The assumptions of early postmodern irony were idealistic; it was once thought that diagnosing social ills and poking fun at them led the way to freedom and a better existence. Over time, however, irony and irreverence themselves became a cultural norm, and the effect has been enervating rather than liberating. The problem, as one observer put it, is that irony does not offer anything good to replace the hypocrisies it exposes and mocks. No high principle or ideal is any longer invoked in the enterprise. The joke, the put-down, the spoof is everything.
"The profession of philosophy did not always have the narrow and specialized meaning it now has," William Barrett tells us in one of his influential works. "In ancient Greece it had the very opposite: instead of a specialized theoretical discipline, philosophy was a concrete way of life, a total vision of man and the cosmos in the light of which the individual's whole life was to be lived. These earliest philosophers among the Greeks were seers, poets, almost shamans."
"From being well-adjusted for its own sake, what a short step to becoming overadjusted: the public-relations personality of public smile, private blank," the poet Peter Viereck observed forty years ago. In a depersonalized, machine-era, the only personal heroism left is unadjustedness, Viereck argued, but not just any unadjustedness: not that of the bohemian or the maladjusted, but that of the "unadjusted value conserver," of someone who "rejects superficial norms not for rejection's sake but to serve valid ones." Such an orientation has "two reciprocal sides: adjustment to the ages, non-adjustment to the age."
During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. I have treated many hundreds of patients...Among all my patients in the second half of life -- that is to say, over thirty-five -- there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.
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1. The Crowd Is Untruth. "There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there also is the truth, and that in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side," Soren Kierkegaard wrote. Yet this view, he argued, is erroneous: "a crowd in its very concept is the untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction."
2. Sealed Away From Others. "Sealed away from crowds," writes Alain de Botton, "we let the media teach us what other segments of humanity are like and, as a consequence, cannot help but expect that all strangers will be murderers, swindlers, vain celebrities, crooked politicians, and pedophiles, a trend that reinforces impulses to trust only those very few individuals who have been vetted for us by preexisting networks of family and class."
3. Conversational Narcissism. "Conversational narcissism is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America," the sociologist Charles Derber once observed. "It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and coworkers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life."
4. Men Of Words. "Whatever the type," wrote Eric Hoffer, "there is a deep-seated craving common to almost all men of words which determines their attitude to the prevailing order. It is a craving for recognition; a craving for a clearly marked status above the common run of humanity."
Common to [religions] is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.
The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.
The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.
How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.
...[T]he American political system grants parallel sovereignty to both a permanent and a provisional government...
The permanent government, a secular oligarchy...comprises the Fortune 500 companies and their attendant lobbyists, the big media and entertainment syndicates, the civil and military services, the large research universities and law firms. It is this government that hires the country's politicians and sets the terms and conditions under which the country's citizens can exercise their right -- God-given but increasingly expensive -- to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obedient to the rule of men, not laws, the permanent government oversees the production of wealth, builds cities, manufactures goods, raises capital, fixes prices, shapes the landscape, and reserves the right to assume debt, poison rivers, cheat the customers, receive the gifts of federal subsidy, and speak to the American people in the language of low motive and base emotion.
The provisional government is the spiritual democracy that comes and goes on the trend of a political season and oversees the production of pageants. It exemplifies the nation's moral aspirations, protects the citizenry from unworthy or unholy desires, and devotes itself to the mending of the American soul. The tribunes of the people mount the hustings to give voice to as many of the nation's conflicting ideals as can be recruited under the banners of freedom and fitted into the time allowed, ideals so at odds with one another that the American creed rests on the rock of contradiction -- a self-righteously Christian country that supports the world's largest market for pornography and cocaine; a nation of prophets and real estate developers that defines the wilderness as both spiritual retreat and cash advance; the pacifist outcries against the evils of the weapons industry offset by the patriotic demand for an invincible army; a land of rugged individualists quick to seek the safety of decision by committee.
Positing a rule of laws instead of men, the provisional government must live within the cage of high-minded principle, addressing its remarks to the imaginary figure known as the informed citizen or the thinking man, a superior being who detests superficial reasoning and quack remedies, never looks at Playboy, remembers the lessons of history, trusts Bill Moyers, worries about political repression in Liberia, reads (and knows himself improved by) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal...
