National Tragedies

Editor’s Note: This is part of a Law & Liberty symposium on Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery.

Yoram Hazony, an Israeli-American political thinker, has written a manifesto for what he hopes will become a revitalized conservatism of tradition, family, tribe, and nation, a sequence of Burkean affinities that will provide a sounder foundation for society than liberal rationalism. At the core of his argument is that nationality with its subsumed loyalties to family, tribe, and clan is the normative mode of human existence. In the American context, Hazony’s emphasis on renewing tradition and traditional affinities can only be beneficial, even if he treads carelessly on philosophical matters that—for better or worse—will have little bearing on the future of the conservative movement in the United States.

He writes: “The first premise of a conservative political theory is that men are born into families, tribes and nations to which they are bound by ties of mutual loyalty.” That is true, but too often tragic. In pre-history, according to research cited by Nicholas Wade in his 2006 book Before the Dawn, tribal warfare produced an average casualty rate of two-fifths of all males who survived infancy. For reasons we still debate, the respective loyalties of the peoples of Europe prompted them to fight a First World War from which Western culture has not yet, and may never, recover. Yet the attempt to erase the ties of blood and culture that formed these loyalties, and replace them with supranational institutions hostile to traditional bonds, has produced a cultural vacuum, dispirited peoples, and a demographic winter.

Hazony’s characterization of human society is surely correct. But one should add that the normative outcome is extinction. The vast majority of peoples fail, and fail mostly out of despair. We are living in a Great Extinction of nations without a parallel since the Fall of Rome.

The Death of Nations

Estimates of the number of languages spoken on this planet since the dawn of man range from 31,000 to over 140,000. Only 6,000 are left and most of these are doomed.  “What worries linguists, however, is the current rate of language death in the world,” writes Richard Armstrong of the University of Houston.

Over half the languages spoken today have fewer than 10,000 speakers; that’s about like the population of Wasilla, Alaska. Around 82% of languages have fewer speakers than there are people in Waco, Texas. Linguists estimate that at least half the world’s languages will become extinct in the next one hundred years. That means, on average, a language is dying about every two weeks.

That is not only true of languages passed down from prehistory that find small footing in the modern world. Infertility in the developed world will lead to drastic declines in population over the next century, threatening the viability of Albanian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Hungarian. The chart below shows the projected decline of population aged 30 years or less for the least fertile countries (a few very small ones are left out of the tally), assuming that present fertility rates persist through the present century.

Source: United Nations Population Prospects

It is striking that several of the countries that have been subject to violent contests for control in the past thirty years appear at the bottom of the ranking, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Ukraine, while Taiwan, a potential flashpoint for conflict, is close to the bottom. Hungary, despite the Orbán government’s determined natalism, is among the most endangered.

This was a commonplace observation not too long ago. Franz Rosenzweig wrote in 1919,

Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customs have lost their living power.

The small tribes of the past, to be sure, perished in war, famine, and plague, but there are precedents for self-extinction through infertility, in Hellenistic Greece and Imperial Rome, as I recounted in my book How Civilizations Die (2011). Human beings can’t abide mortality without the hope of immortality. The Mark of Cain of a culture that has lost confidence in its capacity to perpetuate itself is the absence of children. Hazony mentions in passing the declining birth rates of modern liberal societies, but the point deserves more emphasis. Nothing is less rational than the hope of immortality, yet that is the mainspring of human culture. Without it cultures lapse into enervation and eventual extinction.

The nation as it came into existence after the ruin of the Roman Empire was not—as Hazony seems to imply—a spontaneous agglomeration of families, tribes, and clans for purposes of self-defense. On the contrary, it was a project of the Catholic Church, which sought to civilize the Visigoth barbarians who conquered Spain and the Merovingians and later Carolingian rulers of France. In the seventh century, St. Isidor of Seville and St. Gregory of Tours promulgated the Davidic kingdom as a model for secular rule and promised God’s favor to rulers who embraced the ChurchThe standard work is Fr. Adrian Hastings’ The Construction of Nationhood (1996).

A large part of Hazony’s book is an effort to distinguish conservatism from the liberalism which he believes has laid a cuckoo’s egg in the conservative movement. “Enlightenment liberalism,” he writes, “is a political paradigm based on a rationalist theory of knowledge, whereas conservatism is based on an empirical theory of knowledge.” Hazony appeals to the English tradition of John Selden and Edmund Burke.

Culture inherits from the past and bequeaths to the future so that something of our earthly sojourn will remain when we no longer are here. The terrible truth that confronts us is that the vast majority of cultures have failed in this endeavor.

