The Demise of Human
Note: Emphases are almost entirely Ed’s and
not in the original article.
Who is modern Western society has not heard of
that category of citizens honorably known as
They profess to be the thinking part of the nation, the
people whose special calling to ponder public or private
possessed of a particularly low opinion of themselves, they even
lay claim to a spiritual power forfeited, in their eyes, by all
I would like to set the record straight.
There was a time when most people believed
that the world was ruled by some transcendental Reason (the
Stoic creed), or that it was not only ruled but created by that
Reason (the Christian Faith).
So it was only natural that those who were deemed to have
some access to its designs be revered and ranked among the most
useful officers of the commonwealth.
This was the case in all Western societies for centuries.
Philosophers (or theologians) were the keystone of
then a cataclysm occurred,
which in three centuries, from the 16th to the 18th,
wiped out all but traces of the previous civilization.
Whatever its causes (which range from the development of
trade to the Reformation), this upheaval amounted to a stark
denial either that there might be a sort of ideal blueprint for
men to follow in their acts or in their thinking or, if there
was, that it would be their lot to know it.
But this meant the death knell had tolled for
philosophy and theology, at leas such as they had been known.
Of what use was human reason if there was no reason at
work behind observable phenomena, or if man no longer had the
means to decipher it?
I think there were basically two answers,
which I shall call the pragmatists and the intellectuals.
There is something striking about the
Anglo-Saxon mentality: It amounts to thinking man may be a
God-forgotten animal, but not a godless one.
By committing sin, men forfeited their God-given nature
but not their capacity for faith in God’s love—a dual assessment
of man’s nature that obviously bears Calvin’s diluted but
The very fact that men can take such a pessimistic view
of themselves, that they may be so utterly aware of their sinful
condition, bears testimony to their belief in God’s existence
and in their inability to understand His will.
Hence a natural (supernatural?) propensity
among such men to give up their dream of a perfect society while
at the same time striving to live the life that God gave them,
without trying to transform it into a life of delights, but also
without deploring being forced to live it.
The next-best society to a perfect one is one in which
the citizens try to obey the commandments of God (though they
don’t understand them) but are not loath to build lightning
rods, telephones, trains, or establish savings banks.
Or devise laws to protect the honest citizen and punish
In other words, there is hardly any room in
such an intellectual climate for any other use of human reason
that as a tool to make the best of things as they seem to be
(only God knowing what they mean) and of men as they are (since
they cannot be as they should).
Reason in this
world means utilitarian rationality.
Men infused with more or less articulate, or diluted
Calvinism will be outstanding engineers, craftsmen, or careful
managers of their properties and businesses, eager for past
experience, or wise and learned legislators, wary of sheer
novelty, bent not on creating perfect citizens but on
maintaining a balance between their actual different interests.
They will be
What took place in the world that had
renounced Catholicism without becoming Protestant is altogether
Calvinist inspiration maintains an absolute faith in God (or in
God’s love for mankind) even as it assesses that men’s sin has
made God’s will totally unintelligible to them.
Man’s freedom tends to be an ordered one.
But in the formerly Catholic Europe, the offensive
against Christianity was pushed to its logical outcome: the pure
and simple demise of religion.
From Machiavelli’s Renaissance to Diderot’s
spread through Europe until the French Revolution made it
what then confronted man was the possibility to create a world
anew, to recreate man himself: Man had chosen to play God.
On what was the new world order based?
The answer depends on what is left in man when he refuses
to see himself as part of God’s world and forfeits his
It is a matter of simple subtraction: if one dissociates
man’s freedom from God’s imperatives, what remains is man’s
unqualified and absolute freedom.
And this freedom cannot be but each man’s total freedom,
for the reference to an essence of a free man presupposes a
model of humanity that each man must follow to be free.
What is left is subjective freedom, the freedom of each
individual man to “obey only himself,” because he is “an
absolute, a naturally independent being,” “a perfect and
solitary whole,” in Rousseau’s exemplary words.
