Return of the Strong Gods:
Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West
by r. r. reno
regnery gateway, 208 pages, $28.99
The title of R. R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods requires qualification. To begin with, most of what Reno tells us concerns not the gods’ return, but their expulsion. As for the gods themselves, they “are not golden idols or characters in ancient mythologies,” Reno writes. “They are whatever has the power to inspire love—love of the divine, love of truth, love of country, love of family.” Reno speaks of gods in the same sense that Émile Durkheim does at the conclusion of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. They are, in Durkheim’s words, “The great things of the past which filled our fathers with enthusiasm.”
Of course, communism inspired powerful passions and loyalties, as did anti-communism, especially in the United States. The same may be said of feminism, LGBT rights, and various other ideologies. Are these not strong gods, too? Perhaps not. For though they inspire enthusiasm, they cannot inspire love.
Still, these gods seem strong enough, if only due to the high degree of enthusiasm, mixed with fury, they elicit from believers. In recent decades, these gods have been steadily increasing in number and have gained control of almost every aspect of our lives: education, politics, human relations, art, morality, religion, philosophy. Given the zealotry they spawned, modern ideologies seem anything but weak.
Reno’s outlook is fundamentally Augustinian. Augustine defined the political community as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” Reno contrasts this strong sense of “we” with ideological, artificial, ad hoc identities. In his view, feminism on the left and sociobiology on the right fail to see that love can overcome sexual and racial difference, and so offer false forms of solidarity. “There is something thicker than blood,” he writes, “the union of shared loves.”
The idea of the strong gods seems to rest on a distinction between hard and soft ontology. “Strong” refers to the view that reality has some basic substance or objective order, and that men possess cognitive faculties that enable them to discover and give a correct account of this order. The strong gods are thus religion, with its attempt to disclose transcendence; classical metaphysics, with its search for the absolute; classical epistemology, with its basis in the concept of truth; and political loyalties that are grounded in the historical experience of a community. These are the gods modern philosophy has criticized, condemned, debunked, demythologized, deconstructed, weakened, and subjected to many other intellectual exorcisms.
Of course, even worthy loves can be perverted. Reno rejects the callow anti-nationalism so common today, but he warns that we must not “give our hearts to politics and the nation.” To resist this form of “idolatry,” we must “nurture two primeval sources of solidarity that limit the claims of the civic ‘we’: the domestic society of marriage and the supernatural community.” Here, Reno draws on Catholic social teaching, which has long sought to defend and harmonize the “three necessary societies” of family, polity, and church.
In Reno’s account, the strong gods were expelled by the “postwar consensus”—a set of views adopted by Western elites after World War II that promised a stable, free, and prosperous society. This consensus, Reno says, was explicitly anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian. Whereas fascism and totalitarianism created rigid, homogeneous, and closed societies, the postwar consensus sought to be dynamic, diverse, and open. And to achieve that end, it was necessary to abolish the metaphysically grounded sense of order inherited from Christianity and classical philosophy.
Reno shows how the idea of the open society was elaborated in parallel terms by thinkers on both the right and the left. Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are usually thought to be opposed to Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, but Reno argues convincingly that leading figures on the postwar left and right worked in tandem to weaken the strong claims made on men’s love and loyalty by religion, family, and the political community. The originality of the book lies in this. Whatever the differences between these two groups of thinkers (and Reno does not minimize those differences), they had a common enemy.
Reno’s argument accounts for why today’s liberals are always reluctant to confront left-wing ideologies, regardless of how brutally they infringe on people’s freedom, and regardless of what radical transgressions they advocate.
It also sheds light on another intriguing phenomenon. How is it that the “open” society, to this day lauded as the most open in history, is becoming ever more restrictive and dogmatic? And how is it that today’s “diversity,” hailed with equal ardor, has come to mean, in practical terms, homogeneity? Any answer to these questions must be complex, but one element is of paramount importance. A sense of enmity—a natural consequence of the need to separate good ideas from bad—fuels both the dogmatism and the homogeneity. Anyone who dissents from the consensus is by definition suspect. Reno recounts the fate of Walter Lippmann, who dared to make cautious and subtle remarks about the need for a metaphysical grounding of public philosophy and was chided for “‘authoritarian’ backsliding.”
Reno describes the postwar consensus as anti-fascist. This is true, but it is worth asking what this term actually means. “Fascism” lost its precise meaning a long time ago. It is now merely a slur applying to anyone and anything that stands to the speaker’s right. Ever since Stalin became the anti-fascist par excellence, finding oneself in the anti-fascist camp has been a dubious honor. Because it overlooks the sins of the left, anti-fascism is little more than a means of insinuating that the greatest political crime is to believe in anything besides the party line.
