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On May 21, 2013, the French writer Dominique Venner took his own life in front of the main altar of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Venner was seventy-eight years old when he put a handgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. He left a note on the altar to explain his “gesture,” which took place before nearly a thousand church visitors. After declaring his soundness of mind and expressing regret to his wife and five children, Venner wrote that he offered his life as a sacrificial protest to awaken Europeans to a civilizational crisis.

I love life and expect nothing beyond other than the perpetuation of my race and my mind. However, in the evening of this life, in front of huge dangers for my French and European country, I feel the duty to act so long as I have strength. I sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that has overtaken us. I offer my life as a protest. . . . While so many people are slaves of their lives, my gesture embodies an ethical will. I give death to myself in order to awaken slumbering consciences. . . . I protest against the poisons that are destroying our identity and the foundation of our civilization.

Venner’s writing in the weeks before his suicide left little doubt as to the nature of his concerns. In early May, France had been convulsed by protests over the legalization of same-sex marriage and debates over growing numbers of immigrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. For Venner, new conceptions of marriage and citizenship were alarming signs that the country had reached a state of cultural emergency. Already uncertain about its national identity and ashamed of its colonial past, France seemed in Venner’s mind to be welcoming its own extinction. “There exists no historical example of a civilization pushing to this point a refusal to survive and a desire to eliminate itself,” he solemnly explained.

Although several media reports described him as a conservative and a Catholic, Venner was in fact neither. A revolutionary and a pagan, Venner was an influential figure in a modern intellectual movement that has sought to recover human values suppressed by two centuries of liberalism and two millennia of Christianity. The son of a father devoted to the Vichy cause, he had been active in nationalist movements as a young man. In the early 1960s, he served a prison sentence for his involvement in the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), a paramilitary and terrorist organization that sought to defend French Algeria and prevent that country’s independence.

During his time in prison, Venner studied the writings of Lenin, whom he came to admire for extracting a potent political doctrine out of the work of Marx. But Venner concluded that the Cold War conflict between liberalism and communism was deceptive, masking problems that could not be addressed by political activism. The crisis of the West, he resolved, is spiritual and requires a complete rethinking of the nature of European identity. In the five decades following his release, Venner turned to writing, authoring books that combined a widely admired prose style with an impressive knowledge of Western literature, philosophy, and art. His death was covered in the New Yorker by the magazine’s longtime poetry critic.

Venner ended his suicide note by directing readers to his recent books, where they could find a clear foreshadowing of his final action and a fuller statement of the ideals that inspired it. In a book published in 2011, he had reflected at length on what he called the tradition of “voluntary death.” He lamented the degrading influence of a morality that valued bodily life and comfort as the highest goods. And he extolled the suicides of historical figures, such as the Roman aristocrat Cato, for upholding the ideal that it is better to end one’s life than to compromise with decadence or dishonor. Venner’s voice from beyond the grave attempted to explain the difference between his death and the suicide of France. If France was poisoning itself through degenerate values, his suicide bore witness to the noble and heroic ideals that France had rejected. And to understand them, he wrote, one must understand the vision of human life to which his action offered testimony.

And what is that vision? I call it the Radical Right, an intellectual tradition that has long been dismissed as reactionary or irrelevant. But that is changing, and for disconcertingly good reasons. Across our culture, a crisis is unfolding that Dominique Venner and thinkers like him confidently anticipated. We watch as Western nations slide into political dysfunction and social decay. We witness falling life expectancies, declining rates of marriage and religious practice, a swelling pandemic of loneliness, mass confusion around the nature and ideals of manhood, the collapse of cultural and historical literacy, an erosion of trust in institutions, and signs of a new multipolar global order rising to challenge the West’s hegemony. And amid all this, many feel the tremors of a theo-political revolution. We read eulogies for Christianity, no longer written by secular progressives, but by those hailing the ascendancy of a post-Christian right.

