Steven Pinker has famously noted (The Better Angels of Our Nature, Viking, 2011) that despite all the massacres of the twentieth century, our lives are not only much longer, but much more peaceful than those of past centuries. Whether this makes the Holocaust less or more horrible is another question, but one can’t deny Pinker’s point. Yet what is perhaps its most important consequence is rarely alluded to, although it has had a great influence on the decline of social cohesion in our time.
Religion was once constantly regenerated from the worldly society that recalled its origin in the communal solidarity occasioned by the “sacred” deferral of violence. Today, although the ultimate danger of human violence is ever greater, it is because of its very immensity “almost always” deferred, and therefore need not and indeed cannot be faced as past generations faced theirs, in times when a deadly fight with a neighbor, a marauding gang of desperadoes, or a small-scale natural disaster, not to speak of illness, were a constant threat. Now that we can expect to live to be 80 or even older, the sense of release that had always been central to our attitude toward death has been largely replaced with the idea of putting it out of our mind until it becomes, at a later and later time in our lives, absolutely unavoidable.
The general understanding of religion down to the nineteenth century and beyond was based on a worldview that has become foreign to us, although it largely remains that of the inhabitants of poor countries today: Life is a vale of tears. This being the fundamental human condition, given the originary promise of harmony and peace that is at the core of all human culture, the idea of being “gathered to one’s fathers” at death is quite credible, independently of any imaginings of celestial bliss, let alone the fear that after a painful life, Hell will be even worse. That such imaginings could be used to reinforce the faithful’s conviction concerning the “afterlife” would mean little had it lacked credibility to begin with.
The traditional attraction of the afterlife, which today is mutating into a vision of some kind of post-mortem digitally-driven resuscitation, if not simply of immortality tout court, makes little sense to people whose lives are dominated by the imperative to enjoy life. We see death as deliverance only for those who are suffering from wasting and/or painful terminal diseases, whereas the archetypal medieval peasant, whose “old age,” beginning at 45 or so, was not made tolerable by modern medicine, had few reasons to want to keep growing older, even aside from the now greatly diminished risk of everyday human violence.
But just as the digital age has placed a new strain on the originary moral model, founded on the more or less symmetrical sharing of the means of communication, modern hedonism has had a similar effect on social solidarity. It’s hard to complain about living so much better that we actually enjoy it right up to the end, but like eating lots of sugar or not getting enough exercise, this byproduct of modern life puts new strains on an organization designed in earlier times; and the most fundamental mode of human organization is still what we call religion.
We in the West appear to be witnessing the re-inversion of what Hegel and Marx described as the “inverted world” of religious eschatology. If life is a vale of tears, then paradise is our compensation. Can we still understand its attraction, as though only in heaven could we be without pain and suffering, hunger and deprivation?
None of life’s pleasures can quite compensate for the resentment caused by the impossibility of acquiring greater relative prestige, a problem scarcely considered when one must struggle to survive. But to the extent that the afterlife resolved this problem as well (“the last shall be the first”), the weakening of the primary evidence for its necessity removes its plausibility as a solution to humiliation as well as suffering. This is certainly an important factor in the enormous growth of the phenomenon of public humiliation (“shaming”) and the vast proliferation of base insults and curses in the social media in the context of the victimary quasi-religion of our era.
In the domain of sexuality, normally considered the source of our most intense and least “mimetic” pleasures, the evolution has also been clear. The “sexual revolution” of convenient contraception has led not only to a fall in the birth rate but to an actual decline in real sexual activity. As has been astutely noted by Kevin Williamson (“Harvey Weinstein’s Sexual Semiotics,” National Review, October 30, 2017) much or most of the “sex” of which the current crop of abusers have been accused is of the “semiotic” variety, starting with Anthony Weiner who is currently serving time for an offense that involved neither physical contact nor even proximity. (Reassuringly, the French Dominique Strauss-Kahn never seems to have been satisfied with “semiotic” sex.) And this tendency will presumably be vastly accelerated by the growth of virtual reality, now in its infancy. The Christian tradition has never expected the afterlife to provide such things as sexual pleasure; at best, we might take its earthly form as a premonition of the far greater pleasures of Paradise. But such expectations are very vague, whereas the pleasures provided by VR and AI-enabled sex dolls (see “Silicone sex dolls get an AI makeover,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2017) are very real, at least in physiological terms.
To the extent that formerly rare earthly pleasures become easily accessible in advanced societies, the contrast with less advanced societies helps explain the rise of a very un-Christian millenarism in the Islamic world. The intense desire to negate the West’s hedonism even at the cost of one’s life is an extreme form of the cultural critique expressed in more civilized terms in Erdogan’s recent message to Turkish families in the West (“Turks urged to multiply in Europe,” New York Times, March 18, 2017): to seek the highest forms of social and financial success, and to have not three but five children, where the Europeans cannot even manage two, thereby assuring the triumph of Islam by simply demonstrating its superior demographic viability. Can the Judeo-Christian West stand up to such a challenge?
