Adorno, Kant, Tertullian: Against Hermogenes. (06/26/2001)

To say, or just imply, as I have done here by virtue of a title, that Theodor Adorno, Immanuel Kant, and Tertullian all stand, shoulder to shoulder, as it were, in absolute solidarity, against the opinion of Hermogenes that God created the world out of existing matter, and not ex nihilo as Scripture claims, which is something that only Tertullian does directly in his treatise Against Hermogenes, is clearly an exaggeration of fact. I have no evidence in hand, and little reason to believe, that Kant and Adorno knew Tertullian condemned Hermogenes as a heretic. I link them together because it is clear that Kant (perhaps without material reservation) and Adorno (more cautiously) would have found little of substance in Tertullian's argument to cause them any significant doubt about its validity. Neither Kant nor Adorno, however, would have ventured out on the vast plain of a purely Christian ideology to condemn Hermogenes in the same terms employed by their 3rd Century predecessor. That both came to depend on the same verbal heritage and the same essential perceptions of reality inscribed by Tertullian in his condemnation of the heretic goes almost without saying because the terms of argument used by the church Father are the same ones employed later by 18th Century Rationalists and 20th Century Marxists. Those essential parallels in methodology form the primary ground for the substance of this inquiry.

Finding the most vulnerable point in the history of Western ideology for attacking the notion that thought itself is wholly dependent on the existence of binary opposition, dialectical reasoning, and hierarchical structures for its very possibility is not the easiest task anyone can undertake. Searching through hundreds of texts, philosophical, scientific, religious, for that one place where all the elements of the argument revolve together around the necessary core of its constellation in a single coherent statement, and in one made early enough and with the proper authority to be considered a foundation for things to come, is an activity as likely to fail as it is to succeed. This is especially true in the context of Western ideology because virtually no one has ever questioned the validity of the primal ideas and concepts that gave rise to the notion that rational thinking itself cannot occur at all unless it proceeds through and from the ground of oppositional, dialectical, and hierarchical structures. Adorno, for instance, in Negative Dialectics (as recently as 1966), says that "to proceed dialectically means to think in contradictions" (145). One assumes here that to think outside contradiction, to abandon dialectical methodology, to proceed without recourse to hierarchical structure, is to think little or not at all. A reason it is so difficult to find an "ideal" text for an inquiry into the origins of the philosophical certainty that only dialectics will do rests on the fact that virtually no cause for defending the ground of that certitude has ever arisen in the history of its practice. In other words, the ground has always existed as an unassailable given.

The text which best illustrates that observation, and carries with it all the various consequences of the methodology itself, is a treatise produced by Tertullian in the middle of the 3rd Century AD which was meant to refute the heresy of Hermogenes who argued, as noted earlier, that God created the universe, not ex nihilo as Scripture claims, but instead out of pre-existing matter. This might seem an odd subject in which to find a full-blown defense of the validity of binary opposition, dialectical reasoning, and hierarchical structure as those concepts have come down to us in contemporary philosophy but, in fact, there is probably no better place, no better text, than Against Hermogenes where one can find the most primal and necessary causes of Western ideology, even the ones that underlie and inform a 20th Century Marxian theorist like Adorno. Here, of course, I should take pains to acknowledge the fact of my own dependence on concepts of binary opposition and hierarchical structures in that, if there is a best text with the most causes of the ideology, there must also be one that is the least appropriate to the subject with the fewest. I cannot, however, name that text. The most likely reason for this failure, as opposed the least probable cause, is that such a text does not exist in reality. This is true because no Western thinker has ever attempted to think outside the box of binary opposition, dialectical reasoning, and hierarchical structure. In fact, those categories are so essential to the traditions of Western thinking that to attempt to proceed without them renders thinking itself impossible, if not certainly heretical, as Tertullian assumes, in the first place.

