Revolt against the world (3): Nihilism

March 28, 2017

This is the third 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.

***

From a detached perspective, our stance toward identity appears to be a march towards pure will.  Our demand for uniqueness looks like a repudiation of history and its present consequences.  Our call for separation and discontinuity from all who are not-us is a declaration of independence from reality, at least of the human kind.  In the condition of pure will, we imagine ourselves rising above cause and effect.  With the achievement of our star-like identities, we believe we have gained access to hidden knowledge – gnosis – that is more powerful than history or the natural world.

The Gnostics maintained that the world was false and corrupt, and the only truth was spirit.  Not only did men not live from bread alone, but the needs of the body, our gross materiality, could and should be wholly subservient to the soul.  For our part, we have come to think that the human world is false and corrupt, and the only possible reality lies within usWe are the good and the true, we are the kingdom and the power, and the tainted relations of the social order can and must dance to the tune of our will.  That is our heresy.  That is the background story to the revolt against the world.

When the demand for validation is met with silence, therefore, we never think to question our assumptions about the world.  When our cry for happiness goes unheard, the experience has no effect on our metaphysical stance or our behavior.  We do not doubt or question either the world or ourselves, because we already know.  We have access to gnosis:  and it tells us that the world is controlled by pure will.  That is the nature of reality.  If our willed identities, despite their unique refulgence, fail to produce happiness, it must be because other wills, not-us, corrupt and greedy and self-seeking, have taken possession of the social order and wield power to obscure truth and punish the good.

The world is a theater of degradation.  We, though good and true, are the players on that wretched stage.  Our eyes now open, we behold a system of human relations with which we can have no truck or compromise, if we wish to endure as vessels of subjective life.  The world we gaze on in fear and loathing stares back with Gorgon’s eyes, petrifying will and identity into dead objects.  Between such a world and us, we finally realize, there must be a state of total and remorseless war.

The humanitarian ideal only fuels the ferocity of our repudiation.  We consider ourselves, in all humility, the embodiment of the ideal:  the good and the true.  We subscribe to all the right doctrines, and are liberated from spurious prejudices.  Yet we have been thrust into a social order that degrades and objectifies when, in our expectation, it should applaud and personalize.  Despite our merit, which we estimate to be very great, we are denied validation and happiness.  The humanitarian impulse orbits around the identification of victims – and, by our reckoning, none have been more severely victimized than us.  Humanitarianism in this way gets swallowed by identity.  We feel powerful waves of pity and sympathy toward the most deserving of victims, ourselves, and commensurate spasms of rage aimed against the victimizer – the system, society, reality.

The political order responds with programmed benevolence and numerical notions of welfare.  That we dismiss, angrily though not unjustly, as an attempt to buy us off on the cheap.

***

The stance we have taken toward personal identity has collided – must collide – with the stance we have taken toward nature and society, and we are hurled down from the mountain-top, shattered in spirit.  The world around us is false and dead.  The social order bends to the will of faceless and heartless phantoms.  Everyday life is a process of absorption and participation in a repulsive lie.  Nothing is as we imagined.  Nothing remains of our great expectations.

What is to be done?

When being in the world is intolerable, the logical way out is not-being:  the destruction of ourselves or of the world.  A growing number have chosen self-destruction.  Few questions illustrate more starkly our inability to speak about the inner life than this dismal trend in suicides.  The experts, abstracted to a geometric point, use words that denote vague impersonal categories, like “depression,” “substance abuse,” “personality disorder,” “traumatic experience.”  Such verbiage leads nowhere.  The experts are unable to explain why ever more people are willing to abort their lives.

