Last week we looked at Athens’ disaster in Sicily and the subsequent and extensive fallout.
Why did Athens lose in Sicily?
Part of Thucydides’ brilliance lies in that he does not merely look at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative. Athens had many strengths, and one could argue that their passion for excellence helped produce democracy. But I think that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon, one of the great architectural achievements in history. Ostensibly the building stands as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods and goddesses but of events in their own history. Athens had in fact, made a temple to themselves, and showed that the true god they worshipped was their own community.
What kind of impact would this idolatry have, and what does it have to do with democracy? Part of answering this question has to do with what we say the essence of democracy is. If we say that the mere act of voting, of having a voice, is the meaning of democracy, than a naval-gazing, self-worshipping state will not be far behind. For in this situation the process counts, and not the result. If democracy (or any other form of government) serves a higher ideal than it has a built in check upon itself. With no higher ideal than whatever decision we arrive at must by definition be good, because we thought of it. This kind of attitude, present in ancient Athens, leads to disaster eventually. If we travel with our heads down we’ll eventually walk off a cliff. G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship in his book Orthodoxy,
That Jones shall worship the god within turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun, the moon, anything rather than the “Inner Light.” Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but outwards. . . . The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner-Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.
The problems with Athens’ expedition to Sicily can be traced to their democracy. Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it. Both had wealth, political and military experience, each had their own political power base at home. They also could not stand each other. Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athens’ war policy in Sicily. For example, Nicias’ purely personal political moves against Alcibiades ended up having a dramatic effect on the composition of the numbers and kind of military forces Athens used against Sicily, and perhaps even the goal of the mission. One wonders if they realized this. With their heads down, I think not. In my opinion, they thought that
We voted, just as always
We picked experienced people
We followed the procedures and processes to arrive at a decision
Therefore, everything is fine!
Democracy has to involve more than mere voting, more than mere process. The Athenians apparently did not see that in voting for the expedition they had approved a massive invasion of another democratic country not directly involved in the war they had been fighting. The man who ultimately led them (Nicias) argued against any expedition at all. Self-worship exacted its price in the thousands of dead outside Syracuse. In his An Historian’s Approach to Religion AJ Toynbee wrote,
The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.
Athens’ failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime. Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and needed replaced.
The oligarchs that replaced the democracy fared no better, ruling wantonly based on the pent-up sense that now is was “their turn.” We sometimes see this when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control. This “my-turn” attitude usually leads to over-reaching and miscalculation. The Newt Gingrich led government shut down in the mid-90’s comes to mind.
Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles weighed like a mill-stone around the Athenians necks. They had no anchor beyond their immediate needs. We saw Athens 1) Win the Battle of Arginusae, then 2) Put the victorious generals to death for impiety, and finally 3) Put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals to death (we never should have listened to him!) all within the span of several days. Process trumped justice. The tail wagged the dog.
Having flamed out on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I was happy to find a more bite-sized chunk of his thought in The Ethics of Authenticity. I admit to approaching the book, like others of a traditional bent, leaning against the very idea of authenticity. “Get over yourself, already.” The search for meaning within the self can never go anywhere and remains something of an illusion. What, after all is there to really “experience?”
The whole concept of “authenticity,” born out of the 1960’s (or so I thought), has given rise to a whole host of modern problems. All of the issues with sex and gender have their roots here, as does a great deal of spiritual innovation with the church, along with the Trump presidency. Many inclined to read this book of Taylor’s might hope for a thorough denunciation from the venerable professor.
Of course, boring conservatives such as myself may not have always been such. We may remember the days of our youth when it seemed we had to break free from our surroundings to see what we were made of. Taylor taps into this, and so, while he criticizes much of what the “Authenticity” stands for, and finds it ultimately self-defeating, he reminds us that a kernel of something like the truth remains within this–in my view– unpleasant husk. Taylor writes,
The picture I am offering is rather than of an ideal that has been degraded . . . So what we need is neither root-and-branch condemnation nor uncritical praise; and not a carefully balanced tradeoff. What we need is a work of retrieval . . .
Taylor demonstrates that of what we term “authenticity” has its roots in Christianity. In the ancient world nearly every person received their identity by what lay wholly outside their control, be it birth, race, family, etc. The triumph of Christianity meant believing that an entirely other world lay outside of our normal lives, the Kingdom of God, in which there existed “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free . . . (Gal. 3:28).” The book of Revelation tells us that God “will also give that person a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17). St. Augustine’s magnum opus told us that the City of God lies nestled, in some ways, within the City of Man, to be discovered by anyone willing to walk through the wardrobe.
