This is the fourth 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.
In our stance toward identity, we are headed for a reckoning. The metaphysical assumptions behind this ideal of life are self-refuting. We cannot exist entombed within ourselves and achieve happiness. We cannot demolish the social order and expect to retain present levels of freedom, security, and affluence. Reality is indocile to will. All along, history has kept us in the grip of causation. Our war with the world has been mostly fantasy, a shadow-boxing in which we have stumbled ever closer to the edge. In the manner of Humpty Dumpty, we are about to experience a great fall.
The relevant question, now, is what new principles and aspirations will put us together again.
After the fall, we will reexamine the reasons and motives that brought us to the brink. Our willed rupture with the world and with ourselves will appear, in the shock of its consequences, as bordering on suicidal. Since we have never consciously embraced extinction, we will turn in a different direction. We will reorient. We will emerge into a new moral and political landscape, an order of things that will be unlike because we will be unlike, and we will seek somehow to reconstitute our relations with the social order. That will require making distinctions and judgments among us. That will require the justification, on some shared principle, of an elite class.
In brief, we will confront the dilemma of inferior and superior, having spent a generation averting our eyes from such contrasts as from a disgusting object.
Our hierarchy of being has been a Gnostic dream. There has been, for us, only will and flesh, and every person and every group, by a sort of moral gravitation, fell into one category or the other. Judgments pertained strictly to objects of negation. We struck at the people of the flesh – government officials, the rich, the “one-percenters” – who possessed the world, and controlled the social order. Ourselves we treated as a gaseous mass of virtue. In the flight to identity, we were entangled in questions of relative value and degrees of success, but we admitted no such distinctions, we allowed ourselves no comparisons, we averted our eyes and stumbled on.
The entire subject still elicits an uneasy silence. That should serve as warning: we have wandered into a forbidden zone.
The revolt against the world has been fueled, in part, by a rigid and radical interpretation of human equality. Violations of the principle of equality, we perceive, are constant and systemic. The need to respond absorbs our attention. The wolves are among us, and before they devour us they first make us different. They impose demeaning labels and gradations upon us, then chase us, piecemeal, to the slaughter.
For the children of negation, in our season of discontent, equality must be experienced as grievance. We rage without end over inequality. We find it in every lost corner of the social order. We blame it for our personal limits, our failed expectations, our exile from meaning, our unhappiness. That we may be caught in a metaphysical vise never enters our minds. That our schemes for ourselves and for the world tear at one another we feel keenly, like a stab to the heart, but we mistake the cause. The world is a desolation of inequality: all the world’s misery can be explained this way. It follows that all our spiritual energy must be mustered against this front.
To the positive value, the state of equality itself, theoretical or actual, we have given scarcely a thought.
Equality under liberal democracy is a matter of specified rights, based on human dignity and fraternity. That is not our way. We have no conception of dignity, and are too scattered and skittish for fraternity. Our faith is in identity, and that has led us to repudiate the impersonal benevolence of liberalism. It has also placed us in an awkward posture with respect to equal rights. Identity, as we conceive of it, partakes of the aristocratic principle. We fondly imagine ourselves soaring above the lowing herd. We expect special treatment from the social order simply because of our status. We are thin-skinned, easily offended, ready to duel if we find ourselves measured by the standards of others. Equality on this basis is a prickly, protocol-driven affair, like that of the old Polish parliament, in which a single noble could veto the opinions of all the rest.
However, identity also contains, for us, a powerful dose of sectarianism. “The sectarian view,” Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky observed some time ago, “does not tolerate inequality in any form: its big promise is to introduce equality all around.” Hence our rage against hierarchies of power and pyramids of wealth. These things are corruption, the nightmare of Moloch. We pass a single judgment, casting out the wolves. Among the flock, we allow no gradations, no distinctions, no degrees of wisdom or moral progress. We are, to ourselves, a mass of undifferentiated virtue.
