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
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 Politics||Prudential Politics|
|Doctrine||Ideology 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.|
|Negotiation||Ideology 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.|
|Heterodoxy||Ideologues 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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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