This is the last of five posts which inquire into the metaphysical roots of our contemporary sickness: nihilism. My objective has been to unearth and map out, in outline at least, the hidden world assumed by words such as “identity,” “validation,” “happiness,” “terrorist,” “scientific,” “humanitarianism.” Whether I have succeeded even in part, I leave it for the reader to decide.
Together, the posts should be considered a running meditation on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. While the work is cited once – in the context of the scientific, “geometric point” perspective – it has leavened virtually every word in these reflections. I also owe a debt to George Weigel’s short piece, “Reality and Public Policy,” which drew my attention to the new Gnosticism and its implications.
“Modern freedom and autonomy,” Charles Taylor has noted, “centers us on ourselves, and the ideal of authenticity requires that we discover and articulate our own identity.” In the generation since those words were written, the quest for identity has taken on a pathological urgency and a baroque preciousness. All our will and subjectivity was poured into the effort, until identity became both the source and the content of being, effectively cutting us off from ourselves and from the world.
This strange episode will dribble to an end, out of necessity. Hard reality will crack open the shell of our Gnostic fantasy, and we will crawl out, newly hatched. Danger will put us on our guard. Terrible events will confront us, and dreadful decisions, but identity was never, to our minds, a suicide pact, and like members of any healthy species we will be driven to survive. We will forge new bonds to the social order and select new elites, if only to survive.
That “ideal of authenticity” will remain, as we settle on the terms of our survival.
Authenticity, for us, more than an ideal or a principle of action, is an almost physical hunger for spiritual truth. We are abstracted from the world and from ourselves. We expect to live “scientifically,” that is, without enchantment or illusion, as if we were an animal laid open for dissection or a chunk of rubble flying through empty space. All that matters is force and machinery: life is reduced to a set of technical problems. That is true of morality, government, and our daily diet.
An inevitable consequence is the denial of the inner life. Abstracted from ourselves, it becomes impossible even to say where such inwardness might be located. There is no soul in the machine, no person to prise apart from impersonal forces. Our feelings and aspirations are responses to stimuli, to be researched in the laboratory. The internal is subjective, and in the public sphere we seem unable to speak about ourselves, and others, and the world, except as objects. A technical language has evolved to throw a discreet veil over our existential appetites. A whole pharmacopeia of mood-altering substances now exists to stabilize our miseries.
We live by the numbers – and the numbers, however scientific, feel false.
The feeling of the falsity of life is pervasive. Generations of poets, novelists, film-makers, and artists, from the Romantics to our own postmodern day, have despaired over it, possibly sincerely: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” A long genealogy of thinkers – say Rousseau to the “deconstructionists” – declared war on the world-as-it-is and offered alternatives that were meant to nourish the human spirit: the cult of nature, the primacy of feeling, the demand for originality, the sublime Übermensch, world revolution, existential commitment, and, of course, the construction of personal identity.
Here is our ancestral lineage. Here are the brilliant talents that presaged and embodied our Gnostic turn. We have been taught by these elders that, even if the world is a lie, there is truth within ourselves. We can get in touch with reality through our deepest feelings – our inner Übermensch. Authentic existence is possible: but we must first reject the world.
We came to identity through authenticity, driven by a hunger for spiritual truth. We begin the ascent to common ground knowing that the way ahead still feels flat and false.
No threat to our survival will compel us to forsake the instrumental stance. Nor is there much chance that we will give it up entirely, and, like the Amish, turn our backs on technology as the necessary precondition to a spiritual quest. Too much material knowledge and mastery depends on this mode of dealing with the world – too many of our expectations and institutions have been built on this foundation. Even theocratic dictatorships today accept polio vaccines and television programs as given.
Science and technology have their place. The choice we will face concerns the ideal of science as an existential principle: whether we can, or should, as we select a new elite class, make the “scientific life” our model of human greatness.
Science deals in mystery but not in meaning. It restricts its field of research to material conditions and the forces that work on them, in an endless cycle of cause and effect. Pure knowledge, to the scientist, is just such a chain of causation. He will not search for a higher reality or the music of the spheres: “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good.” When Richard Dawkins wrote those words, he was projecting his occupational habits onto the world.
