On Charles Taylor (Again) and Mickey Mouse and Totalitarianism and Enchantment and the George Washington Bridge, and Why it Doesn’t Fall Down

Oh Charles Taylor.  You have disappointed me by tipping your hand in Chapter 13.  THOSE were the cards you were holding?  Common post-Vatican 2 modernism?  What annoying cards!  And you got so goopy in your analysis, when you started talking like that!

BUT.  You still are on to something (isn’t it big of me to admit that?) and thank you very much for the Enchanted World category.  Which I know you didn’t really invent but boy, you ran with it like Walt Freaking Disney.  Oh wait.  That was the Magic Kingdom.  Which was different, in that it had more people dressed as cartoon mice, and fewer intersections of the imminent and the transcendent.


Just after this week’s CTAG (Charles Taylor Accountability Group, natch) in which we were talking about this section, I came across this, from Natural Right and History:

There was only one fundamental objection to Hobbes’s basic assumption which he felt very keenly and which he made every effort to overcome. In many cases the fear of violent death proved to be a weaker force than the fear of hell fire or the fear of God. The difficulty is well illustrated by two widely separated passages of the Leviathan. In the first passage Hobbes says that the fear of the power of men (i.e., the fear of violent death) is “commonly” greater than the fear of the power of “spirits invisible,” i.e., than religion. In the second passage he says that “the fear of darkness and ghosts is greater than other fears.”1 Hobbes saw his way to solve this contradiction: the fear of invisible powers is stronger than the fear of violent death as long as people believe in invisible powers, i.e., as long as they are under the spell of delusions about the true character of reality; the fear of violent death comes fully into its own as soon as people have become enlightened. This implies that the whole scheme suggested by Hobbes requires for its operation the weakening or, rather, the elimination of the fear of invisible powers. It requires such a radical change of orientation as can be brought about only by the disenchantment of the world, by the diffusion of scientific knowledge, or by popular enlightenment. Hobbes’s is the first doctrine that necessarily and unmistakably points to a thoroughly “enlightened,” i.e., a-religious or atheistic society as the solution of the social or political problem. This most important implication of Hobbes’s doctrine was made explicit not many years after his death by Pierre Bayle, who attempted to prove that an atheistic society is possible.


From this, you could develop a pretty strong case that the disenchantment of the world (the breaking down of people’s belief in God, to be specific, although that’s not really what Taylor means, and the strange tin ear that both Taylor and Strauss have for actual theology and/or lived Christianity is amazing) was absolutely crucial for the development of a modern political science, or a modern system of totalitarian politics.

Which is pretty obvious in retrospect, and it’s not like Jesus didn’t talk about this dynamic: you either worship God who actually loves you and made you and has genuine authority over you, or you’re held captive to the fear of death, and thus to the fear of those who can kill you and aren’t that fond of you: which looks like the better situation?  And we see this play out when the Apostles refuse to stop preaching, saying “we ought to obey God rather than men.”

Strauss would probably say that this impulse is just exactly the same thing that led Antigone to insist on burying her brother in defiance of what’s his name, Creon?  <googles> Yes. Creon!  Yay long-term memory!  Weird: I wouldn’t have said I’d read Antigone, but maybe it’s one of those things that I actually did read, when I was assigned it Senior year of high school.  Anyway.  But would he say that, or would he want to identify Antigone’s decision with a fundamentally skeptical/zetetic/philosophical way of thinking, rather than one that belongs to the pious?

Here’s the deal: here’s what I think, or part of what I think.  The pious, the sense of enchantment, and the sense of the natural law are all in one big barrel.  They’re not identical.  But they line up on one side of my own experience, while the purely materialistic view that fears violent death above all things (or fears pain, or a lack of pleasure, or etc.) is on the opposing side.  In other words, unless Strauss is just secretly a Nietzschean after all– if he has ANY belief in natural law, including the law of non-contradiction– he is in that barrel with the believers in Christ’s resurrection. Who are also in the barrel with believers in pagan gods, IF those gods are believed to be actually good.  The existence of the Good, of deontology, of the ought, is the source of enchantment.

