Questing for Transcendence

Sir Galahad in stained glass (1910)
From Andrew’s Dune Church, Southampton, New York.

That terrible bond, that most salutary of human bonds, those invisible threads of gold and light and blood attaching men sworn to a common endeavor!

—Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (1947)

My life’s short course has brought me to many places, bound me to sundry peoples, and urged me to varied trades. Yet out of the lands I’ve lived and roles I’ve have donned, none blaze in my memory like the two years I spent as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ. It is a shame that few who review my resume ask about that time; more interesting experiences were packed into those few mission years than in the rest of the lot combined.

To be a missionary is to confront the uncanny. You cannot serve without sounding out the weird bottoms of the human heart. But if missionary life forces you to come full contact with mankind at its most desperate and unsettled, so too it asks you to witness mankind at its most awesome and ethereal. Guilt’s blackest pit, fear’s sharpest grip, rage at its bluntest, hope at its highest, love at its longest and fullestto serve as a missionary is to be thrust in the midst of the full human panorama, with all of its foulness and all of its glory. I doubt I shall ever experience anything like it again. I cannot value its worth. I learned more of humanity’s crooked timbers in the two years I lived as missionary than in all the years before and all the years since.

Attempting to communicate what missionary life is like to those who have not experienced it themselves is difficult. You’ll notice my opening paragraph restricted itself to broad generalities; it is hard to move past that without cheapening or trivializing the experience.

Yet there is one segment of society that seems to get it. In the years since my service, I have been surprised to find that the one group of people who consistently understands my experience are soldiers. In many ways a Mormon missionary is asked to live something like a soldier: like a soldier, missionaries go through an intense ‘boot camp’ experience meant to reshape their sense of self and duty; are asked to dress and act in a manner that erodes individuality; are ‘deployed’ in far-flung places that leave them isolated from their old friends, family members, and community; are pushed into contact with the full gamut of human personality in their new locales; live within a rigid hierarchy, follow an amazing number of arcane rules and regulations, and hold themselves to insane standards of diligence, discipline, and obedience; and spend years doing a job which is not so much a job as it is an all-encompassing way of life.

The last point is the one most salient to this essay. It is part of the reason both many ex-missionaries (known as “RMs” or “Return Missionaries” in Mormon lingo) and many veterans have such trouble adapting to life when they return to their homes. This comparison occurred to me first several years ago, when I read a Facebook comment left by a man who had served as a Marine mechanic in Afghanistan. He was commenting on an interview Sebstation Junger had done to promote his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I did not save the comment at the time, but I remember it well enough to reproduce a paraphrase here:

“I do not know if I want to live any more. I served in Afghanistan from [various dates of various deployments] and am now working as a salesman for [a prominent American company]. I despise this world I am in noweverything is so selfish and so self centered. In Afghanistan every single decision I made had a purpose; every single thing I did was for something bigger than myself. Everything I did, I did to save lives. Every deed helped accomplish our mission. Here in America no one does anything except for themselves. We work to earn a buckwhat is the point to living like this? There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was back in that hellhole. There what I did mattered. Here it is all meaningless.”

What struck me when I read this comment was how similar his feelings were to those I had heard voiced by many return missionariesindeed, to things I had felt myself. This is by no means a universal feeling among missionaries, not even among those who live up to the standards of their call (not all missionaries do). But it is a common one. Many RMs report a sense of loss and aimlessness upon returning to “the real world.” They suddenly find themselves in a society that is disgustingly self-centered, a world where there is nothing to sacrifice or plan for except one’s own advancement. For the past two years there was a purpose behind everything they did, a purpose whose scope far transcended their individual concerns. They had given everythingheart, might, mind and strengthto this work, and now they are expected to go back to racking up rewards points on their credit card? How could they?

