Slouching Toward Savagery

In the last post of 2020, we proposed, as an exercise for the reader, a comparison of the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by those who perpetrated the Russian Revolution with those used by our contemporary revolutionaries.

In the first post of 2021 we explored the idolatry inherent in ideology; how man must worship the creation (even that of his own mind) if he denies that worship which is due to the Creator. This inaugural 2021 post examined the nature of the sacrifice that earth dwellers offer.

Our prior post encouraged us in the ways by which we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.

Today, we explore the nature of our society’s descent toward barbarism and savagery. One of our primary sources is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

"Desolation" from "The Course of Empire" by Thomas Cole, 1836, Public Domain

Desolation,” from “The Course of Empire,” Thomas Cole, 1836, Public Domain

Many consider America’s revolution as unique. In the book The Anatomy of Revolution , published in 1938 and revised August 12, 1965, author Crane Brinton wrote,

We must not expect our revolutions to be identical (p. 226), [three of the four (the English (1640s,) French (1789,) and Russian (1917)) began] in hope and moderation, [reached] a crisis in a reign of terror, [and ended] in something like dictatorship—Cromwell, Bonaparte, Stalin. [The exception is the American Revolution, which] does not quite follow this pattern (p. 24).

In fact, some have questioned whether there was an American Revolution. Robert Nisbet, in his 2012 article “Was There an American Revolution?” wrote,

…War has accompanied each of the other major Western revolutions of modern times. …[War and revolution] …destroy traditional authorities, classes, and types of wealth; both create new kinds of power, rank, and wealth.

… A revolution did indeed occur in America, one involving social structures and values. Why, then, did no Terror, no Thermidor, no military dictatorship make its appearance, as has been the case in European revolutions?

…The absence of an intellectual class in America at the time of the Revolution is one of the prime reasons for the lack of political ferocity both during and after the Revolution. …[This class’s] dominant characteristics are, and have been, social rootlessness, and adversary position toward polity, and a fascination with power and its uses. The capacity of this class for ideological fanaticism, for the sacrifice of life and institution alike in the name of principle, and even for outright bloodlust and terror is well known.

…Nothing so completely gave the American Revolution its distinctive character as the absence of [this] European species of political intellectual. It is only in the present century that we have seen this species coming into prominence in America.

Although Americans threw off the corruption of the Old World, they threw off its protections as well. Alexis de Tocqueville, in volume 2 (1840) of Democracy in America, observed,

The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by [tradition], to come to the relief of its serving-men and to relieve their distress. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public. This is a natural consequence of what has been said before. Between the workman and the master there are frequent relations, but no real association.

Beyond this, Tocqueville foresaw the inevitable outcome of liberal democracy. In his essay, “Is America Devolving into Soft Totalitarianism?” Bruce Frohnen wrote, “…In picturing America’s potential, dark future, Tocqueville saw the people and its virtues. He also saw the individual born of democracy, with all his weaknesses.” Tocqueville said,

I see an innumerable crowd of similar and equal men who spin around restlessly, in order to gain small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form for him the entire human species.

As for the remainder of his fellow citizens, he is next to them, but he does not see them; he touches them without feeling them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if he still has a family, you can say that at least he no longer has a country.

Frohnen observes “…Such men, Tocqueville feared, would surrender their self-government and even their self-will.” He quotes Tocqueville in support,

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.

It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.

For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

[Extended quote]

Thus, it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

Frohnen comments, “Thus, we have Tocqueville’s famous description of “soft despotism.”” Then he offers his own historical perspective,

…One can trace the development of America’s welfare and administrative state, from its roots in a materialistic rendering of the “social gospel” and the surrender of local responsibilities to a supposedly more efficient set of state “experts.” Personal relationships atrophied as faith grew in mechanisms supposedly capable of producing more fair and effective results than could be produced by the very flawed beings who designed them.

Frohnen then says, “Tocqueville portrayed with stunning accuracy the decline of human character, into the tyranny of the majority and the selfishness of individualism.” He says that striving after material prosperity and equality enervated the intermediary institutions that formed communities of good character that withstood government encroachment. Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (Volume 2, 1840) in evidence of Frohnen’s observation,

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once.

They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in [harness and reins], because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people.

They think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.

And,

It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other.

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.

Thus, their spirit is gradually broken, and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men.

