In our second article shared from the latest issue — which we assure you will soon be posted in its entirety in a more readable format — Peter Augustine Lawler‘s essay in the Summer 2009 edition of The City is a timely statement on technology and life.
The Russian novelist, historian, and essayist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died in August of last year, was perhaps more responsible than any other man—and certainly any other writer—for the West’s great victory in the “ideological war” with communism. It was a war, as James Schall has written, that was “about what is a human being,” during which Solzhenitsyn demonstrated his “intellectual courage, the courage to tell the truth when the regime, any regime, is built on a lie.”
The Russian was even courageous enough not to hesitate to criticize the West—including our country. In a 1993 Address to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein entitled “We Have Ceased to See the Purpose,” Solzhenitsyn said that the defeat of communism in many ways left the West worse off. There was no longer any “unifying purpose” to mask the deepening moral vacuum characteristic of modern, progressively more technological life as such. “All we had forgotten,” Solzhenitsyn contends, “was the human soul.” The prevailing answer to “what a human being is” remains far from complete. What we have been given, he explains, is “an extremely intricate trial of our free will” brought on by our technological success.
Solzhenitsyn readily admits what people gain when they come to think of themselves mainly as beings with interests. Today, the average person lives longer, more freely, and with more creature comforts than at nearly any point in the history of the world. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable in freedom for a very long time. Our modern technological thinking certainly succeeded in correcting the other-worldly excesses of medieval spirituality. And it really is true that one responsibility given to free beings with bodies is to attend to one’s interests. Anyone who thinks he’s above or below really is mistaken about who he is. But modern human beings remain stuck with the trials Solzhenitsyn describes. We can’t and shouldn’t shirk from facing them. Rather, we should be grateful for having been given morally demanding lives, lives which require that we display our courage and make possible both human responsibility and human happiness.
Up until now, it seems that the cost of modern progress has been the neglect of our souls. “We have ceased to see the purpose” of particular human lives, Solzhenitsyn observes; we no longer know who or what we are living for. True progress is always individual or personal, moral, spiritual, and truthful. It depends upon the individual’s self-limitation with a purpose in mind he didn’t just make up for himself. It involves humble submission to a real authority higher than ourselves, an authority that calls us to personal responsibility. Anyone with eyes to see knows that he’s been given moral responsibility as a personal being that can’t help but know and love.
“There can be,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progress of individuals, the degree of self-perfection over the course of their lives.” A truly progressive society would subordinate technological progress to personal progress. Technology would be good as one means among many for the responsible pursuit of personal perfection. But that subordination, Solzhenitsyn observes, has so far seemed to have been almost impossible. The characteristically modern view has become that all human experience should be reconfigured in a technological way. The modern slogan is, he says, “All is interests, we should not neglect our interests.” The being with interests and nothing more thinks he must devote every mo-ment of his life to securing his own being in a hostile environment. And he thinks he neglects his interests—his true self—every time he attends to his soul.
For Solzhenitsyn, what we’ve lost by thinking of ourselves as “beings with interests” overwhelms what we’ve gained. The “gifts” of our “technological civilization” have both enriched and enslaved us; we are in some ways materially more secure, but at the cost of “spiritual insecurity.” Even in the squalor of the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn knew his purpose, he knew why he was there. And, as his own example shows, people certain of the why part of their lives can live well with almost any how. No amount of how can replace the absence of why—of some idea of what we are living for.
Even with the advantages of technological advancement, people in our country are more lonely, worried, and disoriented than ever. Just beneath the surface of the happy-talk of our therapeutic pragmatism, Solzhenitsyn heard “the howl of existentialism”—the desperate expression of profound spiritual insecurity.
Beings with interests and nothing more think that words are nothing but weapons to pursue their freely chosen private goals. So they don’t have the words to express their social, personal longings—their loneli-ness in the absence of love and their inability to live well with the prospect of death. They howl because they’re so detached from other persons that they can’t truthfully communicate their experiences. They howl because they think that they are nothing but accidents in a world so hostile to their existence that they’re stuck with constantly securing themselves all by themselves. They howl when they think about their biological demise, which they think will be the end of being itself. For them—for us, “the thought of death becomes unbearable,” because “[i]t is the extinction of the entire universe in a stroke.”
