Thursday, February 9, 2012

Century Twenty-one: the Desolate March*

Moral nihilism is not only the central feature of National Socialism, but also the common factor between it and Bolshevism.** 
                                                               Hugh Seton-Watson

The twenty-first century is well underway. We can readily contemplate the remarkable, socially and morally transforming effects of these powerful, intermingling forces that have come into ascendancy: personalism, a proto-modern ideological system that urges the pursuit and enlargement of the subjective self, liberated from the confines of repressive, traditional institutions; therapy, that seeks to nurture and speak reassuringly to that subjective self and that identifies what forces may impede its growth and development; and amusement (particularly in the electronic form) that conjures up for the restless subjective self, programs for stimulation, provides endless possibilities for self-expression, and  promises everyone diverse opportunities for temporary escape. The twenty-first century is the perfect time and place for the nihilist and the hedonist.
In such a volatile, connected world, with so many changes and so much uncertainty, one discovers what seems to be a persistent, devilish play of the ironic in human events. History has always been a perverse affair. It is also often cruelly ironic, as Edward Gibbon, writing of the decadence of an earlier great civilization, the Roman empire, brilliantly demonstrated over two hundred years ago. Human beings, when they come to be measured against the goodness and greatness of their Gods, can only be regarded as feeble, deluded creatures. Says Gibbon in one of his bitterest, ironic musings:

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing religion as she descended from Heaven arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian.  He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

Gibbon pits the theologian against the historian. These two classes of theorists represented for Gibbon two perennial philosophical archetypes for interpreting or understanding the deep complexities of the human condition.  Theology, understood in this context, is a theoretical dreaming, the corruption of the Christian faith by metaphysics and superstition. The “theologian” comprehends (or invents) and dwells upon the possibilities of perfection—hence perhaps the delusion-based pleasure of believing that man can achieve something approximating divinity and escape his limitations. Gibbon’s theologian was transmogrified in the twentieth into the most grotesque and dangerous of all creatures, the ideologue. The ideologue, the man of total revolution, sought to recreate society and make man perfect.
The historian by contrast is a moral pathologist, a moral philosopher, actually, grounded in the knowledge of the constraining realities of human nature. He probes reluctantly, with a “melancholy duty,” into the many human aspirations that seem to descend into folly. He measures the expressed aspirations against the actual accomplishments. In these investigations, he often discovers the processes of degradation. The historian in a way has the worst of it since what he must return to, again and again, is the stark, unavoidable reality of human arrogance, folly and corruption.
History, therefore, must often become a mocking and deeply melancholy scene. The irony of history thus is all too often cruel and wildly perverse. In the narratives of success and failure, history captures painfully the disparity between the reaches of human aspirations and the reality of their achievement, grotesque applications of the law of unintended consequence—efficiency experts who produce less work, social reformers who make peoples’ lives even more miserable than imagined, spiritual leaders who degrade their followers below the level of beasts, utopias that turn into hells. History manages to highlight the dominance of human pride and arrogance. Nowhere, I would suggest, does this observation strike with more force and vivacity than in the contemplation of the events of the twentieth century. Never has there been a time in which we have collectively possessed such immense bodies of knowledge and so much material capacity to advance it. Never before have the technologies been so powerful and so rich with potential, and the aspirations so ambitious and full of confidence. Yet with all of this, the ironic lesson is the danger of losing sight of our own limitations: and with that vital loss of moral understanding we find ourselves on a desolate march.

*Excerpted from Stephen Paul Foster, Desolation's March: the Rise of Personalism and the Reign of Amusement in 21st-America, Bethesda, Md. Academica Press, 2003.
 Complete electronic copy free on demand.

**Quoted from: Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, Norton, 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment