Monthly Archives: February, 2012

Religion and the Conservation of Historical Otherness

What is religion in the postmodern world?  Religion has been widely regarded as a source of oppressive authority, a body of outmoded superstitions that constrain the capacity of individuals to utilize their freedom and thrive in a liberal, pluralistic society.  This view has been moderated in recent years, as a number of secular thinkers have credited religion as being the source of the moral values that are indispensable for the stability and well-being of liberal democracy, such as the golden rule or compassion for the poor.  But I find that the predominant approach to religion taken by secular intellectuals is one of attempting to domesticate and rein in an unruly and potentially destructive force.  The most urgent question for them is how to make faith, as it were, housebroken – i.e. how to harness its altruistic and humanitarian impulses for socially beneficent ends while curbing its powers elsewhere, so that it would not seek to impose constraints on individual liberty or otherwise stifle the ceaseless pursuit of novelty in consumer society.

Such a project necessarily assumes that religion can be divided between its enlightened varieties, those manifestations of spirituality that are accepting of other beliefs and take a relaxed attitude towards social mores and practices, and its strident and menacing forms, usually fundamentalist, which are bent on burdening non-believers with their oppressive values and irrational restrictions.  Enlightened religion has made its peace with the modern world, and obeys the principle of “this far, and no further.”  Reactionary fundamentalist religion is so unsettled by the relentless erosion of taboos in modernity that it appears ready to pay the price of economic competitiveness to restore the discarded and abandoned social and sexual norms.

On closer inspection, however, the task of making religion safe for secular democracy (as well as, one might add, capitalism) appears more daunting than one might expect, since it requires arriving at the correct balance whereby religion is strong enough to supply crucial moral intuitions (be kind to others, help the less fortunate, defer gratification) that cannot be generated by a purely secular rationality, but yet is left weak enough so that it is in no position to threaten to curb the untrammeled freedom which has come to define liberal individualism.  One must contend furthermore with the concern that the “good,” pluralistic expressions of religious belief usually represent diluted forms of faith and practice.  Such a spirituality, which has become so harmonized with modern life so as to become interchangeable with it, is incapable of supplying a corrective to the corrosive forces of the age and is fated to disappear with the passing of the present epoch and its values.

For Alexis de Tocqueville, it only makes sense to speak of the salutary effects of Christianity inasmuch as the religion and its values exist at a distance from the commercial preoccupations of democratic society.  Democracy gives rise to a bustling society given over to commerce, in which men almost always meet others who are like themselves and in which their material success give them scant incentive to recognize and fathom the forbidding ideas and arduous experiences that were essential to the formation of their world.  Only religion could preserve a dimension of otherness in a society defined by commerce and dominated by affluence.

In Tocqueville’s view, the emergence of democracy itself is a theological mystery.  As such, he gives a definition of religion that can be understood as thoroughly atheistic: “When, therefore, any religion has put down deep roots in a democracy, be careful not to shake them; rather, take care to preserve them as the most valuable bequest from aristocratic times” (Democracy in America, 632-633).  Like many contemporary social theorists, Tocqueville’s view of religion is oriented toward its social consequences, its social and economic utility, yet he underscores here that it is not primarily its moral or ethical dimension which is to be valued, but rather the historical consciousness it provides.  Religion is what prevents the democratic and capitalist subject from being fully enclosed in the social and cultural horizon created by its activity.  Religion, specifically Christianity, gives democratic men and women access to a radically different perspective that runs counter to the restless pursuit of material goods and worldly success.

What is accordingly truly other to capitalist democracy is not a vision of its possible improvements and modifications, such as socialism or communism, but rather aristocracy.  Religion is an artifact of aristocratic centuries, in which hierarchy was a constant, harsh and unavoidable presence in everyday life.  But what does a sociopolitical order, founded on rigid social divisions and irrational codes of privilege, have to offer than democracy does not?  As Pierre Manent observes in his study of Tocqueville:

“Aristocratic society, which is founded on a false idea of freedom, on bizarre notions of honor, which particularizes men, causes them by the same token to live together and exalt the higher parts of the soul.  Democratic society, which is founded on the just idea of liberty, whose notions of honor increasingly approximate universal notions of good and evil, which ‘generalize’ men, separates and weakens the higher parts of the soul.  The false idea of nature elevates the nature of man and stimulates exalted achievements – in thought and politics, above all.  The true idea of nature dulls the nature of man and makes him incapable of exalted enterprises that are proper to his nature – elevated thought in particular” (Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, 74, emphases mine).

