'Meaninglessness' and today's Western culture

'Meaninglessness' and today's Western culture

Archbishop George Pell

The following is the edited text of the address given by the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr George Pell, at the launch of 'Meaninglessness: The Solutions of Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty' by Michael Casey in the Crypt of St Mary's Cathedral, on 4 December 2001. Dr Casey is Archbishop Pell's personal secretary.

The search for meaning is part of what defines humanity. It is not just a Judeo-Christian construct, but part of every civilisation.

Dr Michael Casey has looked at three prominent modern thinkers - Nietzsche, Freud and Richard Rorty - and the consequences of their theories, what he calls "the social embodiment" of their ideas. They have had a great influence in shaping the thinking of our elites, of academics in the humanities departments in universities, and therefore of journalists and people involved in advertising.

The amalgam of once new ideas and tribal memory that constitutes our slowly evolving and changing common sense about life (which in itself is a mixture of good and bad) is being changed by these thinkers.

Dr Casey has identified part of what is going on beneath the surface in our world; and far beneath the surface in distant worlds, in movements like Nazism and to a different extent, Stalinism. The appeal that communism made to justice did make it different from Nazism, at least initially. But Hitler, unlike Stalin, rarely murdered his closest associates or most zealous followers; or imprisoned on their release his soldiers taken prisoner by their enemies.

The parallel between the thought worlds of Nietzsche and Nazism is close and remarkable. Nietzsche observed that "men believe in the truth of all that is seen to be strongly believed in." He believed in heroic leadership, terrible, compelling, different. He also argued that the artist-tyrant is justified for all eternity by his work, and spoke of the great deceivers who were overcome by their belief in themselves.

I looked up a couple of biographies on Hitler to see how much he actually knew of Nietzsche's work and how much Nietzsche influenced him. There does not seem to have been any direct influence, but Hitler was influenced by the popularised and pseudo-scientific views of his time deriving from Nietzsche (and other German thinkers), even if he misunderstood Nietzsche. Hitler was an atheist who considered conscience a Jewish blemish, like circumcision! But he did have some sort of belief in Providence or Destiny. He preferred self-dramatisation and reliance on the will to power, rather than discussion and the patient search for solutions.


Hitler's idea of the Untermenschen - the underlings - echoes Nietzsche's talk of slaves as inferior human beings, but Nietzsche's other ideas such as the will to power, the "blond beast," and the superman can also be found (to some extent) in Wagner, Schopenhauer and especially Hegel, who also praised "world historical individuals" or heroes with their will to power, who were entitled to consider moral claims irrelevant. We have seen in the Second World War the consequences of this sort of godlessness.

I suspect that Freud is closer to diagnosing the future (especially in the longer term) than Rorty, and here I might disagree with Dr Casey. There is little prospect for a future based on theoretical or organised superficiality. Sickness, death and suffering work against this. It is one thing to live superficially. It is quite another to have a theory of superficiality. Freud feared a society where the elite is emotionally paralysed and the rest of humanity is a mob on the brink of lawlessness.

The meaninglessness Dr Casey has identified is also at work in our type of society. Let me give you some evidence for this. The rate of youth suicide, especially among our young men, drug abuse, the abortion epidemic, the reluctance to have babies, are all examples of pessimism, consequences of the attempt to reject God, along with His moral demands (demands not of our making), and to eliminate the guilt which accompanies all humans, together with the dread of suffering and death. These are signs of the malaise attacking the West, of the absence of meaning.

This helps us appreciate the deep symbolism of the story of original sin in Genesis: man and woman were tempted to eat of the tree of life to be like God! Monotheism, and especially Christianity, is incompatible with radical autonomy, because we are bound to respect the rights of others - and God is the Other!

The author reveals himself in Meaninglessness to be a stern moralist, not afraid to call a spade a spade. This is the product of deep and sustained thought. He has pointed out the intrinsic contradictions which are inevitable once monotheism is rejected: it becomes impossible to distinguish a murder from a kiss. He has a sure touch on matters theological - I'm not sure whether this has been assisted or retarded by his lack of formal training in theology - and he has travelled deep into enemy territory, deep into what Pope John Paul II has called "the culture of death." He has studied the structures that Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty have built over the abyss and revealed their lack of foundations, taken away the decorations and camouflage on these structures. It is grim progress.

I once gave a series of lectures on Darwin, Marx and Freud, the three great 19th-century thinkers who shaped the 20th century thought world. All were atheists. I wonder now whether Nietzsche, with his madman declaring that "God is dead", should have been there too, because of his connection with Nazism. No century has seen destruction on the scale of the 20th century.

It is a digression, but Muslim fundamentalism is not just caused by poverty. It is also driven by hate and resentment, partly fuelled - and, they believe, justified - by the nihilism, paganism and personal corruption perceived in the West, and flaunted by Western advertising. We might say Muslim fundamentalism is also a hatred of the world created by Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty.

Social glue

Two concluding points: this book helps us to appreciate the importance of Christianity, and especially Catholicism, as the social glue in the Western world. It helps us appreciate the importance of rational Christianity, with its ideas of truth, justice, compassion and meaning. Tolerance in the long term is no sufficient community philosophy, no religious substitute, because you have to be intolerant to preserve tolerance - but where, at what point?

It is for this reason that both here and in Melbourne I have worked to increase the amount of philosophy that seminarians study, so that we turn out priests who can engage intellectually with these issues, dialogue usefully with those who do not believe in God. Dr Casey calls himself a sociologist, but his work is also deeply philosophical.

Secondly, the book helps us realise why Christ was not a philosopher. His meaning is accessible to all, especially to the poor and uneducated. It helps us realise how beautiful Christ's teachings are. If you read Nietzsche, Freud and Rorty, or even Dr Casey's account of them; or read the Koran, as I did recently, and then go back to the Gospels, you will find them incomparably superior, and more beautiful.

Dr Casey has done us all a great service. He has outlined the forces at work which are trying to capture our hearts and minds. They are evil, or at least exploited by evil, and aided and abetted by the evil spirit.

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