Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Misfortune and History

In Chapter 3 of The Myth of the Eternal Return Mircea Eliade takes up the question of suffering, and the ways in which "archaic" cultures seek to "normalize" the suffering in historical existence. Of course suffering is inevitable and man is to a great extent powerless in its face, but suffering can be made bearable by a process of normalization. Briefly, we have seen that in archaic man's ontology what is truly real are the the divine or heavenly archetypes--it is these archetypes that confer reality upon the individual. It is natural, then, that archaic man should seek to find meaning in suffering by assimilating suffering to the divine order of the cosmos. Eliade notes that while pre-Christian humanity did not ordinarily grant value to suffering as an “instrument of purification,” suffering was “regarded as the consequence of a deviation from the 'norm.'” “[S]uffering is perturbing only insofar as its cause remains undiscovered.” Thus, if suffering can be assigned to a fault (a deviation from the 'norm'), “suffering becomes intelligible and hence tolerable.” In other woreds, it is "normalized." Notable in this is the implicit idea of a natural law--an intelligible norm that man can discover and violation of which is a violation of man's meaning in existence.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that long experience with the travails of history and the inevitability of suffering can--especially during “times of troubles,” cosmic/civilizational upheavals of special seriousness--give rise to systems of thought that claim to provide escape from the cycle of sin and suffering in which man appears to be caught. This is especially true since archaic societies typically understand themselves to represent or embody in their institutions and customs the archetypal cosmic order. This, for example, is the interpretation of the karmic cycle in Indian thought that Eliade proposes, from Hindu thought through Buddhist speculation: both offer escape from the cause and effect cycle of suffering in this world. The same is true of the many forms of gnostic or dualist speculation that have been common throughout history in the Mesopotamian - Mediterranean regions. We would comment that, while the recognition that the imperfection of finite human nature necessarily entails suffering is itself a legitimate insight, these various “solutions” to the problem of suffering are all essentially self willed salvational systems: they are not truly deduced from data available in ordinary human experience. Instead, such systems are willed to be true. Nor is the reason that such “solutions” are willed into being difficult to divine. Even in ordinary daily existence the suffering of the innocent can be difficult for the spirit of man to bear, but in times of general crisis the burden can become well nigh intolerable. The similarities--when culturally conditioned factors are discounted--between these thought patterns and Western ideological movements should be apparent.

After considering Indian thought, Eliade moves on to the Israelite ideology of history, which views historical events as what could be termed a divine theophany. In his characterization of what he terms "Israelite" or "Hebrew" thought, Eliade clearly has in mind the Deuteronomic type of thought that developed in the great national crisis that engulfed the Israelite kingdoms before the Babylonian exile, and which we will not hesitate to designate as ideological. Eliade states that this type of Israelite thought views God as

no longer an Oriental divinity, creator of archetypal gestures, but a personality who ceaselessly intervenes in history, who reveals his will through historical events ... Historical facts thus become 'situations' of man in respect to God, and as such they acquire a religious value that nothing had previously been able to confer on them. (p. 104) 

Eliade does note, however, that this Israelite ideology does not “finally renounc[e] the traditional concept of archetypes and repetitions.” Indeed, despite the oft repeated “truism” that Israelite thought differed fundamentally from other ancient Middle Eastern thought, this assessment appears to be true. As Eliade is aware, the Deuteronomic ideology was the ideology of a small elite that developed under the pressure of adverse historical events near the time of the final dissolution of the two Israelite historical states. The Deuteronomic ideology appears to be based on the same type of self-willed salvation--here, not individual but national--that characterized other archaic speculation on man's position in history. Earlier Israelite mythic narratives were organized into an all encompassing ideology of history that assured the Israelites of their ultimate triumph, which would overcome the cycle of historical misfortune. Thus, Eliade comments, “Without religious elites [the Deuteronomic school] ... Judaism would not have become anything very different from ... the popular Palestinian religious viewpoint down to the fifth century B.C. ...” Nevertheless, we must add, this Deuteronomic ideology does not represent a true transcending of the traditional attitude of archaic man. Rather, as Eliade adds, “[s]ince he can no longer ignore or periodically abolish history, the Hebrew tolerates it in the hope that it will finally end, at some more or less distant future moment.” This “hope” introduces eschatology into historical speculation, which at times breaks out into apocalyptic movements that claim to recognize the “end times.” Not surprisingly, Jewish history has been marked by such periodic attempts to overcome the misfortunes of history in the here and now. In more recent times it has also led to an attraction to secularized versions of such salvational ideologies. Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century documents the influence of such efforts during the 20th century in the form of three modern ideologies: Communism, psychoanalysis and Zionism.

In all this we can see man's conviction that his historical existence must have meaning. This conviction arises from the insight that, since the cosmos and all its parts (including man) are suffused with meaning and intelligibility, there must also be a meaning to the totality of existence. If this is so, then certainly man, who through his intellect is able to seek such meaning and discover it in part within this world, must partake of that meaning.

Eliade finally turns to an examination of another explanatory technique for “normalizing” suffering in history--or at least to bring it within an intelligible and tolerable framework: “theories” of cyclic regeneration, including personal reincarnation. These “theories” are transparently speculative and willed, that is, not based on intellectual insight into historical data, for no one can stand outside history to know it as a global, completed essence or reality. In this context Eliade also brings up the notion of final judgment, which is especially characteristic of Iranian, Judaic and Christian thought. However, Christian thought stands in contrast to Iranian and Judaic models, since in Christian thought (except in heterodox speculation that is structurally gnostic) the burden of historical transformation is placed on the individual. Cosmic judgment has no meaning beyond the recognition that all secular processes must have an end. In this way, all emphasis is on the faith relationship of the individual to Jesus, rather than on national salvation in this world (characteristic of Judaic thought).

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