It is no secret: Culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and skeptical. When I look out at my students, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money and succeed, a strategy for getting on in life.
We’re more and more a worldly, money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. From the halls of academe, where a debunking realism is the order of the day, to the floor of the stock market, nothing is in worse repute than the ideal.
The passing away of our commitment to ideals should not happen without second thoughts. Young people, who have traditionally been the ones most receptive to ideals, should be able to choose. Do they want to live a wholly practical life in a practical culture? Do they want to seek safety and security and never risk being made fools of? Or do they perhaps want something else? Every generation should be able to hold its own plebiscite on the issue of ideals.
Courage, contemplation, compassion: These are the great ideals of the ancient world. And though their lights are dimming, there is still time to revive them, to examine them, and, if one is so moved, to bring them into one’s own life. Although their first exemplars — Homer, Plato, Buddha, Jesus — are male, the ideals are there for men and women alike, and for members of all races and every class. The warrior needs strength, yes; the thinker needs the chance to develop intellect. Those facts may eliminate certain individuals, though not as many as one might imagine. But the life of compassion, perhaps the most consistently rewarding of the ideals, is available to all of us.
Few will be able to adopt an ideal without reserve. There will always be some need for the protective armor of what I will call "self." But even those of us most enclosed in self can expand our beings with the simplest acts of courage or compassion, or with a true effort at thought. And after that initial expansion, who knows what might befall?
In the early 20th century, Freud defended the integrity of the self against the blandishments of another state of being, which we might call the state of soul. Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of skeptical, humane detachment is the best way to live. Freud is an impressive polemical enemy of all the soul states. He deploys his intellectual energy and insight against compassion, romantic love (and the creative acts that might rise from it), heroism, and (with reservations) the quest for truth. Freud, we might say, is the great champion of self over soul.
The question of the great states of being, self and soul, is in danger of dropping off the map of human inquiry.
William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats all write with visionary acumen about the tensions between self and soul, though the meanings they impart to the terms vary. For Blake we habitually exist in the state of self. We live for our personal desires; we want food, sex, money, power, prestige. We aspire to health; we want to live forever in the flesh, or for as long as possible. But we can also pass into another state, the state of soul. Then we live not for desire but for hope. We live for the fulfillment of ideals. The state of soul, when perfectly realized, is united, fully present, and in a certain manner exists outside of time.
Blake thought of the soul state as pre-eminently associated with poetry and the imagination. The soul state serves not only the individual who enters it but also others, who gain from lovingkindness, protection, inspiration, and the paths opened by true thought. But the state of soul is, as Blake also knew, dangerous. Those who pursue it are sometimes victims of ridicule, neglect, persecution, even of violent death. And not all claimants to higher states are to be believed and trusted — no end of deception has gone on in the name of ideals.
Maybe we are best off without ideals. Perhaps there can be something bleakly noble in affirming ourselves as fundamentally Darwinian creatures who live to sustain our existences with as little pain and as much pleasure as possible. But is that all there is to life? The question of the great states of being, self and soul, is in danger of dropping off the map of human inquiry. In its place there opens up an expanse of mere existence based on desire, without hope, fullness, or ultimate meaning. We can do better.
Critics have often identified Western culture as a culture of the image. We live, it’s been said, in a culture of simulation. But simulation of what?
Popular culture (as adored now by the elite as it is by the general populace) simulates soul. An enormous, complex, and stunning technological force, which might be used to feed the world or to rid it of disease, is instead devoted to entertainment — to delivering experiences that fabricate states of soul. These fabrications testify to both our fear of soul states — they are ways of holding dangerous ideals at arm’s length — and our hunger for ideals. They mean and have meant too much. We cannot quite let them go.
The primary appetite of the soul — or the appetite most often suppressed by current life and so in need of feeding — is not hard to guess. Homer and his warriors were right: Human beings are desperate to enter the soul state defined by courage.
The simulation of the martial world is one of consumer culture’s largest businesses. Sports are probably the primary vehicle for contact with simulated, safe, and sanitized Homeric virtues. A televised football game is an irony-free zone, where the commentators can talk openly about courage and daring and the will to victory. Football is not simply football — it is a packaged, mediated, and controlled experience. The announcers, acting in the interest of corporate sponsors, take a boys’ game and turn it into an epic quest. The players are warriors; the line of scrimmage a battle line (it’s referred to as "the trenches"). On comes the blitz — beware the impending quarterback sack. The vocabulary of war has effectively been diverted to the game of football.
