John Timaeus is a writer who publishes at Modernity has Fallen and tweets at @fallenmodernity.
People live according to their beliefs whether they can articulate those beliefs or not. Today we live in an era dominated by “Enlightenment Values,” the idea that people and society should be guided by science and reason rather than religion and tradition. Starting the 16th century, there was a shift away from the traditions and religions of Western society. It was driven by scientific breakthroughs which upended the classical understanding of the universe which was a synthesis of Aristotle’s worldview and Christianity. Science is now widely viewed as the final word on what is true and as a consequence there is a skepticism towards religion and spirituality.
The shift towards “Enlightenment” had a fundamental effect on the culture of Western civilization. The consequence of using science as the principle guide for humanity meant the assumptions of a scientific worldview have become increasingly entrenched in the minds of individuals. Fundamentally, science depends upon the senses as the starting point for determining what is true. That which can be seen, heard, touched, or otherwise perceived is trusted as real and true. Religious values, which start from a place of faith, are necessarily out of reach of the empirical or at least are viewed skeptically. The traditions built on top and alongside of religious faith are now without a steady base.
The decline of religion along with this exclusive trust of the senses has resulted in a morality based almost entirely on harm. A skepticism towards religious and traditional values combined with an assumption of perception being the basis for what is true results in only being certain that “the only good is pleasure and the only evil is pain.” This of course is nothing new, its name is Epicureanism and it dates back to the 4th century BC. The Enlightenment has effectively popularized Epicureanism to the detriment of the Christian faith.
Epicureanism, both now and then, has two serious flaws: it assumes empiricism and science determine what is true and it promotes a morality and lifestyle that is harmful to both individuals and society. These flaws are now becoming obvious, science and empiricism are not completely reliable means of determining what is true and the morality of “the only good is pleasure” is ruining the lives of many. However, Epicureanism died out once before in the 3rd century AD and it can be defeated again. The answer is to live by time-tested values, values that have endured because they lead to a flourishing life for both individuals and society.
Limitations of Science
It is modern heresy to declare that science does not and cannot have all the answers. Further, science does not even represent the best we know so far either. Science, like any other tool, has significant limitations.
One of the best recent illustrations of the limitations of science is called “The Turkey Problem” and it comes from the author Nassim Taleb. Image that you are a turkey living on a farm. Each day the farmer feeds you, you spend your time with other turkeys, and you are generally happy. This goes on day after day, you are healthy, and each day is better than the day before. After 300 days, the farmer makes you into Thanksgiving Dinner. From the point of view of the turkey, all the data and experience of its life is not only misleading but points in exactly the wrong direction. That drastic break between the evidence and the truth is what Taleb calls “The Black Swan.” Black Swans are extremely unlikely, high impact events that are not predictable from the available data. In the case of the Turkey, its coming demise has no evidence to provide warning.
Black Swans are not just a thought experiment, most of the important events in human history are Black Swans. Many human inventions were accidents or came from playful tinkering. For example, the invention of the telescope was based on a discovery made by children playing with lenses. They were the first to notice that using multiple lenses magnified objects. Galileo refined the idea to make the first telescope. The discovery of penicillin, the computer, the electric motor, and the internet were all accidental or were made via tinkering. They were certainly not planned or predicted by anyone. Beyond inventions, wars, plagues, natural disasters, and stock market crashes are all examples of Black Swans, they are almost completely unexpected and have had a huge impact.
The Turkey Problem and Black Swans are just a restatement of a much older problem: Plato’s allegory of the cave. Imagine several people chained to a wall in a cave. The people are stuck watching a shadow-puppet show being played out on the opposite wall of the cave by some others they cannot see behind them. If those people trapped in the cave, spent their whole life in there, how could they know that shadow-puppet show was a lie? All their sensory experience would mislead them from the truth of life outside the cave. Plato’s point is that we are all in the cave, the world we observe is an illusion, a shadow of the truth. His conclusion is that the truth is only obtained by thought and self-reflection, not by observation and empiricism. Science has contributed much to human knowledge and civilization but like any other tool it has limitations. Science is based on empiricism and observation, however what we perceive is not always the truth. As Augustine said “Sin is love out of order,” science has contributed greatly to human civilization but it has been exalted too highly to ultimate means of knowing what is true. Science is a powerful tool but it is a terrible god.
