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Dan Sportiello | Tuesday, September 28, 2010

But how can we make sense of teleology in this late age of the world — now, after the genius of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Darwin, after the courage of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault? For in their relentless suspicion of the system of the world as they received it — a suspicion so intense as to border on the neurotic — there is indeed a genius, a courage: to change the system of the world — to revolutionize our understanding of the divine order, as did Spinoza, Kant and Hegel — seems the highest expression of our humanity. But to overthrow the very idea of a system — to deny that there is any order to be found, as did Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, beyond the lies that we are willing to tell ourselves — seems something more than human — or would, had these thinkers not shattered the transcendent.

Even to call their relentless suspicion neurotic is no defense, since this category is itself born of the school of suspicion — and its members would be the first to apply it to themselves: in the end, they know that they too are human, all too human. We are all of us neurotic — but only some have the genius and the courage to channel this neurosis into honesty.

But this honesty, in the end, has proven more destructive by far than the divine ordering that it did so much to overthrow: before, when the Cosmos or God or Reason seemed to order things—that is, when man was mastered by others — Marx, Nietzsche and Freud proclaimed that these were lies, damned lies, perpetrated by tyrants, priests and man’s own self-deception. In response, he liberated himself — and, over the course of a century gone mad, tore his world apart. For, set free, man has no master, not even himself: in philosophizing with hammers, these brave ones had smashed every idol — and thus left nothing at all upon which to stand.

It was not obvious, when the West awoke more than two millennia ago, that things would come to this: it is only clear in hindsight that the full implications of teleology lead to its rejection — and that the replacements thereof, both consequentialist and deontological, rely upon systematic deception — of oneself and others — for their success. In a certain sense, the Aristotelian tradition and the Enlightenment tradition that replaced it amounted to much the same thing: “the important question,” writes Williams, “is whether or not a given writer or philosopher believes that, beyond some things that human beings have themselves shaped, there is anything at all that is intrinsically shaped to human interests, in particular to human beings’ ethical interests. In the light of that question and the distinctions it invites, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel are all on the same side, all believing in one way or another that the universe or history or the structure of human reason can, when properly understood, yield a pattern that makes sense of human life and human aspirations.”

But when first hope in God and then hope in man are lost — as they were, first in the Scientific Revolution and Reformation and then in collapse of the Enlightenment — not even despair remains: there is only chaos — man as a powerless, intermittently gleeful witness to his own madness as he births the twentieth century. For he now sees his world as “only partially intelligible to human agency and in itself … not necessarily well adjusted to ethical aspirations,” writes Williams. For shattered is the system of the world — never better, perhaps, than a dim hope — of “all those who have thought that somehow or other, in this life or the next, morally if not materially, as individuals or as a historical collective, we shall be safe; or, if not safe, at least reassured that at some level of the world’s constitution there is something to be discovered that makes ultimate sense of our concerns.”

Where, then, do we now stand — when neither teleology nor enlightenment nor suspicion remains? “Wandering between two worlds,” writes Arnold, “one dead, the other powerless to be born,” it seems that our heroes — those courageous, if neurotic, masters of suspicion — have forsaken us — just as did the idols that they smashed, whether teleological, consequentialist or deontological. It is not clear where to go from here: to see the world as once again a system full of divine purpose, or ourselves as sufficiently divine to live with one another in truth and justice, or even the all too human task of suspicion as exhilarating rather than maddening — well, all of these seem now beyond us; either we are not the heroes that our forebears were, or they were not the heroes that we took them to be.

To birth a new world — one powerless to be born on its own — may require, in the end, an act of faith — a deliberate return to where we began, before our illusions were shattered — and those shatterings were themselves revealed as yet more illusion. Whether this is possible without self-deception — whether, in effect, man can live without lies — is a question that keeps me up at night.

I wish that there was more to say.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. on WVFI. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.