Today's date:
Fall 2009/Winter 2010

Man Does Not Live by Reason Alone

Leszek Kolakowski, who died in 2009, was professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago and a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University. His critical, magisterial study of the history of  Marxism and his perpetual doubt and self-questioning, which led to a preoccupation with “the revenge of the sacred” in secular life, earned him a reputation as modern Europe’s Erasmus. 

Just after he published Modernity on Endless Trial in 1991, Kolakowski sat down with me in his study at All Souls College. The following conversation was also published in Kolakowski’s last book, My Correct Views on Everything.

Nathan Gardels | The title of your recent book is Modernity on Endless Trial. But isn’t the trial over, the verdict in? With the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and ethnic strife across the globe—in effect the revenge of the sacred and the soil against modernity—aren’t we living out the waning days of the last modern century?

Leszek Kolakowski | We are living through the realization that many rationally constructed predictions made in the 19th century are more wrong than the so-called illusions they were trying to dispel.

Both secular liberals and socialists expected that national, or tribal, passions would gradually disappear, while improved means of communication and a better scientific understanding of the universe would take its place. But it turned out not to be so.

The need to belong to a tribe, so to speak, is as strong as ever. National conflicts don’t appear to be disappearing. Indeed, in the Soviet Union and some countries recently liberated from communism, the “return of the repressed” may take a particularly nasty form.

There is, of course, always a potential for conflicts to erupt into bloody wars of global consequence, or massacres, as has happened time and again in the course of European history. But, in principle, there is nothing wrong with people trying to define themselves or identify themselves with a particular culture. For Europeans, it is almost impossible to be a cosmopole in good faith. Each of us belongs to a national community.

Moreover, the rationalist predictions about religion also turned out to be wrong. I don’t expect the death of religion or the death of God. Secularization hasn’t eradicated religious needs.

Of course, it is true that secularization spread with the process of rural uprootedness and urbanization, general education and technological advance. But there is no strict connection. After all, the most mobile, technologically developed country in the world, the United States, is by no means the most secularized. Not only is the traditional Christian church alive and very well there—more than half the American people go to church very regularly—but there is also a flowering of Oriental cults, sects and so-called “New Age spirituality.”

To be sure, Christianity has been enfeebled. But as it adjusts to the civilization of the next millennium, it might experience a renewal. However wrenching the process might be, as we can witness today on the issue of abortion, conflict and adjustment of just this nature has occurred several times over the centuries.

After confrontations such as that with Galileo, Christianity accepted the autonomy of reason and gave up trying to control science. Hostile to the notion of human rights after the French Revolution, Christianity now accepts and promotes them. Theocratic pretensions have been given up altogether in Christianity.

So, far from secularization inexorably leading to the death of religion, it has instead given birth to the search for new forms of religious life. The imminent victory of the Kingdom of Reason has never materialized.

As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification: who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation. Man does not live by reason alone.

Gardels | Speaking about the collapse of communism in Europe last year, your compatriot, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, said: “What is surprising in the present moment are those beautiful and deeply moving words spoken in Prague and Warsaw, words which pertain to the old repertoire of honesty of the dignity of the person. I wonder at this phenomenon because maybe underneath there is an abyss. After all, those ideas have their foundation in religion. And I am not over-optimistic about the survival of religion in a scientific-technological civilization. How long can such notions stay afloat if the bottom is taken out?”

Kolakowski | I hope Milosz is wrong, but I can’t be sure. If we imagine a technologically advanced Brave New World in which mankind has forgotten his religious heritage and historical tradition—and therefore has no basis for interpreting his own life in moral terms—that would be the end of mankind. It is most unlikely that mankind, deprived of its historical consciousness and religious tradition because they are technologically useless, would be able to live peacefully, satisfied with his achievements.

In fact, I would expect the opposite, since it is in the very constitution of humanity that our wants have no definite limits. They can grow indefinitely in an endless spiral of greed.

During the last few decades of rapid economic growth, we got used to the idea that all of us moderns could have everything and, indeed, that we deserved everything.

But that is simply not true. Since there are natural limits on our planet—ecological and demographic limits—we will be compelled to limit our wants.

Without a consciousness of limits, which can only come from history and religion, any attempt to limit our wants will result in terrible frustration and aggression that could take on catastrophic proportions. The amount of frustration and aggression doesn’t depend on the absolute level of satisfaction, but on the gap between wants and their effective satisfaction.

