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.


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

Ideas and Their Discontents — A Review

On November 25, 1994, Isaiah Berlin accepted a Doctor of Laws honorary degree at the University of Toronto. His remarks, “A Message to the 21st Century,” were read to the audience. Though he felt sure that the 21st century, “can be only a better time for mankind than my terrible century has been,” we cannot fault him for his misapprehension.

A biographer said that he dictated all his manuscripts. Given this style of composition, what is truly remarkable is his coherent train of thought, especially in longer works. What captured my attention in this essay was the clarity with which he outlined our ongoing problem.

Isaiah Berlin During the Reception of the Erasmus Prize, Oct. 1983 – Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Historical Reference

Berlin’s essay starts with a historical reference point,

Men have for millennia destroyed each other, but the deeds [of the past] pale into insignificance before the Russian Revolution and its aftermath: the oppression, torture, murder which can be laid at the doors of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, and the systematic falsification of information which prevented knowledge of these horrors for years—these are unparalleled. They were not natural disasters, but preventable human crimes, and whatever those who believe in historical determinism may think, they could have been averted.

Berlin viewed these crimes as due to a drive toward some singular idea of perfection, not merely due to fear, greed, tribal hatreds, jealousy, love of power, etc., though those played a part.

As an illustration of the power of ideas, he relates an observation by the German poet Heinrich Heine, “[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.”

Berlin goes on to say that Heine predicted that armed disciples of German nationalist philosophers would destroy Europe in a way that would make the French Revolution seem insignificant. He then says,

There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

Ideas Motivate

Berlin plainly states the following,

…If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise.

Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.

He says that this is how Lenin reacted after he read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Berlin says that if he (Lenin) could create a “just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society,” then this singular, perfect end justified absolutely any means to achieve it. And Lenin pursued his goal with conviction.

Berlin points out that the root of such a conviction is the premise that the central questions of life have one true answer; and once discovered, they must be implemented. Those who have found these answers are law givers and must be followed to the end. He says that opposing leaders fought wars over which answer was right, but each was convinced they had the unique answer and only mankind’s sin or ignorance could thwart them.

One True Answer

He states that this “one true answer to life’s questions” is an age-old problem and it is demonstrably false.

Berlin says that humans, at all times and in all places, desire “liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, etc.” However, these universal values cannot be completely realized simultaneously. He offers the following examples,

  • Complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality…
    • If men were wholly free, the “wolves” would be free to eat the “sheep.”
    • Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted [do not overtake] those who would…lose if there were competition.
  • Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted…
  • Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy.
  • Creative imagination and spontaneity…cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation.
  • Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire…

He concludes, “I must always choose between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance.”

Berlin says that he can offer no silver bullet to restrain the “champions” of one or another of these values, “each of whom,” likely referring to the champions, “tends to trample upon the rest.” However, he offers this modest proposal,

…If these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion.

…Some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled—liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.

He says, “We must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals.”


Passionately, Berlin adjures his listeners,

…One cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory.

The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.

And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelet is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking.

And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelet, and just go on breaking eggs.

Along with Berlin, I must urge us to examine our beliefs. Are we pursuing a “single, overarching ideal,” with which all will be well, and without, we will not lift a hand, in the here and now, to improve our fellow citizens’ lot? If that’s a yes, get over yourself; put your hand to the plow, do not look back, and humbly serve your fellow citizens in your community, state, and nation in the ways you are able.

Who Is Karl Marx? September 24, 2018, YouTube, PragerU

The Historical Origins Behind the Subversion of the Constitution

In his Claremont Review of Books article, “The Left Side of History,” Allen C. Guelzo reviews Bradley Watson‘s book Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea. According to Guelzo, “Watson has crafted, not so much a historical genealogy of Progressivism, as its historiography .” However, what I found interesting was Guelzo’s description of the descent of American Thought from colonial idealism into post-civil war despair and twentieth century destruction.

Guelzo opens his review with the following passage,

Progressivism, in its original 19th-century form, was the offspring of pessimism. Part of that pessimism was a revulsion at what the Civil War had done and, more to the point, failed to do. It had taken an America whose driving intellectual forces were enthusiastically religious, artistically naïve, and absolute in their moral self-confidence, and plunged it into a four-year bloodbath led by incompetent generals, pockmarked by genocidal massacres (as at Fort Pillow and the Crater), and frothing with stupidity, greed, and fraud.

Overall, approximately one out of every ten white American males of military age in 1860 was dead by 1865 from some war-related cause. Even after the war, the federal government would be paying pensions to nearly one million Union veterans or their dependents, at a total cost (by 1900) of almost 22% of all federal expenditures.

And for what? Emancipation, yes. Union, yes. But the promise that emancipation would produce an egalitarian, biracial society was cruelly smashed by the failures of Reconstruction, and reunion only resulted by the 1880s in a revival of the same old alliance of corrupt Northern Democrats and white-hooded Southern Democrats that had brought the country to the brink of war in the first place.

…The sheer volume of destruction, human and economic, unhinged something in the American mind

Into this ‘slough of despond’ fell Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Wikipedia notes that Darwin did not mean, by the term ‘races,’ our narrow definition; but, instead, species groups such as honeybee nests and human tribes. The book was first released in Great Britain in 1859 and grew in influence in America.

Guelzo says of Darwin’s Origin of Species, “…The book portrayed physical existence itself as a pointless, directionless evolution, by means of “natural selection,” from nothing in particular to nothing in particular. …In the new Darwinian universe, ideas were biological mechanisms. They did not convey truth; they were tools to assist one’s adaptation to the relentless organic processes of natural selection.”

