Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone


I found the following interview outstanding in scope and depth and, even though in my opinion flawed, highly provocative.  Kolakowski is a thoughtful conservative with a great knowledge of our intellectual/cultural history and current situation.  His comments cover many of the issues that plague us … his analysis deserves a hearing. 

I strongly disagree with his emphasis on tradition as the only way to preserve a “sense of the sacred.”   I am convinced the use of an intellectually bankrupt tradition backfires, as we have seen repeatedly; people feel, justly, that they have been deceived and so their last state is worse than the first.  The sense of the sacred must be intellectually  renewed and credible or it can no longer function.  That renewal cannot be accomplished without integrating science into the very articulation of religious truth.  I don’t believe “tradition” by itself can do that.   A “parallel tracking” of science and religion that insulates religion from its critics simply ignores the problem.

I have inserted my comments in red where relevant.  I hope you will share what you think.

Tony Equale

 Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone

Leszek Kolakowski  interview with Nathan Gardels 1991

New Perspectives Quarterly, Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Originally published in NPQ, Spring 1991

Leszek Kolakowski, who died in 2009, was professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University. His critical, magisterial study of the history of  Marxism and his perpetual doubt and self-questioning, which led to a preoccupation with “the revenge of the sacred” in secular life, earned him a reputation as modern Europe’s Erasmus. 

 Just after he published Modernity on Endless Trial in 1991, Kolakowski sat down with me in his study at All Souls College. The following conversation was also published in Kolakowski’s last book, My Correct Views on Everything.

 Nathan Gardels  The title of your recent book is Modernity on Endless Trial.  But isn’t the trial over, the verdict in? With the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and ethnic strife across the globe — in effect the revenge of the sacred and the soil against modernity — aren’t we living out the waning days of the last modern century?

Leszek Kolakowski  We are living through the realization that many rationally constructed predictions made in the 19th century are more wrong than the so-called illusions they were trying to dispel.

Both secular liberals and socialists expected that national, or tribal, passions would gradually disappear, while improved means of communication and a better scientific understanding of the universe would take its place. But it turned out not to be so.

The need to belong to a tribe, so to speak, is as strong as ever. National conflicts don’t appear to be disappearing. Indeed, in the Soviet Union and some countries recently liberated from communism, the “return of the repressed” may take a particularly nasty form.

There is, of course, always a potential for conflicts to erupt into bloody wars of global consequence, or massacres, as has happened time and again in the course of European history. But, in principle, there is nothing wrong with people trying to define themselves or identify themselves with a particular culture. For Europeans, it is almost impossible to be a cosmopole in good faith. Each of us belongs to a national community.

Moreover, the rationalist predictions about religion also turned out to be wrong. I don’t expect the death of religion or the death of God. Secularization hasn’t eradicated religious needs.

Of course, it is true that secularization spread with the process of rural uprootedness and urbanization, general education and technological advance. But there is no strict connection. After all, the most mobile, technologically developed country in the world, the United States, is by no means the most secularized. Not only is the traditional Christian church alive and very well there — more than half the American people go to church very regularly — but there is also a flowering of Oriental cults, sects and so-called “New Age spirituality.”

I wonder if this assessment isn’t too superficial.  “Alive and well” includes an anti-intellectual “head-in-the-sand” fundamentalist fideism operating even among the educated.  If so, then it represents a sectarian, alienated “sense of the sacred” that has abandoned any attempt to appreciate the sacredness of the world.

To be sure, Christianity has been enfeebled. But as it adjusts to the civilization of the next millennium, it might experience a renewal. However wrenching the process might be, as we can witness today on the issue of abortion, conflict and adjustment of just this nature has occurred several times over the centuries.

After confrontations such as that with Galileo, Christianity accepted the autonomy of reason and gave up trying to control science. Hostile to the notion of human rights after the French Revolution, Christianity now accepts and promotes them. Theocratic pretensions have been given up altogether in Christianity.

