Over thirty years ago, Leszek Kołakowski opined that Nietzsche’s expose of the bankruptcy of Enlightenment humanism had not become the explicit orthodoxy of the modern age. Despite Nietzsche’s demonstration that a world that had killed God had effected a metaphysical and moral revolution which unchained the earth from the sun and demanded the transvaluation of all values, Kołakowski observed that modernity had engaged in one long attempt to deny that conclusion. The explicit orthodoxy of the modern world, he argued, was not Nietzscheanism but a desperate patchwork of various intellectual devices by which some semblance of stable meaning and order can be maintained.
Today, that patchwork project looks even more eclectic and even less convincing than it did in 1986. The authority of traditional institutions—religious, political, legal, financial—has been repeatedly damaged by countless instances of corruption and betrayals of trust. Public discourse has fallen victim to the various therapeutic hatreds that fuel the snarling and resentful identity politics of both left and right. And the rise of new fundamentalisms, especially that of Islam, threatens to unleash havoc on a West that seems to take a perverse pleasure in its loss of confidence in its past—and thus in its present.
At the heart of the problem is the fact that Nietzsche was right: Kill God and everything is therefore negotiable. Pretending this is not the case will not work. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in my motherland are at least signs that the liberal dream is perhaps not as much on the side of history as many supposed. A public life that lacks some kind of metaphysical basis is a public life that lacks the ability to justify its own form. From such vacuums great disasters tend to rise.
Yet the answer is not simply to continue the patchwork. It requires that we understand the underlying causes of the problematic symptoms we see all around us in our culture. It requires that we see the individual crises around us as part of a larger metaphysical crisis. We need to realize, for example, that debates about sexual and gender identity are not so much debates about individual freedom as debates about what it means to be an individual at all. And to engage in such debates competently, with thoughtful reflection upon literature, history, ethics, politics, philosophy, theology, and law—to name but a few relevant fields—is necessary. But how does one do that in an era of fragmented and isolated academic specializations, at a time when there is so much information available that the true and good are often buried under the bad and banal?
This is why First Things is so important. I enjoy writing for First Things but I enjoy reading it even more. It is one of the few places where I can read thoughtful and accessible articles that truly engage in critical thinking and interaction across the full spectrum of human culture, both of which are necessary if we are to transcend the patchwork mess of today’s guiding pop philosophies.
That is why a donation to First Things is actually an investment—an investment in human intelligence as it pushes back against the lunatics that have taken over the asylum.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.
Photo by Justin Brendel.