Solzhenitsyn may exaggerate how much we’re stuck with howling, but all serious critics in our country are compelled to exaggerate in typically futile efforts to get our attention. Our philosopher-novelist physician Walker Percy wrote in Lost in the Cosmos that American writers suffer from “Solzhenitsyn envy.” In fact, Solzhenitsyn was taken so seriously by his government that he was thrown into prison for over a decade and later just kicked out of the country; the Soviet rulers knew that his truthful words were a fundamental threat to the future of their regime. But no American writer is considered so dangerous. From Solzhenitsyn’s viewpoint, we are more recalcitrant students or slower learners than were the Soviets. Even he was not really able, despite many attempts, to get our attention.
Solzhenitsyn is right to suggest that the narrative of our country’s historical progress that makes the most sense is that of the liberation of the individual. As the Supreme Court pointed out in Lawrence v. Texas, what seem like necessary and proper limits of individual liberty to one generation of Americans seems like despotism to the next. The very word “liberty” in the Constitution, the Court contends, has no definite meaning; it was placed there as a weapon to be used by individuals to increase their freedom over time. Free individuals have, over time, even detached the bonds of marriage from all biological imperatives. The modern experience is of “lifestyle options,” of rights detached from duties.
According to social critic Christopher Lasch, writing in The Culture of Narcissism, the increasingly common product of our effort to understand ourselves as free individuals with interests and nothing more is the narcissistic personality. To be narcissistic is to experience everyone and everything as existing for me—people experience themselves as more alone than ever.
The narcissistic person, Lasch observed, aims to be protectively shallow, so as not to lose himself or his interests in other people, in deep thought or in love. He also has a fear of binding commitments and a willingness to pull up roots, to maximize his emotional independence and keep his options open. He wants to free himself to judge every moment of his life according to his interests, or according to what’s best for securing his own being. Most of all, the narcissistic person is repulsed by an experience of dependence—on other people, on nature, and even on his own body. He opposes himself—his free existence—to any attempt to limit his freedom. Because he can’t acknowledge his dependence, he’s incapable of feeling or expressing loyalty or gratitude. He is aware of his reality, but also his emptiness, of existence as a collection of pixels, disconnected in every respect from the world around him. He insists on defining himself by himself for himself.
Consider the incoherent way sophisticated Americans understand themselves today. They are, more than anything, proud of their autonomy, and they favor choice in nearly all areas of life. Since Darwin teaches the whole truth, they know they are qualitatively no different from animals—just chimps with cars, cell phones, and bigger brains.
If you look at the behavior of these self-defined autonomous chimps, it’s clear who they really think they are. They work to maximize their personal autonomy. They don’t really believe they’re stuck with what nature gave them—they refuse to act like chimps. They labor against nature, refusing to spread their genes by having little chimps, and rebelling more insistently against nature’s indifference to their particular existences. They act like they don’t like being chimps and have freely chosen to do something about it—and many look down at those non-narcissist evangelical and orthodox religious believers, doing their natural social duty of reproducing, going through life not nearly as upset by their contingent and ephemeral biological existences.
According to the great thinkers of the pre-modern world, human beings are political, familial, and religious animals. Their mixture of reason, love, freedom, and embodiment leads them to give institutional content and communal form to the lives together. But the contemporary narcissist hates any formal limitation or direction to his freedom. So he does what he can to live without politics, family, and church. He tries to live nowhere in particular, because he experiences himself as being nowhere in particular.
