There is a way out of postmodernism: courage. You do not reason yourself out of the postmodern, you fight your way out. You realize that logic can only take you so far. Then you have a decision to make. And you make it. Western civilization is founded on this one faith, this one great volitional activity…
“The plane of spiritual experience and religious faith and intuitive vision” was essential to the English historian Christopher Dawson. This vision was a cosmic conception of the universe that made him something of a Jurassic figure in an Atomic Age. Speaking to a Delaware audience in 1959, Dawson noted that it was no small matter that every society in history except his own had “agreed in recognizing the existence of a higher supernatural or divine order on which human life was dependent.” In 1954, C.S. Lewis had expressed very much the same view, in a speech at Cambridge University, arguing that “the gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.” Dawson and Lewis found themselves on the same side of a great chasm, the side of spirit opposing what Winston Churchill once termed mere “material computation.” Certainly, Lewis believed himself to be a dinosaur in a landscape that was increasingly secular—or, it may be argued, singularly postmodern. Dawson concurred. Indeed, both men grasped the essential point that to be conservative or, perhaps more suitably, “Western” was to recognize this fundamental divergence in thought while affirming, as a matter of the will, the existence of a transcendent order. And, perhaps any denial of such a spiritual order, or the affirmation of such an order without reference to the material universe, is essentially what it means to be postmodern. But it is also more than this. At its root, postmodernism is not a phase or even a dialectic. Rather, it is exactly what William Shakespeare said it was: “a thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom, and ever three parts coward.” Postmodernism is a loss of nerve.
Conservative intellectuals such as the late Peter Lawler have argued that conservatism is a postmodernism because it is a critique of modernism or the modern. Roger Scruton, as well, has suggested the same, that conservatism only acquires its sense under the modern “conditions of fragmentation, heresy and unbelief.” Of course, what Lawler and Mr. Scruton are really saying here is that conservatism is a conservatism. There is some sense in weaponizing “postmodernism” or “modernism,” certainly, courting legitimacy in an academic arena that exhibits an evident hostility towards conservative ideas. Nevertheless, this admittedly adroit adoption also constitutes a form of submission, it seems, to a tyranny of terms that should be opposed directly rather than seduced. Moreover, in acquiring “postmodernism” for ourselves, as well as applying it to others, such as Lewis, as has been the case recently, conservatives have deprived the term of its common meaning and true import as a mode of thinking and identification, however indistinct, opposed to the Western tradition. Indeed, it may be that postmodernism has come, quite rightly, to supplant “the East” in the old “West versus East” paradigm in an age when such divisions are no longer strictly geographical but closer to home, on the campus. Accordingly, this short essay will not attempt to reconcile itself with postmodernism as a modern critique, but instead confront it for what it really is: an existential threat that has, in one form or another, always existed as a general rule. Historically, and indeed by definition, the West has stood against it.
Now what we refer to somewhat vaguely as the “Western” tradition is the exception to the rule previously mentioned, a rule that is essentially postmodern, a rule that is, contrary to the term itself, premodern. 2,500 years ago, Ancient Greece was that exception, accentuated against the backdrop of Persian tyranny in the East. In other words, the rule. The conflict that arose in the Aegean in the fifth century was ultimately a clash between Western exceptionalism and Asiatic despotism—or rather, Asiatic postmodernism. What made Greece exceptional was its peculiar conception of “spirit,” what the philosopher Hegel later elevated as the “Greek Spirit,” which attained its glorious zenith in its confrontation with Xerxes. As Hegel explained, “Never in history has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk, and that of no contemptible amount, been made so gloriously manifest.” Dawson also believed “there were spiritual issues in the struggle between the Persians and the Greeks.” Indeed, it might be said that the war with Persia was really a war of religion. More recently, Victor Davis Hanson has written that “to the Greeks freedom was almost religious in nature.” But it was not simply Greek freedom that was at stake at such battles as Thermopylae, where three hundred Spartans and several thousand other free Greeks opposed a Persian army of enormous material size. It was also a question of motivation and free will. For example, Herodotus tells us that King Xerxes’ Persians went into battle against the Greeks with whips at their back. The Greeks, on the other hand, who were neither slaves nor mercenaries, thought it a disgrace to value safety over death. Aristotle makes this quite clear. Indeed, on the eve of the Battle of Plataea every Greek solider took an oath that “I shall fight to the death, and I shall not count my life more valuable than freedom.” Of course, the Spartan squaddies at Thermopylae did fight to the death, famously of their own volition in 480 BC. That the Spartans, as well as some other Greeks, elected to remain when it was clear that the Hot Gates were no longer defensible made their sacrifice all the more remarkable. Nevertheless, it was entirely of a piece with the Greek idea that men were spirits capable of transcending mere materiality. Thermopylae was a material defeat, we know, but it was also a spiritual triumph that came to accentuate Western exceptionalism. And if there is any one principle that underpins the West, then it is the belief that a man’s happiness and virtue is rooted in the realisation that he is not an animal, that at the moment of self-sacrifice he transcends the confines of his body and reaches for something higher. This was the faith—the faintest of all trespassing flames, animating the West, its history and its heroes—that ignited with such ferocity in the hearts of the fallen hoplites at Thermopylae 2,500 years ago. Postmodernism, on the other hand, stands very much against this.
