The Return of the Gods and the EU Constitution Transformed into a Treaty
Carl G. Jung pointed out in his Modern Man in Search of a Soul that Man is naturally religious and when he throws religion out the window, it will promptly return via the back door in the form of a fanatical cult or a totalitarian ideology.
Giambattista Vico, the 18th century philosopher of history and civilizations who fully understood and explained the connection between myth and religion, points out in his New Science (1730) that the burial of the dead, hinting at belief in an afterlife by primitive man, is concrete proof of some archaic form of religion which he considers a sine qua non (together with language and the institution of marriage) for the beginning of any kind of primordial civilized society.
Indeed, religion and atheism (see Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura) have been around since time immemorial, but it is only with the arrival of nihilism in the 20th century that we witness the political installation and practice of the religion-less State, to wit Nazi Germany; a State which descends into the cult of self-worship or race worship, not too dissimilar from that of the ancient Romans worshipping goddess Rome, or the Soviet Union worshipping an ideology called Marxism and conceiving any religion as poisonous to the body politic, a rival ideology of sort. We know quite well the nefarious fruits of those social experiments. Indeed, it is by their fruits that the wolves in sheep’s clothing are best known.
We ought to remember and reflect on those fruits which are only a few decades old, or sooner or later those wolves shall return. In some way they have already showed their ugly face once again in Kosovo only a few years ago. Some of them are now at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Christianity comes to Europe via the Middle East but, as hinted above, there were in Europe already native archaic religions going back to the Stone Age. Moreover, as Klaus Held points out in his essay on the origins of European culture, never was religion so discussed in ancient Greece as when science and democracy were making their debut in the 4th century BC. Perhaps the best example to support this assertion is Plato’s Euthyphro. There we read about Socrates and Euthyphro discussing the nature of holiness. After some debating back and forth they finally come to a consensus that the holy is what all the gods agree in approving. Socrates however, true to form, follows with another more penetrating question: “Is the holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy”? At first Euthyphro misses the point of the question. For this is the question of the “reasonableness” of the gods (or God as the case may be). To ask the same question in a slightly different way: “Would absolutely anything the gods approved of, be holy just because they approve of it, or are they bound to approve of only what is holy”? Which is to say, are they free to approve or disapprove or are they bound by reason just as humans are?
As Nietzsche well grasped, with that penetrating question Socrates has discovered the basic dilemma of the relationship between religion and morality. The dilemma is basically this: either goodness cannot be explained simply by reference to what the gods want, or else it is an empty tautology to assert that “the gods are good.” In that case the praise of the gods is simply power-worship.
For us moderns the question may be put thus: is Aquinas right in his faith in reason that leads him to found his theology on the scaffolding of Aristotelian rationality? With that question we arrive at the statement of the U.S. founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Which is to say, it is universally evident to reason that human rights are universal and inalienable, independent of agreements among men or among gods. If God created us human creatures with reason, She expects us to use it as a way of reaching the truth, and the truth shall make us free. Even God, if She respects truth, cannot let a Lucifer out of hell, the angel who said “evil be thou my god” (see Milton’s Paradise Lost).
Moreover, was Aquinas right in pointing out that Truth can be distinguished as scientific, religious, and philosophical but it nevertheless remains one and indivisible? Perhaps the most important point of his Summa is that religious faith cannot contradict reason; when it does, then we have separated truths and we may be dealing with a fanatical cult of sort leading to falsehood.
By the 12th century the Olympian and Nordic gods have dwindled to one God and Western civilization is entirely monotheistic and Biblical. The Enlightenment however begins the work of God’s liquidation culminating with Nietzsche’s madman shout: “God is dead” at the end of the 19th century. Leibniz basically poses the same dilemma as Socrates when he writes that: “Those who believe that God has established good and evil by an arbitrary decree…. deprive God of the designation ‘good’: for what cause could one have to praise him for what he does, if in doing something quite different he would have done equally well?”
The problem here, as Nietzsche and others within Christian Western Civilization also saw quite well, is that Socrates really believes that “knowledge is virtue,” and that by merely discussing the virtues and clarifying their essence, one is then bound to become a virtuous person. Plato, who is actually the one who presents Socrates to us, is more skeptical. He posits the irrational in the human soul which needs to be rained in (see the image of the charioteer and the two winged horses in The Phaedrus). He had observed the likes of Critias, Charmides and even Alcibiades, converse at length with Socrates and then go off and become elitist sophists, corrupt people who use language not as a means to a sincere dialogue aiming at truth, but as a tool to control and manipulate others. They were the precursors of Machiavelli and his philosophy, still alive and well within Western Civilization.
