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.