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The Politics of Meaninglessness
Michael A. Casey
Meaninglessness has always been understood to have social and political consequences. The compelling human need for some sort of transcendent and comprehensive meaning to give value to the life of the individual and to life in common is not something peculiarly modern.
Nor is the considered conclusion of a few philosophers that no such meaning obtains. But the lived absence, the more or less generalised experience or fear of the impossibility of such meaning is something different. This is one of the major characteristics of modern life and was recognized as such in the first half of the nineteenth century when various thinkers commenced the task of tracing the main lineaments of modernity. We are inclined to think today that to the extent that meaninglessness is a problem at all, it is strictly personal. The greatest theorists of meaninglessness have never seen it this way. The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky gave us one of the starkest formulations of what the personal experience of meaninglessness means for the common good when he warned that if there is no God, then everything is permissible.
There have been those, before and since, who understood this claim less profoundly and took it to mean that without some sort of divine or super-human sanction the prohibitions on things like murder and robbery would be swept away in a tsunami of social anarchy, as the violent and impulsive masses, liberated from the fear of hellfire, took to stealing the silver and killing their betters at will. Dostoyevsky was too good a sociologist to fall for this. His concern is best captured in something else he said which will probably be familiar to most of you here tonight: that if God does not exist there is no difference between a murder and a kiss. On the face of it this is an absurd claim, and it has always been the easier of the two formulations to disparage. But Dostoyevsky is making the point that without some clear and certain concept of the significance of life and the conditions for genuine human happiness, our decisions about what is right and wrong, good and evil, meaningful and futile, have nothing to guide them in the end but individual preference — sometimes rationalized and sometimes not. In this situation whether something is death-dealing or life-giving — a murder or a kiss — begins to depend on where you are standing and how you see things.
For example, all of us would hold that there is an incommensurable difference between a father who cares for and looks after the woman who is carrying his child, and the father who kicks this woman over and then stomps on her stomach to bring the life of the child in her womb to an end. But if there is no transcendent reality — a reality above and beyond our preferences — on what basis can this difference stand? When it comes to pregnant women and children, most of us most of the time are on the side of life and love. But what does that enable us to say to the father who, having failed to persuade his girlfriend to have an abortion, decides to procure a miscarriage himself? What do we say to him if he argues that his girlfriend was trying to trap him into a commitment by not having an abortion, that he could not afford to support a wife and child, that fatherhood simply wasn't right for him at this stage in his life-journey? We prefer life, but he prefers death — as the means by which he can preserve his freedom. Most of us would feel that such a man needs to be judged and punished according to the evil he has done. But are we really comfortable with the idea that perhaps the only way of doing this is by majority vote? Majorities, after all, are changeable beasts.
Increasingly over the last forty years or so we have had recourse to the courts to resolve difficult problems of this sort. The adjudication of these apparently insoluble questions of value is determined according to whether the law condemns or permits a certain sort of behaviour, and it frees us of any necessity to enquire about the basis on which the law makes its decision. This worked for a while, but there are clear signs that it is no longer a satisfactory solution. When resort was first made to the law in response to the waning authority of a common moral consensus in Western societies, it made sense because the law still retained a strong normative dimension. Since then, the normative dimension of law has been leeched away by legal philosophies which emphasize the ideological nature of the law. This interpretation of the law has proved to be self-validating. In a context where disputes over values are substantial and real, and where legalism has become the preferred mode of resolving them, the power to appoint judges (or to influence or veto the appointment of judges) has come to be seen as decisive.
This tendency has gone furthest perhaps in the United States, where the justices of the Supreme Court seem to prefer exchanging polemics with each other in their judgments to applying principle and precedent, and where the fight over judicial appointments is bare-knuckled, to say the least. Apart from the difficulty this creates in ensuring that the law is clear and reliable, it has placed the law itself in a position where — rightly or wrongly — it is seen as a not-so-subtle means of ideological domination. In Australia we are not nearly so advanced down this path, and this is something to be grateful for. The problem locally is more that on occasion the law appears to be headless. On the one hand it will produce rulings like that of the High Court earlier in the year which found that in certain circumstances the birth of a healthy child may be a wrong compensable at law. On the other hand, it will produce rulings like that of the District Court of New South Wales, which held in early October that, provided she is not otherwise hurt, it is not grievous bodily harm to kick and stomp on a pregnant woman's stomach to procure a miscarriage [R v. King].
