War lords or god-kings: Our only choice? How our worldview shapes our politics


Mustela nivalis

In my first instalment of my series on Gary North’s body of ideas I talked about “the beginning”, the origin of the universe, and how our perception of whether this happened by chance or by conscious creation is fundamental to our worldview and how we act in the world. That believing in creation by chance leads to “power religion” and that believing in conscious, purposeful creation leads to “dominion religion”. And that there is a third, “escapist” religion, those who’d prefer not to decide, but end up following the stronger of the other two. (My answers to your comments on that article are below.) Today, I will write about our varying views of the structure of time and how THAT shapes human thoughts, actions and politics.

After deciding on either chance or purposeful creation, the next fundamental “religious” decision we all make is this: Is there a “beginning and an end” at all, or is our world in some kind of never ending loop? In other words: Is our worldview “linear” or “cyclical”?

A cyclical worldview is a view of a universe oscillating endlessly. It’s easy to see how people originally came to this view. Every day, the sun rises and sets, and at night the stars and the moon seem to follow its path “round” the earth. Soon, longer cycles became apparent: months, seasons, years. The more observant even discovered five additional heavenly bodies that also had their own regular cycles. Seemingly non-cyclical objects like comets and “new stars” (supernovae) were viewed as a disturbance, often as portends of doom and destruction. A cyclical worldview meant: everything is in constant flux, but in essence nothing really changes, ever. At some point, things get repeated.

This was the prevailing world view of antiquity. And it showed.

A cyclical worldview means there is no incentive to do anything that might improve our fortunes. At least institutionally, intergenerationally. Individually we might want to improve our lot as long as we live, but we would have little or no incentive to do anything that has a positive effect beyond our own lives. What goes up, must come down. So why bother? A cyclical worldview leads to a feeling of fatalism that prevents any real progress. OK, temples were built that last to this day, but they did not improve people’s lives. OK, the Romans built aqueducts and roads, but they did this to hold their empire together. There was no entrepreneurial culture to speak of, with the exception maybe of the Phoenicians.

Hero of Alexandria is said to have invented a simple steam turbine, called the aeolipile, in the 1st century AD. It is not known whether it had any practical uses apart from possibly being a movable temple ornament. Not even the ancient Greeks conceived the idea that this device might be the key to saving a lot of labour and raising productivity. It’s very likely that the cyclical worldview is to blame. It can’t have just been the slave labour culture. Slaves weren’t cheap. They had to be fed and housed and clothed. A steam engine could have easily priced many of them out of the market. Or it could at least have allowed non-slave holders to increase their productivity. It didn’t happen.

The one exception with regard to world view in ancient times were the Hebrews. Their God had defeated a human “god-king” (Pharaoh) and had led them out of slavery to the Promised Land. So life without tyranny was possible. Progress was possible. Their God had created the world in a conscious act and called it “good”, and after he had created every living thing, including humans (in his image), he called it “very good”, whereas other cultures and peoples declared the world to be the chance result of some interaction of gods, who themselves were not creators, were part of the world and who often saw humans as a nuisance.

The Hebrews also developed the view of an end time, as can be seen in the book of Daniel. Taken together with the belief in conscious creation the result is a universe with linear time, and limited by time. Daniel contains hints of a final judgment by the creator at the end of all time. A huge incentive to “do good” in the time allotted to you. And to find out what to “do good” actually means. This basis for progress was adopted by Christianity, and then some. Which means that its effect on society increased by magnitudes.

Modern science, not wanting to be seen “believing” in anything (although it does), has come up with a kind of eschatological compromise: Time seems linear, but beginning and end are so far off compared to our puny little short existence, short even as a species, we might as well be in a never ending loop. We’re not going to see any “end times”, some scientists declare with the certitude and devotion of a climate change fanatic. One day, according to them, we’ll be extinct and then the universe will continue, either forever or for another few billions of years, give or take a few million. I agree that, scientifically, this is what things look like. But science can’t relieve us from the prior decision which world view we adhere to: cyclical or linear. Instead of deciding, we attempt to compromise. A sign of “escapist religion”.

