Two maxims from Dostoevsky’s characters in Brothers Karamazov provide an organizing theme for a few remarks on the inescapability of religious foundations for society. Those maxims are: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” and “Man has invented the devil in his own image”.
It is interesting to apply these statements to the two great pagan epochs we studied in this year’s readings: the age of Greece and Rome, and the age of the Modern. Since the later Renaissance period Modern historians have presented the Middle Ages, the great “Age of Faith”, as a period of gross igorance and social darkness. The Medieval world was, they say, characterized by the oppressive force of organized religion which impeded progress by subordinating the assured results of Reason to the unverifiable speculations of Faith and by convincing men there was a life hereafter about which they should be seriously concerned. If you really want civilization, if you really want rationality, you must look to the Greeks and Romans and their Modern heirs.
But what kind of societies did the principles of those two eras, bracketing the first Christendom, actually produce? A good window into the souls of these societies is their literature. The Modern man scoffs at religion as anything more than a vague social glue providing a superficial stroking of man’s apparently innate sense that the world is mysterious and pervaded with the Unseen and Uncontrollable. Religion may not quite be Marx’s “opiate of the masses”, but it surely is not to be allowed to run the entire culture—Reason and Science must do that. And yet Modern man’s major cultural exemplars, pagan Greece and Rome had religion to the Nth degree, and that religion did organize and control their cultures.
“If God does not exist, everything is permitted” is an excellent description of the world of Homer, for that world was a nightmare of runamuck human passion divinized. It is a fascinating thought experiment to pursue the speculations of some of the Church Fathers and of Modern Christian writers like Lewis and Tolkien that the ancient gods were actually real beings and the mythologies that came to be associated with them dim and twisted interpretations of the Truth. But whether the gods were demons working lying wonders to deceive sinful men (as Justin Martyr thought) or godly angels whose memories and works were abused by sinful men (as Tolkien and Lewis thought), the world that worshipped them apart from the True God was a sad, inexorable dystopia.
Destiny under these gods could condemn an Oedipus to accidentally kill his own father, unknowingly marry his own mother, and suffer for crimes he could not help but commit, dooming his own children to similar lives of despair. Piety under these gods could drive an Agamemnon to sacrifice his own daughter merely to obtain favorable winds for the outward journey to Troy, or motivate a mother to join an orgiastic celebration of Bacchus that involved killing her own son and all who stood in the god’s way. Justice under these gods could drive an Orestes nearly insane after killing his mother and her lover on a god’s orders and then being hounded across the earth by other gods at odds with the first. Society under these gods reduces to the rage of Achilles against Hector and the arbitrariness of Athena’s courtroom.
Dostoevsky’s other maxim, “Man has invented the devil in his own image” is an excellent description of the world of the Modern, which has simply inverted the ancient model it idolizes and become a society of what Lewis called “materialist magicians”. Madame Defarge demonstrates the horrifying social logic that comes from setting up the Ideal State as one’s religion, her lawlessness setting the stage for far greater, but similarly-premised atrocities in the twentieth century. Fyodor Karamazov is the personification of the ruination of family and dissipation of personality that occurs when sexuality is unhinged from the transcendent and allowed to run free. The terrifying Mister Kurtz shows us what happens when a man believes that society is just a thin, hypocritical veil over the true nature of humanity as part of “nature red in tooth and claw”. Captain Ahab drags his whole world to a watery grave for the sake of a fatalistic, devilish desire to kill that which cannot be killed and so free himself from the limitations of outside control. In the world of the Modern destiny is individual autonomy, piety is cutting-edge impiety, justice is the occasional failure of a more basic injustice, and society is founded firmly upon a barely-concealed anarchy.
Ironically, some hope enters the picture by considering a third maxim made into a work of literature, “Things fall apart.” When Christianity entered the world of Homer and Virgil, it was accused of promoting cannibalism and atheism and its members were killed by the thousands. And yet, within three hundred years it had toppled Homer and Virgil’s world of incessantly warring gods and the false heroism it bred in men seeking immortality through glorious deeds of immorality. Christianity entered the world of the princes of pandemonium and replaced them all with the Prince of Peace.
The same pattern can be found in literary works produced in the Modern period. Achebe’s Okonkwe, loyal son of thousands of years of African paganism, has no answer to the social revolution that the Christians bring except the machete and the indignity of suicide. Lewis’s Queen Orual, who, though set in ancient times is still a good metaphor for the Modern, only finds peace when she has venomously spewed out her blazing accusation against the gods so plaintively that she suddenly becomes aware of what her own voice really sounds like: the petulant whine of an ungrateful child screaming “Mine! Mine!”
For pagans things always fall apart because that is simply the nature of a world governed ultimately by no one except the isolated individual, alone with his private religion and the wicked demands of its self-immolating piety. Virtuous people may exist in societies premised on such terms, but the societies themselves cannot help but trade the initial sweetness of their promise of freedom for the final bitterness of their inability to deliver it. For Christians things always fall apart, too, but that is, paradoxically, the only way for them and their world to be saved. Even a sentimental, liberalizing Christian like Dickens sees that the answer to the tyranny of the French Revolution is a man laying down his life for his friends. Religion is always at the root of society, and since the coming of the Christ no one can finally escape the inescapability of the Christian religion. Perhaps this is one reason why the more honest unbelievers of today can sometimes be heard opining that “If God did not exist He would have to be invented.”
[Originally written May 2004 for Peter Leithart's Literature Colloquium at New St. Andrews College.]