Suicide is the ultimate crisis of identity.  When we contemplate obliteration, we are not thinking in medical or sociological terms:  we are in the grip of an overmastering feeling.  We are experiencing a rupture, like a horrific wound, between our inner life and the demands of a false and alien world.  Placing blame is beside the point.  Self-loathing is just the flip side of the vast stores of admiration and pity we hold for the ruined glories of our inner selves.  “I think I simply love people too much,” wrote Kurt Cobain in his suicide note.  The horror is less that we have failed the world, but that the world has failed us.  We loved too much.  We aimed too high.  If, as is likely to happen, we have detached ourselves from history, convention, religion, and all who are not-us, then we will come to the moment of crisis in a darkened theater, in absolute silence, alone.

We have wandered too far into the wilderness for God or humanity to make sense of us – to redeem us.  We have only pure will.  The assertion of will against the world, conducted in silence and solitude, ourselves within ourselves, must end, irredeemably, with our ending.

***

Most of us choose to live on.  The great majority abides by the logic of our present predicament, externalizing the impulse to violence.  We hate the world.  We feel at war with the social order, and exult in the dream of its destruction.  That overturning we envision in the manner of an exorcism, a casting out of demons and phantoms.  We add nothing to the mix.  No new philosophy or organizing principle need be put in place of what is destroyed.  We share a simple faith that it would be the highest form of progress if history committed suicide.

Our personal orientation is still toward identity.  We scatter to our private islands of being, and there absorb the hidden knowledge of things, that the world is false, and reality is willed.  But we no longer expect validation or happiness.  Other wills, not-us, stand in the way.  Other wills compel our will, and if the world is degradation, it is also true that the world is us.  We long for purification:  for a blank slate, a nothingness.  Our moral orientation is toward nihilism.

In a certain sense, we are all nihilists now.  Among many the condition is latent.  We move uneasily through the world, in full remission, undiscovered, until some toxic corner of the environment eats away the mask and unleashes the hurt and the hate.  Then repudiation flows outward, from the core of our being, like a cleansing fire – against government tyranny, against the rich who control government, against Christian bigots, against anti-religious social warriors, against patriarchy and against political correctness, against racists and racial panderers, against the politicians, the media, the financial system, the universities, the know-nothings, the people and the institutions that have flung us down from the mountain-top, and objectified us, and diminished us.  Nothing standing is left untouched.

We are the children of negation.  Like the “anti-matter” of particle physics, we exist to nullify.  We are, in a partial list, anti-institution, anti-ideology, anti-history, anti-not-us.  We wish to wipe the world clean of these base things, and start again from nothing.  To do so would erase most of the elements that composed us, we are vaguely aware of that, but on the occasion we recall that the world has failed its promise, and that we have loved too much, and we remain captivated by the dream of destruction.  Negation takes the place of happiness.  It takes the place of righteousness – the compass by which we orient ourselves toward the good.

It is also the last unifying principle.  Some time ago we abandoned the old conventional meeting-places:  nation-state, government, market, church, even family.  Now we gather only to protest.  We find common ground only in the generalized impulse to smash at the standing structures of the world.  What we are for is uncertain.  Whatever we claim to advocate will be a source of mutual distrust and dispute.  But we are pulled together, tightly, fervently, against.  The enemy is always present:  the world that refuses to validate our existence, and a social order that has relegated us to nullity.

We have witnessed “opinion cascades” – virtual Niagaras of negation – that propelled hundreds of thousands, even millions, to revolt against the social and political order.  Tremendous energies are released by these in-gathering moments.  Each resembles a tsunami that sweeps over the human landscape, twisting and breaking everything in sight.  Whole nations have perished in the nihilistic frenzy of the Levant.  Humanitarianism is no longer even a platitude there, identity is the cause of wars of extermination, and the cascade, first an aggregation of will, is now a torrent of blood and death.

