In a recent ad for his new book column, “Why do we need the Humanities?” Rod Dreher waxes philosophical, as he is wont to do, about the sad, sad state of our souls:
“We as a society have lost the sense that within the study of art, literature, and the humanities, there are things vital to shaping our souls, and to discovering and taking into ourselves what it means to be fully human. That Homer, Dante, Milton, Cervantes, Michelangelo, and all these great men saw more deeply into the human experience than almost any other, and came back to tell us what they learned, and to help us see what they saw. In the end, I think it comes down to a deadening of the soul among our people — that is, a sense that there is no need to learn or to experience anything beyond what we desire to learn and experience, because our desires are self-justifying, and do not need cultivation.”
I don’t know to whom Dreher refers when he writes “our people” and then again when he writes “we”. He does not, I assume, include himself or his readers, nor the potential buyers of his new book about Dante; nor do I feel included either, since the last time I checked on my soul it was still alive and kicking (as are the souls of all my friends and acquaintances). On the other hand, I haven’t read Homer or Cervantes lately, and I’ve never read Dante or Milton—perhaps my soul, unbeknownst to me, is malnourished? Perhaps I don’t know a hawk from a handsaw or “what it means to be fully human” from second base?
Dreher’s larger argument, as usual, is about the darkness that is descending on our increasingly dead souls:
“We keep returning on this blog, in various threads, to an argument in which a number of people sincerely don’t understand why so many of us traditionalist-minded folks see the present moment as a time of darkness, or at least not a time of uncomplicated enlightenment. After all, we are healthier and wealthier than at any time in history, and many of the indicators of social well-being (e.g., the crime rate) show that we are safer and more at peace, and no generations have had more personal liberty to define their own lives as do Americans living now. How can this not be enough?
“A time of darkness”: compared to what, and compared to when? What idyllic era does Dreher have in mind, exactly? 15th-century Europe? Victorian England? 1950s America?
“Well, let me ask you: there may be no healthier (in terms of the body), wealthier, safer, more peaceful, and free than Beverly Hills. Would you describe the people living there as at the pinnacle of human history? The Kardashians have it all; they are so rich and free that one of their number is changing his sex, because he can — and some call it, without irony, and in fact with enthusiasm, a superb example of the American Dream. I think there is something to that description, insofar as America has become all about liberating individual desire from the chains of the past, of prescription, of limits, of tradition, of any bounds.”
Talk about loading the dice! If Rod Dreher wants to present the Kardashians as exemplars of the American Dream, he’s free to do so, just as I’m free to present Tomas Torquemada as an exemplar of medieval Christianity.2 In any case, having placed the celebrity fish into his barrel, Dreher takes aim:
But that is a nightmare to me, and not because I think it’s yucky for Bruce Jenner to choose to become a woman. It’s a nightmare for the same reason that Ulysses’s inspiring speech to his crew in Inferno XXVI is such a deadly deception, cloaking something base in the rhetoric of nobility. It’s the oldest lie in the world: Ye shall be as gods. To read Dante is to become aware of how the human heart deceives itself, and the mind’s eye loses its ability to see.
Who among us considers the Kardashians “nobility,” much less “gods”? Who is deceived (as opposed to entertained and/or horrified) by them and by their antics? How do they, or how does their popularity, prove anything at all about our souls? The Kardashians are not a new phenomenon, they’re an old phenomenon dressed up (or undressed) in modern guise: they are moral and cultural spectacles, train wrecks at whom ordinary people (who would never want to be them) gaze in fascinated horror.
I simply don’t understand how it is that conservatives, on the one hand, repeatedly insist that human nature is unchanged since Adam and that the human condition is essentially unchanged since the Fall.3 On the other hand, they keep telling us how much worse everything is these days, as if we are the recreation of Sodom and Gomorrah; they decry how much more benighted we are than our ancestors, and how we have fallen (yet again!) from some great height achieved at some unspecified time in our past. That, to put it politely, is nonsense. Ours is not, to be sure, a time of “uncomplicated enlightenment”; but then, there never has been such a time except in myth and fable. What makes our time darker than any other? Of all people, conservatives, with their lower expectations based on their belief in Original Sin, should show the least surprise (not to mention shock and consternation) at the continuing foibles and follies of human beings.
In the end, Dreher recommends “the humanities” on the grounds that they can help us become, um, more human:
To immerse oneself in humanities is to become deeply acquainted with the most enduring wisdom of our species, to encounter what is best and what is worst in man, to learn to place ourselves within the Great Narrative of humanity, and to discover how we can and should write our own chapter, not as passive barbarians — rich in health, wealth, and liberty though we may be — propelled through life by our own disordered desires, but rather as intelligent men and women who aspire to live by the better angels of our natures.
I have no quarrel with that, although unlike Mr. Dreher I don’t think of myself or my fellow citizens as “barbarians” (passive or otherwise). I think we are all of us aspiring, even struggling, “to live by the better angels of our nature,” as is Rod Dreher. We’re not necessarily succeeding, but why would a Christian like Dreher expect us to, sinful and disordered as we are?4 I’m in no position to judge but, honestly, I’d say we’re doing about as well as anyone could expect—given, you know, that we’re only human.
2 I bet you didn’t know (and I bet Rod Dreher does know) that Torquemada has gotten a bad rap. The Grand Inquisitor, known as “the Hammer of Heretics,” was actually a voice of moderation in the Spanish Inquisition, or so some say; for instance, he insisted that an alleged heretic must be accused by two witnesses! He also allegedly improved conditions in the Spanish prisons.
3 That’s not quite right, of course; Christians believe “the human condition” has been liberated and redeemed by Jesus. But Christians also believe we still have to endure this same old veil of tears, this City of Man that can never be mistaken for the City of God. We are pilgrims on a journey to a better place and all that, but our condition in this mortal coil is still pitiful.
4 To be fair, in another recent column Mr. Dreher makes the much more encouraging point that the Bible itself is filled with sinful people behaving badly and yet beloved of God nonetheless: "There is never anything simple and straightforward about our relationships with others. We are mysteries relating to mysteries, and, for Christians, that relationship is mediated by Mystery." Amen to that, brother. Like most Christians--heck, like most people--Rod Dreher seems to alternate between righteous judgment of godless reprobates and heathens, and humble admission of universal imperfection and the need for forgiveness. Of the two messages, I'm more inclined to listen to the latter.