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A Jeremiad on Western Self-Hatred

This smarmy, supercilious mélange of faded philosophical bromides and pedantic name-dropping betrays an unhappy man who should have been a character in an Ingmar Bergman movie rather than a living author. The world is unjust, all societies are doomed to destroy themselves, free will is a nonsensical delusion invented by Christians, Benedict Beckeld informs us. If so, why does he bother to write books? “I choose neither to turn the clock back nor to rush forward toward an end of history, but merely, while waiting for my own personal end, to seek out some minor moments of happiness.”

Do we really need another cycle theory of history? Beckeld doubles back over the well-worn tracks of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and other cyclists who claimed to have discerned a deterministic law of civilization that inevitably leads from energy and innovation to enervation and decay. Qua philosophy, his book’s main content is an expostulation against what he mistakenly represents as the Christian idea of free will, and a defense of what he thinks is the Greek pagan submission to fate. This sort of thing doesn’t sell books, so Beckeld borrowed Sir Roger Scruton’s term oikophobia—self-hatred—to rebrand his depressive musings as a polemic against Western self-deprecation.

Beckeld’s target readers are conservatives who bridle at the intellectual vandalism of the Left, which condemns the whole history of the West as a brew of racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, and so forth. Philosophically, Beckeld agrees with the Left, and his tract is a cuckoo’s egg in the conservative camp. He chides Western intellectuals for “the vice of vanity” that “always has been the engine of oikophobia,” but reserves his most intense scorn for an attack on religion. Conservatives delude themselves that the decline of the West is reversible, he claims, concluding that “American reactionaries will not be able to stymie the overall direction of their nation…they will only be able to slow, not stop, the decline of American power.” Beckeld, who is a Swede, thinks very little of us American reactionaries.

This is a book that should not be left on the coffee table within reach of children, except as a horrible example of the illogic of historical determinism.

Civilizational Decline

Beckeld shares the Left’s view that our civilization is unsalvageable: “The decline of American power will be accompanied by the rise of new powers around the globe, of which however none in the short or medium term will gain that absolute supremacy previously occupied by the United States. China, Russia, both very dangerous countries, and perhaps India will be powers to be reckoned with in the future.” Well might the reader ask: If all civilizations decline, why are the world’s two oldest civilizations—Chinese and Hindu—poised to supplant the United States? And why include Russia, the exemplar of a declining power with weak demographics?

Grand assertions of this sort pop up on every page of Beckeld’s book. No refutation of his Spenglerian cycle theory is possible because he offers no evidence for it. He simply asserts it and ignores evidence to the contrary. The Chinese and Indians still speak variants of the same languages and read the same classical literature they have read for thousands of years, and although their civilizations have had periods of decline, they presently are ascendant. Of this and other anomalies in his cycle theory there is nary a mention.

Beckeld’s indictment of oilkophobia bumps into an obvious problem: Any society that unthinkingly does exactly what it has done in the past will fail to adapt to changing circumstances and go to its ruin. To change social behavior requires a critique of the culture. But a cultural critique implies some degree of distance from the culture, the capacity to stand outside it and consider its failings.

The harshest critic of any of the West’s core civilizations was the prophet Jeremiah, who goes unmentioned in this book. The corruption and impiety of Israel’s First Commonwealth earned its destruction, he declared with a ferocity that still moves the modern reader. For two-and-a-half millennia the Jews have observed the anniversary of the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s warning, the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E., by chanting Lamentations and fasting. And yet a Jewish State once again has its capital in Jerusalem. Evidently Jeremiah—who also offered a message of hope—had a beneficial effect.

What of Athens’ gadfly Socrates? Beckeld wants to have it both ways. He claims that Greek civilization was superior to any that followed it, but he is deeply uncomfortable with the figure who embodied the best in that civilization. He writes, “The first very clear trace of oikophobia appears in the later [Greek] Classical era, namely in the time of Socrates and his entourage.” That’s not really Socrates’ fault, Beckeld adds, because an oikophobic critique of Greek civilization was inevitable: “Socrates is not, as Nietzsche would have it in The Birth of Tragedy, so much the conspiring destroyer of Greece as part of a natural process of self-destruction that cultures in general go through.” Socrates is not a personality to Beckeld, merely an excrescence of civilizational decay.

