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Dan Sportiello | Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I spent last spring as a teaching assistant in Morality and Modernity. I was responsible for leading two discussion sections every Friday. My students taught me a great deal — though not what I expected.

After our discussions, I worried that, in teaching my students the history of modern ethics — in challenging, indeed, the very foundations of those ethics — I had drawn them in so many directions, had tried to tie together so many different things, that they had missed the forest for the trees — that they had mastered, that is, the subtleties of Kant and Nietzsche and MacIntyre and yet had missed, in the end, the point that I was trying to make.

The point was not that conservative politics are to be championed over liberal politics — or, for that matter, that liberal politics are to be championed over conservative politics. Our students were not, in other words, to vote a certain way or to argue others into doing so. Ours was not a boot camp for culture warriors or, indeed, a boot camp of any other kind. If the culture wars have to be fought in the first place, they are lost.

The point was not that our students were to choose some particular career — not, in other words, that they ought to upset their parents and go into theater rather than dermatology. Medicine, law, ministry, teaching, research, carpentry and so on are, or can be, noble professions, but ours was not an argument that they ought to join any one of these and thus, somehow, save the world. The world cannot thus be saved, for it is the world itself that it is the problem.

The point was not even that our students were to champion any particular cause — not, at any rate, as the way to repair our civilization. While there are any number of worthy causes to champion, those that can succeed will not fix the fundamental problem with our civilization, and those that can fix the fundamental problem with our civilization cannot succeed. The solution to the fundamental problem with our civilization is not some variant on that same civilization.

So what was the point?

“You are not who they say you are,” said John Paul the Great. He was, in 1979, speaking to the people of Poland, who had labored for over 40 years in Soviet slavery — a slavery that was as much spiritual as material. They had been taught that they were fundamentally producers, that their deepest satisfaction would come from labor, from making things — and that, for this, all that was necessary was to reform civilization such that labor relations were finally equal.

This was a lie designed to further enrich and empower the already wealthy and powerful by manipulating those who were neither. While it is true that men cannot be happy without labor, there is so much more to them than this. The cost of this lie in human misery was untold. But it was not the only lie. John Paul was speaking to all of those who had been destroyed by modernity, and all of its works, and all of its empty promises: Capitalism, for example, had taught men that they were fundamentally consumers, that their deepest satisfaction would come from satisfying their desires, from accumulating things — and that, for this, all that was necessary was to reform civilization such that economic progress was inevitable. And this too was a lie. While it is true that men cannot be happy without pleasure, there is so much more to them than this. The cost of this lie, while so different as to be incommensurable with that of communism, was nonetheless untold — and, as is clear from a casual look at advertising or at kindergartners reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, manipulation plays its role in this lie as well. And these, communism and capitalism, are just two examples.

So … What was the point?

The point was certainly not that our students were to hate modernity — and especially not that they were to hate scientific, economic or artistic progress. On this, at least, I hope that we were clear: Modernity — in its science, literature, art, philosophy, politics, economics and so on — is the highest achievement of humanity so far. Our students were not to long for an ancient or medieval world that has passed, for such a longing is as dangerous as it is absurd. This unthinking nostalgia played no small part in the nightmare that was, intermittently, the 20th century.

But if modernity is the highest achievement of humanity, it is also its greatest idol — and perhaps this, finally, hints at the point: We have constructed a great and beautiful thing, a civilization in which all men are finally free and equal, and have told ourselves that if we only tweak it here and there, it will finally make us happy. But it will not. In his Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller — who watched the bombing of Monte Cassino into rubble from his position as tail gunner in a B-52 — asserts just this: “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”

Daniel John Sportiello is in his fourth year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.