A Holiday Interlude: On Nostalgia, Nihilism, and Moderation

No time of year brings on pangs of nostalgia like the holidays. Lights, decorations, timeless songs, shared rituals and traditions – they provide a sense of comfort in the coldest, darkest days of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, but they also provide a sense of meaning. For the secular-minded, holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas are occasions for fellowship, but they originated to commemorate events that remind Jews and Christians of who they are. Beyond merely reinforcing the group identity that comes with those particular labels, these times are meaningful because they reenact the past in order to impart meaning to the present, for meaning is not possible without history.

And yet, the meaning we find in the past can be seductive – and dangerous. If the present seems to provide no real meaning, then we start to look for meaning only in the past. If we dream of restoring our ideal version of the past, the present state of the world becomes an enemy, something that has to be destroyed before we can put things back the way they were – the way that we believe they were always supposed to be. Unfortunately, the past, by virtue of not being around anymore, effectively exists only in our imaginations. If we tear apart what we have in the here and now, our imagined past will not return. If we realize that and yet still keep tearing away, then we have succumbed to nihilism.

I see Trump, Brexit, and the general rise of illiberalism in the Western world today as products of a nostalgic trend that threatens to lead us down the path to nihilism. These movements turn their backs on the managerial-liberal politics that has prevailed in the West since the end of the Cold War, but without advocating new institutions or practices. Instead, they want to unravel existing norms and structures in hopes that once they do away with supposed deviations like multiculturalism or free trade, a rebirth of national greatness will ensue. I place no hope in such dreams.

Last week I talked a bit about Eric Voegelin’s philosophy of history, especially the role of what Voegelin called “Gnostic” movements. In Voegelin’s terminology, Gnostics are those who believe that they must destroy Babylon – the present unjust order of things – so that the new Jerusalem – a perfect and godly society – can come into being. In Voegelin’s most famous turn of phrase, the Gnostics believe that they alone can “immanentize the eschaton.” Secularization did not destroy the Gnostic schema of history, but rather appropriated it, incorporating it into teleological political movements like Nazism and Marxism.

There is also a teleological aspect to managerial liberalism, even if it does not valorize heroic struggle like Nazism or Marxism, nor aim at a rebirth of any particular ideal moment in the past. Liberalism’s 18th-century origins placed it in opposition to monarchy, aristocracy, and established religion, the forces that had guided European civilization for more than a millennium. While liberalism might look to the past for lessons on things not to do, it rejects the idea of a past utopia as myth, conceiving of the world it is trying to create as something fundamentally new. Liberalism is novelty opposing nostalgia, Babylon at war with Jerusalem.

A wholehearted embrace of novelty, and especially a devotion to “progress,” is dangerous, as it can lead one to believe that the past is irrelevant and that human will is infallible: whatever we imagine, we can create, and it will all function exactly as we had planned. But nostalgia is an equally dangerous chimera. The warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you think about the past is a product of present action, not a memory in and of itself. It is not the way you felt then, but a feeling that comes through the present act of reminiscing. You can’t get that feeling back, because it only comes from looking backward. Turn away from the present in a failed attempt to recreate the past and you will be left with nothing.

Whether the promised earthly paradise is a new creation or a re-creation, I don’t believe that human agency can create it. In his Confessions, the fifth-century bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo defined the essence of sin as man’s desire to be like God, to live without limitations and make the world in our own image. Achieving this is impossible and yet, as Augustine said, “We can’t not sin” (Non possumus non peccare). Our very nature means that we can never be rid of that desire, and that realization was what led Augustine to Christ. It is not an exclusively Christian problem, though, as Plato wrestled with similar dilemmas centuries earlier: we can perceive higher truths, but we remain perpetually bound by the limits of material existence. This places us in an in-between state that the Greeks called metaxy.

Our place in history is also one of metaxy: our striving is not fruitless, but building the new Jerusalem is beyond our abilities. Like the philosophers, I believe that an ethic of in-betweenness – of moderation – can help make our metaxic state more tolerable. Moderately pursuing a tolerable existence will not sound very exciting to anyone who believes in the necessity of changing the world, as it denies us the exhilaration – and the sense of immanent meaning – that comes from seeing oneself as a protagonist in a heroic struggle of world-historical import. Instead, it requires a belief that meaning is transcendent – that it is somewhere out there, but never fully perceived, never wholly enacted. We may want to see it represented in the here and now, but the best we can do is arrive at some sort of crude approximation. In this manner, philosophy (in all its domains, history and theology among them) is a kind of faith, but its practice ought to inspire humility more than zeal. And my humble vision of a future utopia is merely a world in which we would all have to contend with slightly less zeal.

