A widespread upheaval took place in a remarkable time period known as the Axial Age. In the space of a couple centuries, religious prophets in diverse parts of the world proclaimed a vision of not simply a social and cosmic order, but a moral order. Prophets, philosophers, and reformers all proclaimed a new message of liberation.
Up to this point, religion had been a matter of maintaining a certain order by seeking blessings from the gods. A successful hunt, a bountiful harvest, a safe pregnancy were all things for which people sought divine favor. These were the things needed to maintain the basic rhythm of life. With the rise of civilization, this order was centered in the sovereign. Using the order of the heavens to create order in their own kingdoms, the success of society was tied to the success of the sovereign. The sovereign will was the will of the gods. To defy them was to anger the gods, so absolute obedience was required.
With the Axial shift, religion (along its cousin philosophy) becomes a means to critique the social order. The divine will is something other than the sovereign will, and the sovereign himself must bend to it. Here the phrase “speak truth to power” begins to take on meaning. In a previous age, such a statement would be absurd, as power was truth. People began to look to an order of how things should be, and critique society as it was.
This shift involved a rejection of not only the hardships of civilization, but many of its purported benefits. These new movements stressed an attitude of renunciation. Wealth, sex, power, and all such worldly goods were to be forsaken in favor of some higher calling. There is more to life, these prophets decreed, than mere fleeting pleasures and accumulation of possessions. In fact, the unrestrained pursuit of such things is the path to ruin. In this they made a bold statement that the good life was to be measured by the development of the person. It was quality, not quantity, that truly mattered in life.
In many ways, Judaism was ahead of the curve on this one. The story of Exodus is the one of liberation from an oppressive regime ruled by a God-King. This pattern would repeat itself with the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and countless others. The history of the Jewish people is one of captivity followed by liberation. It is God who liberates them – a God who is not tied to political power but transcends all the powers of this world. This God at first appears as a tribal god – a champion of the people of Israel. Yet it is through the Hebrew people that a message of divine justice is brought to the world.
During the Axial shift, we see the Hebrew prophets scolding their own people about their neglect of justice. By neglecting the poor, the widow, the orphan, they have forsaken their God and incurred His wrath. The prophets call upon the Israelites to remember their covenant with YHWH and repent of their ways.
They warn the people that so long as they stray from the path, their offerings and sacrifices mean nothing. This was a truly radical message for the time. According to the logic of other religions at the time, offerings and sacrifices were precisely the means by which people sought the favor of the gods. Gods could be enticed with gifts, and through them their cults sought their continued protection and blessings. Yet here we find a God who cares first and foremost about justice. Offerings and sacrifices are not to appease God, who needs nothing, but to remind the people of their covenant with Him.
Reason and Mysticism
The Axial turn saw a turn toward reason. Philosophy emerged during this time, not as something separate from religion, but as a new way of engaging in religious discourse through rational examination. In our present era, there is a tendency to suppose an opposition with reason and science on one side and faith and religion on the other.
However, the historical emergence of reason with the Axial turn was a realization of a deeper order of things. Reason and mysticism developed together along similar lines. Plato saw reason as a path to access a transcendent order. The Buddha interrogated the nature of the self to find a path of liberation from suffering. Mystics of all traditions have always encouraged this kind internal examination.
Reason does not just show us the logical consistency of propositions. The fact that we are able to come to a logical conclusion about something and consistently find that the real world bears out that result reveals that that there is a rational order to the world. When we use reason, we are reasoning with the world. There is a kind of reason to existence – a Logos – that transcends existence itself.
This Logos can be personified as a supreme Being, or a kind of impersonal nature of reality such as Dharma or Dao, but in any case, it is understood as some sort of metaphysical ultimate. From its depths springs the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. Mystical practice and cultivation of reason both lead to their realization because reason is itself something mystical.
What we find here is a refusal to take for granted the world as it presents itself to us. Behind the world of the senses is a transcendent order that can be accessed through reason and contemplation. Behind the social order of the day is an ethical order to which even the mightiest kings are obliged to submit. Behind the material order is an aesthetic order of proportion and form.
Mysticism starts where reason leaves off. It is transrational rather than prerational. The mystical conditions the rational – it is that which grounds reason. Through reason we are able to examine the world around us, but through mysticism we are able to examine the examiner, and in the process peer past the examiner to the ground of Being itself. The mystical is often called ineffable and indescribable, yet mystical traditions have a vast language to describe the experience. It is only indescribable to those who have not experienced it. Those who have can communicate about it not only within their tradition but also across traditions. This is not to suggest that mysticism is the same across traditions, as Perennialism suggests, but the experience is similar enough that the frameworks surrounding the experiences are translatable.
