Sleeping on a Volcano
by Christopher DeGroot (December 2017)
Study for a Portrait, Francis Bacon, 1971
“We are sleeping on a volcano . . . [a] storm is on the horizon.”
–Alexis de Tocqueville
On November 1, 1771, in a letter to the Stewards of the Bell Club, the great moral psychologist Edmund Burke offered some sagacious words to his fellows.
Such as you are sooner or later, must Parliament be. I therefore wish that you, at least, would not suffer yourselves to be amused by the style, now grown so common, of railing at the corruption of Members of Parliament. This kind of general invective has no kind of effect, that I know of, but to make you think ill of that very institution which, do what you will, you must religiously preserve, or you must give over all thoughts of being a free people.
There is a lesson for us here if we are willing to take it. For our own mean-spirited criticism, made constantly during this first year of the Trump administration, much of it at people themselves rather than their views and policies, is similarly corrupting. It creates a deep enmity that undermines solidarity, and not only is it an obstacle to bipartisan cooperation, it shows us to be ungrateful for that government without whose protection there would surely have been another 9/11 by now. With all the nasty personal attacks, we also demonstrate an unmanly lack of hardihood. Is there nothing we can’t simply brush off? We must get over this because it makes our politics, like life itself, always already hard enough, only more so. We must recognize, too, that only to “think ill” of our government hardly furthers the project of preserving “that very institution” without which we cannot remain “a free people.”
The Left is ferocious in its contempt for President Trump in part because, with his frank and sometimes offensive manner, he is no Decaffeinated Other, to borrow an apt term from the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is an acute critic of political correctness, frequently in agreement with conservatives. As many have pointed out, this aspect of the brash man from Queens, New York is precisely what is now needed. We do not live in an age of gentlemen but, now as ever, strength is indispensable. Among Western leaders, only President Trump has been a strong voice against Isis. He has been likewise principled in regard to the Chinese—who therefore respect him, in contrast to the effete Obama. Our last President is always polite and likable, the surest sign of a weak man. Recall his laughable statement, spoken without an iota of self-confidence, concerning allegations that Russia engaged in cyberattacks against the U.S. electoral process. "I told him [Putin] to cut it out." As if that alpha male were a schoolboy, and Obama his principal!
President Trump fights back, even if it entails fighting dirty. In this harsh world that merits the respect of grounded sensibilities. Indeed, unlike most intellectuals, ordinary Americans see through the farce of political correctness—which, devised by intellectuals, is a coward’s game the President does not play. Besides, it’s not as if once the genteel curtains are pulled back we behold a culture of ladies and gentleman. Alone among the Presidential candidates, Donald Trump addressed the illegal immigration that has cost us billions in undeserved entitlements, just as it has lowered wages for native workers. For all this President Trump has of course received very little gratitude. Rather, the vociferous criticism has been nonstop. For the PC Left wants everyone to play nice, always agreeing with it like good little children, and whenever we don’t, it intolerantly throws a tantrum. Political correctness, ever more hypocritically and aggressively, requires that we agree with others in order to be tolerable, like one who should punch you in the face while commanding “tolerate me!”
Now there is, undoubtedly, much to disapprove of in the personality of President Trump, but so is there generally in human beings, and in many leaders in particular. Indeed, it is one of the fundamental principles of political philosophy that politics is not a place for good men. On the contrary, the world being what it is, politics requires bad men. The Leftist who believes Lyndon Johnson did many good things for the poor people (and for minorities in particular) of the President’s native Texas would surely need a space safe from the bullying “Johnson treatment” whereby that formidable man, whose toxic masculinity makes Trump seem almost exquisitely mannered, got so much done. We should recognize that human beings are inexhaustible in our potential to do both good and evil, and lest we be hypocrites—the tendency to which is powerful in selfish man—we must not be harder on others than we are on ourselves. That last clause seems a truism, I know, but, in Samuel Johnson’s words, “men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.”
It is a problem, of course, that the President himself has sometimes been as thin-skinned as his many critics. He, too, can be like a child in his petty impulsiveness and unwillingness to pass things over or let them go. Indeed, his “general invective” also is a sign of our era’s moral decline. We can only hope that as time goes on, he will learn to ignore the always griping media, and not waste his crucial days responding to all its criticism, like a man who, though threatened by daunting challenges on all sides, spends precious moments bickering about what to eat for dinner. Meanwhile, it is time for us citizens to stop expecting perfection and pouncing on everything the Trump administration does. For as Burke wrote in another letter, “if we cry, like children, for the moon, like children we must cry on.”
