This is our fate: to stand
in our own way. Forever
in the way.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Eighth Duino Elegy (trans. Barrows and Macy)


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

He appears to believe that if men are all freed from restraints and put, as far as possible, on an equal footing, they will naturally treat each other as brothers, and work together harmoniously for their common good. I believe that many men are bad, a vast majority of men indifferent, and many good, and that the great mass of indifferent people sway this way or that according to circumstances, one of the most important of which circumstances is the predominance for the time being of the bad or the good. I further believe that between all classes of men there are and always will be real occasions of enmity and strife, and that even good men may be and often are compelled to treat each other as enemies either by the existence of conflicting interests which bring them into collision, or by their different ways of conceiving goodness.

— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

It is clear to me that people often want incompatible things. They want danger and excitement on the one hand, and safety and security on the other, and often simultaneously. Contradictory desires mean that life can never be wholly satisfying or without frustration.

I think it was Dostoyevsky who said that, even if the government were 100 per cent benevolent and arranged everything for our own good, as judged by rational criteria, we should still want to exercise our freedom by going against its dispensations.

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men – that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring.

— Theodore Dalrymple, interviewed by Jamie Glazov

We are hopelessly beset by conflicting desires. Like Charles V, we want both the pleasures of privacy and the pleasures of power, no matter how improbable or impossible their combination may be. Like Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, we want both a quiet fishing-spot, and the money we cannot make there.

…The fact is that, as Hume said in The Natural History of Religion, “it is not possible for us, by our most chimerical wishes, to form the idea of a station or situation altogether desirable.” The reason is that we desire incompatible things. Even if every other cause of human misery were removed, and even if only a single person were in question, that person’s desires, being inconsistent, would still be incapable of satisfaction. Remold this sorry scheme of things exactly to your heart’s desires: then even if, by some miracle, those desires were compatible with one another, you would sooner or later be bored with the result. In other words, the universal human hankering for novelty would, at some stage, intervene and unsettle all.

— David Stove, “Living Retired“, What’s Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment