Saturday 13 March 2021

II. The Stages of the Nihilist Dialectic

 II. The Stages of the Nihilist Dialectic

The Nihilist mentality, in the unity of its underlying aim, is single; but this mentality manifests itself in phenomena as diverse as the natures of the men who share it. The single Nihilist cause is thus advanced on many fronts simultaneously, and its enemies are confused and deceived by this effective tactic. To the careful observer, however, Nihilist phenomena reduce themselves to three or four principal types, and these few types are, further, related to each other as stages in a process which may be called the Nihilist dialectic. One stage of Nihilism opposes itself to another, not to combat it effectively, but to incorporate its errors into its own program and carry mankind one step further on the road to the Abyss that lies at the end of all Nihilism. The arguments at each stage, to be sure, are often effective in pointing out certain obvious deficiencies of a preceding or succeeding stage; but no criticism is ever radical enough to touch on the common errors all stages share, and the partial truths which are admittedly present in all forms of Nihilism are in the end only tactics to seduce men to the great falsehood that underlies them all.

The stages to be described in the following pages are not to be understood as merely chronological, though in the narrowest sense they are in fact a kind of chronicle of the development of the Nihilist mentality from the time of the failure of the Nihilist experiment of the French Revolution to the rise and fall of the latest and most explicitly Nihilist manifestation of the Revolution, National Socialism. Thus the two decades before and the two after the middle of the 19th century may be seen as the summit of Liberal prestige and influence, and J.S. Mill as the typical Liberal; the age of Realism occupies perhaps the last half of the century and is exemplified on the one hand by socialist thinkers, on the other by the philosophers and popularizers (we should perhaps rather say "exploiters") of science; Vitalism, in the forms of Symbolism, occultism, artistic Expressionism, and various evolutionary and "mystical" philosophies, is the most significant intellectual undercurrent throughout the half century after about 1875; and the Nihilism of Destruction, though its intellectual roots lie deep in the preceding century, brings, to a grand conclusion, in the public order as well as in many private spheres, the whole century and a quarter of Nihilist development with the concentrated era of destruction of 1914-45.

It will be noticed that these periods overlap, for Nihilism matures at a different rate in different peoples and in different individuals; the overlapping in fact is more extreme than our simple scheme can suggest, so much so that representatives of every stage can be found in every period, and all of them exist contemporaneously even today. What is true of historical periods is true also of individuals; there is no such thing as a "pure" Nihilist at any stage, every predominantly Nihilist temperament being a combination of at least two of the stages.

Further, if the age since the French Revolution is the first one in which Nihilism has played the central role, each of its stages has been represented in earlier centuries. Liberalism, for example, is a direct derivative of Renaissance Humanism; Realism was an important aspect of the Protestant Reformation as well as of the French Enlightenment; a kind of Vitalism appeared in Renaissance and Enlightenment occultism and again in Romanticism; and the Nihilism of Destruction, while never so thorough as it has been for the past century, has existed as a temptation for certain extremist thinkers throughout the modern age.

With these reservations, however, our scheme may perhaps be accepted as at least an approximation to what has been an undeniable historical and psychological process. Let us, then, begin our investigation of the stages of this process, the Nihilist dialectic, attempting to judge them by the clear light of the Orthodox Christian Truth which if we are correct--they exist to obscure and deny. In this section we shall attempt no more than to describe these stages, and to point out, by reference to the definition of Nihilism we have adopted, in what respect they may be characterized as Nihilist.


The Liberalism we shall describe in the following pages is not--let us state at the outset--an overt Nihilism; it is rather a passive Nihilism, or, better yet, the neutral breeding-ground of the more advanced stages of Nihilism. Those who have followed our earlier discussion concerning the impossibility of spiritual or intellectual "neutrality" in this world will understand immediately why we have classified as Nihilist a point of view which, while not directly responsible for any striking Nihilist phenomena, has been an indispensable prerequisite for their appearance. The incompetent defence by Liberalism of a heritage in which it has never fully believed, has been one of the most potent causes of oven Nihilism.

