In addition to illuminating a crucial episode in the history of ideas, this tale of two monks also sheds light on grave public issues today. And in doing so, it reminds us that a "clash of civilizations" is being played out within our own society, as well as between ourselves and hostile forces bent on our destruction.
In the aftermath of the communist crack-up in 1989–1991, there was a tremendous amount of euphoria in what was then rightly called the "free world." This euphoria went far beyond the undeniable satisfaction of seeing a great evil overcome, and more than one otherwise sober-minded observer was heard to propose that the
democratic project— the great carrier of the modern quest for freedom—was now inevitably and irreversibly triumphant. In the first year of the new century, we have been abruptly reminded of the fragility of freedom—of the hard fact, chiseled in stone on the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall, that "freedom is never
free." Which is to say, we have been re-minded of the fact that democracy is always an unfinished experiment, testing the capacity of each generation to live freedom nobly.
The first wake-up call came in the aftermath of dramatic advances in genetics, including the decryption of the human genome, and the bio-technologies that this new knowledge rapidly spawned. Suddenly, Francis Fukuyama’s image of the "end of history" seemed overrun by Aldous Huxley’s "brave new world." Human
beings, it became clear, would soon have the capacity to remanufacture the human condition—precisely by manufacturing or remanufacturing human beings. The new tyranny on the horizon was not the jackbooted totalitarian state of Orwell’s 1984; that was the tyranny that had haunted our dreams during what Jeane Kirkpatrick once
aptly described as the "Fifty-Five Years’ Emergency"— the civilizational crisis that ran from Hitler’s military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Rather, the new and ominous possibility on the near-term horizon was something quite different: the happy, if thoroughly dehumanized and massively coercive, dystopia of Huxley’s brilliant imagination. Do I exaggerate? I think not. Scientists and biotech industry executives now talk freely of what Leon Kass has called the
"immortality project." Here, they confidently tell us, is a possible future world without suffering, even without death—except perhaps death freely chosen as a remedy for terminal boredom. But as Huxley presciently discerned decades be-fore the unraveling of the DNA double helix, such a world would ultimately be an inhuman
world: a world of souls without longing, without passion, without striving, without surprise, without desire—in a word, a world without love.
And here, too, we can find long-term radioactive traces from Ockham’s "atomic explosion" in the fourteenth century. For Ockham’s was a world without purpose, a world of willful means detached from ends. But so is the brave new world as Aldous Huxley described it. As one of the World Controllers muses in Huxley’s
novel, 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 some of the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them . . . take to believing . . . 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 conscious-ness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstances, admissible.
Tyranny thrives in a world in which means always trump ends. The freedom of indifference cannot sustain a truly free society.
The national debate over cloning and embryonic stem cell research over the past year ought to have given us pause, and precisely on this point. With rare exceptions, the first great public debate of the biotech era was conducted in almost exclusively utilitarian terms (when it was not reduced to appeals to compassion that did not
constitute anything resembling a serious argument). What can be done to put this urgent and unavoidable debate onto more secure moral-philosophical ground?
I suggest that doing so will require a rigorous reckoning with the degree to which the freedom of indifference has become the operative notion of freedom in much of our high culture, in the media, among many political leaders, in considerable parts of the mainline Protestant religious community, in the sciences, and in the biotech
industry. Challenging the freedom of indifference with freedom for excellence is essential if we are to deploy our new genetic knowledge in ways that lead to human flourishing rather than to the soul-less dystopia of the brave new world.
There will be—there already are—appeals to "pluralism" in these debates. Pluralism, however, is not mere plurality, as John Courtney Murray never tired of repeating. Plurality is sheer difference: a sociological fact, a staple of the human condition. Pluralism is a civilizational achievement: the achievement of what
Murray called an "orderly conversation"— a conversation about personal goods and the common good, about the relation between freedom and moral truth, about the virtues necessary to form the kind of citizens who can live their freedom in such a way as to make the machinery of democracy serve genuinely humanistic ends.
That kind of orderly conversation cannot begin with the radical epistemological skepticism and moral relativism that inform today’s Ockhamites and their defense of freedom as willfulness. It must begin, as Jefferson began the American democratic experiment, with the assertion and defense of truths. As Father Murray once
wrote, "the American Proposition rests on the . . . conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for if they are not held, assented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City."21 It must begin, in other words, and to return to the wiser
medieval monk, with a reaffirmation of freedom for excellence as the freedom to which we, like the Founders, can pledge our lives, for-tunes, and sacred honor.
The second challenge to what many commentators are now calling America’s "holiday from history" came, of course, on September 11, 2001, a day of infamy that in a very real sense marked the beginning of a new century and a new millennium. The world has changed, and the change seems irreversible. The holiday from history
is over. The Republic and the freedoms it embodies are in grave peril from a new form of irrationalism and nihilism that expresses itself through a perverse and distorted form of monotheistic religion. The struggle against this new and present danger may well last a generation or more.
The roots of this new struggle run deep into history. Some argue, and I would not disagree, that they run more than 1,300 years into the past, and that what confronts us today is the contemporary expression of a civilizational contest that has ebbed and flowed for well over a millennium. Because its roots run so deeply into the
religious and cultural sub-soil of history—because we have been forcefully reminded over the past three months that the deepest currents of world-historical change are religious and cultural—analyzing the causalities that brought us to September 11, 2001, is no simple business. Yet amidst the inevitable complexities of
history understood as an arena of moral responsibility, there has also been some welcome, and perhaps long overdue, simplicity.
This is part three of an extract from the inaugural William E. Simon Lecture given to the 25th Anniversary of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Part one examines the two concepts of liberty in a modern context, and part two tells a tale of two monks. The whole paper can be downloaded here.