In the wake of the recent insanities on Capitol Hill, I have taken to re-reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s excellent book, On Looking Into the Abyss, Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. Published in 1994, it is perhaps unlikely that Himmelfarb (who died towards the end of 2019) would have anticipated these events, as unlikely as it would have been for John Stuart Mill to have anticipated the outworking of his thesis, On Liberty, the book which has been a foundational influence on modern liberalism. Mill benefits from a very clear-sighted critique in Chapter IV of Himmelfarb’s book, entitled Liberty: “One Very Simple Principle”? which demonstrates that the kind of naïve reductionism at the heart of On Liberty has not weathered the passage of time very well. Indeed, the clue to the fundamental weakness in Mill’s optimism about liberalism is to be found in another of his essays, Nature, written only a few months before he commenced On Liberty. It would be difficult to find two views of human nature which had less in common, but it was the naïvely optimistic one which prevailed, because it was the view which most suited the mood of a particular faction of Enlightenment thinkers.
In the USA, Himmelfarb was regarded as a conservative, but in the UK seems to have been favoured by those on the Left (Gordon Brown was a bit of a fan). Certainly, her analysis of the history of ideas has relatively few peers, and upon re-reading it, I was struck afresh by how little the current secular discourse demonstrates any kind of awareness of its past. Political polemic, certainly in its modern guise, appears to float, unsupported, in mid-air, and therein lies the danger of any superficial attractions for Christians who wish to be ‘salt and light’ within Western culture.
Himmelfarb demonstrates how swiftly the secular embodiment of political constructs tend to morph. In her chapter From Marx to Hegel, in commenting on the movement from Hegel to Marx (and back again), via the ‘Young Hegelians’, she comments “What is so fascinating about this story is how rapidly this movement of ideas worked itself out…Each deviation inspired a greater deviation, until the entire, beautifully articulated structure of Hegelianism lay in ruins.” (p.58). A few pages later, she follows through this theme, stating that, “… this movement of thought – from Hegelianism to Nietzscheanism, one might say – took place in a single decade and on the part of a very small group of very bright, very bold, very articulate and very young men.” (p.61, my emphasis). This was a world of ideas which kicked off by creating a God of reason rather than revelation (Hegel), then evolved into the idea of the man-god (Feuerbach) and swiftly moved onto the godless man (Stirner). Marx’s deeply unflattering concept of the proletariat flows out of this process.
John Stuart Mill would no doubt be somewhat shocked to see what modern liberalism looks like today. Nietzsche had understood that Mill’s attempt to secularise morality by divorcing it from Christianity was doomed (he called Mill a ‘Flathead’), but at least Mill had some sort of sense of what morality looked like (albeit borrowed from a Christianised memory). In that matter, he was certainly not a relativist, whereas, unless one is evangelically promulgating the very latest version of extremist ideology, any perspective other than relativism is regarded as the unforgivable sin. (As Himmelfarb demonstrates, these kinds of ideology do not exactly excel themselves when it comes to consistency.) And, in its modern guise, secular liberalism has retained within itself one key component of Mill’s liberalism – namely a profound intolerance towards the public articulation or manifestation of Christian belief. Mill graciously ‘allowed’ (within his model of a liberal society) for such outmoded worldviews to persist, but he wanted them to remain firmly within the ghetto – there is, in his treatment of the subject a very stark, almost binary distinction between the public and the private spheres. He really does not like the idea of a morality which is sanctioned by religion, and demonstrates something of an allergy to the concept of respect for orthodox belief (but heterodoxy – that’s quite another matter). The message is clear: in this model of the liberal society, Christian belief is still permitted (by whom?) but it must remain shut-up in its own (preferably sound-proof) box. It must not be permitted to hold equal standing within the free marketplace of ideas, which can therefore proliferate without any kind of balancing emphasis.
That such an approach is actually, fundamentally, illiberal does not require an especially penetrating mind to see – and yet one encounters variants of it everywhere. The BBC maintains a J. S. Mill model by segregating ‘religious’ broadcasting, so that we might all be very clear that this is something other than ‘normal’ life and culture. Conversely, other, questionable ideologies are given almost limitless airtime, and benefit from a kind of institutional presumption in their favour. Our education system teaches Darwinian Evolution as ‘science’ whilst scrupulously avoiding any kind of historical or cultural insight which might hint at its religious underpinnings. If, as a Christian, one seeks to attempt a public comment about culture, any such perspective is now routinely critiqued from a (usually leftwing) political perspective, as if there is no other permissible frame of reference. And well-meaning Christians, attempting to make sense of the profound dysfunctionalities which dominate Western society, find themselves resorting to the kinds of terminology and aphorisms which one would expect from a shop-steward, as if that were the only way to be heard. In fact, it seems evident that this is a sure-fire way to be tuned out – our most banal and ineffectual Archbishops of Canterbury have all, to a man, been cancelled by some influential Marxist Bishops within the Church of England. One ends up with a vacuous political polemic, garnished with sufficient Christianese to disguise the fatal absence of insight, in order to satisfy the market for religious complacency.
I was struck again, forcibly, today by how little truck Jesus Christ would have had with that kind of approach. The morning sermon was from Luke 13:1-5, where a bunch of agitators approach Jesus with a rumour of a Roman injustice perpetrated on innocent Galileans. This reportage is freighted with political overtones: Jesus is, after all, a Galilean, and the outrage on the part of those reporting the event demands a political response. In our present context, that is exactly how some Christians would respond: there’d be a Change.org petition decrying the Roman authorities action. FaceBook groups would proliferate (and they certainly wouldn’t fall foul of the ‘fact-checkers’), Italian exports would be boycotted, Amazon would start selling t-shirts with the slogan ‘Kill all Romans’ (after all, they were Republicans too), Christian activists would publicly protest about ‘Roman Intolerance’, burning the Italian flag, and distancing themselves from all things Roman. Pastors would preach sermons, extolling the beauty of Galilean identity. There would be ‘mostly peaceful’ marches which would result in Roman businesses and homes being torched, and anyone who didn’t publicly identify with all this would be outed as complicit with the Roman violence – and the whole cycle of division and hate would receive a fresh injection of pious impetus. Our choice of language and priorities can so easily make us accomplices to an even worse crime than the one that motivated our initial response.
Jesus has nothing to with any of that. Essentially his answer is far more radical: look at yourself, he says. That’s where change needs to happen first. And that is the basis for repentance.
For further reading:
Gertrude Himmelfarb – On Looking Into the Abyss
Graeme Smith – A Short History of Secularism
Jacques Barzun – Darwin, Marx, Wagner
Francis Schaeffer – Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
John M. Frame – A History of Western Philosophy and Theology
Roger Scruton – Where we are
Douglas Murray – The Madness of Crowds
Anthony Esolen – Out of the Ashes
Jonathan Haidt – The Righteous Mind