Each year, I have students write an essay reflecting on the changing meanings of success they discern in the American literature they’ve read in class. The reading list stretches from the Puritans through the Transcendentalists. After their overview, I invite them to attempt a personal definition of success, as things seem to them at that moment. I ban the use of the phrase, “live life to the fullest.” It’s a good phrase, I guess, but it’s a cliche, and having said it they tend to thing they have said something, when they’ve only repeated an incantation. The education question is till Socrates’ “What is the good life?” and the answer may well be “to live life to the fullest,” but for that to be an actual thought requires some attention to the meaning of “good” and “fullness.” I suspect they are thinking of a house on a beach with a Mercedes parked out front, but they don’t actually say. They tend to stay in automatic words running on automatic tracks. They find thinking hard.
Indeed, humanity has always been a discordant mess, intellectually speaking. Half-thoughts, images, slogans swirl over some bottomless abyss of individual and collective consciousness, passing through transient form in mobs or elections as people see posters, hear slogans, stumble across cable news rants, catch twists of horrific events narrated in scraps through the honk and cough of ceaseless traffic.
And yet, some things abide. Young men and women find each other, slipping past the uncertainties and anxieties they reveal themselves bit by bit and find they are not so alone. Babies are born, and new households established The most fundamental realities of human life are not like the testosterone-crazed skull-bashing contests posited by the Darwinists of old so much as an infant suckling at his mother’s breast. The deepest experience of countless persons is of awakening to life in warm arms surrounded by beings with soft voice inviting playful engagement. Young fathers and mothers imitate the forms they’ve found around them. In times not far past, those forms include barn raisings, quilting bees, PTA meetings, communal brandings, and dozens of other supports for social capital. We are at our best when we realize that we are members of each other.
All that used to be easier. In thousands of little ways—and some not so little ways—social capital has been dwindling. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone contains graph after graph that show social capital measured in all sorts of ingenious ways declining since the mid-1960s. In much of the world today vast governments and transnational financial creatures see those primary human societies as blurred abstractions. Decisions are not made with an eye to the health of communities. More often, they are made to enhance the ability of those at the Center to monitor and control our lives. Meanwhile, more and more people report that they are lonely. More of us live alone than ever. Marriage seems risky—many kids are afraid to even say that it’s what they want.
This is the world governed, increasingly, by a network of spiritual directors, issuing fiats from Brussels, Paris or New York. We live in an age of extreme individualism, in which individuals have less and less to say about so many things that are important to a fulfilling life. How did the world come to be governed from afar, by corporate and government elites? The best telling of the scholarly version of the story may be James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. In the mid 18th Century, the philosophes gathered in the cafes of the Palais-Royal in Paris to re-imagine the world–liberated from God and the ancien régime and led by libertines such as Rousseau. Billington traced the spread of revolutionary ideas through labyrinthine networks of Europe and beyond as the revolutionary motto–Liberty, Equality, Fraternity–spawned a thousand variants in France, Germany, Russia and, well, everywhere.
The story is too complex to know or tell precisely. The philosopher Eric Voegelin abandoned his magisterial 4,000 page manuscript for his History of Political Ideas when he realized that tracing influences through texts was “an ideological deformation of reality.” As the sacred texts of my own spiritual tribe explain, persons can receive insights through direct participation in consciousness, in the metaxis where we encounter both deity and adversaries of deity. A true history of ideas would include the phenomenological experiences of countless individuals. Ideas are not spread only by media and conversation. Revelation, both good and bad, has always occurred.
Still, this much is accurate: we have entered an age of ideology, of competing isms: communism, capitalism, fascism, socialism, progressivism, environmentalism, anarchism, fundamentalism, egalitarianism, fallibilism, gnosticism, utilitarianism, materialism, nativism, and nihilism. We are no longer ruled by warrior chiefs, priests, monarchs, or elected representatives–though many figureheads remain ceremonially in place. Now, a class of elite intellectuals, armed with PhDs, has gotten (imperfect) control of the governments, the media, the corporations and the schools. They see themselves as spiritual directors of the world, using technology and social sciences to govern by managing a complex ecosystem of propaganda, puppet leaders, regulations, bribes and threats. The optimism of such controllers was chastened a little by the embarrassment of the 20th Century, when instead of regenerating humanity into new forms invented by human reason, and instead of leaving behind the irrational and the superstitious, the rise of ideological empires delivered us to horrific tyrannies. Leaders came to power mouthing the beloved rhetoric of equality, and then they terrorized and decimated their own people. In a few decades, ideologues killed more people than millennia of religious militants had done.
