Tom Gilson

The Self-Imposed Alienation of Postmodernism

In an article on Milton’s Paradise Lost in the current Touchstone, Donald T. Williams writes,

If God is the source of all goodness, all other beings are related to each other through him. Their common pursuit of a common good leading back to God is the source of community, of a common unity in the enjoyment of a shared good, which is the basis of love.

This is the life of Heaven, which the faithful angels enjoy and into which Adam and Eve are invited. But if the mind is its own place [if each person chooses his or her own definition of reality, and of right and wrong] it must reject all this and validate for itself any “good” it chooses.

And it must do so alone. For every other individual is in the same position, and even if two of them agree on the same good and seek it together, their community has no basis other than their own self-referential and arbitrary choices. How far can one trust another ego that is as committed to its own sovereignty, its own divinity, as one’s own is?

I wish the entire article were available online. It would supply you with more context than I can provide here for “arbitrary,” a word which has provoked much controversy in discussions here lately. Williams has been re-telling the story of Satan as Milton imagined it: the being who first declared that he could re-make his own reality to suit his own needs:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, or a Hell of Heav’n

This is how Satan handles his ejection from glory into desolation: he decides he can decide what is or is not real. Williams comments,

We can now see why I said that Satan’s metaphysics and his ethics are generated by his epistemology. He does not say, “This is the nature of reality; therefore, this is what we can know about it. He says, “This is how I choose to know the world, therefore, this is what the world is like.”

It is amazingly prescient of postmodernism. Later in the poem Satan advises his minions:

…seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves

and eventually,

Evil be thou my good.

All of this comes from within the person; all of it is up to the individual’s choice. Whether it is fully arbitrary or not, each ego that rejects God’s kingship is “as committed to its own sovereignty, its own divinity,” as any other; each seeks its own good from itself; each lives to itself, and to that fragile band of other egos whose chosen goods line up with its own.

To serve a transcendent King may seem (to some) binding and degrading. To sever oneself from that King, however, is to sever oneself from true community and true relationship–which, by the way, is a theme of another current Touchstone article that actually is available online. Take special note of the passage under the heading So Many Lydias.

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1 thought on “The Self-Imposed Alienation of Postmodernism

  1. The mind is its own place, and in itself
    Can make a Heav’n of Hell, or a Hell of Heav’n
    ….
    Evil be thou my good.
    ….
    To serve a transcendent King may seem (to some) binding and degrading.

    One quote comes to mind….

    “The damned are successful rebels to the end, enslaved within the horrible freedom they have demanded. The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” – CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

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