Saturday 17 July 2010

The deep satisfactions in life - Charles Murray, again!

"First, the problem with the European model, namely: It drains too much of the life from life. (...)

"I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.

"And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

"To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

"There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent? That qualifies. A good marriage? That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours? That qualifies. And having been really good at something—good at something that drew the most from your abilities? That qualifies.

"Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes.

"It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life—the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships—coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness—occurs within those four institutions.

"Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them."

Charles Murray. The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism



Murray is, as usual, very insightful here.

His basic argument about modernity subverting the deep satisfactions of life is surely correct. People nowadays have difficulty in ‘doing good’ since the state has taken over all good-doing, and made ‘good’ into procedural bureaucracy, empty of meaning.

His argument about the need for transcendence for life to have meaning is also right. As Kurt Vonnegut memorably demonstrated in Breakfast of Champions, if you really try to live by the belief that humans are a collection of chemicals, you will be driven crazy by contradictions to which there is no solution but only distraction.

Yet Murray is trying to make a *secular* argument for the need for transcendental meaning; and the points made, even when true, tend to subvert belief in transcendence by making it expedient rather than true.

I have done the same myself, on numerous occasions. In trying to build bridges between the secular and religious, we (inadvertently) frame belief in transcendence as a means to achieving secular ends.

Perhaps this is an unavoidable hazard – but it is necessary to keep remembering the hazard, and counteracting it.


dearieme said...

It's all very well hymning American Exceptionalism, but the USA and its preceding colonies have never contributed a single top-drawer creative mind to Western Civilisation. I mean of the level of Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Hume, Smith, Clerk Maxwell, Gauss, Einstein, Rembrandt, Beethoven, Mozart, Descartes, and so on. It might make one pause on the wonders of that way of life if, even if only at the very highest level, it's essentially a parasite. Mark you, you could level the same criticism at Europe post Einstein. And, it must be admitted, that Europe also produced an odious list of great frauds and horrors - Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Freud, Napoleon, ...

Bruce Charlton said...

Fair point - but Western Civilization needs large numbers of second-rate creative minds as well as the handful of first-raters - and the US culture has been pretty good at generating them in the past couple of hundred years.

I would certainly favour US exceptionalism over the European model; but the US model doesn't actually make sense either.

Essentially, modernity relies on many and frequent sci-tech breakthroughs to generate economic growth to fund ever-escalating levels of bribery/ distraction; until bureacratic parasitism and sclerosis kills the whole thing.