Which is not to say that all things in that barrel are equally true, or equally false. Clearly they are not.  They are in contradiction to each other: one may be true, or none may be, but all cannot be true.  But what you start sensing as you consider these various metaphysical representations of, or assertions about, an enchanted universe, is that they all partake in something– something shining, something beyond, something that is a breaking-in and yet is deeply homely and familiar– something that you see in your response to the beauty of a sunset over the Palisades, and in your response to your own conscience if you do something wrong, and even in what goes on in your head and heart when you understand the logical relations of a math problem.  These things, these responses, are real: and the math is real, too, and intersects in our material reality enough to launch rockets and build the George Washington Bridge.  So we know at least that ONE of the things in the Enchanted World Barrel is correct, although we may not know yet which one.


And at this point, your Reality Investigation Program might do worse than to consider whether one of these hypotheses, one of these metaphysics swirling around in the Enchanted World Barrel, seems to be– oh, call it the distillation of all the others, the one that brings everything else into it.

And when you’ve identified what that one hypothesis might be, then what you’d do– or what I would do, if I were you– is to start some serious forensic history.  I say forensic, because at the heart of the hypothesis which I consider to be this distillation is a crime.

And your job could be described at this point as CSI Jerusalem.  Because something happened there.  And something happened after that, which was even more surprising.  And– under the enchanted ought-ness which we have seen must be part of the truth– you should find out what it was: this is a call, an assignment, a cold case that has landed on your desk.

You might ignore it.  But if you do, don’t be surprised if your ability to think clearly about other things suffers, because a dodge is a dodge, and changes the dodger, and as clever as Charles Taylor is, it is no coincidence that the section in which he starts disagreeing with Christian ethics in one area is precisely the section in which he starts flinging around some serious vagueness, some seriously fallacious arguments.

Be willing. Think, research, investigate– and act on the truth you have.


5 responses to “On Charles Taylor (Again) and Mickey Mouse and Totalitarianism and Enchantment and the George Washington Bridge, and Why it Doesn’t Fall Down

  1. For balance, have you considered devoting your next meeting to discussing the philosophy of Mickey Mouse as opposed to Charles Taylor? I think you might find his performance in “The Brave Little Taylor” instructive. Certainly he would approve of your choice of snacks at your meetings.

  2. George Sim Johnston

    In an early Disney cartoon, Mickey Mouse finds himself in a definitely un-disenchanted world; a ghost orders him to play a piano.

  3. Piety, the sense of enchantment, and the sense of the natural law are all in one big barrel of essentialist sentiment that comes apart once you notice it will include shamanism, ancestor worship, Genghis Khan, and natural law theorists from Aristotle (not concerned with homosexuality) to Robert P. George (very concerned with homosexuals but Islamofascism not so much). If you find yourself in that barrel then avoiding the poisons present there ought to be a major preoccupation. I recommend finding a better barrel.

    The main reason I am commenting is that I am surprised Taylor would say that not believing in invisible powers, or in damnation, etc. equals atheism, a-religion, etc. I am surprised you seem to agree. I am unaware of any creeds other than those of protestant fundamentalism that require a certain metaphysics pertaining to belief in invisible forces (other than evolutionary ones) or even the “historicity” of certain events.

    Also surprising: not mentioning Socrates/Plato observing the problem somewhat earlier on in history. Would you say that Socrates was an atheist/irreligious and impious because he prescribed myths involving invisible powers, divine judgment, and damnation to solve the problem of common people requiring strong extrinsic motivations to stay sane and moral? And what to do with the long and venerable tradition of universalism within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy? Lewis for example is quite a “liberal” on these subjects.

  4. MargaretBranniganKelly

    CSI Jersualem! But where to start? The Jesus Seminar?

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