The following is a summary of key points raised in our weekly Philosophical Happy Hour discussion of 9 November 2022 during which we discussed the lacking vision of the good in our contemporary society.
Ideologies and False Idols
Why do left-leaning progressive politics seem ascendant in the Western world? One does not need to dig deep into the past to answer the question. Simply stated: progressive ideology presents a credible, albeit vague, image of the good. It is motivated by a final cause, and therefore provides a purpose for its adherents. By nature, material comforts and pleasures attract us. So, too, does the idea of self-determination seize us: the ideal of pursuing freely whatever goods we find desirable. Even as it touts values like diversity, equity, and inclusion—and authoritarian means to their realization—progressive ideology uses these words to paint a utopian image.
Conversely, those identifying themselves as “conservative” appear as uninspired, motivated by no vision of the good but, at best, ideals of governmental non-interference. At worst, they appear as reactionaries—in possession of no reasoned belief, but stimulated by threats against their comforts. In the short-term, this may gain adherents and even stoke enthusiasm. But it does not produce an enduring image and results in only a brief movement. (One can see this, I believe, in the “MAGA” phenomenon.) Others may point to God or the afterlife, but—more often than not—such beliefs seem divorced from the real world.
Ideologies—whether enduring, as on the progressive side, or transitory, as on the conservative—draw adherents who lack integral habits of purposive living. This lack of purposive life makes itself felt most keenly in the experience of loneliness. As our ability to communicate declines, so too do our relationships with others. Increasingly, conditions of isolation envelope the Western individual (and perhaps especially the American). Simple ideological mantras, which do not require careful thinking, allow groups to feel united without having to communicate. Numbers of close friends decline; ideologies sweep up the lonely.
Discovering the Good in Speech
What can we do? There is no magic bullet. There is no easy solution. What we face is not a technological shortcoming, but an essentially human difficulty. Loneliness is not new. Arguably, everyone experiences it at some time, and in some degree. What resolves loneliness is being-with others in a properly human manner. This manner requires conversation: listening to one another, speaking to one another; writing to one another, reading one another. Real conversation attends to more than just the words, even as the words make it properly human. It attends to the person.
In our digital age, we must learn new habits for attending to persons. The screen reduces the reality of the other to a two-dimensional abstraction. We talk at one another, instead of with. Anything truly good is a good to be shared. It requires community. Atrophied linguistic abilities undermine our ability to form community, and therefore to discover the good. Think: when you receive good news, your first impulse is, most likely, to share it with others. If you cannot find anyone with whom that news can be shared, disappointment follows.
We at the Lyceum Institute talk often of community. While most of us possess some meaningful associations—family, religion, perhaps a few close friends—in close geographical proximity, we nonetheless recognize that we benefit from one another’s presence (even digitally). This benefit consists in our real conversation. We share ideas, humor, beliefs, struggles, and—most of all—a desire to grow in knowledge, understanding, and the love of wisdom.
It’s not perfect. But it is good.