The full weight of the failed Enlightenment experiment over-taxes the load bearing pillars that prop up a decaying Western Civilization, pillars that are buckling under the sheer weight of moral corruption on full display in modern society. The ethical structures of the West are in desperate need of repair. This new age is best characterized by the Weird Sisters crowing pronouncement “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.” The inversion of values has been a massive moral de-construction project that has taken the time honored vertical hierarchy of virtues and vices and turned it upside down. There is still a vertical hierarchy but now society honors vice and maligns virtue; and to add insult to injury, the mind molders call the vertical inversion horizontal equality. The universities and the media constantly hurl out the egalitarian lie that all moral positions are subjective and therefore equally weighted, while clearly giving full gravity to their own positions and often giving practically no weight at all to traditional virtue.
In Ephesians 2:2, St. Paul identifies the root cause and summary of moral decadence as the “spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.” The bent spirit has captivated the imagination of this age and turned too many hearts and minds away from the narrow path of virtue and towards the highways of wickedness renamed. Too long has our gaze been directed downward towards depravity, so long that licentiousness is mistaken for freedom. Too long has material prosperity dulled our moral senses, so long that we believe we can afford an obscene tolerance of vicious acts. Too long has this generation inhaled the polluted ethos manufactured by philosophers who believe that being proceeds from thinking, that nature requires conquering and that all are entitled to equally pleasurable outcomes in this valley of tears.
The moral pollution is often funneled into our homes by airwaves and manifested on an imprudent surplus of screens. Our eyes are bombarded by violent images, our ears by the incessant din of story after story of depraved criminal acts, and an endless stream of degenerate entertainment from a morally vacuous popular culture infects young and old alike. By imperceptible degrees, scales have grown over our eyes. The violence and depravity hardly quicken our pulse anymore as outrage lies mute in a pauper’s grave. Consider only two recent cases of malevolence and witness crimes that properly belong to monsters.
In September, 2013, the world witnessed wanton violence, destruction and murder at a mall in Kenya. Terrorist organization al-Shabaab allegedly claimed responsibility for the terror that left 67 dead and wounded over 200. Four year old “Elliott Prior was shopping with his mother and sister at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi” and he had the moral insight to declare to a terrorist “you are a very bad man.” It is reported that the terrorist was surprised and he said to the little boy “please forgive me, we are not monsters,” and he proceeded to give the little boy a candy bar to prove it, presumably stolen from the supermarket in which they were murdering and destroying. Before the terrorist let the boy, sister, and mom go, he added by way of explanation that they “only wanted to kill Kenyans and Americans.” A perplexing and empty consolation indeed, but even so, the terrorists murdered at least five Britons.
Also, call to mind the infamous Ariel Castro, who abducted three girls in Cleveland, Ohio and kept them as sex slaves for a decade, he finally had his day in court. On July 26, 2013, Castro pled guilty to 937 acts of rape, aggravated murder, and kidnapping. He patiently waited for his turn to tell the court he “is not a monster.” He supported his claim with the statement, “I am not a violent person, I just kept them there without being able to leave.” He went on to make the absurd claim that there was “harmony inside his home.” And “he did not force himself on the girls.” He reminded the court he “was married, held a job as a bus driver and is a happy person inside.” Based on Ariel Castro’s warped etiology, he was the victim.
These two monsters ought to give the discerning critical pause. Though this is hardly the first time a psychopath has denied the depravity of his depraved acts, this is a sign of something different, something evolved, something cultivated, something for a new age. These two cases are an indication of man’s fallen nature exacerbated by a disturbing and growing trend generated in the West.
Over 2400 years ago Confucius said “be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.” This folk wisdom reveals a healthy psychology acknowledging both the fact that we all make mistakes and that there is a need to atone for them, for in denying our mistakes the discord they cause in relationships festers. In the two cases mentioned, these men are not ashamed of their mistakes; they are not even expressing culpability for their crimes. And worse still; they claim to feel good about themselves despite a commitment to depravity. This phenomenon is increasing before our eyes. The new age monsters’ depraved activities extend well beyond the cited violence and into all the darkest recesses of man’s soul ranging from lust, gluttony, greed, anger, fraud, up to and including treachery.
Public school teachers, law enforcement, correctional officers and the media are already well aware of this growing phenomenon. Even the secular humanists at Camp Agusta recognize the growing trend that criminals have higher and higher self-esteem as they state: “There are a lot of people with high self-esteem. Mass murders, prisoners, gang members, and delinquent children all have higher self-esteem, on average, than people in the general population of a similar age.” So why do criminals feel so good about themselves?
The public school system is one of several tributaries flowing into this quagmire of confusion. One major goal for nearly every classroom across the entire west is to build self-esteem. Modern pop psychology and modern philosophy form the stream-bed over which the fetid waters flow. Was not Maslow’s narcissistic hierarchy of needs for self-actualization only a foray into Freud’s untethered psychology? Was Dewey’s utilitarianism and political activism disguised as vague philosophy any more representative of a true understanding the human person? Most modern “philosophers” from Rousseau to Foucault have taken part in a massive rebellion against reality. The intellectual movement has been a profane rage against the proper order of things and an act of hubris against truth goodness and beauty.
Out of dehumanizing psychology and reductive philosophy was born the false assumption that people need to feel good about themselves to do good things. In the public schools, there has been a concerted effort to make students feel proud of themselves by whatever means necessary. Teachers are encouraged to become adept at contriving less than genuine reasons for inculcating a high self-opinion. The last several generations have been witness to a frenzied pathological obsession to increase students’ self-esteem, and the efforts have met with success.
Even though the psychologists and teachers have the best of intentions in trying to make everybody feel so good about themselves, it is indeed a misguided cultivation of self-esteem and thus a propagation of the number one deadly sin, PRIDE. In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that properly ordered pride “seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues” and it is “impossible without nobility and goodness of character.” He goes on to explain that disordered pride, a man being proud without goodness of character, “is vain.” The misguided cultivation of this disordered pride on a massive scale is precisely what we are witnessing today, and because the cultivated pride is lacking good character and nobility, those in possession of this false high self-esteem are vainly emboldened to act on their bad character.
Good character is a prerequisite of good citizenship. Creating good citizens is often cited as a desired outcome of public education. A healthy and properly ordered self-esteem is a result, not a cause of the well-ordered character. So the labors of a school ought to be the cultivation of the good character which will be followed by good acts which will be followed by properly ordered self-esteem, which will be followed by the formation of good citizens. Unfortunately, the opposite has corralled consensus amongst educational experts and university professors. The endless time and effort that goes towards building up a false pride in students will soon produce an army of narcissists who feel great about themselves without the precondition of good character. We are already beginning to see a growing mass of new age monsters created by a society that cultivates vice and eschews virtue. Call to mind the growing violent gangs. The existence of these new age monsters shouldn’t surprise us because like Victor Frankenstein, we created them.
The Western imagination has been seized and held captive by debilitating materialism. The roots go at least back to Sir Francis Bacon who advocated that nature should be “tortured” or “put on the rack” to conform to “man’s reality.” At the outset of the Enlightenment, we embarked on a fool’s quest to conquer nature by cutting ties to our creaturely status and attempting to usurp the authority of the creator to satisfy our restless hearts by disordered means.
C.S. Lewis keenly observes in The Abolition of Man, that “for wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.” We must end this mad race to contrive technical solutions for our moral problems. We must recover the truth that man is made for virtue and reinstate the vertical hierarchy properly ordered to the Logos that honors virtue and excoriates vice, or we will continue to produce monsters no matter how technologically advanced we become. St. Augustine can aid our recovery if we remember his profound words: “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.