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.

Jose Fernandez and the burdens of freedom

November 1, 2016


Jose Fernandez was a golden young man, with a golden right arm and a golden future.  At 24, he had already been selected twice to represent the Miami Marlins in the All-Star Game, and as starting pitcher he performed with talent and dominance given to very few in every baseball generation.

On the mound, he displayed an intensity that bordered on contempt for the opposition.  Bryce Harper of my Washington Nationals, a kindred spirit, placed Fernandez among those who are “making baseball fun again” because he wore his emotions so openly.  “Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist.  And if you hit a homer and pimp it?  He doesn’t care.  Because you got him,” said Harper admiringly.  The last time Fernandez pitched, he shut out the Nationals, Harper included, making a good team look like a pack of minor leaguers.

Fernandez, in brief, was a star who should have become one of the greats in the history of the game.

That was not to be.  Around midnight of Saturday, September 25, propelled by whatever restlessness drives a 24-year-old with endless supplies of money, he and two friends went out to the dark waters of Biscayne Bay on his speedboat, the “Kaught Looking.”  Two hours later the boat was found upside down on a jetty.  The three men on board had been crushed to death.  The golden youth, the golden arm, and the golden future were lost forever.

A bit over a month later, the Dade County medical examiner’s office released its report on the autopsy.  It had found cocaine and high levels of alcohol in Fernandez’s blood.


The back story of Jose Fernandez’s life is in some ways more significant than his career in professional sports.

He was born in Santa Clara, Cuba, and he determined from an early age to escape that crumbling dictatorship.  By the time he was 15, he had tried and failed three times to leave the island.  Failure cost him a prison term:  in Castro’s Cuba, you are a traitor if you aren’t happy with your life.  In this, Fernandez showed the same determination he was to display on the mound.  In 2008, along with family members, he tried a fourth time.

The boat he was in hit turbulent waters on the way to Mexico, and Fernandez’s mother was swept overboard.  He jumped in the ocean and rescued her.  “I have always been a strong swimmer, since I was a kid,” Fernandez said by way of explanation.  In fact he was a kid when this ordeal took place – barely 15 years old.

The fourth attempt succeeded.  Fernandez eventually made it to the US, attended high school in Miami, became an American citizen, and rode the golden arm to wealth and fame.  He was a ballplayer with a difference.  He had been born unfree and all possible paths were now open to him.  Fernandez often said that pitching in the major leagues never made him nervous.  He had lived through too much to worry about anything that transpired within a game.

The question that haunts the life and death of Jose Fernandez is that of the burdens of freedom.  He faced down a dictatorship with unyielding courage.  Given the freedom to do so, he succeeded, materially and professionally, beyond the dreams of the vast majority of people.  Can anything more be asked of a young man whose life, though eventful, had scarcely begun?

A number of Cuba’s baseball “defectors” – the word implies treason against the state – who have gone from nothing to freedom, appear to have had trouble working out the implications of the latter condition.  The great closer Aroldis Chapman was suspended from the game for 30 days for domestic violence.  Hector Olivera, with a $62 million contract in his pocket, served ten days in prison for misdemeanor assault of a female acquaintance.  Yasiel Puig, worth a mere $42 million, was involved in a drunken barroom brawl after a fight with his sister.  Livan Hernandez, favorite of Nationals fans, has clearly kept company with drug traffickers and has been investigated for money laundering, though he has never been prosecuted.

These men defied Castro’s decrepit tyranny, and succeeded materially and professionally beyond most people’s dreams.  But it may be that freedom, properly understood, entails something more than this.


To a man just released from a cage, all his desires will appear licit.  This is an illusion.  It is too much and not nearly enough.  Freedom, I think, is more than the buzz of cocaine, the chill of alcohol, the youthful madness of roaring over the water at 2 a.m. in a magnificent speedboat – more, too, than the right to strike at the persons who deny our desires, and who seem, by that denial, to be pushing us back in a cage.

We must make allowances for those who have escaped from darkness into the light of day, and are dazzled and blinded by the sudden brilliance.  But this isn’t freedom at all.

If you want to learn what freedom means, ask a couple in love.  Ask a parent.  Ask a soldier at war.  Freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  A tinseled despot like Fidel Castro may say, “I own your life – you belong to me.”  Freedom consists of the following response:  “No.  My loyalty is to my family.”  Or to my country.  Or to my friends and neighbors.  Or to my church.

Doing anything we desire isn’t freedom.  It’s tyranny of a different kind.  It’s playing the part of Fidel Castro in a Mini-Me sort of way.

