This double revaluation of mind and nature that began with Descartes resulted in a radically new conception of human freedom as sheer individual autonomy, the right to determine one’s own identity and destiny. Hence our ever-greater disregard for communal responsibilities and obligations—except for those that, in our sovereign subjectivity, we select for ourselves. Until recently, such potential hyper-individualism was held in check by our reliance on a generalized set of religious beliefs and moral practices to which most people gave their consent, if vaguely. These universal first principles provided the constraints and directives that enabled human beings to flourish or fail. Such classical liberalism undergirds all Enlightenment democracies. But now these checks and balances have been largely removed. The triumph of sovereign subjective preference has resulted in what Percy called “a tempestuous restructuring of consciousness,” a shift in human existence that amounts to the invention of a virtually new species. Percy calls it “a strange Janus monster,” both haunted and paralyzed with self-trans-transcendent longings and fears that mere animals do not experience.
I suspect Percy would not have been so surprised at “the election of a self-confessed ‘pussy-grabbing’ president,” given that the man inaugurated a decade before his novel appeared was also something of a pussy-grabber.