…and why Francis doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance.
Mike Tyson, as a boxer, has been called The Baddest Man on the Planet, one of the greatest punchers of all time, the hardest hitter in the history of heavyweight boxing, the scariest boxer ever, and perhaps the most ferocious fighter to step into a professional ring. He is also one of a very small group of men to have regained a heavyweight championship title after losing it. A rare feat, indeed. In short, he is one of the greatest boxers of all time. On the flip-side to his success as an athlete, Mr. Tyson is a convicted rapist, a registered sex offender, a bankrupt (after a reported lifetime earnings of $300 million), thrice married, an alcoholic, a self-professed drug abuser, and suffers bipolarism. One is always tempted to ask, do Mr. Tyson’s personal troubles have anything to do with his success in the ring?
Regardless of the answer, readers of the Wall Street Journal may recall an essay of Mr. Tyson’s describing his readings in philosophy. At first glance, the rigorous intellectual discipline of philosophy seems to be outside the ken of a personality such as The Baddest Man on the Planet. Still, the piece had nice rhetorical flourishes and was, considering his personal troubles, thoroughly touching. Of the writers mentioned, one was the Danish philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Writing widely and covering topics in morality, ethics, religion and psychology, some elements within Kierkegaard’s thinking are considered the wellspring of Existentialism. Existentialism, as a body of thought, was more fully developed by later writers such as the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881), the Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), and finally the undisputed, all-time Heavyweight Champion of Existentialism, the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
To clarify, Kierkegaard is not considered an Existentialist, but his ideas can be traced into more expanded Existentialist views developed by others. And why isn’t Kierkegaard considered a bone fide Existentialist? Because he maintained a belief in God. In fact, the Dane strongly reaffirmed the traditional theistic notion of God as being so utterly incomprehensible to the human mind…any human mind…that religious faith necessarily must be an irrational prospect (1). That is, the human capacity for reason is inadequate to fully comprehend the infinite totality of what God encompasses.
Existentialism, regardless of man’s abilities or theological declarations otherwise, rejects the idea of God. It dispenses with the need for God, regardless of how abstract the conceptualization; whether as father, son, incorporeal spirit, mystical deification of an esoteric, the absolute summum bonum or whatever is considered at the limits of human ability to abstract. Existentialism, as a body of ideas, took decades to develop; again, with Nietzsche as the dominant exponent. To give you an idea of the revolutionary nature of Nietzsche’s thinking, he also didn’t believe in reason, free will, or morality. He dispenses with them all! (Somewhat odd that a philosopher who did not believe in reason would be…well…taken seriously in the first place; but that’s where we’ve come to reside in an intellectual sense within the last 150 years.) Without God, death becomes a fixed entity, with human life ending without purpose or higher justification. In other words, death becomes an absurdity that negates the ethical basis of human existence. The consequence of the absurdity is a philosophy that emphasizes negativity, emptiness and alienation (2). Nietzsche being the ultimate dead-ender, declared God to be totally and finally dead; and, human intellect was the thing that killed Him.
You see, Nietzsche saw religion as a clever and invented response to societal hierarchy, which historically, has been tilted towards the rich and powerful in the form of hereditary aristocracy. Christianity, for instance, upended the stratification by promising a revision of the status quo; i.e. the rich and powerful are evil while faithful Christians are good, thus creating an inverted stratification. Christianity was a morality, according to Nietzsche, based in a slave mind-set; and a mind-set wishing for a reversal of the slave’s life. In other words, God is used as a projection into an illusory beyond in order to deal with an unpleasant now. Never mind that over a period of centuries, Christianity displaced paganism as the state religion and the religion of slave and master alike. But, philosophers philosophize according to the dictates of their discipline and not according to historical fact.
