While waiting for my MRI on Friday, I was reading a book by Rob Riemen, To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism. It actually felt good to have a book with me instead of looking at my iPhone while waiting. The pleasure of holding a book is rapidly being lost, and that’s a shame. But hey, long-play records are coming back – they call them vinyl now – so perhaps people will rediscover books as well and become less brainwashed by social media.
Riemen lives in Holland and writes primarily from a European perspective. He describes the loss of spirit and values in the 20th century which led to the rise of fascism in Europe; and he sees much the same happening in our own 21st century. Much of the book consists of quotes from great thinkers of the past. It is not political, economic, or military history. But spiritual history!
He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, who discovered during his tour of America in the early 19th century a new form of repression never previously experienced in history:
The old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it. I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of others… Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate…It likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided they think only of enjoying themselves… I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have painted, could be combined with some of the external forms of freedom and … established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.
Nietzsche, the great German philosopher who stood at the doorstep of the 20th century without entering it, identified “The danger of all dangers: nothing has meaning.” And if nothing has meaning then there is no knowledge of good and evil, there is no compassion, there is no courtesy, conversation, and appreciation of quality and value, no place for great art. Freed from all spiritual values and from anything that might make life meaningful, modern man simply wants all his desires to be satisfied – and if that does not happen, he would become violent.
If you really want to understand what is happening in the world, stop watching Fox News or MSNBC. Read the thinkers of the past. They’ll tell you more about what’s happening today than the talking heads on cable news. The repression that Tocqueville could not name 200 years ago, we can name today. It’s the culture of technology, speed, money, fame and celebrity, outward appearances. These are the things that rule our lives. Socrates, 25 centuries ago criticised the life that “focuses only on pleasure and ignores the highest good.” 2,500 years ago!
One of the most impressive quotes in Riemen’s book comes from the French poet Paul Valéry. In the 1920s he wrote: “Our emotional life can be transposed into works of art…A man can break free from himself, imagine himself in the place of others. Each person is thus equipped with the intellectual capacity to observe and criticise his own actions and values. But the human mind has become derailed.” He goes on to describe the derailment:
Nothing is durable anymore. Farewell cathedral, built across three centuries; farewell masterpiece that required a lifetime of experience and attention to perfect. We live passively. We defer to telephones, our jobs, fashion… We have the best toys that man has ever possessed. What a lot of fun! Never had so many toys! But what a lot of worries! Never had so much panic!
He wrote this a century ago. Does it sound like you and me and our even bigger toys…and worries of today? But here is the clincher that wraps up Valéry’s vision of the modern age:
Due to the demands of technological progress, society has a growing need for “professionals,” replaceable intellectuals. There is no longer any use for a Shakespeare, a Bach, a Descartes, poets and thinkers, irreplaceable intellectuals.
Replaceable – Irreplaceable. Think about that contrast and what you value.
I fear that we have turned the “Saints” into the “professionals” of the Christian practice. That’s the impression we get from today’s Epistle and Gospel readings. They are the extremes – the supermen and superwomen of faith – while the rest of us are consigned to live our lives of work and whatever pleasure we can afford while paying lip service to our religious heritage. I prefer the Apostle Paul’s way. He addressed all Christian believers as “saints” – άγιοι. Do you want to be limited by the society that Riemen and the thinkers in his book describe? Why not choose to be a saint instead? Why not choose to live a life of meaning? And return to the spirit of greatness?