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.

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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.

 

Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a small child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story,

“I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.”

These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation created by his first visit, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply look and see or draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Emotional Honesty

I recently posted a brief discourse on restraint in which I denigrated the notion of emotional honesty as that concept is used today. I should be clear that I am not opposed to emotional honesty, I am opposed to the notion that the only way to behave in an emotionally honest way is to behave like an animal. True, animals are emotionally honest, we must suppose, but that is not by choice. The human tendency to display honesty in the form of animal behavior is a choice we seem to have made.

I suspect the notion that it is somehow a good thing to express our emotional honesty in this manner arises from a misreading of Sigmund Freud who wrote a great deal about “repression.” Later psychologists, in their attempts to develop Freud’s theory, argued that repression is an unhealthy thing and it would be healthier to be as open and honest  about our emotions as possible. The key here is that in order to be mentally healthy we need to be aware of our emotion states, not necessarily to express them openly. If we are mad, we need to acknowledge that fact and not repress it. In fact, Freud distinguishes between “proper” and “primal” repressions.  We need to know just what it is that is being repressed and why.

In Freud’s system it is the id that is repressed, that element of the human psyche that operates under what Freud called “the pleasure principle.” Many who read Freud reduce this to our sexual urges and those are certainly included, but they do not exhaust the urges of the id which includes such mundane things as the urge to eat when we are hungry and strike out when we are mad. We are talking about primal urges.

The healthy individual, according to Freud, seeks to balance the urges of the id with the restrictions of the ego and the super ego — the notion of balance going back to the Greeks, if you can imagine. The most productive way to do this is through “sublimation,” a term Freud borrowed from Nietzsche. When we sublimate the primitive urges which we all experience, we direct them away from their intended object (we don’t hit the Trump supporter) and redirect those urges into creative outlets such as art, philosophy, science, for example, or simply redecorating the living room, going for a run — or, perhaps, writing a blog.

The notion that it is healthy to behave like an animal is therefore a misreading of Freud and completely ignores the fact that repression of those basic urges is necessary if civilization is to survive. In fact, it is through the sublimation of the id that civilization arose in the first place. People need to live together in relative harmony and this is not possible if they are releasing their basic urges every time they are felt. The important distinction here is the acknowledgment of basic urges, which is necessary for mental health and the expression of those urges which reduces the human to the animal — which we all are, but which we presumably seek to rise above: no one seriously wants to live in Hobbes’ state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thus, when a person (any person, even the president) gives immediate vent to his basic urges, or when the athlete pounds his chest like a Great Ape, he is expressing his emotions, he is being “emotionally honest” in only a restricted sense of that term. More to the point, he is not being all he can be as a human being. When he screws up and apologizes or taps his chest and says “my bad,” he is. The difference is important is we are to grasp just where we stand as human beings. After all, we are living in a precarious civilization that is trending toward dissolution if we do not make every effort to sustain it. And that requires repression, or at the very least, restraint.

Death of Soul?

In his introduction to the Barnes and Noble edition of Balzac’s classic Père Goriot, Peter Connor asks the provoking question:

“Is Balzac the artist who has recorded for our modern era the death of soul? The death of all belief in something greater, grander than the individual?”

The question is rhetorical and Balzac makes it quite clear what he means to say in his many novels and stories that comprise the Human Comedy which he wrote in the early and middle parts of the nineteenth century. In his novel The Country Doctor, for example, he has this remarkable passage:

“With the monarchy we lost honor, with the religion of our fathers, Christian virtue, with our sterile governments, patriotism. These principles only exist partially instead of animating the masses. . . . Now, shoring up society, we have no other support than egoism. Woe betide the country thus constituted. Instead of believers, we have interest.”

“Interest” here, of course, refers not only to the money made from money, but self-interest — or, better yet, short-term self-interest which has become all the rage not only in France, but also in this country where the business model provides a template for all human endeavors, including health care and education. Profits now and screw tomorrow…. and the planet.

