This essay is adapted from the 12th William E. Simon Lecture, delivered in Washington D.C. on February 5, 2013.
The glossary of inadmissible words in 21st-century American society has shrunk to what seems, at times, a null set. Deprecations and excretory references that once got kids’ mouths washed out with soap are dropped with aplomb and immunity, and not just in Quentin Tarantino films. On the rare occasions when the Federal Communications Commission chastises a broadcaster for letting an expletive pass uncensored or unbleeped, cries of repression ricochet from sea to shining sea, quickly followed by passionate defenses of the First Amendment.
But the set of inadmissible words is not quite null just yet. For, to paraphrase St. Paul, there still abideth metaphysics. Indeed, 21st-century post-modern culture does not simply shun the word “metaphysics.” It dismisses out of hand the very notion that there is a morally significant givenness to reality: a structure of The Way Things Are that can be discerned by reason and that, being known, discloses certain truths about the way we should live. In 21st-century America, and throughout the 21st-century West, what the founders would have called “the pursuit of happiness” has become a function of the autonomous will of the individual, and that willfulness can legitimately attach itself to any object so long as no one gets hurt.
The drastic attenuation of these three great ideas — that there are truths built into the world, into human beings, and into human relationships; that these truths can be known by reason; and that knowledge of these truths is essential to living virtuously, which means living happily — has taken place over a very long period of time. A good argument can be made that one of the prime villains of the piece was the 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, whose voluntarism shifted the locus of Western moral reflection from the intellect (which was to discover moral truths in reality) to the will (which could impose, or even invent, its own moral reality). The wedge that the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume tried to drive between “is” and “ought” — an effort that accelerated Western philosophy’s lurch into subjectivism — was surely part of the problem, as was the failure of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” to meet Hume’s challenge and re-ground serious thought and moral judgment in something other than the insides of our heads. Twentieth-century analytical philosophies that reduced thought about the human condition to a variety of language games didn’t help matters either.
But if the philosophers had gotten themselves caught in what Polish thinker Wojciech Chudy once called the “trap of reflection,” what about the impact of reality itself? One might have thought that the mass slaughters perpetrated by the mid-20th century totalitarianisms would have compelled a general cultural revulsion against a will to power unchecked by ideas of true and false, good and evil. But even that experience of awfulness doesn’t seem to have bent the curve of cultural history away from self-absorption and willfulness, as that cultural history is manifest in the world of ideas.
Perhaps it should not have been surprising that American higher learning shifted gears rather readily from John Dewey to Jacques Derrida — from the anorexic philosophy of pragmatism to a post-modern insouciance about (and indeed hostility to) any notion of deep truths embedded in the world and in us. The native-born American professoriate hadn’t been scarred by the experience of gulags and extermination camps, and in any event American higher education, largely dissenting-Protestant in origin, had never been securely grounded in the classic verities of the metaphysical sensibility that grew out of Aristotle as mediated by Catholic medieval thinkers like Aquinas.
What is surprising, though — and what ought to be deeply disturbing — is the rapidity with which university life behind the old Iron Curtain turned on a dime from Marxism to post-modernism in the aftermath of the Cold War. It took the University of California, Berkeley, a full century to become Berkeley. It took the venerable Jagiellonian University in Kraków (founded in 1364) less than a decade to become a Central European simulacrum of Berkeley in its adherence to post-modern canons of epistemological skepticism, moral relativism, and metaphysical nihilism. That blink-of-an-eye transformation suggests that there is a deep cultural turbulence beneath the surface of Western civilization in this second decade of the 21st century. To describe it in the terms above, however, is not to suggest that this disturbance is a problem for philosophers only. Quite the contrary.
