Oft evil will doth evil mar. – Theoden
Often does hatred hurt itself. – Gandalf
Those 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.
Although 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?
Instead 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.