Saving the World

John P. Sisk

Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 33 (May 1993): 9-14.

In the Fall 1991 issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, which is very usefully devoted to the problems of unity and diversity in the contemporary world, Isaiah Berlin observes that the twentieth century is "the worst century that Europe has ever had." Certainly there is widespread agreement that he is right, especially if the judgment is taken to include Western civilization generally. Inevitably, this agreement goes along with a widespread conviction that the world is badly in need of salvation. Unfortunately, there is a conspicuous lack of consensus whether the salvation should favor unity or diversity. The consequence is a rich smorgasbord of salvational programs, which guarantees that the world in the process of not being saved by any single program will continue not to be a boring place, however dangerous.

In these stressful times the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's widely publicized program of transcendental meditation has a lot to offer. If, says the Yogi, a sufficient number of people led by trained mediators could be induced to sit still and meditate for ninety minutes each morning and evening, the positive waves they emitted would ensure universal peace, improved economy, and a reduction of the crime rate, to say nothing of the physical and spiritual well-being of one and all. The cost to employ seven thousand meditators would be $20 million, a mere pittance when one considers what it will cost to keep the world armed to the teeth or repair the economy of what was once the Soviet Union. Indeed, even a skeptic might agree that if a significant percentage of the world's population could be persuaded simply to sit still in a room for 180 minutes a day, in the interval abstaining from booze, cigarettes, junk food, and the customary assaults on the environment and one another, the world might be vastly improved, even if it still fell short of a grand harmonic convergence.

There is, of course, always the possibility that such a high-minded enterprise would turn out to be a repetition of the fiasco suffered through a few years ago in Antelope, Oregon, by the followers of another charismatic Asian, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. There, after an initial euphoric experience of unity in diversity, it developed that Rajneeshism and its sacred book were the creations of an enchantress, Ma Anand Sheela, who, repeating the experience of many a Western con artist, got out of town one jump ahead of the law.

Ma Sheela left behind not only eighty-five Rolls Royces but a lot of disenchanted people. We can assume that many of them would henceforth be wary of committing themselves to any self-transcending communitarian effort. This was the way it was with Cervantes' Don Quixote when he climbed off his Rocinante for the last time. He had had it with that magician Frest"n and the other enchanters who by opposing him had only reinforced his conviction that he could save the world by establishing a community of chivalric virtue. He now saw this ambitious project to be as artificial and futile as his subsequent plan to retire to the fields with his friend the barber and Sancho Panza to live a shepherd's life. We might say that he had learned the hard way that one who sets out to save the world can himself be changed in ways he might have anticipated had he trusted his common sense to begin with.

We can say, however, that the Don had had himself a life: had also learned that the bonus for trying to save the world (it may be the only recompense) is the life-enhancing adventure of it. This is the Rocinante effect. In 1965 when Che Guevara was sallying out on his own world- saving expedition he wrote to his family: "Once again I feel Rocinante's bony ribs beneath my legs. Again I begin my journey, carrying my shield." If he was an adventurer it is of a different kind, "one who risks his skin to prove his convictions." But it is this way with all who feel those bony ribs beneath their legs-riders as different as Shakespeare's Hotspur, the French Revolution's St. Just, or the temperance movement's Carrie Nation. The problem, of course, is to resist the temptation to reduce all risky acts to the self-enhancing adventure they entail, so that virtue is equated with entertainment and society has no useful way to distinguish between a Don Quixote and an Antigone.

Hegel said of that world-saver Robespierre what he might have said about Che Guevara: "This man took Virtue seriously, and gave it the foremost place in the ordering of policy." But taking virtue seriously is the moral correlative of the Rocinante effect. Who ever took virtue more seriously than Don Quixote, overwhelmed as he was with "the wrongs that were to be righted, the grievances to be redressed"? Don Quixote's advantage, however, was a final critical position from which he could see that an unexamined virtue is no more worth acting on than, as Socrates had earlier put it, an unexamined life is worth living. There is no indication that Che Guevara had time for revisionary second thoughts about the efficacy of violent revolution before he and his guerrilla band were violently destroyed in Bolivia. As for Robespierre, one can easily enough imagine his despair as, in agony from his bullet- fractured jaw, he was carried past jeering throngs, but he had an appointment with a machine designed to deny the validity of all second thoughts.

