I Come to Bury “Meaning,” Not to Praise It

Wilfred M. McClay’s “Has America Lost Its Story?” takes stock of the deep hostility to America now found in the campaigns of left-wing politicians, journalists, historians, and the connected elite. As a historian, he knows well that, while the American story has many chapters and some of them quite grim, the general view of it that predominates in some circles is disfigured, fanciful, and, most of all, poisonous.

The 1619 Project, to offer the example that occasions McClay’s essay, presumes that America’s “national ideals were ‘lies,” its very founding corrupted, as if slavery were not simply present at it, but was fundamental to it and the purpose of it. Although McClay does not say so directly, his comments also respond to the irritating and irresponsible use of the word “systemic” in our day. To speak of “systemic” racism or other discrimination is to allege that the very structure of our culture, its wiring, its entire way of thinking, concludes upon a particular discriminatory practice. It, therefore, cannot be eliminated by way of individual choices or modest reforms but requires, to use other unhappy terms of the hour, a wholesale “deconstruction” and “decolonization” of the present order and the creation of a new one.

On McClay’s view, these programs of demolition find America wholly saturated in culpability and overlook its aspirations, because we have in a sense lost our history. We have ceased to remember, tell, and pass on the “national mythos” of America as a land of promise and perhaps even, as some political philosophers describe it, a propositional nation, whose evident failures cannot efface the ideals toward which it aims.

McClay’s solution is charitable and irenic. The program with which he finds fault has at least one redeeming feature. Its criticism of America’s past makes an appeal to the reality of justice. Justice therefore could be the shared premise that those who would defend America and those who presently condemn it both hold in common. Justice may then serve as a foundational term by which those who otherwise disagree come together to retell but also to restore the national mythos.

Such a common undertaking is necessary and for three reasons, McClay concludes. First, human beings are fundamentally story-tellers. As Aristotle once observed, we learn by way of imitation, and stories are the only means we have of distilling the experience of a life into a form or image that can be seen, understood, judged, and imitated. We need history, we need to tell stories, if we are to be anything more than cows in the meadow who live oblivious to everything but the flies swarming under their noses.

Second, the story currently being told in the mainstream of our culture might better be called an anti-story. It rehearses the villainy of the past and seeks to eliminate memory of it in the present; it not only condemns the institution of slavery, for instance, but seeks the removal of every memorial of the Confederacy. This project is “guilt-obsessed,” because, as McClay has argued elsewhere, this phenomenon seems to be driven by a misidentification of the general fallen condition of human nature, of original sin, with some particular historical wrong.

Our fallen condition lies far deeper in us than slavery or any other “systemic” injustice and therefore the misguided activism of the present will always find another fault, and another after that, hacking relentlessly at our common heritage until it has all been destroyed. This effectively nihilistic program is also “self-congratulatory,” because those who undertake it are convinced of their own rightness, or rather the rightness that shall obtain in the near future, as soon as they have eliminated the last contemptible residue of the unjust “system.” Again, this is a kind of story, but it is a story of evil ancestors whose cruelty mars the past and righteous crusaders who may still own the future if only they act ruthlessly enough. It is the “fairy tale” that pretends to eliminate all fairy tales, and so, it is also an anti-story.

Third, and finally, human beings need, as it were, true fairy tales. We need stories that speak to and help us understand our “aspirational faith.” Why do we need this? Because “humans can bear almost every kind of deprivation—except the deprivation of meaning.” We need a “reason to live,” and such meaning and such reason can be founded only in a shared mythos that can hold failure and aspiration alike in a single vision.

I agree almost wholly with McClay’s assessment, especially in its urgency to renew the battered and all too unfairly denigrated mythos and ethos of our country. We all know that there are different kinds of love, some that admit of great latitude of choice and some that do not. The love of romance, for instance, necessitates choice. The lover says to the beloved, “It is you I choose and you alone!” even as the lover justifies that choice on the basis of a necessity, an inevitability, that pulls from somewhere deeper in us than the locus of choice in the reason. We choose only after we are chosen; we fall in love first and then we give ourselves away and commit ourselves to faithfulness.

Some kinds of love, however, minimize or even eliminate choice altogether. The love of a mother for her son and a son for his mother, for instance, is wounded by even a hint of deliberation. It is a love born rather than chosen, and born with the very coming-into-being of the child. It is not an uncritical love; it is not a love that overlooks all faults; but it is a natural, steadfast, and existential kind of love rooted in nature and being rather than reason and choice. The love of one’s country is also like that.

The great anti-story of our present seems to be told and retold not for the sake of helping us love better but rather to eat away at our very being as a people and at our capacity for love itself. Its constant recourse to the language of the “lie” and the “systemic” seems not so much a moral conviction as an existential antagonism, an insatiable desire to attack the natural roots of a people’s love for its country.

Instances of declension, decadence, and self-loathing are common enough in the history of civilization but it does not make them any less contemptible. Where the accusations found in that anti-story are true, they should be acknowledged. They in fact have already been acknowledged and long since. What is distinctive about the activists of our moment is not that they smell a fault but that they want to kill the whole body politic and then take possession of it for themselves.

