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Horowitz has put the pseudo-transcendence of a purpose immanent in history completely behind him so completely that he can now write about it calmly and without rancor. His masters are now Marcus Aurelius, the stoic Roman emperor, whom he likes to quote, and Dostoyevsky, who was among the first to grasp the significance of the perverted religious longings of the revolutionary intelligentsia, and the hell on earth to which they would inevitably lead. But the temptations of ideology are always present: Dostoyevsky, so aware of the dangers of the revolutionary intelligentsia, himself subscribed in entries in A Writer’s Diary to an ideology at least as absurd: that of Slavophile millenarianism. It is wrong to oppose one ideology with another, but it is by no means easy to escape the trap of doing so.
If neither formal religious belief nor secular religions like Marxism gives meaning to Horowitz’s life, what does? In large measure, it is his work: a lifetime spent in the crucible of political thought and struggle, first on the left, and then, over the last quarter century or so, as a devout conservative. It is vain to suppose, of course, that any human achievement, even the highest, could possibly be of a duration that would entitle it to the word “eternal.” No literary fame, for example, has so far lasted longer than 3,000 years—not even the blinking of the universe’s eyelid. But we humans must live on a human scale and measure things accordingly. The journalist, while he writes his latest article, thinks it of the greatest significance, though he knows perfectly well that it will be forgotten the day after tomorrow, if indeed it is read or noticed at all. Often I have thought to myself, as I write articles, “If only I can be spared until I have finished it,” though I am aware that even I will have forgotten its content by the week after next.
Significance and importance, however, are not natural qualities found inhering in objects or events. Only the appraising mind can impart such meaning. That is why, in my view, the neurosciences are doomed to failure, at least in their more ambitious claims. A mysterious metaphysical realm exists beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated of scanners, even if we cannot specify exactly where that realm is or how it came to be. The physiologist Moleschott, in the nineteenth century, declared that the brain secreted thought like the liver secreted bile; those neuroscientists who tell us that we are about to empty life of its mystery will come to seem as ridiculous, as absurdly presumptuous, as Moleschott seems to us now.
Horowitz tackles these problems in an indirect and gentle fashion. When he talks of the meaning that his work gives to his life, he is not saying to all his readers “Go and do likewise,” because it is clearly not given to everyone to do so (and thank goodness—a world composed of only one kind of person would be unbearable). The satisfaction of work is not, or at least should not be, proportional to the amount of notice it receives in the world. Perhaps the worst effect of celebrity culture is that it makes fame the measure of all things, and thus devalues or renders impossible not only satisfaction from useful but unglamorous labour, but precisely the kinds of pleasures and deep consolations that are to be had from walking a dog.
David Horowitz’s book is a small but important contribution to the revival of the art of dying well, an art from which most of us, both the living and the dying, would benefit. And to die well, we must know first what we have lived for.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
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