Existence: The truth that
hides in error
by John Paolini
The courage to face uncertainty
The truth hidden in nihilism is that there is no Absolute Truth. Hidden in atheism is the truth that there is no certainty in theism or religion. Absolute Truth has died. We live in uncertainty. We need courage to find and argue for provisional truths with a small 't'. For millennia humankind has lived in a bewitched world of mythical and unexamined certainty. Then and now we are still learning to live bravely in a world without miracle or providence. We live naked in a lonely world. We look back and see a mirage of a lost golden age. Fundamentalist ghost dancers are trying to restore the world of absolute truth. All they can do is to show the destructiveness of absolutism. The certainty of heaven affirmed by suicide bombers is frightening. Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim fundamentalism in their hunger for power hold so tightly to their belief in the absolute that they, through their destructive acts, betraying an inner nihilism and despair.
Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, had the courage to leave the certainly of Hesiod and to venture to explain their world in naturalistic rather than in theological terms. I don't know other people's experiences, but I guess that unless you have grown up in a fundamentalist cosmology you may not know how uneasily we journey into the unknown.
As an experiment, after I was told by my pragmatist college professor that there is no supernatural, I tried to live between two stops on the subway line as if there were no God. It frightened the piss out of me. I decided to go on into the ministry. Later in life I left my position as pastor of a church and studied in Paris. I was walking down a crowded street looking at the mob and then realized that the church meant nothing in this word in which I was living. There is no divine safety net for believers. The 'foule' in Paris lived as if God were truly dead. How could this be? I wondered as I was preparing to be a missionary to Algeria. My desire to proselytize was zero. I decided that I would try to help the poor. As the spiritual went, "I didn't feel at home in this world any more."
In this kind of world the Milesian philosophers could not prove their theories, shame, call down lightning, heal, or preach. They could only reason, present and persuade. Their visions of reality were leaving the temples and entering the market place. Rhetoric replaced theology.
The profession of being a sophist was invented to teach citizens to live in a more mobile world for the common man without gods or hierarchy but where wealth replaced the advantages of high birth. A certain vagueness was an improvement over the absolute. They were making a world where democracy was possible. Hierarchy demands absolutism. The hoi pollio had needed a theology to keep them from revolting against their "betters." Now they usurped the aristocracy. The had the power of unity. As in the TV show "Survivors" they had the power to vote troublemakers or potential trouble makers out of the city. As Heidegger would say "averageness" replaced the dominance of rulers and heroes.
Imagination, inventiveness and improvisation of ideas replaced the storehouse of the unchanging truth of mythology. It was dangerous to do this in that society and is as dangerous in ours. Rooted, systemic, powers defend their boundaries. In order to defend the core of power they set the limits of trespass far from the core. I was a young methodist pastor who smoked and used explicit language that was in violation of my ordination vows. I noticed that no one in authority would bother to punish my smoking and language unless I were to become embarrassing or inconvenient. When I did become troublesome I was brought up before a group of my peers on the Board of Ordained Ministry with the bishop presiding. This was at annual conference. (I swear this to be true!) A member of the board brought up the charge that I used foul language. I escaped because it was all so silly. I was fortunate that I lived in a gentler society. It was out of vengeance that Socrates was proclaimed a blasphemer and put to death. The men of the time felt that Socrates was harming the old order and causing the existing decadence in society.
It is not that I am less interested in the arguments of the early Greek philosophers over physics than I am in the dramas and issues of existence. I am ignoring many issues in stressing the new situation in the trading towns of secularism and individualism. The old religion had united people. That was its purpose as in the root of the word. The Milesian philosophers were demythologizing: windowing out the grains of truth from the fanciful world of their time.
They did not have time for the evolution of powerful concepts like "being." In their work of demythologizing and laying the ground for individualism they focused the attention of thought on individual people away from the stifling lock step of life in the villages. I wish that there had been a straight line from this beginning to universal respect for each individual human being. We are still killing and fighting between tribes, groups and nations. The individual's ego has not established its rule over the animal beast in us and the tyranny of the punitive moralists. Yet in theorizing about physics these men unintentionally laid the groundwork for a liberal society.
Note: I use the word 'men' in a literal sense. In Ancient Greece, the greater majority of people were without any rights or recognition. They were women and slaves. In this day and age women still are not ordained in the largest churches.
© John Paolini 2001