If a society based in liberty is to ever blossom and be sustained, it must be based on a humble uncertainty about the course of human history; rather than jumping from beginning to end—from the primordial state of nature to sublime visions of an anarchic, utopic future—the living story of liberty will be written as a balancing act between the book ends.
We may have faith in the political advancement of liberty. We may very well hold an informed conviction that liberty is the best way to bring about prosperity and flourishing, but such a faith should always be a bit uneasy.
Doubt is the friend, not the enemy, of a hardy and healthy faith.
As the Scottish sociologist and historian Adam Ferguson remarked, “Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”
Societies may rise or fall in their own way unique way, but no matter the civilization in question, homo sapiens are always at war with the austerity of nature, playing out the eternal drama that springs forth from the innate tensions of the human condition. Though nature can be considered a beautiful, eternal mother who grants us our borrowed time here on earth, she can also be suspected of vengeance.
Much like Euripides’ Medea, mother nature does not hesitate in slaughtering her children to prove her independence, especially if she has been scorned. We come from nature and we will return to her. As it says in the Christian creation myth, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Left solely to nature, our time truly does seem to be borrowed; our lives meaningless, fragmented, nasty, brutish, and short; our deaths inescapable. Thus, in the face of this tragic state, we interlace our mortal coils with poetry and myth, hoping to either make sense of nature’s retribution or escape it entirely through supernatural salvation. In so doing, the most important things in our lives become the narratives we weave for ourselves. Our deepest held convictions and beliefs are first found in the fabric of our fictions.
Most of us, individually, ponder the story of how we began, how we will end, and what’s the purpose of it all, but rare is the person who can stomach the mystery of human existence on his own and, as Nietzsche suggests, “act the whole drama of Fall and Redemption to its end.” For most of us, society is required to flesh out our existential musings, as society serves as a shelter against our nature and brings our fragmented individual knowledge together into a collective whole. Society then begins to takes on a life of its own, projecting itself onto all of human history.
This is where the trouble begins.
Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrificed God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world–immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline. A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.
Voegelin claims in The New Science that whereas the “Gnostic” movements of the 20th century (Marxism, Nazism, and Progressivism) were animated by the secularized symbolism of Christian eschatology, such movements lacked respect for the uncertainty and limitations underlying all human knowledge. Accordingly, the modern gnostics rebelled against the “fallen” natural world, and tried to bring about heaven on earth. They managed only to create fresh hells.
Voegelin’s warning against such “Gnostic” movements would go on to be popularized by William F. Buckley Jr. with the slogan, don’t immanentize the eschaton! However, I would like to amend Mr. Buckley’s slogan. If we are truly uncertain about the future of humanity, let the slogan now read, forget the eschaton!
Voegelin does not deny the immense material progress delivered by the modern age, but he worries such a civilization can both progress and decline at the same time—but only for a given time. Eventually, tyranny is the price of an arrogant faith.
Whether a faith in God, Man, Society, Science, Art, or Liberty, our convictions should never relinquish the strife of doubt. When a culture becomes infused with a sense of inevitability, our collective imagination gets the best of us. Rather, than solely speculating on our own individual lives, “society” begins to speculate on the trajectory of an abstract human history and to regard such speculation as gospel. Our faith becomes hubris. “Progress” becomes defined in certain terms and formal processes, often tyrannical and apocalyptic when put into practice.
We forget the uncertainty underlying our innate creativity and scorn mother nature in search of a new bride of our own creation. It is one thing to battle nature step by step, but to supplant her completely in one fell swoop? That is the epitome of the proverb, “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
When successful societies forget their metaphysical musings are basically volatile fictions—best guesses full of uncertainty and prone to tumult—they run the risk of taking their own self-serving eschatology too seriously and becoming subject to the backlash of human nature’s dionysian wrath.
Thus, the task before us is to come to grips with the fact that human truth is creative and that our innate creativity destroys forms as it creates forms anew, forever tethering our births to our eventual deaths.
So, as creative beings, why not see our speculations on history and progress as works of art?
Charles Bukowski’s terse poem “art”—which shows a striking similarity to Voegelin’s claim that the price of progress is “the death of the spirit”—grasps this truth about the climactic creative nature of man:
The poem suggests spirit and form are at odds. It mirrors the archetypal tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian as well as the battle of flux and stasis expressed by the proto-philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides. But order and chaos, just like birth and death, are not in opposition to one another; they are inextricably bound together. Seemingly mutually exclusive, these threads wrap around one another to create a unifying, abiding series of tensions. The apparent paradox is really a deeply abiding harmony.
As such, neither an artist nor a society can long last if too reliant upon cold forms, upon the surreal, contemplative repose of Apollo. This is not to say one should refrain entirely from using forms to order one’s purpose, but as the world changes and progress becomes manifest, the burden falls upon the artist to remain dynamic and search for new forms of expression to balance out our dionysian impulses, i.e. our emotional chaos, our primitive urges, our hidden spiritual drives.
We must have had a beginning and will one day have an end, we tell ourselves, but let it be said: there is no certain primordial event or ultimate end from our limited perspective. The only certainty we may possess is our creative uncertainty—an ongoing process of creation in an ever-changing world—whereby we perform the symbolic act of breathing artistic spirit into tradition, creating life out of the mundane clay of cliche, and steering the dionysian impulse towards sustaining progress rather than destroying it.
To help drive home the moral, I leave you with a slice of pop music from Prince’s 1985 album Around the World in a Day, the gospel ballad, “The Ladder.”
The lyrics partially read:
Once upon a time in the land of Sinaplenty
There lived a king who didn’t deserve 2 be
He knew not where he came from
Nor where he was going
He never once said thank U, never please
Now this king he had a subject named Electra
Who loved him with a passion, uncontested
4 him each day she had a smile
But it didn’t matter
The king was looking 4 the ladder
Everybody’s looking 4 the ladder
Everybody wants salvation of the soul
The steps U take are no easy road
But the reward is great
4 those who want 2 go
Everybody’s looking 4 the answers
How the story started and how it will end
What’s the use in half a story, half a dream
U have 2 climb all of the steps in between
The king “who didn’t deserve 2 be” is so distracted by his search for the “ladder” (salvation,) he forgets the very person who loves him the most. He loses his sense of earthly proportion because he is so fixated on finding the ultimate answers, “how the story started and how it will end.” He forgets to walk the journey of his life in uncertain faith, losing out on the love of this world in the process.
I hope those of you who wish to see liberty win the day do not suffer the same fate as this fictional state ruler. Rather than simply pondering the state of nature or some far off utopia, I hope you will instead humbly “climb all the steps in between” on the ladder of life, ascending into the beautiful unknown with faith in man’s artistic spirit if not his politics.