In the current moment, we critique and demand, but from a negation; we know – or some think they know – what they don’t want, but it is quite unclear if they know what they do want. And since they have rejected moral norms it is impossible for them to give a rational justification for their wants and dislikes. Theirs is an exercise of will, for they have exorcised the logos, and mere will – willfulness – remains.
During my junior year of college I read and was persuaded by Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Bloom’s book was “a meditation on the state of our souls,” and he clearly knew something about both our souls and our minds. Consequently, as my own teaching career began I would often return to the text to help me comprehend my students, and I generally found it helpful.
Of course, I first read the book in 1995 when it had been in print for only eight years. Now, at thirty-three, Closing of the American Mind is middle-aged, and I must admit I no longer find it as compelling, although some intelligent friends tell me I’m very much mistaken in this.
Consider the opening lines of the Introduction, in which Bloom contends that a professor can be certain that,
almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending… The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it.
That comports with my own days as a student and early days of teaching in which “well, I personally hold x, but who am I to say that it’s wrong for another,” was a painfully common statement in introductory philosophy classes. “Wait,” the teacher, sometimes myself, would respond, “you think slavery is wrong but wouldn’t say it’s wrong for another person to own slaves?” Student: “Slavery is wrong for me; I wouldn’t own slaves, but maybe for another person or culture it would be fine. I wouldn’t do it, but who am I to say what’s right or wrong for them?” Teacher: “What if I owned slaves, and tried to own you, would you be fine with that?” Student: “Of course not, I’m personally against slavery.”
How things have changed. That is no longer the default option in the college seminar. While there certainly was a sophomoric naïveté and intellectual laziness in the claim—none of those students really thought slavery was morally acceptable, after all—nonetheless, relativism provided an expansive permissiveness for viewpoints. The “danger” students had been “taught to fear,” in Bloom’s words, was “not error but intolerance,” and so students would brazenly affirm all sorts of wildly preposterous errors in the name of tolerance – and expect to be tolerated in return – for the “only virtue” into which they had been educated was “openness.” Openness, wrote Bloom, and “the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance,” is “the great insight of our times.” The greatest danger was “the true believer.”
Perhaps students remain theoretically committed to relativism in the sense that they lack a justified account of moral sources, but a good many are fundamentally dogmatic in their prescriptions.
Perhaps it would be better to say that openness was the insight of those times. For many now, not openness but dogmatism describes the “great insight” and “virtue.” Perhaps they remain theoretically committed to relativism in the sense that they lack a justified account of moral sources, but a good many are fundamentally dogmatic in their prescriptions. While Bloom described his students as committed to relativism as a moral postulate – in their eyes the very condition of free society – many have pivoted considerably: now dogmatic conclusions not open to debate are asserted as the conditions of a just society.
Mark Lilla describes the current mood in which argument and debate have been replaced with a standpoint in which critique is taboo: “At times our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters.” Again, this is a kind of relativism in its theoretical commitments, since debates about justification are deemed irrelevant to moral discourse, but it is willing to prescribe orthodoxy, proscribe heretics, and punish non-conformists.
But how is it that theoretical relativism is combined with dogmatism? The answer, I suggest, is the revival of a distorted and anarchic anti-Fascism.
In several chapters in The Age of Secularization that reflect on the student protests of the late 1960s, Augusto Del Noce claims that “there is no doubt that the extremists perceive themselves as the most radical and integral anti-Fascists.” However, “there are different kinds of anti-Fascism,” and it turns out that the anti-Fascists separated two fundamental aspects of Fascism – nationalism and anarchism – and completely rejected nationalism while maintaining “the purely anarchic side.” Consequently, the young, who never experienced Fascism itself, “rediscovered its worst aspect, while believing themselves to be the most radical anti-Fascists.”
It’s no accident that the revolutionaries of the 1960s (and our own moment) are obsessed with the sexually transgressive, claims Del Noce, for the evil they wish to overcome is not injustice, or unrighteousness, or unreasonability, or any of the other candidates for identifying social and personal disorder. Instead, ‘repression’ becomes the great evil.
According to Del Noce, the anti-Fascists of the late 1960s embraced Fascism’s anarchic tendency of negation. “There is,” he continues, “not a single theme of student extremism that is not a rediscovery of motifs of early Fascism.” These include the open-ended, undetermined goals, best summarized as “I want”; the “youth’s right to seize power”; a concern for “generational change” rather than concern for class interests; the claim to revolution, especially one led by the young; negation of the status quo; anti-intellectualism; and the myth of novelty. Even more telling than these similarities is the negation of “every possible authority of values,” such that “all that is left is pure total negativism, and the will for something so indeterminate that it is close to ‘nothing.’” If early twentieth-century Fascism had a goal, however distorted, in its nationalism, the anti-Fascists have only negations that turn out to be a kind of “Fascistic anarchism” or “will to power” with a clear “totalitarian orientation.” But, note well, a “totalitarianism of destruction.” They wish to destroy, including destroying the old ethical and religious systems.
