A few years ago, when a group of students at Emory University prepared to demonstrate against a controversial speaker, I asked a senior why they wanted to do so. She had a background different from that of the typical selective school attendee, a hard-edged one, and she’d already told me that the indignation of her peers over a provocative performer was overdone.
When I asked why they were so upset, she paused and replied slowly, “Because they believe that everyone deserves to be happy.”
That drew me up short. I had expected something on hate speech or Islamophobia, not a moral precept. She didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t inquire further. I’d spent too much time as a poor and scrambling student myself to take seriously the notion that happiness is a birthright, and I sensed she felt the same way.
Her answer captured the hypersensitivity of young Americans who march against racism, climate change, and the current president. I had followed the campus tumults of 2014–15 closely and read the lists of demands submitted by students at institutions ranging from the University of Missouri to Oberlin College and some seventy-five others, which revealed clearly that a strictly political analysis wouldn’t account for the irrational elements of the movement. The reforms the protesters insisted on were often coercive (such as diversity training for all faculty) and sometimes illegal (racial quotas in hiring). The demonstrators weren’t so much policy-focused as dramaturgical. Such burning pleas could only have issued from a source deep in their psyches.
My student had identified a belief that would never have occurred to me: Happiness for all! It had just the right nonnegotiable character; it was a cri de coeur passing as a categorical imperative. The students’ guru wasn’t Herbert Marcuse, it was Walt Whitman: “Do you not see O my brothers and sisters? / It is not chaos or death . . . it is form and union and plan . . . it is / eternal life . . . it is Happiness.” The very impossibility of universal happiness in this competitive world only intensified the longing and the righteousness. Forget what is feasible. If there is suffering anywhere, a wrong has been done, and the culprit must be found and defeated.
Nobody deserves to be unhappy—except, of course, those who make others unhappy, such as Christians who oppose same-sex marriage. It’s an update for a therapeutic age of the classical liberal rule whereby you may do anything you wish as long as you do not infringe on the rights of others. The young progressives have added to the old progressives’ Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, of worship, from want, from fear) a fifth: freedom from unhappiness, which, one must note, puts the first two freedoms in jeopardy. We have entered utopia.
Paradise is a park, where only brutes, not men, can remain.” That’s G. W. F. Hegel in The Philosophy of History, writing about the Fall. The sentence appears in a section describing the transition from pagan Rome to Christianity, and it casts Original Sin in a new light. For Hegel, the garden is a mythical representation of a predicament that befalls the human spirit as it gropes its way toward ever more capacious understandings of reality. The Fall didn’t really happen, Hegel says; it merely dramatized what consciousness was undergoing at that time. The cause was specific: Citizens in the Roman Empire had too many rights and privileges. (I’m not kidding—this really is Hegel’s source of the general feeling of “expulsion.”)
Rome created an equality the world had never seen before, and “Private Right developed and perfected this equality.” Once the Empire was settled, Hegel says, individuals were deemed “persons,” defined as carriers of abstract and binding status. They possessed in themselves the right to property, to trial, to form contracts, and to escape torture (save in extreme cases such as treason).
The nearly magical power of this conversion appears in Acts 22, when St. Paul is handed over to Roman soldiers to be flogged for stirring up a Jewish mob. As they bind him and stretch him out for the whip, he asks a simple question: “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
It stops the soldiers in their tracks. They appeal to the commander, who says to Paul skeptically, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
Paul answers, “But I was born a citizen.” The commander is “alarmed,” the soldiers scatter. They have broken Roman law.
It’s a wonderful moment, a pleasing reversal of power, and we are inclined to judge Roman citizenship an unmixed blessing. But it has a downside, Hegel says. For once endowed with private rights, which he holds “inside himself,” so to speak, the citizen finds his subjectivity deepening. He thinks more about who he is, treats his existence as an independent thing, plans his life with greater freedom, and expands his self-consciousness.
