Part III: Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza and Sacrifice

Spinoza was a critic of empiricism for it cannot establish the principle of proportion and leaves the products of observation uncertain and indefinite. All we can discover through such a method is accidental properties rather than necessary ones. Bacon was a critic of abstract rationalism insisting that reason was utilitarian rather than an end in itself and that any product of reason had to be tested in the empirical world. Yet they both agreed on the importance of the imagination in feeding desires and raising appetites to the status of love and commitment. Affective responses are never without cognitive content. But science must be the means of determining that content, for Spinoza derived by deduction, for Bacon derived by induction. 

Both Spinoza and Bacon were founders of the Enlightenment. Other than science and the use of reason or accurate observation, other ways at arriving at valid truths – tradition, myth, divine revelation – were invalid. However, reason, either deductive or inductive, could not capture men’s hearts. Then conflicts – which are not rooted in reason or accurate observation but in conflicting beliefs – are the result. The ultimate decision in the end required violence, in reality political terror. The basic fault of the Enlightenment is that it is unable to deal with political terror. It cannot demand sacrifice. Reason and careful observation do not need sacrifice.

Bacon called for a system of using imagination to produce outward conformity, to sell a vision of human aspiration, but in the process seeded disenchantment. The emotional power of science, whatever the appropriate methodology, was weak to non-existent. It fed the creation of the organizational man and the administered life. As we shall see, John Locke would introduce risk as the replacement for sacrifice. Hobbes would offer submission to an authoritarian figure. We will see if those answers worked. Spinoza had nothing in his quiver of arrows to perform this role. Bacon offered a fable. However, a utopian product of the imagination could not and did not serve that task.

Instead of the Enlightenment completing the task of the Reformation, it perhaps destroyed faith altogether, in good part because it did not demand sacrifice and commitment. For light was no longer linked to heaven and service to an other worldly presence. For the eyes of the spirit in Bacon were focused on things of this world.

Bacon did not realize that attention to the here and now would create confusion and, even worse, dullness. One gets experience but no way to measure the value of that experience. Experience then becomes an end in itself and the populace moves from one fad to another that grabs its attention. Spirit becomes impoverished. We all become roots out of dry ground dying for a drink, a sip of water and not even a glass from the divine, because there was no longer support for the presence of the divine.

Bacon and Spinoza offered no set of beliefs that could replace the convictions of religion and, thereby, both a source for both social stability and instability. For Bacon, religion had become utilitarian. For Spinoza, it was deconstructed and needed to be reconstructed through the efforts of reason.  The result – a solipsistic world in which there is a great attraction to egotistical narcissists. How then to complete the task of the Enlightenment? Human autonomy and self-sufficiency dependent on a system of reason did not seem to do the job.

I am a senior fellow at Massey College where Nathalie Des Rosiers is the new principal. She is superb. She is a model of promoting melioration. She remains a spokesperson for fairness, for justice, for rights and for education to prepare students by providing them with networks that allow them to develop their minds. But what about their hearts? What about their guts?  

Medieval Europe offered a community of Christian or Jewish believers where, in the Christian community, every Christian was indoctrinated with the idea that their mission, their sacred duty, was to uphold and defend the community. Jews were taught that just being and remaining a Jew was a sacrifice, though for most there was no other choice. For Christians, it was their route to redemption and salvation.

What about prosperity? What about autonomy? What about freedom? What about justice? What about peace, order and good government? Loyalty to the Christian Commonwealth was the answer requiring fealty. First the Reformation and then the rise of the nation state shattered the unity of the Christian Commonwealth.  

We have had only false gods and inadequate ones to replace the medieval sense of the divine. The main one, taken from Grotius and modeled on ancient Israel, has been the nation state. But what has happened to that nation state? Supposedly, it requires absolute control over who is admitted into membership, a demarcated territory, a common language, a sense of self-determination and autonomy and control over its own destiny. But what states have these traits?

In a world with over sixty million refugees and many more would-be immigrants trying to escape war, personal insecurity and economic deprivation, the numbers knocking on the gates of the “successful” states are overwhelming and the numbers breaking through the gates of neighboring states have usually cracked those gates. Further, the premise was a world of nation states, but the reality is a world of multinational states. In addition, boundaries remain disputed in many places – Ukraine takes up a lot of print in the media precisely for this reason  – and there are states in everything but name, such as Taiwan, and many nations of significant size without a state of their own – Uyghurs and Tibetans in China, Kurds and Palestinians in the Middle East.

And how many states enjoy any measure of full autonomy? Even America, the most powerful state in the world, suffers not only from a second-rate power intervening in its 2016 election to favour one candidate, but has just surrendered its exclusive control over trade and commerce to a renewed and rewritten continent-wide trade agreement. Most significantly, reason has led leaders to promote supra-national bodies on the political and economic levels. But those new entities do not invite a passionate attachment and a willingness to sacrifice. Instead, when it comes to the crunch, the integrity of states is compromised as they join supra-national bodies governing trade and international relations.

But who offers their lives, more importantly, their children’s lives, in service to these various supra-national bodies? Instead, the reactions against them invite movements of secession – Brexit and even secession from the secessionists – Scotland from the UK. Instead of the dream of world order, we face a nightmare of world disorder. It does not help that in the past soldiers were duped and taxpayers misled about the just cause of a war – whether Vietnam in the sixties or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century.

The reality is that we are really impoverished when it comes to supra-national authority structures. When faced with the greatest crisis in the history of humanity, climate change, when we are preparing a world in which our children and grandchildren will be sacrificed, rather than voluntarily accept sacrifice for themselves, we reveal ourselves to be almost bankrupt as we stutter and drift towards the apocalypse. The nation-state has revealed itself to be ridden with the cancer of organized hypocrisy; populist feeling expresses itself in revolt.