Tertullian articulates a reason why the ideology has gone so long without challenge when he explains how he determines what ideas might be heterodox as opposed to orthodox:

"We are accustomed, for the purpose of shortening argument, to lay down the rule against heretics of the lateness of their date. For in as far as by our rule, priority is given to the truth, which also foretold that there would be heresies, in so far must all later opinions be prejudged as heresies, being such as were, by the more ancient rule of truth, predicted as one day to happen. Now, the doctrine of Hermogenes has this taint of novelty." (Chapter 1)

A primary argument, then, even the only one thought to be necessary as Tertullian explains here, needed to prove that an concept is heretical, is the fact that it does not appear in any ancient text but has only appeared in a recent or contemporary articulation. Hermogenes's doctrine that God created the universe out of pre-existing matter fits this category because there is no evidence known to anyone at the time that the concept was expressed prior to the moment that Hermogenes first articulated it. Also true, and damning, is the fact that Hermogenes and Tertullian were contemporaries. Even more limiting in this context is the fact that the idea, in order to be accepted as orthodox, must have been expressed first in the Old Testament and then repeated in the New Testament as Christian theologians perceived them at the time. Some ideas of Plato and Aristotle were accepted if they did not obviously contradict anything that was expressed in the official language and word of the early Fathers. Tertullian, following this prescription that novelty is the same as heresy, then subjects Hermogenes's arguments to an exhaustive analysis through comparison to the orthodox positions of the church as they had been developed from interpretations of Holy Scripture, finding again and again that he was certainly, and beyond any doubt whatsoever, a heretic.

One effect this principle of "novelty equals heresy" had over the long course of the development of Western ideology, even down to the present moment, especially during those times, and long afterwards, when the church had the power to punish heretical thought with sentences of death against their authors, was to discourage, if not completely prevent, the emergence of any concept that even marginally appeared to contradict the official word of the church. There is of course a long history of both men and women who were executed by ecclesiastical authority for the capital crime of heresy. That list of victims to novelty might even be endless in its duration, since it is probably open-ended. One way to explain why Adorno is still trapped in the ideology of binary opposition, dialectical reasoning, and hierarchical structure is that the prohibition against novel concepts is so strongly and deeply entrenched in the Western mind that no one at all in that discipline has ever been able to break out of its prison, no one at all has been able to see beyond its walls. Since there is no counter tradition to the principles of this ideology, perhaps not even a hint that another way of thinking even exists, outside the orthodox view of what is true and eternal, it has always been virtually impossible for anyone to establish a foothold on a path that strikes out in a novel direction. As soon as any novel path was perceived, its author was sacrificed on the altar of preserving the immutable word of God in its purest state. What might be a single exception to this absence of contrary views can be found in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer (The World as Will and Representation), who suggests that the world displays an "imperishibility of matter" (Vol. II, p473) as a principal component of its reality, which rises to a level comparable to the argument put forward by Hermogenes.

Tertullian rehearses objections to Hermogenes's position on standard and predictable grounds that he does not adhere to the notion that God created the universe ex nihilo as it is stated in the opening chapter of Genesis. While those arguments are central to his proof that Hermogenes is heterodox, they do not address the issues of concern here. He does, however, establish the notion that the pre-existence of matter, which is Hermogenes's primary point of departure for his position, raises it to the same level occupied by God in Christian theology; that is, if matter has always existed and is without beginning and end, then it too is eternal and contemporary with God. He then notes that "[b]etween co-eternals and contemporaries there is no sequence of rank" (Chapter 6). While Tertullian has alluded to the existence of hierarchical structure prior to this statement, it is at this point in his argument that he takes this concept up as a major point in his refutation of Hermogenes's heresy. He notes, for instance, that if God

"drew His resources from it for the creation of the world, Matter is already found to be the superior, inasmuch as it furnished Him with the means of effecting His works; and God is thereby clearly subjected to Matter, of which the substance was indispensable to Him. . . . On this principle, Matter itself, no doubt, was not in want of God, but rather lent itself to God, who was in want of it--rich and abundant and liberal as it was--to one who was, I suppose, too small, and too weak, and too unskillful, to form what He willed out of nothing." (Chapter 8)

Here, of course, we see virtually the whole of Tertullian's objection to Hermogenes broken down to its most primal level; that is, if God and Matter are "co-eternals," then God is necessarily inferior to Matter because He demonstrates need for it in order to complete His task of creating the world. The point here is that by making anything at all co-equal to God it becomes simultaneously necessary to abandon the idea that a natural hierarchy, based on a binary oppositional distinction between superior and inferior, exists in the world or, as Tertullian does here, to argue that something other than God (Matter in this case) occupies the highest, first, or primal level of the structure. Both alternatives are anathema to Christian theology.

