Irrational and mythological thinking have been gaining adherents recently. In his essay “Conservative Rationalism has Failed,” Yoram Hazony insists that an overemphasis on reason has corroded the moral and spiritual foundations of western societies, leaving them vulnerable to anomie and to the radical modernism of the neo-Marxist left. These concerns have been echoed by pundits and intellectuals like Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson and Sohrab Ahmari, all of whom insist that some form of traditionalist or mythological revival is required to rejuvenate the body politic’s faith in itself. More extreme mythologies have been espoused by the far right, invoking dark impulses previously thought long dead.
Some see this as a reaction against the excesses of the so-called neo-Marxist left. National Review columnist Nate Hochman hypothesizes that many—especially among the young—are gravitating towards new forms of traditionalism, in response to excessive cultural changes. I believe Hochman is fundamentally correct on this point. This parallels the reactionary impulse which underpins what I have called postmodern conservatism. These phenomena can help explain why appeals to mythology have been gaining traction.
Enlightenment and the Sleep of Reason
In his 1799 painting “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” Francisco Goya depicts the sleeping artist tormented by beasts. Shortly thereafter (in 1808), Johann Goethe published the first part of his drama Faust, whose titular character is an insatiably curious genius, whose eclectic interests have resulted in a lifetime of scientific study. Nevertheless, he finds that reason can tell him nothing about the ultimate purpose of the universe. Dissatisfied and unhappy, he turns to magic and even contemplates suicide. Eventually, Faust is contacted by the demon Mephistopheles, who promises to show him wonders beyond his ken. The only downside is that, if Faust ever wants to cease his incessant travels and finds himself longing to stay in one place, Mephistopheles will claim his soul.
Both of these artists articulated a growing sense that the project of Enlightenment reason was reaching a dead end. The pursuit of reason had resulted in marvelous technological and political improvements, including revolutionary democratic movements in the United States and France—but reason could be destructive, too. Figures like Voltaire had relentlessly attacked the old mythological and religious ways of understanding the world, subjecting them to ridicule and treating the most sacred practices as farce. This emancipated society from the shackles of superstition, forcing people, as Kant put it in his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” to awaken to reason at last.
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.
Goya and Goethe sensed that there was a serious price to pay for this liberation, a price that would only become fully apparent when the consequences of full scale rationalization became known. This price was what Max Weber, following Nietzsche, would call the “desacralization of the world.” Liberation from superstition and tradition freed individuals to use their reason more effectively. But this led to a world without magic or purpose. Each person had to choose what to do with her life, without the help of sacred guidance. According to its most vocal critics, reason could tell us a great deal about how to accomplish our goals, but very little about which goals are worth pursuing. This left a tremendous gap where there had once been certainty. Like Faust, modern rationalists were left continually searching for a new home, without ever coming to rest. This would prove intolerable to many, and would paradoxically lead to the emergence of more overarching and frightening mythologies than ever before.
Modern and Postmodern Mythology
In his book The Myth of the State, Ernst Cassirer argues that the apparently nihilistic consequences of Enlightenment reason led many to turn to new sources of mythological inspiration. For some, this meant a complete repudiation of reason and Enlightenment and a headlong return to religious traditionalism. But others began to formulate new mythologies to replace the old. Such mythologies drew on secularism and even tried to present pseudo-scientific bases for their conceits. But they were thoroughly mythological at their irrational core, presenting heroic individuals fighting against an increasingly mechanical world that threatened to devour their sources of meaning. Some, like English historian Thomas Carlyle, turned to blatant hero worship, arguing that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” For Carlyle, while the mass of humankind pursued meager and vulgar pleasures, heroes from Thomas Cromwell to Napoleon remade the world in their image. This position is not so different from that of Nietzsche—the greatest modern mythmaker—who disdained Carlyle’s romanticism, but found his ideas intriguing. Later, ethnic and racist mythologies became increasingly popular, as Cassirer describes. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West theorizes that Western culture is becoming exhausted (a popular anxiety among the right today) and that this exhaustion can only be countered by putting an end to materialist degeneracy and discovering new and even violent struggles. More disturbingly still, French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau produced a comprehensive racist mythology, with all the trappings of pseudoscientific glamor. In his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, Gobineau argues that the white race has been responsible for almost all the great accomplishments of the human species, but has since declined due to interbreeding. According to Gobineau and his followers, this has led to growing lethargy and complacency.
The appeal of these modern mythologies was not based on their plausibility. Even in the eighteenth century, historians like Edward Gibbon had begun to challenge the tendency to see history as merely an account of the deeds of great men. Spengler’s gloomy demand for conflict, far from bringing about a renewal of civilization, led to the barbarities of the Second World War. Many contemporary scientists and scholars pointed out the implausibility of De Gobineau’s racist claims: great civilizations, they observed, had emerged everywhere from Mexico to China, and the idea that the white race was ultimately responsible for all these developments was self-aggrandizing nonsense. What made these mythologies appealing to many, however, was that they gave them a sense of having a higher destiny than could be provided by reason alone—and equipped them with pseudo-rational tools to justify that idea.
This desire for mythological meaning was challenged by the horrors of war, but it never entirely disappeared. Among other things, it led to the emergence of postmodern culture as what Frederic Jameson might call a cultural logic within twentieth and twenty-first century capitalist societies. Postmodern culture encouraged individuals to embrace a new mythology of self-creation and creative destruction. In this respect, it is a kind of hyper-modernism. It suggests that individuals should use reason and technology to develop new modes of life and even to alter human nature itself. These aspirations found cultural expression in the cyberpunk genre, in which human beings use technology to expand their capabilities and explore. They are also represented in the Enlightenment mythology of Star Trek, in which technological advances and liberalism have brought about a utopian society. Generally speaking, these developments were cautiously welcomed by liberals and embraced—even made more radical—by many on the left.