While the Director of Public Prosecutions is appealing this last decision, the very fact that this sort of determination can be made suggests that relying on the careful deliberations of jurists to resolve fundamental questions of value is not a serious long-term proposition. To say this is not to deride the integrity or conscientiousness of our judges. This is certainly not my intention. It is simply to highlight that like the rest of us, they are at sea when it comes to providing a basis for knowing why some things are good and some things are evil. The operative word here is knowing. For this is what we need: knowledge, true knowledge, knowledge about the meaning, the significance, the value of human life — the life of ourselves in all the drama and mystery of our individuality; and the life of those around us with whom we make the polis and the common good. Where is this knowledge to come from if not from rational reflection on what our actions set out to achieve and whether these goals are in any way conformable with real human happiness? The presupposition that reality offers no such knowledge has become the default position for any consideration of the subject of truth and reality. It needs to be re-examined.
We are not very clear in our society about the relationship between truth and freedom. We are not clear about whether truth exists at all, and we think of freedom, following Hobbes, as absence of impediment. On the one hand we rather lazily assume that truth and freedom have nothing to do with each other, and that in any conflict between them freedom must trump truth. On the other hand we still have a lingering sense that knowledge in some way or other helps to make freedom possible — that the truth will set us free. The freedom that knowledge of the truth brings is important not just for individual fulfilment, but also for the well-being of a community. A community that attempts to resolve the inevitable conflict of preferences and interpretations that characterizes every human interaction by reference to some concept of the truth, however imperfectly or incompletely or even erroneously understood, is better able to preserve cohesion, generate consensus and maintain public confidence in its institutions than a community where this conflict is resolved more or less arbitrarily through the strategic control of institutions. In its modern form democracy has always been understood as a realm of freedom. But freedom never exists by itself. It is always accompanied — either by power or truth. We use it to assert ourselves against others, or we use it in the service of others and the common good. If democracy is to flourish as a realm of freedom it needs more people who, in one way or the other, choose to live their freedom in truth rather than live it as power. If the proportions are reversed the formal arrangements of democracy can very easily come to be used as cover for thinly-disguised forms of coercion and domination.
Of course it is often said that the real liberation democracy brings about is precisely liberation from the truth, especially religious truth. A related claim is that genuine democracy can only ever be secular democracy. But are these assertions true? In a situation of meaninglessness many things become distorted, not least the need for meaning itself. This distortion extends even to the religious impulse, which might properly be described as the highest form that the need for meaning takes. We flatter ourselves that we are over religion, and until recently this conceit could anchor itself to the concept of secularization, which presumed that modernity brought with it a steady and irreversible erosion of religious belief and affiliation. But the sociological evidence no longer supports this claim. Far from slowly withering away as it was supposed to, religious belief in its traditional forms has revived dramatically in Latin America, the United States, Africa, the Muslim world, east-central Europe and in parts of Asia like South Korea. But even in what remains of the "secular" West, religion is by no means a spent force, although it has sometimes taken surprising forms.
The Italian political theorist Emilio Gentile argues that, far from eliminating the "problem" of religion, the sheer scope and pace of change modernity has wrought has created a situation of "crisis and disorientation" which has led directly to "the re-emergence of the religious question". At the beginning of the twentieth century the philosopher Benedetto Croce claimed that the problem of modernity is above all a religious problem. Religion arises from the need for meaning, the need for "orientation" in relation to life and reality.
Modernity has not been the end of religion. Rather it has demonstrated the tenacity of the religious impulse, both in the persistence and growth of traditional religions and in the appearance of new religious forms. As Max Weber predicted, the gods have not been destroyed by the modern world. They have merely assumed some new guises.
The most important new form the religious impulse has assumed is that of secular religion. In its more extreme forms we can trace this back to the godless religion of the French Revolution. In the twentieth century this particular form of secular religion reached its apogee in the great totalitarian ideologies, and right up to the fall of the Soviet Union Marxism continued to provide some people with a type of religious faith. These particular forms of secular religion had several important features in common, including adherence to the myth of revolution as the source of regeneration; the sanctification of violence; the conferral of sacred status on an entity (the proletariat, the volk, etc.) making it the absolute principle of collective existence and the main source of values for the individual and the masses; and an integralist concept of politics which sought to bring about a harmonious, unitary and homogenous community. A key feature which this particular form of secular religion has in common with its more moderate forms is what Gentile describes as "the sacralization of politics". This is not the same as the politicisation of traditional religion or the sacralization of political power (for example, in the concept of the divine right of kings). Instead the sacralization of politics entails conferring a more or less sacred status on some sort of secular entity or value, so that it becomes the principle source of orientation for collective existence.
