The late, great, Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce asserts that modern culture, like all cultures, is rooted in a defining narrative—a myth of origins if you will—but with the peculiar idiosyncrasy of being a grand periodization of all previous narratives with an eye toward subverting them all in the name of a vaguely defined notion of “progress.”
This is why, he notes, modern philosophy frequently involves a detailed retelling of the history of philosophy in such a way that the evolution of ideas mirrors the stages of human development from infancy, through childhood, and then into adolescence and adulthood. Just as each stage of human development is a necessary one with all subsequent stages building on what came before, so too in the history of ideas.
The modern narrative, born in the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, thus views itself as the “adult” phase of human thinking, having transcended the fantasies of childhood and the superstitious enthusiasms of adolescence, and now embraces the adult awareness that scientific reason, stripped of all religious mystifications and metaphysical sophistry, is the end point of our intellectual development. Put another way, del Noce says that this narrative asserts the inevitability of a kind of “progress” in our thinking from the fantastical illusions of youth into the sobriety of atheism.
One of the consequences of this narrative is the development of a myth of origins wherein modernity is cast in the role of the great liberator from the darkness and repression associated with the reactionary and ignorant forces of religion. Religion, we are told, causes violence and division since its competing claims are unverifiable and can only be resolved through coercive force. Therefore, in order to keep the peace, government must be “secular” and the only form of reason that is allowed into the public square is scientific reason, with its high standards of verifiability. Therefore, as del Noce notes, what emerges is a new grand narrative—“scientism”—as the reigning orthodoxy of our time. But this new orthodoxy, in order to retain its legitimacy, must perpetuate the illusion that it is not an orthodoxy at all, but merely the final culmination of reason as such and the only guarantor of social peace.
This is, at the very least, an intellectually naïve claim which is what prompted Alasdair MacIntyre famously to state, in a talk on Edith Stein given to the Lumen Christi Institute in 1998, that modern Liberalism is the only metanarrative that claims it is not a metanarrative. It must, since to admit otherwise would be to give up its claim of inevitability as the terminal finality of all thought and openly admit that it is just one worldview among many other possible and competing worldviews, each with a cogent claim of its own to intellectual vitality and legitimacy as a “public” form of rational discourse.
[T]his new orthodoxy, in order to retain its legitimacy, must perpetuate the illusion that it is not an orthodoxy at all, but merely the final culmination of reason as such and the only guarantor of social peace.
Building on this analysis, thinkers as diverse as Patrick Deneen, William Cavanaugh, and David Schindler all claim that there is a kind of de facto atheism at the heart of the modern, Liberal project. Its metaphysics is an amalgam of mechanism, naturalism, positivism, scientism, and materialistic reductionism that has corrosively eaten away at any normative notion of the moral good, which is now viewed as nothing more than an epiphenomenal byproduct of our evolutionary past.
Do not underestimate the significance of this corrosion of our core notion of the moral good. Our situation goes well beyond the garden variety descent of so many previous cultures into a boring debauchery. Our current situation is instead characterized by an explicit and theoretical rejection of the very idea of a regulative set of metaphysical propositions as inherently dangerous and latently oppressive.
What our culture now puts in its place is a bizarre and degraded existentialism on steroids—the apotheosis of the raw, unfettered, choosing self. Gone are the traditional notions, largely inherited from the Platonic tradition, of a human nature rooted in a cosmic logos and governed by the need for the higher levels of the soul to govern and channel the lower levels. As C.S. Lewis put it, paraphrasing Plato, “the head rules the belly through the chest.” What he means is the mind elevates our lower nature into the higher through the development of moral virtues.
Instead, as Lewis further noted, what we have today is a culture filled with people “without chests” insofar as it is precisely those lower levels of visceral emotion and psychological mood that are nowadays viewed as the governing logos of “identity” and any worldview that opposes this is denigrated as part of that infantile past which we have now happily outgrown. In such a world—our world—Plato is the original fascist.
The irony, of course, is that the modern Liberal project did not keep the peace as we saw in the 20th century’s various genocidal catastrophes where the various secular “-isms” that had replaced Christianity fought for world domination. And as we survey the cultural landscape of America in the year 2020 one cannot but be struck by the current fragility of our democratic consensus. Do we have a core notion of the moral good around which we can all rally despite our differences over the prudential application of its principles? If we do, then there is hope that our current cultural conflicts might in point of fact be a needed “outing” of injustices that have long needed remediation.
Our current situation is instead characterized by an explicit and theoretical rejection of the very idea of a regulative set of metaphysical propositions as inherently dangerous and latently oppressive.
If there is no core moral vision, then what we might be witnessing is not a rebirth of justice. It is the death rattle of a long bankrupt culture that is now succumbing outwardly to the factionalized Balkanization that its putative neutrality has always affirmed implicitly. The centrifugal forces of human selfishness and the degenerative entropy of our cultural acedia are, perhaps, stronger than whatever attenuated and largely vacuous notions of “freedom” and “justice” yet lingering, perhaps, in our collective memory.
This is not doomsday—not even the zombie apocalypse—but there is a lot at stake here, and fence-sitting is going to be a luxury that will be allowed to only a few, if any. Therefore, the currently fashionable notion among some Christians that we should just opt out, like latter day Essenes with iPads, and watch the whole carnival burn while we wait “our turn” is a dangerous fantasy.
Our turn for what?
We have both a civic duty and an obligation of charity to live, as Leo XIII called for in Rerum Novarum, the Christian virtues in a public way as a witness to their perduring power to transform. We might just be surprised by two things: how shallow Liberalism’s roots really are, given the ineradicable thirst for Transcendence in every human soul; and, just how powerful Christian witness can be.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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