As I read newspapers, popular magazines, listen to National Public Radio, watch cable television, attend Catholic Mass, and work with American academics at the deracinated institutions called colleges, I am conscious that American secular culture has had at least one hundred years to effect a closing not only of the American mind but of the American soul.
This essay examines the relationship between social recovery and how the American regime is interpreted. Specifically, I examine how a philosophic interpretation of the American nation’s existence in history is in conflict with interpretations of the American regime by reference to the Declaration of Independence. I want to discuss the concept of nationhood as a mystical substance of a people’s common existence because an interpretation of the American regime focused on the Declaration of Independence cannot accurately explain the phenomenon of ordered response to social disorder.[i] By what means this nation endures in time can be understood only by philosophical analysis, not by the manipulation of Enlightenment symbols.
In The Conservative Rebellion, I examine political periods in American history by reference to a type of “Rebel” who rose to the challenge of his times.[ii] The prerevolutionary era was characterized by rebels who acted bravely at Lexington and Concord and is commonly known as the Spirit of ’76. In our era, the book concludes, if there is hope for recovery it may be found in daimonic souls who, by experience of the transcendent God, respond to spiritual disorder by living socially effective—that is, ordered—personal lives.
Spiritual order in twentieth-century America was challenged by political ideologies that disrupted the nation states of Europe after World War I and which, in America, took the form of a political religion of democracy identified with Woodrow Wilson. The political religion that became socially effective with the entry of the United States into World War I continues to be effective into the twenty-first century.[iii]
The disordered reason of Woodrow Wilson, who saw America as a secular “Christ nation,”[iv] had its genesis in American Transcendentalism which imported German idealism to America. That idealism, or idealist humanism, saw man as essentially divine and history as the working out of the consciousness of man’s divinity. Essentially anti-Christian, Transcendentalism helped heighten animosities between North and South that led to a failure to compromise and civil war.[v]
This Transcendental, idealist influence, combined with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a civil war that shocked Americans unprepared for massive casualties and crippling injuries, challenged the religious beliefs of combatants and civilians. A consequence of our Civil War was the loss of belief in Protestant Christianity, and this unbelief eventually shaped the secular culture of twenty-first century America. In this context, it becomes clear that conservatism is one of several responses to spiritual disorder in society. Yet it offers, I believe, some small hope for recovery from disordered consciousness. As a political theorist, however, if I cannot examine a people’s understanding of nationhood as the mystical substance of their common existence – if my philosophy is essentially apolitical – I miss important aspects of a society’s history. Nor can I examine any people’s understanding of nationhood if I follow some Straussians who neglect the historical aspects of texts that were written to address a specific political conflict, and endow those texts with meanings that are, at best, conjectural.[vi]
First, I am aware that conservatism is an “ism” and a concept with which many are uncomfortable. I prefer to use the concept, “conservative community,” to describe a social reality that offers some respite from secularism, political ideology, and the many viral “isms” that infect the American body politic. I am also aware that most, if not all, of Eric Voegelin’s German students are far to my left politically and, unlike American Voegelinians, seem unaware of, nor are they interested in, the restorative role that conservatives have played in the recovery of order from the effects of America’s social disorder. Since Voegelin’s political philosophy guides my understanding of what intellectual and social forces can counter modern ideology, I need to address why Voegelin was uncomfortable with what here I am calling “conservatism.” Let me tie all this together with an observation from The Conservative Rebellion: “over time, the American people have come to understand their nationhood as the mystical substance of their common existence. How this paradigmatic reality of the life of a nation is articulated shapes the American nation for action in history.”[vii]
The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, explains in the Republic that men live their lives as if they lived in a cave, hidden from light, where they can only see shadows. He explains that we are forced to turn around, however, and ascend to the light where we may see that reality which before we saw reflected in shadows. (514a-517a). Philosophy is the act of turning around and that turning around occurs when we comprehend a new truth about god: “The god is not the cause of all things, but of the good.”[viii] (380c). We find in Plato’s philosophy a new critical insight into the relation of man to God, and the nature of divine reality. From this theological insight we may discover important ways to interpret the American regime .
