The Antidote to Social Despair

One of the most popular genres of non-fiction recently has been social critique.  It’s all the rage to tell people where we as a society went wrong.  Every aspiring “public intellectual” must stake his or her claim to prominence, it seems, by crafting a credible social critique. There’s Augusto del Noce in Italy, Pierre Manent in France, Charles Taylor in Canada, and Hartmut Rosa in Germany, all with big books, sometimes in multiple volumes.  (There is a lot wrong with us, it seems, and explaining it is a big job.)  We have our own home-grown critics in America, of course. Patrick Deneen, Carl Trueman, Christopher Caldwell, Jody Bottum, Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Rod Dreher – the list is long.  And the Internet is filled with it.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that all these critiques are mistaken.  Quite the contrary, I would grant there is a great deal of truth in many of them.  What is noteworthy for our purposes is just how many there are and how popular they have become.  My question is this:  What does it say about the world and about the culture we live in that social critique has become such a popular pastime among so many authors in multiple countries?

There are differences between these various critiques, but each contains a variation on the same theme.  Each person is writing his own version of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.  Whereas the narrative of the previous two centuries was one of progress and faith in progress, that narrative has been replaced by one of decline.  There are still a few hold-outs who, like Harvard’s Steven Pinker, think that if we can just get back to our Enlightenment roots, society will return to its inexorable upward climb.  But for the most part, that earlier faith in perpetual progress has either dimmed or disappeared, replaced by the fear that something has gone horribly wrong and it will not be easy — perhaps not even possible — to get things back on track.

There is no general agreement on what has gone wrong and exactly when the problems started, but even less agreement about how we could reverse the downward slide we seem to be on.  To put this in contemporary jargon, there is plenty of “de-constructing” going on, but not a lot of “re-constructing.”

We live in a world we don’t comprehend, and we are searching for ways to explain, understand, and interpret it.  We want to know how and why things got so messed up. We seem driven by the belief that if we can just understand the problems and trace their source, we just might be able to fix them.

Or maybe not. But if not, at least we’ll know how and why the Titanic is sinking, and we can curse the darkness and the ultimate folly of all human endeavor with knowing sophistication, as we shift the deck chairs and order another double bourbon.  Lifeboats?  What would be the point?

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One question we might ask ourselves is whether our obsession with social critique is any more helpful than what psychologists call “ruminating introspection,” something they have found to be not altogether helpful for depressed patients.  If people focus too much on the narrative they think explains their problems, they can become stuck in it.  It can keep them from escaping what they are perpetually focusing on.

To escape a narrative – whether of victimhood, unjust treatment, unrealized potential, or inevitable decline – we must stop perpetually focusing on that narrative.  It may be true that you were abused as a child, and this may explain a lot.  But the question is what you will do now and whether you will continue to be held hostage by that narrative.  If you are more than a victim – and you are – then how should you act?

I have no desire to dismiss all the valuable social critiques, but I wonder whether we should spend more time and energy thinking about what we might do.  So, for example, perhaps we should invest more time and energy on the one thing that has been shown to help reform individuals and society:  the virtues.  Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and yes, faith, hope, and love. Compassion, dedication to the common good, openness to critique, and a willingness to sacrifice and to serve, while eschewing power, wealth, status, and all forms of ideology and idolatry.  There are hundreds of reasons why we are where we are.  The question now is how things can be different.

Of all the basic virtues, the one that often gets the least attention is that one in the middle of the three theological virtues: hope.  I fear many people have lost hope.  But without hope, there’s no energy for positive change, and people give themselves excuses for giving up.  They look upon all those small efforts put forth by others as naïve and feckless.  “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” they say, “but it’ll never work, not as things are now.”  Maybe not.  But I’d rather die trying than stop hoping.

You don’t need hope when things are looking up; you need it when there seems no reason to hope.  And perhaps you need to be just foolish enough to believe that things can be different.  God only knows when or how.

But meanwhile, we need to rejoice – rejoice in gratitude for the manifold gifts we enjoy; rejoice in the Spirit that is transforming us daily in ways we scarcely imagine and will continue to do so if we allow it; and rejoice, finally, that we, like the first apostles, have been “counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:40)

We can keep looking behind us, grumbling about the fleshpots we left behind in Egypt, or we can eat the manna with which God is feeding us each day and look ahead to the glories He has in store.  Now is the time of the saints.

 

*Image: Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886 [The Tate, London]

 

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.

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