This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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11.2. Contemporary Obstacles

Agnostic by birth

Paul van den Bosh wrote of his generation:

“It seems to us that God has died of old age, and we exist without a goal…We are not embittered; we start from zero. We were born among the ruins. When we were born, the gold was already transmuted into lead.”

This constitutional agnosticism is the expression of the modern soul situated as it is in a world where ‘God is dead’, which is to say, where God is excluded from life as commonly lived, and to such a degree that the only possibility of spiritual experience is to reject every practice and principle you’ve ever been given.

Again: you cannot help being influenced by this environmentally determined agnosticism. Since you were born and raised in a thoroughly materialistic, disordered civilization, you should expect to be severely impaired when it comes to rising above these conditions, or seeing beyond them. I do not mean the type of agnosticism that is acknowledged and professed as a conscious decision made about the world or about a god. I’m not referring to anyone’s “convictions.” This agnosticism is not so much about religion as it is about things in general, although religion is of course included.

The people of this agnostic age will tend to struggle with a basic uncertainty about people, traditions, institutions, and especially about ourselves, even if this is veiled behind everyone’s fervent worship of the idols of nation and ideology—in fact we can say that our worship of these things proves our inability to sustain real faith and experience real certainty.

Here in America this seems to afflict today’s youths, the upcoming generation, more than the generations immediately preceding them. This cannot be because the young are somehow more conditioned by the ignorance of the Dark Age than those who came before. It seems to me that what is happening is simply that preceding generations in America were unusually given to the prevailing ideologies and for them ideology was a pseudo-religion, and this gave to generations like the ‘Baby Boomers’ the appearance of certainty; but since this was a precarious and vulgar type of certainty, based on propaganda and political fervor, it couldn’t help but dissipate and dissolve. A generation was bound to come along and reject the ideologies that their parents had worshipped, since for them it would be clear that the dream had become a nightmare. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For now I’ll merely say that if I seem to speak of and to ‘the youth’ it is because they present a relative contrast to the current status quo.

Everyone ‘wants to believe’—maybe not in God, but at least in something—because belief represents certainty, and certainty represents comfort. You long for that comfortable rootedness and security. You just can’t seem to find it; and if you find it you can’t seem to maintain it for any period of time.

Therefore, it must be understood that humanity, as conditioned by the Dark Age, is ‘agnostic’ in the broadest possible sense, beyond simple religious beliefs and down to the core of spiritual sensitive in itself. Because this is simply part of our ambience, it should not be seen as some kind of moral failing. This holds true whether the individual happens to be Christian, atheist, or even a consciously professed ‘agnostic.’ Everyone is subject to the same conditions and is to some extent a member of an agnostic age. It isn’t the kind of agnosticism that comes after a person “rejects God,” although our civilization has certainly done that. We are agnostics fundamentally and not necessarily by any conviction. It is actually quite the opposite of a conviction: we are agnostics by an utter incapacity to maintain any sort of conviction about anything. The claim that something might be true ‘once and for all’ presents serious, often insurmountable, difficulties, and we reject it almost instinctively. Nothing can be taken on faith. We cannot give anyone the benefit of the doubt, because we can’t even give it to ourselves.

Some lament about ‘moral relativism’; they think that this is what plagues society. They prove their own superficiality by staking out their high ground at the moral level, as if the transcendent were merely a code of conduct. They bombard us with arguments about “right” and “wrong,” trying to convince us that these things do exist and that they are certainties. But again, we cannot trust these things—that is what they miss, and that is why they miss the whole point. They think that the relativism of modern people is a cause of something, but it is an effect, and a very late effect at that. It is the inevitable result of the state of things. It is the only moral philosophy a lucid person in today’s world could possibly maintain—it is the philosophy of “I don’t know.”[1]

What I’ve said so far applies more to knowledge than to passions. In other words, we do not have certainty of mind but we have sentiments to the extreme. We are all activists, and activists fight for ‘causes,’ not beliefs. They are often very worthy causes, but they are still not convictions. They always stop short.

We’ll fight for our neighbors too. Again, we do have hearts and a great depth of feeling. We are great humanitarians, and that is perhaps one of our most respectable qualities. But we won’t fight for any particular truth about our neighbor. We just fight for him when we feel he is suffering injustice. Sometimes we get confused, however, because justice requires absolutes. We don’t have absolutes, so we don’t always know what we are fighting for. Nonetheless, we are willing to fight.

So that seems to be the starting point of people brought into the world today. Doubt is a miserable starting point, I admit, because doubt is paralyzing. It can render you inert, and it takes a massive effort of the will to overcome this paralysis which is your constant mental companion. It’s a miracle we get out of bed in the morning. But we must begin from zero.

[1] There is of course a valid relativism which is merely the admission that any that operates in the order of dualism must be relative, but this will be discussed later. For now, the type of relativism in question is not that of someone whose view transcends right and wrong, but rather of those who cannot even rise to the level of that distinction.

Shame

In addition to your spiritual paralysis, you may feel a nagging guilt at your powerlessness. You share with Dostoyevsky a strange conviction: “…whichever way you look at it, I was always guilty in the first place, and what is most vexing is that I was guilty without guilt, by virtue of the laws of nature.”

It is that desperately masked but undeniable tinge of guilt which, like our agnosticism, seems to color everything we do or create. I see it in our music and in our art; I see it in our revolutions; it underpins even our most trifling pursuits. And what makes it so peculiar is that we were apparently born that way, somehow at fault just for existing, as if the doctor slapped us in the delivery room, not so that we would take a first breath, but rather to teach us a lesson for having misbehaved, and for coming out of our little rooms before we were told.

Those, therefore, who condemn young people as “shameless,” do not know how right they are, and in what way! If your shame is, as Dostoevsky said, a guiltless guilt, there from the start, then shamelessness is the only possible reaction.

To say it another way, having come to feel your guilt as a start rather than a finish, as the beginning rather than as the end result of some crime, your sense of justice is immediately thrown askew.

So where does this come from? Where is its seat within us? Is there really no cause? We must find one—or else we risk insanity.

The first thing we can know about ourselves is that we were born guilty, not of original sin, or at least not of that only, but of something worse. We’re guilty of shattering dreams. Having been born at this particular place and time, we are predestined to give the lie to a thousand false hopes—false hopes upon which an entire civilization was built. Like reluctant and unwilling Messiahs, we’ve come at the “fullness of time” to bring about something new, and we cannot help but be crucified for such a crime. I don’t draw the analogy to make us sound noble. We are unwilling and usually unwitting, but we were born at this time and so that’s that.

What has been for many generations a great stock of dreams will likely collapse under your feet. You won’t know what’s happening or why—but it will all be your fault. It all is your fault, because you were born here, and now. That’s our tragedy and the wellspring of our shame. It’s also the wellspring of our agnosticism, by the way. The two are Siamese twins woven into the modern soul. Our project is to extricate them from the spiritual tapestry, because they are poisoning the whole project, making it ugly, and unless we deal with the problem we’ll never get anywhere.

The silver spoon

They say that were born with a “silver spoon in your mouth”, if not economically, then certainly from a historical perspective. You have things better than anyone ever has before—you are at the height of civilization, born in the greatest nation in the world (if you happen to be an American). That’s your great privilege. So why, then, do you sometimes feel cursed?

The truth is that we’d have settled for wooden spoons. All we really ever wanted was the soup that was supposed to be on the thing. But instead we were born and had these shiny silver things shoved into our mouths. When we quietly asked about the missing soup, we learned that such questions were profoundly ungrateful. “We gave you silver and you ask for soup! You’re a spoiled lot, aren’t you!” All the while these things are being waved in our faces while we are told how grateful we should be for the nasty metallic aftertaste.

You needn’t be grateful—not for this. You do have things to be thankful for, things that have been handed down to you by your elders. We must never deny that. But what is worthy of your gratitude and what isn’t, are not great mysteries. You can see them for yourself, and judge them accordingly. You don’t need anyone else telling you where to heap your gratitude. Hold onto your thanks for a worthy cause. Our ancestors left us plenty of things to be thankful for, but this so-called silver spoon, I’m sorry to say, is not one of them. And even if it is, we’ve got to admit that there is a strange overemphasis on its value.

You were born in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but you knew that already, because all your life you’ve been reminded. That metaphorical ‘spoon’ is your smartphone and your HD TV and the car that was given to you at sixteen. It is your sedation dentistry, your caffeine, your fast food, and all the various things flaunted in front of you while you are reminded how lucky you are. And on top of all this wealth, you also have your ‘freedom’—but we’ll get to that in due time.

These are the things you must appreciate, if you want to pass through the tambourine frenzy without being reprimanded. But you can’t. Try as you may, you can’t appreciate them as deeply and as fully as you are told that you should, and the reason is simple: these things aren’t appreciable! You can’t deeply appreciate a radio or a cell phone. It isn’t human. You can become addicted to those things. You can become obsessed with something like a television, and dependent on fast food, but you can’t appreciate them as if they were a symphony or a Cathedral or a literary masterpiece.

I would praise your ingratitude and your inability to appreciate these things, even if others condemn you for it. Your ingratitude is evidence that humanity still lives in you. Even if I must watch a dozen of my generation sit at a table in silence, each glued to his mobile device, I know that, addicted as we are to these things, we do not appreciate them. Thank God for that. Enough with the silver spoon then. Wealth is really just the beginning—just a superficiality.

The American dream

The entire framework into which you were born was constructed around a very specific set of assumptions. The idea was that if “the plan” was followed without deviation—if the ideology was obeyed with proper zeal—then a paradise would follow as a divine guarantee.

We might say that you were born into a new Israel, with a new covenant, a new Law, and, most importantly, a new promise. The new covenant is called the “American Way,” while its promise is called the “American Dream,” and these two combined will lead one to a life of peace and joy in the land of milk and honey.

The formula really was foolproof: work at least 40 hours a week for 40 years (or was it 80?), get a house with a mortgage, own a couple of cars, go to church, pick a political party, vote for your guy, hate the other guy, be patriotic, fight in whatever wars come up, buy stuff—do all of these things and the Heavenly City will descend upon you. This is faith and the great hope of our parents, and it is the inheritance of my generation.

But then there came something of a great catastrophe. The milk and honey didn’t so much dry up as it began to lose its flavor and become tasteless, unsatisfying: foreclosures, perpetual war, divorce, unemployment, appalling political candidates, education that just makes children dumber, and on top of all that an undeniable feeling of aimlessness spreading through the entire nation.  The people became surprised, and then confused, and then terrified. They began to look around for what—or who—was to blame. Like the sailors on Jonah’s ship, they knew that only a great sin could have called down such a wrathful storm.

In a crisis, men will have their heretics. Contemporary society has chosen young people as the heretics of the New Covenant. Isn’t that something? We are not only unwilling Messiahs, but also unwilling heretics! But I suppose the Messiah himself was a heretic, so our story may turn out alright after all. We’re the Jonahs on this ship called “Liberty, Justice, Etc.” The fact that we were born right on the ship’s deck, long after the storm was already blowing, matters little to the confused crew.

But that’s what happened. We came walking into the Promised Land just in time to see the milk go sour. We were as shocked as anyone else. Why wouldn’t we be? We were following the program—we hadn’t doubted the faith, most of us. We had no ill intent. We even went to college and got our degrees! We’ve got bills to pay too. But the catastrophe came, and the nation grew confused. We turned to our elders with questioning eyes, looking for guidance, and it was then that we realized our circumstances. The promise was failing and a traitor had to be found.

That is the heart of it—that is our great shame. We’re marked as destroyers of a faith because we were born when that faith was imploding on itself. If it were just our “lack of appreciation” for our material trinkets, we’d get over it, like any spoiled child. But when youths are accused of doing violence to the faith of their fathers—of preventing the earthly Paradise from coming—well that’s something a bit deeper isn’t it?

We were born at the collapse of a great edifice, and the weight of that collapse hangs over our heads every day. We hear about it in the news and on the streets. “Young people these days!” I heard it a thousand times before I was ever of an age to be considered a “young person.”

Our predecessors believed so fervently in an illusion, in that great edifice and its promise, and we are, thanks to bad timing, dashing their hopes on the rocks by our very existence. Our fathers and our fathers’ fathers clung to those chimeras so fiercely, and false hopes held that tight cannot be anything but blinding. The hope became the very identity of the nation. To question the hope was to question themselves—to deny the hope, well-nigh inconceivable. They simply could not accept any possibility that the promise was empty.

When the lookouts began crying “rocks ahead” they blamed the ocean, and now that the hull is tearing and the water rushing in, they are blaming the young crew. The course was perfect!—that was their great conviction—and so the blame must lie with the crew. That’s you and I, we are the incompetent crew of this great barge with no reverse and no ability to turn left or right. Why would a perfect ship with a perfect course need to turn? Turning is heresy, you lazy villain! So we scramble, we go to school, we try to find jobs, but we know we are headed for rocks with nothing to do but take the blame as the ship falls apart.

We are the disappointment of our fathers. That was our inevitable destiny—a destiny of disappointment. It has come to us to do what young people are never supposed to have to do: to prove that the wisdom of our predecessors was wrong. And even in this we are unwilling. Through all this we’ve made it clear we didn’t want rebellion. Rebellion belongs to the ages before us, from 1776 up to the 60’s.

We aren’t rebels—we are simply dealing with the consequences of rebellion. That is the source of our dismay. We aren’t trying to prove anyone wrong. Most of us are working our hands to the bone to keep the ship afloat. But it is sinking anyway, and we are ashamed. We are the crew that wrecked the Titanic, and live with that responsibility. It is like a scar on us, except that it isn’t something we gained through action—it is more of a birth mark. We’ve always had it.

And things will only get worse. As the ships sinks further, more and more will be placed at your feet by your elders, and by everyone. Even as the water rises to their necks they’ll be accusing you of mutiny. That’s the insanity of misplaced convictions, of zealous faith in a lie—it becomes hermetically sealed. Even if it starts off healthy and alive, it allows for no flow of air or life in or out. It just sits there. Your elders think you are destroying their hermetically-sealed faith, and you have to live with that. You only have one option, really. Leave them to their insanity.

Do you understand now why you might feel a tinge of existential shame, and why this can and must be discarded? You are giving the lie to the delusions of an ideological empire. You are a fantastic disappointment. But he who plays the role of revealing a lie may draw hatred on himself, but there is a second implication: he who reveals a lie can only do so by bringing out the truth. He is disappointment for the false hopes, but he is himself a new hope which can take place of the dead one. Along with your destiny of shame, you have a small spark of light that you brought with you into this world.

Tradition and convention

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

–G.K. Chesterton

“I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”

–Thomas Jefferson

I have described elsewhere the modern confusion surrounding the term ‘tradition,’ but here I want to draw attention to it again from the point of view of lived experience.

What makes America unique is that it is almost wholly the product of revolution. Many other nations have revolted here and there, to be sure, such as Scotland against England in the legendary days of William Wallace, but they were not fighting so that they could be born—they were fighting to return to a life they had had previously. They were revolting that they may return to their tradition and live it without interference.

For America this is not the case, since it was fighting not for a return but for a beginning. After the dust settled, the only tradition in the land was that of the native peoples, and this the revolutionaries had no intention of preserving. They had their own ideas, which they implemented, and which were of an entirely experimental character. They were not new ideas, to be sure, but they were novel in the sense that, while previous civilizations were aware of the ideas, they did not find them worthy of application.

I will try not to condemn any particular principles here, since we have done that at length elsewhere. Here our only purpose is to remind the reader that America is fundamentally anti-traditional, and therefore cannot be said to have any “traditions” of its own in any real sense. This is important to our subject because tradition, regardless of what you think of its merits, is a stabilizing force. It grounds people and gives them direction and identity.

However, we must also deal with a great irony here, because we’ve had a lot of ideas, words, and practices waved in front of us all our lives, and these things, we have been told, are the “American Tradition.”  Is that not the most profound hypocrisy? Have we already forgotten that the founding principles of our nation amounted to the rejection of all political tradition, and that much of the early progress of our American civilization amounted to the obliteration of the ancient traditions of a native people? How can we then wield the term “tradition” as if it were something which demanded respect and adherence? How can we speak of “tradition” as if it were inviolable and divine, when our civilization was born through its violation?

Our nation was born by rejecting the traditions of Europe while at the same time trampling over the traditions of a native civilization, and so America was born a traditional void and has quite possibly doomed itself to remain as such. America, we might say, is anti-traditional.

So, then, what about these ideas that were taught to us as our “tradition?” How are we to deal with them? What are they?

They were conventions which are entirely different. They are temporary, mediocre, subjective, shallow. They were political preferences, party allegiances, hollow economic ideologies, vague moral sentiments, disgraceful material aspirations. Nothing we can sink our teeth into, nothing worth fighting or dying for. They were already stale by the time they were told to us. No one really wants to die for the New Deal or for Reaganomics, although they do.

Tradition isn’t something that old people hold in front of young people to show them how wrong they are. Well, it can be that, but that is not all that it is, and if that is the only way it survives then it isn’t worthy of survival. A tradition is a gift, a truth, a light, and a support, and when it is real it can be seen by everyone in the community as such. That’s how it becomes tradition: because it is nothing more than wisdom in its simplest expression.

But we don’t have any of those things, those ancient and proven expressions of wisdom. Our predecessors wiped tradition off the map centuries ago and have been reeling ever since.

Of course, they couldn’t reel for long. They couldn’t live without traditions even though they rejected every last one. And so they are constantly trying to construct a new framework from the rubble of their dynamite job. That was the technique of the Founders, after all. They took a sermon here, a platitude there, some Aristotle, some Cicero, far too much of Descartes, and even some St. Paul. With these they built the haphazard and wobbly thing we now see before us, which they now call the “American Tradition.”

It is a grotesque piece of infrastructure, and the worst is that it keeps changing because its foundations will always lie in revolution. Always revolution, and so the structure quakes, ready to collapse at any moment and kill anyone who is standing inside.

Men are able to believe in this structure, this great counterfeit-tradition, for a very simple, psychological reason: because it is theirs. Its existence flatters, and its success affirms, and so their self-worth rests in its continued existence and its success. That is the most lethal and deceiving aspect of our traditions. They are changeable and so they change with each generation, sometimes becoming entirely reborn, sometimes becoming entirely perverted. Each builds its own revision of the tradition, which is always in its own image. It is a reflection of the deepest hopes and desires of whoever created it, and in that it is extremely dangerous.

That is why we must see them as conventions, and as something to always question and be wary of, and decidedly not as tradition, which is something so time-proven as to seem “pre-historic,” in the precise sense of the term. Traditions aren’t made—they just are, and you either take them or you don’t, and you suffer or benefit accordingly. You either keep them or lose them, in which case you have to return to them in order to regain them. But you never build them.

Tradition is the result of men attempting to live to their highest through ages, building bridges of beauty, wisdom, and soul, which then serve as paths to safely guide their young across the abyss. Conventions are blind inroads out over the precipice—like those old cartoon characters who would walk off a cliff and not fall until they looked down and realized where they were standing. You might get lucky with a convention, but it is always an experiment.

That is why it is a great deceit to sell conventions as traditions. It isn’t the same product. One is proven, the other is just a first prototype that might explode in your face. This is how you must come to understand American “tradition.” It is not a bridge because it was made by burning bridges. Because of this you should not accept them without question as if they were immortal principles. You can take them or leave them.

Yes, you may take them if you want, these conventions. My purpose here is not to dissuade you from using them if you find them helpful, noble, or true. My purpose is not to disparage your whole American heritage. My purpose is only to call things what they are and stop the exaggerations and the deifications. Feel free to hold to the philosophy of the Founders, but you must stop holding it as a dogma. Do you like the Constitution? Then defend it, even in the name of God, if you wish, but don’t let anyone tell you that God wrote it with his own hand.