The choices we face in confronting this dangerous moment are as much spiritual as political. Understanding them will require us to broaden our social imagination, expand our historical horizons, and venture beyond the well-guarded boundaries of public life. In doing this, we will find that we have crucial things to learn from a body of controversial ideas to which Dominique Venner gave voice. I say this not to valorize his action or to grant him the posthumous benediction he wished for. Venner’s suicide was the self-destructive apotheosis of his dark vision of identity politics. But the ideals that shaped his mind, and which stir the passions of many, repay serious study. They can help us see and repair the defects in the political traditions that we dearly value. And they can help us understand and renew the Christian tradition to which they are directly opposed. 

The Radical Right emerged in the decade before the Second World War and came to define itself in opposition to the political consensus that characterized postwar Western democracies. Its leading thinkers came from Germany, Italy, France, and the United States. Together, they told a story about the twentieth century, a story that turned a dominant historical narrative on its head. The mainstream view treated the peace and prosperity of Western nations as a sign of their fundamental political health. It regarded the victory of democracy in the war as proof that the deepest questions about its legitimacy had been decisively answered. It saw the global influence of Western values and habits as evidence of its civilizational triumph. And it saw the history of the West as one of progressive development toward its present form. The story of the West began in Plato and triumphed in NATO—or so the narrative went.

Central to this story was a belief in the unique legitimacy of liberal democracy. To its defenders, liberal democracy was the form of political life that reflected the values shared by all reasonable persons. This consensus regarded human beings as free and equal by nature. It saw legitimate authority resting on the consent of the governed. It understood the chief purpose of government to be the protection of individual rights under the rule of law. And it believed in the separation of politics from divisive religious questions. However sharply the left and right disagreed about how to protect freedom and promote equality, they did not disagree about their supreme importance. For many in the postwar era, it was therefore easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of liberalism.

The Radical Right told a starkly different story and imagined a dramatically different future. It saw the West’s preoccupation with material wealth and economic growth as a sign of its moral decadence and spiritual poverty. It saw liberal democracy not as the antipode of communism, but its twin, an ideology that restricted thought, uprooted cultures, and leveled social differences no less effectively than Marxism did. It saw the West’s openness to immigration and fascination with multiculturalism as evidence of a paralyzing insecurity about its own identity and a sign of its willful blindness to the reality of human differences. The history of the West was a proverbial tale of moral decline, in which the virile virtues needed to build a civilization were slowly corrupted by luxury and complacency. For the Radical Right, then, it was not impossible to imagine a world after liberalism. It was necessary.

The thinkers who told this story in the decades after World War II play a double role in our intellectual life. When they are not simply ignored, their ideas are alleged to be not only self-evidently wrong, but also uniquely dangerous—both fundamentally alien to our core values, and also insidiously threatening to them. A common view therefore holds that they give voice to prejudices that should be severely proscribed, rather than human possibilities that should be critically examined. If this approach was prudent in an earlier time, I believe it no longer is. Today it works not to protect our highest ideals, but to deprive us of access to them. We are imperiled by hubris, naivete, and stale thinking, not the return of fascism.

In a 2005 book, Dominique Venner argued that the greatest danger confronting Europe is not political or military in nature. It is the danger of amnesia. Western peoples have forgotten who they are and who they once were. As Venner imagined it, the world is teeming with people who are certain of their group identities, proud of their distinctiveness, and zealous to defend and transmit their traditions. The nations of the West, however, have become the exception. Not only are they estranged from a past that they can scarcely remember, they are demoralized to an almost pathological degree. They celebrate other cultures as superior to their own; they judge their history by standards applied to no others; and they allow their values to be wielded cynically against them. As Venner wrote, Western nations have a bias against themselves, “preferring other communities above their own.”

