Enlightenment Ideology

Note 4: Reaching the Same Conclusion From Origen to Descartes. 6/3/99

One of the most rigidly inscribed, if not sacrosanct, notions in Eurocentric discourse teaches us to believe that a certain kind of intellectual progress, not unlike the inevitable motion of evolutionary development from less to more refined modes of thought, even knowledge, has always been at work in the human organism, like a law of nature, as it were, propelling us forward from a primitive to a civilized state of existence. This generalized myth of progress, however, has always been held hostage by a counter-motion in Western thought that tells us how the most significant aspects of our ideological perceptions are God-derived, if not ordained, elements of an immutable truth which cannot, and must not, be allowed to change at all. Progressive thinking, therefore, under this curiously contradictory perception, has always already meant that new methods must be continually uncovered to take us "forward" to precisely the same conclusions that we have always already had about the nature of the human condition. Every newfangled critical methodology turns out to be little more than a different path to the same destination, making every critical thinker a tourist more concerned with spicing the scenery along the road with an ever-changing landscape of variety than he/she is with finding a different place wherein to hang one's intellectual hat. A different way of perceiving reality is anathema to one who already knows the answer to the question.

I bring these observations forward here because Descartes credits himself, as subsequent generations of thinkers have also seen fit to do, with the invention of a critical method, based on profound doubt and skepticism, as if that were anything new, which predictably draws him forward to concepts, to ideological perceptions, that were formulated by early church fathers 15 centuries before Descartes' birth. These concepts, therefore, are as old as traditional Christian notions about the state of the human condition and its fundamental relationship to, and dependence on, God that were originally comprehended through divine revelation. From Origen to Descartes, then, the method of deriving the truth is perceived as being vastly different but the conclusions reached are virtually the same, a fact which might cause one to pause and reflect on whether or not any actual difference in method has been achieved after all.

In Chapter 4 of his treatise, Against Celsus, Origen explains how it is that every (wo)man can be brought fairly before the judgment of God even if he/she lived in some circumstance that prevented exposure to the law of God's truth. He argues that

"It is not therefore matter of surprise that the same God should have sown in the hearts of all men those truths which He taught by the prophets and the Saviour, in order that at the divine judgment every man may be without excuse, having the 'requirements of the law written upon his heart',--a truth obscurely alluded to by the Bible in what the Greeks regard as a myth, where it represents God as having with His own finger written down the commandments, and given them to Moses."

An inescapable consequence of creationist ideology, as far as the Judeo-Christian version of it goes, holds that (wo)man is incapable of achieving the highest and the best conceptualization of reality in general without the cause of divine intervention. This is true, of course, because of original sin. (Wo)man's flawed nature prevents her/him from being able to perceive what is truly good or beneficial without first having the "requirements of the law written upon his [her] heart" by God's very own magic finger. This kind of argument is necessary in the absolutist context of right and wrong that Christianity has always favored because it is so obviously unfair to require people to behave in a certain way on pain of eternal death if they fail when they have never heard of the new law of God occasioned by Christ's initial coming. The problem is not that Christians turn away from condemning people for the unbelief their ignorance of this or that precept of law occasions, but that they want to be able to condemn the other (the unbeliever), with a clear conscience of their own, so to speak, even when there is no possibility that the other knows or has been exposed to the precepts which determine the difference between the saved and the damned. If God writes the law on the heart of every(wo)man, then all unbelievers can be dealt with in the same way, with the all-encompassing sentence of death that falls on the head of the unbeliever universally without pang of conscience.