That’s where the dangers and the perversions come in. Once you make these frail things into something divine, then you give them power over your soul and your conscience. And since our “traditions” are often just the preferences of those immediately before us, then you’ve given your soul over to a collection of petty aspirations, secular mythologies, and prejudices of a single generation. That’s a dangerous game, to say the least. You allow politics and methodology to play at divinity, and you give them access to an area of yourself in which they have no business meddling. You give them the keys to your own soul and your own conscience.

Then one day you’ll find yourself listening to your party leader as if he were Moses, and you’ll be hating the other guy as if he were the anti-Christ. You’ll be doing this because “the tradition” is under attack. All the while you’ll live in agony and shame, because you sold your soul to convention.

This is the second layer of shame I want to peel off of your conscience. This is the second layer gone hard, dry, and calloused. When you are accused of despising convention, of having “no respect for tradition,” you can save your guilt. You have not committed this crime. You aren’t rejecting tradition; you are just rejecting the opinions of the person standing in front of you. That’s what American tradition is: it is novelty and opinion, which is to say, it is anti-tradition.

Learn to see these counterfeit traditions for what they are, and discard this layer of your shame for good.

The experience of freedom

“Free, dost thou call thyself? Thy ruling thought would I hear of, and not that thou hast escaped from a yoke. Art thou one entitled to escape from a yoke? Many a one hath cast away his final worth when he hath cast away his servitude. Free from what? What does that matter…Clearly, however, shall thine eye show unto me: free for what?”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Free for what? That is Nietzsche’s powerful question to modern men. No one can answer this satisfactorily.

I’ve said that, here in the United States, we’ve made the mistake of deifying certain experimental social policies, elevating them to a level nothing short of religious; and in doing so we have allowed these principles to demand of us the same unquestioned obedience as religious doctrine. One of these immortal principles, which will serve as a convenient illustration, is Freedom.

What follows is only an illustration from the perspective here in question, and is not meant to be a thorough explanation of the proper view of human freedom, which is addressed elsewhere.

If you know one thing about yourself as an America—if there is one thing that has been driven into your head over and over—it is that you are ‘free,’ freer than any man who ever lived. But freedom is not just a fact to be lived without a care. It isn’t something you can just “have” without giving anything back. Freedom is a question. In fact, it is one of the questions of human existence, which every person can feel weighing on him and which each must answer in some way or another, or else pay the consequences.

The more substantial the freedom exercised by a person, the more substantial the answer must be. This is why men of old did not rush so quickly into absolute liberty. They knew they’d have to come up with an absolute answer to this absolute freedom—and they knew that it could destroy them if they were not worthy.

Liberate yourself too far and it comes rushing back at you like a boomerang or a tidal wave. It grips you around the neck, lifts you off your feet, and pins you against the wall, demanding an answer to the eternal question: “Free for what?”

That’s you. You’re free, just as everyone keeps telling you—but do you have an answer for that freedom? You know what you are free from. From kings, priests, moral prohibitions, etc. But do you know what you are free for? You don’t—you can’t. That’s another thing that was destroyed when Tradition was wiped from the face of the modern world. Tradition was the collective answer to a question no man could answer alone. Now that answer is hidden away and extremely difficult to find. Everyone became free to be whatever and whomever he wanted to be. We’re all completely responsible for our own being and our own personalities. That’s our great privilege, with no traditions and no real culture to speak of. And that’s the Sphinx we feel standing over us, waiting to devour us lest we answer rightly.

How does this Sphinx-freedom feel to you? It has felt to me like a vacuum into which I was born and to which I cannot offer a justification. It feels like being freed into outer space, where freedom reigns infinitely, where you will find freedom and freedom only, in a chaotic emptiness.

Man at one time may have been born into a mold, and that mold may or may not have suited his preferences and talents. But you and I, we are born into a void—the molds were thrown out the window one and all! And a cold void suits nobody’s fancy. I’m not saying I’d prefer a mold, necessarily. I can’t be certain what I’d prefer, and that’s the problem.

I’m told that I should design my “self” according to my desires, but how can I design myself unless I already know myself? It is a chicken-and-egg conundrum and I’m stuck in it. I don’t think I have it in me to become wholly responsible for my own being and personality. No one does. I can contribute to the affair, and I would happily do so. I can discipline myself and I can work; I can learn and form my mind; I can enter relationships that impact me to the core and help me grow. But this is not enough. My parents contributed as well, but I’m still more than what they formed through their blood, sweat, and tears.

I’m beyond myself and doomed to live beside myself, alienated from my own person. This great and subtle thing, this Self, that has been tossed in my lap for me to play with is too powerful for me to develop alone and outside any supporting framework. I desire community, cooperation, companionship, direction, and the well-beaten paths, all multicolored and multifaceted, that those things provided in traditional civilizations.

As much as my culture taught me otherwise, I need other people to help me build my “I.”

This new freedom is far too much responsibility, and it causes me more pain each time I’m reminded of how absolutely free I really am. I’m too much for me to handle alone. And that’s what this freedom really is—it is a sentence of aloneness. My freedom is an exile. Regardless of what it was meant to be in the beginning, that’s what it has become. It has removed man’s connection to man, and now no one believes his fate is intertwined with any other living thing.

There’s another lie I need to mention. It is the lie that says God once denied man freedom, and now that we have it we’ve delivered ourselves from God, we’ve escaped His arbitrary limitations. That is just another superstition modern people use to comfort themselves in an attempt to live with the freedom they can’t answer for. They confuse the monster breathing down their necks with God. They think it’s Him back there, but they are mistaken. No God ever ruled man’s every move, threatening him with wrath at each step. The God of traditional religions left man free—all too free, it seems.

As for man’s part, he was smart enough to understand the implications of this freedom and to build a framework of limitations around himself. The Greeks, as we all know, were obsessed with this moderation and nothing offended them more than excess. They sensed the profound danger of exercising too far man’s capacities. Some limitations are blessings—they are like iron bars of safety over a treacherous bridge. You can free yourself of them, but only a suicidal man would free himself from the things that sustain him.

When our forefathers liberated themselves and made “freedom” an absolute, they struck down all forms of safety and said: “Every man for himself!”

That’s what happened when freedom—or “Liberty” as it is called—became an ideal held religiously by our civil religion. Your forefathers wanted to be free, and were allowed to become so. The consequences may have proven more than we can handle.

It was as if humanity liberated itself from its own sustaining atmosphere—all the spiritual air and cultural beauty got sucked right out from around them, even if it took a couple hundred years for people to feel the breech in the hull. Now everything is gone out into the void: community, wisdom, tradition, and limitation. Now our existence feels like a desert in which we are absolutely free, because although we can go anywhere we want, there is nowhere we really want to go to, and so we are not really free.

Now we’re left under the weight of that great question: “Free for what?” All the principles for which men used to live and die are gone and all of the answers have gone with them. Free for what, then? That’s what you have to answer, my dear reader. That’s our task. We are floating in space, freer than free, and now we have to figure out some way to build around ourselves a cockpit. If we can, then maybe someday we can fly it back to earth and become human again—maybe even start a family.

Our job is to find the answer to our freedom. We need each other to find it, don’t forget. We have to reach out and set our own limits again. It is only within the context of fixed limits that you can reach out and touch anything. You can’t walk across the room unless you have a floor to push against with your feet. We crave the ability to walk around, and to touch and know one another. We’ve got to construct limits. Then perhaps you can finally find a Self—that deep identity which we have been told to build arbitrarily as if it were a pile of play-dough.

You can’t build your own being. That was the great prideful absurdity of the whole affair. You can’t do it. You can only discover your being, and it often takes a lifetime to find it.

That must be the new orientation and aim of human liberty: to know thyself—the Self which you do not build but were born with. Then, perhaps, you can answer the question, and only then can you safely and confidently take a little piece of your freedom, living not just free, but free for this.

Self-consciousness

“The century…has been marked by the idea of ‘modernism’—a self-consciousness new among centuries, a consciousness of being new…a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.”

~ John Updike

Your problem is that you are self-conscious. By this I do not mean “selfish,” as the moralists would say, nor do I mean that you possess too much self-knowledge, as the ancients would say: instead I mean something more like an inescapable, existential self-centeredness.

In this sense, we are quite possibly the most self-conscious people ever to walk the face of the earth. Remember the old story about Adam and Eve? That message is more about self-consciousness than anything else. When Adam ate the apple he moved from simply being himself to thinking about himself. He was ripped from living in comfortable unison with his identity—a unison so absolute that he never had to think about himself in the least—and was cast into the exile of his own head. Eden was his rootedness and his security, and his banishment was to the changeable, frail environment of his empirical mind, its only comfort being what it can gather via sensory experience. When this happened, his existence was degraded one step, by which we say that he became “self-conscious.”

That was the Fall that you’ve heard to much about. It was, ironically, a fall up into the mind and into the horrible insecurity of having to think about yourself in order to be reassured that you exist.

Now do you understand why they say that death entered the world at the Fall?. Well that only makes sense. If a man is not self-conscious, then death does not exist. You have to be concerned with the past and fearful for the future in order for death to threaten you. And it always threatens your Self, that thing which previously you weren’t much concerned with. That’s why the birds and the bees don’t know death. They aren’t self-conscious.

Adam ate the apple, it went to his head, and now he knows death. That’s the knowledge he gained. That is not so much a doctrine of the Fall as it is our experience of it, and man hasn’t stopped falling since. Every step of the way he seems to become more and more trapped in his own head, more and more concerned with the precariousness of his Self and its existence.

Whether or not you are Christian, the original myth of the garden certainly explains a lot. That’s the true value of myths when it comes to daily life: they explain us to ourselves. And the myth of Adam explains you and I to a “T.” Why should we care if it happened at a specific place and time?—it happens every day within us. We know the Fall even if we don’t know anything about God.

We cannot for one moment stop thinking about ourselves. Just listen to our music. Every hit song smacks of this particular form of insecurity, stuffed with lyrics demanding “acceptance for who I am” or “who we are,” heaping praises on ourselves simply for “where we’re from,” never concerned with whether or not we’ve ever done anything worthwhile. That isn’t arrogance. It is self-consciousness. Whether you listen to country or gangster rap, the lyrics are always the same: it always amounts to a long string of self-congratulations for driving a big truck or a Cadillac, for being born in Dixie or the projects, for drinking Jack Daniels or Grey Goose, and always and everywhere for having indiscriminate sex.

The message at the back is always the same. It is a desperate and usually obnoxious attempt at self-assurance. That’s why we drink it up—we can’t get enough of these lyrics that praise us and convince us that we do indeed have some sort of worthwhile identity. Tune in to any radio station that plays the current “hits.” What you will hear are the laments of self-alienated and self-conscious individuals. That is the artistic expression of our epoch.

Ironically, even contemporary religious or “worship” music is saturated with this. Everything centers on “me,” “mine,” and “my God.” Gone is cautious supplication of the Old Testament psalmist who spoke always of God’s people in the plural. Contemporary Christianity only wants to hear about a Jesus who is our “personal savior.”

Always the worship music is about all God has given us and gives us and will certainly continue to give us. We cannot allow into our minds the terrible possibility that we might have a test to pass first in order to be worthy of the title ‘children of God.’ Our Jesus only wants to hold us and squeeze us and shower us with blessings.

Eventually one begins to wonder whether it is God who is being praised, or if it is the other way around. Such is the worship of a self-conscious Christianity. And so it is with our agnostic generation that, even when we go to church, we are unable to find or maintain any real certainty about who we are and where we stand in the world.

We all know that it is possible to think too much. Thought can drive you insane if you aren’t careful. Sometimes thought can paralyze and destroy. That’s our problem. You have to be rooted in your being before you start thinking. Rootedness and being must always come first or else your reasoning is tainted and undermined from the start. That’s why our thinking, and the thinking of men in general for a long time now, is undermined and chaotic. All we have is the mind to cling to, and it doesn’t work very well on its own. Anything can be rationalized, and if anything, then nothing.

Because we are rootless and disoriented, we start at the wrong end and reverse the process. We start at the wrong spot—in the head—and then try to arrive at our being. You must understand the great tragedy of this reversal and the story it tells. It is the essence of self-alienation.

Everyone has heard the rationalist motto: “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Rene Descartes, the man who said it, was doing what we now do habitually. In that regard, he was the spiritual father of us all. He was trying to find himself by starting with his own thoughts, and he never got beyond them. “I think, therefore I am” is the motto of estrangement, for people who search and never become anything more than a thought about themselves.

At this point we should ask why the problem has become exaggerated in recent history. “Hasn’t every other generation struggled with the same problem?” Yes and no. Yes, this process and this struggle has been underway for centuries, but this also implies that things are constantly changing, so that we are not like others before us. Our struggles carry the accent of our era.

We’ve already hinted at the problem. We observed that in the last few centuries mankind systematically carried out a revolution and rejected everything that came before. He cut his traditional tether. He became “modern.”

With him he brought all of the evils of the modern world. Whatever the shortcomings of the ancient social framework, it could at least help a man know who he was and where he stood in regard to the universe. For example, religion was, in traditional societies, always central to social life, whatever form that religion happened to take. Religion explains much to man. It gives him rootedness and reassurance. It gives him a truth to hold to and around which to pivot. But the modern world has no religion, at least not any real social or existential sense. Our religion is a private affair, usually more of a hobby, something “on the side,” carried out as a social event for “fellowship,” which pretty much renders it culturally inert.

We are individuals now. Individualism is an “American tradition,” is it not? This means that most of the questions a civilization used to answer together, as a sort of collective, cooperative effort, are now each man’s own battle to fight alone. Everything is a solo mission, and it has ended in tragedy.

Stripped of all the old structures and safe paths, we tend to wander through life unprotected. We are like bare wires, stripped of all insulating layers of culture and community and religion, spiritually naked and exposed, ready to short out at the slightest disturbance. We are sensitive beyond all usefulness. This disease of self-consciousness, then, is in a way uniquely ours.

Denizens of a verbal universe

“My grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village, still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time at an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day.”

~ Milan Kundera

Most people in our country live in the abstract. What I mean is that they don’t judge the world by what they see happening or by their own experience, or even by their own judgment. In this freest of all democracies, men paradoxically depend more than ever before on distant and alien sources for their opinions. If we want to know how the country is doing, where it is going, who is going to be president, who is killing, who is being killed, what sort of laws are being changed, etc., we turn on the television or the computer and take what information we can find. We have no choice, of course. Our reality is far too complex for any one person to grasp in any comprehensive manner. The individual can only pull bits and pieces from the wires as the information flies by, and hope that what he grabbed was accurate.

This has some strange effects on our perception of reality. It tends to turn things upside down. For example, isn’t it odd that everyone hears all about the president every single election, but few could name the members of their own city council? That’s democracy working in the reverse, in its most ineffective manner—everyone paying attention to the one vote that they are least competent to cast, and completely disregarding the parts of their democracy that actually touch them and on which they’d be competent to decide.

Yet this will appear normal to the voter simply because the television is clamoring all day about the distant caricature running for president, reinforcing the impression that the presidency is the one vote that matters. In comparison to this display, he’d have to spend a great deal of energy to actually meet his local representation, which never appear on TV and so might as well not even exist. In this way his perception, not only of his own competence, but of his own ability to become competent, is reversed and exaggerated. He ends up ignoring the area of his activity where he could have maximized his impact, focusing instead with utmost intensity on those things which concern him least.

I have used politics here as a simple example, but this distortion of reality applies to our general perception of the world. We’ll miss a local school board meeting that could affect local children because we are too busy watching a hostage situation taking place in a school clear across the country. We will see the distant crisis as more “important,” and we are right in a way, but the crisis is not important in the sense that he can do anything about it. It is tragic, but it is also not our responsibility because it is out of our reach, regardless of how long we sit glued to the television watching it.

This is how it goes with every tragedy, every disaster, every war, and every new disease. Always the death tolls parading across the screen. Death is real of course, and the ability to cope with death is important. But the disturbing carnage we see on the news does not give us a healthy, reasonable exposure to death—television only showcases death in its most fearful or anxiety-inducing forms. It sensationalizes death in such a way that it actually inhibits people from coping with it.

Real death that actually affects most of us—the kind we need to know about and experience in a healthy way—then becomes overwhelmed by all the tragedy on the television. Our concept of death becomes distorted and destroyed because of this exposure to things that have nothing to do with the parts of reality we actually touch.

This process deeply impacts us. It forms and informs us when we expose ourselves to it, and we are always being exposed to it. Our “information age” rips us from our immediate reality and forces us to become involved and concerned with a reality that is real but is not ours. We then begin to think, act, and even communicate with one another in accordance with that false reality.

This counterfeit reality is what we will call the verbal universe. It is an abstract world made of constellations of ideas, words, and prejudices; and it is, I believe, a development particular to large, technologically developed societies accustomated to experiencing reality second-hand, whether that is via the news, the classroom lecture, the television, or the internet. The essential condition is that an entire people form their picture of the world and even of their fellow persons based not on direct experience but on what they have seen or heard through some type of media. The verbal universe is also born of complexity because complexity overwhelms the individual by piling more information on his plate than he can possibly digest. This is exacerbated within democracies, because in a democracy a man is expected to have an opinion on everything, from the causes of cancer to the side-effects of vaccination to who is in the Super Bowl. It doesn’t matter that he is truly incompetent in regard to many, if not all, of these things. It doesn’t matter that even experts are often unsure about them, and that he, working full-time on a production line or in a grocery store, could not possibly know any better. He simply must have an opinion on every issue, every candidate, and every subject; and that is that.

Enter the verbal universe. The verbal universe provides an alternative to that impossible expectation of competence by instead providing the illusion of its fruition. The verbal universe offers the man an array of neatly packaged opinions; it offers him answer to everything; and it offers him a common language —a specific set of keywords and phrases—through which he can then communicate his new opinions with others, so long as they also received their opinions from the same source. By “source” I do not mean that their opinions have to be exactly the same. They may very well be contradictory opinions, but the communication still succeeds so long as they both participate in the common verbal universe with its common language. Two men may hold opposite opinions, having selected very different “packages” from their source, but they can still speak thanks to the common language, and that is what matters most, because successful communication is what provides the feeling of human potency.

Now the first thing you should notice about this verbal universe is the fact that it does not help people think or “know” in any meaningful way. In fact the whole reason it develops is because people do not have the time or aptitude to think. The keywords of the verbal universe, then, are simply tools to facilitate opinion-formation, even enabling two people to debate a given issue with great vigor and passion, yet without really thinking about their premises at all; and, what’s more, this enables men to “communicate” without having to consider what their opponent is saying either. Communication, within the verbal universe, is not communication: it is something more like a transaction or an exchange of mechanical responses and clichés. It has lost the human element.

A communicant does not have to meet any other person, they simply have to go through the ritual in which they compare keywords and opinion packages, either finding themselves in perfect conformity, or else they find their packages incompatible. If incompatible, they will deploy a second set of phrases, clichés, and pseudo-arguments to demonstrate that their combination is better, and that their “opinion outlet” is superior. Neither person need ever really hear what the other is saying. They only need to go through the motions. Men are then enabled to converse in a way that gives the appearance of meaningful communication, but both are talking without speaking, and hearing without listening.

This sort of inferior communication survives and thrives for a variety of reasons, two of which we’ve mentioned. First, it is an easy solution to the impossible problem of competence in everything. Second, once the verbal universe is adopted, it flatters the participant beyond all reason, thus reinforcing the illusion. Once a man is convinced that he is capable of judging any matter, no matter how complex, for himself, then not only will he be dependent on the verbal universe for its comfort, but he will also become completely impervious to any doubt about his opinions once they have been adopted.

However, there is a third and final aspect of this universe which has helped it to overwhelm the entire modern world, and that is its efficiency. The verbal universe is able to accumulate and disperse information much quicker than reality itself ever could. And in a world which almost instinctively prefers the fast over the slow, the verbal universe wins out almost automatically. The real world is always too slow, steady, and patient.