The other, more pernicious half of the Enlightenment is the Neo-Epicurean culture that it created. The scientific revolution replaced the view that the universe was created and governed by God with the view that the universe is a cosmic machine. The switch was inevitable since the spiritual and supernatural is by definition not perceptible by the senses. With this view of the universe it is natural that culture has drifted to Epicureanism. Epicureanism is a philosophy that rejects the supernatural and has an exclusive trust in the senses. Without any transcendent source of morality, Epicureanism defines good as pleasure and evil as pain.
Though historically speaking Epicureanism does place limits on the pursuit of pleasure. It recognizes that directly maximizing pleasure could easily result in self-destructive behavior. Hence, Epicureanism promotes an “everyday hedonism” that seeks to enjoy the common, small pleasures in life.
In modern culture, Epicureanism is dominant though never named. Popular phrases such as “do what is right for you,” “live for the moment,” or “life is short, enjoy yourself” typify an Epicurean mindset. Even political arguments are commonly framed on an Epicurean worldview. For example, one of the most common arguments for gay marriage is that it is cruel to deny people love and happiness when it does not effect others. According to its reasoning, since love is pleasurable it is good, and since no one is effected no one else is harmed, hence gay marriage is clearly good. The same argument is used for the legalization of marijuana. Since it brings people pleasure and does not hurt anyone, it clearly must be good.
However, Epicureanism has been a disaster for modern Western culture. It has replaced the human desire and need for transcendence experience with an empty pursuit of pleasure. In the best case, Epicureanism is just a coping mechanism for nihilism. A universe without a creator is a universe without purpose and pleasure seeking is just a distraction from the meaninglessness of existence. It supposedly rejects self-destructive hedonism, but there is no reason to avoid self-destruction that takes half a lifetime. If alcoholism or smoking shortens a person’s life by a few years but gives them enjoyment, it is justified under Epicureanism. Any unhealthy behavior can be justified if the pleasure “outweighs” the pain.
The flaw with Epicurean’s morals is far deeper. Marriage, raising children, and even exercise are all examples of activities that are generally considered good but are a blend of happiness and suffering. Being motivated by pleasure means many good things look unappealing at best or will be avoided entirely. Epicurean morality is terrible because it guides people away from meaningful choices towards dead end pleasure.
Finally, Epicureanism strips society of any higher aspiration. According to Epicureans, everything will eventually disappear into eternal death, hence all accomplishments are ultimately futile outside of the immediate gratification. A society driven by immediate pleasures will not build any great works. In contrast, medieval European society was in many ways the opposite, their faith dedicated their work towards God. Gothic cathedrals are both monuments to God and are beauty incarnate, many of them took hundreds of years to complete. Generations came and went, each contributing a small yet significant part towards a grand achievement. To the generation that embarked on the project, their only reward was knowing what their grandchildren or even great-grandchildren would someday see.
A society with their eyes set on the eternal allows individuals to flourish by giving them the opportunity to realize their potential and enabling them to act upon it. Further, it allows the community to thrive across generations and achieve what no single person could. As the old Greek proverb states, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” An Epicurean society reduces humanity’s aspiration to its base desires: food, sex, entertainment, and a comfortable dwelling. This is little more than the life of bacteria, growing and consuming with no direction until inevitable death. There will be no grand projects, no enduring works of art and beauty, no striving towards nobility and virtue, just a life driven by meaningless stimulation. Faith in the unseen is exactly what is needed for good individuals and a good society.
Tradition: The Search For Truth & How to Live
Culture and tradition maintains what is good and discards the rest. Its winnowing is found in philosophy, literature, music, and the arts. William Shakespeare was one of many authors and playwrights of the 16th century. Despite the competition, he outshined his contemporaries and his works have had a massive impact on Western culture. People in his day valued his plays which provided insight into the human experience and for the same reason people continue to value his work today.
Likewise in philosophy, Plato and Aristotle had many contemporaries however they found unique success in their time and founded some of the first schools of philosophy: the Academy and the Lyceum respectively. According to the author Arthur Herman in his book The Cave and the Light, their philosophies provided two distinct frameworks for almost all subsequent philosophers in the Western world, an intellectual legacy of almost 2400 years.
Not only are classical musicians a highlight reel of their respective times, but so are more recent artists. When people today refer to “classic rock” they typically mean a short list of about 100 songs from the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The winnowing of culture and tradition takes the best from each time, building a legacy of what people find to be useful, valuable, and true.
