We live in paradoxical times. Over the last two generations, college students, especially at top-ranking universities, have been educated to believe that there is no transcendence. Human beings are a bundle of instincts, they’re told, or software in meat hardware, or some other reductive explanation. And yet utopian progressive goals are championed with great conviction and unstinting ardor. It’s hard to square the circle. On the one hand the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities teach an implicit (and sometimes explicit) nihilism; on the other hand, activists tout revolutionary idealism. All truth is “socially constructed,” but the postmodern mind somehow knows that the rainbow flag represents the best and noblest aspirations, not just for our society, but for the entire world.
Richard Rorty was a clear-minded and articulate spokesman for this strange combination of idealism and nihilism. In a 1994 essay, “A World Without Substances or Essences,” he observed that a great deal of twentieth-century philosophy converged on theories of knowledge that were “anti-metaphysical” and “anti-foundational.” On his account, there are no enduring anchors. We must use our minds to navigate the world without universals, without unchanging touchstones.
Rorty claims that the West has inherited a philosophical tradition that socializes us to respond with anxiety, even terror, when confronted by the reality that there are no “hard” truths, that there is nothing (nihil, hence nihilism) guaranteeing the truth of what we say and believe. In a word, Rorty asserts that the desire for transcendence is “socially constructed.” (I would argue the opposite: The reaction of profound existential concern stems from our nature as rational animals—but let’s leave that aside.) The gravamen of Rorty’s essay (along with many others he wrote over the years) is to argue for a cheerful affirmation of the anti-metaphysical outlook. Nihilism is not an oppressive doctrine; it is a liberating one.
Rorty commends John Dewey, “who most clearly and explicitly set aside the goal common to the Greeks and German Idealists (accurate representation of the intrinsic nature of reality) in favour of the political goal of increasingly free societies and increasingly diverse individuals within them.” Released from the fetters of truth, we are free to reshape and reform our lives, our societies, and even reality! Because Rorty’s nihilism denies that there are essences, we are constrained by no metaphysical limits as to what can be done. Only our restricted resources and impoverished imaginations stand in the way. Education therefore adopts a twofold vocation. It must increase power, both technologically and politically. And it must break down the limits imposed upon our imaginations by inherited cultural norms. Rather than helping us to know ourselves, the task of philosophy, Rorty insists, is to clear away impediments and provide us with tools to create better selves, and a better society.
Of course, “better” requires a measure. Rorty urges caution at this point. We must not be seduced back to the old approach, the one that seeks the truth of things. The way forward is through assertions, not arguments. (Rorty’s hero John Dewey warned about arguing against the unwanted conclusions of older traditions of philosophy, observing that it’s more effective to dismiss them as medieval, obscurantist, and authoritarian.) Liberal ideas become god terms, shimmering notions untethered to any particular criteria, plastic and available for whatever political use will bring “progress.” Rorty was troubled by the rise of anti-Western ideologies. Late in life, his jeremiads against the academic left made him a suspect character in university circles. But his intellectual and political children were only following through on the logic of his position. Barack Obama’s daughters add “diversity,” whereas a white kid from rural North Dakota does not. “Equity” amounts to whatever is required at the moment. “Inclusion” means privileging favored groups and downgrading the unfavored.
Meanwhile, the destruction of perceived impediments to “progress” gains momentum. The nihilism Rorty advocated emphasizes debunking and deconstruction. (He was an academic mandarin who wrote on canonical figures, but he never tired of announcing that the entire tradition of Western philosophy had been mistaken.) Over the last four decades, a combination of technocratic attitudes and postmodern theories has pulverized older traditions of transcendence in the humanities. I recently visited Harvard and urged a bright young student to take a class on Aristotle. “Nice idea,” he replied, “but the philosophy department does not offer one.” (His experience is not the final word. Postdoc Mariana Beatrice Noé offers a Spring 2024 class that assigns Aristotle; Professor James Doyle is offering a class on St. Augustine.)
Rorty’s nihilism is ascendant. For technocratic and political reasons, our educational culture no longer sustains pedagogies of transcendence. (See my recent lament, “The Great Forgetting,” November 2023.) For what I can see, this hasn’t made students happy. The lure of transcendence encourages powerful loves that anchor us in what we will not renounce or betray. It binds our hearts. But stability runs counter to what the market demands: flexible souls ready to pounce upon the main chance. The early Facebook slogan says it all: Move fast and break things. But transcendence thickens us, stiffens us, anchors us. Worst of all, it depoliticizes the life of the mind, turning us toward contemplation rather than action, a disposition that is “anti-progressive” and thus must be condemned. Recall the BLM mantra: “Your silence is violence.”