Keywords, slogans, catchphrases, and clichés: these are the tools of the verbal universe. They are its power and you can use them to recognize its work. Its language consists of vague, common words, usually almost meaningless in themselves but in the verbal universe loaded with meanings. Think of “love,” “hate,” “democracy,” “education,” “sexuality,” “patriotism,” “freedom,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and so on. Even the word “American” has the power to convey massive amounts of emotion, even if, in actual context, it means something else, or nothing at all. These are the central tools utilized by the verbal universe to offer each person the ability to communicate without communicating and to think without knowing. And almost always the thinking and the speaking is about events which have nothing to do with the person.

As you learn to recognize this false reality, you’ll find that it is paradoxical because those who use it can communicate with anyone anywhere. Listen to two men on the street talking politics, parroting what was on the news that day. They go through a grand ritual, do they not?—either patting each other on the back or facing off as mortal enemies. And yet if you stopped them midstream and inserted some strange notion, something off the beaten path, they’d look at you as if you were speaking an entirely different language. And that’s because you are. You are an alien, because you are not from their universe. That’s the conundrum. If you really want to communicate, you’ll have to accept the fact that real communication is difficult and that real subjects are complex. If you want to avoid impoverished, mechanical, cliché-dialogue, then you may have to feel like the idiot in the room.

Thought is work

All men work, but not all men are called to work in the same way or to the same type of productive labor, which is proper due to the diversity of aptitudes and their corresponding vocations. Thought, contrary to the prejudices of a materialistic industrial civilization, is also a category of work. It is a very real labor that is taxing to those who set themselves to it in a serious way. Mental work, as a lifelong pursuit, is a very particular vocation. In fact, we could say that it is the highest vocation in the sense that thought must precede any form of exterior activity. This is why the vocation of contemplation was the most esteemed vocation in all traditional societies. In the present, where industry and ‘production’ and material comforts are esteemed above all else, the primacy of thought is ignored and even denied altogether, despite the absurdity this denial implies.

This is natural in a democracy, which draws its attitudes from the ‘average’ and what is normal is whatever most people happen to prefer. Most people you will meet are completely averse to mental activity. This is not an insult to them—it is natural. Nor does it represent a moral failing for such individuals, since they cannot be expected to desire what is not in accordance with their nature. Mental labor is the calling of a minority in the same sense that surgery is the calling of a specific few and not general population. The mass of individuals you meet on the street are averse to subtle thought in the same way that carpenter might be averse to computer programming. Such is the truth about the human condition, which will be explored in much greater depth elsewhere. The problem only begins when those who are averse to thinking refuse to acknowledge their own aversion and, unwilling to admit that they prefer to let others think for them, just as most people prefer to let others handle their carpentry, they pretend to be competent in a difficult activity in which they scarcely, if ever, participate. This is because they have been led to believe that thinking is not like other vocations, and that anyone and everyone should be capable of solving the same problems and perceiving the same concepts with the same lucidity, which is just as absurd as claiming that everyone everywhere has the capacity to compose music of the same complexity as Bach.

Dealing with the ignorant

As soon as you begin truly thinking and set yourself to the task of becoming knowledgeable about anything, you will immediately be faced with the problem of the great mass of people around you who, never having considered the questions you are dealing with, pretend nonetheless to be experts on them. Everyone thinks they are a thinker, especially when they are not, and this applies double to those whose opinions have been collected willy-nilly from the television and the internet in such chaotic fashion that, unable to perceive the process, they believe that they arrived at their opinions on the basis of diligent research and disciplined reasoning. I think it is similar to the feeling you get when you possess some piece of furniture, and you have no idea where you got it, but you automatically assume that you came by it honestly since it has been in your possession as long as you can remember. So it is with the opinions of most people, but unlike the example of the furniture, these opinions have rarely been acquired in an honest fashion. You will have to live with this situation—as someone who has decided to cultivate an art that everyone else thinks they already have without ever having cultivated it at all. You might spend your nights pouring over difficult books, straining to find the answer to a political question that is being ‘debated’ by the public; you will then go out to share the fruit of your labor, and you will immediately discover that everyone already has an answer—it is a ridiculous answer, blatantly fallacious and even childish, nor did they have to think or study in order to formulate this answer—it just came to them, mysteriously, while they were watching the morning news—but it is ‘their opinion’ and they have ‘the right to their own opinion.’ And the result is that your knowledge is to them nothing more than another ‘opinion,’ which everyone has, of course. So you take it home and you file it away, and the public proceeds as follows: from all of the fallacious opinions held by the public, they choose the two most commonly held, and then they take a vote. And that is how things proceed. You will feel like a trained surgeon living amongst a society of people who prefer to do their own surgery, and as a result you will be forced to watch them botch it all, killing themselves and each other, over and over, and you will not be able to save them because they have no use for your knowledge, because they have been trained to believe that their ignorance is the same as your knowledge. The truly frightening moment will come when you realize that sooner or later, as the result of some vote or another, they will force you to let them perform their incompetent procedures on your own person. The point is that the more you have to say–whether in depth or breadth–the smaller the audience you will find. ‘He who writes for fools will always find a large public.’ The opposite is also true.

I do not say all this out of pessimism—I’m trying to prepare you for the moment when you discover something true and, following your natural impulse, you wish to run out into the streets and share it with the public. Or perhaps you discover something here in these very pages that rings true, and then you have the urge to appeal to your friends and neighbors. I tell you now, it will not go well. I want to see you pursue the vocation of thought without having to be distressed any more than necessary, and this means, first and foremost, having the right expectations about what you will be permitted to do with your knowledge once you acquire it.

You can tell a lot about someone by the questions they ask

If you decide to discuss these things with others, a good way of discerning very quickly if the effort will bear fruit is by paying attention to kinds of questions they ask. The questions we ask tend to reveal our unconscious premises, and the premises on which a person reasons will determine whether they will be able to comprehend a new idea. Therefore, discern their premises through their questions, and do this carefully before you offer an answer, even if the answer seems straightforward. Sometimes it is worthwhile to pose an answer at all and is better to divert into some other subject and forget the whole thing. That is to say, you may perceive in their questions certain familiar premises that you know will severely limit the range of conceptions they are capable of accepting, and this along with their prejudices and petty political alliances are put on display by the way they frame their words. You will begin to understand that in many instances the questioner is not questioning in order to hear an answer, but because he wishes to hear a particular answer so that he can either be affirmed through agreement or else offer a pre-packaged rebuttal. Other times, the answer you give does not matter at all, but is merely a formality that must be endured so that this person can offer the packaged opinion, regardless of what the answer was. In the end—although it is of course up to you how you conduct yourself—I find that it is better to follow the maxim that the wise should not disturb the minds of the ignorant.[1] Some criticism is worth answering, some is not. Some is merely evidence that the very presentation of the doctrine was imprudent, at which point the fault can only lie, not with the ignorant, since they cannot be other than they are, but with ourselves, for being so starved for affirmation that we blindly presented doctrine to those who could not possibly make use of it. In other words, the saying about throwing pearls before swine is less an insult to the swine as it is a censure to the owner of the pearls for mistreating them in such a way.

[1] “But a wise man should not perturb the minds of the ignorant, who are attached to action; let him perform his own actions in the right spirit, with concentration on Me, thus inspiring all to do the same.” Bhagavad Gita, 3.26.

Relationships

Beshrew your eyes,
They have o’erlook’d me and divided me,
One half of me is yours, the other half yours,–
Mine own I would say: but if mine then yours,
And so all yours.

~ Portia to Bassanio, ‘Merchant of Venice’

You’d think relationships were everywhere, listening to us talk. But there is no such thing as a “relationship,” not really. Not in actuality. There are friends, comrades, cohorts, enemies, craftsmen, bosses, parents, siblings, lovers, wives, and husbands. But there is no such thing as a generic, neutral “relationship.” The fact that today we use the term to apply to all interactions indiscriminately should tell us something about ourselves.

What does it tell us? It tells us that we are so agnostic that we recoil from attributing any qualitative character to our personal interactions. That’s why we use the word “relationship.” Do you have a new love interest? You aren’t going to call it that, are you? You aren’t going to call it a romance, a courtship, or even a new seduction. That’s far too much commitment for you. You’re going to call it a new relationship. That’s our depth—that’s all the further we are prepared to go. We won’t even call our dates by that word. We say we are “hanging out.” That term fits us better because it maintains our agnosticism about the situation.

The generic and empty word “relationship” signifies, at best, a neutral exchange or an agreement between to autonomous parties. It does not imply anything about the participants, in and of itself. It is a business term pertaining to purely external things, something a race of traders would bandy around. That’s us though, isn’t it? We’re spiritual barterers, traders of friendships, hagglers of love. We peddle our wares and we handle the wares of others as commodities, trying to get the best deal, leaving the rest, sometimes splurging if we feel courageous or lonely, but always careful, always cautious not to go any further than “relationship.”

A relationship is a colorless, vacant monstrosity. It is evil not because of what it is, because it is really nothing; it is evil because of what it excludes. It is not an excess, it is a negation. It harms us not by leading us to an extreme, but by putting a perverse limit on our souls, inducing an inner atrophy.

In the way we use it, the term excludes the possibility of giving oneself for nothing. A relationship always implies two-way traffic. Two-way traffic isn’t bad, by any means. Two-way traffic is the ideal. When I give love I’d like to receive love; when I come to the aid of a friend I’d like to think that he’d come to mine. But I can’t know ahead of time that my love and aid will be reciprocated. I can’t know that I’ll be repaid in my friendships. If I knew, or demanded to know ahead of time, then it wouldn’t be a friendship and it wouldn’t be love. It would be a relationship. Relationships exclude love.

Relationships are safe. That’s probably the main reason they became the norm for a cowardly age. We were born into a sexually liberated world where everyone is personally atomized, alone, trustless. We were born in a time when something like life-long marriage sounds almost inconceivable. That’s why we don’t often have marriages. They are simply too risky. We don’t have friendships either. They take too much time. We have relationships in which we know the cost and in which we can control the level of commitment, which is always a minimum.

No one can really blame you for using this lens to view the world. You came into a society where ‘community’ is a ridiculous notion. The Andy Griffith show isn’t quaint for you—it’s stupid. Naïve to an extreme. The picture it paints is so far from your reality that you cannot even indulge in the playful exaggerations. You don’t see the humor. You don’t have the capacity for nostalgia to which shows like that were made to appeal. You can’t imagine a community in which everyone is either friend or neighbor, where you are intimate with everyone even if it is only because you know of their vices and they know of yours. This is the world of “relationships.”

We’ll have to change that, you and I. We’ll have to start taking risks at some point. At some point we’ll have to leave the safety of the relationship behind. We’ll have to rediscover the concept of sacrifice. That is something we could sink our teeth into, is it not? “Greater love hath no man…” and all that stuff. That’s where the fire is.

Obviously neither of us wants to die for a friend or for love, but we can and should want the possibility to at least be open to us. Else what will you do when, someday, you find yourself so rapt in affection for another human being that you feel inclined to make the sacrifice or take the bullet. In order to open that possibility we have to open ourselves again to love in its greatest extent, and this requires the rejection of relationships.

You’ll have to go further than just changing your language, but language truly is a start. You’ll find that difficult enough just applying qualitative terms instead of neutral ones. You’ll have to call a date a date. That’ll torture some of you beyond belief. You’ll have to make investments of yourself that you know will have little to no return.

Risks—real risks! That’s where the pain is, but that’s where the depth of human feeling lies as well. That’s where your humanity is hiding. Relationships are sterile. Bring back the life. The dirt and grime will come too, but oh the beauty of life!—it’s worth a bit of dirt here and there.

Safe sex

“Seeking to ‘free’ sexual love from its old communal restraints, we have ‘freed’ it also from its meaning, its responsibility, and its exaltation. And we have made it more dangerous. ‘Sexual liberation’ is as much a fraud and as great a failure as the ‘peaceful atom.’ We are now living in a sexual atmosphere so polluted and embittered that women must look on virtually any man as a potential assailant, and a man must look on virtually any woman as a potential accuser…And in the midst of this acid rainfall of predation and recrimination, we presume to teach our young people that sex can be made ‘safe’…What a lie! Sex was never safe, and it is less safe now than it has ever been.”

~ Wendell Berry

There is no such thing as “safe sex.” The very phrase is not only a fiction but a contradiction in terms. It was a heinous crime to put that phrase into our heads. There is no such thing and there never was.

Some human things just aren’t “clean.” Some things are dangerous—both emotionally and physically—and often they cannot be cleansed without destroying the humanity of the thing itself. Sex is one act of that type; war is another. Making life and taking life cannot be sterilized without turning the whole affair into a monstrosity.

Look at war: the further our predecessors tried to remove man from the battlefield, from the invention of guns to the atom bomb, the more men died in each new battle. Comparatively few people died when men killed each other face to face, sword in hand; very few indeed, compared to those who died in their homes at Hiroshima, or those who died in their offices on 9/11. In every modern battle men die from bullets fired by men they never even saw. Men die by the millions, all because our predecessors sought to remove man from the battle and make battle sterile. They pretended that by taking away the sword they had made war more “humane,” but it is more monstrous than ever.

They did the same thing with sex. They tried to make it sterile and neutral but they only succeeded in making it inhuman.

That is the concept of sex that we’ve inherited. They tried to tell us that it could be made “safe,” and that we could control the transaction (and that’s how it was taught to us, as a transaction within the context of a relationship). We were shown how it could be done carefully so that no negative consequences would follow. But sterilization means the destruction of all life. When you sterilize something you don’t just kill the harmful bacteria that was in it, you kill all the life that was in it. When we were given “safe sex,” we were indoctrinated into a truncated sexuality, halted at the biological level before we fully understood even that elementary process.

We can now have safe sex. The success of our education is our curse. We can now “hook up” and complete the transaction without any repercussions, even the good ones. We avoid pregnancy, but also avoid the bond that comes from the self-giving part of coitus. We learned to get around self-giving and retain only the pleasure-getting.

The capacity to have sex and then walk away un-phased represents, in and of itself, a loss of feeling, a desensitization, and an impoverishment. The pain our educators thought they were teaching us to avoid was only one side of a coin; the other side was the apex of human communion. The man who can’t feel the pain associated with sexuality—the man who can have “safe sex”—is the man for whom sex has lost the only thing that made it worthwhile. He has lost the fruit and is left holding only the rind.

Sex reduced to a process ensures that men and women will struggle to understand each other. Liberated sex, the sex of equality and neutrality, hides from us the fact that men and women always come to sex with different expectations and for different reasons. Thus, even when we do seek true communion we must fight to discard our blinders. We have to exert an immense effort just to see clearly again that we are different and that sex is not a clean affair. Further, and this might be the hardest part, we’ll have to acknowledge again that men and women are different, even if they are only different as the right and left hand are different. The right and left hand need each other if they are going to accomplish any meaningful work, and if they are going to make any beautiful music. Right now we don’t know anything about right or left hands, and so we only get to hear the dull and awkward silence of one-hand clapping.

Marriage as an alien institution

Where relationships and sex meet, there some of us find marriage. This is the most foreign concept of all to our souls, besides religion, of course. Here we have to overcome our entire indoctrination, because everything is working against us.

Consider the concept of the relationship. A man does not need a relationship with his wife. He does not need anything so abstract as that. He needs a woman—he needs that woman.

A married couple doesn’t need all those books telling them how to focus on their “relationship” and keep it healthy and alive. They need to keep each other healthy and alive. They don’t need to know how to feed this abstract thing, taking its temperature once a week on “date night,” looking it over every morning to make sure it is okay and thriving.

A man needs to be a man—a whole man—and most men decide that in order to achieve that lofty goal, they need a woman. And not just any woman, not just a lover or a mistress, but a wife. Oh yes, men need a woman to fulfill their calling. Not every man needs a woman, and not every man should get married, of course, but most men need one and so marriage is their path.

A husband and a wife do not have a relationship and don’t need one. They should, in fact, stay as far from that as possible. What they need is each other. They are no longer autonomous parties in a transaction. If she dies he will go on, but it will be as a man who has been chopped in half at the waist.

Married people don’t have relationships. Marriage doesn’t happen in the abstract, connecting people through their brains and through an idea. Husbands and wives are connected organically and spiritually, which is actually one and the same connection.

I read quite a few marriage books. They all said almost exactly the same thing. They all spoke about nothing but the marriage relationship. So deeply have our lives become bogged down in the abstract that this has become the center of our marriage training—everything turns on “the relationship.”

Through this reduction, marriage itself has been reduced to the status of something that must be maintained to ensure that both parties are getting something out of it, satisfied, fulfilled, and happy.

By abstracting marriage in that way you undermine it from the start. You take it with you into your head, where I have been warning you not to go. That’s what our forefathers have done with marriage: they’ve put the marriage into the couple’s heads.

Putting a marriage in a person’s head is suicide. Marriage should never exist in a person’s head. Think of your closest friendships, when you had them, if you had them. Your friendship was not in your head. Perhaps it entered your head, but that was probably only when it was dying, or in a moment of superficiality on your part. In any case, it was rarely something you examined in your head as a “relationship.” Friendships—true spiritual communions—are not in the head. So much more marriage, then, since it is so much more than a friendship!

But that’s how we tend to experience love, with our marriages in our heads, along with everything else. There, in the abstract, we read books about it, feed it, water it, and maintain it; and we undermine ourselves with every drop of water we feed the thing.

In a sense, you must get out of your head and start living. Be a man or a husband, a woman or a wife! Don’t think about it in the abstract, or if you must, do it only for the briefest of moments to check your steps.

Unisex society

“An industrial society cannot exist unless it imposes certain unisex assumptions: the assumptions that both sexes are made for the same work, perceive the same reality, and have, with some minor cosmetic variations, the same needs.”

~ Ivan Illich

Marriage brings us unavoidably to gender. The modern difficulty with gender throws into light perhaps the most intimate aspect of our self-doubt. We have applied our disbelief to our own sex! We can’t even bring ourselves to say for certain whether a man is a man or if he is a woman. It’s all too final.

You have got to stop living in your head. I cannot say that enough. That was the worst thing our education did to us. It taught us to live in our heads first and in reality second. How much of our reality has been lost because we live in our heads!

Consider, for example, our starting point when we try to think about gender. We start, as usual, with a generic, neutral, and abstract thing called a “person.” What is a “person?” Once again, there is in reality no such thing. This imaginary, abstract, sexless thing, devoid of personality and all intrinsic qualities, exists in our heads and nowhere else.

But that’s where we start from, thanks to our exceptional habit of abstraction. We start from the sexless imaginary thing and then take reality into consideration: we apply a sex to it, as if that were a secondary matter of deciding what color shirt someone was going to wear. When we reason by this process, then no one is a man wholly and completely. There is no such thing as this type of man. There are only “persons” in a more or less masculine guise. That’s how we wear our sex, like it is not part of us, but simply something attached to us on the outside.

Gender, in this sense is something else, is something intrinsic to your being. It isn’t mere biological clothing applied as an afterthought, accidental to the rest of you. Your gender pierces you to your core. It defines you and colors everything you do and see. Men and women experience the world in entirely different ways, not just when they are standing naked in front of a mirror, but always.

When my gender defines my being and forms the framework of my life, then it is too close for me to hate or separate from myself. But what happens to us now that we perceive ourselves essentially as neutral “persons” without gender? What happens when it is only a set of clothes? It is entirely possible for me to feel uncomfortable in a set of clothes. I can outgrow my clothes. I can change style and taste. I can take off my clothes if I don’t like them.

