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Against The New Optimism

Yes, we're getting richer and more peaceful -- but it's deceptive. Spiritually, we are close to broke

Oliver Burkeman has a long-read piece in The Guardian about whether or not life is getting better or worse. It is mostly a defense of the claims by the “New Optimists” that pessimism is grounded on willful blindness to the spectacular material improvements modernity has brought us. But it’s not entirely a defense. Excerpt:

The argument that we should be feeling happier than we are because life on the planet as a whole is getting better, on average, also misunderstands a fundamental truth about how happiness works: our judgments of the world result from making specific comparisons that feel relevant to us, not on adopting what David Runciman refers to as “the view from outer space”. If people in your small American town are far less economically secure than they were in living memory, or if you’re a young British person facing the prospect that you might never own a home, it’s not particularly consoling to be told that more and more Chinese people are entering the middle classes. At book readings in the US midwest, Ridley recalls, audience members frequently questioned his optimism on the grounds that their own lives didn’t seem to be on an upward trajectory. “They’d say, ‘You keep saying the world’s getting better, but it doesn’t feel like that round here.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but this isn’t the whole world! Are you not even a little bit cheered by the fact that really poor Africans are getting a bit less poor?’” There is a sense in which this is a fair point. But there’s another sense in which it’s a completely irrelevant one.

At its heart, the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they intend their sunny picture of humanity’s recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics. This is a perfectly legitimate political argument to make – but it’s still a political argument, not a straightforward, neutral reliance on objective facts. The claim that we are living in a golden age, and that our dominant mood of pessimism is unwarranted, is not an antidote to the Age of the Take, but a Take like any other – and it makes just as much sense to adopt the opposite view. “What I dislike,” Runciman says, “is this assumption that if you push back against their argument, what you’re saying is that all these things are not worth valuing … For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable, given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the [unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.”

This seems right to me. Yesterday I was talking to a woman whose family has for the past few years been taking care of a foster kid who is part of their wider family. The child’s father is absent, and his mother is in and out of jail, lost to drug addiction. The woman who told me this story reflected on how much caring for this child taught her and her husband about the staggering challenges faced by children in these situations.

“There is poverty as the lack of material security, and then there is this,” she told me.

She went on to talk about the kinds of things teachers in Baton Rouge who work in inner-city schools are seeing in their classroom: children who are devastated by trauma. Kids who are in no position to learn because it takes everything they have to survive, given the gun violence in their neighborhoods, and the total breakdown of family. These little kids are being acculturated into chaos.

The woman indicated that some white people (she is white) have the idea that this is a black problem, but this is not so. The foster child in her family is white. Drug addiction, absent fathers, and stable families reduced to rubble is now devastating the white working class and poor, as Charles Murray and others have extensively documented.

This is the world Chris Arnade has been writing about: the Other America. The America of a society that has lost its bindings — to God, to each other, to a vision that offers hope, and a moral sense that enables people to sacrifice to realize that hope. The fragility of what we have achieved is what impresses people like me. From my point of view, our elites have for a long time — generations — been working to destroy the fundaments that enabled peace and prosperity. And not just elites: as history testifies, wealth corrupts societies. There is no avoiding the cycle.

I believe that the loss of a society’s religion ultimately leads to its dissolution. Without a commonly held sense of transcendent meaning, a society loses its will to live, because it has no reason to live. I’m reading right now Michel Houellebecq’s first second novel, The Elementary Particles. It’s an amazing book, though a difficult one to read in parts, because of the pornographic descriptions of sex acts. That’s part of the author’s point: he’s writing about a world grown cold and loveless, where sex has been separated from love, family, and meaning. The novel is about two half-brothers who were abandoned by their selfish hippie mother (Houellebecq’s mother did this to him) and socialized by the aridity of consumerism and materialism. Here is the novel’s prologue:

This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men. He lived through an age that was miserable and troubled. The country into which he was born was sliding slowly, ineluctably, into the ranks of the less developed countries; often haunted by misery, the men of his generation lived out their lonely, bitter lives. Feelings such as love, tenderness and human fellowship had, for the most part, disappeared. The relationships between his contemporaries were at best indifferent and more often cruel.

At the time of his disappearance, Michel Djerzinski was unanimously considered to be a first-rate biologist and a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. His true significance, however, would not become apparent for some time.

In Djerzinski’s time, philosophy was generally considered to be of no practical significance, to have been stripped of its purpose. Nevertheless, the values to which a majority subscribe at any given time determine society’s economic and political structures and social mores.