Venner therefore undertook to recall Europeans to their lost identity. He began by noting that Europeans are no different from other peoples. They have an identity that is unique to them, a collective character that subtly but unmistakably imprints itself on every aspect of their lives. This identity cannot be discovered in human DNA, or indeed in anything biological. Identity is revealed in culture—in that sphere of activity by which human beings struggle to raise themselves above the pressures of animal and material life. The distinctive character of that struggle inspires and shapes everything that a culture does. It is the soul of its art, language, music, architecture, religion, politics, games, cuisine, and folkways. Cultural forms and styles change over time, Venner argued, but their inner spirit always remains one and the same. From the cave paintings of prehistoric Europe to the poems of Homer, from Roman philosophers to the literature of medieval chivalry, from Renaissance visions of empire up until today—Venner found a single spiritual thread, a cultural bloodline linking Western culture across a span of 30,000 years.

His argument borrowed from a major figure in the Radical Right, the Italian philosopher Julius Evola. Evola claimed to have discovered the permanent principles of all human societies by peering into the unrecorded realms of human prehistory. Inspired by Evola’s speculative histories, Venner claimed to have discovered the primal origin of Western culture. He called it “tradition,” a term he described in almost theological ways. Tradition is the invisible wellspring of Western culture, the generative source of all it is and does. Tradition is that in which Europeans live and move and have their being. It is the deepest core of their identity, providing the permanent truths that find expression in Western art, thought, and life. As Venner explained it, tradition exerts a metaphysical influence, functioning as the collective soul that disposes Western people to experience reality in a unique way. Sight, sensation, speech, imagination, desire, reasoning—for Venner, every human faculty is inwardly shaped by tradition.

As a vision of human identity, Venner’s was profoundly illiberal. At root, we are custodians, not creators; inheritors, not choosers; and cultures make us fundamentally different, not alike. We exist not only through genealogies we have not chosen and under obligations we cannot renounce. We exist as bearers of a collective identity that binds us indissolubly to those who are like us and separates us forever from those who are different. Europeans can respect other cultures. Venner wrote of his own admiration for Japanese tradition. But in no civilization, he argued, can cultural outsiders truly share a common life with cultural insiders, and it is foolish or worse to attempt to confect a multicultural society. However, tradition can be forgotten or betrayed, and the consequences are shattering for human identity. Venner attributed the chaos of modern culture to the illusion that human identity can be discovered only when we are freed from compulsions of custom and the impositions of the past. Venner affirmed the opposite: An individual severed from tradition can have no identity at all. 

Venner’s history of Europe focused on ancient city-states, medieval feudalism, and modern doctrines of political sovereignty. Pagan, Christian, and secular societies had different intellectual and artistic styles, as well as seemingly profound differences in religious faith and practice. But what they had in common, he maintained, was far more important, and grounded the deep continuity of European identity over time. It was a code of human conduct informed by an ethic of heroism. The West was “founded on a heroic conception of life” and “ethics of honor,” he wrote, and sought to “build its political order based on the hierarchy of merit and value.”

What Venner called an “ethics of honor” explained a special aspect of European identity. Western culture is often noted for its individualism and competitiveness, as well as its celebration of rebels, explorers, founders, and visionaries. Venner sought to explain this dynamism by tracing its origins to an ethical code that accorded social status through competition. In its purest and most traditional form, competition was not motivated by a desire for wealth, resources, or even power. The competition was aristocratic, and its reward was honor, the pure prestige of being recognized as the best, the most excellent. Unlike an “ethics of dignity,” an ethics of honor does not distinguish between good and evil, in which transgression results in guilt. It distinguishes between superior and inferior, where defeat results in shame.

Venner was drawing inspiration from another seminal Radical Right thinker, the German historian Oswald Spengler. Spengler argued that the distinct character of European culture was explained by an inner drive that he called Faustian. As a Faustian culture, the West places its highest value not on the survival of the group, but on the daring achievements of exceptional individuals. Spengler surveyed Western science, music, architecture, philosophy, and technology and concluded that in every domain, the culture of the West has been motivated by a heroic drive to overcome existing limits and to surpass previous achievements. Venner applied Spengler’s vitalism to the history of politics and culture. What is the great overarching moral story of our civilization? It is not the myth of our progressive march toward greater equality, a deepening concern for victims and outsiders, and the secular saints who led the way. Rather, it is the story of extraordinary individuals who transformed human experience and changed the course of history.

