Deep Thoughts

Maxims for Life, an Antidote to Hope: Part Two

May 04, 2018

Multiple Pages
Maxims for Life, an Antidote to Hope: Part Two

Morality is a mixed thing.

“Do we really want peace?” Pope Francis asks on Twitter. Believing the answer is yes, one of the most influential men on earth answers: “Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war.” In the face of such amusing nonsense, one thinks of Thomas Hardy’s witty little poem:

‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.

There is a grim lesson about morality in the Pope’s childish naïveté, which overlooks the plain fact that the state itself is an organization of defense. For although no civilized people can do without it, morality is often put to irrational and self-destructive purposes. This is, indeed, one of the most challenging problems of our time. Throughout Europe there are now moral decadents who, far from wanting immigrants (many of them Muslims) to be punished for vile crimes such as sexual assault, are making excuses for them.

And as we know, the same weakness, the same fear of judgment and indeed of justice itself, is rife in this country, whether it’s the unwillingness to punish delinquent students or Kate Steinle’s parents advocating open borders even after their own daughter was murdered by an illegal immigrant and felon who had already been deported five—yes, five—times.

Unless applied by persons of sound judgment and strong will—of whom there are never enough—moral sentiments can do much more harm than good.

“Unless applied by persons of sound judgment and strong will, moral sentiments can do much more harm than good.”

And with that we touch on what is so dangerous about democracy. “To hear these defenders of democracy talk,” says Joseph de Maistre in his Study on Sovereignty (1794), “one would think that people deliberate like a committee of wise men, whereas in truth judicial murders, foolhardy undertakings, wild choices, and above all foolish and disastrous wars are eminently the prerogatives of this form of government.” It is strange that this form of government should be so widely equated with some kind of ultimate progress. Here one perceives, at bottom, more of the usual human self-delusion. For in the moral domain as in others, democracy more than any other form of government promotes foolishness (not to mention, a crass way of life). And, owing to the numerousness of the democratic type of man (i.e., most people), this must often prove insurmountable.

Given our egoistic nature, and the frequent difficulty of understanding people unlike ourselves, many moral intentions amount to trying to remake others in our own image. Whether well-intentioned or no, this endeavor constitutes an enormous amount of human history. As I write, feminist women and weak men at the University of Texas, acting on what they take to be just moral sentiments, are concerned to make naive and impressionable young male students into sentimental women, in effect. As I have noted elsewhere, this sort of delusive project is now common in academia, and if successful, the result will be that the culture will become even more characterized by people who are incapable of seeing things as they are and of making clearheaded judgments about how we should live together. In such a condition the United States cannot survive, let alone flourish.

As can be seen from these examples, morality tends to simplify both human nature itself and human affairs. In “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” (1981), his courageously honest and penetrating essay, Paul Fussell explains that although the atom bomb was an immense evil, without it he and his fellow soldiers probably would have died in World War II. Such was the horrible condition in which Fussell found himself, nor is it the sort of thing that can be solved by moral deliberation. Being tragic, it admits of no good solution.

Fussell describes the “remoteness from experience” and the “rationalistic abstraction from actuality” that allowed John Kenneth Galbraith and other moralizing critics of the atom bomb (and of the war more generally) to simplify the extreme difficulty of the context he knew firsthand. So it is with mankind: Rather than perceive certain tragedy, we prefer to point fingers; after all, that is much easier and more agreeable to do. It also has a certain cynical value—show everyone you are on “the good side,” O fearful conformist!

In sum, just as the individual himself spends much of life being torn by incompatible desires and interests, so in the larger social sphere there is no golden rule or moral system by which conflict and tragedy always can be avoided. Morality is a kind of tool, a very necessary one, but Nature itself remains essentially chaotic and absolutely indifferent to how we feel about that. What, after all, do our moral concepts and systems matter to this world in which we uncannily find ourselves? Is it evident that we are meant to get along, and to not do one another harm? By no means!

There is no absolute meritocracy.

We on the right are known for emphasizing the value of personal responsibility. And of course, it is an important virtue, albeit very much in decline. The problem is that many people have a crude notion of it, which serves to obscure the ugly truth about how the world actually works. It is as if personal responsibility by itself entailed a good and just outcome. Meanwhile, it is found time and time again that success depends less on work ethic and ability than on interpersonal relations, quite often of a vulgar kind. It is hardly news that many people who get ahead are aided by knowing the right people. It is less often realized that without such connections, in many cases, one cannot get anywhere.