For some, even this compromise is not good enough. They go searching for evidence of an oscillating universe (after the coming “big crunch” another “big bang” and off we go again) or of an endless array of parallel universes (a “multiverse”). These taxpayer funded scientific research projects have no chance of creating spin offs that could improve our lives. They are at bottom religious quests to show that “power religion” is the real deal, the only game in town. Which is, at bottom, why they are being financed. They are a fool’s errand. Even a multiverse or oscillating universe can have had a conscious creator. Who could call the curtain at any time.

The crucial question is this: What kind of life are we likely to lead if all we can hope for in our apparently nano-microscopic existence is to live as comfortably as the resources available to us allow and then to die not too painfully? What’s to stop us then from acquiring those resources by all – ALL – means available? What’s to stop us from pillaging the earth’s resources without regard for future generations? What’s to stop us using force and fraud, including erecting and approving a system of fiat money, to get what we want? What is to stop us becoming a war lord society or, if one war lord rises above all others, a god-king society or something in between?

How does our conduct, and our society, change if, instead of a cyclical worldview, we adopted a linear one, one where there is an actual “point” to our lives (quite literally: a point toward which time is leading us)? In his book “Sovereignty and Dominion”, Vol. 1, which is essentially an economic exegesis of Genesis, Gary North quotes historian of science Stanley Jaki, who “contrasted the cyclical views held by the Chinese, Hindus, Greeks, Babylonians, Mayans, and Arabs with the linear view of orthodox Christianity. Why did science develop only within the intellectual framework of the Christian West? ‘Needless to say, many factors—geographical, social, economical, and political—played a part in the stillbirth of the scientific enterprise in the various ancient cultures. The only common factor in all cases seems, however, to be the commitment to the cyclic world view.’” (Page 148, footnote 7)

There are other religious factors that may very well have led to science arising in the Christian West, which as far as I know North does not discuss: The belief in God becoming man meant that it was no longer “below” a thinker to actually test his theories in nature. The split between “pure” thinking and the “dirty” world had been bridged. This duality had been a great obstacle that stood between the Greeks and real science. Another factor was the Christian emphasis on forgiveness, giving rise to a “trial and error” culture conducive not only to science, but to entrepreneurialism as well (which are in fact two sides of the same coin). So Christianity is the crucial factor leading, over time, to the rise of individual freedom and capitalism to a level sufficient for society to escape the Malthusian trap for the first time. It was in Europe, steeped in Christianity for centuries, where it happened. Nowhere else.

What is the relevance of these considerations for the freedom movement today? We are confronted with the choice of a political spectrum between a war lord society (Somalia) and a god-king society (North Korea). Most countries, including the US and the EU, are somewhere in between. The only thing stopping most of them from defaulting into outright war lord or god-king mode is a culture still shaped by a residue of Christianity. But the default modes are a looming and growing presence. They are the result of an adherence to, and belief in, power religion, of worshiping power and belief in man as autonomous actor, either individually or collectively. This belief is dominant today because most people have lost faith in a linear world view and a purposeful creation, of humans as the image of the creator, and the possibility, or rather certitude, of an end of time. If we don’t regain that, our only future choice is likely to be a nasty, brutish and short life under war lords or god-kings.

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Answers to comments to previous post:

Paul Marks wrote:

>>As the School Men (the Aristotelian scholastics – rather than the 5th century Greek thinker) were fond of saying “natural law is the law of God – but if God did not exist, natural law would be exactly the same”.<<

I’ve seen that said before, but I have not seen any substantiation of this assertion. Why would natural law be the same without God? The fact that Roman legal thinkers admitted that slavery “was against natural law” is not sufficient I think. Where would natural law come from in a world created by chance?