Nevertheless, our resilient controllers have worked through the embarrassment. After all, where else can the world turn if not to its experts? So it turned out that politics was dirty and unpredictable, and a retreat to higher ground was needed. Fortunately, morality transcended it all. The rhetoric of universal rights took place on a loftier plane than the ancient arguments based in economic, geographical or ethnic interests. The endless discussions at the great conference tables in Vienna, The Hague, Cancun or Munich were animated by an often abstract quest for the justice of equal freedom for all. It was easy to feel that those who opposed such ideals were not mere opponents–they were guilty. Old moralities were barriers to progress, so the project was to debunk religious and provincial limits. Morality is dead. Long live morality.
But moral crusades unconstrained by ancient interdicts flirt with real dangers. The main patterns of the Age of Ideology were present from the beginning in the French Revolution. Reason was put forth as a self-flattering decoy, but events were driven by passion both for violence and for sex. Those who disapproved were devoured. The motto in practice was “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death,” as Dickens repeats with unsmiling sarcasm throughout The Tale of Two Cities. There is no real ambiguity about the nature of the revolution. The violence wasn’t confined to the Reign of Terror but defined the movement from beginning to end. In the September massacres of 1792, 1,200 prisoners were murdered in public orgies of rape and murder. One of the Queen’s friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, was stripped naked and raped. Her breasts were cut off and the rest of her body mutilated and put on display. Parts of her body were discharged from a cannon and other parts were eaten. Her head was stuck on a pike and taken into a tavern where customers were asked to drink to her death. Yes, stripping the corrupt aristocracy of wealth and power felt good. Getting free of old laws and social constraints to indulge wherever in whatever also felt good. For modern ideologues, “transgressive” is often a term of praise.
Mobs have always been exciting, at least for those on the side feeling righteous. Both violence and religion partake of eros. The French Revolution isn’t quite intelligible without knowing the extent to which it was, in Austrian scholar Erik von Keuhnelt-Leddihen’s phrase, “a sanguinary sex orgy.” The Marquis de Sade was in tune with the spirit of the age, understanding “Nature” as the sole source of authority as to what may be praised or condemned. “The philosopher sates his appetites,” Sade argued, “without inquiring to know what his enjoyments may cost others, and without remorse.” He defended even sexual murder, if that was what a practitioner wanted. Feminist historian Camille Paglia saw that as the old morality lost prestige, “all the nasty daemonism of sexual instinct” popped up. “Individualism, the self unconstrained by society,” was a liberation from low into a “coarser servitude of constraint by nature.” Revolutionary ideology took its bearings from lofty talk of freedom, but in practice, this often meant arranging one’s life around violent urges. “Every road from Rousseau leads to Sade,” said Paglia. It isn’t really so far.
So began the Age of Ideology–of modern totalitarian government and large-scale executions of “enemies of the People.” Writing on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian naturalist Prince Petr Kropotkin noted that “what we learn from the study of the Great Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions.”
In America, the civil war of the sixties was fought on a succession of fronts, beginning with civil rights but morphing into the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. Religion continued to irk the ideologically-driven champions of liberation from old moralities. “Racist, sexist, antigay! Christian fascists, go away!” has been a popular chant among today’s street activists. They embrace the role of antichrists deliberately and proudly. They seem intent on proving that rejection of the Word leaves them with a language in which nothing can be known, in which all meaning is socially constructed and thus susceptible to deconstruction. Identity, racism, patriarchy, privilege, and gender—it’s all a matter of language and power, continuously updated. Those who run the institutions and control the language have no masters.
Those who do not have university sinecures may find life more daunting. Beings shorn of faith and without the support of divine love retain only the will to power, without the will to resist what Allan Bloom referred to as the “reanimalization of man.” Valentine’s Day is celebrated by Planned Parenthood as the kickoff of Condom Week. An accumulating mountain of social science evidence reveals the damage to families and children by those who have made selfish sexuality their priority. Reality is not on the side of the sexual revolution. “Children come into the world based on sexual choices of adults,” said Robert Oscar Lopez, and an ideology that tells adults to follow their urges without regard to the impact on children cannot be good. Good, like evil, exists as a complex ecosystem, and to consider the truth about children’s well-being would be to allow a very large and inconvenient camel to get its nose under the tent.
The majority of the Supreme Court who struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act claimed that there could be no reason for denying equivalence to same-sex couples except some irrational and immoral desire to harm those couples. “The principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage,” said the Court. Their language was morally certain and morally absolute. James Kalb discussed such developments in “Sex and the Religion of Me” at First Things. “The new orthodoxy on homosexuality,” he said, “is about more than sex. It is an outcome of a profound change in traditional understandings of the world, the abolition of natural meanings and essences in favor of will and technique.” Neither nature nor society should hinder the individual’s autonomy to choose his or her own values. The external world is “raw material” for the liberated self to pursue its authentic purposes. What is authentic is understood as that which has its source in the self and its desires.