The Liberal humanist civilization which, in Western Europe, was the last form of the Old Order that was effectively destroyed in that Great War and the Revolutions of the second decade of this century and which continues to exist--though in an even more attenuated "democratic" form--in the free world today, may be principally characterized by its attitude to truth. This is not an attitude of open hostility nor even of deliberate unconcern, for its sincere apologists undeniably have a genuine regard for what they consider to be truth; rather, it is an attitude in which truth, despite certain appearances, no longer occupied the center of attention. The truth in which it professes to believe (apart of course, from scientific fact) is, for it, no spiritual or intellectual coinof current circulation, but idle and unfruitful capital left over from a previous age. The Liberal still speaks, at least on formal occasions, of "eternal verities," of "faith," of "human dignity," of man's "high calling" or his "unquenchable spirit," even of "Christian civilization"; but it is quite clear that these words no longer mean what they once meant. No Liberal takes them with entire seriousness; they are in fact metaphors, ornaments of language that are meant to evoke an emotional, not an intellectual, response--a response largely conditioned by long usage, with the attendant memory of a time when such words actually had a positive and serious meaning.

No one today who prides himself on his "sophistication"--that is to say, very few in academic institutions, in government, in science, in humanist intellectual circles, no one who wishes or professes to be abreast of the "times"--does or can fully believe in absolute truth, or more particularly in Christian Truth. Yet the name of truth has been retained, as have been the names of those truths men once regarded as absolute, and few in any position of authority or influence would hesitate to use them, even when they are aware that their meanings have changed. Truth, in a word, has been "reinterpreted"; the old forms have been emptied and given a new, quasi-Nihilist content. This may easily be seen by a brief examination of several of the principal areas in which truth has been "reinterpreted."

In the theological order the first truth is, of course, God. Omnipotent and omnipresent Creator of all, revealed to faith and in the experience of the faithful (and not contradicted by the reason of those who do not deny faith), God is the supreme end of all creation and Himself, unlike His creation, finds His end in Himself, everything created stands in relation to and dependence upon Him, Who alone depends upon nothing outside Himself, He has created the world that it might live in enjoyment of Him, and everything in the world is oriented toward this end, which however men may miss by a misuse of their freedom.

The modern mentality cannot tolerate such a God. He is both too intimate--too "personal," even too "human"--and too absolute, too uncompromising in His demands of us; and He makes Himself known only to humble faith--a fact bound to alienate the proud modern intelligence. A "new god" is clearly required by modern man, a god more closely fashioned after the pattern of such central modern concerns as science and business; it has, in fact, been an important intention of modern thought to provide such a god. This intention is clear already in Descartes, it is brought to fruition in the Deism of the Enlightenment, developed to its end in German idealism: the new god is not a Being but an idea, not revealed to faith and humility but constructed by the proud mind that still feels the need for "explanation" when it has lost its desire for salvation. This is the dead god of philosophers who require only a "first cause" to complete their systems, as well as of "positive thinkers" and other religious sophists who invent a god because they "need" him, and then think to "use" him at will. Whether "deist," "idealist," pantheist," or "immanentist," all the modern gods are the same mental construct, fabricated by souls dead from the loss of faith in the true God.

The atheist arguments against such a god are as irrefutable as they are irrelevant; for such a god is, in fact, the same as no god at all. Uninterested in man, powerless to act in the world (except to inspire a worldly "optimism"), he is a god considerably weaker than the men who invented him. On such a foundation, needless to say, nothing secure can be built; and it is with good reason that Liberals, while usually professing belief in this deity, actually build their world-view upon the more obvious, though hardly more stable, foundation of Man. Nihilist atheism is the explicit formulation of what was already, not merely implicit, but actually present in a confused form, in Liberalism.

The ethical implications of belief in such a god are precisely the same as those of atheism; this inner agreement, however, is again disguised outwardly behind a cloud of metaphor. In the Christian order all activity in this life is viewed and judged in the light of the life of the future world, the life beyond death which will have no end. The unbeliever can have no idea of what this life means to the believing Christian; for most people today the future life has, like God, become a mere idea, and it therefore costs as little pain and effort to deny as to affirm it. For the believing Christian, the future life is joy inconceivable, joy surpassing the joy he knows in this life through communion with God in prayer, in the Liturgy, in the Sacrament; because then God will be all in all and there will be no falling away from this joy, which will indeed be infinitely enhanced. The true believer has the consolation of a foretaste of eternal life. The believer in the modern god, having no such foretaste and hence no notion of Christian joy, cannot believe in the future life in the same way; indeed, if he were honest with himself, he would have to admit that he cannot believe in it at all.