>>And one does not have to hold to a particular religion to hold that, for example, shortages created by price controls are a bad thing.<<

No, but my point (following North) is that one has to hold a particular religion to hold that shortages etc. are a GOOD thing (and one will therefore pursue the necessary policies with particular zeal, which is required because there’ll be a lot of resistance). E.g. if one believes in a “higher” goal that is “worth it” (Madeleine Albright, Stalin, Pol Pot, the French Revolutionaries, Greens, Nazis etc.). One can hold that if one believes in a chaotic world out of which autonomous man has emerged as the sole authority able to create rational order within it. For that, one has to adhere to what North calls “power religion”. Just saying these things are “bad” is not sufficient to stop anyone in his tracks who actually believes they are GOOD things, or at least in aid of the greater good. Only belief in a religion at least equal in depth and strength will stop these people. “Escapist religion” is less than insufficient, nothing but road kill for power religion. It seems that only “dominion religion” is strong enough to stand up to power religion.

10 comments

  • Why would the moral law be the same without God? For the same reason that 1+1 would still = 2.

    The Lutheran (or mainstream Sunni Islamic) argument that morality is just an arbitrary series of commands from God is just wrong. Right reason is not a “slave” or a “whore” – Mr Luther was mistaken. Nor is that just a Roman Catholic point – it has been pointed out by many Christian theologians who do not serve Rome. Although I will not get into the debate about “moral reason” and “moral sense” here – nor the debate about possible differences between “the right” and “the good”.

    Someone never having heard of Jesus does not mean that they can not, with effort, know moral right from moral wrong – or that, again with effort, they can (at times) choose moral right against the desire to do evil.

    If both of these things were not the case then people (at least people who had not heard the message of Jesus) would not be to blame (would not be morally responsible) for what they do.

    None of the above means that God does not exist, nor does it mean that Jesus was not the incarnation of God.

    Nor does it mean that people can get to Heaven without the vital help of God – it is His Kingdom after all.

    Turning to the actual post…..

    It is indeed terrible how liberty declines – as F.A. Hayek mentions even the title “Pharaoh” originally meant “he who lives in the big house” (basically a local elder or magistrate), gradually it came to mean “God King”.

    Examples of, relative, freedom have risen and fallen over the centuries. The Hittites were known to be less oppressive than their rival Egypt – with Kings (originally elected) not being Gods, and the law trying to make punishment proportionate to the crime (not wildly disproportionate) – but the Hittites declined over time.

    The Lycianian Confederation was famous – but it fell to Cyrus of Persia.

    Athens fell to the class war envy politics of Pericles and (even worse) those who came after him – seeking to turn the poor against the wealthy (to gain the votes of the former, tax-and-spend politics) and to turn everyone against “resident aliens” (those Athenians not born citizens) – once intermarriage had been easy, but later (at the urging of Pericles – playing to the most base instincts of the voters) the children of such marriages were declared to have no citizenship rights. And the other cities who were allies of Athens were turned into subjects – their money stolen (by moving the Treasury of the League from the island of Delos to Athens itself) to win votes at home, and thus turned into ENEMIES.

    The Roman Republic fared better, including people into itself as full citizens and avoiding (for a long while) the destructive politics of class war – of envy. But eventually Rome fell to the “Punic Curse” of mass slavery (resulting from the wars with Carthage – once, we are told, there was not even a special slave market at Rome) and rabble rousing politicians whipping up hatred of the rich – and the rich (in their turn) taking cruel revenge.

    We do not know what exactly happened to the previous Etruscan Civilisation – but it seems to have been overwhelmed in southern Italy by various tribes (as some Greek colonies were – colonies that were once famous and whose ruins are still a marvel), and later undermined in its Tuscan heartland by Celtic attacks from the north and internal class conflict (between “free citizens” and dependents) – before Rome delivered the final blow.

    But still the question remains.

    Can a civilisation stand, that does not practice slavery, or the politics of class war (of envy) without Christianity?