The Great Chain of Being
The cycles of nature memorialized in ancient rituals were shrouded in myth but reflected a deep understanding of nature. The Greek philosophers sought to understand nature in rational rather than mythic terms. Thales developed one of the first naturalistic theories, seeing all of nature originating in the material principle of water. Heraclitus saw flux as the fundamental principle of nature, whereas Parmenides saw Being as eternal and unchanging, and change as illusory. For Pythagoras, reality was fundamentally mathematical, composed of number and proportion.
Plato sought a synthesis between these ideas. In his system, there was an eternal, unchanging mathematical order beyond existence. From this emerged a world of unchanging ideal forms. From these emanated variation on these forms, culminating on the material world of flux and physicality. This system took seriously the world of matter but subordinated it to the mathematical world of form. For him, Parmenides was wrong to see change as an illusion, but it was still seen as a problem. Truth lay in that which was unchanging and eternal. The goal was to see past the ephemeral events of this world to the changeless forms above.
Where Plato built his system from above, Aristotle started from below. The forms that Plato saw as descending from on high were for him immanent within actual objects. He saw four types of causality at work in all things. There is material cause, the matter in which things have their physicality and particularity. There is efficient cause, in which one event brings about another event. There is formal cause, the particular form that objects take. Then there is final cause, the ends for which things act. We can say, relatively speaking, that matter and form are the causes of objects, while mechanism and telos are the cause of events. Of course, there is a sense in which objects are events and events are objects, and as such all things have all four types of causes.
Aristotle was a consummate taxonomist. Where Plato sought a higher realm from which all things sprang, Aristotle sought a natural hierarchy from the lowest to highest things. He was particularly interested in life and the soul. The soul for him was not some immaterial substance as it is often pictured today. Rather, it is the innate set of capacities in entities. He saw the soul emerging in layers. First, there is brute matter, whose soul was to be moved by external forces. Next was the vegetative soul one finds in plants, with the capacity for growth and reproduction. Then there was the sensitive soul, found in animals, with the capacity for sensation and movement. Then finally there was the rational soul, found in humans, with the capacity for thought and reflection.
What both Plato and Aristotle were approaching from opposite directions, one descending and the other ascending, was a great hierarchy of nature in which all things had their place. There was a plenitude to nature, from the lowest to the highest, in which all things had their place, and there were no gaps to be found.
This principle continues to influence Western thought to this day. “No gaps in nature” is a scientific as well as metaphysical principle. It is not a scientifically testable hypothesis, but rather a necessary principle for scientific inquiry to occur at all. Along with it comes the principle of sufficient reason, which states that for something to exist, there must sufficient reason to exist. There are no “brute facts” whose existence is in without cause.
The principle of plenitude led to a cosmic order known as the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being would be one of the most influential ideas in the Western Mind. It would become the blueprint for metaphysical systems throughout the ages. It was the lens through which the heavens and the natural world were understood as part of a single unified system. In the coming era, the Great Chain would spread to all corners of the known world.
Aristotle’s most famous student was not himself a philosopher, but a crown prince, Alexander of Macedon, whom he tutored until the age of 16. His father, Philip of Macedon, was a great conqueror n his own right up until his death at the hands of an assassin. The young Alexander ascended to the throne at the age of 20, and by the time he died at 32, his empire stretched from Egypt to Persia and Babylon to Central Asia all the way to the edge of India, uniting most of the great civilizations of the time. The empire he built fell apart at his death, but it would impact civilization as we know it down to our present time. Hellenistic civilization, as it’s come to be known, was a bridge between civilizations. The Macedonians brought with them the great philosophical ideas of classical Greece, where they merged with the religions and cultures they encountered.
The blending of ideas influenced Buddhism, spreading along the Silk Road and developing into what became known as the Mahayana school. The cult of the Greek Hero developed into the concept of the Boddhisatva. The Greek reverence for the human body led to some of the first depictions of the Buddha in statues as well as paintings. At the same time, Buddhist ideas were brought back to Greece. Pyrrho of Elis was among Alexander’s army in India, and there he encountered among Buddhists an attitude of inquiry into sense data and ideas that deconstructed them and relativized the human capacity for understanding. Pyrrho brought these ideas back with him and founded the school known as Skepticism – an idea that would emerge repeatedly under different guises in Western philosophy.
