for a spiritual life) adequately provided to the culture.
After more than a decade of a serious, rigorous self-redemption from my original, pitiable state of “education” and ignorance, in the course of my scholarly studies and pursuits in intellectual history, I traveled to Russia (1986), pursuing the themes of the “sophia”, the “Third Rome” of Philotheos, and the unsolved mystery of the Palladium.
I was soon unexpectedly, deeply astonished, and delighted by the Russian soul’s vitality, that I soon came to often find behind the hard Soviet street face. At times, I was even astounded by its un-Westem depth. (I was equal astonished by how very little the many other American or British people and students that I traveled with, during those 5 month-stays, were able to actually see of this novel character around them. “Intourist” and the Western mentality certainly contributed to their poor vision, but probably Goethe addressed the problem most essentially when he wrote:
Each sees what he bears in his own heart.)
It was a while before I understood that “philosophy” in Soviet Russia officially and educationally meant Marxist-Leninist Philosophy. I recall buying one of those books for westerners, published by Progress Publishers, entitled: “What is Philosophy?” The very first page of this text revealed a symptom of wisdom (“sophia”) in Soviet Russia. As was there written: “The word “philosophy” is made up of two Greek words – phileo- love, and sophia- wisdom, and so means love of wisdom.” Considering the great influence of Greek and Byzantine culture on Russia, this, perhaps accidental, mistake (the Greek words are reversed, and thus in the wrong places) seemed to me rather indicative of the spiritual and intellectual conditions for the officially permitted pursuit of wisdom after seven decades of Soviet rule. Certainly Marxist-Leninist “philosophy” fits well into the category of antisophy, as had my classes and “philosophical” experiences in the West. Should there be any sincere young minds so naive and foolish – as I guess I was in America – as to seek wisdom under such anti-sophical conditions, such a one would find it profoundly difficult to discern any original Pythagorean pursuit of knowledge and wisdom (of the ultimate truths of human soul and cosmos) in America amidst such intellectually circumscribed, polite, abstract, professional, mental gymnastic games and displays (often deliberately too arcane and erudite for non-specialists to make any sense or use of). And searching for years, amidst the intellectual hall of mirrors of such philosophical problems as symbolic logic, linguistic analysis, semiotics, phenomenology, hermeneutics, positivism, methodology, et al, would leave the seeker weary and weak of wisdom in the end.
Strange, but those original philosophy “classes”, 25 centuries ago, are more relevant – in this writer’s view (after two decades of varied exposure to modern philosophy) – to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, of the truths of man, cosmos and life today, than the many experiences I have had since my first philosophy class “Antisophy 101”. “Philosophy” may now be a love of the scientific intellect, rather than a living love or search for a wisdom of man and cosmos. Or, as an American graduate student in philosophy (while we studied in Tübingen, Germany), after I had argued that philosophy had narrowed itself down to a mere systematizing of rational ideas, and had come to disregard, dispute or deny human consciousness and life in all its variety and entirety, told me unhesitatingly and firmly: “Philosophy is a business.” A symptomatic comment indeed. A “professional career option” in a department of academic intellectual life (ruled by the scientific attitude), though it is not clear that such “philosophy” carries even the strength of passion to be a love of much of anything: wealth, fame, or wisdom. But it certainly is often a love of abstract, irrelevant intellectual schemes. What is this antisophical word?
And what would Pythagoras himself think of this “business of philosophy”, were he to return today?
After experiencing not the Pythagorean philosophical love and search for wisdom of man and cosmos in the academic “departments of philosophy”, where the erudite antisophical “business of philosophy” was being pursued, it is appropriate to consider experiences in the “religious studies departments” – that is to say, outside of the churches where passive acceptance and belief were the primary relation of the person to the ideas of man and cosmos, not the critical, rational mind as in the universities, dramatically affected as it was by science.
In fact, this “departmentalization” in the academic world – and not only in the natural sciences, but in the so-called “social sciences” and in the “humanities” as well – is itself a symptom of historical, intellectual and spiritual conditions – in fact of the scientific conditions – for life, world and the mind are divided up into “specialties”, and a student receives the impression that they should only think and study in one field of study, one “major”, as it began to be called only in 1885. I recall, about two years after finishing my “undergraduate study” in the USA with very high marks, having a series of conversations with a deeply, broadly and independently educated European scholar whose interests and work readily and capably spanned and related the usually divided “periods” of world history to normally separated subjects of religion, philosophy, cosmology, literature, art, science and intellectual history – whereas my education had given me the impression that such fields could and should not be mixed together, that they belonged to separate studies, distinct realities as it were. I had needed to be in a special division of my university in order just to combine religious studies and philosophy! To meet and speak with a man who readily and knowledgeably spoke of the history of mankind as a whole, as an interrelated unified story, was initially a rather confusing intellectual experience for me. His ideas would not stay in the “departments” and categories my education had led me to believe that they were supposed to!
It would be several more years before I would myself begin to discern and understand that life and history, the story of mankind in the world in all of its aspects, is a living story entire of itself – and that though the scientific mind may conveniently divide the world, life and mind into various periods, categories, specialties, “departments” and “majors”, life, world, man and history were not themselves so easily divisible. As I would now say it, science and the academic mind are seldom adequate to and certainly not bigger than life and world – however omnipotent and omniscient they may at times give the impression of being; science and the rational mind are subsets, they are inherently less than life and world. Even if life, man, history and cosmos are complete mysteries – these mysteries themselves are bigger than science, are bigger than all of the academic departments and natural scientific investigations and discoveries combined. In other words, the universities (and research institutions) may in some arguable sense be a highest display of man, or at least the (rational) mind of man; but even this display, this accomplishment (regardless of whether man be ultimately of spiritual or material origin) is less than Life and World – or the mysteries of them. The highest scientific achievements of mankind are less that the mysteries of Life and World. (Readers who disagree with this, will perhaps eventually disagree with much in American Reflections).
Anyone who came to “religious studies departments” in a typical American university did so with intellectual preparation consisting generally of whatever beliefs they had more or less thoughtfully gained in their particular families, social classes, community traditions, and, of course, in their churches. Though most colleges and universities in early American history were started by religious groups, by the second half of the 19th century in the USA most new colleges and universities were founded either by the various states (which at the close of the 19th century numbered 46 states to the USA) or rich “robber barons”. These institutions were generally of a secular character and ruled increasingly by a scientific spirit, with the academic life increasingly focused on the practical needs of the citizens of the states. As the late, great narrative historian of American history, Page Smith (1917–1995) wrote in his 1990 book Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America:
In the new universities as well as the old, the clergy, who had dominated the boards of trustees of colleges, were replaced by businessmen, lawyers, bankers, and railroad tycoons. ...Scientists and practical men also replaced clergymen as heads of institutions founded or funded by wealthy businessmen.
Being as I was in a state institution, it was to be expected – though I did not know this at the time – that the scientific spirit would rule therein, and it was certainly not to be expected that any particular religion, or some denomination’s version of a religion, would be taught as truth. The oldest college in North America: Harvard (1636–) had had original entrance requirements characteristic of that time in American and European history: a knowledge of Greek and Latin, and a belief, to quote again from Page Smith’s Killing the Spirit, that: “Every one shall consider that the main End of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ which is Eternal life.” But these were well before the rise of science (and a materialistic view of man and world, e.g. Darwinism, sociology, etc.) in the late nineteenth century to predominance over theology as the core of the academic world.
“Religious studies majors” were few, and certainly not in the main stream of the intellectual and cultural life of the university. Rather than having hundreds of students (as would required classes, or those in “majors” leading towards later practical lucrative careers in business, law, medicine or the like) or scores of students (like literature or anthropology), the religion classes – at least above the introductory level – generally held very few students (sometimes 7-10, out of thousands of students). Several of these students were heading for the ministry (via a later seminary), and a few “odd balls”, such as myself, were doing these studies for reasons of personal interest. (Generally speaking, interest in religion was equated with church membership, and independent interest at that time was rare, and not especially well-viewed or understood.)
Naive as I was at the time, I had no idea that I, along with everyone else, was being taught a particular version, a particular view of religion, its history, consciousness, beliefs, etc. Generally described, it was of course the scientific and academic intellect’s analysis, study, history and comparisons of religions.
In some particular denominational colleges, say in the nineteenth century, one would of course get a religious, Biblical view of man, world and history; all of which would be interpreted according to a particular denominations’ interpretation of the Bible, and so on – sometimes this interpretation was intellectually very narrow and included a radical rejection of much that natural science claimed. One point to notice here nonetheless is that such colleges did generally attempt to provide an entire explanation of man, cosmos and life. Theirs was of course, a religious, Biblical view of world and man; but such ultimate meaning secular universities would seldom be able or interested to replace – even though most people in their lives continued to require such ultimate meaning and answers. Ultimate questions and answers were thus left increasingly in these universities, as they were in the US Constitution, to the individual believer and the churches. The predominance of science over theology and religion as the main source and arbiter of the meaning, sense and truth of the world and man – which was basically complete in many institutions by the end of the 19th century – would remove these ultimate problems from the academic world. As Page Smith wrote:
“By 1900 the university had cast out every area of investigation and every subject that could not be subsumed under the heading “scientific” and had made all those that remained (like literature and philosophy) at least profess to be scientific. Excluded were such ancient and classic human concerns as love, faith, hope, courage, passion, compassion, spirituality, religion, fidelity – indeed, one is tempted to say, anything that might be somewhat encouraging to young people to receive some direction...a philosophy of life.” (p. 20)
The main text book for our introductory religion classes some seven decades later was as dull and uninspiring, as untouched by any degree of passion, inspiration or “divine discontent” as any “objective” scientific of rats, galaxies or tribal customs. And, as noted before, science voted for ape, and a proof of this was our world religions textbook. Of the various differing scientific theories concerning the origins of religion and religious beliefs, our textbook treated them as little more that the necessary illusions of a once, pre-rational, frightened primitive man (Neanderthal, and so on) which had further evolved into childish, early human superstitions, later called religions. Its author believed in science, and studied religion as his object. (Books are sometimes evaluated as either well-written or not, factual or not, clear or unclear. But, retrospecting on this book, I am also inclined to say that books also carry a certain spirit, feeling and atmosphere to them – however factual and accurate they may otherwise be. And this book probably did about as much to deaden religion in many poor students’ souls, to present as moribund a picture of religions, as any book I have since encountered. Unfortunately, the textbook was then rather popular among teachers in religious studies departments.)
The history and diversity of religions (and also the past two to four centuries biographical history of the authors and scholars of the diversity of theories of religions and religious origins) is a deep and interesting subject – which has been addressed in various ways, from various perspectives (from particular religious or philosophical systems, differing cultural anthropological schools, sociological and psychological theories, philosophies of history, eclectic systems, recently even claimed intergalactic sources, et al.) If there is some “God, or universal spirit” (as a recent study reported that 93% of the US population believe), our world religions textbook – perhaps somewhat paradoxically – conveyed no “objective” sense of this. It was not of course clear to us poor young students that we were getting a particular slant on religion beliefs, history, etc.; but in fact our parents were paying for us to attend a university where that very small percent of the student body interested enough in religion to take classes in it were able to learn science’s religion.
It should be noted that while religion had in early America been the core of much of the intellectual life in the early colleges and colonies, now in fact science had replaced religion, and religion was of little deliberate serious interest to most of the students pursuing their American “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which secular Enlightenment ideals they vaguely nonetheless blended with whatever religious beliefs that they happened to have.
It is very important in considering the presence of religion in America today – and religion is of course a primary purveyor of ultimate ideas as to man, cosmos and meaning in any society – to clearly recognize the deep contrasts between “science’s religion” (generally centered in the socially-powerful academic world) and traditional religions (generally centered in the various churches and religious institutions). Of course today it is increasingly necessary to speak of religious traditions, for America and most societies in the world today have pluralistic mixtures not only of races, cultures, nationalities, etc., but also of religious traditions.
Science’s view of religion, very influential throughout the world today – with its “sermons” most often given in academic institutions – is a somewhat neutralized intellectual view of the various religions, religious history, religious psychology, and so on. And perhaps the most essential, definitive characteristic of academic religious teaching is its attempted “objectivity”. Professors in religious studies departments in America’s secular institutions, most often not attempting themselves to agree or disagree with what today is sometimes called the problem of “truth claims” in the various world religions, generally are expected to give fair presentations of the ideas of the various world-wide religious traditions – their origins, beliefs, doctrines, history, development. They may also examine religions in their relations to history, civilizations, societies, arts and cultures; the “psychology of religion” may also be analyzed according to various intellectual categories. Even the ideas of mystery and ineffability are often neatly, intellectually categorized.
This situation, where a student is permitted to study various “courses” in world religions, a combination of academic bureaucratic organization and science, is so pervasive in our time and civilization, that its particular character, historical character, is perhaps difficult to realize. Though most people tend to accept the present culture as fairly fixed and permanent, the topical, compartmentalized, leveled and numbered organization of religious studies courses is itself one particular to the passing character of our time. Two hundred years ago it was different, and in the year 2196 A. D., it will be something very different as well. As I wrote before, the mysteries of Life (God; the origin of the world, life and consciousness and their history, evolution and change; life after death; truth, meaning, purpose; evil; spirit and matter; suffering, etc.) stand above every academic institution in the world, and all of the individual humans (be they scholars or students) in them. The particular organization of studies we have come to assume as “natural” is in fact temporally and culturally bound, and is determined predominately by the scientific ethos. All of the courses in religious studies departments in any institution are less than the spiritual story of man and life. And though all of the ideas in these programs, in the past, were and in the future will be “organized” differently, passive students receive the impression that the world is divided according to academic categorization – and not only in religion. Huge bureaucracies, institutions and buildings give off an impression that they are definitive and stable, in their power and knowledge, when in fact they are changing human institutions which stand “beneath” the great questions and mysteries of life. Whereas, in my view, it is much closer to the realities of life and world, for scholars and students to feel and clearly recognize that these institutions are less than the spiritual mysteries of man and cosmos. (Especially due to science’s materialistic tendencies.)
