Yes, poor Louis, Death has found thee. No palace walls or life-guards, gorgeous tapestries or gilt buckram of stiffest ceremonial could keep him out; but he is here, here at thy very life-breath, and will extinguish it. Thou, whose whole existence hitherto was a chimera and scenic show, at length becomest a reality: sumptuous Versailles burst asunder, like a dream into void Immensity; Time is done and all the scaffolding of time falls wrecked with hideous clangor round thy soul: the pale Kingdoms yawn open: there must thou enter, naked, all unking’d….
—Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution
These were the words Thomas Carlyle used in the nineteenth century to describe the death by smallpox in 1774 of Louis XV, the last king of France to reign before the ensuing French Revolution. Carlyle’s language about the end of the king’s life prophesied the prince’s demise too. Not quite twenty years later, in 1793, Louis XVI would be sent to his death by the Reign of Terror. This death signaled the end of a way of life. But it was also the end of a way of ordering the earth, and of a particular sense of meaning, the ghost of which has not been laid to rest.
In Carlyle’s ambivalent portrait of a king’s death one feels a mourning for the protective walls of a philosophy that gave not only kings but commoners a sense of safety. The old structure had housed human society within the cosmos. God gave kings the right to rule; social authority was divine authority; monarchy was part of God’s plan for creation. To serve a king was to have a clearly defined place in the universe, and this role was imbued with the same meaning that defined heaven and earth. Because that system was failing, when Louis was unkinged, so were his subjects.
Now If By Mortality, the great leveler, every subject eventually felt the scaffolding of time destroyed, what pale kingdom yawned beyond? Not only the divine right of kings but divinity itself was waning in the European mind. By the same subtle process through which the English monarchy was to become an anachronistic symbol of a vestigial order still cherished in the imagination, in European culture what had once been an encompassing religious system of thought slowly diminished to peripheral, largely irrelevant beliefs. By the death of this system, one was left in the void of immensity without even a day of judgment to anticipate. It appeared that in the modern view of reality there would no longer be any way to draw the world into one composition.
What this new vision of reality offered instead was the idea that all of natural existence might finally be explained and charted in the human mind. And with this a corollary dream was born, the plan to remake the world according to human need and desire. One was to hear the breath of this hope in Marx’s words, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” But though reason replaced divine transmission, the opiate remained at the fringes, and obscured by its very presence an otherwise unavoidable chasm. Science had left a void. In the domain of reason, no cohesive vision, no reason for one’s own existence, or existence at all, remained. In a sense the erasure of coherence was the ingenious solution European culture posed to the conflict between a growing body of scientific knowledge and religious doctrine. By separating science and theology, scientists won the right to make assertions which otherwise would contradict religious descriptions of the universe. That Copernicus had shifted the center of the solar system from the earth to the sun, or that Galileo had observed the gravitational pull of the earth eventually became irrelevant to religious inquiry. In this way, modern science began to exist alongside theology as a parallel system which ceased to engage with any knowledge of the experience which for centuries had been called spiritual.
The rupture was at first liberating. By this separation a new territory was created where the authority to know no longer belonged exclusively to church and state. This was a profound move toward democratization. In this freer space, anyone could conjecture and try to prove a theory. Truth was to depend less on old texts than on what was observed. And through the method of experimentation physical life, nature, appeared again, and became the touchstone of reality.
Yet, by this division, separate spheres of meaning came into being. Even if science had not yet replaced the old mythos, it had done something even more consequential. It had invented a world. From the scientific practice of studying material existence apart from any consideration of spirit, or intrinsic meaning, unwittingly a world of matter apart from spirit, of function without significance, was created. Now as science has come to replace divine authority, instead of a meaning that unifies the universe, one is left with the seemingly raw forces of nature.
And where is this world? Does it really exist? That nature is without intrinsic meaning or that soil, rock, water, sky are dead may be only ideas. But through human agency these ideas have taken physical shape: the word made flesh. Though it is increasingly uninhabitable, we dwell within the confines of a world made after the idea of meaninglessness. Cities exist, machines, technologies, even institutions, about which the best description one can make is that they seem lifeless; every natural phenomenon that falls under this gaze seems to lack spirit.
I Grew Up Believing That this cold, dry approach to existence was a necessary component of intellectual freedom, that the courageous mind could look at a universe stripped of all myth with a clear, unblinking eye. I thought somehow that meaninglessness presented the mind with an open field. Only later did I come to sense that underneath this idea of freedom an old way of ordering the world remained.
If at one time in European history science seemed to present an opening, a way to escape a religious system of thought that had become too confining, what appeared to be an escape has in its own way kept European thought imprisoned in the same assumptions. Because an earlier habit of mind, one that is as invisible as it is unconsidered, and which determines a divided relationship to nature, lies underneath both science and religion as we know them.
