For more than 60 years, from the mid-1950s on, John Lukacs wrote and spoke on the passing of the modern age. With his death on May 6, the end of that age has finally come to pass.
When Pope John Paul II would arrive in a new country, his first action was always to drop to his knees and kiss the ground. This gesture of reverence was usually portrayed in the media as a sign of respect and of love for the people of that country—and it was that. But for the Polish-born pontiff, it was more an expression of his deep understanding of patriotism, a recognition that there can be no people without a place, a soil from which that people has sprung.
The idea of a nation (natio) that is rootless—not tied to a particular land (patria)—is an absurdity. It is the flip side of the idea of a “nation of immigrants,” which arose in the late 19th century and took hold on the American imagination between the two world wars. White nationalists who find, say, Texas, Montana, and Northern Virginia equally interchangeable and open-borders “nation of immigrants” dreamers both elevate the centralized state above any actual nation, political citizenship above true familial and cultural ties (much less ties to the land). Neither type of nationalism is compatible with the patriotism of a John Paul II, who noted in his final book, Memory and Identity, that “Catholic social doctrine holds that the family and the nation are both natural societies, not the product of mere convention,” and warned that, therefore, “they cannot be replaced by anything else”:
[T]he nation cannot be replaced by the State, even though the nation tends naturally to establish itself as a State. . . . Still less is it possible to identify the nation with so-called democratic society. . . . Democratic society is closer to the State than is the nation. Yet the nation is the ground on which the State is born. The issue of democracy comes later, in the arena of internal politics.
The replacement of the nation by the state, of the destruction of natural society by some form of nationalism, whether ethnic or civic, is both a product and a cause of political and cultural centralization. Patriotism, on the other hand, tends in the opposite direction. Since a true patriot understands that the nation is an extension of his family, and, like his family, is tied by its very nature to a particular place, he is more likely to keep his horizons limited, to concentrate his imagination and his efforts on the place in which he lives and the people with whom he shares that place in a way that both types of nationalist find not only unacceptable but threatening to their overarching political vision.
Robert Nisbet, as I mentioned last month, believed that centralization—political and economic—is both a cause and a result of the increasing alienation from which modern man suffers. Psychiatrists and psychologists refer to the effects of alienation as “depersonalization” or “loss of identity,” and both phrases are telling. A person, unlike an individual, is defined not with reference to himself but in his relationship to others—family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. Just as importantly, he is not defined by his relationship to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or to the masses of white or black or yellow or red people within the boundaries of the United States or across the globe, because he has no real relationship—or even the possibility of a real relationship—with any of them.
Whether I know my neighbor or not is a matter of greater importance to who I am as a person than whether I voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton (or, as I did, wrote in Pat Buchanan). It is more important than physical traits over which I have no control, like my left-handedness or my extreme nearsightedness or my skin color. I may have over a thousand “friends” on Facebook, but if I have no friends in my hometown, with whom I share a common place and experience, then my identity will largely revolve around my alienation from others. I may try to overcome that alienation through online “communities” or the adoption of a political ideology, but those who know me only through the Internet or within the context of political activity can never be adequate substitutes for the family and friends and neighbors and coworkers who anchor one in real life, in a real place.
I moved to Huntington, Indiana, last June; my family joined me a month later. Our new friends and acquaintances here frequently remark that they are surprised by how quickly we have become a part of this community. We eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores. We’ve joined the parish of Saints Peter and Paul; I sing in the choir, and the children belong to the youth group. The older girls have thrown themselves into swimming and track and Academic Super Bowl and the winter musical at the Catholic high school; the younger ones have added to the life of Huntington Catholic, on whose board I now sit. I’m a member of the local council of the Knights of Columbus, and Amy has joined the ladies’ auxiliary. I belong to the board of Junior Achievement and am part of a working group, organized by the mayor and other civic and business leaders, planning Huntington’s Constitution Day celebration in September. Our family knows our neighbors, and we have invited a few dozen of my coworkers over to our house to celebrate Epiphany.
