The Crisis of Our Age: A Retrospective Glance
As a political philosophy and system of governance, liberalism is a product of Western Christian civilization. Yet some of its roots are decidedly illiberal. Thomas Hobbes offered an intellectual framework for our burgeoning Provider State, reducing people to hedonistic machines that accept the oversight of a Sovereign who serves as theologian-in-chief. Jean-Jacques Rousseau cited man’s natural compassion in support of rendering everyone collectively dependent on a sovereign General Will, which Jacques Maritain later called an “immanent social God”. Frederic Bastiat dismissed these pretensions by noting how self-serving lawmakers bend morality to justify—via greed and false philanthropy—the legal plunder that divisively empowers them.
The prevalent method of redefining morality today is to inculcate into society whatever ideological potion the regnant political class peddles in the name of political correctness, much as “soma” was used in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Since the time of John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the role of teachers as change agents has been promoted by well-organized social scientists—often Fabian, Marxian, or Gramscian socialists—who enjoy the financial support of teachers’ unions and tax-exempt foundations. Lately the spirit of this age has been channeled through social media that are shaped by a symbiosis of tech barons as well as opinion leaders and culture mavens, which Joel Kotkin calls the Oligarchs and the Clerisy, respectively.
Five centuries ago, John Calvin recognized the moral hazard that arises when people are induced to act contrary to their consciences. It seems that all the buzzing, blooming confusion of our modern media culture has swollen into a mechanism to demoralize the populace, by making us witnesses, even accomplices, in other people’s bad behavior, by assaulting, weakening, and undermining our moral defenses. Fights over the public purse may end in cynical quid pro quos. Intrusive social regulations may be the price for getting a piece of the plunder, but people with bad consciences are more easily manipulated. Eventually they become fatalistic and slavish in their attitudes. We may grumble about the corruption we see in every direction, but too often roll over and go back to sleep. Instead, we should heed Solzhenitsyn’s counsel: Live Not by Lies.
For many, it is difficult to distinguish between the conscientious and measured expressions of dissent that gave birth to America and a spirit of sedition that would smash every authority. In part, this is due to a long campaign of partisan disinformation and political gaslighting that has rendered the public mind more receptive to either/or emotional appeals through which real problems and crimes are oversimplified, absolutized, and then used to divide and conquer. Coercive ideologies and tactics use the West’s accustomed freedoms and toleration to subvert them in the name of some overriding purpose or higher good. The art of politics is increasingly displaced by an elaborate, pervasive, panoptic technology of image-making and message control.
The key ingredient in any politically-motivated behavior-modification scheme is the state of dependency and sense of futility it encourages. Gradually the public becomes dependent upon the State or an identity group for its sustenance, education, worship, or employment. Whatever the revenue-seeking State or other powerful entity wishes to regulate may be redefined as a privilege that requires permission. This permits the dispenser of favors—the turnstile operator—to take the legal and moral high ground while controlling access to formerly public goods. At the same time, it may arouse new desires that are soon enough also regulated on a pay-for-play basis.
This manipulative dynamic was understood long ago by Lord Henley, who in Vernon v Bethell (1762) 28 ER 838, wrote that “necessitous men are not, truly speaking, free men, but, to answer a present exigency, will submit to any terms that the crafty may impose upon them.” Henley was later quoted by Franklin Roosevelt to justify his proposal for a Second Bill of Rights. But in the name of helping the needy (and later, as J. Budziszewski puts it, the “merely wanty”), Roosevelt helped construct a Provider State that compels us to submit to any terms the crafty may impose on us. It is a clever form of entrapment. The ingenuity of this scheme is reminiscent of what Reinhold Niebuhr observed about the wiliness of “the children of darkness.” Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society is only one among many scions of an even older Social Gospel.
Radical social movements have long been embraced by academia, becoming essential components of the larger political mechanism that has steadily de-Christianized the culture. Corporate America meanwhile measures the good life by people’s access to hedonistic affluence while substituting for original sin ever more invasive standards of social justice that spare none, perhaps not even the new elite.
