The False Allure of the Pagan Right

“We are living in a postliberal moment. After three decades of dominance, liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds.” So Matthew Rose begins A World After Liberalism, his compact but thoughtful and suggestive reflections on a series of “philosophers of the radical Right” who not only excoriated the liberal dispensation, but sketched the prospects for a future that repudiated liberal liberty root-and-branch. Rose’s reference to “three decades” of liberal dominance suggests that the liberalism he has in mind is the postmodern liberalism that came to the fore after the collapse of European Communism in the period 1989-1991. This is a liberalism with global pretenses that is at once post-national, post-Christian, and post-political, relativistic, transgressive, and moralistic. Its proponents proclaim absolute individual and collective autonomy in a “world without borders” with no shared affirmation of virtues and values, except for a commitment to ever-expanding rights without any grounding in human nature or a moral law that would direct the exercise of human freedom. This is largely what goes by the name of liberalism today. But one must ask: Is this liberalism in any recognizable or robust sense of the term? Or is it rather a radicalization of modernist premises that hollows out human liberty by divorcing it from the virtues and human nobility without which it becomes an empty shell? We shall return to this crucial question in the course of our discussion of Rose’s provocative book.

Rose is a young Catholic theologian and public intellectual associated with the circle around First Things magazine. The book is that rare example of the expansion of a journal article that adds breadth and depth to the original discussion without fluff or undue padding. The resulting book is substantive, very well written, and has a note apparatus for serious readers that deepens the discussion. Rose fully appreciates the defects of modern liberalism, especially in its decayed form. He avoids undue polemics and is hardly the enemy of a free society that draws on its richest traditions and most significant moral resources. He also displays remarkable equanimity in dealing with a series of thinkers whose criticisms of modern liberty are serious, if at the same time overwrought and self-consciously incendiary. These “philosophers of the radical Right” are atheists of the Right who, in one form or another, blame Christianity for the defects of liberalism and the crisis of Western civilization. It is this impressive equanimity that makes Rose’s book just right for the moment, as thoughtful believers and unbelievers alike must come to terms with the moral crisis that is coextensive with the decay of a once self-confident and morally robust liberal order. As Rose’s book rightly intimates, the alternative to decayed liberalism does not lay in an imprudent and impulsive anti-liberalism that thoughtlessly throws out the baby with the bathwater, to use an apt expression of old.

The Prophet of Kultur

The first of the anti-liberal thinkers Rose explores is Oswald Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West (1918), and the most serious and enduring of the “philosophers” under consideration. (One can ask, however, can someone be counted a philosopher when he denies the existence of universal truth?) To this day, Spengler remains a captivating writer and thinker. His “West” in terminal decline is a West that owes little or nothing to Jerusalem, Athens, or Rome, or for that matter to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Against every form of universalism, Spengler affirmed a radical cultural relativism where peoples and nations are shaped exclusively by particular cultures outside of which human beings cannot “think, feel, or communicate.” Spengler went so far as to deny (as does postmodern thought today) any universal science or mathematics available to man as man. Human beings are “particular” all the way down. Human nature had lost all normative meaning for Spengler and could only be understood “zoologically,” with man being understood by him as “a beast of prey.” In contrast, true human identity for Spengler is “rooted” (a crucial concept for the German thinker) in the “higher dimension of reality” that he, following so many other German thinkers of the time, called “culture.” Spengler found a civilization animated by ideals of English-style liberty to be cold, pragmatic, utilitarian, and soulless. But as Raymond Aron has asked, what gave Spengler the right to judge the full variety of cultures and civilizations (and judge he did), since he had disclaimed any right to speak of human nature or human flourishing as such, except in some “zoological” or “vitalistic” sense?

Nonetheless, Spengler was a clear partisan of “Faustian man” as he called Westerners of the last eight or nine centuries. In them he saw a noble and unprecedented quest for “infinity,” if not philosophical or religious transcendence. Spengler identified Faustian man with an adventuresome, pioneering spirit. The West at its peak stood for invention, discovery, heroism, ambition, and the unremitting quest for the conquest of space, time, and nature. But following the fate of organic cultural entities, the Faustian West had lost its soul by succumbing to the illusions of humanitarianism, as well as a softening and flattening democratic universalism. All cultures, like the rooted ‘organisms’ that they are, are destined to die as mysteriously as they had arisen in the first place. But liberalism had exacerbated this decline, and at the root of this fated decay was Christianity itself.

