Given the state of things, the temptation to succumb to moral panic is understandable. It would be easy to conclude that both our culture and civilization are wobbling, with culture understood as a set of judgments of value and civilization indicating the systems of economy and infrastructure.
Our culture has long promoted sexual revolution, abortion, gender ideology, family collapse, religious indifferentism, ideological conformity, transgender contagion, and a seemingly endless litany of confusion and decadence. Now, moreover, cities and states fail to maintain public safety and health while roads crater, bridges sag, electric grids fail, wildfires burn out of control, and the water supply is either tainted or simply disappearing. Culture has long seemed moribund, and now civilization teeters as well.
Given the uneasy mood, it’s understandable why calls for patience, moderation, or hopefulness might appear unresponsive, even ridiculous; when the ship is capsizing, lifeboats are needed rather more than another symposium. Perhaps. Even so, panic doesn’t get lifeboats safely away.
I’ve come to appreciate the thought of Michael Oakeshott, often returning to his collection, Rationalism in Politics. Particularly insightful is his comment that the rationalist character betrays “a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.” Rationalists look for perfection, for problems to be solved, for uniform order, and want them immediately and completely. Incompleteness and the shoddy indecency of life offend them, and they demand the placidity and stability of eternity even now.
Conversely, non-rationalists, like me, don’t look for perfection in the human realm—let alone in politics—acknowledging the crooked timber of humanity. Also, finitude and freedom are the very conditions of the humane and the decent, even if the risk of freedom’s misuse accompanies these conditions. We are human—too human, sometimes—and fallen, and yet, as noted by Dostoevsky in “The Grand Inquisitor,” our well-being is thwarted if order is provided at freedom’s expense. We cannot be free without the real possibility of ignorance, confusion, mistake, and wickedness.
I offer here no ode to freedom for freedom’s sake. I, like many others, tire of those who wink at or defend the grotesque, the indecent, or the immoral in the name of a misguided freedom. I, like others, recoil at the so-called “blessings of liberty” when those “blessings” degrade the souls and maim the bodies of the young. I’m a moral realist, affirming moral truths exist and can be known. Thus better and worse ways of acting, reasonable and unreasonable societies, and virtuous and vicious persons also exist. Authentic liberty is a freedom for excellence, the capacity and disposition to act well, to do as we ought, not merely as we will. Autonomy as such is not even remotely a good.
Yet the law alone cannot make us good; only acting persons, through their choices, make themselves evil or good. Certainly law and social norms can be deranged and fail to provide public reasons to train and educate the individual in properly choosing. But the person becomes good or evil only by means of their free act. There is, quite simply, no other possibility for creatures such as we are. No matter how maddening, how frustrating, how exasperating that fact.
Thus, the Second Vatican Council maintains a truth known by both revelation and reason, and which cannot be otherwise, namely:
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons—that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility—that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it. . . .
Or, to return to Oakeshott’s formulation, both reason and revelation asks us to resist the rationalist’s disposition to distrust time, impatiently hunger for eternity, or give in to irritable nervousness when dealing with the incomplete and imperfect.
Rationalism and Fundamentalism
The term “rationalist” is perhaps confusing, suggesting Descartes or Spinoza or a particular theory of knowledge or metaphysics, whereas Oakeshott intends something broader. Another term that suggests itself is “fundamentalist.” But that also bears too much baggage, for I don’t mean those who affirm the basic tenets of Christianity against modernists, let alone a particular demographic of American evangelicals or adherents of Islam. Instead, I mean a certain tenor of mind and character, one disposed to need certainty and fixity but is bothered, fearful, or irritated by impermanence, change, incompleteness, and time.
Such a character has a rage for order and cannot but suffer an anxious repulsion for disorder. Even the partially ordered outrages them for its impurity. Wokeness, for instance, is a type of rationalism or a fundamentalism, and any deviation from its “orthodoxy” must be ripped out root and branch, leaving no dissent or hesitation to fester and corrupt. The impure, the unbeliever, the heterodox, even the hesitant all are thought contagious, a threat to be eradicated. But there can be no just coercion when it comes to the adherence to truth—that is impossible and a contradiction.
