State of the Union: We must accept the limits of created nature.
Several weeks ago, I wrote an essay in these pages reflecting on the importance of limits in a constitutional order such as ours. Recognizing and honoring the limits placed on the human condition by nature and reality is a theme that is integral to conservative thought that aims to check the excesses of ideological utopianism, whether progressive or revolutionary.
Last night, Tucker Carlson’s opening monologue brought that theme to his prime time audience. In the monologue he waxes philosophical about the limits of human power and the absurdities that result when we ignore them.
Taking his cue from the increasingly obvious challenges posed by President Joe Biden’s advanced age and his apparent intent to run for a second term, Carlson points out that “age is more than a number. Age is an expression of the core biological reality of human existence, which is that at some point it comes to a close.”
This stubborn fact of biological reality—including aging and death—presents human beings with a choice: “accepting a reality we cannot alter or denying that reality even exists.”
In a sense, the fact that this choice is available to humans is definitive of our humanity: No other animal even has the capacity to contemplate rejecting their nature—it is simply imposed upon them. Humans alone have the freedom to defy their nature. And yet, virtually all wisdom traditions, from Christianity, to Stoicism, to Buddhism, point out that true freedom is found in the recognition of limits and striving to live according to the givenness of our nature. To be fully human is to understand that humans are limited.
In our technological age, which equates knowledge and power and seeks to overcome all limits, “[the] simple, commonplace observation people weaken with age points to a power that will forever remain beyond human authority, which is the power to control time.” Therefore, it must be denied or suppressed through technology or medical science.
But the fact remains that no matter how rich we are, no matter how many technological enhancements we buy to try to slow or cover it—botox, hairplugs, plastic surgery—“in the end we degrade anyway because we are not God.”
In the Christian tradition, pride is the deadliest of sins because it is the root of all other sin. It is the original sin of Satan, who set himself up against God, and it is the sin of Adam and Eve who believed the serpent in the garden when he told them ye shall be as God.
To counteract this temptation, we have to accept the limits of creatureliness and created nature. And, as it happens, this is also the key to happiness, sanity, and true liberty. As Carlson points out: “Accepting this fact—that we are not God—working within the pre-ordained limits of nature is the key to balance and happiness in this human life. Ignoring that fact leads to insanity.”
A conservative disposition begins with a recognition of the contingency of all things, and a gratitude for what has been received. As Carlson points out, echoing St. Paul: “you don’t manufacture a [sunny day], you receive it.”
The sickness of our culture is typified in the way that “our leadership class is at open war with nature. Nature is the final limit to their power, and so they hate it.”
Despite the apparent deference to nature in the popularization of climate activism or organic foods, at the deepest level our cultural elites reject nature as normative in any sense. Natural law and natural right are rejected in favor of a morality that recognizes as normative only the projection of power and the overcoming of limits.
But this is, of course, ridiculous, and made even more so by the glaring failures of leadership that seem to be growing more prevalent all the time—from power grid failures in California to failed wars aimed at spreading democracy.
These cracks in the façade, Tucker contends, cause our elites to insist ever more vehemently on their power and become unhinged when their weaknesses are pointed out: At some level, “they know how limited they are which is why they become so hysterical in the face of physical reality: because it’s a reminder of their limits.”
In order to regain our sanity—to say nothing of restoring our constitutional order—our culture must learn to embrace the limits of our nature. “Wise leaders recognize the limits—the inherent limits—of their power.” The same can be said for wise citizens.
While we should always strive to act in ways that better ourselves and our societies, any political program that promises to definitively overcome the limits of the human condition should be viewed with suspicion. As Carlson concludes, when you deny reality “bad things happen. And they are.”