A View From Rocco's: The Libido for the Thesis and the Traditionalist Challenge
(The Remnant, March 15, 2008)
"Baby Boomers and Generation X can really come together through their respective commitments to the New Frontier and the promise of Change." I cannot vouch for the exact words, but that certainly was the gist of the sentence that I read in the newspaper abandoned on the table directly behind my Stammtisch at Rocco's by a hurried breakfast client last week. The sentiments expressed were obviously those of an excited supporter of Barak Obama.
I have no particular desire to pick on the senator from Illinois--certainly not for the benefit either of a woman who would do her level best to destroy the home schooling movement or a man who would send its graduates off to die in a Hundred Years' War for the maintenance of the Imperium. Nevertheless, a sentence whose every component part illustrates our age's obsession with sloganeering does beg for some sort of comment. This is especially true given the challenge that it poses for Traditionalists.
There really is not that much one has to say about the above phrase in and of itself. "Baby Boomers", "Generation X", "coming together", "New Frontier", and "promise of Change" with a capital "C" are all purely invented terms. They do not refer to anything that exists in the real world of every day experience, like a cat or even a slice of pizza. What they reflect are merely the dreams and desires of those people who have brought them into being and who manipulate them for their own ideological or mundane self-interested purposes. More interesting to me than the malleable words themselves is the fact that they involve the boring repetition of fatuous statements that we have already heard enunciated many, many times before, and that such pap can still be taken at face value even by otherwise serious men and women.
A number of factors contribute to the success of this endlessly recurring "much ado about nothing". The one that I want to focus upon in this article is a passion which can easily be defined as the libido for the thesis. This is a vice which must first be introduced with reference to the dangerous teachings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) regarding the meaning of history and the role of thesis, antithesis and synthesis therein.
Catholics and Socratics have many reasons to be annoyed with Hegel and Hegelianism. From his chairs at the universities in Jena, Heidelberg, and Berlin this rather arrogant professor worked to muddy hopelessly the concepts of God and nature, as well as to end the beneficent reign of Aristotelian Logic over the human mind. Moreover, he completed the obfuscation of philosophical German so skillfully begun by Immanuel Kant. If anyone ever called for a banana peel to slip on, so as to avenge through laughter those many students whom he intellectually tormented, this man does. "Hegel ist Nebel", my Sudeten supervisor at Oxford warned me in 1973-- "Hegel is fog". And normal people generally want fog to be dispelled.
My concern at the moment is chiefly with the foggy support that Hegel's theory of history gives to the libido for the thesis and, through its ravages, to the maintenance of the eternal return of bankrupt contemporary sloganeering. Allow me briefly to refresh Remnant readers' memories concerning the precise character of Hegel's historical vision before driving this dismal point home.
For Hegel, history is ultimately ruled by a highly complicated "idea", endlessly debated by his followers, which is nevertheless related by him (and them) to the realization of freedom in history. This idea is given practical reality and matured through the ages by means of the struggle of various liberty-bearing concepts, themselves assisted in the flesh-and-blood world by different physical forces (states, classes, parties, etc.) that help Freedom with a capital "F" to perfect its full meaning and promise.
Hegel also argues that this ascent of Mt. Freedom is accomplished according to a very precise plan. It is scaled at each distinct moment in time with the crucial aid of one of the above-mentioned liberty-bearing concepts--known during its potent though temporary "day in the sun" as the thesis--and supported in its intellectual task by the temporarily most powerful physical entity in contemporary society. For many in Hegel's circle, the liberty-bearing concept of their age was the idea of a commonwealth governed by law codes protecting individual free men's lives and property--what the Germans call a Rechtstaat. Such disciples claimed that the most effective builder of their contemporary Rechtstaat was a Hohenzollern Prussia whose will to power had been demonstrated since the latter part of the seventeenth century. Of course in their minds Prussia had also earned its dominant role by shouldering the ineffable privilege of paying their master's university salary.