In the circle of democratic societies, the same forces have toppled elected governments, pulled political parties apart, and raised exotic, coarse-spirited figures to power.  The turmoil reflects a fundamental contradiction between our stance toward identity and the principle of representative democracy.  We imagine ourselves to be transcendentally unique creatures:  solitary stars in the firmament of being.  But uniqueness cannot be transferred or alienated.  We are, in our essence, unrepresentable.  The metaphysical premises of the electorate collide with the requirements of democracy as actually practiced in large nation-states.  This is not viable, even for the short term.  We stand, with regard to democracy, on the edge of a precipice, lured forward by Gnostic illusions.

Whatever the outcome, we will be dissatisfied.  We remain trapped in the claustrophobic spaces between us and not-us, for an obvious reason.  Negation is not, and can never be, liberation.  Destruction makes an emptiness rather than a way forward.  Once the spasm of repudiation is spent, we are still stuck in the muck.  We lack a shared project of life.  We lack direction:  a way of becoming.

In the depths of the frozen river of pure will, we dream of power and destruction, of gnosis and happiness – “till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

***

Some – a chosen few – leap into the void of true nihilism.  These exalted spirits perpetrate famous crimes in every corner of the globe.  Their bloody deeds are constantly before our eyes.  The Islamist who self-detonates in a pizza parlor, the shooter of children at an elementary school – such horrors appear equally impossible to explain and to escape.  To commit them demands the obliteration of every social bond and fellow-feeling that entangles us with not-us.  The true nihilist has no place in the world.  He stands outside humanity.  He lives for death.

What is he, then?

An earlier age would not have hesitated to call him barbarian.  We prefer political terms like “terrorist,” or psychological labels like “sociopath.”  But we should consider the nihilist a premonition.  A theorist of revolutions, a Lenin, would discern in his type the vanguard of a terrible future.

The nihilist is the logical conclusion of the process of negation.  He has reached the spot toward which so many of us are headed.  He, too, is in the grip of an overmastering feeling, like his self-destructive brethren, whom he typically joins.  The feeling that agitates him is a powerful sense of his superiority to the world and other people.  He dwells in a Gnostic universe, in which he is pure of spirit, and all things not-him are foul.

The rub of the world on his flesh therefore torments him.  The selfishness of humanity nauseates him.  The gathering darkness, inside and out, leave him no choice but to embark on a final solution – an act of personal deliverance and world-historical retribution.  He must kill, and he must die.

The certainty of being compelled – “triggered,” as one prolific killer phrased it – protects the nihilist from any sense of responsibility.  In the midst of death and carnage, he feels as innocent as a lamb.  Guilt for his crimes must fall on the social order:  he is merely the instrument of justice.  Osama bin Laden, a precursor of the type, chortled and giggled without restraint, as he told the story of how he had learned that the blood of thousands was on his hands.

The true nihilist today is more earnest.  He disgorges judgments by the ton.  These are mawkish and abstract, a rhetoric disconnected in tone, logic, and sense of proportion from the violence, yet bearing an uncanny resemblance to our own negations.  In the nihilist’s bloodstained vision of the world we discern a familiar landscape.  His clamors de profundis recall our everyday repudiations.  We, too, believe that the world has failed, and the social order must be smashed.  We, too, exist in an airless coffin of pure will, and with every shudder dream of destruction.  The nihilist, that twitching marionette, is a flawless image of us, in a more advanced stage of moral decomposition.

The blind impulse to destroy has already risen to power in certain places of the Middle East.  Men who “love death” have conquered a howling chaos, and translated the social contract into mass murder.  It seems impossible that such a catastrophe will overtake the enlightened nations where we live, because we love life too much, and are such devout humanitarians.  But we have exhausted our spiritual force on identity:  we can really only love ourselves.  Life that is not-us we treat instrumentally, indifferently, as props in the drama of personal happiness.

And the nihilist, with his cult of death, considers himself to be the greatest and most sincere of humanitarians.  All his crimes are perfect justice.  He looks on the world, abode of lies, and by some dark inversion is able to say, “It’s your fault I killed.”


Revolt against the world (2): Happiness

March 21, 2017

This is the second 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.