There are two other more modern views on virtue. On one extreme there is Machiavelli’s position which takes hold of the Aristotelian concept of virtue (understood as a good habit as opposed to vice, a bad habit) and turns it up-side-down: virtue is nothing else but something done well, competently and thoroughly. The virtuous Prince is he who gets a hold of power and holds on to it at any cost. Pushed to its ultimate conclusion, the logical rationalist who operates by pure reason (what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect”) will make the trains run on time and efficiently, will gas millions of innocent women, children and men, and then conceive himself as a “virtuous” person; somebody to be admired and praised for his supreme competence in doing a thorough and efficient job.
Then there is the Christian view as expressed by St. Paul: “I know the good, but I do evil.” In other words, there is something within human nature that is perceived as flawed and less than ideal at its source, which makes Socrates’ dictum “knowledge is virtue” sound rather hallow and a bit naÔve. Paul and to a certain extent Plato are a bit more realistic about human nature. Plato knows about the irrational part of the soul; Paul knows that there is a garden which has been left behind, and that there is a snake in such a utopian garden and there are fallen angels as Milton points out. As pure spirits, they know what virtue is, rationally unencumbered by the weakness of the senses, but freely embrace evil nonetheless.
It is naÔve on Socrates’ part to think that nobody would choose evil by simply knowing what evil is. In a flawed universe, knowledge is not automatically convertible into virtue. In the same way, it is naÔve to think that a Constitution proclaiming the universal rights of man with no appeal to a Creator of human nature (through which they become inalienable, not to be granted and not to be violated by any State no matter how powerful) is any kind of guarantee that those rights will be always respected. To wit, the former Soviet Union and the present People’s Republic of China who have wonderful theoretical ideals in their constitutions, or “on paper” so to speak, for the most part violate them in practice.
To be sure, these three understandings of virtue were proposed in one form or another under the guise of rationality, piety, morality or holiness at the Plenary Session of the Convention for the EU Constitution held in Brussels a few years ago. Unfortunately, they were never thoroughly debated. One of the frequent contributors to the forum on the future of Europe (Carlos del Ama, a Spaniard who teaches philosophy in Madrid) submitted a document at the conclusion of the Convention, on which I assisted him for the English version. It showed that, contrary to what the modern anti-religion sophists and rationalists go around peddling nowadays, historically, most of the Constitutions of the world at the very least mention a Creator in their preamble as a way of grounding themselves in something more durable than the historical vicissitudes of humankind and its power politick. The decision not to do so for the EU Constitution, while enthusiastically invoking on the part of Mr.Valerie D’Estaing the goddess Europe at the opening session of the Constitutional Convention, leaves one wondering if the above examined distinctions were at least discerned, if not discussed.
And so it was not too surprising that the feast of the gods on the Mount Olympus to celebrate the EU Constitution proceeded full speed ahead on Rome’s Capitoline Hill where the draft Constitution was signed by the head of states of the EU. But it now appears that an apple was thrown on the banquet table by an angry rival goddess who had not been invited at the party: the goddess of discord. As of now, the difficulties of reaching a harmonious agreement on a viable EU Constitution continue unabated. The Rubicon seems to have been crossed and sadly there is no willingness on the part of the political leaders who pushed the draft through, democratic deficit and all, to reconsider much of anything, albeit there is much obstaculation on the part of individual states such as Poland and the UK.
What remains to be seen now is whether or not the people will insist on a Constitution that reflects their traditional and democratic values, or if they will opt for submission to what the EU bureaucrats and the politicians have carried out in their name without submitting it to a universal referendum. So far the French, the Dutch and the Irish have rejected it in a referendum. The politicians have devised a stratagem to ram it down the people’s throat: change the name from a Constitution to a Treaty, thus referenda will no longer be needed. Ultimately though, the people will get the Constitution they deserve, for better or for worse. As Erick Fromm has well taught us, there are many ways of escaping from freedom. The flip side of that phenomenon is the dictum of Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”