Sometimes it takes a deeply conservative intelligence to get to the heart of the matter. Such an intelligence was that of William Butler Yeats, who wrote nearly a century ago that things, not men, were in the saddle. Yeats was looking back at a world ruined by the Great War, in which Europe had sunk a generation of its young men in a futile and bottomless conflict fought for reasons that, by its end, no one could remember, and which, once begun, no one seemed able to stop.
We have no world war going today—if one broke out in our nuclear-armed world, it would almost surely consume anything we’d care to call civilization—but we do have pointless and intractable conflicts, of which the most notable example is the now six-year-old proxy war in Syria, a running sore whose effects have destabilized three continents and which now, whatever its causes, is a senseless and murderous attrition. War, moreover, although it is the nightmare that ultimately overhangs the world, is the symptom rather than the cause of our beleaguerment. What we have lost is the thread of a capable human agency, an ability to address our common problems in a way that reflects a shared sense of justice and equity and an interest in the destiny of our planet.
The political system that emerged more than two centuries ago to answer this need was called democracy. Democracy was based on was the notion of egalitarian citizenship, the idea that each of us had a common and equal stake in the political community. Its founders in America, mindful of the experience of ancient Greece and Rome, understood it to be a perilous experiment that might fail. But democracy emerged on the ruins of what had hitherto been the only other model of general community, religion and the ethical codes associated with it. The great monotheistic religions that had their common beginnings in Western Asia, and the less credally centered but still cohesive visions of the East, Buddhism and Confucianism, had given human societies a common image of themselves. The crisis to which democracy was a response was the decline of Western Christianity, and the hope it represented was that a society founded on an essentially secular vision could sustain itself. In America, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Tom Paine worked toward this end, and the product that emerged from their labors, contentless in itself, a process rather than a system, they called simply the “Constitution.” Our Constitution, always spelled with caps, has frequently been referred to as our civil religion, a text of quasi-biblical authority to which we refer as the touchstone of our commonwealth. Although it was a flawed document, reflecting such contemporary evils as slavery, the political exclusion of women, and capital punishment (an evil still with us), it soon acquired a status supereminent to civil legislation, the heart of democratic process itself.
The vision of man as defined by the Constitution was that of the citizen, a (male) person pursuing his own interest—“happiness,” as defined by our other founding text, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of independence—but in a manner respecting and accommodating the independent pursuits of others. It was, in short, a creed of personal liberty within the framework of shared community. Jefferson’s own model of this community was the agrarian freehold, a model based on a farm economy, and, in the newly formed Union, presupposing an abundant supply of land. Implicit in this idea was a westward expansion of the thirteen states, and with it the dispossession of the Native American nations: there were to be no more “rights” for them than for Jefferson’s own slaves. What Jefferson did not anticipate, however, was the rise of an urban, industrial society, and the strangling hold of finance capital that would come in its wake. Fifty years after his death, America had entered its first Gilded Age of corporate monopoly, worker exploitation, and radically skewed wealth distribution. Money bought politics, then as now, and it was only the crisis of the Great Depression that briefly slowed the inexorable concentration of wealth and power, and, with it, the evisceration of democratic citizenship. For the past fifty years we have been entering a new Gilded Age of prosperity for the few and economic straitening for the many, a process that is now fully mature.
Even in Jefferson’s lifetime, however, the potentially catastrophic results of his vision were apparent. The French revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just hailed “happiness” as the principle of modern society, only to use it, with his colleague Robespierre, as the pretext for the Reign of Terror, the first political purge of modern times—and the first of many to come. Jefferson had imagined happiness as the goal of freedom, but, in the hands of those who defined it for others, it could also be the justification of unbounded tyranny.
The question, then, for the early twenty-first century as for the late eighteenth, is whether the commitment to a secular humanity, ungrounded in an ethics based on transcendental religious principles, can provide a satisfactory vision and a stable basis for a just society. In practical terms and on a democratic model, this means a fluid adjustment between the claims of the individual and the requirements of a functioning community. The citizen must be free to pursue his interest within a reasonable latitude, but not at the expense of communal welfare. What is necessary, then, is a vision of humanity that embraces both the rights-bearing individual and the social whole. That, in a word, is the challenge of democratic politics. It’s a tricky game to play.
What has happened in practice is a tendency to polarize the choices. On the one hand, we have seen collectivized societies under fascism and communism (themselves both responses to the unbridled individualism of contemporary capitalism), in which the individual is radically subordinated to a collective that defines his interest for him; on the other, we have seen a ruthless pursuit of wealth and power that denies not only the needs but even the existence of society. Libertarianism is the ideology most frequently (though not always fairly) invoked to justify this latter attitude, but it was most simply put by the ablest modern spokesperson of elite capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, who flatly stated that there was no such thing as society—a rather remarkable pronouncement, when you think of it, by someone elected to lead a nation.
In fact, society is very much real, and its instrument, the state, can be lethal. The consequence of this is that humanity has been defined in terms of the rights-bearing subject and what organized social power may not do to him. The evolution of this concern, from the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to the 1948 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, has been striking. The French Revolution, at its inception, envisaged no opposition between the individual in his private and public capacities, although the American Bill of Rights, grounded in English common law, did. The U.N. Declaration is not particularly concerned with the tasks of citizenship as such. Coming in response to the World War II and the Holocaust, it meant to stake out the limits of any state power over the individual, and the minimum entitlement he or she could expect. This was an essentially negative template that acknowledged human vulnerability, but did not provide a positive image of human value. Individuals had specific claims on society, such as education and the equitable sharing of social benefits, but only passive rights of action, such as freedom of conscience. The Declaration, in short, did not state what the individual might do, but what could not be done to or withheld from him. It made the political subject, essentially, a ward of the state. A slightly earlier statement by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the Four Freedoms, included the guarantee of a “freedom from fear.” The implied vision was of the human subject as a scared rabbit in the crosshairs of an authoritarian state.
The U.N. Declaration represented a substantial retreat from the Enlightenment vision of the individual as a proud and personally sovereign subject. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man has long been on the scrapheap of history, and our own Bill of Rights has taken a substantial beating. Surveilled by the state, buffeted by the unaccountable winds of economic and technological disruption, the very notion of the individual, let alone humanity as such, has fallen on hard times. Our world is one in which the individual is not only not at the center of society, but one in which individuals who can’t keep up with a dizzying pace of externally-imposed change are rendered redundant or obsolete. You might say, with little fear of contradiction, that the situation of the individual has rarely been worse.
The question, then, is whether any view of humanity not grounded in religious vision is sustainable. No civilization before our own has ever long maintained itself without one. But religion is not something you can order up, nor is it a cureall. Islam is a world religion, but it has, in the suicide bomber, produced the ultimate negation of any notion of the human as a subject freely interacting with others. If you don’t like secular tyranny, you won’t like the religious kind any better.
In general, where there is no concept of humanity, there is no secure room for humans, either. Where such a concept can come from today I do not know, but I would suggest we start in the world around us as a source not only of sustenance but value. Perhaps then we can begin to recapture our sense of wonder, and—who knows?—perhaps even our sense of the sacred. Man is an end, to be sure, but not for himself alone.