Good thing or bad thing? Well you can choose to see the fruits of the modern enlightenment as the bloodbath of the French revolution and its successors in the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries. You can note the rise of godless and brutal totalitarian dictatorships or amoral, market-driven democracies. You could mourn the loss of a direct political power exercised by the Church in Europe for a thousand years and the destruction of faith by the corrosive and captious reasoning that excludes the experience of God as a matter of principle. On this family of views, the enlightenment is the quintessential, monster porcupine, erasing the wisdom of experience and exchanging a rich and subtle picture of humanity for a cartoon.
The second part of McGilchrist’s book sets out a cultural argument, based on his conclusions about the different behaviours of our two lobes, which might lend some support to the view above. Our left-selves characteristically construct a world to fit the categories our abstract arguments create, conveniently ignoring the bits of reality that don’t fit. Thus our art loses the depth of perspective. Our culture privileges those who work according to the system over those who see beyond it. The world of value, experience, depth and possibility open to our right-selves, is talked out of existence by the voluble, controlling left-self. Descartes, as he announces his determination to think everything through from first principles could be taken to epitomize the arrogant optimism of a left-brain age.
Except, of course, that in McGilchrist’s own picture about the relationship between our two modes of attention to the world, that capacity to abstract can, benignly be at the service of our observant, open self. Descartes embarks on his quest precisely because he finds the answers he has been given so far are insufficient. He recognizes there is more. So we could tell a different story about the enlightenment. We could talk about the recovery of past wisdom that had been forgotten, political, social and philosophical. We could acknowledge that new ways of arguing and exploring the world have opened our imagination to things we would never have conceived by repeating the sayings of our immediate ancestors.
Our primary experience tells us that the sun goes round the earth, but imagination, recalculation and new observation suddenly transform the shape and the dimensions of the universe. What could be more abstract than the construction of the square root of minus one? But that construction has enabled us to ‘see’ more of the primary reality out of which our physical world is constructed. Do we entirely regret the emergence of psychology and sociology out of the abstractions of philosophy, or the exhilarating freedom of thought announced by Descartes and his successors? Given a choice between living in a tolerant, secular democracy and a conservative, punitive theocracy, how many of us would choose the latter? There are plenty around to choose from. Do we dismiss Bach and his successors for creating music that violates pure, natural harmony with the twelve tempered scales? Like a lot of monsters, the Enlightenment porcupine resists easy evaluation when examined close up.
It is also helpful to reflect that ‘Enlightenment’ is not just a bundle of philosophical and artistic movements that took place in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of our era. It is a recurrent human phenomenon. And it is one embedded in the texts of the Jewish and the Christian traditions. It is what happens when people start asking awkward questions about the things that everyone takes for granted, whether it is Socrates challenging Athenian society, Democritus proposing a theory of atoms and the void, or Isaiah deriding the traditional worship of sacred images.
Ancient furies and a new world order
Let’s begin with one of the most stunning pieces of theatre in the western tradition, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which was composed as the final pieces of the democratic jigsaw were being put into place in Athens. The plays themselves were an event for the people and the narrative is more than just a narrative of distant, mythical events.
The first play opens in Argos with the announcement of the Greek victory over Troy and the first half looks towards the homecoming of the long-absent king. Very soon, though, we begin to feel the dark undercurrents of a terrible past, soaked in blood and crying for vengeance. We realise, too, that the agent of this vengeance will by the king’s own wife, Klytemnestra. She is outraged by the sacrifice of her child to appease the anger of the goddess Artemis as the Greeks sailed for Troy. The triumphant king returns and is coaxed into the palace by his wife, treading a carpet of red like an eastern potentate. His concubine, one of the spoils of Troy, the prophetess Kassandra, condemned by Apollo never to be believed, declares what is about to take place, before she too makes her way into the palace, to join her master in death. Klytemnestra emerges triumphant with the two bodies, to be joined by her lover Aegistheus, who has his own blood-vengeance to exact from the house of Atreus. The Chorus movingly laments the death of their king, while Aegistheus threatens reprisals for any attempts against the new order.
The second play, the Choephori (the libation-bearers), begins with the solemn procession to the grave of Agamemnon, where Elektra will meet her brother Orestes and together they will plot the downfall of Klytemnestra and Aegistheus. Here, the theme of justice takes a new turn though, because Orestes has been told by the god Apollo to avenge his father, even though he will be committing matricide. After much doubt he does the deed, as his companion Pylades breaks silence (in a giant theatrical innovation) to strengthen his resolve. However the play ends, not with a resolution, but with the next challenge. Orestes sees the ancient goddesses, the Furies rising from the depths to hound him and avenge the blood-guilt that he has now incurred.
