Our existential crisis: The unbearable lightness of being human
I have long thought that we are in the midst of a serious existential crisis brought about by the diminution of the divine and the elevation of the merely human to a state of primacy that it cannot possibly sustain. With Machiavelli's revolution, the modern project was unleashed, and now, centuries later, we confront the consequences of that project and seek to come to terms with what ails us. This is how Thomas Pangle, one of my teachers at the University of Toronto, explains this crisis -- a crisis of faith, a crisis of spirit, yet also a fundamentally political and cultural crisis -- in his book The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age. I may be biased, given my admiration of Professor Pangle's work, but this is a truly awesome diagnosis:
- Do we not seem, as a people, more and more cast adrift in a floating anomy of lonely crowds denuded of trustworthy emotional and intellectual sources of human fellowship and inspiration or aspiration? In darker moments, one cannot help but wonder with trepidation whether the country might not be entering upon an irreversible trajectory. Is our culture not gathering a rather frightening momentum? Throwing themselves into essentially unpleasant or stultifying work with a view to the accumulation of greater material satisfactions and petty signs of prestige, to which they become ever more grimly enthralled; seeking escape in mindless music, sports, travel, and short-lived, gripping diversions of all kinds; convulsed periodically with fantastic longings for revelatory erotic or religious experiences: may not future generations of Americans lead increasingly fragmented and purposeless existences in a world of unprecedented materialism, desperate personal isolation, and inner psychological weakness verging on collapse?
Is that not us, so many of us, Americans or otherwise? In prose and content worthy of Matthew Arnold, the great cultural critic of the 19th century, Pangle addresses the seeming paralysis of the human spirit in a world that simply does not seem to allow us to live full and dignified lives. We work, we play, we drink and get high, we engage in the sort of self-forgetting and self-denial that allows us to pretend that nothing is wrong. We seek meaning in immediate and largely debasing pleasures even as we sense that something is wrong and search frantically for something beyond ourselves to cling to. We pollute our souls with the shallowness and corruption of material possessions even as we long to find strength, resolve, and meaning in something, anything beyond the material. And that -- that is what this moment in history is all about. In Terri Schiavo we saw the very face of our mortality, and even as her case further polarized an already polarized political culture, we grasped, I think, some sense of communion both with humanity as a whole and with the mysteries that may lie beyond our earthly grasp. In Pope John Paul II we saw the love and faith that is truly possible in the human spirit, a life lived in the service of the divine, including the human incarnation of the divine, and even as tempestuous debates about abortion and euthanasia and other moral touchstones rage on in our polarized political culture, we sense some possible relief from the modern human condition as it descends ever further into "unprecedented materialism, desperate personal isolation, and inner psychological weakness verging on collapse". Their stories, however sad in the moment, fill us with hope that we are not stuck in some "irreversible trajectory" into madness, that there is an incredible repository of goodness and justice lurking beneath the corrosive surface of the modern project, and that the human spirit, finally freed from its chains, may yet triumph over that which would destroy it.
It is now up to us.