Rest and Enjoyment in Modern Society


As I struggle to fit everything I’d like to accomplish into the limited span of a life, it occurred to me to offer an addendum to R. R. Reno’s recent “Public Square” column in First Things:

Modern liberalism discourages rest. We must work in the present for the sake of the future. Everything is subject to improvement, which means we are required to forsake the mode of enjoyment. The injustices tolerated by our system of government cry out for remedy. We need a living Constitution, one plastic and available for the great and the good to use in order to bring us into a better future. The same goes for our history and traditions. They must be critiqued and updated so that they are more diverse and inclusive. By this way of thinking, gratitude for the given brings complacency, and complacency is an enemy of the future.

Thus, the progressive mind disenchants reality so that we are not tempted to enjoy and rest in it. This has become the dominant approach of our era. Literature needs to be dissolved into race, class, and gender. Law students must be taught that the law serves as an instrument of power. The family is a factory of repression. Marriage is a patriarchal institution. What we receive as given is, at root, the present form of what the dead have used to advance their interests. Even the natural world is a vast arena of competition in which the fittest seek to survive, commandeering the flux of DNA for their own blind purposes. To enjoy is to be deceived and used by hidden others.

Reno is speaking here in the social sense — saying that we can never rest in the satisfactions of our culture.  However, the notion of rest and enjoyment has another sense that seems to fit easily into the same analysis with an almost opposite direction:  Per the progressive vision, one can rest and enjoy life if one is suitably liberal.

If one repents of one’s own sins by mouthing the appropriate platitudes, by voting for people who’ll take money away from others, and by execrating those who hold the wrong views (often with working class sensibilities), one gains the indulgences to go on and live comfortably, with all the perks of wealth and modern society.  The private-school parent is absolved of guilt among his or her public-school-(union)-focused friends provided he or she advocates for ever-bigger budgets imposed on other families, most of which cannot afford private school.  Living on a desirable street or being a member of a yacht club is fine, provided one supports giving government more power over the lives of others.

They get their rest and their comforts, provided they’re willing to let the activists continue to attack the foundations of the traditional society that allows those lower down the socio-economic hill to rise.  The arrangement is pretty convenient, to be sure, and it makes one wonder who is pulling whose strings.