“All eras in a state of decline and dissolution are subjective; on the other hand, all progressive eras have an objective tendency.” — Goethe
The Greeks, at the origin of man’s unaided independent quest for truth, thought of “thoughts” as literally being placed in man by gods, and/or by “reality,” whose source was outside oneself. This objectified mindset allowed the Greeks to deal with the world directly, to hold up their tentative efforts to an objective standard – reality itself. This allowed for progress in all areas of intellectual endeavor – mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, and philosophy.
With the Greek Sophists came what many regard as even greater progress, but what was really the beginning of the downfall of ancient Greek civilization – truth as subjective and therefore relative. “Man is the measure of all things,” the Greek philosopher Protagoras declared. This led to an increasing awareness of the involvement of man himself in the origin of his thoughts, his decisions, indeed, even his perceptions.
But man as the “source” of reality inevitably led to a deprecation of truth and morality as objective – or even objectifiable – entities. The disastrous social as well as philosophical consequences of this development were perceived by Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, who attempted to once again place truth and the good, virtue as well as happiness, on an objective basis.
The western world over the past 300-400 years has replayed, so to speak, the experience of the Greeks. Modern man has achieved remarkable advances in knowledge and has literally transformed nature itself. This achievement was predicated on a mindset defined by the objectiveness of reality in the world around us and by our ability to freely decide our own thoughts and speech and actions in it.
And yet, during this same period of time, modern man has undermined his progress by increasingly battling its very basis: religion. For when one denies the objective source of value, the very meaning of those values becomes problematic. The natural consequence of man left to himself as the ultimate source and arbiter of reality is the very denial of objective truth, value, and virtue – all those concepts in whose name our achievements were undertaken.
Secularization, the intellectual stripping away of the religious, God-based origin of value and of reality itself, has manifested itself in various ways, most recently and most radically as logical positivism and subjectivism. These “philosophies” have as their effect, if not indeed as their underlying motivation, the provision of an excuse for the lack of personal authority over and responsibility for the world, both outside ourselves, as well as our own thoughts and actions. What I want – my passions, drives, desires, whims – becomes the standard of reality, an internalized reality. Therefore, “ethics,” “nobility,” and “honor,” especially “virtue,” become meaningless (indeed “meaning” becomes meaningless).
What I “should” do or think about something becomes synonymous with whatever I want to do. Even the notion, hedonistic as it is, of what’s “good for me,” cannot be defined in any terms but “what I feel like.” What the Bible called bishrirus libi elech – “in the dictates of my own heart I will walk,” reminds one not only of Pharaoh, who was worshipped as a god and who, according to the commentators, claimed “I made myself,” but of modern man, who is taught that all men should worship themselves as gods.
Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud are responsible for having added a scientific “imprimatur” to this secularization. Briefly, what Marx did for man’s relation to the world Freud did for man’s relation to himself. In each case, man without God must of necessity be the passive recipient of influences beyond his control. For Marx, therefore, man’s history is determined by the economic structure of society, by the means of production. Freedom is a hoax, religion is an opiate.Dr. Lawrence Resnick
About the Author: Dr. Lawrence Resnick was a professor of medicine at Cornell University Medical Center and one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s personal physicians. He passed away 10 years ago this week – on the 15th of Iyar – at age 55. This essay is derived from one of several notebooks of writings he left behind.
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