That Western democratic bodies ranging from the Greek Parliament to the Italian Chamber of Deputies to the United States Congress and the California State Assembly find it impossible to craft and adopt public policies that meet the pressing demands of the moment (while frittering away their time in various forms of political theater) suggests that the deterioration of Western thought about Things As They Are has had dramatic public-policy consequences and could eventually have the gravest civilizational consequences. That the politics of the Western democracies are often in gridlock is not simply because there are deeply different views of personal freedom and public goods in competition in public life; that has always been the case. The difference today is that there are no agreed-upon, reality-based reference points to which the contending parties can appeal in order to settle the argument about whose concept of the public good, and how it ought to be achieved, is the course to be followed.
Public policy that fosters individual human flourishing and the common good must take account of reality, and realities. When a culture loses confidence in its capacity to say, with conviction, “this is The Way Things Are,” its capacity to devise ways and means of addressing The Way Things Ought To Be is severely eroded. In a culture without metaphysics, the one trump card in public life becomes individual willfulness. And then, because politics is an expression of culture, both the citizenry and its political leaders increasingly come to resemble Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Reality contact, it seems, is important not only for personal mental health. Reality contact is essential to making democracy work. Yet an insistence on avoiding reality is more or less the organizing principle of our political life these days. It lies at the center of a great many of our public problems, and it connects them to one another.
The desire to separate those problems and handle them individually — say, to “put aside the social issues” and just worry about the budget deficit, as many a well-meaning advisor to today’s Republican Party now suggests — is no less naïve and unreal an approach to political life than is the desire to ignore the substance of each problem and pretend we can inhabit a world of our own imagination. Responsible, democratic self-governance, and effective public policy that addresses rather than postpones problems, begins by accepting reality. That this seems awfully difficult for many of our fellow citizens these days is perhaps the most grave of our problems.
THE NEW GNOSTICISM
There is another, parallel, way to think about these deeper cultural currents that are helping make it extremely difficult for even serious political leaders (with which the West is not exactly replete in 2013) to connect the dots between, say, certain public goods (financial security for increasingly elderly populations and quality medical care for all) and certain fiscal realities (this is how much money we can raise through taxation without destroying economic initiative and this is how much we can responsibly borrow). And that is to understand that, for the past half-century or so, the United States and the rest of the West have been living through an intense Gnostic revival: a powerful recrudescence of an ancient heresy that has erupted time and again over the past two millennia and that is very much with us today.
Gnosticism is a protean cultural virus that has taken many forms over time. Wherever and whenever it has appeared, however, Gnosticism has sought the good outside of reality as we perceive it through the materials of this world. In the Gnostic view, human flourishing (to reach for a contemporary term) comes from the possession of a gnosis, a knowledge, which will lift men and women out of the grubbiness of the quotidian and into the purified realm of truth. Reality, in the Gnostic view, is antithetical to “the pursuit of happiness”; reality is to be rejected, and thereby overcome.
Contemporary Gnosticism, which is most powerfully embodied in the sexual revolution, has given all of this a new twist by masking its essential deprecation of The Way Things Are by what appears, at first blush, to be a hyper-materialism: a cult of sensuality über alles in which sexual gratification, in any form among consenting adults, is the highest of goods and the most inalienable of personal liberties. But the deeper dimension of the new Gnosticism, especially as it manifests itself through the sexual revolution, is the conviction that there are no Things As They Are. None. Everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable. Everything can (and ought to be allowed to) be bent to human willfulness, which is to say, to human desire. As for the notion that some desires are untoward, even wicked, because they lead to self-degradation and thus frustrate the natural quest for happiness: Well, if there are no Things As They Are, how can anyone say that this desire or that is unnatural, dehumanizing, or wrong?
In this respect, the most powerful expression of the ancient cultural toxin of Gnosticism in the 21st-century West is the ideology of gender — the body of thought that quite naturally occupied the cultural vacuum left when metaphysics and any sense of reality-grounded thinking about the human condition collapsed, when technology made it possible to sunder sex from procreation readily and inexpensively, and when the law built a high wall of protection around sexual encounters between consenting adults. The sexual revolution imagined itself, at the outset, to be liberating men and women from hoary religious constraints and their attendant psychological catarrhs. Yet the cultural transformation that the sexual revolution unleashed would turn out to have far more profound consequences than those imagined by its early propagandists, who seem to have imagined sex as just another contact sport.