Once I begin to perceive something about me as external to myself, it becomes “not myself.” At that moment I can start resenting it and begin to feel it as an oppression. A man who experiences himself as a man pure and simple, and not as a “person who happens to be male,” cannot resent his manhood. It would be an impossible conception, and if it were possible it wouldn’t make any sense. It would be like resenting his being, which no person can do. A person can resent his life, because that takes place temporarily and externally. A man can even kill himself, but he cannot resent his being. That is why the man who does not see manhood as something “on the outside,” also cannot imagine his manhood oppressing him in any way. It is him.

The same goes for women. Womanhood is the woman.

At least that’s what reality tells us. It only sounds strange and makes us uncomfortable because we have gotten our sex in our heads, along with our relationships and the universe at large.

Now here we are with our manhood and womanhood in our heads, with gender beginning to feel like an afterthought. This also means that to call oneself a man or a woman feels like a decision and a commitment, which is universally terrifying to our agnostic natures.

It feels like by calling myself a man I’m making a commitment to something and burning some bridge, forfeiting all the alternatives. It sounds like I’m agreeing to wear the same set of clothes the rest of myself, and that’s asking quite a bit. No one wants to do that. We are afraid of being “trapped” in our sex. Most of us don’t struggle with this about ourselves, of course, but it is no exaggeration to say that we feel it about our neighbors. Even if we know what we are, we refuse to say of someone else: “He is a man.” We’d hate to make a commitment for him and oppress him with his sex. We were taught about ourselves in the abstract, and now we cannot reconcile our ideas about ourselves with the reality that is us.

The hardest part about recovery is that the old supports are gone. Our parents had their sex in their heads as well. Now the landscape is a landscape for persons only. We built a civilization for imaginary things only. That is our heritage—that all the old pathways that allowed men to be men and women to be women are gone. All the old realities that corresponded to the insides of men and women are now only memories which we’ve been taught to hate and despise as “sexist.” They are primitive, backward, dead, and gone.

We were taught to celebrate our liberation from these old limits. Remember that we inherited the void of liberty. It was a liberation from ourselves, because we are men and women. We aren’t sexless persons.

Is it no wonder we men are now ashamed of our manhood?—that we live our lives uncertain of ourselves, often effeminate, weak, and passive? No woman really wants this in a man, and so we are unattractive. And a woman, for her part, only wants to be a woman; but we of our generation have been taught to resent that too. Men are taught to be ashamed of masculinity, and our women are taught to resent their femininity. “Equality,” they call it—at least we’ve been “equal” in our self-alienation and confusion.

Now our women go around half-naked. Is that any surprise? Why shouldn’t they? They are genderless and so they have nothing to hide. All that skin that’s showing? Well that’s secondary. We are persons first, and that’s what matters. All that flesh is just clothing. It shouldn’t stir anything in the enlightened mind. But it does. And so men are forced to live ashamed of the unavoidable impulses sparked by the nakedness of the opposite sex, which is to say, men are forced to be ashamed of being men and of having the natural response of masculine beings. That is not to say that the objectification of women is therefore excusable: only that it is not difficult to explain given the situation. Men cannot escape it, except by some act of heroic virtue, which should never be the norm, and so most men either objectify the half-naked women they are exposed to each day, or else they compensate by deadening or denying that component of their nature, which has its own detrimental effects in the long run.

It is a crime to introduce our children into this sort of self-hate and agony. The world of persons cannot receive and nurture beings that are born either man or woman, and if children and families are to be healthy, they must exist in a world designed not for ‘persons’ or for a generic ‘humanity’ but for men and women.

What is an adult?

“Deprive young people of a rite of passage into the social order and they will look for a rite of passage out of it…The effect of current policies has been to subsidize out-of-wedlock births, to remake marriage as a contract of cohabitation, and to drive religion, which is the true guardian of rites of passage, from the public sphere. Those policies have been embarked on with the best of intentions, but with a remarkable indifference to what we know of human nature.”

~ Roger Scruton

What is adulthood? We have no idea, of course. No one does. All we know is that that’s what we are—we are “adults.”

So ignorant are we all on the subject that we decided to put in place a law to tell us who is and is not an adult. Age eighteen sounded about right. That’s completely arbitrary though, and we know it. That’s why we continue to forbid so-called adults from doing things as simple as drinking alcohol. We feel the need to be cautious when dealing with this “adulthood” thing which is so elusive and mysterious to us.

It weighs on us though, this ignorance about our state in life, always wondering whether we are boys, girls, men, women, or just hovering in some intermediate state. This is yet another entirely new problem, suffered by no civilization before us. And here again we can see the cause in the same poisonous root: abstraction. Here as everywhere else we have withdrawn into our heads to try and find security in a reality which has become absurd.

Remember that man is now a “person,” and a person contains within it no real qualitative distinctions. In our agnosticism we gave up on that whole effort, the effort at making distinctions between things, because it terrified us. We cannot even say for certain if a person is a man or woman, remember? It only makes sense that, along with the loss of all our other certainties, we would lose our ability to distinguish between “child” and “adult.” That’s just one more qualitative distinction, and it must go out the window with all the others, no matter how much we need it. And we need it badly.

Everyone needs to know where he stands in life. He needs to be provided with methods and instruction through which he can learn to align his inner world with the world outside of him, teaching him how to deal with the struggles that will inevitably weigh upon him in that world.

What good does it do a man if an external law says to him: “Happy birthday! You turned a certain age and now you are a man!” This tells him nothing about himself, only about exterior things. It tells him that the world will now treat him differently, but it does not in any way explain to him how he himself has changed, how he has suddenly become adequate to these new circumstances, and why he should now be expected to meet what, the day before, was considered too great a burden for him to shoulder. A dramatically new degree of accountability is simply applied externally to a “person” who may or may not have graduated to a higher state of being.

Any hint that a particular youth may not be equipped for the task automatically registers as shame and is met with disdain. If you aren’t ready, you only have yourself to blame—that’s what we’re told.

Oh how our elders love to say: “You are eighteen, you are a man, now act like it!”

“Act like what?”—we respond.

“You know…like that…like a man!”

And it is at that moment that we realize they have no idea what they are talking about.

It has been said that “indignation is the soul’s response to doubt about its own.” By making our elders conscious of their own ignorance about what it means to be a man—both in the general and the developmental sense—we ignite indignation, for which we must suffer the consequences.

The same goes for women, though of course in a different way. Regardless of gender, then, the message is clear: adulthood is something that is supposed to occur naturally and automatically with no special affirmation, intervention, or graduation. According to our civilization, adulthood is not something to be facilitated; it is only something to be acknowledged legally for the sake of categorization and social organization.

To begin to understand this crisis, we must again speak of individualism. If we do not understand this existential, spiritual, and psychological plague, we will make no progress. Here, in the realm of human development, the contemporary man suffers most acutely and obviously its repercussions; here individualism undermines itself and brings civilization itself to a halt.

The problem is one of deprivation. That’s what individualism is: it is a deprivation of cooperation, proper peer relations, and cultural supports. Individualism suffocates the process of spiritual and mental growth by limiting each to what he himself brings to the table, which is never very much. It works the same for entire generations.

Let us examine the process broadly:

In order for a generation to successfully achieve the transition from childhood to adulthood—in order to make that qualitative leap—three things are required: 1) a supporting and reinforcing culture, 2) a group of caring, experienced elders to guide the way, and 3) the empathy and companionship of their peers.

These three requirements must all be present within the actual context of graduation into adulthood. That they exist generally in a society is irrelevant.

So first, in regard to culture, each generation needs a specific and colorful framework in which they may develop, mature, and take advantage of guidance as they grapple with maturity. Because of our deep and near universal mentality of individualism, this aspect of the “coming of age” process is totally non-existent.

In an individualistic society each man’s fate is entirely in his own hands. No one owes him anything; but more than that, there is an almost mystical belief that, even if someone wanted to help his neighbor with some great personal struggle, he couldn’t do it. It’s as if we believe we can’t touch each other in that way, even if we wanted to.

Thus, in regard to the would-be man, his neighbors are not only absolved of any assistance they traditionally may have owed him in the journey, but he is also made very aware that he should never have needed their assistance in the first place. We say that the young man should be able to transform himself from child to adult entirely without any beaten path designed specifically to assist for that purpose. You are left to your own devices.

Without culture, the remaining two requirements (the guidance of elders and companionship of peers) naturally fall apart. They rested on the first.

The elders forget that it was ever their job to lead the young through the moment of transition. They were once given this task consciously and with great fanfare. Each year they proudly led the graduates across the intimidating and precarious abyss between child to adult. It wasn’t just for fun and ceremony. Their guidance was considered vital, and their experience was life-saving.

But what’s more, and perhaps what is even more foreign to our mentality, is that their acknowledgment was also vital. They not only must guide the young across the bridge, but also must stand with them on the other side and affirm their success. Adulthood was a credential, and it came from other adults, not from any abstract law.

Today, because the elders believe that adulthood just “comes” at a certain age, they can only offer surprise, frustration, and anger at the fact that it never comes. They blame the youth exclusively, not knowing that their own absence and condemnation is a profoundly undermining force in the failure.

This also creates the problem of “surrogate initiations.” Beneath all the individualistic rationalization, there still exists amongst parents a strong desire to see their children become adults. Even though their individualistic mentality denies their ability to facilitate such a transition, it persists nonetheless. Because it persists, it sooner or later finds unconscious expression in dangerous ways, such as when “recreational activities” like youth sports are given a shamefully exaggerated importance in the social life. You see, we cannot help but acknowledge that there is something in this struggle for victory over some obstacle that is good for young people, but because we don’t know exactly what we are admiring, we fail to see the obvious: that an infatuation with “sports” cannot get the job done.

Moving now to the third requirement, which is peer support, we can see that, lacking both a social framework and a group of wise guides, each generation remains atomized and estranged, seeking something, but unsure of what it seeks. Camaraderie of the young evaporates. We can no longer cling to each other as we endure the vicissitudes of “growing up.” We are individuals. We cannot empathize even with those closest to our condition.

Here surrogate initiations enter the picture once again. Resourceful as young people tend to be, and feeling in their depths the need for a dramatic transition—something more experiential than some abstract legal acknowledgment—they develop new “rites” and attempt to force themselves, often violently, through these rites and into adulthood.

What was once a community affair, planned and conducted with purpose and within conditions of relative safety, guided by the wise and shared with one’s fellows, now takes place willy-nilly and in the dark.

Sex, for example, is probably the most widely utilized surrogate initiation. In fact, phrases like “right of passage” and “coming of age” almost automatically make the modern mind go to sex. That is because these phrases have taken on an exclusively sexual connotation.

We see every day the results of the “sex right”—this unconscious sex initiation—through the problems of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, unwed mothers, and absentee or irresponsible fathers. To this the elders have reacted with typical blind futility, trying to remedy the problem by teaching a purely physiological kind of sex to children in school.

We already know the results of that sort of “sex ed.” Without taking into account all the non-physical considerations involved with sex, the effort backfires. “Sex-ed” creates a child who then goes forth eating the rind and discarding the fruit—missing the best parts of things and remaining empty. Rinds don’t nourish. And so, after the failures of sex-ed, we find abortion. That’s what passes for progress today: solving human problems by destroying human life.

While the sex initiation does violence to both men and women, the other surrogates seem to have greater impact on men. The reason for this is obvious. There is just something in the polarity of the masculine soul that seeks initiation almost violently. A man cannot rest without it. Man is the pioneer, after all. He is the warrior. He therefore must know when, how, and why he is a man, and he will have that affirmation one way or another.

Some men express this need in humorously obvious ways, such as driving a vehicle that is large or loud beyond all reason; some men, again, look to sex; some take an inordinate interest in sports or hunting; some take drugs; some get drunk; some get drunk and fight; some rebel; most find some odd combination of all these. Street gangs and their infamous pseudo-initiations are nothing but a very obvious and aggressive expression of this need, writ large for us to stare at wide-eyed and aghast. We must not lie to ourselves and think that simply because “gang beatings” are extreme that they are unique.

The biggest difficulty with all these surrogate initiations is that they are sought and acted out unconsciously. This means that they can neither serve their purpose nor be controlled within safe limits. They are just traumatic experiences sought in an effort to satisfy a valid desire, but doomed from the start to undermine the participant. They are truly counterproductive. Rather than leading to a stable adulthood, which is the goal, they preclude the possibility of it ever happening. They lead to prison, single parenthood, injury, degradation, addiction, or death. They short-circuit an initially valid aspiration and drive the person into self-destruction.

That is our situation: deprived of culture, abandoned by our guides, and isolated from our fellows, we travel alone. Most of us never reach the destination. We never cross that bridge into the land of men and women. It’s like someone forgot what the bridge was for, and so they set it on fire. Now we just feel the cold air rushing out of chasm and dream of what the other side must be like. We are not children, but neither do we feel like whole men, or confident women. We simply exist.

Children as accessories

For a child is the very sign and sacrament of personal freedom. He is a fresh free will add to the wills of the world; he is something that his parents have freely chosen to produce and which they freely agree to protect…He is a creation and a contribution; he is their own creative contribution to creation…People who prefer the mechanical pleasures to such a miracle are jaded and enslaved. They are preferring the last, cooked, indirect, borrowed, repeated and exhausted things of our dying Capitalist civilization, to the reality which is the only rejuvenation of all civilization. It is they who are hugging the chains of their old slavery; it is the child who is ready for the new world.

~ G.K. Chesterton

We’ve got to build a life-affirming civilization, and any life-affirming movement must begin by being a child-affirming movement. If your society can’t welcome new life, then it can’t possibly be friendly to the life that is already in it. Life-friendly is child-friendly. You can’t pretend to have the former if you don’t have the latter.

Today children are universally acknowledged as an inconvenience. No one even has to argue about it. Children are a burden and to have a child is to make a grand sacrifice. Those who decide to have children and those who don’t will only differ on whether or not they decide that the reward is worth the cost.

“Should we? or should we not? Is the time right?” All the positives and negatives are weighed. Each couple must decide for themselves if they are “ready.” And they are right, of course. It is a big decision and a grand sacrifice. That’s the point. That’s the heart of it—we have transmogrified the child from a blessing into curse.

That is in itself the most anti-child aspect of our civilization—more than abortion and birth control and all those raging, passionate debates. Once you make children a burden, everything else just sort of falls into place.

So far has this trend progressed that we can’t imagine any other arrangement or attitude. Yet we know that things weren’t always this way. We know that children were once adamantly desired by fathers. To be childless was to live in shame. For a woman the greatest disgrace was to remain barren. Even long after the days of Abraham and Sarah, children were rushed into the world not by accident or for lack of condoms, but because they were an honor and an asset. They were not only prized but they were actually useful.

Children in our world aren’t useful. You and I were not brought into this world so that we could contribute. (That was the beginning of our spiritual undermining: we were purposeless from the start.) We weren’t brought here for some great responsibility or so that we could take hold of an inheritance or to learn our father’s trade. We were brought here as a sacrifice and a yoke.

We are most of us thankful for our existence, but we also can’t help but resent the fact that we came here devoid of any real use to our parents beyond “emotional fulfillment.” The emotional, you see, is only real for the feeler. It does nothing for the child. No one wants to be born for “emotional fulfillment.” But that is the purpose of children and the deciding factor as to whether or not they enter the modern world.

Children are to be had or not depending on whether they will “fulfill” the parents. In this sense they are something like a dog or a cat, only more expensive. Religious factors may also come into play, but that often amounts to the same thing.

There’s also something new and degrading in the attitude toward children as entirely optional, and therefore unnatural. Children are a “marriage accessory”—they don’t come in the standard package but you can add one if you want. Just remember: it costs!

In large part, this is the fallout of artificial sterility. Such an attitude could not have come into being if it were not so incredibly easy to avoid what used to be the inevitable outcome of sex. In this way the child becomes something separate from marriage. Again, as before, we see a move from the real to the abstract. Now marriage is one decision, and the child is something else entirely. This shakes civilization to its foundations, because civilization was built on the assumption that the two things were inseparable.

Pregnancy, removed from its typical context and its normal place in a chain of events, becomes something to be manipulated. It becomes something we can adjust to fancy and whim, and its product, the child, inevitably shares this fate. Remember that now the child has become its own abstract decision, separate from the marriage decision. Once this point is reached in the process of abstraction, abortion naturally follows. The child was the result of a “choice,” was it not? It is just a possibility, and we can prevent possibilities through technology and surgery.

Remember our shame? Do not think that this generalized child-hate has nothing to do with your condition. You were brought into this world useless, born a hardship. In fact you were lucky to have entered the world at all. Even if you were loved dearly by your parents—I know that I was—you were nonetheless also an affliction.

If we wish to eradicate our shame we will have to find a way to reconstitute a child-friendly civilization. The point can’t be ignored. I’m not sure how we’d start, exactly, but I’ll leave you with one observation which suggests a possibility.

The factory worker, the man on shift-work, the man in the office, and the man taking orders at the burger joint, cannot have any use for children. Even if he could bring a child into such a place, the child could not comprehend the work being done there. It would seem monstrous to him. Work has become something that a child can neither understand nor observe nor respect. This has deprived the child of very much, considering it was once the father from whom children once learned almost everything.

A child could have once watched in awe as the father worked his trade; and the child, step by step, could have participated and someday become a fellow artist. This sort of active and developmental bond between father and child was a living breathing thing. It not only made children useful, but made a relationship between father and child possible. Today this is only possible outside working hours, in the evening. And even if the child could go to a modern office, he would only be bored and confused watching the father talk on a phone or stare at a computer for eight hours straight. The child would not be in awe of the work he saw—he would be appalled. He would not want to grow to be like his father, he would want to avoid that at all costs.

I only dwell here, on the modern interplay between work, child, and father, to illustrate that our social structure has separated children from fathers and helped to render the former useless. I need you to see that any remedy must be multifaceted. If we want to reintegrate the child with the family and the world, then we might have to reintegrate the father with the family. If we want to do that, we might have to change our assumptions about work itself.

It would obviously be a great evil to allow the child into the “workforce” as it is now. We tried sending children to factories once, and we know how that turned out. No, sending children to work, as work is currently arranged, will not benefit or fulfill the child. It doesn’t even fulfill the father. We have to go a different direction entirely.

I would never move the child toward the modern economy—but I would move the modern economy toward the child. Everything runs together. All of our problems touch one another, and so our solutions will have to be far-reaching and intertwined. We can’t make things better for the child without also making them better for men and women. The child, the family, work, art, education, and a better world will all have to come hand-in-hand, or they will not come at all.

The mockery of the modern church

We live in a land of WWJD bracelets, Jesus-is-my-homeboy t-shirts, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music, and “Tebowing.”  We traverse a ‘Christian’ landscape as garish as a Thomas Kinkade painting, strolling to the beat of that sickly sweet poem about footprints…The Bible is not a self-help book, and while the Gospel is indeed good news, the Evangelists were not cast in the mold of modern-day motivational speakers.  Emotionally driven praise and worship songs are not going to win over anyone, and I swear, if one more person tries to tell me that the etymology of intimacy is ‘into-me-see,’ I’m going to have an aneurism.

–Michael W. Hannon

Now that we’ve beaten a few existential problems into the ground, we had better move on to the larger institutional issues. First and foremost of these is the church.

You probably think that there isn’t much to be said about church at this point. After all, we’ve spoke on and on about our disbelief—“What have we to do with church?” you ask. “Everything!” I answer. Our awkward relationship with religion is one of our most enlightening characteristics. By discussing it we can learn a great deal, both about ourselves and about the state of Christianity in general.

But perhaps I should backtrack for a moment. I forgot to tell you about our virtue.

We have a virtue—I bet you didn’t know that. We’ve spent so much time talking about our woes and our weaknesses that you probably didn’t think we had a single admirable quality. We have one, though. It is our deep sensitivity to hypocrisy.