But what was the alternative? Evenings spent surfing Netflix and Facebook? Nonstop viewing of CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News? Endless arguments online about Trump and guns and immigration and trade?
I’ll leave those activities to the nationalists of both stripes. Our 12-year-old daughter, Cordelia, is trying to decide which part of the backyard we should dig up for our garden, and together we’re going to get down on our knees and plant our hands in the soil of our new native land.
First published in the May 2018 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
“Culture does not exist autonomously,” wrote Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community; “it is set always in the context of social relationships.” The implications of Nisbet’s statement should be obvious, but in the age of “social” media, when we speak of “long-distance relationships” with “friends” we have never met, the obvious too often gets lost in a cloud of abstraction.
For there to be a “context of social relationships,” there must be at least two people. And those people must be part of a society, because that is what social, as an adjective, not only implies but demands, the fantasy worlds constructed by Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Williams notwithstanding. And a society is a community, and a particular type thereof: not simply a random collection of people thrown together in time and bound by geography, but one ordered to the common good, and sharing a common history and customs. Those customs, deriving from and informed by that history, form the barest skeleton of what we call culture.
Culture, then, is built from the ground up, and from the basic human community—the family—outward. A culture is resilient to the extent that the society which gave rise to it is healthy, and that health implies a certain stability. Too much mobility, in the form of either immigration or emigration, disrupts the social relationships that make it possible to order a community to the common good. Shared history is lost; shared customs break down. The common culture collapses.
Culture develops organically; it cannot be imposed from the top down. Anything that we call a culture that does not arise “in the context of social relationships” is at best an ideology. It takes years, even generations, of social stability to develop the common history and customs that make a true culture possible.
Thus, a true culture has an upper limit as well as a lower one. Just as an individual cannot a culture make, so too a mass of men among whom any social relationships are tenuous at best cannot truly share a common culture. Most people would probably recognize that to speak of a “global culture” is abstraction at its worst; but to speak of, say, “Christian culture” is not much better. There are cultures that are Christian, but each arises from a shared faith in Christ among a people who share a common history and customs within a true community bound by space and time. Two Christians from different Christian cultures obviously share much; but a single common culture is not one of the things that they share.
I once wrote in these pages that,
The subtitle of this magazine notwithstanding, there can be no single, deep, and lasting “American culture,” but there have been and still are many American cultures, local and regional, and the stronger they are, the more likely it is that the country as a whole will manage to survive.
Furthermore, in a country that spans a continent, there can be no single nation, since a nation is bound together not only by common descent and geography but by a common culture. That does not mean that there cannot be a governmental confederation (or, more strictly speaking, an empire) that extends over such a large span of territory, nor that the many American cultures do not have more in common with one another than they do with other cultures beyond the physical boundaries of the North American continent. But unless the word culture is to become the kind of abstraction that Robert Nisbet abhorred, it must always be bound by the limits of a true society—limits imposed by geography, shared history and customs, and social relationships.
In our continental empire, anything that pretends to the title of a national culture is by its very nature a threat to the real cultures that continue to exist (and sometimes even to thrive) in such places as Spring Lake, Michigan; Rockford, Illinois; Huntington, Indiana; and thousands of other villages, towns, and small-to-medium-sized cities across the United States, as well as in neighborhoods within cities that are too large to sustain a true culture of their own. Such cultures are dismissed as backward and parochial not only by liberals, for whom culture must give way to abstract universalism, but by putative conservatives whose nationalist abhorrence of cultural patriotism is less universal but no less abstract.
America, such conservatives say, is not a “proposition nation”—except when the proposition in question is not that “All men are created equal” but that a culture does not need a specific soil and a particular people to give it birth. But this, too, is a type of abstract equality that denies the importance of the actual social relationships that give rise to and sustain true cultures. The person—a word that always implies a relationship to another—is replaced by the individual, whose only relationship (tenuous as it is) is to the mass known as the nation.