Insofar as science extends beyond pure knowledge and penetrates social life, it is as a producer of desirable effects. It is practical and instrumental. What counts as desirable, however, falls outside the reach of scientific study. The community at large decides what is desirable – in democratic nations, we decide, and for good reason. Every practical choice is oriented toward some implicit moral condition, which in turn is sustained by a broader metaphysical framework. Life gets deep fast, and science can only assist with the practicalities. A surgeon will respond affirmatively to the question, “Can we abort a fetus?” but has no answer for “Should we do so?”
The scientist, in his capacity as scientist, must reject any transcendental, moral, or political imperatives that impinge on his craft. That is what “disenchantment” consists of: there is no evil or good intrinsic to the world, no higher or lower, but only knowledge that can be applied to radically different purposes. Scientists designed the MRI machine but also the ovens at Buchenwald. They have served democracy and despotism with equal distinction. These cases are not perversions of the ideal but a function of its instrumentality.
Our intuitions on this score turn out to be correct. The “scientific life” feels false because it is false. It is scarcely life at all, but only a ritual language – a liturgy that, if performed in the dark, creates the illusion of detachment and control. Once the magic of the words is defeated, and the light is switched on, we find ourselves in the same condition with all that came before, driven by the same hunger and despair, the same claims and the same struggles, only shaped by cultural valuations that we, uniquely, seem unable to articulate.
Consider the case of Richard Dawkins, who has spent a lifetime studying, and writing about, a “universe” that he maintains has no purpose and no value. That is perplexing behavior. Either the story of Dawkins’ life is willfully devoid of purpose and value, or something else entirely is going on. Some source, some power, unacknowledged by him, is sneaking in purpose and value. It may be argued that Dawkins, the scientific thinker, has abstracted himself from such mundane concerns as to a geometric point, the better to discover and spread knowledge on behalf of society. But that is science fiction.
We are not – we can never be – disengaged minds. We are not algorithms or machinery in action. We are embodied animals, evolved in the world and mixed in it as dust to dust, enmeshed in a social order that is the only vehicle to our highest aspirations, but first reared by the natural order, our forgotten mother, whose lessons of life and death still reach us across the great silence, if we just pause to hear.
The abandonment of instrumentality means that we must reinsert ourselves in the world, in the following sense: our shared existential stance will turn toward truth rather than abstraction and control. The road ahead will be twisted and full of pitfalls. Truth will make claims on us that will always be difficult, and often impossible, to satisfy. We will never possess it, except from some partial perspective. We will never enter the promised land. Authentic life, we will learn, is an orientation, not a state of grace.
This undertaking is a matter of choice, not necessity. It concerns our spiritual hunger, not our physical survival. We must find our own reasons, rooted in our moment, our present predicament, to wipe clean the confusion of centuries and rediscover ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves. We must reconcile truth and spirit with the dead hand of modern culture. That will be a long, torturous journey. Along the way, the world, our old enemy, will re-emerge before our eyes, and we will see it clearly for what it is and what it is not. It is not an idea. It is not formed by will or desire. It is not a poison pill of conformism and bad faith. The world is the ground of being and the mother of truth: and it far transcends the possibility of human revolt or manipulation.
What does that mean?
If truth is found only in the world, not against or outside it, then authenticity in life must consist of a turning to the things of the world: the “objects” we keep at an infinite remove as not-us. If we exist solely in the world, then in some mysterious way that turning must be toward ourselves, as beings indissolubly embedded in things. After the strange amnesia of instrumentalism, we will recover a lived understanding of our place in the natural order and the grand scheme of being. We will wake up, as if from a prolonged binge, among useless statistics and lifeless abstractions, and we will move in the direction of the concrete. With luck and with time, we will come to see that this outward push is identical to the spiritual life: and at that juncture we will find ourselves in a moral landscape of colossal proportions, in which the measure of human greatness is held to the highest scale imaginable, against a cosmic backdrop.
What are the practical consequences?
At first, we will stammer. Every culture has words for the connection of the human with the highest, however that is conceived – God, or demiurge, or some transcendent state. Aboriginal Australians speak of a “dreamtime,” Spanish mystics of a “dark night of the soul.” We have lost all conception of this. In our impersonation of a mock-scientific life, we have managed to treat even the spirit instrumentally. For us, Christianity is politics, Buddhism is psychotherapy, and yoga is exercise.