The burdens of freedom are the obligations we choose.  Once chosen, they must be shouldered to the end.  To the shallow mind that may feel like a cage, but it is really integrity, wholeness, the rare and mysterious dignity of being a complete human being.  If you are truly married, you will be loyal to your spouse.  Otherwise, why bother with so many lies?  If you are a good parent, you will give up the party life, the days of rum and cocaine, the midnight races in the Bay, so you can be there to protect your children, and wipe their bottoms, and put up with their temper tantrums, and work for their happiness and success in life.  Otherwise, what do the words “father” and “mother” mean?

Jose Fernandez’s girlfriend, we are told, had just revealed that she was pregnant.  I am old-fashioned enough to worry about the notion of a pregnant girlfriend.  That seems like an obligation, too.  Fernandez, though, was nothing if not loyal, and I want to believe that, had he lived, he would have married the mother of his child.  But he never woke up to what fatherhood meant.  Maybe he needed more time, but he still acted like a restless 24-year-old with an endless supply of money, and then there was no time left.

His girlfriend, I presume, will inherit nothing.  His child will grow up never knowing his father, just as he will never know his child.


I’m not really writing this to moralize over the death of Jose Fernandez.  Even at 24, he was old enough to know better, but he paid with his life for his misjudgment.  That was much too high a price.  There can be nothing but sadness from the loss of this extraordinary young man.

I write because I believe many of us – not nearly so young, not nearly so dazzled by wealth and fame – have lost sight of what freedom means.  We have come to reject the very idea of obligation, because it feels like oppression.  We blame shadowy forces, some secretive but all-powerful Enemy, for whatever doesn’t go our way.

Everything today ends in politics, and this post, alas, will be no exception.  I don’t know how it happened that American politics became the equivalent of a cocaine high, with so many of us feeling like brazen masters of the universe, expecting as a matter of right the triumph of our opinions and the fulfillment of our every desire.  I don’t know how we came to believe that only the villainy of those who disagree with us is blocking the perfect utopia of our dreams.

But that isn’t the way of freedom at all.

Personal freedom consists of choosing our obligations.  Political freedom entails the understanding that our choices will often collide.  Only the tyranny of a single will – rule by a Fidel Castro, say – can prevent that from happening.  The frustration we feel because others disagree with our choices is the essence of political freedom.

If we embrace freedom as a political ideal, then we must shoulder certain obligations.  Chief among them is the assumption that others are as wise in their reflections and as virtuous in their intentions as we are.  On any given question, they may turn out to be right, and we may turn out to be wrong.  If we desire the power to persuade others, we must be willing to be persuaded.  Keeping an open, receptive mind is the only way to make room for all of us.

We can’t shrug off the burdens of freedom without vandalizing our own objectives and beliefs.  We can’t strike at those who block our political desires and not expect rage and rant in return.  None of this is particularly profound, but all of it, I suppose, is hard, being a question of character.  Still, every generation since the Civil War managed the trick:  and we can too, if we so wish it.  The alternative is to allow American politics to fly with reckless abandon into dark waters, stupefaction at the helm, and count off the seconds until the fatal hour.

Our moral nakedness

July 19, 2016

adam eve adoration

Years ago, unperceived by most, we entered the age of rant.  We have learned to condemn dissenters in language steeped in nihilism and violence.  Morality has become the equivalent of an assault rifle.  We use it to silence forever those persons and opinions we find hateful – and there are so many, so many of the hateful.  They should be shamed.  They should be fired from their jobs.  They should be prosecuted as criminals.  They should be crucified.

On occasion, some lost soul takes this process to its logical conclusion, picks up a real rifle, and starts mowing down his version of the hateful.

I find this remarkable.  Anyone who considers the rant and fury of our moment must find it remarkable – not because it is extreme, but because it seems to float on nothing.  Each condemnation implies that a right or principle of good behavior has been violated.  But our rights have been torn off their foundations, our principles lack first principles.  God and Christianity are out of the question.  Convention and tradition are precisely what is under attack.  Reason, nature, science – each is a bone of contention, a battleground rather than a starting-point.

So we stand morally naked, ranting at others whom we find hateful because of their moral nakedness.


Consider a basic but nonpolitical question.  Should I pursue pleasure as the highest good, to the ultimate extreme?  To do so would subject every loyalty and relationship of mine to the test of that one principle:  my pleasure.  I’d be free to, say, have as much sex with as many women as I could, provided it’s pleasurable, and I’d be absolved from the duties of child-raising, because (as every parent knows) parenting is kind of a pain.

