Saturday, November 27, 2010

Eden, Paradise, What We Had, Have and May Have

While exploring the steadily expanding universe of electronic books, I came upon Pagan and Christian Creeds by Edward Carpenter.  It's a good summary of the enormous debt Christianity owes pagan religion and philosophy.  It also is a summary of, and the author speculates on, the similarity of myths throughout human history relating to a Golden Age or Eden which existed in the distant past and a Paradise to come.

Many cultures have myths which relate to a time when humans lived in harmony and innocent bliss with each other, their fellow creatures and nature, just as they have myths of savior gods born of virgin mothers, or mothers somehow impregnated by a god, who are killed and rise again.  The belief in an Eden, common to humanity according to Carpenter, may be a kind of race-recollection of a time when primitive humans though superior in intelligence to other animals nonetheless lived very much like other animals in unity with those of their kind and their environment in general.  According to Carpenter, what drove us from this Eden was the development of self-consciousness (emphasis on the self).  We became concerned with ourselves, our pleasure, and our own personal interaction with God and our salvation, to the exclusion of our relations with each other, nature and our fellow creatures.  From this there came forth a grand procession of evils, culminating for Carpenter in the oddly named Great War (why not the "Great Big War"?).  He wrote in 1919.

Despite the colossal idiocy of that particular war (which he seems to have thought of as the last great paroxysm of selfish evil), Carpenter was hopeful that humanity was on the threshold of a great transformation, which would allow it to once more achieve that ancient harmony with the retention, though, of a kind of intelligence which transcends that of what were once called "savages", i.e. the less civilized of humans.  Religions, and Christianity in particular, would have to acknowledge and accept their evolution from the One World Religion or dissipate.  The emphasis on self would vanish, as would all sorts of nasty things, and we would achieve a kind of paradise, ultimately.

One can't help but wonder whether Carpenter may have been a bit disappointed when things began to go very sour twenty or so years after he wrote, if he lived that long.  I suspect, though, that the Second World War would have been merely grist for his mill; just an indication that we weren't quite there yet--paradise was to be deferred for a time.  Such is human nature, once it succumbs to grand systems of explanation.

I have a certain fondness for practical intelligence and what it can achieve, but flatter myself that I am aware of its limitations.  It's not a very emotionally satisfying product of our species, and we do like to be emotionally satisfied.  In fact, we would rather be emotionally satisfied than anything else.  There's nothing wrong with being emotionally satisfied, and we may have to be emotionally satisfied in order to be truly content.  So, we struggle to achieve such satisfaction, and no doubt always will.

We run into problems, however, when we seek such satisfaction in spite of or separate from the use of our practical intelligence.  We become un-intelligent;  we become grandiose, get mystical--we come to think that our salvation lies in abandoning ourselves to some imagined "real nature" of our species which is, we somehow come to think, irrational.  We might start believing in a great Volk, for example, of which we are but a part, or unifying on a grand quest to achieve a high destiny under an inspired leader.

The quest for unity, "brotherhood", "oneness" with nature need not be exclusively through the irrational, though it cannot be ignored.  The stoics felt it could be obtained through the exercise of intelligence and reason, which they thought to be peculiar to humans--the extraordinary aspect of our nature, compared with that of other creatures.  The emphasis on intelligence as a vehicle, though, necessarily results in a lessening of expectations.  We no longer believe we will march as a vast army against evil, or dance ecstatically towards revelation.  We no longer seek to convert (or destroy, or banish) those who stand in the way of our destiny.  We become cautious, thoughtful.   We seek to resolve problems that present themselves in a more immediate fashion, and which are more likely subject to resolution.  We doubt our conclusions, and those of others, but respect others as well.  We understand that there are things beyond our control, and seek to do what we can to reasonably employ that which is in our control.

This is in some sense a selfish course of action, as it is directed to our own conduct, our own contentment.  But the content don't seek to dominate, repress, kill, torture or imprison others.  There may be a less inspired, quieter path to paradise.

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