Roland N. Stromberg
After Everything: Western Intellectual History Since 1945

So there is really no such thing as philosophy in the sense of a message, a gospel, a body of wisdom. For that we must look somewhere else.


This abdication of the philosophers was a remarkable, some thought a dismaying or shocking, thing–a drying up of the springs of wisdom. To a world desperately in need of guidance, the philosophers, chuckling softly and drawing another glass of port in the seminar room, replied, "Sorry. Not our affair." But they could hardly be accused of arrogance, since they were determinedly bent on a course of self-extinction.


One lived after all apocalypses. They had happened, and life went on.


Though they shouted against "capitalism," everything suggests that it was not in fact capitalism the young radicals hated but technological society–capitalist, socialist, or whatever. Studies revealed that factory workers did not want to socialize the factory; they wanted to escape it. Max Weber's Iron Cage closes in, whether on the assembly line or in the office; even in the professions or the research laboratory, life and labor grow rationalized and specialized to a degree that the human spirit cannot tolerate–a spirit that is, of course, at the same time being freed and expanded in other ways. The romantic ego expands along with the technological society, and between them they squeeze the soul in an ever-tightening vice. Drug-taking, hippyism, and bombings are its screams of pain.


The "average" man today is no doubt much like Augie March: he cheerfully ignores the intellectual or grand cultural realm to live in some sort of subculture, composed of hobbies (model railroading, bridge, reading on some hobby-subject like sci-fi or the Civil War), of television and movies and the evening paper, of a little paperback or slick-magazine sex. "Each individual must find his own way of dealing with chaos," as Harry Bamford Parkes has said of Americans. The teenagers create their own bizarre countercultures.


As a writer recently declared, "The crucial issue for the contemporary writer as well as for Western culture as a whole is not one of people fighting to make a living, but of people fighting to make a life, to learn how to be, in a time of physical affluence and psychic impoverishment." Little though it wanted to let go of it altogether, the Western world seemed sick of its Faustian ego and eager to find another self. The reaching out to Asia and Buddhism, the primitivist yearnings, and all the different antiscientific cults like astrology and belief in visitors from outer space (taken half-seriously by some semiintellectuals)–in fact, the whole hippie complex–were signs of this desire on the popular level.


Critics might urge that when we put all our energies into science, there is an inevitable loss elsewhere; that when we agree to consider only the measurable as real, we destroy something valuable in nature; that scientific habits of mind cause us to degrade personality and cheapen life (man becomes "nothing but" a collection of atoms or glandular functions, or the determinate product of environment and heredity, and may be regarded as a thing). They might urge many things, but they could hardly deny that scientific knowledge is progressive. How do we know? Its solid fruits are apparent–we become richer and richer, build bigger and better machines, make gains in measurable efficiency. We cannot prove that a humanistic education butters any bread, though we may suspect that it does. We can prove that science does.]


Sociology claims to replace common discourse and conventional wisdom about human affairs; yet what it usually does is tell us in new language what men have always known. It transcribes traditional knowledge into scientific-sounding vocabulary for an age that can only think in this way. If, having lost Rabelais, we must learn about sex from Kinsey, the same applies elsewhere: having lost Dickens and Tom Jones' friend the poacher's daughter, we must learn about life from "social inquiry." In a stratified society we do not meet any real truck drivers, so we must read a book about them; and as the time when we might read about them in a poem by John Gay is over, we must read about them in a sociological treatise.


In the end, the wide world eluded these intellectual nets.


The ease with which Christianity as a social ethic or a political position can be absorbed by other causes suggests a basic weakness in its doctrine. Except in the vaguest terms, it lacks a social ethic. Devout Christians have themselves noticed this; the New Testament, Lord Acton remarked, says much about private but remarkably little about public life. There is no specifically Christian statecraft. As generations of critics have noticed, Christians have not been noticeably wiser than anyone else in these worldly arts. In recent times they have moved with the crowd: they enthusiastically supported both world wars, and just as enthusiastically repented afterwards, vowing eternal pacifism. Biblical passages can be quoted on both sides of most political questions. The only tangible content of the Christian social message is a passionate hopefulness that encourages expectations of Utopia without supplying the means to attain it–and in this way it is very akin to the mood of youthful revolutionism.