The rampant anti-Western ideology in higher education (and now in primary and secondary education) baffles the Baby Boomers. They took Western Civ classes decades ago. But for a younger person, the pivot away from the Western tradition seems natural. Why bother with old ideas, especially those that have funded today’s status quo, which is full of injustice and suffering? Isn’t it better to wipe the slate clean? Shouldn’t we adopt an experimental approach to ethical and political matters? After all, the scientific method does not concern itself with outdated theories. Physics students don’t read Johannes Kepler; biology students don’t read Linnaeus, or even Darwin. Moreover, isn’t it better to identify with the marginalized and oppressed, rather than with the West’s foundational themes and figures? Hamas may employ regrettable methods, but they are not responsible for colonialism, systemic racism, transphobia, global warming, and the other sins of the West!
The same Baby Boomers imagine that campus progressivism will shipwreck on the hard realities of the economic laws of supply and demand. This is to misread the postmodern condition. Nihilism dovetails with capitalism. A denial of transcendence makes all things available for technological transformation and commodification. Daniel Bell’s 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, detailed the ways in which the free-market system colonizes society, forming its members into desire-driven consumers and undermining older traditions of virtue. Far from being “anti-capitalist,” Rorty’s liberal nihilism provides an ideological justification for fusing progressive cultural politics with ever-expanding markets. Both politics and the markets destroy the impediments that stand in the way of our desire to remake ourselves, our society, and the world. They are joined in the conjugal union of “progress.”
A friend recently lamented that young people lack a tragic sense. They frame complex realities in simplistic terms: oppressor/oppressed, privileged/excluded, unjust/just, guilty/innocent. “Exactly,” I replied. “To be delivered from the tragedy of life is the great gift of nihilism.” Released from the recalcitrant truth of the human condition, we are free to imagine a world that is uncomplicated, immaculate, and perfect. And not just to imagine. Nihilism eliminates the temptation to seek contemplation. Rorty hymned the new vocation of philosophy: “the making of a better future for ourselves, constructing a utopian, democratic society.” The ancient nihilism of Lucretius counseled acceptance of things as they are; modern nihilism is an activist faith, ever on the march.
We need to recognize that nihilism preaches a gospel: There are no limits. Why not remake the relations of men and women so that all stereotypes are destroyed and perfect equality is achieved? Why not empower DEI bureaucrats to confect a society without discrimination? Such conditions have never been achieved in the past. But that’s of no moment. We can dream big! Change sex? Defeat death? Do not allow reality to stand in the way of our dreams!
As the postmodern outlook gathers itself for action—“making a better future”—Rorty’s cheerful, idealistic nihilism turns into something dark and dangerous. Recently, the Harvard Corporation stood behind the school’s president, Claudine Gay, when she came under fire for congressional testimony that seemed to minimize campus anti-Semitism, along with accusations of plagiarism. Christopher Rufo, Heather Mac Donald, and others have noted that Gay is a woman of mediocre academic attainment. But this observation misses the mark. In our time, making has supplanted knowing as the highest good for the life of the mind. Harvard’s trustees emphasize that she is the right person “to address the very serious societal issues we are facing.” Gay is not the academic leader of a truth-seeking institution; she is the moral leader of a revolutionary institution that is committed to transforming society—as Rorty put it, “constructing a utopian, democratic society.”
In this enterprise, those who do not share the progressive vision of “addressing the very serious societal issues” must be managed, and if they are truculent and stand in the way of progress, they must be destroyed. What possible reason could anyone have for resisting the construction of “a utopian, democratic society”? Who would object to a perfect regime of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or a view of male and female that allows individuals greater freedom to create themselves anew? The ideals born of nihilism admit of no debate. Objections are mere foot-dragging, motivated by hatreds, phobias, and other disorders of the (nonexistent) soul. Or, worse, resistance signals a revanchist political mentality, one that is “far-right” and “authoritarian.” No reasonable person can object to the suppression of such dangers!
At Harvard and elsewhere, it is very nearly impossible to be hired or receive tenure if you hold conservative social views. (Free-market purists and libertarians, both utopian in their own ways, are clubbable.) At some state universities, legislators and politically appointed regents try to resist the progressive takeover by establishing new institutes on campus. Faculty and administrators do everything in their power to isolate these initiatives, which have, indeed, proven incapable of altering the campus climate. The reason for the full-spectrum resistance is simple: The proponents of “making a better future” feel themselves duty-bound to cancel, subvert, and destroy anything that might impede its arrival.
