The first book survey I ever wrote reviewed a number of titles in futurology. There were profound studies like Jacques Ellul’s Calvinist critique The Technological Society, more popular works in the vein of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and a study by Herman Kahn, the controversial author of On Thermonuclear War. Kahn proposed that in the future, advanced societies, like the United States, would follow a two-tiered ethic: Epicureanism for the masses and Stoicism for the ruling elites. By that he meant that the vast majority of the population would pursue their own interests and amusement, panem et circenses, bread and circuses, as the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote. Meanwhile, the elites would exercise the personal austerity and public discipline necessary to keep the ship of state on a steady course.
At the time, I questioned Kahn’s thesis. His argument was preoccupied with the self-indulgence of the 1960s radicals. Having only recently graduated from college myself, I was determined to defend the honor of my generation along with the idealism of the civil rights and antiwar activists and especially the peace and justice commitments of the churches.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. The civil rights and peace movements changed American society, and the church’s social justice mission has helped transform international politics and bring freedom to Eastern Europe.
But Kahn was more prescient than I imagined. Any honest observer would have to admit our popular culture is Epicurean. Indeed, that may be too grand a name for an entertainment world that has given us “Jersey Shore” and Lady Gaga. The emphasis is on individual satisfaction of the most transient, titillating and often extreme sort.
Today’s Stoics are, like Kahn himself, pure technocrats. Think of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner or Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, the newest Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan or her old boss Attorney General Eric Holder. They keep the system running. They don’t aspire to more. If, like Holder, they once hoped for grander achievements (closing Guantánamo, increasing civil rights enforcement), they have made a habit of folding under pressure. They represent the best of a meritocratic elite, trained by professional schools to manage but not to govern. The problem we now face is that some among the elite cadres, who might have been expected to exert themselves with stoic discipline and self-sacrifice on behalf of the common good, are suffering attrition because of the advance of the Epicureans.
In the session of Congress now ending, it was not the more democratic House of Representatives, but the supposedly more deliberative Senate that repeatedly failed to realize gains for the common good. Senators failed to carry out the most perfunctory governmental functions, with hundreds of judicial and executive appointments placed on hold, making even the ordinary business of government sclerotic.
Important international negotiations, like those on trade and currency rates, falter for lack of Senate approval of experts to take up senior administrative positions. Court cases have been allowed to back up for months while scores of judicial appointments were put on hold out of the pettiest of motives—to deny President Obama the possibility of exercising the power of appointment. One recent analysis suggested that the electorate is upset over the decline of the United States.
But it is a self-inflicted decline. The country has been hollowed out from within by lack of discipline, self-sacrifice and vision. We will need more than Stoic managers and politics to pull us out of this collapsing political culture.