Dear heaven, not another one. That was my reaction when a review copy of Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World arrived in the mail. Not another culture-war manifesto. I’m a conservative and love those books, but they have become more ubiquitous than the swarming deer population in Maryland where I live.
A week later, after I had finished Icarus Fallen, I felt like I had just seen “The Passion of the Christ”—twice. This is simply the best book about the problems of modern man since Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcississm. It is so crammed with truth and insight that, as someone once said of Chesterton, every line deserves a review.
The author of Icarus Fallen is Chantal Delsol, a professor of philosophy at the Université de Marne-la-Vallée near Paris. Her thesis here is that man has become something of a Sisyphus (my metaphor, not hers). Having pushed the rock of his utopian dreams to the top of the hill, he has had it roll back down over him. The nightmarish ideologies of Nazism and communism, as well as the lesser sins of consumerism and the innumerable other –isms of the 20th century, have all failed to bring happiness. But the longing for utopia still prevails. And unlike previous generations, who lived through wars and depressions and were on close terms with death, modern man has attempted to cocoon himself in a nest of technological and physical comfort. Thus he is appalled when faced with a grim reality: despite all our efforts, human nature has not changed. Tragedy is still a part of life.
Rather than admit this uncomfortable truth, the man of today has erected new orthodoxies: there will be no disappointment, pain, or suffering, or somebody will get sued. Rights are ever expanding and sacred—“we suppose,” Delsol writes, “that anything that is tolerated should be facilitated or even encouraged.” Freedom is not to be curtailed in any way because there is no such thing as behavior that is normative for anyone. Absolutes lead to tyranny. This Delsol describes as a “movement from essential tolerance, based on an idea of the equal dignity of persons, toward a procedural tolerance or relativism, based on the idea that all lifestyles are of equal value.”
Icarus Fallen does not name names; Delsol assumes that the reader will recognize the ubiquity in our culture of what she calls “the clandestine ideology of our time.” There is no need to finger individuals, she asserts, when the theology of political correctness is in the very air we breathe. It is its own orthodoxy, with a specific idea of what man is—a person cut off from and not obligated to any tradition from the past, someone who can pursue any kind of happiness as long as it does not affect others, a man whose entire concept of self-actualization is based on ever-expanding rights. To say otherwise is heresy. “In our societies,” she writes, “there are a certain number of political, moral and other opinions that the individual contests at the point of being marginalized.” One must be for “the equal representation of both sexes in all spheres of power.” We must consider delinquency the result of poverty. We must “hate all moral order …[we] must equate the Catholic Church with the Inquisition, but never equate communism with its gulags.” The virtuous are to be suspect, because “invariably they must be disguising hypocritical vices.” The clandestine ideology “aims to equalize the value of all behavior.”
Faith in absolute personal autonomy, commingled with the endless expansion of rights, is perhaps the most entrenched belief of all in post-Christian America. No one dares question the dogma that the point of human existence is to expand human freedom. But Delsol calls attention to a basic truth that escapes even many conservatives: boundless freedom can actually make us less human. “[L]iberty, when exercised without limits, distorts and disorients the personality. And the individual, when excessively protected, is stunted in his growth …. Growing up with no other limit than the financial capacities of the nation, and in general even beyond them, rights viewed as entitlements ultimately make a society impotent; paradoxically, some gifts eventually impoverish.”
The more we spend on social programs the more the public demands that they be expanded. As a result, people have become not more generous, spiritual and humane, but ever more greedy and closed off. And we have become, according to Delsol, hysterically intolerant of tragedy and even of limits. “When one is faced with danger, one learns why one lives … entire peoples become known for their heroic deeds as well as their acts of cowardice.” Limits point to the ultimate limit, death, which focuses the mind to the importance of life. Yet when the reality of the tragic is denied, and thus too the vitality of decisions made in light of eternity, man becomes “the plaything of circumstance.”
