A Holiday Interlude: On Nostalgia, Nihilism, and Moderation

No time of year brings on pangs of nostalgia like the holidays. Lights, decorations, timeless songs, shared rituals and traditions – they provide a sense of comfort in the coldest, darkest days of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, but they also provide a sense of meaning. For the secular-minded, holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas are occasions for fellowship, but they originated to commemorate events that remind Jews and Christians of who they are. Beyond merely reinforcing the group identity that comes with those particular labels, these times are meaningful because they reenact the past in order to impart meaning to the present, for meaning is not possible without history.

And yet, the meaning we find in the past can be seductive – and dangerous. If the present seems to provide no real meaning, then we start to look for meaning only in the past. If we dream of restoring our ideal version of the past, the present state of the world becomes an enemy, something that has to be destroyed before we can put things back the way they were – the way that we believe they were always supposed to be. Unfortunately, the past, by virtue of not being around anymore, effectively exists only in our imaginations. If we tear apart what we have in the here and now, our imagined past will not return. If we realize that and yet still keep tearing away, then we have succumbed to nihilism.

I see Trump, Brexit, and the general rise of illiberalism in the Western world today as products of a nostalgic trend that threatens to lead us down the path to nihilism. These movements turn their backs on the managerial-liberal politics that has prevailed in the West since the end of the Cold War, but without advocating new institutions or practices. Instead, they want to unravel existing norms and structures in hopes that once they do away with supposed deviations like multiculturalism or free trade, a rebirth of national greatness will ensue. I place no hope in such dreams.

Last week I talked a bit about Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history, especially the role of what Voegelin called “Gnostic” movements. In Voegelin’s terminology, Gnostics are those who believe that they must destroy Babylon – the present unjust order of things – so that the new Jerusalem – a perfect and godly society – can come into being. In Voegelin’s most famous turn of phrase, the Gnostics believe that they alone can “immanentize the eschaton.” Secularization did not destroy the Gnostic schema of history, but rather appropriated it, incorporating it into teleological political movements like Nazism and Marxism.

There is also a teleological aspect to managerial liberalism, even if it does not valorize heroic struggle like Nazism or Marxism, nor aim at a rebirth of any particular ideal moment in the past. Liberalism’s 18th-century origins placed it in opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, and established religion, the forces that had guided European civilization for more than a millennium. While liberalism might look to the past for lessons on things not to do, it rejects the idea of a past utopia as myth, conceiving of the world it is trying to create as something fundamentally new. Liberalism is novelty opposing nostalgia, Babylon at war with Jerusalem.

A wholehearted embrace of novelty, and especially a devotion to “progress,” is dangerous, as it can lead one to believe that the past is irrelevant and that human will is infallible: whatever we imagine, we can create, and it will all function exactly as we had planned. But nostalgia is an equally dangerous chimera. The warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you think about the past is a product of present action, not a memory in and of itself. It is not the way you felt then, but a feeling that comes through the present act of reminiscing. You can’t get that feeling back, because it only comes from looking backward. Turn away from the present in a failed attempt to recreate the past and you will be left with nothing.

Whether the promised earthly paradise is a new creation or a re-creation, I don’t believe that human agency can create it. In his Confessions, the fifth-century bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo defined the essence of sin as man’s desire to be like God, to live without limitations and make the world in our own image. Achieving this is impossible and yet, as Augustine said, “We can’t not sin” (Non possumus non peccare). Our very nature means that we can never be rid of that desire, and that realization was what led Augustine to Christ. It is not an exclusively Christian problem, though, as Plato wrestled with similar dilemmas centuries earlier: we can perceive higher truths, but we remain perpetually bound by the limits of material existence. This places us in an in-between state that the Greeks called metaxy.

Our place in history is also one of metaxy: our striving is not fruitless, but building the new Jerusalem is beyond our abilities. Like the philosophers, I believe that an ethic of in-betweenness – of moderation – can help make our metaxic state more tolerable. Moderately pursuing a tolerable existence will not sound very exciting to anyone who believes in the necessity of changing the world, as it denies us the exhilaration – and the sense of immanent meaning – that comes from seeing oneself as a protagonist in a heroic struggle of world-historical import. Instead, it requires a belief that meaning is transcendent – that it is somewhere out there, but never fully perceived, never wholly enacted. We may want to see it represented in the here and now, but the best we can do is arrive at some sort of crude approximation. In this manner, philosophy (in all its domains, history and theology among them) is a kind of faith, but its practice ought to inspire humility more than zeal. And my humble vision of a future utopia is merely a world in which we would all have to contend with slightly less zeal.

Happy holidays, everyone.

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