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The price of freedom is anomie

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016, almost 45,000 Americans took their own lives, a 30% increase from 1999. In 27 states, half of all people who took their own lives had no known mental health condition when they ended their lives. Somewhere between 40 and 50% of all marriages end in divorce. In August 2017, 65 million Americans reported that they binge drink, comprising a little more than 40% of total alcohol users.

These trends can at least be partially explained by the concept called “anomie,” a term used by sociologist Emile Durkheim to describe the despair that arises from normlessness, a breakdown of shared values. The word “anomie” derives from Greek, meaning “lack of law.” It’s true, Western society is fragmented in a way it has never before—the individual has never been as free to choose his religion, his aesthetic, his morality, his media, his politic, his label, his brand. There are two general phenomena that exacerbate anomie: the preeminence of science, and the ubiquity of technology.

Our scientific culture, specifically its emphasis on objectivity, has reduced the human experience to an object of dispassionate inquiry. The Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida in his book, “An Inquiry into the Good,” quotes the German poet Goethe, “the stars in the heavens,” in order to illustrate that techno-scientifically empowered man has turned nature in to an object of his absolute control, and therefore man can no longer enjoy the transcendental sublimity of nature, the logical conclusion of the Abrahamic worldview that asserts man’s dominion over nature. (The starry night skies retain their transcendence because they are outside human volitional control.)

Paradoxically, we are no longer the crowning achievement of the great chain of being — the cosmically ordered ascension from plants to animals to humans — but instead,  merely another organism, describable in strictly biological processes at the mercy of contingent cosmic events, an organism still evolving into yet another animal. What this means is that the human being thought himself as something above nature, something to be studied, then exploited, and when he found within himself nothing but nature, he had to study and exploit himself. The human being made himself into an object of dispassionate inquiry. Think about how corporations perfectly manipulate your desires, wants, and values with their ability to collect your online data preferences as a practical example of this dispassionate inquiry.

What’s worse is that our quick acclimation to the ubiquity and acceleration of technology, specifically the internet, has been a cultural catastrophe, especially for our youthful generation. Our ability to connect with each other instantly eliminates the drive by which older generations sought their independence. A sobering article in The Atlantic explains that in greater numbers than ever before, young people, well into their twenties, rely on their parents for rides instead of earning their driver’s licenses, and the number of teens who see their friends every day has dropped by 40% from 2000-2015. In spite of the prevalence of dating apps, Americans are less and less sexually active as well. It seems to me that we know about our friends and loved ones, but we don’t actually know our friends and loved ones. I suspect we are a generation of what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche dubbed “Last Men,” a generation plagued by passivity, busy with busyness itself, mediocrity confused for greatness, happiness and comfort mistaken for meaning, a generation utterly inert. That is to say, it is not science and technology that has driven our anomie, but we who have decided that loneliness was easier than freedom, and thus science and technology followed.

In a society such as ours that has no credible story to tell about itself — every empty pew attests to the gnawing emptiness of  religion’s answer to human suffering; the story of our nation’s founding is no longer one of discovery and progress, but slavery and genocide; our answer to communist imperialism was just as cruel and calculated as the communists themselves — the responsibility of meaning-making falls especially hard on the individual.

In his book “The Stature of Man,” Colin Wilson describes the need for a hero: the hero is someone who lives his or her life to the fullest, and desires to enjoy all life has to offer. The hero is true to themselves and listens to their destiny. The hero views themselves as the protagonist of a great epic, such as Rostam, Beowulf or Gilgamesh, and thus sees every challenge, every setback, every loss, as an opportunity to grow, and laughs at their own suffering. Yes, what we most need is a generation of heroes, people who have outgrown the pathetic ease of apathy, who laugh at the feeble anemia of reductionism, and the abject poverty of historical dialectics. (How many times have you heard some numbskull, chin in the sky, reducing all human experience to electricity and chemical reactions, pretending all our problems are thus solved?) Merely by being themselves, embracing their individual subjectivity, the hero changes the world.