After Ideology

The book asserts that modernity has reached a dead end that is the inevitable result of its own inner logic. That logic is best described as revolt against God. Here, Walsh’s debt to Eric Voeglin is evident. The modern revolt, Walsh argues, has its origins in the Gnostic claim that humans can, through a secret gnosis and an act of their own, transform themselves into the Divine. That Gnostic quest has lived on in various forms in the West, which include Comte’s positivism and Marx’s communism. Each of those movements insists on reducing reality to an ideology. Each plays on the legitimate quest for divinization that abides in the hearts of men and women but finds its perversion in the modern will to power. In rebelling against the divine order with its inherent limitations and its insistence that transcendence can only be attained, in the final analysis, through grace that invites us to participate in sacrificial love, the modern quest leads to chaos.

That chaos and the existential realization of the ultimate folly of the egophanic revolt has been experienced widely in these final stages of the modern age. Walsh contends that only through suffering the consequences of its own error can humanity begin to return to its true destiny. For that reason, he illustrates his analysis with the works of three writers who have experienced both the depth of suffering brought about by modernity and the salvific opening to grace that is the beginning of a return to order. Dostoevsky, Camus, and Solzhenitsyn are used throughout the book both for their analysis of the crisis of modernity and their illustration of the way out.

The way out begins in nothing less than a transformation of the soul grounded in repentance. It involves the realization that “moral goodness cannot be sustained unless it is anchored in the mysterium tremendum of God, the order of creation, and the mystery of God’s redemptive action in Christ.“ The secular attempts at creating earthly utopias have been ”at best an ineffective substitute, and at worst the source of disastrous abstract moralizing.“ (p. 162)

Yet, it should not be supposed from this that Walsh is interested in the recreation of theocratic states or even in the revival of a particular church. Questions of doctrine and political polity are secondary level questions that are abstracted from a more primitive experience of the divine. In that primal experience of our need for God, of our true destiny as human beings, we learn the “law of the planet.” At that moment “the earlier overreaching hubris falls away. A new willingness to take up one’s obligations replaces the previous arrogance and revolt. There is no longer the strident self-assertion that demanded a meaning and purpose from life. Now there is a humility that instead of demanding something from life, considers what life requires of us.” (p. 182)

A just and truly humane order in society can be built upon such a spiritual foundation. At this point, the author departs from his mentors in asserting that both Christianity and liberal democracy can be the keys to post-modern order. He rejects Voeglin’s assertion that Christianity, especially in St. Paul, share with Gnosticism a dissatisfaction with the present order that lures it into reliance on magical cures to the problem of suffering. While it is certainly true that the Greeks were right in saying that the soul ordered toward transcendent Divine goodness will choose rightly in the light of that truth and that the criterion of right and wrong is the soul of the mature man, the Incarnation of Christ has provided an even more perfect standard. “Right action will be discerned and practiced ever more completely as we succeed in that opening up that St. Paul referred to as ‘putting on the mind of Christ’.” For as Dostoevsky wrote, “there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ.” (p.228)

Whereas Walsh’s Russian mentors were anything but sanguine about liberal democracy, he believes that it is redeemable. Its redemption, however, hinges on its return to a proper understanding of human nature, one that is grounded in reality rather than in the Faustian deceit. Liberal democracy, purged of its hubris, offers the best hope because it, more than other systems, values the individual. Even Dostoevsky would agree, Walsh reminds us, “that individual self-betterment is not only the beginning of everything but also its continuation and outcome. It–and it alone–embraces, creates, and preserves the national organism.” (p. 231) By allowing freedom and by insisting that government exists to serve the individual, liberal society remains closer to the true order of things than do other systems.

But to remain healthy the liberal society must nurture the structures that support the spiritual foundation of the individual. The “wall of separation” that Americans have naively erected between religion and the state works to erode the very moral fiber that a liberal democracy requires.

Unless men and women are allowed and encouraged to grow spiritually, their ability to discern what is true and good will be impaired, and the order of society will be endangered. Any embrace of the fallacy that “right is prior to good,” or that there is no necessity to affirm the moral principles on which liberalism is based, is deadly. The escapist utopianism of liberals, the abandonment of justice by contemporary legal realism, and the dubious notion of enshrining the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental right all point to the key challenges to a revitalized liberalism.