Henry David Thoreau took virtue as seriously as Robespierre, Che Guevara, and Don Quixote. Indeed, when William Dean Howells saw Thoreau for the first time, he was reminded of the Don. Thoreau's scorn for philanthropists is well known: they wanted to save a kind of world that was not worth saving. Nevertheless, his Walden is the record of a tested-out salvational program for an elite with the stomach for a life that is both libertarian and abstemious in the interest of the higher hedonism. But as his passionate involvement with the John Brown affair later made clear, he had not been inoculated against the Rocinante effect. He preferred that Brown be hung after the disastrous adventure at Harper's Ferry, believing that Brown's death would serve the abolitionist cause more than his life would. For Thoreau, and for all those who take too seriously their too hastily examined virtues, persons are useful in proportion as they serve good causes.

Here we have a version of what in reaction to the counterculture permissiveness of the sixties and seventies was called tough-love: a principled refusal to let sentiment stand in the way of necessary and even painful discipline. The rod is applied lovingly, however vigorously, in the interest of the child's well-being, usually out of the conviction that life itself is a tough-loving affair in which the coddled do not survive. World-savers are notorious tough-lovers, as hard on themselves as on others, which means that they are not much impressed with Kant's bias against those who refuse to take individuals as ends in themselves. For Robespierre the guillotine was a tough-loving, parental rod applied in the interest of the Republic of Virtue in which "one single will" would prevail. Lenin, who took virtue very seriously indeed, was also a tough-lover. In To The Finland Station Edmund Wilson gives us an example of the self-abnegating discipline that such a kind of loving can entail for all parties in the relationship. Lenin and Gorky are listening to Beethoven's Appassionata. Lenin loves it, could listen to it every day. It fills him with pride as he thinks of the "marvelous things human being can do!" But the effect, he says, can be dangerous, can make you "want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell." So head-stroking is out. "You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against anyone." Our duty, he concludes, "is infernally hard."

If the world of the committed Marxist is an enchanted one that supplies ample exercising room for his heroic austerity, this is not only because it is ruled by an historic enchanter, Karl Marx, but because that enchanter has himself been enchanted by the world-saving promise of dialectical materialism. The process of the latter is just as tough- loving as that of Hegel's world-historical spirit, and Marx's scorn of utopian programs is the scorn of a stern parent who sees the children of over-permissive neighbors going to the dogs. Once your Marxism "has been deepened and purified," as Che Guevara claimed that his had been, the ascesis of total commitment is inevitable. If the way is authentically salvational it must be a hard one. As Don Quixote found out in the days of his enchantment, being a world-historical figure is not all fun.

It is no surprise to see a literary intellectual like the Hungarian socialist Georg Lukacs enduring the austerities of Stalin's Russia as uncomplainingly as St. Anthony endured the rigors of life in the North African desert. It is no more surprising to see Lenin scorning the easy way of bourgeois Christian morality and preferring the infernally hard way of the revolutionary conscience than it is to see him rejecting the idea that the state might wither away without the preliminary revolutionary violence. We expect Rosa Luxemburg's biographer J. P. Nettl to tell us that elaborate decoration and any excess were repugnant to the Polish-born revolutionary, and that, like a true puritan, she "was always attracted by simplicity because social questions were essentially simple." To put it in terms that the enchanted Don Quixote would understand: no Dulcinea del Toboso is worth winning if she is too easily won. One can assume that George Blake, the last of the KGB's moles in England, would agree: he claims to have no second thoughts about the tough-loving willingness that led him to sacrifice colleagues and country to a noble but now failed experiment.

For Thoreau, too, social questions were essentially simple; indeed, no American has done more to make "simplicity" a world-saver's buzz word. Emerson said that Thoreau "wished to settle all his practice on an ideal foundation" so that he "was a protestant a l'outrance." Rosa Luxemburg was that kind of protestant and so was Lukacs. Both, as Nettl says of her, "subscribed whole-heartedly to the interlocking totality of Marxism." Both, as the biographer Arpad Kadarkay says of Lukacs, "clothed the body of events in the flowing robes of utopia." In other words, in the enchantments of their Marxism there was a strong aesthetic component that made it possible to dream of harmonizing a tough-loving means with humanistic expectations.

Che Guevara says in his letter to his family that he has perfected his will with an artist's care. Indeed, the work of art has always been a compelling model for totalistic world-savers since they, no less than empire builders, see in it the proof that no grand conclusion is possible without a ruthless but tough-loving subordination of parts to whole. Here we cannot forget the well-intended ruthlessness of Don Quixote as he strove like his creator to subordinate all the elements in his enchanted life to his grand design. Nor can we forget that the author of The Communist Manifesto began as a poet and liked to recite passages from Goethe and Shakespeare as he led his family back from Sunday picnics at Hampstead Heath. It may be that to do justice to Lenin we have to imagine that Beethoven's music had all along been both a life-model for him and a guarantee that once enough heads had been hit the grand harmonies of Soviet realism would be inevitable. Perhaps there was a Lenin-in-the-closet who would have agreed with the poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz that "between revolution and religion, poetry is the other voice" and that "each poem is a practical lesson in harmony and concord."

