It turns out that Jesus was really born between four and six B.C., not in the year 0, as you might expect. A sixth century monk named Dionysius Exiguus, who was given responsibility for settling a dispute over the date of Easter, miscalculated the chronology of Jesus’s life and placed his birth several years late. This scholarly error, which was perpetuated in later calendars, means – if we take the middle range of the error – that we already are entering the 21st century, and, for that matter, the Third Millenium.
There is a certain satisfaction in our unexpectedly early arrival in this new century and new millenium, if only because it has caught the numerologists off guard. It will be harder now for them to peddle their prognostications when the merely nominal millenium rolls around.
But the new century, if not the new millenium, already has begun intellectually – and politically and culturally. Just as the fin de si
UFgrave ecle 100 years ago closed down the 19th century in a burst of fashionable despair mixed with exciting new ideas about nature, man and society, we are now witnessing rejection of many of the prevalent ideas of the 20th century. And again something new is coming onto the stage of history.
What seems to be happening intellectually and politically is the cumulative repudiation of the whole grim, pedantic, utopian, hedonistic-yet-moralizing, centralizing, psychologizing, determinist, reductionist, relativist, modernist project of the 20th century. And I say, good riddance!
What may replace it is a revitalized version of what used to be called the liberal tradition of the West, facilitated by new science and new technology.
Of course, there was some good to the 20th century, and some necessary change. For example, we probably did need a civil service to replace the political spoils system, though we later got carried away and let bureaucracies regulate away many of our freedoms. We did need civil rights protection through central government action in order, finally, to right the great wrong of slavery and to fulfill the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. But the best intellectual innovations of the 20th century were in the fields of science and technology – medicine and communications, notably. Most of the others were of lesser significance or were baneful.
The 20th century brought us the scourges of fascism and communism, and it also brought us what Alexis de Tocqueville correctly foresaw as the “democratic tyrannies” of socialism and the welfare state. Specialization and expertise flourished, bringing benefits in some areas, but also contributing to the depreciation of the liberal arts. Over-emphasis on expertise also tempted leaders in one field to claim authority in others, which is always a moral usurpation. Some generalists claimed the label of science for arts and crafts that did not deserve it. This holds true for several of the “social sciences,” but especially for something that grandly calls itself “political science.” Even economics claimed more scientific stature than it deserved, guided by the conceit that the qualitative can always be quantified. What the experts and pseudo-experts did was separate ordinary people from their government and culture, robbing them of their authority and undermining their morale.
Not only was the authority of representative democracy undermined, but so, too, was God’s. It was the century that popularized the “God is Dead” movement and – professing “science” again – tried to free us from what modernists considered the superstition of religion. We actually created an official culture – not in Russia, but in the United States! – that frowns on expressions of religious faith in public life. We even self-censor, making faith a non-subject in leading private as well as public arenas. Most American youth grow up without any grounding in religious faith, or take a naive Sunday school faith into combat with sophisticated university debunkers.
We are a more materialist culture than ever before. But materialism itself – grounding all meaning in physical processes – is deadening. It has created a great cyst of loss and sorrow in our collective soul.
Among elites, few are religious. Instead, they tend to worship a kind of debonair high style, and even more, they worship their own health. For them, as Jackson Lears says in his history of advertising, salvation equals peak performance in the bedroom, the bathroom and the boardroom. They are the priests of the materialist dispensation.
But isn’t it curious that this age of aggressive materialism has seen such an efflorescence of real superstitions? They range from New Age channelers to cable channel psychics charging $4 a minute.
Spiritual demoralization affects the way we raise families and conduct our work. The professions today, especially law, medicine and education at all levels, are infected by demoralization. Journalism is deservedly less certain of itself. Politics is definitely demoralized. Young people know little of the political system, and therefore are bored with it, when they are not disgusted. They have not learned, and we seem to have forgotten, that representative democracy is the only realistic alternative to either dictatorship or a pseudo-direct democracy manipulated by special interests and demagogues.
A leading, though unwitting, opponent of representative democracy is the so-called “reform movement.” Once volunteer, but now professionalized, it aims to take the politics out of politics and replace it with juicy personal scandals or mere titillating innuendo. The present-day reformer transforms the private gossip of politics into subjects of public litigation and picayune ethics legislation.