Taking “Christianity” to mean the Catholic Church, I challenge his equivocal use of the word “accepted.”  (1) That the Church refrains from trying to control science does not mean that it “accepts” the autonomy of reason.  Dogmatism still dominates in the Roman Catholic Church, and there has been no serious protest against it.   (2) The Church has never been the principal protagonist for human rights, as the self-serving silence during the holocaust shows.  The post-war UN charter was the new wave and the Church followed it, it didn’t lead it.  Except for some notable exceptions of local bishops (never supported by the Vatican), the Church has rather shown a tolerance toward governmental abuse in the defense of the status quo.  (3) To say that “theocratic pretensions” have been given up is to fail to see theocracy’s ground  in totalitarian dogma.  Theocracy is simply dormant.  The minute conditions become favorable, theocracy will reassert itself.  It has to.  Traditional doctrine demands it.

So, far from secularization inexorably leading to the death of religion, it has instead given birth to the search for new forms of religious life. The imminent victory of the Kingdom of Reason has never materialized.

As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.

Gardels  Speaking about the collapse of communism in Europe last year, your compatriot, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, said: “What is surprising in the present moment are those beautiful and deeply moving words spoken in Prague and Warsaw, words which pertain to the old repertoire of honesty of the dignity of the person. I wonder at this phenomenon because maybe underneath there is an abyss. After all, those ideas have their foundation in religion. And I am not over-optimistic about the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. How long can such notions stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?”

Kolakowski  I hope Milosz is wrong, but I can’t be sure. If we imagine a technologically advanced Brave New World in which mankind has forgotten its religious heritage and historical tradition — and therefore has no basis for interpreting its own life in moral terms — that would be the end of mankind. It is most unlikely that mankind, deprived of its historical consciousness and religious tradition because they are technologically useless, would be able to live peacefully, satisfied with his achievements.

In fact, I would expect the opposite, since it is in the very constitution of humanity that our wants have no definite limits. They can grow indefinitely in an endless spiral of greed.

During the last few decades of rapid economic growth, we got used to the idea that all of us moderns could have everything and, indeed, that we deserved everything.

But that is simply not true. Since there are natural limits on our planet — ecological and demographic limits — we will be compelled to limit our wants.

Without a consciousness of limits, which can only come from history and religion, any attempt to limit our wants will result in terrible frustration and aggression that could take on catastrophic proportions. The amount of frustration and aggression doesn’t depend on the absolute level of satisfaction, but on the gap between wants and their effective satisfaction.

Religious tradition has taught us to limit ourselves, to place a distance between our needs and our wants. All the great religious traditions have taught us for centuries not to become solely bound up in one dimension — the accumulation of wealth and the exclusive preoccupation with our present material life.

It will be a cultural catastrophe if we lose the ability to maintain this distance between our wants and needs. The survival of our religious heritage is the condition for the survival of civilization.

Gardels  The cultural catastrophe being that without a set of rules that comes from religious tradition there are no moral brakes on man, particularly on the gluttony of homo consumptus?

Kolakowski  Yes, no moral brakes. When culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposes limits on the perfection that can be attained by secular society, one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization arises — the illusion that there are no limits to the changes we can undergo, that society is an endlessly flexible thing subject to the arbitrary whims of our creative capacities.

In the end, as I have written in the essay “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture,” this illusion sows disastrous despair. The modern chimera, which would grant man total freedom from tradition or all pre-existing sense, far from opening before him the perspective of divine self-creation, suspends him in a darkness where all things are regarded with equal indifference.

To be totally free from religious heritage or historical tradition is to situate oneself in a void and thus to disintegrate. The utopian faith in man’s self-inventive capabilities, the utopian hope of unlimited perfection, may be the most efficient instrument of suicide human culture has ever invented.

Here begins Kolakowski’s gratuitous identification of “tradition” with a “sense of the sacred.”  I believe it is precisely this false equation that prevents us from developing a sense of the sacred that corresponds to life and reality as we now know it to be.  People didn’t drop traditional religion because they were willful brats wanting to make themselves gods; they dropped it because it clashed with reality at all levels, physical, biological, psychological, sociological, political.  Yes, without a new ground for the “sacred” the loss of the traditional ground results in exactly the anomie Kolakowski describes … but the solution can never be a return to what we know is false.  The human mind that acquiesces to that deception, knowing it is a deception, becomes a willful “fascist” participant in inhumanity.  That we are capable of such self-serving self-deception is a survival skill that, to our discredit, we have developed in our times.

