I used to wonder at the deep melancholia to which Evelyn Waugh was subject in the last years of his life. “Papa,” his eldest daughter Meg would plead with him, “why are you so unhappy?” Waugh’s misery, verging on despair, struck me as unwarranted. He had, after all, great literary success, a large and creditable family, a magnificent country home; above all, he had his Faith, which regards despair as a sin. Why was he so unhappy?
Though considerably more ebullient in my own 50’s, I wonder no longer at Waugh’s state of mind. It was life in what he called “the Century of the Common Man” that ground him down, mentally and emotionally, as living on in a world half created by, half designed for, a universalized and universalizing proletariat increasingly oppresses my own spirit, and the spirits of close friends. (Today’s proletariat, armed with cheap contraceptives and a constitutional right to abortion, is no longer fit even for its traditional eponymous activity.)
Every area of American life, whether politics, economics, the arts, journalism, architecture and design, entertainment, sports, cuisine, dress, manners, morals, religion—everything with the obvious exception of the academy—reflects the mass taste and intellect of the American proletariat. While the American government wages perpetual war for perpetual peace internationally, the American public wars on civilized standards and morality at home. In the world’s richest nation, good food and drink are the exception rather than the rule, while a well-prepared meal is nearly impossible to come by at an inexpensive price. In the wealthiest society in the annals of history, the public dresses like slobs, oversized children, poor people, or freaks. In a country that spends billions annually in the attempt at realizing the old republican ideal of universal literacy, education has been commandeered by sports; while the elements of public discourse have been whipped and blended into an evil paste compounded of proletarian taste and ideology (the opiate of the intellectual class, substantially proletarianized itself). What is still the mightiest medical machine ever seen is half-directed toward terminating and tinkering with life rather than with saving and prolonging it, and on pacifying the proletariat with the equivalent of soma tablets; the churches dispense doctrinal soma as the replacement for the old fire and brimstone each Sunday. For generations, the social, intellectual, cultural, and moral aspiration of America has been steadily downward, until aspiration has at last been replaced by the unconscious habit of a people that has struck bottom without ever realizing what they have become. “God must love the common people,” someone has said, “He made so many of them.” The common people, however, are not what we are up against in the United States today. In their stead, a new type of man stands forward under God’s sun: the North American segment of an emerging global community of wealthy proletarians who are the deliberate creation of the social-democratic-therapeutic-corporatist elite that has had a century and more to perfect its designs and develop its product—which doubles, of course, as its market. This New Man is largely devoid of dignity, self-reliance, true piety, and common sense. “[Whether] or not I continue to live in it,” Edmund Wilson wrote in 1963, “[the United States] is no longer the place for me.” Forty years later, there is no place for an Old American like Wilson.
The situation might appear to be old hat in America—old as the New America whose construction commenced immediately after the conclusion of the War Between the States. Henry Adams—on his return to the United States from London, where he had served as private secretary to his father, Minister Charles Francis Adams, for the duration of the war—was quick to observe that
The new Americans, of whom he was to be one, must, whether they were fit or unfit, create a world of their own, a science, a society, a philosophy, a universe, where they had not yet created a road, or even learned to dig their own iron. They had no time for thought; they saw, and could see, nothing beyond their day’s work; their attitude to the universe outside them was that of the deep-sea fish. Above all, they naturally and intensely disliked to be told what to do, and how to do it, by men who took their ideas and their methods from the abstract theories of history, philosophy, or theology. They knew enough to know that their world was one of energies quite new.
Even as he swam in the heavy cream of American society, Adams experienced a fascinated disappointment of the philosophic sort.
Newport was charming, but it asked for no education and gave none. What it gave was much gayer and pleasanter, and one enjoyed it amazingly; but friendships in that society were a kind of social partnership, like the classes at [Harvard]; not education but the subjects of education.
Here, as he so often did, Henry Adams has put his finger on something. What is significant is not the old, old, plaint against “anti-intellectualism in American life.” It is the fact that education in America since about the middle of the old republican era has increasingly had for its primary subject not education but America. (Tocqueville seems to have understood this.) “The mass-man,” Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, “regards himself as perfect.” Now, to apprehend the perfect as closely as possible has always been the aim of education and of learning. It still is. For the Middle Ages, the perfect was God, upon Whom education in that period was focused. For the 20th and 21st centuries—the age of mass democracy—the perfect is recognizable in the phenomenon of the mass-man himself, who consequently becomes the subject, aim, and object of his own education. Himself, therefore, is the only subject he knows. While it is tempting to view the claptrap of politics, television, radio, journalism, and advertising as an exercise in the shameless flattery of the mass-man by his more sophisticated social and intellectual superiors (who expect in this way to win his trust for the purpose of exploiting both him and his wallet), the temptation needs to be resisted—in the interest of truth-in-advertising, so to speak. Because, in mass-democratic America, who is flattering whom? It is more and more difficult to say, in a society dedicated to egalitarianism by self-conscious egalitarians who privately stare down their noses at the teeming mass-men below them without ever suspecting that what they deprecate is only a variant of themselves and that the joke is really on them. For Henry Adams, at any rate, owing perhaps to his self-confessed 18th-century mind, it was no trouble at all to discern the proletarian embryo taking form in the belly of the American social elite as early as 1868.