Over-regulating human life – including politics – destroys liberty. When the laws governing politics become so voluminous and complex that no one knows whether he is in compliance, a candidate or officeholder is at the mercy of anyone who investigates him. This is always the irony: The more complex laws and regulations you have, the more inevitable lawbreaking becomes. And, because everyone can be found to have broken some law, the decision as to whom to prosecute becomes – once more – arbitrary. Yet it was to resist the power of arbitrary authority that the rule of law was established.
When the current political reform movement gained sway about 25 years ago, it was with the promise of restoring confidence in government. (I know, I was a part of it.) But, all surveys show that public confidence actually has fallen during the very period when reform laws have been enacted.
Reform has become just another political weapon. Our experience is thus an extreme recapitulation of the earlier reform period, the Progressive Era, 100 years ago. Also starting with high ideals, a number of the progressives ultimately descended into false and exaggerated accusation and personal abuse of power.
From where did the past century get such curious reversals of virtue and vice? Well, much of the force of 20th century modernism, for good and ill, developed from industrial era science and ideas. Without succumbing to over-generalization, one can point to telling patterns, especially in the work of the great thinkers of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, and of their followers, whose influence still is with us. Chief among them: Karl Marx, Frederick Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein.
Through such thinkers, science, which really did accomplish great things, also was misused to create the materialist and utopian culture: atheistic, relativist, and cynical about personal virtue, yet blithely prepared to build a New Society. Marx gave us the term “dialectical materialism,” the supremacy of matter over spirit. He taught class warfare as an iron law of history and assailed bourgeois civilization. The only freedom left in his system was for himself and the other social engineers who followed.
Nietzsche taught us the “will-to-power,” the primacy of self-expression and moral relativism – beyond good and evil. For Nietzche, there is no God, but you can be a god, or at least feel like one. His denial of truth beyond the individual self today informs everything from deconstruction in academia to the common media tendency to treat perception as reality.
Freud was another brilliant, single-minded simplifier whose perspective reflected the industrial era, but who offered his insights as tran-historical truth. To him, a human being is like a steam engine, full of opposing tensions that have to find release, with sex as the source and symbol of all that tension. Yet he based his theories on his own narrow experience with troubled patients (mainly middle-class Viennese women) and then applied his theories to subjects ranging from art to religion to war.
So far, Darwin has stood the test of time somewhat better. But the uses to which his ideas have been put are another matter. He never wanted to apply natural selection to human society, and yet, from Social Darwinisn to National Socialism to the view of man as a soulless animal, Darwinism has been used to justify complete disregard of the poor on one hand and the practice of eugenics and euthanasia on the other. How instructive, and pathetic, it is that the little metal fish symbol some Christians affix to their autos is now mocked on other autos by little metal amphibians with “Darwin” written on them!
Einstein was locked into relativity, which explained certain relationships between time and space, matter and energy. He wanted physical laws that would hold true anywhere. Most of his discoveries were made before 1906 and he spent the rest of his life trying to disprove the uncertainty principle at the foundation of quantum theory – still seeking a mechanistic explanation for the universe. But he failed. What Heisenberg, Planck and, more recently, Richard Feynman, revealed is that atoms cannot be deterministically defined, and that at the heart of every atom are infinite waves. In other words, matter doesn’t matter – at least not as much as we thought. Mystery remains at the heart of the universe.
But if materialism, even in physics, no longer prevails, how can it possibly be used, as several industrial-era thinkers (or their followers) attempted, to define the life of the human mind and the organization of society? How can it be used to justify utopian designs on our freedom?
The answer, is that it cannot. The good news is that this intellectual realization is beginning to dawn on our social and political life. As much as anything, the technological revolution that is built on the science of quantum physics and probability theory makes this clear. The silicon chip, the computer, software, fiber optics and wireless telephony are among the great triumphs of mind over matter. The Industrial Age thus has given way to the Information Age. The effects are seen not only in communications, but in the broad economy, where work is being decentralized and personalized and where intellectual property now competes in value with physical property.
The information revolution helped topple the Soviet Union. Its centralized system could not tolerate the openness necessitated by computers. The revolution is beginning to shake the earth under the centralized U.S. federal government. And great universities. And the public school system. New technologies are only “tools,” of course, but the tools we make have a way of reshaping our lives. Some think they threaten to bring us a mass direct democracy, perhaps via the Internet, but I believe they are more likely to help restore the accessibility and authority of representative democracy.
The new communications technology both reflects the disintegration of materialist assumptions and contributes to that disintegration, so the process is robust. Nonetheless, we will long have to deal with the cultural and political detritus left over from disillusionment with materialism.