We must also have reasonable expectations, understanding that government is not some precise activity like proving theorems. In its greatest challenges, there are dilemmas in which there is no right thing to do, where right means without suffering and tragedy. As Isaiah Berlin put it in “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), “the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other . . . the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.” A more realistic perspective may allow for a finer and more temperate understanding of the many difficult issues we face. Then we should be able to conduct ourselves with greater civic virtue, enjoying what James Madison called “the cool deliberate sense of the community.”
This fundamentally moral project can be aided by restraining our passions, generally a good thing to do in human affairs. Here too Burke is an instructive guide. In 1791, writing to a member of England’s National Assembly, he declared that
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
This brings us to one of the worst elements of the Left: its assertion of desires (“rights”) in a manner that shows no “disposition to put moral chains upon . . . [its] own appetites.” There is, moreover, much “vanity and presumption,” yet no “soundness and sobriety of understanding” in its habit of deeming others villains just because they don’t agree with you, even as you yourself cannot be bothered to make a coherent argument that springs from the actual context in which the thorny subject is rooted. As for “the counsels of the wise and good,” how many people in this country today even believe in this traditional respect for deserved authority? Very few, it seems, because unless a rigorous system of ennobling duty is imposed on us from an external source at an early age, most human beings will spend their lives following their delusive inconstant feelings, the source of their generally superficial opinions about how things should be for everyone. So that they never learn what legitimate authority is, and for them lives of chaos and confusion are inevitable.
Most Americans today seem not to know what to do with those lofty concepts, democracy and liberty. In their conduct, these prove to be so much delusion and error. It is no wonder. The human being is essentially impulsive, naturally subject to all sorts of thoughts and desires that, more often than not, he does not choose but merely notices within the stream of thought. “The data of consciousness,’ Freud remarked in The Unconscious (1915), “have a very large number of gaps in them . . . Our most personal daily experience acquaints us with ideas that come into our head, we know not from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at, we do not know how.” We are like a house teeming with uninvited guests who must somehow all get along. Disciplined attention to the inner life is needed to direct the self; otherwise our conduct is bound to be foolish much of the time and find us in frequent conflict with others. Most important is the steadying moral will, the daily practice of the virtues (individual responsibility, honesty, fairness, temperance, restraint, charity, courage) that we must learn from those who came before us. For such habit is, in William James’ words, “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance.” By practicing good habits, we may eventually develop a good disposition, that is, a mature moral will. This is now a rarity, and so our culture is in a very bad way.
It is necessary to try to understand the past, as well as yield to its authority, at least to some degree. To assume an inheritance is an act of submission, even as the self is augmented thereby. This rich burden the Foucauldian Left—which positively detests the element of submission, in part because it does not understand the augmentation—distrusts and resents by definition, since for the Foucaultist there is no legitimate authority, and all moral coercion (save its unarguable own) is evil. Now to be sure, in practice authority tends to be mixed at best, and coercion is often evil; yet I would submit, nevertheless, that the Leftist who resists all authority (but his own) and all the inherited coercive mores of his culture shall be left with no morality save what he and his particular tribe care to acknowledge. How then deal with the rest of mankind? Though there may be no serious consequences in fantastic, comfortable academia, there will certainly be terrible ones in politics, and in human affairs generally. Nor is it unjust to view Foucault’s own early death from AIDS, the result of promiscuous homosexuality, as an example of the folly of letting your own self be your sole guide in how to live.
No one should have any doubt about the human need for authoritative wisdom. Without it, there’s only the neverending chaos of individual assertion. But there is a daunting problem here, one that has to do with the nature of our democracy at this moment. The just belief that we should all be equal before the law has been transformed, via the usual well-meaning but thoughtless sentimentalism, into the belief that all people and all cultures are equal in some vague ultimate sense. (This popular sentiment, like the welfare state, is basically a displaced Christianity.) Thus, excepting parents in regard to their children, nobody has a right to tell anyone how to live. Now I am well-aware that through the ages man has not been particularly adept at governing his fellow man, a failing that comprehends the essential value of democracy, in which people endeavor, through argument and debate, to reach agreement concerning how they should live together. Yet our democratic experiment is not working. Life has become an affair of individual fulfillment in which desire, feeling and entitlement have largely supplanted reason, culture and wisdom. It is not a good thing that, being liberated from traditional constraints, we are now left with little besides individual assertion. Now the only universally recognized “controlling power upon will and appetite” is external—that is, the law. Nor will that avail. Increasingly distant from its religious origin, the law, despite the growing cultural tendency toward statism, cannot make a moral agent of man. Moreover, given the lack of moral order from “within,” for many it has become merely rational and prudent to aim not so much at not doing wrong as at not being found culpable. You may say here that many have too much integrity to live so. I would strongly agree. But I would add that there are also many who are not so moral (whose number is likely to increase over time, as it has long been doing). And if I had to wager on the conduct of a person who answers only to himself (with his clever ability to evade and deceive the authority of the law, not to mention his own conscience, assuming he has one), or on one who believes he is answerable to an authority whom he cannot evade and deceive, I should take the earnest, fearful believer every time.