We loathe this particular form of dishonesty, and because of the strength of our hatred for hypocrisy, we are hypersensitive to all forms of inauthenticity, be it religious, political, or otherwise. We can smell it a mile away like a shark smells blood. It only takes one drop of hypocritical blood in our ocean and we’ll detect it. If you’ve got deceit running through your veins you’d better stay out of the water. You know that I’m right. And that’s why we avoid churches.

You see, they are mistaken who think we keep our distance from churches because we don’t care for spiritual depth, or because we are shallow, or because think ourselves “smarter” than religion. That is the opposite of the truth. Many of us have tried church. Many of us have poured ourselves into the worship that takes place within those walls. We summoned all our strength trying to “believe” and to be “born again” through that belief. It just didn’t take. We weighed the whole thing and found it wanting. We tested the waters of the church, you might say, and we left the pool not because the water was too deep, but because it was too shallow.

Contemporary churches are saturated with two things that we cannot stand: procedure and sentimentality.

The traditional churches come off as a purely procedural affair, consisting in a mindless and heartless participation in a weekly process. It is common for people to accuse these churches of a “salvation by works,” but we know better. We’ve been there, and we did not see any salvation by “works.” A salvation of works is something we might have been able to buy into. If we’d have found that we might have stayed. But we found something very much less than works. We found “salvation by procedure”—and that is something we could not swallow. Works are living and breathing—procedure is stultifying and dead. We are already immersed in procedure up to our necks. Our education was procedural, our work is procedural. We can’t take any more.

And in the contemporary churches we find an equal but opposite superficiality. If the traditional varieties did what they knew without feeling, the contemporary churches do what they feel without thinking. Sentimentality reigns supreme in these modern services, and this too we find repugnant.

Remember that our strength is an acute sensitivity to the superficial and the inauthentic. Because of this we were able to pass our judgment easily and immediately: there is simply not much for us within the contemporary religious culture.

Beyond all this, I’m sorry to say, is the contemporary Christian himself, or at least a certain type of contemporary Christian whom we all know. There are no doubt a great variety of beautiful people who exist as Christians. That much is true. But there is one type who has come to predominate in our eyes, and who floods our view of “Christianity” each time we hear that word. Whether or not this specific “type” of Christian predominates in actual number, we cannot say. Maybe he just speaks the loudest, or gets out more than the others. All we know is that we are more familiar with him than any of the others. Thus, while acknowledging that there must be a variety, we must deal with this one familiar type:

He is obnoxious, first of all. He seems to have developed a mental condition which I will call “proselytism mania.” It drives him to “evangelize” us at all of the most inappropriate times, trying to share with us his truth. He is rude, in the sense that he presumes to know our most intimate depths before he even knows our names. Because of our hypersensitivity to superficiality and hypocrisy, he triggers in us the deepest resentment.

We see in his mentality a driving passion to convince us that he is right about something. He says that he is trying to introduce us to Jesus, our “personal savior,” but our keen perceptions reveal to us a different truth: he is trying to introduce us to himself. He not only wants us to accept Christ into our hearts; he wants us to accept him. He needs us. Every man he can coax into being born again is an affirmation of his identity. The project in which he is engaged is evangelism alright, but it is evangelism in the reverse. He is trying to bring us to “faith” so that he can rest in his.

We then come to a shocking realization: the man obsessed with evangelism is just as much an agnostic as we are! He is one of us acting unconsciously and in a different guise. The Christian who must evangelize his friends is just like the pop music star who writes songs demanding self-affirmation. He is crying out for security in his identity because he does not have it.

The contemporary “Evangelical” movement is, to us, just another expression of our shared condition of self-doubt.

We are then told that to reject Christ is to accept damnation. That’s the last resort. But we aren’t rejecting Christ. We are rejecting the evangelist and his neediness, which is quite a different thing. He tried to sell us his Jesus and we didn’t like the product. It left a nasty taste in our mouths. We’d be open to meeting Jesus, but we have the nagging conviction that he wouldn’t go around handing out “WWJD” bracelets. We sense that this man’s superficial version of Jesus is getting in between us and Jesus. We react accordingly: by asking him to step aside.

We don’t hate truth. We crave it. There is something we envy in the monk or the mystic. We envy their certainty and their peace. We don’t think they are fools, we just can’t find what they have and we refuse to pretend. We won’t be hypocrites.

We want truth more than anything else. More than pop music, motivational speeches, and youth groups. We want to meet others authentically; that’s why we don’t want to go on Christian “mission” vacations where we’ll be forced to impose ourselves on people we can’t truly meet or understand. That is hypocrisy and we won’t do it.

We don’t want a shallow “Extreme Home Makeover” experience where everyone gets warm fuzzies and cries at the end. We don’t mind crying, but only if the drama is real; we don’t want that manufactured stuff just so that we can have a release. We don’t want any part of that.

But that’s what church feels like. It feels like a situation manufactured to give security, warm fuzzies, and emotional indulgence to a culture starved of true, deep, invasive feeling.

We don’t want a band-aid for our anesthesia. We want a church of life and virility and depth. We’ll have a church of life or we won’t have one at all. We don’t accept this dose of “feel-good” just to offset the mechanical insanity of the daily grind. We want something so powerful it bleeds over and destroys the insanity. The fact that modern churches stay within the church and only come out during “ministry” time is proof of its impotence. We want something potent.

We do want salvation. We want salvation from our shame and our alienation, but we won’t accept counterfeits. And we see counterfeits everywhere. We cannot but refuse what we feel to be less than true. That is our painful virtue. This is why we avoid churches and church-goers. We haven’t rejected God. If we had then we would be atheists. But we aren’t atheists, we are agnostics. We don’t hate god. We don’t hate Christianity or Christ. We just can’t pretend like we know them when we don’t. We won’t trade our spiritual integrity for a mess of pottage. We’d rather live in pain than live what would be to us a lie. We refuse to blaspheme the holy spirit within us. For that reason we abstain from church. Someday our abstinence may come to an end, accompanied with all the rejoicing in heaven that we’ve heard so much about. But not today. And probably not tomorrow.

The politics of whatever

You went to vote bursting with enthusiasm, proud of your right to have a say. We can only laugh at your naïveté. None of us still believes today that he can change something with his vote. We only vote if there’s nothing good on TV.

~ Markus Willinger

You don’t vote with passion. In fact, you probably don’t vote at all. For this you are said to be socially apathetic—a political deadbeat who prefers to leave his thinking and acting to others. The truth is precisely the opposite though, isn’t it? It is not that you don’t care enough to vote. It’s that you care enough not to vote. You’ve discerned the futility of the affair and you simply choose not to be patronized.

You’ve watched the presidency change hands every few years, and every time you have to endure the media and the party members propagandizing you, promising utopia if “their guy” wins, and assuring us that our civilization will collapse if “the enemy” is victorious. Well, you’ve seen both guys win a number of times, and it seems to you that civilization is still collapsing.

When it comes down to it, neither party is much interested in what you and I would call civilization—they are only interested in their victories and their control over the machinery. They want to be at the helm so they can steer, but we don’t care for where they are steering. They aren’t concerned with good government. American political life is not about governing and hasn’t been for a long time. That’s why we don’t care much for the whole circus.

This isn’t a “neutral” stance. We aren’t “undecided.” We are very much decided. We’ve just decided against both of the options before us.

We don’t hate democracy. We just happen to believe that there is more to democracy than filling out ballots. We know that just getting to pick between two smiling millionaires on TV, neither of whom we know anything about, is not democracy, it is an insult. We don’t feel privileged; we feel patronized.

Unless we have some say as to who appears on the ballot, then we really don’t have any say at all. We’ll consider voting when we’ve chosen what we’re going to vote about and who we’re going to vote for. We’ve never felt like that. The fact that most Americans believe that their vote is their voice is something incomprehensible to us—to those of our type.

But the machine presses forward each year with greater fanfare, with campaigns so expensive that it is downright embarrassing, and men continue to passionately following the drama. We don’t believe politics is about self-government. Things have gone too haywire for anyone to believe that our democracy provides this function. It is all too far-removed from us and abstract.

We have come to know what it’s really all about. It’s about coping with the modern man’s impotent and somewhat meaningless existence. Men are thwarted at every turn, kept spiritually inert and mentally anesthetized, glutted by all the basest of human pleasures; and because men feel the reality of their situation weighing upon them, they experience inner turmoil. They want so badly to act and to actually do something in the world besides watch TV and make more money. Democracy, the abstract notion of participating in the grand decisions of government, offers them that salvation, and they seize upon it. Democracy provides a promise—a promise of potency, self-assertion, and control in an undermined existence.

That’s the political climate into which we were born. We cannot watch a political debate without feeling pain and we can’t watch a state of the union address without falling asleep.

We see nothing but a bunch of thwarted and angry men who crave an escape. For this escape they need only two things: They need an enemy and a savior—and that only requires two parties. That’s why politics has degenerated into party politics, with the same two tribes warring year after year. If men were looking for a variety of options that they could sift through in order to select the truest and most prudent solution to a problem, they’d need several parties. If men wanted truly talented and timely leaders, they’d demand a variety of candidates and they’d find a way to extend the selection process beyond the rich and politically groomed. But they don’t want options, timeliness, prudence, or communication; they only want an opponent.

They don’t want variety; they want a villain on whom they can project all the evil and oppression that they feel weighing upon their souls. That’s why they only need two tribes. One is “us,” the heroes; the other is “them,” the villains. The villain matters more than the hero though. He’s what is important—he’s the scapegoat that the modern man requires to in order to cope. That’s why even “our guy” usually isn’t that appealing. He doesn’t need to be. He only needs to be politically groomed in such a way that he can be used to defeat the great demonic enemy.

The problem is that you and I were born too late to buy into the drama. We look on at the animosity and we can’t get excited about it—it disturbs us, but it doesn’t move us. We can’t tell hero from villain. In fact, we don’t even see a hero. We just see two villains. Occasionally though we will see each side do something slightly heroic or respectable. In short, we see their contradictions and so we recognize them for what they are: human, flawed, and angry. Neither candidate is the demon that we are led to believe. They might be stupid, bigoted, or hypocritical, but they are only men, and they usually have some redeeming qualities.

So, as was the case with the churches, we do not abstain from the voting booths because we don’t care. We simply refuse to put our stamp of approval on a party suit who we know can do nothing for us and who is certainly serving his own moneyed interests. We don’t trust him. He has nothing to do with our lives. He’s after power, and we don’t have any power. All we have is a vote, and even though we don’t believe our vote counts, we see no reason to give it away. So we remain silent.

Our political stance is the most practical expression of our doubt. It isn’t an inner agnosticism, because at least in this area we know exactly what we think and why we do what we do. Because we know and have passed judgment, we do not participate. We stand apart. We’ll participate when there is actually something to participate in.

We see the structure in decay, collapsing. We see the people standing inside beckoning us to enter and join the party (their party, of course). But we can’t do it. We don’t want the roof to fall in on our heads. If we can someday get enough of them out here with us, we’ll give the falling structure the final push ourselves, and send it to the ground. That’s the only responsible thing to do with a dilapidated building. You don’t want anyone getting killed when it falls on its own. So that’s what we’d do. We’d push the whole thing over and build again. But for now there are far too many people still inside, screaming and yelling and angry, but refusing to leave. So we stand apart and wait, not indifferent, just patient.

Toxic patriotism

I have formed a very clear conception of patriotism. I have generally found it thrust into the foreground by some fellow who has something to hide in the background. I have seen a great deal of patriotism; and I have generally found it the last refuge of the scoundrel.

~ G.K. Chesterton

Americans seem irritated by the slightest criticism and appear greedy for praise. The flimsiest compliment pleases them and the most fulsome rarely manages to satisfy them; they plague you constantly to make you praise them and, if you show yourself reluctant, they praise themselves. Doubting their own worth, they could be said to need a constant illustration of it before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy, it is also restless and jealous. It grants nothing while making endless demands. It begs one moment and quarrels the next.

–Alexis de Tocqueville

There are certain people in this world whose fates are unavoidably intertwined with my own. You, for example, if you happen to be an American, will always, to some degree, share my fate. We are in the same massive boat. If a foreign enemy overruns our whole nation, you and I will both suffer the ordeal together. If you live in my city and famine or disease strikes, then you will endure the hunger and the fever right next to me.

This is the true basis of patriotism. Understood in this way, it is a beautiful thing worthy of being taught to all men. It creates a sense of brotherhood, a feeling of connectedness, and a framework of community, through which people bind together and support one another simply because they were born in the same town, the same state, or the same nation.

It is as if there was a great chain by which I am linked to you and to the world. The closer I am to you on the chain, the more intimately our fates are bound, but ultimately it does not matter where a person is on this earth, we are still in some way attached. The earth is nothing more than the ultimate boat which contains all the others. Even though those on the far end of the great chain are so far removed from my life that I will never meet them, they are still there and still connected. One way or another, we are engaged in a great project together and the ripples of our lives cannot help but intersect.

This isn’t some vague spiritualism, and it isn’t some poetic ideal: it is just common sense.

In this light, when we consider the idea of patriotism, we can say that it is nothing more than a term we use to describe our organic responsibility to “our” section of the chain. After all, if the links are to remain strong, each should cling tightly to those nearest. The goal, however, is always connectedness. That is why patriotism, if it is to remain sane, must not be rooted in feelings of separation, otherness, fear, and resentment, but in a desire for association and intimacy. If it departs from this basis and turns instead to rhetoric about superiority, fueling pride, hate, and distance, then it is no longer a true patriotism. It is something else. It is called nationalism, which is an almost religious devotion to the State as an idea and an end in itself. It also requires, by its nature, that all other nations be despised and viewed as inferior. Within the spirit of nationalism, only one’s own nation has any merit and is worthy of any esteem. Nationalism tells its followers that they live in “the greatest nation in all the world!”—and anyone who questions this superiority is a traitor and a heretic. But now nationalism is a dead word, and it is dead because it took on the name of patriotism.

In America patriotism is no longer something based on responsibility to what has been made mine simply through birth and life in a certain place and time; patriotism is no longer the natural duty to help my neighbor simply because he is my neighbor. No, that wasn’t good enough, it seems. The new patriotism demands not simply that I look out for my neighbor, but that I shout from the rooftops that my neighborhood is greater than all other neighborhoods, and it requires that I believe myself and my neighbor to be the greatest men in the world.

It no longer suffices to serve my people because they are my people—I must serve them because they are the greatest of peoples. This is revolutionary.

The old way seems much more rational. I’ll give my neighbor a cup of sugar and a couple eggs when he comes knocking. I’ll help him put out a fire in his house if I must, because he is my neighbor. But I’m not going to act like an idiot, running around yelling about how great we are—my neighbor and I. That’s nothing but self-flattery and conceit. There was never a time when I had to be convinced of his greatness in order to help him.

I could have stuck by the old patriotism because it was sane. It was rooted in the natural responsibilities that come with human communities, all the way back to the original community, the family. I must care for my family, not because my family is the greatest and most deserving family in the world, but for no other reason than that it is my family. And that has to be enough. A love that demands, before it can be exercised, that the recipient be the greatest and most deserving, is not love. A love of one’s country that demands, as its justification, that the country be proclaimed the greatest in the world, is not love of one’s country, it is an appeal to pride.

I don’t need appeals to my pride to get me to care for my family, and that same truth extends to my neighbor and my nation. I do not need to condescend to the rest of the world in order to be devoted to the land and people where I live. I can love my nation without hating all others. If I must hate all others in order to love mine, then I do not have love for my nation—I have a diseased pride in it, and that is something else.

My patriotism, if I have any, is a patriotism of community, duty, and love. It must never have anything to do with pride, and the moment it does is the moment I will become ashamed of it.

Pride is the opposite of love, and the modern patriotism, which is just nationalism in disguise, is based on pride. It has become the opposite of what it was when it was sane. If we want to return it to sanity, we must return to a patriotism based on connectedness, responsibility, and, yes, even love. We must turn patriotism back into what it was when it was reasonable, which requires turning it into the opposite of what it is now.

I tell you this because patriotism is another one of those “keywords” of the verbal universe that carries with it an extraordinary power. People will use it against you, and in fact they probably already have used it against you. They use it to shame you into an unquestioning obedience. They use it to kindle within you the basest passions and sentiments. They use it to draw you away from your wives and children, to send you off to some other country to shoot some man you’ve never met. They use patriotism to do this. If we could restore the word to its true, noble meaning, it could not be abused in such a way. It would become once again a tool of community and togetherness, instead of a tool of pride, bigotry, and division.

War as old news

We automatically perceive all war as unjust. It’s almost an a priori judgement. Seeing this, an observer could be tempted to think that we are principled pacifists. That would be one explanation, but it would be wrong.

The truth is that we could conceive of a war worth fighting and which we could get behind, but we have been so suffocated all our lives by wars that are distant, senseless, petty, and based on motivations all too obscure to us. It is by this incessant conditioning that we have become instinctively opposed to war as something dark and suspect. Our aversion to war is not a high ideal, it is a habit. It is a practical pacifism developed through experience.

We are like the villagers in that children’s story who heard the cry “Wolf!” too many times and eventually grew tired of the drill. When the bell rings and the watchman cries, “Our freedom! Our freedom is under attack! To war!”—we are instantly skeptical. It isn’t that we love the wolves and want them to come destroy the flock; it isn’t that we don’t believe the wolves exist. We just don’t see any reason to believe the village crier. We know wolves are out there; we just don’t have any faith in the people responsible for ringing the alarm bell. They’ve been ringing too long.

That’s the second half of the problem: we’ve become numb to the sound of the bell. It has been ringing so long that we can’t hear it anymore. War and the threat of war are just part of our ambience. The propaganda that once roused the passions of the whole populace just makes us nod our heads and change the channel. That’s what happens when a society employs propaganda constantly. It loses its potency and becomes counterproductive because no one notices anymore.

Incessant, pulverizing propaganda. That’s all we’ve ever known. They turned on the machine after WWII and forgot to turn it back off. It rings in our ears twenty-four hours a day.

That’s part of the reason we don’t even protest the wars that come and go, the way some of our parents protested during Vietnam. In order to protest with that sort of passion, you have to be able to perceive a crisis. No one can get up in arms about their normal circumstances. Plus, you’ve got to have some alternative in your head so that you can tell yourself: “This is how things should be.” In other words, before you can identify a bad war for what it is, you’ve got to be able to identify a good one. You’ve got to have some notion of what a war based on justice looks like. But we’ve never seen a just war. We weren’t around for Hitler and his Holocaust.

All we’ve known is what we now have. We’ve become numb to the whole thing. I suppose that is a blessing, if numbness can ever be considered a blessing. We’re at least immune to propaganda. Our passions cannot easily be charged and manipulated.

We still lack direction, however. Numbness leaves one confused and inert. At least the victims of propaganda had a direction. We know that the noise of the politician on the loudspeaker isn’t for us, but when we walk away our ears are ringing so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think and we don’t know where we want to go.

That is why we are ambivalent about war. We don’t know what a just war looks like, and so we can’t identify what exactly it is about this incessant violence that strikes us as evil. We have no comparative background with which to draw our distinctions. Nonetheless we sense something insane behind the march, and the war cry.

“They hate our freedom!”—someone tells us. What does that mean? Who are they? Which freedom? The freedom to raise a family and live a good life? Well I suppose that would be a freedom worth dying to protect. But there are other kinds of freedom we enjoy and which we exercise all too often. What if these enemies of ours hate our freedom to swear and blaspheme in the streets? What if they hate our freedom to exploit the weak; to make debt-slaves out of the desperate and the stupid; to plaster sex all over public spaces; to sell that sex to children, to sell sex-changes to children; to swallow the entire world’s resources; or to reinforce slavery and abuse in poor countries just to have cheaper phones?

If those are the freedoms under attack, then we won’t be so quick to join the cause, will we? We will neither kill nor die defending those liberties. Well, some of us will, and with the best of intentions, and that just makes it worse.