This nihilistic idea struck a chord with late nineteenth century philosophers. Charles S. Peirce wrote in his 1878 article, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”,

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment when belief is reached.

But, since belief is a rule for action, the application of which involves further doubt and further thought, at the same time that it is a stopping-place, it is also a new starting-place for thought. That is why I have permitted myself to call it thought at rest, although thought is essentially an action. The final upshot of thinking is the exercise of volition, and of this thought no longer forms a part; but belief is only a stadium of mental action, an effect upon our nature due to thought, which will influence future thinking.

And, as Guelzo says, William James defined pragmatism with greater clarity in his book Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907,

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate, and verify. False ideas are those that we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as.

This thesis is what I have to defend. The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its veri-fication. Its validity is the process of its validation.

As Isaiah Berlin has said,

…Philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization… Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these devastating effects of their activities.

Guelzo says that the descent from disillusionment with Natural Law to Evolution’s purposelessness resulting in a philosophy of “what works,” pointed “toward the creation of a new American society, a society which had the chastened flexibility of a Darwinian organism rather than the rigidity of abstract truths. Creating that society was what Progressivism promised to do.”

Guelzo notes that this same influence pervaded the institution of professional historians which developed “virtually parallel to pragmatism and Progressivism.” Guelzo, quoting Watson says, “[P]rofessional American historians were, in various ways, thoroughly progressive from the get-go.” Guelzo says that this was “largely because the historians shared the infatuation with “[t]he ever-shifting interactions between organism and environment” that characterized Darwin’s evolution—and that became so vital a component of Progressive politics.”

Therefore, Guelzo says that Samuel Johnson’s assessment (Rambler 156, 14 September 1751) no longer applies, “Every government…is perpetually degenerating towards corruption, from which it must be rescued at certain periods by the resuscitation of its first principles, and the re-establishment of its original constitution.”

Progressivism saw (and sees) History as an evolving organism served by humans. Even the Founders’ Constitution, based on Natural Law, was merely an emanation of History’s development, no more valid or foundational as any other historical gyre.

In 1893, progressive historian Frederick Jackson Turner postulated that the process of the moving frontier line and its cleansing effect upon the pioneers resulted in American democracy, egalitarianism, rejection of high culture, and violence. As Turner put it, “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.” Ironically, Turner’s frontier thesis is cited in arguments for American Exceptionalism.

Progressive historian Charles A. Beard, in his 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States contends that the Constitution of the United States was formulated to preserve the Founding Fathers’ financial interests. Beard asserted that the Constitution was written by a unified elite to protect its personal property, loans to the nascent government, and economic status. The authors of The Federalist Papers merely represented this interest group.

However, Beard denied he directly proposed this thesis in his 1935 Introduction. He claimed to have only hinted at it, “The only point considered here is: Did they [the Constitutional Convention members] represent distinct groups whose economic interests they understood and felt in concrete, definite form through their own personal experience with identical property rights, or were they working merely under the guidance of abstract principles of political science?” His text then examines the financial interests of numerous convention attendees.

Guelzo, quoting Watson, says, “[t]he progressive idea, simply put, is that the principled American constitutionalism of fixed natural rights and limited and dispersed powers must be overturned and replaced by an organic, evolutionary model of the Constitution that facilitates the authority of experts dedicated to the expansion of the public sphere and political control, especially at the national level.”

Watson defines five principles of Progressivism:

There are no fixed or eternal principles that govern.

The state and its component parts are organic [and] involved in a struggle for never-ending growth.

Democratic openness and experimentalism…are the fertilizer of the organic state.

The state and its components exist only in History.

Some individuals stand outside this process…an elite class, possessed of intelligence as a method.

The elite class leads the masses into promised utopias through any means necessary, exempting themselves from strictures which lead to hardship or any responsibility for failure.

Watson says that the American constitutional order stands on “permanent principles of political right derivable from a proper understanding of [fallen] human nature,” whereas, “Rejecting any account of an unchangeable human nature, the Progressives went deep to attack the heart of American constitutionalism.”

Finally, Guelzo urges us to understand the forces that prevailed over the post-Civil War American society,

Before the Civil War, only about 7% of American manufacturing was organized in corporations; by 1900, corporations accounted for 69% of all American manufacturing. Between 1897 and 1905 alone, 5,300 small-scale firms were consolidated and reorganized into just 318 corporations, and 26 super-corporations (or “trusts”) controlled 80% of major American industrial output.

Americans were facing an economy organized on very different principles than the one the founders knew.

The founders had dreaded power as the great threat to liberty, but they had conceived of political power as the form it was most likely to take. After 1865, it was economic power which emerged as the greatest challenge to liberty, and if one can say anything in defense of the Progressives, it should be that they saw this shift all too clearly, even if they mistook the best means for dealing with it.

…On the other hand, it would be less than candid not to admit that historians have been too much the ideological allies of Progressivism to permit themselves to see its rejection of natural rights constitutionalism as Progressivism’s master flaw.

Progressivism has evolved over the years; yet its allegiance to History and ascent to human perfectibility apart from God’s unmerited favor remains. In this uncertain period, Steven F. Haywood, in his editorial for City Journal, “Pouring on the Gasoline,” admonishes,

But that’s where we are right now, with large numbers of Americans utterly alienated from many of their fellow citizens. The causes and responsibility for this can be debated another day. [To this situation,] Harry Jaffa [wrote]: “In a republic, the sobriety of the citizens replaces the force of authority as the principal source of order.” If we do have a train-wreck election, it will be the sobriety of Americans that saves us. 

Let us therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded.

“Our Embattled Constitution” – Harry V. Jaffa, February 25, 2015, YouTube, Hillsdale College