Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls. By Peter Augustine Lawler. ISI Books.
In Aliens in America, Peter Augustine Lawler argues convincingly, if disturbingly, that Americans, having been seduced by the latest manifestations of philosophical nominalism and by the new utopianism of biotechnology, are blindly and in dangerously large numbers opting to be something other than fully human. He cautions that we may be living near the end of an epoch, at a time when human nature, as we have traditionally understood it, is under attack by those who would, in the name of equality and for ostensibly humane reasons, either explain it in terms other than those of a proper philosophy of being, or transform it through biochemical alteration.
Aliens in America is steeped in the wisdom of St. Augustine. According to this formative voice of the early Church, man was created to be—at best—ambiguously at home in the world. As Augustine himself discovered after much searching and contemplation, nothing in this life satisfies completely of itself. Still, man longs to be satisfied and complete. What we desire, says Augustine, is to be at home with the Creator, in whom we have our first and final cause. We are sojourners in a distant land, as he puts it in The City of God, from which “we must fly to our fatherland. There is the Father, there our all.”
Also predominant in Lawler’s important book is the thought of Catholic novelist and philosopher Walker Percy. Like Augustine, Percy was a sapient mediator between the seen and the unseen. To 20th-century nominalism he opposed Thomistic realism. He wrote, it seems, with a pen in one hand and an “Ontological Lapsometer” in the other (to recall the invention of Dr. Thomas More, the protagonist of Love in the Ruins). Indeed, “his great legacy is his books,” remarked his friend Robert Coles in a fond remembrance piece written for the New Oxford Review (May 1992). Said Coles: “I pray that more and more of us will meet him that way, be touched and edified by his singular presence, which remains with us that way, even as his soul, surely, rests in the final comfort of its Maker.”
If he has read it, Coles must relish Aliens in America, for Lawler adverts, in literally every chapter, to Percy’s instructive essays and fiction. In fact, while it intentionally and mockingly calls to mind the trendy Broadway show Angels in America, the title of Lawler’s book really comes from a question that Percy had about the popular scientist Carl Sagan: “Why did Sagan spend his time searching the cosmos for aliens when beings stranger than any extraterrestrials we could imagine are right here on earth?”
The answer to Percy’s question is obvious, Lawler contends. Sagan, one of several contemporary thinkers whom Lawler scrutinizes, has clearly misunderstood his innermost longings. While betraying a natural aversion to the world, his fascination with life elsewhere and his belief that earth can sustain life here only for a few hundred more years mislead him to seek a new home for humanity on some distant planet or star. To be sure, Sagan’s cosmic wanderlust is human and healthy, observes Lawler. But as a thoroughgoing materialist and a proponent of atheistic scientism, Sagan desires not to transcend the world spiritually but to carry it with him bodily. Nor does he aspire to any definite end; for him the traveling is all that counts.
Others who come under Lawler’s scrutiny are Francis Fukuyama (an outspoken liberal pragmatist) and Richard Rorty (whom many consider to be America’s most influential professor of philosophy). Like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, Fukuyama dreams of a secular Eden. He believes his dream can be realized in the new millennium, not through violent revolution, but through the establishment of a global-capitalist utopia organized exclusively around the principles of liberal democracy. In contradistinction to seekers after ultimate truth, Fukuyama maintains that liberal democracy is “completely satisfying to human nature.” In other words, God is supererogatory. Moreover, the appeal of the Absolute poses an irritating obstacle to the globocratic revolution, which Fukuyama would precipitate by helping us to see truth not from the standpoint of eternity but from the perspective of what does or does not work to make us comfortable in our historical place and time. For the liberal pragmatism of Fukuyama, truth is expediency, expediency truth.
Like Fukuyama (whom Lawler brands a “teacher of evil”), Richard Rorty envisions a brave new America in which human misery, prejudice, cruelty, and self-consciousness will be eradicated, either by cognitive conditioning (“political correctness,” for instance) or by the chemical transformation of human behavior through new discoveries in biotechnology. Rorty’s goal is to achieve psychological as well as material comfort by dispensing with all cultural hierarchies and by leveling social distinctions of any kind. For Rorty, the end of history is radical democratization, and he finds inspiration, as do many progressive elites (William Jefferson Clinton, to name one), in the writings of those whom he considers to be America’s most inspiring men, Walt Whitman and John Dewey. Both were influenced by the pre-eminent German philosopher Hegel, who is to be at once “praised [according to Rorty] for focusing all human hope on the historical goal of a classless society [and] blamed for seeming to put theory over practice, or for making historical progress appear inevitable.”
