February 22, 2015


Modernity and Our American Heresies (Peter Augustine Lawler, Summer/Fall 2014, New Atlantis)

So critics such as Heidegger, MacIntyre, and Grant see that American liberalism is really a kind of technological nihilism. It is freedom for nothing in particular beyond power and control. Sometimes they turn to Alexis de Tocqueville to remind us that this nihilism is really a feature of American democracy, though Tocqueville is really not quite so pessimistic as they are. Tocqueville explains that the Americans practice the Cartesian method without having ever read a word of Descartes. That modern method, the foundation of the technological view of the world, is doubt. All I really know is that I am, and so the only point of life -- the only use of my freedom -- is to keep me from not not-being for as long as possible. The only kind of science that survives methodical doubt is that which improves the comfort and security of particular individuals, of me. The proud desire to know for its own sake is less worthwhile because it is unproductive.

The Cartesian method is the democratic method, which is why the modern Americans could have discovered it without reading Descartes. It is all about doubting personal authority. If I defer to your word, then I let you rule me. That is true of all personal authority -- from princes to priests to parents and even or especially the personal God. Nobody is better than me, and so nobody knows better than me. I methodically doubt my way to that democratic opinion. I have no reason to privilege anyone's opinion over my own.

Of course, this Cartesian position of doubt is not quite the nihilism that America's critics decry. But it does pose some problems for our democracy. According to this Cartesian-democratic doubt, nobody is better than me, but I am no better than anyone else. So I have no personal content -- no point of view by which to privilege my opinion over the opinions of others. As Tocqueville observes, I especially have no point of view by which to resist public opinion, which appears to be determined by no one in particular. It is undemocratic to defer to some person, but it seems perfectly democratic, in a way, for all persons to defer equally to some impersonal force. That goes not only for public opinion, but for other impersonal forces such as "History," and of course "technology." I know I'm not nothing, but I lack what it takes, all by myself, to fill myself up with something. And so I'm carried along by impersonal forces I have no right to resist, especially if, as in the case of technology, the impersonal forces aim to keep me, as a person, around as long as possible.

Technology is both impersonal, insofar as it cannot distinguish one person from other, and highly personal, insofar as it is about sustaining the lives of people by controlling the impersonal nature that would otherwise be a constant threat to us. But seeing personal life as nothing other than gaining the power and control necessary to sustain life against an indifferent and hostile nature is what leads to America's technological and democratic nihilism. It is nihilistic because it empties personal life of the relational context -- which includes dogmatic personal authority -- in which it can find real content, a point of view, or spirit of resistance. That's the way it makes good sense to say American democracy is, in principle, "after virtue." The democrat does not know who he is (beyond not not-being) or what he is supposed to do.

If there is any kind of American virtue, it is nothing more than being as attentive as possible to health and safety. The traditional virtues of chastity and gentlemanliness, with all their complex demands governing and shaping the relationships between the sexes, are replaced with the much simpler virtue of "safe sex" -- which means not only sensibly avoiding the infectious diseases that might cut short our lives, but also avoiding the babies that might cut short our lives as free individuals, unfettered by relationships with noisy little dependents. But while sex has become much simpler, the worries we have about avoiding "risk factors" have been multiplying every day, as scientists tell us more and more about how everything from cheeseburgers to spending too much time in the sun (or too little!) could threaten our health and even end up killing us years down the road. At least in principle, most Americans are likely sympathetic to the transhumanist dream of a world in which all the risk factors have gone away, in which all sex is safe, and in which we would not have to be concerned with generating replacements because no one would need to be replaced.

The emotional result of the American's interpersonal isolation is what Tocqueville named individualism, the indifference that flows from the mistaken judgment that love and hate are more trouble than they're worth. If you want to see a display of contemporary American individualism, watch a rerun of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm or even the Charlie Sheen version of Two and a Half Men. Healthy men have hearts so contracted that they don't have what it takes emotionally (they're fine physically) to reproduce. We also recognize American men and women described as emptied of content by democratic or anti-relational doubt in Allan Bloom's classic The Closing of the American Mind. Those "flat souled" or erotically lame sophisticated Americans are unmoved by either love or death; they are nothing more, it seems, than technological beings: clever and competent, specialists and survivalists.

If all these gloomy ideas about the sorry state of our souls in America sound almost too bad to be true, that's because that is just what they are. For Tocqueville, the worst evils of individualism and technological obsessiveness were more of an inherent possibility for America than a description of how Americans really lived. Americans combat individualism through various heart-enlarging activities, the most important among them being religion. Tocqueville was astonished by the way Americans exempted their religious faith from their habitual doubt. Today much more than in Tocqueville's time Americans are actually less individualistic -- less selfishly withdrawn and more concerned about their responsibility to their country and their fellow creatures -- than Europeans, and the reason for this is the nation's exceptional religiosity. It is Americans' religion that gets their minds off themselves and points them in the direction of personal, relational duties. It is their religious authorities -- their preachers and ministers and rabbis and priests -- who persuade them that the truth is more than technological, that they were born to contemplate both who God is and their own singular personal destinies as beings with souls. It is this religious knowledge and cultivation that give Americans the confidence to think and act freely, to rule themselves and others as free and relational beings.

...of the Anglosphere, generally, and of America, in particular, lies in our wholesale rejection of Descartes, in favor of faith.

Posted by at February 22, 2015 2:11 PM

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