What is the crisis of the West? In some cases the sense of this frequently asked if daunting question may be quite specific. It may refer, say, to an economic crisis: trade deficits, foreign indebtedness, or the collapse of the Third World. If something is not done immediately to cure this problem—eminently curable, whatever it may be, we will normally be told—we are all lost. But occasionally the point is larger and the phrase is intended to call to mind a fundamental crisis of the Western spirit. When this is the point of the question, the sense is often that the West has lost its resolve, that there is a spiritual meaningless unique to our time and place. It is in this larger sense that the question is taken up here.
The purpose of this essay is not to examine this sensitivity to crisis in a historical sense—as declining and falling according to definable historical circumstance—but instead to suggest that the recurring sense of crisis is in fact quite old in the West, that it is an ever-renewing version of the crisis of salvation evident most explosively in early Christianity and, derivatively, in the political philosophers of modernity, Machiavelli and Rousseau. The crisis of modernity, I will argue, is the Christian problem of salvation reinterpreted and transformed by the anti-Christian intellectual absorption, at the start of modernity, of salvation as the most serious political problem requiring solution, both in theory and practice.
This redefinition on new grounds of an old imperative uniquely reconstituted the spiritual energies of our civilization and represents a momentous turning point in world history. In his “Preface” to Will and Political Legitimacy: A Critical Exposition of Social Contract Theory in Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, Patrick Riley writes, “Descartes, as a Christian, worried about creation in a way that Plato did not: the Timaeus is less agitated than theResponse to the Six Objectives because salvation is not at stake.” Note well that phrase: “because salvation is not at stake.” Christianity unavoidably poses the question of salvation: How shall we be saved? Our present task is to explore the relationship of this problem or imperative to the seemingly permanent sense of crisis that afflicts Western society—that perhaps not just “afflicts” Western society but defines it.
Edmund Wilson in The Shores of Light recalls his teacher Christian Gauss’ dramatic emphasis of, in Wilson’s words, “the moment, almost as momentous as that of Paul s conversion on the road to Damascus, when Jean-Jacques, then thirty-seven, was walking from Paris to Vincennes, where he was going to see Diderot in prison, and happened to read the announcement that the Academy of Dijon was offering a prize for the best essay on the question, ‘Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to corrupt or to purify society?’”
Obviously the point Wilson suggests rhetorically in his parallel is that Rousseau’s thought and Pauline Christianity (he may mean Christianity as such) have had much the same “momentous” impact. They each have transformed the world, Christianity the ancient world, Rousseau’s thought the modern. But the point has to be taken further, for the radicality of Christianity is compounded by the addition of Rousseau’s analysis. That analysis was thought out from within Christian society, in reaction to it. Rousseau’s assessment of his Christian world echoes the Christian critique of its non-Christian world. Both too are committed to a kind of conversion of the mind. They both wish to convince men and women that civilization is radically defective, and to convert them to the truth regarding its cure. The point of each is to separate humans from the world according to a reading of “nature,” the “true” nature of human things, convincing men and women that they can have no natural home in the corrupt world. Finally, both were prompted by moments of extraordinary personal revelation.
Rousseau was an inheritor in several senses. He inherited the radical critique of society that was explicit in Christianity as well as the radical reaction to Christianity explicit in Machiavelli and the subsequent critics of Christian practice and spirituality. Thus informed, Rousseau sought to show that man’s movement from natural animal to civilized man was a corruption and downfall calling for the most thoroughgoing of reconstructive measures. Christianity had been no less radical, no less convinced of human corruption and degradation. Indeed, it is even more radical in that it proposes that there is no possible human reconstruction that can reconcile mankind to the world. No reconciliation can occur but by the grace of Cod. Rousseau followed the outline of the Christian critique of civilized existence, but took this problem of reconciliation as his own—as against, ironically, a Christianized society. He hoped to achieve by secular means what Christianity allowed only to God’s worldly intervention.
Rousseau’s ambition in this regard extends Machiavelli’s. Machiavelli had objected to Christianity and its society even as he replicated much of the Christian critique of worldly things. As Rousseau would do later, Machiavelli took Christianity as his enemy precisely because of its enmity to human power even as it exercised that power to shape and reshape Machiavelli’s own world. Machiavelli sought to show men and women how to save themselves without waiting on God. The issue of salvation had been posed to Machiavelli most starkly by the Christian spiritual imperative and by the Church’s obvious political imperative. The issue then is the extent to which both Machiavelli and Rousseau were influenced by the doubled edged crisis of salvation inherited from Christianity.