The spread of this ideology-driven cultural revolution might have been slowed in America if its originally decentralized federal system had been kept. Instead, the Progressive movement of a century ago carefully laid the foundations for a centralized federal bureaucracy which, ever since, it has bent to its purposes. The name of the game is to capture the centers of cultural creativity and public authority as a step toward controlling the levers of power. Garet Garrett was ahead of the learning curve when he rigorously analyzed this still novel situation in his 1938 essay, “The Revolution Was.”
Today’s Gulliver is entangled by administrative law, as Philip Hamburger and John Marini have observed. Who could have imagined that our politicians’ infatuation with red tape would blossom into identity politics and the use of lawfare to undermine constitutional protections? We see the old dialectic at work. The hedonistic Eloi are preyed upon by power-hungry Morlocks in our updated version of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. This is the circle of life. Yet, whether it takes the form of a virus or a parasite, every successful revolutionary movement eventually succumbs to its excess.
From ecclesiastic to secular religion
Marcello Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians provides a framework for understanding the moral challenge of our times: specifically, what Pitirim Sorokin in The Crisis of Our Age (1941) characterized as the “chaotic syncretism” of an “overripe sensate culture,” by which he meant a materialistic “dumping place of the most fantastic and diverse bits of the most fragmentary ideas, beliefs, tastes, and scraps of information.”
The diversion of the liberal project by such “European wizards” as Rousseau, Bentham, Hegel, and Marx from its foundation within a Christian culture has led to its conversion into something hostile to its parent, into what Pera calls “the secular equation.” As programmatic ideologies divorce themselves from their Christian roots, they displace the public expression of Christianity and substitute themselves as comprehensive secular creeds, often in the form of what Michael Polanyi called a moral inversion, that together have provoked the long-term cultural crisis of the West.
In Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, Marcello Pera described the idea of natural rights as the vital core of liberalism: “all human beings are free and equal by nature; their basic liberties exist prior to and independent of the state, and are noncoercible by the state.” As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the Foreword, one of “the characteristics of liberal thought is its foundation in the Christian image of God. The emphasis on the idea of man’s freedom, characteristic of liberal thought, presupposes the idea of man in the image of God, the consequence of which is precisely the freedom of man.” Locke, Kant, and Jefferson had shared the same philosophical language. Assuming a natural diversity of free and equal people with a capacity “to live together, faithful and loyal to the state,” the Enlightenment project began, optimistically, with the presupposition that liberal societies “must be able to harmonize all their conceptions of the good” and to keep friction among different faiths to a minimum.
At the apex of its influence during and following the Second World War, liberal internationalism held totalitarianism at bay, dismantled the colonial system, emerged as the West’s governing ideology, and “helped prevent democracy from becoming ‘the tyranny of the majority,’ by obliging it to respect certain fundamental rights and institutions.” The subsequent economic success and cultural vitality of the American-sponsored global free trade regime brought the whole world to the West’s doorstep. Yet the growing incompatibility of its major tenets, divorced from their Christian roots, have exposed liberalism’s clay feet.
The secular equation
The different varieties of liberalism today have sprung out of one of two irreconcilable political families: conservatism and socialism. The liberal worldview has given rise to eclectic doctrines, hybrid regimes, and the current legitimacy crisis in both Europe and America. “Regarding the exercise and justification of liberal rights,” Pera observes, “our society has been transformed from a homogeneous one shaped by Christian values (as it was for centuries) into one marked by intense religious conflict.” Opposition to the influence of religion in the public square has moved from sectarian hostility to marginalization and more active sanctions. The equation of liberalism with secularism has a chilling effect on religious expression. Far from enhancing reasoned political debate, the public airways are filled by increasingly shrill invective. The terms of civil discourse are being changed “by the re-emergence of strong nationalist sentiments, by increased friction among various conceptions of the good, and by the spreading of multiculturalism, the idea that groups, classes, or categories have special rights distinct from those of the majority or from those of humanity as a whole.”
