Aspirations and ideals are crucial to the psyche of Western civilization, Michael Strong argues:
Marxism exercised such an extraordinary influence over millions of minds because it promised a better world. Indeed, it boggles the mind that the need for aspirations and ideals was apparently so great that a movement that was more murderous than Nazism, whose murders were repeatedly documented over a 70 year period, nevertheless continued to serve as an ongoing focus for idealism throughout 70 years of mass murder. It seems that we crave a vision for a brighter future.
Since the collapse of communism there have been no widely recognized aspirations for society. The nightmare of communism should not prevent us from having humane aspirations.
Environmentalism, multiculturalism, and anti-globalization, those movements in which the spirit of the Left lives on, are wholly inadequate as visions for the fulfillment of human potential. Conservatives mostly fight against the social changes of the last 40 years, without offering much of a positive vision of their own.
There is a large market for books and workshops on how to live a better life. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series and Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People series are but two well-known examples. They have each become small industries in their own right; during a period in the late 90s a list of the top-selling 100 books of the year contained several volumes from each series; more than half the books overall were either inspirational or self-help. M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled has been on the New York Times bestseller list for longer than any other paperback. Apparently people crave guidance.
Many people, perhaps most people, would like to become more successful at “the art of living.” Although individuals may receive inspiration from quotations, inspirational speeches, religious sermons, works of art, or nature, very few individuals are able to learn the art of living from a quotation, a speech, a sermon, a workshop, a work of art, or an experience of nature. They must be provided with experiences in which the inspiring approach to life is constantly supported and re-enforced. Thus the emphasis that many churches place on “fellowship.” It is very difficult for us to create better lives for ourselves in isolation. We usually need peer communities to support our practice of the good, of wellness, of excellence, however we perceive such goals.
Beyond the genetic component, human beings become who they become based on the daily, moment-to-moment, manner in which they live. They learn, or fail to learn, the art of living from those around them. We have no institutions in which young people may learn better ways of living. Schools at present are mostly institutions in which young people learn worse ways of living.