Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 23-29.
Modern societies are the best–equipped in history at satisfying man’s immediate desires: food is fast and plentiful; shelter is comfortable and extravagant; gadgets and devices simplify our lives; the Internet puts a worldwide market at our fingertips; modern medicine prolongs life, eases suffering, and even dulls, at least temporarily, psychological despair; birth control all but guarantees sex without responsibility; and television supplies endless varieties of ready–made entertainment. Modern man is safe (except in certain parts of certain cities or when madmen strike in unsuspecting places), mobile, and autonomous; and his civilization is the most democratic, the most advanced, and the most prosperous in human history—leading some scholars to ponder whether mankind has reached "the end of history."
And yet, pessimists abound on both the right and the left. Robert Bork laments the erosion of America’s moral fabric at the hands of corrosive liberalism. In Earth in the Balance, Al Gore assails American society as "corrupt" and "inauthentic" and compares the modern age to an ecological Holocaust. Feminists decry the oppression of women and multiculturalists decry the oppression of minorities. Men and women of faith condemn the secular culture that pushes biblical morality from the public square. Conservatives bemoan the cultural elite’s assault on American values, only to criticize the American public for its lack of outrage during the impeachment of President Clinton. Everyone seems angry or insulted about something, even as a majority of Americans are too busy, too happy, or too cynical to vote. And even those who declare the end of history do so with a note of despair, fearing that man has given up on the higher ideals and grand questions that fueled the great clashes, but also the greatness, of the past.
Obviously, we cannot judge modernity by its material achievements alone; and it is always wise to take social critics with a grain of salt, since they frequently lack the moderation to appreciate the complexity of their surroundings. For the fact is that modernity embraces and promotes multiple human types. The question—Who is the quintessential character of our civilization? Is he someone to be admired or lamented?—suggests numerous, often contradictory, answers. Is it the high–tech entrepreneur or the organization man? The soccer mom or the pregnant teenager? The little–boy killers at Littleton or the martyr who gave her life instead of renouncing her faith in God? The millions of children on Ritalin and Prozac or the ambitious overachievers who flock to SAT preparation courses? The spirited or the apathetic? The unforgiving ideologues or the nonjudgmental relativists?
Plato said that the human city is the soul writ large, and so it should not surprise us that the city, like man, is mired in these and other contradictions. But among the confusions of modernity certain human types can, I think, be identified. In prosperous times, the "middling" sort prevails. He is neither totally aimless nor totally satisfied. He struggles to balance the gifts of modernity with its lack of answers to man’s permanent questions. He is, as Tocqueville noted 150 years ago, "restless amidst abundance." And thus he is susceptible to certain maladies of the soul: debased irony and cynicism, which reduce life to absurdity; a therapeutic ethic, which deifies the self and devalues virtue and transcendence; the revolutionary spirit, which denies the fact of human limitation or rebels against all tradition and restraint; and, most common, the life of the bourgeois egoist, who is decent and practical but spiritually unsatisfied.
The old orthodoxies of modernity are exhausted. The only question is whether these sad wanderings will lead man to terminal trivialization and despair or to a rediscovery of his transcendent, eternal, and revealed purpose.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom indicts American youth as languid, empty, and adrift. "They can be anything they want to be," writes Bloom, "but they have no particular reason to want to be anything in particular. . . . Why are we surprised that such unfurnished persons should be preoccupied principally with themselves and with finding means to avoid permanent free fall?" The moral drifter has no responsibilities, no hope, and no purpose. He is free from all commitments and tries not to concern himself with the perilous questions of life and death. He is a stranger, a tourist, an indifferent observer. He is the television–watcher, the apathetic consumer, the college student who stares blankly for four years from the back of the classroom, waiting, he says, for real life to begin.
The drifter is homeless. Nothing is stable or binding in his life, and so he always expects the arbitrary and the fleeting. Divorced from tradition, nature, and the old responsibility of upholding the family name, the drifter does what advertisers tell him or what his urges urge him. He has sex when it’s convenient but never falls in love. His parents are divorced or distant, and his home life is dominated by the anxious extremes of yelling and silence.
When it comes to politics, culture, and morality, the drifter is tolerant by default. He does not judge others because he is unwilling, afraid, or unable to judge himself. His life boils down to the defensive statement, "I’m not bothering anyone." He focuses almost entirely on himself, and yet he is, at bottom, ambivalent toward himself, holding no strong opinions one way or another. This is not humility, since humility affirms a transcendent good—a God—that is a source of wonder, forgiveness, and guidance. Indifference is just the opposite: it destroys the sacred altogether, taking all things as equal and as equally nonbinding.