What best preserves liberty is a certain spirit of illiberality, functioning to keep a people united as they collectively incline to shun (and shame) certain behaviors, an activity without which the moral life must be inadequate at best. For many of us the that life now means paying lip service to whatever we believe is expected of us in the way of morality, as we understand it from our dealings with others, who are mostly spineless conformists. In other words, our morality is largely a farce supported by cant.
Conscience devoid of religion only goes so far, we now learn. The Left, in particular, is thick with false piety, with mere academic herd ideology, yet thin on real moral principle. The ordinary citizen more and more displays the characteristically modern sensibility long ago deplored by Jacob Burckhardt: “the total egoism of today’s private person who wants to exist as an individual and asks of the community only the greatest possible security for himself and his property, for which he pays his taxes amid sighs, and who also likes to attach himself to the community in a specific sense as an ‘official.’”
Where peoples used to be bound by tradition and certain concomitant virtues, they are now divided by “rights.” Lacking the moral-psychological disposition by which man arrived at democracy, Western democracies are destroying themselves from within. Each person a nation of one, a bundle of “rights” within a vast general incoherence: this effectively is our present condition, facilitated by the new technology that, serving as an echo chamber of our own opinions, functions more to reinforce our divisions than to dispel them. Here, Leftists and Liberals are like a man who, though he has terminal cancer, thinks the disease can be cured by passing certain laws and policies, which, of course, we all “deserve.” The legislative “solution” amounts to a dubious effort to preserve Christianity: Universalist goods but without their theological justification and the affective virtues by which those goods came into being and were preserved. Note that for John Dewey, an evangelist in his youth, democracy was to be a “living faith” of universal validity. That is a very common delusion these days. One recognizes a similarity here with our many false conservatives: Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, John Podhoretz, and all the rest. Like naïve liberals, these shallow minds—effectively handmaidens of the lobbyists—all take it for granted that democracy is the best form of government, for Iraq as for the US: so that America's foreign policy is to be so much nation-building. Well, it's not their children who shall die.
If it is to be more than just a pragmatic tool, if it is to compel the individual will and bind it with others, liberty needs a justification beyond the law. That justification will invariably concern our moral nature, because there is no government that does not, in some measure, take into account man’s moral needs. Our moral nature does its work in the form of vital beliefs, practices, customs: the abstract mind grounded by a common, organic, affective moral will. In a word, by faith. By what we believe to be metaphysical justification that comprehends our most significant ends. Otherwise we must (even if only unconsciously) deal with historicism and relativism and may face an infinite regress in our search for what we collectively—or rather, alas, the venal majority—believe to be justification. Nor is it an easy thing to reach agreement, especially insofar as a nation is numerous, or “diverse.” Besides, what pleases the philosopher in his study, working up clever arguments, and making ever finer distinctions and hair-splitting objections, all so absorbing to his genius that few others can understand, does not even matter to most of the citizenry, which consists of infinitely suffering burdened animals who all hope, at some time or other, that, as John Keats said in his last letter, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering.”
The challenge for our increasingly faithless time is that liberal morality, fundamentally prohibitive, only goes so far. By itself, the law does not compel the recalcitrant human will, let alone unite it with others. The law’s justification is a weak thing in regard to human psychology. Having (for good reasons) separated Church from State, we now struggle to live well amid that division. We are lost without metaphysics. More progress, more suffering, might be our motto. For liberal morality says in the main “thou shalt not.” Its “duties” are essentially negative. But having no right to harm your neighbor does not do nearly as much for frail and egotistical mankind as prescriptive morality, which tries to get rid of the very inclination to harm him, by commanding you to love him. How very far, then, we now find ourselves from what the national character used to be, especially in its origin. My friend David Goldman, in his wide-ranging essay “Kierkegaard is needed more than ever” (2013), notes that
America's founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the revolutionary cause at a moment when they enjoyed more freedom as Englishmen than the citizens of any other country in the world, and when taxation without representation did not prevent them from living in peace and relative prosperity. Never before or again in modern history did men of property and station make such a reckless gamble. In fact, most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were impoverished by the war, and many would have hanged if the American cause had failed. This supremely immoderate act was motivated by a passion for liberty, mostly with a religious foundation.