    I am a Christian – but I have to say “yes it could”.

    I “have to say” that for, otherwise, non Christians are not responsible for their crimes – as they could not do otherwise than they do.

    And that is not true – for non Christians are responsible for their crimes (just as Christians are), they could do other than they do (and always could – even without hearing the name of Jesus).

    The pagan Romans and the Christian Byzantines themselves thought about this.

    For example, Roman legal thinkers held that slavery was against natural law – yet they justified Roman slavery on the basis that the “law of all nations” allowed slavery. Basically “if everyone else are swine – we have to be swine also”.

    But what if this was not true?

    Pliny talks of Ceylon not practicing slavery – but, true enough, he had never been there.

    And the Byzantine Emperor Maurice (or his brother in law – it is uncertain who actually wrote the “Strategikon”) talks of his Slav enemies not practicing slavery – even sending home captives taken in war (without the payment of ransom – indeed with gifts for the road). If what the Strategikon said was not true everyone would have laughed at it – after all, the Slavs were not in distant Ceylon (they were just down the road).

    Nor does Maurice (or his brother in law) say that this was a recent thing – something their Slav enemies had adopted on becoming Christians (and many Slavs were not Christians at this time anyway).

    Whatever the truth of this – the basic point remains the same.

    We are created by God with the ability, with effort, to know moral right from wrong – and, again with effort, to choose moral right against the desire to do evil. It is in this sense that we are created “in the image of God” – God is not someone with two arms and a legs (apart from in His incarnation), God is indeed a person, but in the sense of MIND (reason – a self aware “I”) capable of knowing right from wrong and choosing good against evil. It is in this that we are created (by God) in the image of God.

    This remains true for those who have never heard of Jesus or even of God. They are still morally responsible for their actions (and thus may be rightly punished when they commit aggressions – violations), because they could do other than they do.

    • Paul Marks wrote:

      >> Why would the moral law be the same without God? For the same reason that 1+1 would still = 2.
      […]
      Someone never having heard of Jesus does not mean that they can not, with effort, know moral right from moral wrong – or that, again with effort, they can (at times) choose moral right against the desire to do evil.<<

      I agree with that. However, I think the point North is making is that widespread belief in a creator leads to widespread adherence to his laws. Whether the laws would exist with or without God is not so important as the question whether they would be – widely – adhered without the belief in God.
      (And this I think is independent of how these laws came to be recognised.)

      This quote from Joel McDurmon may be relevant to the discussion:
      “While CRs [Christian Reconstructionists] believe in objective truth in the natural arena, that arena does not supply us with ethical standards. It’s not so much that we don’t trust the ability of reason per se—the ability to reason from point A to point B—but rather we don’t have the ability to determine the starting point A itself in a trustworthy and authoritative manner using reason alone. We may have these starting points written on our hearts naturally, but we do not trust our own fallen judgment properly to discern them without guidance; and since we further take this law on the heart to be the same as God’s special revelation in the Ten Commandments, or Bible in general, we should prefer to make the clear and explicit Revelation the obvious starting point.”
      >> For example, Roman legal thinkers held that slavery was against natural law – yet they justified Roman slavery on the basis that the “law of all nations” allowed slavery. Basically “if everyone else are swine – we have to be swine also”.<> Pliny talks of Ceylon not practicing slavery – but, true enough, he had never been there.
      And the Byzantine Emperor Maurice (or his brother in law – it is uncertain who actually wrote the “Strategikon”) talks of his Slav enemies not practicing slavery<<

      But were the Ceylonese and Slav laws “just”? Getting rid of slavery is a sign that freedom is on the rise, but “not having slavery” (as an institution) is not a sufficient sign of a free society.

  • Could moral agency (free will) exist without the existence of God?

    The mainstream Aristotelians (following Alexander “the Commentator”) argued, de facto at least, that it could – and that moral agency (“the soul” – the reasoning “I”) died with the body. The Randian Objectivists carry on this tradition to this day.