The soldier understands this question. He understands how strange and wonderful life can be when every decision is imbued with terrible meaning. Things which have no particular valence in the civilian sphere are a matter of life or death for the soldier. Mundane aspects of mundane jobs (say, those of the former vehicle mechanic) take on special meaning. A direct line can be drawn between everything he doeslaying out a sandbag, turning off a light, operating a radioand the ability of his team to accomplish their mission. Choice of food, training, and exercise before combat can make the difference between the life and death of a soldier’s comrades in combat. For good or for ill, it is through small decisions like these that great things come to pass.

In this sense the life of the soldier is not really his own. His decisions ripple. His mistakes multiply. The mission demands strict attention to things that are of no consequence in normal life. So much depends on him, yet so little is for him.

This sounds like a burden. In some ways it is. But in other ways it is a gift. Now, and for as long as he is part of the force, even his smallest actions have a significance he could never otherwise hope for. He does not live a normal life. He lives with power and purposethat rare power and purpose given only to those whose lives are not their own. [1]

Missionaries also live for a mission. One should not overplay the similarities: missionaries do not kill, nor must they watch their brothers and sisters in arms be killed. But in the missionary’s mindif he or she is a good missionary, that isthe pay offs are just as serious. Missionaries play for eternal stakes. They teach, preach, and serve in order to transform lives in this existence and save them in the next. But it is not just their teaching and preaching that matters: How they dress, what time they rise from bed, what they study in their waking hours, where they go, the words they use, the time they waste, even the thoughts they allow to creep into the back recesses of their mind, influence their capacity and their concentration. The missionary searches constantly for those open to his or her message: the decision to take a bus or to walk to an appointment suddenly takes on eternal significance. This is an extraordinary feeling. Like the soldier, the work of the missionary transcends. Missionaries live for a cause greater than themselves.

It is an exhilarating way to live.

This sort of life is not restricted to soldiers and missionaries. Terrorists obviously experience a similar sort of commitment. So do dissidents, revolutionaries, reformers, abolitionists, and so forth. What matters here is conviction and cause. If the cause is great enough, and the need for service so pressing, then many of the other thingsobedience, discipline, exhaustion, consecration, hierarchy, and separation from ordinary lifesoon follow. It is no accident that great transformations in history are sprung from groups of people living in just this way. Humanity is both at its most heroic and its most horrifying when questing for transcendence.


The desire to live for something greater than one’s own selfish, immediate needs is not some byproduct of modernity. It manifests across cultures and times, emerging in every epoch and era in which we have historical records fine grained enough to leave a record of such things. Though I can offer no plausible evolutionary explanation for why living for the transcendent cause is so powerful an emotional drive, the impulse is likely as inborn as those other things humans go about questing for: power, thrill, prestige, sex, security, discovery, belonging, redemption, and love. Teasing out the ancient origins of this particular behavior quirk is beyond me. It is, however, one of the reason’s I have been fascinated with Will Buckner’s series of essays on hunter-gatherer mystery cults—even among hill tribes and desert foragers we see the need to identify and embody something larger than ourselves. [2]

But in these hunter-gatherer worldsindeed, in most societies—the quest for the transcendent does not usually manifest itself in grand social crusades. Constant devotion to the sacred is not sustainable. This is true in more ways than one. The most obvious: self consecration is exhausting.

I saw Mormon missionaries break under the emotional pressure this task demanded of them; sometimes, if the task demanded is painful enough, entire generations break. But breaking is not the norm. Most crusades do not crash out of existence. Instead, they dwindle. Hearts harden. Focus clouds. Limbs grow weary. Like a dimming fire burning out on its own ashes, an appetite for sacrifice indulged too long soon wisps away. The next generation enters the scene sick of grand causes, eager to get back to the bourgeoisie business of settled life.

This is a good thing. No society of perpetual questers can long persist. If they were able to devote their entire lives soldiering and sermonizing, no next generation of questers would be possible. Yes, not all questers can settle down and raise the next generation u. There will always a few of “that race of men that don’t fit in;” healthy societies tend to send them off to foreign legions or cloistered priesthoods where they cannot cause too much trouble. Which is how it must be. There are strong selection pressures at work here. The societies that survive are those that channel the emotional drive for greater meaning into constructive quarters.

