In the last 20 years, political rule in the United States has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn. This can be seen in total surveillance of the population, in the infiltration of citizen groups, in warrantless wiretapping, in watch lists and no-fly lists, in secret prisons and intimidation of dissidents. These dramatic developments did not occur as an ongoing reaction to September 2001, argues Columbia scholar Bernard Harcourt. They arose out of a new model of governing conceived decades before.
If ever there were truly a human “other,” it is the psychopath -- that person incapable of feeling, incapable of empathy, guilt, remorse; the cold-blooded type who lies and schemes and manipulates others, and who is able to conceal his psychological makeup from the rest of the world. “The presence or absence of conscience is a deep human division,” notes Martha Stout, “arguably more significant than intelligence, race, or even gender.”
The whirl of news and information today has not produced volatility in the economic and political system. In fact, in the latter it seems that nothing ever changes. Why is this? Jean Baudrillard believed the electronic media exert a neutralizing and inertia-producing effect on society – one destructive of meaning and one leaving citizen populations perennially disappointed.
One man thinks pretty much what the man next to him thinks: the human porridge of the traffic accident, weeks ago, or years.
– Thomas Bernhard, Frost
The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition...always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.
– Roland Barthes, “Modern,” in The Pleasure of the Text
It is rather an over-simplified idea that “to succeed” is to bear fruit, and therefore to give proof of the fact that psychologically and morally you are not a failure. This is a very old illusion, already denounced by Socrates: mistaking external success, which depends on a great many ingredients extraneous to ethical life – good connections, cleverness, good luck, ruthlessness, and so forth – for genuine “success” in the metaphysical sense…which consists in having, as Socrates said, a “good and beautiful soul.”
– Jacques Maritain, Reflections On America
In Bucharest I met lots of people, many interesting people, especially losers, who would show up at the cafe, talking endlessly and doing nothing. I have to say that, for me, these were the most interesting people there. People who did nothing all their lives, but who otherwise were brilliant.
– Emil Cioran, cited by philosopher Costica Bradatan
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that's Moses, not Jesus. I haven't heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon?
– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country
Direct political action through voting and lobbying can help bring modest and temporary changes, but are more effective as psychological balm for those who engage in them than as agencies of lasting and significant change, because the very focus upon politics in a narrow sense takes the existing institutional framework for granted and so reinforces it.
– Murray Edelman, Constructing The Political Spectacle
This world no longer needs explaining, critiquing, denouncing. We live enveloped in a fog of commentaries and commentaries on commentaries, of critiques and critiques of critiques of critiques, of revelations that don’t trigger anything, other than revelations about the revelations. And this fog is taking away any purchase we might have on the world.
– The Invisible Committee, Now
What if no one or nothing were worth saving anymore? What if the path to truth lay in absconding from society, in refusing to be “someone,” to play a part, strike a pose, sell or consume, to click on anything or even to speak out? A negative volition, or velleity: the sense that life can no longer be consummated through the established social channels; that the world as it exists inhibits meaningful experiences rather than produces them.
"Something in us wishes to remain a child,” Carl Jung observed, “to be unconscious or, at most, conscious only of the ego; to reject everything strange, or else subject it to our will.”
“The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature,” wrote Bertrand Russell in this influential essay. “The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendor, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men.”
Contrary to what is often supposed, depression may not be some “disease” that needs to be extirpated from the mind; it might instead be a natural reaction to one's social surroundings and situation – the healthy suspicion that the life people have actually created, the “structure of society,” is not one worth participating in. The aim then would be not to kill this suspicion but to tame it and work with it.
"It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much,” Seneca observed. “Life is long enough and our allotted portion generous enough for our most ambitious projects if we invest it all carefully. But when it is squandered through luxury and indifference, and spent for no good end, we realize it has gone before we were aware it was going.”
“Nothing is more common today than the complaint that the ideals raised by fantasy are not being realized, that these glorious dreams are being destroyed by cold actuality,” Hegel wrote. “We must not fall into the litany of lamentation, about how the good and pious often fare ill in the world, while the evil and wicked prosper.” Is there a chink in the armor of this reasoning, or might Hegel actually have a point?
“A traveler who had seen many countries and peoples and several continents was asked what human traits he had found everywhere; and he answered: men are inclined to laziness. Some will feel that he might have said with greater justice: they are all timorous. They hide behind customs and opinions. At bottom, every human being knows very well that he is in this world just once, as something unique, and that no accident, however strange, will throw together a second time into a unity such a curious and diffuse plurality: he knows it, but hides it like a bad conscience -- why?”