    Others hold that moral agency could NOT exist without God – that it is inherently “supernatural”. And declare that it is God (and God alone) that frees us from either blind chance, or the “iron chains” of cause-and-effect going back to the big bang (agency being NETHER chance or predetermination). But such people hold this of people who have never-heard-of-God just as much as those who have.

    It is well to remember that those who think they have “refuted free will” by arguing that it is not consistent with materialism, do no such thing.

    What they have in fact done, if they prove that free will is inconsistent with materialism, is REFUTE MATERIALISM.

    Our own existence (as a reasoning “I” – a chooser, someone not just something) is the fundamental fact.

    Efforts to claim that we can never other than we do – that, as Mr Luther says in Article 36 of his Assertio, that “everything takes place by absolute necessity” is both evil (evil for it denies basic moral choice – moral responsibility), and just plain WRONG – wrong as it contradicts the most basic fact of the existence of the “I”.

    To apply the doctrine to Mr Luther himself….

    “Here I stand, I can do no other” would be no statement of individual conscience – it would simply be saying…..

    “I am pre programmed to stand here and say these words – I have no choice over this or anything else” basically “There is no such thing as I – there is no PERSON standing here, just a flesh robot”.

    This would also mean that those spoke and fought AGAINST Mr Luther were also pre programmed to do so.

    This presents a view of God as some sort of demented (indeed sadistic) child – pro programming flesh robots to smash each other up, for His depraved amusement.

    The view of Mr Luther, on this matter, is blasphemous rubbish.

  • I think there may some be other possible world views.

    I don’t see “creation by chance” and “conscious, purposeful creation” as being the only possibilities. I see at least two others. One, that the Universe might always have existed (which doesn’t necessarily mean it must be static, and, indeed, doesn’t mean that it must be cyclical either). Or two, it might have had a beginning, but that beginning was neither random nor purposeful. It could, for example, have been a follow-up to a big crunch of an earlier incarnation; although one would then need to ask, So how was that earlier Universe created?

    The following thought experiment might interest you. Imagine a Universe that repeatedly big-banged and crunched, but not in an exactly cyclical fashion. Suppose that each “cycle” is twice as long as the previous one. Then, if you work your way back in time, that Universe has a beginning at a certain moment; but at any point after that moment, there have already been infinitely many of these “cycles!” So, how would Gary North say such a Universe had been created? (OK – facetious answer – it’s all in Neil Lock’s mind…)

    I haven’t read North, but on this evidence I’m not happy with his idea that “power religion” and “dominion religion” are the only two choices. The first of these requires an internal master or masters. I don’t follow the argument (in your first essay) that “the ultimate authority is autonomous man” implies that “might makes right,” which seems to be the key underlying idea of this “power religion.”

    The second – ”dominion religion” – seems to posit an external master, an idea I find equally unsavoury, if only because of the who-created-the-creator problem. Both these are what I call “top down” views – they will tend to produce societies with a master class (political or priestly) and subjects or slaves. On what grounds does North reject the possibility of a “bottom up” view, in which all humans are in some sense “equal?” Otherwise put, why does he appear to accept monarchy (or similar) and theocracy as options, yet reject liberalism?

    I’m also not sure about linear and cyclical views of time being the only two possibilities. And I don’t see how, if time is linear, that implies either creation by chance, or power religion?

    Personally, I prefer to take a simple minded view. Because time appears linear to my senses, I’ll take my chances on it not being cyclical. And so, even though I’m not a Christian, I’ll go with the Christian view that not only is progress possible, but that it’s worth a good go.

  • Actually there is a more fundamental issue – the Hard Problem. What is human consciousness? An automaton doesn’t extract meaning, it responds in a pre-arranged manner to environmental stimuli. What is meaning? How does a human mind make sense of the information from phenomenal reality?

    Science is still in its infancy, it has barely brushed the surface of the Hard Problem.

