Last month I suggested that the most effective argument for taking human nature, natural law, and natural human goods seriously is that doing so leads to a better way of life.
It’s not hard to see why it should. People do not in fact invent their own ways of life. They’re too social, and the world is too complicated. So the disintegration of inherited culture, with its acceptance of natural human goods, in an industrialized, commercialized, networked, and bureaucratized society means people live by careerism, consumerism, pop culture, and propaganda, supplemented by the advice of therapeutic professionals.
That doesn’t sound inspirational, but in America we’re big on advertising and PR, so a better face gets put on it. That’s why we’re always hearing about “dreams”—the American dream, the dreams of immigrants, the dreams of young people. That’s the way we talk about ideals of life, at least the ideals that make it into public discussion.
In general, the dreams seem to relate to career success and material prosperity, which are understood as the basis for all other good things. In public, at any rate, people today don’t dream of knowledge, virtue, sanctity, heroism, peace of mind, a good marriage, happy family life, having children, an honest way of living, happiness in general, or the beatific vision. They dream of this career or that, the idea apparently being that the right career will bring with it a generally satisfying way of life.
Poverty, boring drudgery, and the dole usually don’t make people happy, so there’s something to be said for a nice career. Even so, the view that prosperity and a favored line of work is the one needful thing from which all else follows seems naive. Surveys confirm the old saw that money doesn’t bring happiness, and while there are a few people with special talents or inclinations that make some particular line of work specially suitable, how many are there for whom it really makes sense to dream of being a lawyer or sales representative?
The basic vision of life seems to lack something, an element of depth or spirit that the “dream” language can’t cover up, and people with aspirations think they can do better, so they look to see if something minimal can solve the problem. They often start by dressing up career with coolness and connoisseurship, and learn about arugula or craft beers or whatever. That usually isn’t enough, so many of them try to refurbish the spiritual world in which they’ve landed to make it seem less sterile, for example by emphasizing “relationships” or ideals of some sort.
That doesn’t really work either. The relationships tend to be free-form and subject to constant renegotiation—how could they be otherwise?—so they’re not much to build a life on. And the ideals usually take the form of progressive social views, which tell us that problems caused by current trends can be cured by more of the same, or a free-form spirituality that doesn’t tell us much at all, except that our feelings are very, very special.
A basic problem with the current approach is that it doesn’t take into account the difficulties and complexities of life. It’s designed for people like its high-end proponents, those who are clever, successful, and well-connected enough to promote their views effectively in a competitive and hierarchical public culture, and are too busy or distracted to reflect much on life. So it’s for people with money, good health, and a future to look forward to (or so they believe): hipsters, yuppies, upscale professionals, students at high-end universities, and so on.
It’s also for people who think they are winners. Hence the contempt for bitter clingers and other unfashionable losers noticeable among today’s progressives. That’s a problem for an outlook on life that wants to be usable, because life has many losses, we cling to what’s best in it, and we eventually lose most of the things and people we care about. And we all die, so we all, from the world’s point of view, end up losing everything.
Also, the tendency of modern life—especially since the 60s, with their apotheosis of mass market “youth culture“ and their abolition of tradition and the transcendent as legitimate authorities—has made a great many people losers in more comprehensive ways. Everyday experience, and even statistics, show that more and more people have lost their families, their religion, a stable livelihood, and a settled place in society. Such tendencies have their defenders, since fewer ties and loyalties make people freer and more autonomous—how, for example, can women be equal if they have family ties? And they have the implicit support of people who run things, since the changes make labor markets more flexible and otherwise reduce resistance to change—that is, to ordinary people doing what they’re told.
From a more personal and practical standpoint, though, the changes have made people worse off, especially those who weren’t notably successful to start with. Charles Murray has documented the radical decline of social participation in institutions as basic as marriage among lower-class whites in his book Coming Apart. More crudely and concretely, statisticians have noticed a rise in death rates among white people that becomes downright catastrophic among the less successful and educated. (White Americans are not, of course, worse off than black or Mexican Americans. But they are the largest group, and as the group that constituted close to 90 percent of the country on the eve of the 60s, their situation shows the effects of recent trends most clearly.)
Something better is evidently needed. But how as a practical matter can Americans reverse these trends and get out of the situation they’ve fallen into? The question has political and economic components, but politics and economics should serve the good life, so the real question is how people can best carry on their lives. What’s life about, what’s our goal, and how should we go about attaining it? To say that such questions have answers is to say that we have a nature that corresponds to principles—natural law—that help us realize our good.
To take that view seriously is to emphasize goals that appeal to pretty much all of us simply because we are human: health, knowledge, friendship, family life, aesthetic experience, responsible participation in society, peace of mind, and a sense that our life makes sense, and we are at home in a world that can be sensibly understood as a home.
Such things don’t come up in public discussion today except as occasional asides, and when they do they’re mostly lumped into “work-life balance.” The idea seems to be that career comes first, because that’s the fundamental and serious part of life, but it’s also good to make space for leisure-time activities like having children. That approach is, of course, irrational. We work to live, not live to work, so we need to be able to discuss, with each other and in public, what the “life” part of the work-life balance should look like. That’s especially true since basic human goals can’t be picked out separately like items from a menu. Life is a structure, not an agglomeration of separate pieces, so more than anything we need patterns of life that connect and forward basic human goods throughout life’s changes.
To put it another way, we need to take into account human nature, which means that we need to recognize natural human goods and the natural law principles of conduct that promote them systematically. But how do we do that when life is so complicated, subtle, and difficult? Much needs to be said, but to start we need a tradition of how to live that has developed to deal with life and its goods as a whole. That can only be one that has grown out of the lives of many people over generations and become a lasting and comprehensive culture. Without that process of development a way of life won’t reflect more than a little of what has to get sorted out in the mix.
A tradition is not all we need, of course. Traditions all differ, none of them are perfect, and they all need correction by other realities. But life is complicated, and experience is the only way to accumulate some kinds of knowledge, so they’re indispensable. Attention spans are finite, though, so a discussion of what else is needed will have to await another time.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 12, 2016 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission. The image above titled “Saying Grace” was painted by Norman Rockwell.