But there is room for uneasy second thoughts here. These practical lessons in harmony and concord are what make the cultural commissar anxious to co-opt poetry so that, in the interest of his own world- saving realism, poetry's tough-loving utopian process can be disjoined from its bourgeois false consciousness. Perhaps it is safe to say that in the good society poets, relieved of the anxiety of competition from commissar-endorsed poetry, will be free to use their "other" voices to enhance the quality of life while the rest of us will be free not to listen.

In any event, poetic totalists like Rosa Luxemburg and Georg Lukacs must believe that a truly saved world, liberated from the enchantments of bourgeois democratic capitalism, would no longer suffer from the divisiveness of nationalism. But now there are those who see the culture of American capitalism as the true salvational force working against that divisiveness as it produces a global melting pot. In the New Perspectives Quarterly's special issue Pico Iyer, world-traveler and author of The Lady and the Monk, sees American pop culture as having all those happy cross-cultural effects that Marx's dialectic anticipated. America in this view is the center of a cultural ecumenism in which designer jeans, McDonald's hamburgers, and rock music are the effective agents. Elsewhere in that issue Michael Eisner, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, sees the same sort of world-unifying work being done by the Disney theme parks, which are exporting the American Dream across national boundaries-and along with it the American originality exemplified by the continuing self-creation of such world- historical persons as Madonna and Michael Jackson. Mr. Eisner believes that he is not exaggerating when he says that "the American entertainment industry is helping to change history." This is of course not the way Hegel's historical world spirit is supposed to be going about its business.

Eisner might have given some credit to that branch of the American entertainment industry that specializes in the various forms of self- enhancement: books like Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles, Anthony Robbins' Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within, John Bradshaw's Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, and Leo Buscaglia's Bus 9 to Paradise. Such books are as much in the American tradition of self-salvation as Emerson's essays or Whitman's Leaves of Grass. This is a basically optimistic literature, medicine for a disaffected and demoralized world. "We are like the spokes on a wheel, all radiating out from the same center," says Williamson; a life of unlimited joy is available to us, says Buscaglia; we can change the world if we first change ourselves, says Robbins, who, after changing himself, became a millionaire at twenty-four; the neglected inner child, the major source of the world's misery, can be reclaimed, says Bradshaw-who, to judge from the best- selling Revolution from Within, seems to have been an inspiration to Gloria Steinem.

Mr. Eisner's way of saving the world of course implies the free market with its catering to a consumerist society. This is not a world-saving prospect for Robert Pollin and Alexander Cockburn, whose own manifesto, "The World, the Free Market, and the Left," appears in The Nation (February 25, 1991). For them, Adam Smith's beneficent hidden hand has proven to be as malevolent as any of Don Quixote's enchanters. In order to save society from person-debasing capitalism with its dependence on profit and alienating work, the authors take on and expose a number of myths, one of which is that socialist central planning has been a disaster. The Left's proper business, they believe, is to recapture socialism's "great life-affirming vision."

Pollin and Cockburn's unhappiness with the direction of free-marketing American democracy may seem specific to the post-Cold War world, but it has been around long enough to be as much a part of the American tradition as civil disobedience. One may wonder if America hasn't all along suffered from having been oversold as the embodiment of an order pregnant with the potential for world salvation-just as Stalin's Soviet Union was for Lukacs and Luxemburg (for her, Russian was the language of the future). The Soviet Union was their true America just as much as it was for disaffected Americans like Mike Gold and John Reed.

For Lukacs' friend Max Weber such people are imprisoned within the iron cage of ideology. Apparently, even a short-term existence in that cage predisposes them to doubt that the real-life Americans they see or read about are the materials out of which an enduring new order can be created. Such Americans are too selfishly and tastelessly affluent, too impervious to grand organizing themes that transcend their immediate interests, too arrogantly materialistic to take virtue seriously. A person who was once entranced by a grand unifying vision does not give up on it easily. To such a person the Madonna-worshipping, environment- polluting, and inside-trading American is exactly what an apparatchik would expect the proletariat to turn into once party discipline was relaxed and the spokes began to separate from the wheel of the party. This American is resented not simply for not knowing that there is no free lunch but for wanting more than his fair share of such lunch as there is, and glorying in his conspicuous consumption of it. He is the living proof of what can happen to a society that cannot control its appetites, including its appetite for individualism. Besides, he is aesthetically offensive as he displays all the familiar characteristics of the new and vulgar rich.