The last play, Eumenides, introduces those Furies (‘the kindly ones’) and takes the protagonists to Athens. The question of justice pits the ancient goddesses of earth and mother night, with their visceral demand of blood for blood, against the new order of gods represented by Apollo and Athena, who will resolve the case by argument and reason. The final scenes take place in the court of the Areopagus, where the jurors will listen to the two sides and make their vote. The votes are even and Athena herself has the casting vote. With an outrageously sexist argument (it regularly drew gasps from the audience at the National Theatre production of the 1980s) she decides in favour of Orestes’ action. The Furies are outraged and threaten Athena’s city with a range of hideous curses, until their anger is assuaged as the goddess promises them a shrine of their own, and due rites and reverence. At this point they sing a palinode and turn their curses into blessing.
When the play was first performed, there would have been plenty in the audience with a sense of obligation to avenge clan-members killed in political conflict within living memory. There would also have been city elders, members of the elite, still smarting at the recent transfer of legislative power from the ancient council of the Areopagus to the much newer popular assembly. They did however retain the right of judgment in cases of blood-guilt as celebrated in Aeschylus’ final play. We sense timeless questions of ancient tradition and structures, versus the shock of the new, of a visceral sense of justice against the appeal of reason, of old gods against new, and – vital in any polis then as now– how to draw a line under past conflicts, so as to be able to live together in peace.
Character of the gods
There are one or two striking similarities between elements of the narrative in the Oresteia and the different representations of God in the Pentateuch. One that leaps of the page for me is the list of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28. Don’t mistake me, I’m not claiming any direct relationship in either direction, but I just want to note a picture of the world that they appear to share. The divine power contains the duality of blessing and curse. It controls fertility, weather, health, crops and seasons. If slighted, the gods are implacable. But given proper recognition and respect, their power will manifest itself as benign.
We can also recognize that in Deuteronomy we are being introduced to legislation for a community that is reinventing itself politically, and as with the theme of justice that runs through Aeschylus’ play, key themes of that legislation are planted in the ancient narratives of the community, suitably adapted. Whether we look at Deuteronomy itself or the exemplary narratives of Genesis (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers) we see guidelines for resolving the conflicts that may arise between its members and threaten to spiral into destructive feuds.
There is also an interesting parallel in the tragic reflections on the sacrifice of Iphigenia that fascinates and appalls the audiences of fifth century Athens. A running theme of Deuteronomy (and elsewhere) is the rejection of child sacrifice (alongside other alien cultic practices). The theme is represented mythically in the mysterious story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis. In the pagan western tradition, the Iphigenia story became a standard part of the ancient polemic against religion. Religion makes people do things which are self-evidently evil. Lucretius the Roman Epicurean paints a moving picture of the girl being led off to sacrifice. He is, perhaps more than anyone else, the spiritual father of more recent critics who use similar rhetoric to denounce religions for causing wars, turning people into suicide bombers and forbidding people from using all available means of protection against AIDS. Please note, though, that the original critique of child-sacrifice comes from those who wish to maintain that God or the gods indeed exist, but not like that. Enlightenment begins in the heart of the religious tradition.
The generations of the heavens and the earth
We can look beyond Aeschylus to other great mythic narratives from the Greek world (those of you who are familiar with Sumerian, Babylonian, Indian – or indeed any other ancient mythology might want to draw your own parallels). At many points in the Pentateuch, the figure of the Lord behaves in a way that is very similar to the personal deities of the Iliad and the Odyssey, who accompany their favourite heroes in their trials and struggles. Yet there are alternative theological currents in the Pentateuch that are strikingly different. This is most clearly seen in the opening story of creation.
When the bronze-age cultures of the Middle East offer a narrative about the origins of the world, that narrative begins with the generation of the gods. In the Greek-speaking world, Hesiod’s seventh or eighth century ‘Theogony’ is no different. To talk about the origin of heaven (ouranos) and earth (ge) is to tell a story of a family (albeit a dysfunctional one). It is to talk about the lineage of gods, whose presence infuses all reality. Those gods are visible in the stars above and present in the trees, rocks and rivers of the earth.
