I know that in the past I have frequently spoken of the malignant forces within modern culture as though these evils were threatening us primarily from without—like a viral contagion or dangerous microbes in our drinking water—but I am aware of the fact that the real frontline of this battle against rampant nihilism and spiritual bankruptcy lies within all of us. I am conscious of the fact that when I attack these malignant and barbaric forces in modern ‘anti-culture’ I am merely drawing attention to symptoms and manifestations of collective and individual inner factors that are rooted in our beleaguered, malnourished souls. To be sure, these symptoms are contagious, but we are far less likely to succumb to infection if we take adequate precautions.
Unfortunately, the ‘malady’ of modern culture is so widespread—so pandemic, if you like—that most of us are infected long before we objectively recognize our illness for what it is, and thus, long before we have learned about any adequate measures of prevention. But our situation is actually more complicated than this.
It may in fact be the case that culture, as such—any culture anywhere—so long as it remains a thoroughly unexamined and un-critiqued gift or acquisition, poses a mortal threat to our well-being and our true fulfillment as human beings. It may, for instance, be the case that even the most sound and sane cultural inheritance functions like a sturdy set of ‘training wheels’ that help a youngster get up and rolling on a bike. The aim, of course, is to assist the cyclist to ride independently on his bike—to ‘internalize’ the training wheels, as it were. Or perhaps we might think of our initial cultural inheritance as scaffolding that surrounds a prospective building, lending shape and dimensionality to the individual ‘work in progress’ that acquires distinctive form and substance within that provisional and eventually outgrown and dispensable frame. We might also compare our cultural endowment with a local diet that offers a particular array of nutrients necessary for human survival. As we digest these foodstuffs they are transformed, as it were, into vitality and into the very substance of our bodies.
But—continuing with this ‘diet’ metaphor—some cultures are ‘rounded’ and rich in their spiritual, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic nutritional content and others somewhat less so. Some cultural diets—again, figuratively speaking—are heavily weighted with ‘proteins’ but light on ‘fiber.’ Some suffer from a specific ‘vitamin deficiency’ or from an excess of ‘fats’ or ‘refined sugars.’
I would argue that, as a species, we are undergoing a tumultuous, radical transformation that is probably unprecedented in our brief history as culture-dependent creatures. This cataclysmic change we are collectively undergoing has exposed the lamentable inadequacy of all our present cultural knowledge and resources to respond to the challenges that we (and our descendents) will be facing for a long time to come. Part of the tumult or ‘shake-up’ produced by this world-historical revolution directly pertains to the status of culture as such. Today, not only leisured, well-educated, and reflective individuals, but also ordinary persons all over the globe acknowledge the precarious relativity of culture and all the products of culture (including religious dogma, moral and political theories, metaphysical doctrines, etc.) These narrowly and shabbily educated persons didn’t arrive at this momentous and potentially destabilizing insight through earnest and painstaking study of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, and Jung—or through any sustained effort at deep reflection. This idea—this profoundly flimsy assessment of culture, all cultures, as relative and not absolutely binding or inherently authoritative—is now the common property of the majority of semi-educated men and women (and even precocious, untested but energetically texting teenagers) throughout the West—and now with growing numbers of persons in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where traditional cultures are steadily losing ground to the relentless, leveling waves of modern consumerism and moral-cultural relativism. There are plenty of fanatics and militant dogmatists still out there—and some of them love to stir up trouble whenever they can for the Godless, flaccid ‘nihilists’ they suppose the rest of us to be. But here, as elsewhere, the exception merely proves the rule.
So, how—it will be asked—are we responding (or reacting) to this recently acquired insight into the relativity and ‘fictional’ status of cultural forms? We might be roughly divided into two different camps: 1) Those who—because they can neither understand nor adequately meet the severe challenges involved in having the rug pulled out from under their ‘world’—decide, in effect, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry,’ rather than live in a state of disquieting uncertainty and mental disorientation. 2) Those who feel called from within to come to terms—albeit provisional and pragmatic ones—with the fact that the tectonic plates of culture are continually shifting under our feet.