Maybe we like to think different, but the world leaves us long before we leave it…for good. One fine day you decide to talk less and less about the things you care most about, and when you have to say something, it costs you an effort. You’re good and sick of hearing yourself talk. You abridge. You give up. For thirty years you’ve been talking. You don’t care about being right anymore. You even lose your desire to keep hold of the small place you’d reserved yourself among the pleasures of life. You’re fed up. From that time on you’re content to eat a little something, cadge a little warmth, and sleep as much as possible on the road to nowhere. To rekindle your interest, you’d have to think up some new grimaces to put on in the presence of others. But you no longer have the strength to renew your repertory. You stammer…We’re nothing now but an old lamppost with memories on a street where hardly anyone passes anymore.
(The following excerpt from Mumford’s work, The Conduct of Life, appeared on this site over ten years ago. Though written as a reaction to events unfolding in the first half of the last century, it has lost none of its force and resonance today. The devitalization of the res publica and the abasement of the human subject were already apparent to Mumford. So too, perhaps, was the sense of social processes in play that would lead not to a reversal of trends but to an exacerbation of them.)
“...life itself, for the ordinary man…has become less interesting and less significant: it is at best a mild slavery, and at its worst, the slavery is not mild. Why should anyone give to the day’s work the efforts and sacrifices it demands? By his very success in inventing labor-saving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged classes in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed: the small variations, the minor initiatives and choices, the opportunity for using one’s wits, the slightest expression of fantasy, have disappeared progressively from the daily tasks of the common man, caught in big organizations that do his thinking for him. The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that, apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, it is not humanly interesting.
“...our mechanized culture has produced a pervasive sense of frustration. No one can possibly know more than a fragment of all that might be known, see more than a passing glimpse of all that might be seen, do more than a few random, fitful acts, of all that might, with the energies we now command, be done: there is a constant disproportion between our powers and our satisfactions. The typical role of the personality today is an insignificant one: non-commanding, unpurposeful. The walls of the outer shell of our life have thickened, and the creature within has diminished in size in order to accommodate himself to this inimical overgrowth.
“The contents of modern man’s daydreams too closely resemble those of Bloom in Ulysses, filled with the dead tags of newspaper editorials, the undigested vomit of advertising slogans, greasy crumbs of irrelevant information, and the choking dust of purposeless activity. The duty to become part of this chaos, to keep up with it, to accept it internally, is the bitter duty of modern man…Unfortunately, the more busy the mental traffic, the emptier becomes the resultant life: therefore the more abjectly dependent the individual atom in this society becomes upon the very stimuli which – though they have, in fact, caused his emptiness – divert his attention from his plight.”
The modern-minded man, although he believes profoundly in the wisdom of his period, must be presumed to be very modest about his personal powers. His highest hope is to think first what is about to be thought, to say what is about to be said, and to feel what is about to be felt; he has no wish to think better thoughts than his neighbors, to say things showing more insight, or to have emotions which are not those of some fashionable group, but only to be slightly ahead of others in point of time. Quite deliberately he suppresses what is individual in himself for the sake of the admiration of the herd. A mentally solitary life, such as that of Copernicus, or Spinoza, or Milton after the Restoration, seems pointless according to modern standards. Copernicus should have delayed his advocacy of the Copernican system until it could be made fashionable; Spinoza should have been either a good Jew or a good Christian; Milton should have moved with the times…Why should an individual set himself up as an independent judge? Is it not clear that wisdom resides in the blood of the Nordic race or, alternatively, in the proletariat? And in any case what is the use of an eccentric opinion, which never can hope to conquer the great agencies of publicity?
The money rewards…which those agencies of publicity have made possible places temptations in the way of able men which are difficult to resist. To be pointed out, admired, mentioned constantly in the press, and offered easy ways of earning much money is highly agreeable; and when all this is open to a man, he finds it difficult to go on doing the work that he himself thinks best and is inclined to subordinate his judgment to the general opinion.
The passages below are excerpted from The Pocket Thomas Merton, edited by Robert Inchausti (Boston & London: New Seeds, 2015), pp. 24, 32-33, 48-49, and 100-102.
“The problem is to learn how to renounce resentment without selling out to the organization people who want everyone to accept absurdity and moral anarchy in a spirit of uplift and willing complicity.”
“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios.”
“If we are fools enough to remain at the mercy of the people who want to sell us happiness, it will be impossible for us ever to be content with anything. How would they profit if we became content? We would no longer need their new product.”
