Limbo’s Greatest Hits: # 5
Looking back over the past year’s Top Ten List of the most frequently read articles on this website, I am most intrigued by the sheer unpredictability of the entries. Some of the most popular reads are longer, more complex theoretical discussions, which is very gratifying, as it heartens me to think I have found the twenty or thirty humans out there who still believe difficult questions and big ideas are worth their time and effort. (In fact, such questions and ideas may literally be the most worthwhile things in the world, if “knowing thyself” is still to be considered a defining human aspiration.) Other entries are shorter and more direct, almost aphoristic in nature, leaving the reader plenty of independent room to roam within the general ideational space I have defined.
Some are very topical, while others are relatively timeless in character. Some deal with explicitly political issues, while others address the most apolitical matters of soul and being. Some are set in those minor chords that border on the unmitigatedly melancholic, while others strike a more hopeful and encouraging note.
If there is a single entry among this year’s Greatest Hits, however, that encapsulates the widest variety of the above-mentioned flavors in one fairly leafy, easy-to-digest entrée — in other words, that is both universal and of the moment, pensive but terse, blunt but evocative — it would probably be Number Five, “Why Freedom Just Doesn’t Work Anymore.”
The question which drove the piece was a simple one: Why do modern men, in the process of relinquishing their liberty, so easily fall back on the easy answer to all challenges from principle and tradition, namely, “That may have been right in the past, but it just doesn’t work in today’s world?”
What, I ask, is “today’s world”? I know we all use the expression, or others like it. And I know it just feels intuitively reasonable to assume “things are different now.” But it is one thing to acknowledge — as one could hardly fail to do — that we live under very different presuppositions and premises than men (including the greatest of men) did in the past; it is quite another to cite the mere fact of this difference as evidence in favor of dismissing the challenge of alternative views. The latter attitude, today’s common one, is enabled and facilitated by convenient popularizations of certain modern ideas, including some of the most philosophically interesting of modern ideas. I identified some of these ideas, and explained the civilizational dynamic their popularized versions have set in motion, in this little article from January 28th, 2019.
Why Freedom Just Doesn’t Work Anymore
A limited republic is, in practice, partly a matter of constitutional restrictions on government power; but it is at least as much a state of the national mind. Does a people, en masse and in each private adult soul, feel independent, self-reliant, and competent to manage and govern itself without the positive guidance and protective regulation of its coercive betters? If not, then all the constitutional restrictions in the world will quickly become so much archaic verbiage, meaningless paper from an alien past, or at best a quaint abstraction to be bowed to occasionally for tradition’s sake, but an abstraction somehow inapplicable or unrealistic “in today’s world.”
One of the peculiar effects of the uneasy marriage of neo-Marxist progressivism and bastardized Nietzscheanism is the ease with which we now speak of “today’s world” or “modern values,” as though the existence of essentially different, historicized worlds, with inherently incompatible and relativized perspectives, were an indubitable fact, a mere truism.
“That kind of laissez-faire thinking just doesn’t work in today’s world.”
“Private gun ownership may have made sense in the eighteenth century, but it isn’t consistent with modern life.”
“Our modern understanding of systemic oppression makes traditional notions of private property and free speech outdated.”
“Today’s world is too complex and requires too many specialized skills to allow people to educate themselves without government experts.”
Each of these ideas, and a thousand analogous ones, have reached the status of platitudes in “today’s world,” which means that the very possibility of underlying, abiding truths — about human nature, human purpose, and human freedom — has been cast aside in favor of historical and cultural relativism. Not cast aside, I note, in favor of superior theories of human life. Cast aside in favor of practical convenience.
In other words, “That doesn’t work in today’s world” and “Modern life requires new norms” are not, at least as usually adopted, positions based on reasoning; they are pragmatic concessions to modern weaknesses, modern addictions, and the modern predilection for mob rule. It would be easier, given what modernity in its morally unhinged condition would like to be able to do, to jettison most of the old ideas about human nature, good and evil, and individual rights; so men jettison them, and then cover for their lassitude by spouting the platitudes nearest to hand: “It’s a different world now,” “That may have been true in the past, but…,” and so on.
Once this pragmatic relativism takes root in a soul or a community, the discomfort one should feel at breaking with tradition (i.e., discarding received wisdom) is displaced by the very opposite discomfort. That is, a society, having once stumbled off the cliff of this pseudo-Nietzschean progressive idea that different times have different truths, will be easily propelled into an unstoppable descent into randomness by the most compelling social fear in such a climate — the psychological lubricant of all mechanisms of democratic totalitarianism, aka soft despotism — namely the dread of being exposed as a person clinging shamefully to obsolete values.
Once the wheels are greased, it is actually easier to declare “It’s a different world now” than to ask “What would our forebears have said?” Easier, because so much more convenient from the point of view of expanding state power, justifying Marxist moral transformation, and of course reaching the late modern nirvana, personal comfort.