It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

Frohnen then wonders, “But what comes next? What does the individual produced by centralized administration choose for a life?” He quotes Tocqueville’s description of this new control regime:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Frohnen says that Tocqueville’s vision of the degraded democratic citizen is dystopian, but it doesn’t stop there. The disintegration of civil society and human character results in a soft totalitarianism. This new pervasive and punitive means of control directs individual character and society as a whole towards social compliance that favors abnormity, demands obedience, and subjects individuals to national or global “communities” to find meaning and behavioral norms. Frohnen concludes,

The soft totalitarian answer, then, lies in punishing no one, but rehabilitating everyone. …As for those who reject the ruling ideology, soft totalitarianism aims to destroy the communities they build for themselves. …As soft tyranny undermines the character of its people it undermines its own ability to produce the goods those people demand. The next stage in human degradation is mere savagery.

Despotism

But what is the nature of such a totalitarian regime? From where did it come? To where is it going? Robert Nisbet, in his book The New Despotism, 1975, p. 3-9, said,

When the modern political community was being shaped at the end of the 18th century, its founders thought that the consequences of republican or representative institutions in government would be the reduction of political power in individual lives.

…What we have witnessed, however, in every Western country, and not least in the United States, is the almost incessant growth in power over the lives of human beings — power that is basically the result of the gradual disappearance of all the intermediate institutions which, coming from the predemocratic past, served for a long time to check the kind of authority that, almost from the beginning, sprang from the new legislative bodies and executives in the modern democracies.

Nisbet’s key insight is that this new power, claiming humanitarian motives, hid itself from those who it allegedly served. He wrote,

…Had political power [and the manifest function of legislature and executive] remained visible, as it largely did down until about World War I, the matter would be very different.

What has in fact happened during the past half century is that the bulk of power in our society, as it affects our intellectual, economic, social, and cultural existences, has become largely invisible, a function of the vast infragovernment composed of bureaucracy’s commissions, agencies, and departments in a myriad of areas. And the reason this power is so commonly invisible to the eye is that it lies concealed under the humane purposes that have brought it into existence.

Wrapping up his essay, he cites Burke’s belief concerning the French Revolution with its implications for our own times.

…The French Revolution, Burke believed correctly, was different from any revolution that had ever taken place before. And the reason for this difference lay in its combination of eradication of social diversity on the one hand and, on the other, the relentless increase of military-political power that expressed itself in the timeworn fashion of such power.

All that tended toward the destruction of the intermediate authorities of social class, province, church, and family brought simultaneously into being, Burke noted, a social leveling and a transfer to the state alone of powers previously resident in a plurality of associations.

In the introduction to his 1952 book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, J. L. Talmon defined totalitarian or messianic democracy. He wrote,

…Indeed, from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century the history of the last hundred and fifty years looks like a systematic preparation for the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian Messianic democracy on the other… The world crisis of today consists [of this clash of ideologies].

…The liberal [democracy] approach assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavor, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics.

The totalitarian democratic school, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in politics. It may be called political Messianism in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive.

It recognizes ultimately only one plane of existence, the political. It widens the scope of politics to embrace the whole of human existence. It treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action.

He clearly outlined the fundamental contradiction between these two approaches to democracy,

…Both schools affirm the supreme value of liberty. But whereas one finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, the other believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose.

…From the difficulty of reconciling freedom with the idea of an absolute purpose spring all the particular problems and [contradictions] of totalitarian democracy. This difficulty could only be resolved by thinking not in terms of men as they are, but as they were meant to be, and would be, given the proper conditions. In so far as they are at variance with the absolute ideal they can be ignored, coerced, or intimidated into conforming, without any real violation of the democratic principle being involved.

In the proper conditions, it is held, the conflict between spontaneity and duty would disappear, and with it the need for coercion. The practical question is, of course, whether constraint will disappear because all have learned to act in harmony, or because all opponents have been eliminated.

Of course, elimination is the path Lenin took.

Talmon bluntly told us the origins of our predicament,

…In the second half of the eighteenth century…men were gripped by the idea that the conditions, a product of faith, time, and custom, in which they and their forefathers had been living, were unnatural and had all to be replaced by deliberately planned uniform patterns, which would be natural and rational.

Different levels of social life, such as the temporal and the transcendental, or membership of a class and citizenship [were now obsolete]. The only recognized standard of judgment was to be social utility, as expressed in the idea of the general good, which was spoken of as if it were a visible and tangible objective.