Reno also describes the postwar consensus as anti-totalitarian. Perhaps this was the case in the United States, but it was not so in Europe. Communism was for many years a powerful force in Western Europe, not only politically but intellectually, and many thinkers and artists found it attractive. True, Camus, one of the writers Reno discusses, criticized the Soviet Union and the Gulag. But this had less to do with his ideological commitment to openness than with his human decency. Jean-Paul Sartre, who was even more committed to fluidity, was an apologist for the Soviet system and Mao’s cultural revolution. Clearly, one can annihilate classical metaphysics and make human existence completely protean, and at the same time sympathize with the worst political regimes.
The fundamental error of the postwar consensus lay in the idea that relativizing the claims of truth, faith, and family would be a weapon against totalitarian tyranny. In fact, totalitarian regimes had been fighting those very things with unparalleled ferocity. They did away with classical metaphysics and epistemology, nation and family, and chose religion as their mortal enemy. This was particularly true of the communists. The German National Socialists had their own program. Vehemently anti-Christian, they were replacing Christian religion with some form of paganism, just as nation was replaced by Volk, with its obscure biological-mythological ideology. As for the family, they defended it solely as a place to breed children that later on would be taken from their parents and trained by the State to serve the German National Socialist Party. Family life happened to be convenient for advancing this aim, but the Nazi Party also welcomed children out of wedlock and encouraged unmarried girls to help reinforce the manpower of the Third Reich.
In the totalitarian society, truth in the classical sense did not exist. The truth was “dialectical” in character, contextual, class-determined, historically changing, and justified through “collective practice,” not through abstractions demanding “slavish obedience.” The world was amorphous, malleable, devoid of meaning except that conferred on it by the historically dominant class. Under the totalitarian regime, there was nothing to which one could have recourse: no objective truth, no rules, no law, no norm, no social practice, no institution, no definition. Not even Marxism-Leninism could provide a stronghold, because one never knew what interpretation would be “politically correct” at a given moment. Everything was subject to human will—that is, to the inhuman will of the party, the politburo, and its Number One.
Needless to say, the fluidity and relativism of the “open society” does more to advance than to oppose this kind of totalitarianism. How is it possible that a society dedicated to resisting totalitarianism would make war on faith, family, and citizenship?
One answer is that the war against these things has been going on for a long time, and the threat of totalitarianism only offers a new pretext for the old campaign. I agree with Reno’s description of the postwar consensus, but I disagree with him regarding its novelty. “The distempers afflicting public life today,” he writes, “reflect a crisis of the postwar consensus . . . not a crisis of liberalism, modernity, or the West.” In fact, the crisis is more profound—it is precisely one “of liberalism, modernity, [and] the West.” The war against ennobling loves did not begin with Popper, Adorno, and Vattimo. It has a longer history.
A massive attack on classical metaphysics began in early modernity when the Platonic-Aristotelian-Scholastic edifice was declared incompatible with the new model of science and the new concept of politics. Modern philosophy emphasized the constructivist element in how we organize our knowledge (Bacon, Locke, and Kant) and our political life (various versions of contractarianism). Political society became a construction—impersonal, abstract—whose boundaries were artificial, determined by the logic of power and the efficacy of law, not by what Aristotle called philia (friendship, love). It could be small or big, a democracy, a republic, or a supranational commercial commonwealth. In each case, the strong gods were no longer there.
Are the strong gods really returning? Reno seems rather cautious. “The concerns that drive populism in the West—immigration, borders, and national sovereignty—reflect a growing sense that the ‘we’ needs shoring up,” he writes. But “instead of guiding and refining the populist calls for love and loyalty,” our establishment “bears down on them with disenchantment and weakening.”
Reno sees the current political upheavals in the West as a sign that our common loves and loyalties need to be strengthened. This is undeniably true. But to what extent will this shoring up also resurrect the sense of objectivity that Western philosophy has for so long subverted? Without metaphysics, the “we” that is coming back may turn out to be short-lived. The breakdown of the postwar consensus cannot be understood except as part of a deeper and older crisis. The destruction of Europe’s cities and countryside was preceded by the dismantling of its classical and Christian inheritance in the name of liberty.
Whether one thinks that the crisis goes back to the end of World War II or to the rise of liberalism, one can agree with Reno’s prescription. “I am a Catholic,” Reno writes. “I’d like to see a widespread revival of Christianity.” What is needed today is an embrace of the West’s philosophical and religious inheritance. In political terms, this will mean strengthening and harmonizing the three necessary societies, the highest of which is the Church. The return of the strong gods will be a hopeful sign only if it involves a return to the God whose power is made perfect in weakness.
Ryszard Legutko is professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.