In a nutshell, the axis around which the
novus ordo seclorum
began revolving is the sovereignty of the self (the ego), its
basic principle that each man considers himself his own god.
That this is indeed the case is fairly obvious
to anyone bothering to skim over the most famous philosophical
systems devised in modern Europe.
The only topic of Montaigne’s essays is, in
his own words, himself, and his only aim is to “jouir
loyalement de son être” and “to “être
tout à soi,” (“loyally enjoy one’s being and “be entirely
devoted to oneself”).
Discours de la Méthode begins with the claim that there is
only one science worth anything, “the one which is inside me.”
I have just mentioned Rousseau’s utter self-idolatry.
The economists’ rendition of man, like Hume’s or Smith’s,
is that of a rather self-centered being who relates to his
fellow man at the most through inner, subjective sympathy.
Subjective feeling is for Kant the only basis of
Romanticism revels in the intricacies and the self-centered
suffering of one’s heart.
Anarchists like Stirner proclaim each man to be unique
and entitled to exclusive ownership of himself, while Nietzsche
applauds the individual who is not afraid to stand alone above
the crowd. Freud
stresses the sovereignty of a hidden inner-self.
Socialism starts with the rantings of Fourier, devising a
society that would put each individual’s passions to use.
Marx, in his wake, dreams of communism as that stage of
human progress in which every individual can expect to be fully
himself, whereas in the meantime he exonerates each individual
for his own failures.
Marx’s dream was revived by hippies and radicals like
Reich and Marcuse, indicting the bourgeois leveling of
The more one thinks of it, the more modernity sounds like a hymn
to the absolute originality and value of one’s own ego and the
virtues of being one’s own self.
One might be tempted to include Christianity also, since
every man was created by God as a unique person.
A Christian world, however, is one whose perfection
results from each man’s intimate knowledge
that his uniqueness is meant for the perfection of the
whole; it has nothing to do with a world that is only the sum
total of parts nobody knows how to combine, and God least of
then becomes possible to understand this new kind of Western
cleric, the intellectual.
Being one is not to deny that man’s intellect may be put
to scientific use—the discovery of means of action—after the
prevailing manner of Protestant countries.
But the modern intellectual was born when it became
difficult to conceive of any other use at all for human
intellect. Not only
is there no design of God’s to discover anymore, but each being
a god unto himself, there is very simply not much to say, beyond
the study of man’s animal or physical being, about man or man’s
behavior, and particularly no way to judge it.
So what is left for people who are no scientists but
claim to understand what is going on in human affairs?
They face a simple alternative:
Disappear or go along
with the consequences of the new creed they have partly
initiated, and in any case enthusiastically supported—the
religion of the ego.
Which means all that is allowed in the way of
thinking is to eliminate all possible restraints on the
sovereignty of the ego.
These restraints can be material, or course (a good
reason to be “the master and owner of nature,” in Descartes’s
words), but even more crucial are those of a moral and spiritual
nature. Even though
they may not all have fully realized it, under the flag of
freedom and the battle cry of liberation of all mankind from all
oppression, the intellectuals had willy-nilly embarked on a
crusade against all restraints to the fulfillment of the ego’s
whims supposed or real potential, whether it be whims, passions,
desires, interests, etc.—in
other words, against all norms, against the very idea that there
might be something beyond the limitless subjective will of the
ego. By assuming
the individual was a “perfect and solitary whole” they had
doomed themselves to equating thinking with criticizing a world
that by definition is not the ego’s, and therefore is a constant
source of dissatisfaction to it.
Goethe would have defined the modern intellectual as “the
spirit who always says no.”
Let us list a few of the most famous of these
restless, wandering, cosmopolitan antinomians.
Montaigne’s prevailing and only preoccupation
is to deny there may be any universal or eternal norm.
sis-je” (“What do I know?”) is his motto, and skepticism his
denies the worth of all ideas except mathematical (utilitarian)
ones. Spinoza claims it
is as natural to be a criminal as not to be one.