And thus does culture die, at the hands of those who should be its protectors.
First published in the December 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
Russell Kirk frequently warned those who read his essays and books and attended his lectures not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Even at the most mundane level of everyday life, the Sage of Mecosta offered good advice. If we spend all of our days dreaming about what might be—let alone what might have been—we’re liable to end up like Miniver Cheevy (or even Richard Cory). Insisting that everything be perfect is a great way to ensure that your house suffers irreparable water damage from the minor leak in your roof while you try to decide between the six colors and four shapes of architectural shingles that Home Depot has to offer.
But there are greater depths to Dr. Kirk’s advice than the surface level of pragmatism. His words of wisdom flowed from the same place as his opposition to ideology. Leo Strauss argued that the classical and Christian worlds had set the bar too high for man to be able to reach it, and his students declared that the genius of the philosophers of the modern era (starting with Machiavelli) can be found in their embrace of a sort of “idealistic realism”—aiming for a standard that’s just high enough to give men something to strive for, but low enough that the goal is actually possible to reach.
As usual, Strauss was wrong, and his students (perhaps deliberately) more so. The evidence can be found all around us—or rather, in what’s not around us. Where are the modern Parthenons and Pantheons? The Chartreses and Notre Dames of the 20th and 21st centuries? The Homers and Dantes and Thomas Aquinases? The various Trump towers may be marvels of engineering, but a mathematical problem solved in steel is different from a monument in word or in stone to the human spirit.
Men of earlier ages aimed high, but they met their aims, in large part because they recognized the limitations of man. They didn’t demand that everything be planned out in advance. There was no blueprint for Notre-Dame de Paris; no outline for the Commedia. They placed stone upon stone, word after word, and from their efforts something glorious took shape.
The fundamental failure of the modern age stems from the refusal to accept the inherent limitations of a fallen world, and the consequent insistence on making the perfect the enemy of the good. The great successes of the modern world—advances in technology and medicine, for example—are the exceptions that prove the rule, because they were made by men who were willing to experiment, to try something they weren’t sure would succeed, to accept something good (say, a moderate extension of life) rather than to insist on the perfect (the elimination of death). That the basic techniques of modern science and medicine were established in the late medieval world and only refined since then is more significant than 21st-century man is willing to admit.
Nowhere is the modern tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good more obvious than in the political demand that reality conform to ideology. Kirk found in Edmund Burke, the prototypical conservative, the source of his pragmatic advice, but “conservatives” today are much more the descendants of Thomas Paine, an atheist radical and Burke’s bête noire on the subject of the French Revolution, than they are of Burke. Paine is typical of the modern ideologue in his insistence that changes in external social and political institutions are more likely to better the lot of mankind than the conversion of hearts and minds, much less the literal conversion of fallen man to membership in the Body of Christ. If we can conceive of the perfect world, we can build it, even if that may mean that those whose vision doesn’t match up with ours might need to be sacrificed—literally—for the sake of the glorious future in which they will not share.
As late as 30 years ago, American conservatives still cited Kirk on the dangers of ideology, even as they, in the final days of the Cold War, had fallen prey (as Kirk saw with perfect clarity) to the siren song of ideology themselves. Today, most self-identified conservatives who remember his name reject Russell Kirk precisely because he wasn’t an ideologue, because he believed that true diversity (rather than the fake diversity that goes under the name of multiculturalism) is a Christian principle that flows from the nature of the Godhead Itself, because he insisted that there are no political solutions to cultural problems (which is why he joined the masthead of Chronicles), because he was a patriot of Mecosta, Michigan, rather than a nationalist of the American empire based in the fever swamps of Washington, D.C.
Whatever their failings, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had read Russell Kirk, and both presidents honored him with invitations to visit the White House. The thought of a Kirk being invited to an audience with an American president post-1992 is, in the immortal word of Wallace Shawn, “inconceivable!” There is no left and right anymore, no Burke-Paine debate to speak of in contemporary politics. There is only ideology, the sword of the revolution—the enemy of the good, in relentless pursuit of a perfection unobtainable here, east of Eden.
