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Unanalyzed Responses

ruinsAnxiety and deep insecurity are the characteristic responses evoked by the crisis in tradition. To experience them, it is not necessary for a people to be actively aware of what is happening to it. The proc­ess of erosion need only undermine the tra­dition and a series of consequences begin unfolding within the individual, while in institutions a quiet but deep transforma­tion of processes occurs. Within the indi­vidual the reaction has been called various names, all, however, pointing to the same basic experience. Simone Weil identifies it as being “rootless,” Romano Guardini as being “placeless,” David Riesman as being “lonely.” Others call it “alienation,” and mean by that no simple economic experience (as Karl Marx does) but a deep spiritual sense of dislocation. With­in institutions there is a marked decline of the process of persuasion and the substitu­tion of a force-fear process which mas­querades as the earlier one of persuasion. We note the use of rhetoric as a weapon, the manipulation of the masses by propa­ganda, the “mobilization” of effort and re­sources.

Within this context of spontaneous and unanalyzed responses to the experience of civilizational crisis, two basic organizations of response are observable: reaction and ideological progressivism. These responses are explicable in terms of characteristics inherent in the crisis. Both are predictably destined to fail.

The response of reaction is dominated by a concern for what is vanishing. Its essence lies in its attempt to recover previous order through the repression of disruptive forces. To this end, political authority is called upon to exercise its negative and coercive powers. The implicit assumption of this response is that history is reversible. Seemingly, order is perceived as a kind of subsistent entity now covered by adventi­tious accretions. The problem is to remove the accretions and thereby uncover the order that was always there. Such a re­sponse, of course, misses the point that in crisis order is going out of existence. More­ over its posture of stubborn but simple re­sistance is doomed to failure because of the metaphysical weakness of the existent form of order, once the activation of change has reached visible proportions. The most reaction can achieve is stasis, and a stasis that can be maintained only by the expenditure of an effort which ultimately exhausts itself.

Despite the hopelessness of the response, it is explicable in terms of the crisis of tra­dition itself. Since a civilizational crisis in­volves also a crisis in private interests and in the ruling class, reaction is normally found among those who feel themselves to be among the ruling class. Their great error is to mingle the responses typical of each of the three types of change. Since civilizational change is the most difficult to perceive and analyze, it seldom is given adequate attention. And the anxiety it gen­erates is misinterpreted as anxiety over pri­vate interest and threatened social status. The basic truth in the reactionary re­sponse is to be found in its realistic as­sumption of the primacy of the real over the ideational. But this truth is distorted by its extreme application: the assumption of the separate existence of tradition. The reactionary misses the point that tradition exists ontologically only in the form of psychological-intellectual relations. Reac­tionary theories, for this reason, usually assume some form of organismic theory. In its defensive formulations, the theory will attack conscious change on the grounds of the independent existence of the commu­nity. In its dynamic form, it visualizes the community as the embodiment of an onto­logical force—the race, for instance—which unfolds in history. In both cases, the in­dividual tends to be treated as an instru­ment of the organic reality.

When the reactionary response is thus bolstered by an intellectual defense, the characteristics of that defense are explicable only in terms of the basic attitudes of unanalyzed reaction. Reaction is rooted in a perception of tradition as a whole. It is a total situation that is defended: the “good old days.” There is no selectivity; even the questionable features of the past are de­fended. The point is that the reactionary, for whatever motive, perceives himself to have been part or a partner of something that extended beyond himself, something which, consequently, he was not able to accept or reject on the basis of subjective preference. The reactionary is confused about the existential status of a decaying tradition, but he does perceive the unity tradition had when it was healthy.

The second unanalyzed response to civi­lizational crisis we call ideological progres­sivism. With regard to the civilizational crisis itself, the ideological mind interprets the social disruption as a good. What the reactionary calls chaos, the ideologist calls the “open society,” interpreting it as a vic­tory for individual freedom. What the re­actionary calls loss of order, the ideologist calls the disappearance of old evils, the be­ginning of a new rationality. The ideologi­cal progressive connives with the erosion of tradition in the name of progress. His char­acteristic orientation is toward the future where he discerns a new order that man will create for himself. The ideological progressive, therefore, proposes a conception of progress that involves an existential dis­continuity; progress without organic evo­lution.

The fact of discontinuity is frequently overlooked because the order of the future is validated as the order men have always striven for. Yet the discontinuity is not only present but derives from the basic orienta­tion of the ideologist toward social reality. Civilizational crisis, it must be remem­bered, is constituted by a unique type of change: Existing form is not displaced by emerging form, but by emerging formless­ness; the change is from order to disorder. Since the ideological mind, insofar as it seeks social order, looks to the present and the future, it finds only an ontological void. It is a matter of attitude rather than science that this void, constituted by the disruption of interpersonal relations among men, is interpreted as the good of freedom. But given the void and the attitude, the ideol­ogist cannot conceive of himself as co-oper­ating with an objective evolution of form. His commitment to the process of becom­ing consequently involves commitment not to reality but to ideas. The becoming cen­tral to his attention is a process whereby mind informs reality, a process that involves the movement from the abstract and the ideational to the real. The ideologist thinks in terms of creative action, informing action, not in terms of cooperation with an objectively emerging form. What “ought to be” is achieved by a break in being, not by an evolution of being.

