O my brethren, I consecrate you and point you to a new nobility: ye shall become procreators and cultivators and sowers of the future.
Unto your children shall ye make amends for being the children of your fathers: all the past shall ye thus redeem!
– Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra
Thus Spake Zarathustra ends with a vision of the rising sun and a new dawn. Nietzsche, for all his wise-old-man cynicism and in spite of what some believe, is a phenomenally optimistic thinker. He’s not certain what the new dawn will bring, but he welcomes the light and wishes that we would be prepared for the coming age.
Along those lines, he proposes that we become creators of meaning and values and that we make amends (reparation, compensation) for the crimes of our ancestors. He was here referring to how we are emerging from the Christian era which included the destruction of ancient scientific knowledge (ex. Library of Alexandria), the persecution of scientists (ex. Bruno), the destruction of ancestral cultures (ex. Trière and other exterminated European villages), and many other crimes, too many to name here.
One of the insightful teachings that Nietzsche gave us had to do with how narrative is an expression of power: we fashion reality and the world, in part, as storytelling animals. The consolidation of religious power occurred as a result of the narratives that religious people built, and of the power to educate (a very few) people which the Church, and only the Church, had during the Medieval Age. No one else had that power.
It was this power over words, over narratives, that enslaved humanity and now that we are in the information era the power has dissipated. It is easier than ever to redeem our past.
I’ve long been fond of Dead Can Dance. A mix of medieval and global tribal sounds, Dead Can Dance is more than music. It is self-creation, art (oftentimes of the most sublime order), it’s magical and parts with tradition in many ways. Their Song of the Dispossessed is one of my favorites. I’ve always resonated with it, and associate the song with the brainwashing, book-burning, torture and persecution of dissidents that religious leaders carried out throughout history, and the dispair and anger many contemporary atheists feel when we conduct an honest survey of history and ponder what humanity sacrificed in the altars of religion. But now, having read Nietzsche (who calls for the use of art in fashioning values and meaning for THIS Earth and not for the sake of a posited OTHER world), the song carries even more power. It’s gloriously Nietzschean.
The river is deep and the road is long,
daylight comes and I want to go home.
Awoke this morning
to find my people’s tongues were tied
and in my dreams
they were given books to poison their minds.
The river is deep and the mountain high,
how long before the other side.
We are their mortar,
their building bricks and their clay.
Their gold teeth mirror
both our joys and our pain.
The river is deep and the ocean wide,
who will show us how to read the signs.
The earth is our mother
she taught us to embrace the light,
now the lord is master
she suffers an eternal night.
You blocked up my ears,
you plucked out my eyes,
you cut out my tongue,
you fed me with lies.
The song appears to refer to the Inquisition but could easily refer to Native Americans who were sent to boarding schools and forbidden from speaking their tribal languages and from practicing their tribal religions, having their communities and their cosmos stripped from them so that they may enter the capitalist wage-slavery scheme.
The narrative related to the West’s history of religious tyranny is more urgent today than ever, not only because the old narratives are crumbling, but because if we don’t consider it in the fashioning of future narratives, of our sense of meaning and direction, we will fail to have learned lessons from history and may be forced to repeat them.
The secular narrative, invariably, brings us to a place of great victimization–from Moses’ slaughter of 3000 for not sharing his belief in Exodus 32, to the closing of all the philosophical schools by Justinian, and later the execution of Giordano Bruno, to the modern Kill the Gay bill in Uganda and Raif Badawi affair in Saudi Arabia–and sometimes the victimization goes so far back in time that we’ve forgotten. But the way to redeem a victim, to make a victim’s pain worthwhile, is to give it a higher cause, to find a higher call that dignifies the sacrificial victim. Truly irreparable harm has been done, but the taking up of a noble cause is the redemption Nietzsche talked about. Sacrifice, after all, means “to make sacred”.
I think the best way to dignify the victims of religious persecution is by having a robust intellectual life, by valuing knowledge as a dignifying quality, by honoring the sapiens in homo sapiens. May we never ever forget again the sacred value of Wisdom, of books, of science, and of (intellectual) freedom.
By having a robust intellectual life and by raising the future generation of intellectuals free from superstition we make amends for the ancestors. By ensuring that future generations are able to enjoy life in a secular society, we make amends for the ancestors. Studying Epicureanism and other secular philosophies and participating in the teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens is another way to do this. So is being grounded in more honest narratives about history than the ones we inherited, so that these narratives may inform our identities and values.