Whether we like it or not, we are left with people as they are: free and yet still responsible to search for the truth and live in harmony with the truth as they understand it, and responsible to properly form their intellect and conscience to appropriately exercise that freedom. But freedom it remains, even when performed miserably—inattentively, unintelligently, unreasonably, and irresponsibly. We are left with people as they happen to be, which can be disappointing, to say the least. Of course, law helps train their conscience and choice, but law cannot replace choice and maintain moral agency.
Just now, there is too much panic. Too many indulge their fear of contagion, their purity tests; too many have given themselves over to what Oakeshott calls rationalism, that fundamentalist cast of mind and soul that hates the human condition and wishes we were gods outside of time and change, ignorance and conversion, repentance and forgiveness.
We remain just what we are: dependent rational animals, limited creatures within space and time, prone to error and confusion. But this reality, this impoverishment, is the condition of our freedom, our being human. This panic, irritation, and reluctance to forgive reveals a distaste for humanity. It betrays what Walker Percy among others has called “angelism.” I see this as a pathology of mind or spirit, and it is has infected the left and right, liberal and conservative, believer and unbeliever.
Habits of Hope
The antidote is not confusion or skepticism or uncertainty; rather, the cure is hope. Moral panic reveals despair at the state of things. Craving the fullness of the kingdom of heaven now, but upon discovering decadence and depravity—and who can deny our time’s troubles—too many respond with the sadness of despair. Despair cannot be overcome with certainty or eternity, but only by hope.
For the rationalist or fundamentalist character, hope cannot but seem inadequate, even corny. The world is in flames and you want me “to hope?” How quaint. But hope is not blind, or merely optimistic, nor is hope something we churn up in ourselves as a kind of subjective attitude. Hope, rather, is a virtue. It is a state that perfects us, makes us well, capable of thinking, living, and acting in the freedom of excellence, as flourishing human beings.
As noted in the encyclical Spe salvi of Benedict XVI, hope has become reduced to its “subjective sense, as an expression of an interior attitude,” a “disposition of the subject,” rather than a genuine virtue. Virtues bring an affective training and expression with them, of course, but virtues are never reduced to a temperament or an attitude. Reducing hope to an airy atmosphere makes hope somewhat disreputable, a kind of silliness. As a virtue, however, hope is a perfection of human intellect, will, and disposition, an ability to live a fully human life in keeping with our flourishing and full well-being. To lack hope is to lack humanity, to be incomplete in the training of our personhood.
It is a common temptation to attempt to replace virtue with a hack of some sort. Immoderate in appetite? Try this diet pill. Unfriendly and impersonal? Here’s a book on how to win friends. Without hope in this world? Not a problem, here’s some program of political or social action that is guaranteed to make things well. And if that program fails, we have a back-up plan.
Of course, when such plans invariably fail to overcome the human condition, excuses are made—“if only we had more money,” or “if only the Founders had written differently.” Or the counsels of despair kick in, hacks are abandoned, and we conclude “there’s nothing to be done.” As a result, we see an oscillating cycle of extravagantly optimistic plans coupled with counsels of despair and panic. Hope avoids either, knowing full well that the human condition will never be resolved through politics and, still, that we remain agents capable of acting with intelligence to improve the commonwealth.
Ordinary action moves from experience, to intelligence, to judgment, to choice; hope is the sort of virtue that starts at the end of that list and governs the lower from the higher, so to speak. That is, the person of hope will make choices in keeping with hope (rather than despair), and their judgments will be in keeping with sound choice, their intelligence in keeping with sound judgment, and their experience in keeping with intelligence. The higher governs and directs the lower. For those oscillating between optimistic plans and despair, on the other hand, the higher also governs the lower, albeit in a mode bereft of virtue and thus distorted and irrational.
All the virtues are needed at all times, but hope is perhaps especially needed in our own. Don’t panic.