Just like the former enemies of the Cold War, the religious idealism of Western civilization and mechanistic materialism are as alike as they are different. Yet, one born to this culture has difficulty perceiving the similarity between these two philosophies. I was educated by conventional histories of European culture to believe that materialism and idealism were opposite visions of the universe. This history was preceded by and surrounded with a received wisdom. The world was divided in twos and one line neatly divided the field. There was heaven and earth, and accompanying this pair were other couplings, man and wife, masculinity and femininity, and of course, mind and body, spirit and nature. Heaven was a masculine province, and spirit had a masculine character, transcendent, abstract, literally free of gravitational fields and the more sensual pulls of earth. Earth was familiar and feminine, heavy with the corruption of sensual knowledge and emotion. Through every possible means, not only religion, but also the implied meanings of words, written and unwritten laws of intellectual discourse, social forms, manners, gestures, one learned that the division of these pairs included a hierarchy. Even if the existence of heaven was subject to scientific doubt, intellect and abstract principle were assigned to a territory of mind superior to the material, sensual, emotional realm of the body.
By A Linear Process of mind that cannot ultimately be separated from the desire for dominion by both church and state, a nearly invisible idea of hierarchy in science has determined both its epistemology and its methodology. What was once divine authority has been replaced by the myth of objectivity, an imagined position which, like the Christian idea of the divine, is not embedded in nature, and from which alone truth can be perceived. The absolute truth of religion has been replaced by the abstract principles of science, and as if numbers or statistics were intrinsically beyond doubt, even by quantification. And just as religious doctrine placed the sacred above the profane, scientific theory has been placed above experience itself, while socially the scientific establishment has come to occupy the same position of authority once held by the church.
Not only do abstract principles partake of the rarefied, immortal climate of heaven, but the idea of transcendence over earthly life, the life cycle, and death continues in science in another guise, and that is the notion of technological progress. Continuously since the eighteenth century new inventions, whether they be locomotives, electric lights, or computers, have been taken as signs of a coming transformation not only of life on earth but of consciousness itself. Science promises a kind of heaven on earth, a brave new world made ever better through technology. And if by Western religion meaning is deferred to a future afterlife in which accounts will be not only taken but also understood, science also defers ultimate meaning to a future not only happier in material fulfillment but one in which a unified theory has revealed the true nature of the universe.
Only later did I come to sense that underneath this idea of freedom an old way of ordering the world remained.
Just as science and religion have shared a vision that rends experience into two unequal fragments, despite the great political and economic differences between capitalist and communist theory, a single orientation to existence unites both philosophies. If in the political history of this century certain systems within Western culture have called them- selves materialist, others idealist, some “under God,” some claiming the inspiration of the gods, at the same time that they claim them- selves to be scientific, they too have shared an underlying paradigm: the idea of a hierarchy that places human consciousness above nature. This is perhaps most obvious with fascism, which asserts both a superior knowledge of nature and a superiority over nature as the defining quality of the Übermensch. Capitalism differs only by degree. The notion of the survival of the fittest, misinterpreted as ruthless combat for possession of goods or territory, and taken out of the context of an ecosystem in which evolution favors diversity, has within it another more subtle version of a superman, the one who conquers both nature and society for his own gain.
But the Marxist vision of economic equality also conceals a hierarchy, for it too places human existence in conflict with nature. Taking the ownership of the means of production as its goal, communism has assumed that it is only by mastering nature that life can be bettered. And hierarchy is also implicit in both the manner and end of the Marxist idea of an almost Darwinian struggle in which the stronger, those who are larger in number and whose labor is necessary, achieve dominance over those who once dominated. Nature conceived as property simply changes ownership, and the idea of domination continues.
On The Surface This dedication to dominance might appear to conflict with another approach that these modern systems share— that each ideology claims itself as an inevitable and necessary expression of nature. The Nazi reverence for “blood and soil,” and the capitalist’s concept that a state of limitless freedom is everyone’s birthright, as well as the idea of the survival of the fittest mirror the Marxist invocation of class struggle as the natural course of history. But in all these systems, nature remains only the dumb stuff of life, potentially powerful, even dangerous, but awaiting the destiny of human intelligence to mobilize and direct it toward a more perfect realization which is also almost always a scientific achievement.
An unquestioning belief in technological progress has been shared across the warring ideologies of capitalism, fascism, and Communism. Today technological advance is the ultima ratio regum of capitalism, its justification, substance, and force all at once. Despite glorified portraits of a Teutonic or Roman past, fascism embraced technology with an obsessive eroticism that celebrated Panzer tanks and airplanes. In another mood, Heinrich Himmler, who developed a crude precursor to a computer, a mechanical way of sorting index cards that allowed the SS to carry out mass arrests, was famous for his fastidious obsession with efficiency.