What, therefore, is it that unites a people’s past, its present, and the lives of those not yet born? I will be guided by Gerhart Niemeyer’s discussion of this reality in Between Nothingness and Paradise, which begins with the observation that the bond between political order and the order of being has been a casualty of “ideology.”
What is this bond between political and social order and being that has been lost? For that, we must go back to the natural philosophers of ancient Greece who discovered “being” as the origin of “nature,” especially Anaximander, who realized that being is divine.[ix] From the beginning of philosophy’s break with cosmological myth, philosophers were conscious of being (to on) as “mystical”—that which is beyond existing things (ta onta), or what is sometimes called nonobjective reality.
St. Augustine expresses this mystic idea of order by means of a city in this world but not of this world; a city centered on Christ that is intertwined with a City of Man lacking a divine center. Thus the City of God has a common consciousness and experiences movement or peregrination of the soul leading to an end beyond the world. The City of Man has no end beyond this life and symbolizes the aimless social disorder of our age.
How is this related to an American nation that continues in historical time? Unlike human beings, a society does not by its nature have a personal memory. By analogy, Niemeyer writes, a society has a remembered past by reference to “a present unity of action” that is like the “identity of a person,” except society “is not a natural substance. . . . [A] society … is lacking this tangible phenomenon testifying to identity, the past alone is what could give identity to a society.”[x] Society is a “created” thing, not a natural person. At the start, therefore, a society has no past, but over time materials of a historical past can be created into a consciousness of a historical past. An example that Niemeyer gives is that of ancient Israel:
The fact is that the escapees from Egypt, when they finally stood in safety and freedom, experienced their deliverance as an act of God, an irruption of divine might into time and the affairs of men.[xi]
How different was this experience of Israel’s God from the gods of the other peoples of the ancient Near East? One aspect of this difference was the awareness that the God of Israel was not a cosmic god. For millennia, mankind understood that man lived in a cosmos full of gods. Before the natural philosophers Socrates and Plato broke with cosmic consciousness, the gods of the cosmos shaped ancient man’s understanding of the origin of the world and of empires. Ancient Israel, however, interpreted its existence by remembering a one-time intervention by God in history. Niemeyer writes:
A cosmological myth can be celebrated by reenacting again and again the story it relates. But an event that happened once in time and place, “before our eyes,” even though experienced as a theophany, cannot be repeated or reenacted. God acted one time and his action can be only remembered.[xii]
Niemeyer writes that “once the Exodus theophany had grown into the order of a people living under God on the strength of their public past, history had become a mold of human existence, as a model not only for ‘Jacob and his son’ but for the entire human race.”[xiii] In 1964, Voegelin thought American conservatism was an “ism,” an ideology much like the ideological movements he experienced in Germany.
Consciousness of a public past deeply affects our present understanding, and there are some societies, such as Germany, that must confront the bad aspects of their past. Totalitarian movements in Europe after World War I left what some call a “dark past” of trauma that “cannot be assimilated or accepted.”[xiv] That explains, I believe, the discomfort that Eric Voegelin expressed when Gerhart Niemeyer conducted an event at the Chicago meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in 1964 which featured writings by Voegelin. The experience of Voegelin and his generation of German and Austrian scholars with Nazism led to a rejection of the political movements of that traumatic past. Voegelin complained that the APSA event had “a strong slant toward conservative politics.”[xv]
In this context, it is of use to consider that in modern Germany the word for “patriotic” has fallen into disuse because of the Nazi use of the term. The discomfort with American conservatism, even today, that many of Voegelin’s German students feel is similar and explains why, I believe, so many walked away from Voegelin’s first formulation of modernity as Gnostic. It was, simply, too political, for German Voegelinians escaping political reality in political theory.[xvi]
That historical consciousness defines the West cannot be ignored. Consciousness of time–past, present and future –is a condition of Western human existence. Niemeyer writes, “Through its public past a community participates in the logos which remains the same in the flux of mutability; hence the community’s identity imitates, as Boethius said, ‘the ever simultaneous present immutability of God’s life,’ which is what one should rightly call eternal.”[xvii] From this perspective, our nationhood as citizens of the United States, Niemeyer writes, “hinges on the all-important experience of a past at which a meeting occurred between time and eternity.”[xviii] Consciousness of that history shapes our understanding of the life of the American nation: an understanding that can only be explained by myth.
