What Is This Longing For?
From Life & Letters, the magazine of the College of Liberal Arts, University of Texas at Austin, ed. Daniel Oppenheimer, 15 June 2022; adapted from J. Budziszewski, How and How Not to Be Happy (Regnery, 2022).
In the midst of certain experiences there comes over me a certain longing. It is a desire for a Far Something that neither fortune nor character can provide. Often it stirs when I gaze into the face of the moon and starry sky; sometimes, when I look, really look, upon the face of another person.
I see, in retrospect, that I have experienced this longing since childhood. The desire is not constant in strength, and at times I can almost forget it. Yet it is profound and compelling. Not everyone talks about this sort of thing, but probably most people have experienced it, whether while contemplating the celestial courts, like me -- or, say, while walking in a forest, hearing the call of a mourning dove, watching the intricate beauty of a dance, grasping a mathematical truth, or seeing the world reflected in a mirror.
Whittaker Chambers seems to have experienced it upon gazing at the convolutions of his newborn baby’s ear. C.S. Lewis speaks of “that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.” Elsewhere he tells how upon reading the first lines of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he “desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described.” Longfellow himself describes it as “a feeling of sadness and longing that is not akin to pain.”
Now longing, like certain other passions, is directional. Just as my anger is at someone, my longing is for something. So what is this longing for? To what is it trying to compel me?
Since it so often comes while I am gazing at the moon, is it a desire for the moon? Surely not. If title to the earth’s satellite could be signed over to me and I could keep the moon in my garage, the longing would not be satisfied.
What you want is to experience the moon’s beauty. This most obvious suggestion can’t be right, because whenever I gaze at the moon, I am already beholding its beauty. If what I wanted was to behold it, then I would be satisfied.
What you want is to go there. I believed this when I was a boy, devouring stories of outer space and travel to the stars. I have no doubt that setting foot on our silver sister would produce a sense of accomplishment and a temporary exultation. But would it fulfill the longing that I felt and still feel in looking up at the moon? I doubt it.
What you want is the sublime and the unattainable as such. Now there is something to this theory. Among other things, this is the whole basis of the romantic strategy of playing hard to get. Yet what does it really explain? To want something is to want to have it, and to pursue something is to want to catch it. Who in his right mind would tell a thirsty man how lucky he was that whenever he reached for a drink the water was withdrawn?
What you want is to be united with the All. I am happy to be in a universe with snails, tomatoes, garlic, thunderstorms, and galaxies, but who would wish to be united with the aggregate of all these things? To suppose myself united with the aggregate, even if it is an interesting aggregate, is to suppose myself annihilated.
You are merely experiencing the sublimation of your longing for a woman. People who have read too much Freud think every mysterious longing is a disguise for libido. Having been married for 50 years, I have found love sweet, but I still experience the other longing too.
You are merely experiencing a genetically programmed response to the sight of faraway things and open spaces. So-called evolutionary psychologists try to explain our sense of beauty in terms of adaption to the wide-open spaces of the savannah. Tell me the adaptive value of being moved to tears by Bach’s Air on the String of G.
You want to experience not just something beautiful, but the ideal of beauty that lies beyond beautiful things. Here I think we come closer to the truth, though it depends on the meaning of “ideal.” Loveliness is such a massive and bewitching reality that at times it threatens to undo us.
And here is the thing about loveliness: It seems to point beyond itself. The perishable sings to us of imperishability:
Question the beautiful earth; question the beautiful sea; question the beautiful air, diffused and spread abroad; question the beautiful heavens; question the arrangement of the constellations; question the sun brightening the day by its effulgence; question the moon, tempering by its splendor the darkness of the ensuing night; question the living creatures that move about in the water, those that remain on land, and those that flit through the air ... question all these things and all will answer: “Behold and see! We are beautiful.” Their beauty is their confession.
The word “confession” at the end of this passage is meant literally, for Augustine, its author, views beautiful things as wordless, poignant witnesses. He asks, “Who made these beautiful transitory things unless it be the unchanging Beauty?” Let us put off trying to answer his rhetorical question for now. At the moment I am not concerned to say whether these beautiful transitory things really do confess something beyond themselves; it is enough for the argument that they seem to. Just for now, consider it an illusion if you wish.
For because of this inescapable seeming—whether or not it is grounded in reality—these beautiful things will never be enough for us no matter how much of them we have. The greater the beauty, the greater the sense of a still greater beauty beyond, behind, or above them.
I can spend all day looking at the beautiful earth and sea, until I no longer want to. I can tire myself out feeling the breath of the beautiful air, diffused and spread abroad. I can take in so much of the arrangement of the constellations that I need to go indoors and catch my breath. Yet the longing for that something more will follow me inside. It may hide itself from me for days on end, and then strike me like a blow.
