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Wilhelm Roepke

Wilhelm Roepke

Much of Wilhelm Roepke’s work can be understood as an exposition of the essence of Western, Occidental thought, a contribution to civilization that can be summed up in the word “liberal” properly understood. It means balanced respect for all the spheres of human personality and activity, multiplicities that can only be fully pursued in the spirit of individual freedom within a framework of individual moral restraint. And this also means an openness to transcen­dence, to divine revelation, a fact which limits and conditions thought and action in this world. Opposing this attitude is the largely Eastern gnostic or immanen­tist thinking which is characterized in a closed, self-contained system of thought, tending to absolutize one thing, be it art, politics, science, or a technological or religious form, and render it autonomous. This warfare between two trends of thought, the liberal and the immanentist, is found throughout European history and is arguably the main key to understanding this history.

Two prominent cases are the religious attitudes toward art and beauty, and economy and wealth. In the following, the liberal ideal of balanced respect for the varying allocations of the human spirit, as Weaver called it, is highlighted by looking at some of the differences between Protestant and Catholic views in the light of several authors including Richard Weaver, Wilhelm Roepke, Thomas Mann, and Francis Shaeffer, and others. Comparing these two spheres, beauty and wealth, should illuminate Roepke’s ideal of a humane econo­my which is inseparably linked to his vision of the humane society. In the end it should be clear that his vision is thoroughly European in the best tradition, common and ancient.

The Problem of Beauty

At the beginning of his chapter on art in his Visions of Order, Richard Weaver quotes from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the story of an artist’s moral decay. The quote reads:

And does not form have two aspects? Is it not moral and amoral at once – moral in that it is the result and expression of discipline, but amoral, and even immoral, in that by nature it contains an indifference to morality, is calculated, in fact, to make morality bend beneath its proud and unencum­bered scepter? (Mann, 17)

The comment is particularly apropos to Mann’s story since his hero, Gustav Aschenbach, is a successful but aging artist on the verge of the fatal Dionysian abyss, the complete surrender to passion at the expense of reason and morality, and in the end he succumbs to it. The story is full of penetrating insights about the nature of beauty and art, and the lesson conforms to Weaver’s own thesis: beauty is a form of power and like any power it can corrupt, especially in a fallen world.

Weaver is concerned with a “false immanentiz­ation” (Visions of Order, 234), especially where aesthet­ic considerations displace non-aesthetic ones. He gives several examples to illustrate his concern: the ancient Byzantine world excessively honoured its religious and artistic forms; the Mediaeval period likewise was preoccupied with certain institutional, religious, and politi­cal arrangements, and also exhibited a tendency in its theology to obscure content in the name of form. In this last case he refers to Bonaventura’s Breviloquium, an exposition of Christian doctrine which, however, reduced theology to pure form. “The dominant effect,” says Weaver, “is an aesthetic one, such as proceeds from a complex but impeccable order” (236). And this is a problem for all his examples: when vested with immanent power these forms – aesthetic, or reli­gious, or political – become “autotelic” and “autarchic” (235-6). The “granting of moral status and impera­tive force” to these forms is a grave danger since it blinds us to the “source of cultural expression itself and may engender perverse cruelty” (241). These could be static art forms, barbaric legal codes or a brilliant technology that demands human sacrifice such as the automobile. The specific danger is that these forms may become an “immanent power” and so constitute a form of “idola­try.” The machine culture of today is the modern form of this idolatry. Weaver explains:

Men begin to fall in love with a formalization, which has the effect of providing a second, and unnatu­ral vindication. What may be a fit subject for aesthetical contemplation, becomes, with slight if any awareness on the individual’s part, coercive in the moral sphere. But the sense of beauty or formal gratification cannot be indulged to an extent which deprives the individual or the group of those psychic fulfillments which come through the ethical and religious consciousness. (244)

That is the crux of the problem. The pursuit of beauty can become easily unbalanced with respect to morals and religion. Here Weaver confronts the religious dimension of this issue. It is not simply a matter of original sin in which beauty corrupts, but a matter of important differences between Catholic and Protestants. Protestants, like the ancient Jews, are acutely sensitive to this side of the question: Because art and the pursuit of beauty tend to dominate morality if not somehow contained, Protestants, like the ancient Hebrews, try strenuously to avoid this corruption and sometimes in certain variations of Protestantism in Weaver’s view, probably go too far. There is no virtue in a cult of the ugly, either.

