In the last two years of my life, I’ve become fascinated with history, particularly on the shifting of our cultural and moral zeitgeist. One such shift was the sexual revolution of the 1960s. John Misachi at WorldAtlas defines the movement as such:
Sexual revolution aimed at exploring both the body and the mind and free one from moral and legal sexual confines. The sexual liberation was anchored on the conviction that erotic should be considered normal and not repressed by family, religion or state.
Coincidentally, I’ve been watching the television series Mad Men as a cheeky treat on date night with my girlfriend. The television series is set at the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York City. According to critiques, it authentically portrays the prevailing attitude and social mores throughout the 1960s. The show depicts lives fixated on Alcoholism, drugs, infidelity and hedonism — debauchery is the name of the game. In Season 1 Episode 10, Roger Sterling hires two young (close to his daughter’s age) models, Eleanor and Mirabelle Ames for a new advertising campaign. The married man then invites them to join Don Draper, the protagonist, and himself for a private celebration upstairs in his office. As expected, they celebrate, fulfilling all of their lewd desires with the two young women. The night goes on, and as Don is with Eleanor, he hears a scream from Roger’s room. He rushes in to find him, naked on the floor. He had a heart attack. Mirabelle says,
“I knew I shouldn’t have asked him to do it a second time.”
The years of living in self-indulgence have taken a toll on the older man's health. Roger is pale in colour, and he is taken to the hospital. Don rather sternly tells the two women to go home. The next scene is of a conversation between Don and Roger in a hospital room:
“Sterling: Don… do you believe in energy?
Don: What do you mean? Like the things that gives you get up and go?
Sterling: No. Like a human energy. I don’t know, a… A soul?
Don: What do you want to hear?
Sterling: Jesus. I’ve been living the last 20 years like I’m on shore leave. What the hell is that about?
Don: It’s living. Just like you said.
Sterling: God. I wish I was going somewhere.”
For myself, this single scene basically explained Mad Men. Never did Roger question his unguarded lifestyle until he is met with death. He felt no guilt for habitually cheating on his wife or for the reckless indulgence of his time and money. But, someone has to pay the price, that is the uniformity of nature. Even a libertine has a conscience. Being is essentially Just. In a way, Roger Sterling is the archetype of the modern man that has lost his soul, complacent in his affluency and weary in his absence of nobility. There is a corruption in the human heart that we cannot fathom nor explain; therefore, we reduce to denying or even ridiculing its reality. It was towards the latter years of his life, the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote,
“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”
There lies a Roger Sterling within all of us, however much we may deny it. Some of us tend to be mavericks, nonconformists and self-professed rebels. We challenge the orthodoxies of culture as an act of self-assertion, self-expression and radical individualism. As we fight against the oppressive institutions and norms in the name of social liberation, at least in the West, our demands are eventually met, and we are granted those freedoms. Some of us hope this will give us self-esteem in forming our identity. However, we ultimately come to the stark realization that freedom alone is uncertain, superficial and inadequate in giving us a coherent framework for life.
Let me clarify; I am certainly not advocating for submission into unquestioned dogmas and oppressive traditions. Individual liberty is one of the greatest gifts in the modern world. Many cultures are still striving towards attaining this invaluable and intrinsic human right. I have the utmost gratitude for liberty. Although, I am questioning the outcome of individual liberty. Does liberty give us autonomy or true freedom? If we juxtapose these two ideas, we find they are two distinctly different values. Autonomy is only the ability for self-governance without subjugation into a superior authority. Autonomous comes from the Greek roots autos, “self,” and nomos, “law.” When we are autonomous, we can live as a law unto ourselves. In colloquial terms, “living with no boundaries.” Freedom is the ability to choose, and choice can only come with boundaries. Or else, if all choices are unbounded and inconsequential, then every choice we make would be random, meaningless and possibly undesirable. An alcoholic cannot overcome his addiction without acknowledging the boundaries that exist in his life if he truly wants to be free. All our actions are contingent upon a reason. When truth becomes a part of our lives, it guards us with boundaries. Even the laws of physics can only act within the facts of reality.
Freedom is not synonymous with autonomy as the latter is only a means to the former. The end does not entirely justify the means as our post-truth culture missed a fundamental attribute of freedom — responsibility. Yes, progress towards human wellbeing and liberty is wonderful, but as we thoughtlessly strive for autonomy, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For me to demonstrate the difference, let me use the prior character, Roger Sterling from Mad Men. Being a wealthy and powerful man, it is fair to state he had autonomy. Living in America, it is fair to state he had liberty. Now, in contrast, let us look at the life of Maximus Decimus Meridius from the film Gladiator. Maximus is a Hispano-Roman General. He gains the admiration of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who tells Maximus that his son, Commodus, is unfit to rule and wants Maximus to succeed him as regent. The vindictive Commodus, upon hearing this, murders his father and proclaims himself as the new emperor. In his quest for power, he arrests Maximus and has his family killed.