But that leaves these societies with a problem: how to meet this yearning for something more? How do you meet emotional needs for transcendent meaning without sacrificing the abundance of your people to an everlasting crusade? Will Wilkinson explored one possibility in an essay he wrote a few years ago on American country music. Wilkinson begins with the observation that American conservatives (i.e., the consumers of country music) tend to be low on “openess” in the Big-5 personality scale. Folks who rate high on openness are the sort attracted to novelty: world travels, new drugs, and so forth. Country music, he suggests, captures the emotional lives of a different group of people:

Emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in “One Boy, One Girl”: the moment of falling in love with “the one,” the wedding day, the birth one’s children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life’s stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I’m a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. I was once a teenage boy threatened by a girl’s gun-loving father, now I’m a gun-loving father threatening my girl’s teenage boy. Etc. And country is full of assurances that the pleasures of simple, rooted, small-town, lives of faith are deeper and more abiding than the alternatives.

My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences….

But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.[3]

If consecration for the greater cause is one way to meet the transcendent, Wilikson stumbles upon a second path. The crusader’s life gains purpose by suborning his heart and soul to a cause greater than himself; the traditionalist finds the transcendent by linking her life to traditions whose reach extend far past herself. This sort of transcendence is role and ritual based: the meaning it provides ties individuals not to a social cause but a social group. By participating in these sort of rituals, the traditionalist is assured of her place and purpose in a community of meaning. In fulfilling this role she joins a procession of the centuriesor barring that, a procession that at least stretches back before her life and continues on past it. “Advancing through life’s stations” (and the ritualized responsibilities that come with each) allows her to experience, for however short a time, something less contingent and selfish than the drives of every day life.[4] She joins the eternal round. By so doing she glimpses in the daily run something of eternity.

The actual form of these roles and rituals are somewhat arbitrary: they shift from one culture to another. But their goal, in many ways (one perhaps better said: one of their goalshumans so rarely act from sole motives), is to accomplish the marriage between awe and obligation G.K Chesterton called being “astonished at the world and yet at home in it:”

This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers… How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honor of being our own town? …nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. [5]

Wonder and welcome. Those who join the eternal round rarely reach the emotional highs found questing for the crusader’s cause. Their sacrifices are smaller, duties less demanding, and focus compromised by the drag of normal life. But these men and women can lead a normal life. The cause asks you to give up your life for something greater; the round asks you to build your life on something greater.


These are parlor sketches, briefest outlines of human paths towards meaning. Some damned psychologist is going to forward this on Twitter with fussy objections. I will hear that words like “transcendent” and “meaning” are too vague to be of any use in the behavioral sciences (though they tooor most of the lotalso feel these yearnings). I do not have much to say in response to that. Eventually some neuroscientist will come along with some clever ideas on how to measure purpose in the laboratory.

I am more concerned with those who cannot find meaning than with those who cannot measure it.

Will Wilkinson wrote that essay in 2011. Even then his description of country music was a bit behind the times. That world was changing: gone, or going, are the songs about dads changing diapers or seeing God in the birth of a child. For most of the last decade, country billboards have been dominated by trucks, dirt roads, beer, and girls in tight jeans. The time when country was the genre for those “advancing through life’s stations” is over with. The music follows its listeners. These listeners have slowly left the eternal round.

Ritual communities are not intentional inventions. Often, as is the case with the communities described in Buckner’s essays, they produce unsettling violence and terror. The best are more benign. The genius of strong communities is their ability to meet the need their members have for special purpose without disrupting the workings of everyday society. Rituals condense these yearnings into specific moments and roles that can be clearly, openly realized. I hope I do not wax too poetic when I describe these roles as anchors to the soul. Parental love is enough to tie parents to their children; ritual orders extend these ties outside narrow kin lines altogether.

But few are designed with that purpose in mind. Few, indeed, are designed at all. Which is why it is easier to tear rituals down than to build new ones up.