Consider how closely Rousseau follows the Christian critique:
1. Paradise/Garden of Eden: innocent and free | State of nature: good & free
2. “Sin”—disobedience to God | “Fatal accident” [Second Discourse]
3. Corruption | Decay and degeneration
4. Human pride (the vanity and hypocrisy of the “Pharisees”) | “Vain curiosity,” “vain sciences,” “vain studies” [First Discourse]
5. Man was created without sin and everywhere he lives in sin | “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” [Social Contract]
6. No human government can save | No government is legitimate
7. What can save? | What can make legitimate?
8. God’s will in Christ | “General will” of people [Social Contract]
Rousseau secularizes the spiritual critique of human society left to him by Christianity. But he proposes a way of saving humans by purely conventional or political means, taking up the practical challenge posed by the political example of the Church’s own claims to rule. Like Machiavelli before him, he takes over the Christian program to save the world, transforming it into a program of strictly political salvation. Unlike Machiavelli, however, he inherits his own age’s condemnation of the Church’s claim to political legitimacy, a condemnation influenced by Machiavelli’s earlier critique. The “chains” of that Christian world’s claim to rule were widely considered illegitimate to Rousseau’s post-Reformation audience; Rousseau would extend the charge of illegitimacy to its farthest reach, to all existing governments, sacred or secular.
The precedent of Machiavelli is important. According to Harvey Mansfield, Jr., in Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders, Machiavelli “politicized Christianity.” Machiavelli “must explain religion, in particular the Christian religion, naturally.” By Mansfield’s account, the virtue of Machiavelli’s politicizing interpretation is that it understands Christianity as a kind of natural phenomenon. As Mansfield adds, “Understood naturally, it [Christianity] can be understood politically....” Mansfield explains Machiavelli’s purpose in these words:
The Christian sect has shown men how to acquire the world for themselves, but as something despicable like the corrupting acquisitions of external provinces by the Romans. . . . It has revealed the potential power of man to unify the human generation and capture the world. To be actualized, this potenza requires that the human generation be understood as a mixed body in Machiavelli’s sense of matter endowed with the spirit of self defense, thus republicanized.
Christianity “republicanized” or politicized becomes simply another form of human acquisition. So too for Rousseau. What then is left to do is what Rousseau takes as his project, to acquire legitimate sovereignty for human government. All extant claims to sovereignty, including the Church’s, are illegitimate: humans must re-acquire a lawful version of the natural freedom they have lost by entering an “illegal” society. And all societies, including the Church’s, are illegal. They are not based on a law man has given to himself, which to Rousseau (and after him, to Kant) was the crucial point. Both Machiavelli and Rousseau wish to “naturalize” (that is, politicize in their special senses) the human phenomena that they believe have become unnatural (depoliticized) within a Christianized society even as that Christian society itself moved to acquire the world it renounced.
Though anti-Christian, the basis of Rousseau’s critique is the Christian problem intellectually reformulated to a new political purpose: a self-perfecting human vanity has led to the loss of freedom. We may understand this more clearly by considering the Christian conception of freedom and the dilemma such freedom poses for human existence, a dilemma that Rousseau, and Machiavelli before him, had to confront. We can best do this, for our purposes here, by drawing on distinctions Hans Jonas makes in his Philosophical Essays, in a remarkable piece entitled “The Abyss of the Will: Philosophical Meditation on the Seventh Chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.” Jonas meditates on the foundational Christian text, Romans 7:18: “For willing what is right is in my power, but doing it is not. For I do not perform the good which I will, but the evil I will not, that I do.”
For the Christian, freedom is a trap inescapably opened by the nature of human consciousness; it is therefore a snare endemic to human existence. Freedom is constituted by an unavoidable quandary—at least not avoidable by human means—of willing right and doing wrong. There can be no escape for the Christian (and, the Christian contends, for all humans) but that path offered by the cross. Since the cross is the dividing point of human existence—on one side sin, on the other salvation—freedom cannot be the most important objective for the Christian. Freedom is the condition from which the Christian would escape by accepting the cross. The Christian cannot be saved by his own deed, at least according to Paul in the text cited by Jonas. The law, both human and divine, avails us nothing but entrapment in sin and knowledge of sin; our knowledge is a kind of sin itself. Human freedom leads invariably to sin and evil; the law announces this. The law makes its followers illegitimate, its followers unfree in the midst of their freedom. The problem is to make legitimacy without resort to self-entrapping law. The self-condemning reflexivity of the law must be escaped.