But, ignoring for the moment the reference to the restoration of the monarchy in France after Napoleon (and the oblique reference to the “reign of terror” in which clerics were one of the favorite targets of the Jacobites), let us focus instead on the loss of virtue. The “death of God,” as Nietzsche would have it. And recall that Karl Gustav Jung echoes Balzac’s plaintive cry when he wrote a set of essays in the 1930s and collected them in a book titled Modern Man in Search of Soul. All of these men, and others like them, have noted that the modern era (and especially the post-modern era I would add) have displaced soul with stuff. We live in a disenchanted age. It is an age of scientism and capitalism, the one ignoring intuition and insisting that the scientific method is the only way to the Truth; the other giving birth to a crass materialism that places emphasis on things over the ineffable. We have ignored Hamlet’s observation:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

And “philosophy” in Shakespeare’s day meant natural philosophy, or science.  Indeed, ours is a “commodified culture” as Robert Heilbronner would have it, an era in which the new car or the flat-screen TV are much more important to most of us than virtue, or the development of what used to be called “character.” And we have the audacity to think that there are no problems our scientists, mostly technicians these days, cannot solve.

Balzac’s many novels and stories — more than 90 of them — comprise “a documentary of the cramped modern soul, a soul shown to be cynical, pitiless, insensible, gluttonous, scheming, and, perhaps, above all, indifferent,” as Conner would have it. In his classic  Père Goriot, which many think is the cornerstone of Balzac’s Human Comedy, he describes in exacting detail the residents of a boarding house where the novel takes place:

“There was not a soul in the house who took any trouble to investigate the various chronicles of misfortunes, real or imaginary, related to the rest. Each regarded the others with indifference, tempered by suspicion; it was a natural result of their relative positions. Practical assistance not one of them could give, this they all knew, and they had long since exhausted their stock of condolences over previous discussions of their grievances. . . . There was not one of them but would have passed a blind man begging in the street, not one that felt moved to pity by a tale of misfortune.”

That was France in the nineteenth century. And it was written by a novelist who, we all know, makes things up. Surely this is not the real world, not the world of these United States in the year of our Lord 2018? And yet with the exception of the remarkable people Jill Dennison tells us about weekly in her blog, most of us seem to fit the pattern of the lodgers Balzac is describing in his novel, sad to say. We do seem to be indifferent to others, preoccupied with our very own selves, turned in on ourselves, perhaps posting a selfie on social media in hopes of getting yet another “like.” We glorify our indifference to others by calling it “tolerance,” and delude ourselves into thinking we are better than we are.

It is certainly the case that many Christians have given a bad name to Christianity. We can see with our mind’s eye those who drive each Sunday in their gas-guzzling SUV to a mega-church where they sit in comfortable chairs, sipping an espresso coffee and watching the frantic preacher on a television set near the book store where his latest book is on sale, along with other memorabilia, including, no doubt, tee shirts. Such people abound who go by the name “Christian” while all the time indulging themselves, festering hate in their hearts, supporting a president who is the embodiment of hate, fear, and unbridled greed.

As Balzac notes, and this is not just a novelist speaking, we have lost religion, “Christian virtue.” And this includes not only so many of those who pretend to be Christians, but many of those who have rejected religion altogether, all religions. Along with “more things in heaven and earth” we have indeed lost our souls.  If we have any doubts we need only reflect on how so many of us celebrate Christmas these days.

Guest Blog Post

The following comment by Jerry Stark expanded and improved upon my attempt to explain the notion of ressentment. It is extremely well done and helps us understand the mind-set of those who follow our sitting president and worship at his shrine. I post it here with Jerry’s permission.

The concept of ressentiment is intriguing, especially when applied to our current circumstance.

Nietzsche’s (pre-postmodern) claim was that morality is defined and established by the powerful and inflicted upon those whom they dominate. He further argues that new moral regimes can emerge out of a process of ressentiment, wherein those who are viewed as social inferiors by the powerful, and who have come to view themselves as socially inferior, develop a resentful hatred against those they view as elites — their “betters”. Ressentiment is not about class consciousness; it is about the revenge of the unworthy.