And that ecological disasters were part of the inheritance of socialism in Russia and Central Europe should come as no surprise. The sky dark from coal in much of Poland, water so heavily polluted most of it is undrinkable; until a few years ago, DDT still in wide use in Azerbaijan; waterways diverted in Kazakhstan, arable land in Czechoslovakia destroyed by chemicals and overuse. The devastation of forests throughout Russia. Burial of radioactive waste in the North Sea near Siberia. Describing collectivization in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel writes, “…it raged through the countryside thirty years ago, leaving not a stone in place. Among its consequences were…tens of thousands of lives devastated by prison, sacrificed on the altar of a scientific Utopia about brighter tomorrows…. [T]hirty years after…scientists are amazed to discover what even a semi-literate farmer previously knew—that human beings must pay a heavy price for every attempt to abolish, radically, once for all and without trace, that humbly respected boundary of the natural world…. People thought they could explain and conquer nature—yet the outcome is that they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.” In fact collectivization, with its geo-metric and large fields unbroken by woods and hedges, led to the death of wild birds, hence the proliferation of insects, destroyed in a matter of years topsoil that accumulated over centuries, poisoned land, water, and air with pesticides.
One Might Argue That this ecological destruction occurred simply from ignorance and a desire to make life better for masses of people who had suffered terrible poverty. As a young woman raised in the midst of the Cold War, I looked toward socialism as a means to social justice and a more egalitarian society. Yet, in the process, I did not see another aspect to Marxist thought, an ambivalence toward nature which at the same time subtly diminished human nature. This was the attitude that shaped scientific and enlightened thought in the nineteenth century. If in 1840, describing the French Revolution of the previous century, Carlyle wrote admiringly, “Your mob is a genuine outburst of Nature… here once more, if nowhere else, is a Sincerity and Reality,” he also described this manifestation of nature as wildly unpredictable, a blind, ignorant force. “The thing they will do is known to no man; least of all to themselves. It is the inflammablest immeasurable Fire-work, generating, consuming itself.” Though in his early work Marx departed from a mechanistic idea of human existence, he also describes class struggle as having an inevitable end, as if natural forces within masses of laborers operate without any amplitude of intelligence. That Marxist theory did not give birth to democratic forms cannot be separated from Marxism’s claim to a scientific view of human nature, a view that limits the power of knowledge to a privileged few.
Yet from the same direction another portrait of both nature and knowledge is emerging. If with the modern scientific sensibility we have inherited a reductive idea of existence, science has also revealed a glimpse of a different vision. Through zoology, and biology, and genetics evidence has been produced for a different view of nature, not as raw force but as intelligent. The intricate structure and memory of DNA, the geometry of the honey- comb, the refined acoustical abilities of birds indicate a universe in which human intelligence is neither unique nor superior. And in the twentieth century relativity and quantum theory have made it clear that no place of objectivity exists in nature. Perception, measurement, every experience of space and time are affected by location and circumstance. Contemplating the nature of reality, science has had to accept two apparently conflicting theoretical descriptions of matter, both as wave and as particle.
The Implications Of These insights are great. Referring to recently what he calls the humanlike quality of birds and other animals, Theodore Barber writes that “humanity’s philosophy of life will turn around along with cultural institutions.” If human beings are no longer considered above nature, one’s relationship with the earth, other life forms, ecological process, and especially with one’s own body and mind radically changes. And at the same time new answers to old problems appear. In the intellectual milieu of my childhood, one was forced to choose between two unsatisfying descriptions of how the uni- verse operates. I was schooled in both alternatives, one during the week and the other on Sundays. During the week I was educated in the modern idea that the natural universe consists of random forces without conscious- ness or meaning. On Sunday I learned that God created and still rules a universe constructed with meaning and a moral order. But as the intelligence of material existence begins to be evident, a third description of how the universe acts arises. Instead of the image of one God controlling creation, or the picture of existence as random and mindless, it is possible to imagine a collaborative intelligence shaping form, event, circumstance, consequence, life. By this shift in perception one is no longer placed in an alien environment. Instead, in and through existence one enters community.
Such an ontological shift away from hierarchy is implicit in ecology. The ecologist views the forest as a collaborative creation, the leaves of trees making soil and oxygen for animals; animals making compost that feeds the soil; insects pollinating plants; the evolution and continuation of each species, and the shape of soil, weather, or watershed dependent on the workings of the whole. In the ecological view, instead of one creator there are a multitude of creators. And the many different kinds of creative consciousness that exist are all equally significant to the whole.
But though ecology is generally embraced as a cause, no astonishing transformation in the way we think has occurred. Nor have the insights of theoretical physics, astrophysics or molecular biology, the new geometry of fractals, or the ideas of fuzzy logic reshaped the paradigmatic thinking of science as it is widely practiced both in science and society today. And, just as important is the idea of truth that shapes most of modern political discourse retains a religious and scientific attitude which is opposed to nature. In the European mind the universe is still in a hierarchy of masters and objects, despite many revolutions the bone structure of Louis’s reign still exists.
Susan Griffin is a writer whose work includes plays, essays, books and film. Her book A Chorus of Stones, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a New York Times Book of the Year. Griffin was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2009.
From The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society. Copyright © 1995 by Susan Griffin. Reprinted by permission of Random House Inc.