The fact is that few students in the USA ever clearly recognize or wake up to this greater reality, that the learned institutions have their own interpretive view of religious phenomena (and the world) and are not omniscient (though “omniscient” comes from all (omni) knowing (science). Since it can easily be noted that the majority of students in American institutions pursue their “education” more as a mundane means ultimately towards dollars than, as I have written it, Dante or Darwin, it is little wonder that few, very few, see above these institutions. (Perhaps one of the most deep and interesting questions in regards to American culture today, is why they are so much more interested in dollars than Dante! And whether such focus is not a part of the social and moral crisis – the so-called “crisis of values” – widely-acknowledged in American society today.)
While there are, of course, teachers of religion who –even while holding whatever beliefs they may themselves personally, privately hold – objectively teach the variety of the world’s religions (a reference book I have has at least 21 divisions of religion), still religion in the academic world is clearly approached with the mind – most often the analytic mind. Religious studies departments are generally places of detached intellectual analysis, description and comprehension of religion. A teacher who attempted in class to do some religious ritual, or to try to convert his students to his own beliefs, or another belief-system – the very task of a religious traditions teacher (preacher, minister, priest) – would not long remain employed at an academic institution, which must remain objective and neutral. It must be recognized here that “science” is considered to be non-religious by definition, and merely factual. This results in the fact that whereas teaching religion or religions in state-supported schools is often problematic and restricted (in many schools this controversial problem is avoided by omission), science only sometimes (e. g. teaching Darwin’s theories) is constrained and restricted. Religion is considered to be a domain for personal, private beliefs; whereas science is considered to be religiously neutral, and therefore to be an unproblematic and fundamental part of public education. Here, science has taken the central place, formerly held by religion, in earlier American history. (Arguments that the scientific world view is, in reality, a religion, has not been accepted by the US Supreme Court in its legal opinions which are definitive for the USA.)
Academic “religion” – religions – is of the mind. It certainly does not intend to convert the heart and soul, even though it, potentially, can dramatically affect both in attentive students. (It more tries to consider and convey facts, than felicity! It is perhaps closer in spirit to an encyclopedia than a catechism.) Its accomplishment is knowledge and understanding, certainly not spiritual consolation, or veridical experience! Objective. Neutral. Even purely informational (in the modern sense of the word information), science still conveys to many of its students a certain detached view of religion: science’s study of religion(s). This is in itself a view of life, cosmos and man. It objectifies religions.
A successful education in religious studies would clearly expose the willing student to the ideas of many of the major religious traditions in the history of mankind. The student might even be able to do an “intellectually objective” comparative analysis of “religious experiences” in the various religious traditions. Here science’s religion and traditional religions interact in a very definitive way. For science attempts to analyze the “psychology of religious experience”, which those experiencing this (say, Moses or Gautama Buddha, or St. Paul or an American Indian shaman) claim to have been the highest human veridical experience of the ultimate or divine. Needless to say, their highest accomplishments here are quite different. One claims to be an ultimate spiritual experience of the human being; while the other to be an independent, objective, scientific comprehension of this particular human psychological state of consciousness. In fact, generally speaking, the idea of man (the physical and physiological- anthropological conceptions of man and cosmos) which science generally assumes, often denies, disputes or even ignores any possible veracity to the claimed religious (it is truly better here to say “spiritual”) experience itself. (E.g. whatever Moses may have claimed to have experienced scientists would tend more to look at his abnormal psycho-logical state and generally to find material explanations for it! Surely soon some scientist will suggest specific genetic abnormalities to account for Moses’, St. Paul’s and Seraphim of Sarov’s experiences and psychological states!)
The history of modern science has not by any means always been areligious, atheistic or agnostic – consider e.g. Newton or Kepler; but in past one or two centuries serious and deep battles and cultural wars did often occur, in societies and individuals, between science and religion as to the nature of the cosmos and man – we have already mentioned this contrast between a spiritual and a material view of man and world. But the fact is that most people in the USA receive whatever ultimate ideas, beliefs and opinions they have concerning the cosmos, man and the meaning of life, directly or indirectly from the various religious traditions from world history. “Science’s religion” is not very old historically – nor in fact are “religious studies departments” in secular institutions. But most religious traditions are very old indeed, having begun long before science became modern. And it is to these traditions that we next turn our attention, to look more directly at their ideas of cosmos and man.
When a dweller in the mid-20th century tries to project himself into the period of his colonial ancestors, one of his greatest difficulties is a comprehension of the pervasiveness of religion and its universal influence on men, women and children of the earlier age. Religious beliefs were almost as varied as they are now ; but whatever men believed, they believed with greater devotion than most of their descendants display today. That is not to say that our ancestors were more virtuous than we, but that they were more God-fearing. When the wicked sinned, more of them trembled in fear of eternal damnation.
Religion was not merely a Sunday ritual; in the 17th century it was an all-enveloping influence seven days a week, and its all-pervading vitality lasted throughout the colonial period and affected all shades of opinion, Puritan, Anglican, Quaker, or Catholic. The seventeenth century was an age of faith; and the eighteenth century saw only a relative weakening of ancient beliefs.
This is how the American cultural historian Louis B. Wright, in the mid-1950s, viewed America’s relationship to the past in his book: The Cultural Life of the American Colonies, 1607–1763. We can say that these first settlers to North America lived in a religious cosmos – they understood and experienced the world which ‘bound them back’ (religare) to the meaning of life with the “ancient beliefs” which they carried within them (even as they stepped into their future, into the strange “New World” named for Amerigo Vespucci). And while many sought, as they often saw it, to “re-establish” the original Christian community – a “city on a hill”; in the course of time, the religious vision of man and cosmos would lose its dominant power over North American culture and society, and eventually would come to be replaced or diminished by other ideas of man and world: Monticello’s vision; that of Washington, D. C.; Wall Street’s; even Hollywood’s vision of man, world and life would become definitive and powerful in American history. These tendencies we shall consider more in the future.
For the early settlers it was, of course a Biblical, Christian understanding of the cosmos, man and life in which they lived – and some of their beliefs were, and this we shall consider often, very ancient indeed. (It is perhaps worth mention here, that the majority of people in Russia basically lived in this religious cosmos up and until the Marxist, “Bolshevik Revolution”.) These first colonists who came to North America from Western Europe – were they tradesmen, ministers or fish-mongers – brought in their hearts and minds – and their few precious books – a more or less complete and common idea of man, life and world. Though their view of the world had already, at least potentially been disturbed (by the Copernicus heliocentric revolution, the unexpected cultural discoveries of sea explorations, early natural science, and other troubling novelties during and after the Renaissance, which did not quite fit in with their inherited ideas of the world), were those generally-held beliefs of the world, of the cosmos, articulated by someone from this period, they would generally have described and understood the meaning of life and world as having the following aspects: God the Creator and Ruler; the 9-tiered hierarchies of spirits; heaven and hell; the planetary and physical world; nature’s four kingdoms (mineral, plant, animal, and human); man (the “image of god”, fallen – with theologically disputed effects) and society; time and human history; meaning beyond life and death; good and evil; morality, vice and virtue; etc. Though each community, religious denomination and person had their own particular aspect on the world and life, their ideas generally existed within this shared idea of the cosmos. A philosopher like Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) might dispute all non-material realities; Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) might speak of other planetary systems, but in general most people agreed upon this greater spiritual idea of the cosmos. If some were skeptical about some aspects of this understanding of the world, they were comparatively few in this period. Certainly many of the settlers, be that to Massachusetts or Virginia (who had to deal with the very demanding, physical tasks of establishing their survival and livelihoods in the new world) held such beliefs – even if these beliefs were for many just simply accepted as part of the inherited culture, and were not reflective.
While it is common, in trying to understand this period in American history, to investigate and contrast the particular religious ideas and beliefs and social communities (e.g. Puritan, Anglican, Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, etc.) from this period, in the larger view of American and world history today we can see – in regards to the question of the (now often lost or disputed) ultimate ideas of man and cosmos – that they basically held a vision and a version of what can be called “the archetypal, greater spiritual cosmos”. They saw and understood it, in their time, as a Biblical, Christian view of God’s Creation and the life of man. Yet still, the origins of some of their fundamental ideas of this greater spiritual cosmos derive historically from sources which go back beyond the immediate, Judeo-Christian sources themselves.
The settlers to North America thought themselves to live in an ancient, greater cosmos which, in fact, as we mentioned in part 2 of this essay, was kindred in overall structure – because similar in ancient origin – to that of the so-called “Native Americans Indians”(though few of the Europeans colonists had much inclination to try to understand the “Native Americans’” sacred lore of the spiritual, natural and human worlds) and the fundamental Oriental views of the cosmos, which would however only come to deeply influence North American culture later in time.
Scholars in various fields of study have, during the past two centuries, come to a clearer and deeper recognition of this shared fund of ideas of the cosmos, of spirit, of nature and of man’s place in it. The ideas are generally seen to come from a common source which is often called the Indo-European culture. (In future American Reflections, there will be more to say about this common source, its relationship to tribal views world-wide and its great division and diffusion, transmission and mutation in the Eastern and Western worlds.)
There were certainly some deep disagreements concerning Biblical, theological and religious doctrines, amidst the various early American communities, e.g. the effects of Adam’s fall on the inner and outer life of man and nature, the debate as to whether “sinful man” could in some way earn or merit his salvation or betterment and by what means (by religious faith alone? by good activities in the world?), the relation of divine omnipotence, omniscience and providence to earthly human freedom and predestination, etc. Indeed, the Puritans, for example, wanted to establish their own exclusive, “pure” Christian community in North America, apart from what they saw to be church corruption and a sinful life in England (with its established church) and elsewhere. And there were similarly other such smaller Christian denominations who came to America to establish their own exclusive (version of) the “true” Christian community. In general – though there were Jews who also came early – the first settlers to North American shared more or less a common Christian view of the world, man and life.
It would be interesting to know when the first Moslems arrived – with whom of course Christians had long had interaction in European history; but there would be many decades before every religious and philosophical system ever seen under the sun in human history (e.g. versions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Shamanism, etc.) would eventually come to reside in such a place as California.
But however much the original settlers may have differed in this or that doctrinal point, the greater fact is that they more or less clearly, knowledgeably and actively shared this common idea of the world, and man’s place in it. Doctrinally founded in the writings of (pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite – it is more popularly imaginable via The Divine Comedy of Dante. Life on earth, to those early religious settlers to North America, was only a more or less temporary, earthly, “middle” portion (between Heaven and Hell) of the entire reality of the cosmos as they conceived it: from God to stone to hell, from spirit to matter. And while they were, often of necessity, concerned more with their physical survival, they believed, often fervently, in God and the spiritual hierarchies “above” man, as well as the hells “below” man. (Man was a fallen spirit. These people tended to believe, as Louis Wright described, that their life on earth was only a small portion and time in the greater spiritual cosmos. Their inner and outer daily lives – individually and collectively, their homes, their work, the things they owned in this world, all were generally viewed and understood within this greater cosmography which made them religious communities of shared meaning. And while they certainly would not have publicly admitted any such ideas and heresies as in e.g. the early, deep-thinking Christian theologian Origen’s (ca. 185–254 A. D.) ideas of reincarnation or spiritual perfection – for they believed that their ultimate, eternal destiny was decided in their one single life in this world – they viewed all of life in this world with a belief in its relationship to the greater spiritual cosmos under the ultimate rulership of God the Creator. This was, generally, the idea of the cosmos in the North American beginning.
It is worth considering that when someone says that they are “American”, they describe an identity which is in reality quite different than if someone says they are “Russian”. In closer fact, all of the people in the Western Hemisphere – which is now on maps generally divided into North-, Central- and South America – are in reality “Americans”, in the sense that they live in the land discovered just over 500 years ago by Columbus – though named in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller for Amerigo Vespucci who, unlike Columbus himself, recognized that in reality it was a new land. But, as is well known, in our time, people who were born in, or have become citizens of the United States of America, are generally what people think of when they speak of “Americans”. The difference in meaning, between “Russian” and “American”, has deep historical roots and significance. “Russia” had a name and culture when “America” was completely unknown on any European map. “Russian” is more of what scholars sometimes describe as a “cultural nationality”; whereas “American”, i.e. a citizen of the United States of America, is a political-social definition characteristic of the modern world and the modern character of “nationality”. These nations and nationalities stem from very different times and cultures. For instance, Russia’s direct relationship to the Greek and Byzantine world gave it a character which (North) America could not possibly have via its fundamental Latin and British roots.
The early settlers to North America – and all of America for that matter – generally lived in the (ancient) Christian cosmos which we described in part 9 of this essay. (They thereby, by the way, generally shared this cosmos with Christian Russia.) For example, Columbus, and a good number of those who followed him, were looking for an earthly Eden. The life and morality of the European colonists in America was basically lived inside of the greater spiritual cosmos (which surrounded their earthly lives with other-worldly order and meaning – a cosmos of meaning). When the “United States of America” came into being, it did so in a period of human history (labeled with various names by historians) which in America is commonly referred to as “the Enlightenment”, but which is perhaps more clearly characterized as the “Age of Reason” – in contrast to concept of the “Age of Faith”, which we met regarding the firsts colonists to America. Thomas Jefferson, who was very much an adherent of this then new view of man and world – as American history occurred – played a role which is still actively alive and fundamentally influential in the spiritual, intellectual and cultural life of the USA today, more than two centuries later.
When the British colonies undertook to free themselves from the ancient type of rule by the King of England, and British governance, they did so with many new ideas and theories of social and political order which were present in the intellectual world in that Age of Reason. It is a very complex period intellectually, and requires much broader study to understand. But, for our purposes in this essay, we shall simply look at the ideas of man and society, life and cosmos, of Thomas Jefferson, a few words of whom – in the American colonies’ 1776 Declaration of Independence – are now still repeated every day in the USA, and indeed often around the world:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”
What did Jefferson mean when he wrote these words; what did he think of man and world; what were the ideas of man and cosmos in which he understood these now famous words? What did he think of Dante’s world, and what would he have thought of Darwin’s? (It is important to realize that Jefferson did not create these words, ideas or phrases de novo, completely new; rather, as he himself described later in his life, he expressed those ideas that were in the society, in the mind of that time.)