There are two primary forms of such disbelief which passes for Liberal belief: the Protestant and the humanist. The Liberal Protestant view of the future life--shared, regrettably, by increasing numbers who profess to be Catholic or even Orthodox--is, like its views on everything else pertaining to the spiritual world, a minimal profession of faith that masks an actual faith in nothing. The future life has become a shadowy underworld in the popular conception of it, a place to take one's "deserved rest" after a life of toil. Nobody has a very clear idea of this realm, for it corresponds to no reality; it is rather an emotional projection, a consolation for those who would rather not face the implications of their actual disbelief

Such a "heaven" is the fruit of a union of Christian terminology with ordinary worldliness, and it is convincing to no one who realizes that compromise in such ultimate matters is impossible; neither the true Orthodox Christian nor the consistent Nihilist is seduced by it. But the compromise of humanism is, if anything, even less convincing. Here there is scarcely even the pretense that the idea corresponds to reality; all becomes metaphor and rhetoric. The humanist no longer speaks of heaven at all, at least not seriously; but he does allow himself to speak of the "eternal," preferably in the form of a resounding figure of speech: "eternal verities," "eternal spirit of men." One may justly question whether the word has any meaning at all in such phrases. In humanist stoicism the "eternal" has been reduced to a content so thin and frail as to be virtually indistinguishable from the materialist and determinist Nihilism that attempts--with some justification, surely, to destroy it.

In either case, in that of the Liberal "Christian" or the even more Liberal humanist, the inability to believe in eternal life is rooted in the same fact: they believe only in this world, they have neither experience nor knowledge of, nor faith in the other world, and most of all, they believe in a "god" who is not powerful enough to raise men from the dead.

Behind their rhetoric, the sophisticated Protestant and the humanist are quite aware that there is no room for Heaven, nor for eternity, in their universe; their thoroughly Liberal sensibility, again, looks not to a transcendent, but to an immanent source for its ethical doctrine, and their agile intelligence is even capable of turning this faute de mieux into a positive apology. It is-in this view-both "realism" and "courage" to live without hope of eternal joy nor fear of eternal pain; to one endowed with the Liberal view of things, it is not necessary to believe in Heaven or Hell to lead a "good life" in this world. Such is the total blindness of the Liberal mentality to the meaning of death.

If there is no immortality, the Liberal believes, one can still lead a civilized life; "if there is no immortality"-is the far profounder logic of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky's novel-"all things are lawful." Humanist stoicism is possible for certain individuals for a certain time: until, that is, the full implications of the denial of immortality strike home. The Liberal lives in a fool's paradise which must collapse before the truth of things. If death is, as the Liberal and Nihilist both believe, the extinction of the individual, then this world and everything in it-love, goodness, sanctity, everything-are as nothing, nothing man may do is of any ultimate consequence and the full horror of life is hidden from man only by the strength of their will to deceive themselves; and "all things are lawful," no otherworldly hope or fear restrains men from monstrous experiments and suicidal dreams. Nietzsche's words are the truth-and prophecy-of the new world that results from this view:

Of all that which was formerly held to be true, not one word is to be credited. Everything which was formerly disdained as unholy, forbidden, contemptible, and fatal--all these flowers now bloom on the most charming paths of truth. [4]

The blindness of the Liberal is a direct antecedent of Nihilist, and more specifically of Bolshevist, morality; for the latter is only a consistent and systematic application of Liberal unbelief It is the supreme irony of the Liberal view that it is precisely when its deepest intent shall have been realized in the world, and all men shall have been "liberated" from the yoke of transcendent standards, when even the pretense of belief in the other world shall have vanished--it is precisely then that life as the Liberal knows or desires it shall have become impossible; for the "new man" that disbelief produces can only see in Liberalism itself the last of the "illusions" which Liberalism wished to dispel.

In the Christian order politics too was founded upon absolute truth. We have already seen, in the preceding chapter, that the principal providential form government took in union with Christian Truth was the Orthodox Christian Empire, wherein sovereignty was vested in a Monarch, and authority proceeded from him downwards through a hierarchical social structure. We shall see in the next chapter, on the other hand, how a politics that rejects Christian Truth must acknowledge "the people" as sovereign and understand authority as proceeding from below upwards, in a formally "egalitarian" society. It is clear that one is the perfect inversion of the other; for they are opposed in their conceptions both of the source and of the end of government. Orthodox Christian Monarchy is government divinely established, and directed, ultimately, to the other world, government with the teaching of Christian Truth and the salvation of souls as its profoundest purpose; Nihilist rule--whose most fitting name, as we shall see, is Anarchy---is government established by men, and directed solely to this world, government which has no higher aim than earthly happiness.