What Pera calls “the secular equation” may be described as a blend of political liberalism (both classical and Progressive) with a secular mindset that “endorses its own religious or comprehensive doctrine.” This mixture enables the reign of what Plato called doxa: politically useful opinions, forcefully asserted. It resembles what Plato carefully scrutinized and attributed to the democracy of Socrates’ day—alluring, multicultural, free, egalitarian, and permissive—in Book VIII of The Republic. It also aptly describes the “fads and foibles”—to use Pitirim Sorokin’s phrase—that run roughshod through contemporary social science literature, which Philip Rieff and Thomas Sowell have so skillfully eviscerated. At the end of a string of illustrations in The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray concluded: “[T]he purpose of large sections of academia had ceased to be the exploration, discovery or dissemination of truth. The purpose had become the creation, nurture, and propagandization of a particular, and peculiar, brand of politics. The purpose was not academia, but activism.”
By now the novelty of our not-so-new transgressive ideas and -isms should have worn off. Sorokin already diagnosed what ails us in The Crisis of Our Age (1941): “Our ethics is a jungle of discordant norms and opposite values. Our religious belief is a wild concoction of a dozen various ‘Social Gospels,’ diversified by several beliefs of Christianity diluted by those of Marxianism, Democracy, and Theosophy, enriched by a dozen vulgarized philosophical ideas, corrected by several scientific theories, peacefully squatting side by side with the most atrocious magical superstitions.”
A history of change
Sorokin saw history as a flow between family-based (familistic), contractual, and compulsory (coercive) relationships. The weakening of families and private property, along with the growth of collective political power, signals the breakdown of the very liberties that once coincided with an earlier, pre-liberal social contract: the political covenants that, for example, molded forms of civil liberty and self-government pioneered by the Pilgrims four centuries ago this November, followed by constitutional experiments in localism, federalism, and bills of rights by Puritans and other religious dissenters.
During America’s great spurt of immigration and industrial growth after the Civil War, the still young republic became the world’s greatest investment market. Like the Athens of Pericles, all the world came to do business, helping increase America’s material wealth and power. But then, choosing to thrust itself onto the world stage in 1898 and again in 1917, America began to forsake its republican traditions of limited government in favor of consolidated national power. Progressives campaigned to concentrate their reform experiments in Washington. Wartime mobilization favored what Edward Corwin called a Constitution of Powers. Attempts to harness and regulate the economy brought even more of the same to repair the resulting damage. By making itself the indispensable nation, America became, by 1940, the Arsenal of Democracy. By then, the trajectory of political and corporate empire-building and the loss of local initiative that imperils liberty and the rule of law today was already well set.
In Sorokin’s judgment, the shift from a God-centered (ideational) to a secular materialistic (sensate) order means that the narrowly materialist view of contract would tend, “by its very nature, to degenerate into lawless, normless, amoral, godless compulsion and coercion.” His prognosis of 1941 describes the challenge we still face: “Such a culture loses its individuality. It becomes formless, shapeless, style-less. As such, it becomes less and less distinguishable in the ocean of cultural phenomena as a striking and magnificent individuality. When it reaches this stage, its creative career is finished. From the creative actor of history, it passes into the museum of historical survivals.” Living cultures reproduce themselves; impersonal edifices attract vandals.
Of revolution and its aspirations
Like a colossus standing astride its threshold, the French Revolution presides over our age as its great seminal event. Taking Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau for its prophets, the revolutionary National Assembly’s citizen-legislators established a new calendar and the metric system as if to recreate both time and space by returning to their genesis. This crusading national revolution was launched in the name of a liberated, classless Humanity: the restoration of Adam, the first man. Indeed, Rousseau, in a counterpoint to Augustine’s Confessions, had already presented himself as the model of a man in full, warts and all. The revolutionaries who adopted this project sought to make the old new again “without”—in the words of the great legal historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy—“the power which enables us to die to our old habits and ideals, get out of our old ruts, leave our dead selves behind and take the first step into a genuine future.” But effacing the past by fire falls far short of a resurrection.
In Out of Revolution (1938), Rosenstock-Huessy’s description of the French Revolution’s literary inspiration had the character of myth: “As pure water—Adam’s ale—had existed before the refinements of wine or beer, so Adam himself was the natural man who existed before the original sin of division into classes; when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” This familiar reversion to “‘Adam,’ in 1789 was more than a figure of speech. He was the great symbol of unity that preceded the division of Jews and Gentiles. Adam became a great messianic figure standing for the end of time when all men should meet again.”