To reject the sacred, which means also to reject sin, imperfection and evil, is to reject our own limits. To say that evil is contingent, as Sartre did, is to say that there is no evil, and therefore that we have no need of a sense given to us by tradition, fixed and imposed on us whether we will it or not.

As you put it, there are thus no moral brakes on the will to power. In the end, the ideal of total liberation is the sanctioning of greed, force and violence, and thus of despotism, the destruction of culture and the degradation of the earth.

The only way to ensure the endurance of civilization is to ensure that there are always people who think of the price paid for every step of what we call “progress.” The order of the sacred is also a sensitivity to evil — the only system of reference that allows us to contemplate that price and forces us to ask whether it is exorbitant.

The values whose vigor is so vital to culture cannot survive without being rooted in the realm of the sacred. This is true not only of the values of which Milosz spoke — honesty and personal dignity — but others as well.

K. says so many important things here that I hate to have my criticism distract from their appreciation.  His “sensitivity to evil” is one of these.  The progressive inability to be outraged at the horrors perpetrated by (our) government in the name of order, economic and physical security, continued prosperity and even for the protections of civil rights must be recognized as an unfortunate “adjustment” that represents a profound loss of humanity.   

Gardels  This emphasis on pre-existing sense, or tradition, has led you to ask whether society can survive in the absence of the conservative forces that resist the upheaval of endlessly changing modernity that perpetually undermines its foundations.

Without conservative structures, unbounded development explodes; yet without dynamic development, society stagnates and dies. Each alone entails destruction; the tension between the two creates balance.

Trying to maintain this appropriate tension is the perspective, you say, of a “conditional conservative.”

With the ecological imperative so pressing, why can’t a new set of conserving values, which seek to preserve the future, instead of conservative values, which preserve the past, constitute a new realm of the sacred?

Why not look toward the greening of religious heritage instead of looking back toward orthodoxy?

Kolakowski  Religion is about the meaning of being, about the meaning of the universe and our place in it. Such meaning can only be established by historical explanation, by paying homage to origins and foundational events. In this sense, there can be no such thing as a religion that is not conservative.

Thus, no religion can survive without a certain wealth of tradition, which inevitably brings it into conflict with the trend of civilization toward constant change — everything casting off origins and overthrowing all form and structure.

The tension between past and future is bound to be with us. Life is tension and suffering. That is the human condition and mankind cannot be liberated from it.

It’s as if K. does not acknowledge the possibility of a radical critique of tradition that is an historical critique … in other words, a critique that is based on an even “older” and more fundamental “tradition” which is the raw human ability to assess and appreciate reality and to evaluate how much humanitas is conserved by a given tradition and how much is actually being suffocated and distorted by it.  “Humanity” is not created by tradition, it is only shaped by it.  A new shaping produces a new tradition.  The “sense of the sacred” is an ongoing human project, it does not come to us in completed form from the past.

Gardels  Can’t the religious imagination not only be rooted in origins but in hope and belief in a destination; for example, in a world that survives ecologically?

Kolakowski  Certainly, religious belief can limit human ambition and conserve the future. But one should be as careful about believing in a green utopia as in a red one.

It is obvious that some elements of the German Green Party, for example, are hostile to freedom and are totalitarian in nature. As with the communist movement, there is a danger in some of the more absurd and grotesque forms of the environmental movement which would sacrifice everything now for some distant salvation.

In any event, we don’t need religion to worry about ecological catastrophe. Religion cannot replace what science and technology can cope with; it can only give us the belief that the world is not self-explanatory, that there is a meaning that cannot be directly perceived and established as a scientific fact. Religion is of another dimension that enables us to cope with an existence of frustration, failure, suffering and death.

In this sense, religion is not about survival, but about NOT surviving. It is man’s way of accepting inevitable defeat. For mankind, there is no such thing as ultimate victory. In the end, we die.