Descartes, in his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, confesses that he has fallen into profound doubt over the issue of whether the content of his dreams is more or less real than the content of his mind when he knows himself to be fully awake. He concludes this inquiry with the universally known dictum "I think, therefore I am," and notes on his way to it that

"I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has need of no place, nor is dependent on any material thing; so that " I," that is to say, the mind by which I am what I am, is wholly distinct from the body, and is even more easily known than the latter, and is such, that although the latter were not, it would still continue to be all that it is." (Method, Part IV)

The idea that the mind can exist without dependence on any material thing and that it is "wholly distinct from the body" calls up the Christian idea that the soul exists as an independent aspect of human reality, separate and distinct from the body, that has the capacity to live well beyond the physical death of the individual who possesses it. Since the soul has always stood as the ultimate seat of human reason, making the leap from one idea to the other in Descartes' discourse, from mind to soul, as it were, is probably a perfectly legitimate thing to do. Descartes does suggest here that the mind is immortal, that it is capable of sustaining eternal life, since it does not need the body, any more than the soul does, to "still continue to be all that it is." Descartes gets to these positions through his proof for the existence of God which he derived from the notion that (wo)man is incapable of conceiving a being more perfect than she/he is and, because of that flaw, God, who is by definition more perfect than (wo)man, in the Creator/creature syndrome of hierarchical thinking, must have put the idea of the existence of a more perfect being into the mind of (wo)man Himself. This proves God's existence, according to Descartes, because the idea of a more perfect being could not have come into (wo)man's mind from nothing.

Descartes generalizes from this specific argument to suggest that all truth, in as much as it can exist in human reason at all because of the flawed condition of (wo)man, must also, and of necessity, come from God Himself. He puts it this way in Part IV of his Method:

"although we very clearly see the sun, we ought not therefore to determine that it is only of the size which our sense of sight presents; and we may very distinctly imagine the head of a lion joined to the body of a goat, without being therefore shut up to the conclusion that a chimaera exists; for it is not a dictate of reason that what we thus see or imagine is in reality existent; but it plainly tells us that all our ideas or notions contain in them some truth; for otherwise it could not be that God, who is wholly perfect and veracious, should have placed them in us.

While Descartes does not resort to the image of the finger of God writing on the heart of his disobedient creatures, he tells us as clearly as Origen has done that our best and most productive ideas, if truth is taken as guide to those qualities, have been given to us by God and that (wo)man cannot be held responsible, either in blame or praise, for any idea we have that is not obviously false and/or evil. Descartes, then, moving through his profound doubt and relying on reason alone and science especially comes to the same place Origen left behind 1500 years earlier, a place Origen found through divine revelation with no science at all and clearly without any doubt either.

Being native American, and therefore completely unfamiliar with the sensation of having God write things on my heart, could be it's happened and I simply failed to recognize what was going down, perhaps I expect too much. After 1500 years, and with a newfangled methodology with which to work, it seems like Descartes could have found some other explanation for the existence of truth in the mind of (wo)man. On the other hand, of course, one can always take the position that immutable truth cannot be expected to change just because the method used to discover it undergoes a "radical" transformation. Truth is always truth. Or, put another way: getting rid of the false consciousness that underlies all ideology requires considerably more than a commitment to newfangled methodologies. When the answer is already in hand, methodology only finds it all over again.

For my own part, and I speak here from a native American point of view but not necessarily for anyone except myself, being tied down to an idea because someone has concluded that it is immutable truth divinely revealed and written down on the heart of (wo)man by the finger of God seems a sure formula for always living in ignorance of reality and never one for apprehending the truth or falsity of the existence of the chimaera. The fact that both the goat and the lion have or manifest a distinctive spirit-power uniquely their own and that any person can come to be guided by both the spirit of the goat and the spirit of the lion suggests to me that the elusive chimaera does in fact exist, not as an immutable truth of entity, but only as a passing potentiality of the human spirit, purely mortal and transitory, like everything else in the natural world. What always strikes me as most pitiful in Eurocentric discourse is the blind commitment it has always had to limiting potential rather than doing everything possible to extend and nurture it. That, I suppose, is the price you have to pay for believing you know what is certainly and absolutely true in a world that only passes you by because you were intent on finding something that does not exist.

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