And he framed the sad denouement of this conflict,

…They refused to envisage the conflict between liberty and virtue as inevitable. On the contrary, When the eighteenth-century secular religion came face to face with this conflict, the result was the great schism. Liberal democracy flinched from the specter of force and fell back upon the trial-and-error philosophy. Totalitarian Messianism hardened into an exclusive doctrine represented by a vanguard of the enlightened, who justified themselves in the use of coercion against those who refused to be free and virtuous.

What an odd conception of the means of democracy, “[using] coercion against those who refused to be free and virtuous.” However, this is exactly the approach a young communist told me that he and his comrades would use were it necessary to gain my compliance to his edicts. He said this openly in my second-year college humanities class without a qualm.

In his essay, “The Significance of Bolshevism” (published in The American Review, April 1933, pp. 36-49 and posted by Thomas Yonan) Christopher Dawson wrote of Leninist Bolshevism,

…Man cannot live in a spiritual void; he needs some fixed social standards and some absolute intellectual principles. [Any régime which offers a positive and objective end of life becomes attractive.] Bolshevism at least replaces the spiritual anarchy of bourgeois society by a rigid order and substitutes for the doubt and skepticism of an irresponsible intelligentsia the certitude of an absolute authority embodied in social institutions…Nevertheless, it is enough of a philosophy to provide society with a theoretical basis, and therein lies the secret of its strength.

Dawson then quotes Waldemar Gurian,

Marxism, and therefore Bolshevism, does but voice the secret and unavowed philosophy of the bourgeois society when it regards society and economics as the absolute.

[Bolshevism] is faithful, likewise, to [liberalism’s] morality when it seeks to order this absolute, the economic society, in such a way that justice, equality, and freedom, the original war cries of the bourgeois advance [in the French Revolution], may be the lot of all. The rise of the bourgeois and the evolution of the bourgeois society have made economics the center of public life.

Bolshevism is at once the product of the bourgeois society and the judgement upon it. It reveals the goal to which the secret philosophy of that society leads, if accepted with unflinching logic.

Dawson, via Gurian, thereby squares the circle by revealing the “secret” hidden within liberal democracy.

Analyzing this devolution further, Dawson writes,

[The] fundamental reason for the unpopularity and lack of prestige of bourgeois civilization [is that it] lacks the vital human relationship [that] the older order, with all its faults, never denied. To the bourgeois politician the electorate is an accidental collection of voters; to the bourgeois industrialist his employees are an accidental collection of wage earners.

The king and the priest, on the other hand, were united to their people by a bond of organic solidarity. They were not individuals standing over and against other individuals, but parts of a common social organism and representatives of a common spiritual order.

The bourgeoisie upset the throne and the altar, but they put in their place nothing but themselves. Hence their régime cannot appeal to any higher sanction than that of self-interest. It is continually in a state of disintegration and flux. It is not a permanent form of social organization, but a transitional phase between two orders…

Therefore, liberal democracy can do nothing other than lead to totalitarianism.

Our Milieu

Let us consider where we are. Tocqueville in Democracy in America (Volume 1, 1835) wrote concerning Europe of his day,

There are some nations…whose inhabitants think of themselves in a sense as colonists, indifferent to the fate of the place they live in. The greatest changes occur in their country without their cooperation. They are not even aware of precisely what has taken place. They suspect it; they have heard of the event by chance.

More than that, they are unconcerned with the fortunes of their village, the safety of their streets, the fate of their church and its vestry. They think that such things have nothing to do with them, that they belong to a powerful stranger called “the government.”

They enjoy these goods as tenants, without a sense of ownership, and never give a thought to how they might be improved. They are so divorced from their own interests that even when their own security and that of their children is finally compromised, they do not seek to avert the danger themselves but cross their arms and wait for the nation as a whole to come to their aid.

Yet as utterly as they sacrifice their own free will, they are no fonder of obedience than anyone else. They submit, it is true, to the whims of a [minor bureaucrat], but no sooner is force removed than they are glad to defy the law as a defeated enemy. Thus, one finds them ever wavering between servitude and license.

When a nation has reached this point, it must either change its laws and mores or perish, for the well of public virtue has run dry: in such a place one no longer finds citizens but only subjects.

This sounds like us, now. The French Revolution has finally come to America. And it is not yet over.

Recapitulation

In his essay, “From Russell Kirk’s 1954 Lecture to Chi Omega,” Brad Birzer presents salient excerpts from Russell Kirk’s, “Conservatism, Liberalism, and Fraternity,” a lecture given in June 1954 to Chi Omega, (Eleusis of Chi Omega 58, February 1956, p. 121-130.) There, Russell Kirk said,

…Law and order, and the democracy of elevation, could not survive one year among us without the principle of true fraternity, the voluntary cooperation of persons acting as a group for the sake of the commonwealth, and joined by common interests, common associations, common memories, and to some extent common origins.

