Human decency is fragile because virtue is a challenge. Traditions can promote, maintain, or restrict it. Religious tradition, for instance, can do all three — its piety cultivates a sense of duty toward the sacred and also drives people to commit acts of atrocity. Though belief provides a compass by which people can orient themselves in the world, multiple compasses pointed in the same direction will inevitably collide.
This tension has paved the course of human history, and it continues across the world today. But according to the French philosopher Chantal Delsol, modern Western man attempted to do away with it entirely. As Delsol puts it in her book Icarus Fallen, “the major discovery of modernity consists in affirming that man invented transcendence, morality, and politics.” Perhaps unbeknownst to him, modern man disenchanted the world — he reached for the bright lights of utopia as Icarus reached for the sun. National socialism, Marxist Communism, inevitable progress, and the end of history — modern Western man was driven by a desire to take control of existence. He made his ideals “realizable” and his history forgettable. And in doing so, he had the “ultimate purpose of someday having no longer to stand for anything at all.”
Practically, he failed. From Nazism to Stalinism to fundamentalist extremism, utopian dreams were squashed by terror as human frailty prevailed, the promise of an end to conflict always leading to more — and more intense — conflict. But metaphysically, he succeeded. The banner of scientific progress replaced the foundations of belief. Contemporary man acquired everything he could reasonably need to be happy and grew to be content “with raw existence.”
Yet for Delsol, the quest to abolish the unknown did not abolish man’s need for the unknown. Man “seeks,” and his “existence wants to bear the mark of more than just what it reveals.” The modern crisis of meaning is a symptom of a “messenger without a message,” for “existence that points to nothing beyond itself is doomed to die.” To adopt a phrase from the German theorist Leo Strauss, contemporary life is “the joyless quest for joy” — the pursuit of a fun life cannot replace the pursuit of a meaningful one. Modern man, in attempting to emulate Icarus, must deal with the repercussions of surviving the fall.
This points to Nietzsche’s famous contention: that a Judeo-Christian society rid of its faith will be left with religious guilt without the belief that made it bearable. Icarus is faced with the upside of his own achievement. He “is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning” and “overcome with an inconsolable nostalgia for his extinguished hope.” He wants to believe in something but does not know what to believe in — and he has lost sight of that which enabled him to believe before. The question, then, is how modern man can find his way back to meaning — how he can find duty, virtue, and morality in a disenchanted world.
Delsol’s answer is to place individual responsibility at the heart of the pursuit. A “person whose life has meaning is the one who, instead of remaining complacently in the midst of his regrets, decides to strive for perfection.” Traditionally, religion has led people to this end; man “once sought God in the midst of doubt.” But Delsol does not advocate a wholesale return to faith, nor does she believe it would be possible. For many, religious virtue has been subsumed by an attachment to freedom, and religion itself “helped erase” the “individual reflection” that could compensate for its absence. Man placed himself above God and faith became a “flight from personal responsibility.” Meaning cannot be granted — it must be seized.
But where is the path to virtue, if not in religion? Delsol looks to the ancient Greeks — specifically, to the writings of Aristotle. “Man is by nature a political animal,” and his natural rights are tied to the society in which he subsides. Each man has a right to virtue, and this is his path to meaning. There is no form of life above society, because man finds his meaning within the social realm. Courage, temperance, justice, and intellectual contemplation can be found without an appeal to theistic revelation.
Icarus is now living in Aristotle’s world, and “religious law is no longer adequate” as a means to bring him hope. “The present era is the experimental demonstration of Aristotle’s presentiment,” Delsol writes. “It was necessary to try to get rid of politics in order to learn that politics is woven into the very fabric of society.” “Moral conscience” can “find its way without the help of any extrinsic authority or objective good.” After all, the Ancient Greeks “were unaware of anything like the ten commandments.”
The story may seem idealistic, but it is rooted in the situation of contemporary man. He is by nature a political animal, and it follows that any attempt to capture meaning must be found in the social realm. Yet he has also grown into an individual — any path back to meaning must acknowledge the modern attachment to liberty. Meaning, then, is an outgrowth of social virtue. And for Delsol, social virtue arises from natural right. Crucially, this renders it an internal responsibility, not a duty — not an order from God or state, but a natural right uncovered by the rational human being.
Man’s path back to meaning is to reclaim the “tragic sense of life,” a mindset that recognizes the reality of human fallibility. Liberty is not a destination, but a tool for given ends. “Freedom is nothing but an empty form awaiting content.” If man comforts himself in realizable ideals, he will be drawn from individualism into a passive, Eastern holism. If he opts for modesty and accepts a form of unhappiness “without a culprit,” he will find “true happiness in the anxiety of unresolved questions.”
Icarus Fallen does not read as a regular work of philosophy. Delsol draws on entire traditions but references almost nobody. Her sentences are blithe, pithy, almost biblical in their confidence. One cannot help but notice that even her own name refers to the sun. The book’s final pages ask man to regard himself as both an agent and an instrument — to retain an attachment to freedom, but to fill it with substance. That substance need not be good, but it must be true; it need not be safe, but it must be virtuous.
This call can be read as a case for liberal conservatism, but it can just as easily be seen as a penetrating description of our peculiar moment — a prescient warning that nihilism awaits all those who flee from life’s greatest questions. Contemporary thinking always tends to situate evil in the external, but tragedy teaches us that evil is woven into the fabric of being. For the world to be re-enchanted, its inhabitants must accept their limits. The “son of Icarus will not be ashamed to admit that the absolute remains the missing piece of the puzzle.”