One finds a similar view in the mainstream of rabbinic thinking. Whether the people of Israel are obliged by divine commandment to appoint a king was the subject of prolonged controversy among Jewish authorities. The English republicans of the seventeenth century cited Jewish sources that supported their anti-monarchical stance. As Prof. Lawrence Kaplan points out, the nineteenth-century Jewish scholar and Bible commentator Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (“the Netziv”) argued that the question depended on the customs and maturity of the people.

Kaplan comments, “The bottom line for the Netziv is that in political matters there is and can be no ideal constitution, no ideal political system, for it depends on the nature of the people, on their particular circumstances, and consequently must be left up their own determination.”

The Americans were no less wrong to repudiate their king than the British were wrong to sustain him. The inheritance of the past and its hard-won wisdom must be embodied in an institutional form that prevents a passing governmental majority from making radical changes.

All of human culture is a conspiracy to thwart the most universal of natural laws that apply to human beings, namely the fact that we must die. Culture inherits from the past and bequeaths to the future so that something of our earthly sojourn will remain when we no longer are here. The terrible truth that confronts us is that the vast majority of cultures have failed in this endeavor.

Hazony is right to inveigh against the overweening rationalism that treats nation-building as if it were a physics experiment. Enlightenment rationalism, as Hegel quipped, began as a reaction against the religious fanaticism that laid waste to much of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but then turned into a religion of its own. Human beings are not molecules to be arranged or animals to be domesticated. But the fact that cultural failure and extinction are the historic norm should require us to employ reason to investigate the causes of such failure. Socrates’ prescriptions in the Republic may be repugnant, but his inquiry into the nature of a just society remains the starting point for any informed discussion of political culture.

Reason and Revelation

If extinction is the norm, what shall we make of the exceptions? The nation of the greater West that has endured the longest is also the only one with a fertility rate well above replacement, namely Israel. Jewish identity is defined by blood ties, that is, descent from Abraham and Sarah (although converts have full Jewish status). Yet the Jews for their two thousand years of exile were ruled by what Paul Johnson called a Cathedocracy, that is, by Torah scholars who interpreted the classic texts and their voluminous commentaries. It is as close to rule by reason as any human society has ever come.

Judaism nonetheless assigns enormous weight to community traditions, so much so that rabbinic authorities regularly failed to eliminate popular practices they opposed. The tension between popular adherence to traditional practices and the dictates of rabbinic scholars is one of Judaism’s abiding strengths. An excellent and philosophically sophisticated account of this dialectic is given by Prof. Moshe Koppel in his 2020 book Judaism Straight Up.

John Locke is the definitive villain in Hazony’s account. He rejects Locke’s assertion that “prior to the establishment of government, men exist in a ‘state of nature’ in which ‘all men are naturally…in a state of perfect freedom,’ as well as in a ‘state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another….this state of nature ‘has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone,’ and that law is nothing other than ‘reason,’ which ‘teaches all mankind, who will but consult it.’” Hazony observes, “There is no reason to think any of Locke’s axioms are, in fact true.” Here Hazony is correct, but he gives Locke too much credit as a defender of reason.

One may argue that Locke willfully concealed a meritorious political program under thick layers of pseudo-philosophical assertion, and that his esoteric pie should be scooped out of the exoteric crust, but that is another matter. Locke simply doesn’t care about consistency. In that respect, his work is not philosophy in the first place. Bertrand Russell noted drolly in his History of Western Philosophy:

[Locke] enunciates general principles which, as the reader can hardly fail to perceive, are capable of leading to strange consequences; but whenever the strange consequences seem about to appear, Locke blandly refrains from drawing them…. his escape from the paradoxes that it entails is effected by means of an inconsistency so gross that only his resolute adherence to common sense could have made him blind to it.

Locke, in short, is not even wrong; he is simply self-contradictory.

Hazony is sympathetic to Russell Kirk’s protest against the commonly held view that the American Revolution was simply an expression of Lockean rationalism, but is wary of Kirk’s affinity for Southern particularism with its ugly racial implications. Hamilton is Hazony’s clear favorite among the Founding Fathers; a genius in economics and practical issues of governance, Hamilton showed little interest in philosophy.

The most influential apologist for Lockean rationalism in postwar conservatism, in Hazony’s account, was Leo Strauss. The German-Jewish émigré so abhorred the irrationalism of the Nazis that he sought refuge in what he thought were eternal verities of the Greeks. Hazony deplores Strauss’ dictum that “the principal identification of the good with the ancestral is replaced by the fundamental distinction between the good and the ancestral; the quest for the right way or for the first things is the question for the good as distinguished from the ancestral. It will prove to be the quest for what is good by nature as distinguished from what is good merely by convention.”

Strauss’ legacy is too complex to address here, and his students far too diverse to easily categorize. But it surely is the case that a reading of Lockean rationalism and Strauss’s emphasis on “what is good by nature” were adopted, fairly or not, as justifications for America’s failed campaign of nation-building during the past two decades.

