During the first week of May, the Ernest Becker Foundation brought an extraordinary teacher and scholar to Seattle, Dr. Francis Ambrosio, professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. Well known among professional circles of Catholic and Christian philosophers, Ambrosio’s interest in Ernest Becker first emerged in his acclaimed Teaching Company lecture series on the history of Western philosophy, in which Ernest Becker is given a prominent role in catalyzing the modern dilemma of meaning in life. Dr. Ambrosio was invited to expand on these ideas in whatever direction he saw fit during his lectures in Seattle, and to the great delight of his audience, that is exactly what he did, presenting three lectures and acting as the key resource person for a round-table discussion based on those lectures. Each of these sessions was recorded in DVD format and available through the Ernest Becker Foundation.
In the opening lecture, “Death, Terror and Heroism: Interpretation of the Cultural Record,” Ambrosio sets out his general overview of what he sees going on in Western culture. In broad brush strokes, he paints a picture of a civilization composed of two basic intellectual colors. The first of these, which for shorthand we can call the “Greek” thread, emphasizes the impersonal nature of the cosmos. Time, matter and space are simply given, as elemental building blocks for all that follows. The place of human beings within the cosmos is open to some speculation, but it is in any case fairly lowly and insignificant, a bit above other animals perhaps, but not by much. It is the duty or calling of human beings to recognize that the cosmos takes little notice of them and to determine, by their own deeds and will, to create for themselves a space of dignity, honor, strength and respect (in short, create meaning) within this unconcerned environment.
The second of these, which for shorthand we can call the “Christian” thread, emphasizes the idea that personality is rooted in the cosmos itself. A very personal God created the cosmos and all that is within it in accordance with principles of personhood. Human beings especially reflect the very nature of this Creator and in a symbolic but significant way are seen as the children of this God. Meaning in human existence is given from the start, in the quality of the personal relationships we maintain with our fellow human beings.
In this first lecture, Ambrosio suggests that each of these threads is a fairly complete worldview in itself, creating an internally consistent and predictable pattern of responses to the terror of death and finitude. We are heirs of a cultural tradition that has clung to both of these approaches simultaneously, with sometimes one ascendant and sometimes the other. Thus the intellectual history of our culture is very different than would have been the case had one of these traditions thoroughly rooted out and annihilated the other. Our ideas of value, freedom, motivation and goodness continue to reflect these two threads in dynamic tension.
In the second lecture, “Becker, Dante and St. Francis of Assisi: Love and Death,” Ambrosio closely examines the religious iconographic tradition, suggesting that while the Middle Ages may be seen as representing the apex of the synthesis of the two competing cultural threads above, already by the time of St. Francis and his followers, this synthesis is breaking down once again into the dynamic tension that bloomed fully in the Italian Renaissance, and then tore the culture apart in the Reformation and ensuing wars of religion. By the time we emerge into the modern period, the stage is well set for the twilight of Western culture.
It is this theme of twilight of Western culture that Ambrosio picks up in the third lecture, “Hope in an Age of Terror: The Identity of the Secular Saint.” Ambrosio sees Western culture, which has dominated Europe and much of the rest of the world now as well for some 2000 years, as well into its closing phase. This is not so much an apocalyptic “end of the world” vision as it is simply the reflective views of a serious historian who recognizes that no culture or civilization has proven itself eternal. They rise and fall, and this one, after all, has had a pretty good run at things. The speed of the fall might be affected by human actions, but not the fact of it. Ambrosio speaks at great length in this lecture about the place of “suffering” one endures as one seeks to live with hope and fidelity to one’s better self and beliefs during this period we recognize as one of civil and cultural decline. Our actions must be aimed consciously less at “rescuing” our civilization from its inevitable end than at preserving through routine, rehearsal and ritual the best elements of our culture in the hope that at least some of these elements will be present to enrich whatever it is that is to follow this culture (the course of which we have absolutely no executive power to direct.) This is the stance of the “secular saint” and Ambrosio views Ernest Becker as one of our best exemplars of this model. Becker wrote movingly of the experience of fashioning through our lives a work of art, which we then give away, dispose into the Void, a sacrifice to the Life Force, in the mere hope that it somehow counts for something, but without any concrete assurance that in actuality it does.
These are moving lectures of considerable depth, and I cannot recommend them highly enough. Ambrosio’s grasp of history and the sweep of cultural patterns is breath-taking, and he certainly is well acquainted with Ernest Becker’s work. It does raise some questions for me, however, ones that made me really wish I could have been there to raise in that fourth roundtable session. I will only briefly outline a few of them here.
While the “competing threads” idea (which shows up in one form or another in many schemes of interpretation) is helpful on one level in sorting out historical trends, it seems that the threads are much too randomly intertwined for it to be of much help in sorting out specific contemporary trends. For example, Ambrosio in a couple of places ties this into the current “culture wars” controversies of our time. But if we take just a couple of the “flashpoints” of this controversy–scientific evolution vs. intelligent design, open vs. traditional marriage, prochoice vs. antiabortion, free market fundamentalism vs. democratic economic controls–we see that there is no clear delineation at all of “worldview A” vs. “worldview B” here. The “Greek” tradition would generally support a scientific view as well as free-market style economics, while the “Christian” tradition would generally support approaches to economics, learning and tradition in which maintaining the dignity and worth of everyone is given an even higher place than maximized profits, progress and learning. But if you look at the actual positions between “progressives” and “conservatives” in the current culture war, they don’t even begin to line up so neatly.
The second point I would raise questions about is in relation to Ambrosio’s assumptions about cultural demise and our relationship toward it. I should say that as a grey-bearded academic now much more animated by news from the pension fund than about what my next book will be, I find the subtle world-wearyism of Ambrosio’s account to be downright intoxicating. It is not just me that is winding down, but rather the entirety of Western culture! But would I find that so convincing if I were 20 instead of 60? Would I be satisfied with that view, would I be drawn to it? I am not saying that whether it is true or not depends on my view of it. But I would caution myself and others to recognize that how true something “feels” does depend a lot on one’s place in life, and that especially if we expect any animation among the young for Becker’s ideas, the stand of world-weary resignation is perhaps not the best way to frame them.