The Liberal view of government, as one might suspect, is an attempt at compromise between these two irreconcilable ideas. In the 19th century this compromise took the form of "constitutional monarchies," an attempt--again--to wed an old form to a new content; today the chief representatives of the Liberal idea are the "republics" and "democracies" of Western Europe and America, most of which preserve a rather precarious balance between the forces of authority and Revolution, while professing to believe in both.

It is of course impossible to believe in both with equal sincerity and fervor, and in fact no one has ever done so. Constitutional monarchs like Louis Philippe thought to do so by professing to rule "by the Grace of God and the will of the people"--a formula whose two terms annul each other, a fact as equally evident to the Anarchist [5] as to the Monarchist.

Now a government is secure insofar as it has God for its foundation and His Will for its guide; but this, surely, is not a description of Liberal government. It is, in the Liberal view, the people who rule, and not God; God Himself is a "constitutional monarch" Whose authority has been totally delegated to the people, and Whose function is entirely ceremonial. The Liberal believes in God with the same rhetorical fervor with which he believes in Heaven. The government erected upon such a faith is very little different, in principle, from a government erected upon total disbelief, and whatever its present residue of stability, it is clearly pointed in the direction of Anarchy.

A government must rule by the Grace of God or by the will of the people, it must believe in authority or in the Revolution; on these issues compromise is possible only in semblance, and only for a time. The Revolution, like the disbelief which has always accompanied it, cannot be stopped halfway; it is a force that, once awakened, will not rest until it ends in a totalitarian Kingdom of this world. The history of the last two centuries has proved nothing if not this. To appease the Revolution and offer it concessions, as Liberals have always done, thereby showing that they have no truth with which to oppose it, is perhaps to postpone, but not to prevent, the attainment of its end. And to oppose the radical Revolution with a Revolution of one's own, whether it be "conservative," " non-violent," or "spiritual," is not merely to reveal ignorance of the full scope and nature of the Revolution of our time, but to concede as well the first principle of that Revolution: that the old truth is no longer true, and a new truth must take its place. Our next chapter will develop this point by defining more closely the goal of the Revolution.

In the Liberal world-view, therefore--in its theology, its ethics, its politics, and in other areas we have not examined as well--truth has been weakened, softened, compromised; in all realms truth that was once absolute has become less certain, if not entirely "relative." Now it is possible-and this in fact amounts to a definition of the Liberal enterprise-to preserve for a time the fruits of a system and a truth of which one is uncertain or skeptical; but one can build nothing positive upon such uncertainty, nor upon the attempt to make it intellectually respectable in the various relativistic doctrines we have already examined. There is and can be no philosophical apology for Liberalism; its apologies, when not simply rhetorical, are emotional and pragmatic. But the most striking fact about the Liberal, to any relatively unbiased observer, is not so much the inadequacy of his doctrine as his own seeming oblivion to this inadequacy.

This fact, which is understandably irritating to well-meaning critics of Liberalism, has only one plausible explanation. The Liberal is undisturbed even by fundamental deficiencies and contradictions in his own philosophy because his primary interest is elsewhere. If he is not concerned to found the political and social order upon Divine Truth, if he is indifferent to the reality of Heaven and Hell, if he conceives of God as a mere idea of a vague impersonal power, it is because he is more immediately interested in worldly ends, and because everything else is vague or abstract to him. The Liberal may be interested in culture, in learning, in business, or merely in comfort; but in every one of his pursuits the dimension of the absolute is simply absent. He is unable, or unwilling, to think in terms of ends, of ultimate things. The thirst for absolute truth has vanished; it has been swallowed up in worldliness.

In the Liberal universe, of course, truth-which is to say, learning,--is quite compatible with worldliness; but there is more to truth than learning. "Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice." [6]  No one has rightly sought the truth who has not encountered at the end of this search-whether to accept or reject Him-our Lord, Jesus Christ, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," Truth that stands against the world and is a reproach to all worldliness. The Liberal, who thinks his universe secure against this Truth, is the "rich man" of the parable, overburdened by his worldly interests and ideas, unwilling to give them up for the humility, poverty, and lowliness that are the marks of the genuine seeker after truth.