Kierkegaard (also unmentioned) observed that Socrates was not a prophet but an ironist. The ironist, Kierkegaard wrote, “is prophetic, but his position and situation are the reverse of the prophet’s. The prophet walks arm in arm with his age, and from this position he glimpses what is coming … The ironist, however, has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it. That which is coming is hidden from him, lies behind his back, but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy; upon this he focuses his burning gaze.”

The Athens upon which Socrates “focused his burning gaze” was an inverted pyramid. It lived on the labor of perhaps 115,000 slaves and was dependent on its maritime empire—ruled with the threat of massacre as the case of Melos—for half its food supply. Conservatives like Aristophanes despised the Periclean regime that extorted tribute from the Delian League to buy votes from the Athenian mob. The Periclean party had overreached in the Spartan War and its arrogance led to Athens’ decline. Socrates and Plato, writing in the aftermath of the defeat, had sound reasons to subject Athenian culture to withering criticism. To call this oikophobia seems churlish. It is impossible to think of critical statecraft without beginning with The Republic, the first and in some ways still the definitive examination of the foundations of the state. But critical statecraft implies a capacity to change course and avert errors.

Socrates was the first Western intellectual of whom we have an extensive report. Beckeld insists that oikophobia is the unfortunate result of the existence of intellectuals. “In later times when there is enough wealth for an elite leisure class, and when the man of action and the man of thought have become distinct, the latter no longer needs to act for his state and therefore forgets what he owes to it,” Beckeld writes. “Intellectuals are aware that they are more intelligent and educated…than others, and therefore consider it a part of their raison d’être to criticize. Indeed the very spirit of intellect and of the scientific method to critique….Intellectualism thus breeds disrespect for the laws.”

This is misguided in the case of Plato. It was the Periclean party that plunged Athens into war with Sparta, and it was the intellectuals who tallied the damage and for the first time invoked reason as a guide to politics. To their efforts we owe the concept of a republic. The noble experiment that is the United States of America would be unimaginable without it. Much of what Socrates proposes may seem repugnant today, but without the debate in his small circle over the character of a just society, the Constitutional Convention could never have deliberated.

Beckeld did not set out to inform us, but rather to persuade us to share his misery.

Postmodernism and Nominalism

Too much of Beckeld’s book is devoted to the author’s internal dialogue about philosophy. The oikophobes par excellence are the postmodernists, to whom everything means anything and nothing, and their kindred spirits of the Frankfurt School. They are the progeny of defeat, Beckeld says. “It is not a coincidence that it was just after the horrendous World War I that German thinkers began to feel rather tepid about the West, especially because their side lost.” And “the same could be said about the French postmodernists who first arose in the 1950s, after France had been humiliated in World War II…You will not find too many postmodernists among the victorious hordes wiping the blood of the vanquished off their swords.”

Much as he wants to excoriate the philosophical oikophobes, he still wants to maintain his professional credibility in their ranks. About the most influential and pernicious of the postmodernists, Michel Foucault, Beckeld writes: “Foucault has been treated fairly by neither his admirers nor his detractors. To much of the left, he is the kin of God himself, the most quoted academic of the twentieth century, whom everyone imitates both in style and content; to much of the right, he is the catch-all bogeyman, the worst human being since Karl Marx…. [Foucault’s] contributions to the history of thought are still significant, and he is a far more serious thinker than many of his contemporary French colleagues.”

For his own part, Beckeld declares, “I consider myself a moderate nominalist, which is to say that I do not believe that abstract things actually exist. Rather, I believe that they are simply words or names, or, if they do exist that they are in fact physical, not abstract.” Those are fighting words for conservatives: Richard Weaver inculcated into the conservative canon the view that 14th-century Nominalism was the beginning of the West’s intellectual decline. “When we call something beautiful,” asks Beckeld, “are we referring to actual beauty that really exists (realism), or is ‘beauty’ just a name (nominalism) that we give to our own impression?” In that view, propagated by the likes of Foucault, a crucifix in a jar of urine or a pig in formaldehyde has as much claim on beauty as the Mona Lisa.

Weaver in my view vastly oversimplified the Realist-Nominalist debate of the late Middle Ages. But “to embrace Nominalism today is capitulation to the postmodern camp,” as Beckeld concedes in so many words.

