The Atheistic State, Part I

LET US CEASE our mincing of words: for the present, with its crisis and its dangers, is not a time for muttering. The secular state, that famed secular state in which modernity takes such inordinate pride, as if by its invention alone we had all at a blow resolved the age-old theologico-political problem—this secular state is in truth nothing other than the atheistic state, and the only conceivable motive for preferring the one term to the other, is the purely rhetorical, not to say propagandic, concern with avoiding harsh and alienating language. For really, “secular” has so much more a pleasing and even encouraging ring to it than “atheistic.” But it is the practice of the lax, the sophistical, and the base, to flatter what is low with pleasantly tinkling tongue.
      The secular state is revolutionary in a deep sense; it is representative indeed of the fundamental revolution at the bottom of all modernity. It would divide the law of man from the law of the gods; it would posit the first as the law governing public life, and the second as that governing private life. Now, all religious faiths, taking this word in its widest sense as the vital belief in an independent deity, culminate in a-political or super-political forms—either in the life of the anchorite, utterly detached from the political aspect of social life, or else in the “god-emperor” who is the political apex of that life and the sling to launch one beyond it. Christianity, from whose ground the idea of the secular state first arose, would seem to present an exception to this rule; with those famous words of the Christ—“give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”—it would seem to have transcended the old religio-political relations. Yet Ancient Rome itself, which can hardly be accused of lacking in politico-social instincts, interpreted this very Christian attitude as anarchism, and persecuted the Christians as it would have any law-breaking criminals. And verily, the serious forms of Christianity, as embodied by men of real faith, have never failed to culminate precisely in the forms which we have mentioned, albeit in specifically Christian flavor: either the Saint, or the Church.
      All religious faiths arrive sooner or later at the same conclusion: any faith which is not permitted to put its imprimatur on social and political forms, either must extricate itself wholesale from extant forms, or else it demonstrates that it is not a faith, but only at most a hobby, a whim, or a prayer. The idea of private faith as distinguished from public life is simply chimerical; for it asserts of necessity the primacy of man’s law over that of the gods, and thus denies the latter in its transcendent essence.
      Nor does the famed dictum of the Christ hereabove mentioned really indicate any reconciling possibility. For as every Christian knows, while the taxes really might belong to Caesar, very little else does; and in any conflict between the law of the state and the law of God, one is more than duty-bound to become a criminal by all worldly standards. In key cases, nothing less than one’s soul depends on one’s defiance of the law. The secular state, if it wished to abide by Christ’s words, should have to pass no law whatever counter to Biblical teaching. That is to say—it should cease to be a sovereign state. It should have to become, in other words, either a “secular state conforming to Christian principle,” which is of course a contradiction in terms, or else a “secular anarchy,” which permits the Christian to live according to his conscience. Yet, while anarchy and Christianity may well be deeply spiritually compatible, to call anarchy itself “secular” is simply meaningless; for anarchy is characterized precisely by the absence of all forms of rule, precisely by the absence of all law, be it the law of the gods or the law of men. Thus the idea of a “secular state” compatible with authentic Christian belief is an absurdity; such a state would either cease to be secular, or would cease to be a state.
      The secular state can therefore only mean the favoring of the law of man to the exclusion of the law of the gods—and no matter what one might say on behalf such a scheme, it is certain that its basic presupposition can only be that the law of the gods is of false or of undemonstrable basis. But that means, and must mean—atheism. Nor should one become embroiled here with specious counterarguments to the effect that “agnosticism” is really the fitter term, insofar as the “secular state” (e.g., in its manifestation as the “open society”) makes no pronouncement on the existence of the gods. Agnosticism is meaningful only as an epistemological, never as a moral or political, position; for the agnostic, if he takes his ignorance in matter of divine things seriously, is forced to live and act as an atheist. The agnostic and atheist both live by virtue of lights which are not divine; they both of them act without regard for the will of the gods, though their motives for this might differ; they both live and act, that is to say, without the influence of the divine, without the divinities. They are both of them a-theistic in the proper sense, and they live by man’s law—if they live by any law at all.

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Burning the Past

I AM OBLIGED to denounce an article I recently stumbled across in the New Yorker, which to my eyes represents the worst American tradition of stuffy Puritanism and obnoxious, totally officious, interference in the affairs of other countries. This not to speak of the deeper question it inadvertantly raises, of America’s profoundly ambivalent relation to history, which even now is erupting forth in the contemporary attempt to purge America of its “slave-owning icons”—folly which I have already commented on.
      The article of which I speak poses the question (quite as if it were perfectly legitimate to presume that every nation in the world should hate itself with the same fervor as America), “Why are so many Fascist monuments still standing in Italy?” For evidently it is not enough to go hunting for such game in one’s own country; one must go about moralizing insufferably on every one elses’ turf, as well.
      Now, the author of this piece, one Ruth Ben-Ghiat, is, by her own description “an expert on fascism and its memory,” which makes it particularly curious that she should desire the physical elimination of so many traces of that memory. Or rather, I should say, all of this would be curious, if a neat indication of the author’s real motives were not furnished precisely in her name. Be that as it may, it is essential to clarify that when Ben-Ghiat speaks of “Fascist monuments,” she is not referring merely to this or that little statue thrown into this or that dusty corner of old and crumbling buildings. She references openly, among other things, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and the statues in the Stadio dei Marmi. She is speaking that is to say of essentially every public work of art or architecture which was put up in Italy between the years of 1922 to 1943.
      It is to be wondered if she makes any distinction between monuments which were raised by the Fascists in open glorification of Fascism on the one hand, and monuments which happened to be raised in the epoch during which the Fascists ruled. But really such refinements are beside the point, for when one is dealing with a “Professor of History” who is willing in perfect composure and without any awareness of proposing an offensive absurdity to recommend razing entire buildings because their architects were not good liberal democrats, it is quite beside the point to argue over any subtlety so fine as artistic intent.
      I have made this observation before but it bears the repetition: this kind of generalized resentful ire against of the past, and the accompanying zeal to utterly erase the evidence of what we judge to be past wrongs, has no clear boundary, no clear terminus. The same logic could promote the destruction of the Colosseum, in which countless “oppressed souls” lost their lives, or the elimination of the White House, which was built for slave owners, and by the slaves themselves. Once one begins on the course of whitewashing history, one is not soon done with that Herculean labor, and there will be much rubble and much dust, and, inevitably, much blood, before one has had one’s fill.
      What is really at question here, of course, is not even Fascism, so much as Nazism. That is the real bone of contention in the question of “Fascist monuments,” the real horror that one wants somehow to redress. It is not Mussolini as such, but rather Hitler, with whom Mussolini allied himself, that one wishes to brutalize and demonize and finally eliminate from annals of history. I say “one,” which is of course polite; in truth one knows who really desires these things, just as one knows precisely who it is that most fervently wants to defeat Lee a second time and smudge Columbus out from the national ledgers in America. Ben-Ghiat’s article here is but the latest most consistent move in a campaign which proposes to eradicate the memory of a regime which burned books, by burning the monuments of the same.

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