The world order set out in Genesis 1 is shocking in comparison. Even though Genesis 2 speaks of the ‘generations of the heavens and the earth’, divinity has been definitively banished from the natural order, to create a world strikingly modern. We find ourselves looking at a rule-bound ‘nature’, more like that of fifth century Athenian philosophy or seventeenth century European science, than the traditional god-rich environment of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Holy Ground and the Underworld
The book of Genesis is full of references to sacred places and sacred stones, put in place by the fathers of the tradition – and presumably still reverenced at the time of writing. But alongside such story, the Law demands that sacred groves, trees, stones, high-places are to be removed from the land. The traditional objects of cult must give way to the pure worship of the one Lord.
Perhaps most striking is the erasing of the cult of the dead, in the repeated invective against necromancers and physical marks of respect for the dead. That ancient visceral awareness of and reverence for the world of the dead seen in the graves of Phoenicia and Egypt, read in the Odyssey and in the Book of the Dead and celebrated in the solemn libation rituals of the Choephori is obliterated, for the sake of the worship of the one God who is master of this one, living world. Such text paves the way for the Hellenized Sadducees, centuries later, to maintain the cult of the Lord, without any belief in an afterlife.
Plato’s fourth-century critique of the gods of myth shares this trajectory. The temperamental, willful, cruel and yet all-powerful gods derided by Euripides and dismissed by Democritus, are transformed into eternal agents of the transforming moral order. This in turn, via Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoic authors will have its enduring effect on the Judaism of the third and second centuries, after Jerusalem has become a part of the Greek-speaking world. And it is in this world of a Judaism wrestling with issues of identity and acculturation and the challenges of secular culture and modern thought that Jesus begins to preach.
Whatever Jesus brings, it is not something that sits comfortably with a romantic conservatism about religion, culture and family. He constantly challenges things that have become integral to the daily practice of the law. He reasons away absolute approaches to the Sabbath commandment, with end-means argument (the Sabbath is made for humanity) – though both approaches can be justified from the tradition. He violates rules about purity in a way that offends the sensibilities of many witnesses. He brings the act of purification from sin out of the temple and into the street, without ceremony and without animal sacrifice. He looks to the end of the Temple cult, around which the books of the Law revolve and denounces the spiritual leaders of his people, from the local lawyers to the High Priest in Jerusalem. When reflecting on sinfulness he draws attention away from the bare act, to the intention and desire that lies behind it. Whatever sort of religion this is, it is not straightforwardly traditional, but a reflected, enlightening interpretation of a multifaceted tradition.
It is striking, too, that the first generations of Christians were considered atheists because they did not sacrifice as others did. Yet, though culturally radical, the roots were ancient. To justify themselves they borrowed the rhetoric of Isaiah and the Psalms – I want mercy, not sacrifice – and found there the ridicule of metal gods worshipped in human temples, and the futility of offering sacrifices to the God who is master of the whole of creation.
So those early enlightenment thinkers, brought up with the assumption of Christianity, who re-read Cicero, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Lucretius and the Gospels and then thought differently, were not doing something new and alien to an ideal, pre-reformation human condition. They were opening the way to new understanding and new growth, re-engaging in a tradition of enlightenment more than two thousand years old. Whatever we choose to think about enlightenment, it has always been part of the furniture in our spiritual and cultural home.
Back to the Future
Romanticism and enlightenment are two-edged weapons. At times we need that powerful sense of home, of colour, of depth and desire and not just in religion, but in life as well. Enlightenment can feel cold and harsh in comparison. It takes away our comfort, flattens our world, anaesthetizes our capacity to love, diminishes our humanity. And yet that powerful richness can deceive us too, when it becomes an end in itself (we’ll look at that in Strange Beauty). So it is that at times, we also need the cold clarity of enlightenment to open up new spaces for our imagination, when we grow too at ease with our sacred stones and our favourite rituals. Our tradition continually points us towards something more, a deus absconditus – as David Hume mischievously makes play of in his dialogues on religion – more than anything that we can conceive or build a temple for.
There is a Buddhist term that I cannot do full justice to, but which, as far as I have understood it, seems to capture something important about living a lifetime in a religious tradition. It is ‘Uppaya’ or ‘skilful means’. One story illustrating it describes a sage pursuing enlightenment in the woods. For a long time he is comforted by a vision. The vision sustains him and leads him on his journey through the forest. One day he arrives at the place towards which the vision has been guiding him. But at this point the vision disappears and he is alone.
The truth is more. What we have seen has helped us so far, but now we are at a point where we need to let go and discover the next layer of insight for the next part of our journey.