Having examined the first part of the “postmodern manifesto,” which is scientistic, we now turn to the second part, which is existentialist. Here it is again:
Real knowledge is only of irreducible information about the material world, and I can manipulate that same material world however I want in order to express myself and fulfill my desires.
The imposition of a spirit onto its flesh and the world is our object of investigation today.
After the Kantian revolution proposed a deontological moralism as a replacement for metaphysics, Schopenhauer took up the reins and ran with the theme: the will reigns supreme over the intellect. This doctrine recalls those first rumblings present in Ockham, Abelard, Scotus, and even St. Bonaventure. (Who could forget Dante’s depiction of Bonaventure and Thomas circling around each other in Heaven debating the primacy of the intellect and will?) Then came Soren Kierkegaard’s deep anxiety over life together with a suspicion of some kind of opposition between faith and reason. Heidegger, of course, was riddled with anxiety as well, over being and nothingness, and he had an obsession with freedom and authenticity: all characteristic of what was to come. There was no more dramatic precursor to the French existentialists than Nietzsche, who sought to free the world of its nihilism and empower it with the liberation of the will: the ubermensch, or “super man,” would embody a new kind of magnanimity with no regard for the welfare of others or some abstract Aristotelian “flourishing.” Nietzsche apparently couldn’t do it himself and went insane, finally cracking after seeing a horse being mercilessly beaten in a street in Turin. (Here we might pause and recall Durkheim’s observation about happiness and the subjection of the will to a pre-defined role in society… Those who have a life already set up for them tend to kill themselves less often.) The penultimate step to mature existentialism came with Michel Foucault, the forbearer of the “rainbow flag” and a staunch opponent of confining the mentally insane. After all, maybe they are just “different,” you know?
Finally, we come to the main event: a Parisian socialite, his lover, and a journalist-turned-philosopher raised on the soccer fields of French Algeria.
The core of the teaching of Jean-Paul Sartre can be summed up in three words: existence precedes essence. In other words, there really is no human nature, only a human condition which must be figured out and made into something of one’s own. He cites Descartes’ cogito in support of this theory, being an “anti-materialist,” and he claims that this is the only dignified vision of man, as this doctrine alone is capable of acknowledging his true power and freedom – which are apparently the characteristics of dignity. Man must go beyond himself to create himself, quite in contrast to the Comtean humanist religion, where humanity is good “just because.” For Sartre, man is nothing without making something of himself. (This would later become the basic teaching of Ayn Rand as well.) Freedom is to choose and conquer resistance present in one’s situation, and one must exercise this freedom according to his authentic self. But what is the “self” without a human nature? It is unclear.
Sartre’s intermittent lover, Simone De Beauvoir, with whom he would frequently seduce unwitting female students for sexual exploitation, held similar ideas and became the first “feminist.” It is from De Beauvoir that we get the now infamous gender-sex distinction: “One is not born but becomes a woman.” The woman is defined socially – and in classical A-T anthropology – in relation to man and therefore does not have her own identity. This is an existential problem for the woman, who must go out and create herself. To postmodern ears, however, it would sound insane to contradict the sense of De Beauvoir’s complaint; and yet we have St. Paul teaching that some kind of superiority of men is rooted in nature and of necessity must flow into ecclesial life (1 Cor. 11: 3-16, Eph. 5: 21-33, Col. 3: 18-19). The Christian must not be a feminist of the De Beauvoir variety. Our friends the Cathars had women clergy; they anticipated the existentialists in their justification for this choice. We will return to that in a future post.
Then we have our Algerian friend. Albert Camus’ most famous contribution to Western thought was the that the only serious question a person has to ask himself is whether to end his own life. After all, life is absurd, and if one can find no meaning for himself, then it is better that it end on one’s own terms, rather than in something meaningless like a car crash (which, ironically, was exactly how Camus was killed). Despite explicitly denying the existentialist label and preferring to be an “absurdist” instead, Camus is nonetheless the crystallization of the movement – his interpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus, claiming that man must accept his existence as an absurdity in order to find peace, or the anguish of the main character of “The Stranger” over the meaningless of his life and what has happened to bring about his execution, for example, provides a fitting capstone to the existentialist project because it shows its end: senselessness. When human nature is removed, purpose is removed. And the frantic search for a self-assigned basic purpose can only end badly, even if it doesn’t feel that way to a “successful existentialist.”
Certainly, more can and should be said about the French existentialists. But this brief and rude treatment suffices to bring to light the critical themes of our own day which were present in the movement, namely: a rejection of human nature as such; a perceived need to define one’s own role to make up for such an absence; and an obsession with “gender” equality.