***

Our concerns with nature are entirely instrumental.  We worry about running out of fossil fuels or the effects of global warming.  We protect animal species as an extension of humanitarian duty.  But every trace of reverence for our forgotten mother has been lost:  the redemptive power Rousseau and the Romantics experienced in the contemplation of nature is, for us, as quaint and unscientific as the worship of the sacred oak or the water nymph.

It is to the social order that we turn for affirmation and applause.  This is the only world we experience in any depth:  the jagged edge, therefore, of contradiction, of our rage and loss.  To a hypersensitive generation, every brush with society leaves behind a grievance like an open wound.

Our stance toward society mirrors our stance toward nature.  We choose to abstract ourselves as if to a geometric point, the better to objectivize human relations and institutions and so manipulate them to instrumental ends.  We believe in impersonal but transcendent concepts:  production, consumption, equality, welfare.  To translate these concepts into reality, we place immense faith in statistical conventions:  GDP, the unemployment or crime or productivity “rates.”  Such conventions, only marginally more meaningful than numerology, appear objective, scientific, and for this reason have gained great power over our thinking.

Most of our relations are instrumental.  They could be conducted with anyone else.  The barista at the coffee shop, so full of personality today, will be someone else tomorrow.  The same is true of every clerk at every store.  Our bosses and co-workers could be anyone else.  The bureaucrat issuing us a driver’s license or a Social Security check could be anyone else.  The products we consume could be manufactured and sold by anyone else.  Even we, in the majority of our encounters – we, too, for all our unique identities, could be anyone else, giving the reality of everyday life the feel of a walk on very thin ice.  At any moment, we could disappear.

If, in nearly every aspect of existence, we can be replaced by anyone, then we are no one in particular.  We have no identity.  We bow in the direction of society, expecting applause, and find ourselves in a dark and silent theater, unable to perceive, through the shadows, not just the audience but our own selves.

When, in that moment of supreme revelation, we pivot from private dream to shared reality – that is, from identity to society – we are not entirely clear, ourselves, about the nature of our claims.  We would certainly deny our need for validation.  We would dismiss out of hand the possibility that we have mistaken applause for meaning.  Our self-valuation is too high for that.

We call the object of our claims on the world happiness.

***

The demand for happiness dominates the moral life of modern persons.  We recognize no higher value, not even love or family.  Our journey into the world, we imagine, has but one aim:  to achieve personal happiness.  Everything else must be arranged accordingly.  Groups that give precedence to God or honor or duty inspire our condescension and, truth be told, our contempt.

The question would appear to be one of method:  of how.  But prescriptions vary so radically that it is clear we mean different things by the term.  For Thomas Jefferson, who inserted the concept into the DNA of the American character, “individual happiness” was “inseparable from the practice of virtue.”  If we wish to be happy, Jefferson held, we must first master our desires and match them to the reality of a pitiless world.  This is an old Stoic formula, almost incomprehensible to the modern mind.

We have assumed an abstracted and instrumental stance toward society.  We perceive the chaotic swirl of human activity, including our own desiring, from an external perspective, as a complex of objects and forces to be manipulated to some end.  If the end is happiness, it must follow a utilitarian calculus of pleasure and pain.  Society, therefore, must be so constructed as to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Were this line of thought to stop here, it would lead us to the rankest hedonism.  Our social ideal would be endless orgy.  And, to be sure, we can see all around us the seductiveness of the orgiastic ideal for a certain kind of modern person.

But two considerations bar the way to a model of society as a garden of orgasmic delights.  The first is the humanitarian impulse.  Not only does our pleasure lose legitimacy when it involves another person’s pain:  we are also enjoined by pseudo-Christian scruples to assist all those who suffer, even at some cost to ourselves.