The West saw Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism, form a kind of infrastructure to its consciousness. This metaphysical framework had two poles, with an unchanging world of unifying spirit on one pole, beyond the world of the senses and accessible only to reason and contemplation, and on the other pole a world of matter and flux, in which things manifested a particularity and a ephemerality. In the changing world of matter, we experience vulnerability, corruption, loss, and grief. But beyond this world is a world of perfect, timeless, changeless Being. The goal of philosophy was to rise above the corruption and vulnerability of matter to the transcendental realm of reason. Through reason, one could master one’s senses and emotions to rise above the suffering of this world into the realization of higher mind.
If Hellenistic thought spread itself through conquest, Judaism saw its own spread through a kind of paradoxical anti-conquest. It was by repeatedly being conquered that the Jews were dispersed among the nations. The empires that conquered them, from Babylon and Assyria to the Greeks and Romans, measured themselves by their overpowering strength and might, but were shamed by Israelites in their faith and perseverance. These empires took their military victory over the Jews as proof of the greatness of their gods, but for the Jews, their God was the supreme author of history, and its events were the language in which He wrote.
Their suffering was their hope, their vulnerability their strength, their humility their wisdom. In submitting to a God who stood above all earthly power, they recognized a greater purpose to their subjugation and suffering and saw the promise of some ultimate liberation. Where Greek thought saw a metaphysical fall into matter that could be overcome through reason, the people of Israel there was a fall into exile that could only be overcome in time, through patient perseverance and trust in divine Providence. Where Hellenistic reason offered an escape from the trials of this world through rational control of one’s faculties, Hebrew wisdom lay in its faithful service to an ultimate divine plan whose ultimate realization lay over the horizon in the age to come.
Into this world there arose a new movement, centered around the most famous person in all of history: Jesus of Nazareth. Born into the humble manger in the town of Bethlehem, raised in the backwater Galilean town of Nazareth, executed as an enemy of the state, he was the polar opposite of the imperial ideal. Yet in this very humility, he overcame the world. His crown was a crown of thorns, his throne a cross to which he was nailed. In his death, the power of empire seemed to assert itself, bringing him to a humiliating end.
Yet just when his movement seemed defeated and scattered, they found immense strength. According to them, the impossible had happened: their Lord had risen from the grave! They spread news of the wonders they had witnessed and followed in his footsteps. The path to liberation lay in “taking up one’s cross” to follow him. This was a path of self-emptying – of kenosis – through which one could attain to the glory of God through the surrender of self. This surrender manifested itself first and foremost in the blood of the martyrs. Just as Christ had entered through the gate of death to bring about eternal life, so too would his followers meet death with confident assurance of their own place in the hereafter. They would ultimately see their vindication in the coming of the Kingdom.
In Christ, there was reconciliation of all things – of Heaven and Earth, God and man, beginning and end. Christ proclaimed the Kingdom of God, in which the order of this world – the rule of the strong, of domination and conquest – would be overturned. Christ was the ultimate exemplification of the ancient God-King, being fully human and fully divine. Yet he was also the ultimate inversion of this idea. His kingdom was not of this world. This kingdom is always here but always yet to come. Christ was a king who rules through love rather than force. In this kingdom, it was the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, who would come first, and rich and powerful who would be laid low.
As Christianity developed, there were several controversies over who this Christ was. Was he human? Divine? Half-human and half-divine? How did the human and divine nature interact? Numerous councils were called to address these controversies, beginning with the Council of Nicaea, which established Christ as both fully human and fully divine. In working out what this meant, a new understanding developed of just what it meant to be human. The emotions and vulnerability and human frailty that were shunned by the Stoics and Neoplatonists came to acquire a new dignity. Rather than needing to be strong and self-reliant, there was new emphasis on our shared vulnerability and weakness. The Hellenistic ideal of self-mastery became hubris, ignorant of our utter reliance on God.
Nicaea also enshrined a mysterious doctrine called the Trinity, which dealt with the problem of Christ being both God and the Son of God. This paradox required a third term to resolve. There is Christ, the Logos, the eternal Word of God. Beyond that there is God the Father, the source of all things, the greater mystery of Being. And then there is the Holy Spirit, the vital love that moves between the two and unites them. This doctrine defies any attempt to fully rationalize because it points us beyond reason. Yet similar doctrines developed in Buddhism and Hinduism under the names of the Trikaya and satchitananda. The triune symbolism seems to embody a kind of consciousness that emerges around this time.
