January 12th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Eyewitness in East Timor

Editorial: Population - time for a new approach

Canberra Observed: Howard understands ALP better than it knows itself

Straws in the Wind: Cries for help / Political terrorism / Opium of the children

Public policy and the family

Books: Demons and Democrats - Re-evaluating Labor's disastrous 'Splits'

Media - Selective indignation / Ideological consistency

US welfare cuts coming home to roost?

Trade: Debt will return to haunt us

The search for meaning

Books: Don't despair: 'The Skeptical Environmentalist', by Bjorn Lomborg

'Queen Victoria: A Personal History', by Christopher Hibbert

Books promotion page

The search for meaning

by Michael Casey

News Weekly, January 12, 2002

Michael Casey's new book Meaninglessness was released in Melbourne last November. At the launch, Dr Casey spoke of the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11 on our belief in the value and meaning of life.

It is difficult to make a book on Nietzsche, Freud and Richard Rorty topical in normal circumstances; but since the attacks on the United States on September 11 many things have changed, including the topicality of a small book on meaninglessness. Not long after the attacks, the militant evolutionist Richard Dawkins wrote a piece in the UK Guardian (September 15, 2001) laying the blame for the attack at the feet of religion.

In doing this, he repeated the old claim, going back to Voltaire in the 18th century, that religion is at best a source of intolerance and division, and at worst, a source of the greatest evils. "To fill a world with religion ... is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used."

Common beliefs

In his shrill insistence that religion is something we must learn to do without, Dawkins was obliquely acknowledging that one of the questions placed squarely back on the public agenda in the wake of September 11 is the extent to which a life in common requires common belief.

Until September 11 it was much harder to get a hearing for this question. With the end of the Cold War in 1989-91, for the first time the West seemed to be without any major threats or enemies.

This left it free to pursue globalisation, the last great secular project for the remaking of the world in its own image.

The self-satisfaction of that time is well epitomised in the triviality and squalor of the Clinton presidency in the United States, and in retrospect we can see how the philosophy of Richard Rorty - one of the major figures in my book - was ideally suited to the spirit of the times. A recent review of a book on Rorty in The New Republic (August 20, 2001) described him as "the professor of complacency," and in some respects the tag was well-merited.

Rorty assumes that the crucial components of modern social life - prosperity, stability, freedom, civility and self-restraint - can all be taken for granted.

Because these foundations of life in common are locked in, as it were, we no longer need the sorts of things that were needed to hold society together in the situation of poverty, instability, and oppression that has characterised human life everywhere for most of history.

In this sort of situation, other things are needed to make society possible. Survival depends on shared ideas about the meaning and value of life, and about truth and lies, good and evil, the best way to live, and the best god to worship.

It is only when survival is assured as it is for most of us most of the time today - thank God - that these older foundations of social life can be dispensed with.

Given prosperity, stability and freedom, Rorty argues, we no longer need to be concerned about common meanings, beliefs and values.

All we need is broad agreement on one or two things like democracy, the rule of law and human rights and society will more or less look after itself.

With Nietzsche and Freud, Rorty holds that life is essentially meaningless. It makes no sense to ask about the meaning of life because there is no answer to the question.

Of course, people who feel the need for some sort of meaning in their lives are free to make up (what Rorty calls) a story for themselves about the value and significance of their personal experiences, but there is no over-arching, universal or transcendent meaning which can pull all these personal experiences together and give them coherence and validity.

Following Freud, Rorty regards these stories as therapy: things we do to make ourselves feel better when we are afraid of the dark. Rorty does not sneer at this.

On the contrary; for 2,000 years Christianity has conditioned us to expect and seek absolute meaning. Obviously it will take us some time to get over this, and in the interim it is a step forward if we can learn to content ourselves with our personal illusions and not ask for more.

The object longer term, however, is the goal Nietzsche set humanity in the 19th century: to so thoroughly remake ourselves that it never occurs to us to ask about meaning. In this way, the problem of meaninglessness will cease to exist.

We should not be too quick to say that this is impossible. Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty each seek this goal. As I outline in the book, each offers a way of attaining it, and each offers a vision of the sort of world it would create.