I hope I am not misleading anyone by speaking so much about the face of the moon. The mysterious longing for something more can be stirred by all sorts of things, like the intricacy of a baby’s ear or the face of the beloved. In fact, it can be stirred by almost anything. In certain moods, the sense of the significance of a grain of dust can hit like the blow of a hammer.
In every one of these cases, we suffer a tendency to mistaken identification, a confusion between some ordinary desire, on one hand, and on the other what we may call the transcendental thirst. I may be moved to my depths by contemplating the miracle of water, but although taking a sip may quench my physical thirst, it will not quench my transcendental thirst. I may be transported by the sight of great works of art, and while I may have joy in possessing them -- a joy, by the way, that fades -- I will still be haunted by that astringent longing for something that I first thought must be the works themselves, or at least the beauty of them, but is really something else. The desire for each thing can be satisfied by that thing, yet the desire of which I speak will persist.
I do not say that everyone will recognize this experience. I do think that everyone has it— whether or not he accepts where the argument is going.
For the argument is going somewhere, and I may not want to go there. I may tell myself that my problem lies only in not yet having enough of whatever I want. For example, if the inexpressible desire is inflamed in me by great works of art, I may think my problem is that I don’t want merely an object of beauty, or even a houseful of objects of beauty -- but all beauty! And “all beauty” is a pretty good description of the transcendental longing, at least as some people experience it. But I will not have “all beauty” even if I do possess every beautiful thing that there is. Beauty isn’t an aggregate. It isn’t an agglomeration. It isn’t an attribute of a heap.
If beauty doesn’t move you, think of what does. The mistake that the aesthete makes about having all beauty, some rich men make about having all wealth; some tyrants make about having all power; some wantons make about having all women (or all men); some scientists and philosophers make about having all knowledge of laws and of principles.
But it doesn’t matter how much in this world we possess, or what we possess. It is never enough. It cannot be enough. Let there be no misunderstanding: I am not merely saying that desire is infinite, as some economists say. It is closer to the truth to say that what we desire is The Infinite -- and even this is misleading if “The Infinite” is taken to mean merely “more and more and more.”
The problem is not just that however much I have of what I want, I want still more of it—in fact, not everyone does have that problem! Rather it is that whatever I have and however much I have, I want something else, something in some sense beyond, something that by its very nature lacks the limitations of the goods we meet in the ordinary course of life. But if this is true, then nothing in our natural experience can make us fully happy. Not even virtue plus “everything else” can lull all desire, for while things that are this can refract the strange longing for that and fan it into flame, they can never quench it. Things in this world cannot be more than they are. No creature of nature, no fruit of our minds, no work of our hands will suffice. If there is no beyond, if it is all a delusion, then we are just out of luck.
I understand the rage that some people feel about the abolition of the federal abortion right. It must be a lot like the rage that many of those in the South felt about the abolition of slavery. Both events spelled the end of a way of life. In the one case, it was a life of aristocratic leisure; in the other, a life of sex without consequences.
To describe the latter life in this way is no slander, for the other side makes the same point. As the plurality wrote in a 1992 case which upheld the federal abortion right, people have “organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.”
In both ways of life, some paid for the decisions of others. The idleness of the aristocrats depended on the toil of those born in bondage. The irresponsibility of the libertines depended, and still depends, on the death of those never to be born. In one case the price was blood and sweat. In the other, blood and more blood.
Curiously, the arguments for the slavery right and the abortion right are similar. Then, many in the pro-slavery party said that they were not for slavery per se, but only for a state’s democratic choice to put some people in chains. Even today, many in the pro-abortion party say that they are not for abortion per se, but only for a woman’s autonomous choice to have her baby murdered.
Then, grief and rage over the lost way of life spawned terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia. Now, it has spawned terrorists like Ruth Sent Us and Jane’s Revenge. To revenge the protection of infant blood, they propose the taking of grown-up blood.
In both cases, one suspects that a large part of the rage results from the terrifying implication of abolition – whether of the federal abortion right or the right to own slaves – that those one has treated as inhuman just may be human after all. For when one has done dreadful wrong, there are only two apparent ways out: One can listen to conscience, or suppress it; one can repent of one’s evil, or deny it. The most convenient way to deny the guilt of doing wrong is to project it onto others.
We aren’t the oppressors – abolitionists are. We aren’t the cruel ones – pro-lifers are. They deserve whatever we can do to them. Burn down their churches. Firebomb their crisis pregnancy centers. It’s their fault. They have been warned!
