Violence Revisited

By and large my blog posts are not to everyone’s taste. The only blog post I ever wrote that could be regarded as “popular” by stretching the term a bit, was the one I wrote in 2013 about Freud’s take on violence. I suspect the popularity of that post is due to the fact that it has been “borrowed” for many a term paper in some of America’s least prestigious colleges and universities! In any event, I  have always been fascinated by the question why Americans in particular have been so prone to violence and I found that Hannah Arendt and Freud together tell us a great deal about the sources of the phenomenon. For those interested in that very popular earlier post I refer them here.

In this regard I am reading a book by the Australian sociologist John Carroll titled Guilt:The Grey Eminence Behind Character,History, and Culture which sheds some light on the subject. The book appears to be an attempt to flesh out the position Freud takes in his book Civilization and Its Discontents. In that book Freud argued that civilization is the result of the sublimation of aggressive impulses that lie in each of us “beyond the pleasure principle.” Carroll, insists that anxiety is one of the major reasons why humans experience the aggressive impulse; he expands on this argument in his own book:

“The critical question in all cases of sharp injections of anxiety is whether aggression is directed inwards or outwards. When it goes outwards, in violence, in hard work, in religious ritual — the more strenuous and self-punitive the better — even in screaming and wailing, then the provoking anxiety will be largely relieved. On the other hand, when it turns inwards it creates guilt. . . “

Freud would have spoken about the Super Ego and conscience, and nowhere, so far as I know, does he speak about anxiety as a trigger for aggression. None the less, it is plausible. But, however they may originate, when a person is able to sublimate the aggressive impulses inwards he is often able to channel those impulses into creative work. The result of channeling this aggression is not only guilt and remorse and even neurosis, it is what we call “civilization.” Those things we take so much for granted are the result of sublimated aggression, for the most part; sublimation begins in childhood with parental admonitions and proscriptions. And the neurosis is small price to pay for the results we all take for granted. Moreover, neurotic people are frequently the most talented and interesting people we know!

In a permissive society, where parental admonitions and proscriptions are seldom found, the aggressive impulses triggered by anxiety are not directed inwards forming a conscience; rather, they are directed outwards and if we note what Carroll says, almost in passing, the result is often violence. We see this in the spoiled child who has tantrums and strikes out in all directions in an effort to release those impulses that are barely beneath the surface in his case. Those of us who are presumably adults with a lively conscience have been taught not to express those aggressive impulses; we have learned not to release them outwards. But a permissive society allows them to be expressed — one might argue that many a modern psychologist has told parents not only to allow it to be expressed but to encourage it.

Be that as it may, if we are looking for a possible cause why Americans have become so violent — in their preference for violent games and movies as well as in their preference for violent sports — we might consider the very real possibilities that anxiety is increasingly prevalent, and also we have become far too permissive. The combination is volatile, to be sure. By allowing, and even encouraging, the spoiled child to express himself (he’s only a child and he’s just being honest!) we weaken the conscience and fail to develop what has always been called “character.” The child becomes an anxious and frustrated adult and he seeks violent outlets for the aggression he has been taught is simply an honest expression of his emotions. The result may be a relatively harmless preference for violent forms of entertainment. But it can obviously take a more direct and effective route on the way to violence against others in the form of abuse, physical harm, and even pulling the trigger of an automatic weapon in a crowded school room.

This analysis doesn’t address the question why Americans, especially, have been shown to be so prone to violence. But perhaps, motivated as we are by material success, there is greater anxiety in America than in other cultures — especially among those of us who feel the deck is stacked against them and they cannot possibly achieve material success. It is also possible America is more permissive than most other cultures. I suspect this is true, but that’s for the sociologist to determine.

 

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The Old Barbarism

I have remarked on numerous occasions that we have entered the age of a New Barbarism. Civilization as we know it, with its constraints and its demands that we be aware of and even that we care about others than ourselves is being replaced by a culture that is violent, unrestrained and positively fixated on itself. But I was wrong. In reading John Carroll’s interesting book on Guilt, I came to realize that what I regard as the new barbarism is nothing more than a return of the old barbarism that was prevalent in the medieval period.  After all, it wasn’t until the early eighteenth century, while civilization was still in its early stages and people were beginning to be fully aware of others and beginning to develop a lively conscience, moving  past a time when folks ate with their hands, blew their noses on their sleeves, or relieved themselves in the streets; a growing number of books on manners reminded them that

“If you pass a person who is relieving himself you should act as if you had not seen him, as it is impolite to greet him.”

