This essay is an excerpt from R. R. Reno’s new book Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West.
In every political culture, the “we” touches upon sacred things. Human beings are by nature social animals. But the particularity of the “we” is always a gift. Patrimony comes unbidden. I was created in the image and likeness of God, a noble heritage I share with every other human being. But in that universal inheritance I did not receive my distinctive patrimony as a “Reno.” That came by accident.
If I were from another family, I would still enjoy all the dignity of the humanity I share with others, but I would not be a “Reno.” And yet I do not feel the contingency as a diminishment. My parents, grandparents, and ancestors before them are in a real sense far more necessary to me than my generic humanity, so much so that I’m far more likely to sacrifice my life for my blood relations than for someone outside the family circle, however equal he may be in the eyes of God. This is at once an obvious point about human nature—blood is thicker than water, as folk wisdom puts it—and something remarkable. The miracle of the “we” turns contingent familial solidarity into something more precious than our universal humanity. It is so powerful that it can overcome genetic differences, which is to say nature herself. Marriage creates a “we.” Adoption can expand the “we.” There is something thicker than blood—the union of shared loves.
The miracle of the “we” infuses political solidarity with sacred significance. We are not created American or English or Polish, but our native languages are beloved. It’s not simply a metaphor to speak of our motherlands and fatherlands. Here as well the power of the “we” transcends biology. Nations unite clans and tribes, villages and provinces. They can incorporate newcomers by “naturalizing” them, a process of civic adoption, as it were. And, of course, religious communities manifest the sacred sources of “we” as well, for they come from a divine source.
The solidarity found in the “we” is always political in the broadest sense. Because the “we” is not natural—that is, it is not simply a consequence of our shared humanity or a biological dynamic of genetic connection—its particularity requires intentional effort to create, guide, and sustain. In short, the “we” does not just happen. I must form a domestic bond with a woman and have a child to perpetuate my family name. The civic realm needs to be defended; its history must be passed down, and the native language has to be taught. All this and much more must be done if a “we” is to have a future. Revelation and tradition have to be passed down and children catechized to sustain the religious “we.”
In every such endeavor, individuals must exercise their freedom. The “we” is not the product of a calculation of utility, nor is it simply given in racial or any other genetically determined identity. The “we” is an end in itself that asks us to do what is necessary to sustain and promote our shared loves, all of which harken to the call of strong gods. Governance, therefore, is integral to the “we.” In the intimate affairs of domestic life, it is obvious that the decisions and initiatives of the husband and wife allow the family to flourish. Let us leave aside religious leadership, which is explicitly ordered to the service of the divine, and focus on political leadership and the sacred sources of the civic “we.”
In its classical definition, a republic is not merely a system of government. It is that which is held as a common good among a particular people, a res publica. The res—the common thing that is the object of a shared love—is often many-sided. The French cherish their language and assign to their public institutions responsibility for maintaining its integrity and purity. The English are loyal to their free institutions, their history, and their countryside. Postwar Germans are disquieted by their own uncertainty about whether they have a right to be proud of their history. One could go on and on describing national characters. Better, however, to adopt a more general definition of the “shared thing.” In his massive account of world history, The City of God, Augustine defines the “we” as “an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.”
The postwar consensus is, at root, fearful of love. Formed by the decades of catastrophe, the generation so ably represented by Popper and Hayek recognized that love’s passions can lead to destructive devotions. Love enflames ambitions, some of which impel us toward evil ends. Love inspires sacrifices, some of which are misguided and self-destructive. At their worst, perverse loves can beckon us to sacrifice others.
Our consensus in favor of openness seeks to prevent these dangers by depriving us of love’s objects. Its techniques of disenchantment and weakening try to banish the strong gods or at least make them too weak to rouse our hearts. The postwar consensus critiques, deconstructs, and deflates a great deal of what the Western tradition has championed as fitting objects of our love—not only God, but the nation and our cultural inheritance, even truth itself. By certain measures, the postwar consensus has been remarkably successful. It has brought calm to the West and great wealth as well. Since 1945 there has been but one war in Europe—on the margins, in the Balkans—the consequence of passions and collective grievances stirred up by the collapse of the artificially imposed unity of communism. Its destructive, tribal passions seemed to vindicate the love-weary skepticism of Popper, Hayek, and the rest.
An open-society calm continues to dampen dangerous upsurges of discontent in the core nations of the West. Protesters regularly march through Paris. Italy can seem ungovernable. Germany anguishes over its history. Populism roils elections. Yet no paramilitary organizations—no Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, or Red Brigades—are taking to the streets. Anti-globalization riots in Hamburg in 2017 were softened by an atmosphere of protest tourism rather than earnest rebellion. Local residents fed protestors sandwiches. Governing authorities seemed vaguely sympathetic. After all, in the atmosphere of the postwar consensus, street protests are presumptively beneficial. They remind us of the virtues of the open society, which are worth the broken windows and burning cars. After Trump’s election, the people who took to the streets were overwrought women in ridiculous hats. Vattimo is right: There has been a great weakening. These days the occasional episodes of street violence are often the work of anti-fascist gangs who relish the rare opportunities our age allows for strong actions insofar as they target whatever remains of the historical enemies of the open society—political correctness with cudgels.
But the project of peace without love cannot go on much longer. Man was not created to be alone. We do not desire calm, not even when satiated by countless pleasures. We yearn to join ourselves to others, not only in the bond of matrimony but in civic and religious bonds as well. The “we” arises out of love, a ferocious power that seeks to rest in something greater than oneself. In the first half of the twentieth century, perverse loves destroyed a great deal in the West, not just lives and buildings, but cultural legitimacy as well. It is not surprising that Popper’s open society and Hayek’s spontaneous market order gained the upper hand. Nevertheless, the death camps, gulags, atomic bombs, and killing fields, however horrible, did not destroy human nature. Our hearts remain restless. They seek to rest in loyalty to strong gods worthy of love’s devotion and sacrifice. And our hearts will find what they seek.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.