Sectarianism takes the Gnostic impulse to a logical extreme. Existence is made out to be a cosmic battle between truth and falsehood. The world is a lie, and those who serve the world will destroy us. We who are the incarnation of pure spirit – or, in the present case, pure will – cannot afford vanity or rivalry in our ranks. Division is treason: equality, to the sectarian mind, is a perfect state, because there are no alternatives to perfection.
Equality is normally considered the first step to democratic community. Under the distorting shadow of identity, it becomes a self-insulating proposition. The aristocratic principle has proclaimed that comparisons of any sort are intolerable. The sectarian spirit asserts that comparisons are immoral. We are, therefore, quite literally beyond compare. We feel invulnerable to moral judgment, to shared standards of behavior, to third-person valuations. All that counts is will and identity.
Beyond the negation of the world, and a relentless nihilism toward those who possess it, we have lost the ability to make distinctions of value in human life. Like small children, we dwell in a universe of one. We feel comfortably blind: as with certain pathological cases, the gift of sight, and the hard reality to which it would expose us, would crush our finer spirits.
If, for the Epicurean, happiness is the absence of pain, equality for us means the negation of inequality. We advance by destruction, and idealize the wreckage left behind. In truth, we are smashing at ourselves, making a nothingness of ourselves. The world has seduced us. We are sickened by our own cravenness – by how cheaply we have been bought. The natural order is a carnivorous mayhem. The social order is unyielding hierarchy. We either partake or destroy.
There is no way forward. Our model of equality in action is the web, where every dispute over principles concludes with death threats. Our highest ideal is something we call “science,” but science as actually practiced is a tradition-bound hierarchy of talent, accreditation, and bureaucratic power. Identity has lured us into a golden sarcophagus: we are immobilized, suffocated, entombed within ourselves. We crave to receive some external epiphany of validation, but our ears are tuned only to the sound of our own voices.
We have stumbled to a desperate place. In dread and doubt, we sense that we are treading on the burned-out cinders of an age.
We will come to a reckoning and a turning, then. The precipitating event may be an external threat or a self-inflicted disaster. The impossibility of surviving while at war with the world – that is, with reality – will be starkly revealed, and we will begin a long march away from identity, toward common ground.
The elites who guard the commanding heights to the present social order will be judged by new rules, and perceived from a new vantage point. They will be gone in a blink. They are toppling even now. The question is what and who will take their place. Destructive personalities abound at present, but the pivot away from identity will be driven by survival instinct: we will leave the nihilists in their wilderness, far behind.
We will re-weave the links that bind us to the social order. Of necessity, we will reconsider the problem of elites in democracies. We will be forced to ask: Who is admirable? Who is capable? Who is superior – and under what terms? As our self-invented coffins break open, we will reenter the swirl of history and ponder urgent questions of relative value.
Failed elites will be swept away because they have failed, not because they are elites. This and much more will become apparent in our migration toward each other. Today’s elites represent claims of knowledge and power that have been falsified a thousand times. They have read books, and mastered a certain mathematical rhetoric – the social order as a set of “problems” in search of “solutions” – and they have devised ingenious statistical conventions to measure their achievements. That is not enough. Personal reality escapes the numbers: and the need will be for human valuation.
A “revaluation of values” will have unpredictable consequences, but this much is certain: we will not occupy the place of the old elites. We will yield up the sectarian demand for perfect equality as we yield the fantasy of identity and the appeal to nihilism. Reality, we will concede, is indocile to will. In every family and community, in every mode of art, politics, or life, there is a better and a worse, there is admirable and contemptible, and there are those who embody each. This is not a pathological condition. It is cooked into the nature of things.
New people with new claims will take up the leadership. But it is our relation to them – our valuation of them – that will decide whether an authentically humane and democratic social order can long endure.
The “reciprocal action between the masses and select minorities,” José Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1922, is “the fundamental fact of every society and the agent of its evolution for good or evil.” That neatly sums up our current predicament, even if the terms are opaque.
Ortega’s “masses” we now call the public. Both are us, though at different stages of social evolution. “Select minorities” are the elites who lavish their creative energies on the effort to sustain and nourish the fabric of contemporary life. They are the truly superior artists and technologists, preachers and politicians. Their inevitability seems to stem from an iron law. Humanity, in any numbers, has always meant hierarchy.