Happy holidays, everyone.

The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 3: From Britain to Babylon

I’ve had long stays in Spain, Germany, and France, and have an intense scholarly and personal interest in the histories and cultures of all three countries. And yet I would sooner proclaim myself an Anglophile than a “-phile” of any of those other three, even though I’ve spent far less time in the UK. I engage with other countries on a more critical, less emotional level, but I can’t help but feel stirrings of romanticism in England that I don’t feel elsewhere. It is, of course, Shakespeare’s “sceptr’d isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise….” The music of the British Invasion, which I discovered as a teenager, to me is no less evocative than anything by Blake or the Bard. All these things made my first visit to London a kind of pilgrimage. Inspired by the Kinks, that that most quintessentially English of British Invasion bands, I timed my exit from Waterloo Station to cross over the Thames at just the right moment, for as the song promised, “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise.”

My training as a medievalist has led me to appreciate the depth of tradition embodied in the British political system. Western political thought rests on rather irrational assumptions, some of which I explored last week. The Enlightenment judged those assumptions to be bad, and the countries of continental Europe have largely attempted to paper over them since the French Revolution, but in the UK their continued presence has become part of the country’s distinct identity.

The pageantry associated with royalty is liturgical in its origins, a sublime expression of the belief that the State participates in the divine order through sacred ritual, a belief as old as government itself. Although the Christian Church claimed to be the sole universal vehicle for salvation, it never denied the State’s divine mandate, for as Paul said in Romans 13:1, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” The purpose of the State in traditional Christian thought was to safeguard the Church until the end of time, when the relationship between God and man would come to perfection in the new Jerusalem.

Throughout Christian history, though, there have occasionally arisen movements that see the new Jerusalem not as the perfect Church beyond time, but as an actual State to be established on Earth by God’s elect. Austrian political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) grouped such movements together under the label “Gnosticism,” and theorized that such beliefs lay at the origin of all modern political ideologies.

The core belief of Gnosticism, according to Voegelin, is that divine guidance will lead humanity to establish a perfect, godly society in the here and now. Interpreting the Christian apocalypse in political terms, Gnostics viewed the present order of the world as “Babylon,” the immoral city that appears in Revelation 17 and must fall before the new Jerusalem can arrive. In England’s 17th-century civil wars, the Puritans declared it their mission to “dasheth the brats of Babylon against the stones,” after which “the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that is, the Saints of God” would build a new and better world. But first Babylon had to fall, so the “Saints of God” had to bring it down. They attempted to do so in 1649 when Puritan parliamentarians executed King Charles I and set up a republic in his place.

In opposition to the revolutionary millenarianism of the Puritans, Thomas Hobbes penned Leviathan in 1651, ascribing the origin of the State to human initiative and arguing that its purpose was to secure the material prosperity and bodily security of its inhabitants. Hobbes’s State would not promote morality for otherworldly ends, but merely for the purpose of maintaining worldly order; thus Hobbes denied the State its traditional role in the cosmic drama of history. In Voegelin’s analysis, what Hobbes really did with Leviathan was make possible a godless Gnosticism. If the State can be justified in and of itself, without reference to a transcendent order, then the State can say to man, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). The State takes the place of God as the source of morality and meaning, while science (both natural and social) becomes the new revelation.

As an academic in 1930s Vienna, Voegelin was an outspoken critic of both Nazism and communism, which he saw as heirs to the Gnostic tradition: neither could build its new Jerusalem without first toppling the Babylon – the immoral world order – that stood in its way. For the Nazis, this was international Jewry; for the communists, bourgeois capitalism. Voegelin fled Austria in 1938, settling in the United States, where he passed away in 1985. I can’t be sure what he would have made of the collapse of Soviet communism, as I’m hardly an expert on Voegelin, but if I were to try extending his analysis to the present, then the managerial liberalism which prevailed in the West after 1989 would seem a sort of “Gnosticism Lite.” It affirms the eventual perfectibility of humanity, but denies that apocalyptic struggle is necessary to accomplish it. Instead, it can be done gradually by tinkering experts following theoretical “best practices.”

The European Union is without a doubt the most ambitious structure ever erected by managerial liberals. The EU’s commitment to “ever-closer union” rests on a teleology in which free trade between member states and deference to supranational regulatory bodies in Brussels would inevitably “generate a European identity to sit alongside and eventually supplant national identities.” I would argue that “European identity” is nothing new, as such an identity united the continent’s ruling classes during the medieval and early modern periods, but that identity was both explicitly Christian and exclusively aristocratic. From the coronation of Charlemagne until the French Revolution, Europe’s interrelated ruling families enforced a continent-wide social hierarchy that they believed to be part of a divinely-mandated cosmic order. In many ways, the UK is the last outpost of that classical European identity, as I hope to address in the next installment.