But the disparagers of America are moved by more than envy or disgust. Bourgeois, capitalist, democratic America suffers perhaps even more from a guilt-laced nostalgia for an ascetic and tough-loving order that its critics (many of them American) cannot dissociate from any sincere and effective effort to save the world-or one's soul, for that matter. Those who have directly experienced such an order, whether in a sacred or secular context, know how addictive its moral imperative can be. Apparently there is something like a cultural gene in societies as well as individuals that inclines them to a cybernetic and disciplined self- abnegation whenever they are threatened by the promise that Bus 9 to Paradise can be caught on any old corner. So we get the tightly structured and communitarian renunciations of Nazism and Marxism with their promise that the ascetic tough-loving way will put you on the only corner to catch the bus, and you will know it is the right one if it has no shock absorbers and bypasses all Disney theme parks.

But as Rosa Luxemburg herself discovered, the addictive way of heroic self-abnegation can exact a harsh penalty. Another of her biographers, Elzbieta Ettinger, tells us that Rosa agonized over her failure to answer her parents' letters because of her preoccupation with politics. Much later, in a German prison camp, she wrote to a friend that she was still blaming herself for neglecting her old sick father because she was too busy "taking care of mankind's urgent affairs and making the whole world happy." God knows whether she had time for second thoughts about anyone's capacity to make the whole world happy before she was taken from prison and assassinated. We can be fairly certain, however, that her killer, like most political assassins, took virtue very seriously.

But "bloody Rosa" was an oversimplification. In prison she became absorbed in botany and zoology and was able to cultivate orchids. To a friend she wrote that although she expected to die at her post "the real 'deep' me belongs more to my butterflies than it does to my comrades." Tears welled in her eyes as she stood in front of a team of brutally beaten Romanian buffaloes and imagined their desolate isolation from home pastures.

Indeed, it is always startling, and sometimes even comforting, to discover that there is a tender "real me" inside the most adamantly tough-loving world-saver. Conventionally this closeted persona is revealed in an aesthetic sensibility (Lenin's love of Beethoven or Lukacs' love of the classic literature that did not square with the expectations of socialist realism), but perhaps even more conventionally in an affection for subhuman living things. Lenin's wife has testified that once on a hunting holiday her husband refused to shoot a fox because it looked so beautiful. In his youth, says his sister, Robespierre agonized over a lost pet bird, and in later years was happy to have his beloved dog Brount sleep at the door of his room. Hitler's Alsatian bitch Blondi seems to have been his most congenial companion. When Rousseau's dog Sultan got temporarily lost in England his master was devastated. Thoreau kept cats as pets and was on the best of terms with gray squirrels, woodchucks, and crows; sparrows perched on his shoulders and mice ate from his hands. Those who want to counter the charge that Freud's mechanistic psychology is biased against true individualism can point to Freud's unabashed affection for a series of chow dogs, the last of which kept him company as he lay dying in England. Similarly, those who need to believe that tough-loving and world-saving socialism can still have a human face may take comfort from the image of Marx happily riding a donkey during those family picnics at Hampstead Heath.

The problem, of course, is whether this unexpectedly appearing "real me" is anything more than a compulsive return of a cripplingly repressed self. Because animals are so easy to love, the loving relationship between humans and animals is too easily taken as a model for all kinds of bonding, as it is by the more rabid environmentalists. Pet lovers don't have to worry about suffering the disillusioning second thoughts that are always a threat to human loving. But the important question is the human context of animal-loving. Is Thoreau's love of gray squirrels his way of hiding from himself the inhumanity of his attitude towards all those (including the Irishmen who helped build the hated railroad) who insist on living lives of quiet desperation? Does Robespierre's love of Brount give you more or less reason to believe that the guillotine is really an instrument of love for him and the world he wants to save, or is it only a way for him to live more or less comfortably, perhaps even self-indulgently, with a part of himself that he cannot incorporate into his whole life? May there not be in the personalities of such people an affective disorder that is reflected in their reductive image of us and in the direction they have chosen for us?

