When I soberly examine the West as it really is, I find much wanting in its worldview and way of life. More than that, I have come to believe that the very modes of life and thinking that strike most people in the West as antiquated or “limiting” can liberate us, while the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits is, in fact, a prison; that the quest to define ourselves on our own is a kind of El Dorado, driving to madness the many who seek after it; that for our best, highest selves to soar, other parts of us must be tied down, enclosed, limited, bound. These are the paradoxical arguments at the heart of this book.
Our version of freedom sprang from the European Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that “sought to liberate man from the dead hand of tradition,” as one historian of ideas has written. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, men and women inspired by Enlightenment ideas swept violently through the West, assailing every source and symbol of authority that stood in the way of the sovereign individual and his autonomous exercise of his reason and his rights. For the Enlightenment thinkers, what people did with their freedom mattered far less than their being generally unrestrained: to marry or divorce; to worship or blaspheme; to serve others or hoard wealth.
In the realm of tradition, truth is something that precedes individual human beings, something we inherit and must hand down, in turn. We can discover truth and reason about it, to be sure, but we can’t change it. In the realm of progress, however, truth is what individuals or groups can articulate or build on their own, through scientific inquiry and their acts in history. Truth thus becomes an ongoing project, a malleable thing. In our realm of progress, tradition is viewed as not only antiquated and inefficient, but as an impediment to achievement. But what if that confidence of the modern world is an illusion, the product of a determined resolution not to confront the fundamental dilemmas of what it means to be fully human? Or what if beneath the moderns’ complacency lurks a deep soul-soreness?
QUESTION ONE: HOW DO YOU JUSTIFY YOUR LIFE?
The scientific outlook can’t, and won’t, bother with questions having to do with ultimate meaning, the stock-in-trade of faith and philosophy. And it insists that such questions don’t belong to an inquiry into truth in the first place, since the answers don’t take scientific form. Meaning and purpose, however, force us to consider nothing less than the value of being. Given the monopoly on knowledge they claim, proponents of the scientific outlook should be able to furnish an answer to our central question. Can they?
We, too, must be prepared to surrender our share of a “chronological snobbery” that has now prevailed for some four hundred years: It is a mistake to apply the scientific outlook, perfectly legitimate in its own domain, to the whole of life. We all face serious philosophical, spiritual, and moral problems in the course of life: in moments of existential despair and of euphoric joy; when we are awestruck by the mere fact that we exist; or, more mundanely, when we come upon ethical forks in the road, forcing us to choose between the “easy” but unethical path and the one that is difficult but righteous. We can’t leave it up to scientists to solve these problems for us.
Plenty of scientists are humble enough to accept science’s limitations, of course. But the ideologues of scientism are a different matter. At best, they smuggle in their own ideals in response to such problems, even as they claim to have debunked all idealism. At worst, they invite us to despair (and immorality) by suggesting that the timeless problems of being human don’t have right or wrong, true or false, answers—since neither the questions nor the potential answers can be kept contained in the world of sensible, measurable facts.
QUESTION TWO: IS GOD REASONABLE?
What matters for our purposes is to appreciate just how high the stakes in Aquinas’s project were. For starters, the Five Ways, and the Thomistic edifice as a whole, attest to philosophy’s enduring power to answer the deepest yearning of the heart: to know that we are part of an orderly whole, the creation of a being whose existence explains why everything happens in the world. As coldly rationalistic as the Five Ways might appear at first glance, their ultimate import couldn’t be more warmly hopeful: We are wanted. We belong. We are here for a reason. We are loved. Second, and relatedly, inherent in Aquinas’s proofs is the assurance that this being, this God, is good, as all major religions insist he is. In the Thomistic scheme, goodness and being are really the same thing: The most perfect thing is that which is perfectly actual, as opposed to having its being depend upon some other cause. The God whose existence the Five Ways prove is the supreme being from which everything else derives being. Therefore, he is also goodness itself. Thomistic thought, moreover, is an unabashed celebration of reason and a vigorous defense of its prerogatives. If our minds can learn of God’s existence by hewing to the well-tested syllogisms of Aristotle, it follows that right reason has a share of the sacredness of the Almighty. This is good news for philosophy, because it suggests that reason can penetrate into the most fundamental structures of reality. And it is good news for religion, since it implies that acting reasonably is a divine imperative. The God who allows us to know him by reason is a reasonable God; those who believe in him must, therefore, aspire to the same thing in the way they deal with other human beings.
