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Suicide of the West, by Jonah Goldberg (464 pages, Crown Forum, 2018)

Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is truly Socratic, in the original sense of thinking through a fundamental problem and working arduously to a new understanding. It is a journey of mysterious discovery that any reader should find exhilarating.

This wonderful book is full of timely swerves, critical qualifications, and judicial backing-offs that make it an invaluable tool to ponder both the West’s suicide and to avoid its culmination.

The first curiosity is the title, which should be “Romantic Suicide,” the actual one apparently forced by the publisher. Well, maybe this label is not very stirring, but it is more accurate.

Like most of this intriguing read, the author buries the lede, indeed until Chapter Eleven where he confides that his editor and friends warned him not to confront such an attractive paragon as romanticism, which target had the additional disadvantage of being ambiguous. Mr. Goldberg fearlessly identifies romanticism historically as the “human soul’s great counteroffensive against the Enlightenment,” the British one not the better-known French one, which resulted in “the sense of alienation” modern individuals feel in confronting “liberal democratic capitalism.”

 “For 10,000 years, the mass of humanity languished in poverty” with authority stifling innovation, and suddenly something “miraculous” happened that changed everything. This enlightenment Miracle, as he calls it, arose spontaneously in the 1700s with the emergence of a middle-class ideology of “merit, industriousness, innovation, contracts and rights” that produced “the most cooperative system ever created for the peaceful improvement of peoples’ lives.” It was not planned. Europe, primarily England, “stumbled into it.” This idea of innate individual dignity did not exist beforehand, but when this understanding became common, it led to natural rights for the individual; government limited to respecting those rights; the invention of money; capitalist innovation and prosperity; cooperative trade; and even, eventually, the end of slavery. In sum, “all human progress has taken place in the last 300 years.”

The Miracle had “only a single fatal flaw: It doesn’t feel like” a miracle. Freedom, capitalism, and prosperity do not “give meaning from above” as did all ancient regimes and modern secular ideologies. This lack of legitimacy and a deep need to recover tribal communal meaning generates modern alienation—with romanticism as the promised remedy. While delaying his direct attack on romanticism, the author targets it namelessly from the beginning in the person of its creator, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, gradually introducing the rest of the alienated romantic cast with Byron, Coleridge, Blake, John Lennon, Nietzsche, Mary Shelley, American Beauty, Flight Club, Pulp Fiction, NYPD Blue, and even Wordsworth and Steinbeck.

In short, romanticism is the modern fixation on “the primacy of feelings” as opposed to an objective rational order, specifically the feeling that “the world we live in is not right.” “Someone must be responsible” for this, so we find scapegoat: capitalists, Jews, foreigners, globalists, whomever. It is Me against the cruel forces of the world. Rousseau set the course: “The Enlightenment had dethroned God and made man the measure of man,” leaving the conscience as the only remaining “inner lantern” to truth. Man was born a free noble savage still active within us, rejecting civilization and all its “artificial concerns.” This alienation can only be overcome with a new society “to fill the holes in our souls” with a new general will updating the tribal community instinct with a nationalist civil religion all must follow, specifically contrasting his communal solution to Christian Europe sundering individual souls between church and state.

While delaying naming romanticism as the culprit, Mr. Goldberg attacks its fundamental flaw right from Chapter One—its rejection of human nature. Based on empirical research, the author finds both an inherent human moral sense from the earliest months of birth but also an innate distrust of outsiders, a moral sense oriented to those close, and fear and distrust of others, what he calls “our inner tribesman,” born both to love and to hate. Warfare is normal for primitive man, with per capita deaths higher than even those of twentieth-century wars. Captives were normally killed. To keep peace even within the tribe, moral taboos backed by fearful spirits needed to be adopted and enforced to provide order, common meaning, and legitimacy. With the coming of agriculture the dynamics changed but not the cosmological essence.