As one might logically expect, the issue of God's sovereignty and dominion over created reality, since He is its all-powerful Creator, ultimately comes to ground over the intertwined concerns of freedom versus morality in the widest possible frame of Western ideology. This issue is inevitable in creationist ideology, of course, for the simple fact that, if God as Creator is all-powerful, then His creation, even every part of it including human beings, must be powerless. At the same time, being powerless also implies that creatures caught in this condition cannot possibly be perceived as free from the coercive forces of their Creator, since they have no power with which to resist that force. The monologic command of an all-powerful and absolute Goodness, as the ground for all moral behavior, cannot possibly be resisted by any element of free choice. Since it is only too clear that "evil" exists in the world, every Western thinker in the Christian era has been confronted with the unsavory task of trying to explain how an absolutely powerful Creator, who is wholly and absolutely Good, managed to fashion an artifact that is permeated with "evil." Tertullian, no less than any other groom strapping that saddle on a horse that cannot be ridden, finally abandons the effort by asserting that "It is more worthy to believe that God is free, even as the Author of evil, than that He is a slave. Power, whatever it be, is more suited to Him than infirmity" (Chapter 14). He elaborates this notion of God's power by saying that "It is liberty, not necessity, which suits the character of God. I would much rather that He should have even willed to create evil of Himself, than that He should have lacked ability to hinder its creation." (Chapter 16). And then, in his final capitulation to the absurdity of trying to argue the impossible, he says that "If one be ascribed to One, and the other to the Other--that is to say, let the good be God's, and the evil belong to Matter--then, on the one hand, evil must not be ascribed to God, nor, on the other hand, good to Matter" (Chapter 16). This progression, then, clearly maintains the primal character of the essential hierarchy, based on the unifying principle of binary opposition; that is, if God is all-powerful and absolute Goodness, then his creation must be all-powerless and absolutely Evil.

While Christian theologians and Western philosophers have always resisted the impulse to make these distinctions absolutely binding and immutable, where even Augustine's assertion that Evil is nothing more than the absence of the Good, which tends to imply that the world and matter can somehow acquire the quality of Goodness, especially where human subjects are concerned, if only by behaving well and in accordance with God's commandments in the dispensation of His infinite Grace, the coercive effect of God's foreknowledge still always stands as an impediment to the assertion that human choice functions in some meaningful way to assure an essential freedom. To say that the problem of determinism versus free will has always plagued Western ideology, and that it has always been linked to the problem of morality as a coercive force, is to assert what is only most obvious. At some point, and sooner rather than later, this rather abstract observation must be reduced to the practical level of how, or whether, people are free in both a social, and/or natural, environment. In Western ideology, of course, nature and society are simply another pair of binary opposites so that this question must be dealt with on two separate and distinct levels with the added complication of trying to find some way to fuse the two together in a single coherent statement in the end. This is not as difficult as it might seem if one is willing to accept the notion that what applies in nature as an immutable law (God has absolute dominion over His creation) is carried forward into human social reality (Morality as expressed in social law has absolute dominion over human interactions and relationships), a formula which seems to work if God's dominion over nature is perfectly recapitulated in the principles that are expressed as every society's moral prescriptions. Freedom is the only casualty in this ideological hodgepodge since acting against the prescriptions of essentialist notions of natural and immutable hierarchical structures is always condemned as both immoral and sinful behavior in cultures that embrace these ideas as truth preserving absolutes.

The ground of this essential relationship, where God has an absolute dominion over nature by virtue of being its Creator, is shifted downward through the natural hierarchy to a purely human agent: Christ, as man's Savior first, and then to a surrogate representative chosen or elected from the cultural mass to stand in Christ's place in the social context. Adorno in his section on "Freedom" in Negative Dialectics, puts it this way: "it is the nature-controlling sovereignty and its social form, dominion over people, that suggest the opposite to our consciousness: the idea of freedom. Its historical archetype was he who is topmost in hierarchies, the man who is not visibly dependent" (220). Adorno continues by adding a necessary qualification: "What makes the subjects aware of the bounds of their freedom is that they are part of nature, and finally, that they are powerless against society, which has become independent of them" (221). In earlier, less sophisticated articulations of this ideology, in Hobbes, for instance, the transition from nature to society was seen as seamless in the sense that natural laws were not distinguished from social ones at all. Hence, what was true of God's sovereignty over nature was the same as a ruler's sovereignty over his subjects, since a king's or a pope's right to rule was granted by God's ordination. Where man is only part of nature, and where nature is wholly subjugated to God's sovereignty, individual people must subject themselves to the rule of whomever is chosen as God's agent over them. In this context freedom ceases to be meaningful. Adorno suggests that "the universality of the concept of freedom-a concept shared by the oppressed as well-recoils against dominion as freedom's model. Reacting to this recoil, those who have the privilege of freedom delight in finding others not yet ripe for freedom. They rationalize this persuasively by way of natural causality" (221). Man, then, is trapped, according to Adorno, in a constant state of unfreedom, by virtue of his being part of nature, with a full realization that he is also simultaneously entitled to live in a state of freedom, a state promised to him by society first and by God ultimately.