    As for Time, I think it’s pretty clear it’s not a real dimension (like up, down or sideways) but a measurement of change in state (hence time can only appear to proceed in one direction). Information Theory is where we should look to unravel the mysteries of Time. Everything that has happened or will happen exists eternally because Time, as such, doesn’t exist – Time is the act of measurement by a conscious observer, not an actual thing.

    Science is just as much faith based as religion – the belief that the Sun will keep shining is purely based on induction, there can be no rational scientific proof that demonstrates the Sun must (or must not) rise tomorrow.

    • Your Hard Problem is certainly a hard problem. The question of the relationship between mind and matter, or consciousness and existence, seems to be a particularly tough nut. Personally, I lean towards a dualistic approach – they are two aspects of the same thing, like particles and waves, or electricity and magnetism. But I don’t insist on it, since I know well that you can never prove anything in metaphysics! I suspect that answering your Hard Problem will also provide the answer to why, despite time symmetry in almost all the physical equations, time seems to flow in one direction only.

      I don’t agree with the idea that everything that has happened or will happen exists eternally. This is equivalent to saying that the future is pre-determined, which also implies that we don’t have free will. It’s not a libertarian (in the sense the word is used in metaphysics) view!

      Here’s what I wrote in my book (the one which Mustela nivalis recently reviewed on this site) on this subject:

      I don’t find this argument convincing, either. Not least, because it would make quantum-mechanical probabilities irrelevant. Such a Universe would have to “know ahead of time” what the result of any particular particle interaction would be. Why, then, would it “bother” to make it look as if the interactions are probabilistic? That hurts my head.

      As to the Sun, my view would be that it is possible (but very unlikely) that the Sun will not exist as a star this time tomorrow. It’s a matter of probabilities. Though, so astronomers tell us, there will eventually come a day when it does indeed cease to exist as a star.

      • @Neil Lock – not at all, from the point of view of the human mind the future exists only in the sense of probabilities yet to be actualised. Consciousness traverses to the future via the Eternal Now. Maybe if there is a God or God-like thing then the Eternal Now for he/she/it/them/other everything always has and always will be simultaneously… a God consciousness can apprehend everything at once… but that’s hardly relevant to the fact that your future is what choose because you, as a human, live in the Eternal Now.

        Free Will or otherwise is a subset of the Hard Problem, of course… which pretty much makes it matter of faith right now… and possibly forever.

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  • Yes.

    There are two central principles of libertarianism – not just philosophical, but political also.

    Firstly that human beings can, with effort (and certainly NOT perfectly), tell moral right from moral wrong – without the commands of the state OR of scripture (after all un interpreted scripture contains much evil, such as stoning to death adulterers and so on).

    Secondly (but no less importantly) that human beings (again with effort – and NOT perfectly and all the time) CHOOSE (really choose) to resist the desire to do evil. Can do other than we do.

    Otherwise, for example, preaching (in the classical sense of that word) would be utterly pointless – as people (who would not really be people at all) could not change their conduct.

    Both of these principles may well be a matter of “faith” (or “self evident truth” as the old Common Sense philosophers would say), but unless they are both accepted further conversation is pointless.

    What would be the point of debate with someone who rejects I am a “someone” (who insists that I am something and nothing else)?

    Someone who rejects that people can have any idea of moral right and wrong – other than what is written in a book? Yes a divinely inspired book – but INSPIRED (not hand written by God – the Bible make the claim that Muslims make for the Koran), without MORAL interpretation (taken literally) the Bible contains much evil – for example Joshua wiping out whole towns. And how can one interpret the Bible (even with the aid of tradition) without moral intelligence? Certainly moral intelligence (the ability to tell right from wrong) may be created by God – but to deny it even exists (to deny that people can tell right from wrong, even with effort and in a highly imperfect way) makes further conversation pointless.

    Ditto someone who denies that once we have some imperfect understanding of right and wrong that we can CHOOSE (really choose) between them.

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