Liken the contemporary American cultural situation to an unfinished jigsaw puzzle laid out on a coffee table. A few sections of the puzzle have been completed, and they sit like modest-sized islands of isolated coherence and intelligibility upon the table. These completed sections are not connected, of course, to any other parts—and, what’s worse, the persons who are working on the puzzle do not possess a clear image of what the finished result is supposed to look like! For some who are working on the puzzle, the lack of a preexistent image of the final result has produced a sense of enormous exhilaration and excitement, while for others this absence of a guiding model is deeply vexing, almost paralyzing. Nevertheless, there is a general, shared belief that all of the pieces are present on the table—and that if everyone proceeds methodically and patiently, the successful working out of the puzzle will eventually take place.
Now, sticking with this simple analogy for our present cultural difficulties and challenges, let us expand it a bit and raise some additional questions of interest. For starters, how did it come about that these persons are without any foreknowledge of what the completed image is supposed to look like? This situation deviates from the normal state of affairs, where we are equipped at the outset with a picture of a gorgeous rural landscape, a pleasant village scene, a royal portrait, or some other worthy image—a structured and organized gestalt that guides our selection and placement of the pieces randomly scattered about the table.
And, given these unusual starting conditions, why is it that some at the table find reason to rejoice, while others feel utterly stumped and obstructed by the very same conditions? Do some rejoice because privately they disbelieve that such a guiding model or completed image has an a priori existence—and that by inventing or creating the final image (even if it means forcing some of the pieces together or deforming them, as with the bed of Procrustes, in order to make them fit), they will be revered and commemorated as great founders and lawgivers? And do those who feel deeply troubled by the absence of a guiding image worry precisely because of this arbitrary power usurped by their ambitious and inventive fellows? Doesn’t this work upon the puzzle seem far too important and consequential to be consigned to the unguided hands of self-interested human beings? For such troubled participants, an even deeper question eventually takes shape: ‘Can the image we are working on with this puzzle actually be constructed—or mustn’t it be divined?’
Can these two seemingly opposed approaches be reconciled—if not logically, then psychologically; if not rationally, then artfully or metaphorically?
A variety of suggestions and questions can be generated by the jigsaw puzzle analogy—as an image of the present condition of our culture:
- As we have noted, some persons favor (or feel the intense need for) a given, preexistent image or goal that guides the cooperative assembly of the puzzle pieces, while others (who doubt the preexistence of such an authoritative image or goal) seek to invent such a goal and then convince or, if necessary, compel their fellows to cooperate in bringing it into being with the available puzzle pieces. For the sake of convenience, we might call the first lot ‘transcendentalists’ (since, for them, the preexistent goal transcends mere human invention and arbitrary will) and the second lot ‘pragmatists,’ since they rely solely upon human ingenuity and instrumental reason to guide and assist their efforts.
- Both the ‘transcendentalists’ and the ‘pragmatists’ are in agreement about the obvious fact that no guiding image or blueprint for the puzzle assembly is present to hand for all to refer (or defer) to and that such an orienting image must somehow be supplied. Otherwise, the haphazard or controversial arrangement of the individual pieces will continue, causing ceaseless bickering and disagreement among those at the table. Both groups, then, greatly prefer the acquisition of this guiding model, rather than relentless, arbitrary contention between the participants. As the contention and the bickering intensify, a growing number of the participants from both camps become so exasperated that they are tempted to withdraw altogether from the task at hand. But, being aware of how enormous the stakes are for mankind—depending on which group gets the upper hand in this urgent enterprise—they defiantly hold onto their places at the table.
- The transcendentalists are, for the most part, traditionalists, for they believe that the guiding image for the puzzle has simply been lost or forgotten and must be recovered, not invented. More importantly—from their traditionalist vantage point—this precious and sacred guiding image was lost or forgotten in the first place because of general neglect that came about under the influence of their anti-traditional rivals, the innovative Why, it will be asked, was the traditional image or blueprint for the puzzle neglected, and even discredited, under the powerful cultural influence of the innovative new breed of pragmatists?
- Although a significant number of these influential innovators called themselves ‘deists,’ they were in fact merely humanists. The deity behind deism was a kind of mechanical clock-maker who set the material universe (and all its creatures, including man) into motion, but then backed off and remained aloof from human and terrestrial affairs—just the sort of ‘reduced’ and unmeddlesome deity that was made to order for the anti-traditional humanist innovators and social engineers. The old personal, involved, and anthropomorphic deity had to be displaced—or at least thoroughly ‘rationalized’ and naturalized—in order to make plenty of room for the ‘human, all-too-human,’ thoroughly mundane plans and purposes of the new breed. It is fair to say that these innovators successfully commandeered Western culture over the past few dramatic centuries. Their impact has been so sweeping and decisive that the former ways of living, of seeing, of valuing, and of understanding have largely been forgotten in the modern West. One must swim ceaselessly against the current or burrow ‘underground’ in order to obtain a glimpse into the lost world of our pre-modern ancestors. But it is only after we have undertaken such ‘unpopular’ quests for generally discredited, ‘obsolete’ knowledge that we, for the first time, place ourselves in a position to see modernity with any degree of critical objectivity. Only by recovering these lost ways of seeing, valuing, feeling, and understanding—only then are we in a position to assess the losses and the damage that our souls have collectively sustained as a consequence of this ‘successfully’ severed connection with our own cultural past and the traditions that once provided a context for meaning and value for the lives of our forebears. This meaning and value is not something we can simply or easily produce from the radically deficient soil that presently supports the disinherited, materialist conditions we restlessly and skittishly inhabit—our ‘anti-culture.’
