Repost: The City of Man

This is a heavily revised and expanded version of an essay that was originally published (under another title) on my now-defunct personal blog.

INTRODUCTION

Over the last centuries, the nations of the West have been both secularized and democratized, moving from monarchy to liberal democracy while at the same time experiencing a dramatic drop in religious faith. As belief in democracy as the best or only legitimate form of government became all but universally accepted, Christianity entered a still-ongoing decline, the occupants of church pews growing ever older and fewer, and the historic beliefs and practices of the Church increasingly seen as a barbarous and outmoded. Today, most Westerners are—at least functionally—atheists, agnostics, or adherents of a vague, wishy-washy “spirituality” which issues no substantial dogmas and imposes no significant duties. To be sure, nominal Christians are still in the majority in some countries, but genuine belief is going the way of the dodo. (My own country, Norway, is an excellent case study. Its Lutheran church was established until 2012, and counted almost 79 percent of Norwegians among its members as recently as 2007. But the attitude of Norwegians—including much of the clergy—and their government towards traditional Christianity has for many years consisted of indifference mixed with hostility.) Data gathered by Gallup between 2006 and 2011 show that the majority of people in most Western European and Anglosphere countries do not regard religion as an important part of their daily lives[1]. And perhaps even more importantly, today’s opinion-makers, be they intellectuals and educators or comedians and columnists, are often not just apathetic towards Christianity, but actively hostile to it.

As I have already alluded to, these developments are not new. Though democracy only became the undisputed hegemon of Western political ideas at the end of the Cold War, democratic and liberal ideas in their modern form have been with us for centuries, and have been influencing politics for almost as long. The decline in religious belief, meanwhile, certainly gained steam because of multicultural pluralism, the moral revolution of the 1960s, and the disillusionment brought about by Auschwitz and the Somme, but it did not start with them. Its roots are at least as old as the Enlightenment. This is well illustrated by the fact that most hobbyhorses of the typical modern secularist—”organized religion” as the authoritarian and superstitious enemy of freedom and reason, science as the best or only source of knowledge, crude materialism and determinism, ethical consequentialism and hedonism—are not products of the 20th century, but of the 18th or 19th.

As both ideas and practices, the modern, Western forms of democracy and irreligion have much in common as to how, where, and when they developed. Both got their start among a few Enlightenment thinkers—very often the same thinkers in both cases—before gradually becoming commonly accepted in Europe and the English-speaking world over the following centuries, but less so in most of the rest of the world. These parallels seem too strong to be coincidental, which leaves us with a question: Why—and how—are democracy and secularism connected?

 

THE CITY OF GOD

It may be useful to start by defining the word “democracy,” since it can have several different meanings. In the broadest sense, a democracy is any political system that gives at least some power to people who hold no formal political office. All or virtually all societies throughout history have been democratic in this sense—in practice, if not always in theory. But the definition I have in mind is much narrower. On that definition, a democracy is a political system structured according to the idea that political authority is legitimate only insofar as it has the consent of the people over which it rules.

We modern Westerners are so used to this idea that we tend to forget how unusual it is. Most societies throughout history have rejected it—including, until relatively recently, Western societies.

When Europeans universally believed, as they did for well over a thousand years, that an omnipotent Being controls every aspect of reality, it seemed self-evident that only this Being has the authority to decide who should hold political power. From this, it followed that even the pettiest of political mandates were not simply arbitrary accidents of birth or practical matters of common agreement, but God-granted, and that they therefore existed objectively—outside, over, and before the thoughts and feelings of this or that subject. God, being morally perfect and omniscient, did not need the advice or consent of imperfect men, and the idea that political authority is only legitimate if it is accompanied by popular consent would have seemed as absurd as the idea that a man needs the say-so of his dog before he can legitimately command it to jump. It was also a deeply impious idea, amounting to nothing less than defiance in the face of the will of God. Indeed, it effectively put man in God’s place by making man the giver of authority. On this view, it also followed naturally that close links between Church and state were both good and necessary.

This system did not just rely on the existence of any old God, but the God of revealed religion: not the aloof cosmic watchmaker of deism, nor the amoral and impersonal God of many Eastern religions, but the God of the Old and New Testaments—a God who not only takes an interest in bringing men to salvation, but also in this-worldly morality and social organization, both inasmuch as these can help or hinder salvation and inasmuch as they intersect with the universal, God-given natural law.

Given this worldview, some form of monarchy followed naturally. By giving non-elected authority to kings, the system acknowledged that it was God, not the social contract or the consent of the voters, Who was the ultimate Source of Earthly authority. Indeed, the institution of monarchy can be seen as a sort of living metaphor for the sovereignty of God over His creation. And by leaving the choice of ruler at least partly up to what is now often derided as “the accidents of birth,” Medieval man was essentially putting his trust in Divine providence. There were, of course, other centers of power, notably the Church and nobles, and as modern historians often point out, the monarchy, the Church, and the aristocracy were often engaged in a bitter struggle for power. But it must be remembered that absolute monarchy is not, contrary to popular belief, an idea that had much currency in the Middle Ages. Rather, its heyday was the early modern era.