Agriculture brings the state. Mr. Goldberg uses Mancur Olson’s analogy of roving and stationary bandit regimes to explain the transition. Tribal hunter-gatherers rove. Once agriculture allows a stationary population and its material advances, it also makes the population an easier target tied to its immovable crops. Roving bandits had no incentive other than take or destroy, so it was not until raiders settled down that they had an interest in future crops, what Olson called the original invisible hand that created the state. The stationary bandit needed to support his allies and their property to provide maximum wealth for him. This likewise lead to the need to keep track of his holdings managed by his extended martial aristocracy, producing a clerisy class to record them as well as invoking the earlier tribal spirit-stories to provide moral legitimacy.

This efficient system of control-dominated human existence well into European Medievalism and even into the Reformation, which brought “new life” to individualism but in practice was “equally capable” of crushing deviations. The escape from “our inner tribesman” was the 1700s Miracle and its bountiful economic and political consequences. Mr. Goldberg’s “own explanation” for this sudden flowering of Western civilization follows Deirdre McClosky’s—that it was a revolution in “attitude” resulting from “changing forms of speech about markets and enterprise and innovation,” especially positive words and stories “recognizing innovation as a new thing.”

The Miracle’s great innovative success was America, achieved by putting these ideals into writing and thereby universalizing them to “all men” created equal, all endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. While their ideals of creator and its self-evidence were debatable, they were considered so and that was sufficient. With its English colonial experience and roots in the Glorious Revolution, it adopted a late 1700s Declaration of Independence as “echoes of” the great English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, while its Constitution “advanced the wheel of history as none had before.” The following history indeed “was more Locke than anything Locke imagined” with its division of powers to restrain popular as well as elite abuses. What emerged was not a state in the normal sense of an “all-inclusive institution” whose prerogatives come first before all else. America actually developed “a government but not a state.” With power divided between states and the national government and further divided within the latter in a great pluralism, the otherwise Iron Law of Oligarchy was overcome, and freedom and innovation were unleashed.

Locke’s story “created the Miracle”—or at least the glorious story we tell about him and his revolution. The result for the next century and a half was “the greatest run-up in material prosperity of any nation in human history,” wealth one-and-a half-that of Britain and more broadly spread. But if the Miracle could come based on words, it could be reversed by them. And Mr. Goldberg’s great theorist opposing Locke in modern times was also to have his day.

Rousseau had promoted a new kind of secular priesthood schooled in romantic reason rather than revelation, a new class to rule by stories and intellect rather than direct force or tribal myth. By the late nineteenth century, Bismarck’s centralized, expert-run, progressive Prussian state became the modeled ideal for American intellectuals, headed by scholar and future president Woodrow Wilson, who in a very influential scholarly article asked to “free us from the idea that checks and balances” are the essence of public administration and to rely upon scientific expertise instead. Philosopher John Dewey completed Rousseau’s intellectual revolution by relegating natural rights and principles to mythology and their evolving humane definitions to state experts.

The result even by the 1960s was what James Burnham labeled a managerial state run by governmental and social technocrats able to define results in their own words, becoming “a class, an aristocracy, a virtual tribe that protects its parasitic interests.” By the 21st Century, the language of government and politics became so intellectualized and complicated that confused elected officials were forced to rely upon bureaucratic technical terminology, rendering government “independent of political control,” while ordinary citizens were left to rely upon lawyers’ expertise to interpret virtually every important social interaction.

All civilizations “rot” when they lose the virtue that created them, and, frustrated by the loss of popular control, Americans retreated to their inner-tribesman. At bottom there was ingratitude for “the Miracle and the institutions and customs” like “family, friends, faith, community, work” that produced its pluralist economic and social prosperity. In its place, feelings focused on self and tribe and an “obsession with race, gender and ethnic essentialness,” overturning “merit and color-blindness as ideals.” While this identity politics rose on the left, it was adopted by Donald Trump who was “a reversion to a natural type of leader who speaks and thinks in tribal terms.” With politics extended to two national tribes engaging in a war of us against them, the Miracle expired with the only way back to recover gratitude for what it had produced.

