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April 29, 2009

Europe Syndrome

What's happening? Call it the Europe syndrome. Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase "a life well-lived" did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

~ Charles Murray, The 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture, March 12, 2009

Author and political scientist Charles Murray recently delivered the address at the American Enterprise Institute's annual dinner. His talk was entitled "The Happiness of the People" and is posted on AEI's website.

Murray's lecture is a great worldview read. What he calls the "Europe Syndrome" is a way of thinking ... in other words, a worldview. Though Murray admires Europe in some ways, he unpacks some of the core beliefs of the modern worldview that has shaped Western Europe -- a worldview that is spreading like the swine flu among many of America's elites and current leaders. Murray describes a core belief of this worldview in the following way.

Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

If that's the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that's the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble--and, after all, what good are they, really? If that's the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that's the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

Government's job, therefore, is to minimize unpleasantness so that we can while away the intervening time between our activation and deactivation. European-style social democracies are quite successful toward this end. This line of thinking also explains current European trends such as below-replacement birthrates, increased leisure time, fewer hours spent working, and lots of beautiful but empty cathedrals and churches.

Murray points to four institutions that ultimately contribute to human flourishing and deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith. His point is that the Europe Syndrome, and a governing philosophy built on its core beliefs, enfeebles every one of these institutions.

Murray also makes some interesting predictions. He believes that discoveries in neuroscience, genetics, and evolutionary science will defeat two basic assumptions in this worldview. The first assumption is the egalitarian assumption that there are essentially no differences among us. Murray calls this the "equality premise." The second assumption is that government policy can remake human nature. This is called "the new man premise." 

I like Murray's article because he thinks worldviewishly about purpose. The question of purpose is the fourth of the four great worldview questions (those questions are: WHERE DO WE COME FROM? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD? HOW DO WE FIX IT? WHAT IS OUR PURPOSE?)

Murray critiques the modern European mindset at a presuppositional level. Kudos to him for that. I think he gets a lot of things right. My critique of Murray, however, is that he roots transcendent meaning in human achievement and exceptionalism. This is just a different sort of humanism, in my opinion. Any attempt to anchor transcendence and meaning in anything outside of the one true, transcendent God will ultimately fail. Meaning and purpose are found in our relationship to God through Christ.

I also think that Murray overestimates the ability of science to change worldviews. Scientific facts have to be interpreted through a worldview grid. My hunch is that the facts of neuroscience and evolutionary biology -- some of which aren't even facts, but assumptions -- will simply be interpreted in a way that will do little to challenge the core beliefs of the eqality premise and the new man premise.

WORLD magazine has an interesting perspective on the Murray lecture. Read both articles and share your perspective.

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Mike D'Virgilio

Another article that might be of interest that highlights the morally truncated view of Murray can be found here: http://thepublicdiscourse.com/viewarticle.php?selectedarticle=2009.04.21.001.pdart

I saw Murray's reaction to this piece at NRO's The Corner, and he said there was nothing he could do to challenge it. Priceless.

Jason Taylor

To be fair that is nothing new. For a long time in Europe a measure of one's importance was one's freedom from labor. I suppose it is not supprising though it is ironic that it is thought that the true proof that the Ancient Regime is gone is that serfs get to act like decadant courtiers.

As for the criticism of finding transcendentalism in Human achievement, that is something like criticizing the moon because it is not the sun. Europeans have always found transcendentalism(glory is a more old-fashioned and more evocative word) in human achievement. They simply didn't always see it as the ultimate transcendentalism.

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