The rise of absurdism, of irrationalism, and of antiintellectualism was associated with a serious decline in the level of political discussion, reflected in all sorts of wild beliefs. Conspiracy theories and devil theories flourished. The classical scholar John Sparrow devoted a book to analyzing the outrageously irrational views about the assassination of President Kennedy (After the Assassination, 1968). The emergence of many such myths could be connected to the bigness and complexity of life and the breakdown of any coherent total view amid a wilderness of specialized compartments. Many a commentator identified the root cause of political irrationalism as the impossibility of citizens having anything like the knowledge necessary to comprehend public problems and policy. With half a hundred new countries to know about, in a world whose perplexities multiplied almost every day, not even the new media of "news" coverage could help them; indeed, television may have worsened their situation. Forced to record fleeting visual images of a tiny fraction of the world's events, television could manage only a weirdly distorted picture of objective reality, suitable to a Kafka nightmare.


or one might more ambitiously theorize that democracy turns out on a closer inspection, in the light of knowledge and historical perspective, to be a phase in the transition from a traditional to a "modern" society and not even necessarily the only possible' such phase. There were evident trends away from it, suggesting that the fully technological society can ill afford such casual inefficiency as government by numerous popular elections provides. Parliament lost power to the Cabinet and the Cabinet to the Prime Minister; Congress lost power to the President; and all of them lost power to the permanent bureaucracy.


A subtle and wide-ranging discussion on the issue of democracy, as on other issues, was notable more for its negations than for its affirmations. It had the effect of tearing away most of those illusions that once had surrounded democracy as rule of the people, hope of the future, fulcrum of faith in man. There was little disposition in more responsible circles to propose nondemocratic alternatives. The pluralistic, technological society would have to struggle on without a total ideology, without a simple system, without even any very credible myths.


If we really believe, with the Romantics, that the only measure of poetic value is its subjective intensity, we cannot logically say that Melville or Ben Jonson are any better than Rod McKuen or Little Orphan Annie, and we deserve the cultural chaos into which we have fallen.


Men will work even in menial positions for low wages if they have a secure place in a human community; they will do their work conscientiously and with pride when they know it is appreciated. Destroy this community, remove all the social checks on greed and corruption and irresponsibility, and you release men to better themselves at a cost that will perhaps eventually destroy society.


One reason for Structuralism's popularity relates to chapter 5: it is a strategy for the annihilation of intellectual traditions. By concentrating only on the formal aspects of things–the medium and not the message–the content can be jettisoned. It used to be supposed that the soul of an author appeared in what he had to say (much though his success in conveying it depended on how he communicated it), but to literary Structuralists of the more extreme sort, it is only the method of communication, the container and not the contents, that matters. They throw out the baby but keep the bathwater, which they neatly bottle and label. Structuralist analyses of works of art pointedly omit all consideration of period, of ideas, of the work's origins or social effects–of anything, in fact, except its architecture, its immanence as structure. Lévi-Strauss distrusts verbal knowledge, seeks to hew through it to a few simple mythic archetypes which can be reduced to symbols. There is obviously an immense pain behind so unnatural a procedure. When one cannot bear to hear the music, one counts the notes, classifies the measures, and plays mathematical games with the results. The urge to annihilate content is as strong a component of Structuralism as is its hope that by so doing we can restore a kind of inhuman order in thought.


The crisis of a civilization is still likely to be felt within the national framework.


Rather, it suggests the extent of contemporary anomie, in Durkheim's famous term–the emancipation of the individual ego. People have learned that their wants are sacred and of right ought to be satisfied. They have learned to consider any obstacle to personal fulfillment an intolerable affront. They have greatly expanded the circle of ego awareness. They no longer accept sharp limitations on individual desires in the name of the group.


And they relate also to the uneasiness that afflicts wholly emancipated people, adrift with only their vaguely understood desires to guide them. Such people must taste every forbidden fruit, for one of them might contain the magic ambrosia of happiness.


A substantial portion of significant intellectual history today takes place at that level where minds formerly not in the least "intellectual" are attempting to enter the realm of high intellectual culture previously reserved for the very few. These people would once have accepted the standard orthodoxies of a folk culture. They now feel released from all that, for it no longer has enough authority to command them; yet the other realm, the world of intellectual doctrine and formalized expression, of philosophy and literature and science and social thought, is so formidable that they are baffled by it. The in-between man, neither happy peasant nor high cleric, is the most significant creature of our times. It is he who chants slogans and pants after trends, who buys books that he cannot read, who thinks that he is being profound when he demands overnight perfection.


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