The Sentiment We Breathe

Lifting oneself from the philosophical atmosphere of the times is a difficult proposition, much like a fish lifting itself from the life-giving water that surrounds it. It’s possible to ignore that atmosphere and embrace anarcho-capitalism as a political/economic position and compartmentalize its influence on your being, say, a practicing Buddhist or Catholic or Muslim. This wasn’t the case for the first anarchists, for whom the political position seemed a necessary part of free love and radical experimentation in personal relations. Of course anarcho-capitalism is grounded in a radical idea of self-ownership, and it’s difficult to hold personal views inconsistent with that fundamental idea. But I’m talking about the cultural context – the spiritual universe – of an idea that gives it life, that shapes it, that determines what questions are asked or discarded, often unconsciously.

Consider the fundamental question that distinguishes so-called “anarchists of the Left” from so-called “anarchists of the Right” – which indeed distinguishes Left from Right in general: Is man’s nature fundamentally fluid, or is it fixed? The Left says fluid; the Right, fixed. Historically the Right is associated with the Church, which says that man’s nature was created at one moment to last until Judgment, that it is “fallen” (inclined to “sin” and error) and that nothing, at least in this life, will change it. Two great influences on the anarchist movement say “fixed” for other reasons: Ayn Rand just flatly asserts this without too much reasoning; Austrian economists find a “fixed” human nature in praxeology – man must act in a world of limited resources, and his key attributes proceed axiomatically from this fact. In this way, they effectively skirt a nest of problems associated with defining “human nature.” (Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn would say that the Right is still based in the Church, and that otherwise it lives on a “whiff from an empty bottle.”) It would be a mistake to suppose that the real distinction between Left and Right is the role and size of government. The influential Leftists typically did want a larger government, but they would have readily settled for a “night watchman state” of Ferdinand Lasalle if it could have created the “New Socialist Man:” For them, government was only a tool for shaping a fluid human nature into something new, and we must say, frightening.

The great project of the Enlightenment was to provide a universal, culturally-independent justification for ethics, based in science. Using praxeology, the Austrians can declare at least a partial success in that project. But praxeology is not ethics. And what’s worse, as shown below, the overwhelming impulse of the Zeitgeist is to affirm that man’s nature is not fixed, but fluid. It seems to me that the Enlightenment project rests upon deontological ethics and that it finds itself at a historical and cultural dead end – failed because its success depends on a fixed and eternal human nature in a Christian context … and that there is a way out.


To read the supposedly sentimental tales of Hans Christian Andersen is to discover what a tough-minded ethics shapes them and to discover what an enormous distance separates us from the spiritual universe of only several generations ago. Reading them invites the question: “Which generation has the more sentimental outlook?”

In one of those tales several good spirits visit a young prince and bestow a divine necklace of blessings upon him: riches, health, and happiness. But the last spirit – a good spirit – decides to give him the greatest blessing of all, the one that “will make the others shine more splendidly” and give those others their worth. It is the blessing of sorrow. In another tale, a poor washerwoman not only endures crushing poverty and the odium of respectable citizens for the sake of her child, but she also agrees with the evaluation of her, that she is a “bad woman” in spite of her sacrifice.

Now imagine Anne Darwin (a serial liar), or Janet Cooke (Jayson Blair’s precursor in the art of journalistic fiction), or Darlie Routier (killer of her young boys) saying, “Yes, they’re right. I’m a bad woman.” Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But then, the washerwoman had no sophistication. It never would have occurred to her that she might steal, lie and murder, and expect her behavior to somehow stand apart from her character.

I don’t mean to suggest that people were better a few generations ago than they are now. What I do suggest is that one of the greatest differences between then and now is the respective attitudes toward human potential.

It was formerly conceivable that sorrow might be a blessing because it was not generally believed that it was final. Something was believed to be redeemed from the suffering – something which would last an eternity. Formerly, a secret sacrifice would find its reward, despite a lifetime of poverty and suffering. In the story of the washerwoman, the mayor’s son might have rescued her from suffering by marrying her, but both of them knew that their difference in character and station would have made them miserable.