To the drifter, everything is at best a game, a joke, an ironic play. If he is not entirely humorless, the sadness of the drifter is softened by easy pleasures, repackaged humor, and childish naughtiness. He sits for hours in front of the television, remote control in hand, flipping from station to station, sitcom to sitcom, with nothing in particular to watch and nothing in particular to do. He is not horribly sad, but he is bound by nothing, loves nothing, reveres nothing. He is totally passive, and dislikes himself, but only vaguely, and not enough to do anything about it, since he really has no idea what he ought to do. His laughs are short, and he does not make jokes; he only retells them.
Ironic distance is the drifter’s last recourse—the snide filter that reduces all things big and small to one sad unobtrusive monotone. Humans are ridiculous creatures, and we have always been smart enough to laugh at our foibles, our shortcomings, and our failure to live up to the better parts of our natures. This gap between man the stumbler and man the exalted is the heart of all irony and humor, from Shakespeare and Aristophanes to The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. And yet there is a crucial difference between low irony and high, between an irony that narrowly debunks and one that points out the distance between the high and the low, the sacred and the profane.
The low irony of our age has nothing to contribute beyond the observation that life is absurd. It is all debunking; it leads men nowhere. High irony, by contrast, is funny precisely because it retains a memory of man’s seriousness. It points man toward higher meanings by pointing out the absurdity, the baseness, and the limits of the low. To the high ironist, everything is not a game, and so he often treads dangerously on sacred ground; to the low ironist, by contrast, nothing is sacred, reverence is impossible, and the only salvation is that others are crazier than you are. Which explains, in part, why so many people watch daytime talk shows—the infamous Jerry Springer Show, for example—that turn men’s basest instincts into public spectacles.
The cynic, like the ironist, sees only the absurd and nothing beyond. Irony and cynicism are variations on a theme, which is why cynics are typically quite funny to the rest of us (at least for a while), if only partially so to themselves. The cynic expects the dark before even looking. He is blind to joy, blind to transcendence, blind even to the simplest goodness. The cynic’s heart has contracted, and his intellect is cold. The exacting cynic can be rather useful, since he sees through utopian schemes and sentimental solutions. He recognizes the limits of man but sees none of the possibilities. He offers no basis for restoration, no direction, no hope. All he sees is a world worthy of resentment, a world that brings only suffering and hypocrisy, a world that is ultimately silent and empty.
Dark irony—the irreverent blend of irony and cynicism—is the dominant sensibility in American popular culture. It combines the debunking style of the ironist with the cynical sense of life and death as profane fodder for amusement—a genre aptly titled "pulp fiction." In the recent film by that name, for example, professional killers engage in trivial repartee as they load their weapons and head upstairs to do their work. Once inside, one of the killers (Samuel Jackson) admires the tastiness of a soon–to–be victim’s fast food burger and beverage, then immediately switches into the role of a dark prophet, reciting a passage about vengeance from the biblical book of Ezekiel before killing everyone in the room. In the wildly popular cartoon show and movie South Park, the running joke is that one of the children dies every episode, which his friends find wildly amusing. The show’s first episode—a bloody fight between Santa Claus and Jesus over who is the real Christmas hero—became a cult hit and led to cover stories in Newsweek and Rolling Stone.
The morality behind both Pulp Fiction and South Park is the same: death is funny, nothing is sacred, and everything is absurd. The thirst for meaning, order, and wholeness—which marked the philosophical absurdity of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus—is gone. There are only fragments of sacred traditions, which are cut and pasted together with postmodern trivialities. There is no tragedy, because there is no longing for something better; there is only darkness, and the futile laughter of a trivializing culture.
Nor is this simply a chimerical culture without consequences. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Littleton killers, "whooped and hollered like it was a game" (in the words of one of the survivors) as they acted out the "Gothic" roles glamorized by popular culture and murdered twelve of their classmates. The same nation that mourns over the mayhem at Littleton chuckles at the pop nihilism that comes out of Hollywood—and sees no contradiction.