The Pauline text calls our attention to this abyss of self-subjectivity, what Jonas describes as ‘‘oscillating reflexivity.” In Jonas’ words, human freedom “cannot resist its own possibilities.” He goes on to explain:
Freedom even when successful in abstaining from unethical outward “work” encounters in the ownmost sphere of its self-grounding this inward possibility of itself which always lies in wait and claims its mental enactment; and the fact that here, within the mind, the mere thought is the act, and the possibility to think it is necessity to think it, and willing not to think it means to have already thought it, and not-having-thought-it may be concealing it, and concealing it may be its most suspicious presence: this labyrinthine structure of subjectivity per se makes the self-temptation irresistible to freedom in its helpless dealing with itself.
The Christian wills the right but has no power of his own to do the right; human freedom is helpless in dealing with itself. For the Christian, therefore, there can be no political right apart from the cross. He must make himself subject to God if he is to find peace. There is only one path to God, according to Paul, that of the cross of Christ, the one he discovered on the road to Damascus.
These thoughts, suggested by Hans Jonas’ reflections on the existential significance of Paul’s teaching about the trap of human freedom, find their precedent in certain passages from Rousseau—for Rousseau too had meditated on Paul’s epistles. For instance, from the Second Discourse:
. . . it is not so much understanding which constitutes the distinction of man among the animals as it is his being a free agent. Nature commands every animal, and the beast obeys. Man feels the same impetus, but he realizes that he is free to acquiesce or resist; and it is above all in the consciousness of his freedom that the spirituality of his soul is shown.
But it is the very spirituality of his soul that leads man into the existential trap disclosed by Christianity, the tempting trap of vain self-perfection and unremitting desire for salvation. Rousseau defines the human problem as Christians understood it, as the crisis of the self-corrupting conscience. Vanity, the sin of human pride, was a “sin” against man as well as or quite apart from its being a sin against God. Rousseau sought to demonstrate a way out of the Christian bind that did not rely on the Christian solution; indeed, it might be more accurate to say that he felt he had to solve this problem despite the weight of the proffered Christian solution. The Christian mode of salvation was not legitimate because it only compounded the problem. Christianity itself was a measure of human vanity and the grasping for self-perfection, and as such formed just another link in the chain that bound men in a self-imposed slavery. Another basis for legitimacy, equally self-imposed, but deliberately so, had to be established.
Why was the Christian solution illegitimate? As for Machiavelli, the Christian persuasion was for Rousseau a product of corrupt society. The spirituality of man’s soul had a “natural” history prior to that recorded by Christianized civilization. Christianity supposes men unhappy apart from Cod. Rousseau supposed men happy by nature, that is, when they were alone, isolated, with no awareness or consciousness of others and no worry about being apart from God. Men had no natural awareness of God and therefore no natural awareness of sin. By reading this prehistory, Rousseau believed that he had discovered that nature and human nature were good even when God or the knowledge of God was not at all evident. Nature was good to humans and good for them. Nature was pre-moral or amoral; it had a goodness that preceded all morality as it preceded all society, for it preceded the consciousness implicit in human freedom. Rousseau’s objective became to return to that amoral goodness as the standard of right in an immoral world, a world made more base by the Christian consciousness of the sinful self.
The extreme romanticism of Rousseau’s naturalism is like Machiavelli’s extreme realism in that his “good” has no moral content, his “right” is judged by no moral standard higher than itself. Consider this passage from the Second Discourse:
In a word, every man [in “the true state of nature”] seeing his fellow-men hardly otherwise than he would see animals of another species, can carry off the prey of the weaker or relinquish his own to the stronger, without considering these plunderings as anything but natural events, without the slightest emotion of insolence or spite, and with no other passion than the sadness or joy of a good or bad outcome.
Rousseau adds: “It seems at first that men in that state, not having among themselves any kind of moral relationship or known duties, could be neither good nor evil. . . .”