We have forgotten the words. We have lost the language of connection. Confronted by a vast new moral landscape, we will begin by babbling – not, in truth, as infants do, but in the manner of the brain-damaged, of persons who once knew how to speak. We will engage in metaphysical exercises, laboring to find the proper sounds. Our trainers will be poets and writers. They, too, must awaken from their self-indulgent binge. They must reject the Gnostic temptation to howl at the world as at a wasteland, and utilize their talents to deliver the gift of logos – the word made flesh – to our stammering mouths. The recovery of truth, in its initial stages, will be led by fantasists and story-tellers.
Our encounter with the world must be mediated by history. The lesson so painfully learned in our shipwrecked escape to identity is that we cannot reinvent ourselves out of whole cloth. We are, in large measure, what we were. We are rooted in time. Even as our circumstances undergo a radical transformation, we must glance back if we wish to move forward without accident.
The facts of the past will be contested: that is all to the good. What matters is perspective and intent. The revolt against the world made history into an argument for nihilism, ultimately for forgetfulness. Reentry into the world must therefore entail a sustained effort to recover our memory. The perspective will be one of truth-seeking, which in this case must mean a posture of sympathy for the human predicaments we share with the past. Even with regard to monstrous events – Nazi Germany, the Islamic Caliphate – understanding will be considered the highest form of criticism. A scholarship of hard realism will serve as traffic controller to our advance on the world. The intent will be to interpose a few shreds of shared human experience between our present ignorance and the altered environment ahead.
In tandem with the recovery of history, we will rehabilitate convention, understood as the standards, models, and habits of life inherited directly from the past. This will ignite a fierce reaction. To the modern intellectual, convention has always appeared to be the enemy of authenticity. But if history is a legitimate source of knowledge, convention becomes the principal mode of turning that knowledge – our collective memory – into collective action. In time, conventions will adapt to our changed circumstances. If, by and large, we will not treat one another like Victorian ladies and gentlemen, neither will we wallow in hyper-sensitivity and panic fear of giving offense, when speaking truth as we perceive it. Mutual respect will be conventionally understood to be hard-headed and thick-skinned: only weasel words will feel offensive.
The practical consequences of our recovery of the world will ultimately depend on our ability to identify models of “the good life” in the world: that is, honest and admirable forms of transacting with the new moral landscape. Such models must be embodied in actual human beings. Reorientation must be given flesh and blood. That is how social change happens. That is how spiritual awakening happens: how truth is made manifest. By knowing who the best are, and aspiring to follow them, we inch our way to as-yet-undiscovered patterns of perfection.
The abandonment of instrumentality here connects with the long march away from identity. Both put us in the uncomfortable business of inferior and superior. Both make the same demand: that we replace our failed and decadent elites. Our transformed sense of the world will provide the standard and the compass. The common ground we seek will turn out to be a shared direction rather than a location.
By the sheer force of our spiritual hunger, we will engender a “select minority” (in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase) that incites our aspiration and emulation instead of our disgust. Its members will be models of lived truth and spirit, whose gravitational pull extends beyond the online network and the sociopolitical tribe. Among them, if we choose adequately, will be found extraordinary characters, saints and scholars whose qualities will bind together much of what has been torn apart by two feckless generations. They will embody modesty, integrity, clarity of speech and mind, and courage in action, and they will give little thought to self-expression or control, being oriented differently, toward the world.
In a literal sense, through the example of their lives, they will make this stance irresistibly attractive to us.
There remains the problem of humanitarianism. That ideal is said to be a consequence of the disenchantment of the world by science. A defender of the instrumentalist stance might therefore argue that, whatever is meant by a “recovery of the world,” it offers no guarantees against superstition, fanaticism, or systemic violence. An intended spiritual awakening could in reality mean the slumber of reason and a nightmare of obscurantist oppression.
Taken as a warning, this argument has some validity. Every transitional age is a moment of terrible peril. The loss of familiar signposts and milestones can induce a profound moral disorientation. False prophets and antichrists will walk among us, preaching the joys of nihilism. There will be choices but no guarantees. Our attempt to advance on truth and spirit, shared collectively, as common ground, could degenerate into totalitarian dogmatism, inquisitions, and pogroms.
