September 7, 2015: Cerebral Birth Pangs

Godignon and Thiriet wrote, “As the world undergoes what has been called ‘the death of meaning,’ freedom for the [individual] has arrived, since nothing external defines him anymore. He is reduced to timeless, insubstantial, and empty subjectivity. Only two possibilities remain: activity (primarily work), or stagnation (the modern form of hedonism). Any residual ‘self’ resembles any other, and like the world on which it is modeled, this self is [void], insignificant, uncultivated, and without history.” [1] When I read this, I wanted to cry. Not because it was a revelation, but because I was sad to see, yet again, that others felt as I do, or at least as I have begun to feel. This time from the French, who have made epic strides to revive French philosophy since the disgrace of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan.

I wasn’t born with the insights of a Thomas Paine or a Christopher Hitchens. So, while always curious about the world, I was still a product of my civilization. Hence, I have personally experienced both the incessant activity, and stagnation (though only briefly as a youth) that Godignon and Thiriet note. Our American custom is to attach ourselves to the perpetual present – fads, fashion, thrills, this morning’s hottest celebrity, this afternoon’s latest outrage, and of course today’s emergency at the workplace. Our civilization has become one most responsive to primal urge, because we’re so busy, as Tocqueville could already see 175 years ago. [2] Depth – of any sort, really – is not essential to employment. I feel an absence of real and substantial history the more I learn about it. And the more I learn, the better I understand what Godignon and Thiriet wrote.

For years I’ve preferred the Durant perspective: “Our capacity for fretting is endless. No matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable. There is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval.” [3] With Durant’s evaluation, I could chalk up my attitude to that “stealthy pleasure.” Until about fifteen years ago when I read Allan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind. It was the sad birth of a new certainty and remains the most impactful book I’ve ever read. Bloom’s book was a commercial blockbuster that raised a continental stink in the US, because, in my opinion, it was the first and most courageous modern text to tell the truth about us as we are now. And, as much as can be done in a single volume, the whole truth, not only that half or less that serves our dogma, Left or Right. We American’s are no longer used to that kind of honesty, especially when delivered with such intense clarity. Closing generated mass editorials, conferences, disciples in and out of academia, a book of responses, a 25th Anniversary edition, blogs with later evolution of the Internet, and is still vilified by those who were stung the hardest.

In close competition with Bloom is Delsol’s, Icarus Fallen [4], and Sandel’s, Democracy’s Discontent. [5] I read a number of books to refute these perceptions including Levine’s Opening of the American Mind [6] which quite unintentionally so reinforced Bloom while struggling to refute him, it only made things worse. At the heart of all these works is the state of humanity in modernity, with reference to the ancients, given the colossal adjustment in human life between then and now.

As a result of these studies, my fear grows; that the world we made is an historic mistake. But fears are often fueled by uncertainty. As the opening paragraph above notes, and the thread on this blog indicates, this “historic mistake” appears strongly associated with the modern conception of the individual. While I embrace the individualist solution of busyness as it serves my purpose, it does not address issues of the soul, i.e. meaning, how we got this way, or if there’s a way out.

It’s easy to dismiss modernity for a rosy image of the ancients as I watch whatever I fancy on NetFlix, seated on a comfy couch from Canada, enjoying my one-gallon-of-water-per-almond (a bag full of them) shipped from drought wracked California across an ocean to my local store. (Sounds like Durant’s stagnation.) But the difference between the ancients may be arranged in two categories, material and spiritual. They were materially poor, spiritually rich. We are the opposite. And that’s the problem. We better stay busy.

Most of our success and advancement over the ancients can be placed in material terms – stuff, technology, biological longevity, comfort, convenience, obesity. However, the technology of access can be uplifting. Consider a jet flight to Delphi, Greece, standing amidst all that magnificent history. Or the Internet, a doorway to information and rubbish. And isn’t there a great deal to be said for the abolition of slavery? (Greece had slaves too.) Once a world industry with people stolen from as far away as Iceland for Arab countries, or Africa for America, now gone but for illegal trafficking that still lingers by comparison.