The student extremists of the 1960s put themselves into an awkward situation: having rejected tradition, classical metaphysics, and both the Judeo-Christian and Greek threads of the West, they found themselves bereft of a plausible ethical account on which to base their claims of justice and injustice. Since everything old had to go, the available ethical frameworks were discounted as “mystifications” and false “legitimizations.” The various ethical accounts were viewed with suspicion, as illegitimate, guilty of vestigial theological claims, and so they had to be rejected. But how, then, to justify claims that “the system” was somehow unjust or wrong? The moral categories with which to make such arguments had been jettisoned.
If reason, natural law, eternal law, the Image of God, natural rights, duty, human dignity, teleology, and the like are all rejected as part of a guilty tradition, the extremists instead turned to something more atavistic and barbaric – namely, liberation achieved “by eliminating the repression of instincts.” It’s no accident that the revolutionaries of the 1960s (and our own moment) are obsessed with the sexually transgressive, claims Del Noce, for the evil they wish to overcome is not injustice, or unrighteousness, or unreasonability, or any of the other candidates for identifying social and personal disorder. Instead, “repression” becomes the great evil. Repression causes unhappiness and violence; repression debases and diminishes; and repression harms and erases the lived experience of certain identities. Liberation occurs through “unleashing primitive and barbaric powers,” and the “revolution becomes an absurd revolt against what exists.” That is, if something participates in the political and moral tradition it is necessarily tainted by its association with repression. The law represses and binds, religion represses, civilization represses, zoning represses, as do money and property, marriage, monogamy, the equation of sex and gender, the family, and prohibitions against looting.
As a result, the revolution absurdly cannot distinguish “between what is positive and what is negative in the existing reality” – take, for example, the recent pulling down of monuments for Confederates like Jefferson Davis and the destruction of statues of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. That certainly seems like an undifferentiated rage incapable of distinction, one that simply negates in a fury of anarchic destruction.
If something participates in the political and moral tradition it is necessarily tainted by its association with repression. The law represses and binds, religion represses, civilization represses, zoning represses, as do money and property, marriage, monogamy, the equation of sex and gender, the family, and prohibitions against looting.
In the current moment, we see a kind of “blessed rage” for destruction. We are taking down, disassembling, and unmasking our cultural stories and institutions in the name of “resistance” or “freedom” or “justice,” but we have also deconstructed reason, moral norms, tradition, religion, and duty. As a result, we critique and demand, but from a negation; we know – or some think they know – what they don’t want, but it is quite unclear if they know what they do want. And since they have rejected moral norms it is impossible for them to give a rational justification for their wants and dislikes. “Justice” means nothing more, consequently, than their demands, and, indeed, they demand rather than persuade or propose. Theirs is an exercise of will, for they have exorcised the logos, and mere will – willfulness – remains.
So it is that the anti-Fascists of our own day recapitulate a certain ugliness of the Fascists. They have rejected reason, have negated the moral codes, and now wish to rule. They have become, as Plato predicted in the Republic, “drones with stings.” Such drones, in Plato’s account of the devolution of the regime, tend to tyranny – as do the anti-Fascists of our own moment. One cannot live justly by negation; one will always negate others. And, indeed, the tyrannical dogmatists of the current revolution are deeply, profoundly unjust.
R.J. Snell is Editor-in-Chief of Public Discourse and Director of Academic Programs at the Witherspoon Institute. Previously, he was for many years Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University and the Templeton Honors College, where he founded and directed the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.
He earned his M.A. in philosophy at Boston College, and his Ph.D. in philosophy at Marquette University. His research interests include the liberal arts, ethics, natural law theory, Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the work of Bernard Lonergan, SJ.
Snell is the author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God’s-eye View (Marquette, 2006), Authentic Cosmopolitanism (with Steve Cone, Pickwick, 2013), The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Pickwick, 2014), Acedia and Its Discontents (Angelico, 2015), and co-editor of Subjectivity: Ancient and Modern (Lexington, 2016) and Nature: Ancient and Modern (Lexington), as well as articles, chapters, and essays in a variety of scholarly and popular venues. He and his family reside in the Princeton area.