“There is a paradox to life that an acceptance of limits, borders, and boundaries can be the most liberating thing of all.”
ur world is one where the very mention of boundaries, borders, limits is treated as akin to ushering in fascism or, at the very least, authoritarianism. The idea that we should not seek to overcome all things that stop us from achieving maximal freedom, autonomy and the flowering of our inner self is seen as absurd or downright dangerous. It is true that being too limited, investing and entrenching boundaries and borders too heavily, can indeed stifle and cause stagnation.
As always, the thing is to find balance through trial and error, to be grounded in humility and to learn both from individual experience and the systemic wisdom of the past. Limits are indeed a fact of life—no matter our own feelings as to this reality—but they are also desirable and necessary for a life well lived. The ultimate answer, Christopher Lasch found, is to find and retain hope through “connections to and reliance upon memory, virtue, limits, and humility, and, finally, of [it]s source in the spiritual discipline of religion.”
Limits and Life
With this as the end, let us lay the groundwork. The first thing to reckon with is that from birth our existence is bounded by limits we did not choose and which we had no say in. We did not choose when, where, or by whom we were born. We did not choose our physical attributes, our heritable temperament, or our inborn talents. We enter this world utterly dependent on our mothers most immediately and our fathers just behind—a dependence we return to in our twilight years when we enter what Shakespeare called our age of “second childishness.” Lasch saw children as the ultimate expression of our givenness, with “givenness…especially a feature of the relationship between parents and children: each child is a surprise, a gift, a unique, and unpredictable adventure, as well as a visible sign of one’s willingness to sacrifice much of one’s own personal preference and freedom.”
Being born is unchosen and unwilled by us, just as much as our mortality. We enter and leave the great stage of life, whether we like it or not. The question then, is how do we live with these facts so that our lives are testaments to life as a gift rather than a curse to resent or a burden to be borne? This is a universal question that is mediated and engaged by particular ways, influenced by the particular times, places and cultures of those engaging with it. The particularity of our dialogue with existence itself is a sign of the true universality of the human condition, joined by its particularity, given weight by the contingencies of culture, history, and geography. This is all a way of saying that limits are intrinsic to life, both within and without the human heart. This is something that we all must contend with at various times during our lives.
For me, the fact of being born with a genetic fragile skin condition is a particular instantiation of the universal-through-the-particular of limits. There are many things curtailed or prevented by our embodiment, actions untaken because of their impossibility, courses left behind because of their difficulty. This is even more the case with those born with severe disabilities, our lives circumscribed by the limit, either of physical frailty or mental fragility, or sometimes both. For those like myself, this preemptively curtailed existence is something that demands recognition on the part of the sufferer, when we come face-to-face with the reality of our broken embodiment and the effect of this on our physical and inner lives. The key question of how to live (and whether it is possible to live well in light of the world’s imperfections and our imperfectability) is given greater urgency by living with an extreme form of the brokenness inherent to our existence in a fallen world; those like myself lack the Eden of youthful strength from which those with sound bodies are cast out by time but can look back on in their old-age—an age that many like me will not live to see.
In his recent book The Virtues of Limits, David McPherson writes that this is a question of “cosmodicy,” a word that expresses the “problem of justifying life in the world as worthwhile in the face of evil and suffering.” As McPherson goes on to write, we therefore live with “existential limits,” which are “limits with respect to the given, that is, to what exists.” For McPherson, this fact of our existential limits means that recognizing and practicing “limiting virtues” is essential to a life well lived and comprises “modes of proper responsiveness to that which is of intrinsic value (or goodness) and which makes normative demands upon us, and in being properly responsive the virtues constitute for us the good life, that is, our human fulfillment understood as a normatively higher, nobler, more meaningful form of life.”
McPherson defines the limiting virtues as “humility, reverence, moderation, contentment, neighbourliness, and loyalty.” Each of these is the lived articulation of the existential stance of acceptance and appreciation, where we accept the limits in and on life, and appreciate what is good in our lives and in the world, for all our faults and its flaws. The other stance we can adopt when facing our givenness is the “choosing-controlling stance,” which denies the limitations on our lives and instead sees life as a matter of choice and control of matter.
The Promethean Project of Choice and Control
This choosing-controlling stance is something which has underlain Western culture since Francis Bacon’s time, when he argued that science’s role was for the “relief of man’s estate” through the subjection of the earth and all its bounties. This stance of mastery is at odds with one of acceptance of our place in the world and our responsibility toward it and each other. This is dubbed the “Promethean project” by McPherson, defined as the “godlike ideal of human mastery over nature,” whereby man denies or even derides the boundedness of the given world and strives always to go higher and further. This lies behind the monopoly on truth assumed by science under the guise of scientism.
