Conscience and Power examines how civilization in “the West” arose after the fall of the Roman Empire and has grappled ever after with a desire of citizens of nations of Western civilization for justice and the necessities of political order. This contest between Western man’s sense of justice and the rule of nation states has had consequences for democracy in America and in the centers of Western Europe.
The author of Conscience and Power explores the philosophic basis of Western civilization in the truths discovered by the Hebrews of ancient Israel, ancient Greece and Rome and the Gospels of Christianity. His purpose in making this inquiry is to ask what weaknesses of intellectual culture in the West have contributed to fragility of popular government in the 21st century.
What is the basis of our consciousness of justice, what forces have shaped it and contributed to the character of democracy in the modern world? Are there solutions–improvements even–that can preserve democracy in the 21st century?
Conscience and Power brings years of teaching and writing about the Western tradition of political philosophy by the author to an examination of the fragility and possible failure of democracy–in the 21st century. What we in the West inherited from ancient Israel, the ancient Greeks and Romans and an enduring Christendom formed during the Middle Ages is no longer central to the lives of citizens of Western nation states.
Because the death of everything living is preceded by a natural process of birth, growth and senescence, death is an end point for all “being things.” Conscience and Power asks, therefore, how much longer can democracies in the West live before they, too, meet their end?
The suggestion that democracy is dying contains an observation and a judgment.
We observe that everything around us ultimately dies, so it follows that even the civilization of the West will also die. But, that observation contains a normative judgment that Western civilization is dying–now–from self-inflicted wounds.
Are those wounds endemic to all civilizations and to democracies?
What is it about democratic regimes that leads them to self-destruction, to suicide? How does this condition come about and, can this condition be remedied?
We, the citizens of the United States, England, France, Germany and Spain are participants in Western culture and inhabit patterns of thought, of living, of faith, tradition and ritual that we inherited from a civilization that followed upon the fall of ancient Rome. From that past, we have inherited all the glories of “the West” and, presumably, have learned something from that experience.
We learned, for example, that it took about a thousand years for the city of Rome to grow a republic and transform that republic into the Roman Empire. And it took about five hundred years from the fall of Rome to the reestablishment of civilization in the West, what historians call “first Europe.”
How, if we study the history of Rome or ancient Greece, can we avoid the same fate as the Romans and the Greeks? That was a question that the Framers of the Constitution of the United States asked, and following their studies of the history of ancient Rome and the cities of ancient Greece, they designed a Constitution on principles that limit the powers of a government that they hoped would assure its survival.
The American “founding generation” studied well and shaped the thirteen former English colonies from a community of disparate States into a Nation.
The Framers of the Constitution of the United States sought a government that deterred the misuse of power and directed power to good ends. They understood also that man’s fallen nature required that power must be checked and that those institutions of government granted power must be balanced by competing powers. Underlying this mechanical concept of checks and balances was a homogeneous spiritual community of Protestant Christians shaped by historical events in England that drove them to the American colonies.
That history of England included wars that forced upon a monarch a Magna Carta, wars of religion, execution of Charles I, authoritarian rule by Oliver Cromwell, restoration of the monarchy, and the deposing of another king and his replacement in a “Glorious Revolution” that affirmed limits on the English monarchy and assured the growth of representative government.
Relations between England and the American colonists were irreparably injured by Britain’s treatment of the American colonials during the French and Indian War and that assured that the colonists would seek their independence from the British Crown. That led to the founding of an independent United States that is now–more than two hundred and forty-two years later–showing signs of significant decline. That decline was preceded by disruptions of civil society in Germany, France and Spain.
To be perfectly clear, we argue that American political culture is experiencing similar disorders caused, we believe, by abandonment of the Western philosophic and theological traditions that once shaped what came to be called “Christendom.”
In establishing the fundamental law of American national government that would govern a new nation, the Framers of the Constitution of the United States did the best they could with materials that were at hand. Those materials included concepts of law, historical experience, religious history and philosophical concepts that met the exigencies of their times. But by 1787, the influence of the Enlightenment had transmitted not merely practical concepts of organization and powers, but viruses which would threaten civil society hundreds of years later.
