“I Told You So”: The Critique of Pure Modernity from 1920 to 2001

Thomas F. Bertonneau

Editor’s Note: Our Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest feature is at present being written by guest authors. The perspectives and opinions presented are those of the authors and will of necessity vary from issue to issue.

Reading Backwards

For some time—in part for my own sanity and in part for the edification of my students, who badly need exposure to actual diversity in philosophical judgments—I have been assiduously avoiding the scholarly and intellectual present to devote what remains of my mortal finitude to what I will call reading backwards into the discussion of modernity. By “modernity,” I mean the secular crisis in which all institutions are today immersed, including higher education.

One important characteristic of modernity is hostility to the past, which swiftly becomes ignorance of history. All “presentism,” as Richard Weaver dubbed it, is amnesiac. The amnesia of presentism correlates, moreover, with an all-at-once pitiable and ugly inflation of the individual and his society: In light of his own theory, the modern individual is self-creating, just as his society or his polity is self-creating, not only not requiring a past, but seeing the past as inimical to autonomy. Even contemporary reactionism partakes of such amnesia, as when the shrinking remnant of academic conservatives refers to the liberal triumph in colleges and universities as though it were a recent event, starting in the 1960s.

On the contrary, the global apocalypse of total politicization and the outlawing of judgment can boast of a long pedigree going back to the early twentieth century, and the critique of modernity is no less old than modernity itself. An impressive archive of discourses offers itself whose authors, were they to appear among us in 2012, would be fully justified in shaking their heads in sad admonition and saying, “I told you so.”

Hence—my reading project, which also constitutes long-term preparation for a senior seminar that I am teaching this fall on “Modern Anti-Modern Discourse: The Critique of Pure Modernity from 1920 to 2001.” The resulting bibliography should possess general interest. I take in alphabetical order by author the books my seminarians will study.

Nicolas Berdyaev (1874–1948): The Fate of Man in the Modern World (1935)

Berdyaev, sympathetic to the disestablishment of Czardom, tried to reconcile himself with the Bolsheviks. He quickly bruised his head against their granite wall of doctrinal adamancy. Lenin sent him contemptuously into exile in 1922 on the infamous “philosophers’ ship,” and after a year or so in Berlin he made himself a new home in Paris. Berdyaev’s argument with modernity began with his Meaning of the Creative Act (1916), an exploration of the spiritual dimension of art shot through with the judgment that much of the literature, plastic arts, and music of the time suggested abstraction and de-spiritualization.

Berdyaev wrote steadily, The Fate counting for his tenth published title. One topic, “the modern dictatorship of ideas,” anticipates the despotism of political correctness. Berdyaev observes in the totalitarian atmosphere of the mid-1930s this trend: “Thinkers are feeling the cruel results of the dictatorship of the dominant orthodoxy and are forced to accept the prevailing symbolism.” Increasingly, Berdyaev writes, “thought is regimented, and instead of personal conscience we have the conscience of the group.” More and more also do notions of “orthodoxy and heterodoxy” structure relations between the individual and the collective, to the detriment of the former.

In seeking the suppression of conscience, ideological polities seek the universal inculcation of their reductive, deterministic worldviews. Thus, “the absolute, ideocratic, totalitarian state comes into conflict with freedom of religious conscience,” so that “the state would become the church.” Berdyaev arrives at the paradox that “[t]he world threatens to become an organized and technized chaos in which only the most terrible forms of idolatry and demon-worship can live.”

T. S. Eliot (1888–1965): Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948)

The contemporary way of dealing with Eliot is to denounce him as a closeted homosexual or an anti-Semite, but this is merely not to have to confront the power of his perception as a social observer and anthropologist. In Notes, Eliot addresses modernity and secularity no less critically than does Berdyaev in The Fate. Taking a cue from Arnold Toynbee, Eliot observes that “no culture has appeared or developed except together with religion.” He links “specialization,” which belongs to the modern, technical order, with “radical disintegration” of a society. A sense of spirit and of transcendence helps maintain the integrity of a culture. Indeed, even “esthetic sensibility must be extended into spiritual perception” for a society properly to keep track of and diagnose its own current condition. (Berdyaev would concur.) The concluding chapter on “Culture and Politics” is especially instructive vis-à-vis 2012. Eliot reminds readers that politicization is destructive of actual culture. He insists on the particularity of the West as an identifiable continuum, with the classical tradition and the Bible being the twin foundations of its specificity.

René Girard (born 1923): I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001)

Girard deserves inclusion on the list because he belongs tenaciously to the Western-Christian tradition that rampant self-naming postmodernity attacks and forbids. Like Berdyaev and T. S. Eliot, Girard sees the contemporary crisis as religious, in the sense that post-Christianity is for him impossibility, leading only to a grotesque recursion to archaic piety, with its collective, sacrificial rituals and emotive, orgiastic style. The spontaneous and ferocious spasm of hate directed toward the unfortunate George Zimmerman in the Sanford, Florida, self-defense case offers an instance—but so does every hysterical cry about “racism” or “sexism” on any college campus in any semester. The point is to whip up solidarity by focusing attention on an offender. Also like Berdyaev and Eliot, Girard exercises massive skepticism regarding the venerability of the so-called autonomous individual.

