Situating Burke's Thought

This is the first of four posts totaling about 1300 words.

Jo Scott-Coe's article and Ed Appel's responses are both insightful and interesting, but one thing I would like to see more of would be an attempt to follow Burke's practice of situating his thought (e.g., the "purification of war" as an alternative to "fanaticism" at one extreme and "dissipation" at the other [GM 318-19]).

In one of his responses (12/13/04, 2:12 pm, p. 2). Ed refers to my remarks at the panel on Burke and education at NCA, but he misheard me insofar as he leaves out the situational side of what I said. My emphasis was not historical ("Robert Wess raised the question of why there's so much religiosity in the air right now") but situational: how should one respond to this religiosity, now that it's becoming more mainstream? More narrowly, since the panel was addressing the question of how to use Burke in an educational context, I was asking the panelists how they might use Burke to counter this religiosity in the classroom context. But my situational concern is not limited to this context.

I consider religion one of the most dangerous things in the world right now because of the way it's creeping into political decision making. Bill Moyers recently offered a striking example in his remarks upon receiving the "Global Environmental Citizen Award" from Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment. Moyers recalled, Remember James Watt, President Reagan's first secretary of the Interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in the light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, "after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back." ( Regardless of whether this Watt anecdote is true in fact, it's true in principle insofar as it suggests why religious thinking about first and last things, however harmless in itself, is dangerous when it appears in people with political power. Burke's "rotten with perfection" should make us worry about what might happen if someone who thinks this way got his/her hand on the nuclear trigger.

How can Burke help one to address this danger in the present situation?

More in subsequent posts--

Bob Wess

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Post #2

A discussion of situational thinking about religion might well begin with a line from Burke in one of his letters to Ed: "A believer's ATTITUDE towards a divine entity is EMPIRICALLY REAL whether there is or is not such a being" (12/30/04, 11:37 am, p. 9). I assume that there is widespread agreement that Burke gives us a variety of analytic tools to explain the formation of such an "attitude."

The tool I'll use is the use in RM of individual, specific, and generic motives to analyze the "transcendence at which all men aim" (RM 195). From the standpoint of this analysis of transcendence, one can identify different ways to achieve transcendence by identifying different "generic" levels of motivation. Hence, it enables one to look for alternatives to religious transcendence, not by eliminating transcendence but by displacing the religious mode in favor of an alternative. This flexibility has strategic value in addressing the situational question posed in my previous post.

Furthermore, while Burke is obviously right that an "attitude" is real even if its "object" doesn't exist, it would obviously help to find an "object" for the "attitude" of transcendence that is undeniably "out there." The danger with the religious mode of transcendence is that it fosters the delusional, as illustrated by the example of Watt (see previous post). It's the delusional that creates the situational danger that needs to be addressed.

Ed offers an "object" for this "attitude" that is more plausible than Watt's, but it's not without problems and it's counterproductive from the standpoint of ecological politics.

We'll turn to Ed's "object" in the next post.

Post #3

Ed posits the following as an "object" for the religious "attitude": Theism is the belief that human personality (let's get more Burkean still and say human symbolism) is in some way rooted in and reflective of maybe only in some very, very small way reflective of, but still reflective of the Ground of Being, Creative Source, or Generative Force, not just inanimate matter and blind physical forces (RR, p. 289 [?]]). It is the belief that human personality is a legitimate part of the universe, not just an accidental excrescence. (12/30/04, 9:46 am, p. 7)Not sure what "legitimate" would mean in this context, but since it's contrasted to "accidental," it would seem to denote "necessary." This "theism" would thus see human personality/symbolism as a necessary part of the universe.

In this example, the "generic" is located in the universe. Such belief allows one to identify with a universe in which human personality/symbolism is a necessary part. It's to this generic identification that one can "transcend."

In one of his examples, Burke indicates how the Marxist dialectic of history allows a mere "Mr. So-and-so working under such and such conditions" (the "specific" level) to become `the Proletarian,' with a generic personality calling creatively to ways of action that transcend his limited nature as Mr. So-and-so, and derive their logic from motives of universal scope" (RM 196-97). The analogue in Ed's theism would be to transcend to a generic personality rooted in the creative center of the cosmos. In this transcendence, one identifies with the center of the universe.

While I prefer Ed's theism to Watt's, I wonder if there is much difference between the two from an ecological standpoint. Watt didn't worry about felling the last tree because that would simply usher in the Second Coming. In the same vein, is there any need to worry about ecology if human personality/symbolism is a "necessary" part of the universe?

By contrast, if human personality/symbolism were a mere "accidental excrescence," then it would be something that could disappear from the universe (like other species), and there would be good reason to worry about the health of the planet. But a "necessary" part of the universe cannot disappear. It will always be with us, so that concern about ecology is a luxury not a necessity.

The next post is the last.

Post #4 (the last)

Rather than locate the "generic" in the cosmos ("cosmocentrism"), why not locate it in the ecology that sustains life on earth ("geocentrism")? Isn't life "divinity" enough? In his _Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (trans. R. H. M. Elwes, New York: Dover, 1951), Spinoza compiles a list of meanings given the word "Spirit" in the Bible to determine what is meant in the Bible by "the prophets speaking with the Spirit of God." His list includes examples in which this "spirit" is equated to the breath of life (19). This equation is divinity enough for geocentric transcendence.

Examples of geocentric transcendence may not yet exist in the fullest sense, though perhaps "proto" examples appear in sacrifices made to preserve habitat for endangered species. People making these sacrifices may very well exhibit the reverence for life that geocentric transcendence would privilege.

Geocentric transcendence can take its model from Burke's closing words in _Permanence and Change_: for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edges of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depths of the mind. And in this staggering disproportion between man and no-man, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious at the edge of an abyss. (272)

If the "generic" to which one transcends is located in life on earth rather than the center of the universe, then transcendence becomes a disincentive to pull the nuclear trigger because preserving the health of the planet is one's highest priority.

In the present situation, perhaps geocentrism can help to counter the rising tide of cosmocentric religiosity. Maybe it's the "strategy" we need for the present "situation."