On Freedom and Progress and...Vulgarity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 07, 2017

Writing in the December issue of First Things*, Matthew Rose explains the quasi-theological character of what we might call the ideology of progress. Rose entitled his essay “Our Secular Theodicy”. He argues that modern secularism has coopted a deeply Christian principle: Human history is not futile or cyclical as older pagans had often suspected; rather it is oriented toward universal fulfillment, universal happiness.

Perhaps I should pause to define “theodicy”. It is “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” The only problem, of course, is that without a very firm and accurate understanding of God—and especially in the deliberate absence of any advertence to God at all—the quest for universal fulfilment inevitably deteriorates into a quest for the wrong goals by the wrong means.

This is why Western culture, having inherited from Christ a strong sense of historical purpose, has become over the past two to three centuries a culture of ideology. We have victimized ourselves with one hapless (and therefore hopeless) ideology after another. In as apt a description of “our secular theodicy” as I have ever seen, Rose offers this paragraph:

The politics of gender, sexuality, race, and immigration are increasingly eschatological. Their power and appeal depend on the belief that they advance a liberating moral narrative…. [T]hey see history as moving in a single moral direction…. [H]istory must progress toward greater individual freedom and social equality because any other outcome threatens the moral intelligibility of history itself…. Should the next emancipatory chapter fail to be written…[i]t would interrupt a story that justifies…the theodicy in which they are engaged.

Fast forward to “You Can Say That”, The Back Page column in the same issue, by Mark Bauerlein. This neat little essay ponders the aphorism, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” Bauerlein’s context is our regnant secular culture’s determination (backed by some Supreme Court decisions) to reduce reasoned debate to abusive denunciation and name-calling. Quite apart from the rapid deterioration of public courtesy in our social and cultural life over the past few generations, we see now that those who hold the values that the secular theodicists “know” to be “right” believe they can denounce in remarkably personal and vulgar terms even the most careful arguments of those who have been predetermined to be “wrong”.

I confess to pushing these two articles a little closer together than they were in the magazine. Bauerlein is generally using the term “vulgarity” in the sense of crudeness and coarseness, and of course those aspects are now socially and culturally rampant. But I prefer to stretch the meaning to include the free rein given to all of our appetites, especially the public free rein, without even a modicum of what we used to call “good sense”.

For it seems to me that Bauerlein’s reflection underscores the fundamental weakness of our contemporary notion of freedom, which is so clearly on display in Rose’s analysis. Modern Western culture has lost its awareness that all human persons (including those who see themselves in the vanguard of history) are morally and spiritually weak (call it fallen, if you will) and therefore in constant danger of enslavement to various forms of evil. My classic comeback to those who defend this or that moral evil in the name of freedom is to challenge them to do without that evil (pornography, for example) for a month, in order to find out whether they are really free in the ultimate and most important sense.

On both the personal and the social level, authentic liberty must be nurtured through restrictions and encouragements which help to form virtuous habits (and which enable us to increase in grace). The sweeping away of barriers erected to protect and promote adherence to the good is an invitation to slavery. My point is simply this: It is utterly impossible to foster any form of genuine human progress, including any form of social or cultural improvement, on the principle that one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.

Or if this must be our definition of “progress”, then we ought not to desire to go “forward”. As Bauerlein puts it in his closing sentence: “I want to go back to when one man’s vulgarity was…vulgarity.”


* Links to the cited articles on the First Things website may be restricted if you are not a subscriber, based on whether you have yet used up your quota of free articles per month.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Dec. 09, 2017 1:17 PM ET USA

    There is no going back; only forward. Nevertheless, I share the sentiment. To suggest restriction in our society, especially in pockets where 'diversity' & 'inclusion' are the new devotion, is tantamount to being labelled and ostracized as fanatic. Of course ostracized not by shock but rather polite shunning..."shhh, here she/he comes...". You are free! But freedom comes with a price; freedom is not license. Discretion is the better part of valor; self denial is the better part of freedom.