In October of 1775, George III addressed both houses of the British Parliament to rally them to send forces of His Empire sufficient to compel His American colonies to obedience. He referred to His freedom seeking subjects as a “desperate conspiracy”. The word “desperate” derives from the Latin meaning “without hope”. “Conspiracy” starts back in Latin as well, meaning “breathes together”. George was right that the colonials aspiring to independence breathed together, committing their lives and treasure to each other and for liberty. He was woefully wrong that they had no hope.
This hope was expressed in July of the following year by Thomas Jefferson when he cried out for the ages, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The great experiment that is America was based on these rights. We seem to have lost the thread. The right to Life is trampled upon with the murder of more than 50 million pre-born innocents. The right to Liberty is in jeopardy as many seem willing to lose it in a poor bargain for illusory security. The right to the “pursuit of Happiness” has devolved into a hollow right to Happiness, not its pursuit.
In his anti-utopian 1932 novel, “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley projects into the year 3450 and foresees a carefully controlled culture characterized by asexual, laboratory reproduction with genetic engineering and prenatal conditioning to craft human beings bred for their task and station in life. A baleful aspect was the ‘happy’ drug, “Soma”. “Soma” was mandated by a beneficent government for a bovine, compliant population from their perfectly planned birth in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre to the merciful end of their somnambulist lives.
Mustapha Mond, one of the World Controllers, receives an unsettling paper submitted by a ‘higher caste’ author who speculates that human life may, indeed, have a purpose. Mond suppresses the paper with a grave concern. “Once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the results would be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes –make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refinement of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.”
When Happiness becomes a right and the Sovereign Good, it portends catastrophe. Much has been made of the financial implications of an entitlement society. Margaret Thatcher: “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” With the national debt at 97% of GDP causing the first ever S&P downgrading of that debt, the costs of such fiscal misadventures by the current administration are profoundly concerning. However, we are superficial to demean only those who look to mother government to pay the bills; a deep spiritual malady is even more disturbing.
Happiness as the Sovereign Good incites distortion of human aspiration and virtue. The signs are readily apparent. Unrestrained hedonism is unabashedly pursued, indeed it is idolized; pleasure is a transcendent end unto itself. We become obsessed with good times, parties, inane entertainments, ‘reality’ television diversion, sports increasingly bizarre and violent, widespread recreational chemicals of every stripe, a medical community overprescribing “Soma” at every turn, adrenaline jacking thrill seeking, trivializing and normalizing all manner of aberrant sexuality, pornography increasingly graphic and demeaning, ubiquitous celebrity worship, narcissism and an absolute compulsion to remain forever young. We liposuction, tummy tuck, manically work out, Botox and face lift. We fear frown lines and liver spots more than we fear wasting unreflective lives. The “maintenance of well-being”, which we claim as our due, is a vapid, joyless gloom.
Our noble American experiment is in danger of degrading from a “desperate conspiracy” to a truly desperate dying social structure with acutely disconnected citizens stumbling along wondering what is the point of all this? With happiness as an entitlement, hope is stillborn.
We can address the financial costs of an entitlement culture with legislation or with elections, if we have the will for it. The underlying basis for the expectation that drives it is much more difficult to diagnose and to remedy. The purposeless life requires no sacrifice, no suffering; after all, happiness is a birthright owed to us. The pursuit of happiness on the other hand is inextricable from life, liberty, sacrifice, suffering, deferred gratification and commitment to future generations. The solution to the diseased root of an entitlement culture is spiritual and won family by family, heart by heart and mind by mind.
From Psalm 84 (NAB)
They are happy, whose strength is in You,
in whose hearts are the roads to Zion.
As they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs.
14 responses to “Desperate Conspiracy”
To quote Winston Churchill, ” The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery”. I just don’t understand how so many people don’t get this.
Gary, there is a great irony that the UK with leaders in our lifetime like Churchill and Thatcher should be mired in deadly riots of youth convinced that if they don’t have a wide screen television, it is acceptable to burn a store and take one of theirs. Then, again, I read a few months ago that their National Health system has antiquated equipment, a crumbling infrastructure of brick badly needing repointing, wood needing repainting and cracked vinyl furniture with no money to fix any of it.
I remember reading”Brave New World” many Years ago Jack, and thinking it was a very well written “Science Fiction “book . I could have never believed the social “engineers” of our present time could conjure up this experiment we are being drawn into. I certainly agree that the solution (and antidote) is Spiritual and can only be applied person by person, family by family also.
Rick, when government mandates the solutions, the results necessarily homogenize to the lowest common denominator; when individuals solve their own challenges, each answer is unique. Evelyn Waugh in a letter wrote this about St. Helena (mother of the emperor Constantine): “I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry; she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.” (Quote thanks to George Weigel).
Reading your article Jack brought to my mind a Pascal quote that a co-worker of mine recently shared with me that I find rings so true in our temporal happiness-seeking age:
“Our imagination so powerfully magnifies time, by continual reflections upon it, and so diminishes eternity . . . for want of reflection, that we make a nothing of eternity and an eternity out of nothing”.
Pete, unfortunately for me most of what I remember from the brilliance of Pascal is “Cogito, ergo sum.” from a millennium ago or so at Boston College. I’ve got a copy of Pensées somewhere in a box that I would be well served to uncover. Tempus fugit, memento mori. In the crush of everyday mundane, it is so easy for us to to “make nothing out of eternity and an eternity out of nothing”.
Great piece, you should do it for a living….seriously.
“One of the consequences of such notions as “entitlements” is that people who have contributed nothing to society feel that society owes them something, apparently just for being nice enough to grace us with their presence.”
“Socialism is the religion people get when they lose their religion”
Richard John Neuhaus
Greg, I remember with great sadness and loss Father Neuhaus’ passing in 2009. Having read avidly his Naked Public Square books and columns in the journal he founded, First Things, for many years. One of the great Catholic conservative observers of our frailty and foibles, his prolific writing informed so many who were trying to understand. Thanks for the reminder. I think I’ll go and dig out a book.
The teachings of the Church on the matter of to what extent that the state should interfere in the lives of individuals are very wise. The CCC (1883) reiterates the principle of subsidiarity: “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” In other words, as you said Jack, whatever can be accomplished on a lower level of order is best left to them. Families are therefore the fundamental units of society. It is in the family that children are first (and arguably best) educated, and where the rights and dignity of the human person are best protected. When higher forms of order interfere where they are not needed the rights of the individual are at risk. “Brave New World” is perhaps a world where this idea is brought to the ultimate extreme. The “lower” and fundamental units of the individual and most importantly the family, are completely ignored.
You must be well educated in a great Catholic university and have brilliant parents.
Just another stay-at-home mom, Papa Jack. I spend my days changing diapers, cleaning, preparing meals, playing with blocks and swinging on swings. My mom is a feisty RN, my Dad is a witty lumber guy. They’re both well-read. I DO break out the Catechism occasionally and try to read books without pictures every so often.
Since many of our societal woes are rooted in poor formation of children, there is not a nobler or more critically important vocation than parenting. A stay-at-home mom is a badge of honor, and the emotional, intellectual and financial sacrifice inherent in that vocation will produce results that will resonate for literally generations. Not many with more formal job titles can make that claim. Of course, a Mom with a couple of degrees who writes exceedingly well always could write of her experiences and share to offer mutual support to her contemporaries and the rest of us. As well as keeping her intellect well oiled. A blog for instance.
hhhhhmmmmm– It would be a better use of the few minutes of nap time (aka Mommy down time) than perusing face book…. ;-D