Christianity had a paradoxical relationship to the world. On the one hand, it stood in opposition to worldly things. “The World” was a fallen place, corrupted by sin, ruled by tyranny, oppression, and cruelty. Yet that same world was also the world of God’s creation. It was created in divine glory, singing the praises of its creator. The world was both sacred and fallen, and moreover it was destined for redemption. The salvation promised by Christ was not merely a path to escape from worldly suffering, as various mystical traditions had taught. It promised the ultimate completion of creation.
God was the author of creation, of history, and the rational order of existence itself. The last of these is the Logos, the Word of God, which could be accessed through reason and mystical contemplation. The divine action in history was revealed first through sacred scripture, then through the subsequent history of the church, its saints, its rituals, and its coming to understand itself. The revelation of creation was revealed in the natural world through the principles by which it operated.
Scientific inquiry was certainly nothing new. It had its origins in the pre-Socratics. The study of the stars went back even further to the dawn of civilization. It reached a peak with Aristotle, who established the dominant scientific paradigm for over a millennium. Many have blamed Christianity for the decline of this classical knowledge in Western Europe, but many of these texts had simply stopped being translated to Latin for centuries. Those that remained were meticulously copied and preserved in monasteries at a time when literacy was at a premium. Meanwhile, these texts continued to be circulated in Greek in the Eastern Empire. It was from here that they spread to the newly emerging Muslim caliphate.
Christianity had its origins at the margins of society, having to adapt to Roman conventions of governance when they arose to power. Islam, on the other hand, was itself born from a political leader. Yet Muhammed, unlike the pharaohs and God-kings of old, did not seek worship of himself, but insisted that God alone be worshipped. He held Jesus to be a great prophet, affirmed the Virgin Birth and the Second Coming, but insisted that he was only a man, albeit one greatly favored by God. He emphasized God’s ultimate transcendence, as one utterly unlike any other. Artistic conventions developed that de-emphasized the depiction of people, or even creatures, lest they be taken as idols. Instead, geometric forms were emphasized, along with ornate calligraphy of Qur’anic verses.
The Qur’an and Hadith laid repeated emphasis on education and knowledge. The study of these texts themselves was a sacred practice and led to widespread literacy. One of the distinguishing features of Islam was its political dimensions. Where Jesus was a humble carpenter’s son turned wandering preacher, Muhammed led an army, and created a political community. As such, Islam had its own legal code, called shariah, and the study of jurisprudence became a major pursuit tightly connected to the study of theology.
In taking the divine out of the particular and into the realm of the universal, Islam deepened the development of the rational. The Islamic Golden Age saw a flourishing of astronomy, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. Contributing to this was the rich mixture of Jews and Christians who lived and prospered in this new environment, as well as trade routes with India and China, through which knowledge as well as goods passed.
With the crusades, this treasure trove of knowledge was brought to Europe. It inspired a new era of learning. Universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris were founded. These centers of learning emphasized the development of the whole person. The natural sciences developed during this time, particularly in the fields of medicine and optics. However, in contrast to the trend of modern universities, the natural sciences were subordinated to the humanities, with theology as the height of learning. The point of humanities was to form the person – to enrich their humanity. Education was about formation, and the skills attained in the process were meant to be directed toward that end.
With this holistic perspective, natural science was coextensive with natural philosophy. It is often said that “natural philosophy” is simply an older name for science. It is true that science was not yet understood as separate from philosophy, but that is also because approached questions about nature in a philosophical manner. There was empirical observation, but there was also a great deal of abstract theorizing. It was a search to find the governing principles of nature, to understand the Logos by which God created.
This had implications not only for science but for ethics. Moral and physical law were from the same source, and both could be deduced from the operations of nature. Natural Law, as it came to be known, owed much to the virtue ethics of Aristotle, but was also grounded in the belief in a creator God who governed all of nature. It understood morality in terms of the telos of human life. That is, what is the end toward which the human life aimed? What is its purpose?