Two centuries later came Martin Luther (1483–1546) and the Reformation. Luther viscerally hated philosophy, even if he was prepared to grant it some space in practical matters like government. In a 1520 treatise, he fulminated against the prevalence of Greek reason in Catholic universities.
If men and women couldn’t reason with confidence about being itself—if they couldn’t see how the good, intelligible, causally ordered world around them gave proof of the God who is being, goodness, and reason itself—then reason and revelation would have to go their separate ways. We are the children of this cruel divorce, caught between the horns of scientistic Westons and cranky Louisiana pastors. We have been sold a bad bill of goods. Modern philosophy, with its tendency to judge everything by the standard of its own ideas and claims to greatness, has conditioned us to see the rejection of everything medieval as a victory of reason over obscurantism. But that narrative is mostly self-serving mythology, as we have seen. It wasn’t the case that with the rise of the Enlightenment, philosophical reason eclipsed irrational faith. Rather, an illiberal conception of reason’s powers came to eclipse reason as Aquinas understood it: a reason that could get at the very mind of God. But this needn’t be a permanent eclipse. We can go back behind intellectual mistakes, even epochal ones. We can retrace our steps and recover reason in its full, rich, medieval sense. For in the beginning was reason, and reason was with God, and reason was God.
QUESTION THREE: WHY WOULD GOD WANT YOU TO TAKE A DAY OFF?
In biblical logic, holiness always requires abandonment. Something must be handed over to God, surrendered, even given up for destruction. This logic of sacrifice is at work in an especially tangible way in the Sabbath.
Such submission feels inconvenient; it seems like an imposition. It interferes with industry and online shopping and tax revenues. All true—but divinely ordained rest is also a durable source of human freedom and dignity.
QUESTION FOUR: CAN YOU BE SPIRITUAL WITHOUT BEING RELIGIOUS?
The trouble with “spiritual but not religious” practice isn’t a lack of ritual—but that it fails as spirituality. Dead Sea salt baths, homemade liturgies, severe diets, meditation and mindfulness (in their faddish, corporate-friendly forms), and other activities of the kind are ritualistic, in a sense: They entail repetitive action, some of the same “play” involved in liturgy, not to mention devotion and even austere self-denial. But the rites of the “spiritual but not religious” are essentially privatized. Though they act ritually, adherents don’t bind themselves to a shared account of ultimate meaning or a network of symbols handed down over generations. Those today who claim to believe but reject ritual, or who create their own privatized rites shorn of belief and ultimate meaning, are missing crucial elements of what makes ritual spirituality possible and worthwhile.
By their very nature, privatized rituals can neither endure, nor take us out of ourselves, nor bind us to our community or humankind at large. The contrast here is especially sharp: No single individual could invent the Chihamba rite or the Mass or Muslim public prayer. But a human-resources manager in Los Angeles or Paris could create her own privatized “rite”: forty-five minutes of spinning, thirty minutes of hot yoga, followed by some cold-pressed juice. No doubt such a “rite” imparts all sorts of wholesome benefits. But it lacks existential seriousness. The proof is this: There is no shirking ritual for a traditional believer, lest she upset her own relations to the cosmic order, whereas the spiritual-but-not-religious manager can skip her privatized rite under the pressure of a work deadline and feel, at worst, bummed out. How shaky is the spirituality? As shaky as the religion that supports it.
I’m not suggesting that if we only had more religious ritual, we could heal various antagonisms or fix all of our social problems. Many are the product of unjust political arrangements; they call for political action, not ancient rites. Then again, there might be a reason why our society is seemingly designed to prevent people from living liturgical lives—why so many of us are too harried, distracted, and isolated to play the cosmic game of ritual. Ritual, after all, can inspire countercultural action. When we glimpse the communitas lying beyond everyday structures, we are possessed by a blessed vision of what structural society could or should look like:
QUESTION FIVE: DOES GOD RESPECT YOU?
Thurman had profound insights into Christianity’s meaning for the people “with their backs against the wall.” Those insights remain powerfully relevant today, when many dismiss religion’s centrality to the quest for justice—and many “orthodox” Christians reinforce the impression by holding fast to an essentially depoliticized spirituality. The man on the Cross, Thurman insisted, couldn’t possibly be indifferent to political indignity.