Epicureanism, Christianity, Scientific Materialism, and Islam (to name a few) are all worldviews with their own metaphysical claims which are almost impossible to directly test. A spiritual worldview which believes in what cannot be seen, heard, or touched will never pass the test of science, at least not directly, though that does not mean the worldview is not true. The strength of science is in reproducibility. A hypothesis can be believed if it holds up against repeated tests. The same is true for tradition except that a tradition is tested in the lives of the people who follow it. When people follow a religion or worldview it is put to the test, and those that have value and truth will endure. When a population of people across millennia survive and even thrive in the face of disaster and the unexpected (i.e. Black Swans) it is evidence that their beliefs conform to reality and are a reliable guide. Though the experience and lives of each person is subjective, the aggregation is not. Since each person brings their own bias and context, this tests the reliability of the tradition from different assumptions and viewpoints. The convergence of multiple lines of inquiry is called consilience, and the preservation of tradition across time and space is a kind of consilience.
Tradition is the most rational guide for how to live. To live rationally, means to live a life that reflects the truth, and the living history of tradition provides the most reliable test of if a worldview or religions aligns with the truth. Those that have lasted the longest and in the most places must have a better understanding of how reality actually works with regards to how to live and flourish. This is not simply a test of efficiency or survivability but of thriving.
Of course there are many religions and worldviews that have survived into the modern era. However the legacy of Christianity and its many associated traditions have unique achievements. The Christian religion is responsible for innumerable works of art including gothic cathedrals, the scientific method, and the belief in the natural rights of humanity. Though there have been dark moments in history associated with Christianity and Western civilization such as slavery, these failures are not unique to them. The failures are common to almost all human civilizations but the achievements of Western civilization are unique.
The modern world has changed the way people live, generally for the worse. Living a life centered on traditional values means embracing the principles of spirituality, aspiration, and community. Spiritual life first and foremost means being a part of a traditional religious community and honoring the Bible as the word of God. Scripture and Christian tradition are the basis for knowing and understanding the truth and show the way to eternal life. Attending church and participating in a religious community is essential for both spiritual and physical health. The Christian faith is not just the way to heaven, it is the best way to live here and now.
Aspects of spiritual life often neglected are spiritual disciplines and the need for sacred spaces. Spiritual disciplines involve not just reading Scripture and regular church attendance but also time dedicated to prayer, meditation, and reflection. Further, practices such as fasting are good for both the body as well as the soul.
According to Plato, just as a ring makes an impression of itself on a wax seal, beauty is the imprint of God’s goodness on the material world. It is important to spend time in beautiful, sacred spaces such whether created by man or God. Beautiful and sacred buildings such as churches remind us of the good of God’s order in the lives of believers. The beauty of nature reminds of us of the good of God’s order throughout the cosmos. Spending time in both is good for spiritual and physical life.
The second principle is a life of aspiration. This means that individuals need noble and virtuous goals to struggle and strain to achieve. A spouse and a family is first among these. Not everyone needs to be married but most should. Having a family is difficult, it takes a lot of effort over many years, yet it is one of the most meaningful aspects to life. Maintaining a healthy body through exercise is essential, a person’s body is both a temple and a gift. The body needs to be built up and in doing so, it is possible to learn discipline that will help in all areas of life. Finally, aspiration means finding work that is both useful and meaningful if possible. All work can be dedicated to God if it is done with dedication and passion.
Finally, the third principle is community. People were made to live in a society, it is nearly universal across human history. The bonds of family and religious communities are especially important. However the most overlooked kind of community and relationship is friendship. Friendship has been on the decline in recent years, especially among men. Men need to be intentional about building friendships with other men because those relationships are what will truly support you in the worst of times. Men should build new fraternal organizations for the purpose of building friendship among men.
Community is important because it fosters relationships between people. One of the most soul crushing aspects of the modern world is how it isolates people and prevents the development of relationships. Relationships are meaningful, many of life’s greatest joys are meant to be shared with others or are impossible to experience alone. Relationships help keep individuals accountable when making moral choices and provide council. Finally, no matter how capable any individual is, everyone has moments of weakness and needs help.
The Enlightenment ushered in a worldview dominated by science and its assumption that the best way to determine what is true is by observation. This led to a “mechanical” view of the universe and an Epicurean culture that exclusively defines pleasure as good and harm as evil. However, science does not and cannot have all the answers; Black Swans undermine empiricism as being completely reliable. The values of Epicureanism are little more than cope for nihilism and strip society of all higher aspirations. Instead return to the time-tested values of the past, the values of the community, faith, and struggle for a higher purpose.