Paradoxically, Westerners of every faith and political opinion seem perennially unhappy with Western society, despite the West’s assurance that it is the best, most fair, most free, most enlightened, and most humane way of life in human history. The left faults Western institutions because they seem to it insufficiently fair and progressive, too much influenced by the right; the right, because the liberal establishment refuses to confront and rein in the left but instead indulges and encourages it. There never has been a time, in fact, when modern society measured up for everybody, when some grave complaint was not being leveled against it. The current protest is that Western society is deformed by social and economic inequality, and growing rapidly more so. Having recently discovered this fact, our sitting President, whose income last year commanded eight digits, has announced that inequality will be his party’s unifying and offensive theme in this election year of 2014.
Certain Republicans and other enemies of the democracy have noted that, in a society whose poorest members, illegal as well as legal, are far better off than the great majority of the planet’s seven billion people, material inequality is not the soundest standard by which to measure the public welfare, and that, in any case, the federal government’s highly self-interested definition of poverty needs to be taken with a grain of salt and a ton of suspicion. (It is implausible to designate a family whose income pays for widescreen televisions, several cellphones, a couple of serviceable vehicles, and groceries enough to maintain a condition of obesity among its members as “poor.”) A columnist for the Wall Street Journal speculated recently on the moral and practical significance of the One Percent’s substantial increase in wealth in the context of an economy that permits the large majority a slower rate of material progress. The princely expenditures of the One Percent, for instance, have not been sufficient to force a rise in the price of staples such as food, fuel, clothing, and public utilities, and indeed the economy is not currently suffering from inflation. So long as one is comfortable, even well off, how is one harmed by others’ enjoyment of fortunes that are literally unimaginable for most people? If the answer is not at all, then the wealth of a Gates or a Dimon is plainly none of anyone’s else business.
Yet for a polity that passes (and passes itself off) as a democracy, the matter is not so simple. For one thing, a necessary adjunct of democracy is democratic politicians, more accurately described as agitators comparable to the sort these politicians have historically condemned as anarchists, Bolsheviks, and populists. The partisans of modern democracy decided some time ago that it needed “dreams” to support and direct it, and the people who exploit those dreams for their own purposes are the democratic politicians, specially skilled in creating political structures and projects ostensibly to realize those dreams but in fact to extend their own reach and increase their power. That is what one might call the vulgar explanation for the discontents of democracy, the stubbornly painful itch that tells democratic liberals that too much is never enough, that “we” must do more, that there is always a new “war” to be fought, a new crusade to be launched in the name of democracy. The intellectually respectable one is naturally more sophisticated.
The contemporary French political theorist Pierre Manent proposes “four great ‘versions of the universal,’” which he identifies as Jewish law, Greek philosophy, the Christian Church, and the modern concept of humanity. These “versions,” Manent suggests, really amount to four different answers to the question of God. The first three he describes as attempts to embrace the “highest idea” of which men are capable, and the fourth to grasp the “largest” idea, which is simply humanity itself, following man’s deliberate rejection of the “highest” one. Manent argues that each of these “versions” requires “mediation” between the gods, or the sacred, and human beings, and that this “mediation” is the “version” itself. Before the Reformation, the Catholic Church performed this necessary role of mediation; in early modern Europe, the confessional state did. But since the French Revolution, the nation-state has become less capable of mediation to the degree that it has been progressively secularized, leaving the modern state today considerably more fragile than the confessional state it replaced in the 18th and 19th centuries. With the eclipse and finally the institutional rejection of Christianity, humanity itself became the sole legitimate reference point for the West. But in producing the new democratic nation, humanity as a type of mediation exhausted itself and with it its own political significance; it ceased to be “an effective political resource” with any practical or even possible political agendum to realize. Rather, as Manent observes, “Today among Europeans humanity is the reference point that can be immediately opposed to every effective political undertaking or action.” All that remains are empathy, sentimentality, “compassion,” and the appropriate moral posturing and display.
