Self-Restraint

This post is a continuation of a discussion about the demise of Western Civilization started in the last post.

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset, is above all else the “will to live in common.” It centers around the city, including the society of others, civil laws, and morés. It also involves, in most cases, what we loosely call “culture,” which ranges from low to high. “High culture,” which many identify with civilization itself, involves the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of the fine arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Low culture, we might say, centers around the entertainment industry and social media. (Sorry.)

As I have noted in a number of previous blog posts, civilization has come under fire by poets, novelists, and philosophers since the latter part of the nineteenth century and, especially, the early twentieth century. The latest form of the attack comes with what is referred to as “postmodernism,” a movement largely within the academy involving ongoing intellectual protests following the student protests in the 1960s that openly and avowedly seek to eradicate all vestiges of Western Civilization (at the very least). All in the name of “freedom.” The idea is that the restraint that is necessary for human beings to create civilization has resulted in a bourgeois society wallowing in materialism, the suppression of the disadvantaged, and false pleasures. Worse yet civilization has become stifling, suffocating. It is time to throw off the shackles and become free, free of all stuffy customs, false values, and civil constraints which have brought misery to so many, in spite of its so-called benefits.

I summarize, of course, but I do so in order to raise anew the question of whether, in fact, civilization is worth saving, whether or not it has, on balance, brought more misery and suffering than it has beauty and benefits. I confess that I cannot answer that question to my own complete satisfaction, but I suspect the balance is in favor of saving the best of civilization while recognizing that much of what we call the “civilized world” is indeed worthy of rejection. I would suggest, however, that the freedom so many cry out for, the throwing off of the shackles of social norms and restraints, is a snare and a delusion. This is because those who seek to eradicate civilization in the name of greater human freedom seldom, if ever, pause to ask what it is they seek to establish in the place of what they have grown to detest and are keen to destroy. Nor do they think deeply about what freedom is.

Freedom, properly understood, requires restraint. The total absence of restraint is nothing more and nothing less than pure chaos; it is not freedom. Thus, the ideal of the modern and post-modern theorists who would jettison civilization in the name of greater freedom are, in fact, espousing what must be called a “new barbarism,” a world without rules and without concern for others. The ideal figures in this new paradigm would be the thoroughly miserable Underground Man of Dostoevsky. Or it would be, as I suggested in a previous post, Conrad’s thoroughly debased Kurtz. Or it would come in the form of the latest maniac who walks into a school with a loaded automatic weapon and starts shooting at random. These folks embody pure freedom, the absence of restraints, the absence, indeed, of morality which has been thrust aside as nothing more than personal opinion. True freedom, comes at the cost of acknowledging something outside the self that requires the sublimation (to use Freud’s word) of those instincts that we wish to turn loose and instead channel them into creative outcomes. It comes in the form of knowledge of what is and what is not truly valuable. The truly free man or woman acts from the knowledge that what he or she does will make the world around them a better place. Knowledge is the key here. Freedom is not 68 varieties of bread to choose from. It arises from the knowledge of which bread is healthiest.

Personally, I do not wish to live in a world that has as heroes, men (or women) who act without restraint in the name of human freedom, living life to the full — as they see it. I prefer to “live in common,” to help build communities held together by mutual respect and a willingness to sacrifice immediate gratification and unfettered impulse for the sake of something greater than the self. I suppose this is why I have spent so much of my time — and so many words — hoping to preserve some semblance of what is best in Western Civilization, that high culture that sets us apart from those that would simply throw off the chains (as they see it) and turn the demons loose.

There is simply no way to distinguish this alternative world from the world of Kurtz. And we must recall his final words: “The horror! The horror!”

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Worth the Price?

I have spent the better part of my adult life defending Western Civilization against the postmodern attacks from within the Academy (especially) that would bring it down about our ears. Those attacks, I have been informed, began in the Modern era with writers such as Nietzsche, Sir. James Frazer, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Freud — among others. The “revolution” in the 1960s was just an outward expression of the revolt that had already begun. Indeed, an essay written by Lionel Trilling in 1961 that focuses attention on modern literature asks us to question whether or not it would be better if civilization as we know it were to succumb to the attacks of those who find it a painful burden. Trilling makes his point at some length and asks us to ponder the imponderable:

“. . .the historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible — its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.”

This is one of the most powerful passages I have read in many years and it demands that those of us who would defend civilization against various attacks from within and without search our souls for an answer. It would appear that the postmodern attack, so-called, is merely the latest version of an attack that has been going on since the latter part of the nineteenth century. And that attack has been increasingly effective, as I have noted on numerous occasions.

Trilling suggests that in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud is one of those, following Nietzsche closely, who raises deep questions about whether the price we have paid for what we call “civilization” is worth it. To be sure, that price is suggested in the words I have quoted above, and we must ask whether the “contemptible,” middle class existence that we have all grown comfortable with is indeed the highest expression of the struggles of humankind with its baser instincts. In Freud’s view, civilization demands restraint, the repression of our baser instincts, sublimating them into creative and imaginative outlets that we label “art,” “philosophy” and “science.” Has the “cost of extravagant personal repression” been too great?

