"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Where all the ladders start"

I'm always ashamed when I find out I haven't read nearly widely enough; but I'm at the same time excited, because the discovery-that-shouldn't-be prompts new insights.  So, this essay by Marx, probably the most famous he ever wrote that nobody ever reads because it is the source of this quote:

[Religion] is the opium of the people.
Now, that's in translation from the German; maybe he wrote "religion" instead of "it", as the translation has it; maybe he wrote "opiate" instead of "opium."  I've seen it that way many times.  But taken out of context, it no longer means what Marx meant.  Put it back into context, and the meaning shifts radically:

For Germany, the criticism of religion has been essentially completed, and the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism.

The profane existence of error is compromised as soon as its heavenly oratio pro aris et focis [“speech for the altars and hearths,” i.e., for God and country] has been refuted. Man, who has found only the reflection of himself in the fantastic reality of heaven, where he sought a superman, will no longer feel disposed to find the mere appearance of himself, the non-man [Unmensch], where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

 Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Slightly buried in there is the starting point for Marx for all consideration and thought about human beings:  "man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society."  That could have been said as well by Soren Kierkegaard, who had the same critique of Hegel.  He wrote in his Journals about a man who had so abstracted his thought from his existence, who so set himself apart from his corporeal life,  that he awoke one morning to find he no longer existed!  The very grounding of existentialism which began in the 19th century with Kierkegaard (and independently with Marx, I would argue; and which is all rooted in Romanticism) is that humankind is not outside the world but in and of the world, and is the state and the society, as it is the individual.  We cannot, to answer Yeats' quesiton, know the dancer from the dance.

So now I re-read Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel and of Christendom (and specifically the church state of Denmark) in the light of Marx's comments on religion, which are far more interesting than most people seem to think.

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. 
I suppose we could read that through a sociological lens now, and still appreciate it (rather than critique it as the assault of an atheist, which would have been the common reading of my childhood when anything by Marx was wrong ab initio, because USSR).  Marx is arguing for materialism there, for the ultimate abandonment of religion ("since the human essence has not acquired any true reality"), but he doesn't have to be right to be insightful.

Nor is Marx critiquing Hegel, as Kierkegaard did; but from the same taproot spring two divergent views which offer insight on the other.  That, to me, is the point of fascination.  Niebuhr, especially the Detroit pastor who left us Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, would have a field day destroying the idea that religion is the halo of this vale of tears.  His famous Serenity Prayer alone rebukes it with the same off-hand attitude he reportedly handed it to a friend saying "I have no further use for it."  Kierkegaard, trained himself into the state church of Denmark, would nod in agreement with Marx, but then get off at the end of that paragraph, because Marx goes on:

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
Marx presumes religion is connected to the state ("oratio pro arise et focis"), a presumption that doesn't travel across the pond from Europe to America.  He also presumes religion is an illusion, a presumption that doesn't travel far with Kierkegaard, a far more insightful critic of Hegel.  Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, using the language of Marx and Hegel (philosophy) would say:

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
Kierkegaard's interest, in other words, was not with the individual as a member of society or the state, but as a person in relation to other persons and, ultimately, to God.  Marx is concerned only with what is materially important to the person; Kierkegaard is interested in the person as a self.  In that difference lies a whole volume, a library of books, of considerations.  Whole worlds can be regarded between the thought of these two 19th century thinkers.  But at the root, they begin as existentialists; as regarding the human as a being in the world, a person who begins, not as a soul with memory wiped at birth and slowly to be recovered until the wheel of life finally brings enlightenment and the journey to the Good; but as individuals dealing with the only life they have:  the one that occurs between the window out of the storm and into the castle, and the window out of the castle back into the storm.  Because all any of us know is those few moments of the journey; and what came before and what comes after, are a mystery we cannot solve.

