Our book group is discussing Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which traces modern secularism back to the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius. Among the chief teachings of Epicureanism are that there is no afterlife and that the most important goal of human life is the gratification of the body. It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I am an opponent of Epicureanism. But I object to it not so much on traditional Christian grounds, on the basis that it denies the immortality of the soul. Rather, I criticize Epicureanism because, in both its ancient and modern varieties, it rejects the idea that human experience has a historical dimension.
In the West, there are broadly speaking two paths to defeating the onslaught of time and overcoming the oblivion of mortality. The Christian doctrine of the immortal soul teaches that to be saved is not only to be given the blessings of an eternal life but also to have one’s mortal existence be stamped with a divine and infallible meaning by the providence of the Creator. The Homeric view, by contrast, holds that the only way for human beings to conquer time is to achieve glory and renown. The only immortality, and the only significance, comes from writing one’s name into history by means of extraordinary acts of valor.
The Homeric path was not cast aside with the triumph of Christianity over pagan antiquity, rather it was preserved by Christianity as it widened the scope of acts that could be crowned with glory: the spiritual warfare carried out by ascetic discipline and acts of extraordinary charity and renunciation, in addition to acts of military valor. This desire for glory later became ensconced in the realm of culture in the figure of the great artist, whose works, though misunderstood by his or her contemporaries, would pass the test of time and receive the renown due to them by future generations.
It is striking to me the extent to which the idea of any work having some kind of trans-temporal significance is bound up with the Christian idea of immortality. Hardly anyone declares today the need to write for future generations, or expresses with confidence, natural to earlier periods, that a certain work of art would increase in importance with the passing of time. Could it be that in losing the Christian idea of immortal soul, we lose the confidence to imagine the future, let alone a future populated by people whose beliefs and practices might be wholly different from our own? Even our term expressing the capacity to maintain significance and weight over the course of time, “trans-temporal,” is redolent of feebleness and hesitation.
Do we need a belief in an immortal soul in order to be able to view ourselves acting in history, or to trust that there are certain actions that are worthy of being commemorated (I exclude the contemporary cult of victimization, if only for the fact that it does not honors people for anything that they actually did)? It negates the view prizes the active life, that human initiative and the unfolding of human powers are noble and laudable things. Instead, we seem stuck within a never-ending and empty present, filled with self-recrimination over the past and nameless dread over a blank future.
In a way, it could be said that my criticism of modern secularism is that it is insufficiently pagan, that is to say, modern secularism of the type espoused by Greenblatt and the American liberal establishment is still Christian, all too Christian, without the sobriety and discernment that Christianity was able to provide by preserving the vital elements of pagan antiquity. It could be said that our problem is that negating Christianity does not bring us back to the vitality and lively innocence of Homer, but rather enchains us in the morbid guilt of a post-Christian world that has not killed God but merely closed off memory and sterilized passion.
I am posting a review of Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009) by John Hall. It is scheduled appear in The Sociological Review later this summer.
John R. Hall’s Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity is an ambitious work that interprets major historical movements and events from the standpoint of eschatological expectation. The book performs the vital service of reminding us that the yearning for apocalyptic redemption serves both as a crucial motive for those undertaking world-transforming projects and as the medium through which persons caught up in momentous events understood their significance. Hall traces the category of the apocalyptic back to its earliest known manifestations, in the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, and then devotes a section of his study to points of historical transition at which the narrative of apocalypse undergoes a significant mutation. In examining apocalypticism in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the secular revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally the contemporary era of globalization, Hall reveals the stubborn persistence of the apocalyptic tropes of destruction and rebirth in the history of West. His study forcefully makes the case that the narrative of apocalypse stands solidly in the mainstream of Western civilization, and raises the question of whether it is possible to understand historical experience apart from the categories it provides.
The sections of Hall’s book that are dedicated to the Crusades and the sectarian movements of the Middle Ages will no doubt call to mind Norman Cohn’s classic study, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957). Hall’s study builds on Cohn’s work, especially in his discussion of the Crusades, but unlike Cohn, Hall lays his emphasis on the fate of the apocalyptic within the forms of belief that gained official legitimacy within European society, rather than on its expressions on the sectarian fringes. Thus, Hall’s account of the Reformation accords greater weight to the efforts of Martin Luther and John Calvin to regiment and rationalize apocalyptic energies by channeling them into institutionalized forms acceptable to worldly rulers than on Thomas Müntzer’s dramatic and doomed attempt to create a messianic kingdom on the earth. But as Hall observes, the subjection of life to the rational discipline of work and the displacement of sacred time by the objective time of the clock and calendar do not trigger the waning of the apocalyptic and the sacred violence it incites, but rather displaces this violence into the practice of secular politics. Thus, the Jacobins are revealed to be fundamentalist zealots wielding a violence that has an indelibly “sacred” character for the sake of establishing the “quasi-religious utopia” of the republic of virtue (111). Hall’s discussion of the apocalyptic element in modern radical politics proves to be quite refreshing and salutary. He goes beyond the analysis of Soviet and Chinese communism, the religious dimensions of which have long been established by earlier scholars, to consider the exercise of sacred violence in anti-colonial struggles, including black liberation, Zionism, Palestinian resistance, as well as the Taiping rebellion and the American Indian Ghost Dance movement.