What is established is what Phillip Rieff has called an anti-culture–the view that is is forbidden to forbid, and that nothing should regulate the individual. What is suppressed is that humans do not “find themselves” in indeterminate space, but become human slowly, surrounded by family and community which educate them into structures of meaning which are needed if a person is to act and engage. We become autonomous by living with law, which we then internalize, accepting limits on desire and possibility. Without law we are not free, because the flip side of culture isn’t nature but barbarity. We are at the moment in a transitory period. The governing elite have restructured society to relieve parents of duties toward their children, many of whom cannot progress beyond adolescence, living in a moral chaos of disorganized desires, contradictory opinions, ceaseless demands for goods they could not earn but feel entitled to possess, and unyielding moral obtuseness. Because the state has yet to finalize its tutelary authority, such beings have liberty to cause most of our social troubles. Our future is likely to be brutal and violent.
Of course, most ordinary liberals are nice people who are dismayed by the crass and violent drift of contemporary culture. They don’t see it as good that increasing numbers of young men do not grow up, but seem lost in a simulacrum of digital games and pornography, imagining themselves masters of seven universes while unable to get a grown-up job and unwilling to commit, while increasing numbers of young women, often better educated and better paid than their potential mates, weary of a succession of boy friends who refuse to become manly feel unfulfilled as the biological clock ticks. They do not sense that they are choosing the materialistic decadence which advances on every front, closing in. They just want a nonjudgmental culture, often for quite personal reasons. They want the finger-pointing moralists to stay away. So they enact a society in which young people receive no very ennobling education. What they need to know of sex is taught by twenty-something clinicians, and the posters in the hall are about condoms and the self’s choices but not about courage or sacrifice or love. Some learn old truths from intelligent families or churches, but many find their deepest desires shaped by the stories and music of a commercial culture, biased toward that which titillates or excites. So we find ourselves surrounded more and more by people who are oblivious to the sort of order that is peace.
Mobs and gangs have been forming for some time, and yet the thinking of our masters has the quality of incantation. They cannot question whether it’s true that neutrality is wisdom, or even possible, or that the old laws were mere bigotry. Statements of traditional morality trigger a visceral revulsion within the minds of those indoctrinated in the morality of late modern or postmodern modernity. To have another impose the rules of his own or his tribe about something as personal as sexual desire feels sickening. “This reaction,” Kalb says, is best understood as “a taboo response.” It “springs from a sense that those who reject ‘marriage equality’—the view that same-sex and opposite-sex relations are interchangeable—are attacking what is most precious and sacred.” Earlier, the Court had ruled in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that the uncultured self has the right to define the nature “of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
It’s true that anyone can define for himself what is right only if there is nothing in Cosmos or Creation that says otherwise; thus the siren song of nihilism became the law of the land. That the imperial self’s demands so often have to do with sex and sexual identity is nothing new. Religion and sex are intimately intertwined in human consciousness, as even the champions of sexual freedom sometimes admit. The inventors of a new world order have largely given up attacking capitalism and have organized their forces in an epic struggle about sex. The religious question at the heart of the matter is to what extent a person can escape historical and natural patterns in a quest for self-creation amid unbounded personal choice. We are sexual beings, and our sexuality goes to the core of our existence. And though we share a carnal nature with other animals we are also endowed with a capacity for discourse that allows us through the word to engage in such sublime realities as justice. For such beings, sex becomes somewhat more than beasts rutting in the stable. For moderns, sex and discourse are joined in debates about gender–the demotion of nature to self-created identity.
The West’s classic view of humanity was expressed by Shakespeare in Hamlet:
“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
For such a being, sex can meld with love in a sublime quest for happily ever after that has been the theme of countless stories, which emerge from the universal sense that something more is at stake in matters of the heart than meaningless iterations of cycles of reproduction and survival.
It is in our “godlike” reason that we are most typically and fundamentally human. Our telos is to reach outward, our reason functioning as openness to experience of and conscious participation in the divine mystery which surrounds us. The philosopher Eric Voegelin linked the Greek understanding of reason, nous, to the Israelite understanding of spirit, pneuma, in their kindred recognitions that to be human is precisely to exist by reaching out in loving encounter with divine presence. Our sexual natures reinforce and deepen our fundamental experience of incompleteness, unable to fulfill ourselves alone. Biology and spirit are unified in a quest for love that completes and perfects our lives as biological, intellectual and spiritual creatures. The culture of marriage and family was, at its best, developed through such realizations. It represented humanity’s best hope against alienation and isolation. Anthony Esolen reprised that argument in Defending Marriage:
We are all interested in marriage, that is, we all have a stake in it, because through marriage, or through actions that should have been performed within the haven of marriage, we have all come into being. It isn’t simply a reflex of the emotions of the man and woman. It is the act of renewal. It brings together this family of blood relations with that family of blood relations, natural relations, the kinfolk that lay just claims upon us because we and they share some of the same history, the same cousins, even the same eyes and ears and noses. A marriage marries families, and it is the family, and not the abstracted autonomous individual, that is the foundation for the community.
