Monday, August 24, 2015

The New Dark Ages

News of the destruction of the Temple of Balshamin in Palmyra by the foremost of today's barbarians, the merciless and self-righteously ignorant members of IS or whatever they may call themselves now (did someone tell them "Isis" is a pagan goddess?), and their murder of an elderly and respected archaeologist, leads me to wonder whether we regress, and why.

To be sure, we're not all barbarians, but it seems those of us who are increase.  And it seems, to me at least, that they do so because there is an active tendency in the here and now to close the mind, particularly those parts of it which may be used to think intelligently.  There is in fact an impulse not to think; to refrain from thinking.  There is a kind of fear of thinking (or so I think, being unafraid).

Unthinking adherence to a few simple rules has grown attractive to many of us.  It's particularly attractive when we bring ourselves to believe that those rules are the mandates of a peculiarly demanding God who rewards those who adhere to them and punishes--and expects us to punish, and will punish us if we don't--those who fail to do so.  Since adherence is unthinking, the rules are not questioned.  They are not to be questioned in any case, being God's rules.  Those who question will be punished, and should be punished.  Punishment was highly important in the Dark Ages, and is now on the edge of what may be the New Dark Ages.

As God was the catalyst of the Old Dark Ages, it appears God may serve the same purpose for the New.  I should refer to the concept of God, however; a particular concept and a particular God.  The mind closes when it accepts that there is only one truth, one path.  The God of the close-minded is an intolerant, exclusive, jealous God, even as the close-minded are intolerant, exclusive and jealous.  The truth having been established, there is no need to think; in fact, it's wrong to do so.  Thinking becomes something to be punished.

Now it seems that some are convinced that God decrees that remnants of our past be blown up.  Specifically, I suppose, relics of the past which predated the Prophet Mohammad, that portion of the past being of no significance.  But perhaps that isn't entirely the case.  Islam being an Abrahamic religion, it may be that part of the past is relevant, and may even be preserved.  Only all other parts of the past must be destroyed; in particular those parts that are representative of inappropriate religion.

Christians of course treated pagan temples in much the same way once Christianity became predominant in the Roman Empire, though they were denied the use of helpful explosives.  The closed mind is remorseless.

It's curious that our reaction to the close-minded is to close our minds, though.  It's natural to defend what we think is right, but it's unclear that in doing so we should accept other rules as being unquestionable.  That is what seems to be occurring.  Religious zealotry inspires religious zealotry, intolerance inspires intolerance, barbarity inspires barbarity.

Our Great Republic is a creature of the Enlightenment, created by men of the Enlightenment, yet in facing the barbarians of our time we seek out and employ simple, absolute rules and truths and cloak them with a divine mantle.  We fall back on unreason.  We also fear to think, and resort to unthinking adherence to the rules we find satisfying.  We fear and despise whatever is incompatible with our divinely inspired rules.

The fear of thinking in today's world is pervasive, and is remarkable because this fear is apparently being encouraged by some who are employed to educate us.  Reason and science are subject to attack not merely by the religious, the ignorant, the mystical, but by certain of those who pose as philosophers and educators.

So we see the Enlightenment disparaged, and even called evil or the source of evil in the world.  Or, at the least, we see reason and science criticized as being no more good, or true, than any other method or source of belief or basis for conduct.  Religious fanatics, other ignorant zealots and postmodernists are bedfellows in the 21st century; none of them believe in science or rational thought, all act to restrict them as best they can.

A friend relates that he has had discussions with certain Muslims who criticize us of the West because we value freedom more than we value virtue.  The idea that virtue is somehow disassociated from freedom, or that freedom requires the abandonment of virtue, would seem to me to be characteristic of the closed mind.  Freedom allows for choice, and there is no choice for the closed mind.  There's nothing to chose from, as there is no choice to be made.  All is clear and settled.  Thus does thinking stop. 

I suppose I could invoke Yeats, and speak of the best lacking all conviction and the worst being full of passionate intensity.   But  it's unclear just who the best are anymore.  There's more than one way to stop thinking.  The close-minded claim all that is true already known, and has been decreed.  Other minds claim that nothing true may be known, and one thing is no more or less true than another.  If we are to believe some of intellectual and philosophical bent, who and what is best cannot be determined in any case.  It depends, presumably, on what narrative or discourse one accepts, and narrative and discourse are just that and nothing more.  As for the worst, who is to say who or what is worse?

Did this kind of intellectual indifference, even futility, help foster the Old Dark Ages?  Will it help bring about the New?

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