Postmodernism, however, was also defined by a radical suspicion of grand narratives, which lead many reactionaries to despair. They found the hypermodern mythologies of self-creation and technological reason unappealing. Instead, they continued to embrace the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century myths of decline and fall: for them, the world was becoming an ever more nightmarish place, as old certainties collapsed under the pressures of pluralism, new sexual identities and secularism. This led to renewed skepticism about reason itself. The new mythologies centered on identity—framed in nationalist, religious, gendered or even racial terms. Like their predecessors, these myths were often given a pseudo-rationalist gloss—evidenced, for example, in the white nationalist fascination with racial science and supposedly hard-nosed historicism. But the underlying drive was always mythological: a desire to restore purpose and order to the world. Ironically, hypermodern technologies and media—from Twitter to 4Chan—are used to advance these irrationalist, anti-modernist sentiments.
Awakening Reason From Its Dogmatic Slumber
Despite the insistence of cheerleaders like Steven Pinker, Enlightenment and reason are under threat. The desacralization of the world was liberating. But it also created a deep need for meaning which could only be satisfied through the construction of new and often violent mythologies, now empowered by modern technologies and practices. In postmodern culture, new reactionary mythologies have replaced their predecessors and enjoy substantial support among segments of society mired in anomie, especially those left behind by capitalist inequality and precarity. To give one prominent example: a recent US census indicated that about thirteen million Americans—mostly women—work at more than one job: often full time in one position, and part time in another. While, sometimes, the extra work is taken on in pursuit of higher level ambitions, in many cases the choice is due to stagnant wages and transient employment. Being forced to spend most of one’s time laboring seriously restricts the opportunities for realizing one’s potential through creative development and exploration. Reconfiguring the political and economic system so that people possess both the free time and the resources to engage in such pursuits might prevent them from being seduced by reactionary mythologies, which usually blame problems in the labor market on foreign elements. In these situations, individuals lack the capacity to develop more emancipatory sources of meaning—for what Slavoj Zizek might call the creative realization of human potential, guided by reason.
A substantial reorientation of people’s imaginative energy would require the kind of egalitarian democracy theorized by Seyla Benhabib and others. If a mythology of self-creation, linked to reason, is to succeed, individuals need to feel empowered to decide which life goals they wish to pursue and be capable of pursuing them. When self-creation is the privilege of a materially and intellectually separate elite, this will elicit resentment and anger on the part of those left behind. These emotions strengthen the appeal of reactionary and anti-rationalist mythologies, which advocate returning to the past, by marginalizing deviant and disruptive groups. By redistributing resources and capabilities in a more egalitarian manner, and increasing citizen’s rights to meaningfully participate in their increasingly plutocratic democracies, we could buck this trend. Individuals could then develop a sense of meaning by redefining themselves and the world around them, in cooperation with others, and exercising their amplified human potential. In my book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law (forthcoming here), I argue that an egalitarian democracy of this kind would be organized around twin rights: the right to democratic authorship and the right to equality of expressive capabilities.
In most of today’s liberal representative democracies, citizens have very little input into politics. This contributes to the belief that elites are indifferent to the needs of ordinary people. As Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have observed, this belief is accurate—politicians are more likely to work for moneyed interests than for their constituents. We should counteract this by taking the right to democratic authorship seriously. Citizens should be allowed to define themselves by redefining the sociohistorical contexts in which they live. They should be involved in formulating and deliberating upon the laws and policies which govern them; perhaps assisted by the new digital media that make such participation possible on a large scale. A growing number of authors and advocates argue that e-democracies, in which citizens use modern technologies to discuss and vote on individual policies, are the way of the future. Implementing such approaches would go a long way towards securing the right to democratic authorship.
The second right is equality of expressive capabilities—except when inequalities are the result of individual moral choices. The term capabilities is drawn from economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum and describes what individuals need in order to enjoy robust and concrete freedom. This kind of freedom is more than just non-coercion: it implies everything from institutional reforms to the redistribution of resources. For example, a person is freer in a concrete sense if she is capable of maneuvering around a city than if she is prevented from doing so due to a physical disability and a lack of social accommodations of that disability. An individual’s expressive capabilities are defined by how free she is to engage in meaningful life projects and creative development. This is related to equality because some people enjoy far fewer expressive capabilities than others for what Rawls would call morally arbitrary reasons: they are born into poor families, lack educational facilities or have to manage significant disabilities without aid. It is not these individuals’ fault that they do not have the same expressive capabilities as those in more fortunate circumstances. A just society would therefore seek a fair distribution of goods to equalize individual expressive capabilities, except where inequalities result from individual choices (for example, a decision to pursue a life of religious self-denial). A person born into a poor family is right to demand a redistribution of wealth to give them a fairer start in life. Greater equality of expressive capabilities would give individuals the freedom to pursue more creative and fulfilling life projects.
If these two rights were granted, it would go a long way towards developing the egalitarian democracy needed to reverse the trend towards reactionary mythmaking. Individuals would have the sociopolitical and material capacity to engage in creative projects that realize their human potential and are guided by reason. Reason must be reawakened from its post-Enlightenment slumber. We must turn our focus back to a comprehensive critique of the status quo, while theorizing on what is needed to ensure a brighter and fairer future.