McPherson lays out his view of the Promethean ideal through the lenses of science and culture, relying on the works of philosopher Ronald Dworkin and Friedrich Nietzsche. Dworkin wrote in favor of genetic engineering to overcome the physical bounds of our embodiment, science as the relief of man’s estate taken to its natural conclusion. Nietzsche mirrored this in his view of culture as sublimating and unleashing man’s wild Dionysian spirits for civilizing and rational Apollonian ends, with the proclamation of the Death of God as the clarion call to overcome our self-imposed Christian moral strictures, and to go beyond good and evil, and go above the limits to our cultural expression that the old religion represented.
In the political realm, the Promethean project, despite its original claims to the contrary, is most openly pursued by a liberalism unshackled from the constraints of physical embodiment or environment. Christopher Lasch recognized and argued in books like The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites that “by surmounting the natural sense of human limits, liberalism had sought to open up endless possibilities for advancement and individual cultivation, but it did so at the expense of democratic virtues that had once been inculcated in local communities—such ‘middle-class’ virtues as moderation, a sense of limits, and an acknowledgement of the inescapability of tragedy in human life.”
As Patrick Deneen has argued elsewhere, the Promethean project of scientific mastery is the logical extension of the limits-denying philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism with its limit-less agenda in politics is enabled and furthered by science, which develops the technical innovations to erase the borders and boundaries of human givenness and which is itself furthered by liberalism’s liquefying of the limiting virtues. While science obviously keeps me alive, this dialectic of limits-denial is entrenched by an elite which “seek[s] the mastery of necessity and the overcoming of accident by means of the awesome controlling power of science and technology. In the background is their vision of overcoming tragedy—of never having to choose between incommensurable goods—and ultimately escaping all limitations, finally death itself.” United under the banner of secular Progress, the complex dance of contingent human affairs is ordered into a march towards the Future, where the end of History within the world sounds its siren call but recedes ever further into the distance, no matter how many bodies are piled up in the doomed attempt to reach its terrible allure.
Modern adherents of Progress “identif[y] democracy with radical individualism on the one hand and global interdependence on the other. This simultaneous narrowing and near-infinite expansion of the human horizon result[s] in modern individuals who resist … the intermediary position of citizenship—a position that insists on the necessity of common undertakings and yet resists the dissolution of local forms of life in the name of opportunity and progress.” This isolating individualism, twinned with an abstract but overbearing globalism, repudiates the limiting virtues McPherson sees as constitutive of the good life. Undergirding this vision is the desire to overcome the tragedy inherent to life, “of never having to choose between incommensurable goods,” with the ultimate ideal being the escape from “all limitations, finally death itself.” This is expressed by the condemnation of parochial attachments, patriotism and piety towards one’s culture and forebears, at the bottom of the mutual loyalties that constrain personal autonomy and transactional social and political relationships.
As McPherson writes, if “humility can be regarded as the master limiting virtue,” ensuring “that we recognize and live out our proper place in the scheme of things,” and “recognizes that some things must be accepted and appreciated as given, and not subject to human control or manipulation,” then the political and scientific Promethean project of liberalism is hubris concerning man’s abilities, and avarice for his pursuit of material gain. This hubris and avarice destroy the virtue of contentment, “the virtue of knowing when enough is enough, of not wanting more than what is needed for a good life,” which “acknowledges…that we need to find a way to be at home in the given world amidst imperfection.” Moderation, the virtue of “avoiding vicious extremes,” is seen as an illegitimate constraint and an immoral imposition on the need for expression of our inner-most selves and the need for endless growth to justify our declining civic agency.
The virtue of reverence meanwhile is laughed out of life for its concern “with being properly responsive, through reverential attitudes and behavior, to that which is reverence-worthy (e.g., human life) … plac[ing] strong constraints on our will.” Our radical individualism and overbearing globalism crush neighbourliness, the virtue that “is a form of human solidarity that recognizes the moral significance of proximity. It stands opposed to impartialist moral theories, such as utilitarianism and Kantianism, which do not recognize the moral significance of proximity.” Finally, the virtue of loyalty, of forming “identity-constituting bonds of attachment with some of these particular people and will come to recognize demands of loyalty to them that sustain the good of the relationship and which give grateful recognition to the good we have received from them,” is erased in favor of repudiation of the ties that binds and the commitments that constitute our social ecology.