It cannot be overstated, in relation to the idea of America as a nation and culture, just how important these few words by Jefferson became in American history. They are known to some degree by most all Americans, and are used daily in the USA, in fundamental ways, to understand and explain the life, culture, civilization and uniqueness of the USA in the world.
When President Clinton addressed the American people on television on November 29, 1995 – in order to justify the sending of US soldiers, in “peace-keeping” roles, to the former Yugoslavia – he stated the following:
“From our birth, America has always been more than just a place. America has embodied an idea that has become the ideal for billions of people throughout the world. Our founders said it best: America is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In this century especially, America has done more than simply stand for these ideals. We have acted on them and sacrificed for them. Our people fought two world wars so that freedom could triumph over tyranny. After World War I, we pulled back from the world, leaving a vacuum that was filled by the forces of hatred.
After World War II, we continued to lead the world. We made the commitments that kept the peace, that helped to spread democracy, that created unparalleled prosperity and that brought victory in the Cold War.
Today, because of our dedication, America's ideals – liberty, democracy and peace – are more the aspirations of people everywhere in the world. It is the power of our ideas, even more than our size, our wealth and our military might, that makes America a uniquely trusted nation.”
So, clearly – in spite of President’s Clinton’s stating two different sets of “American ideals” – Jefferson’s words are still very much alive and used in America today, to explain what America is to itself, and to the world.
Popular and nationally-defining as these words by Jefferson are in the USA – like the popular expression “American Dream”, which original source and meaning in the writings of James Truslow Adams is in fact known by very few Americans who nonetheless use the expression daily – these 1776 phrases are also, unfortunately but symptomatically, poorly or little understood in their actual meaning by the vast majority of Americans who use them daily. The “mundane comedy” – indeed, as I argue, the popular pursuit of the misconception of Adams’ nobler “American Dream” – often seems to prevent a deeper active interest in or educated knowledge of the spiritual cosmos or anthropology of The Divine Comedy of Dante, or similar worries concerning Darwin’s less-flattering Descent of Man. The necessary and essential understanding – that is, presuming the creature Homo sapiens does in fact want to thoughtfully know of itself and life – of the Declaration of Independence’s ideas of man and cosmos are rarely considered and well-understood by the millions of Americans, at all levels of education, who use them. It would seem to be unfair to expect that “the ideal for billions of people throughout the world” should be more clearly understood by them, than by the Americans themselves, whose ideas are, so says the President of the USA, more powerful than “our size, our wealth and our military might…”
Jefferson was a great and learned man – one who dedicated his life to the young United States of America. He himself did have a knowledge of the ideas, cosmology and anthropology articulated, for example, by Dante. This, in spite of the fact that he – true to the life and history of mankind of that time – essentially rejected, according to his reasoning, this ancient spiritual cosmos and such claims concerning man, as uncertain and unknowable. Here, Jefferson was much closer in spirit to the natural scientist Charles Darwin (1809–1882), who was about 17 years old, when Jefferson died, at 83 years of age, on July 4, 1826.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...”
It is still very common today for people in the USA – average citizens, politicians and even scholars – to repeat at least portions of these high and noble words by Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence; they arguably constitute what one Jefferson specialist called the “American Creed”. We saw in part 10, how the President of the USA used a portion of these phrases in 1995 to define America in world history, before the world’s billions of people.
While the United States Constitution is the law of the land – the written foundation of the USA; it is these and a few other phrases by Thomas Jefferson, in the famous “preamble” to the Declaration of Independence, which became a vital part of an “American” belief system, or the creed thereto. As Noble Cunningham, the author of In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson wrote:
Though neither Jefferson nor his contemporaries could foresee it in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was to become the most cherished document in American history, not solely because of its proclamation of independence, but also because of its affirmation of her political principles that would undergird the new American republic.
Jefferson’s words are written and spoken in the USA many times everyday; most often as if the words, phrases and ideas, by themselves alone, constituted some sort of complete statements, some sort of ultimate and final truths about man, world and society. This is a deep, though very popular mistake; one this piece shall try somewhat to amend. The phrases and ideas are admittedly grand, noble and inspiring; most Americans – at least those native born – do not read these words without emotion (due of course to intellectual and emotional culture and education). They are an essential part of what it is to be an “American”. Even persons in the USA who may only be educated in the most meager way (and there are unfortunately tens of millions in the USA who are labeled “functionally-illiterate”), often still can at least repeat portions of these famous words quoted above. (This author has observed some of the very poorest, least-educated, most socially – and economically – disadvantaged people in America – whose daily lives are surrounded by chronic poverty; drugs, uncontrolled crime and random violence; joblessness; hopelessness; broken families, etc. – repeat small parts of Jefferson’s words, in trying to explain their lives. Jefferson could never have pictured this.)
Jefferson had been raised as a child in the moderate beliefs, doctrines and services of the Anglican Church; it had its original lineage from the Roman Catholic Church, and generally in America became the Episcopal Church. It was the established church of the Virginia colony where Jefferson lived. (Later Jefferson would be influential in disestablishing this church.) In other words, he was raised as a boy in the traditions and beliefs of the Christian cosmos with its ancient elements. But this would soon be profoundly challenged. When he, beginning at the age of 16, attended the College of William and Mary, he began a rapid transition from a mild, uncritical world of theological beliefs (the Anglican Church is not one of emotional fervor in religion) into the modern critical ideas of the so-called Enlightenment, into the “Age of Reason”. And in fact it is necessary to understand not only what Jefferson believed when he wrote the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33, but what he did not believe, in order to clearly recognize the meaning of the “American Creed”.
From his personal notebooks – where he wrote ideas which were of real importance to him (they also constitute one of the few sources of insight we have as to the young Jefferson’s mind) – we are able to see into his new ideas of the world. Jefferson, while young, was deeply affected by his educational experiences at the College of William and Mary, both by his personal contacts (for example, he came to dine and converse regularly with the Governor of Virginia, whose father had worked for Sir Isaac Newton), as well as by his readings. While only one of the seven faculty members at the College was not an Anglican clergyman: Dr. William Small of Scotland; it was he who the young Jefferson was most influenced by. Of him Jefferson later wrote that he was
a man profound in most of the useful branches of science…from his conversations I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed. (This is a clear, if later-written, indication of Jefferson’s transition from a theological-religious to a natural scientific world-view.)
We know from his notebooks that he was deeply impacted by the writings concerning religious and philosophical themes and history of Lord Bolingbroke (1678–1751), whose works are a rather tedious, rationalist, empiricist critique of all of the religious and philosophical systems then known of in the world. Jefferson seems, from his note-taking, to have read all of the several volumes at this early period as a student. (Jefferson would eventually come to assemble one of the greatest personal libraries of his time in America; it became the core of the current Library of Congress, for, after the British burnt the first one in 1814, Jefferson sold his personal library of about 6,500 books to the US Congress to rebuild its library. Even with this comparatively small reading in Bolingbroke, Jefferson received a broader and more solid intellectual education than today most Americans do after many years of schooling.)
If Jefferson lived uncritically in the Christian cosmos as a child, Bolingbroke’s critical works (and not only this author) would have deeply affected the Jefferson’s young understanding – and this effect in his ideas and philosophy lasted for the rest of his life. So that when we look to see what Jefferson did mean of man and cosmos when he wrote the words still famous around the world today, we find that he did not hold a religious or spiritual view of man and cosmos, as had the early settlers (and still many of Jefferson’s contemporaries) of the “age of faith” in American history. Indeed, Jefferson had rejected most of their ideas and beliefs, believing rather in a material, physical, natural scientific view of man and world. (He held a Deist view of God, as the original creator, who had ordered nature and life through the “laws of nature”, but otherwise was detached from earthly life. And in general he tended to reduce all religion to morality.) Closer to Darwin in spirit and time (of whose later writings he could know nothing of course), Jefferson would later symptomatically place busts of Bacon, Locke and Newton in his self-designed home of Monticello – which is now become a place of American pilgrimage. This is an indication of his life-long adherence – beginning as a student – to a natural-scientific view of man and world. Jefferson rejected most religions and metaphysical philosophies and their ideas as myths. (He especially disliked for example Plato, St. Paul, Athanasius and Calvin.) Sometimes he viewed them as the deliberate fabrications of priests and kings to manipulate and control their people. Jefferson thought that man’s “reason” should rule man.
The spiritual worlds described by Dante could not but seem illusory, or unknowable, to Jefferson, with his life-long commitment, interest and involvement in science and nature. Though Jefferson was exposed, via Bolingbroke’s writings, e.g. to the ideas of divine inspiration and visions, spiritual hierarchies, and of worlds made up of “aether”, he could not accept such ideas as reliable. He believed in the realities and truths of the sensible world knowable by the rational mind. (He had a bust of Bacon, not Plato, in Monticello.)
Essentially, in fact, strongly rejecting the greater spiritual cosmos of man and nature, he embraced a natural-scientific view of man and world. Here is a very small example, from Bolingbroke (near a citation by Jefferson), of what he read of ideas of the spiritual cosmos of man:
It would be tedious even to run over the confused notions that were entertained about soul. It was fire; but a divine fire to some; it was air to others; a fifth element to others…Aristotle called it by a new name entelekia….In a word it was something, they knew not what, which they saw fit to call breath or spirit….A vast profusion of souls followed. They were created by the exorbitant power of hypothesis as fast and as often as they were wanted. There was an universal soul common to the whole system of corporeal being, or a soul of the world; for the world was, in the imagination of some of the ancients [i.e., authors], a great animal, and consisted, like the animals it contains, of a body and a soul. There were particular souls for celestial and terrestrial bodies, a soul of the sun, a soul for every star and planet, a vegetative soul for plants, a sensitive soul for other animals; and for man there was an ample provision of three, of the two last [mentioned], and a rational soul, which was a participation of the Divine mind, or an emanation from it, or an infusion out of it. (From Bolingbroke, Essay on Human Knowledge, Part I, section 8.)
Jefferson’s own attitude was eventually in fact not far from the skeptical, disbelieving attitude which can be found in this quote of Bolingbroke (which he had read). The spiritual (here “soul”) worlds of which Dante was one writer, are obviously rejected as fanciful “hypotheses”, or as beyond the limits of man’s knowledge. Jefferson was not however some pure materialist at all. Rather, he viewed God as the creator and orderer of nature – of which man was the highest species.
When he wrote the famous words in the Declaration of Independence, he did not view or understand man as standing within the greater spiritual cosmos (discernible more or less clearly in the skeptical Bolingbrook quote). Rather he viewed man as living as a physical being – with his highest soul aspects created by God: reason and conscience – in “the system of things in which we are placed”, i. e. the natural world.
When Jefferson wrote his famous phrases (which he later said were neither “original” nor “copied”, but rather “an expression of the American mind”): “all men are created equal”, “endowed by their creator”, “inalienable rights”, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” he had already decisively rejected the religious-spiritual cosmos for the scientific. These ideas of Jefferson were written and understood in the material, natural cosmos, “in which we are placed”. In fact, Jefferson, all of his life, basically rejected most all of Christianity, except its moral teachings – which, contrariwise, he eventually came to estimate the highest known to man. Original sin, orders of hierarchies, the Trinity, Jesus’ miracles, resurrection, et al, were all considered to be either unknowable (in reality) or as priestal fabrications. Jefferson’s spirit was completely contrary to all spiritual mysticism, other-worldliness, and foggy speculations concerning what he once called the “country of spirits”. That Dante’s “worlds” were, perhaps, beheld as if in a “dream”, would be enough to convince Jefferson of the unreliability of these reports – even if he recognized the work as great literature.
Jefferson’s words came to be repeated on e. g. “Fourth of July Celebrations” throughout American over the years, and came to be a sort of creedal statement as to what it means to be “American” – as we saw also in the President’s address in November of 1995. But in fact very few Americans are clear about either the original context or meaning of the “American Creed” – the “cosmos” of these words – or of Jefferson’s rejection of most of the spiritual beliefs which many of these Americans personally hold, commonly blended together with Jefferson’s contrasting, antithetically-conceived grand expressions! In other words, these ideas from 1776, still alive today, are in fact only truly to be understood within a scientific-natural view of man, nature, society, God and world. And this is so even though the religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs of the vast majority of the US people – who often use them in close association with Jefferson’s phrases, when they explain and understand America and life – were in fact rejected by Jefferson before (and after) he wrote them. His human and social ideals were conceived within a natural cosmos of man; they are ideals of man in this world. He had rejected a spiritual cosmos and anthropology to man.
Jefferson would, symptomatically, at the end of his great life (devoted largely to serving America) attempt (unsuccessfully) to exclude the teaching of religion from the University of Virginia which he had brought into being. Contrariwise, most Americans – in their (generally) extremely limited knowledge of even their own nation’s history – place together views which Jefferson himself considered to be fundamentally antithetical. The beliefs of a greater spiritual cosmos, e.g. Dante’s world’s, the spiritual-metaphysical beliefs of man and world, cannot properly be fit inside of Jefferson’s world and his ideals – at least not realistically intellectually. The cosmos of the “American Creed” has its own reality and dignity – but it is not such that all of the ideas which Americans have come to place inside of its famous phrases, can, truthfully and unproblematically, be placed .
In my view – and no one who reads this great man’s biography can doubt his devotion and service to America – Jefferson was true to the history, reality and life of mankind in his time. One of his biographers called him “one of the most devoted disciples of the Age of Reason”. (Nostalgia and longing for the “age of faith” – like the time before the “Fall of Man” – is understandable; but the “age of reason” was, if not an inevitability or necessity of history, still nevertheless a new more realistic relationship of man to nature. So that no mere easy return to the past is true or realistic.) He was a realistic man of science; he could not and would not rest in the “age of faith”. And, as was characteristic of this and later time, once the Bible and religion were subjected to the “age of reason”, the beliefs of the “age of faith” could never be immediately accepted unquestioned again.