Beckeld tries to distinguish his “moderate” view from what he calls the abuse of Nominalism. He writes

The abusers of nominalism hold that if words are merely constructs of convention, or “signs,” then the concepts to which the words refer must be treated with suspicion, and the signs must be decoded, revealing the dishonest of the society that instituted them, because surely society chose its words for the purposes of its own power.

There is no conspiracy of the powerful to impose names on us, Beckeld believes. Words are merely “shorthand descriptions of a huge number of various phenomena in the physical world.”

There is no such “thing” as beauty in his view, just random collections of things from which we derive a pleasant sensation. If there is no unity in perception, there can be no unity in the perceiver. The things we collect under the moniker “beauty” are an arbitrary aggregate, Beckeld, informs us, and so are we. What we imagine to be a sense of self “is an illusion, a piece of quasi-religious mysticism.” What we imagine to be our “self” is no different than a name for an arbitrary collection of characteristics, “a bundle of characteristics that exist next to each other, with none of them having the claim to be ‘the essence’ or ‘true nature’ of a person.” I don’t know whether this sort of thing passes muster at philosophy seminars, but it surely is not the conversation one wants to have on a first date.

God and Free Will

While he ridicules the notion of a distinct self, Beckeld nonetheless defends the concept of identity. He allows that the “preservation of identity is useful in the face of both external and internal threats to a civilization.” He thinks that Napoleon’s grand tomb at L’Invalides is an “obscenity” because he doesn’t like Napoleon but opines that “the French should still keep their identity and monuments as best they can,” just as the Americans should keep Columbus Day and so forth. How it is possible to have an identity without having a self is a question that doesn’t occur to him. If not of a self, of what is this identity that Beckeld endeavors to preserve?

If we don’t have a self, it is obvious that we don’t have free will, for of what could our will be, if not of a self? Beckeld offers no real arguments against what he ridicules as “…that nonsensical notion.” He merely repeats what some Greek and Hellenistic philosophers had to say on the subject. He is correct to observe that the pagan universe had no need of free will: It was an uncreated universe in which Zeus was subject to Fate as much as the lowliest slave.

Beckeld blames Christian salvific theology for the notion of free will but has little to say about it except to assert that it is nonsensical. He is wrong in multiple ways. In fact, there is no necessary relationship between Christian theology and the philosophical notion of free will. If God sacrificed himself to remove the sins of the world, what freedom does humankind have with respect to salvation? Christianity has such does not imply a philosophical answer. The spectrum of Christian theology ranges from Calvin’s view that very few are saved to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s belief that everyone is saved, with countless shading of Augustinian, Jansenist, Thomist, Arminian, Free Will Baptist, and other opinions in between. Beckeld doesn’t cite any Christian sources. He merely wants to uphold what he imagines to be Greek paganism against Christianity.

Free will, Beckeld avers, “is based on an equally desperate desire to view our world as essentially—metaphysically—just…But the world is not particularly just—it simply is, and the understanding of this fact brings us closer to the tragic Greek outlook and its rather dour view of the world and of humanity.” That is an odd way to view the question, for free will implies that we can choose evil as well as good, which excludes the notion that the world is inherently just.

The biblical assertion that God created the world ex nihilo changed everything: Instead of Aristotle’s unmoved mover who could not be bothered to create a world, the Bible presents what Gershom Scholem called “a turbulent God,” whose will brought forth the world from nothing. Like all theological assertions, this one raises more philosophical questions than it answers. Why would God wait an eternity before creating the world at a specific point in time? Would that not imply a change in an unchangeable God? Maimonides answered that God created time when he created the world, making the question moot. That removes the antimony at the cost of turning time into a mystery.

For that matter, how could God create the world from nothing, if God already was there? How can the world be separate from God (pantheism)? The 17th-century Kabbalist Isaac Luria proposed that God first created a void by contracting himself, in a parallel to Hegel’s dialectic.

God deliberately left creation imperfect, according to some classical Jewish sources (notably Akiva), inviting man to become his partner in the perfection of creation. In this view, man as co-creator transforms nature. This is paralleled through the recreation of the individual personality through repentance. Man thus achieves freedom through participating in God’s act of creation.

Beckeld tells us nothing of the rich and difficult debates about free will. But he did not set out to inform us, but rather to persuade us to share his misery. To that he is entitled, but most of us have better things to do.