Aristocratic society has hierarchy as its guiding principle, but this means that the “power of one man to govern others” extends to realms beyond considerations of political rank.  The lack of egalitarianism in aristocracy has its noblest and most splendid consequences in the realm of thought.  The habit in aristocracies of commanding and obeying is conducive for the realization of philosophic and artistic genius.  Democratic society, by contrast, strives incessantly to suppress the awareness of inequalities and looks only to money as the only indisputable measure of distinction.  Manent locates the incommensurable difference between aristocracy and democracy in the idea of influence: “Because [aristocratic societies] are extremely inegalitarian, great personal influences can make themselves felt… The social convention that recognizes great individual influences opens space in which great natural influences, owing to strictly personal talents and merits of individuals, can be exercised” (Tocqueville, 77).  In aristocracies, the law of superiority means that people take it for granted that men ought to influence one another, including those who may lack the distinction of birth but who rise to exert authority by cultivating their abilities and gifts.  Democracy, on the other hand, holds that no man is superior to any other, and so “tends to impose a real equality of men that it does not uphold in theory” (Tocqueville, 79).  Democracy thus tends to “stultify” human nature, as democratic society is “constantly preoccupied with organizing men so that they are unconscious” of their inequalities, a necessarily “endless” task which compels individuals to “veil in themselves and ignore in another all sentiments, qualities, actions that tend to contradict this equality” (Tocqueville, 79).

While the Christian belief in the inviolable dignity of every human being is often regarded as the source of the modern concept of equality, the Christian view of the soul cannot be described as democratic.  In Christianity, it is aristocracy (or monarchy) in Plato’s sense that provides the pattern for the right order of the soul, whereby the believer is called to recognize the love of God as the supreme authority that rules over his or her desires and capacities.  The democratic soul in the Republic, by contrast, is defined by the absence of a single ruling power and by its insistence that all desires must be “honored on an equal basis” (561c).  It could therefore hardly be called Christian at all.  In Plato’s dialogue, the form of the soul corresponds to the regime that shares its name, i.e. the citizens of an aristocracy possess aristocratic souls, the citizens of an oligarchy oligarchic souls, the citizens of a democracy democratic souls, etc.  For Tocqueville, the inward, spiritualized hierarchy of Christianity makes possible the coexistence of democracy with the aristocratic soul.  Indeed, Tocqueville contends that it is best for a democracy to be populated by citizens who have aristocratic souls.

But an aristocratic soul that inhabits a democracy will necessarily exist in tension with this political regime.  For it is the will of the human spirit to “harmonize the earth and heaven” (Tocqueville, 107).  Religion accordingly serves as a force that restrains and moderates the corrosive effects of individualism and materialism, but it can do no more than hold back overwhelming powers that are bent on vanquishing it, subjugating, colonizing and manipulating it for its own indifference to higher purposes.  The power of democratic society over religion sterilizes religion and deprives it of its capacity to serve as the repository of historical consciousness, as a body of ideas from which it is possible to reconstruct the perspectives and values of the aristocratic past.  For Nietzsche, the nascent liberal Christianity of his time had lost sight of the “dread” and the “belief in human unworthiness” that drove Pascal, who was central influence on Tocqueville, to formulate his wager, and instead justified itself according to the “great benefit,” “enjoyment,” and “soothing effects” it offered.  Such a religion, which sought its proof in “pleasure” and not “force,” was in Nietzsche’s view a “symptom of decline,” leading to an “opiate Christianity” that has “no need of that dreadful solution, ‘a God on the cross’” (Late Notebooks, 89-90).

The old saying that politics creates strange bedfellows must surely apply to the history of ideas – shifts in social values can reveal alignments and affinities between ostensible adversaries or between critics and the targets of their critiques.  Thus, the more distant Christianity grows from beliefs that in the eyes of the present age are irrational, arduous, and strenuous, the better this unapologetic defender of aristocratic values can fulfill the unlikely role of the defender of an uncomfortable and troubling orthodoxy.  It is instructive in this respect to look to Eric Voegelin’s commentary on Nietzsche, in which the latter emerges as a mystic of historical immanentism, for whom the union with God is replaced by union with distinct historical personalities: Schopenhauer, Wagner, Bismarck, Goethe, and perhaps most importantly, Pascal (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 271).  Nietzsche is not so much a historicist as a mystic who seeks to “transform himself into an epitome of the experiences of humanity to the point that the historically unfolding spirit becomes incarnate for its actual present in his person; his person must become the medium of transition of the spirit into the future of humanity” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 265).  By “living through” the experiences of the past, the individual will “learn best where humanity in future should or should not go.”

