Analyzed Partial Responses
Two other responses to crisis can be identified: economic individualism and spiritual individualism. Here we can give only a simplified characterization of each position. For unlike the unanalyzed responses, these are based on a conscious and thoughtful analysis of social problems. Consequently, the proponents of each position vary, and sometimes notably, in the particular development of their ideas. They all have certain features in common, however, which distinguish them from reactionary and ideological thought. Both define problems that are real in contemporary society. Both are rooted in individualistic premises. However, they also have a defect in common. In selecting problems for definition they both focus on social conditions evoked by the unanalyzed responses to disruption. Thus, they are conscious responses to blind response. To be sure, they rightly analyze basic consequences of reactionary and collectivistic policy. They propose remedies for these, remedies, let it be added, that must be involved in a total remedy. But, because they miss the crucial issue in the crisis, when accepted as adequate responses, they permit the crisis in paradigmatic history to gain momentum. We call them partial to stress the contention that they neither confront nor respond to the central problem of civilizational crisis.
Economic individualism is rooted in a radical call for the liberation of individual energy. Its concern is not so much for economics as it is for freedom. One of its root propositions is that economic freedom—private property and a free market—are essential prerequisites for human freedom. Following on this, its second root proposition is that social reconstruction is possible only given the intelligent and spontaneous action of vigorous individuals. The argumentation in support of these propositions is varied, erudite, and persuasive. In its most thoughtful formulations, it is enhanced by a theory of social order that gives the position a positive character. Nevertheless, the position is motivated by opposition to the collectivism that results from unanalyzed responses. In its essence, it is ordered to breaking down the massive legal and bureaucratic controls that substitute for the missing order inherent in healthy and integrated societies. At its crucial point, however, it relies on freedom to produce basic societal order. We hold exactly the opposite to be true. Given fundamental order, freedom is the source of the variegated fullness of life that constitutes high civilization, but freedom itself is a product of a prior substantial order. A civilizational crisis is not a crisis about human freedom but about human order. The collectivism of blind response some times conceals this basic factor.
Therefore, despite the nobility of the appeal to liberty, to courage, the conclusion is inescapable that this position does not appreciate the nature of the spiritual crisis we face. Man cannot bear to be insecure about his own existence as man. When insecurity touches the very meaning of his existence, he abandons all else in an attempt to recover the roots of that existence. If the attempt is enlightened, he has hope of success; if it is unenlightened, then it becomes frantic and blind. But enlightened or not, this search takes priority over all else. Not even liberty has meaning when meaning threatens to drain out of human life entirely. Therefore, to approach the problem of paradigmatic crisis as though it were a crisis about liberty gravely misinterprets the problem.
It is clear that a true response to crisis is less likely, and, if discovered, will be less able to win general acceptance in proportion as unanalyzed responses pre-empt social policy. Consequently, the challenge to collectivism contained in economic individualism is a necessary preliminary to the development of a total response to crisis. But of itself, economic individualism offers no such total response to the threat of anxiety. If accepted as adequate, therefore, there is a danger that the truth to be found in the position may be lost. For if, in the crisis of meaning, liberty is defended on inadequate grounds, there is danger that the true defense of liberty will be compromised.
Spiritual individualism seems, at first glance, to differ radically from the position of economic individualism. The issue between the two centers around the nature of the problem of liberty. The spiritual interpretation argues that the issue of the spirit of man is prior to that of his economic condition. Between the two, there is a grave division on the issue whether a human freedom rooted solely in economic freedom can solve any problems. The spiritual position insists that freedom enables problems to be solved only when the free man is also virtuous. The economic position does not say virtue is not necessary. But it does not cope directly with the issue, being satisfied to rest in the faith that men, if left alone, will solve the problem of order.
