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We live in a divided age. My country of Britain increasingly exhibits the same sort of partisanship that wracks America. It can be hard to witness the bitter divisions of the culture war, and the terrible arguments setting friends and family at odds, and not conclude that we are living in that age when “the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.”

Most try to describe this divide in secular and ideological terms. Should we blame the “postmodern Marxism” of “woke professors” (as Jordan Peterson argues), or the “far-right demagogues” who have “hijacked” the conservative movement? Or are the culprits not bad actors at all, but impersonal ­forces—­globalization, late capitalism, digital technology?

In fact, we should look to a more fundamental basis: theology. The naturalism and materialism of modern thought have had the effect not of abolishing theology, but of subtly immanentizing theological conflicts in chaotic and destructive ways. As Plato said of the materialistic skeptics and sophists of his own era, they “drag down everything from heaven and the invisible to earth.”

What is the implicit theology of our partisan age? The original rupture with the past was born of the French Revolution, the Year Zero of Western history, in which royal and ecclesial authority were abolished, a new “rational” revolutionary calendar was imposed, and the path of progress was first bloodily paved with the butchered bodies of the revolution’s foes.

Though today’s conservatives incline to identify with those foes, the origin of our contemporary left-right political division emerged not in the conflict between revolution and ­reaction, but in the arguments of the revolutionary moderates and ultras, labeled either droite or gauche from their places in the National ­Assembly. The right voted to imprison the king, and the left wanted his head.

For all the complexities and transformations of modern life over the past two hundred years, this binary logic has asserted itself continually, in a pattern we seem unable to escape. It is striking that modernity, across so many countries and cultures, should be so thoroughly defined by a divide that did not exist in premodern societies.

Putting aside our preconceptions about communism and capitalism, ­authoritarianism and anarchy, we may understand this divide as a theological wound, a tear in the fabric of Western metaphysics and theopolitics. We can investigate it in the light of the divisions of medieval Christendom.

The Middle Ages were much enlivened by lists and categories: the Fourteen Holy Helpers, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the four humors, and the division of the day into the liturgy of hours. And there were the heptads, which we still know: the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues.

We’re more familiar with the sins today, but arguably the virtues, when misplaced, are the deadliest of all. The seven virtues comprise the four “cardinal” virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, and the three “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The cardinal virtues originated in Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, before being adopted into Christian theology by Church Fathers like Ambrose and Augustine, who easily discovered them in Scripture. (Frequently ­cited was the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom: “Man’s excellences are the fruit [Wisdom] labors to produce; temperance and prudence she ­teaches, justice and fortitude.”)

Aquinas described the cardinal virtues as “proportionate to human nature,” whereas the theological virtues offered a “happiness surpassing man’s nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone, by a kind of participation of the Godhead.” The theological ­virtues are “above man’s nature,” fully attainable only by divine grace, and directed toward humanity’s supernatural rather than natural end. Aquinas clearly identifies the cardinal virtues with works: “The entire structure of good works is built on four virtues.”

Faith and works are not separated in this orthodox theology; the theological virtues are described as acts, not mere inward dispositions. As Aquinas writes: “the Divine Law contains precepts about the acts of faith, hope, and charity.” Charity is the highest of the virtues; for ­Aquinas, “charity is the friendship of man for God.”

Each of the cardinal virtues is seen as preparing the soul for this friendship. Prudence, or practical wisdom, is primary—the rule of reason over the soul. Justice is the active ordering of the passions and appetites of the soul so that they obey reason. Temperance, the quality of maintaining equilibrium in the face of desires and appetites, involves resisting temptation and ­enduring pleasure’s absence. Fortitude is the virtue of resisting fear and pain, so that we have the strength to carry out what reason dictates, justice commands, and temperance inclines us toward.

The cardinal virtues require balance and moderation. They are virtues of order and proportion that allow us, as limited ­corporeal beings, to navigate our earthly existence. Excessive courage is not fortitude but recklessness; temperance must maintain healthy appetites and direct us neither to indulge nor to neglect our needs. These virtues obey the ­Aristotelian Golden Mean. By contrast, the theological virtues do not belong to the world of the finite and temporal. They are heavenly qualities. You cannot be too faithful, too hopeful, too ­charitable.

Whereas the world of Christendom showed people how to reconcile these two senses of virtue, the modern world struggles to hold them together. The ancient distinctions between world and Church, profane and ­r­eligious—between works and faith, those who fought and those who prayed—have bequeathed to us the modern divide between right and left. This bequest is especially stark in the opposition between two extreme contemporary iterations, the neo-pagan right and the woke left.

Today many traditional Christians find themselves, more or less comfortably, on the political right. And yet it is in right-wing politics that the worldly vision of virtue has been perpetuated. To be a conservative is to stress the cardinal virtues and preach realism, limit, and moderation. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt defines the psychological differences between conservatives and liberals as rooted in differing attitudes to questions of care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity—with liberals stressing care above all other considerations and conservatives tending to emphasize fairness and the rest.

