It’s often said that ideas have consequences.
Ordinary men and women intuitively understand that good ideas yield good results, while bad ideas produce poor decisions and tragic consequences.
Over the last century, avant-garde ideas about the nature of “progress” have produced a compulsive desire for intellectual certainty and immediate self-gratification. Today, historical experience and examples set by preceding generations are generally regarded as irrelevant to the conditions of modern humanity.
Modern opinion-makers and politicians constantly put forward premises and techniques that promise to propel society to higher levels of reasoning. More and more, public figures are piloted by “dialectical analysis” and “critical theory,” which highlights past errors, assigns blame, and proposes to set us on a course toward a more perfect existence. “Build back better” is the seductive mantra of our 21st-century illuminati.
Good and Bad Ideas
Good ideas are generally based on human experience and truth. Bad ideas frequently reject truth and rely almost entirely on people’s wish to believe. A natural inclination to believe in the conventional wisdom leads many to accept what’s false as true and what’s imagined as real.
Much of the West’s current philosophical disposition goes back roughly 400 years to the European Enlightenment. Enlightenment thought revolved around the idea that God and tradition could be replaced by human reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy.
Eighteenth-century liberal philosophers advocated for ideals such as reason, science, progress, liberty, tolerance, fraternity, freedom of speech, constitutional government, democracy, and the separation of church and state. In and of themselves, these ideas were good and, to the extent they endured, served us well.
Enlightenment and Religion
The United States and other Western democracies were founded at the apex of the Enlightenment. But early democratic experiments were carried out in societies that also had deep religious convictions.
Individual liberty was tempered by long-standing forms of spiritual worship and moral authority. At the birth of modern democracies, traditional virtues and obligations such as self-discipline, chastity, compassion, personal responsibility, family loyalty, friendship, hard work, courage, perseverance, honesty, patriotism, and faith provided a sound moral basis for free and well-ordered societies.
Over the last 200 years, intellectuals from city centers such as Paris, Frankfurt, and New York set out to reason away most of the moral and religious ties that bound traditional communities together and tempered the excesses of liberal-progressive thought. For my own post-World War II generation, this led to profound cultural change.
To my grandparents, who hailed from a small fishing outport on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, ignoring the traditions and faith that held people together would have seemed as pointless as trying to push back an incoming tide.
Today, if pockets of popular wisdom still exist, it’s outside the dominant relativistic worldview of our progressive establishment. Precious few contemporary people of influence and power argue in favor of traditional virtues.
The Wisdom of Tradition
One notable exception is the young Iranian American New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting through a couple of events sponsored by the Canadian Civitas Society.
Ahmari might best be described as a young man with an old soul. In his formative years, he transitioned, with his parents, from Shiite Islam in Iran to the seductive liberal culture of America and New York City. His final transition to Christianity, marriage, and fatherhood left him convinced that our present version of Enlightenment culture is no longer one of freedom rightly understood.
In his recent book, titled “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos,” Ahmari urges us to rediscover the inherited traditions and ideals that once gave our lives meaning and purpose. He has come to believe that “the very modes of life and thinking that strike most people in the West as antiquated or ‘limiting’ can liberate us, while the Western dream of autonomy and choice without limits is, in fact, a prison; that the quest to define ourselves on our own is a kind of El Dorado, driving to madness the many who seek after it.”
In order to bring out the best in us, he writes, “other parts of us must be tied down, enclosed, limited, bound.” For centuries, religious truths and timeless common sense taught us that genuine happiness lay in pursuing virtue and accepting limits.
Disenchantment, Alienation, and Uncertainty
In the late 1970s, an era eerily similar to the one in which we presently find ourselves, U.S. scholar George Gilder argued that the success of democratic-capitalist societies depended on the interconnected virtues of “work, faith, and family.” Gilder and other liberal-conservative thinkers reconnected the link between faith and reason. What followed was a new morning for the United States and the West, as well as global developments that freed millions from Soviet tyranny and perpetual serfdom.
Today, among those who are the best schooled, best fed, and most powerful, “critical theory” invites the rejection of traditional virtues and the choice of a lifestyle that’s fashionable, easy, and “sustainable.” All we’re left with are the capricious desires that a technologically advanced society is equipped to fulfill.
Liberty has become license. Equality is equity. Self-discipline and chastity are prudish. Compassion is reduced to virtue-signaling. Hard work is for others. Honesty is seldom the best policy. Patriotism is xenophobia, and faith in God is for rubes who cling to their Bibles and their guns.
We suffer from a morbid form of narcissism that leads us to believe that we can sit in God-like judgment of others while nothing stands in judgment of us. We accept lectures from social misfits, tolerate corruption of the democratic process, reject leaders who project common sense, and elect fools to govern our civic and national affairs.
The result is a deeply divided society and individual lives that are marked by disenchantment, alienation, and uncertainty. We’ve pursued and achieved the modern dream of defining ourselves—but at an enormous cost.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.