Goodness or badness is here not self-reflexive, not moral. The only sentiment tempering natural dispassion at natural events is held by Rousseau to be a kind of pity, itself only a “gentle voice,” which teaches—or rather inspires, for there is no teaching, no learning in Rousseau’s state of nature—men to follow the unchristian “maxim of natural goodness”: “Do what is good for you with the least possible harm to others.” The maxim of natural goodness is said to be of more utility than Christianity’s golden rule.
For Rousseau, the first stirrings of pride among men—their awareness of themselves in self-regarding tension with others—are the beginnings of human corruption and, as such, are the first revolutionary disruptions transforming the state of nature into a state of property, reputation, and power. Individual pride, which becomes overweening the more it is civilized, must be made general, not specific, in order to reclaim the soul’s natural (unthinking) peace with itself. It must also be “generalized” so as not to distemper the state’s political sovereignty, the only legitimizing path away from the corruption of the individual self.
As Rousseau contends in the Social Contract, only radical generalization—the complete alienation of the private self to the public good, the particular to the general—can recover the integrity of the isolated, solitary state of nature where there was no moral consciousness of an “I” set against others. Human conventions can be made legitimate only according to the standard of right supplied by Rousseau’s reading of the rights of the state of nature: “Do what is good for you . . .”—“without the slightest emotion of insolence or spite, and with no other passion than the sadness or joy of a good or bad outcome.” By alienating all of one’s self unreservedly to the social whole, one becomes innocent again, almost as in the amoral innocence of the state of nature, “neither good nor evil.” One gives up one’s proud, corrupt self as the locus of moral discrimination in favor of a transcending, ennobling sovereign social power of one’s own creation; and one does this equally with all others.
The meaning of freedom is transformed as well. One was free in the state of nature, but completely subject to its natural imperatives. So too with the new sovereign. Complete obedience to the general will reestablishes by convention (that is, by legitimate or moral means) the uncorrupted equality in the state of nature. The morality of politics is thus something agreed to in the social contract, as a matter of convention to which all are subject equally. Morality is a matter of agreement; there is no natural right or wrong that one should respect independently of what one finds good for oneself. The moral sovereign is an artificial or conventional whole to which all will owe full, unremitting allegiance. As Rousseau concedes, one must be “forced to be free” under these new conditions: one is obliged to obey the civil law one has given oneself in the general will. Obedience becomes the meaning of freedom. As Rousseau puts It in the Social Contract, “Obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is freedom.”
For Machiavelli, too, the point was to return to an amoral nature to reconstruct morality on new grounds, but his nature was not one of peace. War was Machiavelli’s state of nature, a condition of necessity wherein the Christian God was simply another “natural” phenomenon engineered by human beings interested in their aggrandizement. As Harvey Mansfield reminds us in his introduction to Machiavelli’s The Prince, God appears for Machiavelli—if He can be said to appear at all—only as the great teacher of worldly prudence, that is, as the great teacher of how to use one’s own arms to acquire. Machiavelli speaks of “Moses, who had so great a teacher.” This is God politicized and then conveniently set aside in favor of a new teacher and teaching, embraced in one’s arms only as an edifying armor amidst the war of worldly contests and to be exchanged for new, more edifying armor as circumstances dictate.
The function of God is taken up by men, their arms free of the need to embrace but not to grasp. The problem of salvation remains, but it is put in exclusively human hands; man governs himself by his own arms, according to Machiavelli. As Harvey Mansfield has pointed out, by the end of The Prince, the equation having consequence is fortune and human virtue, not fortune, God’s providence, and human prudence. God’s place in the order of things is taken by de-sanctified human agency. Having accomplished this reduction, Machiavelli is then in position to redefine the meaning of sin as well as the meaning of good and virtue. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Machiavelli gets us to agree with his new meanings for sin, good, and virtue by arguing so subtly that we don’t notice until it is too late that God has disappeared from the human scene as politicized by Machiavelli—covered over by human arms—and that our understandings of evil, of good, and of virtue have been radically transformed.