We should not underestimate the impulse to smash and annihilate. Three years after 9/11, I attended a lecture by the French philosopher Alain Badiou. He was deft enough to avoid outright endorsement of Osama bin Laden’s mission to destroy nearly three thousand lives. But his joy was evident. The empire had taken casualties, a good in itself. We must not deceive ourselves, Badiou insinuated in his recondite remarks to the audience. A great deal must be destroyed to make way for a better future. Today, progressive college students are sharing bin Laden’s 2002 manifesto condemning the United States and justifying the attack, commending it to others as the best way to understand why one must support Hamas and its nihilistic enterprise. “Settler colonialism” must be extirpated if we’re to break through to a just and righteous condition.
In the United States, we are fortunate that the killing remains symbolic. Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt organized Swords Into Plowshares for the purpose of melting the statue of Robert E. Lee that had been removed from its pedestal in Charlottesville. In October 2023, they achieved their goal. While witnessing Lee’s face sliced by a blowtorch, Douglas said, “It feels like witnessing a public execution.” Anthropologist Michael Taussig described the statue’s destruction as a necessary ritual of desecration. Whether it was “necessary” is something I doubt. But he’s right about desecration. Melting Lee amounted to a ritual assault on the world over which his figure presided, from the erection of the statue in 1924 to the present. Our idealism demands this assault. Just as English departments executed the “dead white males” a generation ago, we must kill the “old gods” to make way for a new spirit, one that will usher in a truly inclusive society, or so we are told.
As Rorty promised, metaphysical nihilism has stimulated a utopian idealism. It takes many forms. He preferred American liberalism; others adopt Marxist and post-Marxist programs. But these visions of reform and revolution are united in their refusal to allow reality (which nihilism denies has essential characteristics, characterizing its apparent substance as a linguistic convention, social construction, and projection of power) to constrain our dreams. This refusal of limits incubates extreme demands for freedom, equality, justice, and many other urgent though formless notions. (Without some account of human nature, one cannot articulate stable notions of freedom, equality, justice, or anything else pertaining to human flourishing.) However vague in actuality, these aspirations are expressed in the noblest terms our tradition possesses, and those employing them claim the moral high ground.
But the idealistic nihilists are wrong about reality. It does impose limits, not out of malign intent or in order to claim “privilege,” but simply because we are creatures in a world not of our own making. This deep truth angers progressives. Reality has no essential form or structure, nihilism teaches; therefore, all limits are unjustly imposed by bad actors and wicked cultural systems: racists and patriarchy, fascists and white privilege, and on and on. These latter-day principalities and powers must be deposed, deconstructed, and smashed. In this rage against limitations, the utopian projects become nihilistic, not in the metaphysical sense of denying transcendence, but in the moral sense of embracing destruction as a sacred act of cleansing that will midwife a new creation.
Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt seem to imagine that destroying the Lee monument will enable the arrival of a harmonious, equitable, and inclusive society. This is naive. One cannot desecrate the image of a man venerated by millions without stoking enmity. At times, the victory dances and fist pumps in celebrations of toppled statues suggest that today’s protagonists relish the dream of trampling, subjugating, and defeating adversaries. By and large, however, idealistic nihilism refuses to acknowledge its aggression. It responds to backlash by denouncing it as racist or some other pathology that must be extirpated. Our universities have already written the script. Efforts will be redoubled. More will be destroyed.
A few weeks after October 7, as donors revolted against the shocking pusillanimity of university leaders in the face of student and faculty support for Hamas’s atrocities, Harvard’s president sought to change the subject. “Antisemitism has a very long and shameful history at Harvard,” Gay intoned. “For years, this University has done too little to confront its continuing presenced. No longer.” The problem was not student activists and faculty who embrace a virulent anti-Western ideology. Rather, it was the WASP grandees, long dead, who besmirched Harvard with their sins. Committees must be formed to determine how to counter this legacy! Isn’t it past time to expunge the name of A. Lawrence Lowell from Harvard’s campus?
“From the river to the sea”: Students do not chant this refrain in the hopes of establishing an Islamic regime. They are taking up the call of nihilistic idealism. In order to make way for the glorious future, we must destroy that which is established, extirpate those who are recalcitrant, and wipe clean the slate of history.