Nietzsche emphasises power, domination and will (it is not considered polite in academic circles to say so, but it was not for nothing that the Nazis found him so easy to appropriate - or that academics of a certain bent find it so easy to link him up with the Marquis de Sade).

Nietzsche's solution to meaninglessness can only end either in the madhouse or jail for the individual who takes it seriously; or in the high totalitarianism of 1930s Russia for any society which seeks to implement it.

Freud, a very different kind of thinker, emphasises human weakness and complexity, and his solution to meaninglessness would make the world a gigantic hospital governed by an élite of all-wise psychoanalysts.

Clearly, this is no more likely in the present situation than the world Nietzsche would bring into being.

But Rorty offers something different. He takes the best of Nietzsche on self-creation and the best of Freud on therapy and comes up with a world not so very different from our own: a world where people live for themselves and understand freedom as the affirmation of self against others; where we live lightly, on the surface of existence, and are trained to do so by the many hurts we sustain at the deepest levels of the person in a culture of radical individualism and sexual permissiveness.

It is always easier to live on the surface of existence. It hurts less. This is the key to understanding why Rorty's solution to meaninglessness is no futuristic fantasy, but very possibly the emerging culture of the present.


Since September 11 life has become a lot more serious. But Rorty would see this as a vindication rather than a rebuke. Rorty would see September 11 as an extreme example of what happens when people insist on taking meaning too seriously.

Those who do not share a given meaning become outsiders or enemies; in short, fair game. Rorty understands (as Dawkins does not) the logic involved here: it is not just religion that causes these sorts of atrocities but any sort of meaning held to apply to everyone in every time and place without exception.

But of course what we are talking about with September 11 is not religion or meaning but something much more fundamental: the difference between truth and lies.

We know only too well that lies can claim to be truth: Communism and Nazism are only the two greatest examples. This also holds for religion. Rorty, in his radical denial of truth, loses this distinction.

Rorty thinks atrocities like September 11 will be made less likely if we give up our insistence on treating meaning as truth rather than as personal myth. In this, he has things exactly the wrong way around.

What in fact we need is an ability to tell truth from lies; to distinguish between meanings which enhance and serve human life, and meanings - perhaps we should call them anti-meanings - which merely enhance and serve human power. Giving up on the concept of truth is not a good way of cultivating these abilities.

How then do we tell truth from lies? With this question we come up against the limits of sociology. The emergence of sociology in the 19th century was significant for many reasons, not least because it was the first discipline in the human sciences to be founded expressly on the denial of transcendence.

The positivism of Auguste Comte and Émile Durkheim who established the discipline has given way to other approaches and methodologies, and religion is of course one of the phenomena that sociology studies - often today in great depth.

But it is still sufficiently in thrall to its founding assumptions to have very real difficulty in coming to grips with the concept - to say nothing of the reality - of transcendence.

As a student, I found myself in sociology by accident. What determined me to stick at it was reading John Paul II's book Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), in which he called for the development of a Christian sociology.

In my view, a Christian sociology is not simply one which imports the presuppositions of faith. Rather - or in addition - it should seek to elucidate the reality of transcendence in a concrete way.

"Hard" concept

Its starting point should be love. Of course, everyone is in favour of love, especially when it is treated as a nice, soft concept which each of us can make to mean whatever we want. But Christian sociology should treat love as a "hard" concept; as something which has real weight and real significance; as something which is not just a by-product of human development or personal sentimentality.

To love unconditionally, to make a gift of yourself to others, is not in fact something that we do easily.

Our native selfishness makes love hard work. But in sticking at it, in yielding to love, each individual - whether believer or not - suddenly finds himself invited into the reality of transcendence.

In accepting this invitation and the invitations to go further that follow, love in the end brings us to faith and the fullness of that transcendent reality which encompasses our world and ensures the meaningfulness of our lives.

My book is not about love, although it might be said that love haunts it. But it is a small contribution to the development of a sociology that takes love seriously.

It is not a jolly read, but I have worked hard to make it accessible, and if it succeeds in clarifying something for someone, or in giving someone hope or encouragement, it will have served its purpose well. May God give the increase.

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