Ressentiment is characterized, in part, by a thoroughgoing refusal to accept conventional definitions of good, bad, and evil. Further, according to Nietzsche, ressentiment bears within it, implicitly at first, a new definition of good, bad, and evil. As ressentiment spreads throughout the populace, a populist revaluation becomes more explicit, more refined, and more powerful. If the morality of the extant elites is displaced, then a new moral order emerges to reflect the new social order that gives rise to it.

Nietzsche does not claim that the new moral order will be better or more virtuous than the pre-existing order, only that it will be chronologically newer. . . .

Though I seldom turn to Nietzsche for philosophical insight, what intrigues me about the notion of ressentiment are (1) the parallels between Nietzsche’s concept and our current political situation and (2) the possible morality that might emerge from it. I offer four points to this discussion.

First, the self-perception of disempowerment and cultural displacement, not economic insecurity, are driving forces behind support for Trump’s campaign and his presidency. This takes several forms, often overlapping: (1) White ressentiment at being culturally displaced by non-whites; (2) Male fear of being politically and economically displaced by women or of falsely being accused of sexually insulting or assaulting women; (3) Christian evangelical fear of being culturally displaced by non-Christians and non-believers.

The way Trump has manipulated and magnified these fears has been nothing short of masterful. It matters little that this reveals less about his mastery of politics than it does about his own pathological narcissism. What matters is that he has turned ressentiment into a political weapon, a political strategy, and a form of political governance – all at the same time.

Second, an emergent morality comprehensively dismissive of previous norms of moral conduct emerges out of this populist ressentiment, guided, of course, by those who stoke the fires of fear and who dismiss conventional notions of good, bad, evil – and even truth. It does little good to appeal to so-called “common morality” in response to the anti-morality, anti-truth dispositions of populist ressentiment. Any attempt at reasoning, be it logical or moral, will be dismissed. Any attempt to counter unfounded claims will be disregarded as false, a priori [italics added].

The parallel between Nietzsche’s conception of populist ressentiment and Trump’s dismissal of any truth, fact, or morality other than his own could not be clearer.

Third, a key element of the replacement of the old moral order is the extent to which significant portions of the existing elite accommodate to the values that emerge from popular ressentiment. What appears clear is that the wealthy and powerful, for the most part, are willing to accept Trump-guided ressentiment as a political framework if they get what they want: power and money. Every successful fascist regime has made peace with the wealthy and the powerful. They are useful.

Some members of this country’s elite will feel they can moderate and manipulate Trump. Others will accommodate to Trump in the pursuit of specific policies consistent with their interests, all the while holding their noses. Some will actively support and endorse Trumpism. Finally, some will actively oppose it. The relative balance of these different segments of the political and economic elite can be of decisive importance to the consolidation of the new regime of Trumpian anti-morality and anti-truth.

Thus far, the wealthy and the powerful have received more than they could have hoped for: a rubber-stamp Republican Party; a president who wants, to a pathetically obvious degree, to be accepted by them; a federal judiciary and Supreme Court that are increasingly pro-corporate at every turn; an insanely expensive and profitable permanent war economy; a decreasingly problematic (for them) regulatory system; a government increasingly insulated from the policy risks of potentially democratic influences upon government decision-making, legislation and regulation.

Fourth, the outlines of a new morality become clear. The morality of Trumpism is based upon a number of premises that counter traditional morality and knowledge:

(1) There is no truth other than the truth of the powerful. Any truth other than that of the powerful is not only false and fake; it is evil. The Leader is the source of Truth.

(2) Bigotry in defense of white supremacy is good. Non-white people are inferior. Social equality between races and religions is a dangerous lie.

(3) Nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are good. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, and intellectualism are forms of weakness.

(4) Men are superior to women.

(5) Christians are superior to non-Christians.

(6) Real Americans, that is white Americans, are superior to all others.

(7) Strength is better than weakness. Military and economic strength are all important. Diplomacy and cooperation are signs of weakness.