Many would object to this behavior – but on what principle?  Puritanical?  Conventional?  Sociological?  Humanitarian?  Valid objections to a purely hedonistic life can be raised from each of these foundations.  None is generally shared, however.  None will persuade across the patchwork of moralistic war-bands that define contemporary life.

The moral reality is that many men today behave just as I have described, yet they are not the target of anyone’s rant.  Nobody cares enough to want to shame them or to get them fired or arrested.  When Hollywood makes sexual hedonism into a virtue, as it sometimes does, nobody calls for a boycott.  Though we may disapprove, our opinions lack purchase and conviction.  We have grown comfortable in a posture of outrage about many things, but sexual predilections are a big part of identity, and we are reluctant to draw boundaries.

In the age of rant, transgression appears in the guise of liberation, and liberation engenders feelings of moral outrage and unease.


At this point, the Fist-Nose-Peace argument usually makes an appearance.  It goes something like this:  “Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.  Your right to pursue pleasure ends when you inflict pain.  In sexual matters, you have no right to treat women as objects of your pleasure, because that’s hurtful.  You have no right to rape.  And please note:  many are outraged, and make a loud noise against, those who objectify and rape.”

To which is added (often tacitly) the Peace corollary:  “The spread of science and reason means that ever larger numbers now abstain from hurtful behavior.  The human race has evolved inexorably toward humanitarianism.  If you are selfish, abusive, or exploitive, you will be left behind by history.”

But this is Christianity without Jesus.  Fraternal love and compassion are the prime virtues.  It used to be that God so commanded – who commands it now?  The law?  But our law evolved from Christian doctrines.  Cut off from these, we are, philosophically speaking, adrift.  Our natural empathy?  But we can train empathy to be highly selective in its objects, much like soldiers can be trained out of the horror of killing strangers.

Why should I care about your nose, or your hurt feelings?  Here is our own riddle of the Sphinx, the question that lays bare our moral nakedness.  It isn’t rhetorical.  Ranters, so delicate about the feelings of those in their own camp, are vicious to those they consider hateful, with jail, rape, and murder part of their typical repertory of threats.

An appeal to rights only begs the question.  Who or what has the authority to grant us rights?  Some claim the right to change sexes, on the grounds of personal identity.  The same persons are likely to deny the right to own guns, even if that is part of someone’s identity.  So the claiming of rights has become little more than a weapon in the clash and push of enraged opinions.

As for the inevitable triumph of humanitarianism – that’s a pretext for limiting one’s engagement to the rant.  Why risk a fight for the good, when everything is bound to turn out for the best?  Yet this proposition, though it gestures vaguely toward science and reason, is grounded on nothing.  Science is amoral.  It gave us penicillin and the ovens at Buchenwald.  Reason is an empty bucket – it needs reasons to act on.  Empirical evidence is at best ambivalent on the inevitability of human kindness.

Hundreds of thousands of human beings, most of them helpless innocents, have been slaughtered during the last five years in the Syrian conflict.  To wash our hands of them because they stand on the wrong side of history is an act of monstrous moral condescension and indifference unto death.


Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions.  One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy.  Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations.  A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities:  instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.

We seem to think we know – absolutely, universally.   And so we rant at those hateful people who don’t get it.

Even Fist-Nose-Peace is less an argument than a background assumption, rarely articulated.  We seem uninterested in arguments.  That’s the remarkable bit:  in all our shouting, we never look down to see that our dogmas have come unmoored, that we and they are floating in mid-air.  We take for granted that our war-band’s slogans are absolutely valid principles, universally accepted.  The very act of doubting, questioning, criticizing, will translate into betrayal and place us among the “deniers.”

We are terrified of doubt.  We don’t care to persuade, because that requires a space that is open to hurtful possibilities.  So rather than convert the infidel, we prefer to scream threats at him, in the hope that someone will implement them.  For me, this gives the game away.

If the why or what or how of the ideology we embrace holds no interest, then we must be fixated on the who.  The age of rant isn’t about moral conflict or disputation.  It’s about the will to power.  We don’t argue, any more than Nietzsche’s Artist-Tyrant would.  We decide.  But even then our tyranny is flabby – cowardly.  Our pitch is high-decibel, our tone is absolute, our condemnations are fevered and violent, but except for the occasional crazed shooter our actions are always virtual.