Yet despite those dangers, Walsh sees hope in the present situation. He believes that the cathartic experience of the chaos of modernity is, in fact, widespread. He points to the absence in the work of men like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin of attempts to appeal to the bedrock of twentieth century politics–utilitarian justification–as a sign of this. By way of prescription he calls for a society that reinvigorates the link between the private and the public by supporting associations that are engaged in moral development, by seeing them as partners with the liberal state and relying on them in the formation of policy.

Nevertheless, this is all easier said than done. The major problem with After Ideology is that it bets heavily that the rumors about the death of modernity are, in fact, true. That modernity should die, for all the reasons that Walsh so cogently states, I could not agree with more. But that it will die, and in fact has already died, is entirely another matter.

Yes, we do have the evidence that Walsh cites about the realizations of sophisticated writers and the speculations of a handful of contemporary philosophers. But are they true indications of mass movements that constitute the shifting of an epoch? What signs are there in the mass culture of a dissatisfaction with the selfishness so characteristic of the modern age? What rumors do we hear from the contemporary political debate, perhaps from Ms. Flowers or Anita Hill, that self-serving is going out of style? Where is the spoudaios among those who really control the culture of our age? Bo Jackson has his thousands, and Michael Jackson his ten thousands. Most people couldn’t even spell “Voeglin” much less read him.

This is my problem not only with Walsh but with all those who insist that history is simply a progression of ideas. Human history is more than a series of important books. The fact is that most people who have lived on this planet have never read those books. Their lives have been shaped as much by what they ate and the climate in which they lived and the people into which they were born and the tools they used to do their work as they ever have been by any set of abstract ideas.

Voeglin is perceptive about the problems created by ideas that have lost their anchor in human experience. Yet he persists in seeing history as primarily a succession of just such ideas, which he learns of through reading texts. The historian of ideas has much to learn from the social historian and the cultural anthropologist. It is not for nothing that the history of ideas school has become a shrinking sidelight in the academy of professional historians. It is not unfair to suggest that it has found a new home among theologians whose “historical theology” resembles the old history of ideas, and among political philosophers who attempt magisterial surveys on the development of Western thought from the time of the Greeks to the present. Those surveys are not dissimilar in their scope to the great histories of “Western civilization” that historians of the first third of this century produced.

Furthermore, it is not at all certain that even the particular combination of certain long-lived ideas, which, I will grant, can be seen as unique to the modern age, in fact was responsible for the deformations of humanity that we have seen in our own time. For example, the revolt of the ego that Walsh sees as the center of modernity is not a new idea. It is at least as old as Lucifer and has a very long human history, dating back to a cute little garden and two naked humans. We cannot blame the suffering of the twentieth century on the Renaissance, or even begin to suggest that the holocausts of our age came about courtesy of Nietzsche and Marx. They came about because of human wickedness that knows no historical bounds. They also came about because of shifts in the ecosystems, technologies, and economic orders of the societies.

The contention that modern ideas cause the calamities of secularism, war, and genocide–three often cited results of the misguided ideas of the moderns–further encounters problems when one remembers that those calamities are not the sole prerogative of the West. There never was a Renaissance in China, yet the history of brutal totalitarian government there is ancient. The Aryan invaders of the Indian subcontinent were not listening to Wagner as they crushed the Drividians. Nor is secularity the root of all evil. The Aztecs of the Americas were open to the transcendent dimension of life so much that they found it necessary to provide their deities with scores of human victims daily. Such efforts to blame modernity first are little more than part of the same human tendency, which Walsh points to in the modern mind, to look for the quick, magical cure.

I do not wish to suggest that the intellectual history method is of no use. The often quoted Richard Weaver adage that ideas have consequences, is, of course, true. Ideas also have histories. But those histories are incarnated in the structure of human life. When the intellectual historian wishes to move in a causal analysis from a certain idea to a certain set of actions in history, then one must insist that move be substantiated by a whole range of data about the contexts of those ideas. If we rely exclusively on textual data as strung together by a scholar removed from the actual events by the space of many years, then we are at best making statements about what might have been. Often, in fact, we are learning nothing more than what the creator of such an analysis thinks should have been. When history is put to the service of, dare I say, “ideology,” then history is reduced to the speculations of the learned, and the vast majority of humanity is left out.

Despite these matters, the value of David Walsh’s work remains. Not, I would contend, as a work of history but as an analysis of the problems of the present and some of the ideas that have contributed to those problems. Most important, this work is a ringing prophetic call to spiritual renewal–a call that is, to borrow a phrase from Augustine who wrote at the passing of another epoch–“so ancient, yet so new.”