Monday, January 08, 2007

What does a third century philosopher have to do with Don Corleone?

Origen is rarely read these days. But, even so, he is very often unknowingly copied. I am currently reading about this early Christian philosopher in Martin’s Inventing Superstition, in particular about Origen’s book Contra Celsum, in which he argues against the views of one of Christianity’s earliest critics – Celsus (of course, Celsus’ book did not manage to survive the hegemony on writing that the Church had throughout the Dark Ages and only ‘exists’ in so far as it is cited by Origen).
Martin provides (on page 185) the following adroit synopsis of Origen’s view of the world:

The Christian view, at least as represented by Origen, teaches that the supreme God and all those angels and powers subservient to him are good and benevolent. Any harm from them is for our betterment. There are also some experiences we have that seem evil but are attributable to the constraints of reality. But there is also evil directly attributable to an entire force of the universe in temporary opposition to God – daimons and those under their influence. Daimons, which include the gods of the nations, are completely evil; they are fallen angels exercising their wills against God. Christians must choose either the protection of the latter or the destruction of the former.

Martin, himself, compares this ontology to that of a Mafia boss but upon reading his synopsis I felt it all too familiar from a great number of contexts. It seems to me that not just the Mafia but demagogues and dictators in general have cottoned on to much the same ontology. Thus, using the communist and the Bushit examples, a list of one-to-one counterparts may be found:

God = The Party = Dubya
Angels = Party members = The neo-con administration
Constraints of reality = Constraints of reality = Constraints of reality
Satan = USA = Osama/Clinton/whoever
Daimons = Imperialist agents = Terrorists/Democrats/whoever
The basic paranoid form of the ontology carries over very easily, justifying abuse of power in order to “protect against the shadowy force of the week”. After all, the all-mighty forces of good are sure to triumph in the end (indeed, they would have already were it not for the constraints of reality). This is, of course, just the ontology that Orwell presents in his 1984. Recognising this repeated reproduction of the paranoid ontology isn’t, therefore, all that fresh an insight. It is important to ask a question, however – to what degree is Origen’s world-view being reproduced in a thousand ways because it is the world-view of the world’s largest religious grouping and to what degree it has become so successful due to how easily it justifies the abuse of power by those who have it. I suspect that the second of these considerations is the more basic – the view of the Greek philosophers that all beings of greater force than humans were also of superior virtue would not serve power quite as well. To use Dawkins’ term, the paranoid ontology is a very successful meme because it improves the ability of those who have it to spread it. This may be, therefore, just the kind of pernicious religious meme that Dan Dennett considers the existence of – a parasitic meme which spreads while causing harm to the people who are infected with it.

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