We are not a population of Madame Defarges, knitting by the guillotine.  That would be too real.  In the perfect world of each moralistic war-band, some impersonal agent, preferably the government, would criminalize the views and activities of hostile groups, as purveyors of hatred.  Those who belonged to such groups would be publicly shamed and re-educated.  If they resisted, they would be harassed at every step of their lives.

And maybe, in a far corner of the city square, out of everyone’s sight, a single guillotine might be erected, for symbolic purposes, to encourage the others.


I don’t have the power to change the spirit of the times.  Nobody does.  Sanity, if it ever returns, will arrive one newly-blossomed mind at a time.

Nor do I wish to rant about ranters – that would deliver me body and soul to the zeitgeist.  Perdition lies that way.

But I can make choices.  All of us can.  At every turn I choose what binds over what splinters.  I offer my feeble endorsement to Major League Baseball and Pokemon Go, because in our games we seem to be at our best and least contorted.  I treat politicians with respect whose policies horrify me, because they represent the electorate.  I despise Black Lives Matter and alt-conservatives with equal measures of contempt, because both tear at the open wound of separation and human distance.

No community can survive with members self-exiled to distant islands of identity.  I choose to consider people under the largest common denominator:  not whiteness or blackness, not richness or poorness, not maleness or femaleness, not straightness or gayness, not any of the now-mandatory shards of human spirit, but as part of a single gathering, of the same moral community.  And so I choose the only morality all of us can possibly share:  that given by our history and our traditions.

Call it conventional morality.  Or call it vulgar, as I do on this blog.  Anyone can appeal to it, because we share in common the sources and the ideals and the phrases:  “do unto others,” “created equal,” “pursuit of happiness.”  Yes, it exalts kindness and compassion – but also courage and strength of character.  It demands equality of moral standing but applauds superiority earned by excellence and honest work.

The appeal to conventional morality commits me to making arguments.  That’s how the tradition works.  I must respect advocates of hostile opinions enough to offer persuasive reasons to change them.  To my surprise, I have chosen to do this too.  I have posted 683 times on this blog – each post is a kind of argument, an attempt to stitch a threadbare cover to our nakedness.  Have I changed even a single mind?  I have no idea – possibly not.  But I can only choose to try.

Ultimately, I choose to valuate individuals according to moral worth:  kind or unkind, good or bad, strong or weak.  Beyond this framework, I have very little interest in their identities.

And in the Hobbesian war of all against all in which we are presently engaged, I choose to be a conscientious objector.

Conversation in the desert

November 16, 2015

ca desert westin 003

The desert pares the mind down to the essentials of human existence.  Emptiness concentrates, even as luxury dissipates.  In the lush woods and streams of classical Greece, people discovered a thousand gods and nymphs, but the Israelites in their barren wilderness could conceive of only one all-determining force, which was their Father, Lawgiver, and Commander of the Army.

So it should not be surprising that, when I visited my sister and her family at their home near the Mojave, the conversation turned metaphysical.

I began with a story I recently told here.  Our way of life, I said, resembles a confused version of Christianity – Christianity with a hole in its logic.  We espouse humanitarian ideals like love, compassion, and equality, but we fail to attach them to any necessary cause.  These are, of course, Christian ideals.  They were once attached to God and the Ten Commandments.  God, in old days, was the necessary cause.

If an anthropologist from Mars had asked one of my forefathers why he lived the life he did, that worthy person would have responded, in the manner of Urban II, “God wills it.”

But we have done away with Christianity as a source of moral certainty. We are reluctant to acknowledge any authority greater than our own opinions.  If that Martian scientist were to ask us why we live as we do, I wager that most of us today would respond, “Because I will it.”

This makes the framework that sustains our way of life a poor, contingent thing.  I will humanitarianism.  But my next door neighbor may will cannibalism.  I can have no moral or logical objections to his choice – he and I, humanitarian and cannibal, must point equally to our internal states, our desires, to justify our lives.


My sister seemed surprised that I identified the humanitarian way of life with Christianity.  To her, the two were quite distinct.  She had a different story to tell.

In the beginning, she said, people worshipped dissolute gods and allowed themselves immoral and inhumane behavior.  They did so out of ignorance.  They lacked awareness.  In time, with the progress of the human spirit, they – that is, we – came to understand the superiority of humanitarian principles, of kindness, compassion, equality, toleration, and the rest.  These, she insisted, were not particularly Christian ideals, but universal, self-evident goods.  For many centuries we needed a strict, moral God to command and enforce them, much as children need a stern father to enforce good behavior.  But that is no longer necessary.

