The Psychophysics of Falling and the Dialectic of Nihilism (9.30.08)
One’s political philosophy, whether one acknowledges it or not, is going to depend upon one’s conception of human nature. And if your conception of human nature is wrong, then your philosophy is going to be warped and your system of governance is going to be dysfunctional. I believe leftism is rooted in a naive and faulty conception of human nature, which is why it does not work.
I haven’t read it yet, but yesterday Dennis Prager was talking about an article in the new Vanity Fair--of all places--that discusses this in reference to European socialism. These socialist countries are dying precisely because, within a couple of generations, they produce a new kind of man: indolent, dependent upon the government, spiritually empty, essentially nihilistic. Eventually a tipping point will be reached in which there will not be enough productive people to support the unproductive ones, and that will be the end of Europe as we know it.
Thus, not only is your political philosophy dependent upon your conception of human nature, but once in place, your philosophy will produce radically different kinds of human beings. We don’t have to look very far to see how this has played out in the United States, for example, with respect to all of the Oh, Great! Society programs that had the cumulative effect of taking a wrecking ball to the black family, leaving it much worse off than before government got involved. One of the last great liberals, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, saw this coming in the 1960s, writing about the “tangle of pathology” that afflicted urban culture. If I am not mistaken, the liberal meme “blaming the victim” was first applied to Moynihan.
One of the central divides in the culture war is the question of whether or not mankind is “fallen.” Actually that’s not quite right, because for at least half the country, the whole idea of mankind being “fallen” is precisely nonsense. To the extent that they give a moment’s thought to the question, it is only to mock and dismiss it. Modern secularists are way too sophisticated to ever believe in such crude mythology.
As I have had occasion to mention many times, revelation contains timeless wisdom and objective metaphysics that must be “unpacked.” This can only be done through a combination of preparation and grace. No amount of study or of intelligence alone will help you finally “get” religion in the absence of grace. In fact, “getting it” is a fine example of the operation of grace. In this sense, the uncreated intellect--that part of our being that may know divine truth--is itself a supernaturally natural revelation of God (as Schuon has expressed it).
There are so many different ways to consider the question of our fallenness. Before he became Father Seraphim Rose (1934-1981), Eugene Rose began work on a book that he never finished, entitled The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God. He completed only one chapter, on what he called “stages of the nihilist dialectic,” tracing modern man’s fall into the abyss of liberal nihilism. Because in the end, that is what the culture war is really about: objective truth vs. nihilism.
Rose saw our descent as happening in four stages that he called 1) liberalism, 2) realism, 3) vitalism, and 4) destruction. The first of these, liberalism, is already a sort of “passive nihilism,” because it opens the door to everything that follows--it is a “breeding ground of the more advanced stages of nihilism.” Why is that? Partly because, under the guise of “tolerance,” liberalism slowly begins to distance itself from, and no longer take seriously, the very ideas and traditions that made liberalism possible.
You see this for example, in the vast rhetorical gulf that exists between the great classical liberal thinkers who founded America and the petty, small-minded leftist liberals who rule today.
“We hold these truth to be self-evident.” That phrase alone would be evidence enough to deny tenure to an aspiring political scientist or philosopher. It gets worse. In the Declaration of Independence, God is explicitly named four times: he is the One who has endowed human beings with unalienable rights that no government may trespass; he is the author of the laws of nature (meaning that our founders took “intelligent design” for granted); he is the “Supreme Judge of the World” and therefore the source of our objective morality (i.e., the founders were not modern liberal moral relativists); and he is “Divine Providence," the source and end of all our worldly activities.
This kind of intemperate language would never be tolerated by today’s liberals. God? Judgment? Absolute truth? Intelligent design? Objective morality? Reliance upon God? These white European males who founded America were theofascists, just like President Bush!
In recent weeks a couple of readers have suggested that I believe I am always right, and that I never acknowledge any errors. First of all, I acknowledge errors all the time, except that I simply call it “growth.” I don’t necessarily stop to chronicle how my thinking differs today from last week, last year, or five years go. But from my end, it feels as if I continue to get a deeper grasp of things as I go along, so that previously held “partial truths” may well be discarded. Furthermore, perhaps you may not have noticed that my Minister of Doctrinal Enforcement often makes subtle corrections in my tendency to make extreme statements to illuminate a point. I will be the first to concede that I do not possess “judicial temperament.”
One issue that I was very wrong about was that of “liberty.” This is such a transcendent value for me, that I mistakenly believed that it was implanted into the bosom of man, and that it was only for us to remove the obstacles--say, in Iraq--and watch liberty blossom.
But I was wrong about that. Most human beings do not actually crave liberty. As a matter of fact, history will demonstrate the opposite--that human beings by and large find liberty to be repellant, and much prefer security. This is the difference between classical liberals and modern liberals, and it is also the difference between Europe and America. 2 Corinthians 3:17 says that the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. True enough. But what about all those places where the Spirit isn’t? There you will neither find liberty nor the desire for it. I now better understand that liberty is a spiritual value that half the country and most of the world does not necessarily share--certainly not the Islamic world. After all, the Islamists would rather kill every last Iraqi man, woman and child than allow them to live in freedom.
The modern liberal, in his descent into nihilism, values security over liberty, equality over freedom, “truths” over Truth. FDR, that patron saint of modern liberalism, unveiled a host of new “self-evident truths” that had somehow eluded our founders in a famous speech: “Now that the war was in the process of being won, the main objective for the future could be ‘captured in one word: Security.’”
Roosevelt argued that this actually meant something new and entirely unprecedented, that is, "economic security, social security, moral security." Classical liberalism, which had always been associated with negative liberties--i.e., the right to be left alone by the government--was to be replaced by a new vision of positive liberty that now forms the essence of modern liberalism. The government's job was now to even keep us free of fear, and “Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want." But since “want” is literally infinite, this sets up the need for a government that is infinite in its powers. For as the adage goes, any time the government does something for you, it does something to you. Since it now proposes to do everything for you...
In effectuating this new promise of security to all American citizens, Roosevelt argued for a new tax policy "which will tax all unreasonable profits, both individual and corporate." Unreasonable profits. Obviously we are still having that debate today, aren't we? What is an unreasonable profit, and why is it unreasonable? Here you see how the anti-libertarian, pseudo-religious language of Marxism insinuated itself into our discourse, further accelerating the Fall of liberal man: we "cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people--whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth--is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”
Sunstein continues: “At that point, the speech became spectacularly ambitious. Roosevelt looked back, not entirely approvingly, to the framing of the Constitution. At its inception, the nation had protected ‘certain inalienable political rights--among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures,’ he noted. But over time, those rights had proved inadequate, as ‘we have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.’”
Comes now fully fallen Leftist Man with a new revelation and a new Bill of Rights:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
The right of every family to a decent home.
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
The right to a good education.
Sounds good doesn’t it? No, better than good. It sounds positively utopian! Because now, with my new Bill of Rights in hand, my absence of responsibility and my victimhood are complete. The Government owes me a meaningful, well-paying job, fairness, a house, free medical care, an absence of fear, and full protection from my own bad decisions throughout life!
Obviously, many people want that new deal. But it is the quintessence of a Faustian bargain, in which you have traded God for government. You are now Horizontal Man. You have fallen all the way down.
Wait, that’s not quite right. We still have three more stages to go before man’s degeneracy is complete. To be continued.