18th century Romantic thinkers, primarily Jean-Jacques Rousseau, picked up this dormant thread, albeit thin sprinting with it in ways that St. Augustine would abhor. I find the 18th century an absolute disaster for the Church, but still, Taylor calls me to at least a degree of balance. There was something quite ridiculous and artificial about the French aristocracy, for example, ca. 1770, accurately portrayed (I think) in this clip from John Adams
Perhaps St. Augustine did see “the road to God as passing through a reflexive awareness of ourselves” (p. 27). Many have pointed out how psychologically oriented was Martin Luther’s view of salvation. John Calvin began his Institutes by asking his readers to heed the Socratic dictum to “know thyself,” for knowledge of God and ourselves have an inextricable link. But Taylor sees Rousseau as the main originator of the modern view of authenticity. For Rousseau, “Our moral salvation comes from recovering authentic moral contact with ourselves,” and, “Self determining freedom demands that I break free from external impositions and decide for myself alone” (p. 27).
Well . . . ok. I don’t like the concept of authenticity but perhaps the difference lies in the “time of day.” What I mean is, bacon and eggs smells wonderful on the skillet when you’re hungry before breakfast, but that same smell hits one very differently with a full belly after lunch. The early Romantic movement, just as with the early Enlightenment, had good points to make. Rousseau championed, among other things, mothers actually breast-feeding their own children–something dramatically out of fashion for his time. Connecting with “nature” and the “self” I suppose could lead to more morally responsible living. You cannot blame your birth or other circumstances for who you are. But let it linger too long and you get the ridiculous movie Titanic, riddled through with romantic and “authentic” ideology–the smell of bacon and eggs at 10 am after you have already eaten. Still, Taylor asks the reader to see the premise of the morning before jumping straight to the twilight.
As for today, Taylor points out a variety of ways in which the “authenticity” narrative has gone astray.
Rousseau and his followers helped fuel democratic movements at home and abroad, but having created democracies in part through the dignifying the self, these same democracies would make a mockery of the original golden thread. Liberated from tradition, democratic man seemed to attain authenticity not via stern moral struggle against tradition, but as a birthright. If we are all authentic, then are all special, and thus, we all need recognized and regarded by others.
Taylor’s insights show us why those, for example, like Kaitlyn Jenner can be granted moral weight. The Authenticity narrative tells us that such people have attained a status of “real” humans because of their “courage” to make war even on biology itself–the final frontier–in order to achieve their version of true personhood. And, while I believe that those who alter their sex (if such a thing is truly possible) make terrible and tragic decisions, Taylor hints at why those that make these decisions often find them so empowering. Seeking a “genuine” connection with the self is the modern version of a transcendent experience. We grant large amounts of authority to those that have them, like the mystics of old.
Taylor also points out the endgame in store for “authenticity” lay implicit in its origins. If the self is to be the guide, and self-actualization has the ultimate authority, then we have a contradiction. The self can never be absolute, certainly not over others. Telling someone about your “experience” is nearly as bad as telling someone about the dream you had last night. In the end, we require an outside reference.
Alas, logical contradictions will likely not derail the Authenticity movement. But it is possible that time may take of this in ways that logic cannot.
I mentioned above the analogy of the smell of bacon before and after breakfast, and the analogy holds true in other aspects of life. In his War and Civilization compilation Toynbee admits the allure of the “morning” of a military outlook when reading the Iliad. Homer’s battle scenes have a dramatically bracing effect. Then, fast-forward to 19th century, where Prussian militarists like Helmuth von Moltke give one an entirely different impression of essentially the same thing that Homer described:
Perpetual Peace is a dream–and not even a beautiful dream–and War is an integral part of God’s ordering of the Universe. In War, Man’s noblest virtues come into play: courage and renunciation, fidelity to duty and a readiness to sacrifice that does not stop short of offering up Life itself. Without War the World would be swamped in materialism
Toynbee comments that, “there is a note of passion, of anxiety, and of rancor,” here that takes far away from the Greek poets. Moltke continues, perhaps even aware that he sails too close to the wind;
It is when an institution no longer appears necessary that fantastic reasons are sought or invented for satisfying the instinctive prejudice in its favor, which its long persistence has created.
