THE DEATH OF THE CONTEST OF IDEAS IN WESTERN CULTURE.
By Peter Corney
Western culture is inexorably moving towards a crisis. We are a culture of suspicion and cynicism, empty of any sense of ultimate meaning, a culture that leads to either despair or distraction. We are the philosophical children of Nietzsche and his post structuralist, Post Modern followers.
As Nietzsche prophesied, God is now dead for modern people. Therefore there can be no transcendent values of right and wrong, justice or goodness, no objective truth; the only absolute is the will to power. If this is true then the contest of ideas is over, it’s ultimately futile because there is no final standard to determine what is true or false at the end of the contest and so all that’s left is the contest of power!
Nietzsche said “If you kill God you must also leave the shelter of the Temple.” He meant that to be consistent you must leave Christianity’s values and meaning and make your way alone in the brutal world of the contest of power. The contest of ideas requires a notion of objective truth, with that gone the contest of ideas is a futile delusion. Samuel Becket depicts the futility powerfully in his play ‘Waiting for Godot’ as just the chatter of clowns waiting for someone to arrive and explain it all. But the ‘someone’ never comes because in Beckett’s world view there is no one to come and there is no meaning to explain. Behind our chatter about ideas – the thin veil of illusion – lies the real battle the will to power which eventually leads to the contest of power.
I am not suggesting that everyone out there knows or even cares about the history and influence of ideas in Western culture or would understand or express it in this way, but this is the spiritual place at which our culture has arrived. Of course very few who even do know are prepared to go all the logical way with Nietzsche to the edge of the abyss and stare into the empty darkness of the logic of his ideas that is too bleak for most of us! It’s only in our moments of suffering; physical, psychological or spiritual, that we come to the place of despair. When we have lost our job or failed to find one after months of searching or lost a friend in a car crash or yet another relationship has collapsed by betrayal, stupidity or selfishness, it’s only then that we stair into the abyss of meaninglessness and despair. Most of the time we are into distraction, and all the ingenuity and creativity of popular Western consumerist culture is pumping away to assist us!
Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” and “Art as Therapy” (and as a substitute for religion), are well-meaning attempts at a popular philosophy of life without God for modern people but in the end they just paper over the crack of despair. They have no radical answer to the real pain of existence without ultimate meaning in the presence of the unrelenting struggle for power. In the end, even though it’s quite sophisticated and elegant writing, it’s just more of Beckett’s ‘chatter’, another addition to the veil of illusion masking the real game – the will to power.
But every now and then the truth breaks out to confront us in disconcerting ways, in contemporary art, film or literature. Richard Flannigan’s recent novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is such a moment. It deservedly won the 2015 Miles Franklin award for Australian literature.
In this powerful novel Flannigan tells the story of allied POW’s building the Burma railway under the brutal cruelty of the Japanese army in WW2. The central character is Dorrigo Evans a POW medical officer and surgeon.
For Evans the brutality of the experience has left him with a sense of total nihilism – the only truth in life is the relentless existence of violence. Flannigan expresses his characters thoughts in these words: “For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which no one could escape the horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any God man worshiped, for it was the only true God. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boots and fists and the horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was the history of violence.”
Violence is so often the accomplice of the will to power whether it is a controlling husband’s abuse of his wife and children or an authoritarian manager bullying his employees or the power of the state oppressing its own people or violating the sovereignty of another state for territorial or material gain. The contest of power is usually settled by violence of one kind or another.
The freedom from the “oppression of absolutes”, that Western Post modernity craves, including any transcendent values, will of course in the end lead to the most terrible oppression of all, the unfettered expression of humanities will to power. The current redefining of personal freedom and the quest for unrestricted choice will tragically in the end see the loss of freedom and the unleashing of the crushing violence of unrestrained power. We see it in the growing dysfunction and fragmentation of the family in Australia and the accompanying escalation of family violence. Ironically the reaction of the state is more regulation. Having undermined transcendent values by the relentless encouragement of secularism all it has left is the blunt instrument of legislation. Laws don’t make good people they merely restrain bad ones, and not all that effectively as many Australian families know. A woman is murdered every week in Australia in an act of family violence.
Within, as well as beyond the West, we are seeing the rise of violent movements seeking to impose by force a totalitarian view of government and religion that marginalises or eliminates all dissenting views. This is a new form of fascism but an old story of the abuse of power.
The first actions of oppressive and totalising regimes, whether secular or religious are always to strip away the people’s rights to openly contest the truth of ideas, to remove the ability to challenge the basis of the regimes claim to power. The regime does this not by engaging in the contest of ideas but by the naked exercise of power.
Western democracy and its liberal values are built on ideas from its Christian heritage but it is now weak and vulnerable because it has lost its memory of these ideas and values and its connection to this foundation. Through prosperity, comfort and overindulgence it is now soft and flabby and without discipline. The jury is still out as to whether it will survive the coming storm that internally is of its own making and externally is bearing down upon it from distant deserts and the people who understand only too well the contest and the use of violent power in the quest for victory and control.
The award winning documentary “The Fog of War” is about the nature of modern war. It is built around Robert Mc Namara’s recollections and reflections. He was the US Secretary for Defence during the Vietnam conflict. At the end of hours of interviews with Mc Namara Errol Morris the film’s director concluded “We are in an endless loop, the characters change but the idiocy remains.” The idiocy is our unwillingness to face our fallen weakness of the will to power and our default position of achieving it by violence. Ironically one of Mc Namara’s conclusions when asked what he had learnt from his experience was “You can’t change human nature!”
The Christians understanding of power comes from the teaching and example of Jesus. It is the radical alternative to fallen humanities understanding of power. It is in fact the complete inversion of worldly power. Jesus said “Love your enemies….do good to those who hate you”, “Blessed are the peace makers”. It is the power of servant hood! He said “The Son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”. He submits to the cross and the brutality and violence of fallen worldly power and absorbs it into himself and bears upon himself the guilt of all who have and will exercise such power and in doing so he defeats it. Christians understand that in that act of submission and self-sacrifice he makes possible our forgiveness with God and a new way to live free of the will to power, to live in love as the servants of others. The Christian also understands that the power of God, which is the power of love, will ultimately rule the world in the transformed and renewed creation that God will one day bring to fruition. So the Christian engages in the contests of power that infect our world from a radically different World View and a radically different approach to conflict and power. Their guiding principles will include: (a) recognition of the presence of the ‘will to power’ in all conflicts, (b) the goal of mutual understanding and benefit for all parties, (c) equality for all participants, (d) truth telling, (e) the aim of forgiveness and reconciliation, (g) the refusal to use violence and illegitimate force as the first option, (h)and the goal of the democratisation of legitimate authority, (i) the belief that people can change through God’s grace and so (j) an attitude of hope.
Sometimes this approach will prevail and bring peace and reconciliation, sometimes not. Then it may mean suffering and the sacrifice of our lives. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Paul says “…that we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings…” Nonviolent intervention and rejecting the will to power can be a costly journey, for the will to power and violence combined is a monster without love or pity. But because all people are made in the image of God and in their hearts some of the reflection of God’s nature remains, sometimes when given the chance to see the true alternative to the monster some will choose the alternative, the way of Jesus.
THE DEATH OF THE CONTEST OF IDEAS IN WESTERN CULTURE.