It is the provisional government that demands the breaking off of trade with China (on the ground that the Chinese shoot political prisoners and make copies of Tom Cruise movies); it is the permanent government that ignores the demand on the ground that too many American manufacturers have become dependent on cheap Chinese labor. The provisional government proposes a constitutional amendment to make abortion a crime against the state; the permanent government discounts the proposal as both foolish and impractical. The provisional government passes mandates for racial preference and affirmative action; the permanent government hires whom it chooses to hire. The provisional government undertakes to guarantee health insurance to every family in America; the permanent government decides the gesture is too expensive.
Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it's hard to think of a historical movement which has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins [than Christianity]. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. The liberal establishment really has nothing whatsoever to fear from it and everything to gain. For the most part, it's become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the rifraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out. The suburbanite response to the anawim, a term which can be roughly translated into American English as 'loser,' is for the most part to flush them off the streets.
This brand of piety is horrified by the sight of the female breast, but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor. It laments the death of a fetus, but is apparently undisturbed by the burning to death of children in Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of U.S. global dominion. By and large, it worships a God fashioned blasphemously in its own image -- a clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessed God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and just north of Mexico, rather than the Yahweh who is homeless, faceless, stateless, and imageless, who prods his people out of their comfortable settlement into the tractless terrors of the desert, and who brusquely informs them that their burnt offerings stink in his nostrils...Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neo-cons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right...
The Christian church has tortured and disemboweled in the name of Jesus, gagging dissent and burning its critics alive. It has been oily, santimonious, brutally oppressive, and vilely bigoted. Morality for this brand of belief is a matter of the bedroom rather than the boardroom. It supports murderous dictatorships in the name of God, views both criticism and pessimism as unpatriotic, and imagines that being a Christian means maintaining a glazed grin, a substantial bank balance, and a mouthful of pious platitudes. It denounces terrorism, but excludes from its strictures such kidnapping, torturing, murdering outfits as the CIA...
This brand of faith fails to see that the only cure for terrorism is justice. It also fails to grasp to what extent the hideous, disfigured thing clamoring at its gates is its own monstrous creation. It is unable to acknowledge this thing of darkness as in part its own, unable to find its own reflection in its distorted visage...It is hard to avoid the feeling that a God as bright, resourceful, and imaginative as the one that might just possibly exist could not have hit on some more agreeable way of saving the world than religion.
I am talking, then, about the distinction between what seems to me a scriptural and an ideological kind of Christian faith -- a distinction which can never simply be assumed but must be interminably argued. One name for this thankless exercise is what Nietzsche, who held that churches were the tombs and sepulchres of God, called in Kierkegaardian phrase saving Christianity from Christendom. Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless. It is not a project which at present holds out much promise of success.
There is something to be said in defense of philosophical vagueness. Strangely assorted people join forces in making fun of it -- Logical Positivists and Catholic Neo-Thomists, Dialectical Materialists and Protestant Neo-Orthodoxists, Behaviorists and Fundamentalists. Despite intense differences of opinion among themselves, they belong to a psychological type which takes special glee in having one's philosophy of life clear-cut, hard, and rigid. They range from the kind of scientist who likes to lick his tongue around the notion of 'brute' facts to the kind of religionist who fondles a system of 'unequivocal dogma.'
There is doubtless a deep sense of security in being able to say, 'The clear and authoritative teaching of the Church is...,' or to feel that one has mastered a logical method which can tear other opinions, and especially metaphysical opinions, to shreds. Attitudes of this kind usually go together with a somewhat aggressive and hostile type of personality which employs sharp definition like the edge of a sword.
There is a place in life for a sharp knife, but there is a still more important place for other kinds of contact with the world. Man is not to be an intellectual porcupine, meeting his environment with a surface of spikes. Man meets the world outside with a soft skin, with a delicate eyeball and eardrum, and finds communion with it through a warm, melting, vaguely defined, and caressing touch whereby the world is not set at a distance like an enemy to be shot, but embraced to become one flesh, like a beloved wife. After all, the whole possibility of clear knowledge depends upon sensitive organs which, as it were, bring the outside world into our bodies, and give us knowledge of that world precisely in the form of our own bodily states.
Hence the importance of opinions, of instruments of the mind, which are vague, misty, and melting rather than clear-cut. They provide possibilities of communication, of actual contact and relationship with nature more intimate than anything to be found by preserving at all costs the 'distance of objectivity.' As Chinese and Japanese painters have so well understood, there are landscapes which are best viewed through half-closed eyes, mountains which are most alluring when partially veiled in mist, and waters which are most profound when the horizon is lost, and they are merged with the sky.