That is Mr. Goldberg’s secular classical-liberal case, and this reviewer could not wait to eviscerate its major thesis that a miracle took place by accident merely 300 years ago pretty much from nothing. The Glorious Revolution began it all? One of its first acts was to repeal the Maryland Toleration Act. How about Magna Carta 500 years earlier, still inspiring Lord Baltimore, Roger Williams, and William Penn? What about the Miracle ending slavery? Tocqueville noted it was ended in Europe 1,000 years before until the era of discovery revived it. Schumpeter in fact did not say the decline of capitalism was “inevitable,” only likely. Locke did not elevate “reason above revelation” saying even in the Essay that an evident revelation ought to override reason.

Then one recalls that Mr. Goldberg minimized and qualified many of these matters.

Take John Locke, whom he correctly pitted against Rousseau as the two great thinkers still dominating current discussion, with Locke providing the “intellectual groundwork” for the Miracle. Yet, because Mr. Goldberg’s very first sentence promised that “There is no God in this book,” to keep it secular, he cannot treat Locke comprehensively, ignoring his Reasonableness of Christianity and his essays on St. Paul, for example. Mr. Goldberg did mention Locke as saying rights are from God not government but left it at that. Or his offhand concession that the Miracle “may never have happened without Christianity,” undermining his whole 300-years thesis.

But then after 330 pages there is this: “I have tried to keep God out of this book but as a sociological entity God cannot be removed from it.” He then concedes the 1700s were not the start but “the climax of a very long story”! And the story is not simply about gods but “God as a single omniscient being looking at us in all of our private moments,” a “God as defined by Christianity and informed by Judaism,” which indeed were the “primary source” of the morals underlying the Miracle.

“The Hebrew God recognized the moral sanctity of the individual Jew—both male and female. The Christian God universalized that moral sanctity.” Before the Jews, people picked gods to help them; afterwards they were told we are to serve God instead. Additionally, Christianity “created the secular” in rendering to both Caesar and God, and Augustine separating cities of God and man, leaving who is with God “up to God, not man.” After earlier arguing that “we have rights because some believe they are in fact God-given but far more people believe we should act as if they are God-given or in some other way ‘real.’” Now he argues the West can keep these foundational beliefs only as long as a “sufficient number” keep holding them.

How does one explain this radical alteration in thesis? From a footnote, the author’s transformation appears to have arisen by reading Larry Siedentop’s masterful Inventing the Individual. A bit of Eric Voegelin or Frank Meyer might have resulted in an even earlier epiphany. Indeed, one cannot understand this book without stressing the author’s explanation about “the intellectual and historical surprises along the way that changed my thinking.”

The great page 331 bootleg-sweep-reverse lasts merely ten pages before the author ends focused back again upon human nature and romanticism; only now he is the romantic. Unfortunately, this is what reviewers seeking political relevance have focused upon. It “breaks my heart,” he tells us, that even conservatism “was far more susceptible to the corrupting tug of human nature than I had ever imagined” by forsaking both its ideals and its emphasis on character in supporting Donald Trump who lacked both. To return to the ideals of the Declaration—which he supports “with all my heart”—“More than faith and belief, more than reason and data, the indispensable ingredient” is “gratitude.” For, minus the dozen pages, Mr. Goldberg’s solution is an example of the very romanticism he criticizes. As he says, we are indeed becoming what we worship, ourselves, but his gratitude will not do it without something much more profound generating it.

This reviewer would be derelict not to conclude that he just loved this mind-expanding book’s twists and surprises—its depth—and recommends a like joy of discovery to anyone looking beyond mere romantic suicide.

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2 replies to this post
  1. For a civilization submerged in advertising and its hyperbole, the “human soul’s great counteroffensive against the Enilghtenment” is just another day at the office.

  2. “all human progress has taken place in the last 300 years”

    Does anyone else find this statement laughably absurd? I for one consider it a live question whether modernity is superior to previous ages, taken as a whole. To be sure, it is materially more prosperous, and I am indeed grateful for modern medicine, air conditioning, and the like, but all the many ills the West is presently awash in seem in some way traceable to “the Miracle.” Mr. Goldberg has penned an apologia for classical liberalism, but its very nature defies conservation.

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