Meanwhile, the philosophers teach us that art and reality are the same, since "reality," including moral reality, is just an arbitrary construct. The deconstructionists and postmodernists who rule over the academy are simply ironists and cynics in different guises. The deconstructionist actively (and spitefully) debunks order and tradition. He attempts to show that morality and reason are illusions. Postmodernists, for their part, celebrate the splintering of morality as the happy emancipation of the mature self, who is left to cut and paste reality as he desires. "Postmodern ironists," says Richard Rorty, are "never quite able to take themselves seriously" because they are "always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus themselves." Many postmodernists celebrate the Internet as the structural underpinning of the postmodern world, since it allows individuals to adopt multiple personae, switch genders, and indulge whatever fantasies.
The college freshman, whose moral sensibilities have been shaped largely by the darkly ironic world of popular culture, arrives at the university with already diminished expectations. Instead of being led out of the cave, or at least pointed in the right direction, his professors tell him that irony is all there is, that his unsatisfying instincts are the summit of human understanding, that he has already arrived, because the destination is "nowhere and anywhere." They tell him that "reality" is simply the "prisonhouse of language"; that life is merely an empty struggle between oppressors and oppressed; that eccentricity, revolution, and irony are the only "authentic" ways to live in the "abyss." Most students, thankfully, settle for irony, which they already know. And in the end, the distance between philosophy and conventional sensibilities collapses: students leave just as they began—darkly ironic, with any vestiges of hope and wonder slowly dying inside them.
Therapy attempts to console such empty and wayward souls. In the therapeutic universe, the goal of human life is not virtue or grace but sanity and self–esteem. Therapy displaces the moral categories of good and evil, the philosophical categories of truth and falsehood, and the spiritual categories of reverence and faith. As sociologist James Nolan explains, "Where older moral orders looked to a transcendent being, to a covenantal community, to natural law, or to divine reason to provide the substantive basis for culture’s moral boundaries, the therapeutic ethos establishes the self as the ultimate object of allegiance." This new focus on the self is not self–examination in the Socratic sense, since that would require some ultimate criteria, such as truth, God, or reality. Rather, the turn inward is wholly self–regarding; it is, at bottom, an act of desperation in the face of an empty culture.
For while postmodernists may celebrate the great divorce of the self from ultimate criteria, the ineradicable fact of suffering and death and the inherent human longing for meaningful order and social attachment dictate that some moral vocabulary will fill the void. Man cannot stand alone in the face of eternity: he needs the comfort of purpose, the peace of forgiveness, and the confidence of truth. The therapeutic ethic has attempted to fill the void by, as Anthony Giddens puts it, "dispensing with the great riddles of life in exchange for a modest and durable well–being." It attempts to build an anesthetized Garden of Eden, redefining both sadness (now called "depression") and sinfulness (now called "mental illness" or "addiction") as chemical or psychological pathologies, thus recasting the cause of the primordial fall as a psychiatric disorder. Freud, who reinterpreted the panorama of human experience in pathological terms, provided the moral and cultural vocabulary for this fundamental shift in human self–understanding. In Freud’s universe, sanity is the best one can hope to achieve—an empty category when compared with biblical holiness, Christian grace, or philosophical ascent.
In the most sympathetic interpretation, the therapeutic ethic is a humanitarian, well–meaning effort to restore meaning and purpose to people’s lives by establishing the self as the "ultimate object of allegiance." Therapy today attempts to overcome Freud’s tragic conclusion—namely, that the primal self conflicts with the demands of civilization—by freeing the self from all demands, restraints, responsibilities, and anxieties. Individuals turn inward, define themselves entirely by their subjective emotions, and become responsible only to themselves. The only external reference points are the interpretive frameworks of the therapists, who pathologize anxiety and transgression as a series of illnesses, such as "Impulse Control Disorder" and "Adjustment Disorder with Anxious Mood." These classifications are taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, put out by the American Psychiatric Association, which estimates that "one in four adults will suffer from a mental illness or substance abuse disorder in any [given] year." According to a recent Surgeon General’s report, one–half of all Americans will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime.
But while therapy may temporarily pacify its patients, it does not inform man’s truest, most persistent longings; it does not help the "self" address the most important human questions. Instead, it creates a moral universe where nothing is demanded of individuals, who are reduced to mere creatures of appetite, prone to "emotional imbalances," and so totally dependent on therapeutic drugs and experts.
By redefining responsibility inward, the therapeutic ethic devalues virtue, transcendence, and duty to others. The individual is left on shaky, unsatisfying ground, while all the worst features of modern society—atomization, fragmentation, sentimental response—are bolstered by a new class of therapists and counselors. Man is subdued but not saved, quieted but not answered, excused but not forgiven. And in the end, the therapeutic self—like the ironist, the cynic, and the drifter—cannot help but be moved by his own self–conscious mortality, by his experience of smallness, or by his ineradicable, as yet unanswered, spiritual needs. The humanness of human beings inevitably revolts. But without the old maps to guide them, the old traditions to direct them, or the old ideals to awaken them to their better angels, such revolt is either self–indulgent or utopian; and it leads only to disruption and despair.
