The Joy of Secularism, a collection of essays on “how we live now” first appeared in 2011. Authors of the eleven essays, edited by George Levine, professor emeritus of English at Rutgers, include Rebecca Stott, Bruce Robbins, William Connolly, Frans B. M. de Waal and Paolo Costa. In December the The Joy was issued in paperback. Here’s a clip from “Disenchantment–Reenchantment,” an essay by Charles Taylor:
Now what do people seek who look to “reenchantment”? In a sense, it is the same fundamental feature, but differently conceived. In other words, they bridle at the idea that the universe in which we find ourselves is totally devoid of human meaning.
Now what do people seek who look to “reenchantment”? In a sense, it is the same fundamental feature, but differently conceived. In other words, they bridle at the idea that the universe in which we find ourselves is totally devoid of human meaning. Of course, instrumental meaning can be attributed to various features of our natural surroundings, in virtue of their serving or impeding our organic needs, but any human meaning must be simply a subjective projection. By “human meaning,” I ,mean what we try to define when we identify the ends of life, through judgements such as these: this is really meaningful as a way of life; or this life is really worth living; or this form of being is a real fulfillment, or a higher way of being, and the like. Derivatively, we can attribute human meaning to the things that surround us because of their role in these ends or purposes. A statement like Thoreau’s “in wilderness is the preservation of the world” is such an attribution of meaning. It is the kind of statement that proponents of reenchantment often want to make.
This sense of loss was frequently expressed in the Romantic era. Take Schiller’s poem “The Gods of Greece.”
Da der Dictung Zauberische Hülle
Sich noch lieblich um die Wahrheit wand,
Durch die Schöpfung floss da Lebensfülle
Und was nie empfinden wird, empfand.
An der Liebe Busen sie zu drücken,
Gab man höhern Adel der Natur,
Alles wies den eingeweihten Blicken,
Alles eines Gottes Spur.
(When poetry’s magic cloak
Still with delight enfolded truth
Life’s fulness flowed through creation
And there felt what never more will feel.
Man acknowledged a higher nobility in Nature
To press her to love’s breast;
Everything to the initiate’s eye
Showed the trace of a God.)
But this communion has now been destroyed; we face a “God-shorn nature”:
Unbewusst der Freuden die sie schenket,
Nie entzückt von ihrer Herrlichkeit,
Nie gewahr des Geistes, der sie lenket,
Sel’ger nie durch meine Seligkeit,
Fühllos selbst für ihres Künstlers Ehre,
Gleich dem toten Schlag der Pendeluhr,
Dient sie knechtisch dem Gesetzt der Schwere,
Die entgötterte Natur.
(Unconscious of the joys she dispenses
Never enraptured by her own magnificence
Never aware of the spirit which guides her
Never more blessed through my blessedness
Insensible of her maker’s glory
Like the dead stroke of the pendulum
She slavishly obeys the law of gravity,
A Nature shorn of the divine.)