Venner called them “higher men,” those who dared to envision new human possibilities and confront the most daunting challenges. They are different from “lower men” in the most radical sense. Their achievements have been so transformative, so titanic, that they must be seen as meaning-makers and world-builders. According to Venner, these “higher men” had the strength to direct history, to impose order on nature, to impress new forms upon human experience, and to construct a civilization atop barbarism. As world-builders, they brought the primordial potency of tradition into the actuality of human life. In Venner’s view, we live in a world made possible not by universal ideals or by moral or legal systems that facilitate cooperation. We live in patterns of meaning and order that are the legacies of Promethean men, the sole and true benefactors of humanity.

The human condition is therefore one of struggle. Venner wrote several books on the history of hunting and firearms, and he often described his vocation as a writer in martial terms. His interpretation of Western culture emphasized the essential and even creative role of human aggression. Struggle exists firstly in the primal conflict between man and the natural world as humanity aspires to raise itself above mere survival. Culture is the hard-won product of a life-or-death struggle to control nature and to transcend the ways we are pulled down by its necessities. Conflict also exists between human beings—not simply the animal competition over goods and resources, but also the human battle for honor and prestige, noble attainments that hold material rewards in contempt. Without struggle, without the fight for values, symbols, and ideals higher than bodily survival and well-being, there is no culture and therefore no humanity. For Venner, then, conflict in its most human mode is not destructive. It is, as Heraclitus wrote, the father of all things.

Venner’s exaltation of creative conflict expresses a key idea of the Radical Right: rejecting as dystopia what other intellectual traditions have envisioned as a utopia. Imagine a world of peace, comfort, equality, and cooperation—a world in which conflict, suffering, violence, and inequality no longer brutalize. For both liberalism and communism, this world represents the hope of man and the goal of history, the final stage of our political development. For Venner, however, such a world is so domesticated and deformed as to be no longer human at all. Venner’s fear was not that history would reach such a posthuman condition. He worried that this utopian ideal of perpetual peace and prosperity had already crippled the Western soul by undermining the manly spirit of competition and conflict for the sake of excellence. A vision of political life that seeks to increase pleasure and reduce pain, to protect the weak and restrain the strong, and to promote safety and diminish risk—this is a recipe for decadence, Venner argued, not a charter for humanity. Under its enervating influence, human beings will grow jealous of their mediocrity and resentful toward those who aim for higher things. 

Venner did not regard violence as an intrinsic good. Rather, he held that Western humanity had forgotten that man must cultivate the strength to master himself and his environment, and that the highest excellences are attained only through suffering, risk, and a taste for adventure. Venner’s praise of human struggle drew from the writings of Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt. In a letter to Schmitt (who was godfather to his second son), Jünger argued that “the quality of intellect is measured by its approach to the preparation of war,” and he lamented that “the wildness, brutality, and bright colors of human desire” had been smothered by modern civilization. Venner similarly insisted on the cardinal importance of the martial virtues. Courage, loyalty, strength, and patriotism are the most important virtues because they make other virtues possible. Peace requires war. Friendship requires enemies. Loyalty requires exclusion. Love requires hate. Venner argued that a society that embraces the virtues of civility while denigrating the virtues of the warrior will become decadent and defenseless. “We easily forget that the places of happiness and peace cannot last without the virile determination to protect them,” he wrote. “The places of peace survive only through the virtues demanded by war.”

If Western culture was once heroic and self-affirming, why has it become weak and self-critical? The question preoccupied the Radical Right and shaped its distinctive intellectual character. What the American writer Sam Francis called the “Christian Question” asked whether the teachings of Christianity are ultimately responsible for the crisis of Western identity. One of the most influential thinkers on the American far right, Francis argued that the deepest problems of American life are inseparable from the basic assumptions of liberal ideology. Take, for example, the notions that human beings share a common nature and enjoy equal dignity, that human beings possess rights regardless of their race, class, or sex, and that the weak and infirm deserve special moral concern. Though these ideas are so widely accepted that few bother to think about their foundations, Francis argued they are unintelligible apart from the moral legacy of Christianity.