The second and more powerful objection to pure hedonism is derived from the illusion, fostered by our abstracted perspective, that only the objective and “scientific” is real.  So too with happiness:  to be real, it must be mathematically expressed.  We demand that our pleasure be measured.  So first the intellectuals, then the government, and at last all of us have placed our faith in statistics that capture some abstracted aggregate of affluence, or living conditions, or health, as shorthand for pleasure and thus for happiness.  Here at least is something measurable.

If the aim of human life is to be happy, and happiness is measured in income, consumption, and similar tokens of material wealth and physical well-being, then we are duty-bound to take time off from the orgy to become educated, pursue a profitable career, exercise for our health, and raise the next generation of producer-consumers whose taxes will support us in old age.  Until only yesterday, the mode of living that resulted from such considerations resembled the “bourgeois virtues” more than the Roman orgy.

***

Happiness, at the time Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, was something to be achieved within a community.  Virtues and vices were shared values, and, all things equal, those who practiced the one were validated, and those who fell into the other were condemned, by public opinion.  Because the human condition is tragic (a problem Jefferson tended to ignore) there could never be perfect identity between virtue and happiness.  Good people sometimes suffered.  But this social orientation at a minimum delivered peace of mind:  to the Stoic, that was enough.

We stand today in a different moral landscape, differently oriented.  We expect to find happiness as part of a personal search.  It is something we discover alone, in silence and secrecy, plumbed out of the depths of being, touching the world at points of only private significance.   The happiness of others is of objective, humanitarian interest to us.  Only our own happiness engages the potent subjective forces of the human heart.  Only the quest for personal happiness re-enchants that world from which we have abstracted ourselves.  It is the ideal of the good toward which our lives are oriented:  the magnetic pole of identity.

When we scatter to our exotic identities, we do so in the hope of securing, in that posture, our unique form of happiness.  We have largely repudiated conventional ideas – the happiness of the herd.  That is driven (so we think) by herd instinct, social anxiety posing as happiness.  We have avoided (or so we imagine) the well-trod paths, and thus grown alien to each other, in the belief that the value we seek must remain virginally pure for us and unsullied by the profane hands of not-us.  We reach for a place that transcends all previous human experience, beyond history, mother of superstition and suffering.  We climb to the pinnacle of subjectivity, where the world dances to the music of our most secret cravings, and on that perch assume the glory of our solitary star-like selves.

Then, because we are human after all, not Nietzschean supermen, we turn to the social order and ask for validation and applause.  We demand meaning from the human herd whose conventions we have so loudly rejected.  That, after all the sound and fury, is the only way we can see clear to happiness.

As we turn to the social and political order, we encounter the tender mercies of an impersonal benevolence.  We are allowed much freedom, which we cash in for the flight to identity.  Our human needs are treated with sensitivity, though of an instrumental kind.  Formulas determine the number of parking spaces for the disabled, for example.  The government mandates a day, or a month, or a parade, to celebrate what we are.  The law enforces a rough equality.  We are objects of official sympathy and tolerance.  That is not nearly enough for us.  That is not our demand.

Our insistence that happiness must reward personal identity has blocked the way to more basic forms of happiness.  We have transcended marriage.  We are not interested in procreation.  These conventional activities we have left far behind in our journey away from not-us.  In their place, we have mustered an army of professional validators:  from the therapist we pay to tell us how special we are in our depths, to the tattoo artist we patronize to make us unique on our surfaces.  We wage a hopeless daily struggle to personalize the impersonal, but the machinery of the social order, though objectively programmed for sympathy and benevolence, is unable to comprehend – much less satisfy – our all-too-human spiritual requirements.

At the culmination of our secret search for happiness, as we lean forward, subject to object, we plunge into the jaws of a monstrous impossibility.  We have chosen to live in a third-person universe:  and it is unable, under any conditions, to deliver first-person validation or happiness.


Revolt against the world (1): Identity

March 14, 2017

This is the first 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.

