Home >> Volume 1, Issue 01


Paul Cella

It is a particularly distressing feature of our age that even thoughtful men do not perceive the crisis into which they have been thrown. They profess ignorance of its depredations; and they even grow annoyed when pressed with its evidences. Say to them, “It is an extraordinary fact that for some decades now high culture in this country has nurtured an open detestation of the social order which gave it life and resources”; or “It is a marvel that American artists and men of letters concern themselves most passionately with disparagement and falsification of their inherited tradition” — and your tale will return void. Its accuracy will not be overtly denied, but it will be somehow disregarded. Or inquire of such men whether they think it noteworthy that though we are among the richest of all societies, we are very far from being the happiest: the puzzle will induce a blank stare or a blanker shrug. To resist or avoid reflection upon this bespeaks of a psychological numbness of some depth.

It is very easy, I think, to underestimate the strangeness of this state of things, this languor combined with bafflement.  Even its prominent specimens no longer shock. It is certainly arresting to observe a society afflicted by, for instance, increasingly frequent, demonic acts of murder-suicide perpetrated by and against schoolchildren, or by disgruntled ex-employees against their former co-workers. What shall we call those whom it fails to disturb beyond the fleeting moment?

One word for this condition is anomie. A derivative from Greek, it points to a lack of order and may be translated as “lawlessness.” But that is an insufficient synonym. Richard Weaver, a writer who had a touch of the prophet in him, once defined it as the absence or privation of custom and order.[*] A creature characterized by anomie is bereft of a moral ordering principle. Uprooted from that ancient moral tradition, which in its fullness would not merely show how our spate of school-shootings and the like is evidence of calamity, but would tell us why, and even suggest methods of reformation, our people cannot advance past rudimentary shock and horror. They cannot call upon a living tradition for explication and recommendation, because a living tradition of moral thought is not among their readily-available resources. It is has been taken from them.

Americans are forever shocked by the indications of their own degradation. But their anomie precludes progress from this state. After it was revealed that a military-run prison in the American protectorate in Iraq was the setting for systematic sexual humiliation and abuse, the airwaves (where not besotted with mere partisanship) were filled with cries of “this is not America!” But the painful and obvious truth is that it was very much America. Not only has pornography been normalized and industrialized in our country, and the mark of obloquy that once attended it removed; but indeed it is generally thought to be but a trivial and even humorous detail that our own domestic prisons are rife with the same infamy of sexual torment. Abu Ghraib, I am sad to say, was an authentic American import; and those who hate sexual torture abroad ought to be prepared to hate it at home, even when it comes bearing the gift of Profit and wearing the cloak of Consent. Those filled with outrage at the degradation of prisoners in Iraq, might consider stifling the chuckle at the late-night comics joking about the same degradation in American prisons. These things are easily verifiable, and the reflective man can only overlook them according to a privation of custom and moral order — something which in healthier societies it has been the business of education to instill.

What is commonly instilled by American education today is alienation. The educated American emerges from his instruction alienated from his natural environment, which he has been taught to view in a mercenary fashion (environmentalists have sought to resist this, but they are tilting at windmills, for they share and advance the same philosophical materialism that emancipates the mercenary impulse); from his historic culture, of which he has been taught mostly its faults rather than its glories; and from his existing home, which, to the extent it retains some distinctive character, he has come to regard as provincial and embarrassing. So he runs off to the cities. As each of these attitudes, each of these alienations, is at opposition with the natural way of man, is it very likely that many of the specifics of them will be thrown off as our educated American matures; but this liberation or recovery will usually be piecemeal, haltingly achieved, and at any rate philosophically ungrounded or fragmented. He will naturally move back toward sanity, but it is unlikely that he will have a thorough philosophic sense of the distinction between sanity and madness; and as a consequence of this lack of integrative principle, his reactions will be crude and feckless. He will perceive, and perceive rightly, that much of the art and literature of his country is decidedly unpatriotic, and that this is blameworthy; but his reaction to this will not be to stand on real patriotism, an assertion of the goodness of the particular, but to race off in grandiose theory, forgetting the very thing (his home) whose dishonor moved him to action. Even his reaction, in short, will flow from his anomie.

