The Decline and Fall of the Person
February 27, 2015 13 Comments
Dr. Jeff Mirus over at Catholic Culture did some musing the other day on his stack of unread books. I tend to be sympathetic because I have one of those plus a bunch of half-read ones on my Kindle. That tends top be life in the Information Age. His musing is a lot more informative and useful than my whining though. Here’s some of what he had to say:
The grand synthesis between Christian revelation and classical reason which formed Western culture placed the person at center stage. As a direct result, the universe was perceived as pregnant with meaning, created by and for persons, and capable of generating a kind of wonder that leads back to the Creator. But under various internal and external pressures, this intensely human synthesis tended to break down. People began to relativize ideas—the human grasp of meaning which is so often subject to disagreement, debate and conflict. And they began to absolutize facts—descriptions of material reality which are amenable to physical measurement and empirical proof.
There are so many ways to trace this shift in perception that it is difficult to know where to start. However it is traced, what we now call “science” gradually took the first place in human studies. Deeply dependent on earlier Western ideas about order in the universe as a whole, the rapid advance of the physical sciences won them deep respect. They offered largely non-controversial benefits to mankind while appearing to reduce the need for moral improvement.
The attraction is not hard to understand. Nobody has to grow in love or overcome habitual vices to appreciate the benefits of science and its resulting technology. In fact, whether good or evil, the achievements of science readily appeal to personal selfishness. They can make us healthier and more comfortable; they can reduce sweat equity; they can maximize pleasure.
I can’t really say I disagree with any of that nor, in some ways, do I think it bad.
Unfortunately, this relativization of what we might also call the moral or the spiritual, and this absolutization of what we must call the material, led the West as a whole to commit a fundamental error. We might call it a philosophical or a logical error, but it is just as much an error of common sense. A whole culture began by choosing to focus overwhelmingly on the material world. For obvious reasons, it then lost awareness of what it chose not to focus on. Finally, it proclaimed—completely without warrant—that what it was focused on is all there is. In other words, the West slipped progressively into a deeper and deeper materialism.
This has created gargantuan problems. If everything is material, how can we account for meaning and purpose? The answer is that we cannot, and the long-term result of this reticence concerning meaning is an insistence that everything must be random. In its evolutionary form, this randomness is thought to tend toward continuous improvement, at a huge but justifiable cost to whatever is left behind.
Nothing to disagree with here either but like the author, let’s think about this a bit. If there is nothing but the material world, then there is no cause for any morality at all, might is right is the way they phrased it in Camelot, if for some reason you are not the one with the power, you simply do not matter, get out of my way. Sounds a lot like a stone age tribal society, doesn’t it? Or maybe the twenty-first century industrialized world. Because in large measure we have devolved to a society in which if you can’t buy enough influence from the corrupt court, you’re gonna lose.
Another way modern Western culture has dealt with the absence of meaning is through the reduction of happiness to pleasure. It is an ever-present human tendency to prefer easily-gained and primarily physical pleasures over hard-won but more deeply satisfying growth in perfection (which presumes purposes and ends). Technology excels at producing pleasures for our consumption. Unlike ideology, pleasure does not provide an alternative form of “meaning”. Instead, it makes it easier to forget meaninglessness. In this sense it is also an escape from moral responsibility. But this is really a flight from despair, a flight from the frightening emptiness of a valueless existence, of a life without meaning.
Sound familiar? Yeah, it does to me as well, and I suspect it is true for a large part of our populations. There just aren’t many things our society thinks worthy of belief, are there?
There is quite a bit more at this link, The decline and fall of the Person: Musings on my stack of unread books – Catholic Culture. all of it worth reading, including Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. But let’s finish as Dr. Mirus does, because I don’t think it can be improved on.
[…] But when I looked at the clutter on my desk today, I realized that there was a very definite pattern to the clutter. A pattern, yes, and therefore purposes and ends and meanings which can only be discerned by persons.
To put the case in a nutshell, there really is a theology of the body. The end of our modern insanity is to learn again who we really are. I have chosen my words carefully: I do not mean what, but who.