For Aristotle, the answer is something called eudaimonia. This is often translated as “happiness,” but in our age it is easy to misinterpret happiness in utilitarian terms of pleasure vs pain, or in acquiring what we desire based on our own personal preferences. Perhaps a better translation would be “thriving,” though this verges on tautology if we understand thriving as life well-lived. Essentially, what is being said here is that the existence of human life implies the existence of a human life lived well. We can understand with tools such as scissors that they exist for a purpose, in this case cutting, and that good scissors are scissors that cut well.
Living creatures do not have the same straightforward extrinsic teleology as the tools we use, but they do have an intrinsic teleology, determined by the conditions under which they thrived. It is a common misunderstanding today that all teleology is of the former kind, as a watchmaker’s purpose in making a watch, but intrinsic telos of the kind one finds in creatures is simply what it means for the creature to live best according to its own nature. Where other creatures rely on instinct, humans are rational creatures, who must use reason to align themselves with their telos. We must seek to understand what thriving consists in, and what skills and habits are conducive toward it. These skills are known as virtues.
What virtue is to the individual, the common good is to society. As a virtuous person had the skills and habits directed toward human thriving, so too was a society directed toward the thriving of its people. It was society’s responsibility to help make its members better, more fully realize people, and it was people’s responsibility to contribute to the harmonious functioning of society. Just as the engineer must build their constructions in accord with the laws of nature, so to was it necessary to construct society in harmony with certain natural laws.
This harmonious society was sought through hospitals for the sick, orphanages for the orphaned, charity for the poor, church for the faithful, and guilds for the workers, a guild for the learned, that of the university. A proper society had institutions for upholding the dignity of the people. Dignity was understood according to one’s social roles, and how one was best empowered to fulfill those roles.
Yet this emphasis on social roles had a constrictive quality as well. Feudal society had a rigid class hierarchy in which one’s social position was determined by birth. The poor were to be taken care of, but not at the cost of the noble’s privilege. The Great Chain of Being extended into the realm of human relations, with each person’s social station forming a rung on the ladder. Human hierarchy reflected the divine hierarchy, and was not to be trifled with.
Within this system, a new class emerged that upset this hierarchy. Guild craftsmen settled into self-governing cities called burghs, which were defended by their own citizens, without the need for knights or conscripted armies. The citizens of the burghs, known as burghers or bourgeoisie, did not directly challenge the feudal order, but essentially made a place for themselves outside of it. This merchant class created their own set of privileges for themselves like that of the nobility, and they would rise to prominence as princes and noblemen turned to them to finance their wars against one another, ultimately upsetting the agrarian economy upon which feudalism was based. The bourgeois class would bring unprecedented changes to the world as we knew it.
The rise of the bourgeoisie is no simple matter of them overpowering the aristocracy, as we are often taught. Indeed, the aristocracy played a major role in developing the “putting out” system that displaced the guilds and paved the way for the industrial factory system. It was in fact competition between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie that was to have a major effect on the social fabric of Europe. The bourgeoisie were transformative precisely because they forced the aristocracy to compete on their terms.
More than anything, the bourgeoisie effected new ways of thinking. In asserting their freedom from the aristocratic hierarchy, they also developed new ideas about what freedom was. Instead of being a matter of being able to fulfill one’s station in life with dignity, as the Scholastic approach would have it, freedom became understood in negative terms. Freedom was the absence of external force – the right to be left alone to one’s own devices.
This idea of freedom developed along many stages. Renaissance humanism gave a new importance to the individual over and above their class or social status. A new emphasis on freedom of thought emerged at a time when classical works from ancient Greece and Rome were being rediscovered and published throughout Europe.
Another step came with the Reformation. First Luther, then others like Calvin and Zwingli, emphasized the private nature of faith, and the authority of the individual in interpreting Scripture for themselves. In principle this could mean a dramatic democratization of the faith, yet in practice it meant that nobles and rulers could be heads of their own state churches. It also meant the evaporation of the sacramental life that had been so central to Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, and an intellectualization of faith. Faith became less of a way of communion and living and became more a set of doctrines and creeds. The eucharist, long held to be the central ritual in all of Christianity, became a symbolic gesture stripped of its supernatural character. The Great Chain of Being became instead a duality, with heaven above and the secular world down below.
Around this time, another revolution was taking place in science. Galileo’s experiments in speed, velocity, gravity, and astronomy paved the way for a whole new conception of the cosmos. Copernicanism itself was not new: Copernicus himself was Catholic priest who was in good standing with the church up to his death. It was Protestants who denounced Copernicus most loudly, while the Catholic church allowed his theories to be taught alongside the prevailing heliocentric model. It was when Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which was perceived as an attack on the pope, that he alienated the pope and the Jesuits, who had up until then supported him.
