Observers of modernity often point out its accelerating divergence from reality, its constant efforts to pass clumsy copies for the originals.
Inspired by zeitgeist, it replaces religion with (at best) religionism, faith with superstition, freedom with liberty, wisdom with cleverness, sentiment with sentimentality, justice with legalism, art with pickled animals, music with amplified noise, statecraft with politicking, love with sex, communication with soundbites, self-confidence with effrontery, equality before God with levelling, respect for others with political correctness, dignity with solipsism, self-respect with self-esteem – in short, everything real with virtual caricatures.
A virtual world is being built in place of the real one, and this construction project has a long pedigree. It didn’t start with today’s mania for wokery, nor even with the twentieth century. It was that misnomer, the Enlightenment, that began to swing the wrecking ball at the edifice of actual reality, while at the same time looting the wreckage.
For no virtual world can ever be accepted even on its own limited terms unless it bears some resemblance to the real one. It must look like a duck, walk like a duck and quack like a duck – even if it’s not a duck.
Hence, the Enlighteners, in order to be indeed seen by the credulous as a source of light, had no other choice but to shoplift the traditional culture and adapt its terms to the virtual reality that was being created. Otherwise everyone would have realised that theirs was the kind of fire that could only scorch, not illuminate.
This can be best illustrated with the example of the French revolutionary summation of the Enlightenment: liberté, egalité, fraternité. In the early stages this triple lie of a motto didn’t run unopposed: other desiderata, such as unity and justice, were occasionally proposed as replacements for the brotherhood element. The ultimate winner was probably determined by its Christian overtones purloined from the original owner for PR purposes.
To start with, let’s consider its tripartite form. We’ll notice that many revolutionary slogans of post-Christian modernity are made up of three elements, either words or phrases.
Apart from the French one, one could cite the American “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, the Russian vsia vlast Sovetam (all power to the Soviets) or the German ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (one people, one nation, one leader). And even a somewhat less significant twentieth-century revolution had to chip in with a vapid Work harder, produce more, build Grenada!
What we are witnessing here is the first stage of larceny: the revolutionaries sensed that the world around them was alive with Trinitarian music. They probably ascribed that phenomenon to church propaganda and control of learning, rather than to the ontological property of man and nature it really is.
But whatever the source of the music, people’s ears were so attuned to it that they were predisposed to respond to similar sounds even if they conveyed a different meaning. But it wasn’t just the music.
Also hidden in the French slogan was another mock-Christian allusion. For, according to the Enlighteners, ‘fraternity’ flowed out of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’. Philosophers of the time argued that no brotherhood was possible without liberty and equality, which is to say that the third part of the triad proceeded from the first two.
One doesn’t have to be a theologian to see how the deep and subtle Christian doctrine of the Trinity was vulgarised for an un-Christian purpose by adding the fake echoes of the Creeds.
Each element of the French triad was stolen property. To the original owner, freedom came from – and led to – the truth, which is to say God; equality was a natural consequence of jointly loving, and being loved by, a supreme being, which is to say God; brotherhood implied a kinship bestowed by a common father, which is to say God.
The intellectual cardsharps of the Enlightenment deftly pulled the ace of God out of the pack, leaving people with a hand of cards that were not only low but also marked.
In a similarly devious way, the linear, teleological nature of Judaeo-Christian eschatology was transformed into the secular doctrine of progress.
Unlike the Eastern mind trained to respond to circular, static philosophies, the Western mind had been conditioned to expect a vertical, upward movement on a straight line. With an enviable sleight of hand, the philosophes replaced the kingdom of God as the destination of linear development with the eudemonic idea of happiness as the ultimate goal of life.
That, courtesy of St Anselm, had been known since the eleventh century as a sure recipe for amorality. And in the United States, the first country constituted along Enlightenment lines, the word ‘happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence was understood in strictly material terms, as some of its signatories helpfully explained. Happiness was comfort, prosperity – ultimately property.
Almost the exact wording as in the Declaration can be found in John Locke, the shining light for both American and French Enlighteners. In an often quoted statement he mentioned “life, liberty and estate” in the context of “natural rights”, a concept of his that can only charitably be described as dubious, especially when used widely and indiscriminately. Again there was an element of larceny involved, with the natural law of church doctrine becoming a mishmash of assorted natural rights.
A natural right in its proper sense is an entitlement that presupposes no ensuing obligation on anyone else’s part, such as the right to life. Estate ownership doesn’t qualify for this lofty designation: my natural right to own an estate would presuppose your natural obligation to provide one, something you may or may not agree to honour.
However, in that particular context Locke’s full statement was unobjectionable. What he talked about was preserving a man’s “life, liberty and estate against the injuries and attempts of other men”. The rule of law, in other words.
But this wasn’t how it came out in the Declaration of Independence. Its statement was snappy, a quality essential to slogans but sometimes detrimental to truth. The Founding Fathers chose a less precise term “happiness”, preceded by “the pursuit of”, a combination they declared to be a natural (inalienable) right.
This was more than just a matter of semantics: the underlying idea was turned around. Pursuit of property, rather than the Lockean legal protection of property already amassed, was a de facto declaration of dependence on money. The teleological nature of wealth, beatified by the Reformation, especially its Calvinist offshoot, was thus canonised by the Enlightenment.
Alas, that larcenous shift from actual to virtual reality has itself been canonised. Even many conservative commentators use Enlightenment tenets as their frame of reference. That not only throws their whole philosophy out of kilter, but also makes one wonder about the usefulness of the very term ‘conservative’.
Since these days it means either too little or too much, it hardly ever means anything real at all. But then modernity isn’t about reality, is it?