(8) The strong are morally worthy; the weak are morally unworthy.

(9) Leadership is action for its own sake. Destruction is better than reform. Intelligence and policy analyses are unnecessary. All that is required is the will to act decisively and to prevail — in Trump’s words, to be a winner.

(10) Ignorance is virtue; intellect is vice.

The extent to which Nietzsche would agree with these anti-moral premises is not the issue (though it is likely he would agree with several). What matters here is whether Nietzsche’s concept of “ressentiment” is relevant to an understanding of the current situation in this country.

Sadly, I agree with Professor Curtler that it is.

Even more sadly, we have heard this all before.

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.

Returning God’s Ticket

This post, from 2012, is being reblogged with some modifications because it seems even more appropriate in this year of our Leader, D.T.

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov (which Sigmund Freud regarded as the best novel ever written), the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child in front of his mother because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who observes Christ attracting a crowd and has him arrested. He then tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says,

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no satisfactory answer to the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no successful answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Or perhaps it was when the Atom Bomb was dropped and thousands of innocent women and children were killed — collateral damage, they call it — in the Second World War. And we today know about marginal insanity as we sit in fear of what the paranoid, delusional man in the Oval Office (who is assuredly not the answer to our prayers) will do next. Those were, and are, times that truly tested human faith and it has been found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demands sacrifices has become less and less real to growing numbers of people who have turned away from God because they refuse to allow that there are, indeed, times that try mens’ souls. Besides, they have to go and fill the gas tank of their new SUV. Ivan could relate to this attitude, because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

The Welfare State

When President Franklyn Roosevelt initiated steps to thwart the depression his country was deep in, he cautioned against the real possibility that citizens would become dependent on the hand-outs the Federal Government was taking steps to provide. As he said at the time:

“Continued dependence upon relief indicates a spiritual and moral degeneration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

The possibility that Roosevelt alluded to had been noted years before by such intellectual giants as Nietzsche and Dostoevsky who both saw “socialism” as a step toward the destruction of human freedom. Indeed, Dostoevsky thought socialism was the bastard offspring of the Church which, by making moral decisions for mankind, had robbed them of their humanity. If the Church or the State take care of people they will stop taking care of themselves. And taking care of themselves involves a struggle and, at times, suffering; these are the things that make us fully human. It is a dilemma: on the one hand there are folks who desperately need help and all who are able have a duty to care for them. On the other hand, this care can become a habit and rob those folks of the very freedom that makes them human.

Robert Kennedy in a speech in 1966 echoed Roosevelt’s warning, adding that “higher welfare payments . . .often lead to lifelong dependency.” The problem is how to find a balance between meeting genuine human needs and creating a situation in which those who receive assistance become dependent on it and find themselves unable to take care of themselves. The obvious solution takes the form of assistance with strings tied to it, assistance that demands that those who receive it do so for a limited amount of time and then fend for themselves, frequently referred to as “workfare.” Presumably this is what welfare reform is all about.

It’s not a Republican/Democrat sort of problem either, though there are Democrats who support all forms of welfare and there are Republicans who oppose all forms of welfare, which they see as hand-outs to lazy ne’er-do-wells. In a country that ponders the possibility of spending billions of dollars building walls to keep “terrorists” out and spends more billions to build planes and ships that can travel the world with nuclear weapons tucked away in their bellies, the notion that spending millions to help those in needs wastes our hard-earned money is truly ironic. And the notion that those in need are lazy is incredibly insensitive and wrong-headed. It is not the fact that millions are being spent on those in need that bothers so many people, however, it is the fact that they see those millions as being better spent on building higher walls. Or they point to anecdotes about abuse of the system, those who take without needing. In a word, we have a serious problem with perception and a loss of a sense of balance between what is being done and what should be done. And this in a nation that prides itself on its Judeo-Christian heritage!

