Upon returning to England 1974, after having served as a missionary to India for four decades, Lesslie Newbigin wrestled with the question of how to bring the West into a missionary encounter with the gospel. His contention was that the Western church in general, and the English church in specific, has unconsciously been captivated by secular ideology. Rather than viewing the Bible’s narrative as the true story of the whole world, the church has slowly but surely bought into various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives of the world. The church, Newbigin argued, must once again “soak” itself in Scripture such that it could challenge the axioms of modernity with the axioms of Scripture.
The task of bringing the West into a missionary encounter with Scripture remains today. We must analyze and evaluate Western culture, gaining a clear understanding of what is happening and why. As we do so, we must attempt to discern the reigning idols of our day and how they twist and misdirect the affections and thoughts of society, and how they warp and corrupt our cultural institutions. In so doing, we are better able to bring the gospel into an effective interface with Western society and culture.
Toward that end, I offer this list of 11 of the most perceptive cultural critics of the last two centuries. The list includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, poets, and literary critics. Some of them are well-known while others are quite obscure. Some are Christians while others are not. Each of them was born before 1950 and each of them offers an especially salient analysis and/or evaluation of Western society and culture that maintains a lasting relevance for our task today. The list is ordered chronologically.
1. Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (1801-1876)
My first exemplar is an obscure nineteenth century Dutch historian: Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer (hereafter, “Groen”). Groen served as cabinet secretary for King William I in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands before proceeding to a career as an archivist, historian, political commentator, and newspaper owner and editor. However, he is best known for his forgotten classic, Unbelief and Revolution, in which he argues that the French Revolution shouldn’t be dismissed as a failed political project of a previous era. Instead, the Revolution lives on through its dangerous ideas that would continue to subject the West to social, cultural, and political convulsions and recurrent revolutions. The Revolutionary spirit replaces God with man, divine revelation with autonomous human reason, and a transcendent morality with immanent, self-authorized morality. In response, Groen calls for a retrieval: European societies should return to the understanding that moral order is framed in relation to creation order, that political authority is ordained by God, that law and justice are rooted in an objective moral order funded by God, and that truth is objective and rooted in God’s revelation of himself. (For my brief summary of Groen’s lectures, click here.)
2. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
My second exemplar was an American-turned-British poet, essayist, playwright, public intellectual, and Nobel Laureate. “We yield to the permanent things, the norms of our being,” Eliot writes, “because all other grounds are quicksand.” The permanent things for which he stood stemmed from his immersion in the biblical and classical traditions. He understood human depravity and thus was deeply and finally skeptical toward secular progressives who severed social order from religious heritage and offered social revolutions as the solution for society’s evils. In The Idea of a Christian Society, he argued that a return to Christianity is the only hope Europe had for organizing society in a way that would not lead to its ultimate destruction. Elsewhere, he warned against utopian revolutionaries who are ever “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need be good.” Thus, Eliot was a man under Authority, a man captivated by permanent things.
3. Aurel Kolnai (1900-1973)
In 1944, the Hungarian political philosopher Auriel Kolnai leveraged an incisive critique of Western progressivism as a movement that draws upon certain teachings but ultimately wishes to overthrow Christianity. He noted that many Western progressives thought Christian virtues such as charity could be stripped of their Christianity, shorn of any transcendental reference points, and put to work to rid the world of evil. Like their forebear Auguste Comte, whose atheistic “religion of humanity” would work to weaken strong forms of religion and strong forms of the nation-state (because he believed that evil was primarily systemic and caused by religious belief and patriotism), Western progressives have great difficulty acknowledging the fact of evil and the transcendent and absolute nature of morality. This is why, Kolnai argues, they blame criminal behavior entirely on social origins and systemically corrupted institutions, and thus engage in revolutionary politics which seek to overthrow the social and political order. Kolnai’s signal essay, “The Humanitarian versus the Religious Attitude,” is included as an appendix in the back of this fine book by Daniel Mahoney.
4. Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
My fourth exemplary conservative is a Jewish German-American philosopher and social critic: Hannah Arendt. Although she doesn’t fit neatly as a conservative, she was, in Irving Louis Horowitz’s phrase, a “radical conservative.” One of the most compelling, controversial, and iconographic public intellectuals writing in the wake of Nazism and the emergence of Communism, Arendt was a fiercely articulate opponent of authoritarian and totalitarian movements. The special evil of totalitarian ideologies, she argued, is not merely that they foist revolutionary change on societies, but that they seek to transform human nature itself. For this reason, “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” In opposition to the totalitarian suppression of the person, Arendt offered a vision in which genuine politics is fostered by the existence of public spaces where people can speak freely and show who they really are. Opinions, she argued, are only formed in genuine encounters with other people, and authentic politics only exist when genuine encounters and opinions are involved. (Here are some brief excerpts of Arendt on how to resist authoritarian and totalitarian leaders and movements.)
5. Augusto del Noce (1910-1989)
In The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization, English-language readers can access Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s incisive critique of post-war twentieth century Western culture. He makes the case that the modern West has become an “opulent society” and has displaced Christianity from the default position in favor of the twin ideologies of scientism and eroticism. Scientism, the view that empirical science is the only rational path to achieving objective knowledge, enables Western elites to throw off the irritating yoke of religion and it is especially dangerous because it is a metaphysic that hides the fact that it is metaphysical. It feigns neutrality and displaces Christianity from the public square, all the while sneaking its own metaphysics in through the back door. Scientism persecutes religion indirectly, but effectively, by privatizing it. Eroticism, the view that sex is primary to a human being’s identity and happiness, became the real engine for emancipatory (progressive) politics. The Sexual Revolution is utterly incompatible with the preservation of cultural heritage. Inherent to it is a drive to radically revise, and ultimately render impotent, the very institutions—church and family especially—that could protect the individual from the encroachments of the state.
6. Philip Rieff (1922-2006)
My sixth exemplar, Philip Rieff, was a Jewish sociologist whose writings I discovered shortly after having returned from living in Russia in 2000. In the 1970s, Rieff was a rock star public intellectual and a darling of the political Left. During the 1980s and 90s, however, Rieff underwent a period of reevaluation after which he emerged as an essentially conservative mind. In the Sacred Order / Social Order trilogy, published around the time of his death in 2007, Rieff argued that the West is in the midst of a historically unprecedented attempt to sever social order from sacred order. All civilizations everywhere, Rieff averred, have recognized that sacred order shapes cultural institutions and cultural products, and that those cultural phenomena in turn shape society. But in the mid-twentieth century, many Western cultural elites (whom he called “the officer class”) set forth to sever our society and its cultural institutions from their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The result of this exercise, Rieff concludes, has been social turmoil and cultural rot. The very cultural institutions and products that should bring life and vitality to society are now bringing death and decay. Yet, Rieff was optimistic, arguing that the West awaits “a people” who will recover the frightening beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” Indeed. (I have written a brief article and a longer essay about Rieff.)
7. George Steiner (1929-)
Literary critic George Steiner is one of the most fascinating and perceptive intellectuals of the past century. Having escaped the Holocaust with his German Jewish parents, Steiner moved to the United States but taught simultaneously at Harvard, Cambridge, and Geneva. His work centers on the question of how the civilized West could give rise to such barbaric evil as was manifested in the Holocaust. Furthermore, in books such as Real Presences and Grammars of Creation, he criticizes Western intellectuals for severing the connection between social order and sacred order. In Real Presences, he argues that Western dismissals of God’s presence destroy the possibility of meaning; without God the Author, neither texts nor human lives have meaning. In Grammars of Creation, Steiner turns his attention to God as the Author of creation, arguing that we must reject the late modern rejection of God’s creative word. Without God’s creative word, there is nothing to fund and shape human creativity. Thus we must reject the attempt at desacralization that undermines the most basic human enterprises, such as communication and creativity. Instead, we must re-envision the world, wagering on transcendence and living as if God exists.
8. John Carroll (1944-):
Having studied Philip Rieff’s work under the tutelage of George Steiner, Australian sociologist John Carroll followed in the steps of Rieff and Steiner by devoting his career to cultural criticism. His most important book is The Wreck of Western Culture, in which he argues that secular humanism has made our culture into a “colossal wreck,” divesting life and death of their divine meaning, thereby undercutting the moral order and ruining our social fabric.