Besides, even the Medieval division of power between the monarchy, the Church, and the nobility—which arose organically over time rather than as a result of central planning or written constitutions—can be seen as religiously significant, as a reflection of the view that man is so damaged by the Fall that even the best human ruler cannot be trusted with absolute power. Far from being the brainchild of modernity and liberalism, the notion that power corrupts was very much present in the minds of Medieval Christians. Given their sober view of human nature, this should not come as a surprise. But unlike later classical liberals, they did not imagine that dividing and limiting power so as to prevent its abuse could be the sole or central purpose of politics. Instead, it was seen as a pragmatic consideration, not one that could or should ground legitimacy or as it were occupy center stage. Only given an already existing, organically evolved substructure of tradition, morality, and theology could it be meaningful or helpful—it was not itself the end and purpose of government, but a means by which the ends and purposes of government could better be achieved.

Though the Medieval state was founded on universal truths of morality and religion, the expression and embodiment of these truths in the social order was not and could not be universal, in the sense that socialist world government or global capitalism are universal. Instead, each such expression was tied inextricably to a particular people with particular customs and a particular history. Though I have been describing the sacralized and moralized societies of the Middle Ages in a general and abstract way, it must not be supposed that this reflects how these societies actually came to be. We can draw a parallel between the development of human societies and the development of human languages. From the fact that the German language has a complicated case system that can be described in an abstract way, it does not follow that this system was consciously and purposively constructed. Rather, it grew, slowly and organically, out of the practices and circumstances of a particular people—and indeed it continues to grow. There are many reasons why this is how it must and should be, some practical, others aesthetic or moral. Here, we can again draw a comparison to language. Volapük and Marxism have both failed in their objectives, and for many of the same reasons: because people rightly prefer the practices of their ancestors to constructed novelties, because human societies and human languages are too complicated to be understood and administered from the outside, and because the gray uniformity universalizing ideologies threaten to impose on the world is universally acknowledged to be an ugly and undesirable thing.

It might be objected that I have been painting an idealized picture. Weren’t there kings (and Popes and nobles) who were cruel, corrupt, or incompetent? Of course there were—but such people exist in every society and in every kind of political system. The mere presence of flaws in a political system or a social order does not automatically prove that it should be rejected. To claim that it does is to imply—unrealistically—that there is a feasible order without any flaws at all, or at least to assume—without proof—that there is a feasible order with fewer flaws. Besides, what I have described is not a reality, but an ideal that was striven for; and no-one expected that it should be perfectly realized. Again, Medieval people had no illusions about human nature.

 

THE MODERN REVOLUTION

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, faith and reason gradually tore themselves apart from one another. By the time of the Enlightenment, the two, which had seemed self-evidently compatible to High Medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, were seen by many as adversaries and opposites, a view that persists today. Why did this happen? In his book The Last Superstition, philosopher Edward Feser argues that much of modern secularization has its roots in the turn towards nominalism and voluntarism among late-medieval Scholastics like William of Ockham[2]. In particular, the Ockhamites’ view of God as radically free and ruled by will rather than intellect made Him impervious to rational inquiry, thus placing faith and reason at odds and arguably laying the groundwork for both the fideism of the Reformation and the anti-religious rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Forced to take sides in the apparent conflict between faith and reason, many educated people, including some kings and noblemen, sided with reason. This, in turn, led them away from Christianity: first to deism, pantheism, or weak-tea religious liberalism, then to agnosticism or atheism. But this caused a problem. If there was no God, or if God did not take an interest in or intervene in the affairs of men, mandates of authority could not have their source in Him. Where, then, did they have their source?

The most popular answer was that they had their source in human beings. It came to be implicitly understood, though rarely explicitly stated, that political authority was an entirely subjective matter.

In philosophy, this trend became apparent as early as in Machiavelli’s The Prince. A later development was the “social contract theory” first formulated by Thomas Hobbes. Human beings, this theory has it, started out in an anarchic state of nature, where everyone was in perpetual conflict with everyone else[3]. Eventually, though, everyone realized that it was in their mutual self-interest to give up some of their liberty in order to safeguard social stability and safety, and thus, law and government were born. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes was no democrat; but almost all subsequent social contract theorists have been, and it’s not difficult to see why. If law and government are founded on nothing but a contract, why shouldn’t its signatories be free to agree to change its terms or execution?

But social contract theory also has at least one enormous problem. It conceives of law and government in a completely amoral way. On the social contract view, they do not exist in order to prevent evil and encourage good, but to serve the self-interest of the people over which they have authority. And though many now talk about how we shouldn’t “legislate morality,” this is a view that no sane person actually holds. Everyone realizes that we don’t have laws against, say, rape or murder just because such laws are in everyone’s self-interest, but because rape and murder are wrong. But this puts democracy in a tricky position, especially if we define it as I have done. For it now seems that laws and rulers don’t ultimately get their authority from their subjects, but from the aforementioned moral law. If they also happen to have the blessing of their subjects, that is at best icing on the cake, a pragmatic advantage that will make it easier to govern.

All this may seem a tad totalitarian, but once again, it’s something with which no-one actually seriously disagrees. A thought experiment will illustrate this point. Imagine you have been made dictator for life of the nation of Oceania. Oceania, as it turns out, is a very unusual nation; sixty percent of its population are sociopathic, sadistic, and entirely unrepentant rapists. And as luck would have it (for the sixty percent, anyway), the remaining forty percent of the population consists entirely of defenseless women. A question arises: Should you give up your dictatorial powers and introduce democracy to Oceania? The Union of Rapists, a newly formed political party which has already garnered the support of about sixty percent of Oceanians, would certainly like you to.

