11. History, Suffering, and Sin

Suffering is simultaneously one of the most manifest facts of history and its greatest offense.  Therefore, any schema of history must offer an account of suffering, if it is to be in any way satisfying.  I wonder a little bit here, consider this a meditation. 

Ancient history was essentially cyclical, seeing suffering as baked into the human experience, a consequence of our place within the cosmos, itself cyclical.  Beyond the obvious cycle of night and day, the seasons, the rotation of the heavens, there is the cycle of divine usurpation detailed by Hesiod.  Note, though, there is little place for meaning within history. Things happen, they happen again, and there’s no end to it beyond the recommencement of the cycle.  Instead, as the reference to Hesiod indicates, the locus of meaning derives from myth. 

That’s an over-generalization, however, because myth only represents one point in and one aspect of the attempt to discern/express the order/meaning of the cosmos.  Ritual, i.e. symbolic action, is another, likely preceding myth (and certainly preceding Hesiod).  Ancient history, in this schema, represents an ultimately insufficient attempt to grapple with the mystery of Being as it expresses itself in time in the wake of the fracturs in the collective character of myth and ritual becoming apparent, which in turn generates the critiques of myth that emerge around the same time as history.  So to, tragedy emerges as a reckoning with the spiritual nature of the individual against the cosmos of myth, which seems to hold little place for that nature or seems only to highlight its vast insignificance.  Said differently, tragedy grapples with the apparent insignificance of the spiritual movement of the individual against the fact that these movements are hugely significant for us, indeed are the only way in which we personally encounter the mystery. 

Philosophy too, but we see here, in the great exemplar Plato, that philosophy too must turn to myth in order to express that which lies beyond ourselves.  Always worth examining where and why, Socrates turns to myth in the dialogue.  Note though that, in Plato, myth is transformed and its constructed character is explicitly recognized without a denial of its ability to bear truth.

In all these expressions, there remains a lacunae, a chasm between Being and man, transcendence and immanence, that no one seems capable of bridging, and this chasm looms, sometimes unmentioned but always present as a sort of hesitation in speculation at the level of the cosmic and within the interiority of the human soul. 

Christ, by uniting Being with beings, God with man, bridges this gap, and, in so doing, serves as an even greater offense than the existence of suffering mentioned above.  The root of that suffering is placed at the beginning of history, in the transgression and subsequent expulsion from the Garden, and it is imbued with meaning through the Cross which in turns gives meaning to history in the eschatological culmination of the sacrifice on Golgotha at the end of time.

Thus, a second mode of reckoning with Being’s expression in time, and there’s no going back.  Our conception of history is irrevocably altered.  Kierkegaard, “No one, believer or not, who has once been exposed to Christianity can return to either the aesthetic or the ethical religion as if nothing had happened.” Substituting “history” for “religion” makes his statement no less true.

In the aftermath of the Reformation, the thinkers of the Enlightenment (and, before them, Joachim of Fiore, let’s leave him for another time) immanentized the Christian conception, bringing the eschatological consummation of history from the time after time ends into history itself.  As this immanentized version of history places the final Kingdom within the scope of human action, the resolution of the problem of human suffering is likewise placed within the domain of mankind.

But, if the problem of suffering can be eliminated by human action, or even the movement of the Spirit of History, then it cannot be that, “the imagination and thought of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth.”  Evil cannot be inextricably bound up in human nature, but must be eradicable from it without destroying that nature.  Thus, the modern conception of history requires as a predicate the denial of original sin. 

Some consequences, that I’ll attempt to grapple with in later posts:

  • The denial of original sin is accompanied by a denial of transcendence more generally, curtailing the capacity of history to grapple with Being’s expression in time, for the simple reason that it ultimately denies the existence or, at the very least the knowability, of Being.
  • The rejection of original sin is not based on any proof (we might go further and agree with Chesterton that original sin seems to be the most empirically obvious Christian doctrine) but instead on a schema of history.
  • Following from this point, history itself becomes the criteria for judging whether the schema of progress, and thus the denial at its root, is actually true. 

One response to “11. History, Suffering, and Sin”

  1. […] Then, as Vico-posting really took off, on Robert Pogue Harrison as an interpreter of Vico.  For my post on history and original sin, I drew heavily from Karl Löwith, Eric Voegelin, and Augusto Del Noce (the latter in particular in […]

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