Our PAL has made a comment down there that deserves some above-the-fold riffing. He writes that Locke
knew nominalism would become more true as a description, but it could never become completely true. Part of the description of world where words are weapons and nothing but is of the incessant pursuit of happiness, but no real happiness, not to mention no real love etc. But Locke knew well enough that that extreme world would be unendurable, and he had, I think, enough confidence on human nature to think it would never become anything like completely real. Even Tocqueville viewing an America heavily influenced by Locke thought of that description as a kind of democratic tendency that was countered in many ways in American practice. Lockes assumption was that freedom and prosperity would, on balance, make us more happy or at least definitely less miserable.
On nominalism, Locke sounds like a more optimistic Hobbes, who perceived dreadfully few limits on our capacity to weaponize words in the scramble for power after power. Locke’s optimism may not travel terribly well to Locke’s pro-science, post-Christian heirs; Hobbes, too, was fervently anti-superstition, but his (and Tocqueville’s!) Christian realism, to put it in semi-loaded terms, certainly rejects the idea that the eradication of faith would result in less superstition. Lasch is very good on this point: you can, and we do, have more disenchantment and more enchantment, more biotech and more occult mysticism. (For more on this, see my rhetorically amped-up grand interview finale at The Atlantic .)
But I wanted to raise a heavy question about Hobbes’, Locke’s, and Tocqueville’s liberal faith that being an individual and being happy are both good things to be, but obsessively pursuing the full experience of individuality will produce an unendurable unhappiness — one which will naturally produce a snapback, exhaustion, or repentence effect. Critics of this liberal faith are apt to claim that modernity has delivered very large numbers of us into a structurally inescapable servitude. Science, capitalism, and secularization have been deployed so successfully that our institutions are now too big to let us (fully) fail (and thereby recover). Just as GM is kept going as a zombie concern, our cracked-out modern lives are nourished on mere survival rations — by hosts which themselves are parasites, gorging on unsustainable volumes at accelerating speeds. Those advancing this line of criticism are apt to be frustrated, perhaps to the point of outrage, by faithful liberals (secular or otherwise) who admit that some people may be lost to misery but “on balance” we can, and do, live better and more happily. Some people, in short, can hack contemporary life; some people can’t; and trying to save them is not worth the harm of a misguided quest to recover the virtues of communal wholeness which wound up underserving real human beings anyway.
The critics, in sum, see solidarity as the only possible instrument for defeating modern hegemony. But really, they also advance solidarity as a good in its own right. The liberal faithful care less about solidarity (even as they might care a lot more about the nation-state). They recognize that solidarity has a certain appeal, so they have no problem at all with the critics striking out to establish communities of their own; but they firmly resist any attempt to make solidarity hegemonic in contemporary life. Ultimately, they think, it really must be the individual’s own responsibility to preserve his person from dissolution — whether in communal bliss or in the fragmentation or depersonalization that comes from an obsessive pursuit of the full experience of individuality. That doesn’t mean we should mendaciously pretend that some elements of contemporary life make us miserable; it does mean a rather rugged attitude about who the onus is upon to make us happier. And it means a certain cheerful pessimism about how happy we can wind up anyhow, and what happiness even means.
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