Still, Hegel insisted, any given age's thesis had to face enemies. The most serious of these foes shaped the era's temporary, dominant opposing principle--the antithesis. The antithesis was itself aided in its labor by a new up-and-coming physical entity giving its message practical clout. There was no need to agonize over such a clash, however, since the antithesis also inevitably worked to ripen freedom's meaning and bring it to term.
Even more encouraging for the cause of the final perfection of freedom was the fact that each period's unavoidable struggle of thesis and antithesis gave birth to a synthesis which in turn served as a fresh starting point--a fresh thesis--working mightily for the elevation of man to the Omega Point--also, needless to say, in tandem with yet another practical standard-bearer in the socio-political realm.
Now one little problem has always prevented my acceptance of the seemingly plausible and admittedly rather tempting Hegelian vision of history. That problem is a simple one. All I have ever encountered--at least when examining the supposedly vibrant, evolving field of modern thought and behavior--is reiteration of one and the same unchanging thesis. That thesis brooks no antithesis and synthesis to move it onward and upward in the scaling of Mount Freedom. Moreover, while passing itself off as rational and dynamic, it seems intent willfully to state its axioms and then to use the political and social power allied with it to kill everything truly intelligent, critical, and full of life and hope for man and society.
This unchanging thesis is not the convoluted Hegelian concept of the realization of freedom in history. Rather, it is that ubiquitous naturalism of the Enlightenment which stands behind the modern notion of liberty as well as the modern notion of everything else, from alpha to omega. Enlightenment naturalism is embraced by its supporters not with scientific calm but with irrational passion; namely, with a pronounced and quite jealous libido for the thesis--for this thesis, and for nothing but this thesis. Criticism of the thesis is totally unthinkable. "In Germany", socialists used to joke before the First World War, "there will be no revolution, because in Germany all revolution is strictly forbidden". Catholics could readily make a similar jest in our time. "In 2008", we might say, "there is no opposition to the thesis of Enlightenment naturalism because all such opposition is strictly forbidden".
The libido for the thesis sternly limits the acceptable intellectual struggle of our age to a pseudo-conflict among blood brothers, all of whom accept the Enlightenment's underlying principle of nature's independence from God as an unquestionable given. Whether from diabolical possession, madness, ignorance, or the blindness brought on by narrow self-interested motive, these blood brothers make a good show of going for one another's throats, even while lacking all solid intellectual reason for the pointless punch-outs that have characterized our time.
A classic example of their boring boxing match is the "battle" between dictatorial communism and liberal-democratic capitalism, both of which are children of the very same naturalist Enlightenment, and neither of which offers any substantive room for the transforming grace of Christ. Only a painfully crippled imagination and a libido for the thesis would lead a supporter of Adam Smith to think that "hearts that are restless until they rest in God" can find the peace that they seek in the simple substitution of a more bloating brand of naturalism for another one less successful in its efforts to stuff the body to repletion. He is the equivalent of a deli owner who enthusiastically offers a man an unchanging, life-long substitution of big Swiss Cheese sandwiches on baguettes for puny ones made out of tasteless, floppy white bread as the final, existential answer to all life's problems. Better, admittedly, but still qualitatively more of the same. Man simply does not and can never live by nature alone.
What happens to a true antithesis in this yawn-inducing environment? If possible, those driven by the libido for the thesis simply pass over what a real antithesis has to say in silence, in the hope that it will go away without having to shuffle the intellectual cards it lays on the table. But if silence does not work, what the libidini generally do is to attribute to the standard bearers of a serious opposition totally unrecognizable caricatures of the ideas that they actually espouse. The purpose of this distortion is not merely to ridicule thinkers who are free from the libido for their thesis, but also to dismiss them as obscurantists too stupid to understand that their (misrepresented) thinking has been discarded in the progress of the intellect and history to perfection. After all, who could possibly oppose Enlightenment naturalism other than primitives eager to wash their laundry on river banks and to hurl the cheap beads hanging round their necks in pointless reactionary rage against the machines which have come to liberate them?