Humanity is now grown up, and humanitarian principles can stand on their own merit.  Atheist and Christian alike acknowledge the superiority of this way of life.

I asked whether humanitarianism would be self-evident to the Aztecs, who ripped the beating heart out of their sacrificial victims.  My sister wouldn’t hear of it.  The Aztecs, she said, were in the past.  Nobody, today, rips out hearts and thinks it a good thing to do.


What follows is my attempt to understand my sister’s position during that conversation in the desert, and should not be confused with her own words.

If humanitarian ideals are a self-evident good, they need no defense or justification, any more than, say, eating healthy food to stay alive needs a defense or justification.  All that’s required is an adult understanding of reality.  Given enough time, the entire human race must converge on these ideals:  Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, wiccan, Hegelian, Neoplatonist, Confucian, agnostic, atheist, animist, environmentalist, socialist, Republican, Democrat, all will end as one in the humanitarian gathering-place.

Ignorant or evil persons or groups may reject our way of life – exemplified, in typically unimaginative web disputes, by Hitler and the Nazis.  But Hitler and the Nazis are not a viable alternative to humanitarian principles.  They are a pathological denial of the reality of human progress.

This is theodicy:  the idea that the evidence of the universe endorses our values.  This is also what Karl Popper called historicism:  the idea that the machinery of history produces intelligible and predictable patterns, in this case nudging all of humanity in the direction of the post-Christian West.  The implication seems to be that, in matters of morality, everyone will end up just like us.

I suspect that many people who support humanitarian ideals share my sister’s position on their inevitability.  President Obama is certainly among them.  When he refers, as he often does, to the “right side of history,” he means “the predictable direction of the future” rather than “the correct moral (or political) posture for the present” – although, as with every theodicy, the two for him are really the same.

One effect is passivity in the face of contradiction.  President Obama, for example, has conducted a notoriously passive foreign policy.  Why not?  He has faith that history must move in his direction anyhow.  Those who share the president’s creed tend to be reluctant to assert or propagate it, even while hostile voices rant from the rooftops.  It may be that they, too, feel certain that mere inertia will deliver a happy future.


There is no empirical evidence that the human race is becoming kindlier or more humanitarian.  A case has been made – by Stephen Pinker among others – that we are “less violent than ever,” but this is connected to the monopolization of violence by the state, rather than to any progress in human nature.  It may also be a temporary development.

A decrease in violence, in any event, is by no means identical to an increase in tolerance, generosity, egalitarianism, or the humanitarian spirit generally.  Today we are divided against ourselves, alienated from our institutions, and vocally angry at those who are not exactly like us.  Our historical moment, I predict, will not be remembered for its loving-kindness.

A theodicy, however, never pretends to be an empirical hypothesis, but is what Isaiah Berlin labelled a “metaphysical attitude.”  Theodicy provides the categories that give meaning to empirical data:  it exists a priori, and, as with every system of meaning, it is either intuited to be true or not.

My sister intuits an inevitability to moral progress.  I don’t.  Though our temperaments differ, we largely pursue the same ideals of behavior.  The question that divides us is whether these ideals are metaphysically necessary and inexorable, or imposed, in a wholly contingent manner, by the will.

There is a path out of the controversy – a middle ground that has provided the theme for this blog.  If our way of life has been made and unmade by history, and not by God or some cosmic force, then we must treat history with a great deal of respect, and break loose from our own past with a great deal of care and self-awareness.  In the domain of morals, and hence of politics, at least, we are what we were, and no amount of unhappiness with our present condition should confuse us into believing we can commune with God or nature or science and so transcend, socially or personally, our fallible humanity.

Historical change is inevitable.  Consider human language:  within a few centuries it becomes unintelligible.  Planned radical change, on the other hand, is nearly always a disaster – at best it has turned out to be the sociopolitical equivalent of Esperanto, at worst a savage holocaust.  We don’t know enough, we aren’t pure enough:  and this will be true for as long as we remain human.

To that question from the puzzled Martian about why we live as we do, a reasonable answer is:  “Because that is our custom.”

I’m aware that such an answer runs counter to the spirit of the hour.  The past, we are told, is slavery, patriarchy, economic exploitation, social exclusion, sexual bigotry, political oppression.  History is the Great Satan, and we must denounce its works if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The angry left does this by heaving slime at every form of established authority, from religion to the university.  The right, which might be supposed to respect tradition, discovers its own style of rage and repudiation in the romance of an invented past.

It’s almost a relief to observe the direct approach of the Islamists:  they take a jackhammer to history.