Voltaire, and behind him
all the French Enlightenment, denies belief in truth (like the
Catholics’) to be anything but fanaticism.
Montesquieu denies there
is any universally valid political regime, while Rousseau denies
even democracy, which is for him the only legitimate one, to be
fit for all men. (“It
demands a people of gods.”) Kant
denies man can have any insight into the nature of things, and
so will all idealists after him.
The French revolutionaries deny there are any men who
know better than others (kings or aristocrats, in particular).
Romantics deny the worth
of anything that does not stem from each individual’s heart.
Marx (and with him all
socialists) deny the legitimacy of all supposedly objective
ideas, including of course bourgeois values.
His anarchist siblings,
such as Bakunin, deny the legitimacy for an organizing principle
for men to live together, and Stirrer the value of anything that
does not stem from the self. Freud
denies the validity of all human thinking, since it is subjected
to the omnipotent irrationality of the subconscious.
André Breton and the
surrealists deny common-sense reality.
Heidegger and the
existentialists deny that there is any sense or essence of
things. Even the
modernist Catholic Church refrains from mentioning the sinful
condition of man!
But, mind you, beyond the criticism, what do
they propose? Nothing.
These denials are the gist of doctrines whose single underlying
purpose is the ego’s slaking of its unquenchable thirst for
being whatever it feels like being.
Hence their latest
output: a “culture”
obsessed with the fulfillment of the self (the Me
Generation), whose prevailing slogans display nothing but
speaks for itself. Feminism
is the refusal to acknowledge the insuperable difference between
the sexes, and homosexuality the denial that there are only two.
Abortion is the superior
right of the ego (of the mother) over the right of any other
human being. Drug
addiction is an open sesame to limitless (if illusory)
subjective freedom and power, or to happiness through total
immersion in oneself. Behind
racism is the dream of Marx’s generic man or Freud’s polymorphic
pervert, the universal half-breed with no particular nature to
accomplish, the man who is a total man for the simple reason
that he is a non-descript one, comprising all possible features
of all possible men. (He
is also the perfect consumer. The
intellectual unwittingly works for the multinationals.)
And finally, what is
democracy if not society turning the individual into a
sovereign, a person entitled to consider that his fellow
citizens are his subordinates. Does
tolerance stem from a respect for the other, or does it
constitute a claim for each to have the right to be what he
wants to be? Are the
famous Rights of Man the rights of other, or the self’s rights
(as appears in the right of the mother to kill her baby)?
No wonder the
intellectuals of our day increasingly comprise narcissistic
filmmakers and actors, pretentious journalists, mediocre
writers, second-rate academics, self-professed artists or gurus:
To violate taboos is the only feat required to he hailed as a
remarkable mind. Whereas
inquiring into what may be the nature of things or of man is the
only intellectual activity (typically conservative) that
deserves to be called thinking.
Is this much ado about nothing?
Certainly, were it not
that the typical intellectual of our times flatters the average
citizen’s animal propensity to think of himself as the center of
the universe. Which
makes the intellectual a regular plague.
By encouraging men to
forget what they should be, he debases them all, as he makes
each one the potential enemy of the others.
He should not be
forgiven, even though he does not know what he is doing.
Chronicles: A Magazine of
American Culture, July 2010, pages 45-47.
One group within
this category is that of being an
Our society looks to experts in virtually every
area of life from dieting to medicine to economics to
experts have led us greatly astray, even to our
Why experts* keep failing us--and how to know when not
to trust them *Scientists, finance wizards, doctors,
relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, ... consultants,
health officials and more, a book by David H.
Freeman (Little, Brown, and Company, 2010).
It is curious
here that Polin limits this understanding to
Anglo-Saxons for it is Biblical reality for
Christians with a simple understanding of God’s mercy,
grace, and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.