The Crisis of Interpretation

The cognitive dissonance of freedom and subjection

In the Reformation, Thomas Hobbes beheld a singular problem. The advent of the communications technology of print—the “press,” as it’s still (pretty anachronistically) known today—had made feasible the generalization of the new crisis of interpretation that had taken hold in Christendom. 

The old crisis concerned how to be sure that an official interpretation of Christianity was true or correct: how many angels could fit on the head of a pin? The new crisis had to do instead with the reality of unofficial interpretation fueled by print, rather than the speculative aspects of official interpretation. As important as it was that the press encouraged interpretations of the Bible unprecedented in their falsehood or inaccuracy, even more important was that suddenly the sociopolitical environment in Christendom was morphed into one where unofficial interpretation was general. 

This amounted to a crisis because, Hobbes saw, an environment where unofficial interpretations were general and characteristic was one where the work of human nature turned that environment into one of perpetual conflict at the fatal expense of Christian commonwealth. “Viewpoint diversity” was not a solution; religion was not a preference. Without an official interpretation of the Christian creed, including the manner in which it bore on ultimate political matters such as the nature and the authority of the regime, there would hereon out only be war—war that never settled anything, that never founded a durable regime. 

By the time of the American Revolution, statements of political theology responsive to Hobbes’s fears made the rounds as popular slogans: No King but Jesus, or Lex Rex, meaning no king but the law. These would-be fixes couldn’t satisfy Hobbes. His political theology drew more from the Old Testament than the New, insofar as he was convinced that print technology radically aided errant people in harmfully privileging the New Testament over the Old. 

Note: Rather than just being Hobbes’s idea, this concern directly mirrored that of the Lord Himself, memorialized in Matthew 5:17-18: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” 

To Hobbes, this meant at root that the regime of Moses was foundational to any Christian commonwealth. That meant, by contrast, that both the imperial-Roman regime form of Catholic and Orthodox provenance and the republican-Roman regime form favored by the antimonarchists of the day led Christians astray from the Biblical truth that the Mosaic regime was the best regime: one King of one people, awesomely supreme in his one authority as the one official interpreter of matters political and religious. To Hobbes, this colossal majesty and its insuperable distance between the One and the Many was the final, ordained reality concerning the problem of political theology and how to resolve it to the benefit of each and all. This—the Christian kingdom that absolutely humbled the Many before the One—was the interpretive arrangement that would cure what print had broken. 

Did Hobbes win out? Seemingly not, although arguably the Leviathan managed to prevail over political life in the modern West in a way both monarchy and theocracy did not. To the dismay of the original theorists of liberalism wrestling with the same problems of political theology as Hobbes, people (and peoples) showed a remarkable desire, no matter how loud their demands for freedom, for humiliation before the awesome One, both in matters temporal and spiritual. Consider Tocqueville:

If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.

Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.

Tocqueville’s famous worry around “soft despotism” plugs right into his assessment of pantheism’s secret charms. Soft despotism is the political obverse of pantheistic theology: we say we want to be free to be and do as we please; we feel we want to be subjected in our diversity of desire by one single doctrinal measure. What regime can achieve such unity through uniformity but a regime where the Many bow to the awesome One? 

The response of modern or postmodern liberal democrats is easy enough to relate to: it’s against our dignity and pride to kneel to one person (especially a man)! And yet today… amid a sociological and psychological transformation even more profound than the one print worked us over with… people (and peoples) increasingly subjugate themselves to the point of the most abject humiliation before the inhuman One that is “the internet”—the term we use colloquially to name the unitary master that digital technology has already become! 

What has happened here? What does it portend? Why has the even more abject humiliation of subjection to the World Computer been embraced with so much more attraction and fixation than nationally kneeling before a single man? Are these two different kinds of humiliation actually likely to strengthen together as our digital era unfolds? What religions are pulled up to the fore by such an era, and which are most likely to gain purchase and be officialized by humans aiming to partake in the mastery over men that the machines perform and allow? 

Let me suggest to you that it is worth all our while to approach from this point of departure the whole question of “wokeness.”