If the modern Liberal order was created in part on the back of Authenticity, then surely we might say that those who still champion the idea copy Moltke and indeed invent “fantastic reasons” for the path they take. Perhaps Authenticity has run its course and can go into hibernation. We will wake it up when the scales have tipped too far in the other direction.
This post’s title, of course, has its origins with Tyler Cowen . . .
It seems as if we are living in a tale of two cities. It is the best and worst of times. One the one hand, the economy is great, and unemployment is way down. Public intelllectuals like Steven Pinker proclaim that, however bad things may be in certain segments of life, all the most important indicators show remarkable growth and progress, such as a sharp decline in infant mortality. Momentary trends may not always look favorable, but the arc of the last 300 years shows a continual rise in progress thanks to science and the application of reason. The complaining and angst so prevalent in the media, then, resembles that of a spoiled child. If we could all just calm down and count our blessings . . .
But others like Jordan Peterson, John Vervacke, and Jonathan Pageau state that western civilization exists by a thin thread in the midst of a deep meaning crisis–a crisis that perhaps hits men harder than women. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have risen dramatically over the last 20 years. I think Vervacke would tell Pinker that he sees only a fragmented surface. I suppose Pinker and others like him would say such people are fundamentally deluded.
Chronologically we have mirror images from both camps. Pinker and his crowd write that starting around AD 1700, the Enlightenment took hold and over the next few centuries the world became a dramatically better place. But for those on the other side, the Enlightenment disastrously contributed to all the problems we have now in relation to meaning and knowing our place in the world (though others would go further back still, into the Renaissance).
Most would say one or the other is true, and you have to choose. Below I propose a theory that will attempt a “both-and” explanation–a highly speculative one–that will attempt to explain how the economy can grow and life can improve in various measurable ways and we can still struggle with meaning. In fact, the two may have a symbiotic relationship.
The perception of a current meaning crisis has led to the dramatic recent rise of the psychologist as guru, i.e., Jordan Peterson. John Vervacke has less fame, and popularizes less than Peterson (I do not use the term ‘popularizes’ derogatorily). His analysis goes deeper, and his co-authored book Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis gives a slightly sideways but effective analysis of modern culture. Vervacke et. al do not blame the right or the left, campus ideology, or Trumpism, for the decay. “Decay” is indeed the right word, for zombies are decomposed beings of some undefinable kind. Our modern disease has infected most all of us to some degree.
Each era has its monsters that help define its zeitgeist. As the Enlightenment settled across western Europe, and scientific materialism began to entrench itself as the dominant ideology, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which explores the limits of man’s powers over nature. The monster in the book of course, is not the “Monster” but Dr. Frankenstein, it’s creator. A few decades later we have Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the Victorian era, the aristocracy still exists, but exists in a weird place in society given the nascent rise of democratic ideals. Everyone perhaps feels in their bones that the aristocracy no longer serve a real purpose, isolated as they are within a culture that no longer needs them. One notes that, in contrast with pre-modern Europe, in the modern age the monster is a twisted human, though perhaps still a kind of tragically grand monster. That is, at least there exists some kind of high aspiration for a Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula.
Vervacke argues that the zombie is the monster for the 21st century, and the graph below shows the dramatic increase of the word in the popular culture just recently, just as the Cold War ended.
Zombies have the following characteristics:
They move in packs, but have no connection to one another
They have no particular intent–they exercise no conscious will towards evil.
They live only to consume, and their hunger to consume cannot be satiated or even lessened.
Constantly on the move, they have no home base or concept of home.
In other words, they form the perfect monster for the democratic age.
The zombie personifies our crisis of meaning. The internet, globalization, etc. means we can indeed consume as we like virtually for free, but though we like to sing along, we “know not what it means.”* The market also thrives on fluidity and movement. It is best for everybody to give everybody else money, for example, rather than everybody put it under their mattress, even if that consumption has no real overall purpose or goal in mind.
So too the market of information thrives on abundance and transfer. But like zombies, we both crave and lack Mind, and so have no way to integrate our experience into a meaningful whole. Vervacke writes regarding this,
This is because the information we obtain from the world has never been more unreliable. Abundance is one dimension of the problem; one need look no further than news media to appreciate the sheer volume of (often irreconcilable) narratives.