Adorno is not particularly bothered by the obvious contradiction in this double assertion, of course, since he has already stated clearly enough that to think in contradictions is the most important aspect of a negative dialectical reasoning. He tends, however, to be less forgiving of other philosophers when they engage in this same dualism. In his perception of Kant, for instance, Adorno notes that Kant's "attempt to give a concrete form to the doctrine of freedom, to ascribe freedom to living subjects, traps him in paradoxical assertions" (255). By way of illustration, Adorno quotes the following passage from the Critique of Practical Reason:

"We may concede, then, that if we were capable of so profound an insight into a man's way of thinking, as shown in both inner and outer actions, that every last mainspring behind those actions were known to us, along with their every external cause-we may concede in this case a man's future conduct would be calculable with the same certainty as a lunar or solar eclipse, and yet, at the same time, we may assert that man is free." (Kant, 99)

Another way of looking at this same statement, and a track Adorno does not follow, is to recognize the fact that the essential idea expressed here is the same as a more traditional Christian view, albeit in Kant an Enlightenment perception of it that diminishes Deity's role as an active agent, where human knowledge simply replaces the one granted to the omnipotent foreknowledge of God with exactly the same ultimate result that any human action can be precisely predicted, or known, by Deity in a context where man retains his essential freedom of action nevertheless. Kant here simply leaves God out of his equation and substitutes in Its place his perception of an absolute human knowing or reason that can, or might be able to, grasp the future. The issue here remains identical to the Christian debate over God's foreknowledge (determinism) and man's freedom of choice.

From this point forward, Adorno takes Kant to task over the issue of his perception of antagonism in society. In the Critique of Practical Reason again, Kant defines the concept in these terms: "By antagonism I mean the unsociable sociability of men, i. e., their tendency to enter into association and yet to put up a consistent resistance that keeps threatening to split this association" (Adorno 258). Kant then elaborates this idea in the following terms:

Man tends to become socialized because he feels more human in that condition, i. e., he feels his natural predispositions unfold. But he also tends to become very much individualized (isolated) because, at the same time, he finds in himself the unsociable trait of wanting all things run according to his mind only, and because he therefore expects resistance everywhere, just as he knows himself inclined to resist others. This resistance is what awakens all the powers of man, what makes him overcome his innate laziness and-whether in quest of prestige, of power, of possessions-to achieve for himself a rank among his fellows, whom he does not like too well but cannot do without, either. (Adorno 258)

A few minor points of contention first. It seems somehow odd that Kant perceives man/woman first as an entity who only "tends to become socialized," as opposed to one who is that from the moment of his/her birth. No human infant can survive without nurture from other people (mother/father) as soon as they are born, a fact which makes human a social entity well prior to anything that can be called a tendency. Socialization is not something that happens by choice when one reaches the age of reason, say, because with its realization an individual begins "to feel his natural predispositions unfold" in a context that makes him/her feel "more human." One might continue to pursue a social life, as opposed to becoming a hermit, after he/she reaches the age of reason as a conscious choice but, being social, or not, is never a matter of choice from the moment of birth. In fact, one can probably argue that the first three or fours years of a person's life, well before any choices are made, determines whether or not that person can successfully enter and sustain a "predisposition" to socialization. The idea that people are innately lazy also seems to be one difficult to sustain. To call it a "minor point of contention," however, might be to underestimate its importance to the overall scheme of Kant's position, since it is an assumption that has long been used to justify, if not to prove, the validity of the false consciousness that the world was created as an ever-expanding compendium of binary opposites arranged in an endless flow of hierarchical structures.

