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The Philosophical Tradition of Cultural Detox

The projects of ancient philosophy included removal of demons, spirits, and gods from descriptions of nature, in other words, removal of a certain kind of cultural poison that disabled the full power of individual thinking. For the Hellenistic Epicureans, for example, the cultural poison that included belief in various gods resulted in unnecessary anguish, worry, pain, and unhappiness. Roughly 1700 years after the Epicurean movement flourished, the work of the European cultural movement known as the Enlightenment continued that tradition. The work of the Enlightenment was to remove similar poisons which were being used to legitimize the exercise of sovereign power to stifle freedom of thought, for example, by the burning alive of the philosopher Giordano Bruno in 1600 in Rome.

Considering subjective interiority in the context of politics, the Enlightenment stands as an historical precedent for the effectiveness of that interiority against the propaganda of a crime-family oligarchy. During the European “radical Enlightenment” (roughly 1650-1750), and to a lesser extend earlier, during the Renaissance, philosophical humanists made an appeal to “innate rationality” which empowered every individual to question, and to understand the fallacies of, religious superstitions enshrined in Christianity, the religion that legitimized and even sanctified brutal sovereign power. The work of the Enlightenment was to remove cultural justifications for top-down human-on-human parasitism (a concept of life inherited from nomadic animal herders) from Old Regime European culture, and indeed some cultural poison, involved with the sovereignty of the Church as messenger of God, was discredited, a verifiable instance of progress in history.

During the Old Regime (the period of European history between the Renaissance and the French Revolution of 1789) the oligarchy of a crime-family class was quite overt, explicit, and widely acknowledged, but the ideology used to legitimize the powers, privileges, and immunities of that aristocracy had become Christianized. The oligarchy was assumed to have been somewhat tamed and sanitized by its traditional association with organized Christianity, which formed the mediating class of pre-modern European culture. Ultimate justification for sovereignty came from the Christian God’s active engagement in the world, as proclaimed and celebrated constantly by the pervasive organization of the Church. With Machiavelli’s political philosophy (please see posting 46, December 7, 2012, Machiavelli’s Prince) it was recommended that the Renaissance should include a kind of crime-family coup against the senior supervisory authority of the Church. The crime-family aristocracy judged that it had established itself as pack leader on the ground sufficiently to do without the senior partnership of the Church, a judgment bolstered by their claim to create ordered civilization merely by their effective monopoly of armed violence (also made explicit and provided with ideological support by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)). Aristocracy considered social order itself to be their independent claim to be agents of God. However, in spite of that claim to independent legitimacy as sovereign controllers, it turned out that they could not do without some claim of divine intervention in their dominance over others, and the Church still owned the patents on divine will in the popular mind.

The conduct of aristocracy was nasty enough to alienate a lot of people, and when they had to justify their dominance, their strongest claim was always that the whole of existing reality was ordained by God, and the Church could hardly do anything but support that. Consequently, when the carriers of humanist philosophy in the Republic of Letters launched their critique of sovereign ideology, it was specifically religious ideology that was their focus. Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, published in 1670, was an inspirational event of that movement. The struggle went on long before and after the period 1650-1750, and it eventually succeeded, largely, in de-throning the claims of Church officials and aristocrats to be messengers of God in their disempowerment and exploitation of ordinary individuals.

From a broader point of view, however, that whole effort was only half the battle, because the cultural basis of the strictly aristocratic “half” of medieval oligarchy, the culture of top-down human-on-human parasitism, a concept of life derived from nomadic animal herders, was never identified as part of the fundamental oppression in the organizational culture of western civilization, and the real malaise of the west. Hobbes’ view of the social contract (an important model for Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)) was very much myth instead of history, an over-rationalized and sanitized narrative to account for the existing institutions of civic order, including law and private property. Neither Hobbes nor Rousseau knew, nor could have known, history in enough accurate detail to trace the actual derivation of sovereign power. The parasitism of nomadic herder culture, and its legacy in the culture of crime-families, was not mentioned or considered by either of them. Hobbes, as a courtier, was thinking from a comfortable position inside the privileges enjoyed by sovereign power. Rousseau, in thinking that common people had been tricked into giving up their rights for the social contract, was wrongly assuming that people had surrendered their rights and now had no alternative but to accept the instituted structure of power. At least Rousseau sensed that injustice had been institutionalized, which was an advance beyond Hobbes.

Copyright © 2013 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.