Manmade social hierarchies, like all manmade things, will one day wither and die. But the eternal, infinite God doesn’t, and he has told men and women that they are made in his own image (cf. Gen 1:27). More than that, God has taken human flesh and assured us that he is mindful of each individual human being.
Fear, hypocrisy, and hate are powerless before the Christ event—before the infinite Lord who bears the indignity of the finite, so that the finite might be raised to his infinite lordship. Thurman’s insight was as old as Christian political thought. And it remains pertinent in our time, when many of those who stamp their feet over threats to human dignity scorn God, while those who have faith often don’t recognize a religious duty to enact justice at the collective, political level: Secularists sneer at the prayers of believers in response to rampant school shootings and racialized police brutality, while too many believers fail to link their prayers to political action in defense of the human dignity they profess in pious words.
“There can never be a substitute for taking personal responsibility for social change,” Thurman wrote. In this case, “personal” meant individuals, but it also meant the church as a corporate person, a “beachhead in our society” that helped the “solitary” individual overcome the fear that could otherwise stifle action against racism. This model of nonviolent, God-imbued activism, so central to the civil-rights movement, was arguably Thurman’s most tangible contribution to the cause. He lived long enough to see his spiritual program bear fruit in the activism of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and in the collapse of de jure racial apartheid in the United States in the 1960s.
QUESTION SIX: DOES GOD NEED POLITICS?
“For Aristotle as for much of classical philosophy, the end of life was a public matter,” and “religion had to be fully integrated into politics.” Roman thought more or less adopted Greek ideas when it came to faith in public life. As Waldstein reminds us, the Latin word religio “meant reverence not only toward the gods, but also toward human superiors.” Religio was necessary for the maintenance and expansion of the res publica, which Romans believed they had been charged by destiny to spread to the ends of the earth, to every rational being.
Were Roman politics true politics, their civil life true civil life? Augustine didn’t think so. To rebuke his compatriots’ pride, he recast the entirety of human history as a tale of two cities: the earthly city, which sought its highest good in this world, and the city of God, which sought it in the next.
It is no exaggeration to say that Augustine set the political course for Western Christendom for a millennium to come. His theorizing gave rise to the ideal of Christian statesmanship: the ruler duty-bound to protect the weak and to serve the common good of all, who views sound governance and the welfare of souls as different aspects of the same holistic business, who seeks not after his own, transient glory but the undying glory of the city of God.
The “primacy of the spiritual” meant that the spiritual authority (the Church) could discipline, and even depose, the small and big would-be tyrants of Europe. By binding the political community to a higher power—the highest, in fact—Augustinian politics tamed the beast of earthly power.
The notion that we can’t know, much less legislate, humanity’s highest end is itself a metaphysical, even spiritual claim, and it stands at the heart of the modern project. Its god is the unbound self. And the worship of such a god will inevitably have political consequences: vast accumulations of capital, much of it concentrated in very few hands; a ceaselessly disruptive culture offering kaleidoscopic lifestyles; a heavily armed commercial empire. These are the conditions fueling popular discontent across the developed world in our century.
QUESTION SEVEN: HOW MUST YOU SERVE YOUR PARENTS?
Attend to the roots, protect the filial branches, and “a moral way will grow.” Confucius felt that in his time, men and women had abandoned the moral way; his calling was to help restore it. He didn’t set out to teach anything new, he insisted, much less formulate any sort of theory. As he told his disciples, “I transmit but do not create. I am fond of antiquity, because I have faith in it.” His life’s work was an expression of filial piety toward the past.
What his superiors valued most in Confucius, says Chin, was his “knowledge of the rites.” The concept of rites, or li, is difficult to convey in English. It suggests the religious or quasi-religious rituals we explored in chapter 4, as well as the notion of propriety or right conduct. The rites regulated everything from how much food a gentleman should eat to when, where, and how to offer sacrifices to ancestral spirits; from the conduct of diplomacy with foreign nations to the funeral arrangements befitting members of different classes. Their domain, in other words, extended to the whole of life.