America was founded by Puritans fleeing Europe's collective suicide in the Thirty Years War, and it became a magnet for German as well as English Protestant radicals who had no stake in the European system that emerged from it. They had lived through the catastrophic failures of European society and were ready to take great risks to create something better.
America, Goldman helps us to see, has a unique metaphysical foundation. That is why “America's founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the revolutionary cause at a moment when they enjoyed more freedom as Englishmen than the citizens of any other country in the world, and when taxation without representation did not prevent them from living in peace and relative prosperity.”
For Christianity is essentially transformative, producing a disposition contrary to exploitation and conducive to justice, charity, sacrifice. It is Christianity that teaches us that people as such are valuable. Without it, we are more likely to value others only for their qualities, for what use we can make of them, reducing persons to mere things. Indeed, subtract people’s qualities, then ask yourself why you value them, and you shall find nothing left to the people themselves: for they are those qualities. Now it may be that every person consists of a singular combination of qualities, so that everyone is utterly unique, not just a bundle of qualities, so to say. And yet, in any case, outside the family—and in particular, the parent-child relationship, which is, in a sense, an extension of the self—how much absolute or unconditional love do we find in human affairs? Very little, unless we are among saints and the best of believers, both exceedingly rare persons.
Nor is to be wondered, given our natural exploitative tendencies, that war, conquest and slavery have all been norms, indeed principle themes of our human history. This should no more surprise us than does the character of the typical workplace, which, to our common weariness, is instrumental by definition. But Christianity says, “Cast in thy lot among us; let us all have one purse” (Proverbs 1:14). How much more powerful is that sentence, appealing directly to the internal moral will, than a social welfare policy (which, of course, is essentially Christian in origin). A politician answerable to his religious conscience is surely better than one who, like most today, will tell people whatever he believes they want to hear, in order to get elected, and thereby satisfy not the common good but his own particular interests, and crucially, those of the baleful lobbyists to whom he is bound. Likewise, a citizen who believes the law has a justification beyond the polity, is surely a better person than one for whom morality is nothing but a kind of prudent calculation.
Thus, even if Christians are not, on average, better than the rest of us, I, who am no believer, nevertheless fear that without Christianity to shape and guide the crucial virtues—again, individual responsibility, honesty, fairness, temperance, restraint, charity, courage, each of these an essentially affective thing—and without the will to impart Christianity’s traditional wisdom, the culture as a whole, after a certain period of irreligious freedom, simply will not have the good character requisite to a working democracy. It is naïve, surely, to think that we, whose morality and politics have long been religious in both origin and character, will not decline and ultimately suffer a great deal as we become far less religious and, as it now appears, far more selfish and uncompromising. And what mad naiveté there is, what historical ignorance in the common belief—found in men like Daniel Dennett, A.C. Grayling, and Sam Harris—that mere reason and science can suffice to deal with our many problems! As if we were all so many temperate and benevolent geniuses! as rational and programmable as our nifty computers! In fact, something like the opposite is surely true.
Can our vast, disparate ends be reckoned with through reason alone? No. Value neutral in itself, reason must serve certain unifying virtues, which do not come into being through mere rational deliberation. Yet what do we have in common anymore? Intellectuals cant about “diversity”—that empty idol—as if by a kind of magic stroke incompatible interests could be made compatible. The idea of a “we,” if it is to refer to the entire nation, is increasingly incoherent because, even as we become more numerous and “diverse,” today as ever democracy is still only possible at the local level, where people are bound by tradition; that is to say, living beliefs, practices, customs: the abstract mind, again, grounded by a common, organic, affective moral will. The very idea that through reason alone a people can decide how to live well together is a frightening sign in and of itself. By itself, reason is nothing. It is only the activity of valuing, after all, that makes reason itself significant, that enables it to have value, as it were. And this is a volitional matter, an affair of the individual moral will.
Just how moral can an immense mass of men and women be without God? That is the central question of our time. It is one thing to make a plausible rational argument—as only we intellectuals care to do—that good conduct is just that with or without a religious basis. Conduct itself is quite another matter. It seems naïve, for example, to expect a sufficient number of the elite to feel a sufficient sense of obligation to the less well-off if religion does not serve to make that obligation an imperative, and not only an imperative, but something that people themselves want to do. Certainly, our secular culture’s greater lack of charity will become especially dire in the future as more jobs are eliminated, when even a larger number of educated people are likely to struggle, to say nothing of the majority who lack a twenty-first century professional skill set. Again, charity is a matter of our passional nature, for people are not much moved by a mere abstract argument that says “give to him that asketh thee” (Mathew 5:42). Like living by moral virtues—that is, willing them—their transmission through the generations must also be an activity largely of the heart. It all depends on the desire to live for certain things rather than others. In Wittgenstein’s words, “wisdom is cold and to that extent stupid. Faith on the other hand is a passion.”
