When confronting a personal longing for the spiritual and the numinous, how does an individual committed to the values of public secularism balance inner longing with social responsibility? Can a society find a home for ethical considerations and social justice outside of the mainstream monotheist religions? American philosopher Richard Rorty, a pragmatist in the tradition of William James and John Dewey, explored these concerns in a 1997 essay entitled “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism.”
Known for his outspoken public atheism, Rorty struggled throughout his life with a longing for the spiritual and found academic philosophy to be lacking as a vehicle for this component of life. With this essay, he announced a radical shift in his own worldview–there was, on his view, the possibility to follow a path suggested by earlier writers like James and Friedrich Nietzsche that fully embraced the Romanticist project of unfettered inner moral and aesthetic exploration and development alongside a public toleration and cooperation among varying religious practices and attitudes: atheist, monotheist, polytheist, and so on.
In this context, Rorty argues for a modern polytheism, one that is Romantic in its embrace of “a paradigmatic project of individual self-development.” The pursuit of inner moral and spiritual growth, governed by personal passions and aesthetic sensibilities, is bounded by responsibility to work on the social level for the communal good and to practice toleration for the spiritual practices of others. In Rorty’s words, “[H]uman perfection becomes a private concern, and our responsibility to others becomes a matter of permitting them as much space to pursue these private concerns–to worship their own gods, so to speak–as is compatible with granting an equal amount of space to all.” This balance of private and public moral spheres, where “faith” is private and social justice is the paramount public good forms the core of what political philosopher Jason Boffetti called “a new public religious faith.”
To be sure, by “polytheism” Rorty does not make reference to a plurality of supernatural beings. As he puts it, “A romantic utilitarian will probably drop the idea of diverse immortal persons, such as the Olympian deities.” Critically, though, “[S]he will retain the idea that there are diverse, conflicting, but equally valuable forms of human life.” Rorty seconds Nietzsche’s extolling the polytheism of the pre-Socratic Greeks for revealing “a plurality of norms: one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him.”
For Nietzsche, the quintessence of Romanticism lay revealed in Classical polytheism, where “the free-spiriting and many-spiriting of man attained its first preliminary form–the strength to create for ourselves our own new eyes.”
“You are a polytheist” in a secular age, in Rorty’s definition, “if you think that there is no actual or possible object of knowledge that would permit you to commensurate and rank all human needs…To be a polytheist in this sense you do not have to believe that there are nonhuman persons with power to intervene in human affairs. All you need do is to abandon the idea that we should try to find a way of making everything hang together, which will tell all human beings what to do with their lives, and tell all of them the same thing.” For some individuals, there may be many gods (and for some, one or none); Rorty sees perhaps the most productive modern polytheism to be that which recognizes many goods.
Rorty follows in the tradition of Dewey and Walt Whitman in arguing for a religion of democracy, where the communal pursuit of social goods served in the stead of subordination to a transcendent parent figure who decreed values and norms. For Rorty, poetry and literature supplant Scripture and if a priest is needed–and perhaps not–the poet can serve.
Finally, he sketches what he calls “five theses of pragmatist philosophy of religion”–the core of “Romantic Polytheism”:
First, “beliefs are habits of action…rather than all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world…and that frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview.”
Second, “the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as ‘symbolic,’ and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims.”
Third, “pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction…between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation…Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals–from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs–may be another such paradigm.”
Fourth, “[I]t is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project.”
Fifth, “[t]he pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness.”
Can Rorty’s vision of a modern polytheism in which personal spiritual development works conjointly with a non-supernaturalistic public embrace of moral values carried in the aesthetic sphere–that is to say, by the poetic and the artistic–bear fruit? Can this philosophical speculation yield a functional “public religious faith” as Boffetti suggests?