Humanity, Ideology and Individual Destiny

“There may be community… of material possessions, but there can never be community of love or of esteem.”—Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

Continuing my reading of French philosopher Raymond Aron, I came across some passages which confirm the age-old insight that humanity’s primary challenges are ethical rather than physical. No amount of material comfort or perfection will eliminate human strife. Ironically those ideological regimes which have claimed to advance material welfare the most have done so with the least success.

The French writer denounces what he refers to as “doctrinarism,” or the idea of reducing all of life’s challenges to a single, politically solvable, problem (see related comments). It is not only individuals on the left who think this way. Certain utopian libertarian and rightists are guilty of the same fundamental assumptions. But “progressive” doctrinal simplification is the most widespread. In this regard, Aron remarks that

Marx’s thinking was characterized by a radical error: the error of attributing all alienation to a single origin and of assuming that the end of economic alienation would result in the end of all alienation.

Even Marx was inconsistent. Delving more deeply into his ideology one finds that there were pre-economic and pre-political roots to his outlook. On the other hand Aron, the self-professed agnostic, was more sensitive than other political thinkers to humanity’s spiritual dimension.

The Marxists and existentialists come into conflict at the point where the tradition of Kierkegaard cannot be reconciled with that of Hegel; no social or economic regime can ever solve the enigma of history; individual destiny transcends collective life.

Unlike the Christian Kierkegaard, materialist “individualists” like Nietzsche and Sartre take us on a path which ultimately merges with collectivism, because of their underlying social expectations. In a similar manner Aron critiqued modernist Christians who fell in with the fashionable “social justice” movement and ended up co-opted by Marxism rather than the other way around (as had been naively hoped).

What horrifies me about secular religions is the breakdown of the distinction between the profane and the sacred…. Christians should feel this horror more strongly than I do, but in fact some of them, certain worker-priests for example, have, on the contrary been attracted by the structural similarity of the opposing beliefs…. I continue to regard religion as essentially the negation or at least the questioning of social values. But the Marxists and the existentialists (at least Sartre and his followers), in their radical atheism, ultimately reduce existence to action; indeed, ultimately they place historical action above everything.

The ideologues ultimately fall short because they “have no theory in the sense of a contemplative metaphysic embracing the whole of the cosmos and of humanity…. They detest contemplative thought and the inner life, they see man essentially as the creature who works….” Aron’s particular insight on the aim of philosophy is actually much closer to that of the German Thomist Josef Pieper than many of their Catholic contemporaries, who opted for activism over theology.

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