Against those who question God’s wisdom and benevolence, Alexander Pope famously declaimed in his Essay on Man: “Whatever is, is right.” Samuel Johnson found the assertion too sweeping. Something of what is arises out of our wicked choices, and whatever obtains as a result is not right. That said, Pope’s sentiment is generally correct. Our disposition toward reality should be one of gratitude, not anger and hostility. In good times and in bad, we are blessed by reality’s luminous power of existence. Today’s utopian moralists are inclined toward the opposite, a spiritual nihilism: Whatever is, is wrong.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ A favorite collect (liturgical prayer) from my Anglican days is said on the Second Sunday of Advent:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
I heard that prayer as a child. The liturgical experts of that time were convinced that “hast” and “thy” made such a prayer remote and inaccessible. Entirely untrue. At age ten, if not before, I knew the plain meaning: I should read the Holy Scriptures and cleave to their message of salvation. That as an adolescent I did not read, mark, and inwardly digest reflected my own falling away from the faith, not the “remoteness” of older forms of the English language.
♦ “Adolescents with very conservative parents are 16 to 17 percentage points more likely to be in good or excellent mental health compared to their peers with very liberal parents.” So concludes Jonathan Rothwell in a new study, “Parenting is the Key to Adolescent Mental Health,” sponsored by the Institute for Family Studies and Gallup. The crucial factor contributing to good mental health is clear discipline combined with parental love. Children need a warm authoritarian family culture. The problem among progressive parents is not affection. Liberal parents manifest parental love at only slightly lower levels than conservative parents. (The survey asked for responses, among other things, to the statement, “I hug or kiss my child every day.”) But liberals are significantly less likely to impose discipline than are parents who identify as conservative. (This assessment is based on responses to statements such as “I find it difficult to discipline my child” and “My child often gets their [sic] way when we have a conflict.”) Put simply, the liberal ideal of an affectionate permissive family culture is bad for children, whereas the old-fashioned view of authority is good.
And not just for children. In the twentieth century, the rise of the permissive family culture correlated with anxieties about “adolescent rebellion,” the purported cause of troubled relations between parents and teenage kids. Rothwell notes that survey data show that conservative parents enjoy the strongest relations with their adolescent children, while liberals suffer the worst. It’s interesting to note that parents who are “very liberal” as opposed to “liberal” have nearly as good relations with their adolescent children as do conservatives. In my estimation, this positive outcome stems from the fact that “very liberal” means adherence to doctrinaire progressivism, which has its own authoritarian character, as we see at universities. Ironically, the key to successful parenting by the “very liberal” is the progressive taboo: authority.
♦ Anthony Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In “Confessing Other People’s Sins” (The Lamp, Issue 19), he takes issue with the practice of apologizing for historic wrongs. In his experience, there’s a certain type who enters the confessional only to launch into complaints about other people’s misdeeds, which amounts to a spiritual evasion of his own sins. Is something like that happening when a city council or college president issues statements that repent of past harms? “The problem with historical apologies is that they never involve taking responsibility for one’s own actions but necessarily mean confessing sins committed by others.” And it is in the faux penitents’ interest to exaggerate those sins. “The more heinous the crimes of others, the more venial our own offenses seem. We can get off the hook for our smaller sins by spotlighting the graver sins of others.”
♦ At Vatican II, the Church repudiated the view that Jews inherit the guilt of crucifying Christ. Yet, Lusvardi continues, “if we apologize for crimes committed a century ago, we seem tacitly to have accepted at least some notion of collective guilt—our own.” Those who issue apologies for past misdeeds imagine that they are engaging in a helpful therapeutic exercise, diffusing present-day grudges and blunting animosities. Lusvardi is not so sure: “Collective guilt opens the door to collective punishment.” Such apologies invite endless relitigation of past grievances, which practitioners of identity politics exploit. There is no resolution or forgiveness: “Our contemporary rites of public apology are ineffective, ultimately counterproductive—like adding new stories to the Tower of Babel—because they pretend to a justice that only God can give.”
♦ Sebastian Milbank offers a sober assessment of the university rot exposed by tenured professors’ grotesque cheerleading for Hamas’s atrocities:
Even as real academic freedom is crushed to nothing by the neoliberal transformation of universities into giant quangocracies, a group of resentful, self-indulgent bourgeois radicals are quite happy to take on academic sinecures. In a sense, both groups authorise the other. For the radicals, their extremism gets a steady stream of subsidy, and hides behind the veil of respectability that is a major university. For the administration, they gain a halo of radicalism, even as they grind down academic freedom, prestige and scholarly independence in service of an ever more marketised and routinised higher education system.
♦ Bret Stephens on the double standards at elite universities:
At Yale, the law professor Amy Chua was relieved of some teaching duties and ostracized by students and the administration on blatantly pretextual grounds while her original sin, as the Times reported in 2021, was her praise for Brett Kavanaugh. Yet when Zareena Grewal, an associate professor of American studies at Yale, posted on X on Oct. 7 that Israel “is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle,” Yale defended her by saying Grewal’s comments “represent her own views.”