Spengler’s judgment of liberalism was hardly equitable, to say the least. In it, he saw only a detestation of “every kind of greatness, everything that towers, rules, is superior.” One is struck by the sweep of the judgment. What of conservative liberals such as Guizot and Tocqueville, who thoughtfully and energetically tried to keep liberty and greatness (and Christianity) together? Do they not deserve a hearing? In Spengler, one hears clear resonances of Friedrich Nietzsche and his evocation of “the will to power” and of a nobility “beyond good and evil.” Like Nietzsche, Spengler saw both liberalism and democratic egalitarianism as the “secular offspring” of Christian moral teachings. But unlike Nietzsche, Spengler attempted “to exonerate Jesus of the levelling moralism that inspired modern social informers.” Jesus’s “pure religiousness,” as Spengler called it, was indifferent to social reform, to what Rose calls “world-improvement.” Spengler believed that Faustian man had “transformed Christianity,” changing it for a time at least, from a passive, “world-rejecting faith into a world-transforming doctrine.” Spengler had no faith in the biblical God or in Christian morality, but he did esteem “high Christian culture” which for him became what Rose elegantly calls “a tribal signifier.” Faustian Christianity was part of Western man’s identity and ought to be esteemed as such. But it was a Western achievement and for this reason Spengler mocked all missionary activity by the faithful. Each people had its own tribe, its own identity, its own local gods.

As Rose demonstrates, while Spengler’s work was loaded with vitalistic tropes, the author of The Decline of the West was neither a fascist nor a Nazi. His final work, The Hour of Decision, published after Hitler came to power in January 1933, clearly “reject(s) Nazi doctrines and racial anti-Semitism.” Spengler knew that no “race” was pure or ever could be. According to Spengler, racial purism and racial preservationism were crude, demotic ideas and projects. Spengler typically used “race” as a synonym for vitality, energy, and nobility, and had little room for race consciousness as such. When he warned that the “colored peoples” of what we now call the Third World were in the process of using Faustian tools, weapons, and industry against Western man, he did not denounce them or proclaim their inferiority.

In Man and Technics, originally published in German in 1931 and in English in 1932, Spengler makes much of the human being as “a beast of prey.” This language, however, as Raymond Aron often pointed out, is distorting and leaves out a whole side of human nature. To say that man is a beast of prey is to succumb to a “false realism,” to reduce social life to enmity in juxtaposition to civic amity. This is a false and dangerous dichotomy. Spengler, however, claimed that this brutal ‘truth’ “imports a high dignity to man,” and is coextensive with a recognition of “a maximum of freedom from others and for oneself, of self-responsibility, of independence, and an extreme of necessity where that self can hold its own only by fighting and winning and destroying.” Spengler saw himself as defending true nobility against an ethos that always puts prosperity and self-preservation first. But what ground did he have for appealing to better and worse, higher and lower, noble and base? Surely, he was parasitic on moral and philosophical categories that speak of human excellence as such. Spengler, no more than any other serious political thinker, could not escape the universal, no matter how much he tried. Without such a parasitic appeal, his rhetoric about man as a beast of prey gives rise to brutality and what Renan called “zoological wars,” rather than to courage and nobility.

Rose is right to find something “seductive” in Spengler’s appeal to heroic vitality. But in the end, as he wisely puts it, Spengler’s reductive appeal to “identity” was not only “profoundly illiberal” but it relieved late modern men of “the burden of giving form to one’s soul through reflection, discussion, discipline, and choice, telling us that identity must be accepted as part of an unchosen identity.” In doing so, Spengler’s anti-liberalism and anti-universalism radicalized all the pathologies of philosophical modernity. He thus undermined the very grounds for affirming human nobility and the philosophical basis of Western civilization.

