To what end were 205 million human persons—created in the Image of God—murdered in the twentieth century, one must ask?
And, why did millions more suffer for being simply human persons, unique, unfathomable, unrepeatable? The answer, unfortunately, is not an easy one, and very few scholars—historians, philosophers, or theologians—have attempted to answer this question.
In 1886 Friedrich Nietzsche, the mad prophet of the modern man, wrote, “The greatest event of recent times–that “God is Dead”, that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable–is beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe.” Nietzsche further argued that traditional morality and received understandings of character and virtue were merely a means to shackle the true individual, to restrain and attenuate his pagan self. Such constraints, Nietzsche contended, were culturally manufactured, not inherent in nature. By throwing off the artificial restraints, Nietzsche continued, one would discover his true self. Perhaps most important, as Nietzsche understood at the end of the nineteenth-century, men had forgotten God, establishing themselves as the highest authority in the universe. The results, he believed, were predictable. De-spiritualized, “Our whole European civilization is moving with a torture of tension, which increases from decade to decade, toward a catastrophe,” he wrote three decades before World War I. With the de-spiritualization of Europe, strangely enough, the mad philosopher argued, the coming destruction would result from a “war of the spirits.”
Romano Guardini wrote:
This frightful destruction did not drop down from heaven; in truth it rose up out of hell! A culture marked by a true ordering could not have invented such incomprehensible systems of degradation and destruction. Monstrosities of such conscious design do not emerge from the calculators of a few degenerate men or of small groups of men; they come from processes of agitation and poisoning which has been long at work. What we call moral standards—responsibility, honor, sensitivity of conscience—do not vanish from humanity at large if men have not already been long debilitated. These degradations could never have happened if its culture had been as supreme as the modern world thought.
For Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist turned devout Quaker in the middle part of the twentieth century, the ideological wars simply resulted from a loss of faith. The root of the modern problem–man claiming to be the measure of all things–goes well beyond one syphilitic philosopher’s understanding of the European-secularizing trends in the late-nineteenth century. Indeed, one can trace such thought back to Socrates’ opponents, the Sophists, and, before them, to the very beginning, with Satan’s temptation of Eve to become as a god. Communism, after all,
is not new. It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “Ye shall be as gods.” It is the great alternative faith of mankind. Like all great faiths, its force derives from a simple vision. Other ages have had great visions. They have always been different versions of the same vision: the vision of God and man’s relationship to God. The Communist vision is the vision of Man without God. It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world.
Pride is the first sin. All others spring from it. Communism, fascism, and even capitalism have all succumbed to pride. And, just “as the unity of the ancient world was finally broken in two by the sin of Islam, so the modern world is being broken by in two by the sin of communism,” Dawson explained, “so the only serious rivals to Christianity at the present day are not the old religions of the East, but the new political substitute-religions, like communism, nationalism, and so forth.”
A culture cannot survive without a religion, at least not for long. Ultimately, a culture derives from the cultus, the group of people, usually based on kinship ties, who banded together to worship the same deity or deities. Once a common worship and understanding of theology developed, a culture developed from it. From the culture, then, comes economics, politics, and law. The ideologues attack only the superficial elements of society: economics, politics, and law, hoping to reorder the culture, they only distort and destroy.
Some, especially in the twentieth century, had not lost God as much as they grown to resent Him. This was especially true of those who adopted and adhered to the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism. Twentieth-century political philosopher, Eric Voegelin, wrote:
The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and he had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.
C.S. Lewis aptly described this phenomenon in both his philosophical Abolition of Man and his fantasy story for adults, That Hideous Strength. In the former, Lewis concluded this exchange of morality for technological prowess was nothing less than the “magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return.”
There can be only one solution to the Gnostic intrusions in the modern world, the arrival of an anamnesis. As Voegelin explained:
The attempt at world destruction will not destroy the world, but will only increase the disorder of society. The gnostic’s flight from a truly dreadful, confusing, and oppressive state of the world is understandable. But the order of the ancient world was renewed by that movement which strove through loving action to revive the practice of the “serious play” (to use Plato’s expression)—that is, by Christianity.
There have many such fortuitous arrivals: Aristotle to preserve the best of ancient Athens; Cicero to preserve the best of Republican Rome; St. Augustine to preserve the best of Christian Rome; St. Boniface to take the best of the classical and Christian and mix it with the best of the barbarian; men such as St. Francis or St. Ignatius to root out corruption from the Church; the American founding fathers who took the best of the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and the medievals as a foundation for the American Republic.
More often than not, though, the rank and file who follow the ideologues have few real ideas of their own. Indeed, they join the cause and adopt the methods of thuggary to alleviate their boredom, as the experiences of National Socialism and Communism proved in Germany and Russia respectively. Finding no fulfillment in modernity or consumerism—and with religion enfeebled—the average person turns to something that gives him a higher purpose. God created us to find religion, to find Him. Man without true religion is empty. He finds himself devoid of something, but that something remains elusive. He will seek until he finds either true religion or a substitute that temporarily fills the void. “The ordinary man will never stand for nihilism: it is against all his healthier instincts,” Dawson wrote in 1955. To find a substitute, man turns in many directions: utopianism, drugs, and cults, “leaving the enemy in possession of the field.” The machine of the ideologues subsumes the lost. Norman Cohn, the great historian of the medieval period, put it frankly:
There exists a subterranean world, where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when that underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures, and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people.
In an era that shuns true creativity and the finding of one’s place in the Created Order, it should surprise no one that the bored look to those with ideas presented as absolutes. Such absolutes, no matter how false, give the joiner a perceived purpose in a world drastically adrift from its traditional moorings.
There are also those who adopt ideology simply as a means of power. Scholars such as Dawson and Friedrich Hayek have explored this aspect of the ideological regimes. Hayek, in his 1974 Nobel Prize address, called the mentality of the ideologue and his followers “the fatal conceit,” the erroneous belief that any one person or group of persons can control, or even understand, another person. Each being is simply too complex to understand even himself fully! With the fatal conceit, a deluded individual believes he can reshape the world in his own image, overturning centuries of finely-evolved history, morality, philosophy, and genetic selection. Rooted in the English Whig and classical republican traditions, Hayek described it well. Ideologues hate the natural order and the Natural Law. They demand that “everything must be tidily planned” by an “all-powerful central government.”
Ironically, as already demonstrated, their attempt to create order only begets severe and violent disorder, the shattering of the soul and the world.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
- Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 86. See also Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study of Moral Theory 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).
- Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952; Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1980), 9.
- Dawson, Malaya, to Mulloy, 5 March 1952, Folder 1, Box 1, Notre Dame Archives/CDAW.
- On Gnosticism, see Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity 2nd ed (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1963). See also Mark A. Kalthoff’s especially excellent, “Contra Ideology,” Faith and Reason 30 (2005): 221-241.
- Voegelin, New Science of Politics, 131-32. See also Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2005), 26-27.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 80.
- Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Chicago, Ill: Regnery, 1968), 12. See also Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990).
- Kirk, Prospects for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1989), 107; and Kirk, “The Uninteresting Future,” Commonwealth (June 3, 1960): 249.
- Dawson, Devon, ENG, to Father Leo Ward, Notre Dame, Ind., 20 February 1955, in Folder 5, Box 1, ND/CDAW.
- Dawson, “Christianity and the New Age,” 158.
- Quoted in Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 8.
- Friedrich A. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” in Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago, Ill.: Regnery, 1972), 27. See also, Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 21, 27, 49, 75.