The wonderfully intelligent and clear writer Victor Davis Hanson has another fine piece, entitled “Losing the Enlightenment,” about the decline of will and conviction in the West. I suggest you read the whole thing.
One sentence in particular struck me as a good summation of a phenomenon I’ve noticed before, but haven’t been able to put as succinctly:
…the technological explosion of the last 20 years has made life so long and so good, that many now believe our mastery of nature must extend to human nature as well…
Exactly. It’s a sort of hubris and naivete, as well as a fervent hope, nurtured by the great advances the West has actually been able to make. For the most part our lives are indeed so much less fraught with the hardships of disease, or wrestling with the elements, or dealing with famines and other basic questions of survival, that many have come to think life itself could somehow be made nearly perfect, and that even stress and unpleasantness could be reduced to virtually nothing.
That goes, of course, for messy things such as war, people who hate, those who want to kill and who seem to get a certain amount of joy from doing so. Would that it were possible to off them as easily as we’ve conquered smallpox–not that that was easy, actually, but it was a relative piece of cake compared to changing human nature.
Hanson goes on to write about the savvy of al-Qaeda in taking the moral and spiritual temperature of the West:
By past definitions of relative power, al-Qaeda and its epigones were weak and could not defeat the West militarily. But their genius was knowing of our own self-loathing, of our inability to determine their evil from our good, of our mistaken belief that Islamists were confused about, rather than intent to destroy, the West, and most of all, of our own terror that we might lose, if even for a brief moment, the enjoyment of our good life to defeat the terrorists. In learning what the Islamists are, many of us, and for the first time, are also learning what we are not.
Hanson doesn’t end his essay with pessimism, however. He ends it with the idea that this realization can create the opportunity to remember and regain our strengths. He quotes Churchill’s “These are not dark days: these are great days–the greatest days our country has ever lived.”
I wouldn’t quite say that, although I appreciate Hanson’s optimism. I’ll add to it, though, with another Churchill quote, to wit:
For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else.