Thursday, March 31, 2011

Polytheism by Richard Rorty

There is a famous passage near the end of The Varieties of Religious Experience at which William James says

If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may find all worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

In The Gay Science Nietzsche argues that morality – in the wide sense of the need for acceptance of binding laws and customs- entails “hostility against the impulse to have an ideal of one’s own.” But, he says, the pre-Socratic Greeks provided an outlet for individuality by permitting human beings “ to behold, in some distant overworld, a plurality of norms: one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him.” In this way, he says, “the luxury of individuals was first permitted; it was here that one first honored the rights of individuals.” For in pre-Socratic polytheism “the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form- the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes.”

Here is a definition of ”polytheism” that covers both Nietzsche and James. You are a polytheist if you think that there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs. Isaiah Berlin’s well-known doctrine of incommensurable values is, in my sense, a polytheistic manifesto. To be a polytheist in this sense you do not have to believe that there are nonhuman persons with the power to intervene in human affairs. All you need to do is abandon the idea that we should try to find a way of making everything hang together, which will tell all human beings what to do with their lives, and tell all of them the same thing.

Once ones sees no way of ranking human needs other than by playing them off against one another, human happiness becomes all that matters. Mill’s On Liberty provides all the ethical instruction you need – all the philosophical advice you are ever going to get about your responsibilities to other human beings. For human perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibilities to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns – to worship their own gods, so to speak, as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all.

The privatization of perfection permits James and Nietzsche to agree with Mill and Mathew Arnold that poetry should take over that religion has played in the formation of human lives. They also agree that nobody should take over the function of the clergy. For poets are to secularized polytheism what the priests of a universal church are to monotheism. Once you become polytheistic, you will turn away not only from priests but from such priest-substitutes as metaphysicians and physicists – from anyone who purports to tell you how things really are, anyone who invokes the distinction between the true world and the apparent world that Nietzsche ridiculed in Twilight of the Idols. Both monotheism and the kind of metaphysics or science that purports to tell you what the world is really like are replaced with democratic politics. A free consensus about how much space for private perfection we can allow each other takes the place of the quest for “objective” values, the quest for a ranking of human needs that does not depend upon such a consensus.

So far I have been playing on the similarities between Nietzsche, and the American pragmatists. Now I want to turn to the two most obvious differences between them: their attitudes toward democracy and their attitude toward religion. Nietzsche thought democracy was “Christianity for the people” Christianity deprived of the nobility of spirit which Christ himself, and perhaps a few of the more strenuous saints, had been capable. Dewey thought of democracy as Christianity cleansed of the hierarchic, exclusionists elements. Nietzsche thought those who believed in a traditional monotheistic God were foolish weaklings. Dewey thought of them as so spell-bound by the work of one poet as to be unable to appreciate the work of other poets. Dewey thought that the sort of “aggressive atheism” on which Nietzsche prided himself is unnecessarily intolerant. It has, he said, “something in common with traditional supernaturalism.”

I want first to argue that Nietzsche’s contempt for democracy was an adventitious extra, inessential to his overall philosophical outlook. Then I shall get down to my main task in this paper – defending Dewey’s tolerance for religious belief against those who think that pragmatism and religion do not mix…

After Dewey realized that his mother had made him unnecessarily miserable by burdening him with a belief in original sin, he simply stopped thinking that, in James words, “there is something wrong about us as naturally stand.” He no longer believed that we could be “saved from the wrongness by making the proper connection with higher powers.” He thought that all that was wrong with us was that the Christian ideal of fraternity had not yet been achieved –society had not yet become pervasively democratic. That was not a problem to be solved by making proper connection with higher powers, but a problem of men to be solved by men.

When Christianity is treated as a social gospel, it acquires the advantage which Nietzsche attributed to polytheism: it makes the most important human achievement “creating for ourselves our own new eyes,” and thereby “honors the rights of individuals.” As Dewey put it, “Government, business, art, religion, all social institutions have a purpose…to set free the capacities of human individuals…The test of their value is the extent to which they educate every individual into the full stature of his possibility.”

For John Dewey, the principle symbol of what he called “the union of the ideal and the actual” was the United States of America treated as Whitman treated it: as symbol of openness to the possibility of as yet undreamt of, ever more diverse, forms of human happiness. Much of what Dewey wrote consists of endless reiteration of Whitman’s caution that “America…counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success, (for who, as yet, dare claim success?) almost entirely on the future…For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.”

Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism, pp. 21-36 in Morris Dickstein (ed.)The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law, and Culture, 1998, Duke University Press

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