“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.
Equally, if not more devastating in its impact, were the proclamations of Freud, whose underlying presumptions as they’ve been incorporated into modern thinking were to destroy the concept of the free will of man in relation to himself. Our thoughts are no longer under our conscious control. Our actions derive not from rational, free will, but emerge from the unconscious interplay of forces and influences themselves determined by the circumstances of our life, beyond our control. Hence not only are our actions and thoughts determined entities, denying free will, but we cannot therefore be held responsible for the consequences of those thoughts or actions – “we cannot help ourselves.”
Subjectivism, relativism, psychoanalysis – all declare that there is no intrinsic value to all those efforts, all those achievements, all of those great thoughts we’ve added to the history of human life on earth. Everything’s OK, what’s true for you may not be true for me; nobody can tell me what’s right because, in general, there is no right or wrong, should or shouldn’t. We aren’t responsible, so we can’t be blamed. Great efforts, great dedication, what used to be called noble and virtuous and honorable – these are not pursued in the name of “I feel like it.”
Where there is no challenge to succeed, to pursue righteousness, to transform the world, there will be no success, no righteousness, no significant change. Civilization stops progressing because it no longer believes in the notion of the objective reality of progress.
This is what Judaism (and all other western God-based religions, to the extent that they partake of the same spirit) comes to correct. The existence of God and His historical revelation of His Presence and His Torah to us is the ultimate source of human freedom, of objective value and meaning in thought, speech, and action, and is the constant source of the hope and challenge that it is man’s opportunity to fulfill.
Why is God the answer? Because by definition He is wholly Other, not contained within nor capable of being expressed by human form or human conception. Because he is not only the immanent but also the transcendent God. The God of nature, who rules over the material-physical world, is also the God Who is above and beyond nature.
The whole of the Exodus story comes to teach, among other things, the existence and meaning of this God. Over and over Pharaoh denies knowing Hashem. Only Kel, the God who might be “stronger” than all the other “gods,” a god of nature, defined by, contained within, and obeying the laws of nature – this was conceivable. But the purpose of the Exodus was l’maan teida, in order that you should know YKVK,Hashem.
This declares the absolute freedom of man in this world. Since man was created in the image of God, some of Him is in all of us. This is thus the origin of our free will, and the guarantor that our perceptions in this world can be true in an absolute sense. God stands outside of man, having announced His presence, as an objective source of value and meaning.
Man does not free himself from “shackles from above” by throwing off the yoke of religion. He replaces the mandate of heaven to achieve greatness and fulfill his potential by the shackles of circumstance, of “historical necessity,” of dark, inaccessible, and unperceived emotional drives and passions, which strip all meaning from our actions, all self-respect from our thoughts, and all worth from our souls. Living, walking with God, is living in freedom, is walking in sunlight with hope.
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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