Confucius wasn’t just a master of these rites, but also a great believer in their healing powers. He didn’t promote them merely because “that’s how we’ve always done things,” so to speak, but because experience had taught him that the rites were good—morally, spiritually—for those who remained faithful to them. For one thing, the rites bore the accumulated wisdom of prior generations. Adhering to them could thus help preserve order and continuity amid constant change: shifts in fortune, sudden and unforeseen calamities, cycles of life and death. Over against a topsy-turvy human condition, Confucius felt, it was important “to learn and perform something with well-defined structures and rules.” Following the rites, moreover, promoted self-mastery and thus could be liberating. A change in fortune, whether auspicious or tragic, could throw anyone’s life into chaos and allow emotions and baser drives to take over. When the storms raged, the voice of the rites whispered: Be calm, light this candle, refrain from sex, pray this way, show reverence to So-and-So. The person who honored the rites possessed an “interior,” and he “understood the virtue of taking measured action and measured steps,”
Caring for our parents’ physical needs is necessary but not sufficient to prove filial devotion. We should act in a measured, moral way, so as not to cause unnecessary distress to our parents. In some situations, that might mean granting them at least some deference when it comes to making major decisions, or choosing to remain geographically close to them. We should give high priority to our parents’ material and emotional needs, and we should do so with love and joy. We mustn’t dare to toss our parents aside in their old age and senescence.
We are creatures naturally inclined to love and longing to be loved. Our parents answered this longing precisely when we were most vulnerable, when we couldn’t have even survived on our own. The point of filial devotion is to honor—and return—the love we were once given.
QUESTION EIGHT: SHOULD YOU THINK FOR YOURSELF?
To the liberal, the act of thinking for yourself is an inherent good, even the highest good. It is the guarantor of the flow of information, the currency of the marketplace of ideas. More than that, free thought guards the integrity of the conscience against oppressive external forces, against dogmatic principles and unproved presuppositions. To deny an absolute right to question everything is thus the most heinous intellectual crime under liberalism, the first stop on the road to tyranny. This isn’t a matter of left or right. After two centuries of liberal hegemony, absolute freedom of thought is a bipartisan pledge.
Instead of a right to say or do absolutely anything that popped into their heads, the premoderns had this firm, dynamic alliance between conscience and authority for a bulwark against unjust power, including power over the mind. And here lies the big distinction between Newman’s idea of mental freedom and the one advanced in liberal doctrine. Today, we adore stories of individuals who heroically defied unjust powers: whistleblowers, conscientious objectors, and others who refused to follow evil orders. Many are truly heroic and deserve our admiration; think of Oskar Schindler or the tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Such figures risked their lives or careers for moral principles—ones they viewed as objective, absolute, and more authoritative than the raw powers above them. But a worldview in which the conscience is thoroughly subjective ends up removing the scaffolding of authority on which these sacrifices rest. If “conscience rights” encompass letting the old and infirm commit suicide-by-doctor, say, or the view that any religion is as good as any other or none, then what authority, really, does the conscience have? We like to tell ourselves that thinking for yourself and questioning authority will make Oskar Schindlers out of all of us. But if we discard all the old, inconvenient authorities that restrained the beastly side of our natures, isn’t it more likely that we will end up becoming beastly people?
That liberal vision of absolute free thought and “conscience,” Newman argued, would never be realized anyway. It was a mirage. Some orthodoxy or other will inevitably lord over our societies, and likewise, some authority or other will inevitably demand our obeisance. It is our good fortune if the orthodoxy in question is one that reverences the true conscience, and if the authority is a true authority, rather than some huckster trying to make a buck or a demagogue who would lead us to perdition.
So, should we always think for ourselves? Newman would answer that we should always exercise our consciences—again, properly understood as the interior awareness of an objective moral law—upon the big and small moral dilemmas life throws everyone’s way. But in doing so, he would add, we must form our judgments according to sound authorities, as most people did until relatively recently in the moral history of our species.
To protect the free conscience, we must ring it with true and tested guardians of the kind Newman listed. We must treat those guardians as absolute—lest our defensive barrier give way to the battering ram of external powers (tyrants, advertisers, demagogues, etc.), or lest the counterfeit conscience subvert the true one. This is why Newman railed against liberalism as “false liberty of thought”: While “liberty of thought is in itself good,” he wrote, human reasoning can go astray unless certain things are left standing as authorities. Question authority enough, and soon, magazines pitched to teenagers will publish primers like “Anal Sex: Safety, How-Tos, Tips and More,” and TED speakers will urge us to view pedophiles in a sympathetic light. Question authority enough, and large numbers of men will abandon their wives and children and tell themselves their “conscience” approves.
