According to the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, the “wisdom of the West” expresses the sum total of what man “ought to” be. This wisdom was then discredited and rejected in the Modern era, and so is largely unavailable to post-modern man, who bobs along in the wake of Modernism, which has largely discredited itself. Here I use Pieper’s vision as the standard against which to chart the spiritual and cultural decline of the West.
Pieper: Man, insofar as he realizes his meaning, is someone who—in faith—opens himself by listening to God’s word, whenever he can perceive it.
Modern: Modern man, insofar as he realizes his meaning, rejects the faith of his fathers, and puts his faith instead in science and in rationalism more generally; which is to say he puts his faith in himself rather than in God.
Post-modern: Post-modern man, having discovered that faith in science and reason was unjustified, and finding God unbelievable, is faced with meaninglessness. With nothing in which to believe or to give direction and purpose to his life, he either struggles with anxiety, depression, and/or addiction, or, if fortunate, contents himself with career, comfort, and consumption (usually involving various combinations of sports, sex, drugs, gambling, food, travel, shopping and other kinds of “fun.”)
Pieper: Man is true to himself only when he is stretching forth—in hope—toward a fulfillment that cannot be reached in his bodily existence.
Modern: Modern man is true to himself only when he limits his hope to a fulfillment that can only be reached in his bodily existence. The desire for transcendent hope survives its rational denial and lives on in modern man’s utopian dreams, which include various and in many cases quite deadly schemes involving social, political, and biological engineering. Modern man hopes to bring Heaven to earth through his own efforts.
Post-modern: Clear-eyed about the failures of modernist utopias, post-modern man expects fulfillment in neither this world nor the next. He is apolitical, skeptical and cynical. Hope in anything strikes him as at best naïve.
Pieper: The man who strives for fulfillment is someone who—in love (caritas)—partakes in the eternally affirmative power of the Creator himself and, with all the strength of his being, finds it good that God, the world and he himself exists.
Modern: Modern man ignores or rejects the affirmative power of the Creator, and looks to recreate the world in his own image through his own power. Modern man is fulfilled only to the extent that he succeeds in remaking the world to conform to his standards. Since the world rarely cooperates, modern man is “never happy” and forever frustrated with the world, though rarely with himself. He is fine with himself, but he finds the world to be a big disappointment.
Post-modern: Where some might “expect the worst and hope for the best,” post-modern man expects little from himself or the world and so is rarely disappointed in either. Whether existence is worth celebrating or condemning is something about which he feels either ambivalent or indifferent. Why bother?
Pieper: Man’s life is authentic only when he does not allow his vision of reality to be clouded by the yes or no of his own desire; on the contrary, his decision-making and action depend on reality revealing itself to him. By his willingness to live the truth he shows himself to be prudent.
Modern: Modern man’s life is authentic only when reality conforms to his own desire; his decision-making and action are devoted to imposing his will on the world. Modern man creates the truth through what he calls “praxis.” What is true or right is whatever works to bring about what he wants. By his willingness to ignore reality in favor of the yes or no of his own desire, he shows himself to be prideful and imprudent.
Post-modern: Post-modern man is authentic when he is true to himself, not to reality. To live authentically means living in accord with what you feel/believe, whether or not what you feel/believe is true by any objective standard. Everyone is entitled to his own truth, even when everyone’s truth can’t possibly be true. When contradictory truths collide, as they must, the outcome is determined by power, not by reason. Truth is not discovered; it is imposed. By his willingness to ignore reality post-modern man shows himself to be foolish … and dangerous.