Humans are animals who most fundamentally understand what reality is . . . by locating ourselves within larger narratives and meta narratives that we hear and tell . . . When such narratives collapse, we are lost in the dislocation, fragmentation, and disorientation of homelessness.
So far so good, but what of the other side of the coin, i.e., a strong economy, less violence worldwide, and so on? Vervacke gives us the link. If truly we are the “walking dead,” then lacking mind and the means to integrate our experience, we would naturally seek expansive consumption as a means of coping. This consumption is a byproduct of all of the intense focus on the material aspects of creation fostered in western culture during the time period Pinker cites. It indeed brought great blessings of a certain kind, but it could possibly be nearing the end of its string.
Of course all humanity throughout all time has sought some sort of solution for a lack of understanding of the self. But our typical response is indeed to consume. We are depressed, we might go shopping. We are anxious, we “stress-eat.” We are out of sorts, we might consume information by browsing Facebook or news feeds. Such actions can distract us for a time, but also creates an unsustainable cycle. It is this drive to consume that makes solving certain environmental problems so difficult for all of us, whether Green or not so Green. The “peace” of the modern world championed by Steven Pinker has in some ways brought this out of us.
In contrast [to times of war], in times of relative peace, internal issues become more focal and so the opportunity for a relative loss of social integration is greater, hence the increase in the suicide rate.
This antipathy to peace can lead to increased participation in what the authors call the “pseudo-religion” of politics. Politics gives us much that religion provides.
As politics is, by necessity of governance naturally integrative of other systems, it was a proximal replacement for [meaning]. . . . systematic complexity made [politics] a convincing imitator of that normatively as the influence of religion diminished. The 20th century, therefore, bore witness to the rise of the most potent political pseudo-religion we have known in the modern world.
We risk ending the “peace” we have then, by feeding upon our own body politic, unable to stop our consumption of so called “outrage porn.” specialized in by Twitter and news media of all kinds. We can see this process of disintegration at work since the time of the vampire as monster. First, modernism deconstructed the church, and told us that it could no longer function as a means of communal coherence. “Religion should be private.” We then expected the state could serve that purpose, and so we developed various rituals around the symbols of the idea of nationhood. By the mid-20th century, we saw the folly of that project, but no fear–we can rally around our freedom to consume. So we built malls, accurately described by James K. Smith as spaces constructed for liturgical communal consumption.** But this no longer holds either. Now, like zombies, we roam the internet to consume, with no defined space to bind us.
In the old tales, the hero slays the dragon, but Vervacke points out that our zombie stories offer little hope. The plague always seems to grow, and those that survive will be continuously on the run. Rebuilding something new in these scenarios becomes extremely difficult. Patrick Deneen, for example, has a persuasive critique of the whole modern enterprise in Why Liberalism Failed. He blames progressives and conservatives nearly equally but offers no alternative political reality to which we can aspire. Slightly more hopeful is Rod Dreher, whose The Benedict Option, while giving no grand solution, at least points us towards embodied liturgical relationships with others as a good beginning.
With a quick search I found one place in our culture where a cure for zombies is possible: Minecraft. I find it charming that such a thing exists within this relatively benign (I dislike video games) world building enterprise, and that even many teens still play this game. It is interesting to see how they use traditional archetypes for this cure. Among other things needed to cure local villagers from being a zombie is dragon’s breath. In other words, the monster may be the only hope for the monster. Jonathan Pageau has often talked about how once a culture reaches the outer limits of the fringe, it takes just a small tap for everything to come right round again. The clown, or the fool, or perhaps even the monster is needed to make things right. It may be that if we are indeed in such a dark place, dawn is not far behind.
*Those my age, or fans of the music of early 90’s music, will recognize the Nirvana reference. In retrospect grunge music might be seen as a harbinger of the meaning crisis. How is it that right after winning the Cold War, when we should have celebrated and entered something of a golden age, we plunged ourselves into music that fundamentally celebrated alienation?
**We need not absolutely throw the baby out with the bathwater. National symbols and national identity can do us good. Market exchanges often benefit both parties. The problem is putting a weight on such things that they cannot bear. The only way they can bear the load of culture for long is to give them a kind of steroid. Of course one recalls the specter of the early 20th century regarding the problems of nationality. I also remember post-9/11 how we were all encouraged to keep spending so the terrorists would not win. It can work for a while, but the body gives out eventually.