Though it may seem improbable that the identity of modern America is shaped by myths, Niemeyer lists a number of truths we Americans affirm that are essentially mythic, including:
- We believe that individuals have souls;
- We proclaim an essential personal dignity and independence of mind;
- We distinguish time from eternity;
- We attribute authority to “the people” and to the “law”;
- We affirm an enduring Constitution; and
- We affirm that we as a nation exist “under God.”[xix]
These myths do not depend on the consent of every American to their truth. Niemeyer suggests that the carriers of the truths of our myths may even be concentrated in a “remnant.”[xx]
This recalls what Aristotle explained about right by nature. What is right can be known by mature men,[xxi] he said, and often we know it by reference to someone who knows what is right. In life we often ask ourselves, “What would he do?” That he or she may be someone we know who can be relied upon for good advice. This is a powerful force in our private and in our public lives. These are persons who guide others in ways that can be political, moral, or simply “just.” The reality of their presence in our lives is celebrated in art, literature, and film. For that reason, education from elementary to secondary school through college should aim to grow good character and replenish the numbers of mature, daimonic, men and women in each generation. Niemeyer takes this essentially Aristotelian formulation and sharpens it with the assertion that:
Christianity is the center of our culture, the truth that has shaped our past and is still shaping our present, regardless of what the attitude of particular persons to it may be. We cannot realistically step out of this truth into “another one,” we cannot in truth become Hindus or Buddhists, and least of all can an amalgam be made of all religions as a dwelling place for anybody.
Western civilization came into existence through the unifying impulse of Latin Christianity. No other religion has ever wielded a similarly powerful influence in the centuries of our cultural identity. The historical metamorphoses of our culture can be understood only in their relations to the Christian origins, even where these metamorphoses have not worked for but rather against Christianity.[xxii]
At this late stage in the decline of the West, it is unlikely that the Western Christianitas can be recovered. As Christianity ceases to be a living experience in the West, the historical consciousness central to the nature of Western nations will be diluted. There is no modern Clovis to convert to Christianity and the ancient tribes of Western Europe have consolidated into modern, secular nation-states. No modern “Great Awakening” is likely to occur, nor would it have lasting consequences were it to occur.
But there are restorative forces at work in every historical society, such as ancient Israel and Greece, the Christian West and Confucian China. Eric Voegelin writes, “The man who lives in the erotic tension to his ground of being is called daimonios aner, i.e., a man who consciously exists in the tension of the in-between (metaxy), in which the divine and the human partake of each other.”[xxiii] Aristotle’s equivalent for the daimonios aner is the spoudaios, sometimes translated “mature man.”[xxiv] Christian theology speaks of the reality of living in a state of grace. I think the concept “daimonic” explains not only Socrate’s’ daimon but also the response of our souls to order in the face of disorder. We should not overlook, therefore, the presence of daimonic men and women who daily contend against the corrosion of civil society by ideological movements. These men and women are essential for renewal, for reducing the influence of political ideology on American life, and for recovery from cultural disorder. That many are “conservatives” suggests that American conservatism is playing a role in correcting the disorder of our times.
