Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher who weakened Marxism's grip on Eastern Europe, recently died. Few, I suspect, knew who he was. I consider myself fortunate to have read some of Kolakowski, one book being his scintillating sketch of the history of ideas by probing the central idea of twenty-three thinkers. That book is called Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? My own reading of it impressed me again with the connection of philosophers with their world. From Socrates to Kierkegaard, philosophers are products of their day.
So are we. Which raises the profound problem of blinders when it comes to perceiving what is influencing us, and which raises the other profound problem of needing to understand our cultural blinders in order to break through them with the light of the gospel. Kolakowski's chapters are short, and everything short when it comes to the history of ideas risks simplicities that mask nuance. I risk the same in what I am about to suggest: the current generation emerges out of a toxic combination of modernity and postmodernity.
In another context (the summer issue of Leadership Journal) I called the toxicity of the current generation a "self in a castle." Modernity's singular contribution to the history of ideas is individualism. David Bentley Hart gets this exactly right in his new rant against the flimsy ideas in new atheism when he writes:
"We live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve" (Atheist Delusions, 21-22).
That is, "it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good." Personal freedom, which both Kolakowski ...