Sociobiologists tell us that the narcissist is somehow deluded into thinking that he’s better off cut off from the natural, social sources of the happiness of human animals. Christians say that his protective withdrawal is based on the mistaken judgment that love is more trouble and more dangerous than it’s worth. Today it sometimes seems as if people have to choose between either living happily by being suckered by others and subjecting themselves unnecessarily to various risk factors or living more securely for a long, free, comfortable, and miserable time. With the help of their family physicians, many Americans seek ways to escape the burden of that choice through artificial happiness provided by Prozac and similar drugs. Chemically-engineered happiness promises to be free from both the dangerous unreliability of others and having to give even a moment’s thought to one’s soul—it is merely a transaction with a desired output.
There is, of course, a tension between the technology of mood control and the progress of real technology—what really promises to sustain the free being indefinitely. If my mood becomes too “Don’t worry, be happy,” then I might stop working really hard to secure my real self. I might neglect to take my Statin or scientifically work out or even take action to divert the asteroid about to pulverize our planet. What we really seem to want are “designer moods” that reconcile happiness with productivity. We want to be, as David Brooks observes, “bourgeois bohemians,” to be both hyperproductive and enjoyably self-fulfilled. Yet bourgeois always trumps bohemian, because the truth is the narcissist knows of no standard higher than his own productivity. Whatever the hard working “bobos” might say, the bohemian part of his life is always just around the corner.
A perfectly technological world would be one in which every natu-ral resource was harnessed to maximize the productivity of free be-ings. The philosopher of narcissism John Locke said my body is my property—a natural resource that I might exploit at will. Because I am not my body (or the chemical reactions that produce my moods), I am free to use my body like all my other property. From some undisclosed location, I’m free to give orders to and about my body.
That technological insight is the source of our enthusiasm today for cosmetic surgery and cosmetic neurology. Thanks to high-tech medicine, I can—by nipping, tucking, botoxing, and so forth—make my body seem younger, more pretty and more pleasing—or more marketable. I can also, with the right drugs, make myself smarter, have a better memory, be more attentive, be less moody, and even have more physical endurance. From the traditional standards of medicine, sure-ly the physician shouldn’t turn a healthy person into a patient just to make him more productive. And any responsible physician should have some qualms about the inevitably perverse psychological result of turning a perfectly normal memory or mood into an enhanced one. But those concerns are now trumped by the patient’s autonomy—or freedom from, and for, bodily determination.
Society still says we shouldn’t do anything chemical or artificial to boost the performance of athletes. We want natural gifts to be combined with real self-discipline to produce authentic excellence. The home-run hitter who takes steroids increases his own value as a player, and so in a sense his productivity. But the money he gets comes from entertaining an audience, and the customer is going to be right when it comes to what sort of display of excellence will please him the most. Steroids or not, the customer is always right.
Yet the choice for nature over technological artificiality has little relevance for areas of life where the standard of productivity is less ambiguous. It’s easy to say the athlete shouldn’t “cheat” in a game—it’s much harder to say, for example, that physicians should turn down safe and reliable enhancements that greatly improve their medical judgment and reduce medical errors. Nobody’s going to say let’s stick with the natural way at the cost of significant suffering and loss of life. Athletes just play games according to basically arbitrary rules; medicine is about really keeping free beings going. Somebody might say that the physician, as an autonomous being, shouldn’t be compelled to use a drug that improves his memory or judgment or endurance. But it seems to me that productivity in the service of health and safety will eventually trump personal autonomy, even just as a consequence of the marketplace. Physicians who fall short of the expected performance standards won’t be kept on the job out of respect for their conscientious objection to enhancement or their personal flourishing. With the possibility of artificially enhanced performance a fact of medical life, and the selfless sacrifice of one’s autonomy for the good of the patient will be expected as part of the professionalism.
Productivity will, in fact, trump autonomy in most areas of work, whether for the businessman who must work ridiculous hours in the global marketplace, the VIP worker who can’t keep the smile going on a double shift, or even the notoriously unproductive and autonomy-obsessed college professor, who drove some students off and never got it together enough to publish much. Soon enough, none of them will be able to claim a right to their so-called natural moods if they can easily go down to drugstore and get brightened up. From a technological view, moods are just collections of chemicals, and, if possible, we should choose the ones that are of the most use to us. Because I am not my moods, I should give orders to them with my productivity in mind.
