It’s a natural tendency to look for ways in which one’s own time is unique in history. It can take a number of forms whether it is the idea that progress and human flourishing is accelerating at a faster rate than ever and that collective wellbeing is at the base of steep gradient, or that it’s all going to the dogs – humans have reached peak misery and we’d all be better off hastening our inevitable self-destruction. Of course, these are two extremes on the continuum, both of which we should be cautious of endorsing reflexively, but the former is probably truer than the latter, in my estimation, even though the latter is arguably more popularly endorsed in societies in which the former is truer.
There are various reasons for this, some more obvious than others. Despite the undeniable positive effects of technological enhancement on human health and prosperity, whole volumes have been written on the atomising and meaning-sapping effects of social media addiction and our disconnection with nature, so I won’t recapitulate that point here.
But there is something more at play in our societies that seems not only to denude our lives of meaning but set us at such irreconcilable odds. We’ve written a great deal on this site about the culture wars and the destructive rise in identity politics and ideological echo chambers in recent years, but it has always been tricky to place the origin of these trends. Where did this come from? And why does it seem to “mean” so much to people whilst simultaneously sapping meaning from life. We are looking for meaning in politics, more specifically the politics of identity, and it is a dangerous road to nowhere.
The reasons for this are not entirely clear, it may be some concatenation of the decline of religion coupled with a kind of post-twentieth century malaise. This was perhaps best described by the French philosopher Chantal Delsoi who, in her book Icarus Fallen, described the state of Western man as one Icarus would have found himself in had he survived his fall – bruised and battered, surviving on but unsure of where left to turn for some trajectory to his existence. It seemed everything was tried in the twentieth century – communism, fascism, religious fundamentalism, post-modernism (which itself seemed to represent an attempt to entirely abandon the search for meaning in self-defence) and what do we have left? Into this vacuum floods identity politics, privilege stacking and endless whining about cultural appropriation.
What the twentieth century should tell us is that politics is a dangerous place to look for meaning and happiness. What our present moment should tell us is that it is an idiotic and frivolous place to look. Is it any wonder that Jihadism at its height was worse among disaffected, often well-educated, young men in the West? The idea of culture and tradition, particularly in Western Europe (less true in the heartlands and the United States but certainly true of its coastal progressive enclaves) is usually met with flippant sneering derision (it is generally self-applied but leaves other cultural traditions exempt regardless of their contents and consequences). This would not be a problem politically if there were anything waiting in the wings to replace it.
Daniel Dennet once remarked that Islamic extremism appealed to those whose lives lacked a “narrative arc”. In this particular case he was referring to benighted countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. What is arguably more interesting and troubling, is that this narrative arc, at least to many, is equally as elusive in the West, even though we have the tools and societal infrastructure to freely access it.
This is fertile territory for politicians. Michelle Obama once declared that the Obama presidency would “fix our souls”. More recently, Trump’s campaign trail was replete with famously grandiose statements like “I will give you everything, I am the only one!”
Politics will not be and has never been a credible source of happiness. Intimate moments of beauty, rekindling our connection with nature and other human beings, culture – these aspects of life are far too easy to overlook when we are forced to fight a multi-front war for our attention by the loudest voices in the public square – and most of us are losing this war.
There is no clear roadmap in man’s search for meaning and we each have to embark on it alone, with intermittent company along the way. But we can at least figure out where not to look, for our own sake and for those around us, between whom the divide seems ever-widening.
“Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness; these are the only real goods we have” – Alexander Herzen