Revolt has taken many forms in the modern age, but three predominate: revolt against the ordinary, against the political order, and against the transcendent. The first—revolt against the ordinary—spans human experience from the mundane to the drastic: tattoos, body piercings, daredevil stunts, abnormal eroticism. Of course, when informed by some noble purpose, an honest spirit, and the humility that befits man’s estate, this thirst for the extraordinary can lead to creativity and insight. But when transgression becomes a desperate act, a camouflaged cry in the wilderness, it corrupts both the individual and the city. The revolutionary screams out for a unique place in the universe, for meaning and purpose, for the thrill of extremes. But without any basis to discriminate, without reverence or humility, the revolutionary denies that much of what is ordinary is good. That, or his pride leads him to deny that norms, nature, or tradition apply to him.
Political revolt exaggerates the will to greatness or mere recognition into a social program. Having abandoned transcendent truths or the notion of God the Redeemer, revolutionaries embrace an apocalyptic politics. They claim to hold the secret—indeed, the destiny—to deliver man from wretched imperfection to this–worldly utopia.
Following Marx, the revolutionary frames his apocalyptic vision in populist terms; he promises to liberate the oppressed from the status–quo power structure. And yet, the typical revolutionary has nothing but contempt for the "small–minded morality" of ordinary people, who fail to join the revolution and instead place their hope in God and family. The revolutionary frames his program as the march of progress, the new beginning. But its reality is dark, as repeatedly failed attempts at the perfection or liberation of man lead to increasingly unsavory methods—what Lenin unapologetically called "cracking the eggs."
The revolutionary is spiritually and metaphysically sick, which explains the desperation of his politics. He cannot accept the fact of human limitation, because he has rejected—or lost—the moral, philosophical, and religious ways of knowing that make limitation bearable and meaningful. He cannot accept the imperfectability of man or the apparent smallness of his own place in the universe. He cannot accept the slow, imperfect business of political reform or the anonymity of altruism; he wants, instead, to be the liberator of mankind. The revolutionary’s soul is hardened; he lacks what G. K. Chesterton called the "wondrous vision of the child." Instead, he wants "peak experiences"—such as acid trips or the momentary god experience of defying death. He has no time for kindness and no gratitude for life’s blessings or even life itself.
As with the therapeutic ethic, the revolutionary ethic recasts the theology of good and evil as a secular struggle: the power elite versus the oppressed; affirmative action supporters versus hate–mongers and racists; friends of the environment versus environmental Nazis; tolerant multiculturalists versus ethnocentric imperialists. And again, as with therapy, ideologies of liberation appeal to the desperate, the cynical, and those who simply long for the moral self–congratulation that seems to be missing from their modern cosmopolitan lives. As Vaclav Havel observed:
Ideology offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier to part with them. As the repository of something "supra–personal" and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. . . . It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own "fallen existence," their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.
In an age of moral anomie, ideology promises order; it channels anxiety and especially resentment into a full–fledged moral, political, and teleological program. It gives extremism the appearance of heroism and ignores inconvenient facts in favor of unforgiving revolutionary action. The retreat into ideology splits the social world into irreconcilable camps, where public discourse becomes an impossible war of all against all and ideals become hollow tools of party and power. For those who fall prey to it, ideology really offers no dignity at all; it cannot speak to the deepest human longings in a satisfying way. It offers only struggle, and ends up reducing life to empty categories, constant revolution, and a quest for power only thinly veiled behind the utopian rhetoric of justice.
The final revolt is against the very ideas of good and evil; it is the last act in the modern drama of liberation, and Nietzsche is its playwright. Nietzsche’s superman accepts no truth that is not of his own making. He is a creator, a comic poet. He is totally free, bound by nothing except his own imagination, his shamelessness, and his creative transgression. In the end, however, he challenges mortality and loses. He closes the pathway to transcendence, and therefore eliminates the meaning of death—since, at best, he leaves an ambiguous mark on a world that he has defined as transient, arbitrary, and empty. He resents the silence of the universe; he resents the God who doesn’t exist; and so he attempts to become a god himself—and fails.
