I am not here concerned to show which of the two visions is true. The question rather has to do with how man can live and flourish. The Epicurean materialist vision is not only empty, it empties: its great adverb is “only.” The mind is only the brain, and the brain is only a neural machine. Good and evil are solely social constructs. Human male and female are merely ideological projections.
Given that I have often proclaimed myself an Epicurean of sorts, you might expect me to take offense to this characterization. But my agreement with Esolen’s essay is substantial, and our differences are rhetorical, little more than quibbles over terminology and emphasis. I, of course, agree that the progressive mania for transgender activism is a symptom of political and personal boredom. Aging radicals desperate to recapture some lost passion by re-enacting old battles of the long-since settled sexual revolution; youngsters looking for a fashionable new way to distinguish themselves against their outdated elders; and the perennial dissatisfaction of being human, of always finding fault with this, whatever this happens to be at any moment. Whatever we have, wherever we are, we want to be elsewhere, doing, being, or acquiring something else. When you’ve successfully escaped hunger, warfare and other external threats, the only thing left to escape from is your own mind.
When it comes to broader questions of metaphysics and ethics, I also agree with his evocation of the moral universe he contrasts to “Epicureanism,” one centered on love, gratitude, meaning and significance. I feel confident I inhabit that worldview myself, despite lacking the appropriate religious credentials. So where do we differ? The argument usually forks upon whether meaning is bestowed from without or projected from within. In a monotheistic universe, meaning is given to things by God; in the materialistic universe, meaning is a shifting collection of convenient fictions. From Esolen’s perspective, meaning either exists out there or not at all. Matter is empty form, like a clay bowl, unless the craftsman fills it with spirit. The problem is with the matter/spirit distinction. I’m not a theologian or a philosopher, so I’m afraid I don’t have anything sophisticated to offer beyond a different metaphor: meaning is indeed created from within, but as an interactive exchange. Not by isolated egos vainly trying to impose their wants on a cold, empty world of mute form, but by related beings who grow, develop, and return to their environment together, which is likewise a dynamic force, a partner in the dance, not an inert, stupid mass — “each great I is but a process in a process within a field that never closes”, as W.H. Auden wrote. Meaning is not waiting indefinitely for us to discover it when we’re ready. Our task is to create it and maintain it anew, constantly, not individually, but through our relationships. It will indeed decay and fade if we settle for laziness and ingratitude. But like all things organic, it can also grow back.
The nihilist Esolen describes does exist, usually in the form of an overly-sensitive young intellectual. But nihilism isn’t a deficiency of faith; if anything, it’s the last, desperate attempt of fading monotheistic faith to put something, anything, on God’s empty throne to keep some ultimate answer ruling over creation, even if only a sick parody of an answer. “Nihilism, the shadow of monotheism, where the Son doesn’t shine,” as I always like to joke. If we can’t have a loving creator God anymore, then we’ll worship a skeleton of meaning called King Nothing. Nothing matters. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing has meaning. Finally, the endless questioning and the hard work of creating and maintaining can cease; we have our final answer. The “Epicurean” perspective denies certain consolations, it’s true. The cosmic ledgers will never be balanced, let alone closed; the process within a process will rumble on eternally. This locus of experience encoded in memory conventionally referred to as “Damian” will not persist in any coherent form beyond his several-decade residence on Earth. Wisps of him may linger in the gauzy memories of a few others. His magnificent blog posts may yet endure through the coming centuries and preserve something of his reputation in amber, but eventually, it will be as if he had never been here. “As if” — he was, though, like so many countless others were and will be, and everything we’ve all created together is the raw material for countless more creative acts, and thus, it all matters. Our task is ready when we are. Who has time for laments?