What Is Normal?

There is a poorly organized force, that opposes the latest “woke” ideology in America and the West. I use the term “ideology” to stress the abnormal.

One of the features of modern life is what it does to language. For the past century, at least, we have (collectively) made ourselves the victims of various schemes to introduce new or to alter old meanings of words, in order to revise “conventional” ways of thinking.

By now, much of our thinking lies “outside the box,” or so we say. It is a curious expression, consciously intended by its users as a cliche, to consciously overcome cliches of thinking.

We must be original and creative, it is commonly agreed. In fact, we must be taught to steer away from what is commonplace or settled. We must “make it new,” as Ezra Pound advised the young poets and artists of his generation, and as each generation has been teaching its successors, ever since.

We live, and have lived, in “an age of progress,” as our elders declared, with various degrees of sarcasm. We might call this the fifth century of this progressive age, which developed from the European “Enlightenment” and “Reformation.”

Through all this time, a substantial and growing majority in our society has been “set free” from ancient stereotypes and the confined, “normal” ways of thinking.

What began as a sort of revolution, has continued into a permanent revolution, in contrast to most revolutions, which are soon over. It was, according to many, an “incomplete” or (to use this word in the old-fashioned way) “imperfect” revolution.

For the future was changed, “metaphysically” or fundamentally, during what is now recognized as our first “age of science.” So far as we may see from the 16th-century historical record, an “age of religion,” or faith, or belief, was the old normal that was systematically replaced by a new normal, in which nothing could be taken for granted.

This was the “progressive” movement, in gestation. At first, as in most, even of sudden, revolutions, little outwardly changed. The tired, old, boring problems of human existence continued in the universal background: illness, senility, death. The idea of changing these conditions would take centuries more to emerge, yet still there are inconveniences hanging about: we age, and die.

But we are warned not to consider this as “normal.” It is the sort of defeatist attitude that slows our progress, because it introduces doubt. Modern medicine and its allied trades are committed to resisting, even actively fighting against, illness, senility, death. There are campaigns against each of the known diseases, including old age, which people continue to die from even after they have defeated each of the other challenges.

Indeed, this world of “problems” has been with us for a long time.


A large part of the modern condition is the invention, or identification, of problems, which may or may not be eventually solved. (The little ones generally multiply and are enlarged.) Through the ages of science, we have created problems much faster than we could solve them, and that is what has kept our “progress” going.

We have no prospect of ever running out of problems, the way we might run out of coal, or petroleum. For each advance in science brings the gift of new problems, plus the old ones still not solved.

This in itself is a kind of parody of Christ’s new religion, which came at a certain point in the past and changed everything. The first generations to encounter it perhaps did not realize just how much of their “normal” was at stake.

Among other things, the Roman or Greek man-in-the-street didn’t realize that the problem of death, which even then was “an issue” for the masses, had been solved. For the next fifteen centuries, or so, it was taken off the table.

The fact of immortal human life was confirmed, by the wisest thinkers who came among them. “Faithlessness” was still possible, among a shrinking, once-fashionable, social set, but even funeral customs were adjusted. The “problem of Death” was replaced by the “problem of Hell” in the minds of the new believers.

Perhaps this is what the ages of science came to solve, or displace, after so many years of this new (and now old) normal. Better, to our new sages, live in a world in which futurity is uncertain, and unknowable, than one in which it could turn out very badly.

The drama of human life was thus made quite shallow. The notion of confronting some ultimate reality was, by stages, taken away. Verily, the possibility of a “consumer culture” was upon us, in which all things beyond price could be made actually affordable, and put into a market.

Outwardly, nothing changed. We had always had markets. And as the tale of Judas suggests, along with the tale of Adam and Eve, wisdom itself could be put on sale. It could thus be made “relative,” to use our present scientistic jargon.

A “new normal” could be created simply by adapting the old to the new conditions. Neither more nor less than thirty pieces, although inflation would run this up to a more impressive sum today (while creating vexatious economic problems).

What is normal? The conservative or reactionary mind (I am less and less satisfied with “conservative”) resists modernity and its “progress,” and inevitably posits some “normal” from which, as persons and societies, we have departed. It would be good if we would abandon all our complicated political schemes – our ideology for improvements – and return to the “normal” that we have forcefully left behind.

But here, common sense (which might be called the “conservative ideology”) tells us, there is no normal to which we might return. Even Christianity can be depicted as a period in history, or as many phases; as something that could come and go.

Christendom was something “we” (the Christians) created: an abnormal state of grace.


*Image: John of Patmos Watches the Descent of New Jerusalem (“La Jérusalem céleste“) by Jean Bondol and Nicholas Bataille, 1377-1382 [Musée de la Tapisserie, Château d’Angers, Angers, France]

You may also enjoy:

Ellen Wilson Fielding’s Apocalypse Now

Francis X. Maier’s Memory, History, and Hope

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.