The same sort of thinking will probably determine the outcome of another important bioethical issue we now face, along with an economic downturn: Should I be able to sell my allegedly redundant second kidney, or should a woman be able to sell her eggs? Some say that it’s undignified to reduce human beings to commodities, but the free individual responds: I am not my body. My kidneys or my eggs are a commodity, to be used by me or sold as I see fit. It will be a new birth of freedom, the narcissist believes, when I can count my body as part of my net worth in dollars, and other people are free to do the same. It’s my business if my doctor has turned me—a healthy person with a top-notch kidney—into a patient to dispose of my resource as I please. In doing so, after all, I benefit not only myself, I preserve the life—the very being—of another free being, without having him become in any way dependent on me. Entering the kidney market is one way among many I can find to enhance my productivity. There are already some serious ethicists who say that, given the plight of the poor in our unjust society, we should free them up to improve themselves by marketing what is a very valuable—and until now an untapped—resource. How easily we forget that if we allow people to sell their kidneys, we might end up expecting them to.
These are the best times ever to be young, smart, pretty, and industrious. Productivity is the standard in our increasingly meritocratic society—but the pressure is on like never before to be young, smart, pretty, and industrious. The preferential options inaugurated in the Sixties turn out to have technological justifications. The young are the most flexible and techno-savvy among us. We go to the youngest member of the family—certainly not grandpa—to find out how to use own iPhones, iPods, and various other iThings. What do the old know that we need to know now? Technology obliterates the need for traditions, for guarding and passing on. More generally, we’re now stuck with the question of “What are old people for?” We tell them it’s time for them to enjoy, but human life, to be either dignified or happy, has to be for more than enjoyment. As Solzhenitsyn says, technology is an undeniable cause of a “rift” between the generations, often “dooming” the old to loneliness and abandonment and depriving them of “the joy of passing on their experience to the young.”
Our technological standard of productivity increasingly favors the young. But our technological success is causing our population to age. Sophisticated Americans benefit from constant medical breakthroughs and attentive responses to every newly discovered risk factor. We are living longer than ever. And (except for religiously observant Americans and certain immigrants) people in the Western world are having fewer and fewer children, partly because they don’t want to limit their options by thinking of themselves as parents. Insofar as I identify being itself with my being, I see no need to generate replacements.
It’s very good news that people are living longer. There seems to be a new birth of freedom in the growing period between parenting and productivity, and debility and death. That freedom, for prosperous Americans, seems to be for whatever purpose the individual chooses. But, from another view, the individual is productive for a small part of his life, and a dependent for longer, as a child and as an old person. If freedom and dignity are intertwined with productivity, then it may not be so great after all to live a very long time. Will the shrinking number of productive young people be willing or even able to support the increasing number of the unproductive old? “The gift of heightened life expectancy,” Solzhenitsyn observes, “has, as one of its conquences, made the elder generation into a burden for its children.”
Certainly both the young and the old are aware of the individualistic, meritoratic principle that nobody owes anyone else a living. As Locke himself told us, in an individualistic society the only reliable hold the old have on the young is money. It’s more important than ever to be rich if you’re going to get very old, as almost all of us hope to do. But pension systems are collapsing, Medicare is demographically untenable, health care and caregiving costs are skyrocketing, and our economic future is in question. It’s tougher than ever to have confidence that your money is going to last as long as you are.
I tell my students I want to enroll them in my two-point program for saving Medicare. First, they need to start smoking and really stick with it. Second, they need to start making babies, and I mean right now, this week. So far I haven’t been persuasive enough to get them with the program. But members of the Greatest Generation, in effect, did. They had lots of kids and gave very little thought to risk factors. They often smoked like chimneys, enjoyed multiple martinis, and only exercised for fun. The excellent TV series Mad Men, featuring advertising executives in 1960, displays the unhealthy habits of highly successful Americans for our horror. Don’t you idiots know you’re killing yourselves! They really did drop dead much earlier and more often, without drawing a dime of Social Security or (after 1962) Medicare, but not before generating several replacements to fund those programs for the future. Our whole medical safety net is premised on demographics that have disappeared and aren’t likely to return, and that’s because, for good and bad, we’re more narcissistic than people used to be.