Certainly, it would be a mistake to suggest that the East had no conception of spirit. Rather, what we mean by the “West” is a curious, and indeed unique, via media that found its ultimate expression in Christianity: “and the Word was made flesh.” In the West, Platonism rejected mere material circumstance in favor of the existence of a spiritual reality. The Western tradition may be defined as the effort to bring the world of experience into vital relation with exactly this realm of pure Being. This is not itself a repudiation of materialism but, instead, an affirmation of a spiritual absolute that gives meaning to, and therefore supplements, the senses in a dynamic synergy. Here Plato and Aristotle, as well as Augustine and Aquinas, their Christian progeny, jostle for position in their respective shifts in emphasis between the spiritual and the sensible. To be “Western” is to live within this fundamental antagonism; a philosophical impasse that has served to illuminate the world in the light of Eternity. To live outside it is what we have come to refer to, rather misleadingly, as postmodernism: living either in strict spiritual isolation or as a slave to sheer materialistic instinct. One excludes the other. However, the notion that the body is valued but is nevertheless viewed from a right perspective of spirit is what made the sacrifice at Thermopylae both possible and, ultimately, glorious in the West. There was no glory for the Persian dead, since they had died as slaves with whips at their backs. The Greeks, while valuing the material world, chose to die of their own free will. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross would later provide a far more profound symbol of this overwhelmingly Western ethic. Today in the West, however, this ethic has lost much of its potency.
A great deal has already been written about the legacy of Descartes and post-Cartesian thought. While it did not give rise to postmodernism, as we might well think, it may be argued that it destroyed the old antagonism between material and spiritual forms that had characterised the Western development. What then occurred was a shift in general assumptions that resulted in a steady demoralisation of the intelligentsia of the West. The plays of Shakespeare give us a clear indication of the heights the Western tradition had risen to before this vital change in perspective. We should note, first, that the Elizabethan playwright was well versed in postmodernism. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” “conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe,” “the better part of valour is discretion.” These sentiments sound all too familiar. The point here is not that Shakespeare could not have conceived of such an amoral universe as this. He clearly did. The great difference compared with many intellectuals today, many of them moral relativists, is that for Shakespeare such statements were the wild protestations of the madman, the tyrant, and the coward: Hamlet (when he is pretending to mad), Richard III, and Falstaff. Each is a very practical postmodernist. To an Elizabethan audience, every one of them was instantly reviled as either a fool or a villain. There is our contrast. In the faculty lounge today, Foucault is revered. The greatest thing that can be said for the average Elizabethan is that he would have recognized Foucault for what he really was: the villain or the fool.
The failure today to make such a distinction, particularly among academics, is largely a consequence of the Cartesian legacy and the rise of rationalism and Newtonian mechanics. The German poet Heinrich von Kleist was particularly perceptive when he protested that Newton would only see in a girl’s breast a curved line and in her heart nothing but its cubic capacity. In other words, the great modern mistake was that it placed reason on a pedestal to the exclusion of the spiritual element. Out went the old Western antagonism. Romance was delegitimised. Faith was suspect, as was good and evil. Civilization itself was an illusion. This was a great loss that found expression in our own literature, for example in Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach,” observing the retreat of the sea of faith from the shores of the West. Even so, in 1851 Arnold had at least clung onto the one spiritual reality that remained to him, which was his love for his wife. One hundred years later, however, the English poet Philip Larkin denied himself even that reality, most notably in his poem “An Arundel Tomb,” where he concluded that love was only an “almost-instinct almost true.” While Arnold had arguably anticipated the coming spiritual crisis in the West, Larkin marked its inglorious apogee in, admittedly, the most moving way.
