Staring Down the Abyss

Nietzsche famously said, “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted, in one of her fine essays on cultural decline, that we do now love to not merely look at the abyss, which past generations strove to hide or tame, we now wish to live in the abyss. We have a love affair with our own evil, our own depravity fascinates us. Looking at popular movies and the like, we may see how good men are almost always portrayed as being weak-kneed, lily-livered wimps, or else they are really the vilest of hypocrites.

Since virtue has been ‘unmasked,’ as justification of power relations (Foucault), an assertion of the will to power by claiming truth(Derrida), or the justification of economic selfishness(Marx), we have no need of such teachers as Aristotle, Aurelius and Augustine, who would teach us to live well in a world that is often dark and evil. As a Russian revolutionary once asked, so may we may ask, “What is to be done?”


Optimism, in the face of our overwhelming maladies, is otiose. Our nation is breaking apart, our social order is being undone and these are but two of the many things which might be cited to prove our state of near-collapse. Pure pessimism like that of Schopenhauer, who argued that humanity seemed made for suffering and little else, is also distasteful. Even in a dark age there are points of light to be found. A loving family, a church of Christian brothers, the friendship of like minds and the kinship of souls, the love of Good Books, which may yet succor us in our woes. All these are things to take delight in, however small they may seem. So what should our reaction be, as conservatives?


Stare down the abyss, do not look away. We may not win in the grand scheme of things, it is likely that we cannot win at all. But we need not give in the strife of the age. Our souls may yet live in an ordered and blessed fashion. Ecclesiastes tells us that, though all is ‘vanity and grasping for the wind,’ that a man should still take pleasure in the work of his hands. Is it likely that traditionalists, neo-cons, libertarians and Objectivists are ever likely to attain our many goals? No, it is not. Many people have an ingrained dislike of what they stand for, which many do not really know, or what people think they stand for.

Quit yourselves like men therefore, do not give in to wondrous chaos of our day. At the end of our litanies of woes, or many complaints and dislikes over what we see we must gird ourselves up for the journey we are on. Not opposing the evil of the day with evil, but overcoming evil with good. Here we must stand, for what else can we do? “On yon straight path a thousand may well we stopped by three, now who will stand at either hand and keep the bridge with me?” ~ Macaulay


Your Humble Servant, C. McDonald

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