One can tell the state of the society by its dreamers. When a society is comfortably decadent, few dare to imagine a world beyond the surrounding material comforts. In such a society, most people are content with the mediocrity of a superficial world in which those who dream are stifled and silenced.
However, when a society is polarized and politicized as it is today, a great discontent takes hold. People desperately want to leave their stressful situation. That is when people start to dream about what might be possible. And that can be a positive development, but not always.
As a hopeful sign in these unsettled times, some books have appeared recently that explore imagined worlds of what might be possible. Ironically, most of the authors would not like to be called “dreamers.”
Books With a Deferred Purpose
Books are strange creatures. Authors write them with one purpose in mind. Some readers then read them, and find benefits that are different from the author’s original intent.
Anthony Esolen’s recent book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, for example, has something of this. The hands-on style of the book’s narrative naturally leads one to think of it as a practical blueprint for some form of return to order. It is full of how-to advice on rebuilding society. The author would cringe if called a dreamer.
Another book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno, likewise dares to imagine an avowedly Christian society. The author’s approach is to address this resurrection as something that has been done before and so might be done again.
These books and others like them all have a dream component that isn’t always obvious. The authors imagine an order of things that was once common when society was healthy. They do not necessarily see their findings as dreams but rather as a simple return to normality.
However, after two generations in a cultural wasteland, many have no idea what a healthy society is like. The sixties so devastated the land, and so many (under sixty) have now lived for so long amid abnormality that it is unclear to them what normality is. Hence, the need to dream.
The Notion of Dream
In this context, to “dream” means the process by which people idealize their goals in society. It is a recognized sociological concept that refers to the indispensable capacity of families, social units, or peoples to envision a future for themselves that considers both the practical means at hand and a higher ideal. Every society has its dreams.
“We have no knowledge of any human community where men do fail to dream,” writes Irving Kristol. “Which is to say, we know of no human community whose members do not have a vision of perfection—a vision in which the frustrations inherent in our human condition are annulled and transcended.”
“Without the metaphysical dream it is impossible to think of men living together harmoniously over an extent of time,” writes Richard Weaver. “The dream carries with it an evaluation, which is the bond of spiritual community.”
The What-if Option
New dreams appear when old dreams decay. When the unifying principles of old dreams no longer serve to inspire a society, there are two options. The first is that society shatters chaotically into a thousand different directions. People stake out their individual “dreams,” which are only whims, fancies or personal goals.
The second option is the appearance of new dreams. These dreams surface when people begin to question a society in crisis and ask: what if? People start to think of ways in which things might be made better or more perfect. When a whole society does this, it sets in motion true dreams that result in wholesome ideas, actions, and artistic expressions, enabling a society’s progress.
The problem today is that an exhausted American dream that has long relied on notions of material abundance and unlimited progress is losing its ability to unite and motivate the nation. New dreams connected to the country’s traditions must appear. Once more, people need to start asking, “What if?”
These new dreams must be grounded in reality, common sense and high principles.
They must also be possible. The modern tendency is to divide the world between the idealist and the commonsense realist, forcing people into choosing a single wing, when both are needed for flight. If society pursues dreams correctly this wrongheaded divorce between idealism and reality, need never happen.
And that is why recent books asking “what if” are so important. Most of them make an important link to past dreams. They use something they know to be historically possible and allow readers to build upon this to imagine a world beyond the present. They return to a framework of principles from which, like a river at its source, a new dream might surface.
What must be prevented at all costs is that these dreams become fantasies. The tiring of old dreams can lead some people to mistakenly grab on to illusions that suddenly appear before them like desert mirages.
Dreams cannot be based upon flawed assumptions. There are those like die-hard liberals, Marxists, and transhumanists who fantasize about changing human nature. Nationalists fantasize about skewed visions of the nation. Others, like the Benedict Option, conjure up proposals that ignore the facts when it fails to consider the context of a Culture War that makes isolation impossible. In this case, when the task of reforming society is deemed hopeless, the Option’s splintering into intentional communities makes difficult the unifying dream now needed.
Based on Human Nature
The dreams needed today must be based on a human nature that does not change. They must recognize that fallen nature imposes upon society limitations and contingencies. They must acknowledge that utopias cannot be established in this vale of tears and that whenever man revolts against human nature and its contingencies, sooner or later disaster will be his lot.
Finding a way out of this disaster is not difficult since the problems that plague mankind today are not new, nor are the proposed false solutions original. Likewise, the correct way out from the wilderness has already been mapped.
Historically, when ailing civilizations come back to health, they always return to an order that organically develops. Such an order is always centered around natural institutions of family, community, and religious belief. It is governed by a universal sense of right and wrong written on the hearts of all men. It is directed toward a final end found in a benevolent God that desires man’s good. When people dare to dream of this order, it can give rise to a revitalized culture with a rich and marvelous variety and impressive unity.
The Importance of a Debate
However, these changes often only happen in times of crisis. Unfortunately, decadent societies stubbornly cling to the idea that they can never fall, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Likewise, they deny the power of a dream to transform society.
These preconceptions are overcome when perceptive souls begin to question the course of the nation and propose new directions. They recall and build upon tradition to project a new future.
The nation is now in dire straits, and a great debate is needed to discuss the discontent that rages throughout the country. Books that highlight these matters help shatter the complacency of those who refuse to confront reality. They also break the consensus that new dreams are useless.
However, these books are but stepping stones that help people to imagine the society that is needed. As long as they respect human nature and its limitations, people should dream boldly, far beyond a mere rebuilding or restoration. They should look among Esolen’s ashes of the present crisis for the embers of past traditions from which a new society can be enkindled. With the help of God’s grace, much more should be imagined, so that much more can be obtained.
As seen on Crisis Magazine.