Pierre Manent is describing the result of the last great political project of Western history, the self-divinization of man. Republican democratic thought committed itself to this path at least as early as Rousseau, who directly anticipated the modern project of radical autonomy, individual self-realization, and self-invention by actually proposing it. The French Revolution undertook the murderously fanatical extension of that project, the reinvention of society at large and of human nature itself. Beginning with the Jacobin assault, great nations—in the West at first, later internationally—succeeded miniscule, heretical religious sects as the chief inventors and proponents of millennialist schemes. The logic is clear enough. If man is a divine being, he requires and deserves his heaven to dwell in—a perfect environment appropriate to his perfected nature, a heaven at least as glorious as the New Jerusalem promised by Christ and sketched in vaguest outline by Saint Paul. Even moderns understand that, if God exists, He must be perfect; if humanity is god, men must be perfect also. Liberals see as clearly as anyone, in a sense more clearly than conservatives, that men are far from perfect, and that great effort is required to perfect them, despite significant progress made in this endeavor since the Enlightenment. The work is necessary for the material and social benefits it would theoretically bring; it is essential also to the wider liberal agenda. Liberals, much as they deplore the fact, understand that human beings have an instinctive need to worship and that, if they are to be induced to worship themselves, those selves, individually and collectively, must be perfect (or at least appear so).
Without supernatural aid, perfection comes hard for men. The struggle is therefore an arduous one, likely to last until long after the terms of most living politicians have ended. So much to do, so little time to do it. In the meanwhile, the ungodly circumstances in which the Sons of Men continue to live increasingly strike devotees of the religion of humanity as an insult and, even worse, a humiliation. With dwindling patience and ever greater urgency, they press the struggle, in the face of the inevitable failures to which the plans of mice and men are subject and the recalcitrance of bad, blind, selfish, and unimaginative creatures, Bernard Shaw’s unevolved Neanderthals, to compel us to be worthy of ourselves. If only there really were a Hell for these people to be cast into! But there are reeducation camps to confine their twisted psyches in life, while after their deaths their names can be struck from the history books and immortality denied them as, weary step by step, humanity ascends along the steep road to the man-made paradise under construction.
Society can be only as perfect as its members. But the modern notion of perfection is concerned with “ethics,” not morality; ideational correctness, not intellectual accomplishment or refinement; and physical rather than spiritual health.
Victims of modern dental hygiene resigned themselves long ago to browbeating by the adepts of dentistry into mute acceptance of the ideal of perfect teeth and gums as the highest moral imperative. For an hour or more after the patient’s release from the dental chair, the impression persists that oral abuse is at least as heinous as child abuse, and should rightly be punishable by heavy fines or time in jail. Practitioners of the other medical sciences, strangely enough, are somewhat less puritanical. Even so the medical associations, owing partly to unrelenting pressure from pharmaceutical salesmen hawking their companies’ fiendishly costly wares, regularly lower their guidelines step by step with regard to levels of one thing or another in the body chemistry newly determined by specialists to be “normal” or “safe.” These admonitions go unheeded by perhaps three quarters of the public, which continues to eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, and exercise too little. Many are called, but few are chosen. Every religion has its slackers, its skeptics, its slothful—sloth in the sense of acedia, indifference to one’s salvation. The redeemed, the remaining quarter of society, so far from being slothful, overflow with the superabundant energy typical of a certain sort of person, what psychoanalysts call the narcissistic personality. For the redeemed minority, an exaggerated and self-conscious dietary attention is the equivalent of Jewish religious law, and strenuous, even extreme, exercise a religious devotion akin to self-flagellation. In the 1930’s, the decade of Huxley’s Brave New World, these things were elements of what was called at the time the Cult of the Body, which flourishes to an even greater extent today among the Western elite class, dedicated to the goal of developing physiques to rival those of the ancient Greek pantheon. Naturally, this class overlaps substantially with the numerical upper quarter. The perfectionist elite practices what it preaches, in matters of self-control as well as those of other-control. (By comparison, the great Napoleon, fond of his champagne and his cognac, was embarrassed by Antonio Canova’s statue of him as Mars the Peacemaker, housed for nearly two centuries in Robert Adam’s stairwell in Apsley House, after having been refused by the refreshingly honest emperor as “too athletic.”)
I am writing this the day after the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., an occasion that easily calls to mind the American obsession with those “dreams” that purportedly inspire and support the American people, giving them the hope and fortitude to carry bravely onward to the heavenly city. Perhaps they do. But these must be strange dreams that deny respite, rest, and even a decent night’s sleep to the dreamers who dream and sustain them. They are, so it seems to me, really a form of modern democratic despair.