When we speak of religion’s ability to console us for physical suffering, the skeptical reader is likely to smile at our naiveté, and even believers are known to “lose their faith” on learning of a disaster, whether manmade or natural, too horrible to be explained as the result of divine providence, such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake immortalized by Voltaire. But none of this in any way casts doubt on GA’s primary “Girardian” tenet that our notion of God is centrally derived from the deferral of human violence. It is precisely because human violence is of more urgent concern to us than the violence of nature that the evidence of divine protection from it is taken as a guarantee of God’s ability to ward off natural violence as well, and to the extent that we are able to accomplish this on our own, of our God-given ability to cooperate rather than fight among ourselves. Faith in providence as a solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma is not unreasonable, although our very description of this dilemma suggests the suspicion that we no longer live in a well-ordered society where reciprocity can be expected but a dictatorship whose arbitrary power isolates us. Clearly if the reward for defection did not put an end to the “prisoners’” mutual relationship, it would be far less attractive.
But in the hedonistic modern world there is less connection between individuals and less chance that the victim of a given defection will have his chance at revenge, or even at reproach. For “defection” does not normally occur within the narrow confines of a two-person prison cell. “Selling out” is seldom a matter of betraying a single individual, and even then, it tends to be supported by a complex administrative cum legal system. And conversely, the rewards for cooperation may not be obvious even if one is willing to transcend the temptation of immediate gain.
As the force that liberated the energies of modernity, the liberal-democratic market system was not coincidentally founded by pious people. The self-restraint characteristic of the old bourgeoisie was mediated by a world-view that saw life as directed at a goal, both financial and spiritual, antithetical to that of “enjoying life.” The least controversial point in Max Weber’s thesis is that the “capitalist” deferral of gratification is analogous to the Calvinist suspicion of such gratification, coupled with the hope that the ability to resist its allure might count as a sign of one’s ultimate election. Salvation was less a compensation for a painful existence than the nominally predestined result of having been able to withstand the temptations of worldly pleasures.
But the “consumer society” changed all that, starting already in the nineteenth century with Emma Bovary and the characters in Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames. One would be perverse indeed to ask people to forgo the affordable pleasures of the modern world on principle, whether this principle be interpreted in Calvinist terms as a sign of predestination or in the more contemporary alternative of a self-liberating Buddhistic renunciation of worldliness. (Buddha, we should recall, was opposed to asceticism, which he saw as a sign of obsession with the world rather than of liberation from it.) Rather than hypocritically lament the softness of a lifestyle few of us—not necessarily the wisest—would be willing to abandon, we should rather make our awareness of this situation an instrument for better understanding the religious needs of our current civilization.
“Enjoying life” implies not less but more dependence on culture’s benefits, but it is a consumer’s attitude rather than that of a participant. This is already implicit in the Heideggerian idea of being “thrown” into the world, whose roots go back to the Romantic period, and specifically to the modern notion of “adolescence,” which allows the young person of a certain class a time of reflection upon his entry into the adult world, in contrast with the abrupt initiation of more primitive societies. (We should recall the transitional state found in the 18th century in such characters as Mozart’s Cherubino or the young Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, who passes abruptly from child to post-pubertal adult at the sight of Manon.) Once one becomes aware of one’s childhood state not as simply liminal but as an alternative to adulthood, one experiences the responsibilities of the latter as an imposition, and rather than simply attempting to forget them (say, in sensual excess), one seeks occasions to renounce them in such activities as “vacations” or “retirement,” categories of leisure that were virtually unknown to ordinary people in past centuries.
What for our “Calvinist” ancestors was a temptation and a test of our suitability for salvation has become a guiltless mode of restorative relaxation. It is certainly no surprise that societies attuned to this pattern have trouble reproducing themselves, or even in engaging in sexual activities that might remind us of such consequences, despite being protected from them by contraceptive devices. As Jean Baudrillard liked to say, we live in the age of the simulacrum, where we hope to have the semiotic benefits of “enjoyable” experiences without the messiness of reality—all of which takes for granted that our material needs, which cannot be “simulated,” have been taken care of.
In the context of the present “decline of the West,” it cannot be without significance that among Western countries Israel is the only one that seems to find, amidst well-known dangers, enough positive value in life, as opposed to mere “enjoyment,” to be able to reproduce itself. Israel, however founded on a religious idea, is not a particularly religious nation. Yet the tension between the ultra-religious—and particularly fertile—Haredim and the secular mass of the population embodies the dual character of what Judaism has become in lieu of fusing into a homogeneous whole.
Perhaps we should take this religious dualism, which is duplicated on a very different level here in the US (say, the Mormons vs the DINCs), and has nearly disappeared in Christian Europe, as a model of our religious future—assuming that the West can avoid either degenerating into the passivity of Houllebecq’s Soumission or submitting to the presumably benevolent technological despotism of the emerging Chinese model.
It is difficult to think of the Haredim as the chosen bearers of the “spiritual principle” that reminds us, as religion always does, of our scenic origin, or to imagine that an analogous quasi-monastic impulse (e.g., the “Benedict Option,” hopefully combined with an Orthodox-like focus on large families) is the only hope of the West. But the degrees of freedom open to secular Western civilization in the victimary era certainly give the impression of running out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Gans is a literary scholar, philosopher of language, and cultural anthropologist. Since 1969, he has taught, and published on, 19th century literature, critical theory, and film in the UCLA Department of French and Francophone studies. Gans invented a new science of human culture and origins he calls Generative Anthropology, based on the idea that the origin of language was a singular event and that the history of human culture is a genetic or "generative" development of that event. For more information on this author, click here.