Saintly Thoughts

A Grand Ideology

Humans are predisposed to desire freedom, but there is no agreed upon definition concerning the nature of this freedom.  However, at the very least, freedom has something to do with choosing (either as a result of will or preference or personal experience or some combination thereof) what values one believes hold true concerning the nature of reality and trying to live in accordance with these value preferences.  If, at some later time, one changes one's mind concerning the nature of these fundamental values, one is free to pursue another course.  Late modernity, having jettisoned the concept of a rationally coherent world-view in order (so it claims) to preserve peace, suggests that freedom is to be found in choosing values that conform to ones innermost desires.  This, it is presumed, is the font of authenticity.  But from whence do these desires arise, and are these desires fixed or mutable?  Leaving aside the rather metaphysical question of where desires originate, one can say that if desires are fixed, one must pray that the desires that well up out of one's soul are consistent with good order, for no matter how liberal and tolerant a society might be, it seems unlikely that the well-spring of human desire will ever be so moderate as to naturally produce only members of the human family whose proclivities correspond to societal order.  Unless, as suggested so many of the useful idiots of the Enlightenment such as Rousseau, we believe that all asocial proclivities of the human heart are the direct result of our corrupt societies.  This is a pleasant fairy tale that modernity has chosen to tell itself, but it is a myth (though a myth that, if applied in moderation, might produce some good fruit via realistic reforms in the material condition of the human spirit which might assuage--for a time--the baser proclivities of humanity's anti-social tendencies).  And is it not possible that, in choosing the route of societal indulgence of certain behaviors, rather than curbing their excesses, such indulgence provides a breeding ground for ever more ludicrous behaviors?  

But if desires are not fixed but are mutable, what then?  And I do not mean to say that desires, once habituated, are mutable at will, but only that they may themselves be overcome by a contrary habituation.  How then is one to determine the nature of the good life, if ones desires cannot always be trusted?  Or perhaps, to put it another way, our desires can be trusted, but only if understood against the context of a broader vision of human flourishing than our own immediate personal comfort and proclivities.  That is, while I may desire rich foods combined with no or little exercise as corresponding to my immediate desires, perhaps there is a deeper desire for a long and healthy life which recognizes that this course of immediate gratification will inexorably curtail the deeper desire.  And one might know this rationally, but which desire is strongest?  While the mind recognizes the need to submit to the latter, the body reels against such conditioning and craves the former.  And to complicate matters still further, while the latter desire needs more often to control, the former which desires feasting is not ontologically wrong but is merely disproportionate to the overall good.  How then is one to determine when to accede to the former (though obviously rarely) and when to accede to the latter (obviously mostly)?

We see in this duel between competing and contradictory desires the mature plight of the human soul.  What appears necessary here is something which the appetative portion of the desires rebels against, that is a proper proportion.  A correctly balanced dialectical interplay between the forces which battle in the heart of the human soul.  If even some small portion of this brief critique strikes a chord with you, then you are at least beginning to see the paucity of late modernity's answer to this ancient riddle.  For in answer to the immediate cry of "more" and "better" and "now" from the soul's desirous portion, the industrial might of our consumerist machine churns out ever more satisfactions, which rather than slaking the soul's thirst only conditions it to want ever more and ever more exquisite experiences, in an unending and unstoppable cascade.  But when the deeper (though fainter) cry for life and peace breaks through, rather than providing some answer to the riddle of these (apparently) competitive aspects of the human spirit, we are turned to ever more refined "methods" of control; be they dieting, sports, medications or meditations, themselves products of the same industrial engine which spits out the very means of the soul's conflict.  Just as Nietzsche spoke with such vitriol against Christianity as producing both the disease and the cure via her doctrine of human sin, so has her replacement concocted in envious emulation such a cyclical system.  However, whereas Christianity offered freely and democratically bestowed grace as a means of breaking the cycle of desire whereby one is always brought back to the beginning, modernity only offers money which is disproportionately available and which ever feeds the need for more and more of it.  Our debt bubble may grow great, but it cannot grow indefinitely.      

I say all this to make a simple point; our society has eschewed the true task of humanity which is to explicate the nature of the good life and to conform ourselves to it.  Our society says that our abundance means that we no longer have to follow the hard and confusing older methods and can instead rely on our prosperity to teach us truth via the feeding of perpetually escalating desires.  Eventually, however, desire will outpace supply (both for us as individuals and for us corporately) and a reckoning will come.  Ironically, by eschewing that process of discovering a Grand Ideology which both fit the appearances of our existence and at the same time fed and moderated our passions and desires, we succumbed to an Anti-Grand Ideology which promised us freedom, but which locked us in perpetual chains.