It may be useful to dwell for a moment on this subject of patriotism, for it serves well as a signal of our crisis. Patriotism, in the language of Michael Oakeshott, is an appreciative attitude: it is warm toward enjoyment and cool toward change.[†] Some measure of contemplative leisure is its prerequisite: a man must have the opportunity to discover the texture and character of his home, to sit in silence before it and absorb its complexity and be humbled by it. Moreover, in his capacity as a patriot, a man is decidedly hostile toward what is called “progress.” He loves what is, and wants to keep it and pass it on intact to his children. The preservation of the object of his love cannot be left continually open to the possibility of transformation on some principle of progression. According to John Crowe Ransom, “the concept of Progress is the concept of man’s increasing command, and eventual perfect command, over the forces of nature.”[‡] This is a principle antithetical to patriotism. A patriot has made peace with this natural environment, feels in his bones its unutterable uniqueness and incommensurability; it is not command that he desires but tranquility, appreciation, and preservation. Progress, with its striving for ever-greater mastery, is at war with the patriotic disposition.

A patriot reared in a living tradition, whose spirit is not alienated from the social order that made him, will likely prove an obstinate foe of Progress. He may be open to progress in other fields of human endeavor; but as regards the object of his love, the patria — the sine qua non of which is the land, though it is not limited to that — progress will be viewed with suspicion. He may sneer at it, resist it tenaciously, or merely mock it, but he will decidedly be aroused against it. Under the influence of anomie, however, we see this simple sanity breaking down. Men come to fancy that antithetical principles can be brought into union. The appreciation that is the indelible mark of patriotism is forced to contend with the native discontent of the doctrine of Progress. Home must vie with restlessness, stability with “creative destruction,” quiet with the din of upheaval. Of course there are tensions of this kind in life, standing as impassive facts as it were; but a theory which embraces brute contradiction into its compass is not a good theory. And it is a brute contradiction to posit a patriotism of creative destruction. It is an equally brute contradiction to posit a patriotism of universalism: Universal Man is not a patriot but the very opposite. In fine the patriot is Particular Man. It is a peculiar curse of modern rationalism that we must construct theories of patriotism at all; but if we must do this thing, let us at least avoid the madness of a theory in which a man loves the very home which casts him from it.

Anomic modern man has been driven from his home in more ways than one. He is a spiritual wanderer — and a heavy-laden one. He carries terrible burdens of which he is not even aware; and his soothsayers, having cut themselves off from their moral inheritance, have not the wherewithal to discover them, much less teach him how to lay them aside. The preponderance of these soothsayers, for some time now, be they nominally men of the Right or of the Left, have been animated by a single nostrum, before the bar of which they drag all other ideas for cross-examination. Their nostrum is materialism, the denial or radical denigration of all things not perceptible and quantifiable by the senses. We are familiar enough with the overt materialists whose rebellion is against God: who answer the mysterious creation narratives of the peoples of the world with stale negation narratives. We are less familiar with the more insidious materialism that enters through our economics.

But this economic materialism is as native to the modern project in politics, to political modernity, as the rebellion against God. In a sense they are one. The liberation of the acquisitive impulse, as the very ground of human political life, is a common thread that binds theorists as different as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though the former is hailed as expositor of classical liberalism and the former condemned as proto-totalitarian. Locke gave us Capitalism and Rousseau Socialism; but the Englishman no less than the Swiss gave us something more: the emancipation of the libido dominandi, the passion to possess, to dominate, to conquer, to command. Rousseau, it is true, was much more radical: he said the first owner was a thief or robber, where Locke said rather that the first owner was the first free man. But they share the view that man is a creature of things alone. This is their truest legacy: they unleashed the very thing which the Classical mind and the Christian mind both (and the great synthesis which made them one mind) had sought to fetter. Let man be an animal, they said; let us posit him made real by his desires, his passions, his instincts, his ambition. The engine of Progress was the overthrow of the older discipline and the emancipation of the baser side of man. It was the revolution of the great Liberals.

Here was the decisive political blow at that “custom and order” which made the West what it was. It makes little difference whether we pursue the materialism toward the basically sane order of Capitalism, or toward the essentially mad order of Socialism: we still have begun down a dark new path, away from our home. For custom and order, a living tradition, a democracy of the dead, however natural to man, must be an unreal thing to the philosopher who has posited materialism; and his posited man in the end will be bereft of it, and perish.