These are the voices of entropy, devourer of civilizations, destroyer of worlds.  If they triumph, we will inherit a great emptiness, a moral desert of negation and nihilism – and the conversation about the inevitability of humanitarian values will be settled for an age.

The metaphysics of history (5): The justification of freedom

November 9, 2015


The great historical systems of human ideals were never self-justified.  They derived the authorizing magic of legitimacy from a source beyond themselves.  Everything internal and consequential to these systems, such as the status of individuals and the policies of the state, were aligned, explained, and praised or condemned according to the mandates of that external source.

To Greek and Christian, and to every society known before the present time, the justifying source lay in the sacred realm of the transcendental, above and beyond.  Its commandments regulated humanity’s relationship to the universal.  Justification was thus direction, and direction, that clear path across time, a human necessity, was justified.

For all its unprecedented material success and quality of life, liberal democracy, at the present moment, is bereft of justification.

Material success and quality of life are praiseworthy only within a humanitarian scale of values that is suspended in mid-air, itself unjustified.  We, the children of democracy, have been given much, we have been pandered to, yet we are unhappy with our condition.  Appeals to God on his mountain are useless:  a system rooted in the soil of indeterminacy would be baffled by the riddle of which God, on which mountain.  The existential threat that, in one possible future, will rouse democracy out of its subjective torpor, cannot justify the system.  The instinct for self-preservation, available to hero and coward alike, justifies nothing.


The problem of justification for democracy, however, must not be confused with the same problem for all previous systems.  In the laws of its development and the range of its experience, democracy has left far behind the categorical patterns of the human past:  the old forms and the old logic now stand stretched and warped by distance.

Every system in history considered “the good” to be an eternal and immutable quality.  The transcendental source of justification was present in the now but also unchanging for all time.  Justification meant achieving a condition of perfection that must never again be altered to the slightest degree.  Legitimacy was the magical feeling of existing within that condition.

The societies that embraced these ideals were, objectively, scarcely less dynamic than our own, but their metaphysical foundations, the ideals themselves, aimed at a cosmic point beyond time, forever fixed.

In contrast, for liberal democracy “the good” assumes the attributes of a process:  that of becoming.  Orientation is not toward an immutable point in time, but toward the indefinite future.  The paramount democratic ideal, freedom, is a procedural value, a door that clicks open and appears otherwise empty of content.

Critics of democracy have thus typically accused the system of being a mere emptiness, all process without spirit.  But this could be said only from a specific perspective, one that looks upward and backward for justification.   From a different perspective, freedom appears overfull:  it is pregnant with every possibility, and oriented toward the future.

Because of the indeterminate spirit of liberal democracy, the source of its justification must forever lie concealed over the horizon.  To be justified means to move ever closer to a transcendent condition located in the indefinite future.  Direction for democratic societies is thus more a matter of search than of commandments from on high.

The object of migration is perfection, within the bounds of human possibility:  and that is many, not one, because the house of truth has many mansions.  Even if the universe is one, our condition will perceive the whole through a glass darkly, in fragments and pieces.  Even if humanity itself is one, we can never quite know what we are.   We may thirst for the universal – and, being human, we invariably will – but that is motive power to move faster and farther in our exodus, rather than to rest or to dream.

Insofar as democracy is a system driven by individual freedom, the shared purpose of existence becomes discovery, not absorption into the one.


There will be times when, crushed by the weight of our rootlessness, we will stop and stay.  From weariness, from weakness, we will erect false idols and bow before them:  this may well describe the present moment.  But the flood of events will sweep around us, and we will either resume our wandering or we will drown.

A moral and political system oriented toward the future will appear appallingly provisional.  This sense of fundamental impermanence has been seized on, critically, by an intellectual class that has always perceived itself as the mediator between humanity and the absolute.  From Plato to Heidegger, the judgment of philosophers has rarely favored democracy.

Yet the philosophers have treated each other’s ideas as if they were provisional steps to a greater truth, which each alone had grasped.  The “reason” of Heidegger or Foucault differed from that of Kant and Marx, and all of them differed still more substantially from Plato’s.  The absolute principles these brilliant men conjured with such confidence were products of history, and thus unstable, fleeting.  The same is true even of the great doctrines of Christianity:  the division of scripture into Old and New Testaments is a frank confession of the impermanence of human understanding.

Every human ideal is in some sense provisional, pending future events.  The justification of democracy – the future of freedom – hinges on whether a system can survive that honestly acknowledges this condition.