While he was close to Darwin in his scientific attitude, he would have deeply lamented Darwin’s eventual rejection both of a creator God (chance and natural selection rather than divine design) and the view of man’s reason and conscience as special “gifts” (Jefferson) of God to man. In fact, Darwin and Jefferson (as well as many of their contemporaries of course), were offended by many of the same “unbelievable” aspects of Christianity and religion from the “age of faith”, e.g. miracles contrary to natural laws; discrepancies in the four Gospels; God the Father as the source of theologically-interpreted conceptions of Hell, eternal damnation and suffering; the Trinity; et al.)
While some few Americans (mostly scholars ensconced in universities) know what Jefferson affirmed in his words; few Americans know clearly what he had also already rejected. But, before he had written the Declaration of Independence, he had rejected much of the spiritual beliefs which most Americans believe today – and which they often understand in relationship to Jefferson’s phrases as well!
Here is an aspect – perhaps even more fundamental and definitive in some ways than the problem of the popular and noble “American Dream” – of how Americans are unaware and unconscious of the lineage of their own spiritual and intellectual origin and history. Very, very few even college-graduate Americans could even begin to give a serious account of the relationship between their own personal spiritual beliefs, the cosmos of their “American Creed” and the intellectual and spiritual history of mankind (e.g. Indo-European sources, Dionysius the Areopagite’s cosmography, Dante’s Comedy, even Newton, Laplace, et al.) They are simply unaware and uninformed of how America’s “ideas” actually stand inside of not only European, but Occidental and world intellectual and spiritual history. Indeed, I am certain that even the current President of the USA himself – himself an active Christian Southern Baptist believer – would find it difficult to give such an account of the relationship of his Baptist religious beliefs, to the natural ideas of man and cosmos in the “American Creed” which he had cited in his November 1995 speech, in which he defined America to the world. But American ideals – the cosmos of the “American Creed” – do stand within the entire spiritual and intellectual history of Mankind – however little this may be clearly conceived and worried by Americans themselves.
The cosmos of the “American Creed” is a natural, not a spiritual one. The failure to recognize and understand this clearly cannot be of spiritual and intellectual hope, health and help to Mankind. If America is now in many ways leading the world, it should, presumably, know and understand more deeply and clearly what America and her ideals are actually about.
Constitution of the United States of America, Amendments: Article I:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
John Adams (Second President of the USA):
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion; our Constitution was written only for a moral and religious people, and it is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
While Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence (1776) came to constitute a kind of national “American Creed” – sometimes properly understood secularly, sometimes misunderstood religiously, often “understood” in a politically-popular mixture of both; the Constitution of the United States of America (1789), established the government and “the supreme law of the land” (Article VI), which is still functioning to this day in the USA. It is the legal and constitutional framework in which the United States of America exists. This larger essay’s concern, with the psychology and ultimate ideas of the world and man in America, will only glance at some of those aspects of the US Constitution which directly bears on its ideas. But let it be noticed at the beginning, how a deep, fundamental, unresolved tension – which inheres in the questions of the relationship of government (or state) and religion in the USA – can be discerned in the two quotes above.
When the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America were written, there were about 20 different Christian denominations existing in the thirteen United States of America – with a total European population of about three and one-quarter million people. It was politically an impossibility that any one of these denominations, with their particular beliefs concerning God, man, life, society and world, would become the national religion (even though several wished to, and there were “established churches” existing in several of the former European colonies). Various ancient historical traditions of social order had tended to place claims of divine authority, for supreme rulership of the state, in the hands of the political ruler, as well as in the religious authorities – the centuries-long struggle between Emperors and Popes in European history is a well-known manifestation of these often competing views of man’s earthly social order (by “God’s regents” on earth). Some held that the church must rule the state (often named theocracy); others that the state, governed by a divinely-chosen leader, should rule the church and state (sometimes labeled caesaropapism). (In Russian history for example, this tension manifested in the relation between the Czar and the Patriarch.) Others thought that the “temporal” powers (of the State) and the “spiritual” powers (of the Church) should rule in harmony, each governing their separate realms in the life and society of man. Even after the European Protestant Revolution, heads of the various smaller or larger states, in the affected areas of Europe, most often decided their states’ religions (and the tension between church and state would then sometimes occur inside of this smaller state framework – also between the majority and minority religious confessions). But when it came to establishing the USA, knowledge of prior centuries filled with periodic, bloody religious wars in Europe, the number of competing Christian denominations in the young United States, rational religious (Deist) tendencies amongst the “Founding Fathers” of the USA, distrust and disagreement with the dynastic social structures of Europe of these times, these as well as other important reasons, lead to the fact that America would neither accept the fact or idea of any political “divine” ruler (or royalty), nor a single established national religion in the USA – and this even though Christianity (religious or “rational”) was predominant in the States even long after the time from which the above quotes from the First Amendment to the US Constitution and from John Adams came. Neither a divinely-inspired ruler, nor a state so-conceived, nor an established church and its doctrines would give fundamental ideological or religious structure to the new government of the USA. It was not to make any legal, constitutional or social claims to being divinely appointed, nor to claim that any church would be the religion of all of the people. It was to be a state independent from religion, and founded on different social and political ideas and principles of man and society. Considering the fact that most traditional societies’ rulers and governments in human history had ancient claims to divine appointment, this was a not small change in human history and social order – one which also came to help promote the development of what we now know as the modern, secular world.
Far from claiming religious authority, the US Constitution, on the contrary, would declare in its First Amendment (with the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, ratified by three-fourths of the States on December 15, 1791), that the government “…shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…” This meant that religion was not only constitutionally free and separate from the state, but that the legal organization and social order of the young nation would also have no single ruling “spiritual power” (like the Pope, or the head of one church denomination or other) to govern and guide the people, even in the domain of the “spiritual”. (The number of differing Christian denominations at that time made this simply impossible.) So that there was neither a “sacred imperial” (state) nor a single divine religious authority in the USA. Religion(s) and the religious life came to be the (non-established) concern of the various existing religious denominations (and those that would subsequently develop in the USA), and of the voluntary choice of individual people themselves. This is absolutely key to understanding the spiritual and cultural conditions in America today. The closest America has to a common, national doctrine of man and world, is in Jefferson’s “American Creed”, which, in addition to the US Constitution, and other “sacred” documents and American traditions, have came to constitute what social scientists sometimes call America’s “civil religion” (more commonly thought of in terms like patriotism and nationalism). It is a sort of religion of the nation by the citizens – where the American Flag, the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, et al, also eventually became basic elements of this “civil religion” – the “civil religion” being basically all of the beliefs, ceremonies and feelings that all “Americans” as Americans should share. (It should be noticed that this “civil religion”, a sort of religion of nationality having developed through time, shows that it is apparently necessary over and above political allegiance in the psychology of American nationality – and in distinction from divine church religion and beliefs which are not nationally shared.) But as we have seen in relationship to Jefferson’s “American Creed”, these are not ultimate ideas of man and cosmos which are shared, these are at most penultimate ideas, or even more earthly and secular. Nonetheless, the “sacred” documents and ceremonies of America’s “civil religion” are considered essential to American social cohesion. And though they certainly play a role in this way, many social observers from many perspectives and levels see that this cohesion is severely disrupted today – about which American Reflections will have more to say in the future.
John Adams (Second President of the USA):
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion; our Constitution was written only for a moral and religious people, and it is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
This quote by John Adams in reality presumes a certain common “cosmos” of meaning (in religion and morality) in American culture. The first settlers shared such (as we have seen in part 11). George Washington, in his famous Farewell Address (also a “sacred” American document, which appeared in print on September 19, 1796) wrote to “friends and fellow citizens”:
“With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles.”
He went on also to describe the importance of religion for the young struggling United States:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.
Let it simply be asked – Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever man be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason, and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of the religious principle.”
George Washington, John Adams, and many other of America’s “Founding Fathers” agreed that, as Adams wrote it: “…our Constitution was written only for a moral and religious…” In other words, it is only adequate if it stands upon a firm foundation of morality and religion. The ultimate religious and spiritual beliefs of Americans concerning, man, God and cosmos, are not extraneous to the US Constitution, or America’s “political prosperity”, they are vital and fundamental to it. The secular document at the foundation of America, the Constitution of the United States of America, is founded and dependent on the moral and religious foundations inside of the American people – or, one might more accurately say, humanity in America. From the view of a political statesman – such as in Washington’s words on morality and religion – the actual existence (or not) of Dante’s worlds are perhaps considered to be generally less important than whether they are believed by the citizens, so that the religious and moral basis of society is vital and secure. And while the Deist “Founding Fathers” may themselves have been skeptical of Dante’s spiritual worlds, on the other hand they recognized that the US Constitution presumed that the American people held vital religious beliefs as a basis for morality upon which the society depended (which in fact presumed divine judgment concerning earthly life, such as in The Divine Comedy). It is clear that while George Washington may have recognized that “minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience” may prefer “Deism” (and its morality of reason), morality founded in religion, which is itself only real and vital when it is felt to exist in a real and ultimate cosmos such as Dante’s, is fundamental for the common society – “national morality” as Washington worded it).
Over time in American history Washington’s observation that his fellow citizens basically “…have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles,...” would become less and less true. (The idea and debate in the USA today concerning multiculturalism is a recent proof of this.) When the US Constitution was written, the social life of the American people was permeated by what John Adams (in a letter to Thomas Jefferson) later described as the “general principles of Christianity”. (Here he was referring to the fact that, while the various Christian denominations often did differ on even essential points of religious doctrine, they generally shared a common set of beliefs, and a more or less common moral system.) There were, again, about 20 different Christian denominations when the “Founding Fathers” created the US Constitution in 1789. Two hundred years later, the Encyclopedia of American Religion (1993) mentions that in 1988 there were more than 900 Christian denominations in the USA, and a total of “more than 1,500 different primary religious organizations – churches, sects, cults, temples, societies, missions – each seeking to be the place of expression of the primary religious allegiances and sentiments of its members and adherents.” Some of these various “primary religious organizations” are very old and large (and of course Christian), some of them are rather small; others now are from probably all of the world’s historical cultures. The establishment of a non-religious government (which nonetheless still developed a “civil religion” referred to in part 12), with no single state religion, and “the free exercise” of religious life by the people (guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution), has allowed and supported this extraordinary, free development of great diversity in “primary religious allegiances”. (In colonial and early national America there had originally been the “general principles of Christianity”, and many other societies in history had had, or often required, religious unity as the basis for social order, morality, values, etc.)
In sum, the secular US Constitution – in addition to a great deal else – freed religion and individuals from ancient and traditional state or religious control (God’s “regents”), so that America’s religious and spiritual life, reality and vitality resided thenceforth amidst the people themselves, and the various churches. On the other hand, the religious and moral beliefs were recognized by the “Founding Fathers” to be fundamentally necessary to the Constitution and civil order. The “American Creed”, and America’s “civil religion” could supply some common core beliefs for national allegiance amidst “humanity” immigrated to the USA from all over the world. But however much the “Founding Fathers” may have disbelieved themselves, the living beliefs in the reality of, for good example, Dante’s spiritual worlds of ultimate divine moral judgment and justice, upon which religion and morality in this world have real vital power and influence in the social life and activities of the people, is in fact an indispensable “unconstitutional” moral foundation to the US Constitution, “written only for a moral and religious people...and wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” Even Jefferson, with his “natural cosmos” of the “American Creed”, came to acknowledge – if somewhat reluctantly – that belief in heaven and hell, i.e. in some sort of ultimate other-worldly judgment by God, was needed for social order, in addition to the influences of education, social pressure and penalties, and man’s natural reason and conscience.
The spiritual realities of Dante’s Divine Comedy are indispensable to American society – or so, in deeper fact, thought America’s “Founding Fathers”.
But when, over the years, the increasingly diversified people in America were no longer solidly “moral and religious”, or the pluralism of beliefs – which developed in religious freedom amidst humanity in the USA – would mean there was no longer the broad social consensus of the shared “general principles of Christianity”...that people did not share “the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles”, when, in other words, a common cosmos became gradually lost…?
A common quip in much of middle-class America is: “California is a different country” – by which “normal Americans” want to say that California is a really “crazy place” of “nutty” people and strange, even bizarre ideas. This author lived in such a small, unusual town in California, which the media in the USA regularly (and realistically) presented as an example of crazy “California” ideas.
There has been an ancient and developed mythical tradition, which can be traced back to the very Indo-European beginnings – as well as ancient Egypt – that the “west” was the direction of dying and death, the place of matter and apocalypse, the direction and end of history, and other related ideas. This well-known idea can be found in Occidental cultural history in locations as far distant as Russia and the Hawaiian Islands. In the structure and iconography of a Russian Church the west wall is where the apocalypse is represented; in the Hawaiian Islands, a special temple would be situated in and oriented to the west towards which the souls of the dead were thought to journey (to the worlds above or below). And then there is the ancient idea in Occidental history – which idea itself changed and moved westward over time – that the ruling empire of civilization has always traveled westward (like the Sun) (scholars have labeled this translatio imperii), from the nations of the Ancient Near East, to Greece, to Italy (Rome), to Germany or France, to England, and eventually the idea included America. The settlement, name and mythology of California were also influenced by these ideas; the American expression “Go West, young man!” thus actually has a deep and interesting tradition behind it.
In this author’s view, California cannot be fully grasped, in its position and role in world history, unless and until it is seen in this greater context of time and place. This contention is in distinction to attempts to understand the life and culture of California within the limits of American cultural history alone, or perhaps within the context of “Western Civilization” – which is normally conceived to have begun in Greece. Such realities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, the “Golden Gate”; the meeting of Occident and Orient on the Pacific Ocean; Disneyland and Hollywood; the secret Manhattan (Atomic) Bomb Project; the founding of the United Nations Organization; “hippie” and drug culture; the “new age” movement; the most populace US state; et al, must all – in my view – be viewed and recognized as a part of the greater western history of Mankind. (American Reflections will often have occasion to return to California as a theme.)