Amusing indeed, but at the same time it gives us a sense of what things were like before we slowly but surely became “civilized.”  In England, for example, between the years 1200 and 1530 we find the following features:

“Conscience was in a primitive state. . . The common man’s imagination was fed with a kaleidoscope of ghosts, signs, specters, apparitions — of angels, devils, shades of the dead, and other countless forms that the Church managed to weave into its philosophy.”

Sound familiar? Has the entertainment industry become our church? What about this: ”

“Medieval culture was visual and tactile. Pictoral expression far surpassed the intellectual or literary. The popular stories were picturesque. . . The prominant role that magic played in the Middle Ages [created problems for the Protestant Church] that removed magic from Christian ritual without countering the belief in magic. . . . medieval man’s experience had the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child life. . . As the visual was preferred over the literary, so the visible and public were preferred to the private.”

As in the entertainment industry once again, or, perhaps, social media? Perhaps this:

“The disposition of medieval man was that of a delinquent. It was violent and impulsive, without capacity for restraint or moderation. Tempestuous uninhibited passion was never far from the surface. . . Affection seems to have been scarce; the dominant emotions of the time were rather those of impotent fear and reflex violence.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. It is too much to see a precise parallel — as some have tried to do with contemporary civilization and the fall of the Roman Empire. But the similarities to the medieval period are striking as we cover ourselves with tattoos and piercings, gobble up entertainment, fixate on our hand-held electronic devices, seek violent solutions to complex social problems, purchase personal weapons at an alarming rate, take innumerable pictures of ourselves (and what we are about to eat), crave violent games and movies. The Harry Potter craze seems to echo the comments Carroll makes about the “kaleidoscope of ghosts . . ” that was common in the medieval period. In a word, there are signs that we are in danger of becoming increasingly barbaric as we turn our backs on civil discourse and the virtue of restraint, on the richness and treasure that is (was?) Western Civilization.

Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies showed us a group of English school boys stranded on an island after their plane crashed. Within a few days the thin veneer of civilization wore off and we began to see the savage nature of the animals beneath — with a few exceptions. Law and morality were forgotten and chaos, in the guise of complete freedom, placed the lives of each of those boys at risk. This was fiction, but it was based on sound observation and compelling arguments by psychologists such as Sigmund Freud who told us that beyond the pleasure principle there lies a core of festering aggression within each of us. And our history provides us with multiple examples of this undeniable fact, as Carroll points out. During the medieval period the thin veneer of civilization was almost transparent and it took centuries of struggle for humans to begin to act like humans, to care for one another, acquire manners, and to put law above violence, to become “civilized.”

The veneer gradually thickened but today we seem determined to scratch it off as too inhibiting. However, we should be aware of what lives beneath that veneer; we are seeing growing numbers of examples of that inner core of aggression that Freud spoke about. From an uncivilized president and his legions of agitated supporters to the hordes of people buying guns, to the shouting that has replaced civil discourse, to the gradual disappearance of good manners, to the attacks on reason and science, we see all around us signs of that core of “tempestuous, uninhibited” aggression. We must be very careful not to wear off entirely that veneer of civilization since that way lies the old barbarism, a part of ourselves that we always carry with us and which we really don’t want to expose for all to see.

Taboos

The growing number of restrictions on our speech and thought are alarming. Increasingly, there are things we must not say or think lest we hurt the feelings of someone somewhere. And while the impulses that have taken us in this direction are well-meaning and even laudable, they threaten to constrict thought and speech to the point where we are struck dumb.

In reading the Australian sociologist John Carroll’s book on Guilt published in 1985 I came across a passage that would today get some folks riled up. He is speaking about the

“. . .pervasive influence that the Romantic movement has had on modern Western sensibilities [that] require us to look into the guilt that flows through the high sublimation of its literature. . . .The hostility to the constraints of society, the elevation of spontaneity of feeling and sensitivity, of passion over reason, of art over work, all suggest identification with female traits, and hostility to the signs of the patriarchal father — order, control, artifact.”