Gardels  We’ve talked about the illusions of modernity. But the Reformation and the Enlightenment have also brought modern acquisitions of civilization to the West that we don’t want to discard — individual conscience and freedom, human rights, the autonomy of reason, the separation of church and state, pluralism and tolerance. Yet, as we’ve discussed, the West not only has weakened itself through the loss of tradition, moral indifference and bad faith; but also it has engendered a reaction to the inadequacies of modernity that now threatens many of its positive contributions.

As the modern West weakens, it faces two challenges in the next century: the absolutism of Islamic fundamentalism and the absolute relativism some say characterizes polytheistic Japan.

Kolakowski  I quite agree. The West faces these two challenges in the future and, as you say, it challenges itself.

One has the feeling that Japan is really an alien civilization. The Japanese way of seeing reality is very different from ours. We can feel this strangeness in the films of Akira Kurosawa, for example. His film Ran is an aesthetic masterpiece, visually beautiful and technically exquisite. So much so, in fact, that one greets with indifference the bloody battles where heads are being chopped off and bodies mangled.

While Japan’s way of seeing the world certainly is a challenge to ours, it at the same time lacks the menacing messianic impulse of America or Russia.

When visiting Tokyo, I once asked a Japanese intellectual, “Aren’t you destined to conquer the world? After all, you are the only industrial society in existence that has kept its social hierarchy and social structures intact. You are quickly able to assimilate scientific knowledge and technical skills, you are relatively healthy, and you are terribly crowded on your islands.”

He was not astonished at my question. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, “because we Japanese don’t feel that we have a cultural mission to impose our ways on the rest of the world. Our imperialist adventures, both in the Middle Ages and in this century, ended disastrously.”

Gardels  The mentality of indifference that accompanies the tolerance of contradiction — a mentality that lacks absolute notions of good and evil and that does not make room for the sacred; what we call nihilism in the West — has been the Japanese condition for millennia. It is perhaps rooted in the polytheism of Shinto, which has its origins in the ancient forest culture of Jomon.

Kolakowski  I have been told that if you tally the membership of the Japanese in the various religious groups in Japan, you end up with a number greater than the entire population of the country. It is not unusual for the same people to go to a Shinto shrine, a Buddhist temple and a Christian church, depending on the need and the circumstance. Of course, this phenomenon is very different from the monotheistic cultures, where exclusivity is the basis of any religion or sect.

Gardels  In the 16th century, the writer Fukian Fabian polemicized against what was already then a secularized Buddhism, asking “where is the lord who punishes the evil and thus preserves morality?” That seems to be your question about modernity at the end of the 20th century.

What is the difference between the tolerance of contradiction, or religious inclusivity, in Japan and the indifference you so scorn in the West?

Kolakowski  Of course, indifference is the main form of tolerance in the West. Our tolerant attitude is often little more than lack of interest or disbelief; we are as indifferent to our own beliefs as to those of others.

But the intolerance of the church is not the only alternative to such a nihilistic attitude in the West. After the religious wars of the 16th century a certain tolerance, combined with commitment to a set of beliefs, took root in Christian culture.

Individuals and groups can be strongly committed to their religious values and at the same time practice tolerance toward others. The Catholic Church is preaching something like this now.

The conspicuous growth of Catholic contractive sectarianism during the last two pontificates, shows that this “tolerance” is simply negative — a retrenchment into self-absorption, a “sacredness” exclusive to the Church — a refusal to engage and seek the “sense of the sacred” that corresponds to reality as we now perceive it.  It is part of our abandonment of the world to the hegemony of the technical machinery that we use as interface.  Ironically, by not enga­ging with reality to evoke a new sense of the sacred, we become defenseless before our machinery’s non-human technical requirements, and we become like it, for it rules our behavior even to the point of self-destruction

Gardels  For example, in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, he claims the superiority of Christianity.

One might say then that Redemptoris Missio is an attempt by Pope John Paul II to distinguish between “pluralistic tolerance” and what we might call “indifferent tolerance.”

Kolakowski  Yes, I think so. Christianity cannot renounce its claims to superiority, of course. It is bound to make claims to truth, but there is no reason in principle why Christianity cannot accept a plurality of religions without renouncing its own claims to truth. One cannot say with consistency that this is my religion, and it is as good as any other. That is absurd. In what sense, then, is it mine?

