Adventures in enthymemes

April 27, 2010

In the most recent edition of First Things, David Bentley Hart sallies forth once again against the so-called New Atheists — Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of them.  He is not impressed.  His essay is a hilarious savaging  — not of atheism per se, but of the half-baked and (worse) self-satisfied atheism on display at the bookstore these days.  You really owe it to yourself to read him; as usual, he is articulate and entertaining.

There is a melancholy note struck at the essay’s center, however, and that is a kind of sorrow for the poor showing that our contemporary atheists — the most vocal ones, at least — are making.  Their project fails to impress not just because of intellectual sloppiness (though there is that too), but principally because of spiritual torpor: it seems they cannot rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their disbelief.  There is another side to the sadness too, which is that contemporary believers can rarely rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their belief.  Mediocrity afflicts us all, on both sides of the aisle, and that is a sad comment on our times.

These reflections lead Hart to pen a moving appreciation for Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the Western tradition.  He writes, in part:

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists — those who merely do not believe — to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

I’ve expressed my own appreciation of Nietzsche before, and on similar grounds, but obviously without Hart’s nimble eloquence.

Hart closes his reflections with a few brief remarks about one of the most prolific of the New Atheists, A. C. Grayling.  As it happens, Grayling’s most recent book, Ideas that Matter, has come up for a thoughtful and critical review by John Gray at The National Interest.  This is also worth reading.

Incidentally, Hart’s essay seems to have set the cat among the pigeons.  As I am posting this, it has generated nearly 300 comments.  I haven’t read any of them, and I think that is probably wise.  Avalanches can be deadly.

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13 Responses to “Adventures in enthymemes”

  1. Mac Says:

    300! Wow. Last time I looked, a couple of days ago, I think it was only 120 or so. They are pretty dreary. An awful lot of them are from people who claim scientific expertise and really don’t understand that the topic is not physics.

    I’m thinking of reading Beyond Good and Evil again, and maybe some more Nietzsche.

  2. cburrell Says:

    The Genealogy of Morals is next on my list; I’ve not read it before. First, however, I must complete the volume of Kierkegaard that I am currently reading (Stages on Life’s Way), and, just between you and me, at the rate I am going I may never complete it.


  3. These days I tend to avoid commenting on anything on the Internet – blog and newspaper comment threads turn into shouting matches between people who haven’t actually digested each other’s arguments. (Present company very much excepted, of course!) First Things seems to have shut down the comment thread entirely as of this morning, which is probably wise.

    I have a few relevant comments up here although, as is my wont, I go pretty far off topic.

  4. godescalc Says:

    Pity the comments are gone. ‘Ye Olde Statistician’ was a pleasure to read when he waded in. I’m pretty sure he was Mike Flynn in disguise.

  5. Nick Milne Says:

    Grayling’s reply to to the review, linked from the bottom of the page, is also worth reading if only as an unwitting validation of every criticism Gray flings at the man. It’s a vapid and contentless whine; Grayling’s piece has a mere five paragraphs, and he doesn’t deign to respond to any of the actual content of Gray’s review until the fourth – and with infantile vagueness, at that.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I am glad, Osbert, that you made a happy exception to comment on this blog. Interesting thoughts you had — and in the morning too. I can never write anything in the morning.

    Mike Flynn?

    I’ll try to have a look at Grayling’s response, Nick. Thanks for the tip.

  7. Nick Milne Says:

    Michael Flynn is a Catholic sci-fi author, and also an increasingly prolific blogger and commentator. His most well-known book is *Eifelheim* (2006), a pleasant and astonishing work in which a number of insectoid aliens become trapped in late-Medieval Germany and are forced to integrate into village life. It is an incredibly sympathetic and well-researched depiction of the time (domestically, philosophically, religiously, etc.), and raises dozens of fascinating issues. I imagine you’d quite enjoy it.

  8. cburrell Says:

    That does sound good. Sci-fi is a genre about which I don’t know very much. I’m surprised you have found time for it, Nick, given your academic obligations to master the collected works of John Grisham and James Patterson — but I suppose that was just a hoop through which you were made to jump, and not a reflection of your personal preferences. Anyway, I’m making a note of Mr. Flynn.

  9. Quin Says:

    I was drawn in by the Kierkegaard vs. Nietzsche post (great stuff) and naturally gravitated down to these comments.

    I think Nietzsche is appreciable in a way that modern atheists are not because he was very close to understanding a profound truth about Christianity, seldom recognized even by most Christians of his time: Christ’s unveiling of the scapegoating process, universal to human culture the world over. Nietzsche thought the weakness of Christianity derived from a weakness essential to Christ, and so chose Dionysus as a resurrection of the power of pagan divinity. What he failed to understand was how the strength of Christ was in his willingness to become weakened unto death as the scapegoat for all of us.

    We see this scapegoating process time and again, even within, and perhaps especially within Christendom: St. John of the Cross and Padre Pio, for example, suffered greatly at the hands of those close to them. We see it in the Inquisition and pogroms directed primarily at Jews – a people scapegoated throughout human history

  10. Quin Says:

    … cataclysmically in the holocaust, crucifixion as genocide.

    This is articulated best by Girard in his book The Scapegoat, but understood more intuitively, I think, by Kierkegaard, though often proclaimed with the obfuscation and misdirection typical of his style.

    I highly recommend both The Scapegoat and To Double Business Bound as Girard’s most concise treatment of the scapegoat principle, and Theatre of Envy for his documentation of its recurrence in the works of Shakespeare.

  11. Quin Says:

    Recently finished the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read: Doctor Mirabilis, by James Blish. Blish is usually considered minor league in comparison with Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, but here he’s done them all one better, at the very least. Doctor Mirabilis is a biographical novel about Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who may be said to have started the slow-turning epistemological revolution that came to a somewhat sour fruition in the works of Descartes and Kant, and – more importantly for scifi – developed the rudiments of a methodolgy that became the process of scientific inquiry.

  12. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for these comments, Quin. I haven’t read any of Girard’s books (and am making note of those you recommend), but I am generally aware of his ideas through articles and interviews that I have seen over the years. I hadn’t connected him with Kierkegaard, but it’s a connection worth thinking about.

  13. cburrell Says:

    And I’m making a note of Doctor Mirabilis as well.


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