The Winter of Our Discontent

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” —Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The industrial revolution wasn’t the beginning of our discontents. No, what Weber calls the disenchantment of the world begins further back, some say with Machiavelli, some say with Luther—in fact, both were probably required to break the incarnate medieval spell. In any case, those of us who have found ourselves on the Alt-Right have almost undoubtedly viscerally experienced the hollowed-out character of the age: for most of our lives, we’ve wandered through a dead world.

What Weber spoke of was summed up in Nietzsche’s famous proclamation: “God is dead.” We killed him. When the early moderns (Machiavelli, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke), decided that God was not coming to save mankind and that mankind must instead conquer nature to save itself, it embarked upon a seemingly splendid and glorious endeavor that finally resulted in flat-souled consumers. “Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality…” Machiavelli’s famous break with the ancient philosophers and the Church was simply a foreshadowing of Nietzsche’s three words.

The phrase “the disenchantment of the world” made a comeback three years ago when former editor of First Things, Joseph Bottum, wrote a famous essay in which he essentially surrendered the culture war on the issue of same-sex marriage. In many ways, Bottum’s argument, confused as it was, was indisputably true: the culture war was lost anyway. His logic turned on the question of whether an understanding of natural law was even possible in our disenchanted world. Allow me to quote extensively from Bottum’s essay:

“Indeed, once the sexual revolution brought the Enlightenment to sex, demythologizing and disenchanting the Western understanding of sexual intercourse, the legal principles of equality and fairness were bound to win, as they have over the last decade: the only principles the culture has left with which to discuss topics such as marriage.”

Those consequences were, in essence, the stripping away of magic—the systematic elimination of metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical meanings. Science, Francis Bacon told us, could not advance in any other way. Real democracy, Diderot explained, would not arrive “until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” When the Supreme Court gave us the infamous “mystery passage” in the 1992 abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey—“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”—the justices were merely following out to its logical conclusion the great modern project of disenchantment.”

“The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality.”

“We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981). But there are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment, of the world—including massive investments in charity, the further evangelizing of Asia, a willingness to face martyrdom by preaching in countries where Christians are killed simply because they are Christians, and a church-wide effort to reinvigorate the beauty and the solemnity of the liturgy. Some Catholic intellectual figures will continue to explore the deep political-theory meanings manifest in the old forms of Christendom, and more power to them, but the rest of us should turn instead to more effective witness in the culture as it actually exists.”

I’m not ultimately interested in whether Bottum’s argument about whether natural law can be understood in the modern world is correct. His general analysis of our predicament seems nevertheless true.

There are various reactions to disenchantment: over the top romanticism, LARPing, existentialism in its various forms, neopaganism, traditional liturgical Christianity—all of these are more healthy than an embrace of decayed reality, but none seem to be enough to overcome the modern world. We pretend that we’re asleep, hoping to awaken to a midsummer night’s dream. But we’re awake. The dream isn’t coming. Nothing is coming.

And then there was 2016.

What is truly remarkable is that a project that many men and women, not to mention the oldest human institution on earth, have undertaken and failed to carry through over the past several centuries—the re-enchantment of reality—was made possible this year by Donald Trump and meme-making shitlords on the internet. It isn’t just that history began again on June 16th,2015—it isn’t that the past 18 months felt like a dizzying dream—it’s that slowly, and then all at once, reality felt real again. That’s the thing about enchantment: you feel more alive, and more real, not less. Both the natural and the supernatural world come alive. Each present moment is more pregnant with meaning and feeling. Time stands still and speeds up all at once. And so on.

Perhaps we needed something like a king to rouse us from our waking nightmare. Perhaps there’s no rational, non-supernatural explanation for it at all. But enchantment has returned. There may be no going back to a pre-Enlightened world, but for the first time in all our lives, there is hope for a new world, a time that is redeemed. We can look forward to 2017 with the renewed faith that in this brave new world, there will be time for you, time for me, and time for our people.

As Lawrence of Arabia said, “the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” We often culturally appropriate Hertzl’s famous line, “If you will it, it is no dream.” But perhaps in 2016 we were given a gift: the gift of understanding that it takes more than will. It takes enchantment.