Mores and the Battle for Tomorrow

Part II of this essay can be found here, and Part III here.

IT IS CHARACTERISTIC of moments of crisis that the problems attain greater clarity than any solution proposed for their remedy. Everywhere one looks, “critiques” spring up, and yet more “critics,” those agitated agitators with their cycloptic evil eyes, who delight above all in negation—though in truth they only like to frown even while their hearts are rejoicing. But in this they are convincing: everyone everywhere follows suit, believing that criticism is the path to resolution, and that tout comprendre c’est tout résoudre—as if past generations in whom these problems were already gestating had simply not understood themselves with a tolerable degree of lucidity, had perhaps not understood themselves even better than we, in the grips of our urgency, can afford to do. For it is not altogether, nay nor not even primarily, the complexity nor the abstruseness of our difficulties which makes them hard of the solving; the difficulties of any generation one pleases are equally complex, equally obscure. Times of crisis are rather marked by a special kind of difficulty which is not susceptible to most kinds of conventional critique—indeed, and worse yet, which is even exacerbated by such.
      The problem is simply this: in normal times, with normal problems, the common worldview or “Weltanschauung” is able to “surround” the problems at hand, to see them from all relevant angles and sides, precisely so as to comprehend them, to under-stand them. In moments of crisis, however, it is these worldviews themselves which become the problem; the problem surrounds the Weltanschauung, rather than vice versa. All attempts then to understand such problems in the conventional way, from the point of views of the reigning worldviews, cannot possibly get around these problems nor to the bottom of them, just as a man cannot possibly stand outside his own body to look himself in the eyes. Critique and criticism arise most fiercely in such times, for it is felt everywhere and by everyone that something is wrong, and it is most natural to attempt to understand why this should be so. But unless these critiques and criticisms succeed in transcending their own roots, by taking views which are radically different from those to which they have been accustomed and which are indeed identical to those which have engendered the crisis, they will be, so far from a first step toward resolving the problem at hand, nothing but its goad and its spur.
      What is wanted most urgently, then, is not the censorial attitude, not the heat and the fury of critical indignation, but rather the means of exiting altogether from the entire charade, to live in a different way, if only for a time, to breathe in another stratum of this human atmosphere, to speak a different speech, and to see with new eyes. Then, and only then, might it be possible for us to turn back upon the failing sphere from which we have temporarily issued, to comprehend it more generally and more radically, and perchance to save it—by transposing it.
      And here we come upon the first essential point in resolving the crisis of our day—and also the first and most difficult barrier standing before us. For if what is needed above all is personal conversion, and if we are the children of a vision of things which is in this moment crashing against its own inadequacies, contradictions, irrealisms, and deceptions, even as a ship against the glacier of reality—how will we ever see our way out? And indeed, it is one of the principle characteristics of those who are embroiled in crisis, that they do not perceive any longer what is healthy for them and what is venom, what might liberate them and what will but shackle them the firmer. They take for granted what they most urgently should shake apart, they trivialize what is of utmost importance to them and aggrandize that which is most trivial. What men in such times need most they are least likely to seek, and what they bend their wills upon is disastrous for them. They have no just sense of perspective. Add to this that times of crisis are often enough joined by secret bonds with physical decadence, even physical and corporeal degeneracy, it becomes evident enough why such times tend ever to close with the fall of kingdoms, the dissolution of dynasties, the crumbling of old towers, walls, and orders, and the rise of bloody tyrants whose hearts know only the lust for devastation. It becomes evident, that is to say, why the closing curtains of these great dramas are almost always throngs of barbarians, revolutions, wars.
      This present work is an effort toward remedying, not so much the crisis of our civilization as the crisis of our souls, which are but the narrow foundation of that civilization, and the ruinous echo of its impending fall.
      It will be asked, certainly, how something so frivolous and marginal to human life as manners, as etiquette and mores, bearing and composure, attitude, posture, and poise, can possibly have any effect on, or even any real relevance to, such grand events as those now transpiring in our West. Truly, not even Nero’s flute could seem quite so ill-timed and impertinent! It would be cheap and unfair to respond to these doubts with reference to the principle just mentioned, that men in times of crisis have lost above all the just weight and measure of things—though most certainly this point applies. Nonetheless, we must also seek to understand why that principle applies just here, and not in some other and equally unexpected sphere. Then let us give some account for this, the central place of manners in this human life, and above all let us give account for its indispensable importance for we who stand upon this rubble—we who are almost even ourselves built and founded upon rubble itself—we who would seek, with whatever strength is granted us, to take this rubble within us, without us, and to build anew.

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Part II Forthcoming


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