The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 2: The Body of Britain

I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land

More than 200 years ago, English poet William Blake extolled his homeland’s ancient connection with Christianity and projected that connection forward into a future in which a new Jerusalem will arise in England. These words from Blake’s preface to his epic poem Milton have since become both anthem and hymn, imbuing English patriotism with a sacrality uncharacteristic of the country’s increasingly secular society.

Jerusalem is a potent and multivalent symbol in the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly when associated with visions of the future. In the Biblical book of Revelation, Jerusalem sits at the end of time as the culmination of the relationship between God and man, where they will dwell together and “reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5). Jerusalem in the original Greek text of Revelation is described as a polis, a political unit, that will endure eternally. The Latin text carries the same connotation: here Jerusalem is a civitas – a “city” in the sense of an incorporated government as opposed to an inhabited place (urbs in Latin), a political abstraction rather than a geographic location.

The language of Revelation describes the perfection of the relationship between God and man not as a home, a family, or a temple, but as a State in which all previous relationships and institutions will dissolve, as they will no longer be needed. When the final book of Christian scripture chooses the vocabulary of politics to describe the ultimate experience of the sacred, it is not hard to make the assumption that there must be something of the sacred in the political. Until William Blake’s own generation, that assumption was indeed nearly universal.

Last week I lightly sketched a few defining features of Britain’s political history, calling attention to the assumptions that underlie the functioning of the UK’s “unwritten constitution.” My interpretation owes a debt to J.G.A. Pocock‘s essay “Burke and the Ancient Constitution,” in which the author – one of the preeminent historians of Anglo-American political thought – notes how the English political vocabulary derives from legal terms relating to property rights, essentially making those rights one of the strands of England’s political DNA.

Like property rights, theology is also part of that genetic material, but is perhaps not as easy for historians to trace. While property rights provided the literal vocabulary for talking about rights in general, theology provided the ontological concepts that underlie Western assumptions about the existence and endurance of the state. Medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz explored English political theology in his 1957 classic The King’s Two Bodies, which functions as a sort of case study testing ideas originally proposed by Carl Schmitt in his seminal 1922 work, Political Theology:

All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts.

Kantorowicz acknowledged his intellectual debt to Schmitt in spite of the circumstances that separated these two eminent German scholars: Schmitt joined the Nazi Party following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933, while Kantorowicz, who was Jewish, fled his homeland in 1938 as Nazi race laws made his life there increasingly difficult. Before being ostracized by his Nazi colleagues, Kantorowicz had been part of conservative intellectual circles that revered the 19th-century German Romantics, supported militant anti-communism, and eventually threw their support behind Hitler. After emigrating to Britain and then to the US, Kantorowicz continued his scholarship in a conservative Prussian mode, skeptical toward secularism, rationalism, and liberal democracy. In the expansive, fascinating, and sometimes frustrating work that is The King’s Two Bodies, he argued that England’s unwritten constitution – and by extension the Anglo-American political tradition – ultimately rests on the dual foundations of Christian theology and traditional kinship structures.

According to Kantorowicz, English political theory assumed (but rarely stated explicitly) that the Crown was a mystical body in which each individual monarch was present in the same way that each individual Christian was present in the Body of Christ. The distinction between the mystical body of the Crown and the physical body of the monarch provided a theoretical basis for opposing royal authority when English jurists translated these otherworldly concepts into the practical language of common-law property rights. The monarch held the Crown in trust, as a guardian would with the estate of an underage orphan in their care. If said guardian used the child’s estate for their own gain, the rest of the family could rightfully remove the child from the guardian’s care. Parliament thus used its position as the kingdom’s preeminent defender of property rights to monitor the monarch’s guardianship of the Crown, reserving the right to remove the Crown from any monarch who treated it in a manner not keeping with tradition.

The King’s Two Bodies inspired me to investigate similar assumptions underlying the political structures of medieval Catalonia for my dissertation. In archives in Barcelona, I found charters that described the Crown of Aragon enduring “for ever and ever,” intentionally echoing the language of Revelation. I suspect that many more parallels can be found in other countries in Western Europe, with each of them staking a claim to the eternal Jerusalem. The UK is unique among these countries in that it has persisted without a written constitution, continuing to accept tradition as the basis of its polity. Thus it is easier to discern there than elsewhere the mystical glamour at the heart of the Western political tradition, for the British have not yet painted over it with the dull beige hues of Enlightenment rationalism.