The summer of 2009 marked the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, the legendary rock concert that became one of the defining moments of the 1960's. On August 15, 1969, hundreds of thousands of young people descended on a farm near Bethel, NY for three days of music that featured some of the leading rock musicians of the day. The huge crowds overwhelmed the organizers, and then a rain storm turned the site into a sea of mud. Conventional law and order broke down, and the participants formed a temporary community of their own. For three days the counterculture of the '60's was in full bloom.
But what exactly was the counterculture? And what is its significance for today? One of the most interesting and provocative descriptions from the time was the best selling book The Greening of America, written by a then forty-two year old Yale law professor named Charles A. Reich. The book came out in 1970. In it Reich described a cultural revolution that, he predicted, would transform American society.
Reich called the counterculture "Consciousness III," Consciousness I being the culture of 19th Century America and Consciousness II representing the corporate mentality of the 1950's and early '60's. Consciousness III, by way of contrast, was pure Utopianism. To hear Reich tell it, Consciousness III promised "a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual" (p. 2, 1971 Bantam ed.).
For the most part what Reich offers us is a distinctly secular vision for the future. It is full of human potential but practically devoid of God. It is not hard to see the influence of Neo-Marxism, Existentialism, and American Pragmatism on Reich's thought, and beyond that we could trace the influences back even further to Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But this secular Utopianism was the main problem with the counterculture, and the main reason for its ultimate failure.
Reich, in common with many Western secular thinkers for a century or more before him, rejects the idea of universal truths and absolute moral values. What is real is the here-and-now - - man in his concrete existence. Standards and norms are man-made and artificial. Reich puts it like this: "Of all the many ways of life known to history, Consciousness III seems the closest to valuing life for its own sake. Almost always, men have lived subject to rigid custom, to religion, to an economic theory or political ideology. Consciousness III seeks freedom from all of these. It declares that life is prior to all of them. . . It values the present, not the past, the future, or some abstract doctrine of mythical heaven." (p. 426)
As a result, Reich says, ". . . the individual does not accept the goals or standards set by society" (p. 247). And, "because there are no governing standards, no one is rejected. Everyone is entitled to pride in himself, and no one should act in a way that is servile, or feel inferior, or allow himself to be treated as if he were inferior" (p. 243).
In retrospect there was something absurd about the central premise of the counterculture. One cannot get to idealism, spirituality and human potential through a secular philosophy that denies the transcendent and eternal. A life-style of sex and drugs and rock-n-roll hardly amounts to a renunciation of materialism. In the final analysis, the only escape from materialism is God.
Far from ushering in a social Utopia, the legacy of the '60's was catastrophic. In the last four decades we have reaped the bitter fruit of the revolt against standards and norms: a soaring divorce rate, the disintegration of the family, widespread substance abuse, and rampant crime. Satan has paid us royally for our folly. And yet the underlying philosophy of the counterculture lives on in the academic community in the form of Post-Modernism and Political Correctness.
"For speaking out arrogant words of vanity they entice by fleshl desires, by sensuality, those who barely escape from the ones who live in error, promising them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved." -- II Pet. 2:18, 19 (NASV)