What typifies the less extreme forms of secular religion is the freedom of the individual from the collective. Examples include the "civic creed" or civil religion that informed the foundation of the United States; nationalism in its milder forms; and Green politics in general. But perhaps the most important form of secular religion in the West is the cult of secularism itself. It looks mild and friendly, and there's no doubt that the recent focus on Islam has certainly revived secularism's stocks. But as Kenneth Minogue remarked recently, behind Western secularism's moderate and reasonable facade is "a universalism that yields nothing in conviction and determination to Islam itself". It sustains itself with the conviction that the secular individual is liberated from "the superstitions and prejudices inherited from less enlightened times", the prime example of which is always religion. Instead of the tyranny and division of religion, secularism claims to bring tolerance as the means of ensuring social peace. But it is increasingly tolerance of a narrow kind.
In Canada critics of same-sex marriage have been found to be in breach of human rights legislation for publicizing their views, and in Victoria Christian ministers who have raised concerns about Islam have found themselves before anti-discrimination commissions. In 2001, when the Anglican Archbishop Dr Jensen suggested that Christians should do more to evangelize Australian society, the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial condemning this idea as arrogant, dangerous and a recipe for bloodshed. Observing that "in Australia, one's religion is largely a private matter", the editorial concluded — with only a small hint of menace — that "it should remain that way". This editorial captured the secularist attitude to traditional religion very well: it is acceptable, perhaps even a good thing, to have some of it around for the sake of "diversity" but it can only be tolerated on the condition that it is privatized. The privatization of belief is usually justified by referring to the importance of maintaining the public domain and public policy as "neutral" areas. But privatization does not favour neutrality. It is a way of silencing your opponents and as such favours the dominant secular cultural identity.
Secularists would have us believe that in the West at least, Christianity has been vanquished, and there is some evidence to support this claim. This being so, how do we explain the unrelenting — even increasing — hostility of secularism to Christian beliefs and claims? Understanding secularism itself as a form of religion helps to make sense of this. Earlier I cited Benedetto Croce's distinction between "mythological religion" and "religion that coincides with philosophical truth"; put more simply, the distinction between religion as myth and religion as knowledge. Illusions of meaning typically take the form of myth. In the classical world, myth and religion did not belong to the order of reality as such. The gods were a creation of the state, instituted to subserve culture, morals, and the political order. They were the fiction that made these other things possible. The appearance of Christianity decisively changed this situation. From the beginning, Christianity based itself not on the poetry and presentiment that gave rise to myth but on philosophical rationality. It was not content to rely on a social or political justification and to worship in the absence of truth. Instead, it appealed to knowledge and to the rational analysis of reality, displacing myth "not by virtue of a type of religious imperialism but as the truth which renders the apparent superfluous."
Christianity's refusal to confine itself to the realm of myth, its refusal to offer merely one more illusion of meaning, its repudiation of what is false and its insistence on the truth, is precisely what makes it intolerable to secularism, which is also a type of religion claiming to be a form of knowledge rather than a form of myth. It recognizes in Christianity its only serious rival for the triumph of intelligence over illusion. But as the reflections in the first part of this talk tried to highlight, it is impossible to sustain knowledge as knowledge without a concept of the truth. Like other forms of secular religion, secularism insists that there is no transcendence. "Lived life exhausts itself: it is self-encapsulated". There is nothing beyond us. While the denial of transcendence enables us to assert supremacy, both at the collective and (most importantly) at the individual level, over time it leads to a "flattening out of human possibility and a deep sense of emptiness." Instead of truth, secularism has opted for a concept of radical and absolute freedom, which has led it away from knowledge and into the blind alley of myth — the blind alley of total human autonomy. The freedom it claims to bring is increasingly the freedom to assert oneself against others. It is not freedom that is vindicated in this, but power.
The politics of meaninglessness is a complex thing, and it yields some surprises about our present situation. We are not as secular as we like to think, and being without religion in the traditional sense is by no means incompatible with holding to some sort of secular religion. In this context, the idea that an exclusively secular polity will solve the problem of religion and the conflicts it is alleged to cause is misplaced, because it does not acknowledge the way that the religious impulse can work its way out in secular forms which can be just as tyrannical and divisive, and just as prone to producing conflict. There is no future in theocracy, but more and more it seems that there is no future in secularism either. This places us in a new and completely uncharted situation. It requires us to reconceptualise our ideas of democracy, freedom and the common good to ensure that they continue to be real and enduring possibilities for the future.
Michael A. Casey. "The Politics of Meaninglessness." paper delivered to the Sydney Institute (5 November 2003).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Michael A. Casey
Dr. Michael Casey is Private Secretary to Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia and Permanent Fellow in Sociology and Politics at the Australian session of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family. His most recent book is Meaninglessness: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty (Freedom Publishing).
Copyright © 2003 Michael A. Casey