Religious tradition has taught us to limit ourselves, to place a distance between our needs and our wants. All the great religious traditions have taught us for centuries not to become solely bound up in one dimension—the accumulation of wealth and the exclusive preoccupation with our present material life.

It will be a cultural catastrophe if we lose the ability to maintain this distance between our wants and needs. The survival of our religious heritage is the condition for the survival of civilization.

Gardels | The cultural catastrophe being that without a set of rules that comes from religious tradition there are no moral brakes on man, particularly on the gluttony of homo consumptus?

Kolakowski | Yes, no moral brakes. When culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense. With the disappearance of the sacred, which imposes limits on the perfection that can be attained by secular society, one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization arises—the illusion that there are no limits to the changes we can undergo, that society is an endlessly flexible thing subject to the arbitrary whims of our creative capacities.

In the end, as I have written in the essay “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture,” this illusion sows disastrous despair. The modern chimera, which would grant man total freedom from tradition or all pre-existing sense, far from opening before him the perspective of divine self-creation, suspends him in a darkness where all things are regarded with equal indifference.

To be totally free from religious heritage or historical tradition is to situate oneself in a void and thus to disintegrate. The utopian faith in man’s self-inventive capabilities, the utopian hope of unlimited perfection, may be the most efficient instrument of suicide human culture has ever invented.

To reject the sacred, which means also to reject sin, imperfection and evil, is to reject our own limits. To say that evil is contingent, as Sartre did, is to say that there is no evil, and therefore that we have no need of a sense given to us by tradition, fixed and imposed on us whether we will it or not.

As you put it, there are thus no moral brakes on the will to power. In the end, the ideal of total liberation is the sanctioning of greed, force and violence, and thus of despotism, the destruction of culture and the degradation of the earth.

The only way to ensure the endurance of civilization is to ensure that there are always people who think of the price paid for every step of what we call “progress.” The order of the sacred is also a sensitivity to evil—the only system of reference that allows us to contemplate that price and forces us to ask whether it is exorbitant.

The values whose vigor is so vital to culture cannot survive without being rooted in the realm of the sacred. This is true not only of the values of which Milosz spoke —honesty and personal dignity—but others as well.

Gardels | This emphasis on pre-existing sense, or tradition, has led you to ask whether society can survive in the absence of the conservative forces that resist the upheaval of endlessly changing modernity that perpetually undermines its foundations.

Without conservative structures, unbounded development explodes; yet without dynamic development, society stagnates and dies. Each alone entails destruction; the tension between the two creates balance.

Trying to maintain this appropriate tension is the perspective, you say, of a “conditional conservative.”

With the ecological imperative so pressing, why can’t a new set of conserving values, which seek to preserve the future, instead of conservative values, which preserve the past, constitute a new realm of the sacred?

Why not look toward the greening of religious heritage instead of looking back toward orthodoxy?

Kolakowski | Religion is about the meaning of being, about the meaning of the universe and our place in it. Such meaning can only be established by historical explanation, by paying homage to origins and foundational events. In this sense, there can be no such thing as a religion that is not conservative.

Thus, no religion can survive without a certain wealth of tradition, which inevitably brings it into conflict with the trend of civilization toward constant change—everything casting off origins and overthrowing all form and structure.

The tension between past and future is bound to be with us. Life is tension and suffering. That is the human condition and mankind cannot be liberated from it.

Gardels | Can’t the religious imagination not only be rooted in origins but in hope and belief in a destination; for example, in a world that survives ecologically?

Kolakowski | Certainly, religious belief can limit human ambition and conserve the future. But one should be as careful about believing in a green utopia as in a red one.

It is obvious that some elements of the German Green Party, for example, are hostile to freedom and are totalitarian in nature. As with the communist movement, there is a danger in some of the more absurd and grotesque forms of the environmental movement which would sacrifice everything now for some distant salvation.

In any event, we don’t need religion to worry about ecological catastrophe. Religion cannot replace what science and technology can cope with; it can only give us the belief that the world is not self-explanatory, that there is a meaning that cannot be directly perceived and established as a scientific fact. Religion is of another dimension that enables us to cope with an existence of frustration, failure, suffering and death.

