Robert Nisbet

Robert Nisbet

I know of no principle in history more often validated than that which tells us that social health and political power are inversely related. If…social anemia is the necessary consequence of political hypertrophy, it is evident that renewal of strength in the social order demands a fundamental change in present uses of political power.—Nisbet in Twilight of Authority

In our recent essays regarding the future of the American Republic, and the proper balance between culture and politics, a number of important issues have been touched upon. Bruce Frohnen, Brad Birzer, and Barbara Elliott have each addressed the necessity of rebuilding communities from the bottom up. Brad, Bruce, and I have discussed the proper role of government and the debate between libertarians and conservatives regarding the tension between order and liberty. In his books Robert Nisbet brilliantly examines these issues in light of modern trends towards centralization and militarization.

In America today we have a variety of wars; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the “war” on drugs. We also live with the fallout from past “wars” on poverty, illiteracy, and others. Why is it necessary to call each of these political programs “wars”? Is this just motivational rhetoric or is it an attempt to manipulate the citizenry into supporting massive government power and spending? Would we put up with the intrusive work of the TSA and the NSA if not for the “war” on terror? Certainly the rhetoric of war and crisis is a powerful tool in the hands of those who are committed to central government power over states and local communities. Would we allow the massive intrusion of the federal government into K-12 education if the general public were not beaten about the head and shoulders regarding the “crisis” in education?

In the excerpt below, from his preface to “Twilight of Authority,” Nisbet talks about the trends of centralization and militarization in light of their effects on community. Certainly when trying to understand and explain why it is necessary to greatly reduce the powers of the American central government, and empower local communities, Nisbet’s works (“Quest for Community” and “Twilight of Authority” particularly) are rich resources for imaginative conservatives. Are we living in a twilight age as Nisbet (writing in 1975) claims? —W. Winston Elliott, III 

Excerpt from Robert Nisbet’s preface to Twilight of Authority:

”Periodically in Western History twilight ages make their appearance. Processes of decline and erosion of institutions are more evident than those of genesis and development. Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people. Human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them. Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace. There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and of corruption of culture. The sense of estrangement from community is strong.

Accompanying the decline of institutions and the decay of values in such ages is the cultivation of power that becomes increasingly military, or paramilitary, in shape. Such power exists in almost exact proportion to the decline of traditional social and moral authority. Representative and liberal institutions of government slip into patterns ever more imperial in character. Military symbols and constraints loom where civil values reigned before. The centralization and, increasingly, individualization of power is matched in the social and cultural spheres by a combined hedonism and egalitarianism, each in its way a reflection of the destructive impact of power on the hierarchy that is native to the social bond.

Over everything hangs the specter of war. Such war may be civil or foreign or both. War invariably has its expressed political, diplomatic, or economic objects but no one can miss the degree to which it becomes increasingly an anodyne for internal torments and frustrations. As the way out of economic crisis, political division, and intolerable social disintegration, war, despite its consecration of force and violence, its raw disciplines, and its heavy blanket of regimentation upon a social order, becomes attractive to enlarging numbers.

A number of major twilight ages can be seen in the two and a half millennia of Western history. The post-Peloponnesian Athens in which the young Plato grew up is one; so is the period in the Greek world which just precedes the rise of Christianity; and Rome of the first century B.C. and again in the age of St. Augustine surely qualifies. In modern European history the period so inaccurately and widely referred to as the Renaissance—one so much better described, it seems to me, by Huizinga’s phrase “the waning of the Middle Ages”—is surely one of the West’s notable twilight epochs. All of the major stigmata—cultural and social decay, celebration of war and power, and intense, often morbid, subjectivism—are present in the Italy so brilliantly described by Burckhardt and a few of his greater successors.

So, I believe, is the twentieth century in the West a twilight age. That is largely what this book is about. It is not a study in comparative history, though I do not hesitate to draw from other ages in occasional stress of a point. My objective is that of seeking to light up the present, chiefly the American present, in the historical perspective of twilight. It is hard to think of any other useful perspective in which to set the combined phenomena of sense of cultural decay, erosion of institutions, progressive inflation of values in all spheres, economic included, and constantly increasing centralization—and militarization—of power. If there were no other indicator, the impact of war and of the military on the West, especially since about 1940, would be sufficient—that and the cognate spread of the kind of social equalitarianism which is bred less by the moral value of equality than by the centralized power’s leveling effects upon the natural hierarchies of all social institutions.

Books by Robert Nisbet may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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