Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World by Chantal Delsol (ISI Crosscurrents, 2003)

With Icarus Fallen, Chantal Delsol has written a thoughtful and timely book cataloguing the crisis of what she and others have elsewhere called “late modernity,” arising from modern man’s attempt to ‘liberate’ himself from his existential and historic condition and to (try to) eliminate the structures (i.e., politics, economics, religion, morality, etc.) that have persistently defined and filled human existence. In this reflection on the late modern condition, Delsol argues that contemporary (Western) man has emerged from the crucible of the collapse of earlier systems of meaning into what should be a veritable utopia of prosperity and peace since 1945. Modern man is confronted with the re-emergence, albeit often in different forms, of the fundamental structures he has tried to abolish, underscoring the impossibility of the original goal of elimination. However, because of the real (and perceived) disasters wrought by systems of certitude in the past, contemporary man is afraid of truth, so he banishes it only to find himself still longing for the meaning it provides, while remaining opposed to any real conception of absolute good (but still in need of a good) and trapped under the two oppressive weights of the neglect of ultimate questions and the substitute system of goods that makes up contemporary democracy and “human rights” worship.

There are many keen insights in the book, and there are passages that hint at brilliance, but there is also an uneven quality stemming from the author’s diffidence with respect to revealed religion and excessive confidence with respect to the political habits and institutions of Western societies. In the end, the book is a diagnosis of what ails late modernity and an affirmation that ultimate questions of meaning will not go away, but will become more pressing, because they are an unavoidable part of human existence, but it offers little in the way of remedies with respect to rediscovering truth and the respect for truth. Her preemptive dismissal of any sort of ‘return’ to Christianity as a way of knowing the absolute and finding certain meaning emerges from what can only be described as an intellectual’s studied detachment from authority. Even as she grants that religion is a permanent part of human life, she cannot grant that any religion has real access to the absolute, much less the only or uniquely privileged access to the absolute; even as she grants that political authority, the world of obedience and commands, is an unavoidable part of human life, I suspect she has no interest in any politics that enshrines the principle of authority. She is a good freethinking democrat (this is not meant pejoratively but descriptively), and she is warning the West that the tangible goods of the freethinking, democratic world are in serious danger under the current management with its very particular reading of the “philosophy of rights” and what democracy entails. Those of us in the religious, traditional and authoritarian camps can appreciate her observations, even if we cannot share her barely concealed hostility to most historic expressions of a rightist politics of meaning in the last 200 years.

A reader familiar with the much more developed assault on the “philosophy of rights” and the formulation of a humane alternative to liberal ethics and politics in Thomas Fleming’s Morality of Everyday Life would be disappointed to find that Prof. Delsol has only just reached the beginning of Dr. Fleming’s understanding of the poverty and dangers of theories of ‘rights’. He would not be surprised by her laments about the hypocrisy and contradictions of the regnant ideology of “rights” and democracy with its associated political correctness and “correct thought,” which are all old news items for many American conservatives, some of whom diagnosed the dogmatism of tolerance and fanaticism of “diversity” well over a decade ago. The same reader would nonetheless be encouraged by the fact that the inadequacies of the regnant “hidden ideology” premised on democracy worship and “human rights,” with its attendant intolerance, thought control and oppressive legal apparatuses, is attacked here with intelligence and clarity of expression. Her endorsement of the principle of subsidiarity, with which many traditional conservatives would generally agree, is also most welcome. There is nonetheless a peculiarly French, or perhaps French intellectual (again, not meant pejoratively) preoccupation with equating the abuses and effects of religion and ideology and citing the record of both as the reason for the discrediting of regimes of certitude. One might say that only in a country with a long history of virulent intellectual anticlericalism such as France could a phrase like “the tyranny of the clergy” be written in a non-leftist, 21st century book without conscious irony.

Delsol’s work, which I read in ISI’s translation from the French, tends to cite anecdotes and events taken from the modern French and European experience. This can mislead the lazy reader into imagining that the predicament of a contemporary European is significantly different from the predicament of a contemporary American–that would be a serious mistake. What Delsol has to tell us about late modernity is as applicable here, indeed more so in some respects, as it is anywhere else in the West. If several of the images she cites tend not to be especially evocative for me (e.g., Sarajevo, AIDS, apartheid), and even if these are standard figures used in contemporary leftist demonology, the larger claims that she has to make are fairly compelling.

Most welcome is the questioning of the language and ethics of “values” and the “philosophy of rights,” which Delsol sees quite rightly as being intertwined. As Delsol writes:

The “good,” reduced to a collage of values, and as such relative to time, place, and the individual, could never claim the status of an absolute. In the world of values, there is no absolute. Absolute good rests on objective realities, it takes root in truth, in the knowledge of a good from which one cannot escape. What is astonishing today is the emergence of messages that function like truths, mimicking an objective good in their intransigence and triumphant assertiveness–at the very moment when subjective values and the rejection of the idea of the objective good have reached their peak.

It could be argued that these pseudo-truths attempt to fulfill a social need for authoritative claims and meaningful symbols–that they are a consequence of an abandonment of the “objective good” and serve as serve as an anemic substitute for more robust systems of meaning. But this would be to miss the impact that the idea of “rights” and autonomy, which is itself implied in any philosophy of rights, have had on morality and religion. Without the political and social theory of the “philosophy of rights,” the language and ethics of “values” could not exist. It is, needless to say, a chief example of the unwitting or indifferent compromise with the liberal tradition by would-be traditionalists and moralists that virtue and principle are today almost universally described by them in terms of “moral values” and “Judeo-Christian values.” “Rights” theories assume that authority derives from consent, that individual autonomy is more or less normal and norms are established by consensus rather than revealed or given by authority.