This kind of caricature is regularly used to mock traditionalist socio-political thinkers. Does one write an article on the topic of government and clearly identify the grave difficulties connected with the adulation of past monarchies--while also noting that they reemerge again today with a vengeance in the divinization of the American system? Such assertions are much too nuanced for victims of the libido for the thesis to deal with soberly! Discussion of the tiniest pipsqueak of an argument pointing out the fallibility of our own Enlightenment naturalist-shaped regime must at all costs be avoided. Real issues are thus obscured, and the traditionalist author slandered as an anachronistic proponent of a freedom-hating Absolutism that he actually despises and they all too clearly worship. Does the traditionalist indicate that he has absolutely no intrinsic problem with private property and free enterprise, but merely thinks that other factors have to be taken into account in economic policy as well? Too nuanced, too dangerous for one-dimensional libidini tastes! Anyone suggesting that individual freedom be viewed in a social and supernatural context must be painted either as a Stalinist or a Luddite who wishes to till the soil with tree branches and live off of nothing but witchity grubs.
Since no room is permitted by the libido for the thesis for the true antithesis to naturalism-- namely, a full Catholic vision that argues for the need to respect both natural and supernatural influence over daily life--there is no space given for any possible synthesis either. By synthesis, what I mean here is the chance for the real insights to which any new age can indeed give birth to enter into an honest dialogue with the whole of our historical past and theological-philosophical heritage in order to refine and deepen an understanding of the one eternal Truth. Such a synthesis has come about in centuries gone by, and could, if seriously permitted, perhaps occur again.
Allow me to take but one immediate practical example from the current election campaign of possible synthesis and the stop sign placed in its path by the libido for the thesis. Many Catholics in the months gone by have expressed a tremendous sympathy for Ron Paul. This made perfect sense to me. His fight versus the Iraq War has been unswerving and inspiring. The modern American state, like all modern states, operates according to numerous evil principles that an anti-statist like Ron Paul has been correct and courageous in opposing. Some of his insights might be helpful to Catholics. But the libido for the thesis has led many of his libertarian supporters to tell us that applauding Ron Paul's stance on issues like the war is merely a first step to our necessary acceptance of his whole Murray Rothbard/Ludwig von Mises world view, itself but a variant of Enlightenment naturalism. Antithesis? Synthesis? Forget it! Sola Enlightenment rules the roost. All that the pseudo-battle between different warring proponents of the same basic position seems to lead to is this: an intensification of each faction's libido for the victory of its particular version of their shared underlying thesis when the boring pendulum swings temporarily back into its camp from that of one of its naturalist blood brothers.
Admittedly, there is no room for anything but the thesis at the end of the Hegelian vision, however this is interpreted. History, at that point, would have achieved its meaning and all intellectual struggle would correspondingly have ceased. What makes the dominant libido for the thesis particularly galling is that almost no one from among its supporters would argue that history has actually come to that conclusion just yet. Yes, Stalin did so, for a moment, in the 1950's, and Fukuyama, also temporarily, in the 1990's. But the others? I do not hear them openly saying such a thing. And yet this does not prevent the libidini from treating the supporters of a real antithesis--the Catholic vision--as though they have nothing serious they possibly can say; as though we have in fact finally reached our eternal intellectual and socio-political Everest; as though there is nothing further left for believers to do but enjoy the view from Mount Enlightenment; as though Catholic freedom means nothing other than the privilege to choose among different vantage points from which to gawk at the same drab, unchanging naturalist vista.
We are now finally in a position to answer the question as to why the recurring arguments of bankrupt political rhetoric continue to exercise their seemingly unshakeable influence over the world around us. They do so for two reasons, the first of which is that the strong men who dominate modernity and have shown that they will do whatever is necessary to maintain their control over it have either consciously or unconsciously understood that the libido for the Enlightenment naturalist thesis is helpful to them. It gives them the appearance of a natural right to do whatever they wish to do, just as it establishes what seems to be a natural law demanding our unquestioning acquiescence to their dominion.
