The Ennui of the World

That’s a horrible title, I know. Sorry.

Something came to me this morning as I was answering a friend’s post on Facebook. Something that has altered how I understand the world.

First, an assumption, or else this won’t make sense. Modernity is built on Christendom, and is something of an extension of Christendom. But it is also not quite Christendom. The victory of modernity was the destruction of the church as a separate and morally equal sovereignty (that is, historically, what the separation of church and state has meant in Christendom, that Pope and Emperor were different people over different hierarchies to which everyone owed some kind of allegience). Following the Reformation, and especially the Peace of Westphalia, the church no longer existed as an independent sovereign entity in Europe. It became a subsidiary of the state.

The reason this matters is that with this victory, the state inherited some very interesting properties from the church. Mainly, it inherited the church’s monopoly on meaning — it was now the ground on which human meaning was written and worked out. The state in Modernity could pretend to be a neutral ground all it wanted, especially as it accepted dissenting churches and allowed confessions to arise separately of state churches. But in reality, the state became the sole purpose, and sole organizer of both collective and individual human purpose.

In this, Modernity and the state also inherited the church’s promise to humanity of redemption. And of an eventual remaking of the world.

Human beings still talked about salvation and sanctification in Modernity. They just do it entirely in reference to politics and state action now, using scientific tools and language. This was especially true following the French Revolution, which injected a seriously eschatological element into political thinking. Thinking we were the masters of our truth, we took our fate into our hands. This was “the fierce urgency of now.”

Modernity promised salvation. Modernity promised an eschaton of perfect freedom, perfect equality, and perfect justice. Modernity promised its own version of The New Jerusalem, the heavenly city of the resurrected dead. These things were now possible, were now within our grasp. Humanity was good enough, wise enough, and rich enough. This is what revolutionary politics has always been about — an unveiling, a millennium, the rule of the just brought forth by rightly conceived and properly guided human action, the remaking of the world without sin.

And humanity believed. Believed hard. Faith was placed — in progress, liberalism, industrialism, fascism, communism, islamism. All have failed (or are in the process of failing). None can deliver real meaning. They have brought no eschaton. There is no New Jerusalem. We cannot make it with our hands, and we have not been able to summon it from heaven with our rituals and our sacrifices.

(And oh, how we have sacrificed, how we have made burnt offerings of our cities and our wealth and of untold millions of human souls…)

This is what I call “the ennui of the world.” A restlessness, a deep unease, that knows something is not right, that humanity is not quite whole, that believes in promises of good things to come but knows none of the means at hand — none of the means we have left ourselves — are capable of bringing that about.

Because there’s a truth here. Even in our liberal modernity, we — humanity — have never stopped seeking Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We ache for it. We know we don’t have it. We know it’s gone. Even under the most meaningful regimes of Christendom, the highest moments of Dar al Islam, meaning is a vaporous thing that easily slips from our grasp. But now, in modernity, we have robbed ourselves of nearly all of the tools we need to even get a brief glimpse at Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We fear what a claim to Truth implies, as if somehow we will suddenly consign ourselves to a dark and barbarous 15th century again, but we forget — or deliberately ignore — just how wretched and murderous the truth claims of modernity have been in our own age.

We want Truth. Not process and procedure. Not tawdry ideology. Not inward-swirling games with language. We don’t want to live in a world without Truth. And yet, we stare at the reality of our truth-less world, one in which the only meaning we have is that which we make with our bare hands, knowing we have been singularly bad at it. And we despair.

Because we don’t know how to find Truth anymore.

And yet, we still demand Truth. And Goodness. And Beauty. And feel cheated that the promises of modernity has not been made good. We are not free, and not equal, and there is no justice. We do not walk the streets of the heavenly city brought down to earth. And we don’t know what to do about that.

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