The Futility of Man’s Search for Meaning

Here is a very insightful, I am tempted to say brilliant, article by “Spengler” in the Asia Times.

The article is an argument against the central effort of modernity, namely, man’s search for meaning. The article interprets this “search for meaning” to be a search for originality, particularly originality of artistic self-expression, based on the ludicrous notion of Sartre that a man’s essential nature is something he can invent for himself.

If man’s nature is something he invents for himself, in order to be an invention, it must be original, and in order to be original, it must defy all prior tradition; but these means posterity must defy him in turn, and cast him and his work into the rubbish heap of history. Spengler says:

If we set out to invent our own identities, then by definition we must abominate the identities of our parents and our teachers. Our children, should we trouble to bring any into the world, also will abominate ours. If self-invention is the path to the meaning of life, it makes the messy job of bearing and raising children a superfluous burden, for we can raise our children by no other means than to teach them contempt for us, both by instruction, and by the example of set in showing contempt to our own parents.


I have spoken before of my shock and horror (which continues to this day) when I came across some politically correct nitwit lambasting Robert Heinlein, of all people, for being insufficiently sexually liberated.

It was then that I realized that the solemnities of the Political Correct were always and forevermore the Feast of Saturn, where you consume your children and are overthrown by them, as Saturn ate and was overthrown by Zeus, after you are down overthrowing your own father, as Saturn castrated Uranus.

On would think that, merely out of a sense of self preservation, or in hope that one’s work would be admired rather than despised in times to come, it would be in one’s own self interest to encourage the reciprocal notions of piety to one’s ancestors and from one’s progeny. The heart of the ecological movement, that most fashionable of all movements, is based on the notion of selfless concern to pass a legacy on to the next generation we faithfully received from the prior. Why, then, this desire to pass the natural world along to our heirs, but obliterate our cultural world?

I never understood the reason for this inter-generational cannibalism and enmity, nor why the Post-Moderns were so abysmally parochial, having only the most dim notions, or none at all, what life was like in other nations, or in other parts of their own nation, or in other centuries, or in previous decades.

I never understood the paradox of why the Post-Moderns both claimed to be outrageously original, and yet they eschewed originality in thought, to point of enforcing uniformity of doctrine by law.

Spengler’s article offers an explanation. His argument is that Existentialism is the effort of man to reinvent himself. Such reinvention by its very nature must be original, revolutionary, radical. But there are not an infinite number of possible worlds or possible world views which both (1) retain enough of the Western philosophical heritage to justify Existentialism (which, after all, springs from specifically Western, that is Christian, assumptions, axioms, and mode of thought) and (2) reject enough of the Western tradition to claim to be original and revolutionary.

Indeed, my own thought, heavily influenced by the ideas of the Russian Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose, is that there is only three ways of rejecting the Western Tradition, once the rebellion of the Enlightenment has usurped the role of the Church, and enthroned allegedly pragmatic and worldly values where once Christian virtues reigned.  Those three ways are socialism, spiritualism and nihilism. Each of these has its various schools and heresies, factions and subdivisions, but in the main, their votaries follow certain predictable, if not stereotypical, ruts of thought.

When the rebel seeks to reinvent himself, and he wishes to rebel against the status quo, the bourgeoisie values, the stale conformity of life, he is really rebelling, in the West, against the established Church, and in the modern West, he is really rebelling against the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment, or, in other words, rebelling against the disestablished Church.

Like all rebels, he is a heretic, and like all heretics, he plucks one thread out of the organic tapestry of Christian thought, elevates it to unwieldy supremacy, and uses that newly-crowned supreme good to dismiss or denigrate the other aspects of Christian teaching.

Examples are almost too many to list. The Sexual Revolutionary takes the Christian doctrine of freedom of the will, conflates it with the freedom to do whatever is willed, and exaggerates this freedom to be the supreme good, and then denigrates the sacrament of marriage and the prudent virtues of chastity on the grounds that to abide by the bands of marriage and the bounds of common sense is an unforgivable imposition on human freedom. Or, again, the socialist plucks up the strand of Christian otherwordliness and suspicion of money and elevates that to a supreme good, paradoxically scoffing at the worldly greed of investors and at the same time promising greater wealth and efficiency to flow from centralized planning of the economy, and the mass expropriation and mass robbery of all productive men in the nation. Christian notions of lawfulness, respect for boundary lines, obedience due worldly authorities, and so on, are trampled in the general stampede toward the mirage of utopia.