The suggestion that there are “female traits” would be dismissed by the outraged radical feminists among us as completely out of order. And this despite the fact that those traits are evident and important. In fact, if our culture were less masculine, less inclined to violence, to control and take, and more feminine, more compassionate and caring — more in tune with our “Mother Earth” — we would all be better off. The point here is that constraining speech and thought by insisting that certain words and phrases are out of order results in the dismissal of those ideas that might help us understand more clearly what is going on around us.

The list of taboo words and phrases grows as the Political Correctness Police on our college campuses strive to turn them from educational institutions into Care Clinics. The irony here should be obvious: the desire to purge our college campuses of nasty and hurtful thoughts is in every way an expression of the “female traits” of which Carroll speaks and that desire is heartily supported by the feminists on college campuses who also object to the notion that there ARE such things as “female traits.”

But the problem goes even deeper as we hear about comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld who will no longer visit college campuses because of the restrictions on his comedic thrusts — which, let’s face it, are very gentle to say the least. Have we, after all, lost our sense of humor? The notion that there are growing numbers of things we simply should not allow anyone to say (or think) places restrictions not only on comedians but also on others who would say things on campus that might hurt someone’s feelings. But, surely, we should point out that someone somewhere will be hurt by something that someone says at some time. Of all places, college campuses should allow the free expression of ideas and speech in spite of the fact that something someone says might hurt someone’s feelings. That’s just the way of the world. In protecting our students from hurtful words and thoughts we hamper their intellectual development.

As quoted recently in a publication by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, this point was made evident on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts where 400 college professors signed a petition

“. . .to adopt the Chicago Principles. The petition states, ‘While there is an understandable desire to protect our students from speech they find offensive, doing so risks shutting down legitimate dialogue and failing to prepare our students to deal effectively with a diversity of opinions, including views they might vehemently disagree with.’ . . . Students have issued a counter-petition in which they argue that the unfettered free speech supported by the Chicago Principles harms minority students.”

The ACTA has taken a stand with the 400 faculty members. But the likelihood these days is that the college will side with the students in the end.

The problem, of course, has worked its way outside the walls of academe as political correctness is all the rage. José Cabranes was a recent recipient of the Merrill Award presented by the ACTA. He tells us we are faced with a choice between “academic freedom or civilizational decline.” Free speech and free thought must be encouraged at the very least to the point where it actively provokes violence toward others — not only on college campuses, but also at political rallies where the clear goal is to win over folks to a restricted world view in which only those who agree with those who seek power are allowed to speak. Somehow, we must find a balance.

The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.

How Ironic!

Liberals might not like reading John Carroll’s books. He takes what he calls “radical liberalism” to task and blames those well-meaning folks who crave greater human freedom for many of the ills of contemporary culture. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it is precisely those who demand greater human freedom that have placed the chains of fear and uncertainty on modern men and women. He does not deny that liberalism has been a good thing. As he says,

“Our civilization has benefitted prodigiously from the liberal impulse, but always in cases in which it has operated in a circumscribed manner, within a securely ordered institutional environment.”

Indeed. True freedom demands restraint. The absence of restraint is not freedom, it is chaos and misery. It is the French Revolution. A case in point is capitalism which is one of the many fruits of liberal thinking — as set forth in the writings of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century at the height of the Enlightenment when liberal thinking was all the rage. Smith was convinced that the “invisible hand” would guide the capitalist and that in the end there would be greater prosperity for all. Smith was a part of the Scottish Moral Sense School. This was group of thinkers who were convinced that there is a core of human sympathy in all people and that would tend toward generosity and compassion. The urges of the capitalist for more and more profit would be restrained by their natural sympathy for others. We know how that turned out.

Carroll is convinced that it is liberalism’s excesses and naivety (as evidenced in the case of Adam Smith) that are at the heart of the problem:

“Liberalism’s psychological assumption about humans — leave them alone and they will flourish — is naive. It is blind to inclinations to greed, violence, and evil, inclinations that are an inherent part of human egoism. It assumes a capacity for self-restraint that our entire history contradicts. In practice, the upper middle class, without the constraints of culture, has been left with one value– freedom — which has become intoxicating. Liberalism has proven the perfect rationalization for selfishness.”

The classic example is that of the liberal parents who refuse to reprimand their child for throwing a rock through a window because he was just “expressing himself.” We wouldn’t want to thwart his creative growth! And those same parents send their spoiled child off to school where  underpaid teachers are not allowed to discipline the children but are somehow supposed to remedy the mistakes the parents have made.