Instead of the promise of ever-increasing prosperity, the rich grow richer at a rate 7 times their original assets while the upper middle class doubles its property, the lower middle class with a struggle stays level and the income and assets of the lower class decline. Reason and knowledge were supposed to serve everyone under a principle of fairness and possibly even a promise of greater equality. They have failed in that task, though they have made enormous breakthroughs in knowledge and communications.

Let me quote from John Gantz’s review of The Irishman, which I myself wrote about:

The Baby Boomer generation, fairly or not, stands accused of growing up in a prosperous country and then throwing away everything that allowed for that prosperity in a fit of selfishness, either out of unwillingness to just pay their damn taxes or lack of interest in anything except their own hippie-dippie projects of self-realization. While denigrating the narcissism, self-indulgence, and unearned sanctimony of the Boomers, young people are also now looking back to older ideologies and institutions: the labor movement, socialism, the New Deal, and the anti-fascist crusade of WWII.

There is a revived nostalgia for my generation since currently security and prosperity are so much more difficult to achieve. In many ways, the world built by our grandparents looks very attractive now that material prosperity and a meaningful life are harder and harder to obtain. But what was that world – lost souls, opportunists, men obsessed with wealth and power – that grew into corruption at the centre of the modern networked empire. Managerial or patriarchal capitalism, whether in the freewheeling West or the government-managed East, gets its direction from a union of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and technocrats. None of these attract affection. And the politicians above them attract suspicion.

And deservedly so. But who, in the most powerful country in the world and a leading democracy, do they elect? A person who not only golfs most weekends, but even owns a string of golf courses. And he criticized his predecessor for golfing too much. They elect a man who perpetually lies all of the time and cheats even when playing golf by himself. He buys a golf course, creates a tournament, is the only golfer in that tournament and then boasts of the 18 tournaments he has won without disclosing that he was the only player in those tournaments. He then gives himself the title of first club champion. He kicks the ball so often that caddies have nicknamed him Pelé. (See Rick Reilly Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.)

Americans have elected a very sick megalomaniacal narcissist as their democratically elected king. Why and how could they have done such a thing? I believe it is because they have elected what they feel they are themselves and unconsciously hate – hollow men, and men mostly elected him. They know that the promise of the modern world has turned out to be a fraud. They know that the Enlightenment resulted in an elite largely indifferent or, at best, impotent to do anything about their well-being.

Golf is the one sport where a person is accountable to himself. There are no referees, though there can be peer pressure. But Donald Trump sets up a game to ensure peer pressure is absent. For he believes he is the divine, one beyond accountability to anyone. As Reilly wrote, “I liked him (Donald Trump) as a writer because he’s a crazy fabulist who tells lies so big they can float in the Macy’s parade.” When the two played together, Trump would introduce Reilly, not as a well-known sportswriter, but as president of Sports Illustrated. Companions had to be elevated to the level of seraphim who surround his throne. And his throne had to be ethereal, even as it was adorned by the most glitter and gold.

What a paradox – creating an Enlightenment world where truth, where validation is king, whatever the disputes over the various routes to achieve that ideal, and in the most powerful and one of the oldest democracies, they elect a king who has no use for either truth or authentic validation. And this depiction goes well beyond the United States. Rick Noack in The Washington Post, commenting on the very recent British election, wrote, “Dishonesty and dirty tactics define Britain’s election.” This is the land of Francis Bacon. This is the land that has worshipped empirical truth for centuries. And it too has disintegrated into the epitome of unfairness.

The misleading is deliberate, not accidental. When knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian function, what happens when dishonesty proves to be more useful in obtaining success than honesty? Information integrity has not even received a proper formal burial. The media is used to garner an emotional rather than a cognitive reaction. And it works. It works because a much more powerful affective allegiance supporting truth no longer exists. The Enlightenment has left the field wide open for fraud. Is it any surprise that yesterday I could count 13 robo calls all intended to deceive me and relieve me of my private information and my money?

The elites either looked down with disdain at the masses and offered them emotional pap and a false promise of success and fairness if only they worked hard. They did. They ended up totally disenchanted. So why not elect an obvious fraudster, an open fabulist and liar rather than others claiming to tell the truth, when the very truth and promise of the Enlightenment proved itself to be a lie? Was it not the case that these very same elites that created the best tool ever, the modern electronic media, for disseminating knowledge, have created the best tool for the dissemination of disinformation, for spreading lies faster and more frequently than ever seemed possible at an earlier date? Social media have become disinformation networks. The lies come at us like a barrage. The speed at which virulent disinformation is spread is truly lightning fast and validation offers the most feeble tools in trying to keep up.

And who are the most frequent targets even as we remain largely immune and even largely unaware of the growth and extent of the assault? The Jews. For Grotius, the Jewish model of the nation state was the political premise for building the modern world. Should they not be justly blamed for the inability of the world to collectively get together to effectively counter the approaching apocalypse?

And look at the modern version of that ancient model – Israel. It not only has displaced the Palestinian population and in its own self-defence countered their self-inflicted erroneous efforts to create their own nation state, but Israelis have come to a state where the very blood of a democracy circulates, general elections. The result – stalemates and no government. Three elections within one year. The accumulated plaque is chocking the clogged coronary arteries of the Israeli democratic system. The Prime Minster is an accused felon. Israelis cannot even cobble together a coalition.

In The Hague a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Aung San Suu Kyi defends the government of Myanmar against charges that its military took part in ethnic cleansing and even genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority. In India, the legislature under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership introduces and passes legislation on a first vote that openly discriminates against Muslims from becoming members of the polity. These Hindu nationalists despise the secular state put in place by Gandhi and Nehru.

Is there anywhere where we can look for a foundation for greater hope?

With the help of Alex Zisman


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