Rosenstock-Huessy traced the arc of a thousand years of Western Christendom through a series of clerical revolutions, followed by increasingly secular ones. He presented an image of man pinioned upon a Cross of Reality, torn between the pull of the past and the future, the inside and the outside. Each insurrection recalled an earlier biblical point of origin even as it was propelled forward. Christendom took shape by baptizing Europe’s tribes into a loose-knit pantomime of Roman grandeur, forming and re-forming its institutional raiment. Then the great forward leaps of its progress were derailed into savage carnivals of violence driven by a volatile messianic impulse.
Kenneth Minogue notes in The Servile Mind (2010) that “Western politics . . . is marked by the imprint of theological doctrines. A reliable way of getting politics wrong is to ignore this connection.” Vishal Mangalwadi has taken an even more comprehensive view by describing the Bible as The Book That Made Your World (2010). From King Alfred’s law code to the common law, Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, and beyond, the Bible has been a great sourcebook of political instruction and wisdom.
Rosenstock argues that “Christianity came to the nations as something old and distinguished as an indispensable equipment for their march on the high road of history.” Out of its crucible were poured the foundations of the modern world. The biblical faith offered dignity and the emancipation of individuals from “bondage to the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:3). The resulting release of energy made medieval Europe into “one of the most inventive societies that history had known” (David Landes). Yet Christianity is “a faith so exacting that no pagan impulses were safe from its challenge. When this challenge of Christianity slackens, paganism immediately creeps in.” By now it should be evident that everything is up for grabs once this happens.
As the philosopher Stephen Toulmin tells the tale in Cosmopolis (1990): “Before the Reformation, the established rulers—the grand duchies, counties, kingdoms, and other sovereign territories of Europe—exercised their political power under the moral supervision of the Church. As Henry II of England found after the murder of Thomas à Becket, the Church might even oblige a King to accept a humiliating penance as the price of its continued support.” The Protestant secession into national churches and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century brought this delicate balance of power to an end.
A century later, the rationalist philosophy of Descartes and the contemporary scientific revolution were in some measure a reaction against the Thirty Years War which followed just a few years after the assassination of Henri IV, the founder of France’s Bourbon dynasty. “After 1610, a tone of confidence is replaced by one of catastrophe.” Doctrine took leave of experience. A rationalist pursuit of mathematical certainty—based on reason without revelation—bred perfectionism. The protracted decimation of the population in large tracts of German territory—both Protestant and Catholic—ended at Westphalia with the construction of a thoroughly secular international system by the great powers of the day. “After 1648, the new diplomatic and political order relieved rulers of the European Powers of outside moral criticism. Modern Europe has no central focus of moral and spiritual authority.”
The early managerial age
Perhaps this new order made the world safer for religious toleration, commerce, overseas missions, empire, and eventually democracy. But more to the point, it reinforced the Age of Reason spirit of abstraction, classification, and regulation—Paul Valéry’s “conquest by method”—which distinguished the subsequent mercantilist war-by-other-means. As Toulmin put it: “Soon enough, the flight from the particular, concrete, transitory, and practical aspects of human experience became a feature of cultural life in general, and above all of philosophy… In politics, too, an impatience with the particularity and concreteness of ethnography and history encouraged the new style of ‘political theory’ of which Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan is paradigmatic.”
Administrative centralization in France required the services of an educated, urban middle class. A secular clerisy of abstract thinkers supplanted the humble clerics and monks who had once civilized warlords while fashioning a Christian civilization from the ruins of classical antiquity. The Third Estate’s political self-consciousness was stirred while chafing under the disdain of the privileged classes. A cadre of intellectual leaders was required to replace the Old Regime, as Rosenstock-Huessy observed. “Hence the desire of the French to become intellectual, their devotion to all the idealistic superstructure of society… This new order of things was anticipated on the stage. The theatre became the hothouse for the ideas of 1789.” The poet was the progenitor of a new society and a new sensibility which soon turned the world upside down.
