That modern pathology, the Pyramid of Cheops
The final triumph of modern individualism is an afterlife ensconed in a giant stone structure, carefully segregated from any other souls, based entirely around stuff. No county churchyards here. No slow surrender to nature and the weeds. Just piles of golden goblets and jeweled necklaces, carefully guarded by snake-infested traps. And, of course the bones of dead servants, guaranteed to keep serving you in the great beyond. Of course Heaven is neoliberal. There is no alternative!
That modern pathology, heterosexual intercourse for the sole purpose of procreation
Sex can bring people together. It can cement relationships between people and families. It can pulse with celestial fire, it can shatter inner worlds, it can inspire transcendent art, it can remake souls. Of course moderns took one look at all of that and thought: you know what the only acceptable purpose of sex is? Making a smaller copy of myself.
But calling this narcissism would be missing half the picture. It’s equally related to a sort of productivity fetish, a mindset where anything that doesn’t leave a material token didn’t really happen. Enjoyed the company of your closest friends? Not real unless you put the pictures on Facebook, tagged #bestiesforever. Broadened your horizons with a trip to another culture? Not real without crushed pennies or some other gift-shop tchotchke. Met your soulmate? Not real unless you’ve got a lump of screaming flesh to show for it. This is what capitalism does – reduce experiences to souveniers, reduce relationships to commodities, demand that everything good be mediated by a material end product in order to model the laboring-for-others that workers are told is their only life purpose.
That modern pathology, Homer’s Odyssey
If Harry Potter wasn’t vapid enough for you, now we have a travelogue for the Instagram generation.
Odysseus’ only salient characteristic is being “polymetis”, Very Smart. This is enough to give him a raving fan club of front-row-kids and aspirational Ivy Leaguers, the same people who thought Hermione Granger’s straight A’s made her a symbol of an entire generation of womenhood. Odysseus proves his chops in his very first adventure, where he encounters Lotus-Eaters who convince most of his men to eat a magic fruit that leaves them drugged and listless; Odysseus nobly drags them back to the ship and forces them to keep on rowing for him.
Imagine the horrors of a world where poor galley slaves can leave behind their unpaid labor to live on a tropical beach and enjoy their lives! It is only thanks to Odysseus that this catastrophe is averted. One might think a few readers would note that a few months later, the vast majority of sailors in Odysseus’ fleet died horribly, eaten by cannibals. One might think a few readers would wonder if, really, the guy who dragged galley slaves back to their galleys only to get them killed a few months later was really such a good guy. In fact, nobody asks this question, because Odysseus is Very Smart. It’s no coincidence that the Odyssey came out in the generation of the invasion of Iraq War – if Very Smart people declare that dying horribly was the right thing to do, and then it turns out it wasn’t, at least they were benevolent technocrats with your best interests in mind.
Odysseus then goes on to have sex with various sorceresses and sea-nymphs while protesting that he doesn’t want to have sex with them and is loyal to his far-off wife. This is portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. Also, his sailors get turned into pigs, eaten by sea monsters, and drowned in a giant whirlpool. This is not portrayed as clearly a difficult problem that we should empathize with. In one scene, some starving sailors eat a sacred cow belonging to the Sun God; this is portrayed as clearly justifying their deaths.
We can start to sketch a psychological picture of the sort of person who could enjoy the Odyssey. They identify with Odysseus, that’s obvious. They want to feel like they’ve suffered – after all, suffering is ennobling! – but they don’t want to actually suffer. They imagine the “suffering” of having to have sex with lots of sea nymphs they’re not super-interested in, all while their friends and subordinates are massacred all around them (but only for good reasons, like them stealing cattle, or them not being Very Smart). At the end of all of it, much like the rich kids attending the Fyre Festival, they can show up on their front doorstep and say “Oh, what suffering I have seen – and I the only survivor!”
The Odyssey is a book for rich individualist aspirational Very Smart narcissists who simultaneously want to outsource their ennobling hardships to the lower classes, and remain so contemptuous of those lower classes that they imagine them literally getting turned into swine by a sorceress, and end up having sex with that sorceress, who is unable to resist them because they are Very Smart.
I weep for the modern generation.
That modern pathology, the Aristotelian theory of virtue
You see, perfect virtue in all things approaches the mean. The traditionalist who wants to make the system more conservative is unvirtuous. And the radical who wants to make the system more progressive is exactly equally unvirtuous. The virtuous person is the liberal intellectual who considers both positions, then places himself exactly in the middle.
Anybody who seems too fiery, too deep, or too sincere is automatically wrong. You can reject both the grandparents who urge clean and sober living, and the hippies who tell you that drugs are the only way to break outside the system and achieve true consciousness, in favor of having a joint or two whenever you feel like it. You can reject both the ascetic who urges simple water, and the aesthete who urges fine wine, in favor of the bottle of Diet Coke already in your fridge.
Aristotle reduces virtue to abandoning the highs of ecstasy and the lows of misery in favor of the comfortable neoliberal plateau of watching Mad Men on TV and ordering off Amazon Echo. No wonder his message resonates so well with millennials.
That modern pathology, Catholicism
The Old Testament God demanded adherence to hundreds of rules and rained down collective punishment on entire nations for breaking them. But you are a yuppie with an hour a week for religion, tops, and consider yourself part of a different species from anyone who doesn’t go to a Starbucks at least twice a week. You get your coffee in packets from Keurig, your razors in packets from Dollar Shave Club, and your juice in packets from Juicero. If only there were some large corporation that would package religion and send it to your doorstep for one low price.
Enter Catholicism. God loves you, just for being you. He suffered and died for you two thousand years ago, granting you redemption. All you have to do to pick it up is sign on the dotted line and pay ten percent of your income.
Consider eg the ritual of confession. You eliminate your sin in a standardized dyadic interaction no harder than eliminating your muscle tension at the massage parlor, or eliminating your back pain with a chiropractor. It’s quick, impersonal, and completely tailored to your individual sinner profile.
Or consider the Eucharist. The Prozac generation has already had personal change reduced to the process of swallowing a pill, and the Catholic Church is eager to comply, reducing finitude to a DSM-V ailment curable with correctly prepared bread products. The Church is a corporation the same as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, and we already know the sacred ritual for interacting with corporations. And so our consumer culture reduces the human relationship with the Divine to literally consuming God.
And like all good corporations, you can rest assured that the whole thing is organized in a very logical top-down chain under the absolute command of an incredibly rich guy who lives in a house covered in gold. “Father, am I forgiven now?” “Um, one second, let me check with the manager in branch headquarters”. And why shouldn’t he? The word “Catholic” means “universal”; we’re so separated from our own neighbors that we’d rather our religion come in the form of Standardized Religion Product shipped in from Rome than anything which forces us to confront people near us as individuals, or trust our local communities for anything more than naming the parish church.
Let’s be honest: the recent success of Catholicism is the ultimate sign of our inability to deal with the world through anything other than a late capitalist lens of standardizaton, corporatism, and carefully-packaged pablum. It’s the perfect religion for the Age of Trump.