Hazony writes:

I have proposed a theory of truth that is based on a real capacity of the individual human mind—the capacity to discern an improvement in the scheme of ideas applied in explaining and permitting reliable action in a given domain. A political theory based on an empiricist account of truth recognizes that truth in the political and moral realm is real: It is found in those norms, or principles of behavior, that permit the cause of human health and prosperity to be effective within a nation.

“There is no relativism, nihilism, positivism, or historicism here,” Hazony avers. “Conservatives whose political theory is grounded in this kind of empiricism are not less concerned with truth than their rationalist detractors.” But what faculty of mind enables us to “discern an improvement” in our “scheme of ideas”? In some way, we must learn to step out of our own skin, so to speak, to look at ourselves at a distance, and recognize our failings. The nations of the world still are plagued by relativism and nihilism. The national sentiments of different peoples are not always mutually supportive. Ask the Ukrainians and Russians, both of whom exhibited a surge of nationalist sentiment during March 2022.

Of all the political philosophers, Hazony is closest to Immanuel Kant, whom he misunderstands and abhors.

“A political theory in the conservative tradition cannot be made to work without the God of scripture,” Hazony asserts, adding, “This is the difference between a relativist theory and a conservative one…the conservative…sees in politics and morals a realm in which an endless variety of perspectives compete with one another for power, each of them striving to reach the one truth, which is what is right in God’s eyes.” How this should occur is less clear. It was John Locke who insisted that this “endless variety of perspectives” should be allowed to compete without interference from an established church. That was the wholesome content of Locke’s liberalism. America achieved a Protestant consensus without an official Protestant church. In the 1950s, according to the Pew survey, about two-thirds of Americans called themselves Protestant. Today the proportion is only one-third.

Hazony writes for American conservatives, who are spared the sectarian grudges of nationalism past. Americans are the least rooted of all the world’s peoples. The average American changes residence eleven times in a lifetime, compared to a European average of four times. The median tenure of American workers in 2006 was only four years, compared to ten years in Europe. Extended families are fragmented. America’s popular culture is a prolonged riff on Pilgrim’s Progress, obsessed with the individual’s lonely pilgrimage to salvation, from Huckleberry Finn to “The Searchers.” We lack what Heidegger called Bodenständigkeit, and our Anglo-Saxon roots are shallow in a land where just 8% of Americans claim British ancestry. We Americans lack Rosenzweig’s presentiment of national death because we are not an ethnicity to begin with. Neither are we a “propositional nation” Above all we are a Protestant project, capable of self-judgment when our leaders have the courage—as Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Address—to summon us to repentance. Today we have the journey, but not the pilgrimage.

Of all the political philosophers, Hazony is closest to Immanuel Kant, whom he misunderstands and abhors. “For Kant,” Hazony wrote on another occasion, “reason is universal, infallible, and independent of experience.” On the contrary, Kant’s critique overthrew the Enlightenment’s elevation of reason by demonstrating that metaphysics stumbled on insoluble antinomies. He insisted that all thought begins with empirical experience, but argued that the human mind brings a pre-existing perceptual apparatus to bear on the interpretation of this experience. Einstein wrote that his Theory of Relativity began with his contemplation of Kant’s idea.

Kant ridiculed  Romantics like Novalis, Fichte, and Schelling who asserted the authority of “intellectual intuition” free from experience. Hume’s empiricism by itself does nothing more than inculcate habits of mind formed by repetition; Kant sought to reconcile empiricism and Platonism. We have a faculty of reason that creates new (“synthetic”) ideas, but it has inherent limitations. Above all Kant was the philosopher of the Newtonian revolution. Hazony claims Newton as an empiricist, a strange assertion considering that Newton’s mechanics can be derived algebraically from Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, as James Clark Maxwell demonstrated.

Hazony’s vision of national states coexisting peacefully differs little from Kant’s 1795 sketch “Perpetual Peace,” Kant proposed: “No state shall by force interfere with the constitution or government of another state.” Even if a state has fallen into lawlessness, “such interference by foreign powers would infringe on the rights of an independent people struggling with its internal disease.” Wars may be fought, but within limits: Kant specifically excludes wars intended at regime change through “incitement to treason.” The rights of foreigners are limited to hospitality; no citizen of one state has the right to demand residency in another. Republican government is conducive to peace because citizens will be cautious in consenting to a war.

That is what Hazony wants: a world in which the many nations of the world can coexist if not in perpetual peace, yet without attempts to impose one nation’s political system on another by force, and in which the citizens of each country put their own betterment ahead of their antipathy to their neighbors. Devoutly is such a world to be wished; but the sad reality is that too many of the world’s peoples have despaired of their future. We must look to our own future, and the watchword of our foreign policy should be: “There but for the grace of God go we.”