***

The human race is in revolt against the world.  That is our present predicament.  The revolt is global and world-historical.  Few corners of the earth have escaped its effects.  Some, like the Levant, are drowning in the blood spilled in the brutal struggle between those who possess the world – institutions, elites – and those who would tear it to pieces.

This has happened before, but always with a difference.  The early Christians turned their backs on the world to attain a higher reality.  The Marxists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries repudiated the bourgeois world to align themselves with the logic of history, and usher in a paradise of perfect justice and freedom.  Other sects have forsaken the established order on behalf of some golden ideal.  None of this applies here.

Our revolt lacks direction.  We are not headed toward higher ground.  We do not rebel on behalf of some ideal of life or justice.  Even our migration to barren islands of identity is a form of self-exile:  an escape from the world rather than an alternative to it.  Though our mouths are full of slogans, we are incapable of expressing a coherent shared project of life.  We fail to offer alternatives because we know of none.

The world, to us, resembles a vast machine fueled by the destruction of human life.  The world is a butcher’s shop of lies and corruption.  To enter this world is to be degraded.  Yet we have no alternative.  We must enter:  we must become this world.  It is, in truth, us.  The essence of our lives, the theme that defines us, we feel, is degradation.

So the great imperative must be to separate ourselves from ourselves, and thus break loose from the world.  Violence, terror, vandalism – these are our tools, the bloody scalpels that will cut us loose.  The revolt is real but personal.  It does not seek to liberate oppressed classes, much less the whole of humanity.

The shooter who enters an elementary school to slaughter children means to amputate the world in himself.  Not only is the murder of innocents justified by this kind of personal purification:  it is, to the perpetrator, the last form of justice left.

***

The world that we reject has itself repudiated much that served to organize life in the past.  Its grand structures have been drained of moral content, and relate to us in the manner of cold, remote machinery.  That was not the way before.  In every previous age, the world was warmed by the fires of a shared ideal of the good.  Life was organized around a shared code of behavior to achieve it.  Meaning flowed from our place in this scheme of good and evil.  Meaningfulness in life was a community affair, not a personal achievement.

Where we have chosen to be searchers, our forefathers were, of necessity, strivers.  They strove to become whatever high ideal the world demanded of them:  fearless warrior, pious Christian, honorable lady and gentleman.  Failure was possible, even likely for some groups.  Moral agony for the part was the price of direction and meaning for the whole.

We have come to believe in a different order of things.  In our scheme, the ideal of the good is personal, even private.  We exist to express some unique attribute of our personalities.  That is the purpose and justification of the world.  The chief moral impulse of contemporary humanity consists of a febrile search to identify, first, that star-like brilliance within us, and second, the form and the means to manifest it.

Since value is a function of scarcity, and originality is much prized among us, we tend to find our justifying identities in exotic places.  Nobody wants to be another herbivore in the herd.  Nobody cares to represent Main Street – the conventional, the historical, the inherited – the established order.  We prefer to run off with Gauguin to Tahiti – each of us a new, unprecedented thing, all of us “artists of our own lives,” dwelling in primal splendor in our separate islands of being.  That, at least, is the dream.

From the heart of this dream of self-expression, we make strong claims on the world.  It must, above all things, honor and sustain our exotic identities.  Not a whit less than our ancestors, we crave meaning, only we have confused it with applause.  From our pristine atolls of sectarianism, or micro-ethnicity, or trans-sexuality, we turn to the whole, to everything we have construed as not-us, and expect an acclamation.  We do this without awareness of irony or paradox.

Though what makes us precious, in our eyes, is precisely that we are unique, untranslatable, transcendent lights far above the lowing herd, yet we fondly imagine that we possess the strength of will and spirit to compel an alien world to acknowledge our worth.  We are all Nietzsche’s artist-tyrant, to ourselves at least.

So we lean outward, subject to object, intending to take our bows – and, at once, we are caught in the teeth of a terrible contradiction.

