The View From 1776
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
The Sordidness of Liberal-Progressivism
There is more to life than sensual gratification.
Reading Anthony Daniels’s At the Forest’s Edge in the New Criterion website, one is reminded of the superficiality of the liberal-progressive philosophical foundation.
Mr. Daniels ruminates about the analyses of modernity expressed by Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents and by Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses. Both works were published in 1930, when liberal-progressivism was becoming ascendant in the United States.
Both are products of the materialistic philosophy of the 19th century that repudiated God and spiritual religion, proclaiming that only the tangible and material elements of everyday life here on earth had any real influence upon human conduct and the course of history.
Humans in that philosophy are merely bundles of nerves and muscle that respond positively to sensual pleasure and negatively to pain. Intellectuals, therefore, in theory, can structure political societies that will create universal happiness and harmony, effecting paradise on earth. It was this promise that gave us the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany.
Freud looked clinically at individual cases, concluding that the discontents of modern civilization arise from the conflict between man’s sensual (primarily sexual) urges and the restrictions imposed by Judeo-Christian morality. He came down in favor of following the sensual urges in order to have a happy life.
Ortega’s view encompassed the whole of European society in the post-World War I era. Mr. Daniels writes:
The picture Ortega draws of the mass man is not an attractive or flattering one, but Ortega is not a snob who simply excoriates the appalling habits and tastes of those below him in the social scale. For him, mass man is the man who has no transcendent purpose in life, who lives in an eternal present moment which he wants to make pleasurable in a gross and sensual way, who thinks that ever-increasing consumption is the end of life, who goes from distraction to distraction, who is prey to absurd fashions, who never thinks deeply and who, above all, has a venomous dislike of any other way of living but his own, which he instinctively feels as a reproach. He will not recognize his betters; he is perfectly satisfied to be as he is…Life for mass man is not a biography, but a series of moments, each unconnected with the next, and all deprived of larger meaning or purpose.
Many of Freud’s ideas have been repudiated in recent decades, but Ortega’s picture remains distressingly accurate.
Both Freud and Ortega were atheists and regarded spiritual religion as ignorance to be banished by what in the United States John Dewey called progressive education.
What Freud and Ortega would not see was that the socialistic materialism spawned by the French Revolution was the true source of civilization’s discontents and the banality and crassness of mass man.
By initiating the destruction of Christianity in Europe, the French Revolutionary version of the Age of Enlightenment effectively decapitated civilization, leaving one-dimensional humans with bodies but little wisdom.