The Present Crisis: a crisis of the present.

This is the point of the year we are especially conscious of time. Calendars change, new diaries are opened, resolutions are made. Time, that most ubiquitous element of human experience, is always with us but the way we experience it fluctuates. In his provocative work, Why Liberalism Failed, the political scientist Patrick Deneen argues that the way we experience time is affected by our political philosophy. He argues that ‘liberalism is about redefining the human perception of time…in particular the relationship of past, present and future.’ Deneen suggests that because liberalism is built on the idea that the ideal human condition is the absence of any externally imposed constraint, it must seek to weaken our bonds with the past and the future. Liberalism seeks to release me from the fetters of my bondage to the generations before me or after me, leaving me free to act as I, and only I, wish. 

Deneen notes that the early observer of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, foresaw this tendency. De Tocqueville noted that the previous aristocratic forms of society bonded people together while the individualism of

‘democracy make(s) men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back upon himself alone and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.’ 

According to Deneen, de Tocqueville, ‘fretted especially about the inability of a liberal democratic people to see their own lives and actions as part of a continuum of time, and hence to consider long-term implications of their actions and deeds as part of a long-term human community.’ 

I do not think we need to yearn for the re-establishment of aristocracy to see that de Tocqueville’s concerns were not unfounded. Whether or not you think liberalism specifically is to blame, it’s not hard to see how we now experience what Deneen calls ‘fractured time’ where we are ‘trapped by “brutish indifference” to any time outside our eternal present.’ We might point to the way consumer and government debt has skyrocketed in the last few decades as consumption is brought into the present and payment into the future. We might point to the way that contemporary sexual ethics, as Carl Trueman recently put it, takes sex outside of any story and turns it into a punctiliar moment of pleasure. 

But, and I feel hesitant to mention the word, it seems to me that one example of our fractured experience of time is the newly re-imposed lockdown. Lockdown, it seems to me, is an example of the way in which modern thinking is trapped in a perpetual present. One notable feature over the last year has been the way statistics have been given to us without any historical context in which we can put them. We are rarely told how hospital occupancy compares to previous years, how many people usually, or often, die during a winter ‘flu season or how overall mortality compares this year to previous years. Perhaps this context would strengthen the case for lockdown, perhaps it wouldn’t, but the fact that it is neither given nor asked for is a telling way that we have lost the habit of thinking historically. We do not treasure the storehouse of memory that previous years, let alone previous generations, experience of disease, mortality and suffering could offer. 

Likewise, lockdown indicates that our relationship to the future has been fractured. Lockdown is a policy focussed on the perpetual now, since its purported benefits come in the immediate present, whether it be flattening the curve or rolling out the vaccine, while the costs lie in the unrealised future. But those costs will inevitably come whether they are the costs of missed cancer screenings, lost businesses and jobs, and the economic burden of unimaginable government debt and the likely inflation that will follow. If we lived in what Deneen calls ‘full temporality’, able to connect the present to the past and to the future, we might be able to tally these costs and benefits into a coherent whole. But, so far as I can see, at a government level, no attempt has even been made to do that and in our public discourse anyone who warns of the future costs of lockdown is considered to be blaspheming against the claims of the eternal and inviolable claims of the present. 

But some day, the present will turn into the future and the costs we placed there will need to be paid in full. Choices we make have consequences that will be felt in some future now as fully present as the now we currently live in. Whenever we realise we cannot pause its flow and live suspended in an eternal present, time reminds us we are finite. We only ever possess a fraction of ourselves and what we value. In this sense, fractured time is not merely a product of liberalism but a condition of the human experience. Augustine, reflecting on his own experience of time wrote in his Confessions, ‘I am scattered in times whose order I do not understand. The storms of incoherent events tear to pieces my thoughts, the inmost entrails of my soul.’ Fractured time for Augustine is the consequence of our sinful inability to live with our finitude properly. Our inability to reconcile the past, present and future within ourselves in a way that brings peace and flourishing rather than fear and distortion.

I suspect that if the experience of lockdown has anything to teach us, it is our finitude. That we have no ability to reassemble the broken shards of our fractured time into a coherent whole. True, some cultures, some approaches to life, have done this better than others but if we truly wish to live in ‘full temporality’ then we will need to turn to the God who dwells outside of time, to the one whom the Psalmist says ‘you remain the same, and your years will never end.’ He is the one who, knowing the end from the beginning, can teach us to number our days aright, to place ourselves within the flow of time correctly, reconciled to both past and present, and who can ‘repay you for the years the locusts have eaten’ redeeming even what time has taken. It is in eternity that the healing of our fractured time is to be found. A healing we urgently need lest we, as de Tocqueville warned, ‘be shut up in the solitude of (our) own heart’ both literally and figuratively. 

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