In other words, were it not for children, there would be no reason for weddings at all, since there is no reason for the community to take note of whether John and Mike or any two marriageable people have been arguing lately or have patched up their differences, regardless of any behavior they may be indulging in when the doors are closed. But the community does have a powerful interest in what used to be called “public morals,” since these impinge upon the welfare of the family, and thus upon the community’s health and survival. It is precisely because the marital act is a child-making act that the community not only may protect it by the fencing of law and custom; it has a duty to do so, to protect itself and the most vulnerable of its members.
One might expect a nation of sexual individualists to educate children to go their own bold ways; but that cannot be, because there is no fully realized human individual apart from a family. So, paradoxically, such a nation leans towards banishing the family from rightful authority over the schools, which then become standardized, like factories. “Sparta,” [a totalitarian regime which seized boys from their homes to live in barracks] “presents to us no illustration of an educational philosophy for a Christian people.” Real education is of persons made in the image of God, and cannot be effected “by contract or in the aggregate. In the family alone, and by or on the immediate responsibility of those parents by whom were imposed upon each child from before its birth the physical, mental, and spiritual conditions on which all true after education must be based, can an ideal early education be conducted.” Schools and schoolteachers there may be, but they must “be regarded only as the representative deputy or the substitute for the family.”
Those of us alive at this historical moment have been born into a vast argument that we did not make and very likely will not resolve. It’s a religious war waged in its deepest terms at the source of what it means to be human. The main thing each of us may decide is what side we are on. It’s a crucial choice. Jame Kalb suggests that we not near the end of the conflicts:
Cultural debates are always conflicts between orthodoxies. Our own debates about sex, marriage, and family must be understood and judged as exactly that rather than misconceived as a conflict between irrational dogma on one side and tolerance and freedom on the other. This is becoming easier to do, now that a whole generation has been raised under the regime of political correctness. A backlash against that regime is already visible among young people. What is needed is to convert dissatisfaction from cynical abandonment of concern with public affairs into reasoned and constructive engagement. It appears, then, that the culture war is not over. Understood for what it is, it has hardly begun.
In the past, all sides have waged their moral crusades by getting control of law–which is to say, by using force and coercion. The hard won wisdom of Westphalia, we might remember, was a way of moving on from decades of sectarian battle through a kind of federalism, in which each jurisdiction would be left to make its own laws about religious matters. It was amid competing visions, none of which could achieve hegemony, that Europe’s institutions of political freedom took form. We tend to do our best thinking when we are stymied by opposition we cannot overcome.
The work of the world now is, I believe, what it has always been–for humanity to continue what Adam and Eve began, to know good from evil and to choose between them. It’s a complex knowing.
As with the Jacobins, when morality becomes an instrument of power it destroys the world and itself. At the moment, the controllers are ascendant, fancying themselves spiritual directors of the world, establishing a monopoly on moral judgment. Chantal Delsol suggests that they “have begun to instrumentalize morality in order to make it a political weapon.” That process will undoubtedly continue, and to the extent that it does, its success will be partial and temporary. The political, unlike the moral, cannot be universal.
My spiritual tribe teaches that the only tools available to morality are ‘persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned.’ Delsol notes that “universal values are freely expressed norms whose realization would allow humanity to freely advance toward the summits–in a manner of speaking, to become more human.” It is useless and destructive for morality to use the tools of politics, betraying its own norms through the use of force. Camus understood that now the struggle must be “between violence and preaching.” Morality does not impose itself; it persuades. There will be blood, to be sure, but the right will prevail with words and spirit.
It’s slow work, and it involves living as an example as well as uttering words. Patience and long-suffering are real necessities for those who choose to act in the realm of morality rather than in that of politics. We cannot will the good immediately, because for each of us, understanding the vision of the good, and disentangling it from evil and all its deceptions, has required the mediation of time. Each of us has, through much living, reflected on human experience, what has been done and how it has turned out. We have struggled to understand some of what we now see clearly. The time was not incident. We learn slowly–here a little and there a little. So those who would lead must teach and those who would teach must wait, knowing that such a life–trying to learn how to live life to the fullest–is what time is for. And there is still time.