On the face of it, the cost is minimal. After all look where science has brought us, along with an economic system that promises the average person a higher standard of living than the kings enjoyed during ages past. But that is precisely the question: has the repression of our baser instincts been worth the prize? And, more to the point, what effects might there be if we decide all of a sudden that the cost is too great and it is time to turn loose the demons that reside within each of us?

It is the fear of those demons that has triggered my defense for so many years in the things I have thought, taught, and written. But I must now ask whether the demons are indeed more frightful than the effects of those restraints that civilization demands that we place upon them, including the worst features of a greedy capitalism and such things as slavery, deprivation, and colonization. Is Trilling correct in insisting that the complacent middle class life we have come to embrace in the name of Western Civilization can be described as “contemptible,” “otiose,” “flaccid,” “capricious,” “corrupt and corrupting,” “its rationality attained at the price of energy and passion”? Are we to prefer instead a world in which the depraved Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a prototype of what we might hope to become?

I suggest that there is considerable truth in what Trilling says. And that’s deeply disturbing. But it is perhaps only a half-truth. Because, as noted, civilization has also brought about the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of its art, philosophy, literature, and science. If we have allowed our civilization to reduce itself, as Trilling suggests, to “bitterness and bloodiness,” it may not be the result of repression and the restraint that civilization and high culture have demanded. It may be the fault of people who have allowed themselves to become lulled into a false sense of their own superiority and a dulled sensibility to human suffering, those who have enjoyed the fruits of civilization without understanding what the cost has been and what debt we owe to those who have gone before us.

Civilization demands restraint. What is not clear is that this restraint has brought about repressions that have diminished the human soul or whether those restraints have, rather, made possible the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold would have it. I prefer to think the latter, and as I look about and see what seems to be happening as civilization comes unraveled and a new age of barbarism dawns, how humans behave to one another when given free rein, I worry that we have decided as a race that the cost has been too great and it is time to let go completely. Heaven knows ours in not a society known for its restraint! Great minds have suggested it is time, perhaps they even pointed the way, and many within the academy today are teaching their charges that change is long overdue. And the young listen eagerly as they hear the siren sounds of a call to release the demons so long locked up.

But I find this worrisome, to say the least — and certainly food for further thought.

A Confession

I find myself these days between the proverbial rock and a hard place. I begin to feel the pressures the average German must have felt in the teens of the last century as Hitler began his rise to power. I see clearly that the man who recently won the U.S. presidential lottery is poised to take a path not unlike the dreaded German. He shows all the earmarks of an intolerant, insecure, paranoid, disillusionist — much like Hitler. And the types who adore him and salute his every move confirm this picture, with truly disturbing effect.

I desire, on the one hand, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, since with this man we really don’t know which way he will jump next. Further, I fully expect him to alienate the powers that be in Congress, including those who number themselves among the now crippled Republican Party. I simply don’t see this man getting along with anyone who disagrees with him. Thus I would adopt a quietistic attitude and try to ignore the absurd things this man is doing as he prepares to take the highest office in the land.

On the other hand, because these things appear so clearly to me, I feel the need to speak out and protest his every move, his every decision to appoint like-minded imbeciles to his cabinet and to important posts around the world. Like the character in Conrad’s novel, Under Western Eyes, I tell myself that “if life is not to be vile it must be a revolt, a pitiless protest — all the time.”  Albert Camus, who fought in the French underground during WW II, agreed: to have any real meaning human life must protest against evil wherever he finds it.  As thinking human beings who still have a deep sense of right and wrong, we must protest the wrong that surrounds us today.

The difficulty I have is that the problem is so immense and I feel helpless to effect meaningful change. How does one “take on” a powerful man surrounded by armed followers who are beginning to show themselves to be as bullying and as unconscionable  as their leader? How does one deal with this huge problem in light of the sure and certain knowledge that it will adversely affect his own health and well-being? The pressure to do something is great, but the stress that follows from the need to know what is going on in order to oppose it, and the sense of futility that attaches itself to every plan of action, is somehow is immense.

I try to close my eyes to what is going on around me with my futile attempts at quietude. Wait and see. But the sound and images are deafening and it would require that I move away from my computer and make no attempt whatever to keep up with the latest absurdity. I could do that but it seems cowardly and self-serving. I know that evil must be resisted in any way possible. But I know my limitations and have a real concern for my health, both physical and mental. I take these things too seriously. A cartoon making the rounds shows a young woman walking and talking with a friend. She says, ” My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” That puts it in a nutshell.

In an attempt to find a middle ground, to follow the lead of such thinkers as Aristotle and the Stoics, I seek to do those things that I am able to do, to speak out and resist where I can — knowing that it is almost certainly too little to be truly effective. But in order to do even this I must keep myself somewhat informed, read at least the headlines and follow those whose blogs are insightful and well-written — and deal with the stress that inevitably follows, try to find humor wherever it hides. My task is to undertake to do what I can and try not to worry about those things that I clearly cannot oppose effectively. Try not to dwell on the negatives; to soothe my frazzled nerves, reflect on the many benefits I enjoy and the beauty that surrounds me and those I hold dear. My protest may be too little to be of any real effect, but the need to resist evil is essential to one’s humanity, and that must remain of paramount concern.