[This article appeared in the February 1970 issue of Religion and Society (later renamed The St. Croix Review), pp. 14-21.]
Spiritual Values and the Free Society
By Dwight D. Murphey
When at a recent meeting of the Philadelphia Society the editor of Religion and Society, the ebullient Angus MacDonald, suggested the possibility of my submitting an article on religion, I was quick to give an affirmative reply. I knew, after all, that religion ranks high, perhaps even highest, in my scale of what is central to human life. I have in the past found myself nodding in agreement over John Stuart Mill’s observation in his Autobiography that “all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation (of religious values), is of very little value beyond the moment.”
Now that the task is upon me, however, I write with considerable diffidence. I suspect, though I do not know, that the great majority of the readers of Angus’ journal are conservatives of the Burkean school and that Christianity is central to their thinking. “If this is so,” I find myself asking, “are they interested in what I, a ‘neo-classical liberal’ and an agnostic, think about religion?” Or is it not probable that they will readily set aside my article as another wearisome piece of Jacobinical nonsense?
I have not entirely overcome this hesitation, but I have at least found reason to disregard it. For my part, I am a man of conviction, not a fanatic, and have never adopted as my own that militant agnosticism that permits one to disregard religious questions and stop communicating with those who care about them. And so far as others are concerned, I am reminded of a lesson I learned as a lawyer from George Creamer, Colorado’s master of courtroom forensics: if you always address the judge and opposing counsel as though they enjoy hearing you, they might just occasionally find themselves smiling a bit and perhaps agreeing with at least some of the things you say.
This is not to deny that my message will inevitably be abrasive to Burkean ears. But I am convinced that it is important to those who cherish a free society, and I know that Burkeans do in fact cherish such a society. Thus, my message is one in which they ought, at least, to be interested.
Essentially, it consists of three propositions, with the explanation needed to support each:
1. The intellectual direction of the present age is toward secularism or even atheism, with the consequence that man’s spiritual problems will be, and even must be, approached increasingly from a secular standpoint.
I appreciate that to a believer in God such a statement cannot be acceptable. One cannot read Richard Weaver or Russell Kirk without noting their view that God is the ultimate reality, that if it be true that He exists it simply cannot be sound to ignore Him, that indeed our perception of reality decreases as we become farther removed from an awareness of God. I must frankly state, however, that for my part Weaver and Kirk are wrong here, in this fundamental premise. I am an agnostic because I believe man lacks, epistemologically, any way of knowing whether there is a God. I join with this the conviction that the elimination of unsupportable hypotheses is an essential part of man’s mental growth, if indeed he is to grow.
Nothing that I have just said will be surprising to anyone who is at all knowledgeable in these matters. My views are shared by a great many thoughtful men and are not original with me. One need not adopt the pretentiousness of Auguste Comte’s positivistic philosophy of history to see that intellectually man has become more and more secularized. It is a fact Weaver and Kirk bemoan and others, including myself, applaud.
Why should this have been so? The important thing is to appreciate that to many men of intelligence and good will there is great appeal in taking a no-nonsense approach to the most profound intellectual questions. It is not out of malevolence that such men deny the existence of God. It is because they feel themselves committed to a methodology that they consider lends dignity to the human intellectual process. As they look back over the history of man’s mental development they feel refreshed when they decline to perpetuate questions that they have reason to think can never lead beyond the merely speculation.
Burkeans will not agree with the assessment such men make, but it is well to understand why the secularism has such great intellectual appeal. We also see why it is apt, because of that appeal, to extend itself. I am not one who is willing to assert, with the dogmatism of most philosophers of history, that there is inevitability behind any given development in human affairs, but I should nevertheless be surprised if the world begins to reaffirm, at least in intellectual circles, a belief in theism. If it does, it will be because other factors, such as the social withdrawal we see among the “hippies,” will have become more dominant in society.
The upshot is that, as the trend of the past several centuries continues, the principal ministrations to human spiritual needs will necessarily come not from believers in God but from agnostics and atheists. This leads us directly to the second proposition.
2. The spiritual problems men face are at least as great, if perhaps not greater, in the absence of a believable God as they are in a God-oriented society.
It will immediately be seen that I am using the word “spiritual” (as I do “religious’) in its broadest acceptation. By “spiritual” I mean problems involving the ultimate questions: Why am I here? Who am I? Where am I going? What, if anything, is the significance of my living and dying?
There are many who assume that these questions disappear in the absence of a theistic faith. In his recent book The America We Lost, Mario Pei says that without God man would be entitled “to behave like an animal.” A serious secularist would hardly join him in saying this. Hedonism is not the real alternative to a belief in God. Men still feel deeply that they must find satisfactory answers to the ultimate questions. This is what Existentialism is all about; it is what spurred Adolf Hitler on when he decried his having been born in what he thought was a dull age; it is what Ayn Rand is concerned about when she asserts the necessity of heroicism as a way of life. Sometimes their answers are compatible with civilized values, other times not, but they are all joined in a common seeking—and the absence of a believable God makes their seeking all the more urgent. As Sartre has said, “By Forlornness we mean the absence of God.”
It is at this point that the otherwise diverse courses of the Burkeans and the religious seekers among the secularists overlap. Both join the modern chorus of dissent from the mundane values of the “bourgeois.” The Burkeans would avoid such spiritual mediocrity by reasserting the theism of the Middle Ages; the alienated intellectuals have sought their answers in socialism. And in their criticisms of the triviality, the spiritual dullness, the crass vulgarity, the obsession with gadgetry that modern men pursue as a lifestyle, both are right, at least to a degree. They are wrong when they seem to condemn science, materialism, and reason outright (as when Kierkegaard said “it is intelligence itself which must be opposed”), apparently not fully appreciating that these things have given most of us the opportunity for life, but they have at least seen the spiritual problems and made them a central part of their concern.
To the extent that we understand it at all, we may say that the spiritual insufficiency among modern men results from the convergence of several causes. In the first place, it would seem to follow more or less naturally from the difficulty of the questions themselves. How does one go about finding “significance” in ones life in the ordinary round of work and pleasure, unadorned by an overriding belief in God? In such a case it becomes largely a matter of the person’s own élan vital as it finds expression within the context of his lifestyle. I am myself of the opinion that life can hold fascination and meaning, but I am also acutely aware of the difficulties many people face in giving it meaning. And they are impeded in their efforts so long as mankind is, in effect, in philosophical transition and they cannot find satisfactory answers in their churches and from their philosophers.
Second, there are bound to be immense spiritual problems in any civilization confronted with the phenomenon of “massness” that caused Jose Ortega y Gasset to write The Revolt of the Masses and such men as, say, Richard Weaver and Wilhelm Ropke to speak of the “herdlike” quality of “modern mass culture.” It is true that the “average man” has moved into prominence in all areas, imposing everywhere his own lifestyle, tastes, and values. I am reminded of this daily, for example, as I drive home from the university: blaring rock-and-roll music, or its most recent equivalent, sucks out my soul as I pass a small music store. The advent of the “common man” to omnipresence has many good and hopeful things about it which we ought not underestimate, but it does also have the spiritually strangling qualities about which so many sensitive men have remarked with anguish.
The third cause we might mention is perhaps concomitant with the massness of modern life. It is the tendency in an extroversive lifestyle for the outer run of human intercourse to be trivial, lacking any vital touch with the really meaningful aspects of a person’s life. Separate from this, compartmentalized in almost a different reality, is the hidden inner being of the thoughtful or feeling person. In the absence of good conversation, in the absence of other persons who care about ones ideas or emotions, the intellectual and subjective aspects of a man’s life find only a rare catharsis. The overwhelming majority of his contacts with other people, including even his own family, are small-talkish, congenial but sterile. In addition to being one of the major spiritual problems men face today (though we ought for perspective to note that Tacitus complained of precisely the same problem two thousand years ago), I am convinced that it is also a major cause of the “alienation” from “bourgeois” life so many men of all schools of thought have felt during recent centuries.
And yet a reading of history would cause us to go back to an even deeper fourth cause. The spiritual problems of human beings arise very largely out of the cosmic status of the human race itself. History brings with it abundant evidence that man is only in his infancy so far as “civilization” is concerned. Nor need one read the endless chronicles of wars and revolutions to have this impressed on his mind. It is necessary only to observe the essential immaturity of most human beings, as that immaturity is visible even in the little things of life. “We are as children,” the Christian will say, and this is a conclusion that must be reached on a more empirical foundation as well. Most human problems are self-made; they arise out of neuroses and mental and moral limitations. One of the great truths expressed by Burkean philosophy is precisely that this “human condition” is not going to change in the foreseeable future; it is deeply fixed in the nature of man as we know him.
