Self-Restraint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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.

End Of That Road

I include here a segment of an article that was written by Mark Hertling, a retired military man who used to accompany presidents carrying “the football,” a black case containing the emergency response system that allowed the president to order nuclear strikes if necessary. In the article he describes the personal qualities that should be looked for in the President of the United States who has the nuclear codes and the authority to launch a nuclear attack:

Ultimately, the U.S. president should be cool under pressure, be able to keep a clear mind under the most intense circumstances; he or she must take a calm approach when presented with conflicting elements of information, have steady hand based on a seriousness of purpose, and must be willing to listen to subject matter experts and top advisers to help make the right decisions. Once these decisions are made, if the “buttons” or pushed or the “triggers” are pulled, it’s hard to turn back.

I trashed a longer post about the unimaginable situation that has developed with our now-sitting president who lacks every one of the qualities Hertling insists are necessary for a president to have in the event of an international incident. I will leave it to the reader’s imagination what I might have said, which was not at all optimistic. Thinking about Donald Trump and what he might or might not do as president has led to chronic pessimism on my part. It’s becoming harder and harder to keep my imagination from running amok. In any event, I have decided to post this abbreviated piece and be done with it.

In the future I shall try very hard not to read about this man and will certainly not write any more about him. It’s not good for my health or my relationship with others. I am becoming a brooding type and no one around me likes that sort of thing. And I don’t blame them — especially since my little blog is a pebble in the way of a torrent. Larger rocks must group together to dam the rush before it is totally out of control.

The Babysitter

I have been thinking about the subject of my most recent post, the peculiar twists and turns of the collective psyches of Donald Trump’s minions. It is a fascinating subject and like a kid at the circus who can’t tear himself away from the freak show despite the fact that he keeps telling himself to leave and get some cotton candy, I am drawn to the perplexing question: what on earth are these people thinking — the followers of Trump, that is? I have come up with an analogy that has helped me see more clearly.

Years ago when my wife and I had to leave for a couple of days we decided to leave our two sons, about seven and eight respectively, with one of my tennis players who was a Junior and someone we liked and trusted. Now, we were a bit strict and passed along some of the ground rules to Kathy (we’ll call her that because that’s her name), including the fact that the boys could not have dessert until they ate all the food on their plates. That is, they didn’t have to eat something like, say, broccoli, if they simply couldn’t do so, but they didn’t get desert if they didn’t eat it. Yeah, it was a bribe. But it worked like a charm and allowed the boys to make their own minds up about what they could and couldn’t eat. They usually cleaned their plates.

In any event, after we returned we discovered that Kathy let the boys do whatever they wanted to do, eat what they wanted to eat, stay up way past their bedtime, watch whatever TV shows they wanted to watch, and she played with them like a third child. They had a blast. All restraints were off and this wonderful girl was their best friend. We had a dickens of a time getting them to settle down afterwards, needless to say.

Trump is the babysitter and his minions are the boys — though they have a collective IQ well below that of my two sons even at seven and eight. The babysitter has told them the old rules no longer apply. They are free to do and say whatever they want with no repercussions whatever — as long as they restrain from criticizing the babysitter. That’s Taboo. From what we can gather of the rallies, it is bedlam with shouting obscenities not only allowed but encouraged. They are rallies of hatred and all restraints are off as the minions can scream all those insults that have been repressed for years.

In Dostoevsky’s seminal novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov has a theory that since God is dead “all is permitted.”  This theory eventually drives him mad, but in the meantime he infects his adoring half-brother with the doctrine who then summarily kills their father. In other words, in Dostoevsky’s view, the absence of moral restraints can lead to murder and madness. This is certainly the view of that author who was, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 19th century. But, after all, what does a nineteenth century Russian author have to tell us about ourselves in this sophisticated day and age?

Civilization, according to Ortega y Gasset the Spanish intellectual, is the will to live in common. In the minds of Trump’s minions it is all about self and letting it all hang out. Restraint and denial are things of the past. Donald is telling them that “all is permitted.” If this were to become the rule of thumb in our nation the suggestions of the two men I have mentioned would lead us to the conclusion that our civilization is at risk and as a people we may well be headed for murder and madness. When I shy away from this dire conclusion I recall my two sons, whom I love dearly, and the looks on their faces when we told them that the fun was over and things were back to normal. Kids love to play and to have their way. But maturity and growth require self-control and self-denial because the rewards later on are much greater and their absence leads to chaos. Our boys have learned that, but I wonder about Trump’s minions. Are they capable of growing and maturing?