Francis was circumspect about whether Christianity is the true cause of Western decline; Venner was not. He maintained that nihilism had been woven into the fabric of Western civilization by biblical religion. Venner described the disappearance of ancient paganism as a “tragedy” and argued that the real sacred scriptures of Western culture are the poems of Homer. He traced the source of Western nihilism to Roman Catholicism in general, and a Dominican friar in particular. On his telling of history, Catholicism disenchanted nature and secularized everyday life. Its doctrines transformed a world full of gods, rituals, and spirits into a spiritually inert space where salvation is sought and only attained in another world. But it was the rationalism of Aquinas, Venner charged, that paved the way to our current crisis. Aquinas’s concern with a transcendent realm of abstract concepts had the unintended effect of suppressing human vitality and draining life of its spiritually charged natural meaning. St. Thomas and his followers fostered a culture that put intellect over passion, grace over nature, and concepts over reality. The tragedy of Thomism, Venner claimed, is that it uproots believers from their ancestral traditions, turning them instead toward the pursuit of abstract, universal ideals.

Christian theology appears to no longer set the terms of our culture. This is a deception, Venner explained. Our vocabulary has changed, not our basic outlook. Our new god-terms are Justice, Equality, Freedom, and Tolerance—omnipotent abstract nouns that have replaced an omnipotent deity in the idiom of our civic piety. For the Radical Right, the sacral power of these words is evidence that our culture remains haunted by Christian assumptions. Christianity’s legacy is not found in its creed or churches, which can pass away with no loss of its cultural hegemony. The lasting effects of Christianity arise from its revolutionary transformation of morality, the cunning power that can take on religious or secular forms. Christianity gave rise to a new morality and a new humanism, setting the Western world on a deviant course. It inspired the discovery of human rights and dignity, cultivated an acute sensitivity to suffering and cruelty, nurtured the growing demand for equal recognition and inclusion, and most radically of all inculcated a revolutionary belief that in victimhood one can discover great power—indeed, one can even inherit the earth. In contemporary thought, Christianity is sometimes criticized for upholding social inequalities or restricting personal freedoms. According to Venner, the problem with Christianity is that it has done precisely the opposite.

The political consensus that shaped the West after World War II has assumed that human beings are fundamentally equal, rights-bearing individuals, and that the greatest wrongs come from infringements on our freedom to choose. That consensus is now eroding. The reason? Its picture of human life has proven to be impoverished and dishonest. We justly ascribe rights to individuals, but we know that human beings are not substantively equal. We celebrate acts of choice and self-expression, but we know that we remain defined by relationships we have not chosen and responsibilities we cannot relinquish. Venner is undoubtedly correct that our identities are shaped by and embedded in traditions we are not free to change. This is a truism of modern social science. As characters in stories we have not authored, we now find ourselves compelled to relearn truths that liberalism was foolish to forget and the Radical Right has been eager to exploit. Our desire to be a part of a distinct people, to inherit and transmit a patrimony, to admire exceptional human beings, and to experience self-transcendence through self-sacrifice—anyone who cares about human dignity must defend these noble aspirations from those who denigrate them, for they are integral to what it means to be human.

Many of these concerns were shared by another French thinker who was shaped by the same wartime experiences that radicalized a young Dominique Venner. In the early 1940s, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac gave a series of talks about the collapse of the Third Republic. Unlike Venner, de Lubac was fiercely anti-fascist. Nevertheless, he argued that the fall of France was due in part to the shallowness of its ruling ideology and the naivete of its elites. A society built around a narrow understanding of individual freedom and self-interest had invited disaster. Its liberal foundations were too bloodless to command loyalty, leaving many French feeling isolated and uncertain, yearning for the richer and more demanding forms of community. De Lubac argued that the Church bore significant responsibility for this perilous situation. The seductive appeal of radical political religions could exist only where people’s “thirst for the Absolute” had been unmet by a Church that had lost touch with the vitality of human life and the deep springs of its own tradition. Only by being “enfolded into a vaster and deeper community,” de Lubac wrote, “a community whose essence is eternal,” could human beings resist the allure of political ideology.

