The postmodern west can be evaluated by its moral relativism and hyper individualism, its aggressive secularism, its political culture of rights, its rejection of any morality and its failure to inculcate the habits of instinctual deferral that Sigmund Freud saw as forming the basis of civilisation.
Instinctual deferral known as the pleasure principle in psychology is the instinctual seeking of pleasure and avoiding pain to satisfy biological and psychological needs.
Is this a modern phenomenon? No, parallels can be found in Greek philosophy in 4th century B.C. and a mode of thought known as Epicurianism. The same principals of running from pain and pursuing pleasure are central themes. Freud referred to the mind’s strong tendency toward the pleasure principle. Freud contrasted the pleasure principle with the reality principle which describes the capacity to defer or delay gratification of a desire when circumstantial reality disallows it. In infancy and early childhood the pleasure principle dominates. This changes when one attains maturity or should. Freud argued that an ego thus educated becomes ‘reasonable’ as it is no longer governed by the pleasure principle but obeys the reality principle.
Will we copy the fate of pre Christian Greece, as described by Polybius – the people of Hellas had entered on the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness. Or that of Rome two centuries later,
when Livy wrote about ‘how’ with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first subsided.
Western secular society can be regarded as a polytheist one, that is, a belief in or worship of multiple gods or deities. Again, both ancient Greece and Rome were and the status of a Christian was relegated to that of an evil atheist because of their rejection of society’s multiple gods.
Also the Christian God was invisible which reinforced this view.
Paradoxically polytheism is both a kind of atheism that also categories Christians in this bracket.
By not worshiping the ancestral public gods Christians were thought of as atheists who undermined the state. And what of postmodernist culture which has its own gods, autonomy, equality and liberty and by not regarding these as absolutes Christians appear rather like earlier ones refusing to worship the god Zeus. So they are atheists within the context of this framework as they deny the cultures gods.
Our culture embraces idolatry in the form of small-scale gods that are fashioned in our own image and imagination. The cultural memory that a god should be personal obscures the fact that this is idolatry so this is an unaware polytheist culture.
GK Chesterton’s comment that when people stop worshiping God, they don’t worship nothing; they worship anything applies.
The notion of polytheism becoming atheism is borne out by the idea that by having two gods, you have no gods in the real sense of the word because to be God means you have no rivals who can resist your will according to Athanasius. So the multiple impersonal values of our time boil down to a kind of atheism. And if one is atheist by this definition there’s no reason not to elevate your own personal values into things which function as absolutes, and to accept that others are entitled to do the same. So atheism becomes polytheism where there are lots of small, often impersonal gods who function as divine in our lives, even if we don’t see ourselves as worshipping them.
Renaissance Italy repeated the mistakes of ancient Greece when traditional moral restraints disappeared because they became associated with superstition, liberation from these fetters made individuals energetic and creative however the anarchy and treachery that resulted from moral decay caused their fall under the domination of nations less civilised but not so destitute of social cohesion.
Europe today is pursuing the illusion of societies without a shared moral code, or a collective identity. America is more of the same. The question is the west capable of renewing itself or will it crumble from social decay?