I would answer: “in the same sense that I can say, this woman is the same as and no better than any other, but she is my mother — I happen to have been born of and reared by her.  She is entirely mine.” … not absurd at all. 

Despite the miserable record of repressions and persecutions, there is in Christianity a history of toleration that was preached for the sake of preserving Christian values.

A negative tolerance — a disengagement from the real world and its sacredness.

Gardels  Islam, the other evangelizing monotheistic religion besides Christianity, hasn’t accommodated to the European experiences of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Islamic culture thus lacks the modern indifference characteristic of the West, leading the French social critic Jean Baudrillard to remark that Islam offers the only resistance to the radical indifference sweeping the world. As a result, might not the renaissance of religion worldwide also mean the renaissance of religious conflict, of conflict between civilizations?

Kolakowski  Medieval Islamic culture produced great achievements in the history of civilization, in philosophy, poetry, architecture, mathematics and medicine.

To be sure, there were pogroms against the Jews and genocide during the first world war in the Ottoman Empire. But it is wrong to think that the history of Islam, whether in the Ottoman period or earlier in Spain to take two examples, is the history of the systematic persecution and extermination of religious minorities. One cannot say with any certainty that it is the destiny of Islam to be bellicose, aggressive and repressive.

Nonetheless, for reasons I cannot explain, at a certain moment Islamic civilization fell into a slumber. Culturally speaking, Islam has not been very fertile in recent times.

The meaning of today’s Islamic renaissance, which is a renaissance of religious fanaticism and aggressivity, is not clear. It may be more related to the rise of petro-power, and the resultant economic imbalances and resentments in the Islamic world, than to religious invigoration.

In any event, this occult fundamentalism has proven an efficient device to channel the frustration and aggressivity of nationalism.

The central point of conflict with Western civilization, the point of departure between our two cultures, is the institutional separation of the secular and the sacred. Theocratic nationalism confronts the secular states of the West in international relations. As long as there are theocratic states, there will be conflict with the West. That is inevitable.

Gardels  If these two civilizations must battle it out in one interdependent world, where will that lead?

Kolakowski  We cannot predict how the so-called modernization of Islamic countries will affect religious life. In Iran, modernization engendered the theocratic counterrevolution of Khomeini and led to his desperate attempt to medievalize the country. Although he once said that all traditional religions — Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity — should be tolerated, he ruthlessly persecuted and killed Bahais.

But since the rest of the world doesn’t live in the 12th century, such religious totalitarianism must sooner or later be exhausted. Indeed, the clash with the demands of technical modernization will lead to a loosening of rigid theocracy.

Islamic theocracy can no more ultimately resist the autonomy of reason required by technological progress than could Christian theocracy. Islam cannot have both. A medieval religious regime will mean medieval material and technical conditions; economic modernization means the end of theocracy.

For now, oil resources cushion the clash. But when the wells run dry, so too, I suspect, will this kind of fanaticism.

Still, of this we can’t be sure. The only certainty in history is its utter unpredictability and incoherence.

Gardels  At the end of the last modern century, can secular man reintroduce the sacred? Can we base ethical values on reason instead of revolution? Must personal responsibility be rooted in transcendent beliefs?

Kolakowski  It is obviously possible for individuals to keep high moral standards and be irreligious.  I strongly doubt whether it is possible for civilizations.  Absent religious tradition, what reason is there for a society  to respect human rights and the dignity of man? What is human dignity, scientifically speaking? A superstition?

Empirically, men are demonstrably unequal. How can we justify equality? Human rights is an unscientific idea. As Milosz says, these values are rooted in a transcendent dimension.

Once again, I hate to distract from the important things K. is saying, he is right, human rights is not a “scientific” idea, and human dignity is not a superstition.  But he insists on the use of mass illusion and the maintenance of a superstitious and pseudo-scientific institution like the Catholic Church as the instrument of this transcendent dimension.  He seems oblivious to the fact that the Church has failed to do exactly that for its own constituents as they become aware of the historical and philosophical absurdities of Christian doctrine.  The ends are good, the means he chooses are bankrupt.  They require a brainwashed and uncritical population for their implementation.

Gardels  It strikes me that totalitarianism of a different kind could emerge from the new global capitalist order — a totalitarianism of immediate gratification in which reason is conditional to self-interest.

