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The Secular Faith of Therapy
And other historical accidents future civilizations will struggle to understand.
Dear subscribers, we want to remind you that in addition to the audio of our podcast, video will be a standard feature of new episodes. Watch a recent episode of the podcast, “Looking for Happiness in All the Wrong Places”, where Damir and Shadi discuss progress, happiness and meaning. In the extended cut available to paid subscribers, the two talk about the effectiveness of therapy. Become a paying subscriber here.
My friend Rachel asked me earlier today if I ever wondered whether a society a thousand years from now might look back on us today and struggle to understand our Abrahamic faith traditions, and how we think about the world.
In fact, I had been grappling with something like this, but in a completely different way.
I’ve recently decided to re-watch the Shakespeare and Politics lectures by the brilliant Straussian philosopher Paul Cantor on YouTube. I had watched a bunch of them during COVID lockdown, and had used it as an excuse to do a close reading of several plays that I had up until then failed to read. But I had picked the plays semi-randomly, and had watched only the parts of the lectures I wanted to watch.
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This time around, I decided to “take” one of Cantor’s courses from start to finish. The semester starts with an analysis of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s bleaker tragedies. In the second and third lectures dealing with the play, Cantor spends a good bit of time talking about how differently religion worked in Republican Rome.
Religion, he said, was “completely subsumed in politics” for Romans. “[The Romans] prayed to their gods in civic institutions,” he said, “and the priests were civic officials in these ancient communities.” In a way, this is not unlike how we sometimes (although increasingly rarely) refer to God in the course of our own political rhetoric, invoking divine blessing for whatever we are hoping to undertake.
But “these gods are not the kind of universal forces we associate with deity,” Cantor cautions. Politics in Rome were the direct outcome of a god willing this or that. In bringing the divine so close to the everyday, however, Roman religion paradoxically elevated human agency. Romans had a strong sense of free will, and individuals—and indeed cities—could run afoul of divine favor by choosing wrongly. Given that the gods were so intimately involved in politics, the distance between men and gods was much smaller than we can easily appreciate.
That distance was so small, in fact, that it could even be collapsed. In discussing the possibility of the play’s savage hero Coriolanus actually being perceived by the people as a deity, Cantor has the following to say:
We are used to monotheistic religions now, to a single god who transcends the natural world. In Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, the gulf between divinity and humanity is absolutely unbridgeable (with one exception in Christianity, but that was in the other direction, god becoming man). The idea of man becoming god is deeply foreign to our religious sensibilities in the modern world. It was not in the ancient world.
That Julius Caesar, and Augustus and all the Emperors that followed were deified should not be seen as some kind of ceremonial honorific bestowed on important leaders, Cantor says. It should be taken quite literally.
Which brings me back to Rachel’s question in a different, roundabout way.
As I said in a recent podcast episode, I have never availed myself of going to a therapist. It’s not that I’ve always been happy. It’s just that as someone who has been raised secular, I have felt there was something religious about therapy—something analogous to religious practice which has never been part of my approach to the world. Like religious practice more generally, I’ve never begrudged it to others if it gives them comfort. But for me, it feels alien.
This past weekend, the Times ran a special feature of their magazine focusing on therapy. A tweet by my friend Nick Clairmont really drove home the point for me:
That’s exactly it: as a non-believer, I just don’t feel the pull of therapy. At all. The idea of excavating my inner self before anyone—it’s just not of my world. Having grown up in Western modernity, I can of course understand the pull. I can certainly understand it better than the idea that the people would think their leaders are literally divinities. But the gulf is analogously the same. My inability to fully grasp the appeal of either is only a question of degree.
For a believer, monotheism is revealed truth. Perhaps a believer could imagine a future society losing its way and falling into sad error, and in doing so find it difficult to appreciate how we think and relate to the world today. But in seeing any such drift merely as error, a believer may have trouble grasping the level of contingency I think most of our practices have.
For me, almost everything is contingent. All of our beliefs, and our means of understanding the world, emerge from history and from social accident. And as accident piles onto accident, and time goes on, I find it very plausible that most of what and how we think today will at some point be impossible to truly, fully understand.
I’m fairly certain that a believer won’t be moved by where I’m coming from. But I hope that if a devoutly religious person can start to glimpse how therapy itself is emerging as a secular belief system, and how it is self-contained and seemingly irrefutable to its adherents, and how if one takes a moment to stand outside the system and wonder about its premises… well, maybe the contingency of everything becomes at least a little bit more plausible.
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