Against the liberal view of history as progress there has always been the tragic view, that history is a struggle by humans against their limitations, in which their dignity is found in the struggle, itself without a resolution in historical time. This view insists upon the predicament of history, its insolubility. The believer in original sin and divine providence finds common practical ground here with that stoic atheist and humanist, Freud, who reminded his readers that the aim of life is death, and who denied ‘that there is an instinct toward perfection at work in human beings, which has brought them to their present high level of intellectual achievement and ethical sublimation and which may be expected to watch over their development into supermen. I have no [such] faith… I cannot see how this benevolent illusion is to be preserved.’

History does not pause, and decisions are inevitably taken within some philosophical or ideological framework. If the intellectual framework we had before is discredited, what takes its place? There is at present no evident answer. Until now, Western interpretations of history have assumed that it had a meaning. Divine revelation had supplied it, or science and reason would identify it, but it was there. By finding it, and acting upon it, the ethical and metaphysical questions of human existence would eventually be resolved. This made possible civilizing and mediating codes of conduct in society, of the kind identified with chivalry. Modern nihilism rejects the discipline and limitation that are part of the belief in an objective referent for human action.

The second millennium closed with the intellectual, political, and moral possibilities of a belief in progress explored to the extreme and exhausted. In the new millennium, with God dead and history without purpose, except that which power can impose, we approach the Hobbesian universe. Or we move toward an even worse one, in which the Miltonian moral categories are invalidated: “Evil be thou my Good … all good to me is lost.”

— William Pfaff, The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia


Human life is conducted on a thin crust of normality, in which mutual respect maintains a genial equilibrium between people. Beneath this thin crust is the dark sea of instincts, quiescent for the most part but sometimes erupting in a show of violence. Above it is the light-filled air of thought and imagination, into which our sympathies expand and which we people with our visions of human value. Culture is the collective practice which renews those visions and extends our sympathies into all the corners of the heart. It is the ongoing record of the life of feeling which offers to every new generation the examples, images and words that will teach it what to feel. But when the eruptions come it can do nothing to tame the violence. Nor can religion do anything nor can ordinary morality. For violence breeds violence, and anger breeds anger. Good people, whether educated or uneducated, whether aesthetes or philistines, will try to bring order and decency in the midst of chaos but bad people will always resist them, and in the worst moments of human conflict it is the bad people who prevail. Some of these bad people will be cultivated; some will be religious; all of them will be bent on a path of destruction, consulting their faith or their education only as a source of excuses, and never as an order to stop. No institution, no doctrine no art that human beings have devised has ever been able to prevent the atrocities that occur once the crust of normal life has broken.

— Roger Scruton, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged

The supreme piety of the age is that a set of available right principles will guide us into a better world. And these principles are always one term of a duality that has hitherto dominated human responses to problems. War and peace must be replaced by peace; competition and cooperation must give way to cooperation; punishment must be abandoned in favor of its partners forgiveness and rehabilitation; and universal altruism must replace its immemorial shadow self-interest. The question might well be put as follows: Does this commitment to these soft virtues point the way to a better world? Or does it merely turn our civilization into a bird with only one wing, forever flapping helplessly as it attempts to keep us airborne in a highly dangerous world?

— Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life

But what ultimately drew me to the church was another facet, one about which too little is spoken. It’s what the great Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno called ‘the tragic sense of life.’ At the center of this sensibility is a profound awareness of the ambiguities and divisions within the human heart, along with a stress on the importance of suffering and contemplation. I came to understand why Catholics venerate the crucifix, not the empty cross, why they are haunted by the words to Mary that ‘a sword shall pierce your side also.’

There have been times when critics have confused the tragic sense with mere fatalism, but I suspect that is because Americans still suffer from the illusion that they can escape tragedy and remake themselves in the process. The truth, as I came to see it, is that the tragic sense of life is the ultimate antidote to religious arrogance and sentimentality, as well as to the ideological triumphalisms of Right and Left.

— Gregory Wolfe, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human In an Ideological Age

Such a drift of the European understanding away from choice towards science and necessity was attractive not only because it seemed to solve the problem of free will and determinism, but also because it promised the removal of pain. For in practical terms, choosing is, as the cliché has it, a painful necessity. Earlier generations may indeed have had a taste for this painful necessity, rather like cold baths and strict diets, but there is no doubt that choices are moments when we are forced to recognize that we cannot have everything. They are moments of self-definition at which the self must, in Hegelian terms, abandon its potential infinitude in order to attain finite actuality, and the price of that is limitation.