One downside of thinking of oneself as a self-sufficient individual is the inevitability of becoming old and frail. Nobody, it turns out, is stuck—out of love or at least familial loyalty—with taking care of you. The fastest growing demographic category is men over 65 with no children or spouse, and even having a child might not help you much in our mobile and increasingly duty-free society. We’re persistently pushing heart disease and cancer back, but more people seem destined to die of Alzheimer’s. Imagine what Alzheimer’s must be like for someone who has no one to rely upon who loved them prior to their getting the disease. The number of old and frail, debilitating and slowly dying wards of the state, are only going to increase. And the care they’re going to get, because they’re really on their own, isn’t likely to be good. As a nation, we have no idea how we’re going to afford it.
Then there is caregiving. Thinking in terms of productivity and caregiving are two very different ways of looking at the world, and at the purposes of human beings. Productivity is a measurable metric of dollars and cents, and its benefits are diminished if shared. It turns friendship into networking, and creates a standard that’s tough on those more motivated by love. Caregiving is unproductive, can’t be measured by money, is all about loving solicitude, and usually seems boring and easy to people obsessed with productivity.
We Americans used to have a rough division of labor based on the traditional distinction between productivity and caregiving, a division between men and women. Men took care of politics and business and women the home and the children. Roughly speaking, men were about the money and women the love. Men were about the pursuit of happiness and women happiness itself. And I’m not only thinking of married women—the legendary Sisters of Mercy were tough, intelligent, and adventurous women who devoted their lives to the sick and the dying out of love.
The American view, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously described it in Democracy in America, was that what men and women did was separate but equal—really incommensurable. People need both to be productive and to be cared for, and it’s impossible to rank one human good over the other. There’s no denying, Tocqueville added, that American men often didn’t really think that what women did was as important as what they did, just as they were reluctant to admit how indispensable caregiving was to their happiness. The division of labor was, in fact, unjust. Men had all the public power, and the option of contributing to caregiving, which they rarely exercised. The more productive ways of living were denied to most women. This injustice, Tocqueville reports, was willingly endured by the most intelligent and admirable American women, because they knew better than American men the true purpose of human life. They knew better than men the true purpose of human life. Because they knew the “why,” they found themselves remarkably able to live with any “how.” American men, by comparison, were prone to bragging, quite unrealistically, that everything they did could be comprehended by the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood. Tocqueville couldn’t help but subtly give his judgment that American women are superior to American men.
Women eventually demanded their liberation in the name of justice. But, for the most part, they were liberated to be productive—to be wage slaves—just like men. Men and women are now supposed to share equally in being productive and in being caregivers, but nobody really denies that women took to the men’s traditional role far more readily than men did to the women’s. Women flooded the labor market and significantly enhanced our country’s productivity, but real wages dropped. The family wage became an increasingly distant ideal. Families increasingly seemed to need to work more hours than one person reasonably could to live well. Women who wanted to remain “unproductive” out of love have had a hard time defending their choice or being honored for it. As people become more unreliable and narcissistic, any wife and mom who can’t pay her own way has a very risky existence. While close to 80% of longterm caregiving is still done voluntarily by women, the amount of voluntary caregiving seems bound to continue to decline.
Today, more and more caregiving is done for money, by workers. We have healthcare workers for the sick and disabled, daycare workers for children, and so forth. Insofar as such workers save and prolong lives with their technical skill, they’re clearly being productive. What gives caregiving incommensurable value is loving solicitude or what makes life most worth living. But we can’t expect someone we hire to feel that love. When caregiving is reduced to what we can measure with money, it seems like much less than it really is. For the same reason some would rather pay for a kidney than be given one—once money changes hands, they owe the provider nothing more.
