There has been a lot of talk lately about the United States abandoning some of its native predispositions in order to follow a more European path. What people usually have in mind when they speak about this are higher taxes and a bigger role for the state in everyday life. People applaud or deplore this prospect in accordance with their moral assessment of higher taxes and big government. “Europe” means much more than that, however. “Europe” is as much a state of mind, a philosophy of life, as it is a collection of social policies. What is the European philosophy of life? The social commentator Charles Murray has some thoughtful things to say about that question in “The Happiness of the People,” the Irving Kristol Lecture, which he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute last month.
Mr. Murray takes his title from The Federalist Papers. “A good government,” Madison wrote in Federalist 62, “implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” “Happiness” is a difficult word. It can mean the simple animal contentment of satisfied appetite. But Madison had something different in mind. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s word for “happiness” is “eudaimonia”: not contentment, exactly, but the active satisfaction that follows upon successful and virtuous engagement with life. Murray defines it as “lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.”
I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.
To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.
What sorts of things yield the deep satisfaction of this higher form of happiness? Mr. Murray enumerates four institutions through which we achieve human happiness: family, community, vocation, and faith.
The stuff of life—the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships—coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness—occurs within those four institutions.
Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them.
How does the enfeeblement proceed? At bottom, Mr. Murray observes, a beneficent government endeavors to take “some of the trouble out of things” for its citizens. About some matters, we are grateful for the services rendered: civilization would be difficult without police, firemen, the military, and so on. But it’s a matter of degree. “Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality—it drains some of the life from them.” That’s the problem with the welfare state: it proposes to look after the welfare of people, but at the cost of making it increasingly difficult for the people to look after themselves. By a curious and cruel irony, the expansion of the welfare state undermines the welfare of the state.
Drive through rural Sweden, as I did a few years ago. In every town was a beautiful Lutheran church, freshly painted, on meticulously tended grounds, all subsidized by the Swedish government. And the churches are empty. Including on Sundays. Scandinavia and Western Europe pride themselves on their “child-friendly” policies, providing generous child allowances, free day-care centers, and long maternity leaves. Those same countries have fertility rates far below replacement and plunging marriage rates. Those same countries are ones in which jobs are most carefully protected by government regulation and mandated benefits are most lavish. And they, with only a few exceptions, are countries where work is most often seen as a necessary evil, least often seen as a vocation, and where the proportions of people who say they love their jobs are the lowest.
The result? A gradual existential enfeeblement in which happiness in the Aristotelian sense yields to something far cruder and more elemental. Back in the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche’s Zarathrustra foretold the rise of what he called “the last man”:
“We have invented happiness,” say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.
Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully… . A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death….
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse….
One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
Nietzsche dramatizes a condition that Mr. Murray calls “the European syndrome.”
Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.
It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality… . That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.
The traditional term for this philosophy of life is “nihilism,” the conviction that life has no purpose that transcends the ephemeral satisfaction of appetite and that human beings are nothing more than complicated machines for the consumption of sensations.
What Mr. Murray calls “the European syndrome” is a breeding ground for nihilism. It is also a glamorous and popular export commodity. The malady that Mr. Murray diagnoses may have first taken root in Europe, but it is fast making inroads in American life. “We are seeing that infiltration appear most obviously among those who are most openly attached to the European model—namely, America’s social democrats, heavily represented in university faculties and the most fashionable neighborhoods of our great cities.” Depressing as all this is, however, Mr. Murray finds grounds for “strategic optimism.” For one thing, advances in biology are set to revolutionize our understanding of human nature. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that advances in biology—specifically in genetics and neuroscience—are poised to spark a counter-revolution in our understanding of human nature, leading us back from the utopian ideas that underwrite the welfare state towards a more traditional view of the proper vocation of humanity.
The twentieth century, Mr. Murray suggests, represented the “adolescence” of mankind.
Nineteenth-century science, from Darwin to Freud, offered a series of body blows to ways of thinking about human beings and human lives that had prevailed since the dawn of civilization. Humans, just like adolescents, were deprived of some of the comforting simplicities of childhood and exposed to more complex knowledge about the world. And twentieth-century intellectuals reacted precisely the way that adolescents react when they think they have discovered Mom and Dad are hopelessly out of date. They think that the grown-ups are wrong about everything. In the case of twentieth-century intellectuals, it was as if they thought that if Darwin was right about evolution, then Aquinas is no longer worth reading; that if Freud was right about the unconscious mind, the Nicomachean Ethics had nothing to teach us.
The nice thing about adolescence is that it is temporary, and, when it passes, people discover that their parents were smarter than they thought. I think that may be happening with the advent of the new century, as postmodernist answers to solemn questions about human existence start to wear thin—we’re growing out of adolescence. The kinds of scientific advances in understanding human nature are going to accelerate that process. All of us who deal in social policy will be thinking less like adolescents, entranced with the most titillating new idea, and thinking more like grown-ups.
That is not the end of the story, however, because the spread of the European syndrome will not be stopped by a newly flourishing maturity among social scientists. What is needed, Mr. Murray says, is a broader, deeper, more popular embrace of this newfound maturity, a “Great Awakening” that will fire elites—whose love affair with political correctness has led to reflexive anti-Americanism—to recommit themselves to the lineaments of “American exceptionalism,” especially the fundamental conviction that individuals are masters of their own lives. “It is,” Mr. Murray notes, “hard to think of a more inspiriting quality for a population to possess, and the American population still possesses it to an astonishing degree. No other country comes close.”
Will it happen? The jury is still out. But Mr. Murray is right: “It won’t happen by appealing to people on the basis of lower marginal tax rates or keeping a health care system that lets them choose their own doctor.” Something much deeper is needed: a return to an older understanding of what really nurtures the sort of human happiness James Madison invoked in his meditations on the ends of government. The stakes could hardly be higher. Mr. Murray is right again that “the possibility that irreversible damage will be done to the American project over the next few years is real.” The choice facing us is between the soporific egalitarianism and nihilism of Europe and a return to the robust individualism and self-reliance that made America, in Lincoln’s famous phrase, the “last best hope of earth.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 8, on page 1
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