9. Charles Taylor (1948-):
Charles Taylor is a Canadian philosopher whose writings, such as Malaise of Modernity and A Secular Age, explore the existential “feel” of living in the type of world that Rieff, Steiner, and Del Noce have described. In the late modern West, Taylor argues, people imagine life and manage life from within the “immanent frame,” with no real reference to the transcendent. But within an exclusively immanent frame, a person can take no solace in having a divine purpose or a transcendent meaning. Life can therefore have no sense of mystery, and there is no higher wisdom from which to draw. There is no divine revelation, no need for grace, and no possibility of personal transformation. If God is dead, we intuitively know that nothing matters. And this is a burden too heavy for us to bear. Yet, from within the immanent frame Christianity (and especially its teachings on gender and sexuality) still “feels” implausible and even unimaginable. Our social “order” therefore remains quite disordered, with no transcendent frame of reference to provide guidance. Taylor, a Catholic, urges Christians to find ways to undermine confidence in the secular “take” or “spin” on the world, and to encourage our neighbors to be open to transcendence. (I’ve written an article summarizing and evaluating A Secular Age, an book chapter relating his writings to Jordan Peterson’s, and a book chapter analyzing his apologetic.
10. Pierre Manent (1949-)
One of the most intriguing writers I’ve encountered recently is French political philosopher Pierre Manent. He believes that Europe has become spiritually and politically anemic. Its downward spiral began with the atrocities of World Wars I and II. Horrified at the blood spilled between historically Christian societies, Europe rejected not only the biblical God but also the nation-state (a political form arising from the Christian imagination). Having thus weakened people’s religious and national identities, European elites now focus almost exclusively on the isolated individual as a member of the global community. But the elite Western project is wrong-headed in as many ways as it is right. There will never be a world without borders, he argues. Humans will never flourish apart from families, neighborhoods, religious communities, and nations. Humans will always be drawn to communities and communal life, and the most dangerous forms of communal life—such as Communist socialism and Nazi socialism—are those that have rejected religion. In response, Manent encourages Europe to recognize the necessity of strong forms of religion and national identity and to revive a distinctively Christian politic that envisions the common good in terms of civic friendship. Some of his best books are Beyond Radical Secularism, A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State, and Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. (I’ve written a brief article on Manent here.)
11. Ryszard Legutko (1949-)
One of the most interesting books I’ve read recently is Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. In it, Legutko compares and contrasts the 20th century Soviet Union with the 21st century West. He argues that both communism and liberal-democracy are skeptical about the past and optimistic about the future. Both are deterministic, arguing that their triumph is inevitable, that they are on “the right side of history.” Both claim (either explicitly or implicitly) that the full implementation of their principles will bring universal flourishing and harmony; they are utopian. Both think the mechanism for change is politics. Since injustice and inequality can be found in every sphere of culture, everything is politicized. Each individual sphere, and the institutions within those spheres, must be politicized. Both prefer indoctrination to persuasion. Indoctrination often takes place through political correctness and language-policing. Both treat traditional institutions (e.g. family and church) as the enemy of progress. They think that human spirituality can be ignored or privatized on the way toward implementing their social, cultural, and political postulates. And once the public square is severed from religion, the totalitarian temptation for both the communist and liberal-democrat is unrestrained. (Here is an article summarizing Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy.)
I’ve limited the list to people born before the mid-century mark (1950), thus leaving out some significant younger analysts such as Daniel Mahoney (The Idol of Our Age), Mary Eberstadt (Primal Screams), R. R. Reno (Return of the Strong Gods), and Carl Trueman (Christianity and its Discontents, soon to be published). If one were to read these contemporary writers, along with the eleven older thinkers I’ve delineated above, several common threads would stand out. First, nearly all of these thinkers locate the malaise of the late modern West in the denial that God or transcendent reality exists. Second, nearly every one of these commentators points out that social order has become unhitched from foundation in sacred order, and therefore social order and its moral norms is nothing more than customs and learned behavior. Third, when God’s creation norms are finally rejected, that chaos which ensues stems from the ability to remake creation according to our own desires—a herculean effort requiring totalitarian control. Though each of these thinkers tells the narrative of the West’s demise is a different way, what they all therefore trace is the spiraling downfall that occurs when society loses belief in God and places human beings upon his throne.