Monday, January 15, 2024

Disenchantment and Human Being

Rod Dreher, now busy finishing his book on re-enchantment, mentioned at his Substack blog that his editor wants one strong chapter on why the fact of disenchantment is important. He asked readers for their ideas. As I consider it a crucial question, and often find myself thinking through aspects of what the West’s disenchantment means, I wrote in reply. Rod graciously posted my comments. Here I post a slightly edited version.

Disenchantment and Human Being

First, disenchantment matters because being both human and fallen, we are at risk of losing our humanity. In a high-tech, hyper-managed order like ours this risk continues to grow. I may be accused of essentialism for this claim (“You’re just assuming an ideology of the human in order to impose it”) but that doesn’t trouble me. I believe there is a created human nature, and sin means that it may be obscured or effaced to such a degree that it is practically annihilated. In not just an individual, but a whole society. We haven’t yet seen such a society, but the totalitarian systems we know of were perhaps only practice runs for what is possible. Disenchantment is the necessary first step to such annihilation of human nature.

Why is it the first step? First, because human being is a reality that is established interpersonally, a reality in relation to others and an Other. Enchantment is itself a sense of a mysterious Other that has a hand in the order of things. Disenchantment entails the breaking of that perception, or the possibility of such perception. It breaks an established relationship, our relationship with the divine. Which relationship is constitutive of the human. Thus disenchantment, as it advances, effaces the authentically human.

Though I’m Christian, I wouldn’t at all claim that Hindus or pagan Greeks or ancient Chinese, by the mere fact of their separation from the Christian faith, were in a state of effacement of human nature that approached something like annihilation. No. They were, like all of us, in sin and thus partially effaced as humans, but a relationality with the divine was maintained in each case. Not the relationality I believe to be the full and true one, but a human one even so.

We in the modern West are likely the first culture to experience the threat of a more radical effacement. And I think we now recognize it, even the non-religious among us. We sense that we may continue here as a population on the surface of the earth, yet the human will somehow be effaced among us.

This explains much of the horror of dystopian science fiction and phenomena like zombie apocalypse films. Such genres arise because of a widespread sense that we are being effaced without being actually killed.

So yes indeed, it is not true that “Life has always been like this.” That's a cope on the part of those who claim a disenchanted society like ours has a human future. Myself I’m guessing this society does not have a long-term, actually human future. Either another human order of relationality will take over (as Houellebecq imagines for Islam in Europe) or we will be effaced to the point of no longer being really human (as I think many of our transhumanists accept, or even cheer).

Western disenchantment has now spread globally. But why did the West suffer this malady first? One could answer the question in different ways (the rise of early modern science, with its attendant left-brain hypertrophy, for instance) but a glimpse of the problem in human terms is gained when we look at our founding modern myths, our liberal anthropology, in Hobbes especially. Hobbes and Locke needed to theorize man in nature, in order to explain how politics arose. Thus the myth of the “natural man” and social-contract theory. (Patrick Deneen wrote on this in his 2018 Why Liberalism Failed, but I’m not convinced by his full thesis, and in any case I’m putting the stress elsewhere.)

Absurdly, and against what we all know to be true about humans and even all primates, Hobbes claimed that man in the state of nature was … an individual man, alone against the elements and all other men. Society was founded with the first pact, an agreement among these free “natural men” not to commit violence against each other.

For Hobbes, then, society appeared among us as if among a population of bears intent on preventing mutual mauling. But the truth is quite otherwise: we humans have always been social creatures. Hobbes’ influence on modern western political thinking is enormous, but his projection of “natural man” is ill-considered nonsense. Millennia earlier Aristotle already knew: Man is a political animal. By nature.

Our liberal anthropology thus, at its roots, largely ignores family and clan. Both of which are human per se. Hobbes and other early modern thinkers did not create our disenchantment, but the myth of natural man shows it already taking root. Our liberal political orders absorbed this myth in their stress on innate individual freedom, which has brought us much good, but at great cost. We’re theorized as fundamentally unfettered individuals hoping to get as much as we can out of a recalcitrant nature before we die.

As backdrop to social contract theory of government, the "natural man" myth has had a larger impact on how westerners think of themselves than most would suspect. There’s no relationality with the divine in the myth, and part of the reason for this is that there is no relationality at all. Not even with the family or clan that every human individual in history has grown up with.

Yet strong relationships with family continued in the West after the 17th century, and a relationality with God continued for most people. Until both relationships grew more attenuated, and first we killed God (as per Nietzsche), and now we are killing the family, through an ever-growing dependence on the state.

Our relationality with the divine is akin to our relationality to others, and both are innately human. This is not merely a matter of “how to be happy”. No, even in order to “be” in any authentic human sense, we must have both kinds of relationship. Once both are lost, the human itself is increasingly lost. If disenchantment is the breaking of real human relationality, it also effects the first steps on the slippery slope to non-humanity.

OF COURSE we are experiencing existential despair and mental disorder and all manner of addictive behavior at rates that only increase the more “advanced” we become in the progressive, secular direction. Our growing alienation is baked into the cake because, seduced by the toys and the lies on offer, we also sense our humanity slipping away.

Christian re-enchantment is the necessary medicine because the God who created us is also the God who became one of us in order to redeem us from the effacement that is sin. But to take the Gospel seriously entails looking hard at our sin and facing the burden of our real relationality, then humbly accepting the gift that we certainly don’t deserve. The postmodern order loathes such seriousness and such a notion of indebtedness, whether to God or others. “My yoke is light” is not a lie--but hey, lighter still is the negative freedom of radical individual autonomy, endless diversions, and the glorious “progress” now on offer.

This is my thumbnail sense of the crisis, at least if looked at in terms of disenchantment. The mention of Hobbes and Locke is not meant to suggest that I believe the liberal political order is itself entirely to blame for this crisis. No, I think if the liberal order has wrought such havoc, it’s because we’ve allowed the negative potentials in it too much sway. We somehow came to believe it was a tool that could manage itself. The Founders knew better.

To sum up: Disenchantment is a matter of broken relationship. Since we as humans come to existence and awareness in relationship, grasping what disenchantment has done to us is also to grasp 1) what we are by nature, 2) where we’re at right now, and 3) where we’re going if we don’t soon recognize the scam.

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