The game’s an absorbing one for many, and maybe sometimes an inspiring one: There are feats of athleticism and remarkable plays. Those feats are not unlike those of the battlefield. Yet to suggest that heroics in sports are equivalent to battlefield heroics is delusional. On football fields, players suffer concussions, and that is too bad; on battlefields, soldiers commonly die, often with great bravery. Such deaths are the true subject of epic and of tragedy.
Real exercise of courage is dangerous. But instead of going to war we and our children go to the TV screen and watch the Sunday pseudocarnage. Or we repair to the computer screen to act the part of world-class warriors, pocket-sized Achilles and Hectors. Video games make heroes of us all. (What renders someone an adept slayer of his virtual enemies on the screen is dexterity with a stick and some buttons — something akin to typing skills.) We catch an action movie; we watch another installment of a cop show; we read a mass-marketed thriller and put ourselves in the place of the daring hero. But the book is an old technology of pseudotranscendence, now nearly eclipsed by the electronic juice and jolt that come off our screens.
And where is wisdom to be found? If wisdom is a hunger in the soul, as Plato said, how do we slake our need now?
It turns out that the problem of wisdom is not easy to solve. Acquiring it is dangerous. The individual who pursues true insight is, to use Nietzsche’s phrase (though the perception goes back at least as far as Plato), untimely. That is, he strives to be ahead of his time in his perceptions, albeit sometimes basing his thoughts on the intellectual achievements of the past. He is out of joint with his moment, and the result often is the enmity of others. People do not like his ideas, which seem to be an indictment of the way they are living. The thinker is a walking criticism of the lives of the rest, as Socrates showed. He paid with his life.
But still — one wants to know. To possess the truth may, as Aristotle suggests, be something like a human instinct. Yet we must satisfy our hunger for contemplation — and for its (possible) result, wisdom — safely. Let the acquisition of information replace thought; let the well-informed individual, brimming with opinions, replace the man or woman, the philosopher, who might actually be wise.
For information is valuable: Information helps the self navigate the world. What portable wireless device shall I buy? How shall I finance my home? (And what lending-thieves must I avoid?) Where is the optimum place to vacation? How can I get the best-priced transportation there? (And once there, how can I best ignore the plight of the indigenous poor?) Where shall I send my children to school so that they can have the best possible careers — make the most money and be the most secure? Whom shall I vote for in the next election — which is to say, who can best serve my interests?
Plausible answers to those questions now qualify as authentic knowledge, and there is no end of sources to provide them: Turn on the TV, the radio, pick up the newspaper, enter the world of the Internet. That there could be any other kind of knowledge is anathema to our faith in information. One knows in order to consume. One knows in order to succeed. One knows in order not to be made a fool of. But one does not learn in order to acquire the only things that real learning offers: virtue and wisdom.
There are other kinds of "knowledge" that current culture pursues: "the news." We are bathed in flashing images of events around the globe; where there is war, famine, revolution, religious upheaval, there the cameras go. We are briefed on the international situation as often as a head of state — or we can be, if we wish. We are regal in our need to know and our power to be informed.
What is the covert message of this flood of news? Perhaps the most significant is that everything is changing constantly; nothing stays the same. We live in a vertigo of wars and devastations. So there is no reason to stop and think, to try to arrive at values that will transcend the pressure of the moment. It’s OK not to think too hard, the news tells us, for no complex thought could possibly keep up with the flood of change — it would be obsolete the moment it was articulated.
Part of what is most startling in the world we have made is that we have abjured the virtues of the saint.
The spray of events the news shows us demonstrates that we need to think in a manner that is mobile, strategic, pragmatic; we need to "deal with the situation." And then move on to the next pressing matter. Things are so different from moment to moment and place to place that we could never arrive at a theory to encompass all of human life. So drop that wish — replace it with the desire to be informed. What counts as knowledge today will probably be irrelevant tomorrow.
If the great cultural quarrel was once between philosophy and poetry, now it’s between authentic thought (which barely exists, if it exists at all) and journalism. Journalism has all but won.
Journalism sells not only the news but also the new. When you buy a newspaper, scan one online, flick on a news station on TV or radio, you are committing yourself and your resources to the idea that things change so rapidly and dramatically that one must constantly "keep up." If you slacken, if you ignore the outlets of information for a week or a month, the ground of reality will slip out from under you.
