Modern man often seems ill at ease. It is as if the world has been broken and the human community shattered into millions of charged particles, attracting or repelling each other in their chance meetings. Some such notion has threatened many of the best (and second best) minds of the past two centuries. For Hegelians, Marxians, and Freudians (among others), the operative concept has been some version of “alienation,” estrangement from others and the world and even one’s self to the point that a man looks upon his very life as only a means to an end that has little to do with himself. Enemies of our civilization, like Fromm and Marcuse, have used “alienation” as weapons in their war against bourgeois society, but the sense of horror is not confined to the radical leadership of the Frankfurt school. Robert Nisbet, both in The Sociological Tradition and in The Quest for Community, has identified something very similar as one of the recurrent themes of conservative thought. Social and spiritual estrangement is touched upon in the most moving passages of T.S. Eliot—I think especially of Ash Wednesday. Hart Crane, in one of his most perplexing and ecstatic poems (“The Broken Tower”) interrupts his celebration of bells to say.
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
A few months later, sailing back from Mexico, he slipped overboard, a lyric poet who failed to create the great American epic, an alcoholic visionary who in the end could not even put the pieces of his life together.
Modern poets who survive—Eliot and Frost—are made of sterner but not necessarily finer stuff than losers like Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. But it is surely a sign of something dreadfully wrong in our moral universe when so many of our best minds drink themselves to death, go mad, or commit suicide. In the examples of Brendan Behan and perhaps even Dylan Thomas, they self-consciously assumed the mantle of the poete maudit and ended up strangling themselves with it. But even in their case, we ought to be interested in why poets should be damned, unless in some sense our civilization itself is doomed.
I wish I knew an answer which might serve as a better “anodyne for torture and despair” than extinction. It may be heresy to suppose that a mere idea can wound or cure the world, although Perceval had but to speak the word and the King and his realm would be cured. There is, at least, one idea and one set of words that has proved in the long run to be very destructive. In my view, it is an idea that is as pernicious as the positive-minded advice the serpent whispered to Eve. I refer to the notion that there is a gap between the realm of fact (or nature) and the realm of value and morality, because it is through this gap that many of the most desperately wrong ideas have entered the world.
Most older schools of thought had taken it for granted that there was some connection between the physical universe (including the bodies and brains of the human species) and the moral universe of right and wrong. In answer to the Athenian sophists, who taught such unedifying doctrines as cultural relativism and “might makes right,” Socrates and Plato turned to an ideal realm of which this world is a mere reflection. Christians (including Platonizing Christians) have usually insisted that this world bears a crude resemblance to the other. While our vision “through a glass darkly” gives only a distorted representation of what we shall see “face to face,” it remains for most of us the best image we have.
Natural theology, as exemplified in Bishop Butler’s masterful Analogy, attempted to derive the moral law from the observable habits of mankind. The fact that, even in the absence of law and order, murderers were killed by the victim’s relatives suggests that the universe was full of moral lessons. In this world, of course, nothing is perfect, but what is a statistical probability in the here and now is assumed to be an absolute in the divine will. In this sense, “Thou shalt do no murder” is not only a prescription; it also contains elements of description. It is as much a statement of fact as Aeschylus’ declaration that “The slayers are slain.”
For some time now it has been the fashion to dismiss this entire line of reasoning. Moral principles have become a matter of individual “values” which can be judged only—if at all—by referring to something like the principle of utility or the bloodless abstraction of human rights. Natural law is replaced by natural rights even before the time of Locke—but that is another, equally dismal story. And all that eventually remained of natural law theory was the simplistic rationality taught by catechists and certain modern conservatives. Right reason, in this view, becomes a sort of pogo stick for jumping across the chasm between nature and nature’s God.
Who deserves the credit for discovering the gulf between fact and value—as unbridgeable as the gulf between heaven and hell—remains uncertain. It is often ascribed, quite erroneously I think, to David Hume. Hume’s famous observation on the curious habits of moralists, who inevitably leaped from statements of “is” to statements of “ought” did not establish a gap between fact and value at all. On the contrary, his main intent was to criticize rationalist accounts of morality. As Alasdair MacIntyre suggested some years ago in a controversial article, Hume consistently ignored the so-called gap between moral and unmoral and, in basing ethics on happiness, could be described as the last Aristotelian. It was, after all, David Hume who declared that “if ever there was anything, which could be called natural . . . the sentiments of morality certainly may.”