This thought experiment illustrates a claim I’ve already made, one which is viewed with squeamishness by many moderns, but which is not seriously doubted by any sane person: that there is a moral law which is as universal and objective as the laws of nature—a law that, among other things, prohibits rape always and everywhere,—and that this law, rather than any human will, is what ultimately gives political authority its legitimacy, what ultimately determines whether a given regime, ruler, law, or decision is just or unjust. Would a pro-rape Oceanian government be legitimate because it had the support of the sixty percent? Would an anti-rape government be illegitimate because it didn’t? Again, if the latter kind of government did somehow manage to garner the support of the majority, that would be a practical advantage—but the legitimacy or justness of that government would not turn on whether it had that support.

To bring things back around to the social contract, the fundamental problem with that theory is that it entirely separates politics from morality. This may seem nice and tolerant at first blush, but the conclusions it leads to are nightmarish. And, such conclusions don’t just follow from social contract theory. Because modern democracy is based on the notion that authority is made legitimate by the consent of the voters rather than by something objective and superhuman like the moral law, it follows from any coherent and comprehensive statement of modern democratic ideals. It seems, then, that we have a choice: The state can be either decent or democratic, but not both.

To echo what I said earlier about separation of powers, this is not to say that all popular participation in politics is off the table: only that the will of the people (or of any person or subset of the people) cannot be what ultimately gives a decent and humane state its legitimacy. Rather, states get their legitimacy from what C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man called the “Tao,” and what pre-modern Western thinkers called the “natural law.” For a pre-modern thinker like Thomas Aquinas, to describe the moral (i.e. the natural) law as a law is not to indulge in metaphor. The moral law is a law in the exact same sense as are driving regulations: Both are “ordinance[s] of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated”.[4] This suggests that the moral law does not make sense if we do not believe that there is a giver of that law, Who can be none other than God. Elizabeth Anscombe is among the modern thinkers who have picked up on this idea. In her classic essay “Modern Moral Philosophy,” she criticizes modern ethicists for making use of such concepts as “moral law,” “duty,” and “obligation” while denying the existence of the Divine lawgiver without Whom they make no sense. It seems, then, that we need the moral law for good government, and that we need God for the moral law.

 

THE CITY OF MAN

An answer to our original question has now taken form. Democracy and irreligion are connected in the following way. Without God, there are only a few directions in which a political system can go, none of them very attractive. Authority, political as well as social, becomes completely subjective. On this view, there is no real reason for me to submit to an authority unless I want to. This reason may be positive—submitting to the authority in question may happen to jibe with my self-interest—or it may be negative—that is, I may face bad consequences, ranging from financial difficulty and the disapproval of my peers to imprisonment, torture, and execution, if I do not submit to it. Hence, not only the efficiency, but the very legitimacy of a government depends on its ability to ensure its subjects’ loyalty through force or persuasion.

The democratic idea that the state should be the servant of its subjects’ self-interest gave rise to the idea that the state should be morally neutral. Rather than endorsing a particular moral and religious doctrine—what John Rawls, court philosopher of the liberal state, famously dubbed a “conception of the Good”—the state should simply let all people choose and act out their own conceptions of the Good to the greatest degree compatible with the same privilege for everyone else. Its only task would be to neutralize threats to and licentious exercises of this liberty. In economics, these new currents gave rise to capitalism, which applied the liberal-democratic doctrine of self-interested, amoral, autonomous choice to economics. Thus arose the combination of democracy, liberalism, and capitalism which is often said to be typical of the modern West.

Doctrinaire supporters of this combination are today known as “classical liberals,” but virtually no notable politician, journalist, or academic in the Western world rejects it outright, except sometimes to complain that it doesn’t go far enough. Classical liberalism is an ideology of negative liberty. But liberalism has an id as well as a superego, and from the beginning, the id of liberalism was paradoxically hostile to liberty, at least in the negative sense. After all, many non-state institutions—the family, the tribe, and the Church—seemed to be at least as inimical to individual freedom (or the liberal conception thereof) as the non-democratic state. The Church, in particular, was a worry: Its worldview was, as we have already seen, fundamentally at odds with the secularism that undergirds liberalism and democracy. In the beginning, it was generally hoped that these oppressive, outmoded institutions would whither away by themselves. The only reason people remained loyal to them, liberals thought, was ignorance and fear, and once they had been properly educated and liberated, they would no longer have any reason to remain loyal to them. Besides, many early liberals feared that to actively use the state against them would merely be to replace one kind of authoritarianism with another.

