The Homeless Modern


In 1848 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of “the approaching irresistible and universal spread of democracy throughout the world.” Since his time the drumbeat has quickened, and with the fall of the Soviet Union the ultimate triumph of democracy seemed inevitable. In his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy really is the final historical step in the development of political thought and practice. The fact that so much of the world today seems either to be embracing democracy outright, or taking faltering steps toward it, or at least paying lip service to it suggests to many that Fukuyama was right, and all that is left is merely a mopping-up operation.

Of course, the smooth highway to universal democracy encountered a serious obstacle on September 11, 2001. It would seem that not all the world shares the same dream. In fact, if the rhetoric is to be believed, the very freedoms that we in the West cherish as essential to a good life are just those that Islamic militants see as the source of Western decadence. With patriotic pride, we instinctively object. But with dispassionate reflection, we can see that the Islamist rhetoric may point to at least a shadow of the truth. If liberty is not directed toward a common good that transcends arbitrary will—even if it is the will of a vast majority—then it eventually descends into a libertinism that is ultimately destructive to society.

This raises important questions: Is it really true that democracy is a stable system that can, on its own terms, perpetuate its freedoms? Is it really true, as the end-of-history theorists claim, that democracy satisfies our basic need for “recognition”? If so, why do so many citizens in the most democratic society in the world behave as if something is amiss? Tocqueville noted the “strange melancholy often haunting” the Americans. This sense of longing is not explicit and generally has no definite object. It is, rather, an underlying dissatisfaction that today manifests itself in a variety of ways: restless mobility, consumerism, frenzied sexuality, substance abuse, therapy, and boredom.

Modern Westerners—despite incredible affluence, comfort, entertainment, and security— all too often seem to suffer from a condition that the Desert Fathers called acedia: they are both bored and uneasy. Modern democratic institutions, which promise and in many ways provide unparalleled freedom, seem ill-equipped to provide a context within which contentment is achievable. Our pursuit of happiness leaves us curiously unhappy; a restless boredom is our besetting sin. This suggests that freedom, at least when understood as political liberty, is not the proper end of man. Freedom is not happiness, but at best a partial means to contentment, or perhaps even a by-product of something more fundamental. Perhaps political liberty is a means to contentment if and only if other preconditions are already present. But if modern democratic man is increasingly uneasy, could it be that the very institutions that provide our freedom are actually corrosive of our happiness?

This line of inquiry seems especially appropriate in light of the current efforts to democratize foreign lands. If democracy is a genuinely universal moral ideal, then powerful democratic nations may indeed have a moral obligation to work for democratization everywhere. But if there are preconditions necessary for the success of democracy—success at the level of human happiness—and if modern democracies have failed to secure or even recognize these necessary preconditions, then to what extent will the exported product prove defective? Or, if not defective, incomplete?

In her book The Need for Roots, the French writer Simone Weil points to one particular lacuna in modern democracy’s theoretical self-understanding. She argues that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul…. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” If this is the case, then a society characterized by hypermobility, a society that seems to take a sort of satisfaction in its own deracination, would be ill-equipped to fulfill a central human need. According to Weil, the modern condition of rootlessness is not merely geographical or even cultural but spiritual as well. Writing of mid-twentieth-century France, but sounding as if she could be writing to twenty-first-century Americans, Weil describes “a culture very strongly directed towards and influenced by technical science, very strongly tinged with pragmatism, extremely broken up by specialization, entirely deprived both of contact with this world and, at the same time, of any window opening to the world beyond.” Human beings have a need for geographical roots in a particular place embodying particular traditions, habits, and practices. But equally, humans require roots in a transcendent world, a world of spirit, a world of moral truth. In short, the uprootedness of the modern world is both spiritual and geographic.

The problem of geographic rootlessness—that is, a reluctance to commit to a particular place—is at least partially the product of a philosophical rootlessness motivated by a craving for the security that certainty provides. This is no better illustrated than by recalling that Descartes sought an “Archimedean point.” Archimedes, of course, boasted that he could move the earth if he had an adequate lever and a place on which to stand. In aspiring to such an intellectual foundation, Descartes sought a place from which to comprehend reality completely and perfectly. But for the very reason that such a place can only exist outside all reality, it is, quite literally, no place at all. For Descartes, the ideal place is precisely no-place. The modern Cartesian, it seems, is a homeless man trying desparately to pitch his tent in a place that cannot exist.

In the same way that the phenomenon of physical rootlessness finds its source in a desire for mastery, so too does the phenomenon of spiritual rootlessness, or skepticism. If knowledge is power, and if some knowledge is simply beyond human ken, then human beings are naturally limited in their ability to reshape both their external environment and their internal natures. We are not the sovereign masters of our own fates. Rather, we are necessarily subject to powers beyond our control. As a result, it is not difficult to see how the transcendent realm—that is, the realm of God, the soul, and the moral law was quite happily eliminated from the publicly acknowledged realm of knowing. Even when partially known, these realities make demands on us that are not of our own choosing. They invariably remind us of our inherent limitations and obligations, and in a world where mastery is the supreme good, all that usurps our control must be eliminated. In the same way that commitment to a place is exchanged for rootlessness in order to secure the illusion of universal objectivity and therefore certain knowledge, so too the transcendent is denigrated or denied in an attempt to assert control over reality generally and our own existences specifically. Both denials are motivated by the same impulse. But to the extent that human existence is necessarily rooted in a particular place and subject to obligations that transcend our own individual wills, the denial of the importance of both place and the transcendent is a denial of reality. Perhaps unexpectedly, it is also the denial of the possibility of community.

It would seem, then, that to recover the possibility of community—and thereby to secure a necessary condition for sustainable democratic life—we must attempt a reconceptualization of knowledge.  Tradition and authority must once more be embraced as necessary and beneficial elements of human understanding. Only where a particular tradition is embodied in a particular location (and where else can a tradition be embodied?) is community possible. Our commitment must take the form of membership: we must see ourselves as joint owners of a living tradition embodied in a community that transcends any one person even as all its members, living and dead, sustain it by their fidelity and loving care. It is only when we commit to rootedness, both physically and spiritually, that we acquire the  resources necessary to break out of the dark forest of rootless skepticism. A healthy democracy begins at home.

Mark T. Mitchell teaches philosophy and political theory at Patrick Henry College. His book, Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing, was published by ISI Books in 2006. This essay appears in full in the spring 2006 issue of the Intercollegiate Review