“It’s awesome”: A young relative of mine loves the word and uses it profusely. Since she applies it to a restaurant or a vacuum cleaner she finds extraordinary, I doubt she realizes its real meaning. This is a typical instance of the degeneracy of a word caused by the search for quick superlatives, and mainly by the loss of the idea it used to convey.
Awe is nothing new to mankind. I would venture to say it is one of the most primeval feelings that mankind has known. “The eternal silence of infinity frightens me,” wrote Pascal: Homo sapiens was born an animal fully aware of his frailty as opposed to the mysterious might lying within the world around him, the obvious disproportion between that speck which is the individual and the foreboding infinity of the unknown which constitutes the universe. But the more man became interested in ordering his thoughts, the more his terrors must have become mingled with admiration and reverence. In spite of the apparent chaos to which he so often fell victim, he could not but observe the order prevailing above his head, the apparently immutable harmony of the stars’ movements—indicative of a universal order underlying the world around him. How could reverence not have accompanied dread, as he had only to raise his eyes to observe great bodies whose overwhelming masses seemed to obey laws so submissively that their course could be predicted? How could the universe fail to appear in his eyes not as sheer might, oppressive because unintelligible, but as a cosmos in which everything was meant to come to terms with everything else, in which everything seemed to have its particular place and function, and whose prime laws were therefore proportion and measure, so that everything might be commensurate with everything else? In other words, I think the human feeling of awe is just another name for the feeling that man is a mere part of a body which overwhelmingly surpasses his stature, and whose magnitude and power cannot but overcome his soul, but in which, because he is able to understand it is not chaos but harmony between its parts, he may nevertheless feel somehow at home, and comply with whatever he can grasp of the universal order not only to fulfill his own nature, which is to have a role in the universal play, but to proclaim his distinctive dignity as the only being able to understand he has a role to play.
Rooted in awe is another feeling of crucial importance: humility. Humility is not self-disparagement; it is because one is aware of one’s specific ability that one is driven to realize he is not fit for everything. But such a feeling could not arise were it not for the inner conviction that all things are as they are in order to be compatible with all the others—i.e., the conviction that all have a function which is their nature, and which they have to fulfill for the sake of the whole. Humility is a sense of measure. But such a conviction in its turn rests upon another: the conviction that the whole is best as it is, and that the mere idea of changing it is not only sacrilegious but sheer madness
The sense of awe and the virtue of humility are foreign to our contemporaries. Any man is believed to be fit for anything, though perhaps he is in need of some training.
Not that such feelings abounded profusely before the birth of modernity. They did not, for the very simple reason that, contrary to the notion now popular, freedom is not necessarily a good thing per se, but a gift of a very ambiguous nature, a curse as well as a blessing. It is a dignity if understood as enabling a man to do of his own consent what his reason tells him he should do. But freedom is a curse if it is considered as a power to deny that there are things men should or should not do in nature’s course, let alone to deny the very idea that things in general, and men in particular, have a nature. In other words, freedom inevitably involves a temptation to see oneself as entitled to do as one pleases, and, instead of trying to discover what may be one’s specific part in the universal concert, to see one’s freedom as the right to have no part to play, or only that which suits one’s fancy.
For centuries the notion was dominant that license was not the highest but the lowest form of freedom, and even when life was not exempt from toil and sorrow, it was common wisdom that the awesome harmony of the universe should serve as a model to frame a moral and social order among men.
Now it looks as if men have at last yielded to the eternal temptation, and what used to be a vice has become a virtue: To think freedom must stoop to a so-called natural order is now the mark of a damnable obscurantism. God is dead, and everything is permitted, the only legitimate order that may prevail among men being the only one that is unfortunately necessary to discourage them from harming one another. Willy-nilly, what was for centuries considered a degenerate freedom now prevails as natural. Only voluntary blindness can ignore or deny that such freedom is implicitly exalted in the only religion that is now truly universal: the religion of progress, which acknowledges only two divinities, science and democracy.
Modern men see the science they keep perfecting as the only human knowledge to have reached into the depths of the only important reality, the one man can manipulate, and see their technical achievements as the implementation of a dream nurtured by mankind since its infancy. To be sure, no ancient Greek ever set foot on the moon, but the real point is whether any ancient Greek ever dreamed of doing that—not to mention that he would likely have recoiled at the very notion. It must be realized that there are two entirely contradictory ways of understanding science. According to one, the goal of science is to discover the inner and mysterious forces governing the universe, in order not to interfere with them, and even to learn how to admire their interplay. (To Plato there was continuity between mathematics and philosophy, because the law of the universe was measure and proportion.) According to the other, a true scientist must ignore all such speculation as just so many uninteresting products of a human intellect having yet to attain its mature state, and must concentrate exclusively on discovering mere regularity among observable facts, so as to be able eventually to act upon them for practical purposes—that is, to fulfill whatever men see as their needs. To know, so as to be able to predict; to be able to predict, so as to be able to make things happen is the typical scientist’s motto. Mathematics has nothing to do with the essence of reality; it is just a tool that happens—who cares why—to work effectively to describe phenomena in precise terms. Now, in this basic difference lies the germ of two equally basic and opposite attitudes toward nature. One leads to wisdom, the realization that there are things men cannot do without introducing lethal disorder (chaos) into the order of the universe. The other prompts men to dream of mastering the basically meaningless course of the universe. Inasmuch as the latter attitude is obviously the modern one, it is no wonder awe has become rare in our times.