As early as the French Revolution, this doctrine hit a snag. The French masses’ loyalty to faith, family, and fatherland, the revolutionaries found, was deeper and more earnest than they had counted on. Unhappy as they had been with the excesses of the King and nobles, the masses were even less happy with the novelties of their new rulers. In some cases, usually when peasants revolted against the anticlerical policies of the new state, the revolutionaries ended up maiming and murdering the very people for whose liberation they claimed to be struggling. Such paradoxes would multiply over the coming years. From Italy to Prussia to Mexico, newly formed liberal governments found it necessary to work actively to neutralize the Church—either by turning it into a politicized pawn of the secular state or by suppressing it violently. As liberals realized that their goals would not be as easy to achieve as they had hoped—and particularly that the state was not the only or even the biggest obstacle they faced—they became more and more totalitarian in their outlook. They acquired a more positive view of the state, which they now hoped to turn into an engine of social transformation, to be wielded against nonstate institutions that imposed illiberal demands on and inspired illiberal sentiments in their members. The United States was arguably the first country to reach the logical conclusion of this development. There, liberalism had, by the turn of the 19th century, become an ideology of radically anti-traditional social engineering, bearing almost no surface relation to the old liberalism.

What, then, of democracy? Could the old liberals’ support of popular sovereignty be made consistent with a political philosophy that increasingly held that progress must be imposed from above? In short, no—but liberals certainly weren’t intent on giving up the word “democracy,” with all its positive connotations. Thus, it was redefined in a variety of ways. It often came to denote merely a jumble of egalitarian and allegedly virtuous causes that have little or nothing to do with popular sovereignty. Others, picking up on an idea that had first been laid out by Rousseau, now held that the democratic state should not work to give people what they say they want, but what they need or really want. The peasants may say they want the Church to operate freely, but what they need, what they really want, though they are too oppressed and ignorant to realize it, is liberation from organized religion. When we violently impose secularism on the peasants, not only are we doing them a favor—we are also doing the genuinely democratic thing.

Many conservatives, especially in the English-speaking world, reacted to these developments by opposing the new liberalism in favor of the old. Thus, classical liberal ideals like industrialization, free-market capitalism, and the nightwatchman state, which had been opposed by most conservatives in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, were appropriated by the self-declared conservative Right. Indeed, by the late 20th century, these ideals had come to be seen by many in the English-speaking world as definitive of conservatism, as shown by the views of such recent “conservative” heroes as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This was probably a bad thing; for if what I have claimed so far is true, it seems reasonable to say that modern left-liberalism is not a perversion or misunderstanding of classical liberalism, but a more comprehensive working-out of its basic premises. Thus, the modern Right became (and continues to be) little more than the less consistent and clued-in twin of the modern Left, and one that anyway tended to drift towards the Left, since that is where its basic assumptions lead. Politics became little more than a contest between different flavors of liberalism: There was old liberalism (conservatism, classical liberalism, libertarianism), new liberalism (left-liberalism), and new liberalism in a hurry (socialism), but little or no room for opposition to liberalism itself. Today, self-described conservatives in the Western world almost never criticize modernity. In fact, they often explicitly embrace it at least as zealously as do their alleged opponents on the Left.

Aside from conservatism, two major anti-liberal ideologies of the modern era were Italian Fascism and German Nazism[5], but these were as opposed to the traditional Right as to the radical Left, as anti-traditional as they were anti-modern. As far as the Nazis go, this is well illustrated by a line in the Horst Wessel-Lied that eulogizes the SA victims of “Rotfront und Reaktion.”[6] The Italian Fascists, meanwhile, exalted the modern, technocratic state and had their ideological origins on the far Left of the Italian labor movement. To the extent that the Nazis and Fascists were genuinely anti-modern and anti-liberal, then, they managed to be those things without becoming traditional or conservative. (Put it this way: The Nazis would have horrified Thomas Aquinas at least as much as they would have horrified Voltaire.)

Yet another allegedly anti-modern force is postmodernism, an ill-defined intellectual movement whose major representatives include French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard. Postmodernism is allegedly defined by a rejection of the rationalism and universalism of the Enlightenment, and hence also of the idea that there is such a thing as a single universally and objectively true account of what things are like. As this alone should make clear, if post-modernism is really anti-modern at all, it is not anti-modern in a way that could jibe with those who agree with what I have written here. In an important way, many postmodernists seem to buy into the Enlightenment hype by accepting that the Enlightenment conception of reason is the only possible conception thereof, so that in rejecting the Enlightenment, one must reject reason itself. In fact, most kinds of postmodernism don’t even go that far. As its name suggests, postmodernism is less a rejection of modernism than a different and more radical take on it. It seems tempting to describe postmodernism as modernism on a triple espresso, running around and giddily applying itself to everything. Consider that most self-described postmodernists aren’t dismissive or suspicious of truth because they have some knockdown argument against it—by their own lights, after all, arguments have no force—but because it props up racism, sexism, cultural imperialism, or some other ideal contrary to all that is modern and liberating. For the first moderns, religious and moral truth had to yield to autonomy and equality. For the postmodernists, every kind of truth has to yield to them. Postmodernism does not reject Enlightenment ideals, but applies them more zealously and universally than ever. That it thereby ends up contradicting the Enlightenment shows only that the Enlightenment project was self-refuting from the start.