There is another parallel. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery everywhere in the country. That didn’t happen until the Thirteenth Amendment. Similarly, Dobbs v. Jackson hasn’t ended abortion. Dobbs has only returned the issue to the states – which is where slavery was before the Civil War. In some states abortion will be allowed. In those that prohibit it, many who want to kill their children will use pills or travel to other states to do so.
And there is yet another. The end of slavery didn’t instantly produce racial harmony. The end of abortion – even when it comes -- won’t instantly generate protectiveness toward tiny innocents, much less reverence for chastity.
So this is not yet the end of a way of life, but we may hope that it is the first twinkling of the beginning of the end. The end, of course, will require further changes in the law. Even more, it will require repentance, conversion, renewal of minds, and a great deal of mercy.
A dark age is not so much an age in which the level of technology degenerates as one in which the level of civilization degenerates. We are walking into the newest dark age with eyes open.
No barbarians are sacking our cities (we only praise urban riots). Nobody is burning the great libraries (we are only banning books). Nobody is tearing down churches (we just close them in the name of public hygiene).
Nobody is liquidating teachers or closing schools (the teachers themselves are destroying them). Nobody is seizing the universities to force them to stop teaching great literature (universities are doing that to themselves). Nobody is enforcing an official religion (you can hold any view of God you wish, so long as you agree that He couldn’t possibly matter to anything).
Nobody is forbidding teaching students to read (they just don’t, and we don’t expect them to). Nobody is forbidding teaching students to do arithmetic (except now they use calculators, and wrong answers are affirmed for the sake of self-esteem). We do know lots of facts (we are merely contemptuous of understanding).
We aren’t ignorant of basic right and wrong (we just pretend to be). No one has abolished the administration of justice (it has only been perverted for political ends). No one has prohibited elections (we have only manipulated the polls). We don’t so far practice much assassination (except career and character assassination).
Persons with disabilities are encouraged to seek help (and to consider themselves disabled even if they aren’t). In fact we help people a lot (especially in ways that infantilize them and make them permanently dependent). We no longer approve of victimizing people (we just encourage them to make permanent victims of themselves).
No one is tearing apart families (we break up our homes on our own). No one so far is taking children away from fit parents (parents merely hand them over to be raised by social media). We no longer allow the young to cheer the spilling of blood in the arena (instead we let them spill it themselves in virtual entertainments).
No one has prohibited the free press (journalists has chosen spin over honest reportage entirely on their own). We no longer approve of police brutality (in fact we no longer approve of police). We no longer have illegal drugs (they are all becoming legal).
We no longer prohibit the publication of filth (we only condemn calling it filth). We don’t say that debasement is wholesome (we merely make pop heroes of debased persons). We no longer have prostitution (those ladies are all sex workers now).
We no longer practice compulsory racial segregation, which is degrading (instead we applaud voluntary racial segregation, which is affirming). We no longer approve of racial discrimination (except against Asians and white males). No babies are born into slavery (we just kill them before they are born).
Women can pursue any jobs or professions they want (so long as they put motherhood in second place). In fact, biological women are now entirely equal (since as we now know, there are no biological women).
Yes, we are bringing this on ourselves. We will get exactly what we want. We may not be pleased when we have it.
An interviewer wanted to know what I have to say to people who "just aren't going to" believe in God.
That sounds more like a statement of intention than a statement of disbelief. There isn't anybody who "just isn't going to" believe in God. If someone as wretchedly far out in the cold and dark as I was could be drawn into faith, anyone can be. But he has to consent.
If instead the interviewer had asked what I might say to someone who was personally convinced that he “just wasn’t going to” believe in God, I might say this.
First, understand your motives. The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in his book The Last Word, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
If Nagel is right, then it isn’t just belief in God that can be a crutch. Nonbelief in God can be a crutch. So keep your mind open. Follow the evidence wherever it leads. Don't stop asking questions. Cultivate friendships not just with other nonbelievers, but also with people who do believe in God. Listen to your mind and your heart.
In the meantime, be open to the possibility of an answer by living as though you did believe in God and you trusted Him. Perform the experiment of praying at though you thought He was listening, of worshipping as though you thought He existed, of asking Him to illuminate your mind as though He wanted to do so, and – this is the hard one – of living as He is said to direct. After all, you’ve already been living as though He isn’t real -- what have you got to lose by trying out living as though He is?
But don’t do these things now and then. Be persistent. Do them all the time. Do them even when you don’t feel like it. See what happens.
This is how you find out whether you really want the answer, or you are just pretending.