Being politicized, Machiavelli’s version of salvation, like Rousseau’s, has more to do with the state than with the individual soul, the political state of the individual’s soul. The latter is politicized following the example of the Christian individual’s incorporation within an institutional church operating according to worldly or natural priorities in a corrupt, sinful world that needs saving. The two points of contention—the individual and the state—meet in the problem of ruling securely one’s sphere in an unfriendly world. Specifically for Machiavelli, it is not necessary to be morally right; it is instead right (i.e., effective) to live according to necessity, that which is necessary to save one’s life or “state.” Humans can save themselves from disaster only if they see themselves fighting the unfriendly regime of an expanded, all-embracing, and forever dangerous necessity, and act accordingly.
The ruler is advised that “it is necessary for him to be so prudent as to know how to avoid the infamy of those vices that would take his state from him.” The “state” is ambiguously doubled, at once a political possession and also a physical life. The ruler is told: “one should not care about incurring the reputation of those vices without which it is difficult to save one’s state; for if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.” Or as Rousseau would later teach: “Do what is good for you with the least possible harm to others.” Needless to say, what is good for you may not be what is good simply, and what harms others is of secondary or non-moral consideration. The degree of harm one does to others is a matter of what best secures oneself, one’s state.
Machiavelli deliberately broadens the realm of necessity, the realm of crisis, in order to emphasize the extremes necessary “to save one’s state”— to obtain political salvation. And salvation is a political condition, not a religious one. The state of one’s soul apart from the state it is in in this world is not the point; it is the state of one’s condition in the world that is at issue, for it is only in the present that one can secure one’s self and one’s state. One’s status in the present is the enduring question. Prudence is doing intelligently what is necessary to save one’s own self by one’s own arms. We are advised to husband our resources in order to subdue the wife that is necessity. And we are permanently married to necessity; there is no divorce in Machiavelli’s reconstituted state. It is not surprising, then, that Machiavelli sees murder as perfectly good when appropriate or necessary.
Virtue in Machiavelli becomes a double-sided meanness; a preoccupation with means and an acceptance of cruelty. The worst condition imaginable is to be under the regime of necessity without means and meanness of one’s own. “For there is no proportion between one who is armed and one who is unarmed.” Because men are wicked, a sentiment with which Rousseau agrees, it is necessary in order to save one’s skin or state to be wicked with astuteness. “Therefore it is necessary for a prince to know well how to use the beast and the man. . . . And if all men were good, this teaching would not be good.” Since men are not good, it is good to be beastly on occasion, as necessity dictates; and since it is necessity which dictates, there is no moral problem encountered by acting as one must.
As with Rousseau later, Machiavelli gives us a new innocence beyond good and evil. It is a satisfying wisdom. The teaching that teaches this new non-moral good is itself obviously good to know; it is exceedingly useful. As good in this new sense, it constitutes its own non-moral morality. To save one’s self in a wicked world, one must learn how to be intelligently and bravely wicked. One learns this from Machiavelli, who is therefore a good teacher of what is good, timely wickedness. Wickedness is something to be grasped, not spurned, when the situation calls for it, and avoided only if the situation does not call for it, not avoided because wickedness is immoral. As Machiavelli shows, the situation will sooner or later call for it. Human salvation requires astutely applied doses of savagery. What can be said to be required is beyond moral objection.
Machiavelli, like Rousseau, returns us to a nature naked of morality. Morality is all the more visible in Machiavelli for its expedient absences; it becomes purely a matter of style, worn only for its practical impact, put on or taken off as the rhetorical case demands. The moral or good thing for men to do if they are to save themselves is to out-fox the vagaries of nature by beating her to the punch. “I judge this indeed, that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman; and it is necessary, if one wants to hold her down, to beat her and strike her down.” In the realm of necessity—which is paradoxically Machiavelli’s realm of freedom, men being free to do what they must—salvation consists in “acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion” when “the winds of fortune and variations of things command” it. Evil is not evil when our salvation requires it; it is good.
Machiavelli was in the habit of pointing to persuasive historical models (examples or “modes”) to confirm his points. What was the most persuasive contemporary model for Machiavelli, and the opponent he must defeat if Machiavellianism, with its desire to acquire this world, can succeed? It is his arch-enemy, Christianity. To defeat Christianity, Machiavelli must demonstrate that Christianity is in fact Machiavellian. The battle is won if Christianity can be shown, in the testimony of its own deeds, to teach his own lesson—that evil is not evil when salvation requires it. That the battle was won can be seen in this passage from Rousseau’s Social Contract:
Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom on earth. . . . Now since this new idea of an otherworldly kingdom could never be understood by the pagans, they always regarded the Christians as true rebels who, beneath a hypocritical submissiveness, were only awaiting the moment to become independent and the masters, and to usurp adroitly the authority they pretended to respect out of weakness. . . . What the pagans feared happened. Then everything took on a different appearance, the humble Christians changed their language, and soon this supposedly otherworldly kingdom was seen to become, under a visible leader, the most violent despotism in this world.