What is needed, instead, is a conservatism at once more moderate and yet more daring, one willing to renew the true roots, at once classical, conservative, Christian and liberal—of Western civilization.

Politics in the Literary Style

Spengler’s Italian translator and quasi-disciple Julius Evola is another avatar of political irresponsibility. A self-described “traditionalist,” Evola was a fascist fellow-traveler who never joined the Fascist Party. He claimed his engagement with extremist ideas was on a “purely intellectual and doctrinal level” which is at best a half-truth and, if believed, an act of self-deception. Following the anti-Christian traditionalist René Guénon, a convert to Islam, Evola searched for a “Primal Tradition” behind all traditions. A student of spiritual esotericism, he valued “the invisible over the contingent, the sacred over the profane, and being over becoming,” as Rose nicely puts it. But the Italian traditionalist was no theist and “did not mourn the death of a God he never believed in.” He hated both liberalism and Christianity (the later the alleged source of the former) for producing the grave evils of individualism, materialism, and egalitarianism.

Evola was right to discern that liberalism in its extreme manifestations challenged the principle of authority, of any authority. But can authority be imposed from above with no reference to the reasons that undergird it, as Evola proposed? And what kind of “tradition” rejects Christianity tout court, defending self-assertion and daring against all notions of gratitude to the Most High? Behind Evola’s traditionalist smoke and mirrors, his appeal to Hindu mythology and esoteric wisdom in all its forms, is a refusal to take seriously the mix of transcendence and tradition that is historic Christianity. He could see in Christianity only a cultural solvent and not a powerful way of conjugating truth and liberty. Christianity “dedivinizes” the world precisely because it opens it to true transcendence, to what Eric Voegelin called the “tenuous” but real bond of faith, “in the sense of Hebrews 11:1, the substance of things hoped for and the proof of things unseen.” It offers true faith (and reason), and not mystagogic traditionalism. As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the West at its best avoided the twin extremes of “holism” or “heteronomy,” taking our bearings entirely from unthinking tradition and authority, and the “autonomy” that leaves us bereft of the precious resources that are faith and right reason. Rose calls Evola a “fantasist” precisely because his traditionalism is strictly speaking unbelievable.

The subject of the next chapter, Francis Parker Yockey, was an out-and-out anti-Semite and Nazi fellow traveler who was literally a fugitive from the law, cooperating in the 1950s with unsavory regimes and movements in the Third World and behind the Iron Curtain. An advocate of “cultural vitalism,” he too hated the idea of “human lives that aimed at nothing higher than self-preservation and happiness.” As with the other anti-liberals, he was right to see in humanity the potential for putting “something else before his own life and security.” But Yockey was obsessed with Jews as the source of cultural contagion and even applauded the Stalinist show trials against Jewish Communist party members and officials in Prague in 1952 as a return to normalcy (which Yockey perversely identified with Jew hatred). Yockey increasingly identified cultural vitality with hatred and extremism in every form and was thus hardly a serious thinker. This chapter is captivating, but, in truth, of little theoretical interest.

The next chapter devoted to the contemporary French intellectual Alain de Benoist addresses a much more respectable figure. Still, we see a young Benoist applauding “paganism” and identity politics, and cheering the Maoist Left in Paris during the revolutionary “events” of May 1968. Once again anti-liberal ire conquers all, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Undoubtedly learned, and a good deal more measured in recent years, Benoist, a regular contributor to the Left-Schmittian American quarterly Telos, is a self-proclaimed “nominalist” and “identitarian” who denies all universals as having any hold on reality. Such nominalism, he argues, is the only approach that can defend “traditional ways of life and values such as excellence, heroism, and honor.” But by severing the universal from the particular, Benoist risks undermining the moral foundations of common life. This self-declared “pagan” rejects classical philosophy as much as he repudiates the Christian religion. His choice for a radical “polytheism of values” leaves us with what Max Weber more honestly called arbitrary or “demonic” choice. Such nihilism masquerading as the defense of tradition hardly provides a persuasive alternative to late modern nihilism. Rather, it exemplifies the very pathology it sets out to cure. And like all the other thinkers in this book, Benoist gives little or no thought to the requirements of political responsibility and practical reason. He practices a form of what Tocqueville called “literary politics,” clever but irresponsible.