Some years ago, before the word “woke” was so widely used, a student asked me in class “Are you woke?” I had never heard the expression before. Puzzled, I asked “Are you asking whether I’m awake? I try to be.” He said no, that wasn’t what he meant. “Then are you asking whether I’m enlightened?” No, it wasn’t that either.
We had been reading Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Apparently my student thought I might be woke because I took Lincoln’s idea of collective responsibility for the sin of slavery seriously. For as I eventually found out, wokists too believe in collective responsibility – but not the way Lincoln did. My student didn’t grasp the difference, and so I was confusing him.
Was responsibility for the sin of slavery shared? According to Lincoln, yes. But Lincoln didn’t say, as wokeists do, that Southerners or white people were collectively responsible, even if they didn’t own slaves. And he was far from saying that another eightscore years later, the descendants of white immigrants would be collectively responsible, even if their ancestors hadn’t been in the country at the time. No, he said that the whole nation was collectively responsible, everyone, because no matter what their divisions might be, Americans composed a single moral community.
That’s why he rejected the view of people like Julia Ward Howe that the terrible swift sword of the Civil War was God’s way of punishing the South. He thought the War was God’s way of punishing both sides for complicity in the sin of slavery, using each side to chastise the other.
Was repentance for the sin of slavery necessary? According to Lincoln, yes. But Lincoln didn’t say, as wokeists do, that some Americans needed to repent. He thought all Americans needed to repent. No group had the right to be self-righteous, to point fingers, or to demand punitive reparations from the others. Instead, repentant former sinners, both North and South, needed to come together to bind up the nation’s wounds.
The calamity of Lincoln’s assassination still burdens us. Had Reconstruction gone his way instead of the way it did, by now the nation might have been healed of racial divisions. Wokism can only tear us apart, but it’s not too late to start thinking about collective responsibility in Lincoln’s way.
It was, by the way, a profoundly Christian way, even though Lincoln’s personal religious views are somewhat obscure. From this point of view, wokism, despite its neopagan connections, might even be viewed as a sort of Christian heresy. In Adam, all humans fell. Just because we are all of one kind, we all share in some fashion in the shame of his sin, and we all stand at the doorway to other sin. But in Christ, all sins are atoned. He took our sins upon Himself. We don’t have to project them onto each other.
Justice must always be done, certainly. Yet also mercy and humility.
I’ve just posted “The Key to Happiness,” Mark Bauerlein’s interview with me in March, 2022. Mark Bauerlein is host of the First Thoughts podcast at First Things.
Happy listening! And I do mean happy.
True story. There once lived a woman whose son had abandoned the faith in which she had raised him. She was far from perfect, and married to a difficult man, but had striven to bring up her son well. Yet he had fallen in with a bizarre ideology which was considered “woke” in his circle, and had begun living with a woman who was not his wife. His mother prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. He was willing to talk with her, but she couldn’t get through. In tears, she sought out a wise and holy man. If only he would talk to her son! If only he would take the young man in hand, refute his errors, and rebuke him for all the wrong in his life!
Curiously, the wise man refused. He said that her son was still too full of himself to listen -- still too puffed up with pride, still too infatuated with the newness of his woke beliefs, for the wise man’s intervention to do good. He advised her to pray for her son, and since the young man was still seeking the truth, he would eventually find it himself. Those who seek with all their hearts will find.
The woman pestered, weeping and imploring the wise man to change his mind. Finally he lost patience, saying "Go, go! Leave me alone! Continue what you are doing! It is not possible that the son of all these prayers and tears should be lost."
That must have sounded too good to be true, but it happened. The wise man, who was the local bishop, is known to us as St. Ambrose. The woman is known to us as St. Monica. The woke ideology that had ensnared her son was called Manichaeism. Her son, called Augustine, returned to the faith and became one of the greatest saints in the history of the Christian Church. Not a bad result of prayers and tears.
All this happened at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth. For generations, the story has encouraged parents of children who lose their faith. Even so, it raises questions. For example, even during the most wanton period of his life, Augustine didn’t lose interest in finding the truth. Today the young are told that there is no truth, or that truth is “whatever works for you.”
Yet from this and countless other stories about “reverts” who return to their faith, parents of wandering children can draw many more helpful lessons than one might think, lessons applicable even in times like our own.
Why do people lose their faith? Some are raised in an excessively emotional form of faith, which doesn’t satisfy their minds, or a cold form, which doesn’t satisfy their hearts. Some never had faith in the first place, but only thought that they did. Some were treated badly by religious phonies. Some -- I am describing my own young self – didn’t want God to be God, and arrogantly preferred to make gods of themselves ….
[Continue reading my article at The Daily Wire – sorry, there’s a paywall, so I am not allowed to show you the whole thing here]