Delsol is no ideologue roughly demanding that we blindly return to the old ways, embracing them without question. She defends, for example, the fear of certainty as largely reasonable, at least when based on the fact that certainties about what constitutes the truth have in the past led to pogroms, inquisitions, and even the Holocaust. Yet she admits that man by his very nature hunts for truth and meaning, for something he is willing to die for. Thus we find ourselves stuck: by nature we long for what Delsol calls “reference points” that direct us towards absolute verities, yet by ideology we are suspect of anything that can provide the answers.
These days, Delsol notes, we would consider Ignatius Loyola and others who forfeited liberty for the truth to be “demented.” In any latter-day liberal democracy, “all that can be said is that nothing is objectively true, since the object of desire resists all refutation, and tolerance has no place where desire reigns supreme. This sacralization [of rights], however, does not establish a truth in the philosophical sense, but rather the certitude of a general and unequivocal well-being.” Democracy as it is understood today “allows only for the certitude of tolerance, which is easily seen as the certitude of incertitude. In other words, democracy finds truth awkward, because truth always creates obligations, while democracy prospers in freedom.”
Delsol’s chapters on political correctness include some of the best writing on the topic ever committed to paper. Who would have thought that anyone could wring new life from the topic, much less make it sing? “Dominated by emotion,” she writes,
[O]ur era overflows with treacly sentiment. It is almost as if the feelings that were once associated with a certain type of piety have contaminated the whole population …. Seeking the good while remaining indifferent to the truth gives rise to a morality of sentimentality. Reactive judgment, deprived of thoughtful reflection, engenders fanatical emotion and an absolute priority of feeling over thought. In fact, it is not actually a question of sentiment, since sentiment supposes a historical and rationally consistent background. We are dealing here less with a reaction of the heart than a gut reaction.
Anyone who recalls the controversy over “The Passion of the Christ” knows exactly what Delsol is talking about. Yet Icarus Fallen has a flaw. It is the same one that afflicted the late, brilliant Christopher Lasch, whose style and philosophy are so similar to Delsol’s: like Lasch, she lacks answers. Delsol and Lasch diagnose modern ills with preternatural precision, yet both are reluctant, or unable, to prescribe a cure. Towards the end of his life Lasch seemed at last to find an answer, or at least a system that embraced man’s fallen nature and the danger of utopian fantasies, in Christianity—at least if his last book, The Revolt of the Elites, is an example. At the end of that book Lasch made an observation that Delsol echoes time and again in Icarus Fallen: “the key to happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy.”
This could have been written by Ignatius Loyola, whom Delsol favorably cites in her book. The idea points to a Christian acceptance of limits and the notion that, as Lasch wrote, “human happiness may not be the be-all and end-all of God’s plan.” We must, in effect, rein ourselves in. We must realize that we are human, that the reality of death hangs over every life, and that if we deny these things and attempt to achieve utopia by continually expanding rights and accumulating more and more toys we will warp and distort the very humanity we ostensibly are trying to achieve.
Delsol does not go as far as Lasch and, regrettably, does not provide concrete proposals at all Her prescription for what vexes us is a call for “a new anthropology,” which is never very clearly defined, and the acceptance of our human limits—limits that we must admit will never change. (When asked to summarize the thesis of his massive work, Christopher Lasch answered, “limits and hope.”)
Delsol does argue for a revival of the idea that a plurality in a democracy can come up with a workable concept of the good and apply it to society without violating anyone’s rights—however, she ignores the role of activist judges in subverting that very plurality, thwarting the new paradigm she envisions. She is a penetrating critic of modern democracy, and while she does not propose its abolition or even drastic change, she does call for the “transformation” of our system into something that more closely reflects reality and the good. Unfortunately she goes no further, leaving the reader to wonder what, in concrete terms, this transformation might look like.
Still, if Icarus Fallen provides no vaccine for the modern malady, it is nevertheless the keenest diagnosis to date of what ails Western man.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship and If It Ain’t Got That Swing