Defacing public monuments, streets, churches, and administrative buildings constitutes an act of secular iconoclasm that should be taken seriously—not because the things destroyed possess the sanctity of real icons, but because the spirit in which these places and things are being destroyed conveys a hatred on the part of the rioters towards their own fellow citizens and their shared living spaces.

Those who defend revolutions cite speeches; those who accuse them cite facts.
— Nicolás Gómez Dávila

The moments of vandalism that we have been witnessing these pasts weeks and the popular endorsement—or at least popular apathy—thereof reveal a concerning series of events that should wake us up to the bitter reality of our social condition: violence begetting violence; destruction replacing care; culture and history being expunged for hopes of a new beginning (whatever it is). As our civic ethos is rejected for identitarian pathos, there is need to offer some counterpoints to these violent revolts by appealing to the integrity of our (that is, man’s) inherent distaste for desecration.

The Colombian philosopher, Nicolás Gómez Dávila, wrote about the intrinsic and aesthetic atrocity of revolution. His views on this topic merit some expansion during our current state of affairs since he applies an almost intuitive, Occam’s Razor-esque approach to judge the actions of men beaming with a Bolshevik spirit. I call his a “peasant’s philosophy” after his own declaration against the intellectualization of violence: “I am not a non-conformist modern intellectual, but an indignant medieval peasant.” In line with his belief that the wrongness of revolutions was simple enough to perceive, he criticized them as such with his pithy, sharp, and idiosyncratic aphorisms. Here are just a few that may resonate with us:

Do not give a man the chance to be vile. He will only take advantage of it.

The atrocity of the act of revenge is proportional not to the atrocity of the offense, but to the atrocity of the man taking revenge.

Revolutions are more a subject for sociology than for history. Revolutions are manifestations of those depths of human nature where nothing educates, nothing civilizes, nothing ennobles; they despoil man of his history and return him to bestial behaviors.

Every revolution exacerbates the evils against which it breaks out.

A “revolutionary” today means an individual for whom modern vulgarity is not triumphing quickly enough.

And a personal favorite:

A civilization’s memory resides in the continuity of its institutions. The revolution that interrupts a civilization’s memory, by destroying those institutions, does not relieve society of a bothersome weight that is paralyzing it, but merely forces it to start over.[1]

The peasant’s philosophy of Don Colacho (as he is familiarly called) is a common-sense philosophy. Simple as this declaration may sound, however, its sentiment is surprisingly complex for the “modern intellectual” to grasp, conformist or not. Our tendency to over-analyze the intricate reasons behind objectively disgraceful actions obscures what should be a citizen’s instinctual distrust of patricide. What is our country if not our “fatherland,” our patria, whom we must criticize when need be, but always with love and respect? Helpful as it may be in some circles, analyzing the tensions and motivations that led to this climax (we should say nadir) through sociology, history, philosophy, or politics, and using them to justify the results of these riots estranges us from the experience of danger and loss of control that some of our fellow citizens are facing. These nuanced analyses are better reserved for the ivory tower, for these riots do not affect the academic analyst or “modern intellectual” who critiques the unfolding of appalling events safely from a distance.

It is a lofty reaction to view the wide-spread destruction of our cities (i.e. the living space of over a million people on average) as the overdue product of a “social” revolution that, no matter its principles, is harming some the most vulnerable members of our societies. With these points considered, there is little sense in feigning the reasonable indignation that we might feel when we see our country being deliberately destroyed, derided—above all, denounced.

Defacing public monuments, streets, churches, and administrative buildings, as well as private businesses and property is an act of secular iconoclasm that should be taken seriously, not because the things destroyed possess the sanctity of real icons (hence the stress on the word “secular”), but because the spirit in which these places and things are being destroyed conveys a similar hatred and intolerance from the part of the rioters towards their own fellow citizens and their shared living spaces. Now, we might consider it a bit far-fetched to compare the protests and riots across the United States and the world a “revolution,” but they do share a point of commonality regarding the problem and consequences of a government’s prolonged permissiveness of the disruption of public life. Our governing elites show a blatant disregard for the reality of working-class citizens for whom the consequences of the dissolution of order and the heightening of insecurity are significantly more palpable than for them. This disregard is oddly similar to the one they showed for their citizens upon forcing them to sacrifice their livelihoods for a collective quarantine in the name of public health, which is something that we have now, too, swiftly defenestrated in the name of social justice.

Such acts of hypocrisy and cowering for clear political gain (or preservation) on the part of our leaders demonstrate why Gómez Dávila’s “indignant medieval peasant” outlook is necessary. He believed in emphasizing the peasant’s indignation over the intellectual’s reasoning, since it is the peasant who more directly experiences the social consequences of the intellectual’s ideas. Gómez Dávila’s thought is a blunter form of Burkean philosophy that reminds men of the value and of the reason that lies in their direct experience. It should be perceivably clear, moreover, that Gómez Dávila does not use the word peasant in a derogatory manner, nor is he being condescending; quite the contrary, by calling himself a peasant, he recognizes himself as simply a citizen, for this is what we all are in the political sphere.

The destruction of the public space is a secular form of iconoclasm, regardless of the underlying principles behind it, precisely because it is a space that we all inhabit which has shared value, especially for the working-class citizen. For us common men, the destruction of monuments and buildings has a stronger effect because we don’t take our society for granted. Our society has been built by our own hands, and the attitude that has been ingrained in our minds by our mothers and fathers is that everything requires work and effort to come into existence; for this reason, it is an act of disrespect and ungratefulness to throw anything away, whether or not we like it. As Gómez Dávila wrote,

To be civilized is to be able to criticize what we believe without ceasing to believe in it.