“The basic inner moral contradiction of our age is that, though we talk and dream about freedom…though we fight wars over it, our civilization is strictly servile. I do not use this term contemptuously, but in its original sense of ‘pragmatic,’ oriented exclusively to the useful, making use of means for material ends. The progress of technological culture has in fact been a progress in servility, that is in techniques of using material resources, mechanical inventions, etc., in order to get things done. This has, however, two grave disadvantages. First, the notion of the gratuitous and the liberal (the end in itself) has been lost. Hence we have made ourselves incapable of that happiness which transcends servility and simply rejoices in being for its own sake. Such ’liberality’ is in fact completely foreign to the technological mentality as we have it now (though not necessarily foreign to it in essence). Second, and inseparable from this, we have in practice developed a completely servile concept of man. Our professed ideals may still pay lip service to the dignity of the person, but without a sense of being and a respect for being, there can be no real appreciation of the person. We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being.”
“The monastic life is in a certain sense scandalous. The monk is precisely a man who has no specific task. He is liberated from the routines and servitudes of organized human activity in order to be free. Free for what? Free to see, free to praise, free to understand, free to love. This ideal is easy to describe, much more difficult to realize…The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God. He does not live in order to exercise a specific function: his business is life itself. This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a level of awareness, a depth of consciousness, an area of transcendence and of adoration which are not usually possible in an active secular existence…The monk seeks to be free from what William Faulkner called ‘the same frantic steeplechase toward nothing’ which is the essence of ‘worldliness’ everywhere.”
The necessity for the name “God” lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize. And the nemesis which has overtaken naturalism in our day has revealed the peril of trying to suppress them. As Tillich puts it,
Our period has decided for a secular world. That was a great and much-needed decision…It gave consecration and holiness to our daily life and work. Yet it excluded those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence, and the invincible power of an unconditional devotion. These things cannot be excluded. If we try to expel them in their divine images, they re-emerge in daemonic images. Now, in the old age of our secular world, we have seen the most horrible manifestations of these daemonic images; we have looked more deeply into the mystery of evil than most generations before us; we have seen the unconditional devotion of millions to a satanic image; we feel our period’s sickness unto death.
There are depths of revelation, intimations of eternity, judgements of the holy and the sacred, awarenesses of the unconditional, the numinous and the ecstatic, which cannot be explained in purely naturalistic categories without being reduced to something else. There is the “Thus saith the Lord” heard by prophet, apostle and martyr for which naturalism cannot account. But neither can it discount it merely by pointing to the fact that “the Lord” is portrayed in the Bible in highly mythological terms, as one who “inhabits eternity” or “walks in the garden in the cool of the evening.” The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of “what you take seriously without any reservation,” of what for you is ultimate reality. [Emphasis in original.]
In Man And His Symbols (1964, pp.48-49), Carl Jung offers this observation about the many people he had either known or counseled over the course of his life:
"I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. I was also surprised to find many intelligent and wide-awake people who lived (as far as one could make out) as if they had never learned to use their sense organs: They did not see the things before their eyes, hear the words sounding in their ears, or notice the things they touched or tasted. Some lived without being aware of the state of their own bodies.
"There are others who seemed to live in a most curious condition of consciousness, as if the state they had arrived at today were final, with no possibility of change, or as if the world and the psyche were static and would remain so forever. They seemed devoid of all imagination, and they entirely and exclusively depended upon their sense-perception. Chances and possibilities did not exist in their world, and in 'today' there was no real 'tomorrow'. The future was just the repetition of the past."
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 riffraff 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, sanctimonious, 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.
The following is an excerpt from Marjorie Grene's essay "Martin Heidegger" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ms. Grene passed away in March 2009; she wrote some two dozen books, among which are works on Sartre and Heidegger.
The "darkening of the world" is Heidegger's constant theme. So, for example, in Holzwege ("Woodpaths," 1950), he tells us that we live in the age of research, of the planned, systematic coordination of intellectual tasks. And what sort of tasks can be planned and coordinated? Neat, limited, manageable tasks -- tasks, primarily, that demand inventiveness rather than understanding, tasks for engineering know-how rather than theoretical insight. Heidegger draws no line between pure and applied science. Science for him is research, and research is a procedure for solving well-packaged problems. Such problems are, in general, those of manufacture, of inventing new and better gadgets. According to Heidegger, das Herstellbare, the collection of gadgets, is what we are after; that is what specialization, the rigid departmental structure of expertise in our society, amounts to. And all this vast proliferation of technical skills nevertheless has its inner unity -- that is, its historical and metaphysical unity. It had to happen this way. It had to happen this way because we are fallen out of Being. We are more concerned with beings, from genes to space ships, than with our true calling, which is to be shepherds and watchers of Being. So it is that we are lost, and Being itself has become a haze and an error -- nothing.