McClay’s appeal to these purveyors of the anti-story and to all Americans is, again, generous and irenic, but I think it may be that to a fault. He defends primarily America’s aspirations, as if conceding the worst accounts of the injustices of its past. But the actual lives and historical episodes of America’s story have often been good, even heroic, ones that deserve our veneration. If one considers the sordid squalor and blood of much of human history, and the general fallibility of the human condition, our ancestors come off none too shabby.

Human beings by nature are called to know the truth and to contemplate it. Because the truth is universal and everlasting, to know the truth is to approach immortality, it is to transcend our passing, historical condition.

My greater concern, however, lies with the liberalism implicit in McClay’s appeal. We all agree on the reality of justice, he says, but says no more. We need a national mythos because man cannot live without meaning—but what meaning? I once asked a distinguished American historian about why he thought history education was so essential. We have already lost philosophy and theology, he told me; if we lose history too there will be no hope for the ethical formation of a people. The point is well taken, but human beings require more than just a vague affirmation of the national story and its aspirations. They need more than to be told their lives have meaning. What do they need? They need the actual meaning itself. Politics alone cannot provide this, but only a politics deepened by the insights of metaphysics and theology that would tell us the truth about human nature.

American society is a liberal society and liberalism seeks to legitimize itself by emphasizing just procedures rather than substantively just ends. It affirms that we are seeking justice, that we are seeking meaning, but refuses to set down what those things are. At its best, liberalism creates a place where fundamental questions can be raised, but it does not have internal to itself the resources to answer them. In consequence, it encourages a kind of discourse that is comfortable with generalizations (we need meaning! We need to live for a purpose!) but grows reticent or even fearful when someone actually proposes an answer (If you claim to know the meaning or to argue for a purpose, you must be at the least convicted of “certitude” and at worst some kind of fascist).

But there is good news for us. Neither American society nor any other actual, historical society has ever been purely liberal in this way. Our roots, our ethos, goes much deeper than the procedures of public discourse, free elections, and the deliberations of governing bodies.

If America is liberal and procedural in character at one level, it has always been, more fundamentally, something greater and richer at another, more fundamental, one. In earlier periods, Americans never spoke in such deliberately-left-empty, liberal terms about “aspirations” and “meaning.” They simply affirmed the meaning itself. They spoke of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They promoted religion, education, and the practice of specific moral virtues. They did not mistake, as it were, the cardboard box labeled “meaning” for the substantive content within. McClay’s reticence on this point, therefore, needs to be overcome, if his just aims are to become persuasive. He needs to bury “meaning” and give us something more vital and solid.

The contemporary left knows as well as anyone that mankind cannot live without “meaning.” That is why it works so hard, first, to reduce politics, ethics, history, and even reality itself to conflict and the struggle for power. Whether in the guise of the ancient Sophists or the modern Marxist, the reduction of reality to the contention of power serves as a consoling, if impoverished, myth. The left takes this supposedly disillusioned analysis and, second, uses it to arrive as a substantive vision of justice. Justice will be that condition where all those who have wielded power in the past have it no more, are punished for having had it, and where no further inequities of power exist. It is simple, brutally simple, in its analysis and unreachable, brutally unreachable, in its aims—“but at least it’s an ethos.”

McClay’s argument will only grow stronger if we fill in the details of the “meaning” of America. Along the way, we can dispense with that word altogether and simply say what we intend by it. Here is a start.

Human beings by nature are called to know the truth and to contemplate it. Because the truth is universal and everlasting, to know the truth is to approach immortality, it is to transcend our passing, historical condition. Human beings are born for such transcendence, and yet they are also by nature social, and they only arrive at truth within and by way of society.

A just society will have at least three qualities therefore. It will be one that recognizes its founding in piety, that is to say, in a natural and unchosen love. It will allow its citizens a scope of self-government so that they can take responsibility for acting out that love and can love well. And through that practice of self-government, its citizens will be habituated for virtue, that is to say, made able to know and contemplate the truth that does not die.

America’s Christian culture has long done a fine job of recognizing we are called to a destiny that transcends not only power but the horizon of history itself. It is on that recognition that we found our understanding of the dignity and rights of the human person. We have long recognized that self-government is essential not because it works best—often, it does not—but because it is by taking responsibility for ourselves in time that we best school ourselves to be participants in the timeless.

The expression of these practical insights has not always been what I would wish it. We sometimes have interpreted the universal orientation of persons to the truth as the dull abstraction of America as a “propositional nation.” We have sometimes reduced the good of self-government to the mere rights “to do as we like” of “possessive individuals.” We have sometimes misunderstood our destiny for transcendence as the need to be perpetual pioneers, always setting out for something new and solitary, rather than as a good attainable only through the pious fulfillment of our social natures. And, no less gravely, sometimes we have violated these truths altogether by denying their applicability to enslaved blacks, American Indians, and others.

The American story needs to be retold in a way that underscores and reaffirms these fundamental, substantive truths about the nature of human beings and society. It needs not charitable yet vague gestures but, as it were, real meat on the bone. The contemporary left is offering meat, and blood too. We can offer something better. If we are willing to, the threat the contemporary anti-story poses to our nation’s life will be abated.