Christianity Machiavellianized is based on the proposition that killing the Son of God was the necessary path to human salvation. What is necessary to save is right or virtuous. Christianity seems by this reasoning to reveal that God himself was Machiavellian: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be destroyed but may have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved through him.” (John 3:16; Richard Lattimore’s translation) As Machiavelli would say, the world is redeemed by means of a timely murder sanctioned by God. God teaches the wisdom of God’s own execution. In order to acquire the allegiance of men, God too uses his own arms in the person of his own son—and the arms of the Church—to redeem the world.
Machiavelli’s ruler, whether the prince or the people, also loves the world; he desires it so much that he wishes to acquire it as his own, using his own arms. Like Christ, in this perverse way, he puts judgment aside in favor of acquisition (that is, salvation). God, Machiavelli could say, citing Scripture, does not judge the world; he saves it for Himself, and by whatever means are necessary. Judgment (justice) exists henceforth only as an expeditious means to acquisition (power).
The Christianity of this world is Machiavelli’s great rival but also his great model. Christianity’s Church presents the most commanding counterclaim for redeeming the world, and it does so behind the mask (robes) of sacred otherworldliness. Machiavelli, too, masks his own politics, after a fashion. His politics is presented in the name of a saving patriotism. The Prince concludes with these words: “Thus, one should not let this opportunity pass, for Italy after so much time, to see her redeemer” (emphasis added). The crisis is at hand, as it always is with Machiavelli’s salvific politics. Italy’s redeemer will not be a Christian by faith; he will be a Machiavellian “Christian” in practice. He will redeem Italy with his own arms and in the process defeat Christianity by out-acquiring the Church. But to be persuaded by Machiavelli that evil is not evil when it saves us, and that Christianity is only the worldly acquisitions of the Church, is already to be deprived of moral bearings beyond those which Machiavelli defines as virtuous, the success of one’s own arms. Machiavelli seeks to debase Christianity by showing that it is finally just another, inferior brand of Machiavellianism.
Rousseau’s views, I have tried to show, jibe with Machiavelli’s. The Social Contract ends with a critique of Christianity nearly as withering as Machiavelli’s own, only to adopt an intolerance of un-civil religious faiths as withering as Christianity’s own—for the noblest of civic purposes, of course. Rousseau seeks to establish a tolerance of civil or political intolerance, to erect, in effect, a civil religion that out-politicizes Christianity but appears to be more tolerant—to a point. Violation of Rousseau’s “sentiments of sociability,” the tenets of “a good citizen or a faithful subject,” or what he also calls his “‘dogmas of the civil religion,” will be punished with banishment or death.
My point has been to suggest that both Machiavelli and Rousseau define the human dilemma as the problem of salvation. In this, I have argued, they perversely follow Christianity while separating themselves from it. What was formerly a religious problem with political implications becomes for them a political problem with religious implications. The Christian ecclesiastical imperative of salvation at all costs, in a world in crisis, is transformed by their thought into the originating impetus of modernity’s search for secular salvation. The Christian redemption of the world from itself becomes in their critiques a radical rejection of Christianity’s depreciation of the world, in the name of another, rival redemption of the world. Christianity, according to them, slandered human integrity even as it exploited politically the power of that integrity.
Human integrity can be saved from the Christian slander and from the vain foolishness of human freedom by readapting the Christian insight into that freedom and by adopting the Christian method, the redefining of what is saving for humans. The new good justifies a new “unnatural” practice in the name of a reinterpreted understanding of nature, and requires the establishment of a new “unnatural” order based on a nature more rigorously understood, that is, without reference to what is higher than human beings or moral, and without regard, finally, for human freedom itself. It is not surprising that efforts to save the integrity of human beings by purely human means end by relinquishing all natural restraints, encouraging banishment, and praising executions, as both Rousseau and Machiavelli do.
