Culture as the Discovery of Meaning


The resurgent debate between Christians that defend classical liberalism and those that critique liberalism tout court has been deeply instructive. This debate, however, threatens to obscure a deeply held alliance and undermines the possibility of joining resources to combat a disturbing social and cultural phenomena in America. The alliance is grounded in Nathan Schleuter’s remarks that we are experiencing the lived reality of “a culture against culture, an anti-culture, and the consequences have been a tragic disintegration and fragmentation of individuals and communities.” 

At the conclusion of his 1989 essay “The End of History,” the social scientist Francis Fukuyama made the following remarks about the existential condition of citizens at the end of history:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual catering of the museum of human history.

To speak of “the end of history” does not mean that history itself will cease. Instead, Fukuyama means to convey the rise of a social and intellectual worldview that conceives of history as having given modern liberal democracy to the world. My contention is that this “end of history” perspective is predominantly concerned with an account of freedom that too often lacks substantive moral, philosophical, and theological content. Freedom is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the building of culture.

Freedom or Meaning?

One of the fundamental issues surrounding our present crisis of culture centers upon the dialectic between freedom or existential meaning. This dialectic is captured succinctly by Shadi Hamid in a fairly recent essay in the Atlantic. In Shamid’s judgment, it is certainly true that our contemporary liberal society has numerous faults. However, such a realization does not mean that we should yearn for anything remotely akin to a “post-liberal order.” Shamid’s position ultimately rests upon his main criticism of the new antiliberals, who he claims are unable, and perhaps unwilling, to consider “whether a lack of meaning is a worse problem to have than a lack of freedom.”

Alexis de Tocqueville already saw the irony of this problematic in believing that the social battle is really a dichotomous choice between either freedom or meaning. At the conclusion of Democracy in America, Tocqueville paints a rather bleak picture for such a narrative:

I’ve seen an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel for them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone…

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild… Thus, after taking each individual by turn in its powerful hand and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arm over society as a whole… It does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd (Democracy in America, 663)

I am not convinced that the present condition of American social and political life can be properly understood without seeing Tocqueville’s insight here. Earlier in the book, Tocqueville contends that American democracy must fight against an understanding of human reason that “will be thrown back upon itself and its own resources.” This new type of reason corresponds to an almost new kind of humanity, which will seek to throw off the atavisms of tradition, authority, dogma, and religious faith. This is the Cartesian legacy of America’s philosophical methodology.

Additionally, as Americans become ever-more released from stable forms of association and connection, we will seek the “reason for things” in ourselves more, and trust others (authority) less. Coeval with this will be the proclivity towards a greater reliance upon public opinion as knowledge. Reason will actually decline, in Tocqueville’s judgment, because it will position itself as supreme, yet actually be feeble and incapable of achieving what it portends. Thus, it will need the assistance of some other Reason, which will be that of Science, Technology and the State.

Tocqueville’s disturbing imagery is the result of a freedom that lacks a telos.

The nuance that can be overlooked is that such a social condition is one that does possess freedom of a certain kind. The worry, in this respect, is not the lack of freedom. Rather, Tocqueville’s disturbing imagery is the result of a freedom that lacks a telos. Devoid of a purpose or end, freedom becomes swallowed up within itself, revealing itself most intensely in the absence of meaning. The “liberation of reason from tutelage” ironically lends itself towards a condition of solipsism. This condition is freedom without meaning, and it certainly aligns with Schleuter’s assessment of America’s present “anti-culture.”

Culture and Existential Meaning

Let us return to Fukuyama’s judgment about the condition of citizens at the end of history. He argues that it will be a “sad time.” Why, though, would such a condition be sad?

The end of history logic contends that what societies need is the right system and set of juridical offices (see James Poulous’s essay) to solve their social, economic, and technological problems. And this is why history has ended, because this architectonic system has been given to mankind. However, this hyper emphasis upon systems has fostered a blindness to what stands at the very heart of culture.

