Chantal Delsol’s Icarus Fallen

The French philosopher Chantal Delsol, in the first of her books to appear in English translation, presents us with an arresting metaphor for the condition of 21st century man, caught between the certainties of the past and the uncertainty of the present: we are in the position of Icarus, whose utopian hopes took him away from the complications of life, only to send him crashing back to earth. We have lost our faith not only in religion, but in the utopian ideologies we concocted to liberate us from the trials of existence:

Western man at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the descendant of Icarus. He wonders into what world he has fallen. It is as if someone has thrown him into a game without giving him rules. When he asks around for instructions, he is invariably told that they have been lost. He is amazed that everyone is content to live in a world without meaning and without identity, where no one seems to know either why he lives or why he dies.

Can humans flourish, can societies continue to function, in the absence of meaning? In Icarus Fallen, Delsol doesn’t so much diagnose our modern malaise as dissect it, by pointing out the contradictory nature of so much of what we take for granted.

One of the characteristic quirks of our time, Delsol tells us, is that we have become allergic to the truth-seeking enterprise, even as we have maintained an obsession with ethics. “We hold dearly to the good,” she writes, “but we are suspicious of truth.” Our suspicion comes from experience, and is well-justified: ideologies that, in the past, claimed to have a monopoly on truth used that same monopoly as an excuse to wield power. It is, in our judgment, but a short step from Christianity to the Inquisition, and what are gulags and death camps if not secular forms of repression, concocted by those who claimed for themselves an unassailable certainty? The difficulty, as Delsol points out, is that religions and ideologies are “structures of truths,” which advance their ethical visions based on a series of presuppositions (Christian morality developed with an eye to the promised afterlife; Marxist morality developed under the presumed dialectical clash between proletarian and bourgeoisie). What happens when you remove the underlying structures? Upon what experiential or philosophical premises do you found your new morality? We’ve ducked that tricky question, in Delsol’s view, by enshrining a subjectivism at the heart of our new morality.

Modernity has replaced the objective category of the good with what it calls values, that is, a smattering of subjective goods, each of which derives from individual judgment. By their subjectivity, values spell the death of the good, even if language confers upon them the majesty of the defunct good. Put to the fore with no other criterion than that of the sovereignty of individual judgment, values are a form of solipsism or mere whim, depending upon the degree of clarity of thought one may find in them. A purely subjective “good” is binding on no one but oneself, and can be differentiated only with some difficulty from sentiments, affections, or self-interest.

This exchange of a single, communal good – whether posited by a religion or an ideology – has resulted in a nearly infinite variety of individual goods, almost all of which have found codified protection under the guise of “human rights.” These values “spell the death of the good” because they undermine any attempt to found a unifying ethical vision, the tacit assumption being that all ways of life – all values – are more or less equal. Contemporary man “is characterized by his disowning of any exterior point of reference,” his utter rejection of any value system that does not pass muster before his subjective criteria, and this fact makes him “historically unique.” But to acquiesce to no external standards, to disavow every prior ethical system, is to court a life of meaninglessness, to mistake pleasure for satisfaction, entertainment for enlightenment – to risk, in Delsol’s phrasing, consuming life rather than shaping it.

We are at this point so inured in our point of view that we cannot recognize its internal contradictions, or the shadows of prior modes of thought that continue to exist into our supposedly enlightened age. Delsol describes these shadows as “black markets,” the “spontaneous re-emergence of everything we had rejected.”

Ban the economy and the black market will blossom. Decree that religions are obsolete and you will have sects. Deny that human beings seek the good, and the ghost of the good will appear surreptitiously under the guise of correct thinking. Societies that attempt to rid themselves of the figures of economics, religion, and morality must put up with them in their black market form.

This is an interesting concept, and one that seems to accord with experience: Christianity in the Western world has been in a decades-long recession, but that has not necessarily corresponded with a rise of reason: holistic medicine, astrology, various cults and of course a burgeoning Islamic population attest to a continued hunger for spiritual or quasi-spiritual direction. Are these “black market” alternatives to organized religion? The relativization of morality and the abolition of the quest for truth have also produced a disdain for spirited debate, and a general retreat into ideological camps. It used to be considered impolite to discuss politics at the dinner table, but it seems that today there are no remaining forums for political debate; the sensitivities of the family dinner table now dominate our universities and major newspapers, and the attempts to quash dissent from the “correct thinking” resemble nothing so much as religious dogmatism, of the kind that left heretics burning from stakes. I can boast of having read quite a few analyses of this tendency in modern political thought, but Delsol nonetheless managed to offer me new insights:

Dominated by emotion, our era overflows with treacly sentiment. It is almost as if the feelings that were once associated with a certain type of piety have contaminated the whole population. Tear-jerking sensitivity has always been the stock-in-trade of those groups of human beings for whom existence is structured exclusively by morality, to the detriment of knowledge and efficiency. Seeking the good while remaining indifferent to truth gives rise to a morality of sentimentality. Reactive judgment, deprived of thoughtful reflection, engenders fanatical emotion and an absolute priority of feeling over thought.

The “morality of sentimentality” so predominant today has found fertile ground among the young, who have been given no grounding whatsoever in the moral dilemmas of their ancestors or the discomforts of pre-modern existence, and can therefore dismiss their entire history with a wave of the hand. If “knowledge and efficiency” counted, on an equal footing, with morality, such simplifications – and the damning judgments they inevitably produce – would be untenable.

In the wake of the 2016 American election, and the obvious political tensions dividing Europe today, much has been written about the terrifying divide – seemingly chasmic in proportions – separating the citizens of the Western world. The bulk of that writing has sought to describe that division in political terms, as a conflict over immigration or free trade. Delsol’s book points, convincingly, to a more frightening possibility: that the citizens of the Western world now no longer share a common vision of the good.