The eighteenth century Enlightenment was, in part, a reaction to the horrors of the religious wars of the previous century. They had wrought such destruction across Europe that it was little wonder rulers and intellectuals sought to find other ways of ordering and understanding the world; the destructive divisions wrought by faith and dogma could be transcended by the universal truths of reason, philosophy and science. Unfortunately, good idea though this might have seemed, it worked out for mankind no better than dogma and faith; indeed, there is even an argument to be had to the effect that mankind simply treated transferred its need for these things to what it called ‘science, philosophy and reason’. The horrors of the Thirty Years’ War paled into insignificance compared to those of the First and Second World Wars, whilst the sciences of eugenics and racial theory led to the gas chambers, and the philosophy of Communism to the Gulag and the ‘Great Leap forward’. If religion had chastised mankind with whips, reason did so with scorpions.
In our age, mankind has moved away from these communal ways of understanding the world to one where the individual is enthroned: my rights, my identity, my choices, my spirituality are all elevated to supreme importance. This is, to my reading of it, a new phenomenon in history, but already its limitations are clear. We live communally, whether we like it or not, and where religion, reason, science and philosophy were all ways of enabling that, individualism tends the other way – to disaggregation and dissolution. But mankind cannot take that much insecurity, its members look instinctively to things which bind them into groups in which they can feel secure. Some will, indeed, find the numbing effects of materialism a sufficient shield against asking existential questions: ‘I consume, therefore I am’. Others, however, will find emptiness and meretriciousness, and will seek to escape from the narcissism of our times by rejecting ‘the West’ as corrupt. In the sixties and seventies many such individuals sought meaning in radical activism on the Left, which promised to sweep away the corruption of our times. As the attraction of the political Left waned, the ecological movement swept many such young people up. Here was a cause which allowed its followers to pursue something larger than the individual, and to seek to alleviate the coming apocalypse through ‘action’. This, of course, they argued, was not faith, but science; their faith in the science would have done any true believer proud.
Environmentalism appealed mainly to those who, in a previous age, would have sought meaning in leftist politics. But those who felt marginalised in Western society, either by the colour of their skin and/or their ancestral faith, sought meaning in ways related to that faith. Attracted, as the young invariably are, by certainties and by disgust at what they see as the compromises of their elders, young men from the Muslim communities sought meaning in a form of their faith more rigorous than their parents had practised. One of the interesting features of radical Islam is that it attracts university-educated young men with, it seems from the outside, everything to gain materially by integrating into the society which is educating them. These are, of course, precisely the sort of people who are most likely to turn to find some meaning other than the materialism which many of them tried at university and found inadequate. In their groups they find comradeship and meaning – and, of course, a cause greater than the individual.
So, when we say, with Yeats, that ‘the worst’ are filled with ‘passionate intensity’ and ‘the best lack conviction’, that might be expressed in another, and less flattering way. For many Americans and Europeans, the expectations of the Enlightenment project have not been met, and the resources of narcissism and relativism suffice – which begs questions about the failure of Christianity to meet the needs which are met for some in radical forms of Islam.
There are no answers here, and it may be some think that even the questions are the wrong ones – but I throw it out there for consideration.