Reflections

‘No Longer at Ease … in the Old Dispensation’

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In churches across the country, priests will admonish the faithful to “remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” These words offer a salutary reminder of what awaits all of us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” In the meantime, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we spend our years trying to give meaning to our lives.

There was a time when religion and communal traditions provided answers to those who questioned life’s purpose. In our secular age, when religion has waned and many of our communal traditions are crumbling, answers to life’s eternal questions become ever more difficult. Like the Magi in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, we are “no longer at ease … in the old dispensation.”

Without a set of touchstones or guidance, it is all too easy to fall into the black pit of nihilism, to consider life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Bereft of meaning, many seek solace in drugs or drink. Some decide that life is just not worth living. The devastation caused by suicide, for the victim, for those left behind, and for society is inestimable.

Almost 100 years ago, the eminent historian Sir Keith Hancock said that “Australians look upon the state as a vast public utility” designed to solve life’s most difficult problems. Nothing has changed. The federal government has declared its “zero tolerance” for suicide and initiated a variety of interventions. It would be churlish to disparage their good intentions and the principled people who work to implement them. Still, it is unlikely that government nostrums can assuage despair.

“How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure,” wrote Dr Johnson.  Anguish is a malaise of the spirit and the soul. In a secular age, souls are taboo—we no longer speak about them in polite company. But soul is exactly the right word. As a society, we have made a Faustian bargain. Like the scholar in Goethe’s play, we have traded our souls and consciences for a trivial and inconsequential government paternalism.

Many, perhaps most, Australians reject the traditional answers to life’s purpose, but they still keep asking the same questions. Why am I here? How should I live? Governments cannot answer these questions, and it seems our public schools and universities have given up even trying.  Humanity has more knowledge than ever before, but all that knowledge has not made us wise.

Lent is a period of sacrifice (“I’m giving up ice cream for Lent”) but also of contemplation and reflection.

In the lead-up to Easter, as the government contemplates how to legislate for religious freedom, it should eschew the pretentious bombast and manufactured outrage that has sadly become the routine mode of our political discourse. Politicians should admit that there are limits to what governments can do to provide people with a purpose in life. 

Our political leaders might use the next month as a time to reflect on how Australia, as a nation, can strengthen its civic, educational, and religious institutions so they can do the job for which they were created—giving people meaning and purpose to their lives.                                                                                                                                       

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies

4 comments
  • Ian MacDougall

    “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure,” wrote Dr Johnson. Anguish is a malaise of the spirit and the soul. In a secular age, souls are taboo—we no longer speak about them in polite company. But soul is exactly the right word. As a society, we have made a Faustian bargain. Like the scholar in Goethe’s play, we have traded our souls and consciences for a trivial and inconsequential government paternalism.
    “Many, perhaps most, Australians reject the traditional answers to life’s purpose, but they still keep asking the same questions. Why am I here? How should I live? Governments cannot answer these questions, and it seems our public schools and universities have given up even trying.”
    .
    I maintain that any organism, however ‘primitive’ which responds to danger by any sort of act of self-protection, even if only by ‘instinctively’ moving out of light and into shade, has by that very fact a level of what we call ‘consciousness’. That is, of its own identity as a being. As such, it can be seen as a ‘soul’. The higher up the phylogenetic tree we go, the more likely we are to find animals whose consciousness and souls approach our own.

    Spermatozoa do not behave in the above self-preserving way, and thus arguably do not have ‘souls’ of any kind. As independent beings, a majority of them swim to exhaustion and death, and a tiny minority of them realise their life’s ambition and manifest intent through suicide: by penetration of an ovum. This is just as well for us all, for otherwise none of us would be here, nor practically the entire rest of the Animal Kingdom, nor some plants as well.
    .
    So each of us is here because of one spermatozoan suicide. Without death, there can be no life. If nothing ever died, nothing could ever be born.
    .
    This principle arguably goes down into the molecular level. So far, the only self-replicating, information carrying molecules are nucleic acids. But others in time may be found as well.

