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Oft evil will doth evil mar. – Theoden

Often does hatred hurt itself. – Gandalf

suicide of the worstThose with a modicum of knowledge of twentieth-century intellectual history will note that the title I have given to the following musings on the state of modern decadence is a punning reference to James Burnham’s classic work, The Suicide of the West, published more than fifty years ago. Burnham’s thesis, with which I do not disagree, is that the roots of liberalism, which Burnham calls “the ideology of western suicide,” go back to the humanism of post-Renaissance thinkers, such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes. Key components of this suicidal ideology are a rejection of Christian realism and a denial of the assumptions of Christian anthropology. The former effectively subjectifies philosophical perception to the level of self-centredness, replacing the theocentrism of God as the “I am” who gives us our being and purpose with the egocentrism of the individual “I am” who merely thinks. It is to reduce the Biblical Ego sum qui sum (I Am Who Am) to the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Thus the egocentrically self-named “Enlightenment” replaces the scholasticism of Aquinas with the embryonic relativism of Descartes.

Coupled with this denial of Christian realism is the denial of the assumption of Christian anthropology that man is a creature made in the Divine image and yet fractured by egocentrism (pride). Countering such a view, liberals see man as being essentially plastic in nature, a being who can be shaped by his cultural surroundings into the perfect citizen in a perfected society. Instead of man being a broken being in need of healing through grace, he becomes a clean slate, a tabula rasa, who can be socially-engineered into the sort of person whom the liberal desires. For the liberal, a man is not a sinner who needs to be washed clean, but an empty page on which an agenda needs to be written. A consequence of such liberalism is the rise of utopianism, which looks forward to an imagined “good place” (eu-topia) in the future, which in reality is a “no place” (ou-topia), a never-never land which, rooted in a false anthropology, is utterly unrealizable in the real world. In reality, the utopian dreams turn into dystopian nightmares. The dreams of Rousseau and Robespierre become the nightmare of the Guillotine and the Great Terror; the dreams of Marx and Engels become the nightmare of the Gulag and the Killing Fields; the dreams of Nietzsche and Spengler become the nightmare of genocide and the Gas Chamber.

You would have thought that the lessons of history would have taught the liberals that their utopianism is nothing but dangerous and deadly nonsense. The problem is that the liberals are so beholden to the notion that humanity is “progressing” inexorably towards a utopian golden age in the future that they have little time for lessons from history. Blinded by their faith in the Future, they have nothing but contempt for the Past.

suicide of the westAlthough the foregoing expresses my essential agreement with Burnham’s thesis in Suicide of the West, it does not explain the pun in the title of these musings. The fact is that I have chosen to alter Burnham’s suicide of the “west” into the suicide of the “worst” because the west that is committing suicide represents the worst of western thought. Its demise is not something to be lamented but something to be celebrated.

Why should we lament that those who broke from authentic Christian theology and philosophy are themselves being broken on the jagged edges of their own poorly-wrought ideas? William of Ockham, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche. The suicide of the west is only the destructive consequences of the bad ideas of these erring philosophers, playing themselves out to their logical conclusions. Why should we regret that this litany of the lost have turned out to be losers?

In The Man Who Was Thursday and elsewhere, G. K. Chesterton warned that bad philosophers are more deadly than any number of mere murderers. Writing before the Russian Revolution and therefore displaying the mark of the true prophet, Chesterton’s prophetic warnings would come to sickening fruition in the tens of millions butchered by the bad ideas that animated the socialist ideologies of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Today, in our sanctimoniously self-satisfied culture, tens of millions of babies are routinely put to death in abortion mills throughout the deadly and now thankfully dying west. Why should we lament that the culture of death is dying? Why should we worry that the suicide of thought should lead to the suicide of the culture its thought brought into being? Why should we care that nihilism is annihilating itself? Why worry that this “nothing” is coming to nothing?

Pretty-ChurchInstead of wringing our hands over the suicide of the Worst, we should rejoice at the survival of the Best. The Church, as Chesterton reminds us, is a heavenly chariot careening through the ages, reeling but erect. She has been shaken by each of the bad thinkers in the litany of the lost whose destructive legacy has laid waste to much that is good over the centuries. She has been so shaken by some of these bad ideas that she seemed to be reeling under the influence of their impact. Yet, through it all, she remains undaunted, shaken sometimes but never stirred from her faithful witness to Christ. She is His Mystical Body, the Church Militant, the Church at war with the Worst. Against the worst that the Worst can offer, she always gives her Best, those saints who serve as champions of goodness, truth and beauty in a world beholden to bad ideas and their ugly consequences.

