IN THE RAVINGS OF ST JOHN THE DIVINE the quadriga-drawn chariot of Mars Victorious is transformed. Classical gods are overthrown, the four horses, individualized: white, red, black and pale, and each receives its own rider, but the figure turns frightfully from glory to destruction and the riders convey war's utter horror: sword, bow, famine, pestilence, savagery, chaos and death. This ghastly archetype, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, has been revived in the media-friendly crew known as the Four Horsemen of some sort of Atheism . . . new, militant, apocalyptic, even.
Is it not superstitiously alarming that the birthdays of all four occur under a single zodiacal sign: Aries, the sign of Mars, God of War?
The chances of any four random individuals being born under the same sign of the zodiac are about seventeen hundred to one against. Skeptics are quick to point out that seemingly improbable things happen all the time. But the traditional association of Aries with bellicosity is distinctly apt here, raising the coincidence from a shrug, to at least the occasion for a snicker, for those who find the Four annoying, or a scowl, for those who rise to their defense. A crumb of possible meaning suggests the coincidence is not entirely without cause.
(image by Mark Shulgasser)
No need to dwell again on Christopher Hitchens' drunken belligerence, nil nisi bonum and all that. Richard Dawkins, for the Observer, is "above all, an intellectual pugilist," while in the Spectator, "to be Dawkinsed . . . is to be squelched, pulverized, annihilated, rendered into suitably primordial paste." Tales of the less flamboyant Daniel Dennett's contentiousness have been scrubbed from the Internet; his newest book is an image changer about how to argue nicely. Still, Dennett's name remains a sock puppet for anonymous atheists too spittingly angry to use real names.
Sam Harris, chin out the farthest, is a martial artist, who left this impression on an interviewer last year in an article titled "The Atheist who Strangled Me": "Harris thinks about violence more than almost anyone else I have ever met." (It's worth mentioning that the interviewer, Graeme Wood, has been covering the mid-east on the ground for a decade, and presumably has met some violent people.)
The militant or crusading faction of 'new' atheism construes God and religion as a personification and institutionalization of the false and wrong, hence as close to pure evil as you can imagine, cosmic antagonists whom it is necessary and courageous to defy. It must be distinguished from peaceable freethinking. The association of the Horsemen with the Ram and Mars spotlights their crudity; but more pertinently, their aggressive Islamophobia, which was recently challenged by Glenn Greenwald (failing to distinguish between 'new' and 'militant'): "That is the hallmark of this New Atheist movement: exploiting rational atheism to support and glorify US state power and aggression; they have become a prime source for pseudo-intellectual justification of US government conduct."
With respect to Harris and his supporters Greenwald wrote: "I can say that I haven't encountered such religious-type fervor and jingoistic and tribalistic self-love (My Side is superior to Theirs!!) in quite a long time."
Salon's recent "Confessions of a Secret Muslim" by Sarah Harvard was chilling reading. Ten-year-olds are being taught the preposterous and medieval notion that one quarter of the world's population worships evil, and many educated adults agree, well-supplied with arguments by the Horsemen. Casual bigotry is sufficiently widespread now that American Muslims who can 'pass' do so, out of fear. The potent polemic against Islam coming from militant atheism serves this situation well. That four Aries natives galloped to the leadership is an alarm bell, because Aries natives have played a leading role in the history of modern violence.
As rainbows only occur under special circumstances on special occasions, so the role of Aries natives in generating a discourse of violence is now, thanks to the Four Horsemen, a special vantage point from which to catch a glimpse of astrological rainbow.ARIES POLITICAL: HUGO GROTIUS AND THOMAS HOBBES
Monuments in the history of violence show up Aries. Hugo Grotius, 'the father of international law', one of modernity's foundational thinkers, created the modern intellectual and juridical justifications for war. Grotius' intention was to limit the savagery of the battlefield, so he designed the system that gave Europe more polite and efficient battlefields, in his 1625 rulebook for monarchs and generals: De Jure Belli ac Pacis. For several centuries, under Grotius' administrative program, hundreds of thousands died.
His contemporary Thomas Hobbes, the atheist Monster of Malmesbury, proposed that people are entirely motivated by self-interest and fear of violence and death, natural enemies in continual "warre of all against all" unless controlled by powerful authority. In the absence of God there can be no foundation for ethics, so might is necessarily right, there being no other candidate left standing. Hobbes dwelled on early humanity's barbarism with the unforgettable phrase: "nasty, brutish and short". He effectively placed an image of the cave-man as the starting point for thinking about human society. Hobbes' argument justifying forceful authoritarianism was laid down so convincingly that he himself was forced several times to leave his country.
The seventeenth century Englishman was the first to distill the themes of egoism, violence and authority central to modern political philosophy, and to explain that the world is rightfully ruled by despots. Called 'menacingly terse', Hobbes is the model of the intellectual bully. As John Farrell puts it: "Hobbes is one of the style-setters of paranoid modernity . . . His ironic empiricism and satirically reductive materialism were to become central instruments in the arsenal of the modern, perennially available for deployment against idealistic opponents whenever they might emerge."
The paranoia referred to above is not to be overlooked. Aries is the first sign; the infant of the zodiac, and descriptive of the primitive fight-or-flight reaction. That the habit of violence is essentially defensive, that bullying hides insecurity is a truism. In Aries the process of secure identity formation is only beginning. Aries' memory of pre-natal nothingness troubles its relations with the 'irrational', the 'feminine', the 'Other'. Famously, in his late years Hobbes wrote that " . . . my Mother Dear / Did bring forth Twins at once, both Me, and Fear." Aries frequently identify themselves with their perinatal traumas. No sign has a more piercing sense of the abyss. The atheist Samuel Beckett claimed to recall from within the womb his mother's attempts to abort him with a wire hanger.ARIES AND AUTHORITARIANISM: GERMANY AND RUSSIA
Roman astrologers related the barbarians of northern Europe to Aries. Otto von Bismarck, the man of 'iron and blood', the icon of Germanic militarism, was an Aries. So was Ernst Junger, the World War I soldier who wrote two paeans to war as mystical experience, "Storm of Steel" and "Fire and Blood," both of them bibles of the Hitler Youth movement. Junger also put out seven volumes of WWI photography that contributed to the resurgence of militarism. Ironically, he was anti-Nazi. He continued, throughout his long career under several regimes, to write passionately about war, and died in 1998 at the age of 103, a revered symbol of Germanity.
Regarding Hitler: the Fuhrer was born exactly on the cusp of Aries and Taurus, so neither sign can be held fully to blame. Emphatically an Aries, though, was the man sometimes honored with the title 'father of fascism', Joseph de Maistre, who wrote "Ever since I could think, I have thought of war". He held a stark view of the violence at humanity's core, and wrote: "Man is insatiable for power; he is infantile in his desires and, always discontented with what he has, loves only what he has not. . . . . We are all born despots, from the most absolute monarch in Asia to the infant who smothers a bird with its hand for the pleasure of seeing that there exists in the world a being weaker than itself."