According to the modern view, however, which claims to celebrate the human potential, such suffering and sacrifice is pure waste. Why, only a “chump” would allow such waste. If not marry, at least the two of them could have shacked up for a while. Yes, not to realize one’s potential here and now is a terrible tragedy – or since that realization is only for here and now, perhaps a terrible joke. Indeed, doesn’t this very outlook account for the paradox of tragedy and cheapness in modern life?

Yet it is possible to lack the courageous self-evaluation of the washerwoman and still lead an agreeable life. In other words, it’s quite possible to sucker oneself to the very grave with the thought of some late-in-life blossoming of potential. There’s the example of Grandma Moses, right? And didn’t Colonel Sanders build his empire in white-haired old age? However, that self-deception conceals the worst thing.

The worst thing is to believe that one’s potential is the seat of the “real” self, and that one can generally do as one pleases and yet never blemish it. For, since potential is by definition unshaped, there is no action which can shape it. For the soul with no life beyond itself, good actions leave an empty sense of frustration because they cannot perfect it, and bad actions arouse only indifference because they cannot stain it. Here is the paradox of tragedy and cheapness in modern life. And although the “sentimentality” of Anderson is in its way nobler than its modern expression, it would be wrong to suggest that these are warring visions. Indeed, at least on the subject of infinite human potential, there is no ultimate disagreement between its Nietzschean or Randian realization, or flourishing, and Christianity in its popularized version.

No, it would be easy to say that these were warring visions, and to stop here with a disparaging quote about gnosticism from Chesterton (to please the Catholic tribe) or C.S. Lewis (to please the Protestant tribe). But the fact is, the worship of potential is the logical dead end of Christianity itself. Consider: Christianity is supposed to guarantee the everlasting survival of your personal identity. Yet such an identity is shaped by the most ludicrous of accidents: The man who was born with a lisp or stutter is shaped by that accident; so too the woman with a disfigured nose and the child with a chemical imbalance in his brain. Either these accidents were deliberately inflicted by the Christian Creator as part of the soul’s earthly trial, or else there is some "pure" self existing prior to, or apart from these accidents. Most apologists would save their Creator, and affirm the latter. If so, then what is difference between a "pure" or “redeemed” self and the self of boundless potential?

At this point only two paths are open: To turn finally and completely away from this notion of individual permanence rooted in a fixed human nature, or to affirm it by attaching the individual to something beyond itself.

To take one step in the rejection of the idea of individual permanence we must see it as something desirable. For as Aristotle says, nobody aims at the bad. The most concise statement of this position is by Milan Kundera, in his novel The Joke:

Yes, suddenly I saw it all clearly: most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith; they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deeds, peoples) and in rectification (of deed, errors, sins, injustice). Both are a sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. All rectification (both vengeance and forgiveness) will be taken over by oblivion. No one will rectify wrongs; all wrongs will be forgotten.

I am always open to instruction, but for the life of me I cannot see anything more than bitterness on this path. Has any society ever existed where a significant number of its members saw nothing permanent in the lives of men? The apostle Paul in Acts 17 says that when Athenians heard of everlasting life they laughed and mocked him as a “babbler.” That is easily understood. But would any of them have said that everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified? That is beyond understanding. Are men born to breed and die like flies, creatures of a single day?

To take one step along the other path, that all men desire to attach themselves to something permanent, we must avoid any altruistic self-denial or negation of the self: For there must be a something to attach to something permanent. Also, the self that attaches to something permanent must feel that his real identity shapes it in some way, not that he is swallowed up by it, else there is no difference from annihilation.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, already 30 years old, is a forward stride along this path. His virtue ethics rejects the Enlightenment project, based in deontology, that hoped to provide a universal, culturally-independent justification for ethics. It is that deontology I think that Kundera wants to overthrow. And although MacIntyre may be uncertain about the compatibility of Confucianism with Aristotle, it seems to me to offer a breath of air, a possibility.

“Bad air! Bad air!” Nietzsche exclaimed in the stifling corridors of this project. But a modern Confucianism: Free of the eschatological absolutism, free of the skull’s echo chamber of an “omniscient” god, free of “personal” prayer, free of the need for “redemption,” free of an “original sin;” a polity legitimized by the mandate of heaven, not majoritarianism; a public goal of being a gentleman, not egalitarianism; a self-sufficient middle kingdom, not an empire. In its clear, skeptical atmosphere one can breathe! Good air! Good air! Something is possible!

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