While the comparatively brief history of California is not unimportant in trying to understand current cultural conditions there; let us just consider some of the more recent decades. I lived in California for about five years before I finally met someone who was in fact born and raised in the state. Everyone, including myself – actually it only, of course, seemed like “everyone” – came from somewhere else. (The USA, as is well known, has long been a very mobile society, especially since World War II.) They – along with those from other nations – came often just from other parts of the USA – communities and cities large and small, each with their own history and particular community cultural traditions. Often those individuals who left their homes and communities just wanted some kind of a new life in a place of new, open possibilities. The California Gold Rush of 1848, which brought thousands from all over the world to northern California, was an example of this; and there were others, such as the soldiers engaged in the “Pacific theater” of the Second World War, or the later migration of the young in the 1960’s in the so-called “hippie movement”. (The word “hippie” was created in the San Francisco area of northern California in the 1960’s.) People also came to nineteenth-century California from Asia (as well as from other parts of the world) – this would eventually come to play a big role in the introduction of “Oriental” traditions, cultures, religions, ideas, etc. (One can, for example, go to “historic sites” in California where the first Buddhist temples were erected by people from China, who had traveled to the land of the “Golden Mountain”, where they were often laborers for the gold mines, in the new cities, on the railroads, etc.) It is safe to say that there was, over the decades, an increasing diversification of beliefs in California – which was won from Mexico (with its preponderantly Catholic/Latin culture), by the USA (with its greater Protestant/Anglo-Saxon tendencies) in 1848. (California was also touched by the Orthodox/Russian-Slavic world at Fort Ross.)
Cultural conditions in California are in some ways rather astonishing in their diversity – it certainly is one of the most “heterodox” places in the world and human history. I recall a German traveler, after a visit to California, agreeing that “If it is imaginable, you can find it in California”. (After a second visit, this was changed to: “Even if it is not imaginable, California probably has it!”)
Conditions – cultural, social, psychological and intellectual, as well as political and economic –are such in California today that a person can believe and claim really virtually anything they wish, or nothing at all. In an earlier American Reflections we referred to this as hyper-pluralism. It is not an accident that the conception and creation of computer-generated “virtual reality” was mostly done by people and computers in this state, or that there are bumper-stickers on cars in California on which is written: “Question Reality” – certainly a novelty in human history. In reality, one can observe the fact that individual persons there (or smaller or larger groups, sects, or churches) create their own versions of the entire world and its meaning – in fact, their own personal and group cosmologies. They do this with ideas from most all of the world’s religions, philosophies, psychologies, etc. –some ancient, some absolutely new. And they do so diversely by the thousands. (Remember the 1,500 “primary religious organizations” mentioned in part 13.) The past three to four decades in California have shown some sometimes bizarre, if often sincere and naive, examples of casual creative views of man and world – “cosmologies”; they are prolific. Far from having anything like an established state religion and doctrine – religious freedom over time, plus the idea of “equality” applied to culture, history and knowledge, and the ever-increasing diversity of the population there, has allowed an almost incredible diversification of ultimate beliefs. Rather than having a common tradition and community of beliefs – as did early North America, there is the already established fact of both clustering and fragmentation. “Clustering” is the tendency of people to join into groups of people – apart from the general, anonymous, increasingly secular society (where – worrisomely to the “Founding Fathers” – ultimate beliefs, aside from the “American Creed”, are less and less shared) – with those with whom they share their ultimate beliefs. Cultural fragmentation is the cultural tendency where the overall society’s people’s beliefs are so diverse, that few are shared by many people in common. This culturally-fragmenting tendency is very clear in California, where there is a strong, developed and established tendency towards a person becoming and having their own personal ultimate cosmology; beliefs which – especially when combined with the cultural forces of “equality” and “individualism” – they might even not share with anyone else they know, or only with a small (or large) group. This is the very opposite of a unified religious community; it is clustering and fragmentation, tending towards atomization in and of the society.
California is not, and has never been, a place of long established traditions (aside from the first “Indians” there); nor has there ever been much of an established orthodoxy. (There are no ancient “Greek ruins” in California.) Strong diversity of beliefs was evident and noticed by cultural observers already more than a century ago. The problem of society and the individual, social cohesion vs. atomization and fragmentation, is not unique to California or America. The problem of social dissolution as such was clearly recognized already in most of the areas of Europe in the previous century. But California is a part of this history – and has its own unique aspects, character and place in the history and ideas of this breakdown of social unity. Still, California is very culturally influential in the USA and in the world. (One need only mention Hollywood.) The common “American” beliefs of which George Washington wrote in his “Farewell Address” (“shared…religion, manners, habits, and political principles”) are long-gone in regards to California – the common cosmos is broken into myriads of individualized and grouped pieces. (It is to be noted here that – characteristically – some observers see these conditions as an unmitigated cultural and spiritual disaster; others, often of a liberal persuasion, see this diversity as a great social accomplishment.)
There are many important aspects of these conditions to consider. But a tendency in ultimate beliefs which is evident – and certainly not only in California – is indicated in the expression: “Let Us Make God(s) in Our Own Image(s)”. This is to indicate that persons, or small or larger groups, have come to create the world according to their own personal/psychological and social tendencies. After more than two decades of studying and observing religion in the USA and elsewhere, this is the briefest summation of the character and diversity of ultimate beliefs there. People form the world, and God, according to their own personal and psychological needs, social status, education, race, etc., etc. There is no orthodoxy, and one can even observe a tendency amongst some portions of the great diversity of people and beliefs, to create a personal cosmology as a matter of distinct personal style. Some people also search and change “religions” – in a general, very broad sense of this word – almost like a change of clothes, a car, or an apartment. One can be born and raised a Christian (of one of the 900 different denominations), and then change to being a Tibetan Buddhist for a year or two, then become an American “shaman”, then perhaps switch to general “new age” beliefs, etc. It is often very simple; not only the national or state legal authorities will take no notice (unless it affects your tax status), but perhaps even one’s “friends” (and often distant families) will know little about such changes. For your religious beliefs are “your own personal thing”. The freedom to believe what one will is of course, generally, laudable – especially in contrast to state or religious coercion or oppression which past centuries, and current days, provide ample examples of, and in relationship to which “religious freedom” was also established in the USA and elsewhere. The journey westward, from the original Christian colonists – with their shared greater spiritual cosmos – on the New England coast, to the modern-day Californians, has been much greater than of mere geographic distance. When often few or no one around you – as is often the case in California – believes the same things (or you don’t what personal beliefs other have), or share the same ideas or concepts of man, God or cosmos, this is “freedom” tending towards social madness – idiocy, in the original Greek sense of the word. (idiotes – private person, idios – own, private).
It is a social fact that people who came to California do not often know, or in fact ask, of the “personal beliefs” of their acquaintances and even “friends”. This is most often considered personal and private – not necessarily secret– but certainly not necessarily anybody else’s business. In an accidental gathering of, say, 12 people, there may in fact not be more than two or three who share even generally (from all of the many possibilities and eclectic combinations there) the same “belief system” – a common expression which itself indicates not only the condition of diversity and pluralism, but the somewhat abstract, social-scientific manner by which people’s ultimate beliefs are thought and spoken about. (Recall “Science’s Religion”.) It would not be unusual to find that none of the twelve people had even read a same book in the past year or two, a situation in which even disagreement is in actual fact difficult, as this at least necessitates a common fund of basic ideas to disagree about which are often lacking amidst the present diverse, kaleidoscope of cosmologies there. Each person can easily have their own more or less clear and articulated “belief system”, and the diversity and quantity of new books (ca. 100 a day in the USA alone, especially after the arrival of “desk-top publishing” – about 3-4 new books per day on religion and philosophy alone) means that a person does not need to read books outside of their own personal tendencies and predilections. Far from sharing common ideas of man, cosmos, God, society, concepts of good and evil, history, reality, etc., a haphazard gathering of such diverse perspectives may easily reveal dramatically differing ultimate “belief systems” – or, more often, broken pieces thereof. And when people have not even read the same books, or been exposed to the same set of ideas of history, culture, religion, philosophy, etc.,...it is difficult, if not impossible, even to communicate, much less to think of a deep human spiritual or intellectual community…
California is indeed, in many aspects, like a different country from America; though it greatly influences the cultural and social life America, as well as of the world. California, where there is even a discernible growing collective uncertainty as the basic ideas as to the nature of reality, has also, in its kaleidoscope of cosmologies, significantly manifested and contributed to the tendency towards the “lost cosmos” of American culture.
It was reported in a 1992 US-edition of the American magazine Newsweek, that 93% of the people in the USA held a belief in “God or a universal spirit”. Had a more strictly defined question been given in the survey, the results would certainly have been quite different. For while not every region in America is as kaleidoscopic in cosmic beliefs as California, one would still need to qualify the 93% by describing it, more accurately, as belief(s) in “God(s)” – that is to say, ideas of God(s) or universal spirit(s). It would be more interesting to know how many, and what main different conceptions of “God or a universal spirit” exist among the people in the USA today; and to know what percentage of people believe in each. Those would be statistics giving much closer insights into the actual social and religious-spiritual conditions in the USA today. Though “In God We Trust” was first used on US currency in 1864, the “God” of the motto is certainly understood in a multiplicity of ways today.
Recalling the waxing of 20 Christian denominations in 1776 to about 900 today, and the other 600 “religious organizations” in the USA, most all of these groups, and the people (in or out of them) which make up the 93% of the US population, have beliefs which stand in profound cosmic contrasts...to science’s material view of the universe, life and man. And science’s view is, also, a strong and influential presence in America today, including on the ultimate ideas of man and cosmos.
Lyrical though some scientists sometimes emotionally wax over the great and marvelous, awe-inspiring realities of the physical and natural universe – its origin and evolution; still, this material science, in fact, finds only energetic-physical and material processes at work, and essentially believes, that Dante’s worlds, and such related ideas, are little more than pre-scientific, childish illusions and superstitions.
The human creature needs meaning – one which includes some life beyond death and earthly life; the figure of 93% of the US people supports this otherwise obvious human fact. Science has become in fact a sort of religion of matter. This is, of course, not a new contention here. If only 7% of the American people had answered that they held such spiritual beliefs, one would need be more favorably inclined to acknowledging that science’s vision is true. Indeed, if science’s vision were right about the cosmos, life and man, one might expect such a survey result! Otherwise, perhaps it is true, that only disbelieving and atheist scientists – and 7% of the US populace – are realistic and wise to the realities and truths of the universe, life and man; and the majority of the purely material human creatures in America, are thus necessarily unscientific, gullible believers in spirit? (Note that, of course, not all scientists are, or were, disbelievers and atheists.) However pluralistic the ultimate, cosmic beliefs of Californians or Americans are, the 93% shows that they do overwhelmingly believe something spiritual.
One can often experience on American radio and television, programs which assume science’s stark material vision of the universe and man. Sometimes they present very desolate images of the universe and man – often completely devoid of any mention or questions of any spiritual realities whatsoever. And this is a fact worth noting, for it must be remembered that, while people earlier in human history were generally only confronted with such contrasting ideas via books or newspapers (or later radio), it is a new phenomena in human history – which goes with the newness of television, and how people are known to passively experience this new “media” – that millions are confronted by such contrasts in the privacy of their own homes. Within a mere hour’s time, two fundamentally contrasting and discordant understandings of the universe, life and man, may be experienced by the TV viewer (or radio listener).
In the USA one can readily imagine today – and this is not a joke or exaggeration – that a strong religious believer will someday bring a law suit against such a program’s producers, legally suing them for damages due to personal or psychological trauma or “stress” caused by the program’s disturbing contents. But most people just watch such programs, and then go about their daily lives, undisturbed and seemingly untroubled. Of course, many listeners or viewers, do not at all clearly recognize, understand or worry about the relationship of such programs to their own personal spiritual beliefs. Such contrasting mixtures are a common part of American culture.
Recently I heard such a profoundly desolate picture of the cosmos and man by a world-famous American physicist...
It is said that Napoleon asked the French physicist and astronomer Pierre Simon Laplace (1749–1827), who attributed the origin of the solar system to condensation from a nebula, why he did not mention God in his work on the origin of the solar system. Laplace is said to have replied that he had no need for this hypothesis. In a BBC radio-interview – heard in Moscow on October 11, 1995 – American theoretical physicist Murray Gell-Mann (born 1929; and known for his discovery of a classification scheme for nuclear particles and their interactions, for which he was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize for physics) presented such a completely desolate material vision of the origin and evolution of the universe, life and man deeply kindred, in this way, to Laplace’s. [Desolate: from Latin desolatus, from the past participle of desolare – leave alone, desert, de – completely + solare – make lonely, from solus – lonely, lone, sole.]
Of the source and origin of creation, Dante had written in his Comedy, that he had seen, in a disembodied vision, a single, infinitely-intense point of Light, God, from which all of creation had come:
“legato con amore in un volume,
cio’ che per l’universo si squaderna;
substanzia ed accidenti, e lor costume,
quasi conflati insieme per tal modo,
che cio’ ch’io dico e’ un semplice lume.”
(Paradiso, XXXIII, 86-90)
“bound by love in one volume,
the scattered leaves of all the universe;
substance and accidents, and their relationships,
as though fused together after such fashion,
that what I speak of is one simple flame.”
(Paradise, XXXIII, 86-90)
The theoretical-physicist Gell-Mann spoke for many contemporary scientists’ ideas, beliefs and understanding of the universe, when he described its purely energetic-physical origin, and evolution – with ideas very similar to those cited here, concerning the “Big Bang”, from an English-language encyclopedia.
“From Aristotle through Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton to the present, questions concerning the beginning of the universe have attracted the attention of scientists….The emphasis on theories of causation has sometimes resulted in conflict between the scientist and the religious approaches to creation in the history of Western thought. At the present time, the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe is the cosmological model most widely accepted by astronomers. It holds that the universe began with the explosive expansion of a single, extremely condensed state of matter…” “...the universe is described as having expanded extremely rapidly, some 14 to 20 billion years ago, from an initial singularity, or “point” of virtual nothingness.” “At present the most plausible theory of the origin of the universe is that it formed from the explosion of a tiny, extremely dense fireball several billion years ago.” – Grolier Encyclopedia.