Without God, and human death as an absurdity, where does that leave us? An amoral Darwinism, sad to say. Similar to other nineteenth century revolutionary thinkers, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) also helped to overturn the predominantly theist mindset of the time. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution bled into the intellectual firmament and through osmosis, incorporated into other thinking, including Nietzsche’s. More to the point, Nietzsche substituted God with a new gospel; the gospel of social Darwinism. Completely misunderstanding the process of natural selection, Nietzsche substituted the innate urge for survival into a conceived and fabricated ideological Will to Power. The Will to Power, as an ideology, was practiced at the personal and institutional level; a profoundly irrational leap to be sure. The Nietzschian Will to Power became a Master Morality displacing the Slave Morality of Christianity. Once displaced, only then would an honest dynamic take hold and a cosmologically ordained law be finally allowed to express itself without the need for supernatural authority. Wow, baby! Wow! And then one thing leads to another with Nietzschism rationalizing the political movements of Nazism and Stalinism. Throw in some racial superiority theory and…Bada-bing-bada-boom…World War II, the Soviet Union and one thing leads to the next…there are 90 million dead people.
Add fifty or sixty years, and ninety million dead people notwithstanding, the far ranging influence of existentialist philosophy on the current cultural ambiance continues unabated. Throw in some Marxism on the economic side and Freudianism as a psychological under-current, strains of existentialist thought have seeped into every nook and cranny. They can be traced into the visual arts, the performing arts, literature, politics, intellectual history, education and journalism; almost every corner of Western culture as it exists today. If the reader doubts this statement, I would ask him or her to consider a cover from Time magazine from 1966 asking ‘Is God Dead?’ It’s almost a direct quote! (But never properly attributed.) Institutional, nationalistic and other collective forms of the Will to Power are still with us, but have been and are counterbalanced by the Democratic impulses inherent to American hegemony. The intellectual void remains at the personal level, however; and within the religious institution most associated with doctrinal orthodoxy…The Roman Catholic Church. The idea of hierarchical inversion was also carried off by Marx. Marxism is dying slowly; but, unfortunately his ideas still appeal. They are repackaged by elitist academics and now expressed as cultural Marxism rather than the original economic version.
Now, here in the first part of the 21st Century, the psychological substitutes have proliferated dramatically to fill the void. The bigger the vacuum, the more that rushes in to fill it. The substitutes all boil down to an aimless hedonism expressed through a common culture of electronic media. For lack of a more succinct term, let’s call the basic human hedonistic tendencies as developed into the current zeitgeist Moralistic Therapeutic Secularism. Moralistic because there are always morals. There is never a lack of morals. They may be negative morals (i.e. the morality of a cannibal or mass murderer) but when there are two or more people in a room, morals exist. Therapeutic because we are sick, you see. We are sick either because society makes us sick (so said Freud) or inherently sick as individuals (so said too many western philosophers to name). And sickness, of course, requires therapy (3). Secular because God is dead. Nietzsche said so.
To summarize…while various forms of atheism have been inherent in the culture of man from the beginning, Friedrich Nietzsche gave the fullest modern expression to atheism in a life-time work of negativity and denial. Why expend a life-time of literary and philosophical work negating the existence of God? To create substitutes. Like nature, the human collective psyche abhors a vacuum. Nietzsche alone didn’t create the vacuum. He’s had a considerable amount of help over the decades from other writers, academics, social scientists and even those who are supposedly defenders of faith itself, organized religion. Nietzsche merely threw one of the switches on a pump with multiple switches that sucks the theological oxygen out of our collective cultural existence. Once the oxygen was extinguished, in rushed all manner of modernist, progressive thinking; Freud, Marx, and the most powerful influence of them all, Nietzsche’s Will to Power.
So…Christianity…the first inversion of values that has provided spiritual nourishment to billions of people over two millenia. Nietzschism as a second attempted inversion that took the Western world decades to work through and reject at a cost of tens of millions of lives. Marxism as the third with an equally appalling cost.
Francis versus Tyson … continued in Part 2 (click here).
1. The God Question, What Famous Thinkers From Plato to Dawkins Have Said About The Divine; Pessin, Andrew; Oneworld Publications; Oxford; 2009
2. The Elements of Philosophy, A Compendium for Philosophers and Theologians; Wallace, William; Wipf and Stock Publishers; Eugene; 1977
3. One Nation Under Therapy, How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance; Satel, Sally; St. Martin’s Griffin; New York; 2005