Last week I focused on the debate that Jonah Goldberg’s newest book, The Suicide of the West, has generated, not about whether Western civilization and the United States are dying, but whether that death is a result of either rejecting or embracing the ideals of the Enlightenment. I believe America is dying, but the side I agree with is right for the wrong reasons.
Personally, I agree with those who oppose Goldberg’s conclusion that we are dying by suicide because we are rejecting the Enlightenment’s premise of the individual’s autonomy and the power of human reason.
Why I Agree with Goldberg’s Critics—Death by Natural Causes
I agree with Goldberg’s critics because I agree with the assessment of Dr. Nathaniel Blake, Ph.D., in The Federalist that “the blessings of our civilization” do not stem just from the Enlightenment, but from “the actual conditions of mankind for the millennia before modern civilization.” That’s because, as Goldberg critic Richard M. Reinsch, editor of Law and Liberty, said, “no political and economic order can emerge ex nihilo.”
In other words, the Enlightenment “arrived” in a certain context from which it can’t be divorced. John Daniel Davidson, whose critique I referenced last week, describes that context as consisting of “the old morals and virtues that informed the pursuit of happiness, that gave shape to human flourishing and gave people something greater than themselves to belong to.”
What the Critics Dared Not Criticize
But none were willing to challenge the premise with which Goldberg began his book:
There is no God in this book.
The humans in this story are animals who evolved from other animals who in turn evolved from ever more embarrassing animals and before that from a humiliating sea of ooze, slime, meats, and vegetables in the primordial stew.
We pulled ourselves out of the muck, not some Garden of Eden. Indeed, if the Garden of Eden ever existed, it was a slum. We created the Miracle of modernity all on our own, and if we lose it, that will be our fault too.
Interestingly, Reinsch, who says he’s happy to join Goldberg in going “the whole hog with Darwin,” does identify a God of sorts:
A clue to the strangeness of our times is that our principal categories of Modern science and the unassailable assertions of our autonomy are the god terms we must all come and pay homage to. Left unnoticed is that those who tell us that we are nothing but highly intelligent chimps, usually stated with passing contempt for religious Americans, then breathlessly assert their autonomous individualism, usually stated with passing contempt for the communal, familial, and patriotic traditions of America. Emancipated chimps all the way down. How’s that?
This indicates why we need to account for why it is that man is born to trouble, and why man—amidst the incredible pleasing delights in the modern world, a world we have labored so hard to make for ourselves—is so prone to anxiety, misery, and despair. What is the ground of freedom? Or, as the late Peter Lawler would ask, “Why are there no dolphin scientists?” These are immaterial, I almost said spiritual, qualities and clues that point to man as a being born to wander and wonder.
But capitalism… Right, I understand.
Did you notice that just as he reaches the point of suggesting the problem may be “spiritual,” he transitions to something he “understands”—capitalism—instead of exploring whether and how the spiritual fits into the equation? Of course, he must do so since he embraces Darwinian naturalism.
Why the Critics Stopped Short
But this much he has right, and it is the reason I think Goldberg’s critics only get it mostly right: Their critiques “pay homage to” “[m]odern science and the unassailable assertions of our autonomy.” In other words, their critiques rest on the same humanistic foundation as the Enlightenment.
For example, Blake says Goldberg has “a too-narrow philosophical framework” for explaining the Enlightenment “Miracle,” because “he focuses on the distinction between Enlightenment reason and reactionary Romanticism, casting John Locke as the philosophical hero and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the villain.”
But his solution? It’s not to go outside the philosophical framework of the Enlightenment for an assessment of the death he sees coming. Rather, he says, Goldberg should have considered “making Edmund Burke his intellectual avatar rather than Locke.” Had he done so, Goldberg might have had “an exemplary work of popular political theory.” (emphasis supplied)
If political theories to be right (or “exemplary”) must be “popular,” then I don’t think there will be a cure for what’s killing us. The reason Western civilization and the United States is dying, and will die if nothing changes, is that no one seems willing to do the unpopular.
I’ll talk about that next week, and, no, I’m not talking about joining President Trump, Roseanne Barr, or Tim Allen in taking on the PC culture.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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