No one I know personally who knew Thomas Molnar (1921-2010) has ever said a kind word about his personality. If anything, he gained notoriety, even among those who respected him, through an infamy of intolerance, often under the unimaginative guise and excuse of “not suffering fools gladly.” This, in part, helps explain the lack of almost any notice of his death by the conservative world in 2010. He passed into the next world without—really—even a brief sigh or a fond fare well from this one. Few even offered a bitter fare well. Almost all seemed to have simply forgotten the man.
A recent google search reveals almost as many hits for a Thomas Molnar Septic Tank Service in South Bend as it does for the deceased Hungarian scholar. Yet, at one point, he served as a mainstay for both Commonweal and National Review.
Whatever his deficiencies in personality, no one could claim Molnar did not possess a rather expansive genius. Even a cursory examination of his publications—in terms of books as well as articles—overwhelms the would-be researcher. As with many of the greats of his generation, he wrote widely on a variety of topics and in a variety of fields on his heroes such as George Bernanos, educational theories, intellectualism, and the confluence of media and ideology.
His prolific output revivals that of Russell Kirk, a man who inspired, intrigued, and perplexed the Eastern European. Though the two walked across North Africa together in the summer of 1963, Molnar’s published travel memoir mentions Kirk only as an eccentric travel companion who attracted the attention of innumerable Arab and Berber children because of his outlandish appearance.
The Michiganian offered his own praise of Molnar far more openly, considering the Hungarian’s early book on the history of intellectuals, The Decline of the Intellectual, to be one of the most important works of the century.
A Christian Humanism of Sorts
Much of what Molnar wrote and argued during his adult life would fit nicely into the realm of possibilities for those admired at The Imaginative Conservative. Yet, he was always more of a European conservative than an American one. He might very well have been the model—if somewhat imagined on the Austrian’s part—conservative for Hayek’s 1957 famous Mont Pelerin Address, “Why I am Not a Conservative.”
From an American perspective, Molnar might fit better into the category of reactionary than conservative. Admittedly, such labels are as arbitrary as they are problematic. But, Molnar was a man who admired Charles Maurras and many of the Spaniards allied with Franco, but who also actively despised the National Socialists and found himself imprisoned in Dachau at the end of the Second World War. Molnar’s counterrevolutionary streak was as anti-ideological as it was curmudgeonly and, as John Zmirak has so effectively argued, always contrarian. In the end, Molnar believed the communists and the fascists of all stripes to share more in common than not, especially in their embrace of modernity and Gnosticism.
Whatever brief intellectual flirtations Molnar had with the extreme right of his youth, by the 1960s, Molnar had returned to his childhood faith and embraced an orthodox—if somewhat rigid—Roman Catholicism. Certainly, one could place Molnar into the category of Christian humanist, a title, role, and idea to which he gave much thought and spiritual assent. When assessing Molnar’s role in the twentieth century, we will miss his profundity as a thinker if we do not take this Christian humanism into account.
Utopia and the Ideologues
Of his many works, Molnar’s 1967 book, Utopia: The Perennial Heresy, published in the final days of the greatness of Sheed and Ward remains, perhaps, his most intriguing and relevant to today’s problems. In it, Molnar analyzed what he considered the never-ending temptation in this world, the belief that man can achieve perfection by his own will and ability and without God. Of course, Molnar offers nothing profound or original in this. Great writers and thinkers throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition had recognized the origins of perfectionism in the devil’s temptation in the Garden.
Unlike many others, though, especially those who describe the first temptation in the bible in passing, Molnar presents a very complex argument against it, noting that even the very thought of perfection is evil. Yet, because of the fall, man easily slides into such dangerous thinking.
From time to time the belief spreads among men that it is possible to construct an ideal society. Then the call is sounded for all to gather and build it—the city of God on earth. Despite its attractiveness, this is a delirious ideal stamped with the madness of logic. The truth is that society is always unfinished, always in motion, and its key problems can never be solved by social engineering. Yet, man must conquer, again and again, the freedom to see this truth. In the intervals he succumbs to the dream of a mankind frozen and final in its planetary pride.
Once the above idea (“fetish” or “obsession” might describe it better) takes hold of an individual or a group of individuals—as they collectivize—they begin to see all of reality as either leading toward or away from their struggle. Without hesitation or prudence (now, an undone virtue) they throw out the norms and mores of society as inconvenient shackles at best and as conspiratorial forces at worst. Once convinced of the end goal of their own beliefs and what is possible in what a Christian considers a broken world, the means to achieve the end becomes ethically negotiable as does the dignity of any human person. No man, after all, should use his will to thwart the progress of history.
Following the intellectual lead of Eric Voegelin, Molnar identifies the thrust of this heresy and utopian longing as Gnosticism. Whether modern ideologues—in fascistic or communist guise—actually understand how theologically Gnostic they are, is a separate question. For Molnar, it is enough to recognize the Gnostic roots and elements of political millennialism whatever the intentions of its modern practitioners.
For those who embrace some form of modern and post-modern millennialism, Molnar continued, they almost to a person have in common the belief that the modern project began with the French Revolution. History prior to 1789 served as nothing but a prelude to that supposedly great movement. Of course, the radicals are not alone in this belief. Edmund Burke has proclaimed the revolution the most shocking event in the modern world.
What is in contention among the ideologues, however, is where the French Revolution takes us and how we conclude what the French so “nobly” started.
During the first year of The Imaginative Conservative’s existence, Winston Elliott, John Willson, Steve Masty, and I entered into a considerable debate regarding Russell Kirk’s definition of ideology. We questioned whether it proved as relevant to a post-1989 world as it did to the Cold War. We all agreed that while we should not throw out Kirk’s ideas, we should also see if his arguments can be modified to understand the post-communist world.
For better or worse, I’ve given this issue considerable thought over the past four years, especially while teaching the history of the West every academic year. Winston and I have in conversation struggled with the issue repeatedly. While I do not want to be perceived (or actually exist in reality as) Manichaean, it does strike me that the great conservatives of the twentieth-century understood very well the dangers of the one extreme of existence, the desire to create a perfect world and the harm it created.
There is another extreme, however, and one which the conservatives often ignored, intentionally or not. This extreme is the belief that man is so utterly corrupt and so devoid of free will that he can only destroy, mutilate, or ruin. For lack of a better word, we might call this simply “fundamentalism.” And, it seems to apply equally well to Islamic as well as to Christian fundamentalism, though the latter exists in areas of the world in which personal violence on any large-scale is simply unacceptable. Otherwise, the West might very well experience an Atwoodian “Handmaid’s Tale.”
If the twentieth century proved a struggle of nationalisms and ideologies, the twenty-first century has, thus far, been a struggle against fundamentalisms. I do not mean to suggest that nationalism and ideology have been replaced. Not in the least. But, they have melded, merged, and fused in ways that the first conservatives—those of the 1920s-1960s—did not, nor could have, foresee (n). It would be, I believe, rather easy to show that the last four American presidential administrations employed all of the tools and language of ideology and anti-ideology when they should (at least the last two) have looked more at fundamentalisms.
This is the issue with which twenty-first century conservatives need to wrestle. It cannot be, of course, an either/or, debate. Instead, we must examine deeply nationalism, socialisms, ideologies, and fundamentalisms. At what point can they fuse, at what point do they conflict? And, as is probably obvious, only a Christian Humanism balances the extremes and finds the right—if sometimes hesitating—path toward human dignity. This is the only real progress.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.