The unifying preoccupation of (liberal modernity) is the condition of those who see in the social world nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom.
–Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue
From the dawn of history, all over the world, individuals and communities have had to try and restrain the incessant demands of the Ego – hubris, greed, and a self-serving fictional account of reality. Now for the first time in the annals of humankind, a civilisation has arisen that actively encourages the unleashing of the Ego. The world is your oyster – you are free to do and to acquire anything your will might choose.
In his 1985 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America, Daniel Boorstin, described the irony of modern society:
“When we pick up our newspaper at breakfast, we expect – we even demand – that it bring us momentous events since the night before…We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap, and effortless…We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind, and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for ‘excellence’, to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy…to go to a ‘church of our choice’ and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God. Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed.”
The oyster has become a cloister. The freedom promised by Modernity turns out to be epistemological ensnarement, a technological trap, and a moral morass. As great minds have pointed out from the beginning of the modern experiment, our choices have consequences, and our choices are determined by how we see the world.
What comes first in your life? Or, in other words, what is your first principle, your top priority? A simple enough question and most people would probably answer without giving the issue much thought. However, once people become more reflective, they usually find the question seriously challenging, unless of course, they are members of one or other of the major religious traditions, which many in the West today are not.
A person’s worldview is the most salient fact about them because it reveals his or her response to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Sooner or later, we all confront the central issue of what this life is all about, and our response is an indication of how we intend to conduct ourselves in relation to other people and the world at large. The answer we give to the question, whether it is carefully articulated or not, shapes the way we think about everything else.
The unexamined worldview is the greatest civilizational threat we face in the modern West today, corroding community, debilitating democracy, and making rational dialogue, and therefore leadership, all but impossible.
Why do so many people today refuse to examine what is, after all, their most important decision in life, allowing themselves to become the dupes of ideologues and charlatans? What comes first in your life?
The central message a young person today gets from state schooling and the media is that he or she is an autonomous self in a world of autonomous selves, all indifferent to the needs of others, and free to pursue uninterrupted self-gratification. Their commitment to this self-centered ideal is unassailable, and loyalties to family, religion, culture, and nation, which are seen as limitations on individual freedom, are dismantled by the state, which will brook no rivals to its authority.
Classical societies extolled the res publica, the entity that is held in common by all the people; modern liberal democracy has replaced it with what Patrick Deneen calls the res idiotica, an entity that promotes the private individual and selfishness. Hence the consumer society, a world of narcissism, unfettered choice, and transient relationships. State schooling has been a triumph of social control, producing uneducated Hedonists, incapable of allegiance to anything beyond their own immediate desires, and utterly docile in the face of the system that has enslaved them.
G K Chesterton saw what state schooling tries to obscure:
The whole point of education is that it should give a man abstract and eternal standards by which he can judge material and fugitive conditions.
In other words, a proper education helps you understand reality as an integrated whole, to articulate your response, and to continually shape that response, i.e. your worldview, in accordance with your expanding knowledge and developing character.
A riveting account of how a defective worldview can destroy lives is given in J D Vance’s bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book led me to reflect deeply on my own traumatic childhood and the tragic history of the land in which I was raised, as well as on the misguided cultural corruptions of my adopted homeland.
In a review of Vance’s book, Ron Liddle, an associate editor of The Spectator, reflected on the causes of the social dysfunction that political correctness refuses to countenance: “…recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job centre interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them”.
In addition to the decline of religious belief, Liddle identifies two influential ideas from the 1960s, from either side of the political divide, that have contributed to social collapse. On the left, the post-Marxist Frankfurt School of Marcuse, Horkheimer, and Adorno called for the replacement of the bourgeois virtues of hard work, family, civic duty, thrift, and respect by an unrestrained individualism, free from traditional moral norms. On the right, the Chicago School of Hayek and Friedman also championed selfish individualism against the traditional obligations of society, in the belief that greed and conspicuous consumption would promote ever-increasing prosperity.
Both left and right enticed people with the most ancient and universal temptation known to humanity: the belief that one’s ego is the supreme authority in one’s life, that there is no higher law to which all people are subject. Of course, such a belief is utterly destructive of all relationships, and bestows a spurious legitimacy on the principle of “might is right” and whatever tyranny may ensue. The result has been the broken homes, unemployment, exploitation, sloth, debt, poverty, drug abuse, violence, homelessness, and despair that degrade humanity throughout the West.
State schooling and academia continue to process clones who are blissfully unaware of all the conflicting, and therefore instructive, philosophies about what it means to be human and how we might best live in harmony together. All of those contending views are found in the classics of the western canon, and without familiarity with them, one is unlikely to ever develop the knowledge, insight, and discipline required to think for oneself about the challenges of this life.