Let me quote Spengler again:

The only thing worse than searching in vain for the meaning of life within the terms of the 20th century is to find it, for it can only be a meaning understood by the searcher alone, who by virtue of the discovery is cut off from future as well as past. That is why our image of the artist is a young rebel rather than an elderly sage. If our rebel artists cannot manage to die young, they do the next best thing, namely disappear from public view, like J D Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. The aging rebel is in the position of Diana’s priest who sleeps with sword in hand and one eye open, awaiting the challenger who will do to him what he did to the last fellow to hold the job.

This modern love of self-reinvention leads to idolizing youth, which, of all ages of man, is the one least worthy of admiration, lacking the helpless charm of infants and the maturity and prudence of adulthood or the grave wisdom of age. Spengler, again:

[...] We attempt to stay young indefinitely. Michael Jackson, I argued in a July 2009 obituary, became a national hero because more than any other American he devoted his life to the goal of remaining an adolescent. His body lies moldering in the grave (in fact, it was moldering long before it reached the grave) but his spirit soars above an America that proposes to deal with the problem of mortality by fleeing from it.

This modern love of self-reinvention leads to sterility. The Last Men (so Hegel called them) may be the Last Men indeed, by aborting their future. Spengler says:

A recent book by the sociologist Eric Kaufmann (Will the Religious Inherit the Earth?) makes the now-common observation that secular people have stopped having children. As a secular writer, he bewails this turn of events, but concedes that it has occurred for a reason: “The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people’s powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones.

This modern love of self-reinvention leads to a vain infatuation with originality.

I should hasten to add, with a false notion of originality. ULYSSES by James Joyce was ‘original’ in the sense that it eschewed traditional artistic elements like plot and character development and decency and, in one section, punctuation. It was basically meant as  a mockery (these days we would call it a deconstruction) of the Odyssey, and the pagan heroics of old. LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien was original in that no such sustained work of the imagination had heretofore been attempted, nor had the ancient matter of elves and knights and magic rings and other material of epic and folklore been placed in a prosaic and realistic background, where the number of days of a hero trudging across a fully detailed landscape, for example, could be calculated, or the runes on the door of a ruined dwarf mine could be referenced to a specific era and year of an invented past.

Why is ULYSSES inchoate garbage, adored only by a shrinking coterie of literati suffering from terminal affectation, whereas LORD OF THE RINGS is widely (and correctly) regarded as the best novel of the century?

It is because the originality in Tolkien was in keeping with the traditional forms of the modern novel and the matter of folklore and epic, whereas Joyce was in typically modern rebellion, seeking to discredit and destroy the matter of epic, and all traditional forms of story teller’s craft.

Well, Joyce’s novel hails from AD 1920, within the same decade as Edgar Rice Burrough’s A PRINCESS OF MARS. It is difficult to believe the modern rebel of 2012 will admire and adhere to its quaint rebellion by interbellum cynics against the Victorian intellectualism, optimism, and propriety of two decades prior.

As Spengler observes:

The high art of the Renaissance or Baroque, centered in the churches or the serious theater, has disappeared. Ordinary people can’t be expected to learn a new style every time they encounter the work of a new artist (neither can critics, but they pretend to). The sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture. That is not the worst sort of outcome. One of my teachers observes that the classical style of composition never will disappear, because the movies need it; it is the only sort of music that can tell a story.

[...] But no destiny is more depressing than that of the artist who truly manages to invent a new style and achieve recognition for it.

He recalls the Rex Nemorensis, the priest of Diana at Nemi who according to Ovid won his office by murdering his predecessor, and will in turn be murdered by his eventual successor. The inventor of a truly new style has cut himself off from the past, and will in turn be cut off from the future by the next entrant who invents a unique and individual style.

Spengler’s article draws together several threads of thought, and shows a common logic behind the otherwise puzzling repeated pathologies of the modern age: the childlessness, the selfishness, the lack of even rudimentary artistic sense or taste, the lack of even rudimentary moral sense or taste (particularly in the sexual sphere), the general indifference to the prospect of destroying the civilization, the overwhelming mental and moral sloth and retardation that afflicts our so-called intellectuals.