Nietzsche has given a second definition of Nihilism, or rather a commentary on the definition "there is no truth"; and that is, "there is no answer to the question: 'why?' " [7]  Nihilism thus means that the ultimate questions have no answers, that is to say, no positive answers; and the Nihilist is he who accepts the implicit "no" the universe supposedly gives as its answer to these questions. But there are two ways of accepting this answer. There is the extreme path wherein it is made explicit and amplified in the programs of Revolution and destruction; this is Nihilism properly so-called, active Nihilism, for--in Nietzsche's words--"Nihilism is ... not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys."  [8] But there is also a "moderate" path, which is that of the passive or implicit Nihilism we have been examining here, the Nihilism of the Liberal, the humanist, the agnostic who, agreeing that "there is no truth," no longer ask the ultimate questions. Active Nihilism presupposes this Nihilism of skepticism and disbelief.

The totalitarian Nihilist regimes of this century have undertaken, as an integral part of their programs, the ruthless "reeducation" of their peoples. Few subjected to this process for any length of time have entirely escaped its influence; in a landscape where A is nightmare, one's sense of reality and truth inevitably suffers. A subtler "re-education," quite humane in its means but nonetheless Nihilist in its consequences, has been practiced for some time in the free world, and nowhere more persistently or effectively than in its intellectual center, the academic world. Here external coercion is replaced by internal persuasion; a deadly skepticism reigns, hidden behind the remains of a "Christian heritage" in which few believe, and even fewer with deep conviction. The profound responsibility the scholar once possessed, the communication of truth, has been reneged; and A the pretended "humility" that seeks to conceal this fact behind sophisticated chatter on "the limits of human knowledge," is but another mask of the Nihilism the Liberal academician shares with the extremists of our day. Youth that--until it is "re-educated" in the academic environment-- still thirsts for truth, is taught instead of truth the "history of ideas," or its interest is diverted into "comparative" studies, and the all-pervading relativism and skepticism inculcated in these studies is sufficient to kill in almost all the natural thirst for truth.

The academic world--and these words are neither lightly nor easily spoken--has become today, in large part, a source of corruption. It is corrupting to hear or read the words of men who do not believe in truth. It is yet more corrupting to receive, in place of truth, more learning and scholarship which, if they are presented as ends in themselves, are no more than parodies of the truth they were meant to serve, no more than a facade behind which there is no substance. It is, tragically, corrupting even to be, exposed to the primary virtue still left to the academic world, the integrity of the best of its representatives--if this integrity serves, not the truth, but skeptical scholarship, and so seduces men all the more effectively to the gospel of subjectivism and unbelief this scholarship conceals. It is corrupting, finally, simply to live and work in an atmosphere totally permeated by a false conception of truth, wherein Christian Truth is seen as irrelevant to the central academic concerns, wherein even those who still believe this Truth can only sporadically make their voices heard above the skepticism promoted by the academic system. The evil, of course, lies primarily in the system itself, which is founded upon untruth, and only incidentally in the many professors whom this system permits and encourages to preach it.

The Liberal, the worldly man, is the man who has lost his faith; and the loss of perfect faith is the beginning of the end of the order erected upon that faith. Those who seek to preserve the prestige of truth without believing in it offer the most potent weapon to all their enemies; a merely metaphorical faith is suicidal. The radical attacks the Liberal doctrine at every point, and the veil of rhetoric is no protection against the strong thrust of his sharp blade. The Liberal, under this persistent attack, gives way on point after point, forced to admit the truth of the charges against him without being able to counter this negative, critical truth with any positive truth of his own; until, after a long and usually gradual transition, of a sudden he awakens to discover that the Old Order, undefended and seemingly indefensible, has been overthrown, and that a new, more "realistic"--and more brutal-truth has taken the field.

Liberalism is the first stage of the Nihilist dialectic, both because its own faith is empty, and because this emptiness calls into being a yet more Nihilist reaction--a reaction that, ironically, proclaims even more loudly than Liberalism its "love of truth," while carrying mankind one step farther on the path of error. This reaction is the second stage of the Nihilist dialectic: Realism.

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