For Whitman, writes Rorty, the American Declaration of Independence was the veritable annunciation of a dawning paradise in the here and now. Whitman knew, however, that before such a paradise could be fully realized, Americans would have to be taught to forget about eternity. Such was the essential lesson he inferred from Hegel. “Hegel’s denial of the reality of eternity through his assertion that ‘time and finitude’—or history—are all that there is,” according to Rorty, “flows from his inspirational choice of pragmatic hope over knowledge,” and Hegel’s “antiauthoritarian denial of all reality but history helped Americans choose the classless society as their history’s end.” In light of what can only be interpreted as his own Whitmanesque hopes imposed on a reductive reading of American history (if not of Hegel), it is not surprising that Rorty naturally loathes (as Lawler is quick to point out) Christians and Platonists of any kind, as well as what he calls “rightist demagogues” such as Pat Buchanan, who refuse to cease talking about eternity and won’t habituate themselves to the world.
Lawler concedes that Rorty is to be applauded for rehearsing liberalism’s virtues, such as its inherent aversion to basic human meanness and its notable steps to eliminate authoritarian privilege. Truly, liberalism’s aim has always been to make us ever happier. Yet life’s deeper meanings inhere in something more than mere human happiness. “Only by attending to the human responsibility of living morally in light of the truth,” Lawler posits, “can we be happy as human beings.” What is more, “it is both degrading and impossible for a human being to forget his or her relationship to eternity through total immersion in the thoughtless materialism of everyday life.” Were human beings “born only to be happy,” asserts Lawler, “they would not be born to die.”
While Aliens in America weighs and finds wanting some of today’s most influential writings of evil, its chief objective is an attack on America’s ruling class of “bourgeois bohemians,” a characterization Lawler borrows from David Brooks’s popular book Bobos in Paradise. The “Bobos,” as Lawler describes them, have succumbed to the illusion that God is dead, that man is self-sufficient, that civilization gets better with every human impulse it unleashes, and with every traditional restraint it overthrows. Their libertarian outlook and dogmatic obsession with unconstrained “choice” regarding such things as aborting or eugenically perfecting the unborn has its basis, as Lawler shows, in the Lockean philosophy that guided Thomas Jefferson as he penned the Declaration that so enchanted Whitman, a document fundamentally more concerned (as a product of the Enlightenment) with the so-called natural rights of abstract individuals than with the natural (moral) law of embodied souls.
Above all, the Bobos are the thralls of today’s technocratic experts. That would be nothing to worry about, says Lawler, if the current level of technology were to remain constant, “because the Bobos, despite their best efforts, continue to exhibit the greatness and misery of alienated human liberty.” But can they withstand a biotechnical onslaught that threatens to reconstitute the very nature of mankind? Lawler does not think so. Preferring comfort to truth, the Bobos will most likely submit to evermore social indoctrination, swallow more Prozac, put one child after another on Ritalin (a methamphetamine, of all unconscionable things), or undergo operations to suppress the pain of being totally human. In short, the Bobos “do not have what it takes to choose for the human good and against evil,” and for this reason Lawler insists that they “have to be displaced as our ruling class, for their good and ours.”
Lawler is optimistic. He believes that with time many Americans may rediscover the right philosophy of being by way of another Great Awakening in the Christian community. Without a doubt, Christian otherworldliness has always posed a challenge to America’s tendency to organize itself around progressive secularism of one form or another. But today, Christianity is greatly needed, urges Lawler, because it is the only genuine counterculture in America. Of course, he realizes that many American Christians have become as bourgeois and morally supine as the Bobos, but the more orthodox among them have evinced a resistance to the secularist lures of mainstream America.
Orthodox Christians know where to draw the line. With regard to technology they are neither Luddites nor agrarians. Like the Bobos they use the Internet to communicate, and they live decent human lives in the suburbs. Yet, less mired in the world than the Bobos, they recognize their duty to a law higher than desire. Hence, they vocally and vigorously oppose euthanasia, cloning, and stem-cell research. And for this the Bobo glibly denounces them as fanatics. But as Walker Percy once said to Robert Coles, “The crazy thing about the lot of us in this here and now is that we sure as hell know how crazy a lot of others are, but we’re not on to how deaf, dumb, and blind we can be to ourselves, about ourselves—how lost we sometimes are, no matter how clever we think we’ve become.”
Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia and author or editor of nine books, has graced us with a probing commentary on American confusion. He accurately describes the disorientation of our body politic and exposes its cultural drift toward moral anomie. He reminds us that man is more than a belly to fill or an admixture of chemicals to balance. For the countless aliens in America, he revisits and celebrates the strange truth about the soul’s inability to find lasting comfort in the nether sphere. Like Augustine and Percy, he is intent on pointing God’s pilgrims home.