All of these are by products of the parochialism of the current time which this act of pretend self-invention has as an inevitable by-product. Modern man is told he has the right and perhaps the duty to make himself out of his own clay, like Adam without a God, and the blatant self-contradiction of a nonentity willing itself into entity, of effect without cause, is brushed aside, along with any sober concern about rationality.

We live in a Dark Ages. Do not be deceived by our technological marvels. The era after the fall of Rome in the Western lands of Europe was also an age of unparalleled technical advancement, from eyeglasses to clockworks to horsecollars to wheelbarrows to stirrups. What makes this age Dark is not merely a contempt for reason, but an inability of the educated classes to reason coherently when called upon to do so.

A man who thinks he can reinvent his own human nature by an act of will is a man who, ultimately, does not believe that truth is true.

20 Comments

  1. Comment by paul.griffin:

    Speaking of epics, this all calls to mind Paradise Lost, wherein Satan’s response to being reminded that he is rebelling against the One who created him is, roughly, “I wasn’t there to see it, I don’t remember it, it must not have happened. I must have made myself.” One can’t help but wonder if he is trying to convince Abdiel or himself…

    Also, I have also often wondered (I think I have mentioned it previously here) how a mentality that shows such murderous contempt for chaste sexual relations and the children that result (real, actual, individual children, not “children” as some abstract concept that is so commonly invoked in the name of pushing some other agenda) ever intends to wield influence for more than one generation. In my personal, anecdotal experience, Christians are out-reproducing everyone else by a wide margin…

  2. Comment by Stephen J.:

    I am reminded of the reason I stopped buying into Harold Bloom’s theory of critical influence during my English-degree university days: when I realized that the theory made it possible to argue that any work was influenced by any earlier work, because similarities could be explained as the earlier work influencing the later while differences could be explained as the later work resisting the earlier, I concluded that it was essentially useless for anything that hoped to divine an objectively correct analysis. If all answers are equally true then none of them are true. (Though I did my degree in English, I used to be a math prodigy in high school, and the notion of “there is just one Correct Answer” casts a large shadow over my aesthetics.)

    It wouldn’t hurt to remind people that “nature” is by definition that part of you which preceded your conscious awareness of it and is not subject to free, conscious and indefinite/permanent redefinition; if it were so subject, it wouldn’t be your “nature” — you’d have to come up with another term for it. (The fable of the Frog and the Scorpion would make no sense to someone who believes we are not only tabulata rasa at birth but infinitely eraseable and re-eraseable tabulata to boot. And yet no matter how malleable you believe human nature, I’ve never met anyone over the age of seventeen or so who didn’t laugh ruefully at this tale.)

    For myself I see two deep impulses at the heart of this attempt to make oneself sui generis, one actually rather Christian in nature and one distinctly anti-Christian. The Christian element is that element of human dissatisfaction with the fallen world that infects all our experiences of life, even those sanctified by Grace such as parenting and worship; the anti-Christian one is the prideful paranoia that sees any definition of “meaning” in which there inheres any kind of duty, obligation, prohibition or sacrifice as an ulterior motive on the part of whomever is trying to teach that meaning (or on the part of whoever taught the teacher, if one condescendingly assumes the teacher is merely deceived rather than deceptive). If living by no set of precepts makes you perfectly happy in this life (as none will), and it can be plausibly argued that anyone teaching a set of precepts has a selfish interest in people obeying them (as most of us, in truth, do), then it can be distressingly easy to conclude that only the precepts you make up for yourself have any hope of making you “truly” free and happy.

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      Your post reminds me that we owe the tabula rasa concept to Descartes, that serpent who concealed himself behind a mask to walk on the scene of the world (in hoc theatrum mundi larvatus prodeo) and who was both a deceived (as attested by this bizarre dream) and deceptive teacher.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      *winces*

      Tabulae rasae, my dear sir. The first word is Latin (first declension), not Greek. The second, being an adjective modifying the first, must agree with its antecedent in case and number.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        Curses, the result of too skimpy a research job and too hasty a self-second-guessing. (The irony is, I had originally written it correctly and then thought, “no, wait, isn’t the formula/formulae thing Greek?” Damn my penchant for usually assuming that if I’m not certain I’m probably wrong!)

        Thanks for the correction.