First published in the October 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
Nolite confidere in principibus.
The voice of the Psalmist speaks to us down through the ages: “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” We can be forgiven if we find those words more relevant than usual in this particular election year. But it would be a mistake to think that the challenge we face today is merely one of personalities, the result of voters in the primaries picking two intensely dislikable candidates for the highest office in the land.
Our problems run much deeper, and they will not be solved by selecting different presidential candidates, or even simply by refocusing our political efforts from the national level to the state and local ones. While those are both worthwhile strategies, they are essentially palliative. They may relieve our symptoms, but they cannot cure the underlying disease, the roots of which run much deeper and much further back in history than we tend to think.
While modern politics, especially at the national level here in the United States, has proved to be a very efficient vehicle for the destruction of society and community, of culture and morality, even the best and most well-meaning of modern politicians have shown little ability to use the political process to shore up the most important institutions, to foster community, to uphold the moral order whose truth is testified to us by natural law and revelation. Is there something in the very structure of modern democratic politics that makes it an efficient engine for destruction, but hardly useful for preserving what is good and true and beautiful, much less for building an humane society and economy, and a Christian culture?
The father of all modern democratic political theorists, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was the father of something else, which is often overlooked in discussions of his legacy: nationalism, and the modern unitary nation-state. The architects and leaders of the French Revolution were deeply inspired by Rousseau, and it is no contradiction that they adopted as their motto the democratic invocation of liberté, egalité, fraternité, while restricting the freedom of the Church, reducing Christian clergy to noncitizen status, and watering the soil of the Vendeé with the blood of martyrs. For the liberty that they longed for was the freedom of an abstract national or general will to be expressed without the restraints of custom and tradition, including the most important of all traditions, Christianity; the equality they desired was not the natural equality of organic (and thus naturally small) communities, but the artificial equality of all Frenchmen as participants in the general or national will; and the fraternity they hoped to foster was not the natural brotherhood of families and neighbors and parishes, but the abstract brotherhood of all those who see the nation, and not their own families and the Church and the land on which they live, as their father and mother.
To foster democracy on the national level—that is, to extend democracy to a breadth unseen before in all of human history—the revolutionary leaders had to wipe out everything that stood between the nation and each man or woman, including the Church, the family, organic communities, and cultural diversity between different regions of the country. In other words, they had to strip everyone of everything that makes each of us a person, so that they could create individuals who would have no choice but to relate to one another only through the political life of the nation-state.
The history of the past 225 years has been the playing out of the French Revolution, again and again, in country after country, around the globe. Sometimes the attempts to give birth to the General Will have been similarly bloody—in Soviet Russia, in Nazi Germany, in communist China and Cambodia—but throughout much of Western Europe and here in the United States, they have often been more subtle, like cooking the proverbial frog in a pot. What no one ever stops to think about that proverb, though, is that there must come an inflection point: If that poor frog is not already cooked by the time the bubbles start to rise from the bottom of the pot, he’s bound to take notice. Because once those bubbles start to rise, they increase in size and number and frequency and intensity. Even from inside the pot, you cannot mistake a rolling boil for still water.
For decades, the heat has been climbing in this melting pot that we call the United States. We have now reached a rolling boil. The attacks on the traditional social order have escalated to the point where they can no longer be ignored. They have been launched not just against the family and the Church and the natural differences between the sexes but more recently even against the very concepts of man and woman. And the frustration that so many Americans today feel—both those who support one of the two major presidential candidates and those who are repelled by both of them—stems from the awareness that the waters around us are roiling and boiling. We have to do something! is the common refrain; and for many, perhaps even most, Americans, that means the President (or at least the political elite in Washington, D.C.) should do something. After all, problems that are nationwide must call for national solutions, right? And yet . . .
Nolite confidere in principibus. “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.”