Well many a modern man has perished at the hands of dead-end doctrines derived from modern political philosophy. Many an evil war has been fought. The modern philosophy has succeeded to some degree in its promised liberation of enterprise, and where virtue has reigned in discipline, human enterprise has indeed shown its power and greatness. But has this philosophy, for example, discharged the purposes set out in the Preamble to the Constitution? Has it yielded “a more perfect Union”? Perhaps — but at a cost measured in the blood of a terrible civil war. Has it “establish[ed] Justice”? This may be a question beyond our capacity to judge, but there is some pregnant irony in the fact that Justice is one of those very things, being unreal in the materialist cosmos, that modern doctrine has abjured even considering. Has it “insure[d] domestic Tranquility”? Hardly. The more modern and mercenary we have become, the more our country, for good or ill, has been thrown into fitful action and tumult. Has it provided “Defence”? A mixed record: from internal subversion the record is good; from foreign depredation good, though this is failing with an appalling rapidly, particularly in the Southwest; but from its own encroachment, the record is very bad, with intervention from the State into private life on a rather steady trend upward from the very beginning. Has it “promoted the general Welfare”? Materially it has, quite magnificently; and of course it is the conceit of modern doctrine that there is no more to life than that, but this is a transparent conceit. Has it “secure[d] the Blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our posterity”? A category like “our posterity” can hardly exist for the materialist, and so an actual obligation to them can have little meaning.

So here in America, the modern doctrine has done passably well on its own terms, but the inadequacies of its form have encumbered it; and most of the real achievements of our people have come in defiance of it, or at least independent of it. It was not the libido dominandi that sought to extirpate the institution of Atlantic slavery; that great emancipation was grounded in the spirit of the Living God. It was not a pursuit of mere interest that inspired our soldiers on the Normandy beach, or steeled us against the fashionable madness of Communism. In the Dedication of his A History of the American People, the English historian Paul Johnson generously says of Americans that we possess “a passion for justice no nation has ever matched.” Now I do not know what American can fail to be moved by such praise, but I do know that modern doctrine (that is, Liberalism) has no place for such passions, or such praises. To Liberalism it is nonsense to talk of a “passion” for the transcendent order of justice; what passions man has are exclusively of the world, and cannot transcend it.

What we have called “custom and order” does — that is, what it is purposed toward doing — is provide an approach to this transcendent order. It integrates what we have learned by reflection and revelation into what we know by instinct; it gives force to understanding and wisdom. It sets the animal nature of man, his libido, in subjection to his spiritual nature, but it does this without emasculating his enterprise by the total renunciation of the material, as in some heresies of old. It respects that man is a dualistic creature, in the world but not of it, passionate but capable of reflection and choice, encumbered by sin but gifted with the possibility of redemption. Custom and order do not, as Liberalism does, begin with the amputation of one of these aspects. A living tradition is innocent of such violence. It does what Liberalism cannot: it takes man as he is, and does not posit him as something less.

This is why I say that Liberalism must be assigned a very considerable share of the blame for the crisis of anomie in which we find ourselves. We are a great and wealthy nation full of unhappy people, or at any rate one full of people bewildered by the failure of materialism to bring happiness. Our crisis is in many ways the crisis of Liberalism. But here we can find solace in the fact that some of the purposes of the Preamble have gone unfulfilled and others only very meagerly fulfilled: For this suggests to us that our political tradition is broader and deeper than the narrow vision of Liberalism. Let Liberalism never emerge from this crisis, let it fail in the face of this challenge; let it be ruined and wrecked and defeated by the storm it dared to embrace; let all its bewildered apostles wail in despair, and still our American political science will yet remain. Liberalism does not exhaust our options, because our tradition was not the product of an exhausted Liberalism. In short, the American political tradition is wide enough to free us from it. Though at times it seems that a dark catastrophe looms before us, man is larger than any ideology of the moment. We can yet repudiate it and set it aside. This crisis of anomie, this fatal privation of custom and order, may yet prove the crack of doom for Liberalism.

[*] Weaver, In Defense of Tradition.

[†] Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics.

[‡] Twelve Southerners, I’ll Take My Stand.