Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Gnostic Psychism and the Roots of Progressivist Decay

There are many proposed genealogies of the progressivist decay that slowly – or not so slowly – erodes Western civilization, just as there are many diagnoses of what exactly constitutes the political malady that besets us. Recently, the present author – a self-confessed Platonist – yet again encountered, among a cohort of conservative intellectuals, the narrative that places the blame at the feet of Plato. This is a well-established narrative, and it largely prospers among Catholics of the Thomist persuasion who are enamoured of Aristotlean metaphysics. The whole problem, they claim, is that modernity has been overtaken by what they call ‘gnosticism’, by which they mean variations of the modes of gnosticism which were rife in the early Christian period. This narrative is therefore an exercise in heresiology. 

According to this narrative, an errant form of ‘gnosticism’ is abroad and it has its roots in Plato. It has been encountered previously, centuries ago, and it was successfully refuted by the great Catholic Aristoteleans who deployed Aristotle’s metaphysics against Plato’s. This ‘gnosticism’ consists, essentially, of a radical dualism: the body and the ‘self’ are radically different entities. As an example, they point to the way in which contemporary transgenderists regard body and self as entirely separate. The idea that one can be a ‘woman trapped in a man’s body’ depends upon there being no necessary connection between physical and psychic realities. The transgenderist is, in effect, a free-standing psychic entity that is independent of the physical vehicle in which it is housed. Other examples, are the type of disembodiment implicit in artificial intelligence projects and illustrated in movies such as the Matrix or Avatar. It has also been noted that the contemporary cult fashion of tattooing and body modification is a manifestation of the same metaphysics; the ‘self’ can impose its own image upon the body which is a blank canvas, tabula rasa

In all of these cases consciousness, the self, the psychic entity, has no essential connection with the body or the physical world. The physical world can be re-made in any manner whatsoever since it has no essential nature. The body, indeed, is regarded in most cases as a prison or at least as an obstacle to the psyche’s self-determination which is championed as ‘freedom’ itself. ‘Freedom’ is defined as overcoming the limitations set by embodiment. Such dualism is labelled "gnostic" and its roots are traced to Plato.

That this heresy – let us call it ‘gnostic psychism’ – is afoot in our times is plain enough, and so too is its genealogical pedigree in a certain form of Platonic dualism that was rife in early Christianity and against which early Christianity had to battle. But is the problem with Plato himself? Can we lay the ills of modern deviationism at his feet? The conservative intellectuals with whom this writer was conversing recently seemed to believe so. "The whole problem is Plato," they said, and their champion Aquinas had put him in his place. This is surely an unlikely proposition by any stretch, and it is one that the present writer wants to resist. The 'Gnostic psychism’ described is, after all, but one reading of Plato, and a shallow one, and = more to the point - by other estimations it is not an adherence to Platonism but rather a revolt against it that characterises the modern mentality. Platonists hold views that are widely deemed radically conservative. In their narrative, the descent into progressivist corrosion is a consequence of the West turning away from Plato, not the other way around.  

For a start, we need to remember that it is in Plato – at the heart of his cosmology – that we find the doctrine that this creation is the best of all possible worlds. This is plainly contrary to the gnostic project to ‘immantize the eschaton’. Contrary to dualist readings, Plato also offers a vision of an optimum world, as perfect as it can be, and, moreover – by the doctrine of recollection – the place of souls within it is all to a purpose. In Plato - we find it throughout the dialogues - a person is not an irresponsibly free, anarchic agent, but has a preordained duty. Justice in the Republic is nothing like the so-called "social justice" of contemporary Leftists but rather consists in every man doing that one task for which he was born (whether he likes it or not.) Plato, moreover, is the father of the philosophical Realist tradition in Western thought, whereas what is being described as ‘gnostic psychism’ above is plainly a manifestation of nominalism. 

