By Jonathan Sacks Hodder and Stoughton, 384pp, £20/$30
An intellectual backlash is taking place against the rise of new and destructive ideologies that have emerged amid the post-Christian vacuum of Western civilisation in recent decades. Alarming trends have inspired an entire new genre of political books, many with cautionary titles such as The Madness of Crowds, How Democracies Die, The Strange Death of Europe, and The Suicide of the West.
Some commentators are disturbed by the intolerance often accompanying such ideologies, and they seek to defend freedom against incursions into genuine rights and liberties. Morality is a gentler foray into this realm. It is a faith-based anthropological, philosophical and sociological analysis of the times from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and a blueprint for how society might be renewed.
The former Chief Rabbi charts the start of the problem largely to the 1960s when, fuelled by false and misguided philosophies of earlier decades and even centuries, Europe took flight from allegedly divisive concepts of identity. These included “country” and “religion”, both of which were derided by John Lennon in Imagine, the singer’s “profoundly utopian” anthem of 1971.
A philosophical shift took place at this time because the new liberalism of the 1960s, explains Sacks, “was built on the premise of the individual as the bearer of rights, and of autonomy as the supreme value of the social order”. Since then the West, he argues, has become fundamentally selfish, with people rejecting the common good and adopting a new rationale to act in self-serving and individualistic ways.
The “We” of the popular voice has been supplanted by an all-consuming and self-centred “I”, and the consequences have been catastrophic, with communities destroyed by endemic family breakdown, and markets operating without morals. As civil society has fragmented, power is relinquished to the ever-growing state, and levels of intrusion are now so excessive they are rightly described as Orwellian. Yet ideologies informed by absolute individualism continue to be embraced in the name of freedom, and are today fuelling the rise and spread of deeply intolerant identity politics.
This phenomenon “balkanises society” into competing tribes of victims, including women, gays, transsexuals, and some ethnic and religious minorities, which, says Sacks, is dividing and destroying society further still. Identity politics is not just a problem of the Left, he says, but of the full political spectrum, and its fruits are “a warning signal of democracy in danger”.
“It will end in tragedy,” predicts Sacks, adding that the West has entered a period of “cultural climate change” as perilous socially as actual climate change is physically.
The portents of the changing times are being noted not least by Jews, because amid the political malaise is the “return of anti-Semitism to every country in Europe”, with 40 per cent considering leaving their homes, according to a 2018 poll. “That this should have happened within living memory of the Holocaust is almost unbelievable,” writes Sacks. “Its significance is that historically the emergence of anti-Semitism into the political mainstream has invariably been an early warning sign of societal breakdown . . . What was heralded as a growth in tolerance has led to new intolerances, grievances, resentment and rage.”
Sacks nevertheless believes that it is not too late for the West to recover its moral sense, as it has in those previous eras marked by dissolution and decadence, and he has great faith in the young to bring this about. His ideas draw on the rich traditions, teachings and insights of Judaism, and more broadly the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
His reflections on covenants as opposed to contracts, for instance, is enlightening, particularly in the way such concepts might transform how people view marriage and other commitments in civil society.
Sacks is also clear that there is a vital role for religion, the historical source of Western morality, and like other philosophers, even those who were atheists, he ponders whether society could have the capacity for renewal in the absence of God. He is less optimistic on this point but, like an Old Testament prophet, urges people to turn away from their idols and return to the truth.
Sacks wrote Morality before the coronavirus became a pandemic and the selfishness he laments has been evident since in the behaviour of many people. Parliament also last month witnessed the sickening spectacle of MPs attempting to hijack the coronavirus bill to liberalise abortion laws.
The right to life is very much the elephant in the room. Nothing has led to the breakdown of the Judaeo-Christian moral consensus more than the belief that it is legitimate to take an innocent life.
This too can be charted from the 1960s. St John Henry Newman and Pope St John Paul II warned their own generations that abortion would lead to the spread of atheism and they were right. Sacks points less explicitly to the blessings of a public morality resting on the foundations of the Ten Commandments. But that is precisely what we need.