Voegelin’s reservations about Nietzsche’s historical mysticism not surprisingly have to do with the possibility of misinterpretation, which is exacerbated by the thinker’s own “weakness in drawing empirical images of the actions of the immoralist” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 296-297).  Moreover, Nietzsche’s mysticism is ultimately a defective one, because he “was incapable of the transcendental experiences” which are infused by the Christian idea of grace (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 257).  Yet, Nietzsche, in developing an array of “countersymbols” of the Christian religion, maps out in the movements of his this-worldly mysticism the “transfigured reality” of the soul once it has overcome “the world in which man lusts for life” (“Nietzsche and Pascal,” 258).  The most profound apologist for Christianity, Pascal, thus emerges as the thinker he followed most closely.


Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner.  Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Late Notebooks, trans. Kate Sturge.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Eric Voegelin, “Nietzsche and Pascal,” in The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Volume 25: The History of Political Ideas, Volume VII: The New Order and the Last Orientation, ed. Jürgen Gebhardt and Thomas A. Hollweck.  Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

An Inoffensive Method: Cronenberg and the Fight of the Century

A Dangerous Method, directed by David Cronenberg, depicts the friendship and the eventual split between two of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung.  I entered the theater feeling somewhat skeptical over how it would handle the ideas of the two men, but I was impressed by how engrossing the conversations about the psychoanalytic method actually are in the film.  Yet, the film ultimately disappoints.  It backs away from pursuing to its end the implicit question it raises in portraying the clash between these two momentous figures: who will define the soul of the bourgeois in the modern age?

The film focuses on the relationship first of Jung and then of Freud to a younger woman, Sabina Spielrein, who is one of Jung’s early patients.  Brought to the clinic where Jung works against her will by her wealthy Russian Jewish parents, she flowers there as a patient of Jung, working through her emotional traumas to become an outstanding medical student, and then emerges as an eminent therapist in her own right.  The film appears to credit her with giving Jung, who becomes her lover, the idea of the anima.  Later on, her academic thesis regarding the destructive character of the sexual drive so impresses Freud that he shifts direction in his own work to theorize the death drive (in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud acknowledges his debt to Spielrein’s work in a footnote).

Jung and Freud themselves are portrayed as opposites, though not in a schematic way.  Jung is played by Michael Fassbender as a nervous and passionate patrician, a volatile compound of Calvinist guilt and Teutonic intoxication.  Viggo Mortensen’s Freud by contrast conveys solidity and rootedness – he is never at a loss for words and always with a sardonic riposte at the ready.  Freud is utterly convinced of the truthfulness of his science but perpetually uneasy about his status as the father of an intellectual and moral revolution.  On several occasions he exhibits something of a persecution complex regarding the forces hostile toward his movement, although the rise of Nazism would of course prove his fears prescient.  The rational Freud objects to Jung’s research into parapsychology and psychic phenomena as dangerous to the embattled reputation of psychoanalysis as a science.  He also cautions Spielrein from accepting the ideas of her erstwhile therapist and lover too readily.  Freud reminds her that as Jews, they must take with a grain of salt the enthusiasms of an Aryan Protestant for whom the experience of religious and ethnic persecution fails to register within his psychic horizon.  Yet, it is Freud who seems more at ease with himself and with the modern world than Jung.  He is the one who has more fully embraced the realities of the industrial age and, lacking any inclination for redemptive nostalgia, has achieved a sense of harmony and balance in the midst of the cold, hard facts of a disenchanted life.  The bespectacled Jung by contrast comes across as unworldly and sensitive most of the time, except when he comes up against the proprieties of Swiss Protestant society, in which case he is rapidly reduced to both philistinism and petulance.

Within the film the character of Spielrein, who is played by Keira Knightley in one of the most remarkable performances of recent years, should logically serve as the figure that mediates or achieves a synthesis between the opposing attitudes of the two men.  But while she recognizes the limitations of Freud’s approach, which seeks only to help the patient resign herself to a life of ordinary misery, she never comes around in the film to formulating the equivalent defects or limitations of Jung’s thought.  This lack of symmetry leads me to conclude that the film tacitly hands the victory in the intellectual standoff to Jung, as it does not locate an objection in the realm of ideas to the latter’s stance that therapy should be about more than reconciling patients to their problems, and that it ought to help them uncover their untapped potential and to discover within themselves the people they are meant to become.  Indeed, the moment of triumph she experiences over Jung does not take place on the level of their ideas, but has to do with the choice of his new mistress, who, he reveals with one part embarrassment and two parts flattery, is “half-Jewish.”

