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Nature and the Spirit of the Age

Winter 2011 Epigram

Nature and the Spirit of the Age

epigramClosing reflections on primary forces in this new political century

Nature is inevitable: spirit is not. Spirit is purposeful, possibly free, and, if not free, at least it knows it is not free, a burning ember borne along on the impetuous flood.

History is the chronicle of the man struggling to evade the vast pointlessness of matter, natural law and Fate. As Hegel saw it, History is man’s progress toward Spirit, toward the unity of all knowledge; not exactly the unio mystico of the Christian mystics or the spiritual extinction of the eastern philosophies, but something like that (vaguely echoed in the telos of globalization).

But the triumph of spirit today seems paradoxically spiritless. The Christian God has been dead, or at least moribund, since the mid-19th century, when Nietzsche pronounced the obsequies. Liberal political philosophy has progressively eliminated spirit from state and statecraft. Science has eliminated spirit from matter. And economics has eliminated spirit from the market.

Spirit seems to linger in the vociferous, but often derided religious rearguard actions of so-called fundamentalist movements (they seem to exist in every religion). But even the phrase ‘human spirit’ used in conversation is a marker for the naïve and passé. And humanism, without spirit, is derided as just another system of oppression. No longer can we wax romantically elegiac about the residuum of immaterial essence that we feel to be part of our existence.

The old arguments from spirit that every human life is infinitely valuable has led to planetary crowding, the exhaustion of resources, the advent of government-sanctioned abortion, assisted suicide, and various forms of medical rationing (when poor people cannot pay for health care, that is a form of rationing). Spirit has turned on spirit, per force, because species survival depends on it. In the end, our human desire to separate ourselves from nature has had the paradoxical effect of proving that we are nothing but nature.

Pope Benedict recently endorsed the use of condoms to inhibit the spread of HIV – a classic case of modern, secular, science-based, utilitarian calculation trumping the traditional spirit-based mode of thought. Even the Pope has acquiesced, yes, to the Spirit of the Age – the general feeling, the sense of Fatedness, as it were, that all decisions as to life and death and so-called quality of life should be based on material conditions, costs (markets), statistics and general outcomes. We bow to this every day of our lives in the West. It infuriates the Christian conservatives and the Imams even as they bow to it every time that they dial their cell phones. And between the extremes of liberal reason and religious doctrine – both having nearly reached their expiration dates – the poor individual human can no longer find words to describe the sense of his own unique, unrepeatable and infinite value.

What is the good life (not, sorry, quality of life)? What of honour, duty, hospitality, mercy and love? Why can we no longer speak meaningfully of such things? Once we conceived of ourselves as constructed in a god’s image, and set up over Nature as minor deities. Now, of course, our innermost impulses derive from the leftover reptile in us – the limbic brain – and scientists can track generosity and love by the ebb and flow of serotonin showers. Where is the unique and absolute value in that? (When I am dead, just render me into dog food.)

Is even the disinterested pursuit of knowledge disinterested? That we have confused spirit with domination is an underlying assumption of environmentalists who emit a faint air of Schadenfreude as they jet from conference to conference. Sometimes, it seems that all that we have left between the twin systems of Nature and Culture – the latter being the vast virtual apparatus of markets, bureaucracies and social hierarchies originally designed to help us to dominate Nature, and that now dominate us (our second nature) – is the negative capacity to protest. I am not that. And I am not that. Spirit resides in the individual saying I do not know exactly what I am, but I am not that.

This is meagre forage, except for the happy few who somehow find themselves at the top end of the scale. For them, the sense of domination and triumph fills their hearts with an old-fashioned sense of self and freedom of the will. Blessed are the billionaires, for they can still afford to have spirit. Yet, one senses a convergence of vectors, a brewing climax, and another immense turning of the wheel.

The Protestant Reformation is an example of a vast social expression of a general feeling of protest (I am not that) after centuries of domination by the old mythologies. Is it possible that something similar will follow hard upon the heels of our current miasma? Another mass expression of the universal I-am-not-that – the mysterious, faint penetralium of the human spirit?


Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.

(Photo: George W. F. Hegel)

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