Culture is not a monolithic institution or thing, an entity. Rather, it is composed of the real substances or entities called human persons. In his 1980 Address to UNESCO in Paris, Pope John Paul II spoke prophetically to this very point:

Human cultures reflect, no doubt, diverse systems of productive relationships.         Nevertheless, it is not this or that system that lies at the origin of culture, but it is man, the man who lives in the system, who accepts it, and seeks to change it. We cannot think of a culture without human subjectivity and causality, but in the cultural domain, man is always the first fact. Man is the primordial and fundamental fact of culture

We can see the Pope’s insights by briefly considering our contemporary discourse concerning issues related to justice. Whether we are discussing topics pertaining to gun control, the rising tide of sexual assault, or any distressing cultural problem today, our common American ethos seems rather inundated by an account of justice (and virtue more generally) that is almost entirely external. In one respect, justice is frequently conceived as some form of redistribution for building up “political credit:” the more “credit” one gains, the more “just” one is. Perhaps the most obvious recent example of this can be seen with respect to issues of race in America. The more a person publicly professes the narrative that “America is a racist nation,” the more “credit” is allocated to that individual. 

Notice, however, that such an understanding of justice as “virtue signaling” is not ultimately about “being just.” In this context, justice is more often linked with one’s public opposition to offenses against liberal orthodoxies rather than based upon the state of one’s soul. As a result, the predominant goal tends to become that of appearing just.

The appearance of justice is reminiscent of Book II of Plato’s Republic, wherein Glaucon and Adeiamantus push Socrates to praise “justice for its own sake.” The central question that makes up the remainder of the Republic concerns the nature of the human good. If there is no human good, no ultimate “pattern” that human beings are to align themselves with in order achieve the purpose of being human, then Thrasymachus’s definition that justice is power holds sway. However, if human happiness is based upon a patternthat is to be discovered, then the purpose of human existence is to discover the source of whatis, and then to align ourselves to it.

Thus, in Fukuyama’s imagery mentioned at the beginning, the rise of economic calculation and the endless solving of technical problems coalesces with the decline of philosophy. Such a judgment does not mean the loss of philosophy as a profession. Rather, it entails the gradual cultural absence of seeing the meaning of our lives and this world as a truth to be discovered.

In our present American context, conservatives of all stripes can come together and profess that “existential meaning is the basis of culture.” This meaning is something to be found, especially received through the great cultural inheritance called tradition. Our greatest cultural inheritance is not merely the handing down of perennial questions that all human beings ask. More importantly, it is the interior openness to those answers that are not self-created by sheer will, but humbly received. The ground of culture is thus rooted in the recognition that freedom is not in itself a telos but is ordered to the pursuit of what it means to be human. And this pursuit always puts each of us before the joyful recognition that the human good is not something of which I am the author.

This affirmation, that the standard of meaning and human goodness exists outside of myself, can be the starting part for the building up of culture. It will be a much needed antidote to the present anti-culture, and an opportunity for conservatives to work together to fight these consequences that lead to “a tragic disintegration and fragmentation of individuals and communities.”


  1. Brian, don’t know if you’ve had the chance to take a look at D.C. Schindler’s recent book Freedom From Reality, but he goes into considerable detail about a lot of what you’re speaking about here.

  2. Rob,
    Thanks for the comment. I am ashamed to admit that I have not read Schindler’s book yet. I look forward to reading it, and glad to hear of some similarities. I would be happy if I were merely considered as a footnote to Schindler!

  3. Super l”auteur de la dernière citation. Celle-ci conclue un article dans ce qu”on est habitué à lire sur ce cite Mais il aurait fallut en citer une autre de Tocqueville pour rester au moins en cohérence avec l”article. Il écrivait au moment de la colonisation de l”Algerie : « J’ai souvent entendu en France des hommes que je respecte, mais que je n’approuve pas, trouver mauvais qu’on brûlât les moissons, qu’on vidât les silos et enfin qu’on s’emparât des hommes sans armes, des femmes et des enfants. Ce sont là, suivant moi, des nécessités fâcheuses, mais auxquelles tout peuple qui voudra faire la guerre aux Arabes sera obligé de se soumettre »

  4. No need to be ashamed of not having read Schindler yet. It hasn’t been out all that long. And it’s a big book. 🙂

  5. What does it say that an essay on the debasement of the value of being human begins with the words “Christians that defend classical liberalism and those that critique liberalism” instead of “Christians who defend classical liberalism and those who critique liberalism”.

    An attempt at irony perhaps?

  6. Scot,
    As the author of the essay, I find the aim of your comment to be hysterical! I am not a good writer, and you are simply shining a light on such a truth. I will be sending you a gold star in the mail! (just some friendly banter 🙂

    Thank you,

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