BY ROBERT HARKINS J.D.
Civilization, vibrant and in its prime, recognizes in poetry, myth, science and religion, the sacred and profane. The sacred is a reality blest, transcendent, and proof against the forces of time and space, birth and death. The profane is a force centered in chaos and annihilation, in entropy, and the death of civilizations. The profane is perfectly expressed in the Indian poem, Bhagavad-Gita, in Lord Krishna’s mordent admonition,
“I am become death, Destroyer of Worlds.”
When from the sacred, a cathedral is conceived and worked from rough stone, or an good poem told to a meter, or the likeness of David chiseled from dumb marble, it is the blunt force of the profane that would see the cathedral broken to dust, the poem parodied in obscene skits and Angelo’s David defaced with graffiti.
The sacred, cannot be explained empirically. Its logic is not of the mind but the heart. It is the fountainhead of creativity in art, science, politics, philosophy and religion. The profane is expressed in the language of materialism, in cultural relativism, in the darkened visions of nihilism, in the satiric profanation of the first principles of faith and natural law. The profane is manifest in the theory that the force man calls sacred is a fantasy conceived to allay his timid fear of death and extinction. Indeed to the profane, nothing is sacred or divine for, God and angels all, are the personification of the absurd.
The claim is made that the profane liberates this thing called man from sacred nonsense, enlightens him with the secular revelation that it is random mutation raised him from the gibbering ape, that set him upright on two feet, that made of this once pouting animal a rational man aware of the metes and bounds, the weight and measure, the paradoxical order and grandeur of a pointless, inert and lawless reality.
While in ancient Greece, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle celebrated Logos (Reason), in fact, Greek civilization was centered in the practice of Arête, sacred as well as rational excellence. The Stoics, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, warned that the exercise of reason alone would set man upon a profane path. Reason as the measure of all knowledge would curse him with hubris, an overweening arrogance, an incendiary pride by which man in his exaltation of reason and in his abandonment of the gods, would fall easy pray to the delusion that he is the god-like fount of perfect wisdom. In hubris man would find his nemesis— for whom the gods would destroy they first drive mad.
Our modern alienation from myth is unprecedented. In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people to make sense of their lives but also revealed the regions of his mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. …. Today we separate the religious from the secular. This would have been incomprehensible to the Paleolithic hunters, for whom nothing was profane. Everything they saw or experienced was transparent to its counterpart in the divine world. Anything, however lowly, could embody the sacred. Everything they did was a sacrament that put them in touch with the gods.
Six centuries before Christ, Shakyamuni, son of a Shakya king, was tormented by this question: Why is everyone subject finally to suffering and death? In search of an answer he gave up his wealth and kingdom and took up the life of a penniless mendicant. In an instant sacred to Buddhists, Shakyamuni, following long years of meditation, sat beneath a ficus tree and vowed not to rise until he had attained enlightenment. At dawn of the third day his mind opened to a sacred reality. The Buddha, (one who is awakened), moved by the exquisite beauty of the morning star, smiled and informed posterity that “All sentient beings are imbued with Buddha nature,” sacred and imperishable. Later when cross-examined by religious experts of questionable moral reputation who tried to wring from him in words the essential nature of this sacred thing, the Buddha, in a gesture since named “The Lion’s Roar,” “maintained a noble silence.”
In the 20th and 21st centuries, an intellectual movement, characterized variously as post modernism, cultural relativism, and nihilism, engaged the instruments of satire, sophistry and ridicule to reject the idea of a sacred reality. For example, in the Chinese belief that there exists a sacred bond between the dead, the living and the unborn, the new intellectual saw superstitious ancestor worship and impenetrable ignorance.
The sanctity of marriage as a sacred union of man and woman, and the sympathetic study of the disciplines of Western Civilization, are now derided by the new intellectual as inexcusable manifestations of cultural chauvinism. Since the sixties, the pursuit of moral and rational excellence has been outlawed at American universities by a tenured, academic elite who intend to see realized, in the imposition of dogmatic political correctness and the suppression of rational inquiry, yet another lethal, secular utopia. The communist Lenin captured perfectly the aesthetics of the profane when he described the act of sexual love of a man for his wife no more significant than the taking of a drink of water.