Earlier Americans had a lot more of that passion than we do. Moreover, it was felt with others. It was Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the latter’s University of Basel colleague Jacob Burkhardt who foresaw the modern world’s grave moral dilemma. Acutely aware of the intractable selfishness and deceitful character of human nature, these profound minds knew (among other things) that without the special fear of God, many people will naturally try to get away with whatever they can, and how many of us can do so, especially the ruthless, the clever, and the cunning. It is no wonder we see lives of careful dissimulation all around us, in which, again, people merely try not to be seen behaving immorally or breaking the law, like the believer for whom the only bad thing about sin is its consequences. Without religion, it seems reasonable to believe, man would never have developed a sense of justice in the first place, and it is difficult to imagine him maintaining a sufficient sense of it as societies grow more secular, that is, more selfish, living essentially for desire, and in much conflict with others. From this point of view, it is only fitting that the United States, as it departs from its former unifying religious character, is degenerating into factional interests, one person’s desires (“rights”) against another’s, endlessly.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
Today many thoughtful persons, rightly vexed by our country’s shift to the Left during the last fifty years, want the US to move back to the center. The problem is that, although centrism seems eminently reasonable as an idea, there is never a strong center in politics. Notice that in just a short period of time—about a century—we have gone from classical liberalism to statist Leftism. That is merely the culmination of liberal democracy’s unusual freedom, the human will itself tending toward such excess. Hence why a liberal culture, if it does not self-destruct, always swings back to the right. Nor will it be long before the people begin moving leftward again. This dialectic is unceasing and forever fraught. Insufficiently knowledgeable about human nature, the centrist does not understand all this, and where he thinks he is moderate, he is in fact naive, like a man who should teeter over a cliff while believing his footing is solid.
“In history,” said Burckhardt, “the way of annihilation is invariably prepared by inward degeneration.” The immorality, the violence, and the sorrow all around us—the broken families, the young men dropping out of the workforce and society, the rise in depression and suicide (especially among the young), the opiate epidemic, the distrust and enmity between the sexes, the gender confusion, the inner city hellholes, with their savage gangs, the casual public violence, the loss of civility, courtesy, and decency—all reflect “inward degeneration.” It is an ugly sight, like Medusa looking in the mirror. The citizenry, more and more factional and rancorous, now demands President Trump’s impeachment without a justification, now calls for his assassination. Our parties hate each other, and display tremendous fervor in that hatred. Underneath the constant indignant rhetoric, there seems a longing to do evil en masse, though as so often in history, in the name of what is good and just. This abundant energy that wants to burst forth, we must hope, shall be applied in the right direction. For it may well be that we need our cold civil war, just as we need our war with Islam: Perhaps it is only thus that we can alter our race along the doomed path of excessive individualism, learning as a result something of the spirit of compromise and solidarity our grandfathers knew. Certainly, overcoming corruption is not a simple, rational thing like removing a stain from a garment.
And there is quite a lot to overcome, most of all, the disposition of the human will itself. “Liberated” from the traditional religious mores and customs that formerly shaped and checked it, the will now refuses to compromise, and so threatens to destroy the state itself and civilization itself. Most people who have an interest in the matter equate the modern world’s democratic turn with supreme progress. And yet, no great philosopher ever had much faith in democracy, and it may not be long before historians are compelled to view our time as having presaged a period of destructiveness even worse than the unprecedented horrors of the last century. It may well be that modern democracy is coming to an end, and that human societies in the not so distant future will rise anew in a natural, traditional, hierarchical manner.
For now, America is exceedingly restless and fraught, like Europe before its great world wars. We are, as de Tocqueville once wrote, “sleeping on a volcano.” Our future looks dark, and it cannot be anything but that unless we acknowledge the failure of individual agency that is at the bottom of our many problems, although obscured by the endless lies and errors which function to make sources outside ourselves the culprit: the government, the corporations, white privilege, the patriarchy, the school-to-prison pipeline—anyone and anything but ourselves.
Christopher DeGroot—essayist, poet, aphorist, and satirist—is a writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His writing appears regularly in New English Review, where he is a contributing editor, and occasionally in The Iconoclast, its daily blog. He is also a popular columnist at Taki's Magazine. Compositions in progress include a novel, a collection of epigrams and aphorisms, a book of poetry, and a few satires. You can follow his work at @CEGrotius.
More from Christopher DeGroot.