We have already noted in PART I of this series the shocking fact that the existentialist doctrine on human nature as such has been enshrined in U.S. law by the Supreme Court. That should be enough to show there is a deep-seated existentialist current plaguing the West, but when coupled with the wide diffusion of the watered down scientistic-positivism we explored in the last post, disdain for classical Aristotelico-Thomistic anthropology has become its own unspoken rule. It is not unspoken in the way one doesn’t talk about Fight Club, it is unspoken in the way one doesn’t talk about red being a color… it’s just a given.
If there is any admittance of a “human nature” it is a passing nod to the truth that what we call human beings usually have certain kinds of physical characteristics which normally produce certain kinds of effects. The classical meaning of “nature,” however, is alien to this vague and platitudinous physicalism, as there can be no teleology (in-built purpose) for what is merely a random collection of stuff onto which we slap a name. This, I suggest, is the final fruit of Ockham’s Nominalism which we have discussed previously.
Of course, most postmodernists dimly realize their godless worldview poses the “existential problem,” viz., a lack of inherent meaning and purpose in their life, and they seek to solve it through the recommended process of “self-definition.” We are not here critiquing a healthy ambition to “do what one can” or to avoid idleness; rather, the issue is the desperate and necessarily futile attempt to provide altogether one’s own meaning for existing in the first place. There are also many people, who are not quite full-blown postmodernists, who seek to correct this same inner anxiety with DIY spirituality (moralistic therapeutic deism, usually); this is particularly dangerous as it nominally acknowledges something greater than oneself as a grounds for directing one’s life, but it is really the imposition of one’s own ideas onto a divine mouthpiece.
The existentialist paradigm helps make sense of the postmodern millennial’s take on the issues: the life issues, the gender issues, and the sex issues. Since a person’s meaning is basically self-derivative, and that meaning is predicated upon desires and the ability to fulfill them, then the unborn and the elderly are without their own meaning. Having a certain kind of body which has certain powers does not force one to accept that embodied reality as a given identity and direction either within a social framework or even within a physical framework, provided there is a surgeon available. Much less does this God-given engendered bodily existence, constitutive of unique powers with lasting social consequences and everlasting spiritual consequences, provide an individual with rules for how to engage in the use of the organs which are the seat of that power. You must choose to become something. Alternatively, you may disappear into oblivion – either irrelevance, or death. Before it was the American Dream™ it was the French philosophical anthropology.
The current of this thought has bored a hole so deep into the subconscious of postmodern America (and many parts of Europe) that it has become impolite, if not outright illegal, to tell a person that he is a he, she is a she, that “No, I will not serve cake at your wedding,” or anything that might emotionally hurt that person, so long as that self-given identity or meaning does not result in “harmful” behavior. Harmful behavior, remember, is reduced to emotional, physical, or financial pain or loss – for those who can already “will to power” and aren’t entirely reliant on help from other people for existence, that is.
The video above, while admittedly a bit cherry-picked, demonstrates nonetheless the existentialist current of millennial postmodernity with breathtaking frankness. No doubt such an experiment could be replicated across the global West with some success, at least in supposedly “elite” institutions of higher education. Note again the criterion of “harm” as constituting the core of the normative ethics for postmodern millennials – as if a person with a wildly erroneous self-perception is doing no real harm. You can tell that these kids become more and more uncomfortable as they are forced by their own premises and sense of political correctness to the affirmation that what is obviously “real” truth is being denied by this person, but that since “it’s not ‘harming’ anyone,” it must be okay and therefore good to support. It is the lack of an awareness that such a departure from the truth of one’s natural constitution as “man,” “white,” etc., does indeed cause harm to that person and therefore also to society at least inasmuch as that person’s self-perception is related to his or her function in society, is probably why it doesn’t “bother” the people interviewed. There used to be a word for the self-deception which is being coddled as healthy and normal: mental illness. Now it requires university sponsored trigger warnings and safe spaces, international awareness campaigns, and even protective laws. All of this finally ends in a kind of laissez-faire utilitarian relativism, which we might call the postmodernist ethics. “The more a behavior harms the people or things that I like, the more immoral the behavior is, and the more a behavior does good to the people or things that I like, the better the behavior is.” In this normative ethics, I can never do anything wrong, except inasmuch as I might unthinkingly do something harmful to my own cause. Another person is irrelevant insofar as he doesn’t harm my own mostly arbitrary and narrow values. This must also be understood as occurring within the materialistic framework – both harm and good are all temporal and experiential. (Unless, that is, a little DIY spirituality comes into play… Then all bets are off.) Without a firm understanding of unchanging human nature, and the belief in its authority and power to provide a normative ethics, we are left to define our own values based on whatever we would like to do or become as individuals or collectively as a society.
