Sunday, August 23, 2015

Matthew Stewart's "Nature's God"

Last week, I spoke about this being the “Summer of Trump.”  Yet for my wife and me, it’s been more like the Summer of Mad Men.   We started watching that seven-season series after the final episode was televised earlier this year, and it would be embarrassing to admit how many seasons we’ve watched since then.    That show, which is about Madison Avenue in the 60s, is a lot like the drug that people smoked on college campuses during the 60s.   It might not be physically addicting, but it’s sure psychologically addicting.  I only wish that it wasn’t so bleak, though bleakness seems to be de rigueur these days for American television dramas.   I wonder what that says about our society.   Actually, I don’t think we need to bring in Freud to answer that one – these aren’t exactly upbeat times.

Fortunately, America wasn’t always so droopy.   I’m thinking in particular about the time of our nation’s founding, when we had a group of leaders who were truly inspired and they had a dream of doing something majestic that had never been done before: creating a democratic society that would rule over a vast expanse of land.   I have always admired the so-called “Founding Fathers” of this nation and often wish that they could walk into a time machine, enter our society, and take over the reins.  Recently, I read a book about these individuals that I told my family was a must read.  So I want to pass on that same advice to all of you.  The book is entitled “Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.”  Written by philosopher Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God analyzes the Enlightenment Era principles that underlay the beliefs of such luminaries as Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Washington and Paine.   What Stewart demonstrates is that as much as Christian fundamentalists would like to claim the Founding Fathers as their own ideological ancestors, the fact is that our nation was founded by a bunch of religious rebels.  We can debate whether to call them deists, atheists or pantheists, but one thing is for sure – they were free-thinking heretics.  As a bit of a heretic myself, you can see why I pine for their return.

Stewart’s goal in Nature’s God is to demonstrate that the Founding Fathers were merely links in a chain.  This chain began with Epicurus, Stewart argues, and continued with Lucretius, Spinoza and Locke, just to name a few of the philosophers who figured most prominently in this book.   This is not the first work of Stewart’s I’ve read, and each time, I’ve been struck by his ability to take difficult philosophical concepts and make them simple without distorting their meaning.  Stewart especially excels in making Spinoza’s teachings come alive to the casual reader.   And don’t let the title of the book fool you – this work is as much about political theory as it is about religion.   After all, to the great thinkers like Spinoza, the challenge is to create a coherent philosophy that ties together perspectives on God, ethics, science, and political-economics.    What’s amazing is that our nation was founded by a group of individuals who actually sought to formulate their own coherent philosophies, rather than discerning their views from polls and political donors.   As the Mad Men would say, recalling the Virginia Slims ad campaign of 1968, “We’ve come a long way, baby” – a long way down, that is.

Please note that I am heartily recommending Stewart’s book despite the fact that he and I don’t agree on a fundamental point.   Stewart, you see, likes to say that deep down, the intellectual forefathers of the American Revolution – and some of the statesmen who borrowed their ideas -- were truly atheists who simply pretended to be “believers.”  In other words, they invoked the name “God” for semantic purposes when what they really meant was simply “Nature.”    

Sorry, but I’m not buying it.  While I appreciate why Stewart, who is himself an atheist, would love to claim as many free-thinkers as possible as part of the tent of “non-believers,” he can’t have it both ways.  On the one hand, Stewart extols Spinoza for his integrity and courage in following ideas to their logical conclusion and saying what is true and not merely what is expedient.  But on the other hand, Stewart is forced to recognize that Spinoza categorically denied charges of atheism and devoted much of his philosophy to the One he called “God.”  So which is it – was Spinoza a fundamental true-teller or a fundamental liar?  He can’t be both.

Anyway, I will trust that if you pick up this book, you won’t necessarily believe every argument you read.   The point is that there is so incredibly much to learn by reading this book that you can’t afford to ignore it.   And besides, this work is a tribute to heresy and the ability to think for yourself.  So it’s only fitting that it should be recommended to you by a heretic who is warning you to read it critically.

To me, Stewart’s work is a page turner -- suitable for binge readers.   And let’s face it, spending a few hours a day reading Nature’s God is a whole lot more rewarding than watching, say, five Mad Men episodes in one day.  Believe me, I know.  I’ve done both.

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