The third book in Colin Wilson’s much acclaimed Outsider Cycle, The Age of Defeat, has recently been reissued by Aristeia Press. It was originally published in 1959. I’ve been anxious to read it and begin a new series writing about it. I had a lot of fun doing the The Outsider and Religion and the Rebel series last year. Hopefully, this one will work out equally well. So, let’s begin!
With his first two books, Colin Wilson communicated very clearly his disdain for nihilistic, defeatist literature and philosophy. In this work, his goal is to reaffirm the role of human beings as heroes, those who take what God has gifted them with and use it heroically and successfully. In doing this, a person fulfills his purpose as an individual, giving his life meaning.
Wilson has demonstrated already how a pessimistic, defeatist attitude ruins lives. In his commentary on the Romantics to his criticism of 20th century novelists and avant-gardistes, he connects negative states of human consciousness to a pessimistic mindset. Some of his deadliest arrows are flung at Sartre and Camus.
Throughout the 20th century, and now into our time, the popular mass media inundates us with propaganda that promotes meaninglessness. If one partakes of it on a regular basis, it can be soul-killing. It was not always so, and there are exceptions to the rule. We were once encouraged to be heroes, to strive for success and live our lives to the fullest, but the doctrine of materialism robbed our culture of meaning.
Wilson’s goal in writing the Age of Defeat is to attack what he calls “the unheroic premise.”1 He states,
Heroism depends upon the sense of purpose, and the highest type of purpose is the least personal, the most idealistic. This was axiomatic. But how could there be any room for this type of purpose in a world that is becoming increasingly geared to ‘social thinking’, a world whose fundamental belief is that ‘Man’s first duty is to society’?2
In reality, our first duty is to follow our individual destiny and balance it with the needs of society. In doing so, society will benefit, as well as individuals. What good is it if we all pursue societal aims without ever ensuring own own heroic purpose and meaning first? The result would be a mass malaise. It is the disease of nihilism that destroys individuals and societies. Our age is fraught with the delusion that the Left can come to power and transform our society into a socialist/communist Utopia. But how can this be, when Marxist states always disallow freedom and individualism? No happy, meaningful state can exist without freedom and individualism. This is the challenge we face today.
In The Age of Defeat, Wilson examines the subject of heroism by, first, looking at sociological evidence, especially from America during the 1950s. He refers to work done by two American sociologists, David Riesman of Harvard University, and urbanist/organizational analyst, William H. Whyte.
Riesman published his book, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, in 1950. It was so popular that, by 1954, Riesman was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Its main thesis is that, previous to World War II, Americans were generally “inner-directed;” after the war they were “other-directed.” The inner-directed person, Wilson says,
. . . is the man with pioneer qualities; in an expanding and changing society he can cope with the confusion because he possesses the self-discipline to drive towards a goal he has himself chosen. American literature in the nineteenth century is rich in this type: Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Dana, Poe.3
The other-directed man doesn’t put an emphasis on his own self-fulfillment and self-realization, but worries more about what the community thinks of him. Riesman claimed in 1950 that the American character was slowly trending from inner-directed to other-directed. In our day, the other-directed attitude seems to be the norm, at least if one examines the mass propaganda, which is probably what has caused this transformation over the years. For reasons that will become evident, our masters want us to be be passive, other-oriented, insipid wet noodles who are powerless to become what we are meant to become. They know that if we engage in heroic thinking, the freedom of mankind will ensue and their power over us will end.
William H. Whyte’s book, The Organization Man, published in 1956, is also an examination of the trend toward other-directedness, but from the standpoint of an employee in a large corporation. Wilson writes,
It demonstrates how the ‘organisation’ imposes an ethic of conformity on its employees. But this is not all. The terrifying part of this study is not merely the observation that men are willing to swallow the organisation ethic; it is the fact that they swallow it and like it. Although the subject may sound narrower than that of The Lonely Crowd, Whyte’s analysis actually ranges over every aspect of modern American life and culture.4
Of this book, Wilson says it is, “perhaps the most important study of the American character since De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was published over a century ago.”5 De Tocqueville maintained that the American experiment in democracy would survive only if “the balance is maintained between the spirit of equality and the spirit of individualism.”6 In our day, the spirit of individualism is nearly dead.
Both men, Riesman and Whyte, conclude with no feasible solution to the problem, except a general call for more individualism. Certainly, there is a great need to “re-emphasise the importance of inner-direction,”7 but how to go about it? It seems that, unless Hollywood celebrities, CNN, MSNBC, or other propaganda outlets, disseminate the idea of self-reliance, self-realization, and individualism to the masses, the attitude of other-direction will continue. This is a sad commentary on the American citizenry, but what else is one to surmise?
To be continued…
Wilson, Colin. The Age of Defeat. Aristeia, Kindle ed., London, 2018.
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