The stance we take toward the world – natural and human – differs radically from the stance we take toward ourselves.  We have chosen to deal with the world instrumentally.  It’s strictly a domain for achieving certain of our basic needs.  From nature, we extract material progress.  From society, we demand a protected private space, usually defined in terms of personal rights and freedoms, as well as high levels of affluence and comfort.  To neither do we bestow a shred of divinity, spirit, or meaning.

Much can be said of this scientific and utilitarian stance, but a single observation will suffice here.  To turn for personal validation to the interplay of dead matter and blind forces is to throw ourselves, our precious identities, the integrity of our lives, on the ragged edge of an impossibility.

***

Our treatment of the natural world has no parallel in history.  It isn’t only that we have “disenchanted” nature, draining it of every trace of spirit.  That would still place us within a disenchanted order, able to draw our own conclusions.  We might conclude, for example, to follow the logic of the selfish gene.  Our actions would then be in harmony with the best scientific explanation of the strivings of organic life.  Devouring the weak would be considered justice, and the ideal human specimen would be Genghis Khan.

But we do not dwell in that disenchanted world.  By an astonishing metaphysical trick, we have abstracted ourselves from it.  We have chosen to stand, as on a geometric point, outside nature, outside ourselves, looking on both only as objects of knowledge, manipulation, or exploitation.  To objectify the cosmos, to convert it into a domain of objective study rather than worship or superstition, we have severed every link that binds us to it – even our bodies, even our intimate dreams and feelings, must be treated coldly, objectively, without any hint of their subjective power over us.

This was the Faustian bargain of the scientific, industrial, and technological revolutions:  to control nature, we must be eternally exiled from it.

The bargain rests on a justifying ethic that is, in part, utilitarian.  Materially, it promises to deliver the goods.  It can claim to have made us healthier, wealthier, and wiser than our great-grandparents.  That is the faith in progress implicit in what we call “modernity.”  By disengaging from nature, we have embarked on a journey to perfection, in which every generation expects, as a matter of right, to command greater knowledge and exercise greater control over the environment than ever before.

That there has been unprecedented material progress during the last two centuries is beyond question.  It’s been the time of the “Great Enrichment.”  But the claim that our disengagement from nature is responsible can be disputed.  Many of the contributing scientists and captains of industry were, in fact, religious people.  They saw no contradiction between their activities and dwelling within a God-enchanted natural order.

Einstein, at the end, appealed to God to protect his subjective sense of order at the heart of things.  That might have been a failure of scientific method, or a meaningful vision impossible to transcribe into scientific language – in either case, a tumble off that geometric point into the arms of the world.

Even if we grant the plausibility of the claim of disengagement, the attached costs are horrific and should give us pause.  We are asked to behave – and do, indeed, behave – like a brain-damaged patient who can’t remember the face of his mother and rejects her embraces with revulsion.  We still feel the power and the meaning of nature when we gaze, say, on a colossal mountain or a storm at sea (or, for that matter, a child-birth).  We sense a personal importance in these manifestations.  But we have lobotomized away all memory of affiliation.  We don’t have the words to explain a meaningful encounter with the natural order, even to ourselves.  All we can do is to stutter that a particular stimulus has triggered a specific response.

We have imagined ourselves disembodied on a point of pure reason.  Everything else is mere machinery.

***

The question that confronts us is how our identity-oriented stance can extract validation and applause from the dead machinery assembled by our world-oriented stance.  The answer is spelled out by a famous evolutionary theorist and writer:  “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, but blind pitiless indifference.”  So Richard Dawkins tells us.

This assertion is unusual only in being so explicit.  Dawkins says out loud what most proponents of the disengaged perspective simply assume or take for granted.  It is, for all that, an extraordinary statement.

From the geometric point to which we have abstracted ourselves, the full moral aspect of the universe can be observed.  Those who assume this perspective can speak with the voice of God and pronounce a simple judgment on the vastness and mystery of the world:  it has no good or evil.  The claim to speak with authority about cosmic matters, free of spiritual vertigo, endows the stance with much of its charm.

