In his book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes between the enchanted and disenchanted worlds. The pre-modern person lived in an enchanted world where meaning was not created but rather found in things themselves—the world was full, sometimes frighteningly full, of meaning. A bone fragment from a saint retained the sanctity and curative power of the saint, rogation days were particularly good days for planting crops and ensured a bountiful harvest, or a procession of the Virgin’s image could drive evil spirits away, for things themselves possessed their own meanings and powers, and persons lived alongside those meanings rather than creating them. Consider the popular beliefs associated with Candlemas in the late medieval period whereby the candles themselves were thought capable of protecting people from storm, sickness, and devil, or, if used by witches, of bringing harm and torment. A culture that believed in such things was likely to have a stance towards the world and its things which assumed that the world was “charged,” full of meaning, and thus to be respected, and sometimes manipulated, according to the understood rules of that world.
Things are quite different for the contemporary, postmodern Western person, occupying a disenchanted world, an uncharged world, where things are thought to mean only according to the meanings we provide to things.
So while on a given day in either 1450 or 2011 a person could alike feel irritated or angry or greedy, still the conditions of belief have changed so substantially between that charged religious world and this disenchanted secular world that the meanings of those stances are quite different. If one was alienated and estranged from the ordering of the universe in 1450, one was alienated, in a very real sense, from the ordering chosen by God; if one is alienated from the universe in 2011, one is alienated from nothing really, just a coldly impersonal set of forces. The historical and social situation has changed the meaning of our possible stances towards the world, and, correspondingly, to the possible meanings of our world.
To be a human is always to face the world with a particular stance and from a particular position. Unlike the dispassionately staring camera, we dwell in the world in a variety of moods and places, changing not just ourselves but our worlds of meaning as we do so. If my stance towards the world is one of eager and passionate interest, I tend to find the world sparkling and captivating. If I rather aggressively seek profit and gain, I tend to find the world and its inhabitants as resources or competitors. If I am bored, the world will fail to engage.
This is true of each and every person, and since each of us takes a particular stance at a given time, we will not always inhabit similar worlds of meaning—yours is now captivating, mine is now an irritant—even while we may be quite near each other in space and time, perhaps even in the presence of each other. Still, despite the particularity, as social and historical beings we might expect certain tendencies to emerge whereby persons in one cultural space, even when maintaining their own personal differences, share a vision of the world that tends not to be found in other cultural spaces.
I suggest that the stance toward the world most evident in the historical and social space of contemporary Western life is a stance of boredom. Many of us no longer find the world beautiful, or good, or of worth, and since the world and the things of the world are quite worthless in themselves, they bore us. Of course, since we too are inhabitants of this world without worth, we find almost no worth in other persons either, or in ourselves. At the same time, many find this boredom impossible to give up—we like this stance, we like the boredom—because the meaninglessness of the world allows us to treat it and others and ourselves exactly as we wish. We are free! Since the world, for us, does not have the weight of glory, we owe it nothing and can do with it precisely as we wish. But a culture of freedom without truth, a culture where freedom is unchecked by the good of being, ends up as a culture of death. Our bored culture is a culture actively engaging in a revolt against limits, place, order, and we are willing to harm and kill our world, each other—especially the weakest among us—and ourselves in a pique of freedom.
To live in a disenchanted, unencumbered world of freedom intoxicates us, to be sure, but it also casts us adrift existentially, morally, and spiritually. “What are we to do?” “What are we for?” “What is the good life?”—these and other questions are complicated in a culture where freedom itself is a final authority, and freedom that cannot be thickly defined because of the fear that definition would limit, define, and spell an end to freedom. We simply don’t know why we exist, and we hate any answer which might compel us to limit our empty freedom and actually attain the good.
Freedom is for us, now, an idol, and our conception of freedom is so absolute that we increasingly perceive any limits to be illicit and impermissible—I think of the old slogan from 1968, “it is forbidden to forbid.” So absolute are the demands of our new god that even the limits of place, of body, of community, of our own human nature, are thought a trap. Our new freedom, this freedom from dwelling in the density of being, is a prison—a prison of freedom. Flattened and unhooked from reality, our lives can seem arbitrary and insignificant, and only an increasingly shrill insistence of our own significance remains—an insistence bearing no weight. This weightlessness, this unbearable lightness of being, results in the torpor of meaningless, the spiritually enervating results of a life considered not worth having or living.
R. J. Snell is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University.