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The Faustian Bargain in Philosophy

December 9, 2019

Faustian bargain, a pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul, for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches.

We all have to face the lure and the temptation of these types of bargains in our lifetimes. The modern western world seems geared towards using this type of pact as a hazing ritual in many of its institutions in order be accepted into them and to receive the power that they provide you. It probably comes out of old traditions such as masonry brotherhoods. And now it has spread over a wider and wider area, encompassing most means of gaining any social power.

To resist these temptations is to put yourself at the mercy of the might of materialism that can be thrown at you. It is to sacrifice many social niceties and comforts. It is likely to lead to some considerable social isolation and loneliness. Nonetheless some of us still refuse the bargain, and see the world of appearances for its limitations, as did the great sages of the past.

Western philosophy was inspired by Plato and Aristotle to an extent that it is within the categories they provided that we conduct much of our thinking. They laid many of the ground rules for correct reasoning and thinking about reality, morality and human society. But lately, we have been rejecting them. In the 17th century Galileo, Descartes, Newton and others led us free of Aristotle’s physics of pushing with the notion of inertial frames of reference and geometrical laws of motion. In the 18th century Hume and Kant liberated us from Aristotle’s metaphysics. Then in the 19th century came the rejection of Teleological causation in Aristotle, and the rejection of Plato’s forms as something we can appeal to, thanks to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Finally, in the 20th century, the study of philosophy itself that Plato and Aristotle had recommended to us was attacked, firstly on the logical level with Russell, Frege and others criticising Aristotle’s logic. Secondly, criticising what they called monism and idealism, which came to be an attack on the core notion of reason itself at the heart of Plato’s system of the forms. The culmination, through positivism’s deference to science’s empirical method (that they could never agree on the details of) and rejection of human reason, left us with no basis for reasoning and debating with other people.

Reason on one side was supposedly reduced to procedurally following mathematical calculi like a computer, unpacking tautological inferences. While, on the other side, reason was to be the slave of the passions in morality with emotivism, or the slave of some scientific experts in empirical factual domains.

This particular movement in Western philosophy was a collective Faustian bargain in plain view of the world. It left us with plethoras of language games to play where once there had been just one structure of thought and reality to uncover in line with Plato’s forms. It gave us the possibilities of an orgy of intellectual infidelity, provided we sacrifice our sincerity and integrity and personal authenticity to these public standards. Then we will get good academic positions, and a comfortable lifestyle, etc…

For those of us who never partook of this bargain, we can only look on alternately dumbfounded, frustrated and furious, at what western thought and reason has been reduced to. All that remains in the academic world, all this time after Plato coined the term Academy with the one he created, are standards of reason dictated to by saying what is socially convenient and what will please your peers, rather than what is true and right.

The individuals who take the Faustian bargain end by losing the individuality that had allowed them to choose the bargain in the first place. And they are only all the more desperate and keen to bring others down with them. This, we cannot let happen, and we must accordingly preserve the true philosophical tradition in the face of this onslaught of an orgy of materialist glee and reductionist fervour.


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