The Last Judgement and its Modern Counterpart

Summary of The Last Judgement: The angels harp their trumpets, and Jesus Christ, the ideal man, judges all according to their worth, putting them in their proper place after their sojourn on Earth. The sinners are damned, and the saints are saved.

This is a vision of the ideal that humanity should strive for. A fairness that judges all with equally unrelenting standards, seeking to see through appearance towards essence, and give all their due, according to the extent to which they participate in the Good. It is somewhat harsh—for proper judgement points to one’s faults as well as one’s virtues—but it is also eminently just, in its latin root, jus (which judgement also shares), as what is “right”. It is a place where all those injustices of life on earth—the slings and arrows of fortune, the jealousy and madness of the mob—is put to the right.

But this seems prima facie an impossible task. At least, it is not one that any mortal could fulfill, but only, perhaps, God. It is hard to believe the Second Coming of God’s son, however (I myself can’t believe it literally, as much as any self-satisfied First World liberals). The difficulty of conceiving this thrilling and appealing ideal leads to two variations of its theme, both important to understand the world around us. There is first the effort of consummating the impossible on Earth, and second, the acceptance of its impossibility, and the turning of the focus onto the sparks of humanity brought forth by the constant failures to bring Justice to Earth.

First is Marxism and Capitalism, both heirs of the Christian vision of the Last Judgement. (I will be brief, since this is a too-often-discussed-so-made-banal topic.) They justify themselves by putting things into their proper order. In Marxism, through Science (and through this impulse, we can see our culture’s preoccupation with scientists and mathematicians as contemporary Prometheus), by the human ordering of society to make it orderly. In Capitalism, the Market, which we all want to be meritocratic, but is (clearly) never so.

The second comes the Romantics, and everything afterwards (looking back, also, to the Greek tragedies), starting, even, with Kant. Here, the focus moves from the explicit organization of each component of the world into the correct place to the focus on “deserving happiness” rather than being happy (Second Critique), and the free play of form and the contradictions within the self that is to be, respectively, the beautiful and the sublime (Third Critique). The first leads to a great emphasis on guilt and despair, which preoccupies Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc., and the second, to the Romantic celebration of love and passion, and the wildean Aesthete.

I am unsure which version of this myth I would like to believe. But Last Judgement at least shows us one thing, that the past (in the form of stories and myths) is never past, it is not even present.

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