What is to defend dignity and human rights from total commercialization? 

Kolakowski  The absence of a transcendent dimension in secular society weakens this social contract in which each supposedly limits his or her freedom in order to live in peace with others.

Such universalism of interest is another aspect of the modern illusion. There is no such thing as scientifically based human solidarity.

To be sure, I can convince myself that it is in my interest not to rob other people, not to rape and murder, because I can convince myself that the risk is too great. This is the Hobbesian model of solidarity: greed moderated by fear.

But social chaos stands in the shadows of such moral  anarchy. When a society adheres to moral norms for no other reason than prudence, it is extremely weak and its fabric tears at the slightest crisis. In such a society, there is no basis for personal responsibility, charity or compassion.

Now, with the ecological imperative, a new ethos of species self-preservation is being discussed. To some extent, it may be true that we are instinctively programmed for self-preser­vation of the species. But the history of this last modern century has certainly demonstrated that we can destroy members of our own species without great inhibitions. If there is species solidarity at some deep biological level, it hasn’t saved us from civil destruction.

Thus, we need instruments of human solidarity that are not based on our own instincts, self-interest or on force. The communist attempt to institutionalize solidarity ended in disaster.

… and “Catholic” sectarian dis-engagement? … what in my opinion qualifies as a non-attempt … the utter disregard for true universal solidarity among people in favor of a narrow sectarian relationship that binds people as individuals directly only to itself (and not even to “God,” for a universal “God” would create a universal solidarity of brotherhood for the human species).  … is that any better?

5 comments on “Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone

  1. Bob Willis says:

    Thanks for posting this interview. I found it interesting, but not challenging.

    The interest comes, for me, from the obvious frameworks behind the philosopher’s opinions. He is, first and foremost, a Polish Catholics who had to endure the repressions of his religious faith and expression in a Communist-controlled world. I could close my eyes and ears and well imagine the words of J2P2 who fought until he died “godless atheism,” i.e. the Russians who ruled his Polish land. I thought that Pope was quite intelligent and quite narrow. I think the same of this descendent of his.

    I also hear in him the frameworks of the supernatural divorced from the natural; absolute truth (as po9ssessed by the Catholic church) versus conditional truth with varying degrees of willed or unwilled blindness everywhere else.

    Most distressingly, for me, is his emphasis on death. We have no ultimate victory because we die. I heartily disagree. We ultimately are victorious to the extent that we live!

    I was not challenged because of his narrow understanding which supported his thesis. “Historical heritage and religious tradition” do not equate, exclusively nor absolutely with the structures of any one civil or religious society.Much more importantly is the story of my life, my family, my community, my world than that of any “tribal” group. He attempts to claim for the tribe alone the possibility of history and tradition as if the one who forsakes the tribe necessarily exists only in a feckless, non-substantial, evervescent present.. He is simply wrong.

    I also found myself astounded at his lack of self-inspection. Together, he and the interviewer could rail against the religious fundamentalism of Islam without giving a nod of recognition to the religious fundamentalism of Christianity and especially the Catholic fundamentalism they appear to celebrate. And they had to single out Japan and Shintoism as examples of the smorgasbord of relativity; they didn’t lift an eyelash to the astonishing multiplicity of Christian sects and churches, let alone the varying kinds of commitment and beliefs within each, including within the monotheistic and monarchical cathedrals of Rome.

    Ultimately, the interview left me sad. I found there little if any indication that the sacred exists here, is found here, is experienced here, is sustaining here. Without it, I would feel lonely. I cannot imagination having to wait until some moments after my life to experience life.

    • tonyequale says:

      Bob, wow! Thank you for a very powerful and insightful response to Kolakowski. I am in agreement with the general thrust of your criticism. Yes, indeed, he is very much like JPII, and became a “European Erasmus” in the crucible of Polish-Soviet relationships and a party-line Marxism that had lost its ability for critical thinking. The Marxism he challenged had become the instrument of political domination, not liberation. It was a Marxism that was in the process of trying to play exactly the same role of a frozen sacred “tradition” that K. is suggesting will save us from our anomie here in the West. How the uncritical mouthing of traditional sterile formulas should work for the masses here when the same effort could not work in the East is not really explained. Are Catholic mouthings better than Marxist mouthings?