Kant gets to the heart of that assertion here with his notion that a natural antagonism in man's social life inspires an irresistible desire to achieve "a rank among his fellows" based on the acquisition of more prestige, power, and wealth ("possessions") than the amount held by the others in his/her social environment. No one after all aspires to be ranked below the other members of his/her social class. Being innately lazy, of course, explains why some people, even when they exert as much effort as they possess, never manage to achieve what a natural social antagonism compels them to desire. A point to be taken here, and one which has always gone without saying, is that Kant's position is virtually unassailable for the simple reason that the society he is describing is precisely the one that has always been perceived in the context, and as a result of, its underlying creationist ideology. Put differently, just as soon as the notion of an all-powerful Creator is thrust forward as the sole cause of all reality, binary opposition, dialectical reasoning, and hierarchical structures, necessarily come to be seen as the only method available to create and define social organization. Once that underlying, and heretofore unassailable, given is immutably fixed in its place (by Tertullian through Genesis, for instance), it then becomes necessary to account for the fact, in Kant through his concept of social antagonism, that some people, because they overcome their natural innate laziness, manage to accumulate more prestige, power, and wealth, than do other members of their social class. That inevitable inequality, ordained by the all-powerful, but non-existent, God as Creator, in the full flow and coercive power of His imaginary domination over the inherent Evil of the world, which is a necessary distinction here because He is all Goodness, damns the very possibility of freedom, since to be free means to be outside the arbitrary limitations of falsely imposed hierarchical structures that always define you as something less than your betters. Unfreedom is inescapable because everyone always already has at least one Better, even if only in the imaginary image of the Creator credited with setting this model in motion in the first place.

The idea of the One who is Better always reduces the issue of freedom to the level of morality, as Adorno, Kant, and Tertullian, even if for differing reasons, are universally quick to point out. Adorno frames it well enough when he says that

With direct violence erupting everywhere, our thought, unwilling to dispense with the protection of morality, is induced by nominalist trends to attach morality to the person, as to an indestructible property. Freedom, which would arise only in the organization of a free society, is sought precisely where it is denied by the organization of the existing society: in each individual. The individual would need freedom, but as he happens to be, he cannot guarantee it. (276)

The delusional idea of the One who is Better, God as Creator of a world that has always existed and was never in need of creation in the first place, because He is also defined as all-powerful Goodness, casting every creature and every act of every creature into the opposite role of the all-powerful causation of Evil, and all-powerful here because if evil exists at all it must be all-powerful wherein nothing of it can be attributed to God, as Tertullian points out, then the delusional idea underlying all morality must therefore be the cause of the violence that morality is expected to protect us from. This is inescapably true simply because God as Creator in His all-Goodness does not exist and the social and moral hierarchy that always establishes the One who is Better is nothing more than a man-created ideology based on nothing except the unbridled desire of one person, one class, one nation, to have and exercise dominion over another. In the absence of God, and I do not mean here that He has taken a vacation, there is no such thing as binary opposition, dialectical thinking, and hierarchical structure, except in so far as Western ideology has created them as a means of denying the existence of a universal freedom, not just to people, but to every living thing on the face of the earth. Without the existence of the One who is Better, there is no ground for supposing the existence of the one who is worse. Giving up God does not expose us to anything more dangerous, more immoral, more threatening, more violent, than simple freedom. Where there is no hierarchy, there is no inequality. In the absence of inequality (God as Creator), there is only freedom.

A final thought: the only reason anyone has for resisting the other, which is the ultimate ground underlying Kant's notion of social antagonism, and Adorno's claim that violence is "erupting everywhere," is that freedom is a universal constant in a world that has always existed without benefit of creation where the dominant ideology has always insisted, even to the point of executing the heretics who claim otherwise, that freedom is conditional, fragile, always on the point of being lost, in the coercive presence of imaginary hierarchical structures that seek only to deny everyone else's freedom in the first place. Social antagonism is a product of Western ideology and certainly not its ultimate cause. Kant can't know that because he replaces the non-existent Creator with human reason but does not abandon the binary oppositions and hierarchical structures that depend only on Deity for their existence. Adorno should know better than Kant but cannot give up the essential hope (even a Utopian one) that he will one day be recognized as the one who is better than all the others, as the one who is "topmost in the hierarchies." And it is that desire to be the one who is better that has always fueled social antagonism, and the violence it ultimately breeds, because the right and duty of that one has always been to lord it over those who are beneath him. The first thing lost in hierarchical structure, even by simple definition, is freedom, since the one who is lord cannot be that except over slaves.