By ceasing to believe in the very things we criticize, choosing instead to clear away old forms and fashion up new cultural and social values, we are engaging in an act of defiance that carries out our own destruction. Tradition and history are both morally and socially valuable in themselves regardless of the modern critiques that can be leveled against them. These critiques, it turns out, always manifest themselves as revolts against an authority that we consider to be oppressive. There is some truth to this point: Authority can seem restrictive at times, but it is not always coercive (coercion is only its most infamous element, one which we have lamentably permitted long enough to see its consequences); we may forget, at times, that by upholding “authority” we are actually referring to our collective actions, creations, and histories that have brought us to this point in time. A point in time that we may even venture to call the “best” moment in our history by several, objective standards. I cite our interlocutor again:

An “ideal society” would be the graveyard of human greatness.

The whole of the human condition, which we can glean in great part from history, reveals the origins of our collective authority that is derived from our moments of triumph and shame. We have much to learn from both these moments so as to attempt to gain a greater picture of our complex condition. Not least among these facets that comprise our human condition is our inadequacy. Yet, the recognition of our flaws does not demand an affirmation to erase our history.

If I may be forgiven for including a more philosophical argument, it is worth mentioning the writings of Robert Sokolowski. I am aware that I warned against the intellectualization of violence, but there is a stark difference between a philosophical argument and an intellectual argument: The former keeps (or at least, should keep) its focus on the good, bound by an overarching moral order that reminds the thinker to be humble; the latter manipulates philosophical analyses, thereby distorting them, to defend the thinker’s own beliefs—facilitating his own righteousness.

Sokolowski raised the important point in his essay “What is Natural Law? Human Purposes and Natural Ends” that ends and purposes are goods of different ontological orders. Let’s focus on ends: Ends, in contrast to purposes, “do not spring into being through human foresight.”[2] He described an end as something that is “the finished, perfected state of a thing, the thing when it is acting well as what it is.”[3] To clarify this point, he categorized ends into three categories, the second of which is of particular interest to us on this question of secular iconoclasm (destruction of the public space). The second kind of end belongs to those things “that have come into being through human agency.”[4] These include artifacts and institutions, those things “brought about by human making and agreements” which, Sokolowski astutely notes, “have essences and ends.”[5]

Once we bring them into existence, the ends of our institutions (including our political system) or our artifacts (including our monuments and statues) develop an end, a telos of their own. Sokolowski adds another point: “It is interesting and important to note that even though artifacts and institutions are brought about by human beings to serve our purposes and our ends, we cannot change what they are.”[6] The remaining excerpt from his excellent essay is worth quoting in full:

We might suppose that because we have made [our institution and artifacts], we could turn them into anything we wish, but they resist such manipulation; even as instrumental beings, they have their own nature or essence and ends. They inhabit a niche in the possibilities laid open in the world. We may have brought them into being, but they do not become our purposes. They retain their own ends and we have to subordinate ourselves to them.

Quite so. Sokolowski’s analysis asks us to believe in our own ability to create things that have permanence—that are brought into existence and develop their own ends. This is a crucial point to understand, because it underlines Gómez Dávila’s staunch criticisms of destructive revolutions. The argument goes as follows: If the institutions and artifacts that we create do not, in fact, have a definition or an end of their own, then they can certainly be changed by us according to our whims. This act, however, would mean that nothing can be “ruined or destroyed by us”; we merely redefine our own creations.[7] How do we know that this last possibility is not true? Why is it necessary to prove that man cannot just be in a constant flux of redefining himself and the world? Sokolowski’s response is really quite simple: “experience shows” that we can, in fact, spoil things—this is our history. His point about our ability to spoil our creations is also vital because it brings to light a most important conclusion: When we change the essence and the ends of our institutions and artifacts freely, we are, by default, affirming to others that there is no reason to trust these institutions.

What we are witnessing now is a lamentable lack of trust in the institutions and artifacts at which man has gradually been chipping away. Perhaps our want of trust is but an echo of a greater lack of faith, the consequence of our social godlessness and chosen atheism. Smashing, mocking, demeaning, and profaning our public spaces is a violent act of disbelief against what we have achieved up to now—the mark of our ceasing to be civilized, as Gómez Dávila would say. Our repeating disbelief in the possibility of human goodness triumphing over wickedness is so pronounced that we now seek such to redefine the ends of everything we’ve created. We are abandoning the desire to sustain a collective authority to which everyone belongs and contributes; devising, instead, our own privatized authorities.

For whatever reason it may be, man falls short of seeing that in rebelling against history, he rebels against himself to no avail since he refuses to look back at the past, to his sides at his neighbors who have very different views and lives from him, and, not in the least, up to his Creator. We cannot take a step towards a more perfect society without looking in all of these directions. When social justice seeks to eradicate civilization, thus, we must ask ourselves if it is truly in society’s interest to erase this constant reminder of our imperfection that compels us to rely on our history, our neighbors, and our God.

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Notes:

[1] Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección (1977) Aphorisms borrowed from a blog dedicated to Nicolás Gómez Dávila.

[2] Sokolowski, Robert. “What is Natural Law?: Human Purposes and Natural Ends.” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 68, no. 4 (2004): 509.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 510.

[5] Ibid. Emphasis my own.

[6] Ibid. Emphasis my own.

[7] Ibid.

The featured image is “The Winged Victory of Samothrace,” the photograph of which was uploaded by Wikimedia user Lyokoï88 (who does not necessarily agree with the views of this essay, nor those of The Imaginative Conservative). The image is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The image has been slightly modified for color.

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