Another favorite candidate for broadening (if not initiating) the rupture was G.E. Moore. At the turn of the century, Moore’s Principia Ethica created a sensation by apparently dissociating goodness from nature and reducing it to a matter of irrational “intuitions” and social utility. Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes spread the word, throughout what was to become the Bloomsbury Circle, that morality was largely a question of what we should now call life-styles. In America, Moore may survive principally as one of the major targets of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, but Stephen Clark has argued (decisively, I think) that Moore’s ethics, closer to a Platonist metaphysics than to contemporary relativism, were seriously distorted by his disciples. Whether Hume or Moore or Bentham is to blame, what really counts is the curious belief that the matter is somehow settled. It isn’t settled at all—far from it, as E.O. Wilson has made clear both in his recent Chronicles essay and in an article forthcoming in the journal Philosophy. In addition, Mary Midgeley and Prof Clark himself have more than once examined the natural basis of ethics (see The Nature of the Beast, reviewed in Chronicles, February 1985).
The more pressing question these days is: What happens to ethics if morality is disconnected from nature? One answer seems to be that it dissolves into endless bickering over the meaning of words like “good.” Bernard Williams, an intelligent and honest ethical philosopher, almost throws up his hands in something approaching despair. In a recent book, Ethics and the Limits of Possibility (Harvard University Press), Williams seems to be arguing that formal ethics can neither convert an immoralist nor establish the superiority of one value system over another.
Williams is a stoical and public-spirited gentleman who carries on in the face of an unfeeling and largely irrelevant universe. The rest of us may not be so strong. In an unbroken world (or one less smithereened), the scoffer may still lead a moral life, confident of the rightness of things. David Hume, who rejected the consolations of faith up to his painful end, terrified the credulous and scatterbrained James Boswell. Hume, far more than the pathetic Boswell, was a man of principle, and he read those principles in the order of nature. But when the stars refuse to arrange themselves in shapes and legends, when the beasts no longer speak in fables, and when the trees no longer have anything to tell us (as Proust puts it near the end of his novel), then we must, like Proust himself, confine our attention to the world of men. It is not, however, the hybrid man of our Christian and pagan past—half angel, half ape—but something that is neither: a self-propelled machine, which—in Marx’s phrase—makes its own history. The fate of Lytton Strachey and his friends is an even more repellent story. They began by mocking the Victorians only to find themselves acting out the less inviting chapters of Victorian pornography.
They and their successors have not even that fatal insignificance which the pagans attributed to human life—Pubis et umbra sumus—nothing but dust and dreams, for even in that declaration, human beings achieve a kind of glory. The mechanical men of the philosophers, however—of Hobbes and Marx—or of the social engineers—of Dewey, Watson, and Skinner—or of the sex therapists and libertines, need only to be tuned, polished, and occasionally adjusted; and, when they wear out (and sexual libertarians wear out at an alarming speed), replaced with an improved model.
Even men and women of religious faith are not immune and accept, sometimes with feigned cheerfulness, their estrangement from the universe. We must do right not because it is right but because God wills it. There is, otherwise, neither right nor good in the natural world. Inevitably the creation turns stale and foul; at its best, nothing more than the painted devices of the tempter. We have heard such things before, perhaps in the pages of Irenaeus, where he records the opinions of gnostic heretics. Even the great Origen emasculated himself for fear of pleasure. Many modern believers are doing something similar to their minds.
It is small wonder if many of the most passionate intelligences end up in “despondency and madness.” The list of suicides, drunkards, and lunatics amounts to an honor role of modernism. To set against it, we can put up only a few names like Walter Scott, Goethe, Péguy, Matthew Arnold, perhaps, and Eliot. We might take a melancholy comfort in the likelihood that both lists are dwindling down. The quality of souls, as Screwtape observes, is diminishing, and the net result (God forbid) will be the eclipse not merely of sanity, but also of the half-crazed attempts to break out of the asylum we have built for ourselves.