We’ve come to think of teen rebelliousness as a natural rite of passage, wherein a young man or woman chafes against family restraints on freedom. It seems to be an inevitable result of every person’s desire to be free. Is it inevitable? Yes and no.
On the one hand, there is a kind of estrangement taking place between a child and his family, that begins almost at birth. A child in the womb is utterly dependent. A newborn only slightly less so. A baby is of necessity completely self-absorbed, crying out for satisfaction of its most basic needs, expecting them to be fulfilled. As the baby grows, he comes to understand that those people meeting his needs are individuals themselves, also with needs, but it is the default understanding that the child lives under an umbrella of continual protection and provision, in addition to an emotional connectedness that is as vital to the child’s well-being as food.
That changes, over time, so that the child’s needs are met in part by the world around him, and emotional ties to others develop. The child comes to understand that he, too, will grow to adulthood, an estate in which he is no longer dependent, and may himself be depended upon. The child’s process of maturing amounts to emotionally readying himself for that coming break from the state of dependency, to independence.
It might seem that a form of estrangement is necessary to the process. The child might naturally come to think it necessary that his departure from the comfort of his family involves repudiation of them, or some aspect of them, such as the values and traditions to which the family adheres. It may make some sense, in the mind of an adolescent, that a rupturing of the bond with parents is necessary. Roger Scruton describes it this way:
There is a sudden, even violent repudiation of the “comfortable” values of the home – a rejection precisely of that which renders home attractive. Solitude, risk and adventure magnetise the adolescent soul, and the journey outward into civil society, which is the realm of strangers, begins.
Modern Philosophy, ch. 30.
On the other hand, why is a violent rending of this primal bond necessary? Doesn’t it make just as much sense that the child’s life experience would include a more thorough preparation for independence, to include an environment of love in which the inevitable separation takes place? Our understanding of parent-child relationships outside the modern west, and in history, does not suggest the inevitability of teenage rebellion. The move from dependence to independence is a gradual transition, which can be undertaken by both parent and child with full understanding; with eyes wide open, to speak, of what is going on. Surely the child’s preparation for independence can proceed without his regarding Mom and Dad as tired old staid representatives of the bourgeois order, enslaving restraints against the child’s yearning for freedom.
Modernism and Adolescence
But there is another force at work, in the culture, and as always with cultural phenomena, there is a philosophical basis, in modern philosophy. “Modern philosophy” can mean simply philosophy developed recently, but it is also used as a term of art by at least one luminary in this field, Roger Scruton, to describe a particular philosophical outlook: a commitment to modernism per se, which requires throwing over traditions in order to do justice to new ways of thinking and experiencing. It requires affirmative act and thought to break from what is regarded as a hidebound superseded age. It is a predisposition to rejection of anything that is not new, cutting edge, and “progressive.”
The hallmark of modern philosophy is personal liberation. Exactly what stands in the way of this liberation is left deliberately vague. The object is disentanglement from whatever may bind, and that can change over time. This philosophical outlook does not have an object. That is, there is no end point in mind for the working out of this philosophical perspective in individuals or society. It is reactionary – a reaction to restraint on unlimited personal autonomy. Though thought of as progressive, it is not progressing to some particular end. It only proceeds away from traditional civilizational structures. It is restless. It is requires a constant agitation of mind. Modernists therefore tend to be angry.
Scruton describes modern philosophy this way:
[F]rom Marxism to Deconstruction, the modernist philosopher has occupied himself with the proof that there is no authority, no source of law, no value and no meaning in the culture and institutions we have inherited, and that the sole purpose of thought is to clear the way for “liberation.”
Modernist philosophy is a sophisticated version of the adolescent mindset. That mindset is toward independence and away from dependence. It is not family per se that is being rejected, but rather cultural norms and traditions that the family represents. It is the cloying presence of control, in the form of societal expectations, the product of those norms and traditions. Modernists seek to break from the “parental” bonds of tradition in the same way that rebellious teenagers seek to break away from actual parental bonds.
For the rebellious teenager, the estrangement he feels and the repudiation that follows may hasten the independence he hungers for, or may only fuel resentment and a vicious cycle of hostility, while he awaits his emancipation. But eventually it comes. He is free at last.
Now what? Now the rebel operates in a larger world of estrangement, no longer dependent and no longer constrained, but also without the bonds of love that he has repudiated. And then:
The journey into estrangement generates an intense longing for home; and in every human heart there remains an image of safety, of the final redemption which is also a return to the place from which one started, only to “know it for the first time.”
Scruton, Modern Philosophy, ch. 30. Thus, the rebel becomes reconciled to the parents he repudiated, finally seeing the benefit he enjoyed along with the restraints: safety, love, mutual caring. Only in the harsh world of estrangement on all sides does he finally see the value of the bonds he repudiated.
If the adolescent returns, might the modernist also? Is this a societal phenomenon, as well as an individual one? Alas, no. Ours is an increasingly alienated and alienating culture. The norms and traditions being repudiated by the modernist includes especially those of religion. Religion is seen, wrongly, as a constraining influence, and is thrown over in much the same way an adolescent throws over the constraints of his parents.
But there is hope. The modernist, adolescent stance is not mandatory on anyone. A person with even a germ of humility can see it grow into a sense of gratitude, and then he can ask himself, gratitude to whom? Not Mom and Dad, in this instance, but God, the Author of the moral norms that the rebel has come back to, to know as for the first time, to embrace for the love bonds that go with it. Lawlessness is then replaced with lawfulness, and redemption follows.