If the ancient Greeks were man thinking and the Romans were man doing, then we Americans are far more Roman than Greek. A frontier people, we started out by clearing a path and using the wood to build minimal shelters. The name of the game wasn’t “What is man?” or “What is truth?” It was “Where shall we find our supper?”
But Americans are Greek as well. We’re capable of questioning and pursuing thought about non-material things. Freedom and representative democracy are non-material concepts and we prize them highly. Let us embrace, then, the term “Greco-Roman” and acknowledge that both of those ancient traditions have not simply influenced, but shaped us.
Also participant in our formation and in the continuance of what we call American values, the Judeo-Christian ethic has landed more deeply into the American psyche than has all the thought of Greece and Rome combined. If the foundational American ethic didn’t come from Moses and Jesus, from whom did it c ome?
The Roman in us doesn’t care much for philosophy. It wants to get outside and build something. But the Greek in us does, and the Greeks were right: all that we think and say has philosophical underpinnings.
One of the most puzzling and depressing philosophical terms used today is the term “postmodernism.” Ever wondered what happened to church steeples or why school buildings are so flat and lacking in personality? Why our dress no longer bespeaks respect or pride? Why self-esteem replaced self-denial? Philosophy did it. Philosophy precedes and surrounds everything we adopt or do. Current beliefs and the practices that flow from them and influence politics, education, religion and even architecture can no longer be called modern. They are postmodern. The modern 20th century, America’s century, is gone.
According to most historians, the early modern world began with the Industrial Revolution. Machines and automation changed us, but not our basic beliefs about God and man. Fast cars, fast living and television didn’t diminish faith. Not until the late 20th century, that is. So different is our nation from 1960 that a new label is necessary. That label is postmodernism.
At the heart of postmodernism lie abandonment, deconstruction, and death: abandonment of stability and social structures such as the nuclear family and deconstruction of definitions such as those of truth, marriage and even gender. In churches we’ve seen the death of icons. Who needs to see crosses anymore? Give us drums. In schools, joy is absent. Success is shown by data. All things are measurable. Test those kids! Forget the joy. In architecture, it’s functionality only and the absence of ornament. Give us stark, angular buildings and outrageous design.
Our literature is postmodern as well. It has turned inward and introspective. If Ernest Hemingway’s characters were troubled, at least they were trying to figure the world out. Contemporary, postmodern authors and movie makers present characters who are beyond redemption and hope. Instead of heroes, we’re given anti-heroes.
In postmodernism, everything is relative. All things are based on perception. Instead of truth, it’s “my truth” and “your truth.” Instead of male and female, it’s “whatever gender you identify with.” (I learned this personally by visiting the local Target store to ask about their bathroom use policy.) The question is no longer “Where does the truth lie?” It’s “How do you feel?”
As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Abolition of Man,” “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.” Enthroning multiculturalism, we are deserting faith in ideas, values and norms of our own Western culture, that is, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture. Instead of progressing toward once universal goals such as justice, knowledge and freedom, we now advance “inclusion,” arguing that all ideas are created equal.
Even the word “media” has fallen to postmodernism. It actually means “between us,” implying the objective connecting of the public to something else. The media itself is now the something else. CNN doesn’t give the news. Its reporters and commentators are the news.
Christopher Butler of Oxford University believes postmodernism is dying. Men without chests can simply grow tired and weary, longing once again for an age that had a spiritual element and meaning. We should hope Butler is right. America’s half-century of postmodernism has produced more suicides than any other period on record.
Man can stand the loss of almost anything except the loss of meaning. Perhaps beyond postmodernism lies hope and beauty that all of us are still capable of recognizing and desiring.
Just some thoughts. With our kids and grandkids in mind.