Much of Larkin’s output as the “atheist” poet par excellence relates to his own personal struggle with faith that encompassed love itself. This was what made him so postmodern. Larkin was attracted to the idea of faith but never possessed it himself. We see this displayed most of all in “Church Going.” Here the poet steps into an empty church, as “in fact I often do,” “hatless” and “in awkward reverence,” Larkin relates. Although he reflects that “the place was not worth stopping for,” Larkin knows he will return again to this “serious house on serious earth.” “Uninformed” and removed from Christianity itself, there is, he admits freely, “a hunger in himself to be more serious.” Larkin was detailing here his, albeit tentative, attempts to reach for something beyond mere material existence. In both poems, belief remains just beyond his grasp as an “almost-instinct almost true.” Larkin thought that love was itself a superstition. In “An Arundel Tomb,” he was at least consistent then, concluding that “superstition, like belief, must die.” In this sense, he knew the answer to his question ‘”And what remains when disbelief has gone?” It was “A shape less recognizable each week, / A purpose more obscure.” This was his terrible consistency. He recognized that the very idea of love was threatened in a universe devoid of any spiritual affirmation. And although he understood that faith was in some fundamental way volitional, he failed to act on his instinct. It was always to remain an “almost-instinct almost true.” He failed a vital test of nerve, the same test that the Greeks had accepted and passed in 480 BC.
In literature, the most prominent of such tests is surely when Hamlet must come up with an answer to the great question, “What is a man, / If his chief good and market of his time / Be but to sleep and feed?” “A beast, no more.” The belief that man is more than the fact of his biology suggests is itself a faith. In sense this, Larkin was very much postmodern. Hamlet, on the other hand, just about manages to fend off Foucault, rejecting “bestial oblivion,” in Act IV, Scene 4, in favor of a belief in “spirit.” Importantly, this is an act of will just as much as it is a result of reason. Inspecting the soldiers of Prince Fortinbras, on the march to attack Poland, willing to “go to their graves like beds” for a “fantasy and trick of fame,” Hamlet has to be shamed into realizing that “rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honour’s at the stake.” Indeed, Hamlet, whose father has been slain, has much greater cause to go to war and revenge his family’s honor than the men in Fortinbras’s army. This right cause is ultimately founded on the faith that he inhabits a moral universe and that “he that made us with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not / That capability and god-like reason / To fust in us unused.” Vitally, Hamlet finally sees that it has not been reason that has been standing in his way, but a lack of nerve that is really “one part wisdom, and ever three parts coward.” It is a telling admission.
Intellectuals have a genius for making up excuses for themselves. “The better part of valour is discretion.” Falstaff would make a suitable patron saint for the modern intellectual or postmodernist. In Act IV, Scene 4, Hamlet is evidently impressed by the sight of an army preparing itself to fight for a plot” of earth not large enough to bury the slain. There is a double meaning here. Plot may also mean a storyline. The course of Shakespeare’s play is predicated on the conviction that a great crime has been perpetrated. Hamlet’s murdered father must be avenged. This only makes sense if the audience, like Hamlet, rejects “bestial oblivion” in favour of a moral universe. This is an act of faith that is ultimately synonymous with an act of courage. He must now act. And so, one act follows the other. This is what gives us meaning. We must all “fight for a plot” and face down the postmodernism of Falstaff, otherwise we have no story, no history, no Thermopylae. Shakespeare knew this well. Since in the West we are not slaves, but free beings able to choose, unlike the Persians in Xerxes’ army, we take on this great burden of choice that necessitates no small amount of nerve. For there is a way out of postmodernism: courage. And it never occurred to Foucault. You do not reason yourself out of the postmodern, you fight your way out. You realize that logic can only take you so far. Then you have a decision to make. And you make it. Western civilization is founded on this one faith, this one great volitional activity. As Churchill pronounced on 16 June 1941 in a radio broadcast to the United States, we are not animals:
The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men’s souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, wealth and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awe-striking and irresistible, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “The Battle of Clontarf” by Hugh Frazer, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.