Nonetheless, Weaver insists the Hebrew-Protestant attitude is essentially sound. This is consis­tent with early Christian rejection of the formalizations of the pagan world in favor of the ethical life. Looking back on this time, Weaver writes, “we see a large element of protest against the forms of a brilliant culture. The New Testament was written in the com­mon koine Greek, not in the beautiful style of Greek literature and philosophy. The Greeks could out-argue the Christians and the Romans could subject them to their government, but there was in Christianity an ethical respect for the person which triumphed over these formalizations…So we may regard the asceticism and the turning away from beauteous form of early Christianity as resistance to the kind of encroachment that is defined here” (241-242).

The danger that beauty may corrupt moral goodness, that, as Hebrew and Protestant and early church theologians might put it, beauty is the doorway to the devil, is reflected in Mann’s novel in philosophi­cal terms. The hero, Aschenbach, remembers his classical training: “Is it not written that the sun diverts our attention from intellectual to sensual things? Reason and understanding, it is said, become so numbed and enchanted that the soul forgets everything out of delight with its immediate circumstances, and in astonishment becomes attached to the most beautiful object shined on by the sun;…” (58-59). In Aschen­bach’s case, the beauty of the boy Tadzio led to an unnatural attachment and inner disintegration and ultimately physical death, death in the city renowned for its emphasis on physical beauty rather than ethical conduct. The process of moral decay also destroyed Aschenbach as an artist.

This effect is echoed in the Plotinian formula which says that beauty is “recognized by the soul as something long familiar, arresting and beckoning.” It is the “arresting” and “beckoning” quality of art that must be watched, that is worrisome. The power to ravish and suspend moral capacity, is obviously danger­ous. And in times of moral decay this is taken to be increasingly acceptable. As Marcel Proust writes in his description of the decay of French society in his Remembrance of Things Past, “…the trend of the downward [moral] slope brings desire so rapidly to the point of enjoyment that beauty by itself appears to imply consent.” As with Mann’s Aschenbach, Proust’s story at this point is one of unnatural attachment excited by great physical beauty. But it is a function of morals to separate desire and gratification, to limit certain enjoyments to sanctioned forms, and when this barrier is lost immediate gratification seems self-evidently right. For this reason those who would interpret Dostoyevsky’s famous phrase, “beauty will save the world,” to refer mainly or exclusively to the aesthetic are quite obviously wrong.

This tension between “reason and understand­ing” and sensibility and emotion, with its temptation to become unbalanced in one direction or another, is taken up as the familiar “nature vs. grace” problem by Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, like Roepke, relies heavily on the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt in seeing the difference between the Reformation and the Renaissance as a difference also in geography between the north and the south. He writes: “[Burkhardt] indicated that freedom was introduced both in the north by the Reformation and in the south by the Renais­sance. But in the south it went to license; in the north it did not. The reason was that in Renaissance human­ism man had no way to bring forth a meaning to the particulars of life and no place from which to get absolutes in morals. But in the north, the people of the Reformation, standing under the teaching of Scripture, had freedom and yet at the same time compelling absolute values” (100). His view conforms to Weaver’s in that he sees the Reformers, and the coun­tries accept­ing their influence, like the first century Christians, were responding to an excess of artistic sensibilities arising in part from the Renaissance revival of Greek cultural ideas. They insisted on “compelling absolute values,” on “ethical respect for the person,” rather than on the beauties of certain brilliant “formali­zations.”