The true discontinuity occurs, moreover, in the content of what “ought to be.” For when tradition begins to “fall out of exist­ence,” the essence of the “fall” lies in the withdrawal of ideas from the concrete his­torical integration called society into the isolation of an ideational existence in the minds of unrelated individuals. Thus the ontological disruption of society is con­cealed by the perdurance of ideas in the minds of men. But even here, in the realm of thought, there is a further discontinuity. For in their movement from the real to the ideational, the substantive ideas undergo a sea change, a metamorphosis of meaning. When the ideas had ontological status in historical society, their meaning was de­termined by their position as part of a complex of ideas polarized into a world view. In their ideational existence, they become merely the debris of the earlier tra­dition and their meaning changes, for the ideas lose their coherence. They become in­dividual absolutes. Where they once were the form of the society, they now become the goals of creative action.

In pursuit of these goals, the ideologist, like the reactionary, depends on political authority in its coercive form. The end of authority, however, is not to repress change, to recover form, but to create and impose form. Government thus is conceived of as having a creative role among men. And its action is validated by the goals which in seeking to realize, it represents. The claim is that the new order is what the people want. Therefore, by the principle of consent, the government, in imposing order, represents the people who are the recipi­ents of that order. Involved in this way of thinking is a profound confusion concerning the ontological status of ideas. The people, unformed because they need to be informed, are considered the source of the form to be imposed. This way of thinking, of course, can be sustained only by virtue of a confusion between the ideational and the real. However, once the confusion is achieved, the ideas which are the prototype of the new societal form may be imposed politically without prior debate in the dem­ocratic process. Nor need they be sustained by theoretical argumentation. For they are, as the Declaration of Independence tells us, self-evident. Those who oppose them are obviously corrupt and can be handled only by coercive repression. Thus, by a curious development, the proponents of the open society become the champions of the closed idea. The chief evidence for this development may be found in the substitution of propaganda for discussion in the conver­satio civilis. Men become the matter to be informed. It is claimed that they want to receive the form possessed by the ideolog­ical mind. Propaganda, which imposes forms in the human intellect without the process of persuasion, becomes a kind of divine praeveniant action whereby the ide­ologists enable men to act freely.

Thus, the essence of the ideological pro­gressive response is to be found in the primacy of mind over reality and in a utilitari­an test of truth. Both these premises neces­sarily follow from the ideological conception of the problem of order. The ideologist finds himself with a set of ideas that seem­ingly, by their very essence, call for ontolog­ical existence among men. In this posture there is no universale in re, for social real­ity is “open.” Nor is there a universale post rem, for the idea in the mind was not de­rived from reality, but acquired by virtue of the transubstantiation of ideas during their depolarization. There is only a uni­versale ante rem: The ideas that exist in the ideologists mind as the unmeasured meas­ure of reality. From this it follows that the only standard of truth in human action can be that of the utility of the action for im­plementing the model ideas. If something is necessary, it is legitimate by that very fact. This standard is not applied universal­ly. Where the central model ideas are not involved the ordinary standards of moral­ity are retained. But when they are in­volved, the model in its capacity as ulti­mate standard becomes the source of a new morality.

Thus both unanalyzed responses come to the same general authoritative conclusion by different routes, one by demanding sub­mission to an ontological necessity, the other to a self-imposing ideational entity. Both, moreover, feel in a blind, groping fashion for something to assuage the deep anxiety evoked by civilizational crisis.

This is the second essay in a series of three essays; the first essay may be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1961).

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1 reply to this post
  1. This is obviously an astute articulation of the crisis of our time. I would like to point out, however, that two things are missing; one missing in its causal position, the other missing altogether. It has been my observation, as an intellectual reader of intellectual rhetoric, that much has been written by way of analysis for the sake of diagnosis, but little has been written by way of analysis of prognosis. In other words, what is to be done about these things that have been revealed as crisis?!

    In regards to this wonderful essay, as I said, I would like to first point out the latter, the missing prognosis. But at the same time the former, the out of position cause. Mr. Parry rightly points out two response movements to the civilizational crisis, the reactionary movement and the ideological progressive movement. The former is in its proper position as a response, but the latter is out of place as a response when in fact it is the causal force of the crisis. It is this progressive, aggressive, ideological deconstructionism that has chipped away at tradition as though it was excess marble hiding the inner form of society. Mr. Parry rightly and clearly describes this phenomenon of a movement, but places it as a response to the crisis rather than its cause. Which begs the question, what does Mr. Parry see as the cause?

    If I am seen to be wrong about this then I would like to read about what is the cause, and as previously mentioned, what is the proper reaction or better yet, what might be seen as a viable solution! (I will certainly be seen as being mistaken in my observations because most writers and/or editors are defensive about someone pointing out any deficiencies of their work; of course the reader must be mistaken, else he would be a writer!)

    On the other hand I have learned that these comment boxes are never read by the author, and are ultimately the venue for debate among readers, which, as the writer refuses to participate in the comments, I, as a reader, will refuse to participate in the commentary debate as well. So where does this leave us? An(other) excellent writer who does not propose a prognosis, a reader whose ideas will never be heard by the writer, and a host of readers debating among themselves.

    Such is the state of (online) intellectual rhetoric today.

    Dcn. Peter Trahan

    P.S. I use the term “intellectual” in a way that R.R. Reno uses it in The Loving Intellect, First Things, March 2016; not the way Russel Kirk uses it in Prospects for Conservatives, p3.
    Both are correct and neither would disagree with the other’s use of the term.

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