These voluntary associations are the great barrier against tyranny over minds and bodies…Voluntary associations, true fraternities, unite individuals by the power of sympathy against arbitrary measures, and train their members to stand forthrightly against oppression…” [Pages 127–128.]

…Great civilizations do not fall [from] a single blow. Our civilization has sustained several terrible assaults already, and still it lives; but that does not mean that it can live forever, or even into or through another generation. Like a neglected old house, a society whose members have forgotten the ends of society’s being and of their own lives sinks by degrees almost imperceptible toward its ruin…

At the Heritage Foundation, in lecture Four Hundred and Four, given July 24th, 1992, Russell Kirk spoke about “Civilization Without Religion?

…The alternative to… [reinvigoration of] our culture would be a series of catastrophic events…which eventually might efface our present sensate culture and bring about a new ideational culture, the character of which we cannot even imagine. Such an ideational culture doubtless would have its religion: but it might be the worship of what has been called the Savage God

Such ruin has occurred repeatedly in history. When the classical religion ceased to move hearts and minds, two millennia ago, thus the Graeco-Roman civilization went down to Avernus. As my little daughter Cecilia put it unprompted, some years ago looking at a picture book of Roman history, “And then, at the end of a long summer’s day, there came Death, Mud, Crud.”

…In conclusion, it is my argument that the elaborate civilization we have known stands in peril; that it may expire of lethargy, or be destroyed by violence, or perish, from a combination of both evils.

…What ails modern civilization? Fundamentally, our society’s affliction is the decay of religious belief. If a culture is to survive and flourish, it must not be severed from the religious vision out of which it arose.

Counterpoint

Though America avoided France’s sudden transition, Tocqueville and his disciples saw the inevitable slide of a democratic people into complacency, despotism, and finally tyranny no matter what constraints the founders put on government. However, recent commentators have called us back to our origins.

John Attarian, in his 2017 essay “Edmund Burke, Champion of Ordered Liberty,” says,

All his life, Edmund Burke resisted tyranny. But his greatest service to liberty was to remind the world that freedom is anchored in a transcendent moral order and that for liberty to flourish, social and personal order and morality must exist, and radical innovations must be shunned.

Two centuries after Burke’s passing, as America grapples with the chaos and criminality of a liberty without order—itself promoted by the sort of reckless innovators he opposed and outlasted—the wisdom of this great insight is ever more painfully clear…

Insofar as the cause of freedom evades both the Scylla of license and the Charybdis of a tyrannical Utopia of abstract rights, the ship’s pilots owe much to Edmund Burke.

In his essay, “Reflections on American Order,” Russell Kirk says,

Whenever people cease to be aware of membership in an order—an order that joins the dead, the living, and the unborn, as well as an order that connects individual to family, family to community, community to nation—those people will form a “lonely crowd,” alienated from the world in which they wander. To the person and the republic, the consequences of such alienation will be baneful.

…Moral and social order, or a vast part of it, may be destroyed by a few years of violence or a few decades of contemptuous neglect. Then hope is gone, for many generations: for order is a kind of organic growth, developing slowly over many centuries; it cannot be created by public proclamation.

Kirk, who loved this American Order, then says,

…America’s order rose out of acts of affirmation—from what Thomas Carlyle called “the Everlasting Yea.” Upon classical and the theological virtues, upon the social experience of the Old World and the New, there was built by self-sacrifice and high imagination the intricate structure of personal and public order. Although no single human mind planned this order of ours, the wisdom and the toil of countless men and women have gone into its making.

Other hands may renew that order’s structure and improve it with love and prudence, in God’s own good time. That work already is being undertaken by people whose names almost nobody knows as yet, but to whom posterity will owe much.

As Burke said, “Men are qualified for liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Maybe, yet once again, the miracle of the American Order may prevail. I wish it were so.

Conclusion

For those who see this ‘slouching toward savagery’ for what it is and oppose it through your uncompromising proclamation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed, know that the scriptures say this of your time on earth,

They will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.

And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the [falling away, rebellion, apostasy] comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.

Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.

On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife.

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.

But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Matthew 24:9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; Luke 17:26-33; 1 Peter 4:13; Matthew 24:44 (English Standard Version)

As I’ve read recently, we are always on the verge of eternity.) If God is setting up the “Frogs of War” (as Barnes says in his commentary) and the “Millstone Moment,” then so be it. May we be strong and courageous until He returns.