Today, American democracy is dealing with the symptoms of cancers those viruses caused.
During and after the American Civil War, the homogeneous community of Protestant Christians in the American South and North was shaken by the brutality of that war and by scientific theories that cast doubt on Christian revelation. American colleges and universities that once cherished their responsibility to transmit their Protestant faith and knowledge of the civilization of the West became handmaidens of the State. An American centralized, bureaucratic, administrative State came into existence that too often subverted the consent of the governed with government by special interests and the interests of the agencies of government.
American society is now besieged by claims to government largess, and of “rights” to engage in actions that America’s religious culture rejected centuries ago and rejects still.
Islamic radicals believe that the West’s culture is degenerate and have fashioned an ideology that justifies murder and terror. The United States government engages in a war against Islamic “terrorism,” but justifies violation of the privacy of American citizens in the conduct of that war.
A sense that American culture has been dumbed-down is confirmed by college educated citizens who know nothing of their history and celebrities who never studied government, history, economics nor foreign policy, but feel themselves qualified to seek public office.
This reading of decline of democratic politics in the 21st century, if accurate, could not have been predicted in 1787, but something like it was feared. Educated colonists of what came to be called the “founding generation” of mid-18th century America had read ancient history, law and philosophy and knew that rule by masses of uneducated “citizens” who cared for pleasure absent of civic responsibility was the downfall of what ancient Greeks and Romans called “democracy.” Fortunately for the ancient Greeks and Romans, periodically, but only in times of crisis, great men rose to meet the needs of their days and restored order.
Historical timelines can be useful in understanding, not merely justifying that statement. They can show epochal moments when there was a beginning, an ascent upward or a downward descent that had a beginning and an ending. The timeline travelled in this book takes us to a sense of an ending of American democracy and of the life of a nation whose mores, philosophical traditions, Constitution and laws for more than two hundred and forty-two years have nourished and supported a traditional order of society.
Whether the American nation–or the democracies of England, France, Germany or Spain– have a future depends on whether we have the stomach to engage in a review of what the traditional order of the West is, and which disorders that beset it have driven us to ask if our sense of an ending is imagined or real. Our friends, the citizens of the nations of Europe, will sympathize with us. They have experienced that sense decades ago.
In Europe, the slowing of new births is increasing the influence of non-Christian populations whose higher birth rates and immigration into European Union States challenge European cities to maintain order. European political leaders who act, as if they consider Europe’s Christian traditions as equal to the traditions of all other civilizations, including Islam, have aroused a resurgent nationalism.
Europe, buffeted by a bullying Russian kleptocracy and organized into a fractious “European Union,” ceases to lead the West in international affairs and is becoming insignificant in terms of geopolitical power. Cities of Western Europe are becoming significant only as interesting tourist destinations.
This realignment has not escaped Russia’s attention and post-Soviet Russian leaders are slowly attempting to absorb the former satellites of the Soviet Union into Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia will strive to make Ukraine, the Baltic states—every nation formerly dominated by the former Soviet Union—subjects of Russia’s kleptocracy.
Only insofar as a rising Islam and a powerful China challenge Russia will the United States and Russia discover a mutuality of interests.
Where does that leave the United States?
In one word—vulnerable.
Vulnerable to Islamic terrorists, vulnerable to an electorate ill-educated for an economy that relies less on manufacturing and more on technological skills–vulnerable to wage stagnation, vulnerable to moral decline in American culture and vulnerable to all the weaknesses of democracies.
The great promises of an independent democratic republic in America where individual liberty, freedom of enterprise, constitutional limits on government power and the rule of law, have been called into question. No viable community of belief exists to secure the survival of the blessings of American liberty in a dangerous world and American power in a destabilized Western Europe.
The observation that, after a prolonged period of drought, we should ask, “Is this a desert?” raises the question of whether deeper problems, ones turning on the nature of Western civilization itself, are at work. They compel us to look at our present condition and engage in a philosophical re-examination of the intellectual foundations of the West.
If so, who will engage in these philosophical discussions?
Our college educated citizens have lost, or never learned, philosophy as a way of discovery of truth. All is relative, they are taught, and many have come to believe.
