1. A Crisis of Meaning
In his book Lectures on the New Philosophy (1984) the German philosopher Manfred Frank attempts to understand the reason behind the resurgence of mythical-religious questions in the early eighties across a variety of social and cultural spheres, including cinema and film.
The main drive for this resurgence, he perspicuously points out, has its root cause in the crisis of meaning that pulled the rug from underneath the values of classical and modern ages, and paved the way for the emergence of a relativistic post-modern worldview, which boomed in the wake of the second world war.
This crisis of meaning heralded a wave of criticism against ancient and traditional values, and belief systems.
In effect, the campaign was initially grounded in the principles propounded by 18th century Enlightenment, which championed reason as the only legitimate source of knowledge, and as such, broke with any form of metaphysics in the traditional sense.
Such a schism eliminated any kind of metaphysics that acted as an anchor to belief systems, and attempted to replace it with empty maxims, devoid of any ‘real’ meaning. Reason was thus ungrounded.
The ungrounding of reason eventually created a fertile ground for the flowering of two diametrically opposing movements. The first one saw in reason the salvation from the atrocities of the world, and adopted science as the only tool to acquire knowledge, and improve the human condition in the long run.
The second one, which arose in the early 20th century — the critical theory group — saw an opportunity to distrust reason in addition to traditional values, and defended instead a relativistic, anything-can-work, malleable approach to knowledge. No sooner this movement picked up than it quickly branched out into a convoluted maze of complex epistemological and ethical frameworks that employed intersectionality to ‘deconstruct’ conventional values and norms.
Both lines of thought overlooked an important tenet of classical and modern societies; namely, a transcendent factor that had a substantial bearing on the way these cultures understood, interpreted, and related to the world around them.
The rise of Romanticism towards the end of the 18th century as a reaction to the values upheld and promoted by the Enlightenment was in part driven by the need to create a new mythology.
There were many unsuccessful attempts to revive classical mythology, and to create new mythical narratives. Philosophers and writers such as Hegel, Hölderlin, and Schelling tried to draft out a system to create new myths, with view towards recreating a society akin to the classical golden age.
One of the many reasons these attempts did not bear any fruit is in part due to the fact that they were contrived in a top-down approach.
The Romantics’ biggest mistake was that they thought they could intentionally create myths, and subsequently ‘educate’ people to develop the necessary sensibilities to appreciate and understand these mythological accounts.
Such endeavors, noble as though they may have been, were not far from other nationalistic propaganda like that of the French revolution, by which many romantic philosophers were inspired, and those perpetrated by the Nazis in order to peddle a political agenda.
The authenticity and ‘effectiveness’ of classical myths were to be found in the dynamic, localist, bottom-up organic construction of nuanced accounts that evolved with time, and were relayed down through generations.
The Romantic longing for a similar classical age was a reaction to the mechanistic view of the universe promulgated by the Enlightenment thinkers, who sought to understand the world from a purely rational perspective, rendering any other form of human production a rather pseudo-scientific, spooky one.
Manfred Frank’s astute diagnosis of the reason behind the rising wave of mythico-religious questions can be applied today as well. Amidst the hysteria of critical theory, identity politics, etc., there has been an outbreak of nihilism and a crisis of meaning that slowly paved the way to a wave of anxiety which is translating into increased sentiments of dogmatism, extremism, and anger both on and off the grid.
2. In search of meaningful experiences
More recently, authors and public figures have been proposing solutions to the crisis of meaning, and whose contributions have been appealing to a wide base. So much so that many found themselves making it to the list of best sellers, and on other occasions trending on social media accounts in no time.
For a variety of reasons, the message they were promoting was met with fierce antagonism, perpetrated by social justice advocates. In the face of such unwarranted pushback, they flocked together to form a network of ‘kindred spirits’.
Their growing fanbase found comfort in a prospering body of work that comprised writings, lectures, and podcasts whose message resonated with the public’s quest for knowledge in an ever-accelerated world.
In their genuine attempts to understand the world and find meaning away from cheap ideologies and dogmatic harangues, people from all walks of life found recourse in discourses that defended traditional values rooted in some sort of transcendent ground.
Away from a purely mechanistic understanding of reality, there has been an intensifying appetite and a revived longing for a metaphysical conception of it that evoked a sense of the ‘religious’ and the transcendent.
I think that this worldwide collective reaction — where thousands paid to attend debates about ‘big’ topics — was instigated by an unconscious yearning for new (or a renewed understanding of) mythical tales that people could relate to at a personal level.
This is not something critical theory, or social justice activists, or even other dogmatic schools of thought have been able to offer. One reason could be because these groups are governed by a top-down hierarchy (ideology, bureaucracy). Such dynamics are quickly prone to turn into a form of mono-culture authoritarianism intolerant of any opposing views.
Needless to say that this also includes groups blinded by ‘science’, including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel Denett and co., who would automatically mock any alternative classical account as pseudo-scientific.
In search of values to combat the alienation, disenchantment, lack of values, chaos, disorder, anything-works mentality, the best antidote would be a hands-on, practical, local approach to apprehending the world around us.
Giving primacy to experience over reason, and reincorporating a religious constituent into our daily affairs would allow us to generate meaning in our lives insofar as they are grounded in a transcendent element.
Neither transcendence nor religion in this case are to be understood in a dogmatic sense, though. These are in no way to be interpreted as some spooky components in the abstract, authoritative, sense of the word.
Rather, by transcendence I mean the awareness that ultimately we can only ground reason in something other than itself. As a result, this opens up the possibility of ‘extracting’ knowledge and wisdom not only by doing science, or exercising logic, but also from reading classical texts, literature, etc.
As for religion, I don’t mean an abstract, blind faith in tenets that mean nothing to us anymore. Instead, I conceive of religion as an activity that strives to continuously reach a revived understanding of values, that are based in our local experience, which are developed, and refined organically rather than imposed from the outside, dictated by self-proclaimed authorities.
Searching for meaning and a meaningful life experience in hysterical post-modern times does not mean excavating into the past in a scholarly manner to understand a certain religion or text, nor does it mean religiously worshiping a tool that would only give us hope for an advent future. In other words, meaning is neither to be found in a chronological return to the past — an archaeological investigation for its own sake, nor in an advent future many generations down the line.
Meaning emerges insofar as the wisdom of ancient texts is made relevant to our concrete experience of the world, away from futile abstractions that are only useful for scholars confined in their ivory towers. Life, at the end of the day is a series of dynamic, nonlinear, and a complex set of processes.