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on 18 June 2011
In this remarkable book Delsol looks into that strange emptiness that exists at the heart of contemporary society. On the surface, we...what she calls "Late modern" society, should be comfortable and at peace. We have few rules and little ideology. Everything seems possible and all values are, superficially at least, accepted. Much of the world also has an unprecedented material wellbeing.

All this is an inheritance from the 20th century. A period when various ideological certainties rose and were then destroyed. But, as this next century starts to unfold, it is becoming plain that the contemporary imperative for an absence of absolute values has itself become an ideology that simultaneously robs its adherents of hope, strength and resilience. And this is the danger; that a culture of resigned acceptance masquerading as tolerance is wide open to a renewed offer of utopian certainty.

The void at the centre of modern western society is simply unable to support its crust of Human Rights. Without solid ideological foundation Human Rights are being shredded by expediency, the trivial and competing interests. The `right' to wear your hair blue at school is as much of a `right' as is the Right to life and freedom of conscience.

But is it possible for a society to survive without any foundations? Is it enough to "live well" in a state described by Delsol as "the sad heroes of emptiness"? Will our contempt for wisdom and all that our predecessors believed in bear any fruit? Can a civilisation of individuals clinging to ephemeral moments amidst the replacement of family life by tribal relationships be stable? Can we retain any Rights having already abandoned the notion of the dignity of the individual man?

The 20th century suggests not and is now hiding behind a thin screen of `universal' human rights.

But this, the darker side of "Late Modernity", is working behind the screen. It is transforming traditional global cultures in a similar way that late antiquity transformed the ancient world and brought forth the Christian view of creation and temporal order. The Islamic world shrinks away from this force back into greater, and expansive, fundamentalism while, in the West, we are seeing our civilisation spun into reverse; back to crude values that would be familiar in 3rd century Rome. In that world there is nothing special about individual human beings. They are not made in the image of God and can be owned and used like any other asset. There is no eternal life after death, there is no divine punishment for evil deeds and there is no redemption.

All this has to be in place before a man will kick another into a gas chamber.

We believe we don't do that sort of thing any more and we do not yet own slaves. But we freely kill our unborn, our sick and our old. We freely buy products made with slave labour and see little wrong in that great totalitarian `virtue' of sacrificing some for the good of all.

This book is well written and is easy to read but you will need to concentrate. It asks very awkward questions about some very big issues and is intensely rewarding. But it is not gloomy. Delsol sees this moment of transformation as an opportunity for a rebirth. We will tire of Late Modernity and wish for something better.
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In this work, Delsol sets out to expose a potentially lethal contradiction. The belief in the dignity of the individual as a person possessing sacred and inalienable worth survives in our era of late modernity. But it lives within a Zeitgeist bereft of meaning or hope in which collectivist approaches inherited from failed ideologies are still consciously or unconsciously embraced. To secure the concept of individual life as our highest value, it is not sufficient to rhetorically reject the totalitarian idea. It has to be replaced entirely by a structure or framework of meaning in which the sanctity of life inheres.

The author considers the relativism of late modernity as a type of nihilism that offers escape from the rigidity of certitudes that was responsible for the 20th century's death and destruction. She prefers the expression "late modernity" as it merely suggests the completion of a cycle whereas "postmodernity" is saddled with ideological connotations. The concept of lateness need not imply decay or deterioration only but rebirth as well. For example, the decline of the Roman Empire during late antiquity was the era in which stoicism and pantheism were replaced by the humanism of Christianity that it inherited from Judaism.

It is faith, not science that supports the principle of personal dignity, a fragile notion at all times. It relies upon conscience, responsibility, mankind's moral agreement and a clear distinction between the human and the non-human. It is moreover an idea that depends upon a cultural heritage that serves as an antidote to the dystopian 20th century forces of dehumanization that are still operating. Thus pivotal questions arise about responsibility and identity: understanding the nature of the human being, the basis of dignity, the way we ought to live and the kind of culture that will nurture this principle of respect. By now it is clear that both orthodox religion and dogmatic relativism are unsuitable.

Specific chapters are devoted to inter alia the lessons of the 20th century, derision and revolt against past certitudes, common values as language, the paradoxes of materialism, the omnipresence of evil, human rights, body & soul, and the universal as promise. Valuable insights include the observations that: hopelessness immobilizes some in an "eternal present" of empty materialism; contempt for the past has become a popular theme of art and literature; the strength of family bonds is diminishing; the uniqueness of human life is denied by equating it with nature, even with inanimate matter.

Another is that natural rights, history and theology all fall short when employed to explain the unique worth of the individual. In chapter 15: Interiority and Eternity, she argues that meaning and purpose in life require a connection with exterior referents that are greater than and survive the individual life - the Eternal Divine. I treasure this book even more than Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Imbued with empathy, her writing remains accessible even as it constantly reveals new pathways of possibility. The translator also deserves praise. This remarkable work concludes with bibliographical notes and an index.
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