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After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundation of Freedom
by David Walsh
HarperSanFrancisco, 296 pages, $29.95

In this book, David Walsh uses Nietzsche to show how the modern Western world, after tearing itself loose from its Christian foundations, inevitably failed to maintain a defensible value structure. Mere derivatives of Christianity such as this world came to depend on as guides for human action could not serve as such, and Nietzsche best portrays the absurdity of the effort to make mankind its own God. The real result, says Walsh, is nihilism—the name of the abyss confronting contemporary man. 

Thus, the way to avoid this abyss, or escape from it, is to reestablish the human connection to, and conformity with, the divine order. Acknowledgment that there is such an order, and openness to and acceptance of it, is the secret of the great philosophers, Christian and pre-Christian. The Greeks, for example, though obviously without Christ’s revelation, had realized that the truly good life consisted in a willingness to harmonize the self with the principles of right action, which, they judged, could be discerned by the honest and searching person. (In this sense, since the good was objective and ascertainable, it is appropriate and not surprising that the Greeks often pointed to the “good person” rather than a code as the right object of emulation.) 

For Walsh, the idea both that there is a divinely rooted good order for man and that it is ascertainable is bedrock. From there, he proceeds to tell the stories of four men of the modern era who saw Nietzsche’s abyss, descended into it, and then heroically ascended from the depths. The four—Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, and Voegelin—take up the greater part of this book, as Walsh traces, first, their life in modernity, their unwillingness to accept the emptiness it confronted them with, their respective struggles to transcend it, and finally, their achievement of the true transcendence—in the end, the only genuine source of order and peace. 

Walsh presents their stories as exemplary for modern man in general. He repeatedly emphasizes his belief that there is at least as much to learn from the struggles of the four as from their formal teachings. They grappled with the temptation to self-aggrandizement that nihilism offers and discovered for themselves the good that is not merely a set of abstract norms but, provided one opens oneself to it, a lived reality. 

These are great themes for Walsh to explore, and great figures through whom to explore them; hence once finds oneself disappointed that for all its dramatic sweep and often insightful generalizations the book exhibits some fundamental confusions. 

One is reminded by After Ideology of the marvelous old story about the philosopher who escaped to the desert, there to contemplate reality and finally grasp its essence. After twenty years of solitude, he had finally achieved his objective. He came out of the desert and announced to the first person he encountered, “Life is a tree.” To which his new-found acquaintance replied, “No, it isn’t.” Mr. Walsh clearly had a great desire that quite disparate realities be made symmetrical. In particular, he seemed to wish that his four exemplars could be more alike than they in fact are, and become thereby a kind of united force for intellectual and spiritual reform. He also comes dangerously close to declaring existential struggle to be the sine qua non of all insight: the struggle, in other words, is by itself more important than what it results in. And finally, he has a way of wiping away the distinction between what might be the path to individual perception and salvation and what might be required for the salvation of a whole civilization. 

The most striking example of Walsh’s drive to symmetry involves his persistent effort to baptize Camus a Christian despite the fact that Camus explicitly rejected Christian faith. Walsh overcomes this difficulty by asserting that “a further unfolding of [Camus’ thought] would have arrived at a position virtually identical with Christianity,” and that “Camus’ experience became Christian in all but name.” To claim to know how Camus would unfold seems a bit extreme for someone who praises existential freedom, and to say “in all but name” sounds odder still from an admirer of C. S. Lewis who, in Mere Christianity, went to great lengths to show that being Christian precisely requires the name. 

A prime example of Walsh’s tendency to elevate struggle over perception is to be found in his treatment of Jacques Maritain. Walsh assumes that before real understanding can be achieved, “a sojourn in the wilderness must take place” (emphasis added). Only after having thus sojourned could a Camus, for example, come to see that “human nature does exist, as the Greeks believed,” whereas Maritain, by contrast, was limited by having started as a Christian. His natural-law teaching, though not in Maritain’s view faith-dependent, “had its origin in Christianity.” It is therefore not surprising, according to Walsh, that Maritain “evoked the image of a ‘new Christianly inspired civilization’ as the only viable alternative to the destruction of humanity wrought by the prevailing ‘totalitarian spirit.’” Maritain, in short, is made to appear dependent on and limited by an assumed faith, in contrast to the book’s four heroes who attain reality only through great struggle. 

The truth is that Maritain’s major treatment of natural law, in Man and the State, is entirely natural, not revelatory. Indeed, there he traces natural law through the Greeks and Romans—and calls Antigone its “eternal heroine.” And a later reference, in a different part of the book, to a “new Christianly inspired civilization” was in no sense a suggestion that he expected such or considered it a requirement for a more enlightened order. Walsh’s insufficient understanding and appreciation of Maritain appears to stem from his underlying assumption that reflection without a fall and redemptive struggle cannot yield the truth. 

As for Walsh’s previously noted tendency to shift without explanation from the personal to the civilizational, it leaves us with a question. The world must have a new “Christian foundation,” he tells us, and “Christianity offers the best hope of restoring personal, political, and historical order.” What we are not told, however, is exactly what kind of conversion is involved in such an aspiration. Does this mean that there is to be a new spirit of the age, more or less independent of, but formative for, the persons who exist? Or does it mean that when and if enough souls move through their own conversions, we will have a soil in which a new order will flower? Furthermore, at times Walsh’s entreaties for a new Christian order seem utilitarian and to run in reverse: Do you want to save the world? If so, see God and His Christ. I think for the Christian the more normal order of things would be: Do you want to know the truth? See God and His Christ. Then, save the world, at least the part you can touch, by the rules He gives you.

Quentin L. Quade is Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.

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