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The Illusion of Disillusionment


There is a vast body of commentary on the modern spiritual plight, all of which assumes that the experience of doubt, moral relativism, and despair is distinctively modern and, in some sense, the product of mankind's "maturity."


A survey of this literature, which includes the works of Freud, Jung, and Weber, reveals a recurring imagery that links the history of culture to the life cycle of individuals. In this analogy, civilization has passed through distinct phases, moving from a childhood of naive faith to the detached skepticism of an adult. Jung's description of the modern condition, for example, begins with a reference to the lost childhood of the race. The medieval world, in which men were all children of God...and knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves, now lies as far behind as childhood. In this modern view, religion, at least in its traditional forms, can no longer speak to the needs of a world that has outgrown its childhood. Freud's book on religion, which bears the scornful title The Future of an Illusion, concludes that religion has no future at all. Likening it to a childhood neurosis, he insists that men cannot remain children forever.

The unexamined premise that history can be compared to an individual's growth from childhood to maturity makes it possible to condemn any form of cultural conservatism or any respect for tradition as simply an expression of the natural human tendency to cling to the security of childhood and to resist emotional and intellectual growth. The educated classes, unable to escape the burden of sophistication, may envy the naive faiths of the past; they may even envy the masses who continue unthinkingly to observe traditional faiths in the twentieth century, not yet having been exposed to the wintry blasts of modern critical thinking. They cannot trade places with the unenlightened masses, however, any more than they can return to childhood. Once the critical habit of mind has been fully assimilated, no one who understands its implications can find any refuge or resting place in pre-modern systems of thought and belief.

It is this experience of disillusionment, more than anything else, that has been held to distinguish the artist and the intellectual from unreflective creatures of convention, those people who allegedly distrust artists and intellectuals precisely because they the naive multitude cannot bear to hear the bad news. Unenlightened ages past might be forgiven for believing things no educated person could, in the twentieth century, still believe, or for taking literally mythologies better understood in a figurative or metaphorical sense; one might even forgive the modern proletarian, excluded from an education by virtue of his unremitting toil; but the bourgeois philistine lives in an enlightened age, with easy access to enlightened culture, yet deliberately chooses not to see the light, lest it destroy the illusions essential to his peace of mind. The intellectual alone looks straight into the light without blinking. Disillusioned but undaunted: Such is the self-image of modernity, so proud of its intellectual emancipation that it makes no effort to conceal the spiritual price that has to be paid.

We might call it a quaint conceit, this mental habit of playing off our disillusionment against the innocence of our ancestors, except that it originates in an impulse that is anything but quaint and has very serious consequences, not the least of which is to prevent an understanding of vitally important matters. It betrays a predisposition to read history either as a tragedy of lost illusions or as the progress of critical reason.

I say either/or, but of course these two versions of the modernist historical myth are closely related; indeed, they are symbiotically dependent on each other. It is the progress of critical reason that allegedly leads to lost illusions; disillusionment represents the price of progress.

From this point of view, the relation of past to present is defined above all by the contrast between simplicity and sophistication. The barrier that divides the past from the present an impassable barrier, in the imagination of modernity is the experience of disillusionment, which makes it impossible to recapture the innocence of earlier days. Disillusionment, we might say, is the characteristic form of modern pride.

This pride is evident not only in the aggressively triumphal view of cultural progress that dismisses the past without regrets but, paradoxically, in the nostalgic myths of the past as well. Nostalgia and the idea of progress go hand in hand. The assumption that our civilization has achieved a level of unparalleled complexity naturally gives rise to a yearning for bygone simplicity.

Nostalgia is superficially loving in its re-creation of the past; but it evokes the past only to bury it alive. It shares with the belief in progress, to which it is only superficially opposed, an eagerness to proclaim the death of the past and to deny history's hold over the present. Those who mourn the death of the past and those who acclaim it both take for granted that our age has outgrown its childhood. Both find it difficult to believe that history still haunts our enlightened, disillusioned adolescence (or maturity or senility or whatever stage of the life cycle we have allegedly reached). Both are governed, in their attitude toward the past, by the prevailing disbelief in ghosts.