And where Dante had described himself to have seen an incredible 9-tiered, creational hierarchy of spirits made of light (which he saw had helped create the physical and natural worlds), the modern material scientists find:
“…radiation and fundamental particles… hydrogen… first- and second-generation stars… heavy nuclei… many nuclear reactions… neutrons… elements with still higher atomic numbers… turbulences… masses of heavy elements… protoplanets surrounded by hydrogen-helium atmospheres… etc….” – Grolier Encyclopedia.
These are completely differing descriptions and scenarios – spiritual and material – for the origin and evolution of the universe – one spiritually consoling, the other quite spiritually desolate.
Whereas a century and a half ago, the Biblical idea of Genesis was presumed as authoritative in America (and elsewhere); now in the USA one can often see or hear such scientific programs presented without any hesitance or apology, which assume a purely physical origin, and its acceptance. In the BBC interview with the American physicist Gell-Mann the old creation-hypothesis by “God” was not mentioned at all – not even as a question by the interviewer – though they discussed the beginning of the universe, and the evolution of life and man. There was no need for the hypothesis of God, nor even apparently for the traditional question.
Dante had experienced, at the very culmination of his distant journey his ultimate human unity with God (“man made in God’s image”). Contrastingly, the theoretical physicist Gell-Mann described man as an amazing, “complex adaptive system” – a marvelous and wondrous, inspiring product of accident and chance, plus energy and matter, via evolution over time. All of the world, life and man were described as the result of these components and energetic-physical processes.
I could not but describe this interview as other than presenting a very interesting, dramatic and characteristic picture of a spiritually desolate universe; and one which stands in the greatest contrast to the spiritual beliefs of 93% of the American people in “God or a universal spirit” – and to the US Constitution to the degree it assumes, as many Founding Fathers thought, a “moral and religious people” (John Adams).
It should be recognized by the reader that the point here is not whether one or the other of these two contrasting visions of the universe, life and man be true or not. The intention here is to present the contrasts clearly; and to state that both – as visions, as understandings of the world – affect the psychology, ideas and beliefs of Americans concerning the cosmos and their place in it. It should also have become obvious, long before now, to readers of American Reflections, that I myself do not accept science’s desolate material cosmos as a complete and adequate explanation of the world, life or man.
These “Notes on the Lost Cosmos of American Culture” have been an attempt in American Reflections to convey at least an awareness of its ideas, themes and questions; but hopefully also to give some insights and understanding into the history, character and conditions of American culture in regards to the fundamental, ultimate ideas of man and cosmos. They are, one could say, the invisible, spiritual, “cosmic” context of America society – vital also for its daily life, mentality, meaning and morality, including for the social crisis gripping America today. Quoting the President of the USA (and recalling the foreboding quotes of George Washington and John Adams from two centuries earlier):
“…unless we deal with the ravages of crime and drugs and violence and unless we recognize that it’s due to the breakdown of the family, the community and the disappearance of jobs, and unless we say some of this cannot be done by Government – because we have to reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul, and the truth of human nature – none of the other things we seek to do will ever take us where we need to go.” (President Clinton, Nov. 13, 1993, Remarks in Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, Memphis, Tennessee. Church where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last address, before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.)
Now it could easily be argued that the “this-worldly” realities of business and economics, the great social power of the dollar, the practical, daily work-life, and the “Protestant work ethic” – or the political system – in the USA are far more decisive and determinative of life, society and culture there. And this would perhaps even be completely true, if “man lived by bread alone”. Of “God” (religion/spiritual life), the US Constitution (politics) and the often ungodly “almighty dollar” (economics), this essay has mainly attended the most immaterial.
America is probably very “distant” for many Russian readers of American Reflections and the “English Supplement” – and that not only geographically, or financially. While it is not wholly impossible for Russians to realistically understand and acquire a true sense of America, without some actual life-experience in the USA; in my experience this is rather rare – without having been there. However, if someone pays close and sensitive attention to the contents and character of radio (e.g. “Voice of America”) and TV programs (American, or Russian reports, documentaries, etc.), and reads inquiringly about America and its life, in addition to substantial conversations with Americans (and Russians who have traveled or lived there), it is certainly possible to develop some real sense and understanding of life and conditions there.
In the latter 1980’s, I found it impossible, as an American in Russia, to say anything at all even mildly negative or critical about the USA to Russians. They – who had never touched or seen America – assured me that I was wrong – explaining America to me! I gradually recognized that they needed their idealized contrast to life in Soviet Russia, their dream of America: of material abundance, democratic law, order and justice, completed by a great, high cultural and moral life, etc. And while this idealized picture has since matured much, there is still, with many, a discernible tendency – passive, mistaken and unrealistic in my view – to assume that America knows how to do things best in human history, that it has found the human solutions at “the end of history” – not only materially and politically, but also culturally and spiritually. (This author wishes this were true! – though such hope is itself perhaps unrealistic to the nature of human life and history on earth.)
In the conditions of the world in our time, it is (fortunately or unfortunately) unavoidable – whatever one may think about the economic, political and cultural realities and influences in the world of the world’s now single “superpower” – that Russians will be increasingly closely confronted with “distant” America, its civilization, culture and images of “the American way of life”. This may be via TV programs, Hollywood films, rock music, books, economic practices and relationships, multinational corporations, US dollars, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, etc., etc., etc. Good or bad, it is clear from looking at social and cultural forces and dynamics in the world at the closing of the twentieth century, that Russia shall, ineluctably, unavoidably, continue to need to adjust to America, its ideas and ideals of life, and its presence and influence in the world (as many of the other nations in the world have already done, are doing, or will do in the coming century).
America is a strange imperial beast – in some aspects good and inspiring, in some aspects evil and revolting: from such extremes as the Statue of Liberty, to covert CIA-directed assassinations in other nations; from the noble (like the sacrificial life of Martin Luther King, Jr.) to the “human, all too human” (such as the demand for “equal rights” by practicing sado-masochists) and all in-between.
Whether there shall ever eventually be a “McDonald’s” in every village of Russia (as a purely secular, commercial-business mentality would evaluate as unquestionable, excellent, social and human progress – and profits!), this author’s hopes and efforts are that enough Russians shall in their daily lives, and creative cultural interests, ideas and activities, clearly recognize that “McDonald’s” is merely a kind of convenient cafeteria, not a culture – as many on Moscow’s Pushkin Square seem to imagine it. In other words, America and its influences must be clearly recognized and understood, unless Russia and Russians wish to try to merely more or less blindly follow America’s story in human history – without learning lessons from America’s problems, failures, as well as achievements, and realizing Russia’s own story in greater human history. America does have great and noble aspects, as does every “nation” of humanity; but the “America” unrealistically idealized in Russians’ dreams in the late 80’s did not exist – then or now. Still, today, a simple rejection of America’s cultural influences in Russia is unrealistic and impossible; the fact that America – ‘the nation of nations’ – affects not only Russia, but all of the nations of humanity throughout the world today, reveals this.
American Reflections is this author’s contribution (after more than two decades of serious, focused scholarly work, study, experience and reflection) to attempt to help convey a healthy and realistic understanding of American history, life, culture and civilization, within the greater context of Western and World History, to its Russian readers. These “Notes…” have been an attempt to look at America in the greatest context – the immaterial “cosmic” context of American culture and society. This greater context – aspects of which will be returned to from time to time in the future – is the necessary basis for looking, with the needed preparation, at America in greater details, in future American Reflections.
American culture, if it is not to dominate or greatly define the future character and culture of Russia, must, in my view, somehow be absorbed, and then surpassed – that is, if Russia still has some unique cultural or spiritual task in Mankind’s earthly story. The “American Dream” in Russia should and must be recognized, understood and articulately “named” as a mere means (“merely material plenty”) towards Russia’s cultural and spiritual life, certainly not as some final goal or accomplishment of even earthly life. American Reflections wants to help explain America – to help ‘name its beasts’ (good and bad) – so that Russia can, possibly, still someday contribute its own “word” to the World.
The vast majority of Americans seldom in fact at all think or reflect on Russia – aside from during times of crisis; and they would be surprised – some perhaps even amused – to hear that Russia has an idea of itself as having some important special task, mission, character, or “word” necessary to Mankind. Are the Americans correct in their doubt? The next century will probably reveal this, one way or another. This is a spiritual question and challenge – not the challenge of putting “McDonald’s”, or realizing the mere material “American Dream”, in even the villages of Russia. From “Old Holy Russia”, through atheist Soviet Russia, to “Dollar Russia” – does Russia’s “word” still live to be spoken, and can it creatively – Adamically (Genesis 2:19-20) – “name” America’s beasts, good and bad?
Ancient lore at the very beginning of Western Man’s “greater spiritual history” – journeying westward – understood the life of man in the ‘smaller earthly world’ to have significance, and influence, also in the life of the “greater spiritual cosmos”. Man – the “tenth hierarchy”, below the 9-tiers of angels, above the animal, plant and mineral worlds: a “micro-cosmos” – was said from ancient days to encapsulate the entire world – spiritual and physical, incorporeal and corporeal. An old Persian religious text presents a conversation between God and Man in heaven, wherein Man was asked whether he preferred to remain in heaven, a spirit safe and protected, or to go down in to the material world, and, in struggle, help bring about the redemption and transfiguration of the fallen world permeated as it was by evil and death – in the enormous, agonized story of the cosmos (Latin agonia, struggle, from Greek agon, combat, struggle). Man – choosing sacrifice (sacer-facere, to make sacred) – went “down” with his mission inside of earthly life of ultimate spiritual significance. As it was also understood – and is still so repeated in different ways onto our very day – all of one’s life on earth, “thoughts, words and deeds”, were an essential participation in the spiritual history of man and of the greater spiritual cosmos.
A world-famous physicist, who had worked on the secret “Manhattan (Atomic Bomb) Project”, stated a decade ago, in a lecture on the history of physics, at the University of California Berkeley, that Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), the “first real scientist”, had a “dark side” – his life-long interest and belief in such mystical, occult subjects as alchemy, Biblical chronology, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, perennial ancient wisdom, et al. Newton believed – as, from their texts we know, also did the West’s seminal “philosophers” Plato and Aristotle, and a host of great others – that the wisemen of ancient times were closer to spiritual truths of cosmos and man than later, more fallen men (like those surrounding Newton, from whom he was compelled to keep these life-long interests secret!). So, it is not at all surprising to find a deep aspect of the ancient legend of man incorporated into the climax of Goethe’s life-long work, wherein the dying, earthly Faust, striving “upwards”, states:
The traces of my earthly sojourn are indestructible throughout the aeons of time. (
Es kann die Spur von meinen Erdetagen/Nicht in Äonen untergehn. – Faust, Part II, Act 5, Scene 6.)
It is, however, surprising, and important, to hear the same essential idea spoken publicly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by President Vaclav Havel in 1994. Since his very first address in America, after the fall of the “Iron Curtain”, to the US Congress, he had been saying that the materially-prosperous “West” had lessons and truths to learn from the spiritual ordeals endured by humanity in the Communist “East”. On the Forth of July, in Philadelphia Hall, he gave a spiritual, indeed a “cosmic” challenge, to Man in the USA and the West, in the very building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. Therein he, politely but forcefully, challenged the “Enlightenment’s” merely earthly, natural idea of man, life, society and cosmos. (As we saw in part 11, Jefferson had incorporated these into what eventually became the “American Creed”. Havel:
“The ‘anthropic cosmological principle’ brings us to an idea, perhaps as old as humanity itself, that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tiny particle whirling in the endless depths of the universe. Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us….we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone but…we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme….The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth, and, at the same time, the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence.”
Havel here – not as a religious leader inside of some religious edifice, but as an individual human being, who became President of Czechoslovakia, in Philadelphia Hall – repeats a deep truth he, also, sees to lay at the very foundation of human existence, history, and civilization. It is one which is in the lineage and lore of the ancient Persian legend of “Adam” and his sacrificial decision – Man, the little-cosmos, in his earthly life standing also inside of the “greater spiritual cosmos” as a vital, necessary participant in both.
(This also touches the great story and question of the “lost”, higher spiritual “psychology” of man – actually “pneumatology” [see glossary of part 8 in No. 10, March 1996] – the “lost spiritual anthropos” as it were, which, life permitting, American Reflections shall possible examine in relationship to its often broken presence in America today.)
From the very Indo-European beginnings down onto its presence in President Havel’s address in Philadelphia in 1994, Man’s primal spiritual decision remains perhaps the deepest “myth”, an aspect of one of the deepest ideas in the greater, spiritual-intellectual history of Man, as to man’s meaning and place in the Cosmos – and on earth.
But how does America’s Hollywood, and a bottle of Coca-Cola fit into this story?
It has long been claimed – for at least a century and a half – by various European (including Russian) and American social observers, that America is a “materialistic culture and civilization”. Emerson once described how Mankind, on the journey Westward, had, by the time he had crossed the entire American continent, stripped off of him the last remaining remnants of his ancient pasts’ cultural traditions and heritage. (In part 14 the traditionless kaleidoscope of cosmologies in California was noted.)
A reflective, sensitive individual who travels to the USA can, at least eventually, discern the omni-present mundane, secularized sense and understanding of America’s daily life and all its affairs. While 93% of Americans believe in “God or a universal spirit”, easily 93% of their daily lives is, contrariwise, generally lived with little to no feeling of, or thought or reflection on, “God”, the “greater spiritual cosmos”, or the spiritual history of Man. Rather, it is lived inside of the ‘smaller earthly world’ (sort of with ‘smaller earthly selves’): business and shopping; traveling; eating, sleeping, living, loving, hating, dying; working, playing; family, town and city life; buildings, stores, streets, highways; politics and government; enjoyment and entertainment – all of the millions of myriads of activities done by the millions of people there, which constitute a day in the life of the USA, are done in a world generally just presumed, believed to be purely secular and material. “God or the universal spirit” are indeed believed by 93% to exist somewhere or other – that is, if the claims and descriptions of “a desolate cosmos”, by some natural scientists, are essentially rejected, or seriously re-interpreted. But Americans en masse certainly do not accept Nietzsche’s 19th century dictum that “God is dead”, even if “God” is only “somehow”, mysteriously “somewhere” distant yet related, to earthly, daily American life. (Materialist science does not believe that “God is Dead”; rather that he had never lived.) The point is that daily life in America is generally presumed to be somehow distinct and apart from God – material, secular, practical, earthly.