But these dangers are already here. The warning applies to the present moment. We are currently sick with anger and doubt. We have been seduced, and more than once, by the preachers of nihilism. Identity and instrumentalism, monstrously mated, have produced a revolt against the world that is, at heart, a war against ourselves. In certain places, the pogroms have already begun. Elsewhere we have been protected only by our fractured and isolated state, which has prevented any one doctrine from attaining to hegemony. That will not last forever.
The problem of humanitarianism is that it has always lacked a necessary connection to any justifying principle, science included. Humanitarianism is strictly a matter of taste. We become humanitarians as we might become fans of a particular television series – say, Downton Abbey. However, we can become anti-humanitarians by the same process, given different tastes – we prefer Breaking Bad. There are no logical or empirical reasons to compel us one way or the other.
Because the benevolent impulse is unanchored in principle, it suffers from more than the usual tangle of inconsistencies and contradictions. Those who fiercely oppose the death penalty just as zealously support the right to abort human fetuses, for example. Similarly, those who advocate gun control laws adamantly oppose the harsh policing, particularly in the inner cities, necessary to enforce them. In recent years, the legalization of assisted suicide has been defended on humanitarian grounds: “quality of life” is said to trump the absolute value of life. That is a tricky proposition. In a time of disorientation, among raging partisan struggles, it isn’t hard to imagine the definition of “quality” expanded to cover moral conformity and political correctness. Mandatory euthanasia of the “unfit,” let us recall, was once a progressive and “scientific” project.
The humanitarian’s confusion is a brief comic scene within a much larger drama: that of the crisis of the liberal order that has placed instrumental benevolence at the center of politics and government.
The wonder of liberalism is that it continues to fail by succeeding. It has, during the last century, brought about vast improvements in every aspect of life. It achieved, peacefully enough, the liberation of oppressed classes and minorities, and erected a “social safety net” for the downtrodden. Liberals societies became the destination for tens of millions fleeing their illiberal homelands. The human race has voted with its feet.
Yet something is missing. We feel at war with ourselves and disgusted with our lives. Our revolt against the world is, in the first instance, an assault on liberal institutions. That has happened before. Totalitarian alternatives strove to subvert and destroy liberal democracy. They were defeated at a horrible cost. Today we have run out of alternatives – but we are seduced by nihilism, by a dream of purity that makes a virtue of destruction and a Heaven of nothingness. Liberalism, it seems, has won every battle, and now teeters on the verge of losing the war.
Something is missing. A great deal of truth is missing. The potent subjective forces that bind the human spirit to the world – that, too, is missing. Liberalism began as a neutral arbiter between mutually hostile religions and world-views. The objective was wholly instrumental: a social order that allowed many paths to salvation. The churchman and the anti-clericalist could share the same space in relative peace. Their frameworks of meaning, however, towered far above mere politics. By definition, liberal instrumentalism could never be an end in itself – yet with the decline of religion and ideology, that is all that is left to us. In the spot formerly reserved for God and spirit, we find political machinery. Instead of saints and visionaries, we have bureaucrats.
Liberalism was not built to withstand the burden of being an end rather than a means. The elites who manage the system have falsified its specifications, and we have played along, entirely complicit in the fraud. From representative democracy to the free market, the overarching structures of the liberal order are buckling under the weight of the falsehoods we have heaped on them. A collapse could mean a catastrophe on the scale of the 1930s and 1940s.
Will a turning to the world save liberalism? That is the wrong question to ask. Our orientation must be toward truth, which immediately entails the abandonment of instrumentalism. Other polite fictions of contemporary liberalism will melt away under the glare of a radical honesty. The objective will not be to engage in an ideological rescue mission, but to infuse with authenticity, and thus with life, the stories and structures that frame modern existence. How far that moves in anti-humanitarian and illiberal directions will depend largely on the choices we make.
The question we should ponder, however, is this: will any part of the liberal tradition survive, undefiled, our present moral trajectory – this nihilist moment – the inevitable consequences of our spiritual starvation and Gnostic loathing of the world?
The answer to that question will mark the first step in our pursuit of truth.