These are troubling times for many Americans. The economic recovery since the Great Recession of 2008 has been the slowest in U.S. history, with millions of out-of-work Americans so discouraged they are no longer even trying to find a job. Forbes puts the real unemployment rate at 12.5 percent.
Consumer confidence about the future, according to the University of Michigan, stands at a limp 73.7, similar to past recession lows. The national exit poll taken after the November elections found that 78 percent of the people feel that you can only “sometimes” (60 percent) or “never” (18 percent) trust Washington “to do what is right.”
You can hardly blame people for being so negative about their government, given the actions of the anti–Tea Party IRS, the grievously ineffective Department of Veterans Affairs, and the overly inquisitive National Security Agency.
Most important of all, there is our culture. George Orwell was wrong, and Aldous Huxley was right: The true danger is not a totalitarian government ruled by Big Brother, but a hedonistic society tranquilized by drugs, sex, and mass media.
We are bombarded on all sides by pernicious messages. The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are fusty and old-fashioned and should be cast aside. Smoking a cigarette is banned, but smoking a joint is celebrated. “Pot entrepreneurs” are pushing to make Washington the Pot Capital of the World. Same-sex marriage is protected by our legal system, while traditional brides and grooms are patronized.
Cohabitation is the new norm for young couples. In the past decade, the percentage of children born outside of marriage grew by almost 7 percent; the unwed birth rate for African Americans is over 70 percent. The proportion of twelfth-graders admitting to drug use — ranging from marijuana to cocaine to heroin — is more than 25 percent.
The number of movies that offer death and destruction tops those concerned with life and love. TV programs such as House of Cards and Scandal, whose protagonists are corrupt, violent public officials, win awards. George Clooney is more famous than George Washington among our schoolchildren.
Jon Stewart has replaced Walter Cronkite as the most trusted newsman in America. As the head of the Parents Television Council said, “In order to watch cable news, ESPN, Disney, or the History Channel, every family in America must now also pay for pornography on FX.” The smartphone is turning us into dummies, able to communicate only with our thumbs.
If that were all there was to our society, many citizens, intent only on self-gratification, might not even bother to answer the question, “Is life worth living?” They would simply keep on surrendering to the impulse of the moment. But we are not yet at such a state of mindless, endless pleasure-seeking. A solid majority of Americans believe in God and go to church. Americans remain the most charitable and connected people on earth. They belong to countless voluntary associations — social, religious, educational, racial — that solve problems without government prodding or regulation.
So the bothersome question, “Is life worth living?” is bothersome because it forces us to consider not only our own life but the lives of others.
Aristotle, described by St. Thomas Aquinas as simply “The Philosopher,” said that happiness is the purpose of human existence. But happiness is not simply pleasure or self-gratification — it is the daily exercise of the classical virtues, led by prudence. Happiness, Aristotle said, is the sum of our whole life, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” And since man is a rational animal, Aristotle said, human happiness depends on exercising reason, not being ruled by fleeting passions.
But Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived some 2,300 years ago. What do modern American thinkers say about what constitutes a good life, a worthwhile life?
Mary Rice Hasson of the Ethics & Public Policy Center counsels against despair. We have not yet lost the culture wars, she insists. For example, only 7 percent of Americans say that abortion is morally acceptable, only 4 percent say extramarital affairs are morally acceptable, and 50 percent think that homosexual activity is a sin. Overall, 72 percent of adults are still married to their first spouse. The sinews of a good society are there, if atrophied.
According to the conservatives’ favorite president, Ronald Reagan, “Every individual is unique, but we all want freedom and liberty, peace, love and security, a good home, and a chance to worship God in our own way; we all want the chance to get ahead and make our children’s lives better than our own.” Above all other places, Reagan wrote, America “gives us the freedom to reach out and make our dreams come true.” Note there is no mention of the government guaranteeing a job or a minimum wage or first place at the finishing line.
Best known for his political writing, William F. Buckley Jr. suggested in his book Nearer, My God, that work and prayer were the real stuff of a good life. “However routine,” he wrote, “work is a fortifying experience, your intimate sense of your own productivity.” Of his visit to the French town of Lourdes, the site of a thousand miracles, the Roman Catholic Buckley said that the pilgrims who visited Lourdes did so out of a conviction that “the Lord God loves his creatures, healthy or infirm; that they — we — must understand the nature of love, which is salvific in its powers.”
The Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust, reflected on how his experience in the concentration camps shaped his understanding of a meaningful life. “The more [someone] forgets himself,” he wrote, “giving himself to a cause or another person — the more human he is . . . the more he really becomes himself.”
An enduring memory from the camps, he said, was the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. While few in number, they offered “sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms . . . to choose one’s own way.”
In his 1985 message to the youth of the world, Pope John Paul II addressed directly the many temptations surrounding young people, such as “the fantasy worlds of alcohol and drugs . . . short-lived sexual relationships without commitment to marriage and family,” cynicism, and even violence. The secular consumer-dominated world suggested that man would find fulfillment in such fantasies, a suggestion firmly rejected by John Paul, who quoted Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
And what does it mean to be free? the pope asked. It does not mean “doing everything that pleases me, or doing what I want to do. . . . To be truly free means to use one’s own freedom for what is a true good . . . to be a person of upright conscience, to be responsible, to be a person ‘for others.’”
On a less elevated plane, the social scientist Charles Murray offered five rules for a happy life, ranging from marrying young to not worrying about fame and fortune, and he included this arresting advice: Watch the movie Groundhog Day repeatedly. Without preaching, Murray wrote, “the movie shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of [the] protagonist from a jerk to a fully realized human being — a person who has learned to experience deep, lasting and justified satisfaction with life even though he has only one day to work with.”
In the final pages of his autobiography, The Sword of Imagination, the historian and man of letters Russell Kirk reflected that he had sought during his lifetime three ends: (1) to conserve a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom, a tolerable moral order, and an inheritance of culture; (2) to lead a life of decent independence; and (3) to marry for love and rear children (he and his wife, Annette, raised four daughters) who would come to know that the service of God is perfect freedom. Through the grace of God and his own talents, Kirk achieved all three goals and provided a raison d’être for those who reject the modern existential argument that life is without meaning.
Rather than surrender to despair, we should strive to enlighten those around us, to live as best we can a life of ora et labora, to further conservatism as the philosophy most consistent with the American founding and the idea of ordered liberty. And we must love not only those who love us but also those who do not, and be prepared to go gentle into the night, believing in the permanent things of faith, hope, and charity.
—Lee Edwards distinguished fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.