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.