The headlong rush toward mass democracy, toward Rousseauian nationalism, has obscured for many a truth that can still be seen clearly by those who have studied history, and especially modern history: There are no political solutions to cultural problems. A wrecking ball is an extremely efficient tool to use in destroying a magnificent Gothic cathedral. But just as it would seem absurd to suggest that the same wrecking ball might have a role to play in rebuilding a new church out of the rubble of that cathedral, contemporary politics—especially at the national level—presents far greater potential for harm than for good. The modern inversion of social life, the placing of politics before culture and morality, could work for a little while—a few hundred years in the broad sweep of human history—so long as a healthy culture continued to pass down what was worthwhile in a way that kept tradition alive for the rising generation. The new order could draw upon a rich cultural and moral patrimony even as it attacked that same patrimony—at first subtly, and now openly. But now that modern politics has undermined its own foundations, the entire structure is in danger of collapse. Remodeling a house whose foundations have been eaten away by termites is a fool’s errand; renewing the foundation itself must be the first step in rebuilding an humane society and economy.
Renewing the foundation requires a return to the principle of subsidiarity, and specifically to the original understanding of the term. Subsidiarity is often reduced to a sort of Catholic version of political federalism—dividing up responsibilities at different levels of government. But strictly speaking, subsidiarity is something much greater. Subsidiarity is concerned with the proper limits of authority—all authority, not simply political authority. In fact, while political authority is in many ways the most encompassing of all human authority in the modern age, it has traditionally been regarded as the most limited, because it is derivative. The source of all authority, of course, is God, Who is Himself the highest authority; but on the human level, authority flows outward from the family, not downward from government. And the authority of what we often refer to as “higher levels” of government is circumscribed by the authority of those governmental institutions that are closer to those whom they govern, institutions that have arisen organically from the community, which is the natural extension of the family.
When we speak about the structure of government in the United States, we usually represent it as a hierarchy that starts with the federal government—or, to name it more accurately, the national government—on top, with state government in the middle, and local government at the very bottom. But politically speaking, the principle of subsidiarity sees authority from the opposite direction—local government has the strongest claim, and the authority of state government is circumscribed by that; state government should not usurp the legitimate authority of local government. The authority of national government is restricted even further; it has no legitimate claim over the areas of authority that belong to either state or local government. The national government does not delegate authority to the state, which in turn delegates it to the local government; rather, every level of government beyond the local is necessary only insofar as it fulfills functions that are desirable for the common good but which can only be provided by organic communities coming together voluntarily into a larger political association. All of this is summed up precisely in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The “People of the United States” referenced in the Preamble is not an undifferentiated mass like the French revolutionaries’ understanding of the people of France, but the people of each state coming together as states—as preexisting entities—to create a new level of government to do things that all of the states found desirable but that none of the states could do for itself (and that the first federal government established under the Articles of Confederation had failed to do). The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, so neglected today, makes this perfectly clear: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So: Authority flows outward, from the most organic levels of government to the more artificial. But now we need to take one further step back, and recall that even the most organic levels of government—all the things, for instance, that we lump under the label of “local government”—receive their authority not by some sort of divine right but from a social institution that preexists all political institutions: the family.
It is no mere coincidence that, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the discussion of society at large, and of the political community, is placed in the section on the Fourth Commandment. And the structure of the discussion moves from family to society to the political community, establishing a clear priority of institutions. All human institutions flow from the simple injunction to “Honor your father and your mother.” As the Catechism notes,
The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.
It is a sign of the destruction wrought by modern politics that it seems necessary to note that the Catechism is very specific about what constitutes a family (and, by omission, what does not): “A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family.” Because the family is the foundation on which everything else rests, the widespread confusion that has been deliberately created over the terms marriage and family is an attack not only on those institutions but on all of human society and political life.
By now it should have become clear why subsidiarity is not a mere political principle but an all-encompassing social and cultural principle that, far from empowering government, always points back to the source of government’s authority, and therefore acts as a limit on its authority, especially as that authority becomes further removed from the actual people affected by government.