To illustrate one source of imbalance, Schaef­fer might have referred to the classic piece of High Renaissance literature, Baldisarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier. Here the character Peter Bembo argues that beauty and goodness have a certain felici­tous relationship: “And therefore, as there can be no circle without a centre, no more can beau­ty be without goodness. Where­upon doth very seldom an ill soul dwell in a beautiful body. And there­fore is the outward beauty a true sign of the inward goodness, and in bodies this comeli­ness is imprinted, more and less, as it were, for a mark of the soul, whereby she is out­wardly known….The foul [ugly], therefore, for the most part be also evil, and the beautiful good.” As to the empiri­cal objection that beautiful women very often have nasty personali­ties, he replies: “Neither yet ought beautiful women to bear the blame of that hatred, mortal­ity, and destruc­tiveness which the unbri­dled appetites of men are the cause of…” Beauty “rather plucketh them from it [the un­chaste], and leadeth them into the way of virtuous condi­tions, through the affinity that beauty hath with good­ness…”

There are two aspects to this quote. One is the identification of beauty and virtue with the feminine and the other is the relation between beauty and virtue as such. It would take another paper to explore the first problem, as one could go back to pagan sources or at least to Dante’s use of Beatrice in the Paradiso, and forward to English writers like Owen Feltham or Richard Crashaw.

It is the second aspect that will be pursued here. Is there, then, such a harmonious relation between beauty and virtue? A better Christian view recognizes that the conquest of the soul over the body lies in the moral sweetness of its character. When this becomes dominant in the person, his ugli­ness tends to be­come invisible, for one sees the good­ness of his charac­ter only. Thus it was that Christ himself was said to be “plain,” and had no beauty that we should desire him (Isa. 53:3). The basis for this is perhaps most forceful­ly shown in the Old Testament where Satan, like the city of Tyre, was corrupted by his beauty: “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty…” (Ez. 28: 17). If pride goeth before a fall, beauty goeth before pride. Despite the attractiveness of the posited harmony between outward beauty and virtue, the Renaissance relationship is actually backward: it is not that beauty transforms the soul and makes it good, leading from chastity to chastity, but that moral goodness so trans­forms our percep­tions that physical beauty or the lack of it becomes irrelevant and invisible; the ugly no longer matters, is no longer seen. How else do we explain Mary Magdalene kissing the feet of Christ who had no beauty that we should desire him? Moral good­ness trans­cend­ed physical beauty and ren­dered it innocu­ous, indiffer­ent. It may well be that prox­imity to great beauty, as Weaver says of wealth, is deflective of moral purpose.

But in the Catholic Counter-Reformation–and those countries under its influence–the pendulum swung in the opposite direction with an intensification of what Reformers found objec­tionable and paralleled the problem of good­ness and beauty with that of liberty and order. Nicho­las Joost observes the essence of the baroque period and Catholic Counter-Reformation was to make appearances seem to trans­form reality and so extend the power of the Church or the State. James King defines the baroque as an effort to introduce order into disorder. Either way the result seems to have been that the greatest license and the greatest control were simulta­neous­ly present. Thom­as Hobbes, writing from Paris, could advocate unlimited power of the state; the palace of Ver­sailles was built to show the infinite power of the abso­lute monarch, the “disciplined might of her king” (King, 174), while Descartes argued for the [allegedly] unlimited power of mathematics and science over the material universe to bring order to chaos. One could add that the Cartesian reversal of the Mediaeval dictum that knowing follows being is paral­leled in art with the similar reversal of the affirmation that beauty follows truth in the order of goods. So, then, the effect of what may be called the baroque dictum “I think, therefore I am” is to produce the autonomous self-sufficient artistic imagination whose goal is to trans­form the world, impose order on the chaos of imagination and life. This was the period in Spain when the statues of saints were adorned with wigs and eyelashes to evoke holy elation and which Jacob Burckhardt de­scribed as the “hispanicized centu­ry” (the 1600s). Roepke called it “that stilted period of the baroque” lacking humor and dominated by physics and mathemat­ics while Schaeffer criticizes much baroque painting for “slipping into the world of illu­sion” (98) in contrast to more realistic artists like Rembrandt.

But Joost explains all this “hispanicizing,” this aesthetic emotionalism, was the militant church’s effort to persuade the doubter and convert the heathen. The Counter-Reforma­tion’s method was mainly rhetorical and hortatory, not logical and ab­stract. Its appeal was more aesthetic than ethical in contrast to Wea­ver’s description of first century Chris­tian rhetoric.