For those of you who are unsure of what is happening, know that America may descend into the abyss of history along with the rest, but you, dear reader, need not descend with it but rise. Repent and believe and you shall be saved.

Tucker – Our Only Option is to Fix What’s Causing This, January 6, 2021, YouTube, Fox News

Ideology Equals Idolatry

According to the research of a good friend of mine, “Idolatry is the worship (latreuo) of images, including mental ones (i.e., ideas.)” Also, he says, “Ideology is the study (-ology; logos, lego) of ideas that, in man’s arrogance and pride, easily can and often do become the objects of worship.” The classic example is:

…They know not, nor do they discern, for He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of [this cedar log] I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Isaiah 44: 9 – 20, English Standard Version

As the scriptures say, Man exchanges the truth about God for a lie and worships and serves the created thing rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25) with Whom is help, in the here and now, and salvation, now and into eternity.

Our times are fraught with ideological struggle that we can sense, even if we cannot pin it down. Many false gods contend for the hearts of humanity, only we do not see them anymore. The closest we get to seeing the struggle most days is in the evening news: House and Senate committee meetings, press briefings, editorials, boarded up storefronts, riots, and wars.

This post explores the character of ideology, compares it with its alternative, and outlines its consequences for us. We draw materials from several authors. However, our primary source is Russell Kirk (1918 – 1994,) who captures the essence of ideology and its opposite in Chapter 1, “The Errors of Ideology,” from his book, The Politics of Prudence which is a defense of prudential versus ideological politics.

Destruction from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, Public Domain

Ideology’s Character

Russell Kirk writes, in the first chapter of his book, titled, “The Errors of Ideology,”

This small book [The Politics of Prudence (1993)] is a defense of prudential politics, as opposed to ideological politics. The author hopes to persuade the rising generation to set their faces against political fanaticism and utopian schemes, by which the world has been much afflicted since 1914. “Politics is the art of the possible,” the [traditional] conservative says: he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom.

The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward Utopia, the ideologue is merciless.

Our previous post, “Revolution Never,” described the horrific extent to which some ideologues have already inflicted upon the world their march toward Utopia (i.e., literally, ‘no place.’)

Kirk points out that the word ‘ideology’ originally applied to a science of ideas, whose proponent, Antoine Destutt de Tracy, was criticized for rejecting religion and metaphysics in favor of, in Kirk’s words, “systematized knowledge derived from sensation [which] could perfect society through ethical and educational methods and by well-organized political direction.” Napoleon, according to Kirk, dismissed this ‘science’ by saying that the world is governed not by abstract ideas, but by imagination. John Adams called it “the science of idiocy.”

He notes that since world war two, the word ideology has meant,

…A dogmatic political theory which is an endeavor to substitute secular goals and doctrines for religious goals and doctrines; and which promises to overthrow present dominations so that the oppressed may be liberated. Ideology’s promises are what Talmon calls “political messianism.” The ideologue promises salvation in this world, hotly declaring that there exists no other realm of being…

Kirk concludes that this “political formula” promises humanity an earthy paradise but has delivered a “series of terrestrial hells.”

He then gives, over the next few pages, a list of ideology’s vices and contrasts them with what he terms their opposite, prudential politics. The following table captures his thoughts.

Ideological PoliticsPrudential Politics
DoctrineIdeology is inverted religion, denying the Christian doctrine of salvation…and substituting collective salvation here on earth through violent revolution. Ideology inherits the fanaticism that sometimes has afflicted religious faith and applies that intolerant belief to secular concerns.Prudential politicians know…that we cannot march to an earthly Zion; that human nature and human institutions are imperfectible; that aggressive “righteousness” in politics ends in slaughter. True religion is a discipline for the soul, not for the state.

NegotiationIdeology makes political compromise impossible; the ideologue will accept no deviation from the Absolute Truth of his secular revelation. This narrow vision brings about civil war, extirpation of “reactionaries,” and the destruction of beneficial functioning social institutions.Prudential politicians…[understand] that the primary purpose of the state is to keep the peace…by maintaining a tolerable balance among great interests in society. Parties, interests, and social classes and groups must arrive at [mutual concessions] …Prudential politics strives for conciliation, not extirpation.
HeterodoxyIdeologues vie with one with another in fancied fidelity to their Absolute Truth; and are quick to denounce deviationists or defectors from party orthodoxy…on the principle of brotherhood—or death. The radical reformer, proclaiming omniscience, strikes down every rival, to arrive at the Terrestrial Paradise more swiftly.
Prudential politicians, rejecting the illusion of an Absolute Political Truth before which every citizen must abase himself, understand that political and economic structures are not mere products of theory, to be erected one day and demolished the next; rather, social institutions develop over centuries, almost as if they were organic.
Ideological versus Prudential Politics