The materialist intellectual in his preemption of all but the profane calls upon the ghosts of the French philosophes who in their exaltation of reason gave the world Robespierre who in the name of Egalite condemned to the guillotine tens of thousands of innocent men and women. He gave us Napoleon, destroyer of democracies. He gave us the Soviet Union and its gulags, Stalin, show trials, mass executions and the calculated starvation of six million Kulaks. He gave us German concentration camps and Cambodian killing fields. He gave us the holocaust of six million Jews. He gave us Cuba’s island prison, a Chinese Cultural Revolution and death by starvation in the millions. He gave us the immolation and banishment from their country of the Tibetan people. He gave to more than a hundred million human beings imprisonment, starvation, despair, and finally, profane death and an anonymous grave.
But Logos had never been able to provide human beings with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernism progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early as the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization… By treating myth as though it were rational, modern scientists, critics and philosophers had made it incredible…. By making God a wholly notional truth, reached by the critical intellect alone, modern men and women had killed it for themselves.
What then is the American legacy of the profane? It is carnage in the millions of federally funded abortions, the ruination of American education, the debasement of the politician and his betrayal of the American people; it is the abandonment, in all but name, of the American Constitution. It is in a legacy of unwed, pregnant mothers and in teenaged boys who consider their impregnation of random numbers of dependant women a badge of macho pride, young men, ignorant of their American heritage, who would be shocked should anyone explain to them the sacred nature and responsibilities of fatherhood.
We see the legacy of the profane in narcissist politicians possessed with the temerity to tell us that the assumption of unquenchable debt will set us free, that the wonton confiscation of private wealth will usher in an economic Valhalla. We see the legacy of the profane in a burgeoning crime rate and in the Federal Government’s abandonment of its Constitutional obligation to the American people, the protection of American borders and the intelligent control of immigration. We see the legacy of the profane in the President’s most solemn promises, promises made in return for our vote, sacred promises broken, every one of them, and therefore by expedience and betrayal made profane. Americans have reaped the whirlwind of the profane; so also has the rest of the world.
The twentieth century presented us with one nihilistic icon after another, and many of the extravagant hopes of modernity and the Enlightenment were shown to be false; the First World War revealed that science… could also be applied with lethal effect to weaponry; Auschwitz, the Gulag and Bosnia spelled out what could happen when all sense of sacredness is lost. We learned that a rational education did not redeem humanity from barbarism, and that a concentration camp could exist in the same vicinity as a great university. The explosion of the first atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki laid bare the germ of nihilistic self-destruction at the heart of modern culture; and the attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 showed that the benefits of modernity—technology, ease of travel and global communications—could be made instruments of terror.
What then is to be done? Should Americans recognize at last that we are betrayed by a philosophy of materialism centered on the propagation of the profane, that in the name of egalitarianism would compel equality only in misery, and in the name of diversity would make of tribalism a secular sacrament?
Is it time that Americans again embrace the sacred: in woman, not only as intelligent and capable in the disciplines of art, business, science, education, and all else, but in the recognition of her sacredness, in her capacity as mother, creator and teacher of children, she who graces her husband with peace, love and dignity; and finally in the practice of deep respect, of our parents and grand parents; and in the acknowledgement of our duty to accept from the dead, the legacy of our Western Civilization, to finally and at last pass it on, intact and sacred, to Americans yet unborn.
In The Wasteland, T.S. Elliot, “…laid bare the sterility of contemporary life: its alienation, ennui, nihilism, superstition, egotism and despair. As he confronts the imminent demise of Western civilization, his narrator concludes: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’
The broken insights of the past that he has gathered together in this poem can save us. When we have pieced them together and recognized their common core, we can reclaim the wasteland in which we live.
What do you think?
Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, (Cannongate, 2005). All references are to her book.