The unworldly realm of the contemplative, spiritual, and infinite has been embraced by an increasingly utopian left, which stresses universal brotherhood, adherence to abstract ideals above biological reality, and a belief in relentless and inevitable progress. They pledge loyalty to a borderless “global village” in which allowing unfettered liberation is the highest form of ­benevolence.

When the transcendent aspirations of the theological virtues are severed from the realities of the present world and the balancing logic of the cardinal virtues, they undergo dangerous transformations. Unregulated by temperance, justice, or prudence, love becomes its destructive opposite. Progressives seek to build a heaven on earth, regardless of what violence they must inflict on tradition, custom, and human nature. Their ideas of being “loving” have taken on an absolute quality, leading them to attack what they see as the selfishness of family life, private property, and national identity.

Borders must dissolve, populations be uprooted, and the bonds that hold communities together severed, all in the name of an egalitarianism that regards people as fungible economic units. Human bodies are subjected to drugs, surgeries, and alterations of every kind in the cause of building a world in which desire is unbounded, whether under the influence of transgenderism, transhumanism, or commercial beauty standards.

The right correctly asserts our human and given limits. But in response to the idealism of the “woke” left, it has adopted an increasingly ­materialistic account of human nature. Stoicism is preached in the face of adversity, but charity is not offered. A neo-­pagan right has emerged, in which the rule of the strong over the weak is straightforwardly defended; aesthetics are prioritized over ethics; and private family life is promoted at the expense of duty to the political community.

This Nietzschean right has emerged online, with eccentric accounts exerting a surprising degree of influence over more mainstream conservatives, including traditionalist and nationalist Christians. The podcaster and twitterist Bronze Age Pervert, or BAP, enjoys a considerable following thanks to his eccentric but highly entertaining footnotes to Julius Evola.

BAP’s aesthetic lies somewhere at the intersection of fascism, powerlifting, and ancient Greece, as he posts glamorous images of nudist bodybuilders, dreams about a new age of heroism and conquest, and engages in lurid fantasies of left-wing journalists succumbing en masse to the power of right-wing gym rats. The absurdism is intentional, but the underlying message—that politics is a game of power, that aesthetics trump ethics, and that masculinity should be intensified and proudly embraced—appeals to a whole generation of disaffected young rightists.

As exotic as BAP may be, he occupies one end of a continuum of health nuts, masculinity coaches, and anti-woke self-help gurus that encompasses famous figures such as Jordan Peterson, Andrew Tate, and Joe Rogan. None of these men, among the most influential right-wing influencers online, is a Christian: Peterson is a Jungian who translates the Bible into self-help soundbites, Rogan is a rationalistic agnostic, and Tate recently converted to Islam because he sees Christianity as liberal and effeminate.

None attacks Christianity straightforwardly. Each seeks, in some cases overtly, to engage with conservative Christians and layer traditional Christian culture atop his neo-pagan politics. BAP, the most self-aware of this tribe, writes: “Offending Christians in political movements is stupid, when they’re one of the last bastions against a common enemy. If their beliefs are corrupted, they can be reformed.”

The roots of a pagan retreat from universalism and from a politics built on charity were planted by the old-school right. Conservative titans like Glenn Beck combined adherence to evangelical Christianity with a vindication of the free market and a view of politics as a defense of the private goods of family life against the depredations of the state. Beck once said, with echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as society”: “There is no such thing as social justice. Only God can balance things out, and we are not God.”

If this late-twentieth-century “fusionism” combined religious conservatism with economic libertarianism, a new fusionism seems poised to merge neo-pagan ideas of ethnonationalism with a forceful Christian nationalism. This new fusionism feeds a real and deep need for a restored sense of identity and nationhood, and for a defense of the family against state-­encouraged individualism and the ravages of the unregulated free market. But amid the exalted language, we easily lose sight of what is missing.

In asserting this ethics of personal responsibility and political pessimism, the right has neglected a central tenet of moral theology: that the cardinal virtues serve the theological virtues—and above all the greatest of these, charity. As ­Augustine puts it, “temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.” If love is not understood in its proper sense as transcendent, universal, present in process as much as principle, even the most sincere religious conservatives will be drawn into the logic of neo-pagan ­materialism or scientific rationalism.

Liberalism is losing its Christian basis, and liberty and equality are changing their meanings and definitions in a world in which ever fewer of our leaders believe in the immortal soul. Christianity itself is losing its sense of the supernatural, as Christians—both conservative and liberal—make political and ethical arguments as if the soul and the imago dei did not exist.

The seven virtues have grown wild and venomous because they have been ripped from their proper soil, the great tradition of ­orthodox Christian political and ethical thought. This deracination, however, began in Christianity itself. The divisions established between faith and works during the Reformation, and the denigration of ­contemplative life and prayer that seized all of Europe, Catholic and Protestant, have borne their ­terrible fruits.

This divide now affects every heart, and the task of healing it falls to each one of us. In our thoughts, words, lives, families, communities, political and media forums, ­universities, and ­churches, we must find ways to bridge the chasm and unite Christian civilization once more.

Sebastian Milbank is executive editor of The Critic.

Image by unknown via Creative Commons. Image cropped.