But although most anti-modern movements were either ineffective or not really anti-modern, large pockets of public and private life in practice remained mostly untouched by modernity until the 1960s. People still by and large accepted organized religion, national sovereignty, the traditional patriarchal family, and other pre-modern institutions, and it was only in the decades after the Sixties that this began to change. Perhaps most crucially, the Sixties saw the Second Vatican Council, which marked the beginning of an uneasy detente between the modern world and the Catholic Church, until then its greatest foe. Still, if what I have said so far is true, the Cultural Revolution seems not to have been the radical departure it has often been portrayed as, but the logical outcome of a process which had begun centuries before. Thus, although a return to the pre-Sixties social order of the sort advocated by many cultural conservatives would certainly be a huge improvement, it would not rid us of the disease, but only its most recent symptom.

During the 20th century, there also appeared a number of ideologies that tried to “re-moralize” politics without reference to religion. Given the conflict between the modern, amoral, anti-transcendental conception of politics and our intuitive, solidly moral conception of politics, this was bound to happen. Often, these ideologies also acted as substitute Christianities with one or more this-worldly substitute Gods—the Race, the Nation, the People, the Leader, the Party, the Proletariat, or even History itself.

Totalitarianism is often thought to have disappeared with the Soviet Union, but this is mistaken: A “soft,” nominally democratic, and usually nonviolent variety of totalitarianism survives in Western countries today. In particular, recent decades have seen the rise of a sort of soft Marxism in Western political thought, according to which the main purpose of the state is to defend officially designated victim groups from a silent, institutionally entrenched conspiracy of white, Christian, upper-class men. This ideology, which is usually described by its opponents as ”cultural Marxism” or “political correctness,” often uses the rhetoric of democracy and liberalism, and sometimes even of Christianity—but it can by its nature be neither democratic nor liberal, and certainly not Christian. Given its low opinion of the historical majorities of Western countries, it is committed to the view that the real business of governing should be left to an enlightened elite of unelected administrators. Conservatives should, of course, oppose political correctness. But to oppose it on the grounds that it is undemocratic, as many on the Right now do, is not a wise option; it amounts to extolling the merits of the frying pan over those of the fire.

 

CONCLUSION: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?

The central question of this essay has been, “Why—and how—are democracy and secularism connected?” I have tried to to answer that question by arguing that the secularization undergone by Western countries in the last few centuries is the ultimate cause of the democratization they underwent at about the same time. Secularization has had effects far beyond areas of life that are clearly related to religion. Among other things, in has changed the common view of political authority (and other kinds of authority): On the pre-modern view, authority is God-given, objective, and absolute; whereas on the modern view, it is man-made, subjective, and relative. This rupture is the direct or indirect cause of almost every major political novelty since the French Revolution. Those who believe, as I do, that this view of authority and the philosophical views that led to it are false must therefore reject these novelties.

I have tried to show that there are several problems with the modern view, especially that it creates an artificial divide between politics, religion, and morality. But if we want rational and humane government, none of these can be entirely separated from the others; both amoral government and irreligious morality are undesirable and indefensible. Many people have realized this, but have not, for various reasons, wanted to go back to the traditional religion of the past. They have therefore created substitute Christianities, which usually morph into totalitarian political systems. Thus, modern tyranny as well as modern democracy has its source in secularization.

I have also suggested that democracy is an inherently unstable system. As has been suggested since Plato’s time, it tends to segue into tyranny. I am less sure about whether modern tyranny is also unstable, but the precedent set by the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, none of which lasted for even a century, suggests that it may be. Thus, the long-term outlook for the modern West, be it democratic or dictatorial, is not good. It is made even worse by the fact that we currently face several military, economic, and cultural adversaries who retain a more or less pre-modern—and hence more stable—conception of politics. Chief among these are the Muslim world, and to a lesser extent India and China.

What can be done about this? Can anything be done about it? The answer to the latter question is both “Yes” and “No,” since the answer to the former is as obvious as it is infeasible in the short term: We need a revolt against the modern world, a return to the pre-modern conception of politics and the pre-modern worldview generally. There are many reasons why this currently seems nearly impossible. For one thing, such a change cannot simply be imposed from above. What we need is not a political revolution, which will simply sink us deeper into the post-Enlightenment abyss, but a cultural one—and such a cultural (counter)revolution is definitely not in the offing. I therefore feel justified in saying, quite literally, that only a miracle could save us now.

To advocate a return to the pre-modern conception of authority is not to advocate a wholesale return to the Middle Ages or any other point in the past. In particular, it does not mean that we should abandon modern advances in science, technology, and medicine. The fact that the Catholic Church operates on a pre-modern conception of authority has not prevented the Pope from getting a Twitter account. Nor does it mean abandoning all popular participation in politics—recall that my definition of “democracy” is narrower than that. Nor, finally, does it entail a universal rejection of change of the sort typically attributed to “reactionary” strawmen; it merely entails a rejection of the sorts of changes that Western societies have undergone in the modern era.

In truth, the modern prejudice against pre-modern political systems is just that—a prejudice, and a prejudice of the worst kind. It is usually based entirely on unexamined and groundless gut feelings. Think, for example, of how modern people associate monarchy and theocracy with corruption, abuse of power, ignorance, injustice, abuse, exploitation, hypocrisy, and so on. Do they have any real reason to think that these things were more prevalent in past societies than in our own? Needless to say, the answer is usually, “No.” In fact, if what I have claimed in this essay is true, we seem to have good reason to suppose that the opposite is true.