Interest­ingly, this emotional and aesthetic rhetorical approach and the geographic distinctions mentioned above between northern and southern Europe are supported by Catholic scholar Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. He agrees that, broadly speaking, Catholic countries show a higher rate of crime and sin. But he does not draw any obvious conclusion from this; instead, he delights in the fact, claiming Catholic nations lead a “more colorful life in an ambiance of beauty, savagery, and ‘primitive­ness’…” Its practition­ers apparently understand that “[r]eligion is not primari­ly ethical action” but “before anything else” is a matter of “faith, charity and litur­gy.” He also revels in the character of these crimes and sins for they are “always of a strictly personal nature.” (One cannot help but ponder the present Balkan crisis whose peoples have intense personal animosities based on memories reach­ing back for generations; or, one may think of the character in Leon Uris’ story of Ireland, Trinity, who said: “We’re Irish, messed up, superstitious and unorganiz­able…but, by God, you don’t see any poets coming out of Ulster.”)

Perhaps more agreeable to both Protestants and Catholics is the contrasting thought of Catholic writer, Henryk Sienkiewicz, in his famous Quo Vadis? Nero is the Dionysian who sacrifices ethics to art, burning Rome to become artistically inspired. And his other crimes, too, were intensely personal, killing his mother, his wife, his son, and others. In the story the philoso­pher Seneca says of the character Petronius, the arbiter elegantiarum, and vigilant enemy of Nero, that he “has long since lost that faculty which distinguishes good from evil” but would be ashamed if his action were “ugly.” Petronius delights in the exhilaration of life’s “uncertainty”: “There is in that a certain delight and the destruction of the present” while “Christian virtues” would bore him. Of course, he is already bored because of his aestheticism; a love of beauty devoid of ethical content and reduced to mere sensuali­ty produces ennui that invites death, and indeed, in the end Petron­ius kills himself. When he says that “[w]hoso loves beauty is unable for that very reason to love deformity” he hits very near Weaver’s concern of the aesthetic encroaching upon the ethical; neither his love of beauty nor his own physical beauty leads Petronius to higher virtues. He could not love his fellow man who was physically ugly, no matter how spiritually or morally beautiful he was. And when he says that “[l]ife exists for itself alone” and “I have lived as I have wished, and I will die as pleases me” we have that essential pagan­ism which is the false imma­nentiza­tion of art and life, life without the transcendent. Love of beauty alone is entropic, a turning inward unto death. In a way Nero and Petro­nius were the same: both elevated the aesthetic over the ethical in life.

Roepke agrees with Sienkiewicz. The “univer­sal and undifferentiating emotionalization and exalta­tion,” he says, “will lead from the sublime to the ridiculous, to inner emptiness and dishonesty, to desecration, debasement and a blurring of our scales of value” (Social Crisis, 77). Modern man, he laments, produces works of art that “are so far above the heads of the people.” He goes on: “It appears to me that we have here a complete parallel with the positivism and relativist development of modern science, i.e., the abandonment of human values. ‘Science pour la science,’ corresponds to `art pour l’art'” (Social Crisis, 78). Here pagan­ism assumes the forms of science and technology as well as of art, the sacrifice of lives and values due to the believed “immanent worth” (Weaver) of a beautiful formalization. “Just as Nero was suspect­ed,” says Roepke, “perhaps with some justification, of burning Rome in order to erect his showy edifices, the 19th century, too, is almost unsurpassed in its destruc­tion of the venerable architectural monuments of the past and of the age-old civilization of the open coun­try…” (78). Roepke’s preference is for the classical bal­anced and restrained art and architecture, the kind that guides emotion and allows it to turn loose only in appropriate forms, which thereby at once limit and elevate emotion. The same criteria apply to music where Roepke favours Bach and Mozart to Wagner’s operas which formed part of the cult of the colossal.

