Locked in Empty Temples of Gods who Have Flown Away

The only difference is this
The gilt is off the chain
And what was once a golden bliss
Is now an iron pain.

Edward Bulwer Lytton, Marah (1891)

A enthusiast is filled with the spirit of a god, or what at least seems like a the spirit of a god so long as his enthusiasm lasts.  The roots of the word enthusiasm break down to in and theos, so that enthusiasm is the state of having, or at least feeling, a god within.  The most common and representative form of enthusiasm is no doubt erotomania, which is the condition of one in whom the god Eros has taken up temporary residence.  When possessed by the god Eros, a man is subject to the love-drunk fatuities that we call infatuation.

There are also, of course, religious enthusiasts.  Like erotic enthusiasts, religious enthusiasts are subject to besotted fatuities in the honeymoon of their devotion.  Like erotic enthusiasts, many religious enthusiasts turn atheist as soon as the honeymoon is over.  They are no longer enthused, but many are, alas, committed.

They are locked in the empty temples of gods who have flown away.

Eros has flown, but there is now a child, a marriage, a new social position.  The fresh flower of faith has wilted, but the erstwhile enthusiast now belongs to a church, has a reputation for piety, is ashamed to admit that he was just another religious fool.  The fading of religious enthusiasm is a particularly “iron pain” for those who, under the glorious impressions of enthusiasm, have committed themselves to the vocation of pastor, preacher or priest.

All honeymoons end, but all do not end in despair.  Many couples move on to a different kind of love.  Many religious enthusiasts move on to a different kind of devotion.  But those who do not—those who find themselves trapped in a loveless marriage, or a god-forsaken church—may turn against the former object of their love with a special sort of hatred.

They are locked in the empty temple of a god who has flown away.  And their only desire is to burn that empty temple down.

The only difference is this
The gilt is off the chain
And what was once a golden bliss
Is now an iron pain.

This “iron pain” is called “burn-out” in an idealistic vocations like teaching.  Many teachers begin teaching as enthusiasts drunk on moonshine, and then one day wake to find the temple is empty and their pedagogic god has taken wing.  From that day forward, a disillusioned teacher will increasingly hate everything that reminds him, or her, of the golden bliss of glorious enthusiasm.  These reminders mock the disillusioned teacher with the ragging chant,

“you fool, you fool, you fool.”

Political enthusiasms are very much the same.  They begin in a glory of golden bliss and end with iron pain.  Hence Eric Hoffer’s remark, known to many of us by this paraphrase:

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

A movement is the honeymoon of political enthusiasts who feel the righteous god of history in their hearts.  They revel and roar, drunk on the strong wine of their utopian illusions.  Under the these strong impressions, they often slip their hands into the gilt shackles of inescapable commitments.  And then their righteous god of history flies away leaving the disillusioned enthusiast trapped in the empty temple of his vanished god.  The echoes of his pacing steps mock him with the words,

“you fool, you fool, you fool.”

* * * * *

“Institutions are like religions—observances generally survive faith.”*

Tocqueville means that enthusiasm normally ends in hypocrisy because men find themselves locked in temples of gods who have flown away.  They entered the temple as votaries but remain in the temple as prisoners.  Tocqueville says that men especially observe their dead enthusiasms with empty words, because formulas and slogans remain in our mouths long after they vacate our hearts.  “Lip service” is the last observance to lapse.

“It is a sad necessity to violent passions in their decline, that long after they have lost all influence over the heart, the expressions that once were natural to them survive . . .”

Tocqueville is speaking particularly of the formulas and slogans of the revolutionary political parties of France, which partisans continued to spout long after their hearts had grown cold.  Isaiah said the same thing about the hollow hosannas of hypocrites from whom true piety has flown.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”**

Lip-service is the language of a dead enthusiasm, and it is often loudest just before it stops altogether.

“Its very vehemence is sometimes a forerunner of its entire extinction . . .”*

* * * * *

Enthusiasm is like fresh milk and will not last.  Some by grace or skill convert it into a durable cheese that improves with age.  Others watch in dismay as it sours, curdles, and then causes them to gag.  The love of some old married couples is like a durable cheese.  The love of some young married couples is like milk left too long in the sun.  And the nauseous pong of that sour milk mocks the young couple as a hateful reminder of the days when that milk was sweet.

It especially makes them hate each other, hate being the natural end of enthusiastic love.