The cult of democracy has exactly the same effect. It is one thing to deplore the tyranny of some individuals over their fellow men, one thing to fight oppression and claim all men have an inalienable right to freedom. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ”) It is an entirely different thing to define what is actually meant by human freedom whenever it is exalted as the prime endowment of each man, which is the gist of democracy. It should be standard knowledge—which it is not anymore—that there are again two entirely contradictory conceptions of human freedom. There is what I would call the classical one, which holds that to say man is free means that it is against man’s nature to be ordered around like a robot or a tool; that he is entitled to be given some understanding of what he is to do or think, or ought to do or think; but that he is not entitled to act as he pleases. And then there is the other conception of freedom, a simplistic and therefore perennial one, everlastingly hounding mankind: To be free is precisely to do or think as one pleases, and therefore to be able to overcome all obstacles, physical or moral, to one’s fancies, to one’s impulses, however irrational they may be.
Civilization has always basically consisted in an effort to rein in such freedom, to oppose license and liberty. In this sense, one may say the progress of democracy is the regression of civilization. As unpopular as this truth may be, it should be obvious that at the core of the democratic idea is an implicit defense of unfettered freedom (what the Greeks would have called hubris). Indeed, perfect democracy defines itself, and is universally acclaimed, as the only regime in which the people are actually sovereign. But while this standard definition of democracy is constantly hailed, there are precious few who realize what the word actually means. It is not only a vague slogan used against the monarchical principle. The reason for its profound and lasting impact on the average citizen is that the word conveys what may be the dream of all human dreams: that nothing can ever be superior to the will of the individual human being. Behind the thin veil of the phrase “the will of the people” two ideas are visible to whoever wants to see. First, since the people is nothing but an aggregate of human beings, man’s will should reign supreme, and nothing should preempt it. And second, since the people is nothing but an aggregate of individuals, each individual, as a member of the sovereign body, should be a sovereign. (How they may all be sovereign at the same time constitutes the insoluble riddle of democracy.) But then, what is a sovereign individual if not an individual for whom there is no taboo, no eternal law preexisting his will, no obstacle of any kind he shouldn’t be able to overcome if he is so inclined? And, we may conclude, what is such an individual if not a being for whom the word humility does not even begin to make sense?
Modern science and democracy work hand in hand to beget a new man, an animal who respects nothing, and is particularly impervious if not hateful toward the notion of a nature of things. Such acts as homosexual marriage, abortion, and soon euthanasia, as well as the interference with the most primeval forces of nature, or playing Dr. Frankenstein with human bodies, display the most patent lack of awe and humility. They are the logical offspring of the new goddesses of the West.
Some may object at this point that environmentalists hail nature and the necessity of respecting it. Set aside the fact that these people are at heart more politically minded than anything else—or, to put it succinctly, more red than green, and sometimes grossly so. (The Greens of France are currently pushing for war against Syria’s government. What has that to do with ecology?) What strikes me is that they are, if not atheists pure and simple, at least adamantly opposed to Christian values. For them returning to nature is returning not to a discipline in the manner of the wise men of ancient Greece, but to a way of life devoid of constraint, and respecting nature is respecting a reservoir of goodies that is unfortunately not limitless, and must be pumped sparingly. They are on the same warpath as Rousseau and Thoreau, who hated society because it did not allow them to live carefree like gods. How could one discern awe and humility among them?
Others might wonder, who cares anyway? Lack of awe is unimportant, and the whole issue is moot. I beg to differ: The progressive vanishing of awe and humility is the living proof that our Western societies are dying.
Indeed the belief in a natural order conditions two crucial things: each man’s ability to achieve his own nature, and his chance to establish a viable society with others.
Given the ambivalent nature of man’s freedom, the lack of awe conditions each one to see himself as a world unto himself, to live within his own subjective little universe without any goal other than the satisfaction of his impulses or fancies. Which means to lose what makes man a man: the particular ability to detach himself from himself, called thinking. This is exactly the case with those whose lot is to be confined in mental hospitals.
Moreover, animals have instincts that limit their desires, whereas man’s freedom allows him to long for a world that would be only what he wishes it to be. How can there be any true society amid such depraved animals? A human society is a strange thing: It is supposed to comprise citizens, each one different, because each is endowed with freedom and therefore somehow unique, but nevertheless united with others as members of the same body. And the resolution of such a contradiction is only possible because each is satisfied to fulfill a function useful to the life of the whole. But whence could the average citizen derive such satisfaction? It must be because he realizes it is the nature of all things, of all living beings, and still more of thinking beings, to participate in a whole that he is inclined to revere as the only thing capable of encompassing such tremendous diversity: a universe by which he feels awed. Otherwise, society is just an unstable balance among competing solitary individuals, each one having no reason, other than his own personal interest, to be sociable, and no other reason to respect his neighbors than the fear of retaliation. Then society is but war by other means.