Which brings us to the troubles of the current moment. We live in a society increasingly cut off from rituals of meaning. This “increasingly” is not a new developmentwe live at the tail end of a story that began with the stripping of the altars. So little is left. So hard to find in the little that is left a connection to the transcendent.

But the drive remains. And if that drive for meaning, awe, purpose, sacrifice, and significance cannot be found in the settled rounds, it will be found elsewhere.

Some wonder why our age is so full of Manichean striving. Why so eager, these crusaders? Why so many, these zealots and defenders? Why these warnings of a world on edge, of last stands and last hopes, or evil ever ascendant?

I do not wonder. The star of tradition fades. The allure of consecration must grow stronger.

If you enjoyed this post on ritual and meaning, you might also find the posts “On the American Football Game” and “Tradition is Smarter Than You Areof interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] This sometimes is confused with a mere love of excitement. Take this story from Glenn Gray:

In 1955 I talked with a Frenchwoman who had suffered cruelly during the war from lack of food and anxieties for her family, but was now living in comfortable bourgeois fashion with her husband and son. We reviewed the misadventures of those war days, and then she confessed to me with great earnestness that, despite everything, those times had been more satisfying than the present. “My life is so unutterably boring nowadays!” she cried out. “Anything is better than to have nothing at all happen day after day. You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.”

A few days later I listened to a strikingly similar report from a German friend. Overweight, and with an expensive cigar in his mouth, he spoke of our earlier days together at the close of the war, when he was shivering and hungry and harried with anxieties about keeping his wife and children from too great want. “Sometimes I think that those were happier times for us than these,” he concluded, and there was something like despair in his eyes. Neither one of these people was accustomed to such a confession; it came from both spontaneously and because I had known them in distress and in prosperity. They were not longing for the old days in sentimental nostalgia; they were confessing their disillusionment with a sterile present. Peace exposed a void in them that war’s excitement had enabled them to keep covered up.

The void was realbut was it the excitement in war, or the purpose given by war, that filled it? One cannot tell either way for sure from the comments Gray records, but I suspect the latter.

From Glenn J. Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (UNP: Bison Books, 1971), 216-217.

[2] See William Buckner, “Notes on Nggwal,Traditions of Conflict (23 January 2019); “The Assassins Footprint,” Traditions of Conflict (1 April 2019); “On Secret Cults and Male Dominance,” Traditions of Conflict (18 January 2018)

[3] Will Wilkinson, “Country Music, Openness to Experience, and the Psychology of the Culture Wars,” Big Think (12 February 2012). 

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, reprint ed. (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 1-2.

[5] These features of ritual meaning were notice long ago. Here is Xunzi defending funeral rituals two hundred years before the birth of Christ:

…Thus, the way that death works is that a person dies once and then cannot get to die again. A minister’s opportunity to express utmost regard for his lord, and a son’s opportunity to express utmost regard for his parents, depend completely on this. … Ritual takes care that fortunate and unfortunate events do not intrude upon each other. When it comes to the point where one has to place gauze on the person’s face and listen for breathing, then the loyal minister and filial son know that the person’s illness is serious indeed. Even so, they do not yet seek the items for dressing the corpse and the lying in state. They weep and are filled with fear. Even so, they do not stop in their feelings of hoping that miraculously the person will live, and they do not cease their attempts to maintain the person’s life. Only when the person has truly died do they then make and prepare the necessary items.

….Ritual cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short. It subtracts from what is excessive and adds to what is insufficient. It achieves proper form for love and respect, and it brings to perfection the beauty of carrying out yi. Thus, fine ornaments and coarse materials, music and weeping, happiness and sorrow—these things are opposites, but ritual makes use of all of them, employing them and alternating them at the appropriate times. And so, fine ornaments, music, and happiness are that by which one responds to peaceful events and by which one pays homage to good fortune. Coarse mourning garments, weeping, and sorrow are that by which one responds to threatening events and by which one pays homage to ill fortune. Thus, the way ritual makes use of fine ornaments is such as not to lead to exorbitance or indulgence. The way it makes use of coarse mourning garments is such as not to lead to infirmity or despondency. The way it makes use of music and happiness is such as not to lead to perversity or laziness. The way it makes use of weeping and sorrow is such as not to lead to dejection or self-harm.