Rose sketches a particularly interesting intellectual portrait of Sam Francis, the paleoconservative writer and theorist who criticized conservative political theory for what he saw as its addiction to airy theoretical abstractions. He had no interest in the classical philosophical and religious resources that conservative-minded theorists such as Whittaker Chambers, Richard Weaver, Willmore Kendall, and Eric Voegelin drew upon. Instead, drawing on James Burnham (and through Burnham, Vilfredo Pareto), he Americanized “the theory of elites” and saw a new “managerial revolution” at work in late twentieth century American politics and society. Francis was a self-described realist who reduced politics to a “science of power” and saw raw self-interest at work in the effort of bureaucratic and left-liberal elites to “homogenize” American society by giving everyone the same egalitarian tastes and values. He excoriated conservatives, both practical men and the theorists of the movement, for being ineffectual “Beautiful Losers” (to cite his 1994 book by that name).

Much of this analysis was a welcome correction to mainstream conservative politics and theorizing. But Francis’s appeal to salutary populism soon gave way to white nationalism and racialism, with the unbelieving Francis even publishing a “biblical” defense of chattel slavery in the pages of the Washington Times, for which he was understandably fired. His turn to “identity politics” mirrored the identity politics of the multicultural Left. An American conservatism that only speaks to the white race is hardly American or, or that matter, “realist” at all. However, Rose’s critique of Francis is deeper and truth be told quite devastating. As he points out, Francis “prided himself on telling hard truths about political life.” But this contrarian “could not see how thoroughly he shared the philosophical premises of managerial liberalism. Its denial of transcendence, its rejection of natural law, its anthropological materialism, its skepticism about reason, and its reductive psychology—Francis accepted every one of its doctrines.” His biopolitics, like those radical Rightists before him, was the mirror image of the materialism of the Left. For all his bravado, Francis’s thought was a reflection of the modern crisis and hardly a compelling response to it. What is needed, instead, is a conservatism at once more moderate and yet more daring, one willing to renew the true roots, at once classical, conservative, Christian and liberal—of Western civilization.

An Enriched View of Man

After this compelling set of portraits of the leading radical Right theorists, Rose turns to a thoughtful pondering of what he calls “the Christian Question.” He once again makes clear just how anti-Christian the radical Right really is, obsessed as they are with the question of racial and ethnic identity. They are moved by hate rather than true love or loyalty. They blindly identify decayed liberalism with Christianity, while ignoring the Catholic Church’s longstanding critique of the religion of humanity and of that ersatz religion’s appeal to antinomianism and soft humanitarianism. To his credit, Rose recognizes that many “churchmen and faithful” (Raymond Aron) have accepted an impoverished view, call it liberal or not, that human beings are defined “through acts of individual choice and self-expression alone.” These humanitarian Christians thoughtlessly side with cosmopolitanism and “global values,” when what is needed is loyalty to one’s nation and people tied to, and measured by, “truths that transcend them.”

Rose reminds us that Pope John Paul II was a defender of “humane national loyalty” (to use Roger Scruton’s apt phrase), where under God the nation is properly viewed as a natural human community. His concluding thoughts, as serious and humane as they are, address “the Christian question” more through a theological lens than a political/philosophical one. A fuller discussion would point out that such humane patriotism does not eschew universal virtues and values, and does not eventuate in what Pierre Manent calls “homicidal aversion” to other peoples or nations. Every self-governing people is under the judgment of God and the moral law. The path of inexpiable conflict and murderous hostility is the path of the atheistic Right and Left which eschew the authority of God in the name of tribe, race, or class. These are old truths that a conservative-minded liberalism needs to renew.

To its credit, Rose’s rich and provocative little book reminds us that the excesses of liberalism, or its degeneration into relativistic and moralistic progressivism, will hardly be addressed by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But theology, while necessary, is not sufficient to address the tasks before us. What is needed now more than ever is the renewal of political reason that remains faithful to the twin goods that are truth and liberty. In pursuit of this noble path, we need the fruitful cooperation of the two wings—faith and reason.