“What’s wrong with the world?” Countless thinkers have asked this question, especially over the past century-plus, and they have asked it over and over again; to the point that few in recent years seem to ask it any longer, even for the purpose of adopting the thinnest veneer of rhetorical posturing. No. Today, almost everyone seems pretty well-decided about what is wrong in the world. As such, their questions aim at means to rectifying those wrongs rather than at understanding what they are.
Taking such an aim ignores, however, that most hold only opinions about what is wrong, for very few hold any knowledge about what is right. Not knowing what is right—and by knowing is meant not merely “feeling” something to be right or wrong, but being able to articulate what causes the act or practice to be good or bad—we can only react to certain things as wrong. The reaction might be correct (that is, appropriate) or incorrect (inappropriate). Someone might react, for instance, with disgust at exposing children to sexually-suggestive performances. Someone else might laud this exposure. The former is correct; the latter, not. But if the former reaction cannot be explained, cannot be grounded in a causal explanation, it will have difficulty justifying itself in a world where the sense of the natural has been evaporated in a cultural confusion, in a culture which has grown increasingly separated from the ordination of nature itself.
To ask, then, “what is wrong with the world?” one will receive a myriad of answers based on feelings—some of which answers may be correct, others which may be incorrect; but the grounds for both will appear almost equally instable in efforts at communication. The only means of resolution, then—when confronted with the inevitable conflict between opposed reactions—becomes violent conflict. But such a resolution is, at best, temporary. New differences of reaction will arise, even under (perhaps especially under) the most totalitarian and authoritarian of regimes.
What then, are we to do? Where does the answer lie for our cultural conflicts? It lies, as suggested, in an understanding of the good (i.e., that in accordance with which a course of action is right). We can do no better than to begin by returning to Aristotle. We must rediscover his wisdom, and strive as best we can to understand the truths he reveals as they illuminate our struggles today. Chiefly, Aristotle teaches us the necessity of virtue. This rediscovery of virtue should not, as some would understand it, require a “strategic retreat” from the world. Rather, the rediscovery teaches us how to live in a world that might hate us for our virtues—and love us in spite of that hatred.
Virtue of Community
Last year, I read (among many of his works), Byung-Chul Han’s Disappearance of Rituals. At the very outset of the text, Han writes:
Rituals are symbolic acts. They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based. They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.
2020: Disappearance of Rituals, 1.
Doubtless, we can observe the absence of ritual readily in the prevalence of communication without community. Such communication, arguably, fails even to be communication in truth. Indeed, Han here evokes the specter of paradox. There cannot be community without communication. A community coalesces around something common, which does not come into being without communication. But the exaggerated point remains valid: that distinct, particular acts of communication are not needed when there exist rituals which contain that commonality and communicate it to the community. Explicit linguistic communication finds itself required less when ritual has already established commonality.
Ritual requires definition, of course—and defense of such a definition exceeds the intent of this post. But succinctly, we might say that every ritual comprises an external habit. There may be private or internal elements as well, of course; but rituals are performed. As such, they concern a holding of oneself with respect to the world.
I believe it would do much good if we could see that good rituals result from virtue. Perhaps we can identify—causally—that the absence of true community constitutes something wrong with the world today. Perhaps, recovering virtue, we can recover true community.
What does it mean to be good as a human being? Modernity, all too often, has treated this as a problem to be solved. That is, we tend to view moral failings as simply in need of the right solution, the right education, the right program. Morality, however, is something that belongs to the individual. It is a matter of internal habit, not a matter of an external system.