So everything in human self-understanding is over bar the shouting: only the details have yet to be filled in. Before long, if there is sufficient research funding, there will be no more puzzles and no unpleasant surprises, no agonizing dilemmas in human existence; the question of the good life will have been settled once and for all, indubitably and scientifically, without the necessity of endless and unprovable metaphysical speculations. To understand all will no longer be to forgive all, for there will be nothing to forgive; everyone will behave reasonably in the first place, which is to say, in accordance with the dictates of the scientifically proven good life. History will come to an end, this time not by virtue of the triumph of liberal democracy throughout the world, but by that of the triumph of psychology and neuroscience. Man will no longer pass on misery to Man, as in Larkin’s poem; he will pass on knowledge instead, knowledge and wisdom being of course by that stage coterminous. Indeed, knowledge will secrete wisdom as the liver secretes bile.

I don’t believe it, and I’m not sure that I would want to live in such a world if it were true.

— Theodore Dalrymple, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality

The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.

― Steven Ozment, A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People

The difference in depth of the two books is readily apparent from the difference in the irony that each author employs. Voltaire is heavy and obvious; Johnson, despite his stylistic orotundity, is light and subtle. Candide is expelled from his happy home, Rasselas wants to escape his: already a great difference in depth, for Candide’s misfortunes eventuate from outside himself, while Rasselas experiences Man’s existential, internally generated dissatisfaction and restlessness. Since no one could possibly imagine a place better than the happy valley, Johnson confronts us from the first with man’s inability ever to be satisfied with what he has, which, he suggests, is his glory but also his misery.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “What Makes Dr. Johnson Great?”, Not With a Bang But a Whimper

But it seems best to conclude by registering a note of sobriety, as against hopes for transformation. If cultural despair rests on a view of history as being more powerful than individuals, the revolutionary for his part entertains an exaggerated fantasy of world changing. A heady vision of the progressive hereafter in which economic antagonism has been overcome may come to stand in for, and distract him from, the smaller but harder work of living well in this life. The alternative to revolution, which I want to call Stoic, is resolutely this-worldly. It insists on the permanent, local viability of what is best in human beings. In practice, this means seeking out the cracks where individual agency and the love of knowledge can be realized today, in one’s own life.

— Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Those who say that we are on the verge of a huge increase in self-understanding are claiming that enlightenment will suddenly be reached under the scientific bo tree. The enlightenment will have to be sudden rather than gradual because, if it were gradual, we should already be able to point to an increase in human contentment and self-control brought about by our already increased knowledge. But even the most advanced societies are just as full of angst, or poor impulse control, of existential bewilderment, of adherence to clearly irrational doctrines, as ever they were. There is no sign that, Prozac and neurosurgery notwithstanding, any of this is about to change fundamentally.

…In my opinion, the great philosopher David Hume understood why human self-understanding was forever beyond our reach. It is not a coincidence that he always expressed himself with irony, for the deepest irony is that of the existence of a creature, Man, who forever seeks something that is beyond his understanding.

— Theodore Dalrymple, “Do the Impossible: Know Thyself”, Anything Goes

Darwin’s instinct for truth — or, as it might more accurately be called, his love of truth — is what led him to formulate the theory of evolution. His instinct of virtue, or love of goodness, is what led him to abhor slavery. The faith he lived by was that these two loves would lead, ultimately, to the same conclusion. A century and a half into the Darwinian age, we live by that same faith, because we have no other choice.

— Adam Kirsch, “Darwinism at 150”, Rocket and Lightship

Tocqueville perceived early that democracy presented a stellar example of the saddest of all dilemmas, those in which two good things clash with little compromise or resolution possible. The two good things in democracy, of course, are equality and liberty. One would think it not too much to ask to have both full justice and complete liberty, but this is not so easily arranged. Laws are necessary for a carefully calibrated fairness; certain constraints will be required, because if everyone is cut loose to do his best, many will fall hopelessly out of the race. Historically, the two chief possibilities have been a gentle good society and a cruel great one. The middle possibility, a gentle society that is also truly great, has not yet shown up. Hoping against hope, many of us continue to wish that one day it will. Tocqueville knew it wasn’t likely to come about soon.

— Joseph Epstein, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy’s Guide

There can never not be a situation in which people will find it essential to be a certain way, will want and need to be a certain way, and find that they cannot manage it. We are creatures who don’t get to decide what we are, whose natures are always partly hidden from our conscious understanding, who always pull several ways at once.

— Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

But the serial collapse and the sheer insubstantiality of these projects brings to mind Thomas Macaulay’s jibe that an acre of Middlesex is worth more than a principality in Utopia. The heart wants such worthy causes to succeed, looking to them hopefully for solutions to our contemporary dilemmas. The head can’t turn away from reality. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to resist asking, What is it that makes the noble ideas embodied in these communities so fragile, and so apparently unattractive?

…We can think of these two ambitions—reinvented sex and a remade economy—as the twin pillars of the utopian project.

In fact, the example of America’s nineteenth-century intentional communities suggests that there is something elemental in what John Maynard Keynes, writing during the Great Depression, called “the resilience of capitalism.” Nearly every utopia in these books begins with a determination to create a new economy, usually through some amalgam of collective ownership, central planning, and voluntary labor. Yet egoism, acquisitiveness, competitiveness, and all the other ills of human flesh bob repeatedly to the surface, like a cork that will not be submerged.

— Akash Kapur, “The Return of the Utopians

People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to “solve” the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.”

— J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy