Humanity Without Limits

The enlightenment myth of infinite progress has not yet died. This assertion of mine is based largely on anecdotal evidence and the general impression I get from the cultural and political commentariat. It is commonly held that things are getting better or they will get better in the future. Peter Kreeft calls this the religion of progress; or, the belief in change for change’s sake. I think it’s a fair description of a common mindset of some on both the left and the right.

One reason this mindset is so pervasive is because the of the free economy. (I am using the word free here in a sense that means this: our economic actions are no longer under the control of some state or social organization that limits who we can do business with. Free also means generally free from excessive taxation).  The free economy has resulted in the massive creation of wealth which gives us the false impression that humanity has no limits. An important part of conservatism, then, is to remind people that mankind does indeed have limits, and that the idea of a limitless humanity is a dangerous cultural, political, and moral poison.

Perhaps no one expresses this danger better than Wendell Berry, especially in his latest essay on this very subject. It is titled “Faustian economics: Hell Hath no limits”. I think it gives a great outline of the kind of cultural changes that are going to need to occur in the coming years.

What does he recommend?

To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover “the secret of the universe.” We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything. It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either. Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: “They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.”

To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.

Vague indeed, but it does give us at least a basic orientation.

It is significant to note, I think, that Mr. Berry does not offer a political plan for reorganizing society, that is, a plan that involves the use of the coercive power of the state. The essay is a call for individuals and small communities to change their lives and habits.

This type of cultural commentary is of great importance, and I think libertarian types would benefit greatly from seriously considering what this essay is saying.  HT:Patrick Deneen

7 Responses to Humanity Without Limits

  • I think you make a very important point about the importance of libertarians (and small government conservatives — to the extent that they are not already doing so) considering the importance of making cultural choices to avoid certain directions. All too often we make the error of slipping from, “Government should not restrict me from doing X” to “I should not restrict myself from doing X”.

    Which, in turn, tends to result in exactly the sort of unthinking abuses which lead those of the opposite political philosophy to call for “more regulation”.

    BTW, on progress: You would doubtless enjoy Christopher Dawson’s Progress and Religion if you haven’t read it already. (Not like we don’t all already have big “to read” stacks.)

  • If it’s any consolation, Zach, the myth of infinite progress will probably die out with my passing from the world. How could one progress beyond me?

    Seriously, though, I suspect our scientific advances and our movement toward globalization also perpetuate the myth.

  • Darwin, Definitely.

    Kyle, hah! You’re right about the effects of science.

  • Mr. Berry does not offer a political plan for reorganizing society, that is, a plan that involves the use of the coercive power of the state. The essay is a call for individuals and small communities to change their lives and habits.

    Yes, very significant, and the reason why Berry should be read…..the state as the organizing force of society is a definition of fascism (which need not be homocidal, even as it is overbearing and harmful to the organic formation of community).

  • I almost think that him a few other thinkers (Ropke) could serve to facilitate people moving away from preference for socialist government.

    I’ve never heard Policraticus or Michael Iafrate comment on either of these thinkers.

    That’d be interesting.

  • “Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: “They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.””

    Y’know, I don’t know if commonplace books are kept by the limited numbers of Party officials in North Korea or Cuba who are allowed to surf the Web, but if there are any, I can imagine someone copying that line down, for use as a future rhetorical/propaganda reference.

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