For within a very short span of time, less than two generations, two aspects of the human condition that had been understood for millennia to be the very quintessence of givenness — maleness and femaleness — were no longer taken to be given at all. “Male” and “female” were not The Way Things Are. “Male” and “female” were “cultural constructs,” usually manipulated by those in power for purposes of domination (Gnosticism thus adding a soupçon of Marxism to its ideology of plasticity).
The beginnings of this path of radical, Gnostic cultural transformation may have been marked by Playboy and the pill. Where it was all heading became clear when Spain’s Zapatero government enacted, in 2007, legislation allowing men to change themselves into women (and vice versa) by a simple declaration at a Civil Register office (and without any surgical folderol) — after which affirmation a new national identity card, noting the new gender, would be issued. It is hard to imagine a more explicit expression of personal willfulness overpowering natural givenness.
Gnostic anthropology — the Gnostic view of the human person and the human condition — is the antithesis of the Biblical view of men and women and their possibilities, which has long been one of the foundation stones of the Western civilizational project. Thus it was no accident — although it seemed to many a happy and perhaps strategically important cultural development — that when the premier intellectual in early 21st-century Christianity took up the cudgels against the radical cultural transformation wrought by the new Gnosticism and raised a warning flag about its public implications, he cited the anti-Gnostic critique of the ideology of gender by a prominent Jewish leader.
As French president François Hollande pressed a same-sex marriage bill in the National Assembly in the fall of 2012, the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, offered the French government a detailed critique of Hollande’s proposal in a 25-page essay that caught the attention of Pope Benedict XVI. Then, when Benedict gave his annual Christmas address to the senior officials of the Roman Curia on December 21, 2012, he noted the dramatic decline of the marriage culture of the West, warned that this presaged a social world in which “man remains closed in on himself and keeps his ‘I’ ultimately for himself, without really rising above it,” and then buttressed his argument by adopting Rabbi Bernheim’s critique as a summary of the counter-case to the Gnostic gender revolution.
“While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family,” Benedict told his audience, “it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being — of what being human really means — is being called into question.” He continued:
[Rabbi Bernheim] quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born a woman, one becomes so” [On ne naît pas femme, on le devient]. These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature that man has to accept and personally make sense of: It is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.
The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” [Genesis 1:27] no longer apply. No, what now applies is this: it was not God who created them male and female — hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves. Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will.
To imagine that we live in such a self-created world is not only to imagine that we owe nothing to our given nature but also to believe that we owe no attention or response to the problems that arise when we ignore that nature. Such a warped sensibility not only makes any moral order impossible: It makes political order untenable, too.
GOVERNING AN UNREAL WORLD
Some who share the concerns of Pope-emeritus Benedict and Rabbi Bernheim will nonetheless suggest that these are essentially matters of the private sphere, with little discernible consequence for public policy and public life beyond some adjustments to civil-marriage law. Others, perhaps also sympathetic in theory or sentiment, will sigh and argue that the debate has been lost, that the sexual revolution has won, and that arguments about public policy — on issues ranging from tax reform to entitlement reform to health care to foreign policy — must now be conducted on their own merits, absent the distractions of these fevered questions of sex, gender, and so forth. This idea that the “social issues” can be put aside so that other issues can be taken up has been frequently championed as the prudent course for American conservatives and for the Republican Party in the wake of last November’s disastrous election.
Yet if politics really is an expression of culture (as political theory is an extension of ethics), then the Gnostic revolution and the decline of cultural confidence in The Way Things Are must be, in fact, at the very center of our politics. A people convinced that all is plastic and malleable in the human condition — that nothing simply is, even when it comes to such seemingly elementary givens as maleness and femaleness and their natural complementarity — is going to perceive politics in a distinctive, and likely distorting, way. For even those who have never heard of Gnosticism, much less imagined themselves as its adherents, are nonetheless going to think in Gnostic categories.