Perhaps the most important casualty of this habit of mind is a proper understanding of religion. In the commentary on the modern spiritual predicament, religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, rather than as a challenge to complacency and pride. Its ethical teachings are misconstrued as a body of simple commandments leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt. Recall Jung's description of medieval Christians as children of God (who) knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves. Joseph Wood Krutch, the early-twentieth-century critic, took the same view of religion. Medieval theology, according to Krutch, made the conduct of life an exact science. It offered a plan of life that was delightfully simple. Medieval Christians accepted the laws of God in a fashion exactly parallel to that in which the contemporary scientist accepts the Laws of Nature; this unquestioning obedience to an authoritative science of morals was the only alternative to moral nihilism. As soon as one begins to doubt either the validity of the laws of God...or as soon as one begins to raise a question as to the purpose of life, one begins to slide down the slippery slope to relativism, moral anarchy, and cultural despair.

What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism; or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life; or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair. The famous collection of songs written by medieval students preparing for the priesthood, Carmina Burana, should be enough in themselves to dispel this notion; they give voice, these disturbing compositions, to an age-old suspicion that the universe is ruled by Fortune, not by Providence, that life has no higher purpose at all, and that the better part of moral wisdom is to enjoy life while you can.

Or consider the varieties of religious experience analyzed by William James in his book of that name, a book that is distinguished by a complete indifference to issues of historical chronology. To readers formed by the self-consciously modern tradition, such an indifference might appear to be a weakness of James's book, but it is essential to his pointthat the deepest variety of religious faith always, in every age, arises out of a background of despair. Religious faith asserts the goodness of being in the face of suffering and evil. Black despair and alienation which have their origin not in perceptions exclusively modern but in the bitterness always felt toward a God who allows evil and suffering to flourish often become the prelude to conversion. An awareness of radical evil underlies the spiritual intoxication that finally comes with yielding and self-surrender. If nothing else, the shadow of death hangs over our pleasures and triumphs, calling them into question.

The modern world has no monopoly on the fear of death or alienation from God. Alienation is the normal condition of human existence. Rebellion against God is the natural reaction to the discovery that the world was not made for our personal convenience. The further discovery that suffering is visited on the just and unjust alike is hard to square with a belief in a benign and omnipotent creator, as we know from the Book of Job.

But it is just this comfortable belief that the purposes of the Almighty coincide with our purely human purposes that religious faith requires us to renounce. Religion reminds us of the inescapable limits on human power and freedom. Far from endorsing comfortable superstitions, it undermines the most important superstition of all that the human race controls its own destiny. According to its critics, religion provides the security of childlike dependence on a father figure who answers all our prayers. But the naive belief that our wishes govern the universe is precisely what religion attacks. We have no special claim on the universe, and our prayers are answered only when we surrender that claim: Such is the true meaning of religious faith, as it has been understood by a long succession of prophets through the ages.

The religious critique of pride ought to speak directly and compellingly to modern men and women, who find it galling to be reminded of their dependence on powers beyond their own control or at least beyond the control of humanity in general. Such people find it difficult to acknowledge the justice and goodness of these higher powers when the world is so obviously full of evil. They find it difficult to reconcile their expectations of worldly success and happiness, so often undone by events, with the idea of a just, loving, and all-powerful creator. Unable to conceive of a God who does not regard human happiness as the be-all and end-all of creation, they cannot see the central paradox of religious faith: that the secret of happiness lies in renouncing the right to be happy.

What makes the modern temper modern, then, is not that we have lost our childish sense of dependence but that the normal rebellion against dependence is more pervasive today than it used to be. But this rebellion is not new, as Flannery O'Connor reminds us when she observes that there are long periods in the lives of all of us...when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. If right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul, it is because the normal rebellion against dependence appears to be sanctioned by our scientific control over nature the same progress of science that has allegedly destroyed religious superstition.

Those wonderful machines that science has enabled us to construct have made it possible to imagine ourselves as masters of our fate. In an age that fancies itself as disillusioned, this is the one illusion the illusion of mastery that remains as tenacious as ever. But now that we are beginning to grasp the limits of our control over the natural world, the future of this illusion (to invoke Freud once again) is very much in doubt more problematical, certainly, than the future of religion.



Lasch, Christopher. The Illusion of Disillusionment. New Oxford Review LVIII, no. 7 (July-August 1991): 12-14.

Reprinted with permission of the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706). To subscribe to the New Oxford Review, call (510) 526-3492.

The Author

Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) was professor of history at the University of Rochester (NY). Lasch was a unrelenting critic of liberal progressivism and unbridled capitalism, thus earning for himself a place in contemporary society as an important social critic and thinker. His books include The Culture of Narcissism (perhaps his best known work), The Minimal Self, Haven in a Heartless World, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.

Copyright © 1991 New Oxford Review
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