Resurrecting Ideals

In “Why We Need to Resurrect Our Souls“, Mark Edmundson bemoans the passing of ideals:

It is no secret: Culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and skeptical. When I look out at my students, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money and succeed, a strategy for getting on in life.

We’re more and more a worldly, money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. From the halls of academe, where a debunking realism is the order of the day, to the floor of the stock market, nothing is in worse repute than the ideal.

A pivotal part of his essay is the representative role of a thinker like Freud towards this crisis:

In the early 20th century, Freud defended the integrity of the self against the blandishments of another state of being, which we might call the state of soul. Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of skeptical, humane detachment is the best way to live. Freud is an impressive polemical enemy of all the soul states. He deploys his intellectual energy and insight against compassion, romantic love (and the creative acts that might rise from it), heroism, and (with reservations) the quest for truth. Freud, we might say, is the great champion of self over soul.

William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats all write with visionary acumen about the tensions between self and soul, though the meanings they impart to the terms vary.

Edmundson proceeds to contrast Freud’s notions with the measured idealisms of Blake, Whiteman, and Yeats.

But how can one can study contrasts like this without entertaining the idea of a longstanding, dialectical antagonism between the particulars of Jewish consciousness (Freud, et al), something corrosive of Gentile tradition, and landed, white, European (e.g., Aryan) consciousness, which the likes of Blake, Whitman, Yeats, and countless others articulated?

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