Notice the elements of ritual behavior that Xunzi focuses on. Ritual behavior elevates inborn dispositions and feelings to a higher plane of meaning. Rituals allow the men and women who join them to act out their given roles in the communal order. Rituals alternate between stages of happiness and grief, accentuating each stage of life as they are visited.

From Xunzi 19.215-321. The translation is Eric Hutton, Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton: Princeton University Text).

Leave a Comment


There are two thoughts that came to my mind after reading this stimulating essay.

One is of the movement in my Dutch home province of Friesland to translate American country music into the local minority language Frisian. Apparently there is enough cultural resonance between these distant parts of the world that the same themes you described also appeal to the musicians and listeners in these villages.

The second is maybe more personal, since I am pursuing a PhD right now. I have the feeling that this search for transcendence is definitely applicable to academia. It might explain why people say doing a PhD 'ruins' you, since it becomes hard to settle for a job where the knowledge you once pursued for its own sake is instrumentalised and often even ignored to do certain jobs. When you think that you have contributed to the world by excavating a certain understanding of e.g. China and then your new job requires you to implement a policy you think is totally wrong, you run into difficulty. Because your academic training made you care 'too much' about academic truth. There is every reason to compare academic feuds with schisms!

The question remains whether academia attracts people already looking for transcendent meaning, or whether it trains people into valuing transcendent meaning.

That leads to a tangentially related point about journalism. Reporting should also be a approach for establishing a truth. In that sense, journalism can be a transcendent calling. Especially in the past, various political and social groups would start their own newspapers in order to report the truth as they saw it. I wonder how much space the recent disastrous developments in press leave for that, outside of the few lucky major establishments.

That was one of your more fascinating and moving recent pieces. I will likely return to it.

One thing that strikes me in your reference from Wilkinson- perhaps I have read too much into the passage but even so it seemed on the one hand insightful, as if recording a personal revelation of an alien world, and on the other hand still critical of it. Again, I am not familiar with him so I can't say.

I find though that in the last decade there has been an increasing effort to first psychologize political, social, ethical and lifestyle decisions, and then second to normalize all the traits here summed up as "openness" as a unified set, and demonize all opposites as a similarly unified set.

And so now we reach the point where the set of behaviours so long dominant among humans must be analyzed as though the norms of an alien species. Or beyond that, the point at which the possibility they are actually overlapping sets to a greater degree than that starts to get excluded.

I imagine it's the revenge of all the frustrated small towners of old who dreamed of being fashion designers and novelists in Paris, realized through the means of a richer, more technological, more easily mobile world. I was about to say less demanding, but it's actually a world both less and more demanding than the old one, depending on context.

Again, perhaps I read too much into it. I'm not especially well travelled, but consider myself to have always been quite interested in other cultures, ways of living, histories, and above average sympathetic to them where not consistent with whatever norms dominate Western discourse at a given moment. Yet I am occasionally twitted for lack of openness to experience by those whose approach has featured more travel, food and other sensory experience but has not involved much engagement with history, competing value systems about things other than recreation, and so on.

I will likely at the end of life regret not having had an experience comparable to yours, though it likely would not have been for me nor me for it. I'm as glad to have lived in large cities and not small towns, so I suppose that puts me in the middle.


