Public Discourse

Pampering or Truth? What Makes for a Worthy Life

SEPTEMBER 25, 2019BY R.J. SNELL

I am omitting the first portion of Snell’s article to get to what interests me – and perhaps possibly you: Blogger.

As Michael Hanby once argued, one is bound to find a hopelessness and jumbled fragmentation beneath “the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens . . . to despair of social and political involvement.” The political and historical hopelessness that Goldberg notes is closely related to the decadent indulgence that Hess observes and enjoys. However much one may pine for unity, commonality, and the common good, these objectives are far beyond the imagination, will, and character of a people that has been formed by the ideals that Hess reports: “Contemplation and prayer? Oh, forget that. Go for the squid-ink risotto instead.”

Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success.

Many of our fellow citizens do not appear to know what life is for. They have never learned the pathways or prescription for a meaningful, worthy life, even though they know very well the prescription for success. In one widely-noted essay, William Deresiewicz comments that his Ivy League students were driven, accomplished, talented, and disciplined; but “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. . . . The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

The spread of this sense of ambition without purpose in part accounts for the popularity of figures like Jordan Peterson. Many students have told me they read and appreciate his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because they have no other sources of rules for living well. (“Don’t you have a grandmother?” is my usual confused response.) Similarly, the attraction of movements like The School of Life or TED―especially among the well-credentialed but confused―comes from their promise of wisdom for living rather than of mere techniques of success. Even then, the impression they give is that a good life is a commodity available for purchase rather than a long and difficult drama that requires reflection, self-mastery, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of suffering. A brief glance at the School of Life store, with its kitschy games, cute notebooks, and “Optimist/Pessimist” drinking glasses tempts one to quote Don Colacho with grudging admiration: “The modern world will not be punished. It is the punishment.”

That is, the formation that our present time and place impart, the relentless catechesis of contemporary culture, punishes our young. And the punishment is often especially harsh on the most “successful”―those who have best absorbed contemporary culture’s “schooling,” from which they learned how to succeed but not how to lead a worthwhile life.

The Real Question: The Happiness of the Human Person

All too often, we who hold to more traditional notions of life have responded to the desperate and enervated with mere moralism: we have neglected to tell a coherent and full story about happiness and well-being. We do a disservice when our arguments look like “tsk-tsking” or pearl-clutching about sex, transgenderism, the family, religion, and so on. We make it appear as if we disagree with popular culture merely about lifestyle and private choices.

All too often, we who hold to more traditional notions of life have responded to the desperate and enervated with mere moralism: we have neglected to tell a coherent and full story about happiness and well-being.

Instead, we ought to remind ourselves and our detractors that ours is a case for human well-being, for lives that are noble, flourishing, free, and happy. Our moral argumentation, however demanding and rigorous it is, comes from a concern for people: for those who, we believe, have been robbed of their cultural inheritance, robbed of happiness, robbed of a coherent account of what makes life worthwhile. We are motivated not by resentment or fear, not by the desire for power or control, but by an ambition for our neighbor’s well-being―that is, by love, no matter how awkward it sounds to put it that way.

We ought to remind ourselves and our detractors that ours is a case for human well-being, for lives that are noble, flourishing, free, and happy

We need to communicate moral teaching in a manner that rises fully to the need of our time. We need to provide human formation in ethics, conscience, freedom, and worship, all in keeping with a fundamental account of human nature. All the while we must constantly remind ourselves that we are seeking worthwhile lives for ourselves and our fellows.

The Western Tradition Has the Answers―We Just Need to Communicate Them Better

Through its account of freedom, desire, love, and rights, the western tradition proposes a compelling vision of the human good. But contemporary ways of speaking about and understanding human experience make it difficult for many to hear what the tradition says―to grasp what desire is truly for, what love really is, what freedom is and is not.

Yet the dogmas of the Times are all but guaranteed to leave the human person starving for better answers. Squid-ink risotto, no matter how wonderful, is not enough, and only a full account of the human good can restore our faith in the common good.

Human beings have not changed. We need these truths and we all inevitably seek them. For us bearers of the tradition, the challenge now seems to be, not to make stronger arguments or to shout them louder, but to discover how to make them lucid, visible, and imaginable. Not only must we draw on the best content and evidence available―which is on our side―but we must respond kindly and compassionately to the starving souls around us.

The ideal of pampered living that Amanda Hess proposes cannot satisfy the craving for common projects and a common humanity that Michelle Goldberg identifies. Goldberg rightly and nobly demands truth, but the vision offered by her colleagues at the Times―and indeed by the “best and brightest” of our various cultural institutions―is glaringly inadequate. We stewards of the tradition have good answers for what makes life worth living. If only we could be imaginative enough to give new voice to those ancient truths and avoid the stultifying fate of pampered souls.

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