Kirk then asks how it can be, when the ruins of ideology are scattered throughout modern history, that it still strongly attracts new adherents? He answers using a quote from Raymond Aron,

When the intellectual feels no longer attached either to the community or the religion of his forebears, he looks to progressive ideology to fill the vacuum. The main difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski or Bertrand Russell and the Communism of the disciple of Lenin concerns not so much the content as the style of the ideologies and the allegiance they demand.

Kirk says that ideology, in its many forms, is a sham religion that provides comfort through belonging to a greater cause, a group of fellow travelers, and a movement which takes direct action.

Paraphrasing Hans Barth, he says, “The fundamental reason why we must set our faces against ideology…is that ideology is opposed to truth; it denies the possibility of truth in politics or in anything else, substituting economic motive and class interest for abiding norms,” and, “Ideology even denies human consciousness and power of choice.”

Finally, Kirk passionately sums up his position,

What we need to impart is political prudence, not political belligerence. Ideology is the disease, not the cure. All ideologies, including the ideology of vox populi vox dei, are hostile to enduring order and justice and freedom. For ideology is the politics of passionate unreason.

…Ideology is founded merely upon “ideas”— that is, upon abstractions, fancies, for the most part unrelated to personal and social reality; while conservative views are founded upon custom, convention, the long experience of the human species.

To be “prudent” means to be judicious, cautious, sagacious…Prudence is the first of the virtues. A prudent statesman is one who looks before he leaps; who takes long views; who knows that politics is the art of the possible.

As another friend of mine recently asked, “How long, O Lord?

The Conservative Outlook

Benjamin Lockerd quotes from his introduction to Kirk’s book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, in an essay with the same title,

The necessity of personal morality in a thriving community is denied by the enemies of the permanent things, who do not believe that there are permanent standards of behavior or indeed an unchanging human nature, and who seek to create political systems that will make everyone happy without much effort…

Characterizing Kirk’s outlook, he says, “Where the liberal mind concocts a utopian plan, the conservative mind seeks a principle, “a justified deduction from what we have learnt, over the ages, about men and their commonwealths.””

To many, traditional conservatism means conserving the bad with the good. Kirk’s mentor, T. S. Eliot wrote, “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things.” Lockerd quotes Kirk, “Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.”

Eliot did not define what he meant by “permanent things.” However, Kirk defined them as norms of our human nature, “A norm means an enduring standard. It is a law of nature, which we ignore at our peril,” and, “Normality is not what the average sensual man ordinarily possesses,” he writes, “it is what he ought to try to possess.” Norms that Kirk names are charity, justice, freedom, duty, temperance, prudence, and fortitude.

Lockerd then contrasts those who abide with or reject these norms,

In a healthy society, individuals will attempt to live by these permanent norms of moral action, and the laws of the land will give support to citizens as they make that attempt. In their revolutionary zeal, the progressives tend to scorn those norms as old-fashioned or even oppressive, and in doing so they become the enemies of the permanent things.

To my shame, I admit to scorning the old norms in my youth.

Following Kirk’s passion for education, he says,

…A fundamental purpose of literature is to teach us the norms of human nature: “The aim of great books is ethical: to teach what it means to be a man.” [It is well expressed by] Sir Philip Sidney, who argues that poetry is superior to moral philosophy in that it not only teaches us what is virtuous but moves us to be virtuous.

…For the political battles are first fought in the minds and hearts of the populace, and if the people are badly educated, their minds filled with images and ideas created by modern materialists, they will easily be drawn to political movements that deny all permanent truths in favor of utopian schemes.

Lockerd says that Kirk spoke often of, “order in the soul and order in the commonwealth.”

He says that Kirk labeled these perfect [and perfecting] systems “ideology.” Kirk insisted that instead of applying the label to any system of ideas or beliefs, as many do today, the label should only apply to, “the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise through the operation of positive law and positive planning.” Kirk taught that ideology is a secular substitute for religion that requires fervent assent to its doctrines, disciplines, and duties.

Recent ideologies, such as Communism and Fascism, promise freedom, but, as anyone can see, they result in servitude. Kirk said that the milder, progressive and liberal ideologies lead to the same extremes because they, too, throw off moral restraints.

