Way back in 1944, a couple of German philosophers (Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno) sat down in Palisades, California, and wrote a book called ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment – Philosophical Fragments’. Now, California might seem an odd place for two German philosophers to be living, but since they were Jewish German philosophers, California just seemed to be a better place than Germany during the Nazi era.
By the way, I am in no way, shape, or form recommending that you read this book. It is old-style, long-winded German philosophy that has been torturously translated/interpreted into English. This is painful enough for someone who dabbles in philosophy, and nearly suicide-inducing for someone who has never had an interest in such things. Just leave it alone.
What they wrote about, basically, was the death of Enlightenment thought in the modern world. Given that they were both German Jews in exile, they had previously sat in front row seats during the political/military rise of people like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. They were stunned, because they felt that an enlightened humanity would not allow this to happen.
Just to catch up here… Enlightenment thought popped up during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although the details of Enlightenment thought can be (and always will be) argued, it basically proposed the idea that kings, queens, tyrants, dictators, popes, priests, who claimed some sort of Divine Right to Rule wasn’t really the best way for humanity to progress. In fact, they felt just the opposite… they felt that humans had some natural rights, and that some sort of democracy would work better for everyone in the long run. To make that democracy work, they felt that religion should play no role in government, and that the masses needed to be well-educated (especially in history, literature, art, philosophy, critical thinking, and the sciences). They felt that mankind, armed with enough knowledge, could lead themselves to nothing less than progress and a better way of life.
It all seemed pretty reasonable at the time. A time, if I may add, that our Founding Fathers were drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They were all well-educated men of the Enlightenment, and their writings were the result of Enlightenment thought.
So back to Max and Ted… from their point of view, which I think was pretty darned valid, humanity had given up on Enlightenment thought, and had chosen mystic ignorant barbarity instead.
Nietzsche (Damn! Another German philosopher!) posited that God was dead. He had watched Enlightenment thought and action perform an epic takedown of religion. But if religion was dead, what would take its place as a cultural rudder? That question was his real insight.
Well, Nietzsche was wrong. God wasn’t dead at all. He was only retreating and regrouping for a more massive and violent assault….
In the year I was born, the term “In God We Trust” did not appear on paper currency.
In the year I was born, the phrase “One Nation Under God” was not part of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The first words of the 2016 Texas GOP platform statement are: “Affirming our belief in God, we still hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
That’s quite the trick… They managed to completely negate a beautiful bit of Enlightenment thought by simply adding four words… Affirming our belief in God… which reinstates that time-honored political philosophy of the Divine Right to Rule. Mystic ignorant barbarity.
The rest is pretty much nothing more than a Christian Manifesto, with a bunch of ultra-conservative red meat language thrown in. Hell, it even talks about bathroom signs.
And people ask me why I can’t vote Republican. What a hoot.
So, what will we do? Will we remember that fear, xenophobia, nationalism, nativism, tribalism, greed, misogyny, and racism got Adolph Hitler democratically and legally elected to office…
……….. or will we refuse the path of mystic ignorant barbarity?
I know what Ted and Max would say.
Have a day.
primum vivere, deinde philosophari.