maanantai 4. tammikuuta 2016

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

It is a question raised in recent years, whether liberalism, that supposed liberator of humankind, has actually been tainted with a foul crime to humanity – I am speaking, of course, about the slavery. Many leading liberalist thinkers, like John Locke, wrote in favour of enslavement of black Africans, and especially on the western side of Atlantic, they even owned slaves. This involves a complex line of ideas that I cannot follow here, but the basic question appears to be whether the liberation of one class of humans from traditional restrictions of religious morality and the establishment of first capitalist systems might somehow have worsened the state of the people used by this enlightened persons as their household equipment.

Thomas Jefferson apparently is one of the most contradictory persons in this context: one of the largest slave holder in the country, yet, denied the right to import slaves to United States, yet, did nothing to discourage the local slave trades, yet, did plan on gradual liberation of slaves, yet, held Africans to be inferior to Europeans – a list of paradoxes that just keeps growing. This is an interesting muddle to deal with, but one which I regretfully will have to leave for specialists of Jefferson's thought.

I am now mostly interested in Jefferson's religious ideas, or more precisely, in the way how he suggested religion should be seen in the affairs of state. Of course, his religious ideas as such are also of interest. Apparently, he had constructed his very own version of Gospels, cutting up pieces of life story and sayings of Jesus from all the Gospels and putting it all together into a whole. Particularly, Jefferson had discarded all descriptions of miracles and all suggestions of the divinity of Jesus, which might suggest that he was a deist of some sort.

Although Jefferson thus disparaged all ideas of supernatural, he appears to still have been interested of Christianity – why else would he go through the trouble of picking up lines from Bible? The idea of Jesus as a mere teacher of morality was, of course, a standard line in Enlightenment. Yet, it is of interest what Jefferson appropriated from these moral teachings.

The famous Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom (1777) begins with a statement that God created human beings free (well, technically Jefferson is speaking only of ”man”, but I am giving him the benefit of doubt and assume he isn't really restricting his statement to one gender). This is a crucial assumption in many versions of Christianity – freedom is an essential precondition for human responsibility (of course, Augustine might be of a different opinion, but I doubt Jefferson really cared about Augustine in this matter).

When Jefferson speaks of God as an author of ”our religion”, that is, Christianity, it is difficult to say how serious he really is – even if Jefferson believed in God, his God probably was an author of no religion. Yet, this statement is obviously a rhetorical move – it gives an air of authority and responsibility for what Jefferson is about to say.

Jefferson's strategy is to take some of the central ingredients of Christianity (or what he sees as these central thoughts). Humans are created free, thus, we must respect their freedom in every matter. Especially this holds of religion. If God would have wanted, he could have made us follow Christiniaty by default – yet, we know by experience he hasn't. Thus, we must follow God's example in this case and let everyone decide their own religious opinions for themselves, especially as every human being is by default prone to fall in error and thus no one person's judgement on religious affairs should be followed.

Jefferson's idea concurs with modern sensibilities, and his argument is also quite beautiful, relying on central ideas of the supposed opposition. It is quite astonishing to think that two quite different influences were behind the American revolution – the freethinking deism of Jefferson and the belief in personal guidance of God by Benjamin Franklin. A more speculative thinker might even suggest that these two ideologies are still battling of the spirit of American people, perhaps in the guise of very party system of that country.

perjantai 1. tammikuuta 2016

Louis Claude de Saint-Martin: Des Erreurs et de la Vérité (1775)

Saint-Martin (1743-1803) is a rare sort of philosopher, like of which one wouldn't expect to find out in the middle of French Enlightenment: a mystic, who was especially famous for translating works of Jakob Boehme. It is no wonder that a Schellingian like Franz von Baader was interested of the fellow. Although Saint-Martin is then an interesting writer to read, the peculiarity of his thought makes it also rather difficult to evaluate what he is saying.

Compared to the American religious thinkers I have acquainted myself with thus far, Saint-Martin has a capacity to make his obsession with some biblical stories sound nothing like preaching. This appearance is probably caused by the fact that Saint-Martin does not seem to accept Bible as a literal truth, but sees it more like an allegory of some deep-seated truths of human condition.

It is especially the story of fall that interests Saint-Martin. It is an important truth for Saint-Martin that we live in some manner in a fallen state, in which we are separated from our origin and from the truth of our existence. Humanity lives then in a state of duality, in which one force tries to tie her to the material nature around her, while the other force tries to lead her back to the original unity.

What the material world represents for Saint-Martin is the error that the title of his work mentions. It is especially materialism, with its assumption that matter is the primordial source of existence, which Saint-Martin assumes to be erroneous. In a line of argument, reminiscent of Leibniz, Saint-Martin suggests that matter cannot be eternal, because it is always made of something else, and this something else must be ultimately indivisible and therefore immaterial.

Yet, Saint-Martin is not suggesting that matter would be made out of monads, but from two primordial forces, one expanding matter into infinity, other contracting it into a unity – all very reminiscent of Kant's theory of matter. To unite these two forces, a third force is required, and beyond these material forces, a fourth immaterial force, governing the whole system of matter. These four forces correspond then with four traditional elements.

It is quite clear that Saint-Martin's theory of nature hails from a past, in which nature was still seen as full of simple mysteries, written not with the language of equations, but with the Pythagorean numerology. We do hear more fascinating suggestions of fantastic numerical relationships. Obviously three is an important number, as a symbol of a unity between opposed forces, and so is four, because fourth point, added to three points, makes up a material body. Zero symbolises circles, because circles have no angles – and zero can be identified with nine, for the very obvious reason that while adding 10 to a number adds one unit to it in the written form, adding 9 is in this sense like adding a 0 (it doesn't bother Saint-Martin that all of this occurs only in a decimal system). The most daring leap of thought occurs, when Saint-Martin states that a circle must be divided into 360 degrees, because shape of circle (0) can be approximated with six (6) triangles (3).

All this numerology sounds pretty far-fetched, but more interesting is Saint-Martin's idea that these numeric relationships are indications of an original language, of which all the earthly languages are mere faint reflections – that is, that the human mind has some intrinsic linguistic pattern, which makes us think there are interesting patterns in such relationships. Of course, Saint-Martin does not intend to draw any Kantian consequence, but assumes that this original language will take us closer to the original truth. Saint-Martin tries to uncover this original language from such a supposedly universal grammatical pattern as subject-verb-object – again, a triplicity. Yet, his final suggestion appears to be that music might be closest we get to the original language.

One might think this is just a harmless mysticism, with no practical application. Yet, Saint-Martin wanted also to suggest actual political activities conforming to his ideas. While the main idea of his philosophy is to return back to the original unity or truth, it seems pretty obvious he would emphasise the role of unity in state politics. Indeed, Saint-Martin goes even so far as to suggest that a good state ought to be governed by just one person – provided that she knows how to to attain the truth and lead other people to it.

If one can ever speak of an ideal of an enlightened dictatorship, here is a proper place. The problem with the ideal seems obvious. Even if we supposed a person who could have miraculously stretched the limit between our fallen state and the assumed original unity, it would still be a mystery, how we, who still live in a fallen state and are lured by the call of matter, could ever hope to recognise the enlightened person for what she is. If we cannot, we should be forced into the unity - but this seems unlikely to work - and if we can, then we already do not need her assistance.

This interesting dilemma suggests that we must reject the idea of ever finding a divinely reliable guide to good life. In next post, we shall see how a certain American suggested an alternative of tolerating different ways of living.