Radical liberal thinking led to the concept of the “free school” initiated by A.S. Neill in England (following Rousseau) which rebelled against the excessive Victorian restraints that needed to be loosened — but not tossed aside. Restraint is not in itself a bad thing. Indeed, as Carroll and many other thinkers have insisted, restraint is what has led to civilization and to what we like to call “progress.” It’s also the key to sound character. The problem with liberalism, for all its good intentions (and they are very real, as human beings struggled against authority and unrestrained power for centuries and demanded their freedom with good reason) is that

“its adherents never know when to stop. Once unleashed, liberalism keeps going until no authority is left; it has no principle of restraint. The threat, since 1960 [ the time of the counter-culture], has been of excessive liberalization rendering schools ineffective in the struggle to keep discipline.”

This has certainly been the case in the schools where the free school ideal — which led to “progressive education” and the self-esteem movement in the lower grades — has left the lower middle classes, especially, illiterate and therefore unable to take advantage of opportunities for economic advancement, thus breeding resentment in a great many who feel left out. The result of all this, as Carroll sees it, is what he calls “rancour.”

“Nietzsche saw rancour as the prototypical modern disease. It manifests itself in resentment against another person, another group or party, or another body of ideas”

Rancour infects not only the intellectual and cultural elite who in their blind determination to increase human freedom have become nihilistic and turned against their own history and against Western Civilization generally; it is especially prevalent in the lower middle class where millions of people in the West feel trapped and ignored by those who have the power and make the decisions that directly affect their lives.

The gap between the “upper middle-class,” the intellectual elite and those with money and power, on the one hand, and the  cultural “lower middle classes” (those who watch the soaps, read the Enquirer, and admire Clint Eastwood), on the other, has grown wider of late. We may find ourselves with an explanation here for the fact that a man who is all ego has become president of the most powerful nation on earth: those who have felt left out experience this rancour and, blind to the man’s faults, see only Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. These folks also hate restraint and want quick solutions to problems that are far too large for them to wrap their heads around — especially as they cannot read, write or figure and have been provided with toys to entertain them and keep them distracted.

Thus, as John Carroll would have it, the “radical liberals” are hoist by their own petard. Those whose only value is unlimited human freedom now find themselves imprisoned in a world of unrestrained greed and self-interest surrounded by unrestrained ignorance, resentment, and even violence. How ironic.

 

Sport as Religion

I have been a sports enthusiast as long as I remember. I played all manner of sports though tennis was always my best sport and I eventually became a teaching professional and a coach and was able to see the sport from a different angle and appreciate it even more than I had when I played. There are those who think sports are a waste of time, but I disagree. So does John Carroll, as it happens. You remember John Carroll? I have referred to his books frequently of late because they do provide an excellent spark to ignite thought. Or something.

In any event, Carroll has a chapter in his book Ego And Soul devoted to sport. He thinks it is one of a number of ways that modern  men and women find meaning inter lives. And he makes out an excellent case that sports in our culture have displaced religion and as such play a vital role in a culture that desperately needs something to draw people out of themselves. Sports do just that. We have heard that football, for example, allows those who play and those who watch to release their aggressive impulses. This is a healthy thing, though it apparently does not release enough aggression in enough people, sad too say. But sports in general have become larger than life and they make possible the ecstasy that is frequently identified with the religious experience by Zen masters and they also make possible the sense of euphoria and catharsis that are frequently associated with that very religious experience. Religion, for most people, has lost that ability and has become mainly ritual that leaves the participant empty and dissatisfied. Sports fills the gap, according to John Carroll. Take the Olympics, for example.

“The modern West has created one global cult of mythic force. The modern Olympic Games has become the pre-eminent international institution.

“The modern Olympic Games was initiated in 1896 by the a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin — 1500 years after the ancient Olympics were closed down by a Christian Roman emperor on the grounds that they were too pagan. Coubertin sought to recreate the classical Greek ideal of religious festival in which humans perform athletic and cultural feats at the highest level of excellence.

” Coubertin was strongly influenced by the English Public Schools. It was, in particular, the emphasis in Thomas Arnold’s Rugby on developing the character of the boys, linked to the neo-Hellenic ideal of a ‘sound mind in a healthy body.’ For Arnold, sport played a key role, but it was not sport for its own sake. Coubertin’s adaptation was to take education out of the school and into the public arena. He then harnessed sport to his pedagogical ends by orchestrating the games within a totality of brilliantly conceived ritualized drama. He created what would become the modern religious festival, dwarfing all others, rising, as if on cue, as the Christian churches began to empty.