But to draw humanity into this eternal community, de Lubac understood that Christianity must confront its most formidable criticism. It was not the critique that Christian belief is irrational or outdated. Rather, it was the ancient charge, voiced aloud in modern Europe for the first time in nearly two millennia, that Christianity is hostile to human life—that it emasculates believers, profanes nature, slanders instincts, deforms imaginations, and spiritually disarms the cultures it shapes. This accusation does not deny God’s existence. It gives voice to something more radical and more troubling—the accusation that the gospel is a calumny against life. To counter this charge, de Lubac argued that the Church needed to rediscover, from within her own squandered heritage, the life-affirming nature of Christian discipleship—a vision of our supernatural destiny that makes all earthly heroisms and sacrifices seem small by comparison. Christian heroism, he explained, “will not consist of . . . being delirious about the virtue of power.” It will be found in bearing witness to the truth of Christ, in the face of obvious lies and meretricious ideals. And his truth is this: The greatest power is made perfect in love. 

Venner and his fellow authors on the Radical Right did not have a monopoly on the essential role of conflict in our quest for a fully human life. De Lubac darkly warned that, after the war, “spiritual combat” will be required of every believer who braves the challenges of living in the coming post-Christian culture. De Lubac seems to have borrowed the phrase from a popular sixteenth-century spiritual handbook. Its author, Lorenzo Scupoli, summoned readers to enter the daily field of battle as “soldiers for Christ,” exercising martial discipline over their untamed passions and sinful habits. Spiritual Combat was written from within a Christian culture, and Scupoli repeatedly cautioned against the self-deception of wanting to appear a good Christian in public while remaining inwardly unrenewed. But doing spiritual battle in a secular culture, de Lubac implied, requires Christians to confront a very different enticement to spiritual dishonesty. It is the temptation to want to remain a Christian in private without outwardly appearing to be one in society at large. Against the temptation to hide our light under a bushel, de Lubac urges us to face our enemies, boldly and joyfully, with the spiritual weapons of courage, love, and hope.

In his suicide note, Venner wrote that in choosing a voluntary death he had resolved to uphold his ideals until the very end of his life. He died in the hope that the strength of his resolve could, like meaning-makers he venerated, remind France of the forgotten truths of her patrimony. Venner imagined himself a lonely warrior defending lofty truths. But his truths were not lofty, and he was not alone. He is joined by all those whose narcissism led them to also imagine that our identities are the self-justifying source of what matters most in life. Venner was blind, as many are today, to the great fact of Western culture. Its highest achievements testify to our astonishing ability to answer the call issued from on high, to rise above our identities and reflect the divine light of the universal through the creaturely limits of the particular. Venner’s denial of transcendence left him doomed in immanence. He died in the fatal conviction that the purpose of existence is to move from life to death through unceasing, inner-worldly struggle. His failure left him trapped within the flattened horizons of the progressive ideologies that the Radical Right fails to overcome—or even seriously to contest.

But there is a fighting faith, a true one, and it seeks to set the world right through loving obedience to a divine Word passed on through a holy tradition. De Lubac never commented on Venner. But he could see, as we must today, that Venner’s ideals and those of others like him testified to a desire that the Radical Right tragically misunderstands. The desire to overcome great challenges, to resist comforting illusions, and to transcend lower pleasures is more than a key to understanding our culture. It is a desire, fed at the place of Venner’s blasphemy, for a God who leads us from death to life. There is no greater power on earth than to be under the command of the one who pronounces: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

Matthew Rose is director of the Barry Center at the Morningside Institute. This essay was delivered as a lecture at Providence College.

Image by Uoaei1, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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