The most obvious example of this is the course that has been taken by the same-sex marriage debate. Now, to be sure, the Human Rights Campaign and other same-sex marriage advocates have been shrewd in battening on the American civil-rights movement as the icon of their own activism and in not publicly pressing that activism toward its logical conclusion (which is the legalization of polygamy and polyandry, already being bruited in elite law journals). But these shrewd political tactics have worked because the political culture had been previously softened up (and dumbed down) by the new Gnostic revolution.
Thus a patently false analogy — legal bans on gay marriage are exactly the same as the anti-miscegenation laws of the era of racial segregation — has been successfully sold because a culture unaccustomed to the idea that some realities just are will easily swallow the rhetorical bait. Such a culture is then utterly befuddled when the most intellectually sophisticated Catholic bishop in American history, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, writes in his archdiocesan newspaper that Illinois’s proposed same-sex marriage legislation “is less a threat to religion than it is an affront to human reason and the common good of society. It means that we all are to pretend to accept something we know is physically impossible. The Legislature might just as well repeal the law of gravity.”
But the new Gnosticism warps our politics in other ways that ought to concern those thinkers, commentators, and politicians now counseling their fellow conservatives to admit that the sexual revolution has triumphed, to get over it, and to move on. For that counsel prompts an urgent question: Move on how? If people are prepared to believe (or, even worse, if people are prepared to insist as a matter of fundamental civil rights) the unreal claim that marriage can encompass two men or two women, why should those same people not believe that America can continue to run trillion-dollar deficits with impunity? Or that the centralization and vast regulatory apparatus to be created by Obamacare will not inevitably lead to the rationing of end-of-life care? Or that the federal budget deficit has primarily to do with the wealthy not paying “their fair share”?
Every serious analyst of the impending federal fiscal crisis, from the right and the left alike, understands that there are very hard choices to be made in building an American future that combines financial responsibility with justice and compassion. But how can such difficult choices and policies be sold, on the basis of the realities that are self-evidently clear from the numbers, to a population culturally conditioned to think that nothing is as is, that everything is malleable and plastic? Why, for example, should a population that thinks of children primarily as a lifestyle choice aimed at enhancing parental satisfaction take seriously the grave moral problem of saddling future generations (as well as current ones) with unpayable, and perhaps even unserviceable, amounts of public debt?
Foreign policy is also imperiled by the new Gnosticism and its reality-denying effects on personal and public perceptions. Putting aside the question of whether the World War II generation was the greatest American generation — what about the founders? — surely the greatness of the generation that fought and beat Nazism and Japanese imperialism was that it accepted the duty to do just that as an imperative imposed by reality. Throughout World War II, there was very little of the flag-waving, chest-thumping, martial romanticism that had characterized the American entry into the First World War. As William Manchester, Paul Fussell, and others have observed, Americans approached the Second World War as a dirty, necessary job that had to be done, period. That same generation understood, when given serious political leadership by reality-grounded men like Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, that more sacrifices were required to fight what John Kennedy called “the long twilight struggle” against another totalitarian threat. But today?
If Americans perceive the world through cultural lenses that are distorted by Gnosticism, how can we think strategically and wisely about the normality of conflict in international affairs? How can we grasp that foreign policy is a matter of crafting incentives and disincentives to get others to behave as we would like them to behave? How can a people accustomed to thinking of the world as fungible and elastic possibly comprehend the threat posed by religiously-inspired apocalyptics whose idea of changing the world is to end the world as we know it? The link between the new Gnosticism and foreign policy “resets” may not immediately be evident, but the dots are there, and those dots can be connected if “resetting” has become a deeply ingrained (and publicly celebrated) cultural habit.
