It’s the end, but…
We are watching something remarkable, namely a civilization committing suicide. Those of us who see clearly what is happening have traveled, in the course of just a few short weeks, through several stages of realization: from bemusement at people’s susceptibility to media manipulation, to frustration at their deference to excessive authority, to alarm at their willingness to sacrifice societal foundations in the name of quixotic fantasies of heroic quick fixes, and then to the reluctant awareness that there is nothing the majority of modern men would not destroy in the name of their indoctrinated lust for “safety,” and no one whose life they would not obliterate to defend their twisted, fear-induced conceptions of social purity and personal security maintained at the point of a gun.
In a poignant sign of the times, I must observe that in all the years I have been writing for public consumption, I have never had such overt statements from readers — strangers and friends alike — of the need for a lifeline of fellow-feeling or camaraderie to help them carry on through this extraordinary situation. No, to be clear, I am not speaking of those lost in hysteria over the Pandemic that Ate a Planet. The hysterics have all too many outlets for their collective trembling. I am speaking, on the contrary, of those who, like me, are startled at the sheer unhesitating rush with which men and women they had formerly regarded as decently reasonable are stampeding right over one another in a dead race to claim a place for themselves in the World State’s soon-to-be-completed universal concentration camp.
There is a temptation in “times like these” — and when have there been times quite like these? — to fall into despair. “What’s the use?” one naturally wonders. Or “Where is one to go to feel that one is still living among rational animals?”
This is a most difficult situation for many people. We live in an age that in so many ways fosters despondency, melancholy, and hopelessness about ultimate purposes. To foist upon those subject to such emotional states the further revelation that their neighbors, family, and friends can so easily be swept up in waves of cowardice and self-absorption, and can reduce themselves so eagerly to bowing before idols of every authoritarian kind, is a criminal act, a spiritual lynching of the decent and reasonable, perpetrated by authoritarian paternalists and populations unhinged by childlike terror of bogeymen and monsters.
And yet, seen in the truest light, this is all of very little ultimate importance. That is to say, while our outrage and desperation are in part natural responses to the surrounding circumstances imposed upon us, these responses are also conditioned and dependent upon an all too human weakness, namely the inclination to wish practical things could be other than they are, and further to imagine that we ourselves might have the capacity to effect the needed changes — to persuade others, to make them see, to enlighten them. In truth, it is more than enough to hope we might enlighten ourselves; the rest of the world, in the final analysis, has to wend its own way, with or without us.
To those, then, who, having come to the realization that we are at the end of something, such that the only foreseeable future is one marked by periods of active disintegration alternating with brief plateaus of devolutionary stasis, I offer the following thoughts.
Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison, and about to stand trial for treason — for which alleged crime he was subsequently executed. Socrates, the teacher for the ages, was tried for impiety and corruption of youth, found guilty, and killed by poison — and yet during his trial he told the judges that even if he were offered his freedom in exchange for ceasing his philosophic conversations, he would refuse and prefer death, for “the unexamined life is not worth living for a man.” Dante conceived, researched, and composed most or all of the Divine Comedy while living in painful political exile, with a Florentine death sentence hanging over him and his sons.
During my student days, I was fortunate enough to encounter Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind at just the moment when I myself needed some philosophic consolation, along with the assurance that there was someone living in my own time who understood what was lacking, and most needed, in the life of a wandering melancholic seeking evidence of meaning in modern life.
One trenchant passage from that wonderful book’s conclusion has always remained clearly before my mind. It appears there in neon lights these days.
After a reading of the Symposium a serious student came with deep melancholy and said it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced, in which friendly men, educated, lively, on a footing of equality, civilized but natural, came together and told wonderful stories about the meaning of their longing. But such experiences are always accessible. Actually, this playful discussion took place in the midst of a terrible war that Athens was destined to lose, and Aristophanes and Socrates at least could foresee that this meant the decline of Greek civilization. But they were not given to culture despair, and in these terrible political circumstances, their abandon to the joy of nature proved the viability of what is best in man, independent of accidents, of circumstance…. [This student] and his friends can think together. It requires much thought to learn that this thinking might be what it is all for.
–Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), p. 381
Changing the world, in practical, political terms, is all well and good. A nice dream, and perhaps, in some contexts, even partially realizable. But it is not the ultimate aim of a serious life, which is to say of the soul as such. For practical change requires the compliance, or at least cooperation, of a world beyond our direct control. If mere effectiveness were our final purpose, this would make our life itself, in the highest sense, a matter beyond the reach of our will.
But that is not the highest sense, and therefore practical effectiveness does not define the limits of our will. We are not essentially doers. We are essentially knowers. What makes us human, using that term in its rarest, rather than its commonest, implications, is that we may understand.
I often write of the importance and necessity of redeeming suffering, which is to say of bringing positive meaning and significance to even our most painful trials. This is part of the meaning of wisdom, for it entails seeing all that befalls us from beyond the narrow perspective of immediate comfort, immediate pleasure, or immediate vanity. Wisdom, by definition, redeems everything, in that it finds the proper place of all within a picture of the unqualified whole. If wisdom is our highest natural end, which it surely is, then no mere death of a civilization is any match for the mind’s mission and its will. For we are not ultimately effective beings, but thinking beings. There come moments, and I suspect this is one of them, when we must come to terms with the fact — and in the process of coming to terms with it, we ennoble it — that the fall is outside of our practical control, and that the best we may do is to observe it honestly, and hope to understand.
In so doing, however, we will also realize that our understanding, to the extent we can achieve this, is no “mere consolation,” but rather the reason we are here; even, perhaps, the reason the fall itself was necessary. In understanding alone do we finally gain control.