People who live according to this denial of limiting virtues as their defining ethic are emblematic of Michael Sandel’s vision of meritocracy. For Sandel, the problems with meritocracy lie not just in their economic consequences, although the soaring income and wealth inequality is bad enough and undermines the “equality of condition” that Alexis de Tocqueville saw as essential for a flourishing democratic polity.
Sandel sees the more fundamental problem with meritocracy and its disdain for existential, moral and economic limits in the way it warps the souls of its winners. As McPherson writes, Sandel notes “the tendencies of economic and social-status ‘winners’ to take too much pride in their success and to forget the good fortune that helped them get to where they are.” They smugly believe that they fully deserve their status, and also that the “losers at the bottom of the economic and social-status ladder are deserving of theirs.” As Lasch wrote, such meritocrats evince a “snobbish disdain for people who lack formal education and work with their hands, an unfounded confidence in the moral wisdom of experts, an equally unfounded prejudice against untutored common sense, a distrust of any expression of good intentions, a distrust of everything but science, an ingrained irreverence, a disposition (a natural outgrowth of irreverence and distrust) to see the world as something that exists only to gratify human desires.”
Douglas Murray writes in his recent book The War on the West, that not everything is down to luck, as a defense of the decisions and actions of those who came before us to leave our prosperous, stable and secure Western nations as their legacy. He quotes Branch Rickey who said that “luck is the residue of design.” In other words, the individuals and families who comprised the past populations of the West made better choices to maximize the things they were given than did other peoples, which is why the West is still (just about) preeminent today. We should, therefore, feel gratitude rather than guilt for their systemic wisdom. This is a legitimate point, and as McPherson notes, the Biblical parable of the talents calls on us to make the most of what we have in gratitude to God.
In my view, however, Murray strays too far towards the meritocratic Prometheanism that Sandel describes, and plays down the role of chance and luck in our lives. My parents made all the right choices with the information they had, taking into account the limited scope of human knowledge. Yet their lives and plans were irrevocably altered when I was born with my condition—lives that continue to be altered and influenced no matter our designs or choices.
This is in no way an acceptance of a passive stance towards life, adopting victimhood as a cloak for warmth but which ends by suffocating one’s soul. To repeat, we have a duty to make as much of our talents, temperament and inheritance as we can, to engage in what Shelby Steele calls “ultimate responsibility combined with possession.” Agency comes when “you have the freedom that allows you to be responsible for it, and you accept that this responsibility belongs to you and not to someone else.” Cultivating agency requires a sustained act of will, something that must be maintained in the face of suffering, as suffering calls forth responsibility towards meeting it.
As Steele writes, “Suffering, whether caused by fate or injustice, has always been the most common spur to agency over one’s experience,” but when we reach “the point where suffering does not prod us to take agency over our lives, then we are cut off from the meaning of suffering—which is to be cut off from the meaning of reality,” which is that if approached in a properly responsive way, with the right ends in mind, one can come to see that “the worst thing is to suffer and yet be uninformed by it,” to not be alerted to what matters, to shrink from the duty to practice the virtues already discussed, even in the midst of suffering, as an expression of faith in life itself, to lay claim to the agency that witnesses the suffering inherent to life and works towards restoring what is of value to the individual in question, and to the world in which they find themselves.
Yet, this is not to say that Sandel is wrong when he argues when he argues that we need “a lively sense of the contingency of our lot.” Reminding ourselves that “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of fortune, go I” serves to cultivate humility at good fortune we do have, and nurtures a true and deeper gratitude rooted in the appreciation of the giftedness of our contingent condition—a gratitude that fosters a deeper social solidarity based in mutual recognition of the dignity and tragedy of the human condition. Acceptance and appreciation of contingency can serve to foster and buttress agency.
Liberation Through Limits
Having diagnosed some of the ailments arising from the Promethean project to remove limits, let us look at a few ways that limits can be seen in a positive light, as part of the answer to the questions of whether it is worth living within limits, and how to live well.
For me, conservatism has always seemed to make more intuitive sense than liberalism or various forms of leftism. McPherson writes of the importance of reverence, where “the reverence-worthy can be understood as that which has special dignity (hence the feeling of reverence can be understood as a heightened feeling of respect), or it might also be described as that which is sacred or holy.” This can relate directly to God himself, or to aspects of culture that have been preserved through effort and care, this action incorporated into the object of reverence itself, serving to bind us to the past with its voice. This then enjoins us to conserve in the present and pass on to the future that which gave our lives, individually and collectively, shape and texture, giving meaning to existence itself, and holding out the promise of the echoes of our lives continuing on after we are gone.