- Taking a closer look at these anti-traditional, atheistic or agnostic innovators, we find a variety of types under the large canopy of ‘humanist.’ Some are animated by a genuinely optimistic estimation of ordinary, rationally self-interested human beings, while others are cynical and see humans merely as creatures of appetite, lust, and power drives which are precariously held in check by the triple threats of legal punishment, guilt, and social ostracism. But both are of one mind in placing man at the summit of the known (material) universe, even if it is ultimately the summit of a dunghill or a strategic plateau whereupon he is best able to command the heights overlooking a squalid, teeming, dog-eat-dog valley below. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the more optimistic sort prevailed, but after the genocidal wars of the last one hundred years, the near evaporation of noble values and exemplars, the proliferation of a vulgar form of atomized, mass, crass consumerist culture, and the steep decline of intellectual and spiritual culture, the cynical or pessimistic sort has gained ascendancy, seizing nearly complete control over the present political and socio-economic realms. This cynical greed- and power-driven system of manipulation, exploitation, and control of the ignorant and gullible masses has, in effect, taken the place of culture in the West. Even if the method of controlling the masses is closer in spirit to that of Huxley’s (pleasure-based system outlined in) Brave New World than to Orwell’s grim, paranoiac scheme in 1984—as Neil Postman suggests in his worthy little book, Amusing Ourselves to Death—the end results are much the same. Ironically, what may have begun with a ‘humanist’ philosophy has ‘progressively’ degenerated into a palpably dehumanized, sub–human system of mass manipulation and exploitation. Geopolitical directives, economic and technological affairs now thoroughly dominate and preoccupy the minds and bodies of the sheepish, soulless multitudes and their lupine, fleecing leaders. Culture and religious faith, along with the literary, visual and performance arts, formerly provided a kind of shelter or refuge for the non-economical, a-political, and comparatively ‘disinterested’ parts of our ancestors’ souls—but today these cultural protections (against our being reduced merely to consumers and pawns for political manipulation) have been effectively appropriated or conscripted into the service of socio-political, entertainment-related, and economic systems of mass control—and, in the process, much of their former power has been lost. Even our presidents are former actors, reality TV show hosts—in a word, ‘entertainers.’
- If, by the same token, we take a closer look at the traditionalists, we find that there is a large—if not a unanimous—consensus that religion (and in the West this means the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition) provides the guidance and orientation that mere human beings cannot provide. In other words, a divine or supernatural dimension of the universe is acknowledged, lorded over by a deity who is not aloof but deeply involved in His creation, within which man occupies a crucial place and office. This large group may then be divided between a relatively small minority for whom spiritual experience is direct, unmediated, and thoroughly authentic, and a much larger majority who sincerely place their faith in a literal reading of the Book itself, along with its teachings (without, however, feeling a direct or individual connection with the divine dimension).
- To return to our puzzle analogy and the absent image or goal—which must serve as guide and orienter for those who are trying to assemble the pieces properly: we may now be in a suitable position to speculate upon what this model would need to contain within itself if it is to provide the basis or ground for a vital culture that is responsive to more than just our economic and entertainment needs. Since a healthy and wholesome culture must be able to offer place, value, and meaning to a variety of different human types—at all levels of physical, moral, and spiritual development—it must be both comprehensive and complex.
Plato was certainly onto something profound when, in the Republic, he developed his analogy between the healthy human soul and the ideal city. He saw these two as mirror images of one another—macrocosm and microcosm. The health of a predominant number of individual souls would be reflected in wise and just laws for the city, and the city with wise and just laws would provide the best education for healthy and just souls.
If we approach our jigsaw problem from this fruitful direction, we can see that what is absent is a generally accepted idea (or ideal) of the ‘best sort of human being.’ It is this image that guides the work of puzzle construction. But where does it come from? It almost certainly is the image of individual human types writ large. The ‘economic’ man sees a money-making scheme at the ‘end’ of the work, while an honor-loving man sees something very different indeed, and he cannot help but regard the money-preoccupied man with a heaping measure of contempt. The philosopher-saint, in turn, sees a very different image than either the gain-driven man or the honor-seeking man. The preponderance of one type or another establishes the general character and trajectory of the regime.
It should be evident that the ‘lower sort’ of human life—and not the nobler sorts—has stamped the modern West in its image. The fact that we live in a plutocratic or oligarchic (money-dominated) scheme should not fool us into believing that our tastes—from corrupt top to crass and raffish bottom—are not equalitarian through and through. There is practically nothing nobly aristocratic about life in this country—in the arts, in politics, in spirituality, in our values. It is all about comfort, material security, and convenience for the self-interested individual consumer-particle. As a people, we are busy, restless, and narrow in our knowledge and shallow in our understanding of everything beyond the tiny sphere of our pressing personal interests or our blinkered immediate experience. Serious, broad education—rigorous personal discipline and self-sacrifice—a cultivated disdain for all debasing distractions and petty pursuits—the rare ability to stand alone—the will and determination to think and feel for oneself, by oneself: most of these basic requirements (for a nobly individuated existence) are conspicuously ignored not only by the ordinary person today (which has probably always been the case) but even by the leaders and exemplars (which is a rather more serious matter).