The revolutionary spirit thrives in certain pockets of American society: the university, the environmental movement, the bitter politics of race, large segments of the art world. Together with therapy, it is the false cure for the most self–hating members of the bourgeoisie—the comfortable winners, who feel guilty about their success and doubt the purpose of their lives. And so they tolerate revolutionary ideas, even celebrate them, as a way to supply their own ambition with a moral justification, their own cynicism with a program, and their own wealth and power with the nobility it seems to lack.
But the corrosive influence of the revolutionary ethic (especially the revolt against morality) extends far beyond the so–called cultural elite. For while most Americans still embrace notions of right and wrong, they are less willing and less able than ever before to judge between them. Most such men and women lead watered–down versions of the old bourgeois lives. But they take no particular pride in doing so and would never impose their "lifestyles" on others. They cling to the leftover capital of traditional morality, but they are less steadfast in defending virtue against those who zealously deny its claim.
Most Americans, thankfully, are neither revolutionaries nor drifters, the two deadening extremes of modern man’s spiritual sickness. They waver but do not fall (at least not too far). They occasionally shrug off the apparent meaninglessness of their lives, and so retreat into prosaic amusements and blank stares. They occasionally seek revolutionary answers to their spiritual problems. But for the most part, Americans chart a middle course. The problem, as Irving Kristol has observed, is that "the full range of man’s spiritual nature . . . makes more than middling demands upon the universe, and demands more than middling answers."
Most Americans are decent, if at times morally lazy, a touch self–absorbed, and deficient in gratitude for the comforts they have come to think of as rights. They are loyal friends, coworkers, and teammates; they care about their children (which, in the age of divorce, often means making tolerable arrangements with their former spouses), take pride in their homes, and show up to work on time. Most Americans meet the demands of the day, even if they stumble occasionally. They are eminently practical, even if they sometimes seem oblivious to the deeper meanings that such practical wisdom ought to preserve.
In the balancing act of means and ends, the nation’s scales are tipped toward the means, which is perhaps the way it must be in stable and prosperous regimes. Americans are, with relatively few exceptions, well–housed, well–fed, and well–entertained, and thus rarely are they faced sharply with the fact of human limitation, except in sickness, tragedy, or war. (Though even war has become a distant, technological affair, especially for Americans, who have come to expect victories without losses and who have a diminishing memory of the experience of warfare.)
Americans embrace irony in their entertainments and cynicism when it’s fashionable. They never criticize their friends who see therapists or take Prozac, since they know, heaven forbid, that they could be next. They are cavalier, even–tempered, and comfortable. But there is a spiritual restlessness about them, a vague disquiet with business as usual. They are short on gratitude but have "volunteer" written down somewhere on a things–to–do list. They always send a check to their favorite charity, when they are not worn down by "compassion fatigue."
In short, most Americans are realists and egoists—not the cold, contemptuous individuals portrayed by Ayn Rand, but the considerate sort, who open doors, help with the dishes, and take pride in being kind and generous, assuming the sacrifice is not too great. Such individuals are rationally moral—they do what’s right because it’s right, ultimately, but also because it preserves the right appearances. Egoists are ambitious; they seek prestige, originality, and influence as the most important achievements. But they are also realists; they are worldly and calculating, and tend to preserve and build (usually wealth) rather than deconstruct. They are not, at bottom, driven by a love of material goods (though they are attentive consumers), but by the desire for autonomy—and specifically, the desire to build for themselves and their families a suburban air–conditioned shelter from the uncertainties and impersonalities of modern life. Their ultimate goal is to retire early so that they can "do what they really want to do"—which is usually something admirable, such as spend time with their families, or something harmless, such as play golf.
For most such egoists, pursuit of self–interest is moderated by other longings—a real desire to do good, love of family and friends, a sense of honor and decency. In short, most egoists have limits, and the drives of their ego are tempered by the realization that life alone, even life at the top, is lonely and unsatisfying. The torment of the egoist is in trying to balance what often appear to him as competing goods—between work and family, success and leisure, ambition and virtue. The egoist struggles to see the good, and often experiences life as an endless calculation of means and ends, where both the efficacy of the means and the meaning of the ends are perpetually uncertain. He is often torn between his hardened worldly self and his wish to lead a more charitable life. He struggles with the periodic realization of his own limits, the pangs of his conscience, and his longing for deeper meanings. He wavers between satisfaction and angst, all the while making sure not to lose ground in the social world of reputation and reward, always making sure to get things done, even if he is never certain why he does them and is never entirely satisfied with the results.