But if the position of spiritual individualism is examined closely, it becomes apparent that it formulates its problem in much the same way as economic individualism. The difference is to be found on the objective situation on which each focuses its attention. Spiritual individualism is pre occupied with the “objectification” of society. By that is meant, the positron is acutely aware of the increasingly non human character of the relations among men, of the predominance of things in human relations including economic things. Now this awareness is precisely a critical awareness of the substitution of legal for human relations, and the displacement of a government of men by an administration of things. And this awareness of the social fact is dramatically intensified by the realization that the most influential policy preferences tend to increase the “dehumanization of societal relations.” By doing so, they further reduce the distinctly human element in man, contribute to his “falling out of existence.” This, in turn, reduces man’s capacity for freedom. In response to these insights, the spiritual individualist formulates his solutions in terms of the defense of freedom against the objectification of society. In this defense of freedom, he rejects the contemporary society because of its ontological inadequacy as a human system. Along with this, however, he frequently rejects also the idea that society is a necessary context for human life. Consequently, the spiritual individualist neglects the problem of right social order and in doing so, neglects the central problem of civilizational crisis. The spiritual individualist tends to suspect society as the villain of the piece. And solutions are sought finally in the realm of the individual’s return to truth by paths sometimes solitary and stern.
Both analyzed partial responses follow the same method in formulating the problem of crisis: an examination of the objective condition of man, followed by the defense of some aspect of man from the dehumanizing processes emerging from the loss of societal coherence. This sameness of method leads us to the ultimate similarity in both positions, their individualism. Neither position will commit itself, as a position, on questions of substantial truth. Neither, consequently, will commit themselves to the restoration of tradition. Both defend only process truth about man, his need for freedom. For both fear that an assertion of substantive truth would be come the occasion for further political control over man in the name of that truth. This fear, seemingly, arises from the policy oriented point of view from which both positions develop. While neglecting the problem of society as an ordered whole, both positions seek to discover the policies society should adopt to solve its problems. Since the objective societal situation is characterized by a progressive loss of truth, these policies can only he identified as procedures, and the basic value can only be liberty which is the mode of action, not its substance. The consequences of this preoccupation with policy suggests that the real issue in a civilizational crisis is not political at all but meta-political. We can learn from these positions their explicit teaching, that state action can only hinder problem solving. For totalitarian rule inevitably follows when a disrupted society attempts to reconstruct itself by political means. It follows, that is, if the crisis occurs on the level of substantive meaning itself. The refusal to consider the issue of substantive truth, then, follows from a difference of interpretation on the issue of the nature of the crisis. But this difference in turn, is rooted, (at least in the two positions now under discussion) in an ultimate premise common to both, individualism. Let us immediately specify that neither position is rooted in philosophical individualism. Both of them have taken their positions in response to the collectivism that follows upon the blind attempt of an evading society to pull itself together. Nevertheless, this response makes it inevitable that the problem of civilizational crisis as described in our opening pages will be rejected as the basis of a search for solutions. For as the interpretation offered there implicitly suggests that the real problem in the restoration of tradition is precisely that of recovering the social experience of truth. Freedom follows on this, it does not precede it.
The Prophetic Response
The true response to the civilizational crisis of our day has not yet been elaborated. The work of identifying the substantive elements in a restoration of tradition has only just begun. And this work cannot be completed in a short essay. My purpose is simply to point a finger toward the truth in this matter. Fortunately, the crisis in our age is not unique in Western history, at least as regards its form. At least twice before in that history the unfolding of tradition has reached periods of crisis. And the crisis in each case has evoked a response that seemed to be adequate: the response of Plato to the collapse of the Greek City State, and the response of Augustine to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Behind both these responses there stands as a model and paradigm, the response of the Israelite Prophets to the crises of Jewish life under God. Therefore, we borrow from Eric Voegelin the term, and we hope the meaning, “Prophetic Response.” From these precedents we cannot, it is true, discover the substantive content of an adequate response to our own crisis. But we can, by studying previous crises and responses discover the nature and form of both crisis and response. For in each crisis the form of the response is dictated by the general nature of the problem while the substantive content is dictated by the content of the threatened tradition and the experience of losing that tradition.
Since the erosion of tradition consists in its “falling out” of social existence, the true and adequate response to the crisis must be found in the attempt to restore tradition to its ontological status as the form of society. From our opening analysis of crisis, it is clear that such restoration can be achieved only through a corporate re-experience of the tradition, a re-experiencing, that is, which begets that agreement which turns a multitude into a society. The defects of the reactionary response makes it clear that this cannot he achieved by a return to a status quo ante. The excesses of ideology stresses the need for a reintegration of truth within the context of social experience. For the restoration of tradition involves the re-construction of community, but this can be achieved only by the communal experience of truth. In this context, the essence of the prophetic response lies in its attempt to evoke a common awareness of a truth that had been lost. In a real sense the prophet calls truth from the limbo of memory back into the dynamism of knowledge and re-establishes it as the form of interpersonal union.