Emphasizing the mimetic character of human beings, Girard deflates academic narcissism and the various schools of resentment by pointing out that people are not original even in their desires. I See Satan opens with a chapter that explicates the Tenth Commandment of the Decalogue in “mimetological” terms. Why the fuss about coveting? Girard wants to know. Covetousness is nothing less than the envious wanting of something because someone else possesses it, whether it is numerousness of bibliographic citations or a pair of sneakers. Were covetousness not under the taboo, Girard writes, “The door would be wide open to the famous nightmare of Thomas Hobbes, the war of all against all.

In the chapter on “The Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana,” Girard uses the idea of the scapegoat to interpret the enterprise of the famous pagan “guru” at Epheseus in the mid-first century AD. Today people would laud Apollonius as a community organizer. Finding the Ephesians in social crisis, he gathers them in the theater and claims to reveal the cause of their unrest, a blind beggar, whom he then urges them to lapidate. The stoning relieves the crisis. It is the familiar structure in myth and ritual of what Girard calls “unanimity minus one,” or what contemporary community organizers refer to as the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.

René Guénon (1886–1951): The Crisis of the Modern World (1927)

Guénon’s first book (Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion, 1921) was an exposé of Theosophy, which he regarded as a hybrid of politics and mysticism—and as being symptomatic of a trend, an important one among others, in Western civilization. In The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon characterized the prevailing condition after World War I as a “Dark Age,” contending fiercely that the palaver about progress was myth. Like Berdyaev and Girard, Guénon finds much of “humanism” suspicious. The humanists “were concerned,” Guénon writes, “to reduce everything to purely human proportions, to eliminate every principle of higher order, and…to turn away from the heavens under the pretext of conquering the earth.” Guénon ruthlessly critiques “individualism,” by which he denotes “the negation of any principle higher than individuality, and the consequent reduction of civilization, in all its branches, to purely human elements.” The ceaseless voluble promotion of “equality” and what he calls “egalitarian theories” signify for Guénon a desperate dissimulation of Western Civilization’s actual accelerating descent into social chaos.

José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955): The Revolt of the Masses (1930)

Ortega, like Girard many decades later, picked up certain threads of Nietzsche’s discourse. He understood that stable societies obey a hierarchical principle and that democracy is nothing less than the resentful disestablishment of hierarchy. Ortega saw the process of leveling as inherent to the egalitarian impulse. Like Berdyaev and Eliot, Ortega saw “specialization” as a type of “barbarism.” Ortega writes: “If the specialist is ignorant of the inner philosophy of the science he cultivates, he is much more radically ignorant of the historical conditions requisite for its continuation.”

The “mass-man” of Ortega’s discourse lives narrowly outside the historical continuum; he sees the civilization that he inherits and uses as a fact, like nature itself, not understanding the colossal effort that culminated in his own insouciant ease. In The Revolt’s final chapter, Ortega identifies the moral assumption of egalitarianism: that the individual has “unlimited rights” but, of “obligations,” precisely “none.”

Eric Voegelin (1901–1985): Science, Politics & Gnosticism (1968)

Voegelin was the most penetrating twentieth-century critic of ideology. Science, Politics & Gnosticism is his most cogent summation of the delusory “second realities,” or false world pictures, and intellectual swindles that constitute the regnant worldview of the political Left, not least in the academy. In particular, Voegelin calls damning attention to the most consistent characteristic of ideologies (taking them in the plural)—“the prohibition of questions”—what Berdyaev calls “the dictatorship of ideas.” Voegelin produces examples of the “prohibition” in the texts of Karl Marx, G. W. F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger. Regarding Marx, Voegelin quotes a passage from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which accuses those who would criticize Marx’s reductive empiricism and seek metaphysical first terms of wanting to “abstract from man and nature.” Marx never replies in kind either to the critique of empiricism or to the demand for first terms; he merely insists that his skeptics “give up [their] abstraction[s].” In sum, Voegelin shows the shoddiness of the foundations on which all recent “postmodern” discourses rest. Voegelin shows, in fact, that those discourses are foundationless and that they depend on treating their sources as Koran-like and untouchable, so that the assertions in them might never be questioned.

I first became acquainted with Voegelin in my early twenties when a septuagenarian friend with a degree in linguistics from Prague’s Charles University and an immense store of knowledge on many topics sent me a copy of Science, Politics & Gnosticism. I had been reading some rather extravagant books about Gnosticism in its late-antique context and must have blurted out some alarmingly stupid assertions during a conversation. My friend, Reinhold Kieslich (1900–1981), had been, among other things, an assistant stage director at the Dresden State Opera, a prisoner-of-war-trustee with freedom to come and go as he pleased after the German capitulation, one of the creators of simultaneous translation at the Nuremberg Trials, and a longtime teacher of Latin at Hawaii’s Punahoe Academy in the 1950s and 1960s.

Voegelin’s little book was tough going, but Kieslich’s prestige put pressure on me to persevere. At the time, I was a thoroughly confused undergraduate at UCLA. One of the effects of Science, Politics, & Gnosticism was to put in perspective for me the intellectual conformism of the large majority of my professors and of the campus atmosphere generally. I hope that Berdyaev, Eliot, Girard, Guénon, and Ortega, in addition to Voegelin, will exert a similar effect on the seniors in my course, whose intellectual formation tends to consist of the PC view summarized by all the latest Norton anthologies and by the ersatz history of that mountebank Howard Zinn.

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