  • Stephen Due

    How true. And you will note that political leaders are now required to speak and behave like priests, especially when there are disasters. They are expected to offer comfort to the bereaved, hope to hopeless, and so on. It is good to quote Shakespeare in this context, as he is the peerless example of the secular priest, the dispenser of worldly wisdom in a godless universe. But I venture to suggest that not the politicians alone but also our current educational, civic and religious institutions are ill-equipped for the task of giving people meaningful lives. In a corrupt society, saturated in sex and the thrill of vicarious participation in violence and revenge through books, films, music and videos, meaning is sought in more of the same. “Pretentious bombast and manufactured outrage” are not confined to politicians. They are the very stuff of everyday discourse throughout our sick communities. Husbands and wives speak to each other using pretentious bombast and manufactured outrage over the dinner table. University lecturers pontificate from their lecterns using pretentious bombast and manufactured outrage. This is the very stuff of a society that consistently rejects the only real solution to its problems. Anything rather than face the truth. But “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer”. Not any religion will do.

  • Stephen Due

    Governments should not (in my view) be contemplating legislating for religious freedom. The issue they should be addressing is freedom of speech. The best way to do this is not by continuing to toy with an increasingly complex and internally contradictory system of so-called ‘human rights’. Rather the best way is to demolish the anti-discrimination legislation that is the root cause of the problem now wrongly being addressed as an issue of religious freedom. What we are seeing is government increasingly adopting the sinister role of thought-police and speech-monitor. Australian freedoms are best protected by the absence of legislation, as in past generations, not by the modern ‘progressive’ trend of increasingly complex sets of draconian rules governing what people are allowed to think and say.

  • tbeath

    Joshua Greene (2013) “Moral Tribes: Emotion, reason and the gap between them and us.” London: Atlantic Books
    Introduces “The Tragedy of Commonsense Morality”
    Four families of herders raise sheep.
    A tribe to the east has a council of elders to govern their use of the commons. They insist each family gets to keep the same number of sheep on the shared commons.
    A tribe to the west determine flock size to use the commons by family size
    A tribe to the north doesn’t adhere to use of commons, but has individual plots that are fenced in. There is great variation in plot size as some are more industrious and wiser than others and use their funds so generated to increase their plot sizes. If a family suffers bad luck, then so be it. Those who suffer good luck get to keep their gains too. Often successive generations of a family inherit large estates and yet aren’t particularly wise or industrious. Their council merely ensure people keep their promises and respect the property of others. There are vast differences in wealth between families which is a source of trouble.
    A tribe to the south share not only their pasture, but their animals too. Their council of elders is very busy, as they manage the herds, assign people to jobs, and monitor their work. The fruits of their labour are shared equally – but this is a source of much strife as some members are wiser or are more industrious than others. There are many complaints about lazy workers not pulling their weight.
    One summer the forest dividing the tribes burned down, releasing more land for grazing.
    The tribes rushed to claim new ground.
    The south tribe proclaimed that the new ground belonged to all and must be worked in common. They set up a new council to manage the pastures and invited other tribes to be represented.
    The north tribe scoffed and quickly built stone walls and set their animals to graze. Many east and west families did the same.
    The four tribes ended up fighting bitterly. Many lives and animals were lost.
    Then tribes from far away arrived to settle the new pastures.
    One claimed the pasture was a gift from their god. The forest fire had been prophesised in their holy book they claimed.
    Another claimed the new pastures as their ancestral home from which they had been driven many generations ago.
    Tribes arranged with rules and customs that were rather strange to outsiders, if not completely silly: black sheep must not be kept in the same field as white ones. Women must have their earlobes covered in public; singing on Wednesdays is strictly forbidden. Interactions between the various tribes lead to fighting and deaths.
    Despite the conflict between the tribes, their people were very similar in many ways and mostly seemed to desire the same things: healthy families; nutritious and healthy food; comfortable shelter; tools that saved labour and leisure time to spend with families and friends. All tribes liked music and listening to stories about villains and heroes. What they each perceive as unjust, angry and disgusting motivates them to fight from the view-points of self-interest and their sense of justice. They fight with honour and would be ashamed to do otherwise; guard their reputations fiercely; judge others by their deeds and enjoy exchanging opinions.
    Even with all their differences, the tribes share some values: in no tribe is it okay to be completely selfish and none is expected to be completely selfless. No tribe allows lies, stealing, or harm to another at will. However, in some tribes certain privileged people are free to do as they please.
    Although the tribes are engaged in bitter and bloody conflicts, they are all, in their different ways, moral people. They fight because they have different visions of what a moral society should be. Each tribe’s philosophy is woven into its daily life – they have different cultures, powerful at the unconscious level! They have therefore their own version of moral common sense and very different moral perspectives. Greene calls this the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”
    Although the parable of the pastures is fictional, the Tragedy of Commonsense Morality is REAL!
    Greene believes this is the central tragedy of modern life, in fact the deeper tragedy behind the moral problems that divide us.

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