But the statement is extraordinary in another sense.  Dawkins appears to hold that human life can never find moral purchase in the world.  Our actions, feelings of dignity, and even our precious identities must play out on a stage stripped bare of design, purpose, evil, or good.  If “pitiless indifference” is the natural law, then the way of the world isn’t very different from that of Genghis Khan – and all our cherished human rights, all our humane ideals of tolerance and compassion, are delusions of an evolutionary episode.  That is the unavoidable inference from Dawkins’ description of the universe.

Yet somehow Dawkins does avoid the inference.  In fact, he rejects it utterly, being, in his social stance, a liberal and a humanitarian.  This clash of orientations within the breast of the same person, here exemplified by Dawkins but almost universal with us today, has come to define our moment in history.  Almost everywhere, on almost every question, we are at war within ourselves.  We are consumed by anguish and anger because, “at bottom,” our sense of worth is torn to pieces by our beliefs about the world.

***

The universe is pitiless yet we are all humanitarians, and must be so, on some principle.  The instrumental or “scientific” perspective – our stance toward nature – asserts both claims with equal insistence.  Both rest on a leap of faith:  the belief that the overthrow of prejudice and religion by science will bring about not just undreamed-of material progress but also the triumph of benevolence.  The disenchantment of the world, on this account, means the liberation of the human spirit.

So the justifying ethic of this stance moves beyond utilitarianism to embrace a radical and universal humanitarianism:  the absolute primacy of individual life is preached, and the eradication of every form of suffering, while all historical boundaries and tribal concerns that get in the way are rejected as idols to superstition.  Today we accept these propositions without question.  We go to war, as we did in Libya, for humanitarian reasons, but we also attend rock concerts that promise to end poverty in Africa and adorn ourselves with yellow ribbons for cancer “awareness.”  We have developed long lists of victim groups that we make a show of protecting.  Our hero isn’t the eloquent statesman or the brave warrior, but the Doctor Without Borders.

In truth, we are all humanitarians – that fact is not in dispute.

The awkward question is why we should be so.  Some power must be called on to sanctify life in a disenchanted world.  Where can it be found?  Some universal rule must persuade us to care for one another.  What is it?  What is the scientific equivalent of “love thy neighbor as thyself”?

The secular ideal of benevolence arose during the Wars of Religion, when reason and science seemed to offer the last chance to save European civilization.  But we live in a different world.  From our perspective, the entire stance resembles an attempt to preserve the Christian ethic after discarding Christian theology.  That is how it has been interpreted by its critics, from Nietzsche to the ideologists of political Islam.

We most clearly discern the old, scarred face of Christianity beneath the secular mask among the advocates of extreme forms of humanitarianism, like the “love generation” of the Sixties and today’s “social justice warriors.”  The former imitated St. Francis while taking care to avoid stigmata.  The latter are the unforgiving Torquemadas of our age, holding online autos-da-fé to preserve the orthodoxy of universal tolerance and inclusiveness.

We are stuck in a precarious posture, genuflecting before a biblical commandment though bereft of the divine world-view that gave it life and sense.  We try to recover by invoking the force of inevitability.  Those who reject the humanitarian impulse, we like to say, stand on the wrong side of history.  But history will not bend to our wishes.  Half a million have died in a war of extermination in Syria.  A “caliph” now rules over a state that endorses, on principle, slavery, beheading, and crucifixion.  The anti-humanitarian powers, China and Russia, are on the march.  The humanitarian superpower, the US, is in full retreat from the world.  These developments would have been astounding, if not unimaginable, a short ten years ago.

As a matter of fact rather than pseudo-Christian dogma, the tide of history, at the moment, does not appear to flow toward benevolence.  We are uneasily aware of the contradiction.  It confirms our sense that the world lacks saving attributes.