And being as “God” and “religion expression” are now increasingly often barred, by a more rigorous interpretation and enforcement of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, from most American governmental, political-social functions and the like, the shared social-political life in the USA is necessarily more voided of God and divine meaning (in any “religious” sense). There are those today who argue that the Bible should no longer even be used in the US President’s inaugural “Oath of Office” ceremony, nor in daily morning prayers in the US Congress, nor “God” trusted on US currency. Each church, community, or person, can believe anything, or nothing, as they freely wish about God and the universal spirit, life and world. Christian (or Deist) though the shared idea of “God” was in the late 1700’s; “God” has increasingly become a reality private to the person, or religious institution; so that it is increasingly difficult to speak of any common spiritual life. Common political activities, in so far as they are touched by the US government, are increasingly voided of “God” and the religious – “constitutionally”. “Religious expression” becomes personal, inward and private – or is often believed to live only inside of religious buildings, and then only during the religious services; common political-social life becomes more and more religiously neutral; and practical daily mundane life is felt and thought of as purely physical, material, earthly existence.
I don’t have exact statistics on how many hours each seven-day week (an anciently-derived time-division by the way) the “average American” thinks about “God(s) or a universal spirit”. But certainly few spend even 7% of their average week’s waking-time in some sort of religious services, prayers or study. If a person is awake ca. 112 hours per week [16 hours per day], 7% would be about 8 hours in a week, in relationship to “God or a universal spirit”. This is surely too high a number of hours for most Americans each week ‘inside of the “greater spiritual cosmos”’ as it were. In other words, the “field” of American daily life is pervaded by an assumption of it’s purely, earthly secular character; it is a life inside of the ‘smaller earthly world’. And while it may seem strange at first to hear it stated, this assumption is a certain belief – mostly unreflective and unconscious, but nonetheless a certain definite belief – about man’s life on earth and in relationship to “God or a universal spirit”.
American daily life does not believe that “God is dead”, so much as that “God” is “sleeping” most of the time – not paying attention, sort of distant or inattentive to daily mundane life of the American society and the individual lives of the millions of people which make up the daily life in the USA. Far from believing or feeling that all of one’s earthly “thoughts, words and deeds” are, to use Goethe: “…indestructible throughout the aeons of time”, Americans tend to believe and feel that “God or universal spirit” (that 93% of them believe in) relates to them less than 7% of their daily life time. They of course believe themselves to relate to “God” during religious services in churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, magic circles, covens, or during personal prayers, readings, etc., some few hours each week. The tendency is to assume that when one is paying attention to “God” – those few hours each week – “God” is then awake and in responsive attention. But American civilization today – in North America’s “age of faith” this was not so – is pervaded by an assumption, a generally unreflective, unconscious belief, that God is, during “93%” of daily earthly life, inattentive, off somewhere “sleeping”. So that the person feels, assumes, that their personal, common, daily, material, practical life on earth – no matter what their private “spiritual-religious beliefs” in “God(s) or a universal spirit” – is, apart from “life and death decisions”, somehow separate and detached from God and the “greater spiritual cosmos”. (“God” might thus be said to be believed to sleep during most of the days of the week – except during religious services of course!)
No ancient divine remembered question as to the transfiguring and spiritualization of the world of nature, matter, and evil; nor spiritual resolve by Adam in heaven concerning a mission on earth – Jefferson’s secular “American Creed”, with its “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, is devoutly believed and pursued by Americans in the USA – most of whom, by the way, in their “cultural illiteracy”, having never even heard mention of some ancient legendary decision by Man in heaven. (It is worth clear mention here that what Jefferson meant is profoundly other and nobler of Man, than the sensualized, often purely physical, earthly images of man and world presented by e.g. Hollywood’s films, and the life-styles of America’s glamorous, rich and famous.)
In sum, 93% of the US people have spiritual beliefs; while likewise 93% of daily life is assumed to be merely material, secular. God is assumed not to be dead, but sleeping (in the church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) – except when one is personally, in a religious service, paying attention to “God”.
The world-famous bottle of Coca-Cola may seem to be an odd thing to bring into relation with “God” and the conclusion of these “Notes on the Lost Cosmos of American Culture”; but in fact it is an excellent, profound contrast. Though God’s origin, existence and reality is, of course, still often in much great dispute; that of Coca-Cola – “The Real Thing”™ (as the advertisements inform us) – is considerably less so:
“…Coca-Cola, a sweetened, carbonated beverage that is a cultural institution in the United States and a symbol around the world of American tastes…The drink Coca-Cola was originated in 1886 by an Atlanta pharmacist, John S. Pemberton (1831–1888), at his Pemberton Chemical Company; his bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, chose the name for the drink and penned it in the flowing script that became the Coca-Cola trademark. Pemberton originally touted his drink as a tonic for most common ailments, basing it on cocaine from the coca leaf and caffeine-rich extracts of the kola nut. (The cocaine was removed from Coca-Cola’s formula in 1905)…” – Encyclopedia Britannica.
There is much that could be written about the position of “Coke” in American culture, recent world history and the “cosmos”: its small-scale, “homely”, comparatively-recent, Georgia origin; the history of this “soft-drink” and the Coca-Cola Company (founded in 1892); its eventual spread world-wide as “a symbol around the world of American tastes”; etc. Americans cannot agree on particulars of religion and God, seldom on politics, but they rarely find cause to “damn”, protest or argue too much about “Coca-Cola”. (The various reactions, for and against, Coca-Cola, “American Cultural Imperialism”, Hollywood and such, in the nations and cultures of the world, is another matter.)
A “Coca-Cola bottle” (registered and legally-protected since 1960) stands as a good “icon” of man’s purely earthly life, and a purely earthly meaning to it. Though originally a “tonic for most common ailments” (with cocaine and caffeine), Coca-Cola is now generally become a mere beverage of enjoyment. Whether God exists or not – or is “dead” or “sleeping”; whether there is a “greater spiritual cosmos”, or only a “desolate” universe; whether Darwin or Dante are right about man’s origin and essence – they should make a Coca-Cola TV advertisement with these lines! – whether the secular, modern “American Creed” or the ancient legend of Man’s sacrificial choice be true…you can, as the commercial’s music insinuates itself into us to sing: “Enjoy Coca-Cola”. A human product, essentially unnecessary, it is hardly there for anything much other than mere physical pleasure, the oral entertainment of drinking and taste – not to forget the glorious, rich, fulfilled human identity which the Coca-Cola commercials appear to promise (of the human being enjoying earthly life with Coke).
How many people in America (or the world) think of “God or a universal spirit”, and the spiritual history of mankind in the cosmos, when they drink a Coca-Cola? The question sounds funny perhaps? But such a reaction actually itself presumes certain beliefs (conscious or unconscious) about the reality and nature of the cosmos and man. But the point is that Coca-Cola, and that which it represents here, in advertisements, and throughout the world (are there still any culturally-impoverished peoples, cultures or nations in the world deprived of even only a meager knowledge of “The Real Thing”™?), is a purely earthly reality and pleasure – “greater spiritual cosmos” or no – and is a good symbol of the life of man living blithely and peacefully in the ‘smaller earthly world’. Coca-Cola exists quietly, and profitably, inside of the ‘smaller, earthly world’ where “93%” of the daily life of the American people is believed to be distant from the “God or universal spirit” 93% of them nonetheless believe exists. Americans assume that God is distant and sleeping, away (except on special occasions) from their mundane daily life – physical, social, political. “Coca-Cola” is a good, originally-American “icon” of the life which assumes God is distant, or only sleepily, periodically watching man; and that the purpose of man’s life on earth is untroubled physical life, pleasure and enjoyment, not some ancient tasks of the “redemption and transfiguration of the fallen world permeated as it was by evil and death – in the enormous, agonized story of the cosmos”. However omni-present, unreflective, ahistorical, “culturally illiterate” and unconscious American culture may today be in the world, it nevertheless makes certain very definite, crucial assumptions – has certain beliefs – as to the nature and mission of man and cosmos.
“Coca-Cola” here, would seem to be an adequate popular iconic symbol of any forgotten spiritual life: “Enjoy Coca-Cola [God is sleeping]”, “Всегда Coca-Cola [forget about any “tenth hierarchy’s” sacrificial tasks]”.
The “Cosmos”, material or spiritual, has itself, of course, never been “lost”. When Galileo noted the moon’s blemishes through his new telescope, and the Russia cosmonaut Leonov mentioned that he saw no God or angels on the first human “walk” in space – they were both describing the physical cosmos. The ancient, “greater spiritual cosmos” – however in essence constituted – of the aboriginal, Hindu or Iranian cosmographies; those of St. Paul, Dionysius the Areopagite, Dante and a host of other greats, was never, properly, claimed to be visible to or experiential by the bodily eyes and senses. Both St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:1-5) and Dante, for example, explicitly stated that they did not know whether they were ‘in their bodies or not’ – during their extraordinary visions. (Here again we touch the story of the “lost spiritual anthropos”.)
America, the United States of America, is a “nation of nation”, is humanity, in a historical, political, social, economic, geographical, psychological time and place – and one in which, this author believes, it is important to note, reflect and understand “the lost cosmos of American culture”.
But the cosmos of American culture has been “lost”, in many ways and senses, in man, in society, in community, in culture…
The original settlers to North America firmly believed in the ancient, “greater spiritual cosmos” – which gave ultimate sense and meaning to all of their daily lives and society on earth; beliefs which so attenuated over time, that in California one can now freely concoct your own personal cosmos... (Parts 12, 14)
The cosmos of American culture has been lost when the society does not, in deeper fact, share similar ideas of world, life, suffering and death, good and evil, etc., when diversity of beliefs overcomes unity... The cosmos has been lost when dollars rather than shared beliefs in God and man (or the “American Creed”) unite American society...
The cosmos of American culture has been lost when people rarely share, discuss or mutually know each other’s private, personal ultimate questions, ideas and beliefs of human existence, cosmos and “God or a universal spirit”, when religion is treated as “one’s personal thing”...
A cosmos is weak when religious belief in the ancient, “greater spiritual cosmos” is merely creedal and doctrinal, and not founded in compelling, realistic, contemporary knowledge of its worlds…
A cosmos has already been lost, or deeply shaken, when students enthusiastically affirm man’s ape genesis, while going meekly to religious services the next day… (Parts 1, 2)
A cosmos is lost when “educated”, “cultural illiteracy” leaves a people ignorant of the great ideas of human history and culture – including those of their own nation’s… (Parts 3, 4)
A cosmos is lost when the value and knowledge – in the individual and society – of history, literature, philosophy, religious studies, poetry, music, art etc., is not clear – when outer riches are revered more than inner riches in man… (Part 4)
A cosmos is lost when one does not even know there was an original philosophical distinction between love of riches, fame or wisdom… (Part 5, 6)
A cosmos is lost when science – lording in the universities – treats religious beliefs as just another dead object for study, and excludes the mysteries and questions of life, man and cosmos… (Parts 7, 8)
A cosmos is confused when Americans cannot clearly distinguish between their secular national “American Creed” and the Dantean worlds it disbelieves… (Parts 10, 11)
A cosmos is lost when the US Constitution can no longer immediately presume a “moral and religious people” (John Adams)… when Dante is defeated by Darwin… (Parts 12, 13)
A cosmos of the US social order has been lost when the “religion, manners, habits and political principles” (George Washington) of the young American nation are no longer broadly shared... (Parts 12, 13)
The cosmos has been lost when it is liberally imagined that everyone can have their own “cosmologies” (even if they fundamentally contradict and cancel each other) and still be a happy community... (Part 14)
A cosmos is disjointed when science casually, publicly rejects as illusion the fundamental beliefs of 93% of the US people and on which the social order depends... (Part 15)
A cosmos is lost when ancient, deep, legendary spiritual tasks of Man are simply ignored, forgotten or unknown, being replaced by private or traditional group religions, or by the trivial mass culture’s ideas and attitudes, which treat man as a mere consumer, a creature whose purpose and meaning in life is merely earthly life, pleasure, enjoyment, “happiness”, entertainment...when the “tenth hierarchy” – having a “Big Mac” and a Coca-Cola at McDonald’s, just before going to the latest Hollywood global “superhit” movie full of super-rich “superstars” – forgets that God is not sleeping...as well as an ancient legend, of a sacrifice and resolve by Man in heaven... (Part 18 – Conclusion)
But all is not spiritual doom and gloom – spiritual desolation – in the story of the “Lost Cosmos of American Culture”. The “Lost Cosmos” can, presumably, still be found again, if Mankind in America – as the ancient Persian legend and President Havel in Philadelphia say – understands the loss, and is willing to search for it…
First published in the magazine English, #44, 48, 1995 – #1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 28, 30, 31, 1996.
1. cosmos – from a Greek word meaning order. The Pythagoreans used it as an idea that the universe was a harmonious and ordered system. The word is used around 1200 in English, though it seems to have disappeared from use until it is reintroduced into mid-19th century English via a translation of Alexander von Humboldt’s work Kosmos. Back to text
2. After some fifteen years of periodically asking educated Russians of the origin and history of the “Russian” expression “proklyatye voprosy” («проклятые вопросы» – “cursed questions”), with no certain answers (aside from it being associated with Dostoyevsky), in continuing studies I came upon this in a work by Isaiah Berlin. The expression comes from the German “verdammte Fragen” in the poem cycle “Zum Lazarus” by Heinrich Heine, written while ill and bedridden in the early 1850s in Paris:
Laß die heilgen Parabolen,
Laß die frommen Hypothesen –
Suche die verdammten Fragen
Ohne Umschweif uns zu lösen.
