There are no culturally dominant, psychologically useful ways to purge the past or the unsavory present in our society. We do not build towering bonfires on Samhain or have witchcraft-excising fetish casting festivals as they do in Africa. Our typically Christian manner of turning a new page through confession has been lost to most Protestants on principle and to most Romans and Orthodox in practice. Suicide is the lot of cowards, perhaps, but a suicide of the soul possibly remains necessary. Liebestod of all sorts allures us mortals.
In place of ritualistic rebirth, we seek other narcotics. Substance abuse, pornography both of the published and experiential kinds, the meaningless menagerie of popular culture, and the idolatries of politics, art, and even charitable do-gooding become methods of escapism. As Pascal knew, dark thoughts come upon idle minds; we find some solace in busying our souls lest reflection come unwelcomed.
I, myself, take a more nihilistic approach to my disenchantment with reality. If, as some Greek thinkers believed, sleep is a form of temporary death, then my common escape plays itself out in not waking. When I find minor sedation inadequate, I destroy my writings, give away possessions, burn significant documents, erase contact lists, and throw out remnants of the past. If I refuse to pull a trigger, at least I can kill metaphorically. Perverse and irrational as it is, I find it quite satisfying—though, perhaps, demonically. The body is a harder thing of which to rid oneself—you know, with the human and divine laws, virtue and morality, commitments and responsibilities, and all those unpleasant claims upon the will. Moreover, the corpse would remain for the profane to touch and to mock with their primitive pieties and tangible second-guessing. An active volcano would be a better way. The nihilistic drive behind cremation would find its full actualization in volcanic suicide. There would be no trace left . . . how liberating!
If you have seen the film Gattaca, I think that this impulse informs the final scene. The character Jerome chooses his departure for spiritual as well as practical and charitable reasons. He and the character Vincent simultaneously find their freedom, though through very different escapes.
I read recently, though I cannot remember where, how poorly informed we are in a culture that finds happiness, peace, and prosperity to be the norms of human life. The writer, instead, emphasizes that misery and pain are what constitute earthly existence. We set ourselves up for disappointment and resentment when we delude ourselves that paradise is our right and privilege. Historical reasoning surely agrees with the writer; you might also think that personal experience would wake folks from their foolish reveries. Yet, error persists when the will would rather accept fantasy rather than reality.
Such an error serves as a poor basis for personal life. Needless to say, it also begs disaster when taken collectively as a political vision. As conservative thinkers endlessly but wisely repeat, utopianism, social engineering, and the revolutionary Left have their roots in this mistake about the human condition. If human life is supposed to be jolly and just, then our world is only shy of utopia because of established disorder that mucks up the natural paradise. We must therefore experiment in ever novel ways until we find the golden path. For Zion lies just beyond the next mountain pass. Traditionalists and their naysaying become obstacles to human happiness. They become counter-revolutionaries who hold the human race back from fulfillment. As such, they become evil—not just mistaken, but wicked enemies of the human race whose obstructionism must be removed. Widespread murder is not a significant price to pay when the glorious land of political perfection will bring countless generations the fruits of the good life.
We haven’t reached that goal so far? Attempts to do so have resulted in horrors undreamt before the modern age? Well, we shall do better. We know better. We must. Progress dictates that it must be so . . .
Yesterday, Lawrence Auster showcased a marvellous quotation from Voegelin’s The World of the Polis in his post, “If God is good, why is there so much evil?” Though I would not phrase Voegelin’s argument exactly as Auster does, for reasons of theological precision, the general argument is true, timely, and very applicable to us. Here is the passage that Auster supplies, from page 255 of Voegelin’s work:
The movement of philosophical speculation from the Milesians to Heraclitus, we may say, is a movement away from the experience of actual disorder in the direction of a principle of meaningful order. The discovery of the Solonic unseen measure, or the Parmenidean Being, or the orientation of the soul through love, hope, and faith toward the sophon, are truly great discoveries; in fact, they are the foundation of philosophical speculation as a critical exploration of the constitution of being. Nevertheless, this movement and its discoveries are beset by a grave danger. The occupation with transcendental being and with the orientation of the soul toward the unseen measure may become a preoccupation that lets man forget that he lives in a world of unoriented souls. The movement of a soul toward the truth of being does not abolish the demonic reality from which it moves away. The order of the soul is nothing on which one can sit down and be happy ever after. The discovery of truth by the mystic-philosophers, and still more the Christian revelation, can become a source of serious disorder if it is misunderstood as an ordering force that effectively governs society and history. From such misunderstandings result the psychologically understandable, but intellectual deplorable, “great” problems of theodicy, such as the reconciliation of the all-too-present evil in the world with the omnipotence and goodness of God. In problems of this kind there is implied the speculative fallacy that the transcendental order, which is sensed in the orienting movements of the soul, is a world-immanent order, realizing itself in society independent of the life of the soul. In brief: The discovery may produce an intoxication that lets man forget that the world is what it is.
It was the greatness of Aeschylus that he understood the order of Dike [justice or order] in society as a precarious incarnation of divine order, as a passing realization wrung from the forces of disorder through tragic action by sacrifices and risks, and—even if momentarily successful—under the shadow that ultimately will envelop it.
The philosopher finds such salvation in the contemplation of the divine, while the Christian hopes in God’s lifeboat through Christ. Decadent heirs of Platonism and Christianity’s mutant offspring hunger, like the Jews of old, for Eden restored here and now. I confess to share their desire, but I realize that God and I have irreconcilable differences. Part of me rationally notes that I must defer to higher wisdom. However, as a man, not all of me is rational. Hence, time is allotted for darker meanderings of the mind . . .