The cultural rupture between conscience and authority heralded by the likes of Gladstone is now complete. People are still mercifully born with consciences, of course, and that won’t ever change. But the imperative to always think for yourself leaves many consciences malformed, if not altogether unformed. It is impossible to be one’s own pope. For some, the moral life becomes an endless, solipsistic quest to figure out “what my true self stands for.” Many feel they have to reinvent the moral wheel daily, which is the height of arrogance, not to mention utterly exhausting. Still others externalize all of the conscience’s furies, directing them against the faults of others or those of social and political systems. Worse, too many simply learn to tune out the conscience’s voice, now lowered to a murmur for lack of authoritative supports. The think-for-yourself culture celebrates all of these groups for their “free minds.” Yet we know that most people sway, feather-like, to the prevailing winds of news and social media, fashion and faddism, public and “expert” opinion, P.R. and propaganda. Large corporations, especially, want nothing more than for our minds to be independent—that is, unmoored from absolute, unbendable moral authorities that might challenge corporate agendas. And how much the better for the powers-that-be if pliant consumers and docile workers fancy themselves rebels and radicals.
QUESTION NINE: WHAT IS FREEDOM FOR?
Admirers of Russian literature might recognize in Ivan Denisovich Shukhov a certain Russian type: Other iterations include Sonya, the soulful prostitute in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Platon Karataev, the humane and cheerful peasant who flits in and out of the final chapters of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Sonya and Karataev both stand for the rootedness and resilience of Russia’s poor, reminding cerebral, restless intellectuals that amid adversity, it suffices to savor one’s daily bread, give glory to God, and love one’s neighbor as oneself.
In the gulag, he had surveyed the moral heights people could reach by doing what they ought to have done, despite the pressures exerted by a lawless prison state. In the West, meanwhile, he saw free men and women and society as a whole failing to make any distinction between freedom to do what ought to be done and the freedom to do what ought not. And here lay the philosophical heart of his critique of the West. As he put it at Harvard, “today’s Western society has revealed the inequality between the freedom for good deeds and the freedom for evil deeds.” The two, freedom for good and freedom for evil, aren’t the same thing. Indeed, the latter doesn’t even qualify as freedom, since it breeds self-degradation.
Human beings took themselves as their own moral scale and—surprise!—concluded that they were pretty good. This soon led to the erasure of the ancient distinction between freedom for good and license for evil: If humans were good on their own, naturally so, then an unbound humanity, free to exercise autonomy in every realm and every direction, could only be a good thing. Western-style liberalism and Communism shared this faith in the basic goodness of the autonomous human being. Both hallowed the autonomous human “as the center of all.” Despite their differences over how to free humanity from all natural and traditional constraints, whether to do so collectively or individually, the two ideologies were twin children of the same parent philosophy. In this sense, the Cold War world was, in fact, united. Its two halves were riffing on the same melody in two different keys.
All the profound questions of life are unsettled; young and old alike lack a stable basis for answering them. In economic life, entrepreneurial autonomy has generated vast wealth for the innovative. But the downsides are increasingly evident. Even the well-educated stagger under the weight of hypercompetition. Great acts of true freedom—that is, freedom for the good—require knowing that one stands on solid ground, a confidence that we too often lack.
QUESTION TEN: IS SEX A PRIVATE MATTER?
The problem is lust. For Augustine as for Dworkin, lust generally, and the lust for domination especially, renders moral sex unattainable, or nearly so. Catholic saint and radical feminist alike were also troubled by how this lust undoes even our best aspirations—for example, the aspiration to a society that honors the equal dignity of men and women.
The point is this: Once the “sex-passion” takes over, it beats into submission our noblest convictions about human equality and dignity, about restraint and self-mastery. All else gives way to the heat of the moment. As a result, we fail to notice how the profound intimacy of what is taking place coexists with a deep sort of alienation. For the man thrusting relentlessly toward climax, the actually existing woman before him disintegrates into her constituent bodily parts, her breasts or backside or vagina standing in for the whole of her—or else she melts into some imaginary woman (a past lover? some erotic fantasy?) other than who she is, this person, flesh and soul.
Thus, sexual intercourse almost requires a bracketing off or putting on pause of the conscience and moral imagination.