As Theoden and Gandalf remind us, evil and hatred hurt themselves. They are their own worst enemies. As the culture of death commits suicide, dying of its own self-inflicted wounds, the culture of life, animated by Life Himself, will rise from the ashes, resurrected from the dead.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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10 replies to this post
  1. The very evil of modernity centers on hubris and the detachment from thought that the centuries should have taught us, instead we turn our backs on it. And of course the god Power emerges in it’s usual ugly form accompanied by ignorance. Modern man knows it all it seems.
    A touch of humility leads to the wonders of the West and a life never far from it’s riches, chief of which is the Christian ethos.

  2. I heartily second Patricia’s opinion on this fantastic piece. It was so good that I’m even willing to overlook Mr Pearce’s analogizing Holy Mother Church to the perfect martini.

  3. A very good article.

    Yet I am baffled by this quote, which almost spoils it:

    “the dream of… Spengler become the nightmare of genocide and the Gas Chamber.”

    1. Spengler entertained no dreams about the future of the West, only a stoic acceptance of its inevitable demise.

    2. To trace the Nazi crimes to Spengler is either due to the author’s ignorance of Spengler’s thought or a deliberate attampt on his part of character assassination of this great thinker.

    In fact, Spengler, being a true man of the Right, rejected both Nazism and its modern racial theories as an erronoeus doctrine and scoffed Hitler as a mediocre man who would bring no good to Germany.

  4. Very well done. My one caution though is that as this society collapses would it not affect the church? I worry when i see European churches abandoned and leveled. it hurts the number of those who could be saved. not to mention the collapse of society will certainly affect those in the church (those perhaps only in this life). Th church might endure but as its influence wanes ore and more i worry about the world it creates for those who follow us.

  5. I would be much obliged if anyone could explain to me how collapse of the west results in anything other than more or less pure evil. Will Islamic hegemony do the trick? Or Chinese? Or perhaps autarky? Specifically, if not the US, who — or what? I dislike quoting Mr. Stalin but his question about how many divisions the Pope has is, sadly, valid.

  6. We are (alas) not permitted the schadenfreude of watching the voluntary self-decimation of political-social opponents. We are still supposed to caution them against the evils of abortion, euthanasia, and other Nazi-style eugenic measures. (Among the Works of Mercy, it is.)

    Still, this being the Season of Lent, I must admonish myself for a lingering hope that the demographics will work in favor of sanity and common sense (also hoping to avoid the extension of voluntary euthanasia to those of us considered inconvenient and uncomfortable to the Good Thinkers.)

    Nonetheless, it was noted long ago those peoples (even politically-thinking peoples) who fail to reproduce in sufficient numbers will inevitably fail. (And it matters little the cause of that failure. I have heard little from Carthaginians on the issues of the day.)

  7. “Why should we lament that the culture of death is dying? Why should we worry that the suicide of thought should lead to the suicide of the culture its thought brought into being? Why should we care that nihilism is annihilating itself? Why worry that this “nothing” is coming to nothing?”

    Mr Pearce writes intelligently and, in his works, makes a powerful contribution to culture. However, I see no evidence that the ‘Cuture of death’ is dying anywhere. If anything it appears to surge on like a powerful tsunami destroying all that is good, true and beautiful. A terrible malaise has inflicted Europe since especially World War II – numbed by the appalling cruelty and violence, there is everywhere an absence of reason and common sense. The recent ‘Yes’ vote in Ireland, and the decision of the American Supreme Court for Same Sex marriage shows this sickening consensus.

    Yes, there are pockets of hope – I turn regularly to prophets of Hope, Pope Benedict, John Paul II, John Henry Newman, George Weigel, John Waters, Archbishop Chaput, Joseph Pieper, David Goldman, Mark Steyn and Joseph Pearce – for sustenance in the daily battle to supplant the ‘Culture of death’ with a ‘civilization of Love’. The future lies with Common Sense.

  8. What did Bacon say that was so disagreeable?

    In truth Bacon was a medieval grammarian who had advocated that all interested in pursuing natural philosophy ought to read the medieval Book of Nature, a theologically inspired work.
    If only more scientists today approached their work with religious balance, we may not have created nuclear weapons.

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