The drama of his struggles with the church has since been mythologized as embodying a conflict between science and religion, yet the idea of this conflict did not really emerge until the 19th century. Even the Enlightenment philosophers who attacked the church did so not so much out of a sense that they opposed science but rather that they opposed freedom. The church was the greatest patron of science in history. We should also not forget that Galileo’s opposition came not just from the church, but from other scientists. The Ptolemaic system was not just believed because of doctrine, but because it had been a productive research program for over a millennium. New paradigms never have an easy birth. They are always opposed by those representing the old order. As Max Planck would later quip, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”
Galileo’s real innovation was not heliocentrism or physics experiments but a new understanding of how the universe worked. The Aristotelian system was based on substances having different internal capacities. Physical objects fell to the earth because the earth was their natural home, while celestial objects remained in the sky because that was their natural place. The universe was characterized by interactions between objects with their own differential capacities. Galileo inaugurated a new understanding whereby objects were mere epiphenomena of fundamental forces of nature. A new kind of reductionism would lead to the search for these fundamental laws, a task taken up a generation later by Sir Isaac Newton.
The belief in a cosmos ordered by unchanging laws led to a religious view called Deism. The number of actual Deists was always small, and the people who most influenced it such as Newton and Locke were not themselves Deists, but it did become part of the collective Zeitgeist. Protestantism had separated the human and divine realms while the emerging scientific paradigm took substance and telos our of the created order. What was left was a material order created out of fundamental forces whose origin was left a mystery. In this cosmos, God became not an active agent interacting with creation through miracles and sacraments, but a distant watchmaker, creating an order by which the universe could operate on its own. Intrinsic teleology was dead. Only extrinsic teleology remained. Eventually people would seek to destroy this as well.
This order would be reflected in social theory as well. The Natural Law taught by the Scholastics was based on the Great Chain of Being, in which everything in the chain had its purpose. A new form of Natural Law emerged emphasizing natural rights. Life and liberty were considered essential – this meant the freedom to live one’s life and pursue one’s own interests.
Property was a matter of contention. Locke favored it as an extension of the freedom from outside interference. It meant that one was sovereign over one’s own land and possessions. Yet since property meant the right to exclude, it could be a barrier to freedom. Locke attempted to address this by adding the proviso that one can acquire property for oneself through labor but only if there is enough and as good left over for others.
Whatever the merits of Locke’s views, they certainly did not describe property as it existed in Europe. Land had been essential to the feudal economy. It was held by feudal lords and granted to their vassals. Landed property was central to the power of aristocracy. This power was extended through the enclosure movement, in which common land that peasants had used for centuries divided up into private hands.
It was for this reason that the physiocrats and classical economists attacked landed privilege as a barrier to the economic freedom they espoused. Laissez faire did not mean freedom to buy and sell land at will and profit from it. They advocated free markets and free trade in goods and services, but this could only take place if the privileges of land ownership were stripped through taxation or otherwise.
Later economists conveniently ignored this. By the 19th century, feudal land privilege had given way to a private land market, and it was treated as a commodity like any other. In this way, the market that was praised as an engine of freedom became a means of commodifying every aspect of life. The rational agent idealized by Enlightenment thinkers became homo economicus, an isolated individual seeking to maximize their utility by fulfilling a fixed set of preferences via consumption.
In this way, the freedom sought by the great thinkers of the Enlightenment was reduced to the freedom to buy and sell. The variety of products available to consume became proof of the freedom people had under capitalism. The “freedom to choose” has been elevated above all others. Freedom in its teleological since has long since been forgotten.
In this process, we see reason degraded from Logos into its deficient form of rationalization. The calculating instrumental reason of state and capital has penetrated the furthest depths of our culture. No longer a transcendent divine principle, reason has become synonymous with materialism and self-interest. The market has colonized our thought to the extent that our social relations are thought of in transactional terms. The measurement and quantification that were first developed for bureaucratic management have become the test of reality itself. Positivism and utilitarianism respectively form the epistemological and ethical foundations of the modern materialist mindset. They manifest today as scientism and economism. The former reduces the real to the measurable; the latter reduces the social to the instrumental.