Because the subject and object of America has for so long been herself (and never more so than when she believes her commitment to be not to herself but to “ideals” like “freedom,” “equality,” “equal opportunity,” and “democracy”), she has failed for nearly as long to recognize standards whose point of reference lies somewhere above her. At least, she has failed to recognize them publicly and to insist upon them. (Perhaps it was on this basis that Mencken judged the otherwise magnificent Teddy Roosevelt to have been “not an aristocrat.”) The failure is caused in part by the cowardliness of what until World War II really was an upper class, if not an aristocracy (fear of being perceived to be sniffish, superior, and aristocratic); its indifference (“What’s the point of trying to set standards for those others—definitely not PLU—in a democracy?”); and the humble origins of much of the leadership class itself.
Michael Oakeshott, explaining why ideology (defined as “the formalized abridgment of the supposed substratum of rational truth contained in the [political] tradition”) and rationalism have come to dominate in modern politics nearly to the exclusion of any other philosophical approach, concluded that “the politics of Rationalism are the politics of the politically inexperienced.” That is to say, rationalism, ideology, and scientific technique applied to politics have a dangerous attraction for modern, postaristocratic, bourgeois politicians who, not having been bred to politics as a family tradition and responsibility, find the formulated political handbook which a rationalist and ideological view of politics provides them to be indispensable. To look to these politicians, and the social classes they represent, for standards beyond those of the merely professional sort is plainly futile; as politicians and as Americans, their values are narrow and solipsistic. Worse, these are abstracted—the product of what Oakeshott calls the habit of reflective thought (as opposed to the habit of affection and behavior), which itself is based on “the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals” and “the reflective observance of moral rules.” By this habit, moral life is reduced to a succession of problems, in response to which the realization of the rule employed toward a recognized end is always preferable to concrete behavior. “Indeed,” Oakeshott notes, “it is not desired, in this form of the moral life, that tradition should carry us all the way; its distinctive value is to be subjecting behaviour to a continuous corrective analysis and criticism.” In these circumstances, the standard of reference—or, for our purposes, the reference for standards—must always be the ideological or the situational one. As with education in Newport at the opening of the Gilded Age, politics is not politics but the subject of politics. (Adams had concluded, “All [in Newport] were doing the same thing, and asking the same question of the future. None could help. Society seemed founded on the law that all was for the best New Yorkers in the best of Newports, and that all young people were rich if they could waltz.”)
Allen Tate thought Henry Adams’ tragedy was that he never quite understood what he was looking for. Of course, he was looking for faith; but faith, for an Adams and especially for an Adams at Henry’s point in the line of descent, was impossible. The Unitarian Church left him cold; the Catholic Church offered him a means to understand both women and philosophical unity through the Virgin Mary, taken as a symbol; while Christianity after two millennia seemed to him no more than a “stupendous failure.” No use, therefore, looking to religion for education in the form of transcendental standards (though for years he believed they might be found in Darwinism). That left only aristocracy—but Adams, again as an Adams, was strongly anti-aristocratic—a prejudice that was confirmed for him by his acquaintance with Lords Palmerston and Russell during his years at the Court of St. James. As for Democracy, the Union, the System of 1789—the old Constitution seemed to Adams to have broken down completely after the great Northern victory to which he had made a (very small) contribution, while the succession of Grant to the office formerly held by his grandfather and great-grandfather suggested that Darwinian evolution was a theory that might almost have been devised by a monkey rather than by a man.
Possibly the problem was that, though Adams was anything but an unself-conscious man, he was not self-conscious in the ordinary way of his compatriots. While the idea that the United States is a propositional or (as Irving Kristol has recently claimed) an ideological nation is patently ahistorical, American society is and always has been intensely self-aware. Yet, to the extent that Henry Adams was self-consciously American, he saw Chaos rather than Progress ahead for his country. “The child born in 1900,” he wrote,
would, then, be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams tried to imagine it, and an education that would fit it. He found himself in a land where no one had ever penetrated before; where order was an accidental relation obnoxious to nature; artificial compulsion imposed on motion; against which every free energy of the universe revolted; and which, being merely occasional, resolved itself back into anarchy at last. He could not deny that the law of the new multiverse explained much that had been most obscure, especially the persistently fiendish treatment of man by man; the perpetual effort of society to establish law, and the perpetual revolt of society against the law it had established; the perpetual building up of authority by force, and the perpetual appeal to force to overthrow it; the perpetual symbolism of a higher law, and the perpetual relapse to a lower one; the perpetual victory of the principles of freedom, and their perpetual conversion into principles of power; but the staggering problem was the outlook ahead into the despotism of artificial order which nature abhorred. The physicists had a phrase for it, unintelligible to the vulgar: “All that we win is a battle—lost in advance—with the irreversible phenomena in the background of nature.”
All that Adams seems to have left out of this picture are the solid bulk and soaring spires of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, standing strong against that same penumbrous background.