Saturday, September 18, 2010
on belief and practice
In the History of Oracles, Fontenelle – with his native deadpan delivery, a style that had more in common with Defoe than with the salon - describes Cicero’s criticism of the theory of sacrifice propounded by some of the stoic philosophers: that in the moment of sacrifice, the oracular portion – the heart, the liver, etc. – was changed by the god, depending on the sanctity of the sacrificer, or the favor a particular priest had with the gods. Of course, this passage contains a muffled echo of Fontenelle’s own times – it is the choked laugh that makes for the deadest of deadpan styles. Fontenelle indirectly acknowledges the obvious parallel between the stoic theory and the theory of the transmutation of the host only by making a point about Cicero’s ability to get away with criticizing the terms of sacrifice without being regarded ‘with horror’ by the people. “There is reason to believe that, among the pagans, religion was only a practice, to which speculation was indifferent. Act like the others, and believe what you wish. This is a very extravagant principle, but the people, who did not recognize its impertinence, were happy with it, and the gens d’esprit submitted to it easily, because it barely restrained them.”
Oh the deadpan regard that marks the witticism. Fontenelle, France’s most ardent propagandist of the new science, was aware – was more aware than perhaps he wanted to be, as Nietzsche later astutely understood – that the spirit of enterprise and science for which he stood was slowly but surely diverging from the croyance in the tenets of religion. The instant of their separation had suddenly become a speck, a distinct speck, a very distant point, on the horizon.
Yet, more than a polemical irony can be extracted from under the impenetrable mask. Fontenelle is making a real historical point, in line with his ambition to read history as the philosopher would read the results of an experiment. When a social fact presents itself that does not elicit the social reaction that the presence of such a social fact would cause in the historian’s own society, one can trace a certain lack – as Sherlock Holmes would put it, the significant fact is that the dog did not bark. And that lack of an expected fact must, itself, be subject to the same causal inquisition – the non-lieu is an effect in its own right.
Of course, the presupposition here – the White Mythology – is that the historian’s own society is, as it were, full – it is the most ‘advanced’ society. It would be easy, though, to turn around the historian’s assumption and ask about the lacks in that advanced society.
The lack of a certain collective passion, then, one that led, in Christian Europe, to the burning of Bruno, allows us to retrospectively suppose a certain tolerance. The indifference of the people that he condemns might, actually, be something he works towards.
But such is the dead weight of the masked language that this has to remain speculation.
Still, it is easy to assimilate Fontenelle’s remark to the coming program of the Enlightenment without really looking at its paradoxical nature. Surely, the idea that a collective practice does not reflect a collective belief is a startling anthropological speculation. It might have been devised precisely to counter, or at least question, the passage about divination in Vico’s New Science.
From Fontenelle again: “Thus we can see that the entire pagan religion only asked for ceremonies, and no sentiments of the heart. The gods are irritated, all of their lightning bolts are about to fall: how will we appease them? Do we need to repent of the crimes that we have committed? Is it necessary to return to the paths of natural justice, which ought to be among all men? Not at all: we need only to take a calf of such and such a color, born in such a such a season, cut its throat with a knife, and this will disarm the gods. And still you are permitted to mock the sacrifice inside yourself, if you wish. It won’t make anything worse. Apparently, it was the same with the oracles; let he who wished to believe do so; but one does not give up consulting them. The custom had such force on people that it had no need to be supported by reason.” [Chapter 7, my translations]