Warum schleppt sich blutend, elend,
Unter Kreuzlast der Gerechte,
Während glücklich als ein Sieger
Trabt auf hohem Roß der Schlechte?
Woran liegt die Schuld? Ist etwa
Unser Herr nicht ganz allmächtig?
Oder treibt er selbst den Unfug?
Ach, das wäre niederträchtig.
Also fragen wir beständig,
Bis man uns mit einer Handvoll
Erde endlich stopft die Mäuler –
Aber ist das eine Antwort?
Leave the holy parables,
Leave the pious hypotheses –
Seek amid the damned questions
Without escape our answers.
Why must wretched, bloody,
Bear the cross the just,
While gladdened as a victor
High rides his horse the worst?
Where lies the guilt? Is perhaps
Our Lord not all Almighty?
Is this offence his doing?
Oh, that would be mean.
Therefore we ask unstopping,
Till with a handful earth
Our mouths are finally stuffed –
But is that an answer?
In 1858 in Sovremennik the expression, “proklyatye voprosy”, was apparently coined by Mikhail L. Mikhailov in his translation of Heine’s poem “Zum Lazarus I”. (Cf. Sovremennik 1858, No. 3, p. 125):
Брось свои иносказанья
И гипотезы святые!
На проклятые вопросы
Дай ответы нам прямые!
Отчего под ношей крестной,
Весь в крови, влачится правый?
Отчего везде бесчестный
Встречен почестью и славой?
Кто виной? Иль воле Бога
На земле не все доступно?
Или он играет нами? –
Это подло и преступно!
Так мы спрашиваем жадно
Целый век, пока безмолвно
Не забьют нам рта землею...
Да ответ ли это, полно?
Russia’s “proklyatye voprosy” is thereby directly related not only to essential elements, events and problems in Central European history (including its political turmoil, and religious restrictions), but also, by way of Heine’s poem, to the deepest “perennial” questions that face man vis-à-vis God, going back via the very real, painful life of the Christian-convert, exiled, very-ill, “mattress-tomb”-bound suffering Jewish Heine to the deepest human elements in the Bible. Back to text
3. Fallen angel – a somewhat loose, poetic way to describe – within the language of Biblical tradition – man as a creature fallen from an original, spiritual and pure state of heavenly being. The expression is probably related to the idea of the angels which rebelled or fell away from God; an idea which can be found in many religious traditions world-wide. Here, related to man, it conveys the idea that man has fallen (the Fall of Adam) into an impure life in the material world. This expression bespeaks the idea that man is ultimately derived from a spiritual source and cosmos, and this is, of course, a central idea in all of Western intellectual history; and not only Western. Back to text
4. Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species. With a new foreword by George Gaylord Simpson (New York: Collier Books, 1962). Back to text
5. Seraphim, Thrones, or Archai – names selected from the traditional, 9-tiered hierarchies of spirits articulated in the West by (pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite and represented in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Paradise). The full list is: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones; Dominions, Virtues, Powers; Archai or Principalities, Archangels, Angels. Back to text
6. fans = enthusiastic devotee. 1889, American English, generally considered to be a revival of the obsolete fan (1682), which itself is a shortening of fanatic. Around 1525, fanatic was a mad person; the word borrowed from the Latin fanaticus – mad, frantic, enthusiastic, inspired by divinity (originally pertaining to a temple), from fanum – temple, and thereby related to the words feast, festivity, profane [outside of the temple, i.e. not. sacred]. (It is worthy of note that the seldom recognized devolution of this word, from a sacred and religious context and content, into one which is secular, is a historical movement characteristic of the rise of the modern world. Footfalls “fans” are like “fanatics” of their teams in a contest; though the original meaning has to do with divine inspiration in a temple. In the history of modern religious study, a primary idea was that religious ideas were derived from originally natural phenomena; in this case we find quite the opposite.) Back to text
7. Pythagoras (ca. 570–500 B. C.) was, from earliest times, thought to have traveled widely into the cultures of the Ancient Near East, in search of learning, lore and wisdom from its teachers, wisemen, scholars, etc. Legends place him traveling and living for years in Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, even India. When “philosophy”, and its origins and history is considered, this foundational relation of Pythagoras – who created the word – to the wisdoms and lores of the cultures of the Ancient Near East is often denigrated by many modern, sceptical philosophers, who presume that the spiritual myths, beliefs, legends and lores of the Ancient Near East were superstitions (“mytho-poetic fantasy”, as one famous and influential modern scholar called them), when man and culture had not yet achieved the real “rational” and scientific life of man. Pythagoras apparently devoted years of his life to learning from these lores and wisdoms – of man and cosmos, nature and the gods, et al. But modern “philosophy”, which claims the rational mind of man alone to be real and true, tends to reject all of this as inessential or unfortunate legendary history, or errant superstitious illusion – an unfortunate weakness of people like, Pythagoras, Democritus, Thales, Plato, et al, all of whom, as early philosophers, revered the lores and wisdoms of what scholars today call the Ancient Near East. (A writer’s vision and idea of man and human history – be that philosophical history, or other – determines his “objective” view of man and history. This writer’s vision and idea of man will become clearer and clearer in the course of the historical and cultural essays of coming American Reflections). Back to text
8. Golden Age – the first of the traditionally four ages of the world, often described as the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages. This chronological schema was very common in the ancient world of the Occident and Orient – probably deriving from a common Indo-European source, though understood and interpreted differently in East and West. In India it manifests in the ideas of the yugas [“ages”] (Krita, Treta, Dvapara, Kali – this latter, interestingly, was thought to have begun ca. 3101 B.C., and is thus thought to be still underway); in Greece it is found in, among others, Hesiod, whereby it affected the Romans Horace, Virgil, and Ovid. The idea of four ages continued into the modem world in many direct and indirect ways; for example, it plays a central role in the four kings of Goethe’s fairy tale “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily”; and even effected the naming of the historical city of Berkeley, California (from whence the secret atomic bomb project was directed). The Golden Age was thought to have been a time when man lived in greater harmony and union with the divine and or natural worlds. Each subsequent age was held to be a decline and degradation of man, nature and society from this originally purer time and condition. Back to text
9. Third Rome – Most ancient cities in the world have some sort of legendary, mythical beginning. The “First Rome” was said to have been founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 B. C. The “Second Rome” – Constantinople (330 A. D. – 1453 A. D.) had a more deliberate beginning (though the original settlement of Byzantium (660 B. C. – 330 B. C.) also had an interesting mythical beginning) in the person of Constantine the Great, who decided to move the capital of the Roman Empire closer to Asia, which he did. In this way, Constantinople (now Istanbul, of course) became the “Second Rome”. When Constantinople was threatened by the Islamic world, and finally fell in 1453, the question inside of parts of the Christian world concerned the spiritual and imperial (temporal) leadership inside of the Christian world – divided though it already was into East and West. The concept of the “Third Rome” – influenced by Bulgarian writings of a similar idea – was developed by Philotheos of Pskov, who wrote that as the “First” and “Second Romes” had fallen, the Third Rome would be in Russia which alone, as he saw it, after the fall of Constantinople, held the true Christian faith on earth. In fact he associated the idea primarily with the religious and spiritual aspect (“the Woman Clothed in the Sun” of Revelations) of the contrast and struggle between the spiritual and temporal powers, i. e. in the competing claims of the Patriarch and the Emperor (of the Eastern Roman Empire) as to which held preeminence of power and rule in this world, since both more or less legitimately claimed to have their authority from God. Philotheos associated the “Second Rome” with the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and the “Third Rome” with the Uspenski Sobor in the Kremlin in Moscow.
10. The Palladium was an image (wooden?) of the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athena, which legend said had fallen to the earth from heaven, as a talisman of power to the ancient Asian city of Troy. From Troy, legend has it go via Aeneas to the West in Rome – where it was preserved in the temple of the Vestal Virgins – (other legends take it to other cities such as Athens). Constantine the Great had the Palladium taken to Byzantium (which became Constantinople, later Istanbul) where it was placed, with other sacred objects, under the “Constantine Column”. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the question became, what happened to the Palladium – as legends, such as this, seldom completely die in history. In the 19th century, a cultural historian, Ernst von Lasaulx, after a journey to this part of the world (and in a time when thinkers created philosophies of history, which often included the Slavic world), wrote, in his book Der Untergang der Hellenismus that the Palladium had traveled again to the East, to “Slavic earth” where it awaits a new day in history. Other materials related to this unsolved mystery connect it the Palladium with the famous Vladimirskaya – now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Back to text
11. “In 1885 David Starr Jordan, then President of Indiana University, developed the notion of requiring or encouraging a “major” for students. The idea was for the student to emphasize a particular subject or discipline rather than simply taking either the “old” classical curriculum [based on the “Medieval” Seven Liberal Arts] or the newly fashionable “elective” system, the latter being, in essence, whatever a student’s interests or whims of the latest academic fashions might dictate.” From Killing the Spirit, page 140. It is safe to say that most American university students have no idea of this historical origin of their university “majors”. Back to text
12. The term “undergraduate” did not come into being until there was an increasing presence of graduate schools and students, which developed only in the latter half of 19th century America. Concerning the Ph. D., which at that time began to have a determining influence on American academic life and which increasingly became the goal of graduate study, the American philosopher William James (1842–1910) wrote: “To interfere with the free development of talent, to abstract the natural display of supply and demand in the teaching profession, to foster academic snobbery by the prestige of certain privileged institutions, to transfer accredited value from essential manhood to an outward badge, to blight hopes and promote invidious sentiments, to divert the attention of aspiring youth from direct dealings with truth to the passing of examinations...ought surely to be regarded as a drawback... And is individuality with us also to count for nothing unless stamped and licensed and authenticated by some title-making machine. Let us pray that our ancient national genius may long preserve a vitality enough to guard us from a future so unmanly and so unbeautiful!” (Cited in Killing the Spirit, pp. 108-9). Back to text
13. Most people today, in even originally non-western cultures, would recognize the idea that we live in the “20th century”. Indeed, it may seem so obvious as to seem ridiculous to mention this. But in fact the issues here are much, much deeper than might at first be imagined. The fact is that the periodization of history into “centuries” is a comparatively recent modern idea. Indeed, the use of “centuries” only began in the Renaissance, and only became popular in the 17th and 18th “centuries”. That this essay is published in 1996 would be seriously disputed by few, though in actual fact most people today do not think of the fuller meaning and idea of 1996 A. D., anno Domini, in the year of the Lord – and surely many of those who have daily, unreflectively, used this Christian dating all of their lives, might readily dispute its validity spiritually, at least for them personally, if they were required to think on this. The date has been secularized in many people’s consciousness and in general world culture. Certainly there are many, many people in the world who use the dating system, based on the life of Christ, without any thought or reflection on its original spiritual-historical meaning. Of course there are other calendar systems: Chinese, Muslim, an extinct one from the French Revolution, and other social-political revolutions even in the later “decades” of the “20th century,” which claimed to start history and time anew. But the fact is that dating time in this way is based on a spiritual-historical view of time, history, man and cosmos which very many today either ignore, forget, disbelieve or would dispute. Though a future American Reflections will more deeply examine these ideas, the main point to realize at this time is that even “periods” in world history (ancient, medieval, modern, centuries, etc.) – ideas so blithely accepted in our time – are a particular view and interpretation of human history, and man’s place in time and cosmos. (And the scientific influence has lead to division and subdivision of history into smaller and smaller time-periods; specialists often know little outside of their own narrow historical period of focus.) Back to text
14. Religion – “probably deriving from, but certainly very akin to the Latin religare (stem relig-) to bind again, hence, intensive, to bind strongly, is religio (stem relig-), a binding back, or very strongly,... to one’s faith or ethic,...” From Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. (The meaning of the Latin word “religion” is not without problems, in its being so broadly applied today; for, for example, there is no real exact equivalent in meaning to “religion” in ancient Greek “religious” life! However, generally the word is used today, it had, and strictly has, a more restricted meaning from its Latin origin.) Back to text
15. Information – “information”, now often associated with computers and data, originally and for much of its history, had to do with inner education – in-formation! Back to text
16. Psychology – a word, unknown in Ancient Greek, created by scholars in the mid-1600’s (who at that time wrote in “New Latin”), to describe the middle level of the entire constitution of man: spirit, soul (psyche) and body. In this original historical context and meaning of the word, “psychology” was seen as beneath the higher “science” (-logy, study of) of pneumatology (which had to do with the highest, “spiritual” part of man – pneuma being the Greek word, which in Latin is spiritus, and in English is “spirit”), and above somatology (soma being a Greek word for the body). It is not a little important, considering the wide-spread use of the word psychology today – including to refer to areas of the inner life of man which were originally attributed rather to man’s pneuma, his spirit! – to recognize this original hierarchical triad: pneumatology, psychology, somatology; a view which was continuing the ancient traditions of understanding man as having a spirit, soul and body, and not only a body and a soul as is often and widely spoken in our time.
17. Spiritual – the original English uses of spirit are mainly derived from passages in the Vulgate (Bible in Latin, by St. Jerome), in which Latin spiritus is used to translate Greek pneuma and Hebrew ruah. Back to text
18. (pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite – the chief convert of St. Paul in Athens (see Acts 17:34) and traditionally the first bishop of Athens; the pseudonym (pseudo-) of a Christian disciple (ca. 500 AD.) of the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus, who was for a long time identified with the first Bishop of Athens as well as with St. Denis. A convert from paganism, he became a Syrian bishop. In his four treatises he assimilated the theories and practices of Neoplatonism into an ecclesiastically disciplined orthodox asceticism. These treatises: On the Divine Names, Mystical Theology, The Hierarchy of Heaven and The Hierarchy of the Church were translated into Latin in the 9th century by Erigena. Back to text
19. Noble Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason: the Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1987), p. 51. Back to text