“Coubertin was quite explicit that his was to be a religious revival, and that it was pagan. He spoke of new gods to replace the dying old ones. He lamented in the 1930s that the Games were turning into a marketing spectacle; he had intended them as a Temple, in which religio athletae was to be practiced. . . .

“The spirit of classical Greek religion had been rekindled. By taking sport, and setting it in a larger metaphysical context, a neo-pagan festival had been recreated that appeals to the religious sensibility of the secular modern West.”

We are all aware of the commercial spectacle the Olympics has become, with players being paid by their countries for the medals they win. But at the heart of this spectacle, especially during the grand opening of the Games, we can see suggestions of what Coubertin had in mind. The Games were to be the new religion. They were to provide for participants and spectators alike a deep religious experience, taking them out of themselves and moving them to new  heights of appreciation for the beauty that is athleticism at its best. Thus we have the religious experience par excellence: ceremony; aesthetic delight; ecstatic and cathartic experience. All in the interest of connecting us with one another and with the greater world outside the self.

Those who participate in sports have described the rare experience of “being in the zone” in which they don’t think but simply feel and act as if on a high. This is ecstasy as it is described by the gurus and mystics who meditate until they reach nirvana. Shades of it can be experienced in the company of great works of art, when the aesthetic becomes the totality of the world: the painting, sculpture, or music become all there is. At this point, as Carroll would have it, ego and soul become one. Balance is achieved. This can happen not only for the athlete but for the spectator as well — especially in large groups such as a packed crowd in a sporting event when “it’s all on the line.”

To a degree, all sports can achieve this, according to Carroll. Even the individual sports such as golf and tennis. They fill a vacuum that has been created by the death of religion which, all signs to the contrary notwithstanding, no longer enriches the spirit or replenishes the human soul of the vast majority of people in the West.

Certainly a novel and most interesting suggestion, is it not?

Visiting John Carroll

I have drawn considerable inspiration from John Carroll’s book The Wreck of Western Culture. Readers of this blog will recognize his name by this time. He is an Australian sociologist who writes with clarity and insight. After finishing his latest book I decided to take a look at an earlier attempt, this time Ego and Soul, in which Carroll clarifies his notion of what culture is and why he is concerned about its demise. I discovered that he not only embraces the notion of truth (gasp!) but also the notion of soul (double gasp!!) which he carefully distinguishes from ego and which he is convinced is not only very real but also immortal. In a word, the man is out of the intellectual mainstream and has the courage to defend ideas that most “thinking persons” would reject with a snicker. That’s what  makes him interesting and thought-provoking. Accordingly, I thought I would share some of his remarks about the “three levels of truth.” The first level is ordinary truths which we call “facts,” such as “The president tweeted again today.” The second level of truth has to do with “a body of cardinal laws” about which has this to say:

“The backbone of the ethical order is a body of cardinal laws. They are universal; that is, they are found in every human society. They include ‘thou shalt not kill’; ‘thou shalt not strike or damage another human being without due cause’; thou shalt protect the innocent’; thou shalt not betray trust’; and ‘thou shall not lie about important things.” These laws constrain all humans, except those whom we classify as ‘psychopaths’ — people who transgress major interdicts without conscience. [Who might that be??] . . .

“In the West, the recognition that all humans are equal in terms of the cardinal moral laws and some of their derivatives, has come to be called ‘universal human rights.’ These apply irrespective of tribe, ethnicity, age, sex, status, wealth, or power.

“This is an exceptional historical development. Humans have generally been tribal. The tribal view constrains me to treat members of my own tribe, nation, or culture justly, but those outside may be dealt with by looser standards. Outsiders — distinguished disparagingly as barbarians, gentiles, heathens, infidels, or savages — are legitimate prey to my self-interest.

“It is only since the mid-twentieth century that a belief in universal human rights has become predominant in the West. This is one of Western Civilization’s great achievements. It has its sources in the teachings of Jesus and in classical Greek philosophy, consolidated in the European Enlightenment and, since then, developed into a staple of liberal-democratic political form.”

