Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Worship of Man

I return today to two of my early teachers, two cyclic historians, Toynbee and Sorokin. They observed astutely that when humanity abandons its transcendental focus (God, the universe, and everything) the object of human worship becomes humanity itself. Both of these men would have emphasized the word collective, as in “collective humanity.” Collective humanity needs a focus, as it were. Great secular ages sooner or later become imperial, and figures like pharaohs and emperors then emerge as handy symbols of secular worship. Hence, of course, conflicts flared up in late Roman times when Christians chose not to toss a bit of incense on the glowing coals in gestures of submission to the prevailing ideology.

What neither of these sages noted is the highly innovative character of American culture, and here, therefore, I hasten to provide a footnote to their wisdom. Our culture has discovered a wonderful new way of worshipping man. It arises from the insight that humanity may be worshipped in either of two ways: as a collective, which turns our transcendental longing into the worship of the state—or as an individual.

Now it turns out that capitalism is wonderfully suited as an all-purpose institutional structure for the worship of man as an individual. Back in the God-fearing days capitalism was condemned—to be sure under another name, usury. But functionally that label was correct. Later, as we began to hear only the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith, capitalism was reluctantly accepted as a device and instrument for social benefit, as in creating jobs, railroads, pipelines, trickle-down wealth, and the like. Now, finally, as the Individual starts to be capitalized, we are beginning to raise Capitalism itself to the status of a religion—as earlier we raised Communism to the same exalted status. But Communism was a foreign god, and we now praise Us for having managed to conquer it.

What tea leaves am I reading to reach these conclusions? Well, those left over after each gathering of the Tea Party. Those marked by the elevation of figures like Rand Paul. And by news, such as today’s, about “for-profit colleges.” For-profit prisons, for-profit hospitals, for-profit politicians. “I wonder,” Brigitte asked as we were chuckling over these matters over coffee. “Are there for-profit churches yet?” — “Yes,” I said. “The great mega churches with TV channels of their own. But they are legally not-for-profit. And rightly so. It would be sinful for them to pay taxes to the great evil one, the Collective Human of the State.”

1 comment:

  1. Wonderfully put. I had never thought about our adoration of capitalism and individualism in quite this way. I think you've put your finger on something quite intersting here.