“In literary circles,” says Emerson in his essay “Power” (1860),

the men of trust and consideration, bookmakers, editors, university deans and professors, bishops, too, were by no means men of the largest literary talent, but usually of a low and ordinary intellectuality, with a sort of mercantile activity and working talent. Indifferent hacks and mediocrities tower, by pushing their forces to a lucrative point, or by working power, over multitudes of superior men, in Old as in New England.

Similarly, George Orwell writes in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

It is not easy to crash your way into the literary intelligentsia if you happen to be a decent human being. The modern English literary world, at any rate the high-brow section of it, is a sort of poisonous jungle where only weeds can flourish. It is just possible to be a literary gent and to keep your decency if you are a definitely popular writer—a writer of detective stories, for instance; but to be a highbrow, with a footing in the snootier magazines, means delivering yourself over to horrible campaigns of wire-pulling and backstairs-crawling. In the highbrow world you ‘get on,’ if you ‘get on’ at all, not so much by your literary ability as by being the life and soul of cocktail parties and kissing the bums of verminous little lions.

Now, kissing bums is an act that many are not at all hesitant to do. As a general rule, those who are will be proud, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a legitimate reason to be so. Likely to be base himself, the bum-kisser naturally is not bothered by humiliating himself to a fellow wretch. On the contrary, doing so is in keeping with the general character of his paltry existence.

It is not so with the rare persons of extraordinary ability. They are not petty schmoozers and networkers. The mediocre, by contrast, must be. And the best men and women, regardless of their personalities, are likely to have plenty of detractors and enemies, because superiority is resented by definition, for the mere fact that it exists.

What is more, success may well require having the right social and political views. Sticking to our literary theme, we can use the celebrated writer Ben Lerner as an example. Although his poetry criticism is voguish and incoherent (for he is enthralled with the pseudo-philosopher Allen Grossman), and although his derivative, Ashberian poetry is frequently bad and mixed on the whole, Lerner has a large talent. His two novels are considerable achievements; the second in particular is original, witty, and full of superbly imaginative sentences. Yet it is worth asking whether Lerner would be so highly regarded if he did not evince the leftism that is now almost de rigueur in literary circles, at least for unestablished writers. It is likewise worth asking a related question: whether great conservative writers of the past—Dostoyevsky, Coleridge, Baudelaire, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and Saul Bellow, among others—would have met with enough fair-minded readers and critics in today’s touchy and narrow ideological climate.

Lerner himself has said that, like the narrator Adam Gordon of his first book, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the nameless narrator of 10:04 (2014) is modeled on himself. The man is an anti-capitalist, plagued by the familiar white leftist guilt. Now, I am no fan of capitalism myself, as there is nothing more odious than a society in which commercial interests outweigh all others. Still, it’s plain to me that capitalism is the best economic system mankind has come up with so far. And what irks me about Lerner’s anti-capitalism is that he never considers what is the ultimate obstacle for “progressive economic reform”: egoistic human nature itself, and its competitive desire to be perceived as of higher social rank than others. Lerner rails against capitalism, yet like nearly all intellectuals on the left, his anti-capitalism is shallow, and where his fellow writers and literary intellectuals see “moral sophistication,” I discern a cheap trick.

Marked by self-loathing (another woefully prevalent trait among male writers today), and contemptibly asserting what poetry cannot do, Lerner might fairly be called the 21st-century poetry boy, in allusion to a sharp song by Bad Religion. He is the only male child of a prominent feminist woman psychologist, who is frequently quoted by leading leftist intellectuals like Martha Nussbaum. His father, too, is a psychologist. He studied “creative writing” and political science at Brown University, which, judging by my own acquaintance with graduates of that institution, may be the most emasculated of American universities. In the sadomasochism scene in 10:04, the man is the submissive. In real life, of course, the opposite is typically the case. But given what one knows of Lerner, a distinctly unmanly figure, the male submissive seems merely fitting. Furthermore, given the powerful influence of feminist women in the literary world today, it may well have been a necessary choice.

Comments on this article can be sent to the .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and must be accompanied by your full name, city and state. By sending us your comment you are agreeing to have it appear on Taki’s Magazine.

Daily updates with TM’s latest