I suspect you will sympathize with G.K. Chesteron's diatribe against the well traveled Kipling:

"The globe-trotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men–diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men– hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. Mr. Kipling, with all his merits, is the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything. So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems, "The Sestina of the Tramp Royal," in which a man declares that he can endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one place. In this there is certainly danger. The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down and the High Commissioner in South Africa. Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, "Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?" But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

The truth is that exploration and enlargement make the world smaller. The telegraph and the steamboat make the world smaller. The telescope makes the world smaller; it is only the microscope that makes it larger. Before long the world will be cloven with a war between the telescopists and the microscopists. The first study large things and live in a small world; the second study small things and live in a large world. It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them. The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance; the motor-car stupidly destroys it. Moderns think of the earth as a globe, as something one can easily get round, the spirit of a schoolmistress. This is shown in the odd mistake perpetually made about Cecil Rhodes. His enemies say that he may have had large ideas, but he was a bad man. His friends say that he may have been a bad man, but he certainly had large ideas. The truth is that he was not a man essentially bad, he was a man of much geniality and many good intentions, but a man with singularly small views. There is nothing large about painting the map red; it is an innocent game for children. It is just as easy to think in continents as to think in cobble-stones. The difficulty comes in when we seek to know the substance of either of them. "

The rest of that essay is worth reading. Kipling was an interesting figure, though often what others had to say about him (see Orwell and Eliot's essays on him as well) was more interesting than what he had to say himself.

Re: the larger question of using the 'Big 5' for political ends — that the Big 5 do exist seems to me as much an established fact as psychology will ever nail down. That these 'big 5' traits (especially openness to experience and conscientiousness) are strongly correlated with current partisan divides, and that these traits are largely heritable, also seems hard to dispute. The problem is in characterization: we are fond of calling our natural fancies developed virtues. You see it all the time–the news junkie who insists all citizens have a grave responsibility to be "aware of what is happening in the world," the athlete's disdain for the person who hates gyms, and so forth. This is but another example of the type. I am naturally an extrovert. I rather thing we would all be happier if we were all extroverts, but then again, I would say that, wouldn't I? There is no use pretending that extraversion is a more fulfilling or moral way to live than those born with an introverted nature. So too with 'openness to experience.'


re: PhD as a path of meaning–

I am reminded of this reddit comment:

Every job comes with a perks package. The perks all count towards your total comp, even the non monetary ones, like "status" or "flexible hours" or "feeling like you're improving the world"

The way these perks get priced is that employers have a rough idea of the caliber of employee they need. Then they make a case based on the non monetary perks. Then they increase salary until they get enough applicants.

If too many people apply, or the non monetary parts of the job are more popular than expected, they can cut the cash-based perks (or demand extra work) until the excess applicants fall off.

Econ 101, right? Prices move until markets clear.

The secret, for grad students, is realizing that the people around you are bidding Absolute Fuckloads of money for the perk of "not having an existential crisis." Most of your total comp package goes to that. (The milliary pulls the same trick BTW)

The trick academic institutions are pulling is that — so long as you stay on the academic track — you know who you are, you know what you're doing now, and you know the next step.

And leaving the academic track means that you're no longer on a well defined life path, and don't have a short title that explains your position in society to people who you meet at cocktail parties.

That possibility, that having a period where you have to re-forge your personal identity without any support or guide, is legitimately terrifying. And delaying that terror leads people to make stupid-seeming decisions, like re-enlisting in the Navy, or becoming an adjunct lecturer.

So, leaving is terrifying. It's terrifying for everyone. And it's going to suck in the moment. But, when it does, just go back to that Econ 101 idea. Most of your peers are paying something like $40k/year for the perk of delaying that terror. When you move to another job, you'll get that money in cash.

There is something to this.