Her theory is muddled. It is a sign, I suspect, that as with the threat of “liberated” men, she refused to take things to their logical conclusion: Traditional sexual regulations did far more to domesticate male lust than any modern alternative on offer. Even if marred by hypocrisy in its application, traditional teaching was at least alert to the dangers of sexuality and erected some protective barriers. Conversely, we might ask: Has the downfall of those barriers ushered in a new era of sexual dignity and equality? Or did it create conditions favorable to the Harvey Weinsteins and Jeffrey Epsteins of the world, to Pornhub and the mass pornographization Dworkin rightly decried? If Dworkin’s diagnosis was mostly correct—and the daily #MeToo headlines suggest it was—then the best we can do might be to begin rebuilding some of the barriers foolishly torn down by our parents and grandparents. “Conservative,” religious Americans should set aside their reflexive hostility to all things feminist and resist the tendency to treat a sexist, boorish, and essentially libertine ethic of relatively recent vintage as somehow ordained by Scripture, antiquity, or “nature.” By the same token, feminists and men and women of the “left” would be wise to take a second look at tradition, rightly and broadly understood, as a source of sexual restraint and regulation, ordered especially to the protection of women and children.
QUESTION ELEVEN: WHAT DO YOU OWE YOUR BODY?
Gnosis was knowledge that saved: Once the gnostic believer awakened to the true nature of reality, he was freed from bonds of responsibility—and guilt. He “knew” that the rules proclaimed by the prophets and seemingly wired into human nature were pointless, indeed, evil: Nature itself was evil or mad, after all, and the prophets served the evil or mad creator of nature. Hence why gnostic moral doctrines typically paid so little attention to natural virtues or perfections (arete). Arete took for granted an account of the human person, a composite of soul and body, as being sensible, purposive, end-directed. That was the account Greco-Roman philosophy promoted, which the Church incorporated into her moral teachings. But “it is obvious,” Jonas found, “that Gnosticism had no room for this conception of human virtue. ‘Looking toward God’ has for it an entirely different meaning,” namely, “jumping across all intervening realities”: mundane social bonds, loyalty to the people and communities that depend on us, the human body—all were “nothing but fetters or obstacles, or distractions or temptations, or at best irrelevant.” Starting from these premises, some gnostic cults enjoined a rigorous asceticism. Other cults promoted a total and shameless libertinism: The moral law was nothing “but the means of regularizing and thus stabilizing” our worldly affairs, after all, when the real point was to transcend the world. So believers could do as they pleased: Their deeds in this cosmic realm had nothing to do with their salvation.
Wasn’t that the basic attitude of Heideggerian existentialism: that we are hurled at birth into a world that is alien and indifferent to us? Didn’t the existentialists, Heidegger very much included, stress that we can and must define our own nature via the “authentic” decisions we make in the moment? Submitting to a law-governed and law-constrained cosmic order meant submitting to limits, norms, and responsibilities. That was the attitude of, say, an Aristotle or an Aquinas. But if such an order is ruled out, if self and reality are irreconcilably at odds, well, then those “oppressive” limits can go to hell. Behind Heidegger’s constant emphasis on willing and becoming lay a disdain for cosmic being in the present tense, with all its rules and many limitations. In this, Heidegger was all too representative of the restless spirit of German modernity, which, for all its philosophical virtuoso, had culminated in the moral disaster of Nazism. To be clear, Jonas never suggested that Heidegger became a Nazi simply because he was an existentialist. Jonas’s mind was far too subtle for that. What he argued was that Heideggerian existentialism shared with ancient Gnosticism an element of total moral irresponsibility, indeed, of nihilism. This raised a disconcerting possibility: that the desire to leave behind human limitations and responsibility would always find some religious or philosophical outlet.
Gnosticism is stubborn. As the contemporary moral philosopher Robert P. George has written, “The idea that human beings are non-bodily persons inhabiting non-personal bodies never quite goes away.” Today, the old gnostic voice resounds loudly in modern gender ideology, with its account of gendered being as an interior state that is unrelated to bodily sex (reframed as “sex assigned at birth”). But not just there. Having defined Gnosticism’s deepest yearning, we can see how, for example, the transhumanist techno-utopia championed by the likes of the inventor and Google “futurist” Ray Kurzweil is, well, fundamentally gnostic.
Kurzweil views his father’s self—and his own—as mind-software that happens to be tethered to flesh-hardware. Soon, he believes, it will be possible to untether the two and thus to allow the mind to have its own independent, and infinite, existence, freed from the body’s tendency to decay. This is pure neo-Gnosticism. But I don’t mean to pick on Kurzweil. The fact is, his vision is merely a more crystalline expression of the acosmic impulses behind our hyperindividualistic, technologically empowered lifestyles.
