The breakthrough came from reading a short item at View from the Right. Lawrence Auster briefly describes in the item Fr Seraphim Rose's idea that there are four stages of nihilism.
The four stages mark a progress away from a traditional belief in an objective, higher truth. In the first stage, Liberalism, the higher truth is no longer believed in but the concepts (the "names") are still made use of. In the second stage, Realism, there is a more aggressive denial of higher truth, with only the materialistic and deterministic aspects of reality being recognised.
It is the third stage, Vitalism, that I want to focus on. Vitalism is a reaction against the sterile world created by the Liberals and Realists. However, Vitalists don't return to the traditional higher truths as an antidote to sterility. For them, what matters is not whether something is true, but whether it promotes vitality - whether it is life-affirming and life-giving.
Nietzsche was a Vitalist when he wrote:
The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it.... The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving ...
The key quote regarding Vitalism is this one from Lawrence Auster:
In the Vitalist stage of society, people deliver themselves over to an unending search for sensation and excitement, for the exotic and the experimental, for ever-greater freedom and satisfaction of desires, for the “riches of diversity,” for the transforming “energy” that is produced by a society in constant change and motion--and with all these things being seen as, even explicitly promoted as, a substitute for any inherent truth and goodness in existence.
I believe that Catherine Deveny had such a Vitalist moment when she wrote the column that puzzled me six months ago.
Consider the following excerpts:
What confronting and confusing times we're living in. It's not just the environmental catastrophe and the financial crisis. Technology is advancing at breakneck speed ... Add to this our general existential melancholy, exacerbated by and contributing to many turning their back on organised religion. Depression is rising, obesity's an epidemic, binge drinking's up, divorce is through the roof ... sometimes it feels like: "Where are we going and what are we doing in this hand basket?"
We have no idea what's going to happen next. What once worked no longer does ... Everything's changing. We're terrified, we're excited. We've got no choice.
Think back to the 1960s ... No one could have predicted the massive cultural change ... Who would have known we were in for such culturally vivid times?
... the truth is, my friends, we're off the map. What an adventure.
... we do know that the times ahead will be full of massive change and huge challenges
Don't just be prepared to stuff up, expect it. Encourage it. Experiment. As Zorba the Greek says: "Life is trouble. Only death is not. To live is to undo your belt and look for trouble."
I found it difficult to process this message because it seems so reckless. Catherine Deveny is telling us that we are going to hell in a handbasket, that we have no control over what happens, and that this is a great, terrifying adventure to be embraced.
This differs markedly from earlier forms of radicalism. The philosophical radicals of the early 1800s, for instance, held that everything was determined by association and that you could therefore achieve unlimited social reform by changing the way that people were conditioned (e.g. through the education system). These radicals belong to the earlier Realist stage of nihilism, the one emphasising materialism and determinism.
So one group of radicals promoted the idea that we can scientifically control social development to achieve increasing levels of human happiness; Deveny, in contrast, believes that things are out of control, that there are signs of social deterioration, but that this chaotic state of flux provides the conditions for a meaningful life.
This makes sense if we think of Deveny as a third stage Vitalist rather than a second stage Realist. And it does seem undeniable that Deveny's message fits Lawrence Auster's description of Vitalism.
Auster: In the Vitalist stage of society, people deliver themselves over to an unending search for sensation and excitement, for the exotic and the experimental ... for the transforming “energy” that is produced by a society in constant change and motion.
Deveny: Everything's changing. We're terrified, we're excited. To live is to undo your belt and look for trouble. Experiment. We're off the map. What an adventure. Who would have known we were in for such culturally vivid times? The times ahead will be full of massive change.
One final point. An advantage of the Vitalist position for radicals like Deveny is that it allows them to wash their hands of the damage that they themselves have done to society. They get to present social change as being an unpredictable, accidental result of natural forces beyond anyone's control, rather than a predictable result of the liberal politics that has dominated the West for some generations.