Freedom is meaningless in itself. It is a word, and a vague word at that. It could mean anything at all. Tell me which freedom is under attack, and why it is worth defending. But please stop insulting my intelligence with your war slogans.

Many of us join the cause, though. Just like many of us go to church, and many of us vote, and many of us work seventy years and then die. We live in the madness and we can’t always get around it. For one reason or another, many of us end up with a rifle in our hands in a foreign land.

As usual, we don’t join the military because we are enthusiastic about this or that war. We don’t join because we are convicted about a particular cause. We join because the military advertises itself as an escape from aimlessness. It promises meaning and victory to generations of men who feel aimless and impotent.

Men, as we said before, seek initiation and trial so that they can know who they are and that they are men. They crave this. That’s how the military gets men these days. It doesn’t promise death for a just cause, it just offers the possibility of meaning in battle. It hijacks the old assumptions about the warrior life as something disciplined, honorable, and as something that offers man a path to transcend himself. That’s exactly what we need, after all. But the modern military is the last place to find it.

I knew a warrior once who joined the military. He thought the military was for warriors. By the time he finished boot camp he saw the lie. He saw military training for what it was: not a trial of manhood but a process of conditioning. He saw that it did not so much offer men principle as it did a program to follow.

The modern military is a unique instance of one of the traditional paths to fulfillment and growth into adulthood which has completely lost its essence while retaining its honorable reputation. It is yet another surrogate initiation for men in turmoil.

Modern militaries do not need men—beings with principles and virtues and powerful wills—modern militaries need men completely devoid of willfulness and spirit. They need soldiers with technical training and conditioned psyches. In a sense, military progress in the last few centuries represents a transformation away from the warrior and toward the “soldier.” The great victory of this new military methodology was that it somehow retained all the prestige, offering all the old promises and honors of the classical warrior vocation, even though it had become something entirely different. That’s how it continues to draw aimless young men into its net. Every man wants to be a warrior.

And so, many of us join the armed service to fight for our country. We don’t do it because we believe in the war, but because we want to believe in something and we think that by fighting we’ll be able to rise to that certainty. We go to war to conquer our existential rootlessness. That’s when the real barbarism of modern war shows itself.

Remember I told you that love and war are two things which cannot be made clean without making them monstrous. To kill is an evil, but men always tried to keep the evil within limits and to superimpose some sort of honor onto the whole affair. But man liberated himself from honor and limits, remember?

They sought to make war sterile, clean, and safe—like “safe sex.” The story has the same ending. Now war is more barbaric than ever. A man cannot kill another man safely and without risk or responsibility. If he tries he will suffer consequences the severity of which he may not be able to endure. That’s why some of our brothers pick up a rifle, go off to war, and then end up shooting themselves. The whole thing has become spiritual gangrene. No one survives, not even the victor.

Men once killed each other face to face. It was traumatic, it was horrific, and it was not clean. But relatively few soldiers died then, and each life taken on the battle field was felt, whether by friend or foe. It was intimate and personal, even if awful. Then we made progress and man began taking steps back from the battlefield, and the corpses began to pile up. Now one soldier can take any number of lives in seconds. He may not even feel this increase in gore at all—and that is precisely the problem. He can now kill without feeling it so much, and that is a terrible injustice, not just to those being killed, but to the man pulling the trigger. It hides from him the severity of his act. A man should never be able to kill without feeling it and seeing the life that he is smothering.

Just as love cannot be reduced to its physical process without producing monstrous inhumanities, so it is with war. And this is exactly what we’ve done.

Naturally the old ideas about “honor” and the “warrior vocation,” in which the solider became something like a monk with a weapon, have all but evaporated into thin air. There is no place for them when war is waged with buttons and without personal contact of any kind between enemies. How can a solider respect his enemy when he kills him from a mile off.

Soon, it seems, wars will be fought with machines. Or at least that’s how it will work for the rich nations. Already the poor technicians who must manipulate the death machines from a computer and then return home to their families, as if nothing had happened that day, are suffering the consequences of this inhumanity. Man can remove himself from the field as much as he wants, but killing is still killing, and he will always walk away changed.

The old strategy was to face the responsibility full force, right in the eyes. Only under such a discipline could a man kill an enemy and salvage his humanity. He faced the trauma of death by doing his best to transcend it. This is why the old warrior vocation had much in common with the priestly vocation, and why knights stood all-night vigils in church before pledging their swords to a cause. Modern man tries to salvage his humanity not by embracing the severity of the act but by escaping it. It leaves him all the hollower the further he is able to remove himself. If he stands a vigil, it is in front of a flag rather than before the cross.

Responsibility is inescapable. You may run but it will overtake you in the end, wherever you go. Modern warfare, from its motivations to its methods, seems to us a grand effort to escape responsibility.

Now they want to take the women to these wars as well. They call it “equal opportunity.” Equal opportunity means that our daughters, and not just our sons, will go off to fight the next world war.

And they wonder why we have no taste for the whole thing.

Vacancies in the tower of babel

“Where men live huddled together without true communion, there seems to be greater sharing, and a more genuine communion. But this is not communion, only immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and clichés repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking. The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible. Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t think. He does not act, he is pushed. He does not talk, he produces conventional sounds when stimulated by the appropriate noises. He does not think, he secretes clichés.”

–Thomas Merton

There is a curious infatuation with zombies in today’s movies, and it probably indicates something about our social situation. Think about the scenario: it is always a world where the hero is nearly or completely alone; he is also nomadic with no place to call home, he is simply wandering through the ruins of a once human civilization in which all the other people have become monstrous and hostile. These once-human creatures move slowly through the streets, anonymous, devoid of anything resembling a personality, and harmless, until you get too close, at which point you’ll be eaten alive. The hero must exist in this ambient ménage, trying to make the best of what he can scavenge, with little hope of ever finding an idyllic, peaceful, human life. The old ways of fellowship and happiness are shut, even though the earth is still spinning and most of the people are still there.

What does that all sound like? Is that not a caricatured but frighteningly accurate depiction of modern man’s existence in the crowd? That’s why our generation loves the zombie flicks. We can, in a very sick way, relate. The story speaks to us more than the old John Wayne cowboy and Indian conflict. We’ve moved on.

John Wayne was a drifter and a loner, just like our apocalyptic heroes, but the difference is that his solitude was of an entirely different character. The noble, rootless cowboy was in solitude because he walked away from civilization. He was menaced by Indians he had deserted those like him and wandered into alien territory. His solitude came from being alone by choice: he could have chosen differently.

Our new loneliness—the loneliness we like to see in our zombie hero—is of a very different kind. It is a loneliness of immersion within a mass. We see people, we move within crowds of them, even bumping into them on the subway, but we don’t know them as people. We cannot know them, and so we live largely in solitude. And there is no alternative. It isn’t a matter of choice.

This is an expression of the frustrations of mass existence. Just look at the structures we build ourselves:

We live in hives—that’s really the only word to describe apartment buildings and skyscrapers. They’re hives. We live in closer proximity to our fellow men than ever before, and yet we don’t know our neighbors at all. That’s our paradox. You live next-door to me but I know nothing about you, and to be honest I don’t want to know you. If you lived a mile down the road then perhaps I’d like to meet you, but I need distance between us first. If I’m going to be glad to see you I have to be able to see you coming before you bump into me on the elevator. When I must unwillingly rub up against you every day, when I must hear you on the other side of my wall every night, then cannot desire to meet you because you are already too close for comfort.

Our presence in the hive means we are automatically invasive toward one another. It drives out, or at least inhibits, communion even when we really do desire it. Isn’t this true, my fellow resident of the hive? How is your little cell over there, by the way?—can you hear me typing? Perhaps one day, when this tower of Babel collapses and we’re driven out into the open air, we’ll be able to meet for the first time.

That’s what this is, by the way, this skyscraper filled with a hundred cells. It is the tower of Babel. We have lots of them. They are great achievements of human genius, wondrous structures to impress the entire world and reach to the heavens!—and they destroy the possibility of real human communication. That’s Babel for you, to a “T.” It doesn’t matter if we all speak English. Within the hive we might as well all be from different planets.

What always confused me about the myth of Babel was that each man seemed to have received his very own language—his very own confused tongue. But it all makes sense when I look at us, in our great and wonderful structures. If you put too many men together in a room and get them all going, then it matters very little that they all speak the same language. It doesn’t help them one bit! Their communication is still babble, and their tongues are confused.

My point is merely this: you and I, if we ever want to meet, if we ever want to get away from the babbling, we will have to give up the hive life. That won’t solve all of our problems, but it will solve at least one.

Maybe the men at Babel became zombies; or, if they didn’t, I’d bet each man felt like he was surrounded by zombies. Either way, zombies or babbling fools, I think we can relate. This is what the sociologists mean when they say that modern men are “mass men.” We are a mass. We are living as an undifferentiated confusion of humanity.

The environment

“I can have no confidence in places where the air is first fouled and then cleansed, where the water is first made deadly and then made safe with other poisons.”

~ Thomas Merton

“The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.”

~ Pope Benedict XVI

The debate about climate change has got it all wrong—both sides. It’s wrong in every way.

The basic question, as it is put before us, is about whether or not man is capable of destroying the earth and with it his own species. One side argues that man can in fact do this by exhausting the earth’s resources and natural balance, and concludes therefore that we need to protect the environment if for no other reason than self-preservation. The other side seems to think that man does not wield that kind of power, at least not yet, and so we can continue to do whatever we will without thought of limits or concern for consequence.

Isn’t the whole spirit of this argument is disturbing?

We should not need to be convinced that the earth is certainly going to die before we try to keep it beautiful. I shouldn’t need to have it statistically proven to me that a species is going extinct before I give consideration to its flourishing. There should be some appreciation for beauty, life, harmony, and balance, within me that drives me to care for the earth in such a way that the question of its extinction never comes up. A civilization that has to be convinced that extinction is immanent before they will act as ministers to their own garden is already lost.

Think about the madness of it all. I do not clean my kitchen just because the failure to do so will result in disease and death. I do it because a clean living space is more attractive and brings me a sense of peace and order.

I don’t abstain from littering because I think I’m going to kill all the animals on the side of the road with my trash. I don’t need to think about that at all. I choose not to litter because it would feel like leaving food to decompose on my furniture. It’s childish and sloppy. It probably isn’t going to kill anyone, but that isn’t the point. I’m not two years old.

But that’s what the debate about global warming sounds like to my ears. It is a debate between two-year-olds who absolutely must have proof that the world is ending before they will clean up their rooms. It’s embarrassing.

The ecological problem is not a problem of carbon emissions, soil depletion, and habitat destruction. Those are all involved, but they are accidental and secondary. The real problem is that we have become a civilization that places no value on beauty, limits, life, and harmony; we can only value utility, production, and base pleasure.

I cannot say that the science is valid or invalid—I’m agnostic about global warming. I know only this: whether or not the water levels in the ocean are rising or falling, I’d prefer that the beach not be covered with filth. Whether or not the temperature of the water changing, I’d prefer it be filled with a wonderful variety of life. I like gardens, forests, clean rivers, and pastures.

Whichever side wins this whole global warming debate, it is a loss for us, because it is a loss for beauty. It will prove that only an argument based on utility, or on the threat of death, can get anything done. It will show me that those things I value most are, to my society, not considered worthy causes for action.

Inebriation and anesthesia

I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you’re allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It’s like killing yourself, and then you’re reborn. I guess I’ve lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now.

–Charles Bukowski

There are some instructive parallels to be drawn between those things that a man does in order to cope with a reality perceived as intolerable, and those things that a whole society does, collectively, in order to cope with the same thing.

For example, a man who drinks all day apparently has little hope in the prospects offered to him by reality, and so he looks elsewhere for happiness, or, if not happiness, then at least some peace and quiet. That is to say, he drinks simultaneously for pleasure and escape—for inebriation and then anesthesia.

He drinks to insert feelings into his life that he wishes he had while numbing himself to those feelings he has but wishes he didn’t. It may fail with respect to the former, but it will never fail with respect to the latter. That is why Bukowski was right in calling it a sort of surrogate for suicide: It offers the same end, a total deadness to reality, without the finality. Deep intoxication is suicide without the commitment. And it’s cheap.

The problem is worse if you’re young and you haven’t developed the thick skin and self-knowledge needed to withstand the soul-sucking chaos around you. To be young, sensitive, and aware, in a world experienced as hollow, inhuman, and absurd, is to be left with no other option than to turn off the mind. You either have to find a way to stop thinking, or else go insane. It is appropriate, in such times, to speak of young men and women who live a “traumatized existence.”

There is a third option, of course, which is to close your eyes, play Nintendo, and go with the flow. This is a more passive form escapism, different only in approach from the violent plunge into oblivion taken by alcoholic. In this approach, you just keep your eyes on the ground in front of you, day by day, and you may make it through okay. Just don’t question anything, and don’t, under any circumstances, seek meaningful answers. But lift your head once and you’ll be in trouble. You’ll wake up into a nightmare and you may not be able to get to sleep.

Those are your options when you are young and awake. You’ve got to kill the awareness or else you might kill yourself. That makes alcohol a necessity, because it gives you a little of both.

Young people shouldn’t look at the world and see a void of meaningless activity before them as their only possible future. They don’t have the strength or stamina to deal with it.

Take these notions, if they seem true to you, and apply them to society at large. Society itself has felt these same things and reacted in the same fashion, only on a collective level. It has developed its own collective coping mechanisms and collective anesthetics to numb itself to the same things with which the individual struggles. Thus, while the study of individual self-medication is one thing, there are also those who can be more accurately described in terms of a collective anesthesia.

In fact, a society which seeks anesthesia cooperatively will develop a colorful array of opiates, much more subtle and effective than simple intoxication, in order to satisfy its collective need for numbness. And these opiates, because they are products of the group effort, will be far more socially acceptable than the smell of alcohol on your breath.

Many of these anesthetizing techniques remain completely unconscious and invisible. You participate without consent or awareness of the fact.

Did you ever wonder why we are so frantically moving from place to place all day long, one activity to the next, always busy, busy, busy? No matter where we are, we never seem to be where we’d like to be. As soon as we get where we are going, we discover that where we are is not where we wanted to be after all, and so we leave again. The car, in fact, could be our cultural symbol, because the car is a place you go and sit, never because you want to be there, but so you can be somewhere else.

With this in mind, consider the fact that, according to psychiatrists, sheer activity can actually provide a narcotizing effect. This means that feverish commotion, in itself, can offer a sort of desensitization. Therefore, if a society begins living at such a consistently frantic pace, we cannot deny the possibility that it does so in pursuit of just this sort of inebriation.

Modern men hate to stand still. Stillness forces you to become aware of your thoughts and feelings. Activity keeps you numb. Like a drowning man in the ocean, if you flail around enough, you can beat back the waters of awareness, but as soon as you stand still they overcome you and smother you with what you did not want to see.

That sort of awareness is what the alcoholic fears, and that is why he drowns himself in drink. When society collectively seeks the same escape, it adopts a frenetic lifestyle.

So there you go. There’s one thing to watch out for: Don’t be a busy-body, at least not if you want to be able to think; and if you find that standing still terrifies you, you might do well to ask why.

Democracy itself has been transformed into an anesthetic. Democracy is the new “opium of the people.” We already spoke about the scapegoat offered by politics, and about how that is quite literally the only comfort offered by the whole circus with its votes and its villains. It is a grand opiate, and it’s free to all. For this one you don’t even need a car. Unfortunately for us, this great anesthetic is losing its potency. It is a psychological opiate and requires a degree of belief. We don’t really believe in it any more, and so it offers us no escape. In fact, election time just reminds us of how impotent we really feel. You might say we are becoming “resistant” to the democracy drug. It doesn’t give us the high that it apparently gave earlier generations. So we keep looking, and we find other ways to benumb ourselves.

Television, for example. Television is a paradoxical anesthetic because it stimulates while it stupefies. It gives you a feeling of excitement and lethargy at the same time. It is thus the symbolic anesthetic for a sedentary civilization. It stimulates your mind just enough to steal your sleep, but it stupefies you just enough to make sure you don’t actually do anything with yourself during that time. That’s why couples with television sets in the bedroom get less sleep but also have less sex.

Television mesmerizes. You can forget yourself when you’ve got the TV on. In the end, that’s precisely what we’re after. TV allows you to ignore your loneliness. That’s what the laugh tracks do—and that’s why we need them. People don’t like to laugh when they are alone. Laugh tracks are the only thing keeping lonely people laughing, which is to say, keeping lonely people from acknowledging their loneliness.

So many opiates. Even kids get narcotics these days. All the stimulation flying around and pulverizing their little senses, and then they are sent to school and expected to stay still and pay attention to what is quite possibly the most boring, hollowing, educational experience yet devised. Not surprisingly, they can’t endure it. So we give them a diagnosis and a drug made for children. Lots of us were anesthetized from our earliest years.

Alcohol isn’t sounding nearly so bad after all that, come to think of it. It seems that the guy drinking alcohol isn’t so strange after all. He just knows better what he’s after, and he wants it more. He wants to escape, just like everyone else. And to forget. Everyone wants to forget themselves, but how can you forget someone you’ve never met?

Homo economicus

Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming.

~ Matthew Arnold

All of the things we’ve talked about so far hang together—or perhaps it would be better to say that all these things work together: all of these social trends, all of these spiritual pressures, all of these existential tensions converge into one overwhelming force, resulting in the creation of a very specific type of man, to the exclusion of all other human types.

I’ll call this distinct type of man the “economic man,” or homo economicus. I believe this term is appropriate because the type we are discussing is a man devoid of any concerns, dimensions, passions, and pursuits, beyond the acquisitive and material—which is to say the economic–ones. Nothing else matters, either for him or his society.

Other pursuits, such as the religious or moral, may be proclaimed in the streets, in the pulpit, or on the political campaign by this type of man—but we are not concerned with his hollow rhetoric. We are concerned with what this man and his civilization actually does pursue and actually does practice; and in this respect it is appropriate to speak of a purely “economic man” as the general type fostered by our present civilization.

That is the world into which we have been born: a society far advanced in all forms of material wealth, but working actively toward the exclusion of all extra-economic values.

For this society—our present society—anything which cannot be reduced to purely economic terms is denied the right to exist. Everything is judged in terms of efficiency, affordability, functionality, production value, “standard of living,” etc. This strictly economic framework dictates the nature and direction, not only of society as a whole, but even of our own individual aspirations.

I’m not talking about the superficial desire for material possession. Greed is included here, but it is just one symptom the disease which lies at the heart of homo economicus.

The true essence of the problem is an economic experience of life and everything within it, from “relationships” to sex and even to religion. We are taught to judge and experience our own goals, truths, beauties, and pursuits in light of and through this dead, cold, mathematical, transactional framework, which is to say, by using the measures that are purely economic.

Think about the problems we’ve explored. Remember the abstract and imaginary entity called the “person” which has come to replace the concrete and colorful realities of “men” and “women?” There is only one place in which this sterile, gender-neutral thing can actually exist, and that is in economics. Economics can deal with persons—in fact, it must deal with persons, because it cannot deal with men, women, and children.

This is what I mean when I say that our own mentality, down to our deepest perceptions of ourselves and others, has been impoverished into conformity with an all-encompassing economic worldview.

Man has reduced his understanding of himself to his role as economic participant: he is producer, consumer, employee, employer, or party of a contract. No needs are valid beyond those directly related to his physiochemical machinery.

Again, we are not just talking about money and business!

Remember what we said about “relationships?” The word itself is an economic term. It is something that can only be accounted for and judged within the economic framework.

In future histories they will say that homo economicus came after homo sapiens. If they are wise, they’ll also say that, although he came after, he was below homo sapiens. They’ll say he was a degraded form of humanity which forced man to summon all his power in order to overcome.