“At the same time that totalitarianism has become taboo, the philosophy of rights has become sacred.” While Delsol casts this as something of a paradox for a society that has abandoned the “objective good,” even as she notes that the adherence to this “rights” morality is mostly intuitive and unreflective (because of the fear of truth and the consequences of truth), the sacralisation of rights and the elevation of the “philosophy of rights” to unquestioned, privileged status as the measure of all political and personal good are intelligible as the constructs of a society dedicated to the value and centrality of the individual. The sacralisation of rights, even to the point of becoming an oppressive ideology in itself, exists to exalt autonomous man, the individual as individual, the self. This is very different from saying that it is a philosophy dedicated to the dignity of the person, to which I believe it is starkly opposed, but it is the frequent confusion of the prizing of autonomous man with the respect for the dignity of the person that has led so many otherwise sensible ‘personalists’ and conservatives down the garden path of liberal and libertarian ethics. Needless to say, exalting the self is an ideological position–it is more or less irrelevant to the ideologue who does the exalting whether or not actual people flourish under the exaltation of the self, whether or not the regime that exalts the self is, in fact, oppressive and destructive of any particular person or people. Rights are sacralised because this adds value to the autonomous agent and detracts it from any of those loci of loyalty and belonging that might compromise the mythical independence of the self.

There is admittedly in the professor’s writing a more studied reluctance to admit the claims of religion, whether general or specific, as serving in any way as a potential remedy for the plight of modern man than many Americans could manage. The spectres of the religious wars and the Inquisition (which serves as her catchall term for the dangers of religious oppression) loom surprisingly large in a book written at the end of the modern age–in this respect, Delsol remains as dominated by the rhetoric of the lumieres as so many generations of French intellectuals before her have been in one way or another. There is a certitude, so to speak, about the limits of the certitudes of revealed religion that is as striking and potentially ideological as is her unabashed confidence in “democracy,” constituting here the entire way of life in the liberal democratic West (“Democracy is a masterpiece,” she effuses). Thus she can write with all seriousness this: “The fanaticism of certitude, no matter where it comes from, has rightly been stigmatized as a cause of misfortune. In this respect, ideologies and religions are equally guilty. [italics mine]” But she cannot be serious, can she? Equally guilty? Even the most savage and cruel of religions cannot pretend to have done as much damage as an average decade of communism.

Besides an inherited secularism and skepticism about institutional religion, what else explains this view of religion? It may be summarised in this statement: “It was with the laudable aim of giving all value to immanence that modern ideologies denied religious eternity and made heaven come down to earth.” But why was this laudable? If immanence has all value–thus it is laudable to credit it with all value–then longing for the absolute is simply a strange psychological flaw that we all possess, and the religious instinct of man is only the response of conscious thought to the prospect of death. The alternative is that we identify the absolute in immanence–which is the very error of modern ideology itself.

But it is this dragging heaven down, debasing the transcendent, that has stolen meaning from man. Only the gnostic believes that his ‘improvements’ of the world are lasting–for the ordinary man, they do not nourish his spirit, nor do they endure. Without the promise of eternal memory and everlasting life, man will remain a prisoner of his own limited, temporal, mortal experience: the disappearance of eternity from the imagination of modern man has no replacement, and so man becomes obsessed with seeking to create some pale imitation of what he has already forsaken. Abandoning religious certainty will feed destructive ideology as surely as the ideologies needed to break down religious eternity to lure man into accepting their schemes for ‘total critique’.

Delsol seems to confirm this negative reading of her view of religion: “One must not imagine that the men of previous eras actually “found” God. But they did come to know him by having sought him for so long.” Of course, in revealed religion it is not a question of our ‘finding’ God, but of His revealing Himself to us. God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us. Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord. Knowing is not in the seeking, but in encounter and communion. It is the worst kind of pop spirituality to tell man that it is the journey that really matters, because there is no destination; what they seek, to the extent that God actually exists for them at all, is simply a by-product of the process of their seeking. If men have always sought God, and yet never “found” Him, then He is a liar who said, “Seek and ye shall find.” This is the basic limitation and difficulty with Delsol’s entire analysis. She has identified permanent, irreducible, ineradicable structures in human existence, and she has shown why we cannot rid ourselves of them and why we are fools to try, but at the heart of the book is the message that there really is no meaning beyond this life, no absolute that we can know. Our ineradicable religious impulse is directing us towards something that no one ever has nor ever will reach–and yet institutional religion is still faulted for “obscuring” what is “essential.” Essential to what? To the unknown absolute that man has never found? But what, then, is the proposed solution to the current predicament? It is merely incumbent on us to recognise the permanence of our condition of desiring what we can never find and seeking what we will never reach. Take up your sense of existential irony, and follow after Kafka.

In Delsol’s adaptation, Icarus has fallen but not perished, and this is supposed to be our predicament. But in all of this attention to Icarus we have been allowed to forget Daedalus, who did, after all, escape the Labyrinth and succeed in his ascent through his greater moderation and patience. It remains for someone else to write a Daedalus Rising to show us the way out of our present Labyrinth.