There were in ancient times many culturally acknowledged gods and demons with personal, local, or cosmic influence. Spirits were thought to account for a great deal of the day to day world, with recourse to powers, helpers, and operating methods unknown to mortals, and therefore capable of deeds which seemed miraculous. Each family devoted itself to the spirits of its dead, for example, expecting some help in return. Cities propitiated one or several local patron deities. As noted in an earlier posting, humans have imagined personalities in all sorts of natural phenomena such as trees, storms, and the universe as a whole. Emotion, purpose, or curiosity as explanations of events in the objective world have generally been preferred over ‘brute’ causal explanations, even when the imagined intelligent entity can’t pass the crucial test of carrying on an imitation game with us. Babies can do it but rocks and bushes do not do imitations.
Early philosophers rejected much of the world-view of good and evil spirits. Philosophical efforts were distinctive in removing rowdy and whimsical personalities from nature, the non-human part of the world. That was a main vector of ancient philosophy, a thinking out of nature without magical or spiritual assumptions, removing intelligences from nature. It was not accomplished at a single stroke, however. There were still important divinities in Plato and Aristotle, but they were more like impersonal forces, first or final causes without the capriciousness of persons. They were mainly characterized by eternal sameness rather than by the discretionary responsiveness of intelligence.
Materialism in Nature
Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers started materialist descriptions of nature in terms of elements: Water, Fire, Air, Earth, or combinations of these. Democritus of Abderra devised a theory of atoms in the void. The original program of materialism was to remove spooks from explanations of the world to liberate people from the fear of gods and of death, so to achieve existential happiness. Hellenistic Stoics and Epicureans defended the materialist metaphysics of Democritus as a secularizing project. In spite of their materialism, their focus was subjective and existential since the central question was how to use reasoning to manage fear and dread and live a happy life as an individual.
The philosophical campaign against unjustified attribution of intelligence to phenomena is still relevant, perhaps most importantly in considerations of sovereignty and nation states. Although nation states are pitched as semi-secular religions, they have no legitimacy as sacred powers. The assumed consent of people to function within a system of production and distribution, over which they have no effective control, can never accomplish the miraculous creation of a semi-divine sacred entity, the nation state. Yet each modern military/ industrial state is a territorial power demanding reverent devotion, worship, sacrifice, and obedience enforced by an iron fist of law, tax, and lethal military force. The state is an internally motivating culture of social control, accepting worship as a transcendent arbiter of life and death. However, states are merely mundane arrangements to protect a system for the concentration of wealth and power, and for armed forces recruitment. The state is focused on armed protection of accumulated private capital as well as of a hoard of national resources, treasure, and weapons. That is not entirely bad. States function as a framework for production of transferrable wealth, security of property and person, and decisions of justice. The state is the framework in which politics is acted out, and politics is class war (with elements of gender and inter-generational conflict) mediated into non-lethal forms. Politicians and government officials are political entrepreneurs and not prophets, not the voices of god or the hands of god, and not the voices or hands of some other spiritual entity arising out of the collective of the people.
Claims to legitimacy of sovereign power typically rely on the model of legitimacy established in ancient times from superstitions about gods and spirits, a mystery-based uber-parental ownership of worldly territories, including ownership of people. States still employ war to found sovereign authority, and so are based on terror and misery artfully made to appear sublime by a rhetorical shift of agency from the actual individuals in command to some aggrandized spiritual entity beyond accountability. An entity is invoked which is claimed to be superior to ordinary individuals and indeed sacred in some unexplainable and occult way. Human collectives certainly can be gigantic, terrifying, and unpredictably destructive, but that is as close to sacredness as they get. There is a fundamental identity between old-time religious mind-control based on terror of spirit-world spooks and that of sovereign elites in contemporary real-world societies.
Thinking and Freedom from Spooks
Freedom of thought is still rooted in the ancient philosophical struggle to be free of the oppressive fear of gods, ghosts, demons, and spooks of all kinds. In the transfiguration from Medieval Christendom to modernity, the centralization of social supervision characteristic of theocracy was not demolished but merely fragmented into a number of less all-embracing hierarchies, which learned to cooperate and compliment one another. Spooks continue to be identified as a variety of awesome abstract entities commanding patriotism such as the U.S.A., Russia, China, “the Dear Leader”, Capitalism, Islam, Christendom, IBM, Microsoft, the R.C.M.P. or even ‘the free world’. Modern societies are largely a landscape of mountainous commercial organizations. Every corporation is a mini-Vatican with its own brand-myth and corporate culture which includes company-spirit and a star-system of corporate celebrities. Corporations are not persons, they are spooks. Indeed, every high school is a training mini-Vatican with its religion of school spirit and sport team troops, its heroes and enemies. Fundamental questioning, criticism, or dissent is received like an offense against something sacred, like heresy. An appeal to the sacred answers all questions simply by killing thinking.
In their internal operations, corporations are force-fields of distorted reality, as detailed in a previous posting. Being presented externally as supra-individual persons with benign intentions and morality is just another face of the reality-distorting field they construct. Spooks are deliberately constructed distortions of reality for the purpose of diverting critical thinking and moral judgment away from organized crime, from acts which are unjust, immoral, or appalling, such as the mass killing and destruction of war; looting and despoiling the natural environment; disempowerment and exploitation of women and children for sexual or reproductive control; malicious blockade of a sub-group defined by race, ethnicity, or class; profiting from the misery of disadvantaged people; or evading just-process for the benefit of private interests. Given that reality, it is especially important to start questioning and investigating for injustice and criminality whenever any spooky ‘higher purpose’ or ‘greater good’ is invoked, whenever there is an appeal to something sacred or more awesome than the ordinary individual person.
Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.