  3. Comment by LeRoy Smith:

    I just wasn’t impressed by Spengler’s article. I’ve read enough Chesterton that I can’t seem to ever get him completely out of my head, and he was in my head while I read that, laughing all the while.

  4. Comment by Pierce O.:

    The sort of art that appeals to a general audience has retreated into popular culture.

    Magic: The Gathering anyone? That game features some really amazing artwork:
    Aegis Angel by Aleksi Briclot
    http://media.wizards.com/images/magic/daily/sf/kdertyyghjkfsdoitg645ertwe87uoirfposuuhs.jpg

    and of course there’s John Howe as well:
    http://thelittlechimpsociety.com/images/jh14.jpg

  5. Ping from We Are All Individuals « Do_While(True):

    [...] This is an interesting post by John Wright on the futility of modern man’s search for meaning; specifically, the notion that a man can invent himself, because in attempting to do so he must discard everything that came before and doom himself to be discarded by those who follow after. [...]

  6. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    There seems to be a couple of paragraphs where you are quoting Spengler and they are not marked as quotations (I remember reading the paragraph about Seraphim Rose elsewhere, probably BG Charlton’s place).
    Paragraphs beginning with:
    Spengler’s article offers an explanation: “Existentialism is the effort of man to reinvent himself…”
    “Indeed, my own thought, heavily influenced by the ideas of the Russian Orthodox monk Seraphim Rose…”

  7. Comment by teripittman:

    I am becoming convinced that one of the worst aspects of modern culture is ugliness. We have gone out of our way to make our surroundings uglier than previous generations. Most of the objects of our culture are made from a substance that does not gain a patina with age (plastic does not age well.) Our clothes and buildings are ugly. It seems like there is a deliberate attempt to push beauty out of our lives.

    I was looking at the ornamentation on an older building when I was in Portland the other day. It really served no purpose, other than to add beauty to the building. The newer buildings in town look like plain boxes. Would it add that much to the cost to ornament them?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I believe it is deliberate. Ugliness is easy and proud, and is a slap in the face of God, and the bourgeoisie. To excel in the beauty of architecture over the Gothic and Renaissance, one would have to match wits with these architects. It would require not just a study of the old masters, but a mastery of their techniques. Beauty is difficult, and humble.

    • Comment by Andrew Brew:

      In architecture, at least, the rejection of decoration was a deliberate and explicit part of the modernist movement (you don’t have to read much by Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier to come across expressions of contempt for such in the name of “honesty” or “integrity”). Since the purpose of decoration is to increase beauty, it did not take long for the rejection of adornment to morph into a rejection of beauty in itself.

      Another characteristic attitude of modernism in architecture (and this makes it distinctively modern rather than postmodern, even as it lays the foundation for the latter) is the rejection of the limitations of nature. Wright in particular explicitly denied the desirability either of use of local materials or of care in the use of energy. For these he substituted use of industrial products and air-conditioning. A house such as Fallingwater was intended to be equally buildable, and equally liveable, anywhere. It was built in defiance of the landscape rather than in submission to it.

      This modernist triumphalism means that most buildings of the last century or so are both ugly (aesthetically destructive) and energy-inefficient (economically and physically destructive). Recent legislation of energy ratings and the like in building codes are trying to restore by coercion an approach to building that, before the modernist movement took hold, nobody thought of not following – that public buildings should be built to take advantage of (and/or protect its inhabitants from) the surrounding landscape and climate.

    • Comment by False_Keraptis:

      Now here’s a subject near to my heart! How can ugliness gain the upper hand over beauty? It’s absurd.

      It’s all about status. Everyone can appreciate beauty, so nobody can demonstrate his superiority by enjoying it. The rare man who enjoys ugliness sets himself above the crowd, especially if he can convince people that he sees something they miss due to his education, sensitivity, and refinement. The pretentious and insecure (let’s face it, that’s all of us sometimes) see they can gain status over the endless swarming masses by imitating these tastes.

      My question is, what can we do about this? This inversion of value has only dominated the arts for a little over a century. There must be a way to beat it.

    • Comment by Stephen J.:

      I’ve said this before, but I really don’t think it’s about the rejection of beauty per se, or at least not initially so: I think it is, or was, about the rejection of technique, of artifice, of the engineered, constructed, manipulated, surgically altered, PhotoShopped or AutoTuned.