“Existence precedes essence.” Human beings are now human doings.
Yet clearly, “Some are more equal than others.” Why are some people or things valued over others? The connection to the expression of self and fulfillment predicated upon it are the foci around which postmodern value is measured: money, physical pleasure, convenience, emotional pleasure, diversity, equality, progress. Each goal is vaguer – and more dangerous – than the last. If you are not contributing one of these goods to society, how can you be valuable? Maybe you are a “good person,” but you are no longer useful and are therefore of no account. In other words, we may kill you if we would like to… and one day we might realize that we ought to kill you: because you are not capable of doing the kind of things we value, your own existence offers you “no benefit.” It is now charitable to destroy a life that can’t “create itself.” Beyond the obvious cases of killing the unborn and physically sick, Camus’ dilemma is being answered for the mentally ill and elderly in Europe in “assisted suicides” which are a little too assisted.
It has become popular these days to remark on “the science” behind why transgenderism or same-sex marriage or whatever is “bad.” While taking note of the psychological and physical processes and results of these experiments is not irrelevant to forming a right opinion on their goodness (like studying the average harm done to children by “gay parenting”), there is no need, and in fact no possibility, for “science” to provide the answer to the foundational moral questions whose answers are found in a study of the soul and body’s basic purposes which are widely known to all, as St. Paul reminds the Romans (Rm. 1:18-32). You really don’t need an expert biologist to give kids “the talk.” You do need something other than mere biology to infer that deviating from the natural order is wrong, and the obsession with the minutest details of the “is” to justify the “ought” belies at least a touch of the intellectual illness diagnosed in Part II of this series, namely, a weak form of positivism called scientism.
Given that existentialism is historically opposed to the materialistic worldview which positivism relies on, how can the postmodern manifesto combine both elements? For example, how can a person support transgender surgery as an effective means of “expressing the real self” while claiming that there is no such thing as a soul because it’s not an object of scientific observation? We might say it is a simple lack of reflection which allows this cognitive dissonance, and this is indeed true. The deeper problem, however, is that ideology is serving passion, rather than the other way around. This is part of what makes millennials so difficult to reason with: they will shift from one part of the manifesto to the other for the sake of whatever person or group or behavior they feel good about, not realizing that each pole is at least a mild affront to the other. What they tend to sense is that their scientism forces one to create his own meaning since there is no predefined role by a true authority (God, revealed religion, a family or government invested with God-given authority), and that the quest to create meaning for oneself is determined only by what is able to be perceived by oneself, the greatest authority. The poles point back toward each other in this way, even though real positivists would reject the idea that a person can “mean something” at all, and real existentialists are not even attached to the doctrine that there is a real material world in the first place. The details of theory are lost in the practice of the unfortunate and unwitting inheritors of these worldviews.
Whether the French existentialists would be on board with the hashtag gender activists of today is not entirely clear. Sartre would perhaps call transgenderism “bad faith,” that is, a fake expression of oneself wherein one “tries too hard” to be something he or she really is not. This is not “authentic” to Sartre. (How there could be such a thing as the “self” independent of one’s sincere desires begins to strike the central nerve of the existentialist project, however; if one can act in bad faith, then there must be something more to one’s identity than his desires which those desires can be in line with… which sounds an awful lot like an essence preceding existence, so to speak.) Camus might call such people to account as failing to accept that life just does not make sense, and that the only way to be happy is to accept this: providing a physical answer to a spiritual problem is vain, but there is no spiritual answer either, so one must simply be content with madness.
Existentialism is likely to remind the attentive reader of Sacred Scripture of Ecclesiastes. Was Qoheleth the first existentialist? The first absurdist? He does claim that the acceptance of life as vain and meaningless in itself is a condition for peace, like Camus. (Truly, Qoheleth is right – there is nothing new under the sun!) But Qoheleth, despite all of his despair, believes that everyone’s life means something to God, and that there are objective measures of morality by which that God will somehow judge us. That his idea of final judgment is fuzzy can seem odd given this, but in his intellectual humility he did not grasp for what he had not already been given. He knew we would die and that God would somehow render justice, but he will not say more.
Postmodernists avoid the topic of death because it would force them out of their watered down existentialism – protected by a million distractions – into the disquieting bluntness of Camus, which few can stomach: your life really is fundamentally meaningless, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so just get comfortable with that fact like a happy Sisyphus. The suicidal dilemma is also “too harsh” for sensitive millennial minds – let that question be left to poor Hamlet and Hannah Baker.
Next time, we will directly investigate the relationship between the trends of our current culture and the doctrine and praxis of the Cathars, finally making good on the title of this series.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Simone De Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Che Guevara; Cuba, 1960