Thomas Mann comes to the same conclusion. Erich Heller commenting on Mann’s view here says: “When Mann tried to imagine what the masterpiece of the twentieth century would look like, he imagined something essentially different from Wagner’s works…Such a masterpiece would be, he hoped, distinguished by its logic, form, and clarity; would be austere and yet serene; more detached, nobler and healthier than Wagner’s operas: `something that seeks greatness not in the colossal and the baroque, and beauty not in the ecstatic'” (Heller, 111). And in his Luebeck speech Mann implies as much again when he says: “In the course of writing I found out what I myself was, and what I wanted and did not want – namely, not southern aesthet­ic posturing, but the cooler North, ethics, music, humor” (Mann, xi; cf. xvii-xviii).

All of this leads to the very simple but easily obscured result that morality is not the same thing as aesthetic appreciation. Beauty always has an existential advantage, that is, because it operates on the emotions through the senses, especially music and the visual arts, the power of its physical presence is greater than the attraction of moral goodness which has no such physical presence but must be apprehended by a motion of the mind, a movement toward the transcendent that requires greater effort and so puts it at a disadvantage. The former tends to self-indulgence, the latter to self-denial. The one is more concrete, spontaneous and immediate, the other is more abstract, labored, distant and elusive. The former blurs (non-aesthetic) distinc­tions, the latter emphasizes them. It is tempting, then, following an aesthetic impulse, to resolve the disharmo­ny by making morality more pleasant and by identify­ing it with beauty (or wealth). This is the fancy way of saying the form of the corruption is to eat one’s cake and have it, too. The baroque transformation that actually occurs is that beauty weakens morals as it transforms it into some­thing sensual, easy and immanent. It is precisely this abstract nature of the one and the physical power of the other that allows one to pretend that all emotionalism and impulses are good, more readily than that the ugly, or unpleasant, is beautiful. In brief, Weaver, Mann, Schaeffer and Roepke agree with Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “…for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness” (Act III, sc. I).

The Problem of Wealth

But just as the discipline of the artist can be both moral and immoral, so also the free market can be a two-edged sword. Where the moral preconditions are properly met, the free market proves to be good. Roepke cites the mainly northern European countries as more often approximating the ideal economy he has in mind: Switzerland, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the USA, the British dominions and the Nordic countries (Moral Foundations, 92). Germany itself is more complicated though here he usually refers favourably to the North and Northeast and especially to the Hanseatic cities. Referring to those coun­tries with a predominant­ly Latin or Roman legal tradition (Southern/Mediterra­nean?) he says these are often identified “with absolut­ism, despotism, bureaucracy and abstract ratio­nalism.” Though this view is far from satisfying, it “contains a grain of truth” (Moral Foundations, 107).

But when the moral and social prerequisites are not met, which limit and circumscribe market action, its destructive possibilities become dominant. In its modern capitalistic form the market is a procedure that preserves a certain order while being destructive of traditional values and structures. It is the old problem of liberty running to license. These tendencies come in two forms. The first is what Roepke calls “the cult of the colossal” or, especially when he refers to the 19th century, the “neo-baroque century of the colossal” in which bigness and quantity possess immanent worth. This description bears comparison with Joost’s view relating the baroque vision to the “emerging bourgeois capitalism with its hope of an endlessly expanding, indefinitely exploitable economy,” which, along with the new science, “stood for dynamism, change, [and] movement” (Joost, 154). This can be interpreted as the Hobbesian mo­ment in economics in so far as Hobbes’ thought influ­enced subsequent economic thinkers such as William Petty and Josiah Child with their emphasis on national and economic expansion, or what Burck­hardt called the “cult of political unity and national expan­sion.” It can also be understood as a Carte­sian matter-in-motion applied to economic thought, where people are seen as social molecules driven by material appetites, the kind of vision Thors­tein Veblen delighted in attacking.

