“We lack a clear idea of what a modern civil society ought to look like. And that’s dangerous. Europe has torn itself apart twice in the past hundred years. I don’t think we can say that secularism is the great gospel that is necessarily going to triumph. On the contrary, it seems to me that secularism, if you’re not careful, leads to a pretty dark place. It’s the same dark place that much ancient philosophy was in before the arrival of Christianity. Because, basically, secularism is a modern form of Epicureanism.”
[Tom] Wright, the attentive teacher, sees that I am struggling. I’m brought up to speed. Epicurus, he explains, was the ancient Greek philosopher who believed that pleasure was the greatest good. “And here’s the interesting thing,” Wright continues. “Epicureanism says, if the gods exist, they are a long way away; they don’t bother about us so we don’t need to bother about them. What we have to do is just make ourselves as comfortable as we can. And that’s fine if you are reasonably well off and have got good slaves and a nice little vineyard. But for most people, life is very different.”
“Western Europe and North America has been an Epicurean society for the last 200 years,” Wright goes on. “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘I am an Epicurean.’ The Epicureans were never a majority in ancient Greece, but they have become a majority in the Western world. And, as Benedict pointed out, we have been living on borrowed time, feasting on the fruits of other people’s labour. But the worm has turned. Now the people who we have exploited and ignored are – quite literally – being washed up on our shores. It is becoming clear that our freedoms and our sophisticated modern comforts have been purchased at a terrible cost for people in many other parts of the world.
“We simply have no narrative to make sense of this,” Wright tells me. When the Arab spring happened, there was an assumption among some in the West that all that was needed was to topple a few dictators and then a tolerant, liberal democracy would somehow spring up automatically. “The last seven years have shown that that’s simply not how things work. Life is more complicated than that.”
Then I witness one of the deft connections Wright is celebrated for making between a contemporary problem and an almost forgotten solution. “Unless we reconnect with the ancient Christian narrative,” he says, “we will never understand what is happening, let alone to come through to the other side.”