It is incredibly ironic that some people are outraged when evolutionists link them to primates. Those men feel that being placed next to an animal on some evolutionary chain has removed their dignity as human beings. And yet how many of these same indignant men and women wake up every day and embrace this baser role as homo economicus, the “physiochemical actor” whose pursuits are perhaps even more predictable and one-dimensional than those of the apes.

Homo eocnomicus is perfectly predictable, in spite, or perhaps because of, all his productivity. He is predictable like a productive ant building an ant hill, working hard but for no higher purpose than to make the hill bigger.

Remember “mass man” and his grand hives a hundred stories tall?—men piled on top of one another in their towers? They touch one another without meeting, and hear one another without speaking. That’s homo economicus—living with spectacular efficiency—just like the ants.

The more we explore this phenomenon, which is the slow elimination from society of every pursuit that is not economic, the more we see how deeply it has penetrated the spirit of our era.

What place does beauty have in our civilization? It certainly isn’t reason enough to care for the environment. For that we need threat of death and extinction. But even that set aside, beauty still has no role and no power of determination in our pursuits.

Look at the architecture of the past. Everything is beautiful. It is as if men couldn’t so much as build a stairway without embellishing it in some fashion, leaving the accent of his human personality on the finished work. Everything reflected a concern for the beautiful. Everything we build is ugly. It’s all squares and boxes. It’s efficient.

Art has no role in the life of homo economicus. It can only be found in special “galleries” where you go to see beauty divorced from use, which is an inferior type of beauty. Galleries might be best understood as paradoxical museums of the now, where we put things which, although they were created today, are already anachronisms. All art in our age is an anachronism. That’s why we must go to galleries to see beauty, isolated and protected as if it were a curiosity for an interested and sometimes eccentric few.

Homo eocnomicus also develops his own language, wholly of external relationships and transactional logic. For example, when we say someone is “successful,” what do we mean? We mean that he has made lots of money, and usually nothing more. That is the language of homo economicus, and we use it daily.

This mentality shapes our very notions of the mind and of knowledge. Homo economicus is not wise—he is “smart” or he is an “expert” at something. You see, he cannot be “wise” because wisdom is not reducible to a quantity of facts that can be accumulated and then judged. Wisdom is therefore meaningless. “Smart” and “expert,” on the other hand, denote quantities of data. That’s what we economic actors need: quantities of data. Our education has been shaped accordingly. Gone is the philosopher, the Galileo and the Archimedes, whose knowledge ranged across all subjects. Today the only path to “success” is to be “specialized,” so that you can “market” yourself in a certain field for which there is a “demand,” depending on “scarcity” in that profession.

And so we follow the path of homo economicus, many of us, because we do not know what else to do. We live this out our entire lives, but part of us remains aware that the whole program is without meaning, just an organized chaos with nothing underneath but the dust to which we must eventually return. We feel the complex structure of our industrial society, precisely arranged and calculated, and yet we simultaneously sense something a little insane and ominous about it. We feel that it moves towards some imminent destination, but we aren’t sure if that destination is paradise, or just a longer shift at the assembly line, and so we are more than a little anxious about the situation.

But that’s all underneath, in our depths. As for what we can see with our eyes, it’s all just about making the ant hill bigger.

What do we hear every day in the news, every board meeting at work, and at every State of the Union Address? We hear about how we need “growth.” And what do we need to grow? The “economy.” That is our perpetual project, because the economy, that abstract thing which has proven more mysterious than any of the old gods, feeds all the “persons.”

We are the “persons”—the “individuals.” We are homo economicus, and we work our whole lives to feed and fatten the great Sacred Cow, the economy. Nothing that threatens the primacy of the Sacred Cow has a right to be, or at least not to be in any meaningful way, and neither are we allowed to pursue such things. No extra-economic value can stand in the presence of this god.

Automatism and free will

Freedom is completely without meaning unless it is related to necessity, unless it represents victory over necessity. To say that freedom is graven in the nature of man, is to say that man is free because he obeys his nature, or, to put it another way, because he is conditioned by his nature. This is nonsense. We must not think of the problem in terms of a choice between being determined and being free. We must…say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.

~ Jacques Ellul

To have a ‘culture of consciousness,’ the people of that culture must first be aware that there is more to consciousness than being awake and walking around. You can be awake and walking without being conscious, sort of like sleepwalking. Epileptics who experience periodic seizures may have a seizure while in the middle of some very complex routine, which they will continue to carry out to completion even while unconscious. You can be unconscious and still make a peanut butter sandwich. So long as you knew where the peanut butter was, and so long as you’ve buttered bread before, you do not have to be conscious in order to make the sandwich. The instructions have been issued, that’s all the body needs at that point. The brain takes it from there.

One epileptic was a pianist who was known to experience attacks in the midst of his practice sessions. He would pause momentarily, which is how his parents knew the seizure had occurred, and then would continue to play the song to completion with great dexterity.

What I mean to say is that consciousness, real consciousness, is a rare thing, much rarer than you might think. Just because you drove your car to work this morning does not mean you were conscious. The brain, through habit and training, can carry out most of life’s activities on its own, absent your guidance. When this kind of unconsciousness reaches an extreme, as was the case with the epileptic, the person enters a state called automatism.

The automaton, or man-as-automaton, can carry out any action with which they are familiar, although such an individual will usually be incapable of processing new data or reacting to changes in circumstance. The program of the brain is running, but the programmer is no longer at the controls.

Obviously there can be various “degrees of consciousness” between full automatism and true awareness, which leads us to wonder how often men actually live in what could be called a conscious state. The answer is important, by the way, because free will is impossible without consciousness.

The automaton can’t make any meaningful decisions—the automaton cannot direct itself to a certain purpose or end. The automaton can only respond to stimuli, and even then it only reacts through previously learned routines. The automaton is absolutely conditioned. If this description sounds familiar, it is because it represents precisely the modern scientific vision of man in general. Man in general, according to our psychologists, is always, more or less, the automaton.

This is why science denies the existence of free will. If man is always and everywhere the automaton, then he does not have free will.

What a crime against humanity that was, teaching us as children that we had no free will and no capacity for purposeful action. Victims of circumstance. They had their reasons, our educators. Their denial of free will is understandable, in light of what man has come to believe about his nature in recent centuries.

But in the end they answered the wrong question. The question is not “can man act as a free, self-determined agent?”—but rather: “How often does he actually do this?” The reason our predecessors answered the first question in the negative was that they did not think to ask if it were possible to consider free will only as a potentiality and not as an all-or-nothing, universal characteristic.

Man can and does go through his entire day acting automatically, thinking of nothing that he did not think of yesterday, answering no questions he has not already answered before, and directing himself to no purpose other than habit and self-indulgence. Our predecessors, those great scientists, saw him doing this, and drew the selectively true but not universally true conclusion that man has no free will at all. Because so many men were indeed living the life of the automaton, I suppose we cannot be too hard on them. They were only doing what scientists do: observing what men do, and drawing conclusions based on those observations.

We don’t have to believe them though, you and I. We can understand them, empathize with their error, and then correct it. If we don’t, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Convince a man that he is an animal, and he will be much more prone to act like one. Once man accepts that he is driven by instinct and routine, he will be incapable of seeing anything more—not in himself or in anyone else. Only the man who goes against himself and beyond himself knows that there is a free will to be had.

Science was right when they denied free will in some men, but they were wrong in denying it to all men. They were right when they saw that consciousness is rare, but wrong in saying that it is non-existent. They had spent too much time watching men butter their bread, watch the news, vote, work, sleep, and butter more bread. They had spent too much effort measuring responses to stimuli. They had been too long observing homo economicus. When all you see is homo economicus, then free will truly is extinct and the scientists are justified in all their conclusions.

It is time to talk of consciousness, and to seek wakefulness. This is why every tradition of wisdom talks endlessly about wakefulness; it is why so many sages and wise men seemed to have undergone an “awakening” at one point or another. The sage knows that a man may very well live much of his life in terms of an existence that is barely more than bovine. Man can, if he allows it, be animated by nothing more than Freudian sex drive, animal instinct, and environmental determinations. Everyone has always known this much; science didn’t teach us anything in that regard.

The difference is that the old wisdom assured us that another life was also possible, and spent all its time trying to encourage us to seek this alternative existence. They taught us to seek a life “awake” and thus capable of being filled with meaning, a conscious life in which the free will exists and is in frequent and joyful use.

So what shall it be? Automatism?—or something better? You do have a choice. The automaton will always exist and be open to you. It is useful, after all, when you are making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You can’t discard the automaton completely. It is good, so long as it isn’t the end of the story.

The terrible injustice of our education was to teach us that the automaton was the end, even if the only way it taught us this was by neglecting to mention anything else. The result of such an education has been that very often the automaton is the end, becoming that self-fulfilling prophecy of impoverishment. A generation trained to think of themselves as determined by nature is almost guaranteed to act accordingly.

Our job is to spare future generations that terrible impoverishment of possibilities. Our job is to bring back the rest of the story—to find out what lies beyond the automaton, and to teach the free will to the next generation. Our job is to destroy the barrier that has been erected, humiliating man by telling him that he can go no further than environmental determination and instinct. That is the Berlin Wall of our epoch, telling man that he may live only on his animal side, and may never enter the realm of the human. It shouldn’t be too hard of a wall to smash.

Breaking the vicious circle

In order to break the vicious circle of the blind and bland leading the blinder and the blander, perhaps the most intriguing option—which will of course never happen, at least not by choice—would be to close the schools. I am not the first to suggest this either, as other powerful voices have seen the necessity. One such eloquent thinker was the American novelist, D.H. Lawrence. Because his literary powers are greater than my own, I will allow him to expound on this particular point:

“…we really can make a move on our children’s behalf. We really can refrain from thrusting our children any more into those hot-beds of the self-conscious disease, schools. We really can prevent their eating much more of the tissues of leprosy, newspapers and books. For a time, there should be no compulsory teaching to read and write at all. The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write—never…And instead of this gnawing, gnawing disease of mental consciousness and awful, unhealthy craving for stimulus and for action, we must substitute genuine action.”

“The top and bottom of it is, that it is a crime to teach a child anything at all, school-wise. It is just evil to collect children together and teach them through the head. It causes absolute starvation…and sterile substitute of brain knowledge is all the gain. The children of the middle classes are so vitally impoverished, that the miracle is they continue to exist at all…

“I don’t want my child to know that five fives are twenty-five, any more than I want my child to wear my hat or my boots. I don’t want my child to know. If he wants five fives let him count them on his fingers. As for his little mind, give it a rest, and let his dynamic self be alert. He will ask “why” often enough. But he more often asks why the sun shines, or why men have mustaches, or why grass is green, than anything sensible. Most of a child’s questions are, and should be, unanswerable. They are not questions at all. They are exclamations of wonder, they are remarks half-sceptically addressed. When a child says, “Why is grass green?” he half implies. “Is it really green, or is it just taking me in?” And we solemnly begin to prate about chlorophyll. Oh, imbeciles, idiots, inexcusable owls!”

“By the age of twenty-one our young people are helpless, hopeless, selfless, floundering mental entities, with nothing in front of them, because they have been starved from the roots, systematically, for twenty-one years, and fed through the head. They have had all their mental excitements, sex and everything, all through the head, and when it comes to the actual thing, why, there’s nothing in it. Blasé.”

Let me now try to justify this notion, which may sound like nothing short of madness.

The status quo is our greatest enemy. In a democracy, the status quo rules supreme, and the conventional wisdom is an almost invincible force. Our only choice is to find a way to render the status quo impotent and toothless, unable to inject its venom into the young minds of fresh generations.

The logical consequence, then, is that our task must be an educational one. In order to break the vicious circle of indoctrination through which the young are converted into the sleepwalking, will-less homo economicus, we’ve got to break the single institution by which the status quo is handed down. This means that we have to dismantle the school entirely.

You will struggle with this notion perhaps more than anything else I’ve said so far. That is how deep the conventional wisdom runs in our democratic blood. Such an idea as this sounds completely absurd; but it is the only way, I assure you.

The school is in fact the living symbol of the status quo. Within the school the child is taught that everything we’ve rejected in this letter is unquestionably true. Within the school the child is taught to think and speak only within the verbal universe, which he will then depend upon for the rest of his life.

There he is taught that he is a person and an individual; that sex is a physiological process; that he is to be patriotic, work all his life for a successful “career,” kill foreigners when the government calls, vote, and, most importantly, spend his money according to what he sees on television.

Upon entering school the child is capable of wonder. He is a genius of creativity, and has goals for his life which, although childish and ignorant, represent his vigor and spiritual integrity. He has human aspirations, even if they are unrealistic in the concrete form he gives them. When the child says he wants to be a fireman, he is saying he wants to do meaningful work which challenges his manhood, allows him to grow in courage, and impacts others in a meaningful way. In this sense, he knows exactly what he wants, and what he wants is a human existence. School destroys all that, eliminating all the highest of his aspirations and ensuring that, by the time he emerges, nothing will remain but the hopes and dreams of homo economicus. He will desire money, and will learn to judge his success or failure entirely by that measure.

Do you not see that no revolution in yourself or in your home will have a lasting impact while this institution operates and demands participation from the vast majority? The school is the modern parent, after all. Children spend the majority of their waking hours being formed in its walls. Once the child enters, its power will override any doctrines learned at home. It is an impossible adversary if it is allowed to survive.

Children go into the schools as little myth-makers, beings of utmost potentiality, all human possibility operative and open before them; and they come out homo economicus, speaking the language of the verbal universe. They’ll be able to communicate with their elders and talk about the market, about politics, about reality TV, about income mobility, about financing their first home, about what sort of car their going to buy, etc.

They’ll have become productive, pseudo-informed, successful, and spiritually neutralized. Their fiery minds will have been mechanized, and all the more if they proceed on to some college.

That is what the school inflicts upon the child’s soul. It isn’t intentional. It isn’t the fault of the teachers, who are usually good people, sensing that something is wrong but not really knowing what to do about it, and in any event being powerless to change the system in which they are enmeshed.

That is another tragedy of the “school system”—that even if the teachers see what is happening, they cannot stop it because it is the only type of education we permit in our civilization. Everything must conform to our economic-industrial existence. That is why our schools will always be this production-model, uniform, homogenizing, lot manufacture, “system.”

The only real alternative would be to shut them all down. No, you cannot try to pass some legislation and “fix” the schools. You and I both know that government intervention is not a possibility, because the government itself has a vested interest in the status quo. The school is the place where you learn to trust the government, after all.

No—things will not change naturally sooner or later if we just ‘give it more time’. That is the doctrine of Progress speaking. You should be through with faith in automatism. Nor do I have a specific alternative for you, which is irrelevant anyhow. If you find out that smoking causes cancer, then the only wise decision is to stop smoking. If you can only say “I won’t stop until you tell me what I can smoke instead!”—then you are a fool. Again, if you are driving toward a cliff and someone warns you about the danger, they shouldn’t have to offer you an alternative route in order to get you to stop. You don’t need an alternative at that point. All you need to know is that the cliff is ahead.

School is our mental cancer—and unlike cigarettes, it does not just “increase the chances” that you’ll get the tumor: it ensures it. And the disease is always terminal. That’s its purpose. It sets children on a course toward spiritual self-destruction. You can worry about an alternative later—first you just need to stop what you are doing. In fact, it is entirely likely that the current establishment is blinding you to any alternative even if there is one. It is very possible that you will never be able to conceive of anything else so long as the present monstrosity looms large, blocking all light from your vision. That is why there is no time to waste and no reason to hold off.

Again, I know how mad this sounds, but do you really want another generation of “mass men?” Then we must at all costs stop cramming all young people into the classroom to be acclimated to the great herd of other child bodies. That’s where the process of compaction and impoverishment begins.

Until you have the courage to take drastic steps, then nothing will change. You can’t just take baby steps. Baby steps are for babies and politicians.

Did you really think it would be easy? Did you think it would be a walk in the park to right all these wrongs and bring about a restructuring of civilization? If you did, then again you have the status quo to thank for your delusion. The status quo teaches that all you have to do to make the world better is cast a vote. All the evils you sense, all the systems which oppress you, are addressed in the dim sanctity of that little booth with your piece of paper. That is the paralyzing promise you have to get beyond, or you won’t get beyond anything.

It is very difficult for a man to reject the system of which he himself is a product. We all have serious difficulty separating ourselves from the institutions and methods that formed us. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that we were taught to think of our “schooling” as one of our greatest privileges, envied by the world. Our privileged education is one with that silver spoon we spoke so much about in the beginning; it is another one of those things we were expected to be eternally grateful for having received.

We were also taught that this education was not only a gift, but a necessity, and that no person can expect to succeed without it. And so we have believed it, even if we never really found it to be true, and we are poised to pass this belief on to the future. That is the vicious circle which must be broken so that the madness can finally end.

If we managed to close the schools, I would call our generation one of the greatest there ever was. To break one’s own vicious circle, especially one with as much momentum as this, requires a spiritual virility few generations in the history of man have been able to muster. If we succeed, we’ll have created a historical discontinuity as deep as the one which created us.

Remember our shame?—our shame at the fact that we could not help but reveal the lie behind these schools, this economy, this political ideology? That is our shame, and our only responsible option is to use that shame to discover where and how all these “privileges” have actually been curses. Through this we can redeem ourselves by sparing the next generation such suffering. We can produce a generation without shame, or at least without our particular kind of shame.

We have to refuse to ever wave a silver spoon in front of a child’s face and tell him how good he had it, now that we know that having silver spoons is not really all that wonderful after all.

Bring the children home. Mankind got along quite well enough without schooling for thousands of years before us. It is an outright lie to pretend that no one can survive without an “official” education. If the child aspires to read and write, then so be it. Such things are only made difficult when we operate on the maddening assumption that they must be facilitated at a certain speed and under rigid classroom conditions. If we break away from the rigidity, we realize that it matters very little if the child moves slowly. All the better for him.

Without schools we might actually discover how useful libraries can be. If a child wants to learn, he can do it quite easily with a book or with a friend. He can’t do that now, though. No one recognizes autonomous learning as worthy of any consideration at all. Only what has the official seal of the school system receives any consideration, and this seal has little relation to actual intelligence, creativity, and general mental worth.

Spare them the curse of being taught to live in their heads. Let them live, as long as possible, in the real world. Let them meet a horse before they learn its “scientific name” and what its insides look like.

They won’t get a job, this next generation? We don’t want them to have “jobs,” dear reader. We want them to have something much more human than that. If you create the space, then perhaps truly human forms of work can be allowed to spring up and exist, designed for man and not for the Sacred Cow of the economy.

End the superstition of schooling. Bring the children home from the mental and spiritual cesspool; from the indoctrination; from the germs that necessitate continuous vaccinations. How grand an era would it be to have children at home again, where they do not need prescription drugs just to cope with the monotony. Mythopoeic civilization cannot exist without mythopoeic men, and such men will never exist so long as schools are the norm.

Spiritual fathers

I use the phrase “spiritual fathers” loosely. When I employ it, I am referring primarily to the character or quality of a certain “spiritual makeup,” and not to any specific theological content, but rather a way of experiencing the life of the soul, and it should be fairly obvious that modern man’s spiritual experience, in this specific sense, has nothing whatsoever in common with St. Augustine of Hippo. Even less can he empathize with Jonah, who heard the voice of God so distinctly that he physically ran away. Modern man runs around all over the place, but he is never running from God. He doesn’t even know God exists. He’s just running, that’s all. Running from the voice of God would be a promising step for him. “Oh that men will someday once again run from God!” That should be the prayer of modern churches. Modern man’s problem is not that he feels compelled to hide, like Adam in the Garden while God goes walking by. Such physical concealment would imply a degree of intimacy with the Creator that is absolutely foreign to us. We cannot conceive of it. Our experience is all in the opposite direction. The chasm is too wide. We can draw principles and truths from scriptures (which is really all that scripture was ever meant for), but we cannot directly empathize with the people he finds there.