The second destructive tendency is the conve­nient and comfort­ing temptation to see wealth as a sign of moral goodness, or even to take its mere existence to mean moral good­ness. When we come to the Gilded Age in America, we find a secular­ized Calvin­istic (can we say “hispani­cized”?) view of wealth: Russell Conwell, speaking in Andrew Carnegie’s time, claimed that: “Godliness is in league with riches.” Not to be outdone, Episcopalian bishop William Lawrence believed: “In the long run it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes” (Fusfeld, 76). Then there is the simpler, more forceful view of John D. Rocke­feller who said flatly: “God Almighty gave me my money” (Levitt, 173). Markets and products by their very existence, their physical presence, have an allure that morality does not have. Wealth itself has an attractiveness by the same reason, a cogency that confuses thought, that implies if a man is rich he must also be good or wise or knowl­edgeable or possess some great virtue, as in the song from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I Were a Rich Man”: “And it won’t make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong: when you’re rich they think you really know.” Or as the Psalmist says “men will praise you when you do well for yourself” (Ps. 49:18). This can be contrasted with Prince Agur’s liberal dictum: “Give me neither poverty nor riches” (Prov. 30:8).

As the pursuit of outward, physical beauty is thought naturally or normally to harmonize with the inward virtue in art (and philosophy), so also in eco­nomics, self-interest is thought to harmonize with the common good. In Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, for example, the vice of pure selfishness is transformed into the virtue of public benefits in what amounts to an economic version of the elusive alchemi­cal quest of transmuting base metal into gold. In both cases the desired harmonies are more or less automati­cally achieved as a function of the assumed internal relations. The result in both instances is to paralyze the moral will. If physical beauty inevitably is linked to and leads to spiritual virtue, then one can relax and focus just on the outward form, and the rest will follow; and if the pursuit of personal gain necessarily results in the common good, one need only focus on self-interest. The moral optimism, the neglect of man’s fallen nature, that underlies these views should be self-evi­dent. A tendency to libertinism is common to both, the familiar bohemian in the one case and laissez-faireist in the other. Examples of its effect come easily to mind: the decay of chivalry to a form of woman-worship with its corresponding practice of adultery, and in the weaken­ing of the capitalistic economy to the point where unlimited desire reigns while society, communi­ty, and family collapse.

The Place of Art

For Dostoyevsky beauty will save the world. On the other hand, Boris Pasternak has one of his characters in Doctor Zhivago give the opposing Tolstoy­an view “that the more a man devotes himself to beauty the further he moves away from goodness.” Is there a way of reconciling these two points of view, or in the manner of Roepke, can we ask if there is a “third way”?

As with wealth, the answer is simple: art has a proper place in life but it is not all over the place; it must be limited and balanced against other values. So, in commenting on Aristotle’s Poetics, Weaver also writes that Aristotle recognized “art has a function of its own, that it is to be judged by its effectiveness in providing certain kinds of pleasure and not by how well it subserves the state or the individual in their pursuit of the morally good life” (243). Like other disciplines, but in its own way, art helps us “to penetrate the structure of reality and potentiality” (243). Weaver then finally arrives at a “third way” conclusion:

Somewhere between total prohibition (or as total as could be effected) of the allurements of form because of the preoccupation and sacrifice they entail and complete abandonment to them out of a feeling of their immanent worth which allows us to ignore their ethical conse­quences, a ground will have to be discovered. (243)

Just as the economist works on certain eco­nomic issues by excluding at least temporarily from his analysis certain non-economic demands, so also the artist often works to exclude non-aesthetic demands from our responses, says Weaver, because these would interfere with his artistic constructions and purposes (243). However, he adds: “If art is to be granted its proper autonomy, it must show good faith by giving up its claim to authority where a different kind of activity is required of men” (243-244). It must not “try to be regulative in the practical realm” (243). In Modern Painters, famous 19th century art critic John Rus­kin summarizes the answer correct­ly. While affirming truth (including moral goodness) and beauty are both indispensable to the artist, he insists “…they are to be sought together in the order of their worthi­ness; that is to say, truth first, and beauty afterwards.” And Thom­as Mann would seem to concur in favoring Goethe’s “ideal balance” between the sensual and the moral.