Maximus is taken into slavery as a gladiator. He has now lost both his liberty and autonomy; after the loss of his family, he is beat down and is a shadow of his former self. However, the film still portrays him to hold onto his nobility, unlike Roger Sterling, a moral relativist who views the ultimate point of reference to justify living as purely himself. Maximus is self-sacrificial. He sacrifices for his people; he sacrifices for the ideal of the home and family, he sacrifices to the transcendent and the uncomprehended force in the world. He does this all while facing the malevolence and brutality of his life. He knows he is merely a man with a calling from the gods. Finally, Commodus challenges Maximus to a duel in the Colosseum but stabs Maximus before the match to gain an unfair advantage. In spite of his injury, Maximus manages to kill Commodus in the battle but does not survive his injury. In his death, he is revered and honoured by the people of Rome as a hero. In his noble pursuit, he found freedom through his redeemed conscience.
Viktor E. Frankl wrote while he was in Auschwitz,
“Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of the their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Roger Sterling was enslaved to narcissism and hedonistic desires that took control of his life. The way he lived harmed himself, those around him and brought about more misery. Maximus Decimus Meridius found his freedom through faith, duty and responding to his higher calling, in spite of him not having autonomy. The way he lived emancipated his gladiator allies and brought political reform. Being was elevated towards good. He died an unshackled man. His life had meaning.
Who do you think was truly free?
Meaning is the foundation of a free human being. The ecclesiastical book of wisdom states on the utter meaningless of a self-centred life,
There is nothing new under the sun… behold, all is vanity and chasing after the wind.
We think we want freedom from the state, traditions, culture or family, but what our heart truly desires is freedom from ourselves. We can only achieve this desire through boundaries, duty and responsibility. Or else, once again, we are just chasing after the wind. Much like The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, we are condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again — devoid of any meaning or purpose.
To make matters worse, last year, I realised that freedom without meaning is much more dreadful than my initial consideration. Nihilism creates a vacuum so awfully deep that we take the rest of society down with us as we fall. The typical examples of atrocities in the 20th century of Nazism, Socialism, Communism or even the Columbine shooters are low-hanging fruit. What I could use to exemplify my concern is a much more contemporary issue, born out of an unguarded lifestyle that we could all relate to — pornography.
The third-wave feminist Naomi Wolf wrote,
Men who consume pornography don’t do so because they want women who look like that. The attraction of what they are holding is that it is not a woman, but a two-dimensional woman-shaped blank. The appeal of the material is not the fantasy that the model will come to life; it is precisely that she will not, ever. Her coming to life would ruin the vision. It is not about life.
Further research into the porn industry has convinced me that our porn culture is a public health, social and moral tragedy. I was appalled to learn how the pornography industry underpins and influences addiction, depression, domestic violence and child trafficking, although I was not surprised.
If we lead a life only in pursuit of self-esteem or mere happiness, without a communal and transcendent view of responsibility and duty, we are left in existential oblivion. If all that mattered was individual autonomy, then we are left to amuse ourselves in meaningless and mostly harmful pastimes with no forethought on the consequences of our actions.
If our actions are inconsequential, then would the objective reality of watching pornography leading to a child in Thailand being sex-trafficked be a problem?
Who does truly assists the proliferation of human trafficking?
Are we all held morally responsible for this evil?
There is an innate truth within the fabric of reality that even the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius understood over two millenniums ago.
“What we do now echoes in eternity.” ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Our actions have consequences.
The lay theologian G. K. Chesterton explains this truth rather plainly in his book The Thing, using a brilliant analogy called Chesterton’s fence:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Chesterton’s fence brought forth a useful practice of second-order thinking. The action of mindlessly removing a fence may not only have consequences from that particular decision but also the consequences of those consequences. There are first, second and nth-order consequences which we may not comprehend. I will also argue that every moral consequence also bears the responsibility of a human being as human beings are moral agents that live in the natural world. There are first, second and nth-order responsibilities which we may not comprehend. Watching pornography may have the first-order consequence of harming the consumer’s mental health and physiology, but also an nth-order consequence of the consumer bearing responsibility for a child in Thailand being sex-trafficked.
Fences, or in this case, boundaries are put upon our lives to guard human beings, paradoxically, from ourselves. These boundaries may not always be political or societal. They are fundamentally moral, cultural and spiritual; however, they were created; they exist for a reason. Before rebelling and destroying them, we should question their reason for existence using second-order thinking. It’s best to assume that moral, cultural and spiritual traditions that bound our lives, exist within a reality we cannot fathom yet. In our audacious pursuit of progress and freedom, we should not destroy a boundary that exists for a reason. If sexuality is sacred and cannot be reduced to pornography, then what other boundaries are we destroying that may ultimately make matters worse?
The only antidote I see for this malevolence of our souls is that of duty and responsibility from a higher calling which rests on a bed of truth and love. Or else, the cost of living an unguarded life is sickening.