The instincts of the bourgeoisie are to be admired, not criticized. But these instincts are not enough for a complete life; they are the means, not the end; the tools, not the design. Many Baby Boomers, now in their forties and fifties, have begun to realize that comfort and security are important but limited. Confronted ever more clearly with the fact of their own mortality, they are beginning to consider the fundamental questions of existence, which they have ignored, feared, or actively forgotten for much of their lives. They are beginning to realize, in a deeper way, their own limits—not just the final limit of death, but their own growing anxiety about the "why" of existence and the robustness of their souls.
The spiritual searches of Baby Boomers have taken many directions, some admirable and ennobling, others drastic and destructive. Some renounce the world as fallen and proclaim themselves as among the few who will be saved—the Denver–based "Concerned Christians" cult, for example, whose members were deported from Israel last year for plotting a gunfight in the belief that it would hasten the apocalypse. Others are sentimental; they celebrate the "oneness of all things" and the "inner child" who can do no wrong. Some want to spiritualize their workaday lives—evident in best–selling books like The Tao of Abundance and What Would Buddha Do? 101 Answers to Life’s Daily Dilemmas. Others have abandoned modern life altogether; they retreat to ashrams in the Himalayas, wellness centers, or underground swamis. Or they join strange, often ruinous cults, such as the Raelians and Heaven’s Gate.
But the best among them, the true seekers, just want to be better human beings; they are, as philosopher Peter Emberley puts it, "simply looking for a little grace and an opportunity to express indebtedness, fidelity, and reverence." They seek, above all, a source of forgiveness for their shortcomings and a source of strength in their quest for self–renewal, which neither irony nor cynicism, therapy nor revolution, can ever truly provide.
The modern age is tremendous for its accomplishments: wealth, comfort, more equal opportunity, scientific discovery. But despite its achievements, modernity lacks answers to man’s fundamental questions; it lacks the transcendent vision that makes life joyful and death meaningful; and, as Daniel Bell and others have observed, its very success often undermines its virtues. Wealth degenerates into indulgence; tolerance degenerates into unthinking relativism; science without philosophy reduces man to a laboratory study; technology without humility tempts him into dangerous projects, such as cloning, and into the illusion of divinity and immortality. For all his accomplishments, modern man needs his ancient forebears, who provide better answers to his most enduring questions.
Indeed, as Leon Kass and others have argued, the prospect of genetic engineering brings modernity to a crossroads. It raises once inconceivable questions: Do humans have to die? Is the purpose of knowledge to overcome death? To the scientists and technologists on the "cutting edge," immortality is the final triumph of man over nature; man becomes the irreverent creator, the technological superman (or at least some men do, while the rest of us, like it or not, are condemned to live in the dystopian world they are creating).
The ancients knew better, and it is to their old wisdom that modern man must return. In both the classical and biblical vision, death awakens man to the preciousness of life; mortality awakens him to the possibility of transcendence; and constant recognition of his own imperfection reminds him of the need for restraint and repentance.
In his misplaced quest for autonomy—freedom from want, freedom from morality, freedom from death—modern man has forgotten how to see; he has turned his back on his essential nature. He treats the human experience of incompleteness—the fact of suffering, alienation, and death—as a problem to be solved, a sickness to be cured, a stirring to be forgotten. And so he forgets what his wise and wondering ancestors remembered—that man is not fully of this world; that the beginning of wisdom is not only realizing the limits of one’s knowledge but the ultimate meaning of one’s limits.
Reverence is not dead in America, as the religious response to the Littleton massacre, the continuing strength of faith in the most degraded parts of America’s inner cities, and the recent surge of public–policy interest in faith–based organizations all demonstrate. The military code still honors and preserves the virtues of courage, discipline, and temperance. The motto "In God We Trust" remains at the center of American self–understanding.
Even as the disorders of the age continue to worsen, there are signs of an awakening. The modern age of religious wandering is approaching the top (or bottom) of its (inverse) crescendo: some, thankfully, want to live again or for the first time by different notes, better notes, older notes. They want to restore the tattered old maps that they know to exist. It is too soon to tell whether the spiritual seekers of our age can restore modernity from within, or even restore faithful platoons inside the spiritual desert: the crescendo may be too loud, the wandering may continue indefinitely. But that is no reason not to hope, no reason not to wonder, no reason not to yearn for holiness in a disenchanted age.
Eric S. Cohen is Managing Editor of the Public Interest.