Lodged within the insistent rush of information is the implication that no form of knowledge can be anything but transient. Thus we guard ourselves against the pressure of finding unconditional truth — finding a good and true way to live individually and collectively — by committing ourselves to sensation and information. In this way, we both evade our hunger for truth — for the discoveries of the true scholar — and satisfy that hunger in a displaced form. Stuffed full of pointless information, we can consider ourselves wise. We feed ourselves incessantly and are still starved, which only makes us want to consume more.
Finally, where is compassion in our self-obsessed culture? Part of what is most startling in the world we have made is that we have abjured the virtues of the saint. We have collectively turned our backs on most versions of lovingkindness. Nor do we feel a pressing need to forge a counterfeit culture of compassion. Surely there are the church drives, benefits, charities, and various forms of organized pity — but many, if not most, of those are merely forms of self-congratulation. "Pity would be no more," says Blake, "if we did not make somebody Poor." We are rank with voyeuristic kindness.
But the main event in America’s predominant religion, Christianity, has been a usurpation. More and more, the faith of American Christians is not faith in the compassionate and merciful Jesus, but faith in God the Father. When fundamentalists talk about Christ, they are often talking about Yahweh. They have forgotten the figure who was mild, sometimes humorous, endlessly kind. They have little interest in Jesus the poor vagrant who was not well disposed to worldly authority, who liked to spend his time with publicans and whores, who despised money. The true Jesus was what Whitman said he was himself: perennially on the side of the down and out. But many American Christians have recharacterized Jesus as a bitterly judgmental father, in love with punishment and retribution.
We seem to have come to an agreement that life is every man for himself, and every woman, too. The compassionate ideal is so dangerous to the self that it is not safe to put it into even displaced or sublimated form. Pressed to the wall, we affirm faith in individualism, and that is that. Jesus the preacher of universal brotherhood is all but gone, and it is best for our comfort and our entertainment that this be so. In Africa and Latin America, one finds bold priests and nuns and brothers who stand up for the poor. All honor to them. They have a few brothers and sisters in America and Europe, but by and large the rich Western churches have gone over to relative quietism. Whether the admirable Pope Francis or the current interest in Buddhism and other Eastern visions will change all this is an open question.
Plato, Homer, Jesus, Buddha, Blake — these figures will not readily die, and we will not let them. We simulate (or suppress) their visions now in ways that are almost laughable, but those simulations testify to our need for ideals that transcend the self. Someday we will perhaps get tired of living among shadows in a cave.
At a certain point it will again become clear to young people that they have a choice in what they make of their lives. There are ideals of the soul and there are desires of the self, and young people will once again have the chance to decide which they will pursue. They may come again to understand that self at its best is a protection for the life of soul, and when the moment comes for soul to exert itself, self must stand aside. It’s said that when Wallace Stevens stepped into the room wearing his three-piece suit and his insurance man’s frown, the temperature dropped 20 degrees. How much strength of self was necessary to defend the soul who wrote "Sunday Morning" and Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction? Clearly a great deal. In a world as greedy and violent as this one, self’s tough guidance and protection may be a necessity.
The young who wish a better world will also see that what appear to be tensions among the ideals are only apparent. Is the warrior the exclusive inverse of the man or woman of compassion? To everything there is a season. There will always be a time when we need to be defended from our enemies, our real enemies, and then Hector is the figure we must call on. Compassion may be our central ideal in a time of peace, but peace is not forever.
There are seasons, too, for the individual. She may find herself at one time an aspiring thinker, at another a fighter, at yet another a creator. And she will judge herself not only on the feeling of fullness that these ideals create within but also on what she contributes to other people by virtue of engaging her ideals. Hope and the quest for meaning will replace desire, and, for a while, she will feel free. She may at times feel consumed by self. There will be a family to feed and protect, aging parents to tend; there will be the push and toss of daily life — the "pulling and hauling," as Whitman calls it.
But in every act of courage, compassion, or true thought, she will feel something within her begin to swell, and she’ll feel a joy that passes beyond mere happiness. She’ll begin, as well as she can, to move toward it. What she’ll feel then will be the resurrection of her soul.
Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. This essay is adapted from his new book Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals (Harvard University Press).