Clearly, a wealthy nation such as the United States can afford to take care of those in need — whose numbers grow daily. The money that is spent elsewhere could be reshuffled easily to cover all costs. But the real problem is that those who receive this aid, regardless of how much money it turns out to be, must be enabled to take care of themselves. Many who receive welfare admit this and insist that their own self-respect depends on their eventually earning a living, taking care of themselves and their families– even if the income they earn turns out to be less than the money they are receiving on welfare!  The notion that these people are all lazy ne’er-do-wells is twisted and distorted — and self-serving. These are folks like you and like me who have come on hard times. The issue is not whether we spend some of our tax dollars to take care of those who desperately need it; the question is how we do this while still making possible the retention of self-respect and a degree of human freedom that they require to go on with their lives and become healthy, productive citizens.

Uneasy Civilization

In 1929 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous and truly remarkable book Civilization and Its Discontents. The latter term, in German, is “Unbehagen,” which means, literally, “uneasiness.” In any event, Freud pointed out that civilization is bought at a price. He never suggested that the price was not worth paying, but those who followed him and had a much less penetrating insight into the trials and tribulations of civilized people decided that the price was not worth paying. Freud worried about repression and sublimation (which actually resulted in creative activity) whereas his acolytes preached that mental health consists in the absence of restraint in order to foster increased pleasure and “realizing one’s potential.”

What followed in this country within a decade or two was a plethora of pop-psychologists telling Americans that repression was a bad thing and the values that had created what we call “civilized society” were a sham. Following Nietzsche, they reduced virtues to values and then reduced values to subjective feelings. Gone were notions of hard work, diligence, courage, self-control, discipline, duty, and responsibility in the name of what was loosely regarded as emotional honesty, encouraging people to feel whatever they wanted to feel and eliminating inhibitions in an attempt to throw off the shackles of a restrictive culture. In the 1960s this movement bore the fruit of the hippy rebellion against “the Establishment” and the rejection in our universities of such things as history which was regarded as “irrelevant.”

The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset told us some time ago that civilization is above all else the will to live in common. To the extent that we want to throw off the “shackles” of restraint and self-control and become fixated on our own self-improvement, we become more self-absorbed and less willing to preserve and protect what must be regarded as the remnants of civilization, the will to live in common and direct attention toward the common good. We worry less and less about others and regard them, for the most part, as avenues to or away from our own happiness. In the process our “lesser natures” are brought to the surface and the urges that were restrained are turned loose to wreak havoc on others around us. Recall that Freud never said that repression was a bad thing. It merely brought about an “uneasiness.” He would later call this “neurosis,” its clinical name. For Freud neuroses are treatable. Lack of character is not treatable: it is permanent.

Thus, we have inherited a view of human nature that is, in large measure, the result of a misreading of Freud and at the center of this view sits the figure of Donald Trump, the reductio ad absurdum of the “let it all hang out” mantra. He rails at the media for insisting that his alternative facts are complete lies and, lately, he rails against the court system that would restrain his hatred of culturally diverse peoples around the world — all in the name of saving this country from terrorism (which he is convinced only he can do). This man is the embodiment of the lack of restraint that has come to characterize this society in which civilization, as we know it, is in danger of withering away. He embodies the lack of restraint and “honesty” that increasing numbers of people have come to regard as the only prizes worth having. Welcome to the New Age of Barbarism with the King Barbarian at its head! Small wonder that he has so many devoted followers. Never say “no.”

I have sworn not to write about this man any more and in this post I am obviously breaking my promise to myself and a few others who care about such things. But I do believe it is necessary to point out that we have arrived at a new age in which the values that created civilization have all but disappeared and the green light has been given to our baser instincts to go forth and eradicate. With his narcissism, vulgarity, fractured language, bigotry, contempt for those who disagree with him, and his determination to strike out against any and all who might thwart his will, the man is a symbol, a token, the personification of the decaying core of a civilization he would help bring down about our very ears. He has nothing but contempt for those few among us who might urge restraint and self-control in the name of a willingness to live with others, a determination to protect and save civilization (not to mention the planet) — for all its “uneasiness.”