The University of Pennsylvania manifests the same pattern. Conservative law professor Amy Wax was waterboarded with investigations and hearings. Meanwhile, administrators fall over themselves to protect the free speech of the most rebarbative defenders of Hamas.
♦ Corruption of a different sort: The Yale Daily News reports that 78.9 percent of grades given to students in 2022 were A or A-. The A grade was given to 58 percent of students. There are variations among disciplines. In Engineering & Applied Science, 57 percent received A or A-, while in Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies, 92 percent got the top grades.
♦ Ron E. Hassner, a Cal Berkeley professor of political science, writing in the Wall Street Journal:
When college students who sympathize with Palestinians chant “From the river to the sea,” do they know what they’re talking about? I hired a survey firm to poll 250 students from a variety of backgrounds across the U.S. Most said they supported the chant, some enthusiastically so (32.8%) and others to a lesser extent (53.2%).
But only 47% of the students who embrace the slogan were able to name the river and the sea. Some of the alternative answers were the Nile and the Euphrates, the Caribbean, the Dead Sea (which is a lake). Less than a quarter of these students knew who Yasser Arafat was (12 of them, or more than 10%, thought he was the first prime minister of Israel). Asked in what decade Israelis and Palestinians had signed the Oslo Accords, more than a quarter of the chant’s supporters claimed that no such peace agreements had ever been signed.
Dr. Johnson’s words come to mind: “Ignorance, when it is voluntary, is criminal; and he may be properly charged with evil who refused to learn how he might prevent it.” All the more so when the ignorant take up chants that call for the annihilation of a nation.
♦ There are many reasons to be unhappy with the academic establishment. One friend took action. She had made a generous donation twenty years ago to our alma mater, Haverford College. In response to this year’s fundraising campaign, she wrote to the development office that, far from making another contribution, she wanted her money back. As I write, she reports that no response has been forthcoming.
♦ Another course of action: Found alternative institutions. That’s what Jewish leaders have done in Manhattan. In fall 2024, Emet Classical Academy, a Jewish preparatory school for grades 6 through 12 on New York’s Upper East Side, will enroll its inaugural class of sixth graders. The school’s mission offers mastery of classical languages, understanding of the great books and figures of the Western tradition, preparation for American leadership, and a commitment to Jewish identity and modern Israel.
♦ Psalm 45:3–4:
Strap your sword upon your thigh, O mighty warrior,
in your pride and our majesty.
Ride out and conquer in the cause of truth
and for the sake of justice.
In the face of today’s challenges, we need the élan of the Church Militant. Recall Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
♦ During the week before Christmas, Rome issued Fiducia Supplicans, a woolly-headed document about blessing same-sex couples. Anything remotely resembling a marriage blessing is streng verboten. But it’s OK to use exquisitely refined pastoral judgment sometimes, in some circumstances, to bless same-sex couples. The document strikes a clear note: Nothing can be blessed that is counter to God’s will. But one wonders: couples? We’re not talking about tennis partners. Confusion mounts. Two homosexuals united in a relationship can be blessed as couples, but not as sexual partners? One predicts that Fr. James Martin, Catholicism’s leading Rainbow collaborationist, will jump into the confusion to provide clarification. Indeed, within hours of the release of the document, he offered a blessing to a same-sex couple, helpfully (for his purposes) photographed by the New York Times. They are holding hands, heads bowed, as Fr. Martin makes the sign of the cross. No, no, he was not blessing their sexual relationship! That can’t be done, the Vatican assures us. Except, of course, when it is done, which seems to be the obvious consequence of the document, and possibly its intent.
♦ During the long year of 2020, I marveled at Anthony Fauci’s ability to combine winsome cheerfulness with off-putting arrogance and moral self-satisfaction. Both were very much in evidence in a recent BBC interview of Fauci conducted by Katty Kay. As they strolled past Dahlgren Chapel on the Georgetown campus, where Fauci and his wife Christine Grady were married decades ago, Kay asked him why he no longer goes to church. In his charming way, Fauci replied that he regards his “personal ethics on life” to be strong enough to keep him “on the right path.” He adverted to unspecified “negative aspects” of the institutional church and dismissed churchgoing as “a pro forma thing that I don’t really need to do.”
♦ Christopher Colby of Mobile, Alabama heads the local ROFTers group. They are looking for new members. Contact him at email@example.com.
Gordon Dirks would like to form a ROFTers group in the greater Vancouver, British Columbia area. To join, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ As I write, we are conducting our year-end fundraising campaign. Preliminary results suggest that we’ll set records. I’d like to thank everyone who donated. Your support keeps First Things a strong voice of truth in a time of lies.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.