What the ancients had was belonging to true communities. Ours are long since dead, though the word “community” is used hundreds of times per day in the media. (Just listen for reports of next week’s gun massacre.) As Aristotle notes, and I agree, community is not simply a common location people occupy to ease exchange. But that’s what we have. Community was once about “a people” who belonged to a way of life they sought to perpetuate. But for minuscule subgroups like the Amish, Mennonites, or orthodox Jews, there is no community left in America. Having been raised in an individualistic civilization, I would find such subgroups suffocating. But I’ll never experience the deep connections they have. We are a nation of strangers now, more so with time. Independent islands evermore disconnected from our neighbors, often our own family, nuclear or extended, separated by demands of work that limits our time and expands our distance. For a growing number of us, the ancient soul’s peace is replaced by modernity’s purpose.

Enlightenment - that cherished era of scientific and philosophical discovery from roughly 1650 - 1750 AD - sanctified the individual, but at the expense of true community, and thus began the demise of belonging, faith, and meaning. We have emptied our soul once filled by human connectedness, and the meaning that belonging once provided. We as a society disposed of deeper connections in favor of individual independence, for good reasons, but with unintended consequences. We unwittingly damaged ourselves; we jettisoned all the old certainties; we live with eternal doubt about fundamental things. As Michael J. Sandel wrote with one of my favorite lines, “Liberated and dispossessed.”

Once the accepted moral hierarchy, defined as “the common good,” was replaced by individualism, we woke up in a world of self-contradictory dogmas. As a result, in the private sphere we’re confused as to just what is right, true, good, because nobody knows. This does not stop us from staking our flag in claim of certain terrain. But this is bravado to cover for the truth we hide from ourselves – that we are not in control and we don’t understand why. In the public sphere, liberals claim there is no overarching moral code as this is an infringement on individual choice, as they hyperventilate over the latest violation of an overarching political correctness. Conservatives embrace both the Christian morality of selflessness, and Adam Smith’s capitalism of selfishness. No wonder we’re confused.

And still, after all that, despite the current status of Western civilization, I’m not yet convinced that modernity was a bad trade. It’s true, by comparison to the old ways, we are on our own. But that in itself is not always bad. Long ago, trapped in a hyper-dysfunctional relationship, I learned The Great Secret: “It’s better to be alone than wish you were.” I’ll take free choice, independence, unattached to any sort of external objectivity, rather than suffer unending face-to-face combat, any day. Though it must be said, Bloom and the others are concerned with the nature of Western society, its norms and trajectory, more than calamitous intersections between individual men and women, which the ancients had too. Though Bloom et. al. see this as a symptom and/or contributor to our demise.

I’ve benefited greatly from the social movement those Europeans started in earnest with the Enlightenment. I had a career in the sciences they invented that allowed me to leave it to do as “I” wish. It’s a wonderful thing for me, and a slow motion disaster for society. I am both benefactor and hostage to Enlightenment reason’s dispersion of community. My perspective is expanding to others with acceleration, not, I think, for the better. As a result, the soul craves meaning. But blessings of individualism won’t allow its satisfaction. We’ll have to satisfy ourselves with activity instead. At least we’ve got that.

It seems to me the good news is, we now have the freedom through democratic and capitalistic institutions, virtually without constraint, to choose our own path (unlike the ancients). The bad news is, we now have the freedom through democratic and capitalistic institutions, virtually without constraint, to choose our own path. Consequently, I’ll be doing all I can to stay busy with the dual hope that I can keep that purpose train running, and that I am not too severely haunted by an absence of meaning. There’s something to be said for a sober response to the hand life dealt us. If Oswald Spengler [7] and Brooks Adams [8] are correct, there’s no steering the demise of Western civilization anyway, may as well enjoy the ride down.

Of course, if I believed that I’d never read another book on the subject, often as hard to crack as a stone, nor bother with coalescing those thoughts they generate on this blog.

Until next time, November 2, 2015, when we dig more into Godignon and Thiriet, and their take on the state of the modern individual.


[1] Anne Gogignon & Jean-Louis Thiriet, New French Thought: Political Philosophy, Princeton, 1994
[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Penguin Classics, 2003 (1840)
[3] Will & Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, Simon & Schuster, 2010 reprint (1968)
[4] Chantel Delsol, Icarus Fallen, ISI, 2010
[5] Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, Belknap Press, 1998
[6] Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind, Beacon Press, 1997
[7] Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, Vintage, 2006 (1921)
[8] Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, Forgotten Books, 2015 (1896)
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Published on September 07, 2015 09:25
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