Christianity had taught that the nature of the human problem was the need to be saved from the nature of human beings. Rousseau and Machiavelli did not quarrel with this objective, the need to be saved from human weakness and corruption, only with the rationale; it was not from nature but to nature, correctly reinterpreted by their lights, that the path of salvation should take. They sought to re-naturalize human society in order to save it from the unnatural fate which they believed had overcome it under the all-too-human siege of an unnatural (and anti human) Christianity. The process of re naturalization was intensely political, as rulership of human society was at stake: salvation lay only in human hands and heads. Salvation is for them a political process, not a religious path. It is through this reasoning—irresistibly absorbed by it as we are—that we came to face a permanent sense of crisis in the West. In our age more than in theirs, we tend to think, everything is at risk; our time teaches us that only we can save ourselves, and that save ourselves we must—from ourselves. We too seek a liberated political theology: liberated from the corruption of human things, politicized by the justice of human sovereignty, theologized by the Christian urgency to save every human life, by the cross if necessary.
Since we in the West are all more or less Machiavellian and have all tasted of the cup poured so masterfully by Rousseau, being double inheritors, first of Christianity and then of the radical reaction to Christianity, many are tempted to go behind Christianity, to try to see what existed prior to its radically transforming effects. They seek hesitantly a pre-Christian perspective in order to understand modernity’s crisis of salvation according to a non-Machiavellian, non-Rousseauean, and non-Christian standard. For some, this has meant a return to Greek political philosophy. For others it may mean a reconsideration of what existed prior to Christianity but was, for many, covered over by it—that is, a reconsideration of Judaism.
In taking this latter route, they may, for instance, consider what can be learned of human pride from the record of Genesis. From this pre-Christian perspective, it would seem to have been imprudent of God in His effort to redeem Israel—not the world— to have sent His son to death on a cross. Surely the Lord of creation would have known how such an action might be misinterpreted by such vain creatures as those He created in the beginning as He did. By acting after the Christian fashion—if in fact He did— He rather severely raised the stakes in the human drama, not to mention the expectations. In effect, He was saying that His creation was not good enough. His law was not wise enough. Something extreme was necessary to save the human things: make a man God.
Considering this, those doing the reconsidering may argue further—if we may continue this line of thought—that the Lord did not send His son to death in order to conquer (in resurrection) an unconquerable death and that Christianity is a misinterpretation of God’s will and a misunderstanding of His desires for human beings. Christianity might from this pre-Christian perspective simply represent—no, not simply, for there is nothing simple about it—an effort by some of those beings to get around the difficulties posed to them by pod’s law and the idea of law as such. If so, then Machiavelli’s and Rousseau’s radical extensions of the imperative of salvation bequeathed to them by Christianity are misappropriations of a misinterpretation. The crisis of the West, the crisis of salvation, they could further contend, may rest on successive intellectual errors that have at each stage been radically politicized. The universalization of the Christian message is usually taken to be its great strength; it may rather be evidence of its extreme immoderation.
Clearly, this way of proceeding is fraught with difficulties, especially in a Christian world educated by Machiavelli and Rousseau. How may we get beyond what we irresistibly are? Are not those of us in the West invariably drawn to dramas of salvation, to Machiavellian impetuosity, to forcing people to be free? And the true Christians among us might well reply that immoderation is exactly to the point when the point is to save the world. Must not the world be saved?
It may yet be the case that if there is indeed a crisis of the West from which we need to he saved, we may more accurately understand it as a crisis caused by the need to be saved from the extreme sense that we need to be saved. The world may in fact not need saving, at least not need our saving; it may benefit more from our moderation. As Edward Shils has written, “There is no permanent solution to any important problem in human life.” It remains an open question whether it is in our power to save the world or to save ourselves in any permanent sense.
Difficult as it may seem given the foregoing analysis, rediscovering ourselves and our world apart from the imperatives of a secularized Christian salvation, and apart also from the modern exaggerations of that salvation evident in the thought of Machiavelli and Rousseau, may yet open a prudent path through our ever-present difficulties. If it is not a path of final salvation in the sense of securing those permanent solutions not available to us, then it can nevertheless be one of considerable courage and honesty. This conclusion may strike readers as an anti-climatic note on which to end—and that is exactly my point.
William E. Johnston, Jr., who has taught at a number of universities, is an administrator in the Office of the President of the University of California. An earlier version of this essay was prepared for the American Political Science Association under the auspices of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.