The method employed in this book, therefore, runs counter to the normal way that we address these political problems–by ignoring them.
Here, in Conscience and Power, we explore our current dilemma by reference to the history of Western philosophy and civilization and the knowledge that the life of all nations participates in transcendent divine reality–in the life of God. In Chapter 11, ” Recovery of Daimonic Souls from Disorder,” we examine the mystic character of the life of the American nation and the conscience of the West.
In search of solutions, therefore, we bring to bear on the questions asked here all that we know and were taught about philosophy, the civilization of the West and Western culture. Our search is assisted by similar assessments, in addition to our own, to explain the dangers that democracy inflicts on the American people and the disorders and unrest in civil society democratic rule can create.
The author of this study brings to this task a career as a college teacher and an education entrepreneur. He learned classical political theory from scholars at the University of Notre Dame, many of whom were émigrés from Western Europe in World War II. In addition to teaching courses in political theory, modern ideology, American enational government and Constitutional Law, he answered the call of service in the Reagan Administration, served on a Transition Team in the Office of the President-Elect and accepted nomination to a sub-cabinet post at the United States International Communication Agency. And he has written about a public philosophy that informs American democracy with insight into discoverable, public, truths that have guided American politics from its beginning.
That public philosophy can be seen in his 2015 study titled The Conservative Rebellion where he argued that the United States is the beneficiary of a sustained tradition of rebellion–not revolution. The spirit of that rebellion engendered America’s independence from Britain and has risen at critical times in our history when it seemed that democracy in America was on the wrong track.
That rebellion, however, has been hampered by a “Left University” system that dominates American colleges and universities on which we rely for education and intentionally denies to generations of students knowledge of fundamental truths that have sustained democracy in America since the first colonists arrived in the New World.
Since the late 1960s, however, our secondary schools, colleges and universities have abdicated their responsibility to educate our citizens in their responsibilities as citizens of a self-governing democratic republic.
So, here we looked for others who sought answers to problems of political order in the West and found these three persons who authored four books that we examine here.
Alexis deTocqueville in Democracy in America (1835)
Tocqueville’s The Old Régime and the French Revolution (1856)
Francis Graham Wilson’s, Order and Legitimacy (1967)
Allan Bloom’s, The Closing of the American Mind (1987)
The 19th century French political theorist, writer and politician, Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, Viscount de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is probably best known for his Democracy in America. But his Recollections that tell us something about his life and career is of value as is the second volume of Democracy in America.
What Tocqueville had to say about America in 1831, when he and a colleague travelled throughout the United States, expresses insights into the nature of American democracy that are true today and sometimes unpleasant to American ears.
In addition to Tocqueville, we will consider what Professor Francis Graham Wilson (1901-1976) had to say. Francis Wilson did not promote his scholarship, so his insights have been long forgotten. But, half a century ago, this erudite political philosopher examined the condition of American civil society by comparing it to 19th and 20th century Spain. Spanish traditionalists addressed problems in Spain’s civil society from the invasion of Spain by Napoleon in 1808 through the military regime of Francisco Franco, and Francis Graham Wilson thought he saw something familiar.
A Catholic, raised in Texas, where he became fluent in Spanish, Francis Graham Wilson spent time in Spain and saw that problems affecting civil society in that country were quite similar to our own. Since long simmering issues in Spain were resolved in civil war and imposition of an authoritarian regime, a review of Francis Graham Wilson’s thought compels us to ask how similar are conditions in the United States today to conditions in Spain in the 1930’s?
We’ll also take a look at the 1987 book by political theorist, Allan Bloom (1930-1992), The Closing of the American Mind, in which Bloom indicts modern education for impoverishing our souls.
Bloom’s book shook the foundations of American higher education and is an enduring testament to political thinkers who studied with Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago. There in the American mid-West the life of the mind was supported by Jewish émigrés who came to Chicago from Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, made successful careers, and financially supported the University of Chicago.
As we shall see from examining Alexis de Tocqueville, Francis Graham Wilson and Allan Bloom, we are not the first to ask, if democracy in the West is nearing its end.