One popular manifestation of the modern prejudice against the past is the claim that “we can’t turn the clock back.” But this claim is either trivially true or obviously false. If “turning the clock back” means a complete return to some point in the past, “turning the clock back” is indeed impossible—but no-one wants that anyway. If, however, it means using the ideals of the past to guide our actions here and now, I see no reason why it should be impossible. After all, the sort of person who tends to warn against trying to “turn the clock back” usually has few qualms about imposing hitherto untried ideals on society; and if we can move forward, why not backward? What’s more, even if it were non-trivially true, it would not be an argument for the inferiority of the past to the present, though people often talk as if it were. The fact that A is our only available option does not prove that it is intrinsically superior to B, that we should opt for A even if B does become available. The non-existence of a cure for cancer does not prove that curing cancer is something that is not in principle desirable.

Hence, the sort of reactionary program I’ve outlined here seems perfectly feasible in principle. Its practical prospects are bleak, though. But even this should not demoralize us completely. For one thing, though we reactionaries are few, we are also right, and it is inherently valuable to know and tell the truth—even when few are willing to listen. For another, I have already suggested that only a miracle can save us now; but miracles have been known to happen. At any rate, though, any person—and especially any Christian, Jew, or Muslim—who has made his peace with the modern world has thereby knowingly or unknowingly made his peace with the devil.

NOTES

[1]   The relevant page on Gallup’s own website is behind a paywall, but the numbers were available on the Wikipedia article “Irreligion by country” as of this writing. The exceptions are the United States, where only 36% of the population do not consider religion an important part of their daily lives; Portugal (33%); Italy (30%); Greece, (24%); and Malta (14%).

[2]   Diving into this subject at the length it needs and deserves would take us too far afield here. Interested readers are directed to Feser’s book.

[3]   In the works of early social contract theorists, it is often unclear whether the “state of nature” is meant as a thought experiment or as a theory about how human societies actually arose.

[4]   ST IaIIae Q90 A4

[5]   It would, of course, be wrong to describe Communism as a kind of liberalism. But it is basically a different riff on the Enlightenment ideals that also gave rise to liberalism. Though Communists are often vocal in their opposition to “bourgeois liberalism,” it would therefore be wrong to describe them as anti-liberal in the full sense.

[6]   “The Red Front and reactionaries.”

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15 thoughts on “Repost: The City of Man

  1. I am very ambivalent about the kind of reasoning where the old ways were good, the new ways are horrible, so we should await for God to reintroduce the old ways by a miracle, and stew quietly in resentment at the new ways.

    Theocracy in the ancient nation of Israel was a state where there was no King; all answered to God, and God held government over the affairs of men. Therefore, in the modern world theocracy will closer obtain, when men of power begin more and more often, for the fear of God, to put their hand away from their rod of office, and leave room for God to wreak His judgment — not when men of power seek to wield the rod of office with greater and greater ferocity, and all the powerless men fantasize about so doing, even if it were in God’s name….

    At the moment, of course, the men of power are actively pushing for the government of the world, each according to his own silly and ridiculous pet theory. Well, that is awful, and that is a problem. Before I wish for, or fantasize anything in that vein, then, I realized I have to stop and think carefully.

    Now; the reactionary theory of the origin of democracy seems to be (exaggerating slightly), that the high priests of God were loyal to Him, but traitorous intellectuals made use of belly-driven rabble (or somehow managed all on their own) to overthrow God’s loyal priests and monarchs…. However, if in the Middle Ages God was the one who was running things, why did He allow this to happen? I am driven to conclude that either God was not running things (a null hypothesis, i.e. that God is indifferent to this dimension of Earthly affairs), or that God somehow saw it as necessary that the old ways (which we are tempted to value so much) be purged away by destruction. There was some kind of fatal mistake or offence specifically on the part of the princes of men (not of any rabble or intellectuals who opposed them), and which I have not seen anyone get to the bottom of. If we have any dreams of restoring a theocracy, then, we would have to first understand what it is about the _old_ theocracies that was so God-offending that He preferred to even give the respective nations up to revolutionaries who explicitly opposed Him (but were at least honest in so doing). Otherwise, resurrecting a carbon copy of the old order would simply lead to the same bloody outcome, and even worse (since we have neither the considerable virtues and wisdom of the men of yore, nor the excuse of being ignorant of what we are trying to do).

    (This is a thing that particularly interests me about the fate of Holy Russia, since a place that is frequently oversold as the exemplar of pious post-Byzantine Orthodox theocracy, was given up in the blink of an eye, historically speaking, to approximately the most vicious desecrators available at the time. Even as the figurehead of the whole order — the royal family — was moving outwardly closer to some kind of ideal of Christian monarchy. This happens in accordance to the will of a God who would have spared even Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men — and that is ten righteous men scattered throughout the population, not the ten men with the most influence over things. Ah, that right there might be a clue.)

    So, this is where I find myself with an utterly surprising (to myself) opinion. I would appreciate feedback on it, then — is this reasoning completely backwards — or is there some validity to the questions I’m raising?

    • Just to be clear, I’m referring to theocracy in the loosest sense, as any of the historical governments which acknowledged God’s will over human affairs, rather than pretending to an absolutist, self-legitimating mandate, or worshipping any of innumerable idols.