In this sense, religion is not about survival, but about NOT surviving. It is man’s way of accepting inevitable defeat. For mankind, there is no such thing as ultimate victory. In the end, we die.

Gardels | We’ve talked about the illusions of modernity. But the Reformation and the Enlightenment have also brought modern acquisitions of civilization to the West that we don’t want to discard—individual conscience and freedom, human rights, the autonomy of reason, the separation of church and state, pluralism and tolerance. Yet, as we’ve discussed, the West not only has weakened itself through the loss of tradition, moral indifference and bad faith; but also it has engendered a reaction to the inadequacies of modernity that now threatens many of its positive contributions.

As the modern West weakens, it faces two challenges in the next century: the absolutism of Islamic fundamentalism and the absolute relativism some say characterizes polytheistic Japan.

Kolakowski | I quite agree. The West faces these two challenges in the future and, as you say, it challenges itself.

One has the feeling that Japan is really an alien civilization. The Japanese way of seeing reality is very different from ours. We can feel this strangeness in the films of Akira Kurosawa, for example. His film Ran is an aesthetic masterpiece, visually beautiful and technically exquisite. So much so, in fact, that one greets with indifference the bloody battles where heads are being chopped off and bodies mangled.

While Japan’s way of seeing the world certainly is a challenge to ours, it at the same time lacks the menacing messianic impulse of America or Russia.

When visiting Tokyo, I once asked a Japanese intellectual, “Aren’t you destined to conquer the world? After all, you are the only industrial society in existence that has kept its social hierarchy and social structures intact. You are quickly able to assimilate scientific knowledge and technical skills, you are relatively healthy, and you are terribly crowded on your islands.”

He was not astonished at my question. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, “because we Japanese don’t feel that we have a cultural mission to impose our ways on the rest of the world. Our imperialist adventures, both in the Middle Ages and in this century, ended disastrously.”

Gardels | The mentality of indifference that accompanies the tolerance of contradiction—a mentality that lacks absolute notions of good and evil and that does not make room for the sacred; what we call nihilism in the West—has been the Japanese condition for millennia. It is perhaps rooted in the polytheism of Shinto, which has its origins in the ancient forest culture of Jomon.

Kolakowski | I have been told that if you tally the membership of the Japanese in the various religious groups in Japan, you end up with a number greater than the entire population of the country. It is not unusual for the same people to go to a Shinto shrine, a Buddhist temple and a Christian church, depending on the need and the circumstance. Of course, this phenomenon is very different from the monotheistic cultures, where exclusivity is the basis of any religion or sect.

Gardels | In the 16th century, the writer Fukian Fabian polemicized against what was already then a secularized Buddhism, asking “where is the lord who punishes the evil and thus  preserves morality?” That seems to be your question about modernity at the end of the 20th century.

What is the difference between the tolerance of contradiction, or religious inclusivity, in Japan and the indifference you so scorn in the West?

Kolakowski | Of course, indifference is the main form of tolerance in the West. Our tolerant attitude is often little more than lack of interest or disbelief; we are as indifferent to our own beliefs as to those of others.

But the intolerance of the church is not the only alternative to such a nihilistic attitude in the West. After the religious wars of the 16th century a certain tolerance, combined with commitment to a set of beliefs, took root in Christian culture.

Individuals and groups can be strongly committed to their religious values and at the same time practice tolerance toward others. The Catholic Church is preaching something like this now.

Gardels | For example, in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, he claims the superiority of Christianity.

One might say then that Redemptoris Missio is an attempt by Pope John Paul II to distinguish between “pluralistic tolerance” and what we might call “indifferent tolerance.”

Kolakowski | Yes, I think so. Christianity cannot renounce its claims to superiority, of course. It is bound to make claims to truth, but there is no reason in principle why Christianity cannot accept a plurality of religions without renouncing its own claims to truth. One cannot say with consistency that this is my religion, and it is as good as any other. That is absurd. In what sense, then, is it mine?

Despite the miserable record of repressions and persecutions, there is in Christianity a history of toleration that was preached for the sake of preserving Christian values.

Gardels | Islam, the other evangelizing monotheistic religion besides Christianity, hasn’t accommodated to the European experiences of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Islamic culture thus lacks the modern indifference characteristic of the West, leading the French social critic Jean Baudrillard to remark that Islam offers the only resistance to the radical indifference sweeping the world. As a result, might not the renaissance of religion worldwide also mean the renaissance of religious conflict, of conflict between civilizations?