Fifth, one of the inescapable facts about the twentieth century is that, above all else, it is a time of transition. The process of change is so rapid that there is little opportunity for men to formulate the intricate adaptations that might otherwise offer some balm to their spiritual needs. The nervous tension in our lives rises as we wait in a long line of cars for a train to pass or fight the traffic jams that result from a seemingly incessant road construction. Or as we attempt to study or to contemplate, the jack hammer in the building being erected next door raps an insistent tattoo into our brains. If we return to the places we loved during our childhood, we find them unrecognizable. Even such examples cannot sufficiently illustrate the impact of change in unsettling our lives and keeping everything in a state of immaturity.
My primary purpose in this essay cannot, however, be to analyze such spiritual problems in detail. Although we must have them in mind for what follows, it is the third of my triad of propositions that most interests me.
3. The spiritual crisis into which the “free society” envisioned by classical liberalism has been thrown for so long is in large measure the result of a failure by free men and classical liberalism to acknowledge and to meet the spiritual problems men face. The mot important area for development of classical liberal thought must be with regard to matters of the spirit.
When the spiritual insufficiency of bourgeois life led to the alienation of the intellectual, who then launched massive attacks on the free society itself, it was natural and right that classical liberalism would stand in defense of capital and laissez-faire. These have been worthy of defense, not just for themselves, but for what the ideal of freedom, properly understood, portends for the entire future of the human race. But the very fact of being on the defensive has aborted the development of the free society. The “thing as it is,” the status quo, has needed defending, and that defense has preoccupied the classical liberal when he should instead have been able to see the deficiencies in his own creation and work for their correction. Thus, instead of continuing to perfect the theory and practice of liberty, the classical liberal became absorbed merely in maintaining what he had already achieved. And that was insupportable, primarily because of the spiritual problems we have mentioned and that he has not been in a position psychologically to apprehend.
It is precisely the rationalistic proponent of capitalism and laissez-faire, however, who ought to be in the forefront of the seeking for religious values in our society. It is he who, because of his rationalism, can most be attuned to the spirit of empiricism and science, though because of his total values he ought also to have some immunity from scientism as an abuse of empirical methodology. And it is he who understands, as much as anyone, the theoretical framework of a free society. He accordingly combines within himself important ingredients for the most constructive intellectual contributions.
What is important is that he see the liberty he envisions is not itself enough: free men can be awfully mediocre, thereby creating reaction against freedom as well as themselves lacking the characterological prerequisites for maintaining it. They are mediocre whenever they do not look upon their liberty as merely the precondition for the highest spiritual and intellectual values. Indeed, when he thinks about it, the classical liberal will see that he never really intended anything less as the product of the liberty he has advocated; he has always supposed it to be the vehicle for human creativity and ennobling values.
The classical liberal has often not fully recognized that the accomplishment of such values needs something more than an institutional and economic framework of individual freedom. It also requires that the culture, the predominant intellectual orthodoxy of the time, the traditions and mores of the people, the prevailing worldview itself, stress constantly the function of liberty as a road to personal achievement and ennoblement.
Even this may not be enough. It is necessary also that the same forces who seek to guard and extend liberty be the ones who are most sensitive to human spiritual needs of all sorts—and this is something more even than the need for personal noblesse, though that is at the heart of any complete solution; it also involves the most subtle adjustment, on a continuing basis, of the patterns of human intercourse, so that there is a greater exchange and catharsis among people.
If I could do any one thing that I would consider of paramount importance, it would be to issue such a call to the proponents of a free society. They, far more than its opponents, should be the ones to see the spiritual imperfections of free men and to seek to correct them. The alienated intellectual never provided such aid to the free society; he abandoned that society’s values before he made the effort. But neither has the classical liberal, for the most part, because he has been too inclined in his defensiveness to think capitalism perfect, if only it would be allowed to exist unhampered. While the philosophy of Ayn Rand, an atheist, is by no means totally acceptable, I view her major contribution to have been in having directed her attention so beautifully to this problem. And yet the concern for the spiritual values of free men ought never to become the province of a cult, Randian or otherwise. As Mill said, spiritual regeneration is so important that until it receives attention all else if “of very little value beyond the moment.”