That is the truth of this world.  It does not come from, or lead to, an other-world of truth.  The only truth we can establish is in this world, in this life.  But that isn't the path of negation, because when we consider what a human being is, we have to consider this answer:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
To the extent Marx has no use for this definition of self and spirit; to the extent Marx thinks life is simply about alleviating the suffering caused by poverty or injustice and inequality in society along; Marx is wrong.

I've been holding this because I didn't know how to conclude it, or even if I should rewrite it stem to stern.  But this is more a notebook of jottings than it is a collection of publishable works, so I rejected the latter option, even though I'm (as usual) dissatisfied with where this started (in my mind) v. where it ended up.  I decided to publish it, however, because of this.  Nothing to do with 9/11; just a reminder of the radical nature of the gospel; but that radical nature is rooted in something Kierkegaard the seminary student and Marx the atheist economist/historian both understood, and understood as a result of the 19th century and especially the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic movement:  everything important to human beings is rooted in life, in existence, in corporeal reality.  The most ethereal and metaphysical of the Gospels is the Gospel of John, and even John goes to great lengths to prove that his didactic Jesus is a real person, especially after the resurrection.  All that "holes in his hands" and "touch my wounds" stuff, all that eating of fish and "tend my flock"?  That's in John.

The radical teachings of the Gospels are rooted in human reality; the foul rag and bone shop of the heart, where all the ladders start.  The metaphysics comes later; much, much later.  The beginning point, even for Plato, certainly for Aristotle (and so for Augustine and Aquinas, respectively), is in the flesh; in the existence; in the Creation, which is good.

You don't believe - I won't attempt to make ye:
You are asleep - I won't attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life's clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.
Reason says `Miracle': Newton says `Doubt.'
Aye! that's the way to make all Nature out.
`Doubt, doubt, and don't believe without experiment':
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said `Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!'

--William Blake


Blogger rick allen said...

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions."

These passages made me remember a scene from Graham Greene's "Monsignor Quixote," where Fr. Quijote remarks, concerning Marx, to his Communist friend (Sancho, of course) that Marx understands the power of religion, and that, despite the wrongness of his theories, and his implicit admiration for the achievement of the bourgeoisie, his concern for the poor will save him in the end.

Marx was against religion because he so valued truth, and because he believed that the world was in fact heartless, and man soul-less, he saw the comforting heart and soul of religion as a sop to obscure those hard truths. Nor will he have any bleeding-heart left-Hegelian idealism in the place of religion; Feuerbach didn't go far enough.

To me the great tragedy of Marx is that he did in fact have a heart and a soul, but his ideas drove him to deny them. In that sense he is very much like Kierkegaard's Hegelian who knows universal truth, but forgets his own existence. And,in that vein Marxism has something in common with Calvinism, the great revolutionary ideology of the seventeenth century: it is a passionate cry to exert one's whole being on behalf of a cause which denies the efficacy of the will. In that sense both movements were theoretically self-contradictory--but that didn't prevent them from changing the world.

To me, Marxism was ruined by its asperation to be, its illusion that it was, a science. As a science it could have no ethics, no recognition of a transcendental sense of justice--and that lack caught up with it, with a vengance.

Still, one hates to kick it while it's down. It's not as if the conditions that made Marxism an attractive ideology have been remedied.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

The only reason I still write for this blog is to get something interesting to read.

And I don't mean by that, what I write.

11:20 AM  
Blogger JCF said...

I think we need a "tl;dr" at the bottom here.

Reading Marx (at least in this translation!) is like reading Dewey (writing in English---supposedly): unintelligible.

Hey, if you get something worthwhile out of this, rmj, more power to you. I just find it gobbledegook (said w/o prejudice, except for its lack of clarity).

11:44 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...


I understand. Sometimes this stuff is just impenetrabobble.

To quote Albert Alligator.

Besides, Marx looked like he'd cotched his haid in an ol' grackle's nest, so it's an appropriate reference, somehow...

9:33 AM  

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