Kolakowski | Medieval Islamic culture produced great achievements in the history of civilization, in philosophy, poetry, architecture, mathematics and medicine.

To be sure, there were pogroms against the Jews and genocide during the first world war in the Ottoman Empire. But it is wrong to think that the history of Islam, whether in the Ottoman period or earlier in Spain to take two examples, is the history of the systematic persecution and extermination of religious minorities. One cannot say with any certainty that it is the destiny of Islam to be bellicose, aggressive and repressive.

Nonetheless, for reasons I cannot explain, at a certain moment Islamic civilization fell into a slumber. Culturally speaking, Islam has not been very fertile in recent times.

The meaning of today’s Islamic renaissance, which is a renaissance of religious fanaticism and aggressivity, is not clear. It may be more related to the rise of petro-power, and the resultant economic imbalances and resentments in the Islamic world, than to religious invigoration.

In any event, this occult fundamentalism has proven an efficient device to channel the frustration and aggressivity of nationalism.

The central point of conflict with Western civilization, the point of departure between our two cultures, is the institutional separation of the secular and the sacred. Theocratic nationalism confronts the secular states of the West in international relations. As long as there are theocratic states, there will be conflict with the West. That is inevitable.

Gardels | If these two civilizations must battle it out in one interdependent world, where will that lead?

Kolakowski | We cannot predict how the so-called modernization of Islamic countries will affect religious life. In Iran, modernization engendered the theocratic counterrevolution of Khomeini and led to his desperate attempt to medievalize the country. Although he once said that all traditional religions—Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity—should be tolerated, he ruthlessly persecuted and killed Bahais.

But since the rest of the world doesn’t live in the 12th century, such religious totalitarianism must sooner or later be exhausted. Indeed, the clash with the demands of technical modernization will lead to a loosening of rigid theocracy.

Islamic theocracy can no more ultimately resist the autonomy of reason required by technological progress than could Christian theocracy. Islam cannot have both. A medieval religious regime will mean medieval material and technical conditions; economic modernization means the end of theocracy.

For now, oil resources cushion the clash. But when the wells run dry, so too, I suspect, will this kind of fanaticism.

Still, of this we can’t be sure. The only certainty in history is its utter unpredictability and incoherence.

Gardels | At the end of the last modern century, can secular man reintroduce the sacred? Can we base ethical values on reason instead of revolution? Must personal responsibility be rooted in transcendent beliefs?

Kolakowski | It is obviously possible for individuals to keep high moral standards and be irreligious. I strongly doubt whether it is possible for civilizations. Absent religious tradition, what reason is there for a society  to respect human rights and the dignity of man? What is human dignity, scientifically speaking? A superstition?

Empirically, men are demonstrably unequal. How can we justify equality? Human rights is an unscientific idea. As Milosz says, these values are rooted in a transcendent dimension.

Gardels | It strikes me that totalitarianism of a different kind could emerge from the new global capitalist order—a totalitarianism of immediate gratification in which reason is conditional to self-interest.

What is to defend dignity and human rights from total commercialization?

Kolakowski | The absence of a transcendent dimension in secular society weakens this social contract in which each supposedly limits his or her freedom in order to live in peace with others. 

Such universalism of interest is another aspect of the modern illusion. There is no such thing as scientifically based human solidarity.

To be sure, I can convince myself that it is in my interest not to rob other people, not to rape and murder, because I can convince myself that the risk is too great. This is the Hobbesian model of solidarity: greed moderated by fear.

But social chaos stands in the shadows of such moral  anarchy. When a society adheres to moral norms for no other reason than prudence, it is extremely weak and its fabric tears at the slightest crisis. In such a society, there is no basis for personal responsibility, charity or compassion.

Now, with the ecological imperative, a new ethos of species self-preservation is being discussed. To some extent, it may be true that we are instinctively programmed for self-preservation of the species. But the history of this last modern century has certainly demonstrated that we can destroy members of our own species without great inhibitions. If there is species solidarity at some deep biological level, it hasn’t saved us from civil destruction.

Thus, we need instruments of human solidarity that are not based on our own instincts, self-interest or on force. The communist attempt to institutionalize solidarity ended in disaster.