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As if to create the cruelest irony possible, as the terrorist ideologies arose, Americans surrendered their own republican inheritance, their own Augustinian and Puritan caution, and their traditionally humane morality to the new god: “Progress.” It was nothing less than a new faith…

When did it all go wrong? As Christopher Dawson used to note in some bewilderment, the nineteenth century was the shortest of all centuries. At its beginning, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the humanity and dignity of all in his first inaugural. By the end of the 1890s, V.I. Lenin has already planned the Russian Revolution. Quite a jump. With the exception of the American Civil War, the Crimean War, and the border wars between France and Prussia, and Germany and Denmark, the Western world was at relative (note, please—ONLY relative) peace. Certainly, between 1815 and 1914, there were no world wars. Despite a vast expansion of European empires at the end of the nineteenth century (and before), the Western world of the 1880s and 1890s was one of the freest periods in Western history. Humans as well as goods moved back and forth across the Atlantic rather freely (again, in a relative sense). For anyone who believed in republican ideals and free markets, this was one of the few golden ages in all of history. Technological developments seemed unstoppable as its fundamental basis moved from empirical observation (e.g. how on God’s green earth did that boiler blow up—fit the pieces back together and find where the weak point was) to one of accurate and standardized measurements. In the United States, especially, the economy boomed. Even the depression of 1893-1897 only slowed down the exponential growth of the country. In 1870, the United States had become the wealthiest nation in the world. By 1900, the U.S. seemed unstoppable, producing as much as the other major industrial powers combined.

And yet…. As David Means wrote so poignantly in an August 1900 issue of The Nation, everyone seemed to have forgotten what made the wealth possible. They were so focused on the wealth produced—titillated by their toys—that they neglected to remember the source of their wealth.

The end of the nineteenth century also saw the birth and flourishing of ideas counter to the Socratic—Ciceronian-Augustinian humane project of the West. In much of the Western world, faith declined among Christians, with fundamentalists (Catholic and Protestant) arising in reaction.

Terrorist movements—especially in Eastern Europe and Russia—arose like weeds. Whittaker Chambers might have understood the advent of modernity best in his essay on Tzar Alexander II in his penetrating Cold Friday. The first bomb wounded several Cossacks of the Imperial Guard. Tsar Alexander II got out of his carriage to see in person to the care of the wounded men,” as Chambers described the seminal moment. The Tzar “even spoke, ‘not urgently’ we are told, to the terrorist who had thrown the bomb, and thanked God that the damage was no greater. ‘It is too early to thank God yet,’ said the terrorist Grinevitsky, who tossed a second bomb between the Tsar’s feet. The explosion tore him apart, and killed Grinevistky. ‘Home to the Palace, to die there,’ muttered the dying Tsar. [Chambers, Cold Friday, 147]. Not surprisingly, some of the first spy and science-fiction novels—such as those by Joseph Conrad and G.K. Chesterton—dealt with these new and inhumane abominations.

Overturning, yet again, the Western humane project, nation-states emerged and hungrily eyed the territory and resources of others, portraying the world as an “us-and-them” situation. In that scenario, men were judged by their productivity and skin color, not by their character or morality. In his own profound 1860’s essay on the growth of nationalism, Lord Acton wrote that this was nothing less than an undoing of Christianity. “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races,” he claimed, drawing upon everyone from Augustine of Hippo to Augustine of Canterbury to Cardinal John Henry Newman—while the pagan “identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular.”

As if coming into existence simply to bolster the nationalism—benign and malignant—of the last part of the nineteenth century, the number and intensity of ideologies exploded as well. Drawing upon the Darwinianism of the middle of the century, these re-emergent ideologies claimed to stand on a scientific basis. As Mark Kalthoff and others have successfully argued, they co-opted science as nothing more than “scientism” and not legitimate in the least. By speaking, however, of having a sociological and scientific basis, they gave the various ideologies more credibility than they otherwise would have had. Poet and historian Robert Conquest has referred to these new ideologies—warmed over and made more concrete after the defeat of the French Revolutionaries, a century earlier—as a form of “mindslaughter.” Another great scholar of ideologies, Harvard’s Richard Pipes, has noted that no matter how couched in scientific language, modern ideologies are simply a false religion: “The emotional appeal of this belief is not much different from the religious faith in the will of God, inspiring those who hold it with an unshakable conviction that no matter how many setbacks their cause may suffer, ultimate victory is assured.” [Richard Pipes, Communism, 10]

As it happened, all ideologies arose around some form of socialism: Marxian socialism; national socialism; democratic socialism; and Christian socialism. After all, all ideologies begin—at some level—with the General Will of Rousseau, the dialectic progressive history of Hegel, and modification by a Marx, Lenin, or Mussolini.

As if to create the cruelest irony possible, as the terrorist ideologies arose, Americans surrendered their own republican inheritance, their own Augustinian and Puritan caution, and their traditionally humane morality to the new god, “Progress.” It was nothing less than a new faith. In America, which received its progressivism mostly through German academics and students who studied in Germany and the Germanic states—through places such as the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins—progressivism came later than it did to most of Western civilization, but it came, nonetheless. Progressives, of many different varieties, could be found in business, politics, economics, theology, etc. Overall, the progressives believed that history had stages—forces and purposes of its own—taking these beliefs mostly from the Prussian philosopher G.F. Hegel and his followers, as diverse as Karl Marx and Frederick Jackson Turner. Progressives, at home and abroad, viewed the political state as of divine origin and manifestation, a sanctified force moving a reluctant populace into the future. Bureaucracy and progressive education served as faithful allies in this. In academics, the great new science of sociology seemed to be the end-all, be-all. The fascination with natural rights and natural law waned as superstitions of the past, while the new science of race reared its hideous head upon the world.

So, where did it all go wrong? Well, it’s never been exactly “right,” at least not since Eve succumbed to temptation, but the West has possessed times of deep learning, contemplation, and humanity. Sadly, these times are merely lulls in the storm, itself sweeping not just America, but the entire world toward the abyss, the devil’s paradise.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I’ve recently reread C.S. Lewis’ ‘De Descriptione Temporum’ which contains the wonderful (?) lines:

    “Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature.”

    and,

    “How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.”

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