Friedrich Nietzsche. Photo: Wikipedia

There appears to be a central theme to the conservative critique of the left: Western civilization, having grown from Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman roots, evolved through the Enlightenment into a world of reason, empiricism, and liberal democracy, but in the 20th and 21st centuries, the left has replaced reason and empiricism by feeling, and liberal democracy by illiberalism and totalitarianism. The leftist degradation of civilization has been facilitated by the evisceration of Christianity in the mindless carnage of World War I and by postmodern/cultural-Marxist thinkers.

Did they miss the French Revolution?

The Enlightenment was in part about rationalism and empiricism, but that was at its outset, a legacy from the 17th century, originating early that century with René Descartes and Francis Bacon. Science unified these strands by demanding that reason be supported by observation and that observation be structured by mathematics. This unification was accomplished in 1687 by Isaac Newton in The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. John Locke published his great work of empiricism, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and his Second Treatise of Government in 1689, which might be taken as the beginning of the Enlightenment.

Subsequently, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant limited the role of reason. This is not necessarily negative criticism. For instance, Hume’s recognition that human knowledge of Nature rests on expectation, rather than causality, was an essential insight for modern science. Moreover, Hume would no doubt think that many of the “theories” circulating in academia today are just poppycock.

While it is true that Voltaire and the French Encyclopédistes championed universal reason well into the Enlightenment, their influence waned rapidly and modernity was shaped more by a growing subjectivity. Near the end of the Enlightenment, Kant stated the matter bluntly: “Sapere Aude [dare to know]! ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment.” This is a call to break free of dogma; however, it has led to a radical subjectivity, not the universal moral order desired by Kant.

In 1738, in his Treatise on Human Nature, Hume wrote, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason is not dead; however, it no longer provides a sure pathway to knowledge. Instead, it is a useful tool to achieve human ends and must be interpreted in the light of the master whose will it serves.

As for virtue, in the Treatise, Hume writes, “We tend to give the name of virtue to any quality in others that gives us pleasure by making for our advantage, and to give the name of vice to any human quality that gives us pain.” Virtue is not dead; however, it no longer consists of the universals prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, as it did for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas. Instead, it is subjectively defined according to one’s sentiments, and can consist of traits opposite to those of the classical virtues, as it does in some quarters today.

In 1755, Rousseau, the intellectual force behind the French Revolution and godfather of the modern left, published his Discourse on Inequality. At the outset he rejects facts: “Let us begin therefore, by laying aside facts, for they do not affect the question.” His anthropology of primitive man does not depend on observation. Inconvenient facts cannot affect Rousseau’s arguments. When they contradict his sentiments, they are irrelevant.

Even though his argument is based solely on conjecture, Rousseau has certainty. He admits that his conjectures may not agree with the facts, but that is immaterial since any acceptable conjectures must produce his conclusions. Rousseau has feelings, and he need only fancy conditions that support those feelings. Fact and logic will not stand in the way. Long before George Orwell, Rousseau identified freedom with slavery. This principle is at the foundation of his thinking. He sees no contradiction between X and not-X.

The French Revolution capped the Enlightenment with The Terror, evolved into Napoleon, the son of the Revolution, who was eventually defeated at Waterloo, thereby restoring the monarchal structure of Europe. The revolutions of 1848 were crushed, and all was well, except for the interlude of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The 19th century passed into the 20th century with progress all around.

Friedrich Nietzsche did not believe that all was well. He recognized that the legacy of the Enlightenment was not reason and empiricism, and that an irreversible civilizational change had taken place. Central to this change was the demise of religion among the elites. Pope John Paul II agreed with him. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he wrote, “About 150 years after Descartes, all that was fundamentally Christian in the tradition of European thought had already been pushed aside. This was the time of the Enlightenment in France.…”

Many today seem to think that Nietzsche reveled in the death of God, owing to his sometimes soaring words that man, freed of Christianity, could transform himself into overman, a different being altogether who did not need the crutch of myth, but could instead face reality and give life meaning via great achievements. But Nietzsche was not so confident, for he recognized the danger of life unmoored from its Christian heritage.

In 1881, Nietzsche declared the death of God in The Joyful Wisdom, the words coming from the mouth of a madman running into the marketplace:

“Whither is God?’ he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers…. What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? … Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?”

Some men, and women, would indeed become gods. They would declare a morality based on earthly ends, and all manner of crime would be permitted so long as it were done in the name of a utopia to be realized far in the future. Good would be defined as the interest of the powerful. Reason would be a tool of the powerful to assert their will.

Many conservatives appear to believe that all would be well if people would just cordially debate points of contention and then return home to their warm beds – atomized individuals, but united in a shared national history. God is not needed, nor is a common moral law. We know the basics of a pleasant bourgeois lifestyle: food, comfort and entertainment – Nietzsche’s last man. Straying through an infinite nothing is not so bad so long as we have our balance and it’s not too cold.

Not all conservative thinkers agree that this kind of warm-bed social contract can work. In an article titled “The West Must Restore a Sense of the Sacred,” David Goldman raises “the question of what causes a social contract to endure beyond the perceived self-interest of the participating parties.” Endurance, he argues, requires a sense of the sacred pervading everyday life.

Goldman concludes,

“The West cannot long survive without restoring a sense of the sacred, that is, repairing and adding to the work of many generations. The only successes we observe occur when the sense of the sacred arises from a biblical foundation. Restoring the sacred will require a hardy alliance of reflection and commitment; in some cases the past may be irretrievably lost.”

This is a sobering conclusion. The required commitment and effort are great, there is no formula on how to achieve the restoration, and at best not all is retrievable. In principle, the sacred need not involve God; it could mean that there is something inherent in the nation that deserves reverence. It could, for instance, be a reverence for the crown, as in England, or of the founding, as in ancient Rome. But as Goldman points out, in the post-Roman West, the sacred, to be a success, has only arisen from a biblical foundation, including the English crown.

Nietzsche concurs. In The Will to Power, he writes, “One still hopes to get along with a moralism without religious background, but that necessarily leads to nihilism.” We are currently awash in nihilism, and it seems unlikely that return to a biblical foundation will happen in a society that no longer considers itself Christian, and in which a large percentage hates Christianity. Nonetheless, as sobering as it is, Goldman’s conclusion is more optimistic than the madman in the marketplace.

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Edward R Dougherty

Edward R. Dougherty is Robert M. Kennedy '26 Chair and Distinguished Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University.

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