Brett Williams's Reviews > The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion

The Disenchantment of the World by Marcel Gauchet
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it was amazing
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New and captivating ideas about our past

French thought, killed by Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and the Postmodern gang, appears resurrected by the likes of Gauchet. In physics the most deeply piercing ideas are the simplest, and in the form of seemingly unrelated phenomena – gravity seen as geometry for example. Gauchet’s ideas are like this. “Disenchantment” is emphatically not a political history of religion alone, but much more – a perspective on the development of ideas, civilization and human thought.

Gauchet practices the tradition of substantive history Postmoderns failed to extinguish. The State is the first religious revolution in history, claims Gauchet. Per Gauchet the original religion - before advent of the city - meant “to preserve their inviolable legacy, repeating their sacred teaching.” But structurally the State comes with a hierarchy between people and their gods, some closer than others. “The gods withdraw and simultaneously the nonquestionable becomes questionable, affirmed by the hold humans have on the organization of their own world.” “The imperial ambition to dominate the world comes with the [advent of] the State,” bringing upheaval to man’s unchanging position in the world. “The power of a few individuals to act in the name of the gods is the barely perceptible, yet irreversible step toward everyone having an influence on the god’s decrees...The State ushers in an age of opposition between social structure and the essence of [religion]. Political domination, which decisively entangles the gods in history, will prove to be the invisible hoist lifting us out of the religious.” Opportunities to depart from previous religious ways presented themselves. Unavoidable questions arose concerning our fate, the search was on, each for themselves, fractured compared to what began as unquestioned practice of one’s place in the cosmos.

The State’s development is responsible for the so called Axial Age when all the world’s religions from Near East to Far East sprang forth by concepts emergent from circumstances of the State. “Higher religions” of the Axial Age sought to unify their nature via supreme transcendent principles – a superior God, Order, Idea. Ideas beyond mere order in life and no longer as self-evident as simply taking one’s place, repeating old rituals. One eventually must seek this higher reality via devotion / revelation (Near East) or understanding / enlightenment (Far East) - the conception moment of individuation.

Gauchet notes monotheism first invented by Akhenaton was on track with what had been taking place in Mesopotamia via Assyria and Babylon as Assur and Marduk were ethical superiors to their pantheon, tending to simplify it. However, the critical difference of Israelite’s god was not based on the old ancestral order but on a commitment to his saving intervention – as Israel did after all lay between the most powerful forces on Earth, thus creating something new out of an extreme social need to dominate what dominated them. Once established by the prophets who sound a good deal like lobbyists, there developed clarity of Judaism’s internal contradiction – a universal God exclusively for but one of his creations. At the height of human evisceration and unsettling of the Roman Empire - like Brooks Adams’ 1896 illuminating “Law Of Civilization And Decay” - Christianity responds with its own conceptual twist. Jesus is of God, maintaining that link, but God is now for all of God’s creation, directly accessible to all. “We are not dealing with a challenge to reason, but to the logic of a cultural system,” writes Gauchet, and only contradiction could supply the required response, leading people not to a terrestrial promised land as Moses had, but removing them spiritually from it while remaining bodily engaged in the suffering of life. A creative solution to another contradiction in empire between its inherited religious order of the old ways still present and the actual system of domination.

According to Gauchet, this separation and eviction of God from nature transforms everything that humans had held against themselves to maintain permanent identity with the past into a reversal of unrestrained action against everything around them. The old way submerged human order in nature’s order, feeling at one with nature, a co-belonging so strong any damage done required ritual compensation restoring the balance. Nature becomes opposed and possessed in a renunciation of this world in the name of the other. God, having been made external to the world, the world then became external to humans. As God was withdrawn, our perception of “the world changed from something unalterable to something to be constituted.” A full turn about occurs, from domination of people to the domination of nature. Hence our current worldwide environmental decline, the Far East only mimicking Western process without the belief system. This and development of the Church’s own undoing; the city to a Republic; independence of thought and the importance of mass opinion – so many penetrating ideas and connections. Though it could use more reference to historical evidence, a remarkable book.

Hamilton said, it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question - whether societies of men are capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. But according the Gauchet the latter is more like it. Our freedom to interact, without confinement to old controls creates a situation where no one can control the collective outcome much less predict it.







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April 20, 2014 – Shelved
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