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Phil-osophically Speaking

The Invisible Helix

The year is 2021 and a bleak, unforgiving sun is setting upon the human race. Women can’t get pregnant anymore and no one can figure out why. The last baby was born in 1995 and man is on the verge of extinction. Though billions still live, civilization begins to crumble, despair is ubiquitous and the laughter of children ceases to be heard. This inexplicable and universal sterility has robbed life of its holiness, and despite its declining population the world becomes more narrow and claustrophobic: chaos, meaninglessness and ruin prevail.


This is the plot of P.D. James’ dystopian novel Children of Men. While nothing so calamitous confronts us in America today there is no gainsaying that something fundamental has changed about Western society, weakening the cultural and economic infrastructure. Along with the social pathologies of illegitimacy and high divorce rates there is also the disturbing trend of young adults in the West postponing and even foregoing marriage and childbearing.


Marriage was once as autochthonous as the vegetation of the earth; today, however, it’s unlikely to serve as either an anchor or a lodestone to the way we approach life. A prolonged and unhealthy adolescence basking languorously in a youth culture fraught with self-centeredness and a solipsistic orientation toward the future has elbowed its way into the modern consciousness. Little consideration is given to the complicated bundle of values emanating from familial ties that are not idiosyncratic but central to how we became us. 


The family, after all, was the first society and the raising of children its primary responsibility. But before one can raise children there must be children. The postponement and even avoidance of marriage has alarmingly reduced the incidence of fertility in parts of the world and the consequences are only just being felt. The present fiscal and cultural travails in Europe and Japan are attributable, in some degree, to birth rates lower than the mortality rate.  Countries with declining birthrates are no longer bathing in the splashing sunlight but are creeping amid the pallid shadows of diminishing returns. These trends have depressed economic growth and weakened social welfare programs for the indigent and elderly.


There was a time, not terribly long ago, where the young aspired to the ideal of marriage and children, it was a rite of passage into the world of grown-ups. I’m reminded of the axiom that the true miracle of childbirth is not that adults make children but that children make adults. But as these ideals grow more anachronistic and in some quarters are now considered insensitive and even offensive, it’s not a stretch to characterize the traditional family as being under siege. Yet marriage and childbearing foster the virtues of selflessness, sacrifice, industry, fidelity and charity, the very fibers that make a community cohere and thrive. The notion that charity begins at home is not a throwaway apothegm, but the very seed of a social conscience.


After the birth of his fourth child, I once playfully taunted a lawyer friend of mine that he had become a model of middle class respectability despite the fact that during his wastrel youth he had been a citadel of cynicism and nonconformity. “You know,” he said, unsuccessfully suppressing the traces of a sardonic smile, “there was a time that I would have been grossly offended over such an insulting characterization.” He knew that he had arrived and marriage and family had been the medium of his deliverance and the reason for his productivity and success. Fewer, however, are following that path of maturity. 


Eroding the foundation of home and hearth is the onslaught of the sexual revolution whose boundaries grow ever more enlarged while religious values in the face of modernity and a contraceptive society shrink in importance.  Mary Eberstadt, the author and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has explored these issues with the tenacity of a prospector digging for gold. Eberstadt has written that the wonder of childbearing leads people into a supernatural direction that accentuates humane values and has a wholly beneficial effect upon those who we interact with and the world we live in. 


Eberstadt calls family and faith the “double invisible helix of society” --- two currents that reinforce and strengthen each other. Since time immemorial, marriage has been the great cathedral lying couchant above the dusty, secular plain. Co-habitation, rising illegitimacy and divorce has quarried it away in jumbled confusion. Women may be more adversely affected by the new ethos, but men are not immune from its deleterious effects either. This is not to infer that marriage is quickly becoming a vestige of the past, far from it, but there are enervating influences diminishing its importance, not least of which is the below replacement fertility that defines this new philosophy of thinking and living. 


Freedom like fire is good only when controlled. That’s because freedom is not a virtue, it does not in and of itself make us good. Man begins with existence but only he is the author of his essence. Nature has the privilege of finishing its handiwork; things are what they are at the moment of existence. Only man, however, can finish himself by every free choice he makes. Without an interpolating and intercessory influence to pacify its inherent anarchy, liberty runs riot over the cosmos. A world unfettered by tradition and religious sanction is a more dangerous and self-destructive one. The gross coarsening of our culture is symptomatic of the absence of any restraining authority to rebuke us. If Western civilization is, as the title in a famous book Slouching Towards Gomorrah says, it won’t be at warp speed but at a pace more suitable for terra firma. 


To put it another way, the polemicist Irving Kristol once quipped that it takes a long time for a great civilization to unravel so you might as well enjoy yourself during its prolonged descent. I suppose that’s true; it’s just too bad I don’t feel like celebrating that fact.