Tuesday, March 10, 2009

All roads lead...

“All roads lead to Rome.” Indeed, for the Roman empire everything emanated from a specific center. The city even contained a pillar, the milliarium aureum or golden milestone, whose base is still visible today. It marked the absolute center from which all distances were measured. Other nations subsequently copied the practice. Here in France, “kilometer zero” can be found in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. Having a clear center is reassuring. It imposes unity while identifying the single locus of power and influence.

Here in the village, we have no comparable distance marker. What we do have is a church perched atop a hill. The street on which we live stretches horizontally alongside the hill. At regular intervals, perpendicular alleyways branch off. Where do they all go? Instead of “all roads lead to Rome,” it’s “all paths lead to the church.” The village had its own fixed center, a sort of mother hen, with the residences, like little chicks, clustered down the slope in front of it.

Seeking a single source to which everything can be traced, a single center around which everything revolves, marks a typical human tendency. Rome took its imperial ambitions for granted. It had a civilization to spread, roads to build, aqueducts to construct, markets to fill. It was all a grand periphery emanating from a great center. King Louis XIV embodies the cruelty associated with a focus on unity. He revoked the Edict of Nantes which had granted freedom of religion to protestants. His absolutist tendencies preferred practices consistent with the traditional slogan, “one law, one faith, one king.” (It rhymes better in French: une foi, une loi, un roi.)

The longing for a single foundation runs deep. Herodotus reported how a Pharaoh had children raised by deaf-mutes. His hope was that, unfettered by hearing any current language, the children would spontaneously speak the foundational, original language of humankind. When one of the children uttered something that sounded like Phrygian, the pharaoh pronounced it the one original tongue. The tower of Babel story also suggests the assumption of one and only one foundational language for humans. The imposition of multiple languages is there treated as retribution for human overreach. Unity as the original condition, plurality as punishment.

Philosophically, the great thinker Plotinus, living during the Roman Imperium, developed a schema which set a deep pattern in Western thought. Everything, he claimed, derived from an initial One. Ultimately our task, divided and separate as we were, was to rejoin the One that was the source of all. Descartes, in the 17th century, sought to base knowledge securely on one great irrefutable foundation. Everything flawed was to be eliminated until the single, solid source was discovered. Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” served as his milliarium aureum. The empire of knowledge would have its fixed beginning there.

Such a program might have had a good intention, but lots was loaded into the “everything flawed must be eliminated” dimension. When this got carried over into politics, ethnic and religious bloodletting was the result. Louis XIV, mentioned above, offers one good example. Prior to him, Ferdinand and Isabella’s Inquisition had already set a familiar human pattern. It aimed quite simply to eliminate all of those tainted by difference, in this case heretics, especially recent Jewish converts to Christianity suspected of insincerity in their new religion. In 1492, the year they funded Columbus, the monarchs completed their project ordering the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. The twentieth century, sadly, not only failed to reverse this tendency, but brought it to new heights of cruel efficiency.

Philosophically, the 20th century had begun, in American Pragmatism at least, with a challenge to the fetish with oneness. A founding member of American Pragmatism, William James, entitled his defense of religious sensibility The Varieties of Religious Experience. Another of his works was called, A Pluralistic Universe.

The fascination with a single, unitary source at the root of everything was self-serving, a construction of pure fantasy, and a recipe for totalitarianism. Experience, history, anthropology, archaeology and the physical sciences all point to complexes deriving from other complexes. However far we go, there is always diversity. The trick, aimed at in a democratic republic, is harmonizing and living with plural tendencies. Varieties and pluralism, to use James’s terms, should not be considered corruptions to be eliminated. Harmony, not unity should be the watchword for the 21st century. The “All roads lead to Rome” attitude dominated for several millenia. It was a good run, but it may be that the century following the bloody 20th offers as good a time as any to rethink our philosophical assumptions.

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