The problem Ortega pondered was that of the right relation between us and them.
A select minority of individuals and groups, he held, were “exemplars” to the larger population. They serve as models of right behavior and capability. A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw us toward them purely by the force of their example. With no trace of compulsion, we wish to resemble them. We aspire to be like them, to re-form ourselves and reorient our destinies to their higher plane. This is not a matter of fashion or passing trends, or of assuming “a mask” to perform an impersonation. A great thaw occurs in the depths of being. “The good” is no longer perceived as an abstraction, but appears embodied in human types. It is, therefore, attainable – at any rate, we can inch our way there. The good society, Ortega concluded, was an “engine of perfection.”
In a sickly society, conversely, the elites fear the public and seek to flatter and deceive it – they will display popular tastes and attitudes, showing them to be just like us, then barricade themselves behind a wall of bodyguards and metal-detecting machines.
The inescapable presence of select minorities – true one-percenters – does not necessarily threaten democracy. It can conform to Jefferson’s notion of a “natural aristocracy” based on “virtue and talent.” Among this group, Jefferson believed, were found the guides and teachers of a free citizenry. Relations between select minorities and the public are reciprocal, just as Ortega noted. Minorities, in fact, are selected in a constant process of valuation by the public. If we are in sound spiritual health, and deal without embarrassment in inferior and superior, we will engender outstanding elites. Otherwise those who are in fact superior will be towering but misshapen creatures: lonely monsters, stripped of influence, clamoring in the wilderness.
After years of ceaseless negation, the possibility of an aspirational relationship with our elites may strike us as absurd, even shocking. Those who possess the world, we reflexively think, can only be criticized and blamed. To do anything else is to succumb to false consciousness.
Earlier generations of Americans knew better.
The archetype of a model life was that of George Washington. Few exemplary persons, outside religion, have had a more pervasive effect on the public. That was true even in Washington’s lifetime, when brilliant and commanding individuals, like Hamilton and Jefferson, acknowledged him as their superior. Later, legends and fictions encrusted this exemplary life. Washington never cut down the cherry tree, never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. Such fictions were the tribute posterity paid to the transcendent human reality that Washington had embodied.
In more recent times, we found our exemplars among inventive businessmen like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. We did not merely admire these men for their success and wealth: their personal histories, habits, and pronouncements were parsed for life lessons. Most Americans knew of Edison’s quest for the filament that would spark the lightbulb. That was a story about the triumph of persistence. Most of us also knew that the assembly line had democratized the automobile. That was a story about the social benefits of personal ingenuity.
It may be argued that today we share a similar orientation toward the giants of technological innovation – Steve Jobs, for example, or Mark Zuckerberg. But our own portrayals of these individuals show them to be unworthy of aspiration. Whatever the actual merit of their lives, they are condemned by their elite status to be perceived as selfish and dishonest characters. We need only compare Young Tom Edison with The Social Network to measure the vast moral chasm between true aspiration and our perverse itch to de-fame the famous.
The case can be made that criticism of power and wealth is a sacred duty in a democratic society. But criticism has no truck with negation. Criticism is not a call to protest or smash at every object along our path, but to understand that path, to calibrate and evaluate where we are heading. At the moment, we are as hostile to criticism as we are to valuation. It tells us that we are heading nowhere.
Identity as the highest good blocks all movement toward other-directed perfection. It compels us to be, never to do, and we can only be what we already are: a desiccated instance of ourselves. We are stuck in solitary confinement, dreaming up worlds in which we are the object of our aspiration. This cannot be sustained. Reality will shake us awake. The first move in our resumption of history will be a migration away from the Gnostic wastelands. We will seek a higher place and common ground. That can be undertaken under many principles and pretexts, but all must entail valuation, the recognition of inferior and superior, and should entail the aspiration to partake of models of human greatness.
We who are the public, in this way, will select an elite class that is worthy of us.