Freud’s Take On Civilization

In a number of my blog posts I have made much of the importance of doing whatever we can to preserve Western civilization. And this at a time when the word “civilization” has come under fire. We have become aware in recent years that so-called “civilized” peoples have committed all manner of atrocities against so-called “uncivilized” or “barbaric” peoples — many of whom are superior in a great many ways to the civilized people who look down on them and seek to colonize and exploit them. This is true, of course. But there is much more to be said on the subject that has been ignored in our tizzy to right past wrongs, and, despite its shortcomings and the greed and avarice of so many of its leaders, civilization is highly desirable and preferable to its alternative in which lives, as Thomas Hobbes said, are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

No one has studied the strengths and weaknesses of civilization more carefully than Sigmiund Freud who defines it in the following way:

“. . . the word ‘civilization’ describes the whole sum of the achievements and the regulations which distinguish our lives from those of our animal ancestors and which serve two purposes — namely, to protect men against nature and to adjust their mutual relations.”

Now, as Freud is quick to point out, in “adjusting” our mutual relations with other humans in civilized society we pay a price. We give up many of our freedoms and we develop various neuroses. It would appear that our animal ancestors, and presumably more primitive people, are happier than we are because they have greater freedom. They have no “hang-ups” as we would now say. But this is something of a fiction, as Freud goes on to point out, because in primitive cultures only the men at the top — and certainly no women — have all the power and the rest of the society simply does as it is told. And there are numerous tribal taboos. So the freedom that a few may have is bought at a price paid by the majority of the rest of the culture. Civilized men and women, on the other hand, not only lose their freedom, they have many “discontents” to live with. We pay a price.

In the end, Freud suggests, the price may be well worth paying. There are three major benefits from civilization that are stressed in Freud’s excellent book Civilization and Its Discontents. There is, to begin with, the development of character. Without social restraints and the need to accommodate one another persons would not develop character. We find this in children who, when allowed to behave in any manner they wish, suffer character flaws. Unlike neuroses, character flaws cannot be corrected through therapy: they are permanent. These people are spoiled and unable to undertake and finish difficult projects. They wander aimlessly through life with no apparent purpose or goal.

This brings us to the second benefit of civilization, which is what Freud calls “sublimation,” borrowing a word from Nietzsche. This word means the ability to restrain ourselves and redirect the energy that would otherwise express itself in aggression toward others and channel it into creative outlets. As Freud says in this regard,

“Sublimation of instinct is an  especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life.”

In a word, by sublimating what he called the “cathexis” of energy that would otherwise be spent needlessly or even violently, civilization, for all its faults, makes it possible for humans to create and grow intellectually and emotionally, to create and invent.

And this brings us to the third benefit of being civilized persons, and that is the suppression of “powerful instincts” that would otherwise result in violence toward our fellow humans. As history has shown, and which we are finding out for ourselves of late, this benefit has not been fully realized. Humans, even in so-called civilized societies, are still given to rage and the release of aggressive instincts toward their fellows. But, Freud would insist, this release of impulse is of lesser extent in civilized societies than in primitive ones since law enforcement helps to restrain aggressive impulses. What we are finding out is that law and order are less effective than we might hope and as increasing numbers of people become armed with deadly weapons and numbers of those pledged to enforce the laws break them resulting in increasing disrespect for law itself we can look forward to even greater violence in the future. As Freud would have it, civilization is a battle between the impulse toward happiness (pleasure) and the aggressive instinct. In his words,

“This struggle is what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human species.”

In the end, there are discontents in civilization, to be sure. But there are benefits that help to humanize us. As we lose those benefits we become less human, more like “our animal ancestors.” This is why I point to such things as the loss of good manners which, in itself, seems trivial, but is in fact, together with the growing disrespect for the law and those pledged to enforce the law, a sign that the ties of civilization are loosening and we are slipping back into a more primitive way of life — the life of our “animal ancestors.” Surely, this is something to be aware of and to seek to avoid.