This cuts to the heart of our inability to sustain our health care system, even as technology advances. It continues to get tougher for increasingly productive and narcissistic individuals to identify themselves—especially lovingly—with anything but themselves. They think of themselves less and less as basically parents or children, creatures, citizens, friends, or even parts of nature and think of themselves more and more as free individuals. Our time is characterized, Tocqueville first noticed, by the “heart disease” of individualistic withdrawal. The narcissistic individual is both certain that he’s not a biological being, and that there’s nothing real about him that survives his biological death. Death, for him, is meaningless total extinction, and that’s why Solzhenitsyn observes that what people in the West lack, most of all, is “a clear and calm attitude toward death.”
People are more concerned than ever with doing what’s required to stay alive, even as they do everything they can to divert themselves from real thoughts about love and death. They’re increasingly convinced that they’re stuck with securing their free or contingent beings on their own. So they’re sure to be increasingly anxious consumers of the biotechnology that aims to break ever more completely the natural life cycle, to achieve indefinite longevity for each particular individual. Those who claim we should do as nature intends and not make a big effort to keep people alive beyond a certain age—say, 75 or 80—aren’t facing the fact that there’s no natural limit that free individuals can’t challenge with considerable success. There’s no reason why I should rest content with the thought that my being has definite biological limits. I have the right to more and more, as the technological means become available. We’re going to end up living as long as we can. Even the Bible seems to be in favor of people living a very long time, if they can. That Book also explains why we’re the beings who aren’t limited by nature like the others.
Being so death-haunted explains our birth dearth to some extent; we get little solace from thinking about the children who will live on after us. Nor do we get much satisfaction from producing any accomplishments that will stand the test of time much better than we can as biological beings, and that’s why there’s so little building or writing for the ages these days. Being so death-haunted also helps to explain the extreme measures taken by the old to look young, not to remind us that they’re dying It’s one reason why the old are increasingly separated from the rest of society, and their care turned over to workers. It might even have something to do with why physicians have less time for their dying patients, and why the best and the brightest medical students are choosing dermatology—which, as medical specialties go, has very little do with either birth or death. Is death God’s will, or an unexpected accident? Today, we are reluctant to answer.
America’s health care crisis also has to do with productivity trumping caregiving. The system of health insurance largely being a benefit of employment is a vestige of the past. One problem, of course, is that too many people—those un- and under-employed are uncovered. A bigger one is that this system, supported by tax deductions for employers and employees, is incompatible with the requirements of a dynamic and competitive global economy, as well as with the increasing pressure on ordinary people to be productive. Employers, saddled with rapidly escalating health costs driven by medical malpractice, the demands of technological innovation, and millions of uninsured Americans, can no longer offer that benefit and remain competitive. Employees fear losing their coverage, while employers fear being stuck with an unproductive employee with an expensively sick child.
Our present health care system depends on the paternalistic employer being an intermediary between the individual and government. But in an economy where employer and employee cannot afford the price of loyalty to each other, the last vestiges of social paternalism are fading away. Health care has to devolve either to the individual or to government. Some say that the government has a duty to provide the best possible health care for every dignified human being. That conclusion might be supported by Christian or Kantian morality. It might even flow from the Lockean view that people consent to government to have their right to life protected. That might mean that government has the duty to employ all means available to keep me alive as long as possible. A thoroughgoing narcissist wouldn’t hesitate to claim that every possible resource should be thrown into the technological project of indefinitely delaying his death—a providential government should assume the burden of sustaining isolated individuals. But as we’ve seen, the European idea of a paternalistic government caring for the health of everyone as a common good undermines the personal caregiving indispensable for sustaining our system. And American demographic realities prevent government from fulfilling even a modest view of that responsibility indefinitely.
Today, public bureaucracies are far more likely than private concerns to be infused with the self-indulgent, narcissistic cultural excesses of our intellectuals. These same bureaucracies would decide about rationing, compelling abortions, and make the hard calls about the profoundly disabled or those very near death. We wouldn’t want to turn health care decisions over to those most contemptuous of the moral choices of the least narcissistic Americans.
