Decades ago, I heard my first penetrating, apt and enduring general characterization of the reigning delusions of the modern world:Â moderns are witlessly afflicted with a self-flattering but morally and spiritually chilling preconception that their basic mode of existence is an âatomistic individualism,â a condition of Cartesian insularity and Kantian autonomy also known as âmutual alienation.âÂ Moderns yearn so desperately to âbelongâ precisely because, more profoundly, they truly belong nowhere (as âstrangers in a strange land,â i.e. anomalies in all the natural world):Â as John Muir observed, âMost people are on the world, not in it.âÂ We are eminently, obligatorily, detachable creatures:Â it is a point of profoundest faith (what was once called mythos) that we are utterly self-possessed, self-purposing, self-interested, i.e. âegosâ that morally speaking are grounded in and directed and gratified by nothing other than themselves.Â Our culture of supposed âautonomyâ more truly verges on something like autism.
âThe humanâ is experienced or interpreted by moderns in direct contrariety to the deterministically bound-in ânatural,â because we are basally âof another kind altogetherâ from all that is natural and all that science can understand strictly causally.Â Just because we are moderns we have no âunified field theoryâ of how the human can be meaningfully a âsubsetâ or specification of the natural.Â Sartre calls our metaphysical plight a being âfated to be free,â but the actuality of the matterâpardon my bluntness, the âtruthââis that this is per se not âmetaphysicalâ or âexistentialâ at all but rather a matter of acculturation, more aptly a dyscultural or ideological coercion or uniformitarianism, an imperative but utterly artificial âa prioriâ defining for us our acceptable mindforms.Â Unlike the denizens of more reflective, more philosophical cultures, moderns in their âobjectivityâ can little comprehend the ways their mentalities are congenitally bound in by the tacit organism of culture.
âWe are born âisolatedâ from others, we live and learn and make decisions in our âprivateâ or inner seclusion from others, every judgment and act is generated out of and for ourselves alone, every crisis-episode or âextreme situationâ merely makes our moral-psychic solitude all that much more acute, and we die in a final surge of incommunicable privatismâthese are the generally fatuous and demonstrably falsifying theses typical of most twentieth-century âexistentialismâ (all, in one way or another, contested by the vastly more profound and more existential existentialists of the nineteenth century).Â All of ancient culture from Hellenism to Judaism, to Confucianism and Christianity etc., understood this âprivatizingâ or âisolatingâ perspective as the natural encumbrance of how idiots or narcissists/infantilists are predisposed to see life and the world.Â The most extreme forms of philosophical retardation of one epoch turn thus into the highest âultimate truthsâ of another.
âModern Manâ gloats over his techno-scientific prowess at having split the âunsplittableâ a-tomos, and he crows also at his âself-revelationâ of having emancipated himself from âtraditionâ and âcommunityâ and entered an age of free âassociation,â thus making decisively explicit his own âtrueâ and âultimateâ existential reality as a kind of âatomâ himself, an internally sovereign but incommunicant and encapsulated hermit-crab.Â The truthâbut why should any licentious modern feel bound by such a thing as that?âwhich is utterly incomprehensible to culturally blighted, modernized mentalities, is that their isolationism is the self-fulfilling prophecy of an ideology that is not just asocial but positively antisocial, a blitheringly stupefying âanarchismâ that promulgates barbarism without even the least trace of self-consciousness of what moderns have been conditioned to presuppose.Â A seclusive idiotism, a viral vice promoted as if it were a virtue, is carried out as the indubitable dogma of a âcriticalâ culture and the âultimateâ faith of a self-blindered âsecularizedâ era.Â It occurs to virtually no moderns at all that this âmetaphysical isolationismâ is merely the way an abstractivizing and imperializing scientistico-capitalist ideology divides its human populace from all resources of reason, culture and conscience the more profoundly to conquer it.
In the US, this dissolutive or mutually alienative ideology has anathematized all profound traditional thinkers about the principles of social, historical, and cultural modes of existence (âSocialisme, quelle horreur!â).Â In spite of the actuality that no one who is not extraordinarily cultured can even begin to think for himself, and Americans are not even remotely cultured personalities; and in spite of the actuality that marriages, families, religions, languages, public funds, public schools and libraries and post offices and clinics and even corporations and mass-media are all forms of âcommunism,â Americans take âmind controlâ and âcommunismâ as the horror of all horrors (witness the cyclical crusades of Red Scares, the ever-piquant Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.).Â But in spite of such a phobia against losing proprietary control of their âownâ minds, Americans are one of the most cult-prone, mass-organized and âmanipulable collectivities that has ever existed, as abject and pathos-besotted conformists down to their slavish toenails.Â In the early nineteenth century De Tocqueville already observed this striking phobia among Americans against standing alone and thinking for oneself.Â The bonds of subrational control over us are more potent than ever precisely because the critical culture, the âknow thyselfâ that would make such controls accessible to conscious evaluation, has withered to nothing, eaten away by democratist fear of âelitistâ critical intelligence and proprietarist neglect of and contempt for public education.
Ironically of course, the more âinternalizedâ or monological the mental life of moderns becomes, the feebler and more naÃ¯ve it grows in its defenses against insidious and subliminal forms of manipulation.Â And the less of a truly active mind it exercises, the more of a pathetic mentality it manifests.
[Â©2009 Kenneth Smith]