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Sunday, April 20, 2008

honeyed drops of spiritual delight

“They don’t enter into their system by the door, they enter in by the window…” Bayle, article on Epicurus

My sometimes commenter, Chuckie K., asked a very good question about my last Bayle post, which, you will recall, ended with a question about whether belief guides behavior. To which Mr. K. said: “Today I'll ask a real question. Is this, "if belief makes no difference to your behavior" this question, or is "if belief does not always completely determine significant behavior'"

Well, that’s a good, hard question, and a hatcher of other hard questions – for instance, do beliefs stand in some apologetic relation to behavior? Do we seek out beliefs to excuse our desires? In fact, defending Epicurus, Bayle opts for the idea that we could, that it is possible, to construct our beliefs according to the facts as we see them, regardless of what we would want to be the case:

The doctrine that rejects the providence of God, and the immortality of the soul, steals an infinity of consolations from man. Plutarch proves this solidly, that after having read what he exposed, one cannot be sufficiently astonished at the power that our first impression of certain objects have on our mind. The first idea that presents itself to those who wish to exam the state of irreligion that it is about the world’s idea of a happy liberty in which one satisfies all one’s desires without any fear, without any remorse. This idea is so rooted in the soul, and so occupies its capacity, that if someone wants to tell us that the estate of a pious man is incomparably [better], in the way of temporal advantages, to that of an epicurean, we would reject it as an absurd lie. And yet this so called lie has on its side a crowd of strong reasons, as Plutarch makes us see. The good faith of this author in this part of the dispute seems to me to be considerable, in as much as he must have known how much his reasons disculpate epicureanism; for it is certain that in denying the providence of God and the immortality of the soul, one is deprived of a thousand sweetnesses and a thousand consolations; it isn’t by motives of interest, by amour proper, by attachment to volupté, that Epicurus chose the philosophical hypothesis that he taught. He would have chosen another, if he was driven by those motives. “

So one way we could come at the question of belief is to ask about the building of systems of belief. And in fact, Pierre Force’s interpretation of Bayle is not about this or that stray belief – my belief, for instance, that the red light sign will be obeyed by the slowing, oncoming car as I walk across the street in front of it – but rather these vaster temples of belief, which are about the ways the world is made. In Mr. D’s modification of Force’s assertion – “belief does not always completely determine significant behavior” – is the liberal hope here. On the one hand, belief does not so determine behavior that there is no space of tolerance possible between two opposing, absolute beliefs – and on the other hand, that it determines it enough that there is some use in having these vast beliefs.

But notice that the liberal path is fraught with peril. It can never be emphasized enough that the enlightenment leads not only to Kant, Jefferson, and my Republican grandparents, but that it also leads through Sade to Bazarov to… Patty Hearst. Or perhaps I should say that these romantic figures express, with exaggerated gestures, the nihilistic fall of the belief in belief – the belief that anything, and thus nothing, is true or valuable. This nihilism even eats at the aura of seriousness surrounding belief, taking away the shame of going from, say, Maoism to Southern Baptist Fundamentalism by way of alternative medicines and your recovered memory of a UFO abduction.

In the sense that I take nihilism, rather than discipline a la Foucault, as a privileged vantage point to see what is happening in the Enlightenment, I guess you could say that LI is just your typical canned Nietzschian. And of course I need to make the links a lot clearer here – but I do want to… to gesture to what is in the background for these small circles, in the seventeenth century, who began purposefully relating all human endeavor to volupté.

1 comment:

Chuckie K said...

My apologies for needing so long to return.

You fooled me. Leaving out the literature, the list of examples at the end of the prior post, "Freud, Alcoholics Anonymous and the political industry of polling" had me thinking there was complex unity, lurking behind them, like that of 'happiness,'an insufficiently acknowledged reason. What is the unconscious motive of creating 'psychoanalysis.'

Putting perspectives on a more personal note. I figured not believing anything is true, or more conventionally rejecting the providence of god and immortality of the soul was simply the only honest path to virtue. neither under duress nor in expectation of reward. Just because.