Nevertheless, health care shouldn’t devolve to individuals left simply to their own ingenuity and resources either. Repeated attempts to “socialize medicine” have failed, and I believe the fears of Hayek and Tocqueville were mistaken. We’re not slouching toward some soft despotism full of dependents who have surrendered concern for their futures to the nanny state. Instead, people are more on their own than ever. Their safety nets are collapsing; they’re stuck with securing their own futures in an increasingly indifferent world, and one that inevitably penalizes the most vulnerable among us—the old and the infirm.
Curbing the narcissism of our time begins by enabling and encouraging people to act out of love. Programs that help parents, children, friends, citizens, and creatures do what they’re inclined to do in terms of voluntary caregiving borrow principles from the European Christian Democratic parties calling for care to be given in the most personal way possible. A sustainable health care system is possible only insofar as productivity is balanced with love, or by the thought that each human being is more than a being with interests.
One example of such a program, in my hometown of Rome, Georgia, is an outpost of a hospital still run by the Sisters of Mercy. Old and very frail people—many with early stage Alzheimer’s—can spend the day at a center staffed by a nurse and caregivers. The center is mission-driven and personal enough that the staff members, although paid, think of themselves as a lot more than workers. And this “daycare” allows old people to stay at home with their families—or “deinstitutionalized”—without impossible or unreasonable sacrifices of productivity and ambition. It is a program premised on assisting people in being as self-reliant as they can reasonably be. Yes, we want as little caregiving as possible to be done by government, which can’t help but treat people as isolated individuals or needy dependents. At the same time, we want people, especially the vulnerable among us, not be all on their own in navigating our technological future. We want to keep the lonely howling down to a minimum.
Today’s challenges aside, we must remember that we are not in the thrall of some impersonal technological process bound to deprive of us of our humanity. Technological civilization really is a trial of our free will, and we can still think and act as if human beings are more than beings with interests. We really have been given distinctive purposes, and we really still can live in love with what and who we really know. We certainly live in demanding times, with anxious insecurity and profound loneliness making happiness difficult to find, but far from impossible. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, the result of neglecting our souls is a “nagging sadness of the heart” in the midst of plenty. But our souls are still there, and if we do not care for them, there is still one who does.
The most immediate intended audience for Solzhenitsyn’s speech on our vacuum of purpose was those individuals, in the early 1990s, who bought into the “naïve fable of the happy arrival at ‘the end of history,’ of the overflowing triumph of an all-democratic bliss.” That fable or lullaby, we now know, failed to produce either human happiness or human “tranquility.” At the end of history, we would be freed from trials of free will and living in peaceful contentment in the present. But the truth is that the trials of the twentieth century have been replaced by new ones. We see, more clearly than ever, that modern progress has not been humanly satisfying, and so we should be more open than ever to coming to terms with the distorted incompleteness of the modern or allegedly “progressive” understanding of who we are.
Solzhenitsyn, in his 1978 Harvard Address, reminded us, that “if man were born only to be happy, he would not have been born to die.” That’s not to say that he wasn’t born to be happy, but that his happiness comes from fulfilling the purpose he has been given—“his task on earth,” one that “evidently must be more spiritual” than “a total engrossment in everyday life.” Thank God, that total engrossment is impossible for beings born to die, and we have no choice but “to rise a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled on, as in the Modern Era.”
Our thought and public policy must be informed by postmodernism rightly understood, by what we can now see with our own eyes about the truth about who we are. Our social and political vision that guides us toward “progress” of a political level needs to be based on the ideal of true progress—the genuinely moral drama of the good’s truthful, courageous, and happy struggle against the evil of lies—that should constitute every human life. “In the end,” as James Schall explained it, “ultimate things have to be rediscovered in each of our souls.”
Peter Augustine Lawler, a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, is Dana Professor of Government and International Studies at Berry College.