This post actually reminds me of Leo Strauss' lecture on German Nihilism

No one could be satisfied with the post-war world. German liberal democ¬
racy of all descriptions seemed to many people to be absolutely unable to cope
with the difficulties with which Germany was confronted. This created a pro¬
found prejudice, or confirmed a profound prejudice already in existence, against
liberal democracy as such. Two articulate alternatives to liberal democracy were
open. One was simple reaction, as expressed by the Crown Prince Ruprecht of
Bavaria in about these terms: “Some people say that the wheel of history cannot
be turned back. This is an error.” The other alternative was more interesting.
The older ones in our midst still remember the time when certain people as¬
serted that the conflicts inherent in the present situation would necessarily lead
to a revolution, accompanying or following another World War—a rising of the
proletariat and of the proletarianized strata of society which would usher in the
withering away of the State, the classless society, the abolition of all exploita¬
tion and injustice, the era of final peace. It was this prospect at least as much as
the desperate present, which led to nihilism. The prospect of a pacified planet,
without rulers and ruled, of a planetary society devoted to production and con¬
sumption only, to the production and consumption of spiritual as well as mate¬
rial merchandise, was positively horrifying to quite a few very intelligent and
very decent, if very young, Germans. They did not object to that prospect be¬
cause they were worrying about their own economic and social position; for
certainly in that respect they had no longer anything to lose. Nor did they object
to it for religious reasons; for, as one of their spokesmen (E. Jiinger) said, they
knew* that they were the* sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of godless
men. What they hated, was the very prospect of a world in which everyone
would be happy and satisfied, in which everyone would have his little pleasure
by day and his little pleasure by night, a world in which no great heart could
beat and no great soul could breathe, a world without real, unmetaphoric, sacri¬
fice, i.e. a world without blood, sweat, and tears. What to the communists
appeared to be the fulfilment of the dream of mankind, appeared to those young
Germans as the greatest debasement of humanity, as the coming of the end of
humanity, as the arrival of the latest man. They did not really know, and thus
they were unable to express in a tolerably clear language, what they desired to
put in the place of the present world and its allegedly necessary future or sequel: the only thing of which they were absolutely certain was that the present
world and all the potentialities of the present world as such, must be destroyed
in order to prevent the otherwise necessary coming of the communist final
order: literally anything, the nothing* the chaos, the jungle, the Wild West, the
Hobbian state of nature, seemed to them infinitely better than the communist-
anarchist-pacifist future. 8 Their Yes was inarticulate—they were unable to say
more than: No! This No proved however sufficient as the preface to action, to
the action of destruction. This is the phenomenon which occurs to me first
whenever I hear the expression German nihilism.

Interesting- I'm going to have to think a bit on that Chesterton passage.

I think of myself in an odd position in that regard- not especially well travelled, not overly cosmopolitan either by nature or intellectual preference or idealism, and familiar with the city I have lived in for 21 years, but not at all with much sense of community spirit, local allegiance, or sense of "place" or "rootedness" either in it or in my native city. Or country, really, save by light familiarity and choice.

So no inner Rod Dreher in me, to pick a name that just popped up from readings a few years ago. Or Russell Kirk or Faulkner, either.

There must be plenty like me out there, enough to form a camp of our own, but tough to pick a name.

Very remarkable essay. I can relate intensely as I am an Army Officer who preparing to leave the Army. The few LDS Soldier I worked with were always excellent Soldiers and I know what you wrote about above is the foundation for that.

My greatest fear isnt being able to support my family or be financially successful on the other side. I know I have good skills and I possess a strong belief in myself that I can succeed. My is fear is not having a sense of singular purpose that I execute everyday. Not having an end goal that is greater than myself. I visit friends and family backhome and it is like being in another country. Almost impossible to relate to their experiences or what they find important in life.

I often times find myself missing Afghanistan which I wouldnt have thought possible when I was deployed there. I led Soldiers and I only had to be really good at 3-4 things. No cell phone bill, no feeling I had to catch up on the new TV show, no worries about how I can get out of some social event. Just leading a group of 42 men who had intense love and do anything for each other.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, this resonates with something I’ve noticed in recent years.

I’ve been listening to SiriusXM’s “40’s Junction” station with music from the 1940’s (its slogan is “Channeling your inner ninety-year-old”), and it’s a constant amazement to me how earnest the songs of that period were. Even love songs were about love because love was really important, not just personally but existentially. The era had its share of nonsense songs (“Mairzy Doats”) but there’s none of the whiny angst or thoughtless hedonism of today’s pop music.