Perhaps these milder ideologies slide more slowly into the extremes because they rely on individual piety to retard their descent into tyranny. As James McHenry first reported of Benjamin Franklin’s famous remarks to Elizabeth Powel, “A lady asked Dr. Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” – “A republic,” replied the Doctor, “if you can keep it.” [italics are mine.]

Quoting Kirk, Lockerd characterizes a conservative (i.e., prudent) government, “A prudent government is no artificial contrivance, no invention of coffeehouse intellectuals, got up abstractly to suit the intellectual whim of an hour,” and, “Not abstractions, but prudence, prescription, custom, tradition, and constitution have governed the American people,” Kirk writes, “We have been saved from ideology by political tradition.”

I must add, Enemies of the Permanent Things, was first published in 1969 and Lockerd wrote the introduction for the 2016 edition, so it may be premature to say whether political tradition will continue to save the American Republic.

Next, Lockerd puts a bow on the essence of ideology and ideologues,

Ideologues put their faith not in God but in their own reason and in science…Kirk spends a good deal of time in this book exposing the prejudices hidden in the supposedly rational and scientific thinking of the modern ideologues. Here he allies himself with Eric Voegelin, who gave the ancient name of “Gnosticism” to these modern ideologies. For like the Gnostics of old, these more recent thinkers believe that we can be saved by gnosis, rational knowledge. One fundamental problem with these rationalistic ideologies is that they are ultimately materialistic, so they hold out no ideal goal for humanity.

Realizing heaven on earth is the modus operandi for modern gnostic ideologies, i.e., immanentizing the eschaton.

Finally, in contradistinction, Lockerd says, “there will always be much that [conservatives] do not know and much that is finally mysterious, not knowable by human reason at all. But if we achieve this partial understanding of life, our existence will be “tolerable”—not completely happy, not blissful, not perfect, not even close to any of these.”

But it will be enough.

Ideology’s Inroads

Bradley J. Birzer, in his essay, “Conservatism is Not an Ideology,” says,

…As modernity, and now post-modernity, continue to make inroads, ravenously mocking and devouring history, tradition, and religion, more and more persons become prey for the seductiveness of false absolutes and easy answers. They crave something greater than themselves but have missed the opportunity to embrace true religion and right reason. They latch onto the first thing that presents itself as truth.

Birzer observes, “ideologies do not politely contain themselves within revolutionary tyrannies; they have slowly infected all of the West, especially its literature and politics.”

He reiterates that Kirk saw conservative thought as the opposite of ideology because it supports tradition, religion, and history as vital guides to future thought, words, and actions.

Birzer then quotes Cicero when defending his premise that Twenty-first Century man has forgotten how to balance the universal with the particular:

True law is right reason in agreement with Nature…it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions.

Ideology’s inroads stem from the adage, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Solzhenitsyn related this to his audience during his Templeton Address as an explanation, offered by the old in his youth, for the great disasters that had befallen Russia as a result of the revolution. This speech, advocating the need for divine guidance, began his reputation’s decline among intellectuals in America.

Philosophical Rebellion

While accepting an honorary degree, Isaiah Berlin related an observation by the German poet Heinrich Heine as an illustration of the power of ideas, “[He] told us not to underestimate the quiet philosopher sitting in his study; if Kant had not undone theology, he declared, Robespierre might not have cut off the head of the King of France.”

Glenn Tinder, in his essay, “Augustine’s World and Ours,” quotes Sartre when he said, through a character in his novel Nausea, that “anything can happen, anything.” Tinder goes on to say,

The modern mood is one of radical insecurity; nothing is so senseless or catastrophic that we can assume it will not befall us. As God has lost historical sovereignty in modern eyes, He has lost the power to call forth human love.

He says that if God is dethroned, not only do we no longer have the security of His sovereignty over events, but we lose the influence of His sacrificial love, both for salvation and as a pattern for life.

However, illustrating Dostoevsky’s dictum that “man must bow down to something,” this vacuum is filled by lesser gods, idols, which are finite and manipulable. No longer made of wood, these idols, Tinder offers, are often government systems composed of their leading proponents, instigators, leaders, and bureaucrats. Government, he says, offers the illusion of invincibility and eternality.

Further, he says that by eliminating God, we eliminate revelation as a check on human reason, even on human pride. As Tinder says,

…The power and significance of reason derive from the fact that there is an ordered reality outside the mind…Separated from other sources of insight such as tradition and revelation, reason became autonomous, even sovereign…It soon [seemed] that the very structures which reason had supposedly been bringing to light were nothing more than forms which reason itself had imposed on the underlying chaos of reality.