Unfortunately, it is exactly among the educated elites that ideas of materialism and utopianism took strongest hold and it is also within those quarters that confusion and uncertainty – demoralization – is greatest. But the average citizen, never having drunk as deep at the well of 20th century ideology as did the elites, is not as ill-prepared for the 21st century. Ordinary people, surveys show, still believe in God and objective right and wrong, still credit common sense, human nature and a Madisonian, rather than a deconstructionist, understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They even persist in the benighted, pre-20th century view that art has something to do with beauty and truth.
Is this not the 18th and 19th century liberal tradition reasserting itself for the 21st century?
The term “liberalism” here is not the left fork that political liberalism took in this century, but the older understanding of a free and civil society – with its institutions of representative democracy, limited government and freedomn from arbitrary rule, belief in progress, tolerance, emancipation from dogma, and individual rights coupled with personal responsibility – all tutored by civic virtue. This tradition rebelled against a state church, but in this country almost always presupposed a divine order.
This classical liberal tradition was the consensus tradition of the United States, distinguishing us from the Old World order. It moves forward in harmony with the individualist, free-market drive of the information revolution. It is in harmony, also, with government’s appropriate functions, so it does not reflexively denigrate public service. It is the liberal tradition so despised today by many modernists which survives such assaults precisely because it is open and ready to learn from other cultures.
Traditionally, the liberal arts have consisted of language, philosophy, history, literature, mathematics and abstract science. These subjects help one to reflect upon how to live one’s life, how to learn and to interpret change. In the information age, these subjects are more precious than ever. For now, when one opts out of a liberal education and into mere professionalism or tradecraft, one is likely to find oneself both impoverished mentally and rendered obsolescent by constantly changing technology.
At the moment, what is called conservatism is clearly the political movement most congenial to revival and restatement of the classical liberal tradition for the 21st century. One sees this in those state capitols where governors are exploring new ways to hook social and economic politices to human nature rather than to abstract, welfare-state ideals. One sees it in Congress where a coherent and old/new fashioned restatement of the goals of limited government now shapes decision making as well as debate for the first time in many decades.
But, obviously, this great sea change cannot be confined to any one faction. Many nominally on the political left are intrigued by the possibilities that new intellectual understandings and technologies can improve public policy in unanticipated ways. Indeed, they are influenced by today’s intellectual currents on the right in the same way that the right in earlier times was influenced by the Progressive Era and the New Deal.
Regardless, much that until recently was unthinkable is now on the table. If you search the lexicons of public policy from 30 years ago you will not find the word “privatization.” We used to describe someone as “so conservative he wants to privatize the Post Office.” Today, in the age of overnight courier services, FAX machines and e-mail, privatization is taking place with hardly any one noticing. The loose consensus on the value of privatization and deregulation stretches from the Republican right to Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Richard Daley. When one side of the political spectrum starts to embrace the positions and policies of the other, something profound is happening, not only to politics but to the culture.
I suggest that what is beginning to happen is the restoration of a noble and correct view of the world. When Aristotle wrote his Politics and his Ethics, he defined a way to determine what is good – the Golden Mean between “excess” and “defect.” In specific application of those absolute standards to a particular principle, however, man was to look to consequences as well as to means, and employ prudence, the virtue of good judgment. When it came to public philosophy, Jews and Christians found common ground in such a moral philosophy, and undergirded it with revelation. However, as C.S. Lewis wrote, one does not require religion to find that common ground, or, as he called it, the Tao. For God gave man reason, and through that reason, most civilizations apprehend the Tao.
It isn’t simply materialism that is failing but utopianism, its contradictory and yet complementary twin. The materialist/relativist tells us that there are no normative standards. After all, you have your “values” and I have mine. The utopian impulse in the same modernist mind is much sterner. When it comes to endangered species or product liability or sexual harassment, it dictates absolute purity of means, as well as purposes. We have moral vagueness and ruthless moralism. What both of these superficially dissimilar modernist impulses – which normally cohabit – have in common is that neither looks very much at consequence.
In contrast, for the founders of the liberal tradition, the Greeks, the object in politics as in life was not the triumph of one interest or one consideration, but the balance, the harmony, of interests and considerations. The American Founders clearly stood in that line.
The great goal of the 21st century we have entered is, following the classical liberal tradition, to recover the sense of harmony in life – the sacred and the practical, private virtue and civic virtue, the personal in balance with the political.