After years of delay, Beaumarchais, a playwright and banker who had helped finance the American War for Independence, overcame the King’s interdict to produce The Marriage of Figaro, a daring sequel to his satirical comedy, The Barber of Seville. It captured the public’s imagination as Louis XVI had feared and, as “the audience burst out in a frenzy of applause,” helped generate the critical mass to launch a revolution.
The Republic of Letters, as Pierre Bayle called it, has shaped the Western mind for centuries, as did Plato’s Academy long before it. The French Revolution brought the intellectual class to power. By marrying the Enlightenment and Rousseau, drama and journalism, the still-sketchy drafts of modern ideologies—“fire in the minds of men”—imaginatively seized the commanding heights of public opinion. Liberty, equality, and fraternity translated into liberalism, socialism, and nationalism. Noble generalities became the tools in trade of “the inspired individual.” As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it: “The thunderbolt, the flash, may burst out through any individual. Government by inspired individuals becomes the endeavor of the national society.” Enlightenment rationalism and liberal theologies offered to build more stately mansions for the soul.
Revolutions and scapegoats
In the final chorus of The Marriage of Figaro, the playwright Beaumarchais carefully laid the depth charges that helped bring down the Old Regime:
By the chance of birth
One is King, the other shepherd;
The difference is haphazard,
Inspiration alone can change everything.
Incense for twenty Kings
Vanishes with their deaths,
But Voltaire is immortal.
The media of the day broadcast the message. “The cult of an inspired literature is a real creed,” Rosenstock observed, “and involves a theory of revolution.”
The storming of the Bastille by the mob that had gathered at Les Invalides freed only a handful of elderly prisoners, not the expected political dissidents. A breakdown of institutional hierarchies and cultural norms accompanied the Great Fear. Karl Marx called the French Revolution a charade played out in Roman dress. Equally theatrical were the Noyades, the festivals, and the guillotine devouring the Revolution’s children. The parade of masks and fashions it inspired has continued unabated. As Marx also observed: “History repeats itself twice: First as tragedy, then as farce.”
In practice, the Revolution and its many offspring meant rule by the charismatic genius, the Hegelian hero in whom “history had become conscious of itself.” A frenzy of renown elevated the likes of Danton, Robespierre, the two Napoleons, Lenin, and so many others into power and their own personality cults, only to – iconoclastically and often unceremoniously – dash so many of them to the ground. Sic transit gloria mundi.
What Pitirim Sorokin described as the chaotic syncretism of a decaying sensate culture resembles the eclipse of a society at war with itself. The French literary scholar René Girard quoted one account to this effect: “As soon as this violent and tempestuous spark is lit in a kingdom or a republic, magistrates are bewildered, people are terrified, the government thrown into disarray. Laws are no longer obeyed; business comes to a halt; families lose coherence, and the streets their lively atmosphere. Everything is reduced to extreme confusion.” He added that, in the throes of collective persecution: “The strongest impression is without question an extreme loss of social order evidenced by the disappearance of the rules and ‘differences’ that define cultural divisions.”
Girard, who – like Voltaire – ranked among the Immortals of the Académie Française, searched the Bible to understand the unseen influences that disturb us morally and distort our sense of reality. In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, Girard contended that “the great writers apprehend intuitively and concretely, through the medium of their art, if not formally, the system in which they were first imprisoned together with their contemporaries.” This imprisoning system is, like a language, what helps shape and mediate people’s sense of reality.
Mimetic desire and manipulation
A careful study of exceptional writers like Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky taught Girard that our desires are quite unoriginal. What is desirable is first modeled for us. Desire is a dynamic, triangular relationship between a subject, an object, and a mediator who models what is desirable. “The real structures are intersubjective. They cannot be localized anywhere; the triangle has no reality whatever; it is a systematic metaphor, systematically pursued.”