Tocqueville tells us that something similar happens at the sour end of political enthusiasm, and that the “iron pain” of a disillusioned idealist is a toxin that will “burn out” his soul.  The reason can be stated simply if I push my analogy of sweet and sour milk just a little bit father.  A small quantity of sour milk will quickly spoil a jug of sweet milk, but no amount of sweet milk can save a jug that is sour.  Thus the rancidity of one sour enthusiasm easily spreads and spoils every enthusiasms.  Thus sour enthusiasm is a toxin that will “burn out” a soul.

“But in long-continuing revolutions, men are morally ruined less by the faults and the crimes they commit in the heat of passion or of their political convictions, than by the contempt that in the end they acquire for the very convictions and passions which moved them . . .”

8 thoughts on “Locked in Empty Temples of Gods who Have Flown Away

  1. They will not repent because their commitments will outlast their enthusiasms. Many of the “woke” are employed in the wokeness industry and have no other marketable skill. Almost all are very vocal about their wokeness and socially immersed in networks of woke friends. They are stuck in Woke even if they no longer believe it.

    As I say in the post, I think souring is what normally happens to a person who is locked in an empty temple of a god who has flown away. He becomes bitter and angry, although not directly with himself or his false and fugitive god. I think we see in traditional religions a tendency for near-apostates to be the greatest zealots and bigots, and Tocqueville said that disillusioned ideologues are the most vehement. I suspect that much Woke vehemence is an effort to make Woke illusions seem real.

    I think the central fact about wokeness is that it is a reason to hurt people with the pretense that you are helping other people. It gives nasty people an excuse to be nasty. These nasty people are going to be very, very nasty once the souring sets in.

    • I wouldn’t assume that they will ever lose their conviction or fervor. Leftism is an advance on every prior social technology in that we see its adherents proceed to greater and greater fanaticism. I see no sign that any of them are becoming fatigued or cynical about social justice, transexualism, or Negro worship. Quite the opposite! Our experience with the Soviet Union may have given us overly optimistic expectations.

      • We know that millennialist cults can survive repeated failed predictions, so progressivism can probably survive a lack of progressivist progress. It seems to do this by identifying “wreckers” who are screwing things up and delaying Utopia. I’d say this is why the emphasis of “social justice” tends to change from a meliorative “justice” for the oppressed to a punitive “justice” for the oppressor. You have no doubt noticed that most SJW’s are much more interested in “punching a Nazi” than they are in helping one of their many charity cases.

        I think Soviet utopianism died because “containment” worked. The doctrine of containment recognized that communism was parasitic and could only survive by absorbing the resources of productive systems. Force communists to grow their own food and they get hungry and disillusioned. “Social justice warriors” are parasites who are not “contained,” and therefore do not feel the pinch of their own uselessness. They have found willing hosts in the academy, corporations, the state, and even the military and intelligence agencies, so they will not go away anytime soon.

        This is why I predict that social justice grows stronger and more punitive going forward.

  2. Are you talking about me? I’ve gone through the anger and bitterness and hatred of the left. I still work there. Oddly, if I were single or not a Christian or some other person that I am not, I would be gone by now. Gone even if my husband couldn’t go to the doctor because we then couldn’t afford it and so forth and so on. But it seems that I am not the one who changed. I still love justice and trees and little babies. I still hate injustice and war and destruction. It’s the movement that changed, although I think it’s not so much that it changed as that I got close enough to it to begin to perceive its many lies.

    A healing is beginning with me. I’m taking every work day as another opportunity to teach myself something I can use when I leave.

    • I expect that some of the things I’ve written here do apply to you. I know that I was once attracted by some of the slogans of of Leftism, and that I still hope for the things those slogans (falsely) promised. It seems, however, that you protected your soul by refusing to live the lies. You may have to disguise your true beliefs, but my understanding is that you are not yourself one of the swindlers.

      • Thank you. I’ve always been almost terrified of being a phony, that is, a swindler.

  3. “They will not repent because their commitments will outlast their enthusiasms.”

    They will feel shock and fatigue. That is what befalls a person who has given up his personhood to Dionysiac intoxication. At the end of Euripides’ Bacchae, the totality of Thebes is suffering from a kind of invalidism. After the war, Willy Messerschmidt, a fanatical Nazi, was able to continue his work, but he had to go to shithole countries to do it — Egypt and India. None of his projects worked out. He finally returned to Germany and died.

    It just occurred to me that “invalid,” as applied to someone recovering from an illness, is a positively ambiguous word, as is my coinage, “invalidism.”


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