It is happening to me.
That thing that every young man swears will never happen to him—that change in views, that shift from waving the skull-and-crossbones flag of the young radical to wondering whether there might have been something to the turgid pronouncements of his elders after all, way back when—followed by exhumations and a desperate searching of their corpses’ half-rotted pockets, in search of any hastily-scrawled note from the past that might, thanks to their having anticipated, in their wisdom, this moment, provide some tiny measure of enlightenment.
Half the world is in an uproar about The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, but after reading it, I am edified. I am where he was, I think, when he adopted his position on the Iraq War, or when he began to debate and ride with evangelicals to try to understand their worldview.
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The narrative goes that people reach a certain stage in life and ask, “is this all there is?” It is at that point that they—again, the story goes—search for God.
As a young person, I took this to mean that at some point people fear death and seek the afterlife. I was wrong. As usual, the differend that exists between the young and old rendered the nature and spirit of the question entirely opaque to me. It has nothing to do with the afterlife.
It has everything to do with the present.
“Is this all there is?” is an indictment of one’s own philosophy, and one’s own “freedom” in the world. It is not to ask, “Is this seventy or eighty years of human existence to end in nothingness?” but rather to admit that, “The entirety of the philosophy that I have espoused appears to lead not to less human suffering, but to more of it, and I do not understand why. Perhaps I have missed something? I have the sneaking, yet growing, suspicion that I have long mistaken nihilism for liberation!”
— § —
I am changing. I don’t know the outcome of this change yet, but I awake to the fact that my politics and personal philosophy of an entire adult life are empirically bad in their outcomes. And, given modern history, that the very ideas of politics and philosophy appear to be empirically bad in their outcomes, no matter the positions.
When it comes to the Frankfurt School, people get caught up in questions about whether figures like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer were really sociologists or scholars or were merely sophists; critiques abound regarding the historical accuracy or logical integrity of the arguments and narratives that they offered.
I am increasingly persuaded by them on different counts, and by a great many others as well who I now find to be in solidarity with them.
The point is not the mechanics of the argument or in the fidelity of the evidence, but rather in the creeping bankruptcy of appeals to mechanics and evidentiary fidelity in the first place. Given that these are things of the enlightenment, we can say that without being too flip that the enlightenment returns in each life as a barrier, in the end, to enlightenment.
I don’t mean to sound mystical, or to come off as a person that rejects science or knowledge.
Far from it.
What I do mean to suggest is that there do exist things—tradition, history, collectivity, and social order being chief amongst them—that the enlightenment tends to dismiss as epiphenomena or as objects of neutrality and no particular concern—that are in fact critical to a better life.
Walter Benjamin saw this best.
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Advocates claim that the value of Christianity, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Islam, is in their doctrine, their moral guidance, their effects on and for suffering selves. This may or may not be true and I don’t want to quibble on this point, because I want to move on to another point:
Their value is at least as fundamentally in their cultural hegemony. This is the crux of where I have been wrong. I have spent many years, as have many other young people, in quixotic battles against hegemony and all similar tyrannies. But in fact, the tyranny is also liberation.
We are social animals. And we are adrift. While critics of religion point to the countless wars for which it has been responsible, they fail to note that at the moment we also have countless wars to attend to and yet all without the benefit of solidarity and belonging in a national (I do not mean this in the geopolitical sense) consciousness of our own. In short, with religion you experience belonging and stability at home, and regrettable war abroad. Without it, you still experience regrettable war abroad, but also atomization and its resulting and regrettable wars at home.
The church of the enlightenment or of the modern secular nation, stripped of its past and its shared and venerated myths, cannot, as a matter of its nature, replace the social church (in whatever its form) as a force of interpellation into the order of society and the security and meaning of the collective. And far from being a bad thing, this interpellation is generative, edifying, and necessary.
The strongest impulse in modernity is to be an independent, self-buttressed atom, standing strong in the miasma of the seven billion. What a strange impulse this is!
— § —
I am now far afield. I’ll return to my point of origin.
My worldview is shifting. Some would say that I am becoming more “conservative,” but I would dispute this claim. I took the political compass test and scored just as far left as I ever have. Where I am shifting is in the balance on the other axis, between liberty and authority.
I am farther than ever from the “liberty” side, well into “authority” territory. Because there must be authority, not to “keep the peace and to exercise power,” but in fact to “understand my life and the lives of others, and to have access to a predictable framework in which to make the most of it.” This cannot be the authority of facts-on-the-ground, in the enlightenment sense, because things cannot truly wield authority. Authority is bound up with identity, hierarchy, and will.
The self cannot sacralize its own meanings. Sacredness is a function of the collective. If the collective is lost, so, too, goes the sacred. And as Durkheim suggests, this is neither good for person or for public.
A society without authority is a society in (at the very least) continuous, low-level chaos and anomie—and these are the essential parents of suffering. When it stands alone, the enlightenment is a nihilistic enterprise. I see Adorno’s arguments in new light these days.
We confuse authority with domination, but in fact the two are opposites. It is in the absence of authority that domination occurs; conversely, to defer with comfort of conscience to authority is a qualitatively different experience than that of being dominated. By chasing authority out of the human universe on rational grounds, we have assured ourselves of irrational domination.
I increasingly see this not as a conservative view, but simply an open-eyed one.
My reading of the Hitchens book is that he was in much the same place—increasingly realizing that to reach A from B, there must actually be a path from A to B, one that is not in evidence either on the left or the right today. They disagree in ways that are immaterial, whatever the choice, to the need at hand, and agree in ways that are contrary to it.
Without the force of tradition and traditional meaning, we are lost.
Interestingly, Christopher’s brother, Peter Hitchens, has written a book that appears to implicitly bear this question in some way (I am only about a third of the way through the book), though I am still trying to figure out why I believe this. Both Hitchens brothers seem to have been searching for the same thing in life. They went about it in different ways, but at the core was the sense of something important that was either badly needed or had become lost, much to the detriment of humanity.
I suspect now that Peter was closer to finding it, and that Christopher was beginning to come around—not necessarily to religion, but to the notion that you can’t reason your way out of injustice; it must, rather, be a historically grounded exercise.