Move over, Generations Y and X -- make room, at least in Zuccotti Park, for Generation Null. This is the generation whose ignorance passes for knowledge; these are the protesters whose selfishness is thinly disguised as sincerity. This is the generation where the self supplants the spirit. Of all the crises America faces, the Occupy Wall Street movement proves that our greatest plight is spiritual. We are daily witnesses to the rants of young people who have no concept of the human soul.
We were warned. More than that, we were told exactly how and why this crisis would occur in our lifetime. In a prescient article in Criterion, published in the summer of 1963, the philosopher Leo Strauss described America's plunge into a spiritual vacuum [i]. Let's take a walk through his explanation, among the throngs of OWS, and into the empty essence of Generation Null.
We begin with a fact: the self is not the soul. The existence of the soul is an assumption or hypothesis. The soul is not the originator of the soul -- God is. The hypothesis of the soul is simple. This is not true of the modern notion of the self. The status and origin of the modern self is not evident: "The soul may be responsible for its [the soul's] being good or bad, but it is not responsible for its being a soul; of the self, on the other hand, it is not certain whether it is not a self by virtue of its own effort."
"Man makes himself," the mantra of modernity, is confusing -- if not self-contradictory. Does each of us (one at a time) make our self a self? Or does mankind, somehow, make all of us "selves"? The assertion of a manmade "self" is of uncertain and presumed provenance. The "self," without a soul, is in danger of becoming a slogan or a projection. The OWS version of the self is the political protestor turned into a parody of paranoia.
As is evident from the anger and anguish emanating from Zuccotti Park, the modern "self" is deeply troubled.
[The] self as understood by the people in question is sovereign or does not defer to anything higher than itself; yet it is no longer exhilarated by the sense of sovereignty, but rather depressed by it, not to say in a state of despair.
In 1963, when Strauss wrote those words, this despair was new to America. "[One] should admit the fact that the unbelief in question is in no sense pagan, but shows at every point that it is the unbelief of men who or whose parents were Christians or Jews." What Strauss admitted as fact in 1963 is less admissible today. Like succeeding generations of children trapped in the grips of the welfare state, today's youth are sometimes two or three generations removed from any significant influence by Judeo-Christianity.
Certainly, in our public educational system, "Mother Earth," and the "self" occupy the forsaken domain of God the Father and the soul. America is more pagan, and more wretched, than even Strauss could have imagined.
Members of Generation Null squat in a private park in New York and beg for a public handout. These are the children of the parents who were the first generation of Americans to be taught that they were all "special." Generation Null is twice special and doubly empty.
Deferring to nothing higher than their selves, they lack guidance. They lack thought and discipline. Instead they have what they call sincerity.
Generation Null's "sincerity" is emotional posturing [ii]. Their expression of self-sincerity is the self-assertion of a feeling. "Whether sincerity as they know it is necessary must be must be left open until one knows whether sincerity is inseparable from shamelessness; sincerity is surely not sufficient. ... " At least "sincerity" was never sufficient in the demanding faith of old.
Judeo-Christianity is grounded, at a minimum, in the Decalogue. These are the fundamental laws given to human beings by God. Obedience to, or disobedience of, the commandments is a matter of behavior -- not of feeling. Faith in God includes demonstrable respect for, or justifiable and legal retribution against, other human beings whose souls were created by God.
The intensity of the sincerity of the members of Generation Null notwithstanding, if there is no law, then there is no morality. Tired Marxist accusations against capitalism (like "Workers are alienated from their labor!")[iii] give the protesters neither moral nor legal standing.
Every accusation presupposes a law; accusations of the kind voiced by them would require a holy law; but of this they appear to be wholly unconscious.
Generation Null pouts and protests. Its members are the dim secular embers of a spiritually empty sect. Their outcries are directed at the ghosts of their ancestors' bygone faith -- and at an antiquated respect for property and the law. Their protests take the form of an exorcism of what remains of their souls:
Their screams remind one of the utterances of the damned in hell...but hell is for them not society as such but 'life in the United States'. ... Their despair is due to their having believed in the first place that life in the United States ... is heaven or could be heaven or ought to be heaven.
One needs only watch the videos of the protestors camped in Zuccotti Park and then decide: is this a glimpse of heaven or hell?
Larrey Anderson is a writer and a philosopher, and senior editor for American Thinker. He is the author of the award-winning novel The Order of the Beloved and the memoir Underground. He is working on a new book, titled The Death of Culture.
[i] The article appears as Chapter 10 ("Perspectives on the Good Society") in Liberalism Ancient and Modern, University of Chicago Press, 1995. The passage under consideration is on pages 261-262 of that book. All quotations in this article are from these pages.
[ii] The modern notion of "sincerity" can be traced directly to Heidegger's "authentic resolution" (Entschlossenheit) in the face of "anxiety before death" (Angst vor dem Tode). See Sein und Zeit, pp. 263 ff.
[iii] I heard one of the young protesters repeat this slogan over and over in a telephone call to Sean Hannity's radio show. Hannity tried arguments based on common sense: no one is forced to work. Wages are based on experience, training, education, etc. The caller breathlessly replied, "But workers are alienated from their labor." It is stunning that this nonsense is still being repeated (and taught) in America. Intelligent communists, like the French philosopher Alexander Kojève, have abandoned the platitude. His "Marxist" political theory in Esquisse d'une phénoménology du Droit (Outline of a Phenomenology of Law) is, as it says right in the title, phenomenological or behaviorist. For a general discussion of the forms of alienation in human existence see H. Popitz's, Der entfremdete Mensch (The Alienated Human Being), Darmstadt, 1967.