To take a concrete example: The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, without reservation, that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children.” That responsibility rests on their God-given authority within the family. Parents can exercise that authority by delegating it to others, coming together to create communal educational institutions; but those institutions, even if they are run by local governments, cannot legitimately override the authority of the parents. In other words, the principle of subsidiarity means that government cannot step in simply because of a perceived inability or unwillingness of the parents to exercise their authority as government sees fit. To put it in the words of the Catechism, “Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.” That principle applies by analogy to the state usurping the authority of local governments, or the national government usurping the authority of states and localities.
Once we start to see authority as something that extends beyond politics and that in fact circumscribes political life, we can begin to see how subsidiarity is not simply another political system but an alternative vision to the entire modern understanding of political life. Subsidiarity builds upon our understanding of human nature and authority that we derive from natural law and revelation. It points to a culture that will lead to a proper understanding of political life, but which is also prior to politics—prior both in the sense of existing before politics and in the sense of being more important thanpolitics.
And this culture is more important than politics precisely because it is animated not by the human will but by divine truth. To put it another way, drawing upon the work of Joseph Pieper, that culture is at the heart of what we mean by tradition. Like marriage and the family, tradition has suffered sustained assaults, to the point where the very word has become synonymous for most people with some set of dry-as-dust, abstract principles that are blindly handed on from one generation to the next, for no particular reason other than that they have always been believed and must therefore always be followed.
But that is not what tradition means, as Pieper shows. Rather, it is the handing down of all that is essential, the unchanging truth to which we need to conform ourselves in order to live as man was meant to live. Pieper contrasts this living tradition with what he calls “dogmatic conservatism,” which corresponds more with the current caricature of tradition. Rather than being a collection of things that are revered simply for being old, tradition is the living reality of universal truth revealed through the circumstances of the day, changing as necessary in the accidents, in the “historical forms,” in order to preserve what is essential. In other words, tradition is a living reality that animates society from within, as opposed to ideology, the normal mode of modern politics, which is a static blueprint imposed on society from above—and which does great damage to the extent that it diverges from reality.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws into stark relief this distinction between a culture built on sacred tradition that preexists political life and the ideological mode of politics that dominates the modern world:
Every institution is inspired, at least implicitly, by a vision of man and his destiny, from which it derives the point of reference for its judgment, its hierarchy of values, its line of conduct. Most societies have formed their institutions in the recognition of a certain preeminence of man over things. Only the divinely revealed religion has clearly recognized man’s origin and destiny in God, the Creator and Redeemer.
The Catechism then turns to John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus annus:
Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows.
When Centesimus annus was released in 1991, in the final days of the Cold War, it was easy to read such lines as an epitaph for communism, or more broadly for all of the destructive totalitarianisms of the 20th century. Twenty-five years later, John Paul appears as a prophet, his words speaking to us of the increasingly explicit totalitarianism that was implicitly there in our own national political life at the very moment when we were celebrating the triumph of freedom and democracy over tyranny and communism.
Nolite confidere in principibus. “Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” As another presidential election draws to a close, we need to remind ourselves that, whichever candidate wins, there are concrete ways in which we can refocus our efforts from the national level, where we can make little or no difference, to the local level, where we can restore the foundations and begin to rebuild—to use another phrase from John Paul II—the “culture of life.” In doing so, we should act not out of mere frustration with national politics but out of a recognition of the limitations of all human endeavors that, in the words of John Paul, “seek their criteria and goal in themselves or . . . borrow them from some ideology.” There is no future in the merely human; as the Psalmist reminds us, “His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return into his earth: in that day all their thoughts shall perish.” In returning to subsidiarity, in elevating the family and the local community, in recognizing that the ultimate source of authority is not government but God Himself, we can begin to undo the social and cultural damage that modern politics has wrought, and start restoring our corner of the vineyard.
First published in the November 2016 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.