The liberal balance, though, is not an equality. It begins, as Ruskin indicates, with the ethical and then moves toward the beautiful, and this is more than simply a balance; it is essentially the bourgeois spirit at its best. As Mann states in his 1926 Luebeck speech: “For the ethical bent, in contrast to the purely aesthetic impulse, to the pursuit of beauty and pleasure as well as to nihilism and the vagabond’s flirtation with deaththe ethical bent is really the bourgeois spirit applied to life” (xvi). This spirit of “buegerlichkeit,” Mann writes, is one of re­straint and control and “means the refusal to be carried away” (xxiii). Pasternak draws a similar conclusion when he links art with social and economic classes. “Only the familiar transformed by genius is truly great. The best object lesson in this is Pushkin. His works are one great hymn to honest labor, duty, everyday life! Today, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ have become terms of abuse, but Pushkin forestalled the implied criticism in his ‘Family Tree,’ where he says proudly that he belongs to the middle class….” To forestall the connotation of abuse, Roepke preferred to call this the “buergerliche” spirit which is as much opposed to the barrenness of a false puritanical prudery and as it is to the emotional bombast of the baroque which does seek to be “carried away” whether in the ecstasies of art, science, politics, or technology.


The “third way” is used by Weaver in art and Roepke in economics as well as by a number of other authors. It is really an expression of the Western contribution to civilization, the “liberal” ideal which claims that because of a higher reality transcending man and his activities, no sphere of endeavor is completely self-sufficient; no sphere possesses an immanent worth that would justify it to act independently of or encroach upon the legitimate demands of the other allocations of the human spirit; “autarchy” (Roepke) or “false imma­nentization” (Weaver) is rejected. In the one case, in Roepke’s language, “[e]conomically ignorant moralism” is to be rejected as much as “morally callous econo­mism” (Humane Economy, 104). In art, aesthetically ignorant moralism and morally ignorant aestheticism have no place.

But this is a difficult road to follow. It re­quires constant balancing of these activities and resis­tance to the natural inclination to love excessively a particular sphere of action and its correspond­ing forms–and so to begin lording it over other endeavors. Much of the history of the West can be understood as an effort to achieve this balance even when it has failed to do so. It is one thing to have an ideal which is not fully realized and another not to have the ideal at all. In the case of art, the failure has been either a too casual belief in the harmo­ny of beauty and goodness or a too stern aware­ness of their disunity and antago­nism. A similar history can be told about attitudes toward wealth. In both cases the answer is not to reject altogether or allow total free­dom, neither collective control by the state (even if it means, as in Plato’s case, total banish­ment) nor com­plete laissez-faire. The essentially Western, Occidental, “liberal” answer is the classic one of liberty within limits. The “semi-autonomy” of Weaver for art and the “moral prerequites” of Roepke for the economy derive from this same source.

Books by Wilhelm Roepke, and others mentioned in this essay, may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[This essay appeared in The Legacy of Wilhelm Roepke: Essays in Political Economy by Ralph Ancil. Copyright held by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute and reprinted by permission. Read the series introductory essay here. Copyright held by the Wilhelm Roepke Institute and reprinted by permission.]


Daniel Fusfeld; The Age of the Economist, Scott, Foresman/Little Brown, Glenview, Illinois; 1990.

Nicholas Joost; “Dryden’s Medal and the Baroque in Politics and Art,” in Modern Age (Spring, 1959, vol. 3, #2)

James King; “The Baroque Spirit and the Decline of France” in Modern Age (Spring 1959, vol. 3, #2).

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn; “Revolution, Crime, and Sin” in Modern Age (Spring 1958, vol. 2, #2).

Erich Heller: “Autobiography and Literature,” in Death in Venice, Modern Library, New York; 1970.

Theodore Levitt; “Business and the Plural Society,” in Modern Age (Spring 1960, vol. 4, #2).

Thomas Mann; Death in Venice, Modern Library, New York; 1970.

Thomas Mann; “Luebeck as a Way of Life and Thought,” in Bubbenbrooks, Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Wilhelm Roepke; A Humane Economy, Henry Regnery Company, Chicgao; 1960.

Wilhelm Roepke; Moral Foundations of Civil Society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1995.

Wilhelm Roepke; The Social Crisis of Our Time, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1992.

Francis Schaeffer; How Should We Then Live?, Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1976.

Richard Weaver; Visions of Order, Conservative Book Club, 1964, Vol. 6.

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