The third, or highest form of truth is Culture. These are truths that come to us in “stories and myths, images, rhythms, and conversations that voice the eternal and difficult truths on which deep knowing and therefore wellbeing, is dependent.” And these are the truths that seem to have died out with the death of religion and humanism, as Carroll examines that topic in his latest book. In his earlier book he hints at what the problem might be and he lays the blame clearly at the feet of the colleges and universities whose role has been, from the Middle Ages, to protect and conserve culture and pass it on to subsequent generations. About this, Carroll has this to say:

“The great weakness in the West over the last century has been in the domain of Culture. The mainstream of literature, art, music, and philosophy has largely abandoned its mission to retell the timeless stories in new ways, and to interpret them. It has betrayed its responsibility to help people make sense of their lives and times. In its relativisms, surrealisms, deconstructionisms, and  postmodernisms it has denied that there are fundamental truths. It has sometimes even denied that there are universal moral truths.”

Indeed, since Carroll wrote this book in 2008 one could say without fear of contradiction that the failure of the colleges and universities has become even greater and that the denial of truth has escaped from the citadels of “higher learning” and now have found firm ground in the “real world,” especially in the world of business and politics. But that’s another story. For now it suffices to say that when John Carroll, sociologist and student of human collective behavior, worries that our culture is floundering, if not dying, we need to take heed. At the very least, we must embrace the fact that there are truths, even truths about what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to think truth is all subjective — perhaps because that makes us feel good about ourselves — but it is not.

Moreover, we need to think beyond our narrow selves, our egos which drive us to succeed, and embrace others and the world as a whole. Because it is only when humans balance ego with soul — that which makes us part of the entire human community and, indeed, a part of the whole of existence — that we can become happy and at peace with ourselves and the world.  As Carroll would have it:

“It is the business of each culture, at home in its own backyard, to cultivate its singular understandings of mortal life. It is the business of all humans, wherever they dwell, to defend cardinal moral laws and universal human rights.”

Wasting Time

It would appear that I have been wasting my time. If John Carroll is right, and I think he is, the humanities I attempted to pass on to the younger generation are dead. Indeed, they have been dying for some time. I have suspected this, but Carroll’s argument in The Wreck of Western Culture is very persuasive.

Bear in mind that I do not agree with everything I read. Indeed, I have been trained to read with a critical eye. But Carroll makes a persuasive case and given that the signs he points to are all around us and I have even noted many of them myself, there’s little more to be said.

The humanities have traditionally included the fine arts, literature, philosophy, history, and other endeavors now regarded as “elitist” and generally ignored. And there’s the rub. Carroll saw the creations flowing from those endeavors grow and thrive as Western Civilization worked its way from ancient Greece through Christianity, especially during the Dark Ages, to the Reformation which sought to bring new life to the basic tenets of Christianity that were dying from the intolerant nature of the Catholic Church with its purges and Inquisitions. The Renaissance and then, especially, the Enlightenment brought about an explosion in human creativity and invention; in the process it was insisted that religion is superstition and man is free and capable of solving all problems with his reason alone. In Descartes’ words, we need only heed “clear and distinct” ideas to answer all the questions that can possibly be raised. The avenue to absolute certainty does not lie with revelation; rather, it lies with mathematics and empirical science.

With modern science came longer, less painful lives, but also the industrial revolution, and eventually capitalism and all have transformed culture while at the same time disenchanting our world, dismissing out of hand all of the things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in science.  Humanism, as it came to be called, lasted several centuries and eventually was given a death blow by such thinkers as Karl Marx and Charles Darwin who insisted that humans are not truly free and even reason is not sufficient; economics and natural selection govern everything. Regarding Darwin, Carroll notes,

“The new scientific picture of the world is utterly dispiriting. . .. . in the shoes of Darwin the joyful bird song at dawn is transformed, at best, into intellectual curiosity about a species sending his warning signals in defense of its territory. Once one begins to think like this — about birds, newborn babies, romance, death — the magic is compromised.”

Marx’s influence may have gone even deeper. As Carroll put it:

“The cultural consequences of Marx were that selfishness and economics rule, that culture is merely a cloak disguising base bourgeois motives; unconsciously, the gods of culture have betrayed us, so let us annihilate them. . . .No honor, no trust, no fidelity — nothing but greed.”