America tried a flight from harsh international realities in the 1990s during the Clinton administration, which was the first significant embodiment of the Gnostic temperament in the history of the presidency. The result was the chaotic, ghastly, and still unresolved dissolution of Yugoslavia, the refusal to see reality for what it was in the Rwandan genocide, the scuttle from Somalia, the naïveté of “Oslo” as the magic solution to the Middle East’s problems, the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack of the U.S.S. Cole — and, ultimately, 9/11.
That same flight from reality, shaped in part by the same Gnosticism (filtered in this instance through certain New Left confusions), led in President Obama’s first term to a revival of Russian power and a new Russian aggressiveness east of the old Iron Curtain. It produced the betrayal of American allies like Poland and the Czech Republic, the expulsion of American pro-democracy groups from both the Middle East and Russia, continued Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, and no discernible change of perspective among the Palestinian political leadership. Ultimately, this unwillingness to accept Things As They Are brought about the murder of a U.S. ambassador and American diplomatic staff in Benghazi.
Reality may be, and often is, unpleasant. But policies rooted in a failure to grasp reality are dangerous, and too often deadly. Those conservatives who imagine that there is no linkage between the unreality embodied in the sexual revolution and the ideology of gender and the unreality embodied in the fiscal, health-care, social-welfare, and foreign policies they oppose might well think again. A culture convinced that everything is malleable and that there are no givens in personal or public life is not a culture likely to sustain serious debates about serious public-policy options. Those who find such debates lacking at the beginning of President Obama’s second term — which is to say, anyone paying serious attention — had best start thinking about the deeper roots of the problem that lie in the loss of a cultural grip on Things As They Are.
THE GRAMMAR OF THE HUMAN
In 2006, the distinguished French philosopher and historian of ideas Rémi Brague made a suggestive proposal for periodizing modern Western political history. The 19th century, he argued, was a period focused on good-and-evil: The “social question” — prompted by the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, mass education, and the demise of traditional society — shaped the public landscape.
The 20th century, meanwhile, had been the century of true-and-false: The totalitarian ideologies, built on the foundations of desperately wrong-headed ideas of human beings, their origins, communities, and destiny, defined the contest for the human future that drove history from the aftermath of World War I (the event that began “the 20th century” as an epoch) through the Soviet crack-up of 1991 (the event that ended “the 20th century” as a distinctive political-historical period).
And the 21st century? That, Brague proposed, would be the century of being-and-nothingness — the epoch of the metaphysical question. This might seem, in comparison to Brague’s descriptions of the 19th and 20th centuries, a rather abstract notion. Yet Brague, in his French way, was being very practical and concrete in defining our times in those terms. For if there is nothing received and cherished by our culture that might be called the “grammar of the human” — if there are no Things As They Are — then everything is up for grabs, cacophony drowns out intelligent public debate, and politics is merely the will to power.
Having spent decades immersed in the study of Islamic philosophy and law, Rémi Brague was hardly unaware of the threat posed to the West by jihadism, both externally and internally. But he insisted that there was a prior “enemy within the gates” of our own making. It was nihilism: a kind of soured cynicism about the very mystery of being and its goodness. Such cynicism drains life of meaning, foreshortens horizons of expectation, and renders sacrifices for the common good risible.
Brague found it foreshadowed in the Enlightenment intellectual (left unnamed) who once said that he did not have children because begetting children was a criminal act, a matter of condemning another human being to death. A similar nihilism may be found at the root of today’s diminishing marriage culture, in the treatment of children as lifestyle accessories, in the trivialization of sexuality in advertising and entertainment, and in so many other expressions of the Gnostic ideology of gender and the sexual revolution.
The question, then, is being. Serious thought about the political future of the Western democracies will not end, or perhaps even begin, with metaphysics. But serious reflection on the future of America and the West cannot ignore the grammar of the human, because it will be impossible to address what ails us — our politics and our civilization — without first accepting the reality of Things As They Are.
George Weigel is the Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of, more recently, Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church. This essay is adapted from his 12th William E. Simon Lecture, delivered in Washington on February 5, 2013.
This article was originally published on National Affairs (Spring 2013 issue)