Furthermore, the masters of modernity (once again, either consciously or unconsciously) have also grasped just how valuable Hegelianism is as a weapon in their depressing project. Hegelianism's glorification of what is most powerful at any given moment in history as the best expression of mankind's ever youthful, evolving progress towards freedom, allows those with the biggest clubs in their hands to masquerade as the ever-changing, ever-beneficent paladins of the cause of liberty; a liberty which actually liberates them and them alone, but to the detriment of all of us, victims and "victors" alike. Moreover, Hegelian dismissal of the messages of past history and the voice of the powerless as hopelessly "surpassed" (one of the favorite words of this unfortunate school of thought) by the teachings of the present and the dictates of the strong has a two-fold consequence. It prevents the "losers" from recognizing the fraudulent repetitiveness of the vision of developing freedom, and it prohibits all exposure to the substantive truths espoused by the "surpassed" camp. Man's political education is reduced to a "consciousness-raising" designed to train him to find meaning in sloganeering and sloganeering alone.
Clearly, this has worked. Hence, the second reason for the success of such bankrupt rhetoric is that ordinary people simply no longer understand any other kind of political language. They are incapable of grasping a political statement in terms other than the empty phrases cited at the beginning of this article, even though in the depths of their souls they feel an ever more ominous malaise. Modern man longs to believe that the latest sloganeering will finally fulfill its empty promises. And he is still so distracted from even the slightest serious glance at the "surpassed" historical record that he can never digest a basic fact of life crucial to his social well being: that this rhetoric is and always will be the tool of the willful strong in their unending work of veiling Truth and oppressing the weak.
The editors of La Civilta Cattolica, wounded by the same libido for the same thesis in the 1850's, were so baffled by the misconstruction of their arguments against it that they often wondered out loud whether they were writing in Sanskrit rather than Italian or French. They repeatedly expressed bewilderment over what else they might do to get their substantive Catholic message across. But there was nothing more that they could do, at least on the purely intellectual level. There simply was no rational way of breaking out of the dialogue bouncing back and forth between the different variants of that unchanging Enlightenment naturalist position which was--and still is now--the sole conversation tolerated by the libidini. What they had to deal with--and we continue to face today as well--is primarily a psychological disturbance. The disease of minds and spirits reflected in the libido for the thesis calls for Catholic soul-doctoring even more than the Catholic intellectual discussion which we must, of course, nevertheless still nurture, in order to treat and cure effectively.
Hence, my final, short, but very important point: the challenge posed to traditionalist Catholics by this dreadful malady. Yes, as noted above, we believers do possess a real intellectual antithesis to the Enlightenment naturalist thesis. This must be presented to our contemporaries so that they can reject the hideous errors and evils of modernity. And, yes, we also have the supernatural and natural tools for effective soul-doctoring at our fingertips, if only we would take them up and use them--all of them.
In order to present our real antithesis and perform our effective soul doctoring properly, however, we must remember one crucial truth--that we are Catholics before anything else--catholiques avant tout, as our counterrevolutionary forbears said in the nineteenth century. This means that we must never allow anything to stand in the way of our learning everything that Catholicism teaches and everything that it encourages and works with, including whatever happens to be merely modern rather than a reflection of the spirit of modernity.
That desire to be catholiques avant tout in turn entails rejecting the temptation to transform the word traditionalist into a slogan, repetition of which relieves us of the effort to discover whether we actually are learning and acting in line with the fullness of our heritage or not. Certainly we traditionalist Catholics have never intended to do such a thing. Still, we are not granted miraculous defense against the snares of the devil simply by uttering the word "traditionalist" over and over again, as though it were an infallible weapon against them. The libido for the thesis can strike us just as easily as it can strike anyone else. If it were to do so, traditionalism would not mean what is Catholic; the word Catholic would be manipulated to fit whatever we have developed a passion for desiring traditionalism to signify. Should such a thing come to pass, we would become nothing but another force in the naturalist camp, passing off what we strongly will to be Catholic--whether it actually is so or not.
I can see that it is now time for me to leave the cafe. One of the waiters is fiddling around with the electricity and I have no desire to blow up before the next issue of The Remnant is published. Besides, I have to go to the dentist. After that, even our troubled modern world will temporarily appear to me to be pre-lapsarian in its beauty. I will celebrate by not looking at any newspapers in the cafe for at least a week to come, leaving Barak, Hilary, and John to spout off their rhetorical hoo-ha without me.
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