Political questions cannot be answered well without reference to spiritual ones. For over two thousand years, this was the commanding precept of Western civilization—whether we spoke of the soul like Socrates or Jesus, or of the spirit like Hegel, or of the psyche like Freud.
And for several decades, this was the dominant view in mainstream, “movement” conservatism, too. At age 26, William F. Buckley pledged his faith that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world,” and “that the struggle between individualism and collectivism in the same struggle reproduced on another level.”
Yet somehow, today, some of the most prominent voices in the conservative media are abandoning the most venerable and important tradition to which they have ever subscribed. Where conservative journalism once stood athwart the impulse to analyze everything first as politics, invoking the primacy of philosophy and religion, today we see analysts on the right confidently assaulting “liberal culture” on reflexively ideological grounds—casting aside their most, and perhaps only, legitimate way of viewing the world.
The results are not just ugly or incorrect; they lead conservatives astray from the kind of ennobling wisdom that once kept them, and humanity, afloat.
Thus has Ben Shapiro, whose academic resume is ten times more prestigious even than mine, stooped to blame Hollywood liberalism for the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Shapiro pretends that he puts matters of the spirit first, warning that “libertarianism becomes libertinism without a cultural force pushing back against the penchant for sin.” Then he pretends this is reason enough to hang Hoffman’s overdosed corpse around the neck of “the broken leftist culture that dominates Hollywood,” allegedly “enabling” the suicides of its great talents.
Libertarians—and not just libertarians—are, no doubt, justified enough in asking whatever happened to individual responsibility. But Shapiro misses the mark even more profoundly. Interpreting Hoffman’s death as primarily ideological news prevents anyone—even a credentialed member of the intellectual elite like Shapiro—from undertaking a soulful reflection on fame, genius, addiction, or death—in short, on our humanity.
How would Socrates have thought about Hoffman’s death? Rather than setting out to clobber his political foes and their “lifestyle,” he might have turned our attention to where his always focused: how we choose to die. For Socrates, the puzzle of politics and “ideology” could not be unraveled without understanding what ruled human souls. The tyrant, for instance, only appeared to be the figure possessed of the greatest mastery; in reality, he was the soul enchained in the deepest slavery. Unable to countenance the truth about his mortality, he sought such extreme experiences of power over life that his desires led him only to untimely death.
How would Socrates have thought about Hoffman’s death?
Yet Shapiro ignorantly, politically insists that “no one knows what demons plagued Hoffman.” We don’t even have to reach back to Socrates for answers. Russell Brand may not have an advanced degree from Harvard University, but he knows more than a trifle about the tyrannical love of death. “In spite of his life seeming superficially great,” he writes at The Guardian, “in spite of all the praise and accolades, in spite of all the loving friends and family, there is a predominant voice in the mind of an addict that supersedes all reason and that voice wants you dead. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void.”
For Brand this is a “disease,” a “mental illness,” but lest we get too clinical in our moral imagination let’s recall that Brand’s entire life as a recovering addict possesses religious moorings. Of course, Brand’s preference for Revolution over Christianity is disqualifying among conservatives—so much so, I fear, that his echo of ageless insight into the human condition is cast aside in favor of tropes already tiresome and woefully predictable though not yet 40 years old.
If you are concerned that the brief hubbub over the death of a famous actor is too small a data set to merit such harsh and sweeping words, turn on Fox News. There, you will see The LEGO Movie—yes—dragged through the ideological mud with the telltale willfully idiocy of pristinely ideological thinking. As Mollie Hemingway recounts at The Federalist, the complete and utter misapprehension of The LEGO Movie is not just the province of (alleged) conservatives, but it’s especially depressing and sickening to see such vicious babble spurting out from the “right of center.” It’s the political left which has been historically more susceptible to the anti-Socratic notion that justice is seizing power from the unjust. The task continues to fall disproportionately on the right to preserve the primacy of our full human being over struggles for political rule.
And the right is blowing it. A conservative movement convinced that The LEGO Movie is “anti-business” has disqualified itself from the one mission that justifies its continued existence. As Hemingway goes on to suggest, The LEGO Movie is actually about—you guessed it—the way that a tyrannical desire for mastery over life leads to an abject, servile love of death. Just as Ben Shapiro, prince of the Breitbart empire, was so overwhelmed by ideology that he failed to see in Hoffman’s addiction what was plain as day to Russell Brand, so here, again, has the right’s most establishment commentariat allowed itself to become, in the name of “fighting liberalism,” the same kind of educated fools Bill Buckley took such grave pride in laying low.
No matter how many degrees you have amassed, how many bestsellers you have written, or how many earnest young things line up to meet you at CPAC, if partisan warfare has made your culture’s humane inheritance incidental to your words and deeds, your war is already over, and you are already dead.