Untimely Observations

No Horizontal Way Out

In his comments on my discussion of alternate modernities, Paul Gottfried observes that in our present situation there's no educational program, system of alliances, or political and cultural strategy that seems likely to get us out of the hole we're in.

I agree. If we start with what I called the modern "attempt to base social order simply on this-worldly empirical man," we can't get anywhere, because we can't escape the problem of conflicting wills fighting over who gets what. The only way to deal with that problem is by some combination of force and fraud, and any new combination of programs, alliances, and strategies is just going to be one more configuration of force and fraud. Why should our force and fraud work out better than everyone else's? Haven't the possibilities been tried and found wanting?

The problem, it seems, is the basic modern understandings that make our present situation what it is and so condition all the programs, alliances, strategies, and so on that now seem reasonable and practical. Things won't get a whole lot better until those understandings change, and that won't happen because some group of activists and theoreticians puts together a system of understandings that's more to their liking and tries to get them adopted by the dominant forces in society.

In particular, as Paul notes, right-wingers aren't going to create a better world by getting together and aligning themselves with selected religious institutions, "command[ing] the political class and its allies in the media, the entertainment industry, and public education to change their worldview," and educating the masses into an outlook more to their liking. Among other problems, religious institutions themselves are affected by the dominant understandings.

But what then? If we don't like the way things are there must be some response--alcohol, skydiving, suicide, whatever--that makes sense even if political maneuvering is not likely to do much for us.

My proposal was to "go back to first things." What defines the political situation is what seems best and most real to the people involved, and if the situation is impossible those things must change. Current understandings have basic problems that (among other things) lead to a view of man as essentially asocial and eventually mean various forms of tyranny as well as "mindlessness and incompetence on the part of rulers and ruled."

It follows that the dissatisfied need first of all to understand the world better, and in a way that enables them to live in a manner more worthy of human nature. That, of course, is a prepolitical issue. It's worth dealing with in itself, since doing so will help ourselves and our families and friends. It's more than just a personal matter, though, since such initiatives can spread and transform social life. At some point some initiative will--it's happened before and will happen again--so why not ours if it's superior?

The present setup has basic contradictions, and won't last forever any more than other social arrangements have. With that in mind, those with an outlook and way of life that is more true and more worth living by should make their pitch and see what catches on and endures. As I commented, "revolutions begin in thought, and the way of thought that makes people most functional and enables them to deal most intelligently with the world has a good shot at winning eventually."

The proposal sounds impossibly conjectural and long-range, but when there is no obvious quick fix you drop day-to-day events as your reference point and do what you can for what could work in principle. If what's needed is a change in basic understandings then that's what you should pursue. Modernity makes effectiveness the measure of thought, but to deal with the world effectively you have to deal on their own terms with issues that precede effectiveness, like what is real and good.

Such an approach might get results soon: things might be better than they seem, late modernity might be a bubble about to burst, the Church (which like everything else has its own characteristic way of functioning) might be about to revert to type, or something nobody has thought of might happen. Or it might take effect slowly or not at all. The same is true of every approach, though, and the basic point is that this approach--unlike others--could work in concept, and is worth pursuing on its own terms even if it does not.

The big question is what a superior way of thought would be. On that point opinions differ and discussion is necessary. In order to deal with man as he actually is and the problems politics actually present we need an outlook that's adequate to the world as we experience it. It seems clear, to me at any rate, that such an outlook requires an understanding of practical rationality not limited to technology and of knowledge not limited to modern natural science.

Otherwise we cannot, among other things, understand people. To understand and deal with life and human beings as we find them, I suggested that "something like the Christian soul, or at least a human essence that by nature is oriented toward the good" is necessary. Whether I'm right on that is a matter for discussion. Still, each of us in his manner of life displays what he thinks is most real and most worth living by. We're more likely to make progress on basic issues to the extent we articulate and examine such commitments. Our problems today really are that basic, which is the reason there seems to be no exit from them.