Plato, that is to say, insists that there IS a reality. Indeed, he is the foremost thinker to insist so. The idea that there is a fixed reality, a 'nature', is Platonic by definition. The facts of the world – this best of worlds - are realities and not merely labels that we can change at a whim. A man, that is to say, is a man, thus born, and his masculinity is a reality and not just a name (as the nominalists would have it) that can be changed to ‘woman’ if and when we feel like it. In Plato’s account of souls a man is born with such an identity for a reason, (and in fact has chosen to do so in the pre-existent state.) The facts of one’s life are not a series of inconvenient accidents; they are realities in which we find our destiny, our identity and our fulfilment. This is so fundamental to Platonic thinking that it is really quite extraordinary to hear it proposed that Plato is to blame for quite the opposite.

Consider, for example, the following picture which enjoys a certain popularity on social media:

In a remarkable inversion, the facts of one's birth are a "fiction" while the identity you invent according to your whims and persuasions is considered true.

No picture quite states in such stark and exposed terms the very essence of Leftist progressivism. The progressive ideology proposes that all that is not freely chosen is, by definition, an imprisonment.  Name (family), religion, nationality, race, gender: these are just "fictions". Freedom must be established by an exercise of the will by the free-standing, unattached individual. All the conditions into which we are born, therefore, are – in and of themselves – impediments to that. The highest value in progressive ideology is self-determination. Yes, this “self” that determines and that exercises its will is a disembodied “gnostic psychism”, but all the conditions of reality against which it struggles are merely “names” (nominalism), which is to say “social constructs”. Gender is a case that is easy to understand. If one is born a male then it is a triumphant gesture of progressive “liberation” to defy this “social construct” and declare oneself a female, reality be damned. There is no end to this. Very quickly, race, and even the category of species become just "social constructs" (names). Consider, for example, the sadly instructive case of Rachel 
Dolezal (see the video linked below).

Miss Dolezal - an "activist" - insists that she is a negro. In fact, she is not. She is Caucasian, both her parents are white and she has completely European ancestry, but she “identifies” as a black African American. Readers are invited to listen to her account of herself very carefully. We have “progressed” and “evolved” on the question of gender identity, she says, and it is time we did the same about racial categories. Race, like gender, is not a reality, by this account; racial labels are merely labels (names, fictions.) Underpinning her delusions, sure enough, is a nominalist metaphysic. Her worldview is entirely subjective. There are no objective realities. We make our own realities and wear whatever labels we like. In her case she can identify as "black" if she wants and to insist that she is not black is to oppress her. Self-identity, self-definition, contravening the "accidents" of birth, is what is crucial. This, to her, and to progressives, is the essence of “freedom”. It is plainly nonsense, but it has now taken root in our civilization. 

The point, though, is that nothing could be more un-Platonic. The entire nominalist/realist debate that raged in Christian philosophy throughout the medieval centuries concerned exactly this, and it was the Plato-loving Dominicans (against the Saracen-influenced Franciscans) who argued the case for what Aristotlean called “universals”, which is to say for fixed realities. The realists, need we point out, lost, and nominalism prevailed, and thus we are where we are today. 

In the realist view, the facts of our life are not just labels and nor are they impediments to self-fulfilment. On the contrary, they are realities – as real as cosmic realities – and we find our fulfilment within them, not against them. That is to say, if one is born a man, this is a cosmic fact, a feature of nature, a true reality, an aspect of the best of possible worlds, and it is a destiny that one cannot and should not escape because it is as a man – in one’s masculinity – that one will find (in part) one’s fulfilment. Similarly, one’s race, and nationality and religion, are not chains but rather they are gifts, resources, attributes, and it is our duty and our glory to make as much of what gifts we have been given as we possibly can.

By this account, then, Plato, father of philosophical realism, the proponent of innate ideas, the sworn enemy of tabula rasa, is the father of political conservatism and the arch enemy of progressivism which is, after all, just the political application of nominalism. The case against 'gnostic psychism' is understandable, and there is no denying that dualism - that most ancient of heresies - can be extracted from certain readings of Plato, especially from an isolated reading of certain famous passages in the Phaedo. But, when we are confronted with the madness of the contemporary world, it is obviously a mistake to pin the blame on Plato himself. In point of fact, let us add, both Plato and Aristotle took positions which were plainly non- and anti-nominalist - it is not a case of Plato versus Aristotle; it is the decline of the entire classical philosophical tradition in the West that has brought us to the current impasse. 


Harper McAlpine Black

No comments:

Post a Comment