    • I have seen these arguments relatively commonly. Indeed, I have been taught similar in a college course. However, I am convinced they do not have as much merit as they first appear.

      “Theocracy in the ancient nation of Israel was a state where there was no King; all answered to God, and God held government over the affairs of men.”

      Pre-Saul, this is technically true in some senses, but not really representative of the whole situation. I have often heard it argued that God’s original intent for Israel was as a kind of anarchic state, or some kind of republic, but the Israelites would have none of it and disobediently wanted a godless King. The case for this is usually based off of I Samuel 8. At first, this explanation of I Sam. 8 has some surface appeal to it, especially if you are searching for a Biblical justification for a republic (how that interpretation originally came about in the first place), but there are problems with it.

      This explanation pits I Samuel 8 against virtually the entire rest of Scripture and ignores that aristocratic and monarchical forces existed before I Sam. 8. For instance, Num. 7 makes reference to the “Princes of Israel” as the leaders of each tribe of Israel, the Princes being the head of each tribe. Samuel himself seems to have been a kind of Head of State whose children would succeed him. Considering the Law of Moses had previously made provision for the future King, it is not the demanding of the King that seems to be the problem, but the demand that this King rule them like the other nations. Given the Scripture just leading up to I Sam. 8, not to mention much of it afterwards, it seems unlikely God would have been displeased with the people of Israel demanding a more explicitly religious kingship.

      Also, the Book of Judges is not a history to look upon with any kind of nostalgia. The Israelites of that period were wicked beyond belief, at least as bad as the later Davidic Kings. The book ends on a rather pro-monarchy note, Judges 21:25: In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes. While it might sound appealing and pious to be ruled directly by God with no intermediaries, this has never worked in history and can’t work because of sinful human nature. We need rulers. Furthermore, we need rulers whose authority comes from above, not from the popular will.

      “I am driven to conclude that either God was not running things (a null hypothesis, i.e. that God is indifferent to this dimension of Earthly affairs), or that God somehow saw it as necessary that the old ways (which we are tempted to value so much) be purged away by destruction.”

      You could argue that the Fall of Adam was a good event in history using this type of argument, which makes it good that it is a false dichotomy. God could have other purposes for letting the ancien regime be destroyed other than being displeased with it or simply not caring. There are a myriad of other reasons why He would wish to let us under the delusions of liberalism, from chastisement to simply desiring to show how utterly stupid the entire liberal program is and what abyss it will eventually push us into. That isn’t to say that we should just go back to the status quo ante without learning any lessons.

      • You are probably correct in your assessment of the theory of theocratic anarchy being a shaky one.

        “That isn’t to say that we should just go back to the status quo ante without learning any lessons.”

        That’s probably the more important part to focus on, compared to arguments that the old regime was mostly good, mostly bad, or so-so. What, precisely, do we need to learn that the rulers of the old regime did not realize?

      • “That’s probably the more important part to focus on, compared to arguments that the old regime was mostly good, mostly bad, or so-so. What, precisely, do we need to learn that the rulers of the old regime did not realize?”

        That’s a good question and probably depends on your religious presuppositions at least as much as a practical examination of history. However, I do think that we need to point out that monarchs in general aren’t as bad or tyrannical as people think. That’s because people use those prejudices to justify chronological snobbery and dismissing the fundamental ideals of Christendom.

        The essay points out that Medieval Christendom recognized that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” but did not make it the organizing principle of government. If, by some miracle, Christendom was restored, monarchs, while still active and the final legal authority in the state, could rule more by consensus than the more infamous Early Modern Monarchs. That doesn’t necessarily mean seeking majority coalitions in multi-party democracies, just following the Scriptural advice of maintaining an abundance of counselors; Prov. 11:14 explicitly links nation-failure and lack of good counsel: “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellers there is safety.” The aristocracy, Church, and prominent commoners should be active players in the state and have their own interests in keeping it prosperous.

        One example of the Church losing its stature is England, and I say that as an Anglican and firm admirer of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Establishments. However, often the office of Bishop was justified in the face of radical Puritan opposition as an officer of the Crown. I have a problem with making any Church office mere Crown officials, being that the Church exists independent of the state even if the Church. In England, the Church was simply not as independent as it should have been, and thus it lost a lot of credibility (many still jokingly refer to the Church of England as the “Royal Cult”), even if I agree the Church was way too independent (being a practical state within itself) before the Reformation.

      • “If, by some miracle, Christendom was restored, monarchs, while still active and the final legal authority in the state, could rule more by consensus than the more infamous Early Modern Monarchs. That doesn’t necessarily mean seeking majority coalitions in multi-party democracies, just following the Scriptural advice of maintaining an abundance of counselors; Prov. 11:14 explicitly links nation-failure and lack of good counsel: ‘Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellers there is safety.’ The aristocracy, Church, and prominent commoners should be active players in the state and have their own interests in keeping it prosperous.”

        That makes sense, although the obvious thing to point out is that we no longer have anything that would work as an aristocracy — which raises the question of where one would come from. I suppose this points to the real benefit of asking _what sort of government is needed?_ is that it lets us ask the far more realistic question of _what sort of people would be needed to make it work_. And that in turn might point to universally-forgotten or neglected virtues to cultivate.