The conceptual maneuver that reveals the essentially religious character of political institutions and ideological movements which are understood to be secular is a gesture that readers of the work of Denis de Rougemont, Eric Voegelin, and John Milbank are bound to find familiar. Most academic readers will find the absence of polemic in Hall’s study to be one of its principal merits, as his thesis regarding the ubiquity of the apocalyptic in the history of West does not come weighted with the anti-liberal and anti-secular baggage that mars for many the insights of the aforementioned thinkers. In Hall’s book one does not find sweeping attacks on modernity and its cult of self-fashioning, nor calls to revive orthodox forms of Christianity, nor a defense of a platonic conception of philosophy as the only form of thought that can resist sectarian delirium. Hall’s disinterestedness and evenhandedness, as well as his attentiveness to the irreducibly heterogeneous and hybrid nature of radical politics, serve him well in tracking the manner in which the apocalyptic has infiltrated the dominant narratives of secular politics. But these virtues do not work to his advantage in confronting the crises of the global present.
Hall provides an excellent overview of the emergence of militant Islam, identifying the points of linkage between al-Qaida and the earlier generation of radical thinkers who redefined jihad for the modern, postcolonial age, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Though he makes a convincing case for regarding al-Qaida’s struggle against liberal modernity as apocalyptic in its scale, Hall chooses to map this conflict in a disappointingly schematic way, as a face-off between the “Empire of Modernity” (a term borrowed from Martin Coward), with its techniques of surveillance and modes of governmentality, and apocalypse itself. The key task is for the Empire of Modernity to continue a policing strategy against apocalyptic extremists while preventing the escalation of its violence onto an apocalyptic scale, which would only work to the benefit of al-Qaida and other militant groups. Hall would update George Kennan’s theory of containment for an age of borderless religious warfare, as he singles out overreaction and excessive force on one’s own side as the leading hazard in a lengthy and uncertain struggle on multiple fronts. The only way to avoid apocalyptic calamities is to “undermine the plausibility structures of apocalypse” (197).
Hall studiously avoids falling into the trap of materialist reductionism when it comes to the religious struggles of the past, i.e. he is able to regard their partisans in the manner in which they regarded themselves, rather than exposing their clashes over doctrine as disguised battles over wealth, political and economic status, etc. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his analysis of the contemporary crisis. Hall opposes the apocalyptic temporality of crisis and judgment with the category of diachronic time, which corresponds to the everyday continuity that fosters economic activity. The project of modernity unfolds in a diachronic conception of time, yet Hall does not explore the possibility that apocalyptic calamity might actually arrive through this mode of temporal experience. For one could argue that the very attachment to affluence among people living in capitalist democracy undermines their ability to engage in large-scale collective action, which would invariably disrupt the routines and practices making possible the pursuit and accumulation of wealth. The more their existence is immersed within the patterns of the diachronic, the more difficult it becomes for them to act collectively to avoid catastrophe.
One sees evidence of such incapacity in the way in which the US has chosen to conduct its so-called war on terror. Although the US has resorted to excessive and inhuman measures against those suspected of terrorism, such as the inmates held at Guantanamo, this brutality has coexisted with a strange half-heartedness in how the US has engaged in a struggle against an ostensibly dire enemy. Although neo-conservatives have declared the struggle against militant Islam to be no less significant that the fight against Bolshevism and fascism, the US has from the outset acquiesced to rigid economic constraints in waging war. Thus, it has not sent troops in adequate numbers to bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, because it is too politically costly to revive the draft or to displace, however temporarily, economic growth from its position as the highest national priority. Even the most ardent supporters of the war in Iraq never called for significant changes to life at the home front for the sake of gaining victory in a lengthy and protected conflict, even though they are quick to characterize the enemy as fanatics seeking nothing less than the total destruction of the way of life Americans hold dear. The Iraqis have suffered the devastating brunt of these unyielding limitations, as the speedy victory gave way to the disintegration of state security through inter-ethnic strife as well as a bloody insurgency, which have claimed the lives of between 106,000 to 116,000 Iraqi civilians, according to Iraqbodycount.org), or over 654,965, according to Lancet.
It is the juxtaposition between the characterization of Islamist militants as an enemy seeking to inflict catastrophic destruction and the state of consumerist inertia intensified by this enmity that constitutes the representative apocalyptic of our time. For our satiety rules out the possibility of reciprocity between enemies and delegates the duty of sustaining an untenable status quo to those who benefit from it the least. In this respect it is telling that Hall chooses a rather dated nightmare to illustrate the danger of the dissolution of the public sphere: the stifling conformity of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. It would be more fruitful to look instead to the novels of Michel Houellebecq and J. G. Ballard, who track the pathologies bred by radical individualism and consumerist satisfaction. In their narratives, apocalypse erupts from the combustion triggered by the collision of incommensurable ways of life – sex tourism and radical Islam – while a new generation of Stalins and Hitlers arise from the torpor of shopping malls and resort communities. As these novelists demonstrate, our problem is that the apocalypse will only be televised, at least until the power runs out.
John Hall, Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.