Social liberalism ceaselessly alienates the individual from the natural—from nature as an ordered, end-directed reality. This is especially true when it comes to the family, now almost entirely open to reconfiguration in ways that were unthinkable as recently as a decade ago. The next frontier appears to be “chosen families”—biologically unrelated people who form pseudo-families, assuming the roles of mother, father, or sibling for each other, with or without sexual involvement. Many such people have legitimate reasons to stay away from their natural families, to be sure. But the deeply gnostic impulse remains: to overcome, to replace, to forget embodied relationships and their moral demands.
Today’s varieties do share with the old Gnosticism something of that acosmic attitude or longing, the inkling that the true self is other than the bodily, with the consequence that the body itself is, “if not a prison to escape, certainly a mere instrument to be manipulated to serve the goals of the ‘person,’” the trapped spark within.
The human body is an image of moral responsibility. To accept the body—with all its beauty and brokenness, its miraculous capacities and its shortcomings, its natural functioning and purposes—is to accept the self as we receive it: bounded, limited, enmeshed in intervening natural realities that include our ancestors, from whom we receive the particular shapes of our bodies, and our progeny, who receive the shapes of their bodies from ours. The urge to reject the bodily—to seek to transcend it, whether through transhumanist projects, or obsessive surgical modification, or what have you—is thus always an invitation to irresponsibility, and a very old temptation, indeed.
QUESTION TWELVE: WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT DEATH?
To study Seneca’s meditations on death is to delve into the real-world events that often inspired them and thus to stand at the intersection of philosophy and history. Four lessons on death especially stand out. The first: Those who prepare for death can overcome the indignity of being forcibly expelled from the land of the living. Whereas those who cling to life in a base, desperate manner compound their indignity—and end up getting expelled anyway.
The second lesson: Seneca taught that fear of death is not only pointless, it prevents us from keeping the right perspective on our lives.
The third lesson: Not everyone dies the same way, but death itself is a form of equality. It establishes a democracy of sorts among people of all generations, all who have ever lived, live now, and will live in the future.
The fourth and final lesson is this: Death gives sense to life. It is a destination without which life’s path meanders to the point of intolerableness.
“Whoever doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to live,” declared Seneca. Though at first glance it might appear nonsensical, this is a deep teaching: How could the desire to “cure” or overcome death be antithetical to life? If life is good, and it most certainly is, then isn’t it logical for the living to wish to live even longer? Why would Seneca equate the wish not to die with the wish not to live? Here is why: The state of being alive—fully alive—is possible only in relation to an endpoint, death. It is the certainty of an end to life that allows us to appreciate sacrifice, heroism, love, beauty, the kind of virtuous life a man like Seneca lived or the self-sacrificing death of a Maximilian Kolbe. As any decent novelist or screenwriter knows, if there is nothing at stake in the story, the story is boring. If there is no final terminus to life, life loses its vitality, its zest, its drama.
Perpetual biological life doesn’t, in fact, fulfill the longing for eternity answered by the classical and Judeo-Christian promise of a reunion with the whole. Living very, very long or forever in the here and now entails no rest, no final fulfillment or completion. It offers neither the abstract communion with the Logos envisioned by a Seneca, nor the more personal settling of accounts between God and the just and unjust that Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) say awaits us all. Biological life extended by gene therapies and drug infusions isn’t eternal life. Rather, as the Jewish American bioethicist Leon Kass has argued, it is an “endless present” fulfilling the “childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it.” And an endless present means the perpetuation of all our present cares—forever: the grubby striving, the political combat, interpersonal conflict, and even pleasure made all the more tiresome by long familiarity, with nothing really new to look forward to. True, this cheap, plastic substitute for eternal life would wipe away, or long defer, the grief associated with death—but it would by the same token rob us of all the joys that find their meaning in relation to death, not least the hope in life eternal.
CONCLUSION: A LETTER TO MAXIMILIAN
I should want you to at least avoid some of your father’s (and grandfather’s) mistakes.
To read old books before new ones.
To make all your big decisions by the light of sound authorities, above all that of the Holy Church.
To become not a glib man, the kind who laughs nervously when moral outrage is in order, or who preens morally rather than seek the moral way.
To at least notice and feel a little bad when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite.
To recognize that the moral precepts you expound demand to be acted upon—by you, in your immediate, everyday surroundings, rarely in some lofty domain of the mind.