This is where the problem arises. These newly reflective and thoughtful persons search for objects that mirror their inner condition. (Consciousness always does this—it seeks unity with an adequate universal.) But they can’t find them, not in contemporary Rome. The Emperor and the household gods won’t work; the gods are too “small,” the Roman state too impersonal and bureaucratic to sustain an authentic community (which, Hegel notes, the Greek city-state was able to do). The Empire has distributed only “‘lifeless’ private rights.” The law gives citizens private powers but doesn’t recognize them as striving souls. They obey it but regard it as an abstract force. “Individuals are thereby posited as atoms,” Hegel writes, disconnected from the universal, thrown back upon themselves, yearning for a bigger, less parochial divinity, and feeling acutely their separation from it. People withdraw into private affairs, causing “the decay of political life.” The more privileges they acquire, the more they desire something besides an administrative state to unify them. They end up “miserable and null,” thirsting for God but lost and forsaken.
They turn to the Garden of Eden. In the garden, not in pagan Rome, is the right rendition of their state. The Fall gives expression to what they feel. Men inevitably disobey God’s command, Hegel acknowledges, but that’s not why they must leave the garden. Rather, they must leave because they know too much. With rights in hand, they have too much self-consciousness, they reflect on the world too critically, and are pulled out of the organic flow of life. The bliss of paradise doesn’t allow for such cognizance. “Sin consists here only in Knowledge,” writes Hegel. Before tasting the forbidden fruit, Adam was a spontaneous, innocent creature . . . and not fully human. He tended the garden and loved Eve, but without moral awareness. “This is a deep truth,” Hegel states, “that evil lies in consciousness: for the brutes are neither evil nor good; the merely Natural Man quite as little.”
Roman rights, then, made us more human. They also plagued us with separation from God. Privilege begat spiritual suffering.
It falls to Christianity to carry mankind forward. That’s the direction of Hegel’s speculative history. Spirit is restless. It seeks actualities that answer its desires and imaginings, in this case, its sufferings. For the misery of consciousness is not to be annulled. (In Hegel’s system there is no going back.) It must instead become the springboard for the advance of Spirit to a higher stage: “For Suffering itself is henceforth recognized as an instrument necessary for producing the unity of man with God.” Man needs a new vision, a myth that incorporates pain as an essential feature of human existence, a ground for higher consciousness. It won’t be Jove or Caesar or the Stoics (who, Hegel says, merely deny the reality of suffering) or the Eastern religions (which paint a too-abstract One). The right consequent of the Fall is the Passion. God must become man, and he must suffer and die, and in his reappearance as spirit a new unity shall be formed, “the spirit of the Church.” The reconciliation of man to God may begin.
The most constructive souls in late Rome didn’t try to ignore or deny their fallen state. They accepted the pains of self-consciousness and worshiped Jesus Christ as the right and proper way of suffering. There is no other way, St. Paul says, and Hegel agreed insofar as it moved History forward. The Psalms of David, the voices of the Prophets, Calvary, Pentecost—these are the ultimate expressions of rights-bearing man.
You can imagine what the crusaders for social justice think of this. To accept that suffering is intrinsic to human identity is abominable. To put redemption in the hands of God is to evade responsibility. To believe that sensitive examination of self and others ruins innocence and pushes God away . . . well, that’s just wrong. Like the Romans, the crusaders have been granted special prerogatives; the campuses they occupy certainly purport to be utopian. (Just look at the brochures.) But the students will not recognize any relation between privilege and spiritual pain. They don’t like the idea that the powers that gave them rights can’t also ensure their happiness.
Those angry, exasperated youths who can’t understand why misery persists, why racism and homophobia won’t go away forever, are just as thwarted as were the Romans who ignored the Christian option. Instead of incorporating unhappiness into a measured vision of life, which the Gospels deliver, they demand more security, more rights—the right not to be offended, the right to be happy—as if an adjustment in social circumstances could fix their malaise.
The universal joy they envision is a false god. The challenge to their elders is to do a job that once was done by churches and various schools of hard knocks. The message we must convey is unappealing: Life is hard, the wheel of fortune turns, and God requires of us fear and humility. It must be said again and again, though, so that we may prevent the young from elevating their demands into serious misdeeds, for few persons are more dangerous than the idealist with power who believes that one day, with enough guidance and discipline, the human race will finally get it right.
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor at First Things.