He says that Camus was horrified by this “metaphysical rebellion.” Morality and science lose their foundations. Objective norms and values disappear; in Dostoevsky’s words, “Everything is permissible.” Tinder says, “We are speaking, of course, of nihilism—the annihilation of all limits and standards.” He goes on and says,

A less obvious, if hardly less serious, danger inherent in the crumbling of foundations is the disappearance of the independent self…again and again in present-day social and political writing we are told that individualism is altogether false, and that all genuine human life takes place in society.

Reflecting on my years of reading in philosophy, I have found no better summary of philosophy’s collapse as those of Tinder’s words in this essay. However, I do not hold to all his conclusions.

Can We Find Our Way Back?

Bradley J. Birzer, in his essay, “Russell Kirk’s Unfinished Justice,” writes,

…If we, a people living in the midst of an ideological age, might find our way back to the origin of one of the most important words in our language and in civilization, [justice,] we might very well be able to restore its original meaning and, equally important, begin to debate how best to implement it in this fallen world.

He says that Kirk learned from his grandfather, Frank Pierce, that, “The just man defends vigorously whatever is entrusted to his charge and sets his face against the lawless,” and that Kirk said, “Frank Pierce gave every man his due, without fear or favor.” Birzer notes that Kirk used the Socratic definition of justice, “to give each person his due.” To this he adds,

As Kirk—and every conservative before and after—understood, “to give each person his due” is not to make all men one, but rather to acknowledge the unique gifts and talents bestowed upon every person by God.

The only equality men share, Birzer notes, is our rebellion against a Holy God and our need for a Savior.

Was Any of This Foreseen?

Alberto R. Coll, in his essay, “Burckhardt’s Pessimistic Conservatism,” says,

[Jacob Burckhardt (May 25, 1818 – August 8, 1897,) cultural historian and art critic,] noted that the most significant historical developments at the end of the eighteenth century were the advent of mass politics and the belief that every man’s opinion was of equal worth. The long-term results of this would be the destruction of every vestige of traditional authority, the cheapening of culture, the enthronement of mediocrity at all levels of public life, and the eventual rise of “terribles simplificateurs,” the ruthless demagogues who would ride the waves of mass politics and culture to set up a tyranny armed with all the instruments provided by large-scale industrial capitalism, science, and technology.

Sadly, the essay’s author, Coll, was a victim of cancel culture before cancellation was fashionable.

Media’s Influence

As we have seen overtly in recent months, media is not neutral in the conflict.

Martin Gurri, in his essay “Slouching Toward Post-Journalism,” says that our post-journalism media no longer presents reality to inform the public; its goal is to produce angry citizens who are harnessed to current ideological trends. Unfortunately, this happens across the political spectrum.

Brian Riedl, in his essay, “The “Facts” We take on Faith,” asks,

How do we know our political convictions are based in reality?

…How do we know that the providers of our information don’t have their own agenda, slant, or warped way of reading the world?

Both are very good questions. Reidl admits that when it comes to understanding government, we favor our trusted sources. He goes on to say that it is time consuming and complicated to verify their claims so many believe whatever we are told. His solution is skepticism which should drive us to compare news reports across the political spectrum.

However, this becomes tiresome for everyone and only works if there is a spectrum to compare.

Conclusion

Some say this ideological rebellion against God began in the late middle ages, some say it started with the Reformation, still others say it started in earnest with the French Revolution. Personally, I believe its origin to be in a garden many millennia ago. This is a worthy subject for another post.

However, in his Letters on a Regicide Peace, specifically, in the second letter, Edmund Burke, a founder of traditional conservative thought, wrote of the French Revolution,

…This new system of robbery in France, cannot be rendered safe by any art; that it must be destroyed, or that it will destroy all Europe; that to destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts; that war ought to be made against it in its vulnerable parts. These are my inferences. In one word, with this Republic nothing independent can co-exist.

Prudential politics yields mutual benefits only among prudent politicians. Prudence must either war with or succumb to idolatrous politics. There is no compromise with idolatry. If prudent politics fails to defeat idolatry, to “rid the high places of their idols,” then the prudent must continue to choose the way of the Cross, which is both a defeat and, ironically, an ultimate victory (Is. 57: 1-2, 20-21).

Americanos – Farah Jimenez, November 24, 2020, YouTube, PragerU