To judge from her recently published book, Gloria Steinem, like Rosa Luxemburg, has discovered that in the process of self-abnegating service to a great cause the "real me" can be lost-censored out of existence, one might say, by the Rocinante effect. But Steinem's advantage is that she has had time to recoup the losses of the infernally hard way. So we have the story of her self-esteem recovered through a revolution within, which sounds like a civilized advance over Stalin's revolution from above or Robespierre's revolution of loving violence. We may be a compound of many selves, Ms. Steinem says, "But there is always one true inner voice. Trust it." That voice, she agrees with John Bradshaw, is the voice of the "untamed and spontaneous child." And as we know from Bradshaw, the failure to honor the claims of that child, who is a wonder child manque, is a major source of the world's miseries.

Ms. Steinem's Emersonian revolution from within has the advantage of promising individual salvation without the tough-loving denial of the inner self that left Rosa Luxemburg weeping for the Romanian buffaloes as forlornly as Rachel wept for her lost children. Her critics may complain that she is selfishly deserting an earlier commitment, but they are overlooking the world-saving potential in her program: in proportion as the sum of authentically liberated wonder selves is increased the chances for the truly benevolent and unified community will increase. The wonder children, released from their invidious confinement, will save the world by making it in all ways wonderful, and perhaps even recapture socialism's great life-affirming vision. To this end, she says (still sounding like Emerson, if not the Maheesh Yogi), "Religion should stop telling us that we are innately sinful, and encourage the godlikeness and self-authority in us instead."

Whether or not the resulting condition turns out to be utopian, there will be along the way the usual problem of triage: the establishment of tough-loving priorities in order to discriminate among options. If we are all a compound of many selves, each with its own inner voice, how are we to identify the most authentic and trustworthy one? The discontents of our lives have a good deal to do with civilization's reproduction within ourselves of its clamor of conflicting voices. Thus a man like Robespierre, whose power as an enchanting world-saver goes along with an absolute trust in one of his own inner voices, will always appeal to some people because, by eliminating opposing voices, he promises to make the world a quieter and at the same time a more just place. For as the errant Don Quixote painfully discovered, the world's clamor of voices is hard to distinguish from its injustices.

Unfortunately, saving the clamorous world has proven historically to be a noisy if not bloody business. This means that, for those optimists who can stand the pressure, world-savers are to be commended at least for delaying the terminal boredom that the latter-day Hegelian Francis Fukuyama in a famous essay has associated with the end of history-a time when, one might otherwise assume, people will no longer have to take virtue seriously in order to feel good about themselves. But among those who cannot stand the pressure are those who, having been traumatized by too many false promises, having had it with Adam Smith and Marx and seeing no viable in-between, now believe that the world is simply not worth saving. Superficially, this puts them in the company of St. Anthony and his fellow North African cenobites. But those tough-loving ascetics were optimists: they despised the world and its deceptively enchanting voices in the interest of a transcendent salvation of their true selves. Theirs was a holy selfishness that took virtue very seriously indeed. As Helen Waddell reminds us in The Desert Fathers, they were the athletes of God, in training, we might say, for the ultimate Olympics.

That splendid poet Wallace Stevens had too much irony to harken to such enthralled simplifiers. Yet after World War II, when the times were clamorous with competing world-savers, he would sometimes wonder if he was sufficiently moved by the big, far-reaching issues. As his biographer Joan Richardson tells us, he once admitted in a letter to a friend that "I am, after all, more moved by the first sounds of the birds on my own street than by the death of a thousand penguins in Antarctica." This was a way of saying that charity begins at home-a heretical position for professional world-savers, who in the interest of the distant penguins will gladly sacrifice anyone's local birds, even at the risk of losing the penguins as well. Stevens' casual remark helps us see how crucial can be the difference between mere world-preservers and virtue-hounded world-savers.

St. Augustine, who was sensitive to the allure of the desert's ascesis, seems to have been well aware of this difference. No doubt his long battle with the Manichaes had taught him how easily virtue taken seriously but without irony or charity becomes tyranny. In the view of the Manichaes-who, like their close relatives the Gnostics, tend to be utopians manque and are thus covertly in league with gulag and guillotine-you must be saved from a world that is itself not worth saving. But Augustine, Ms. Waddell points out, "had the civic conscience" and did not follow Anthony to the Desert. For him you must be saved in the world, however your destiny may be elsewhere. In this view what you need most to be saved from are those tough-loving absolutists who anticipate a world that, having been saved, needs no more saving. Perhaps Cervantes' quondam knight errant, having in his time of dying recovered his true inner self, Alonso Quijano the Good, knew this too.

John P. Sisk, a frequent contributor to First Things, is Professor Emeritus of English at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.