    • I would see Enlightenment simply as a kind of violence against former things. Therefore trying to return to pre-modern ways is kind of trying to undo that violence. But why was this violence possible? Because something made the previous ways vulnerable? Was it inevitable that “the people” would gain enough wealth, power or leisure to start dreaming up alternative ways?

      As an adherent to radical psychohistory (the kind espoused by Lloyd Demause), I think that the appearance of such possibility led to changes. And when times change, people attempt to violently grab at the safe and familiar ways. This might explain the absolute monarchies. A stop-gap measure at best, which, when it finally fails, will result and did result in all the more violence.

      I would simply describe Enlightenment and democracy as an attempt at godhood by mankind (or a select portion thereof). The power was there for the taking, as it inevitably would become available at some point in history, but the ability to wield it for lasting common good is not there and never will be. As we are soon about to find out.

  2. Pingback: Repost: The City of Man | Reaction Times

  3. Great essay here. It really gets to the heart of much of the problem in modern society. Given the idea of the “consent of the governed,” there are two routes you can take after you reason past Classical Liberalism (an inevitability): Either modern liberalism or anarchism. If people are autonomous individuals, then it follows that the governed are individuals. Since the governed are individuals, and the government is derived from the consent of the governed, then it follows that an individual can withdraw consent, and thus not be governed anymore. Either that, or the government is there to help each person realize their autonomy from everything, except the government and peer pressure. Though, even under this latter theory, eventually you will run into anarchy again once the state has served its purposes in liberating the masses from the evil oppressors, whoever they happen to be.

    I realized that when I became active as a supporter of the Ron Paul candidacy and ran into some anarchists. Eventually when dealing with them, if you want to resolve the cognitive dissonance, you either have to reject Classical Liberalism or simply double down on it and become a Leftist. Considering I was a conservative-at-heart (being incurably religious) seeking refuge in a hands-off government in hopes of triggering some form of benign neglect, the latter was simply not an option.

    The only think keeping Classical Liberalism afloat is the religious reverence the average American has for their founding.

    “For one thing, such a change cannot simply be imposed from above. What we need is not a political revolution, which will simply sink us deeper into the post-Enlightenment abyss, but a cultural one—and such a cultural (counter)revolution is definitely not in the offing. I therefore feel justified in saying, quite literally, that only a miracle could save us now.”

    I agree and disagree. I am not quite as pessimistic (perhaps a product of my youth), though I understand the daunting task the Traditionalist Christian has before them. It is like purging a body of stage 4 cancer. Only a miracle could save us. However, miracles can and do happen. If Jerusalem can be saved when surrounded by the Assyrians, most assuredly we can be rescued from the forces of cultural Marxism and whatever other cultural/spiritual acid is eating the souls of Westerners from the inside.

  4. “we would have to first understand what it is about the _old_ theocracies that was so God-offending that He preferred to even give the respective nations up to revolutionaries who explicitly opposed Him (but were at least honest in so doing)”

    God hates hypocrites, liars, and false shepherds. It seems He prefer we be ruled by honest heretics and atheists than the dishonest orthodox, so that we all at least realize that it’s the blind leading the blind. The Counter-Reformation was a golden age that was impossible without the Reformation.

    I’m no fan of democracy, but also not of true theocracy. The state seems to corrupt the church when it gets too near. Bad for our rep. I’m thinking… monarchy?

    • If by “true theocracy” you mean a political system where church and state are just one and the same thing, or very nearly so–I completely agree. As I hope this essay makes clear, monarchy is my preferred system, too. True theocracy is different from a system where the state ultimately gets its legitimacy from God. To return to St. Thomas, he was no more a theocrat than you or me–but he certainly thought that states get their legitimacy from God.

      I also question the idea that God let the old “theocracies” fall because they were displeasing to Him, at least in the sense suggested here. As the cliché goes, God lets bad things to happen to good people (and good societies!) all the time. While this means that God had some reason or other to permit the fall of the old order, it does not mean that the reason is that the old order offended Him (or at any rate, that it offended Him more than does any other human society this side of Eden).

      • That’s true.

        Perhaps the society had also just finally run out of steam. There does seem to be a general divine refusal to let any one government stand unchecked for very long. They all eventually run aground, are conquered, or are reformed, and there isn’t any reason to assume that Catholic societies would be an exception.

        Perhaps nature was designed with an anti-utopia switch.

  5. “As its name suggests, postmodernism is less a rejection of modernism than a different and more radical take on it. It seems tempting to describe postmodernism as modernism on a triple espresso, running around and giddily applying itself to everything.”

    Gold! Pure gold!

  6. There were once twelve people who gathered in a conference room to establish a new state and society. They were (using current descriptors)
    two conservatives, two moderates, six liberals and two progressives i.e. radicals. In proposing principles for their new polity the progressives ignored parliamentary procedure and took control of the meeting for their preference and shouted “Jump!”. The conservatives said “No Way!”. The moderates asked “What For?”. The liberals asked “How High?”. So it was decided that the progressive agenda item should not be ignored and a vote was taken. The balloting was nine in favor and three against. So everyone jumped including the two conservatives and one moderate who were opposed, because it would cause unpleasant harmony not to do so. So the ersatz majority ruled unhappily ever after.

  7. Pingback: Postmodernism in a nutshell | Agellius's Blog

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