      But what I find salient is that K. had an insight into our problems here, and, not surprisingly, saw that they sprang from the same roots as the one that propelled him out of Poland. “Modernity,” meaning the utopian belief in the power of reason’s technology to make us all as happy as any human being could ever expect to be … and any complaint that it can’t is prima facie evidence that there is a serious inability to adjust to reality, is as bankrupt here as it was there. That he is able to identify the loss of the sense of the sacred as the root of our malaise is what I appreciate about his analysis. What I do not appreciate, and where I am in debt to you for your clarity of expression and force of passion, is the myopic focus on an uncritical, almost knee-jerk identification of past “tradition” as the one and only source of the “sense of the sacred.”

      I believe Kolakowski’s thought is rife with contradictions. His notion of “tradition” is totally unnuanced. What can he mean? He’s a thoughtful man. He has to be in favor of some kind of doctrinal reform. That will make “tradition” untraditional. What does he say about his “tradition” when it turns out to be seriously flawed — specifically when it makes absurd claims. “Original Sin,” for example, is utterly absurd, scripturally, anthropologically, biologically. It is untenable and requires an overhaul of major proportions, minimally turning it into a metaphor, and maybe even repudiating it completely. In this case, such a reform will also immediately entail reconceiving the theory of redemption. Does K.’s notion of tradition include such a radical dogmatic restructuring? Moreover, the Church claims to have promulgated these “dogmas” infallibly. Acceding to such a profound change would have to include an admission of error. This is not thinkable when it comes to the Church. And, besides, what will it do to the concept of “tradition” which K. characterizes as providing, not truth and credibility coming from “reason,” but a sense of absolute solidity coming from the past alone.

      On the other hand, if K.’s concept of “tradition” is very strict and will not admit of reform of any kind, then what he is talking about is not human … it’s a mindless thoughtless brainwashing imposed upon uneducated masses precisely to provide peace of mind and a (false) sense of meaning. It is exactly what the west accused the Stalinists of doing. For this kind of “culture” to work people need to be kept uneducated. It is the argument of Cardinal Torquemada in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

      An intelligent “tradition” needs to be critically evaluated by “reason” and therefore has to use criteria of judgment that are current and outside the tradition as such. You can’t claim the role of an “Erasmus” unless you are willing to do the critical thinking that submits “tradition” to the power of the human mind — reason.


  2. Sal Umana says:

    Tony and Bob, Thanks for your reflection and hard work. I appreciate ever word you write, and am privileged to follow you and marvel at your insights, As Tony says in the first essay, we have to abandon Catholic fundamentalism and stop trying to excuse it or explain it, or even try to re-image it for ourselves, or anybody else. We need, as Tony says, to engage with reality (material reality, of course) to evoke a new sense of the sacred. Not a “Deus ex machina” Depost of faith from two thousand years ago, but from our present everyday rich intuition of reality. Let’s keep articulating this rich intuition of the sacred, as you both are doing.
    Sal Umana

  3. says:

    The discussion inspired by the Interview was more helpful and insightful for me than the interview itself! I have noticed that when an interviewer is a disciple of the interviewee, the informational value of the process is minimal. Here, as often, the interviewer did not challange, did not ask for clarification, and left the fuzzy statements even more fuzzy! Thanks for the commentary. If only one of you guys could have been the original interviewer!

    Frank Lawlor

    • tonyequale says:

      Frank, hi!

      My intention was not to “nail” Kolakowski, and show him up as a knee-jerk anti-communist Polish Catholic. I don’t think he is. I wanted to highlight the problem of our loss of the sense of the sacred, and he is focused on that, but he is short-sighted. I have broached the fundamental elements of my analysis in my books and hope to elaborate it directly in future pieces, but it involves the central role of the “survival community” as the primary object of “self-transcending service.” The “local survival community” is the link between the “instinct for self-preservation” (the individual conatus) and the self-transcendent disposition to serve “that which is greater than myself” (objectified in “God”) characteristic of the sense of the sacred. We all come out of these traditions.