This return of truth to social existence is complicated by one basic factor. The truth to which men return cannot be the identical truth that was lost. As innocence once lost cannot be regained but must be replaced by virtue, so truth once lost can only be regained in a new and more sophisticated version. The newness in this case will be found in the character of the polarization, the integration, through which individual truths are experienced as the truth about man. When paradigmatic history breaks down all that is left socially is the experience of the breakdown itself. The social reconstruction must begin with this experience, and, under the guidance of the prophet, build up again its experience of truth. The prophet is that man or men in whose souls the order of the society has survived, but survived in a critically purified manner due to the challenge of its social decay.
The first stage in the re-integration of truth shattered by civilizational crisis demands criticism. Two stages of critical thought can be identified. The first centers upon an examination of the unacceptable responses described earlier. From this we learn that the proper response must he meta-political, for truth cannot be given ontological status in society by sheer command. We learn also, from the partial responses, that the problem is social rather than individual, and so cannot be solved by withdrawal from society. The second critical stage centers upon a totally different object: the distorted society itself in its condition of decay. What was wrong with that society? What weakness or imbalance in its integration was responsible for its disruption. No society is perfect. Every one has the seeds of its own destruction planted in its way of life. When these grow to the point where they cause disruption, thoughtful men become aware of them. Such awareness is not easy to achieve because it involves not only self-awareness but in addition, a grasp of the relation of the defective principle to the general integration of the socially held truth. The problem here is to level the profoundest sort of criticism against the corrupting principle without rejecting the rest of the tradition. For the principle in which dissolution originates is itself part of the tradition.
Granted the critical operation, one finds himself at that stage faced, at least intellectually, with a completely dismantled tradition. The ontological collapse of the tradition leaves its component ideas scattered through the multitude without social existence. The intellectual critique results in a further theoretical disturbance of the integration. For the polarization of ideas into a coherent unity is destroyed by the subtraction of even one basic element. And at this point, the prophetic response is con fronted with the task of discovering the new principle on the basis of which the old truths may once again come together to give a coherent and persuasive account of the order proper to man.
The order sought at this point is not the order of politics, but the order of society. Between this order and the order appropriate to the inner life of each individual there can be no difference. For the order of society comes into existence precisely when a multitude agrees about the hierarchical structure of the goods proper to human life. Social order is nothing more than the extension into the area of interpersonal relations of the order present to or desired by the individual members of a multitude. The attempt to reconstruct a community, therefore, necessarily involves the attempt to reconstruct man.
This relation between inner and social life determines the strategy of reconstruction. The new order, derived from a new integration of a truth, must above all be persuasive. The basis for its persuasive quality must be found in its appeal to the truths still recognized by the individual, though no longer enjoying social status due to their depolarization. What is sought is the description of a new way of life that presents itself to the multitude as a way superior to the old, but a way that achieves its superiority through reform and critical purification rather than through creative innovation.
The idea of reform leads us to the final characteristic of the prophetic response. Reform is a temporal concept: It involves the idea of good change within a continuum of historical experience. And this is precisely what is sought objectively once a break in paradigmatic history occurs. The experience of a break must be experience ultimately as an enlightenment if the break is to be repaired. But since the break is basically irreparable, the prophetic response must ultimately express itself as a new interpretation of history itself in which the break, the dissolution, becomes part of a larger pattern of purpose. All human order is essentially the organization of purpose in human life. Imperfect man is cursed with an ontological inability to rest and enjoy himself in his earthly existence, for whatever the goods a man may possess, the good is not yet his. Life in time, therefore, has meaning only when man experiences an ordering of action which promises movement toward this good. Every socially persuasive way of life, therefore, must express itself as a philosophy of history in which each individual in the society is ordered to the achievement of a good in which he can rest. The theories of progress so characteristic of ideological thought are rooted in a basic hopelessness with regard to this ultimate good. To each generation they offer, not personal achievement, but submission to a collectivity. And they find their response in man’s desperate need to achieve significance through union, if not union with the ultimate good, at least union with destiny. And they call upon man to empty himself since he cannot achieve fulfillment. Against this, the truly prophetic response must see the loss and recovery of meaning in life to be part of the historical experience through which men perceive new and more brilliant facets of that good which is the good for man.
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1961).
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