This rationalization has spread to all corners of society. Religion itself was among the first to rationalize. Rationalization reached new heights with the rise of fundamentalism. Retreating from the nasty ambiguities of symbolic and mystical interpretation that had once prevailed, fundamentalists met scientific modernity with the insistence on the literal facticity of their scriptures. The Church Fathers had all insisted on the mystical sense of scripture, and Augustine had argued forcefully against the literal interpretation of Genesis, but for the fundamentalist, the salvific promise of scripture could only be found in affirming their most literal and plain meaning as scientific truth.
Mysticism had become an ugly word with the rise of modernity. Where historically mysticism had been the natural partner of reason, rising together during the Axial Age, it now became synonymous with the “irrational.” Mysticism was associated with the kind of aesthetic practices that contradicted the logic of the market. Where in the Medieval era monasteries formed a vital part of the community, monasticism came to be seen as a vulgar escapism, withdrawing from the world and refusing to contribute to it. They became associated with the ancien régime, a holdover from a more superstitious era. “The world” was advancing rapidly economically, scientifically, and technologically, and those who would dare turn away from it were thought to be superstitious fools.
The modern political polarization between left and right has developed along the lines of this rationalized world. The right still claims the mantle of religion, but follows a modern, thoroughly rationalized form of it. They claim to uphold traditional values, but by this they only mean prejudice, not authentic virtue and its concern for the common good. This they demonstrate amply in their embrace of markets and capital. The market became synonymous with the common good. The rationality of the market is assumed to distribute goods and services precisely where they need to go, and to intervene in it is tantamount to playing God. In the name of “getting government off your back,” they support the most vicious corporate tyrannies, with the state as capital’s dutiful servant.
The left, meanwhile, has embraced the scientific management of society as its goal. Going as far back as Saint-Simon, socialists have sought to rationally plan all the workings of society, seeing the market not as hyper-rational, but far too irrational. To feed and clothe everyone and provide for the needs of all, the impersonal market would be replaced by bureaucratic planners who could coordinate the distribution of resources efficiently and equitably for the equal benefit of all. The right held to the myth of market relations as organic rather than rationalized, and in this assessment, the socialists agreed. Their rational planning was precisely intended to develop society into a new scientific age, to create the new socialist human who would rise above their lower selfish drives and enter a new age of cooperation. The idea of a more organic society – one that had been repressed by capitalist modernity and was struggling to break free – was proclaimed by another strain of the left: that of the anarchists. Peter Kropotkin conducted a survey of findings in biology, history, and anthropology to uncover a principle of mutual aid at the heart of evolution. Without denying the reality of Darwinian struggle, he observed how it was cooperation that facilitated evolutionary fitness. Mutual aid has persisted from the dawn of humanity throughout all manner of historical change, and even as repressed as it is under capitalist modernity, it persists as a baseline of our social relations – a refusal to fully submit to our economization.
This rationalization of the world was resisted with Romanticism. Yet where the mystics of old sought to turn away from the world, romantics sought to embrace the world more deeply than before. They saw how rationality had hollowed out the world, and sought to reclaim the sense of enchantment that was once so much a part of people’s lives. They sought a kind of poetic existence, choosing passion over reason – a choice that would shock the intellectuals of the ancient world as well as those of today. A similar shock spread with the explosion of psychedelics in the 1960s, with Timothy Leary teaching a generation to “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” – an almost monastic message of simplicity, yet with a Dionysian spirit of revelry.
In the Romantic flight from reason into the arms of passion, what has often been overlooked is the need to re-enchant reason itself – to reclaim the Logos in all its spiritual glory. What is most mysterious about our existence is precisely the gift of Being itself, and the rational order by which it organizes itself. Reason grasps at relations that transcend the phenomena they relate. The fact that the universe itself has the kind of order that allows for scientific and mathematical discovery of its own principles is a miracle of miracles.
There is a deep, transcendent ordering principle by which all order is possible. From this center flows the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. Where we are out of balance with the Logos, we become deficient in one or more of these qualities. When we are centered in the Logos, science becomes an act of worship, mysticism a path of reason, and virtue a path to self-actualization. In a society aligned with the Logos, an organic order would emerge in which individualism and collectivism give way to a personalism that transcends both. The knowledge we have gained from the Scientific Revolution must be raised into wisdom. The colonized world of global capital must be transfigured into global networks of solidarity. The disordered rationalism of scientism and economism must be exorcised into an enchantment of reason replenished with a sense wonder. We must reject the false god of rationalism and return to the true Logos.