      K. rightly points out that we have lost a sense of the sacred, and in its absence there is no guid-ing value except a myopic self-gratification. In past ages, the temptation to live according to that superficial norm could not have worked because we did not have the technology to even approach achieving it. The “emptiness of selfish striving” would shortly have brought all such plans to naught, except for the super-elite, and even they were not totally excepted because the “survival community” was only capable of providing so much gratification and security and no more. The Buddha’s famous quest for the answers to sickness, poverty, old age and death drove him from the pleasure gardens of the royalty because they really were no answer even for him.

      But in our times there is no “local survival community” that cradles and protects us physically and emotionally. What we have is mass society run by a technology that can provide the reasonably well-off common man (the “middle class”) more security and personal gratification than Caesar himself ever dreamed of. If I want ice in my martini in mid July I have only to go to my refrigerator, while Caesar had to wait for “runners” to arrive from the Alps. Few under Caesar even had access to such unthinkable luxury. Multiply that phenomenon exponentially and you get a sense of the power of our technology to supplant any need for a “local survival community” to take care of the individual physically. Emotionally we are still dependent upon “family” but it is generally limited to childhood and moreover the support for the family is increasingly in the hands of mass society. The family is less defined by a “local community” like a clan or a village (or a parish) than by mass programs like food stamps or health care or social security. This is what conservatives get hung up on. K.’s problem is he identifies the sense of the sacred exclusively with a traditional religion which functioned in the kinds of local commu-nities that no longer exist. All conservatives share that nostalgia.

      Then there is the factor which is more powerful than we realize: commercial advertising. Mass society is subjected to a constant din proclaiming the message of the desirability of pursuing whatever self-gratifications may catch one’s fancy – no matter how minute, idiosyncratic and superficial – because they can be filled. This message, moreover, is in the service of the profit of the supplier, and the motivation to make any gratification no matter how meaningless irresistible, drives the medium. In fact, needs that may not exist are created. But the underlying message, often made quite explicit, is that such superficial, ephemeral gratifications are exactly what it’s all about. It’s what one does when one “grows up” … life is about consum-ing and doing whatever it takes to have consumer power (a job, respectability, marketability in the eyes of corporate managers, etc.). Everything else is for children and the weirdoes. (Of course, they are quite capable of gratifying your weirdo needs too: they will sell you books on revolution and self-liberation and religion … but notice, always because you have the right to be gratified in whatever you want.)

      Christianity is a complex phenomenon that comes out of the “local community” experience of the past and is fast adjusting to the mass society in which we live. Its sacred projections, objec-tifying service to the local community in doctrine and ritual, are obsolete, and its doctrinal ab-surdities glaringly obvious to an increasingly educated population. More and more, religion is finding a comfortable niche offering a traditional esoteric “product” designed to gratify individual needs. It is part of the overall belief-system of self-gratification. This is where K.’s analysis gets myopic. His own sense of the sacred is wed to his religious experience and in order to keep it alive, he thinks you have to embrace traditional religion. He does not address doctrinal absurdity, the loss of village life and therefore the necessary massification of Catholic Christianity, nor the corporate business-model which religion is assuming as it remakes itself for survival in a corporate commercial society. As with any vendor corporation, the Church has to create a “need” for its product. If all it has to offer are the absurd doctrines and empty rituals from the past, it has to make the past desirable, perhaps even by mandate. K. is unwittingly part of that effort.

      Taking all this as base analysis, where do we go from here? How important is it to have a “sense of the sacred”? How is it realistically and intelligently grounded in the current historical intellectual (scientific, technological, societal) context? … is there any objective side to it? … what does it have to say to traditional doctrine and practice? When finally understood and embraced what critique does it offer of mass society and mass (corporate) Christianity? The questions go on and on. What I want to resist above all is the commercialization of the “sense of the sacred,” turning it into a “product” that one consumes by buying certain goods and services. Unfortunately, this is the phenomenon that K.’s analysis encourages. A dead and meaningless tradition can only be an object of consumption … something one acquires only be-cause it’s a tradition. It actually alienates you from an appropriation of the sense of the sacred because it restricts it to itself. There’s a lot to work on here. Thanks for the observations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s