The past has always seemed to hold an inestimable value, providing a sense of identity and a means to make one’s way through an often confusing world. The radical individualism and abstract globalism described earlier are liberating on the surface, positing the detached individual who chooses his own way through life, and indeed what kind of life that turns out to be. However, this is an incredibly lonely existence, and having experienced some of the isolation attendant to a physical disability, it is not one that I can say brings much joy or contentment. I have written before that this supposedly infinite set of choices is its own form of prison, leaving us drowning in indecision at the meaninglessness of it. As McPherson argues, “if there are no ends of choice that are of great importance such that they can place constraints on our choices, then this deflates our sense of the importance of choice. If we are to ensure that we avoid this debilitating condition, then an accepting-appreciating stance toward the given world needs to be regarded as primary, and humility and reverence need to be regarded as virtues.”
McPherson quotes from the socialist thinker, G.A. Cohen, who nevertheless articulated a form of conservatism that resonates in a profound way. Cohen writes in Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing Value that he is defending a “small conservatism” that seeks to conserve “existing value.” He goes on to say that this conservatism “exhibits a bias in favour of retaining what is of value, even in the face of replacing it by something of greater value.” Indeed, “[Some] things must be accepted as given,…not everything can, or should, be shaped to our aims and requirements; the attitude that goes with seeking to shape everything to our requirements both violates intrinsic value and contradicts our own spiritual requirements…[The] attitude of universal mastery over everything is repugnant, and, at the limit, insane.”
Some might object to all this talk of acceptance, appreciation, and recognition of life as a gift and the givenness of our existence. It might be argued that it induces a passivity regarding malign conditions or actions, and that a sort of fatalism might ensue about our ability to affect the course of our lives, or of wider events, in any way. This is a faulty way to view the matter in my view, and McPherson has it right when he argues that the virtues he outlines and affirms “should be understood as modes of proper responsiveness to what is of intrinsic value, and this will come out in my account of the limiting virtues. In light of this we can see one way that the accepting-appreciating stance needs to be regarded as primary: we first need to appreciate what is of value in order to know how to act or not act. In other words, the accepting-appreciating stance should inform when and how we take up the choosing-controlling stance.” We must remember that our accomplishments are incomplete if we lack appreciation for them, which again points to the primacy of the accepting-appreciating stance. Along with the parable of the talents mentioned earlier, we can recognize in the creation story in Genesis the fact that after God creates the world in six days, he “then completes his creation through appreciating it—where he contemplatively beholds it as ‘very good’—and resting on the seventh day.”
Appreciating what is of value for me begins with the beginning of all, namely our birth into this world. G.K. Chesterton put it best when he wrote concerning the sheer gratuitousness of life itself, with the overwhelming bounty of existence for good or ill. This is linked to the virtue of contentment, of feeling that one has enough and has joy in the fact of being alive. Joy is often mistaken for just a heightened happiness. This is to do it a grave disservice. Living in joy does not preclude sadness, suffering and grief, given the broken world we inhabit. It means rather that everything is experienced as a heightened sense of things, the wind in one’s hair and on one’s skin feeling like the breath of God Himself, filling one’s heart to overflowing.
As Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, it is worth pausing to reflect and “to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck [of non-existence]…. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.” Better to have been born and pulled from the wreck of non-Being than to never have lived. People so often assume that those with disabilities suffer in body, mind and soul, longing for some sort of release. Of course, there is suffering and pain. But, as Charles Camosy writes, the data shows that able-bodied clinicians underrate disabled people’s view of life’s goodness, and the meaning and purpose they find in it.
Again, Chesterton puts his finger on the matter when he writes that “A man belongs to this world before he begins to ask if it is nice to belong to it. He has fought for the flag, and often won heroic victories for the flag long before he has ever enlisted. To put shortly what seems the essential matter, he has a loyalty long before he has any admiration…[It] seems to me that our attitude towards life can be better expressed in terms of a kind of military loyalty than in terms of criticism and approval. My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty.” I am glad I was born, and I feel immense gratitude that I was called to life’s colors, even with the vicissitudes of life that whip and crack around me, as they do everyone. The fundamental gratitude for life itself underlies the virtues of contentment, but also humility at what might not have been, and the reverence for the glory of life itself, inspiring a loyalty to those with whom one lives and from whom one came from, who brought us into this world, most directly responsible for saving us from the wreckage of non-existence.