To illustrate, Girard begins with Don Quixote, a character created by Miguel de Cervantes, who embraces another fictional character, Amadis of Gaul, as his vicarious model of chivalry. “The mediator is imaginary but not the mediation. Behind the hero’s desires, there is indeed the suggestion of a third person, the inventor of Amadis, the author of the chivalric romances. Cervantes’ work is a long meditation on the baleful influence that the most lucid minds can exercise upon one another. Except in the realm of chivalry, Don Quixote reasons with a great deal of common sense.” Other people whisper in our ear. Throughout life, we are more impressionable than we imagine. Girard later called this interactive relationship mimetic desire.
In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard tied mimetic desire directly to Biblical accounts, especially the Gospels. The Tenth Commandment, for example, forbids coveting. Mimetic desire for the same object may spark envy and rivalry, threatening to spread a contagion of reprisals, especially in small or isolated social units. The Bible also reveals how vulnerable we are to repetitive and addictive criminal, subversive, or tyrannical temptations. People ordinarily seek to bask in the glory of this world but it is “a glory that multiplies scandals as it makes its way.” As God revealed to Cain: “Sin crouches at the door; its desire is for you.”
‘Woe to the one by whom scandal comes!’ Jesus reserves his most solemn warning for the adults who seduce children into the infernal prison of scandal. The more the imitation is innocent and trusting, the more the one who imitates is easily scandalized, and the more the seducer is guilty of abusing this innocence.
People in thrall to a cult, ideology, or Soviet-era disinformation might seem quite ordinary. So might inmates of Plato’s Cave, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, or Xi Jinping’s social credit system. It is not a question of intelligence or gullibility. Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays, and Harold Lasswell all showed how consent can be manufactured through the manipulation – that is, the mediation – of public opinion.
Signs and portents
Let us heed the signs of the times! Americans today live within the shell of a federal republic where public service is credentialed, regulated, and gravitates toward national hubs. Like public education, the media are powerful tools that shape public opinion. A permanent network of communications corporations, like similar oligopolies, is a major gatekeeper of public information – the situation raises questions of neutrality and editorial integrity. When the truth is withheld or diluted, when consent is assumed or extorted, when the political establishment seeks to rule or ruin, people’s ability to be self-governing and to make reasoned decisions is compromised. Truth matters. In the service of ideological orthodoxies, our media-saturated reality invites political gaslighting.
Moving forward: Is there any remedy for this vipers’ tangle of cultural neuroses? Perhaps. Congressional grants of quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial powers to administrative agencies are an abuse of the principle that delegated powers may not be delegated. Decentralization is long overdue. The American national government should begin diversting should begin divesting itself of its intrusive regulatory, social service, and internal security apparatus. The creation of any social credit system, whether public or private, should be prohibited in advance. Advocacy, censorship, or disinformation – either on highly-subsidized, limited-liability social media platforms or in federally-subsidized public education – must be exposed. It is time to restore community-based and community-financed schools and permit competitive enterprise in both education and the media.
In short, we must strengthen human-scale institutions. Local governments should be given fiscal responsibility and control over infrastructure projects. Treat families, neighborhoods, and counties as self-governing units within a restored federal framework cleansed of empire-building administrative agencies, especially those parts which serve as transmission belts for radical social change.
The Bible casts a critical eye on the glories of the world. During crises of an earlier age, Western civilization coalesced around a Gospel which taught that the truth will set us free. For more than a thousand years, its influence gradually leavened the culture, revealing the true character of pervasive forms of collective manipulation and persecution as it plumbed the depths and darkness of depravity, coercion, deceit, and entrapment. As Girard noted: “The Passion accounts reveal a phenomenon that unbeknownst to us generates all human cultures and still warps our human vision in favor of all sorts of exclusions and scapegoating. If this analysis is true, the explanatory power of Jesus’ death is much greater than we realize, and Paul’s exalted idea of the Cross as the source of all knowledge is anthropologically sound.” Among many other things, it bears witness repeatedly to the unanimity of vested interests – most famously with Naboth’s Vineyard and the Crucifixion of Jesus – in protecting their turf by discrediting and expelling anyone who threatens their power. The Bible is a revolutionary revelation of things otherwise hidden from view. It provides models to imitate or reject that, if we so desire, can serve as a mirror on our times and a beacon for our lives.