Now whether or not one agrees with Carroll’s rather bleak pronouncements, they do give us pause. Careful studies back up the signs I have pointed to in numerous blogs, especially of late, making it clear that those of us who have been teaching the humanities (in my case for over 40 years) were fighting a rear-guard battle, because the humanities were expiring even as we tried to breath life into the dying corpse. Students, and a great many professors simply do not care. The colleges and universities are now overrun by barbarians who have embraced a nihilistic attitude toward everything in the past. It is time to “do-over.” And their behavior, including their unqualified postmodern commitment to such thing as political correctness, has become the way to do things. We will eliminate the dead, white European males and replace them with like-minded men and, especially, women who will indoctrinate the young properly. Meanwhile the streets are overrun by self-absorbed seekers of more and greater profits who couldn’t care less about the past or the heights to which the human spirit can aspire.  Brace yourselves: we have entered a new era.

To be sure, we see around us the decaying corpses of the dead, white European males and the great works they created and which are now regarded as past their prime and not worth our effort. At best, they will be museum pieces visited by a decreasing number of people as time passes, those few who still care. So along with a Christianity that was based on love of our fellow humans and adherence to those virtues that make it possible for us to lead a good life, we turn our backs on the humanism that raised humanity to great heights, created extraordinary works of beauty and imagination while influencing a great many people and giving birth to, among other things, modern science — which survives independently, largely reduced to technical expertise and invention. And never asking moral questions.

So it goes. I guess I have suspected it for some time now. But it is hard to admit that the things one fought for have “come a cropper” as the Brits would say. The humanities have had their day. But what really rankles is the obvious fact that what is taking the place of the humanities and Christianity is nothing more and nothing less that a vapid nihilism, a new barbarism, nesting comfortably in an egoism that seeks only pleasure and which cannot see beyond the eradication of what has been in the name of the new and the now.

The time has come to accept the facts that have been announcing themselves loud and clear for some time now.

 

Humanism Revisited

I recently posted a blog that focused on John Carroll’s remarkable book The Wreck of Western Culture, which is more about the death of humanism than anything else. I now want to explicate what I believe are some of the central tenets of Carroll’s thesis. I find them most interesting and thought provoking.

Carroll correctly views humanism as the heart and soul of Western Culture — at least since the Reformation and until quite recently. The Protestant Reformation itself was an attempt to revitalize a moribund Christianity in the form of a Catholic Church that had become corrupted beyond belief and rested on bland formulas and empty promises. When Luther visited Rome as a young man he was horrified and he attempted to bring new life to what he believed to be the central beliefs of Christianity. He insisted that reason and free will were vapid notions and that we can only find our way if we follow God totally and without question — blind faith, if you will. Calvin later emphasized those same principles, but in the meantime the Renaissance was aborning with its total commitment to the very things that Luther and Calvin denied: free will and human reason. The result was humanism and it dealt what was for all intents and purposes the death blow to a fragile Christianity though there are faint traces of the faith here and there — especially among the poor.

The Renaissance gave birth in turn to the age of Enlightenment which brought us the liberation of the individual — the “I” of Pico della Mirandola. This is the “I” that can achieve greatness through the community and in partnership with others of like mind. And without supernatural assistance. This is the “I” that embraces such values as honor, courage, and integrity. The result was modern science, the industrial revolution, modern medicine, free education for all, democracy, and “widespread prosperity.” Unfortunately, as Carroll sees it, the “I” has degenerated into “me” — the self-absorbed individual who feels no need of another and assuredly not God. The industrial revolution has brought us polluted air and water and a planet at risk; science has degenerated into technology; medicine has become a business, as has education; and democracy has become oligarchy as the wealthy make the decisions that are largely ignored by those who don’t understand the duties of citizenship. And “widespread prosperity” has devolved into a very wealthy few and a great many deep in debt.

Modern culture, if we can call it that, is therefore, in Carroll’s view, the remnant of a barely breathing Christianity and a dead humanism that has degenerated into an incoherent melange. The free will and reason of the humanists has become license and calculation as reason is no longer prized but has been replaced by a mind that figures profit and loss while playing mindless games on electronic toys (that’s my addition of Carroll’s thesis, but I think it is in the spirit of what he had to say in 2008.

