We live in strange times. Modern technology has nearly obliterated the constraints of distance, allowing us to become interconnected with one another to an extent unimaginable even a few short decades ago, and yet nevertheless at the same time we find ourselves living in an age of absolutely unprecedented loneliness. According to a recent article in Psychology Today:
In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States. In a survey of over 20,000 American adults, it was found that almost half of respondents reported feeling alone, left out, and isolated.
Loneliness has also been intimately linked with one of the other great American epidemics: drug addiction, which last year alone killed a record 72,000 in this country. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death in Americans under 50.
Suicide too is on the rise, having been the cause of death of nearly 45,000 American in 2016. The high-profile suicides of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are indicative of the rising suicide rates in nearly every state and across demographic lines. Why? According to some experts: “There are mental health components, but also there’s relationships, employment, a lack of connectedness… that increases the risk for suicide.”
George Monbiot reflects on the deadly effects of loneliness and isolation:
Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day; loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.
This profound alienation which defines our age is quite mystifying to those who can see and understand only the externals. Our contemporary writers publish articles with headlines such as: “I have 1,605 Facebook friends. Why do I feel so alone?” Cops drive through wealthy suburban neighborhoods where a countless and ever-growing number of children are becoming addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers, and can only ask, bewildered: “What pain?” Like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, these children of wealth and privilege have everything which this world can possibly offer, and which it loudly and repeatedly insists will bring them all the happiness that their hearts desire.
So why are they killing themselves — whether instantly through suicide, or slowly through the oblivion of addiction? Our contemporary Whig historians (led today preeminently by Stephen Pinker) continue to monotonously insist that the world is better now than it has ever been before. They imply that the real reason for human unhappiness is more or less that we haven’t yet read their books, and so we have not yet had the fortune to discover for ourselves, via doubtlessly impressive charts and mountains of irrefutable data, just how great the world really is these days.
Admittedly, there are many in the world who take a much more nuanced and profound view of the modern condition than Pinker and his ilk. But although they are able to recognize that something, somewhere, has gone horribly wrong, they nevertheless prove unable to come to the heart of the matter. They can touch on aspects of the problem: the shallowness of social media, the poison of an individualist ideology, the corrosive ideas and attitudes propagated by the media and advertising firms. But take away the drugs, take away social media and television, take away the constant mantra of the individual-consumer as the highest expression of our humanity… and will loneliness somehow have been taken away along with them? Unfortunately, I suspect not.
It is only to a Christian versed at least a little in Orthodox anthropology that the modern condition is clear. The fundamental purpose of man — nothing less than to unite God and all creation within his own person, to become a cosmic mediator between heaven and earth — cannot possibly find fulfillment in a world in which God and heaven do not exist, or are not for any practical purpose real. We have become existentially unmoored, and so it is no surprise at all that we feel lost, purposeless, and alone. We all feel within our hearts the truth spoken by Nietzsche’s madman:
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?
But though we have lost the likeness of God, as the Fathers teach, there is nothing we can do to wholly eradicate His image from within us. Like Jonah, there is nowhere we can flee from our cosmic calling: to be the prophets, priests, and kings of all creation. And so we try to become these things… but without God.
We try to become prophets, but without speaking any truth higher than that which we are capable of arriving at for ourselves. As Hume demonstrated quite convincingly, this is a rather depressing state of affairs. And a lonely one, too: reason is fundamentally incapable of getting us any farther than Descartes’ solipsism.
We try to become kings, only not at all “subject to a higher king.” Modernity, founded upon various permutations of Rosseau’s social contract, is inextricably bound to a belief in individual sovereignty. In other words, modern socio-political theory is “a replacement of noble patriotism with mercenary calculations of self-interest.” Once again, it is a very lonely world that we have created for ourselves.
But most depressing of all is our attempt to be priests without a God. What could possibly be lonelier in all the world? Indeed, it is intolerable. Dostoevsky, through the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor, has explained all this before:
The universal and everlasting anguish of man as an individual being, and of the whole of mankind together, [is]: “before whom shall I bow down?” There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible. But man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it. For the care of these pitiful creatures is not just to find something before which I or some other man can bow down, but to find something that everyone else will also believe in and bow down to, for it must needs be all together. And this need for communality of worship is the chief torment of each man individually, and of mankind as a whole, from the beginning of the ages. In the cause of universal worship, they have destroyed each other with the sword. They have made gods and called upon each other: “Abandon your gods and come and worship ours, otherwise death to you and your gods!” And so it will be until the end of the world, even when all gods have disappeared from the earth: they will still fall down before idols. You [Christ] knew, you could not but know, this essential mystery of human nature, but you rejected the only absolute banner, which was offered to you to make all men bow down to you indisputably—the banner of earthly bread; and you rejected it in the name of freedom and heavenly bread. Now see what you did next. And all again in the name of freedom! I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born. But he alone can take over the freedom of men who appeases their conscience. With bread you were given an indisputable banner: give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience—oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience. In this you were right. For the mystery of man’s being is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if there is bread all around him. That is so…
Here is the present situation laid out, clearly and unmistakably. We have bread all around us, but we do not have a firm idea of what we live for, and so we are destroying ourselves.
And yet now, in this present age of unprecedented earthly bread (insofar as this, Pinker is right), something else is beginning to happen. “But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience—oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience.” Although, the conscience is seduced much more easily when there is after all no need to throw down one’s earthly bread…
But make no mistake: at the heart of the Revolution is nothing other than an appeal to conscience. Marx was one of the most powerful appealers to conscience that has ever lived… and millions followed him, until the Gulags prevented their consciences from being appeased any longer.
Antichristianity, too, is an appeal to conscience. And it is much better at it than Marx ever was.