Given the fact that liberal capitalist society places a premium placed on individual freedom, Jung’s ideas are certain to appear far more desirable and authoritative than those of his rival.  Freudian sobriety and resignation are antithetical and run counter to the spirit of contemporary society: be the best self you can be! life is a journey! spring your inner child from detention! you are a spiritual warrior, so go out and collect some spiritual scalps!  A Dangerous Method does not announce a winner in the bout quite so emphatically, but while many a viewer might greet such reticence as a form of subtlety and as the outcome of a laudable impulse to do justice to the complexity of life by keeping matters open, I find its restraint to be a critical flaw.  The film fails to follow through as fully as it ought on this conflict in which the stakes are nothing short of the heart and mind of the modern individual, but this failure is nevertheless profoundly symptomatic of the deadlocks of contemporary intellectual life.

The path the film takes in cutting Jung down to size is revealing.  The title cards at the end of the film tell us that Spielrein when on to become a pioneering and renowned psychotherapist in the Soviet Union, but was murdered along with her daughters by the Nazis after their home city of Rostov-on-the-Don fell to the Wehrmacht in 1941.  The refutation of Jung takes place outside the boundaries of the film, in history.  This point is reinforced by the last meeting between Spielrein and her former mentor, which takes place several years before the outbreak of World War One.  She finds him in a state of mental and intellectual paralysis brought on by apocalyptic visions of a Europe drowning in blood.

The portrait of Jung as a prophet stunned and immobilized by his visions receives a counterpoint earlier in the film when Jung is asked by Freud to take in his troubled pupil, Otto Gross.  Gross is one of the bohemian “degenerates” and “flatterers” derided by Jung who orbit around the great doctor in the coffeehouses of Vienna.  But Jung is soon seduced by Gross’ sexual ruthlessness and lack of scruple – the latter expresses surprise that Jung does not sleep with his patients.  For Gross, there is no other way to interpret Freud’s teaching than to release oneself from all repression.  He declares to Jung that his method is to tell patients what they want to hear, that they should be free to act on their carnal desires, or to convince them that their misery stems from their adherence to outmoded restraints.  Jung is supposed to be the one analyzing Gross, but the latter turns the tables on him, serving as the catalyst for Jung’s decision to break with his professional obligations and moral restraints.

It is thus Gross, and not Freud, who succeeds in outmaneuvering Jung.  Indeed, during Jung’s final confrontations with Freud, the latter collapses after Jung disputes Freud’s argument that monotheism is bound up with parricide.  So what then is the role of Gross, who is obviously not the “female genius” forgotten by history?  Is Gross a sort of Smerdyakov, the one who puts into action, albeit in a catastrophic way, that which his half-brothers the Karamazovs discuss endlessly?  Or is Gross the loyal and unscrupulous enforcer typically found standing at the right hand of almost every great prophet?  Does Gross, with his message of no-repression, reflect if not the true teaching of Freud, then its inevitably vulgarized historical expression?  If Spielrein is the victim of the psychic energies that psychoanalysis was not able to tame and humanize, then does Gross not embody the degraded and ultimately trivial uses to which the method will be put?

Psychoanalysis was a science devised to give meaning to the life of bourgeois man, who had come to experience as overly burdensome the faith and the virtues of his forebears.  The bourgeois is the man who seeks to maximize his pleasure and to minimize his pains, to enlarge the sphere of what is permitted and to reduce as much as possible his obligations.  The bourgeois values possessions, unlike the saint or criminal, both of whom recognize the essentially transient character of all things.  The saint allows things to come and go, commemorating each passing moment as the manifestation of a mysterious grace.  The criminal responds to the ephemeral condition of life by sucking the life out of things and casting them aside.  The bourgeois man takes everything personally, whereas the saint and the criminal see their lives bounded by an impersonal force – by the dispensation granted by a sacred providence or by the delayed fulfillment of an inescapable curse.  Perhaps it is too formidable of a task for any body of thought to enable a human type like the bourgeois to become well-adjusted to his predicament, for he is attached to diversions but cannot escape the anxiety that he is squandering his time and his energies.  The bourgeois response to the tyranny of truth, the power which lures him away from a life of endless diversion and easy gratifications to sublime acts of destruction, has been in the years after World War II to make thought safe for the world.  But moderation and sobriety themselves have a way of becoming untruthful.  In the liberal capitalist world, ideas are not supposed to be dangerous.  Cronenberg’s film does not rise to the challenge of exposing the decay of this principle, how it wilts before economic reversals which, though severe, are hardly the equal of calamities like war and plague which swept the world but did not shatter systems of belief.  It leaves us only with a prophet who, instead of gaining discernment, is blinded by his visions of destruction.