Carroll has provided us with a careful examination the corpse, as he sees it, and is a bit short on prognosis. But he holds out little hope for a disenchanted culture centered around the self and its pleasures. However, there is more to be said and it was put nicely in a comment by one of my fellow bloggers, John Fioravanti:

 I understand the definition of humanism presented here, but I have always associated the term with a genuine concern for the well-being of humanity. I rejected organized religion over a decade ago, but I’ve not rejected the belief in a superior being and creator. If our lives are empty and meaningless it is because we don’t focus our attention or our efforts beyond ourselves. I believe we need to become a real human community, obliterate the silly, artificial political borders and establish a global government that will prioritize the environment and more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth. It is a dream.

I think John is right. We need to come out of ourselves and help build communities that care about one another. It is not clear how we go about this or how we can do this with a population that has turned its back on fellow-feeling and on reason itself which is simply a small candle in the darkness which we must in the end acknowledge. In the end, we must come out of our selves and admit that there is something beyond the self, something greater than any one individual, something through which we can find meaning and purpose. It starts by reaching out to the others around us.

In Pieces

In his remarkable book, The Wreck of Western Culture, John Carroll paints a bleak picture of what he sees around him:

“We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of humanism. Around us is that colossal wreck. Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from a mild cosmic breeze, never mind one of those ice gales that regularly returns to rip us out of the cozy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much any more. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our own homes.”

He might have also noted, our children in school hold their heads under their desks in fear as they regularly practice the latest drill to thwart maniacs who, demanding loudly their right to bear arms, arrive with automatic weapons and start to shoot.

Disturbing as is Carroll’s picture, it is not overblown. Much the same thing was said many years ago by Jacques Barzun who warned us to lock up our treasures because the barbarians were about to arrive. Well, they have arrived and they have taken over. They now have rank and tenure in our major universities and control matters of curriculum and edit the prestigious journals. They prance on our streets in outlandish garb insisting that we look at them rather than to the beauty that surrounds us all. They use social media to demand that we think about them and not about anything of real importance. They have provided us with toys we hold in our hands or which greet us upon entering the room with constant reminders that the corporate world is the real world. As the inheritor of a humanism that began with an attempt to raise medieval human beings from the mud to greater heights, the world of business and corporate profits has placed itself firmly at the center of a commodified culture. And we are told repeatedly that we are the most important thing in the world.

Humanism was born at the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Renaissance when humans began to see themselves as the center of the world. Not God. Certainly no longer. The corruption within the Church coupled with the invention of the printing press and growing literacy among the population at large all led to religious revolutions coupled with the industrial revolution and the birth of modern science which have engendered general prosperity and long life, reinforcing the notion that human beings no longer need to lean on God or any other “superstition.”

These are the stepchildren of the Humanism which, Carroll tells us is now in tatters around us. This is because we are learning of the terrible mistakes that come with the riddance of something greater than the self. We are seeing around us, if we look with Carroll’s eyes, the reductio ad absurdum of the Self as God. Medieval men and women, living in terrible times, knew that death was the beginning. Humanists insisted that death is the end, as we learn if we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet carefully. That was the problem: could humans replace God? They could not. What began as a powerful movement to empower the human spirit, to allow it to express itself in extraordinary works of philosophy, art, and science, soon degenerated into the “Cult of Me.” What resulted was  a fearful, industrialized world polluting the air and water and producing an economic system that equated wealth with success. But there’s more.

Among other things, we have come to confuse freedom with license, to descry restraint and self-discipline, to stress human rights and ignore human responsibilities, to see law as nothing more or less than a curb on the impulses that, being human, are ipso facto a good thing. “Let it all hang out!”  We wallow in a sea of self-importance while at the same time we dimly sense that something is missing, that there is more to life than pleasure and the “stuff” of which George Carlin makes delightful fun.

John Carroll sees the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 as a symbol of the destruction of our puffed up sense of self that has morphed from humanism; it reveals to us all that human beings are not worthy of self-adoration, that there needs to be something more in our lives than our own selves. It seems trite somehow, but it is profound. For all its beauty and intellectual splendor, humanism was hollow at the center.

As Carroll notes,

“humanism failed because its I is not the center of creation in the sense of being creature and creator in one.”

The times demand greater self-awareness, the admission that humans are not the center of the world and that we need something greater than ourselves to provide our world with meaning if we are to avoid the continuance of what are essentially meaningless lives. It need not be God and it certainly need not be organized religion. But it demands an acceptance of the fact that we are a human community bound together by a common purpose, living on a fragile planet, and aware that there is something beyond our selves.