Hope in the Face of Tragedy
In my eyes, one of the most important virtues that both sustains us and orients us towards life’s goodness is that of hope. For me, hope is the thing that springs from recognition of our limited existence. McPherson writes that “theism…provide[s] a fitting worldview for seeing human life as a gift.” For Lasch, as Deneen writes, “Rather than suggesting humanity’s centrality in divine creation or lending support to a view of humanity that endorses efforts to conquer nature and render fortune and tragedy altogether tractable, real religious belief forces the religious penitent to acknowledge human dependence and weakness, and to regard temptations toward mastery as forms of sinful and hubristic pride.” This is one reason to lament the decline in traditional religiosity in our day, and why McPherson argues its centrality to cultivating the virtues that restrain the more brutal form of meritocratic hubris considered earlier.
Indeed, Lasch affirms the preacher Jonathan Edwards’ view that most forms of belief in human self-sufficiency stem from a deep rebellion against our created and dependent humanity, writing that “Rebellion against God, according to Edwards, was simply the normal condition of human existence. Men found it galling to be reminded of their dependence on a higher power.” This rebelliousness is redolent of Prometheus’s rebellion against Zeus in favor of man, but in its overreaching beyond man’s limits also echoes the flight of Icarus too close to the sun, from which he fell in flames and crashed to earth.
An overemphasis on the controlling-choosing stance can breed resentment either in those who imbibe it and then come up against the limits of human prowess and nature itself, but also in those left being and denigrated for their failure. Meritocratic hubris risks breeding populist nemesis. At a deeper level, the danger of resentment at the tragedy intrinsic to living is one we must be alive to, for both its individual destructiveness seen in corroded souls and deep unhappiness, and its collective consequences in social discontent, immoderation and instability. Having experienced a fair degree of resentment when younger, I can only emphasize its insidiousness and how inimical it is to any sort of good life. In light of this, religious faith for me is not about “feeling good” or shallow happiness but what Lasch meant when he wrote that “religious faith asserts the goodness of being in the face of suffering and evil.”
There is a paradox to life that an acceptance of limits, borders, and boundaries can be the most liberating thing of all. As Deneen writes, Lasch argued that “with renunciation of the idea that humanity has a “right” or entitlement to happiness arises the possibility of a truer form of happiness; this happiness springs from a heightened sense of human dependency and contingency: ‘the secret of happiness lay in renouncing the right to be happy.’” Lasch thought that accepting life’s tragedy along with reflection and a recognition of our interdependence gave rise to the virtues of hope and charity. To achieve the “spiritual discipline against resentment” one had to cultivate a disposition of “hope without optimism.”
For Lasch, “hope is the rejection of envy and resentment and all that invites them. It’s not difficult to see why those would always seem to be compelling moral postures, because we live in a world that doesn’t seem arranged for human convenience. It is a world in which human happiness is not the overriding goal, and our plans go awry, and there are terrible limitations on what we can know, understand, and control. And, in any case our lives are very short. The fact of death is always there, haunting our imagination. All of which seems to justify a renunciation of any belief in the possibility that the world, in spite of these facts, is good, just, beautiful. None of this, of course, implies that this is the best of all possible worlds or that the struggle against injustice ought to be suspended on the grounds that whatever is, is right.”
In his bleakly beautiful Augustinian Calvinism, Lasch presages McPherson’s celebration of the virtues of limits, and of the limiting virtues. Limits and hope signify the imperfect frailty of the human condition, encouraging humility at our own position, and reverence for those which went before who passed onto us that which is good and reverence-worthy. This joins with loyalty to those closest to us who give our lives meaning and purpose, our own lives forming theirs in reply. Neighbourliness is the virtue desperately needed in a world of increasing loneliness and isolation, along with alienation of the ruling overclass from the middle and working class. Contentment with one’s life is made far harder in a social and economic order made to benefit those few disconnected elites in the ruling class who themselves resent being joined to a restive population they despise for their backwardness, parochialism, and loyalty to the given.
From Deneen, we could say that true attentiveness to the alienation and suffering we all confront would go a long way to reweaving the fraying social bonds that give shape and form to social and political communities, imbuing a disposition towards “acts of generosity and charity.” The emphasis on mercy towards our own flaws and the faults in the hearts of others is “perhaps the most difficult virtue for humans generally, and modern man especially, to sustain. And yet…it [is] a message needing repetition and renewal, even in the face of likely failure. Hope demands nothing less.”
As Lasch wrote, “in the history of civilization…vindictive gods give way to gods who show mercy as well and uphold the morality of loving your enemy. Such a morality has never achieved anything like general popularity, but it lives on, even in our own enlightened age, as a reminder both of our fallen state and of our surprising capacity for gratitude, remorse, and forgiveness, by means of which we now and then transcend it.” Without recognition of, and reconciliation with our limits, this transcendence is impossible. Our duty is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.