The response to disorder by American conservatives has had greater influence in actions, rather than in theories. Interpretation of these actions then shapes how we interpret the American regime. If we interpret this regime in light of the Declaration of Independence, we lose sight of nationhood as the mystical substance of our common existence and the response of daimonic men and women to that source of order and the ideological disorders of their times.
The visible signs of a vibrant recovery of order in the twenty-first century can be found in the actions of many American conservatives when, over time, they responded to social disorder. Consider the response of Harding and Coolidge to the excesses and economic consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s entry of the United States in World War I. Consider the response of Taft conservatives to labor violence in the late 1940s, of Ronald Reagan’s response to the Soviet Union, or of conservatives to the 1973 decision of the US Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, inspiring the “right to life” movement.
Cultural conditions that foster good character are fragile, so we must ask, at the end of the twenty-first century, will there be a vibrant, powerful, and spiritually healthy American nation? Will we even remember the civilization of the Christian West? Or will we suffer a loss of history and learn to accept bad economics, bad religion, failures in imperial foreign policy, and the uncertainty of a world of forces seeking to destroy our country? Just as Plato saw that the best regime must affirm a new truth about God, all this will occur, if we interpret the American nation by reference to the Declaration of Independence and not by reference to a philosophy that affirms our nation’s participation in the divine ground and the force for good of daimonic men.
Richard Bishirjian, president of Yorktown University from 2000 to 2016, is currently president of the American Academy of Distance Learning.
[i] Richard Bishirjian. “Leo Strauss and the American Political Religion.” Modern Age, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Fall, 2014)
[ii] This discussion is based on and is an expansion of my discussion in “VI, Daimonic Men and ‘Recovery,’” in The Conservative Rebellion (St. Augustine’s Press, 2015), 154–63.
[iv]See Richard Gamble. “Savior Nation: Wilson and the Gospel of Service.” HUMANITAS, Vol. XIV, No. 1 p. 7
[v] See Thomas Fleming, A Disease in the Public Mind (Boston: Da Capo, 2014).
[vi] Ideological interpretations of the Declaration of Independence that ignore the history of the document, how it was authorized, and variations in the three drafts of the Declaration make possible an argument that the Declaration, not the Constitution, is the basis of the American regime. This is the analysis of Robert Kagan, who asserts that “the Declaration of Independence was at once an assertion of this radical principle, a justification for rebellion, and the founding document of American nationhood.” Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. (New York: Vintage Books, 2006) p. 40-41.
[vii] Bishirjian, Conservative Rebellion, 2.
[viii] Plato, The Republic of Plato, Allan Bloom trans. (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 58.
[ix] For an authoritative discussion of this discovery by Anaximander see Werner Jaeger. The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers. (New York: Oxford Univ., 1967) pp. 24-37.
[x] Gerhart Niemeyer. Between Nothingness and Paradise. (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University, 1971) p. 145
[xi] Ibid., 155.
[xii] Ibid., 160.
[xiii] Ibid., 162.
[xiv] Anthony Polonsky and Joanna B. Michlic, eds., The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 2.
[xv] The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, ed. Thomas Hollweck, vol. 30, Selected Correspondence: 1950–1984 (Colombia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), 472.
[xvi] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics. An Introduction. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
[xvii] Niemeyer, Between Nothingness and Paradise, 177–78.
[xviii] Niemeyer, Between Nothingness and Paradise, 174.
[xix] Ibid., 191.
[xx] Ibid., 193.
[xxi] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Martin Ostwald (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962). “Thus, what is good and pleasant differs with different characteristics or conditions, and perhaps the chief distinction of a man of high moral standards is his ability to see the truth in each particular moral question, since he is, as it were, the standard and measure for such questions” (1113a24). See also 1166a10, 1176a15, and 1176b20.
[xxii] Gerhart Niemeyer, “Christian Studies and the Liberal Arts College,” in The Loss and Recovery of Truth (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013), 511.
[xxiii] Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, Gerhrat Niemeyer trans. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 154.
[xxiv] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a 19–26.