From one angle, the rather fluid and indeterminate state of cultural (and inter-cultural) factors is a natural and necessary compensation for the static, orthodox Medieval-Christian cosmos that prevailed without serious opposition for centuries in Europe. And while there is certainly much to admire about that holistic, hierarchical scheme that oriented religious, political, social, and moral affairs, there is no getting around the fact that as educated and adventurous minds and spirits acquired new knowledge about (previously unexplored) lands and cultures, about the natural world, about human nature and the body, serious challenges to the traditional static order of things were bound to arise.
The exploratory activity and innovations (in theology, literature, philosophy, political theory, economics, technology, manners and morals, etc.) of the Renaissance and the 16th-17th centuries gave birth to the relativistic, materialistic modern ‘system’ into which contemporary humanity has been, for the most part, thoroughly conscripted. Questions have only led to further questions—undermining hallowed pieties and weakening institutions along the way—throwing defenseless individuals back upon their scanty spiritual and moral resources to fend for themselves in this ongoing cultural earthquake that I’ve been sketching.
It might be argued that, in certain respects, our insecure, fluidic modern world presents us with a far more honest picture of nature and of our actual existential situation than would ever have been possible in the seemingly innocent, childlike, harmonious-hierarchical, pre-modern world that Dante depicts so beautifully and so self-assuredly in the Divine Comedy. Everything and everyone had its/his/her properly assigned and immovable place in that world. That world, I think we can all agree, has long since evaporated. And while I certainly would not recommend a restoration of the medieval order of things as a remedy to our modern ills (as ISIS is perversely attempting to do—albeit with the incongruous but indispensable assistance of modern weaponry, internet banking, YouTube, and cell phone communications), I regard such persons who scornfully say ‘good riddance’ to everything pre-modern (without first thoroughly understanding what those epochs contributed to the development of Western culture) as nitwits and dolts. I would not wish to return to the third through fifth grades, although I am thoroughly convinced that it would have been a serious mistake to skip over them—and certainly not (or not mostly) because of the classroom knowledge I would have missed out on, but because of all those valuable associations, life lessons, and formative experiences that happened to me between grades 3 and 5.
The ‘world’ of even the most discerning and perspicacious fifth-grader tends to be rather more innocent, sheltered, and carefree than the ‘world’ of a newly-minted college graduate—simply because of where these two are positioned, time-wise, on the linear path from cradle to grave. Are we not likewise inclined to suppose that even the most sophisticated and penetrating minds of medieval Christendom were somewhat childlike and innocent compared to the unexceptional but moderately sensitive product of today’s frayed and rapidly decomposing leftovers of a once-living culture—just as most of the infantrymen who survived the trenches of WWI rapidly became more existentially ‘evolved’ than the effete, brandy-sipping, distant generals who were orchestrating their ordeals by fire (and mustard gas) from afar?
Only in this restricted sense do I advance my suggestion that we moderns are afforded a more brutally honest picture of our actual spiritual predicament, as a species, than our more myth-ensconced forebears. Like the soldiers in the rat-and-corpse-infested trenches, we moderns are routinely exposed to many psychic pathogens and insecurities from which our medieval forebears were shielded by ignorance and innocence (i.e., an intact faith). It’s not that horrible and unimaginably painful events did not happen to them. Of course they did. But they happened within an intrinsically meaningful—and not an absurd or meaningless (‘existential’)—universe. Nietzsche famously referred to the cardinal event that separates the mental world inhabited by our not so distant forebears from the one we inhabit as ‘the death of God.’
Spiritually responsible persons (who, alone, are brutally honest with themselves) have always recognized that no other person—living, dead, or to ‘come again’—can magically redeem their souls. The soul achieves in its own salvation or liberation chiefly by liberating itself from any lingering hopes or expectations that something or someone outside of it can ultimately make or prevent its redemption. And, of course, this sweeping relinquishment applies to cultural, philosophical, religious, moral, and aesthetic forms and formulas, as well. These become the stick with which we stir the fire and which is eventually consumed by that fire.