— Kenneth Minogue, “Choice, Consciousness and Ideological Language,” On Liberty and Its Enemies

Whether all this was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is an impossible question, and a pointless one. These changes came upon us like the weather; ‘we’ ‘chose’ them only in the broadest sense of the words. They were upon us before we could do anything about them. You may keep the TV in the closet, but you still live in a TV society. The possibility of divorce now hovers over every marriage, leaving it subtly different from what it would have been before. What’s important is that all these changes went in the same direction: they traded context for individual freedom. Maybe it’s been a worthwhile bargain; without it, we wouldn’t have the prosperity that marks life in the West, and all the things that prosperity implies. Longer life span, for instance; endless choice. But the costs have clearly been real, too: we’ve tried hard to fill the hole left when community disappeared, with ‘traditional values’ and evangelical churches, with back-to-the-land communes and New Age rituals. But those frantic stirrings serve mostly to highlight our radical loneliness. Even the surrounding natural world, as I argued in The End of Nature, no longer serves as a ground, a context; we’ve reshaped it so thoroughly, now changing even its climate, that it reflects our habits and appetites and economies instead of offering us a doorway into a deeper world.

The past five hundred years have elevated us to the status of individuals, and reduced us to the status of individuals. At the end of the process, that’s what we are — empowered, enabled, isolated, disconnected individuals. Call it a blessing or call it a curse or call it both, that’s where we find ourselves. Our greatest cultural artifact is probably Seinfeld, a television program devoted to exploring what it means to live a life that has no context, that has no meaning. A show, famously, about nothing. The great danger, in other words, of the world that we have built is that it leaves us vulnerable to meaninglessness — to a world where consumption is all that happens, because there’s nothing else left that means anything. In a way that was once unthinkable, we now have to ask ourselves. ‘Is my life amounting to something? Does it have weight and substance, or is it just running away into nothing, into something insubstantial?’ And the only real resource that many of us have against that meaninglessness, now that the church and the village and the family and even the natural world can’t provide us with as much context as before, is our individual selves. We have to, somehow, produce all that context for ourselves; that’s what a modern life is about. There’s no use moaning about it; it may well be better than what came before. In any event, it’s who we are, where we are, how we are, what we are, why we are. We’ve got to answer those questions pretty much on our own.

But now — and finally, here’s the heart of the argument — we stand on the edge of disappearing even as individuals. Most of the backdrops have long since been dragged off the stage, and most of the other actors have mostly vanished; each of us is giving our existential monologue, trying to make it count for something. But in the wings, the genetic engineers stand poised to slip us off the stage as well, and in so doing to ring down the curtain on the entire show. It doesn’t seem so at first; if anything, just the opposite. The engineers promise to complete the process of liberation, to free us (or, rather, our offspring) from the limitations of our DNA, just as their predecessors freed us from the confines of the medieval worldview, or the local village, or the family. They can, they promise confidently, remove the ties that bind us — the genes that allow us to fall into ill health, or that keep us from being more intelligent, or more muscular, or more handsome, or happier. It seems as if, with their splicing and snipping, they want only to remove one more of the stones that weigh us down; that without it we will bound even higher, be more truly liberated.

In fact, though, whatever you think of the past five hundred years, this is one liberation too many. We are snipping the very last weight holding us to the ground, and when it’s gone we will float silently away into the vacuum of meaninglessness.

— Bill McKibben, Enough

The story of liberalism, as liberals tell it, is rather like the legend of St. George and the dragon. After many centuries of hopelessness and superstition, St. George, in the guise of Rationality, appeared in the world somewhere about the sixteenth century. The first dragons upon whom he turned his lance were those of despotic kingship and religious intolerance. These battles won, he rested for a time, until such questions as slavery, or prison conditions, or the state of the poor, began to command his attention. During the nineteenth century, his lance was never still, prodding this way and that against the inert scaliness of privilege, vested interest, or patrician insolence. But, unlike St. George, he did not know when to retire. The more he succeeded, the more he became bewitched with the thought of a world free of dragons, and the less capable he became of ever returning to private life. He needed his dragons. He could only live by fighting for causes—the people, the poor, the exploited, the colonially oppressed, the underprivileged and the underdeveloped. As an aging warrior, he grew breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons—for the big dragons were now harder to come by.

— Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind

Only the blind can fail to see the irony of the situation the human species brought on itself when it tried to master its own fate and to eliminate accident. It bent its knee to History, and History is a cruel god. Today, the commandments that fall from his lips are uttered by clever chaplains hiding in his empty interior. The eyes of the god are so constructed that they see wherever a man may go; there is no shelter from them. Lovers in bed perform their amorous rites under his mocking glance; a child plays in the sand, not knowing that his future life has been weighed and written into the general account; only the aged, who have but a few days left before they die, can justly feel that they have to a large extent escaped his rule.

— Czeslaw Milosz, The Captive Mind

I know that the gratitude will not last, because gratitude can never be a chronic emotion. I will forget the pain within the week and take my painless toe for granted again. But still the episode illustrates the point that suffering is necessary for the full appreciation of life. Without some experience of it, we could hardly be aware that we were enjoying anything; and it is why it is so difficult to imagine heaven, where suffering does not and could not exist. We can all imagine, vividly, a thousand hells, but a single heaven is quite beyond our imagination to conceive. That is why the iconography of hell is varied and fascinating, that of heaven dull and boring.

Not only the capacity for but also some experience of suffering is necessary, then, for the enjoyment of life: suffering in general, but not any particular instance of it, which should always be relieved if possible. This is nearly, but not quite, a paradox, which in general we misunderstand, to our own detriment.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “The Pain Principle