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Culture and Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism

An excerpt from Culture and Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism

By Terry Eagleton, in Commonweal

"The prevailing global system, then, today faces an unwelcome choice. Either it trusts its native pragmatism in the face of its enemy’s absolutism, or it falls back on metaphysical values of its own-values that are looking increasingly tarnished and implausible. Does the West need to go full-bloodedly metaphysical to save itself? And if it does, can it do so without inflicting too much damage on its liberal, secular values, thus ensuring there is still something worth protecting from its illiberal opponents?

If Marxism once held out a promise of reconciling culture and civilization, it is partly because its founder was both a Romantic humanist and an heir of Enlightenment rationalism. Marxism is about culture and civilization together-sensuous particularity and universality, worker and citizen of the world, local allegiances and international solidarity, the free self-realization of flesh-and-blood individuals and a global cooperative commonwealth of them. But Marxism has suffered in our time a staggering political rebuff; and one of the places to which those radical impulses have migrated is-of all things-theology. In theology nowadays, one can find some of the most informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger. That is not entirely surprising, since theology, however implausible many of its truth claims, is one of the most ambitious theoretical arenas left in an increasingly specialized world-one whose subject is nothing less than the nature and transcendental destiny of humanity itself. These are not issues easily raised in analytic philosophy or political science. Theology’s remoteness from pragmatic questions is an advantage in this respect.

We find ourselves, then, in a most curious situation. In a world in which theology is increasingly part of the problem, it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers. There are lessons that the secular Left can learn from religion, for all its atrocities and absurdities; and the Left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look such a gift horse in the mouth. But will either side listen to the other at present? Will Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins read this and experience an epiphany that puts the road to Damascus in the shade? To use two theological terms by way of response: not a hope in hell. Positions are too entrenched to permit such a dialogue. Mutual understanding cannot happen just anywhere, as some liberals tend to suppose. It requires its material conditions. And it seems unlikely these will emerge as long as the so-called war on terror continues to run its course.

The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way."

Which is why, my friends, I ultimately believe more in Buddhism than liberal politics, but remain open to both.

 

April 23rd, 2009

Comments:

Comment #1 by John Salisbury on April 23, 2009 - 5:49pm

We cannot know where God is taking us, or why. Arguably we serve God's purpose without knowing how, and God serves our purpose when we allow ourselves to abdicate responsibility and accountability for our own behavior. Is it our fault if we're doing it wrong?
The function of human moral values is to facilitate a sustainable, prosperous community, to foster cooperation for the purpose of achieving common goals; religion tells us that this is what God wants for us, but we say that only when we're trying to persuade others that our way is better than theirs.
Life is a classroom and learning is a discipline--in my mind it is God saying "I'm showing you something important, pay attention"--you know the hand gesture two fingers pointing to my eyes and then turned to point at yours, youknow, Look At Me? I don't need any further proof that God exists.
And the point seems to be, like an old-school video game, to reach the Next Level . . . or die. The knowledge and the tools to succeed are there for us to find, and if we don't pick them up and use them, we fail. Opposable thumbs, eyes front, a massive cerebrum . . . We don't know where we're going or why, or how or when.
It would be a good idea, I think, if we held hands.

Comment #2 by rebecca on April 25, 2009 - 7:51am

We don't know where we're going or why, or how or when.
It would be a good idea, I think, if we held hands.

YES.

Comment #3 by std symptoms on January 16, 2011 - 1:53pm

I don't need any further proof that God exists.
And the point seems to be, like an old-school video game, to reach the Next Level . . . or die. The knowledge and the tools to succeed are there for us to find, and if we don't pick them up and use them, we fail. Opposable thumbs, eyes front, a massive cerebrum . . . We don't know where we're going or why, or how or when.

Comment #4 by Eviction Letter on April 30, 2011 - 9:25pm

The article 'Culture and Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism' is an apt post to go through, especially, in the light of recent developments in the world thanks to internet and facebook culture. People have started taking interesting in every activity that affects their lives. The concepts like culture and barbarism are changing and strengthening their border lines. Thanks for nice post.

Comment #5 by Spirituality and Science on July 20, 2011 - 9:07pm

Hi sir,

The information you provided to us through your metaphysics blog that cover the information regarding human soul , Science and Religion,Spirituality and Science which is something incredible. Thanks for sharing such value able information with us and keep continue posting like this.

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