      This current of suspicion, skepticism and disdain of beauty is based, I think, on an only semi-rational conviction that such beauty is no longer necessarily proof of deep or honest feeling, unique talent, or great skill on the part of the artist; that technological tools, codified principles and techniques, mass-production availability and commercial exploitation has rendered beauty a product, a commodity that can be bought and sold as convenient rather than a mysterious phenomenon that must be appreciated when encountered lest the opportunity never arise again.

      In this perspective, it’s the deliberate rawness, crudity, unpolishedness and offensiveness of art which “proves” its uniqueness (“There is nothing else like this!”), its passion (“Ah, he was too transported to take the time for polishing!”), which “proves” that it was not made to be sold as a product, or to flatter a patron or audience. As I’ve said before, punk fans like punk music because it’s so defiantly “bad” by classical principles; it’s the ecstasy of defying those principles, and all the social constrictions they represent, that makes punk what it is.

      Now I confess that I am not unsympathetic to this viewpoint myself — for example, I think it is a valid reaction to find a beautiful woman’s beauty less impressive if one discovers that months and months of unnecessary cosmetic surgery went into it; and while I certainly can enjoy a lot of overproduced studio pop music, my admiration for a musician’s or band’s actual skill goes way up if they can show they don’t need it, and I think better of their character if they choose not to use it. And one of my favourite scenes in The Fionavar Tapestry is the crystal-carving contest in Book III, when the raw, painful power of Matt Soren’s carving ultimately has greater impact than the dazzling, polished beauty of his enemy’s (a point made in part because the enemy’s skill is an outcome of his obsession with the perfection of his craft to the exclusion of morality and humanity). People are suspicious of beauty because it can be used to sell, to deceive and distract, and perhaps has been overused to do so. And even deliberate offensiveness has its place, as anyone who applauded Jesus’s annoyance of the Pharisees must admit.

      But all that said, there is a difference between ensuring that awareness of how beauty is produced, and what it is made and used for, can inform our critical standards, and allowing paranoia about those things to destroy any critical standards. As our host has pointed out before, Screwtape always wants us to overreact in whatever direction we rush, the better to capsize the boat. And audiences can be flattered even more effectively by artists who pander to their ego by claiming not to pander to bland populist beauty, either; there is no flattery so effective as the flattery which convinces us we’re not being flattered at all.

  8. Comment by hrefn:

    Your comment about the abysmal parochialism of the Post-Modern struck a chord with me. Yesterday I was asked by my son to translate a phrase into Latin, which I attempted to do, though I am far from a Latin scholar. My musings touched on the profound shifts in the meaning of words, which shed light on a facets of Post-Modern culture which had never come to my conscious attention in quite this way before. Excerpt of my note to my son follows.
    “Vir is weer in classical Latin, but veer after the third century AD. Constantine the Great may have spoken a Latin more similar to Church Latin than Classical.  When Latin fragmented into the Romance languages after the fall of the Empire, the daughter languages’ pronunciation of related terms, e.g. virtu, virtue , strongly suggest vir was pronounced with a “v” by then.
    Vir is Latin for man, thus vir bonus is a good man.  Vir also means husband, also hero.  This says a lot about the unspoken assumptions the culture made about men, that one word encompassed what are in English three distinct concepts.  Or perhaps our distinguishing these concepts from one another says something about our culture. (If so, it does not reflect well on our culture, in my opinion). Virtus, Latin for virtue, especially but not exclusively military virtue or courage, could as easily be translated as acting in the fashion expected of men.

    What would a culture be like, where man, husband and hero were synonymous?  I would like to live there.

    Love,   Dad”

    Perhaps language has devolved so that we cannot think properly any longer.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      Perhaps language has devolved so that we cannot think properly any longer.

      Yes, that was the purpose all along. Oh, it was never any given person’s purpose to destroy the utility of language in one fell swoop; but a dozen generations of lying philosophes, a dozen generations of mendacious politicians and shameless propagandists — each doing dirt on the particular bit of language that would have aided thought in such a way as to show people clearly where the lie was — ah, after centuries of such treatment, it is no wonder that the cumulative result has been a disaster.

      A drug addict wants to wipe out his higher brain functions for a few hours, as a holiday from reality. He never actually intends to wipe them out permanently — but in the end, in the grip of his addiction, he does.

    • Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

      Victorian England hadn’t separated those concepts.

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