Metaphysical mutations—that is to say radical, global transformations in the values to which the majority subscribe—are rare in the history of humanity. The rise of Christianity might be cited as an example.

Once a metaphysical mutation has arisen, it tends to move inexorably toward its logical conclusion. Heedlessly, it sweeps away economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments and social hierarchies. No human agency can halt its progress— nothing except another metaphysical mutation.

It is a fallacy that such metaphysical mutations gain ground only in weakened or declining societies. When Christianity appeared, the Roman Empire was at the height of its powers: supremely organized, it dominated the known world; its technical and military prowess had no rival. Nonetheless, it had no chance. When modern science appeared, medieval Christianity was a complete, comprehensive system which explained both man and the universe; it was the basis for government, the inspiration for knowledge and art, the arbiter of war as of peace and the power behind the production and distribution of wealth—none of which was sufficient to prevent its downfall.

Michel Djerzinski was not the first nor even the principal architect of the third—and in many respects the most radical—paradigm shift, which opened up a new era in world history. But, as a result of certain extraordinary circumstances in his life, he was one of its most clear-sighted and deliberate engineers.

We live today under a new world order,

The web which weaves together all things envelops our bodies, Bathes our limbs,

In a halo of joy. A state to which men of old sometimes acceded through music

Greets us each morning as a commonplace. What men considered a dream, perfect but remote,

We take for granted as the simplest of things.

But we are not contemptuous of these men;

We know how much we owe to their dreaming,

We know that without the web of suffering and joy which was their history, we would be nothing,

We know that they kept within them an image of us, through their fear and in their pain, as they collided in the darkness,

As little by little, they wrote their history.

We know that they would not have survived, that they could not have survived, without that hope somewhere deep within,

They could not have survived without their dream.

Now that we live in the light,

Now that we live in the presence of the light

Which bathes our bodies,

Envelops our bodies,

In a halo of joy,

Now that we have settled by the water’s edge,

And here live in perpetual afternoon

Now that the light which surrounds our bodies is palpable,

Now that we have come at last to our destination

Leaving behind a world of division,

The way of thinking which divided us,

To bathe in a serene, fertile joy

Of a new law,


For the first time,

We can revisit the end of the old order.

Houellebecq is not a Christian, or a religious man of any kind. In fact, he is a ruin, physically and otherwise. But he is a prophet. Here’s something Andrew M. Brown wrote for the Catholic Herald (UK) on the publication of Houellebecq’s more recent Submission:

Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, is set in a France of the near future in which a Muslim is elected president, in a Europe which has reached such a state of “putrid decomposition” that it cannot save itself. It is a shocking vision of where we might all be heading. The book is especially disturbing for Catholics, because it implies that Catholicism, for all that its young adherents have “open, friendly faces”, is no longer vital enough to offer an alternative to Islam. The once great religion that powered 1,000 years of high civilisation during the Middle Ages is, in Houellebecq’s vision, enfeebled.

Far from embodying an alternative to Islam, most Catholics will probably be absorbed willingly into it.


Benedict XVI’s analysis shares striking similarities with Houellebecq’s.

Both reject the rampant individualism, and moral relativism, of the “soixante-huitards”. Both believe that what ultimately results from extreme self-centredness is violence. Sexual narcissists, for example, the heirs to the Marquis de Sade – pure materialists, who have abandoned all moral restraints and totally severed the connection between sex and love – will seek ever more sadistic pleasures. “In a sense,” says Houellebecq in his earlier novel Atomised [the UK title for The Elementary Particles], “the serial killers of the 1990s were the spiritual children of the hippies of the 1960s.”

One of the (many) differences between Houellebecq and Benedict XVI, however, is that the novelist only diagnoses the disease; he does not offer a cure. This is the job of the Church and its teachers, bishops and so on, a job at least as pressing as talking about climate change. In 2012 Pope Benedict told the Vatican’s Justice and Peace council that we ought to “dethrone the modern idols” of individualism, materialistic consumerism and technocracy. Replace them with “fraternity and gratuitousness”, he said, and “solidaristic love”. That sounds rather technical but it’s simple really; he means “love one another; even as I have loved you” (John 13:34). In this, Jesus’s new commandment, Pope Benedict says, “lies the secret of every fully human and peaceful social life, as well as the renewal of politics and of national and world institutions”.

From a Christian point of view, it does not matter if a man gains the whole world if he loses his soul. We could have become as rich and as powerful as any society ever was, and we could have driven poverty, disease, and suffering more to the margins of human experience than any society ever did — and we could still lose our souls. Of course a materialist can only measure progress by material standards. By that measure, we are doing better than ever.