Our contemporary man, more likely, finds that he has something in common with Franz Kafka, or with Fyodor Dostoevsky, or even the obscene Henry Miller, or the alcoholic Charles Bukowski. He can relate to the pariah. Some may find this comforting, who have long suspected a somewhat impassible barrier between them and those men of the distant past. But this only applies to those who have been honest with themselves. Some, on the other hand, who have not been so honest, may find comparison disconcerting, those who cannot stomach the idea of learning about themselves through the tutelage of pariahs. Nonetheless, as we are speaking of our unique spiritual characterology rather than any sort of doctrinal content, then these are the men we are stuck with, because no one else can speak to us about ourselves with the lucidity and depth which we most desperately need. And perhaps that was how it was always meant to be: to learn from the lowly and to stop insisting on comparing ourselves to Peter and Paul. C.S. Lewis warned us against that sort of arrogance. He warned those who like to say to themselves “Wouldn’t it be so nice to have coffee with Paul and Jesus! Wouldn’t that be fun?” Lewis answers: “No.” Every sane person must answer “no.” Such an experience could be altogether overwhelming and immensely painful.

Franz Kafka

Kafka’s Gregor Samsa awoke one day to see—or perhaps feel, but feeling often dictates what we see—something disgusting. He had turned into a giant insect. But it is hard to tell whether it was his transformation that caused his disgust or rather his self-disgust that caused his transformation. And his family’s repulsion at the metamorphosis only mirrors his own. It isn’t their fault. It is no one’s fault, in fact—and that’s the heart of the matter. Gregor decays and dies as senselessly as he lived, without being able to identify any culprit—any evil mastermind—not even the devil. No evil spell was cast that ruined his life. There is no explanation at all. In fact, he does not even seem to look for an explanation—he takes it for granted that there isn’t one. He is an insect, and he is disgusting. His shame is therefore justified as a matter of fact, and so is the shame of his family at the existence of this creature which they cannot co-exist with.

That is Kafka, the master of the absurd. He took it all with great humor, of course, and his humor made of his imagination a showcase—but it did not make him a rare case. He was an exceptional character—an exceptional writer—but he was not of an exceptional spirit. Gregor Samsa, the insectoid-man, represents something of an everyman for the modern soul.

John Updike said that Kafka epitomized the modern mind-set through his “sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain.”

He felt immersed in slavery “under laws invented only for him.” His malaise is not difficult to identify—it is simply the subtle and generalized malaise of the modern world, and although concentrated in him it was not born with him. It is the anxiety of Kierkegaard, except he is perhaps more honest and plain with it than Kierkegaard. Philosophers have difficulty with honesty.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

At any rate, we may move from here to Dostoevsky. His novels such as The Idiot and The Possessed put on full display the inner life of the times, but here we will look at his anonymous narrator from Notes from Underground. It is appropriate that the voice of this story is anonymous, for the modern spirit is one of anonymity. Our age manifests anonymity everywhere, all the more so for how hard the people in it try to make a name for themselves. Dostoevsky’s nameless man, however, cannot even get so far as Gergor Samsa:

“I couldn’t even become an insect… I tried many times to become one. But even that was beyond me. I swear that too great a lucidity is a disease, a true, full-fledged disease… not only too much lucidity, but any amount of it at all is a disease.”

Here lies one of the characteristic difficulties of the present age: For us the problems of life have been inverted, and are now the reverse of what is conventionally assumed to be the case. For example, it is not the unknown that tortures—it is knowledge itself that pains. Solomon said that wisdom was grief and knowledge was sorrow. His warning is finally ringing true. It is not that our man wishes to know—it is that he wishes not to know. It is his own heightened consciousness, his hypersensitivity to things, that troubles him. Lucidity is the disease. He longs for bliss, and bliss is in ignorance. Seek truth, goodness, and beauty? Ha! The nameless man continues:

“The more conscious I was of ‘the good and the beautiful,’ the deeper I sank into the mud…But what struck me was the feeling I had that, in my case, it wasn’t accidental, that it was intended to be that way, as if that were my normal state rather than a sicknesss or depravity; so that finally I lost all desire to fight my depravity. In the end, I almost believed…that it actually was my normal state.”

In his perverse lucidity he cannot even find pleasure in goodness and beauty. Again, the old answers no longer bring relief. Like Kafka, his soul is conditioned as such that it must register “every touch as pain.” And once one begins to feel, by relentless experience that depravity and ugliness are his normal state, then there is obviously nothing left but to try and find pleasure in the depravity, which the nameless man does:

“I inwardly gnawed at myself for it, tore at myself and ate myself away, until the bitterness turned into some shameful, accursed sweetishness and, finally, into a great pleasure!…I derived pleasure from the blinding realization of my degradation; because I felt I was already up against the wall; that it was horrible but couldn’t be otherwise; that there was no way out and it was no longer possible to make myself into a different person; that even if there were still enough time and faith left to become different, I wouldn’t want to change myself; and that, even if I wanted to, I still wouldn’t have done anything about it, because, actually, there wasn’t anything to change into…there’s a set of fundamental laws to which heightened consciousness is subject so that there’s no changing oneself or, for that matter, doing anything about it.”

But even so resigned one does not become comfortable: depravity is still felt as depravity even once accepted as an inevitable lot in life, and so shame and insecurity characterize everything, even to an extreme:

“I…am horribly sensitive. I’m suspicious and easily offended, like a dwarf or a hunchback…I believe there have been moments when I’d have liked to have my face slapped…I’d have derived pleasure form this too. Naturally it would be the pleasure of despair. But then, it is in despair that we find the most acute pleasure, especially when we are aware of the hopelessness of the situation. And when one’s face is slapped—why, one is bound to be crushed by one’s awareness of the pulp into which one has been ground.

And again it is consciousness itself which plummets the guilty further into the muck. Ashamed of one’s own existence, as if existence were a crime:

“…whichever way you look at it, I was always guilty in the first place, and what is most vexing is that I was guilty without guilt, by virtue of the laws of nature…I’m guilty of being more intelligent than all those around me. (I’ve always felt that and, believe me, it’s weighed on my conscience sometimes. All my life, I have never been able to look people straight in the eye—I always feel a need to avert my face).”

Here, as in Kafka, god has disappeared, but so has the devil. “Guilt,” although he feels it, is therefore without any sense or meaning, because there is no judge to impute it, nor is there a villain from which to suffer. Guilt has become a fact rather than the result of an action. Forgiveness in such a context is without meaning. Forgiven for what? Being born? Forgive others for what?—for doing exactly what we’d expect, which is a slap in the face?

“…even if there had been any forgiveness in me, it would only have increased my torment, because I would have been conscious of its uselessness. I surely would have been unable to do anything with my forgiveness: I wouldn’t have been able to forgive because the offender would simply have been obeying the laws of nature in slapping me, and it makes no sense to forgive the laws of nature.”

The one who strikes the insect-man is just acting, living, doing what circumstance dictates be done. He is not hated. He is ignorance and envied. His ignorance is the most desirable of things:

“I envy that man. I’m bilious with envy. He’s stupid, I won’t dispute that, but then, maybe a normal man is supposed to be stupid…Perhaps that’s the great beauty of it.”

Our nameless man is trapped, “so subdued by his antithesis that he views himself—heightened consciousness and all—as a mouse rather than a man. So, even if he’s a mouse with a heightened consciousness, he’s still nothing but a mouse, whereas the other is a man. So there. And, what’s more, he regards himself as a mouse.”

This would sound strange to some of our forefathers, would it not my dear reader? But you and I know the truth of it. We have seen how many men and women wake up each day with this inexplicable sense of being undermined by their own existence, which is a sort of absurd despair, and therefore quickly learning to revel in their despair. We’ve seen even children who actively work to make themselves ugly, who cut and brand their bodies, who shoot their fellow children, and who shoot themselves.

The evangelicals are out there preaching forgiveness—but what is that to these new men who wouldn’t know what to do with forgiveness even if they thought they had obtained it? What is that to men and women who perceive their pain, no longer in terms of some great injustice, but as a normal state of things?—with an attitude of resignation? What happens when, as Dostoevsky expressed, shame becomes a fact and not a result? What are these people going to do with devotionals and forgiveness? It’ll just be nonsense and absurdity. If you preach it to them they might laugh at you, or they might spit on you. If they are gentle, they’ll just nod and walk away.

The young men and women you see before you today are going to grow old without nostalgia. There will be no “good old days” for them to tell their grandchildren about, when teen pregnancies were few, when marriage was still sacred, when everyone did not know someone who had killed himself. They won’t talk about the first time they sipped a beer, or even smoked a joint. Most of them are on drugs anyway, and they got them from a doctor. They’ll probably still be on them when they’re talking to their grandchildren.

These, like all elderly, will have their “back in my day” tales, but they will be of a predominantly new character: they will remember watching the towers fall on 9/11, watching men jump from the windows to avoid the fire. They will remember the twenty first-graders who were shot in their classrooms. They’ll remember the countless other mass shootings, youth killing youth, collapsing on itself, violence sparked not by protest of war, political agenda, or devotion to a cause, but rather initiated by nothing at all but apparent insanity. And they’ll remember, perhaps most keenly, their shame which, for all they can tell, they earned by being born. And they’ll remember how much their elders blamed them for all of this—for this encircling chaos.

What comes after nostalgia, or in its absence? What can we expect? Without that bittersweet longing for the past, one might expect to see an enthusiastic anticipation of the future—and indeed that is what we’ve been seeing for quite some time, what with the mania for “Progress” and other such optimisms. But the old nostalgia and the obsession with progress each require a degree of hope and optimism. The man who perceives himself as a mouse, as one ground into a pulp of impotence, does not know what to do with optimism. For such a generation, even the enthusiasm for progress proves unsustainable. Little remains but exhaustion or ennui. Apathy is the ruling sentiment of the mouse-man.

Do we have any virtues?

Well, our virtue comes from our apathy. Once apathy is universal, it gets automatically transmuted into something admirable as a sort of natural process. We call it tolerance. That’s us—that’s my generation. We’re tolerant. It isn’t, however, that we cling to tolerance because it seems all that true. It’s just that tolerance, as G.K. Chesterton said, is the virtue of the man without convictions. It is a pseudo-conviction which we have adopted because we could find nothing else particularly convicting. What I mean to say is that the “conviction market” is quite thin these days—all of the convictions look more like conventions—nothing a man can sink his teeth into. We can’t even adopt convictions about our wars, protesting the meaningless ones like some of our parents did back during Vietnam. How would we know how to protest a meaningless war? First we’d have to know what a meaningful war looked like, and we don’t. We can’t remember WWII and its holocaust, and showing us pictures doesn’t help any. The only kind of war we know is the ridiculous, convoluted, abstracted kind of war. Some of us nonetheless fight and die in these wars, but no one expects them to be meaningful. That’s our norm.

As I said, the conviction market is really a convention market. Some of us adopt them, these counterfeit convictions, and we call these people “Conservatives.” But the rest abstain and remain convictionless. We call these “Liberals.” So we have men following counterfeits and men following nothing at all—and the majority, it seems, prefer the latter option. These are the degenerates and the rebels.

A bunch of “rebels without a cause”: that’s how they appear, and indeed that’s what they are, but that’s only a half-truth. They are not rebelling for nothing—they are rebelling against nothing. There’s a difference. It is precisely nothing against which revolt is aimed, and so naturally it looks absurd. We feel ourselves sitting at the singularity of a black hole, held fast, albeit writhing, and in the dark. He who is trying to escape the dark has nowhere to go—he doesn’t have to have anywhere to go. He just knows it is dark and that he wants to see something. He doesn’t know what, just anything.

I may switch between the first and third persons here and there. You see, I’m speaking for myself as well. Why shouldn’t I? “You,” “they,” “we”—we’re all moderns. Some of us just don’t know it. We’re all rebels with no cause, even if some of us forget the “rebel” part and just live with the “no cause.” I leave it to you to decide which you are. In the end, then, this is a manifesto and a manual for us all, so it’s written in the first person, the second, and the third.

Albert Camus

Perhaps we’ll know that the crisis of the modern world is over when Camus’s The Stranger no longer resonates with the youth. The entire conflict is a conflict of inertia, and it opens with the main character overlooking his deceased mother. He shows no emotion, and simply drinks milk and smokes in front of the coffin. He continually surprises the reader with his lack of empathy, and this lack of empathy is precisely the element that speaks to people today. The only feeling they can empathize with is this frustrating lack of human empathy—the inability to grieve when a normal person should grieve. The man ends up on trial for murder, ridiculousness ensues, and he is sentenced to death by the guillotine. A chaplain comes to offer him the solace of faith in God, but finds that he cannot really meet the chaplain in any way. He rages and attacks the chaplain, and then finally comes to terms with his existence:

As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the benign indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

A better introduction to the modern spirit could not be had, and again, that is precisely why The Stranger resonates with so many. It is an introduction to an entirely new world and a new set of conditions. Having freed himself from all the oppressions of religion, mores, and traditions, he now suffers not from restriction but from anarchy.

Henry Miller

“…the city itself had become a huge tomb in which men struggled to earn a decent death so my own life came to resemble a tomb which I was constructing out of my own death. I was walking around in a stone forest the centre of which was chaos; sometimes in the dead centre, in the very heart of chaos, I danced or drank myself silly, or I made love, or I befriended someone, or I planned a new life, but was all chaos, all stone, and all hopeless and bewildering.”

“Perhaps in reading this, one has still the impression of chaos but this is written from a live center and what is chaotic is merely peripheral, the tangential shreds, as it were, of a world which no longer concerns me.”

These are the words of a being on ‘the other side,’ who has undergone the ‘rupture of levels’ and found a center that cannot be shaken and depends on nothing external to support itself.

Friedrich Nietzsche

You are a student of Nietzsche, for he is the unconscious spiritual father of us all. He is our martyr and heretic, the beginning and the inevitable end of the modern soul. In what he did and said, in how he died, we can learn everything we need to know about the problems of existence, and through his insanity we may find our salvation. Therefore, we will use his person as our point of departure through this study.

Nietzsche is a source of truth for us not because he is the light that shows the truth, but as a powerful soul whose life and death we can take lessons from. He was perhaps one of the most powerful spirits of our Age, and it cost him his life. He acts for us as an example not necessarily to be emulated, but to be studied as defective individual, defective because incomplete. He was a “short-circuit,” so to speak.

For Nietzsche, modern man has lost his soul because he refuses to acknowledge the tragic aspect of his own existence. He has divorced Apollonian rationality and idealism from his Dionysian instinct and emotion. Man has divorced, in short, body and soul. This fracturing of the human unity he traced back to the time of Socrates, who might symbolically be considered the Apollo which was destroyed by the Dionysian rationality of the masses. Without this tension between opposites man was destined to lose impulsion and spiritual energy, settling down into the constituent and mutually impotent parts of dead rationalism or aimless emotionalism.

Mediocrity and lukewarm-ness must ensue, and man is thenceforth destined to be incomprehensible and alien to himself. There will no longer be greatness. No heroes, villains, saints, or heretics. Everyone would become the same in mediocrity: “they made the wolf a dog, and man himself man’s best domestic animal.”

Nietzsche said that the society of the last man would be too barren to support the growth of great individuals. The last man is possible only by mankind’s having bred an apathetic creature who has no great passion or commitment, who is unable to dream, who merely earns his living and keeps warm. The last man claims to have discovered happiness, but he blinks every time he says so.

Nietzsche felt his own greatness when he lamented “everywhere do I see lower doorways: he who is of my type can still go there through, but—he must stoop! Oh, when shall I arrive again at my home, where I shall no longer have to stoop—shall no longer have to stoop before the small ones!”

“Some of them will, but most of them are willed. Some of them are genuine, but most of them are bad actors.”

This is what Nietzsche called the “last man.” The “last man” has no “inner tension” and therefore no impetus. He is inert and shallow. If he thinks, he reaches no meaningful conclusions (such is the history of modern philosophy). If he acts, he acts without real passion and thus operates on sentimentality. He cannot will, feel, or create with any depth.

As a solution to this decadent state, Nietzsche proposed the superman—the Ubermensch—who would reinstate the tension and therefore the creativity which is man’s highest calling.

Nietzsche was more alive than any of us, and in a world where God is dead there is no outlet for such energy. He sensed the danger.

Writing to Peter Gast in 1881 he had said: “I have the feeling of living a life that is risky to the highest degree—I am one of those machines that might explode.” And elsewhere he proclaimed that superior men “had no other resource—if they were not really mad—than to feign madness, or actually to become insane.” “Oh ye heavenly powers, grant me madness!”

He knew his condition. On January 3, 1889, his mind, with nowhere left to expand, became a singularity and imploded, collapsing upon itself and bringing his body with it. He was arrested trying to protect a horse from being beaten in the street. He began writing strange letters to his friends, and he went so far as to demand that the German emperor go to Rome and be shot. He was diagnosed initially with tertiary syphilis, and experts have since postulated manic-depressive illness, periodic psychosis, and dementia.

In mid-August of 1900, after a series of strokes, Nietzsche contracted pneumonia and died. His life may be taken symbolically as last spasmodic contortion of a recently deceased civilization. His philosophy was the last glowing ember in a bed of cold ash, evidence of once great spiritual edifice, now burnt out, unrecognizable, and defunct. He could not save. We shall try to understand why he failed, and how we may succeed.

Any time anyone uses the word “values” and “lifestyle”, as if speaking of one subjective possibility out of many, they are professing their impoverished Nietzscheanism. His ideas were incorporated into the mentality which he sought to destroy. His ideas were meant to bridge the abyss, but they were swallowed within it, as was the man himself. He saw the horror of nihilism but he could not save anyone from it.

The plunge of being into becoming

Henry Miller understood that one can live in the world while having withdrawn from it and can turn that action into an incubator for one’s inner being until it is strong enough to act, or until it reaches that point where action is not necessary. Of his own ‘baptism’ he says:

I reached the Gulf of Mexico and I walked right into it and drowned myself. I did it gratis…when I was asked later why I had killed myself I could only think to say—because I wanted to electrify the cosmos…By drowning myself in the Gulf of Mexico I was able to partake of an active life which would permit the real self to hibernate until I was ripe to be born. I understood it perfectly, though I acted blindly and confusedly. I swam back into the stream of human activity until I got to the source…and allowed the tide of humanity to wash over me like great white-capped breakers.[1]

Nietzsche spoke of “the soul that, having being, plunges into becoming.”[2] What is interesting here is that this is an apt description of God’s own creative act, and any creative act, since to create is to express the spirit via nature. The difference is of course that we are not talking about doctrine but about human experience, and the world without God, which necessitates a different way of putting things and gives it a feeling of violence.  We find the same idea in Hermann Hesse:

The way to innocence, to the uncreated and to God leads on, not back, not back to the wolf or to the child, but ever further into sin, ever deeper into human life.

What is in question here is the act of a soul that “by transfiguring itself, transfigures existence.”[3] All of these are general descriptions of the need to reject the possibility of ‘spiritual retreat’ in favor of positive. Inaction, without a traditional framework to support growth while in withdrawal, is not an option for the differentiated man; but to embrace life even when it does not concern him, to exert one’s strength in a job that can offer no fulfillment knowing all the while that the real work to be done is being avoided at all costs by our civilization and there is nothing you can do to change it, to remain alive even among a people whose greatest concern is to make money, even to possess great wealth and then dispose of it without attachment or remorse or concern for just deserts: this is the plunge into become that can only be survived by the soul having being.

 

[1] Tropic of Capricorn, pp. 311, 320.

[2] Ecce Homo, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” sect. 6.

[3] The Will to Power, sect. 1051.