But this is deceptive. As I’ve said, I believe that history gives us plenty of examples of societies and even civilizations ruined by wealth. There is no reason to think we will be any different. For example, we continue the 50-year project of destroying the family, and even now destroying what it means to be male and female, and we call it progress. Money and technology will not protect us from the consequences of this folly.

From a spiritual point of view, there is much more reason for concern. As I write in The Benedict Option, the Christian church is much weaker in the US than most Christians realize. It’s weaker in that younger people are falling away from the faith in record numbers, and it’s weaker in terms of what Christians believe, with reference to historical Christian orthodoxy. The faith of most American Christians today will not survive the time of testing upon us, because they do not have it within themselves, their families, and their church communities to do so. My book is meant as a wake-up call to this reality, and as a spur to Christians to start doing the things necessary to prepare for the present and coming ordeals.

A reader this morning sent me these words from Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, in a speech to a Eucharistic Conference in Philadelphia in 1976, two years prior to becoming Pope:

We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel.

“We must be prepared to undergo great trials in the not-too-distant future; trials that will require us to be ready to give up even our lives, and a total gift of self to Christ and for Christ. Through your prayers and mine, it is possible to alleviate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it. . . .How many times has the renewal of the Church been brought about in blood! It will not be different this time.

Stark words, to put it mildly. If you think the opening to The Benedict Option was alarmist, how do you judge the words of St. John Paul II? For contemporary Christians in the West, optimism is untenable, but hope is mandatory. We had better be about digging down deep and discovering the wellspring of hope.

So, while I believe there are non-religious reasons to be skeptical of the New Optimism, there really is no reason why faithful Christians should be gulled by it. The spiritual matters more than the material.

UPDATE: A reader writes to say that he has just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment:

I was struck at the end of the book when the narrator recounts Raskolnikov’s apocalyptic dream. Raskolnikov, of course, had murdered two women earlier in the novel out of a misguided attempt to become the Extraordinary Man (what Nietzche would later call the ubermensch). The dream is sort of a horror show of what would happen if everybody embraced this nihilism and believed himself to be an Extraordinary Man. I’ve bolded a part that stood out to me because of its description of our time. But I am also struck by the solution to the plague of nihilism in the dream: essentially, it is the Benedict Option.

One of the things I noted in one of the discussions that we had was that nihilism and the postmodern rejection of reality is the natural outgrowth of the Cartesian model. Descartes’s attempt to save reality by locating it within cognition (cogito ergo sum). But as the Raskolnikov character demonstrates in Crime and Punishment, the cognitive self is not necessarily the unity that Descartes had hoped; and with its fracturing, and entire reality based upon his model has fractured as well.

Anyhow, here is the relevant passage. It is in Epilogue II on page 461-462 of the third edition of the Nortion Critical Edition translated by Coulson:

“He had dreamt in his illness that the whole world was condemned to fall victim to a terrible, unknown pestilence what was moving on Europe out of the depths of Asia. All were destined to perish, except a chosen few, a very few. There had appeared a new strain of trichinae, microscopic creatures parasitic in men’s bodies. But these creatures were endowed with intelligence and will. People who were infected immediately became like men possessed and out of their minds. But never, never, had any men thought themselves so wise and so unshakable in the truth as those who were attacked. Never had they considered their judgement, their scientific deductions, or their moral convictions and creeds more infallible. Whole communities, whole cities and nations, were infected and went mad. All were full of anxiety, and none could understand any other; each thought he was the sole repository of truth and was tormented when he looked at the others, beat his beast, wrung his hands, and wept. They did not know how or whom to judge and could not agree what was evil and what was good. They did not know whom to condemn and whom to acquit. Men killed one another in senseless rage, They banded together against one another in great armies, but when the armies were already on the march they began to fight among themselves, the armies disintegrated, the soldiers fell on their neighbours, they thrust and cut, they killed and ate one another. In the towns, the tocsin sounded all day long, and called out all the people, but who had summoned them and why nobody knew, and everybody was filled with alarm. The most ordinary callings were abandoned, because every man put forward his own ideas, his own improvements, and there was no agreement; the labourers forsook the land. In places men congregated in groups, agreed together on some action, swore not to disband–and immediately began to do something quite different from what they themselves had proposed, accused one anther, fought and killed each other. Conflagrations were started, famine set in. All things and all men were perishing. The plague grew and spread wider and wider. In the whole world only a few could save themselves, a chosen handful of the pure, who were destined to found a new race of men and a new life, to renew and cleanse the earth; but nobody had ever seen them anywhere, nobody had head their voices or their words.”



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