Have we become a society of Randians? And is the Randian, self-worshipping self a product of Christianity?

What do I always identify as the main principle of modern liberalism? The belief that the self, namely one’s own self, is the highest thing and the source and criterion of all values, a belief that is expressed as self-love, self-worship.

And that is precisely what Ayn Rand believes, stated clearly and repeatedly in Atlas Shrugged.

- end of initial entry -

Thucydides writes:

You are quite right about this being a core principle of liberalism. British philosopher John Gray describes this principle as moral or normative individualism, or the idea that what is of ultimate value is individual states of mind or feelings, or aspects of the lives of individuals. The consequence is that the claims of individuals are held to prevail over those of communities or collectivities.

Now it doesn’t take a minute’s thought to realize how absurd this is. What makes our lives worth living is not our ability to freely fulfill our will or appetite as if we were unencumbered agents, but rather lies in the quality of our relations with others; with family, friends, kin, and in various social or workplace communities. The hypervaluation of personal autonomy, or putting one’s own state of mind or feelings in first place, is not going to result in good relations with others, in fact is going to wreck them.

In fact, most liberals don’t really live consistently in accordance with this principle. It would be a disaster if they tried. So they are constantly making the unprincipled exception in order to maintain some decent quality of relations with others. Rather they deploy the principle selectively, to exempt themselves from the requirements of virtue, where that seems onerous, or contradicts liberal pieties in some way.

September 29

Brandon F. writes:

We should not overlook Christianity’s contribution to this error. The idea that the individual has special purpose, is in fact singled out and adored by the Almighty is the beginning of this idea in the West in my opinion.

This is of course not the radical atheist Randian ideal but the concept of the individual as special and purposeful was introduced and cultivated in the West by Christianity. Simply remove the religion and you get the modern radical liberal individual.

LA replies:

It is a truism that Christianity (preceded by the Jewish scriptures, particularly the Book of Psalms) made the individual person, the individual psyche or soul, far more important and central than it had been before. Consider Augustine’s obsession with his own self and its sinful or virtuous condition in The Confessions, an experience that would have been inconceivable prior to Christianity. But I hope that Brandon is not suggesting that the modern self-worshipping self is the fault of Christianity, or that the Western/Christian sense of self was a mistake.

It is also a truism that Communism is a form of secularized Christianity, but do we blame Christianity for Communism and liberalism?

Some do, such as the European New Right, and the “Alternative Right” in America. But in their rejection of Christianity they reject the West itself.

As I once half-jokingly said, Christianity, because of its doctrinal and liturgical complexity, and the difficulty of maintaining a society based on it, and, most of all, its tendency to be derailed into gnostic belief systems such as liberalism, Randianism, and Communism, is, though no one realizes it, the fulfillment of the call of Nietzsche (the ultimate anti-Christian) to “live dangerously.” To be a traditional Western man is to live dangerously. There is no escape from this.

Daniel S. writes:

It is true that almost every error in modernity has its roots in Christianity, or rather an inversion of Christianity. G. K. Chesterton noted this his book Heretics:

The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The newspaper is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

As Christianity is so deeply seated in the soul and mind of the West, there are no new, original ideas to be had. Instead, the one who rejects Christianity cannot find or produce an ideology or creed completely free or unrelated to Christianity; rather one can only offer up a distortion, inversion, or parody (this includes liberalism, Marxism, and even neopaganism, whose reference point is always Christianity).

LA replies:

Chesterton’s remark, and your gloss on it, are superb.

Daniel S. replies:
Thank you. I was thinking about this specific issue recently with regards to right-wing neopaganism, which claims it wants to “go back” to some sort of pre-Christian pagan practice, citing figures like Nietzsche, Julius Evola, and Heidegger as their inspiration. Of course Nietzsche (the son of a Lutheran pastor) and Heidegger (raised a Catholic) were as much a product of Europe’s Christian heritage as comparable, explicitly Christian thinkers like Dostoevsky and Chesterton. The truth that the neopagans stubbornly resist is that once the logos was made flesh and came among men there would be no going back, not ever (remember, Christ has already overcome the world). Even Rene Guenon and Schuon testify to this truth. Neopaganism is not an authentic quest to resurrect dead Nordic deities, but mere reaction, a flight from God (indeed, I would explain all of modernity and its errors as being ultimately a flight from God, though one that is as doomed as the flight of Icarus).

My thoughts are not yet clearly organized on this subject and I still have much thinking and struggle (both intellectual and spiritual) here, but once I have a more solid understanding I intend to write further on this subject.

LA replies:

The idea of “no-going back” is also central to Eric Voegelin’s thought. As he put it, Christianity represented a new and higher (actually the highest) stage of “differentiation” or “articulation” of the multi-layered reality in which we live, most importantly in differentiating the transcendent from the immanent, the spiritual from the secular. Once having experienced that differentiation, man cannot go back to the pre-differentiated, pagan, cosmological (i.e. “a cosmos full of gods”) stage, no matter how much he may want to. The attempt to return to the simpler, pagan condition only leads to a gnostic deformation of reality, in which all of reality, including the transcendent (which man cannot get rid of, once it has been differentiated in his soul) is squeezed into a single obsessive ideological idea which is ultimately imposed on society by a gnostic totalitarian elite. Modernity offers a plethora of such monstrous and doomed attempts to de-differentiate reality: the Rule of the German Superman, the Rule of the Marxian Superman, the Rule of the Randian Superman (which fortunately only exists in a novel), the Rule of the Feminist Superwoman, the Global Egalitarian State, John Lennon’s Stateless Egalitarian Humanity (which also must end up as a Global State under the rule of a totalitarian elite), and on and on.

Daniel S. replies:

Your last comment about de-differentiated realities reminds me of something said by Srdja Trifkovic several years back about the monistic nature of both Islam and liberalism:

Islam has been for the past thousand years a gigantic grinder that turns its adherents into intellectual and moral cripples. Mr. Hoste does not know this because he does not know Islam and does not understand its debilitating effect on the soul and the mind. At the same time he has clearly absorbed the postmodernist assumptions of the Western elite class he claims to loath. His readiness to contemplate Islam as a substitute for the PC-liberal-secular pap is but the opposite side of the same coin. Both lead to a soul-numbing monism. For all the outward differences, Swedish feminists share with Mr. “Hoste’s” mullahs the desire for a monistic One World. They both long for the Great Gleichschaltung that will end in Strobe Talbot’s Single Global Authority, post-national and seamlessly standardized, an ummah under whatever name.

The Christian vision of Triune God is the enemy to both. All authentic Europeans and their overseas cousins should revive it and stick with it, not only because it is true—which it is—but also because it has been inseparable from their culture and civilization for over two millennia.

He might have added that the Christian vision of the Triune God is the enemy of neopaganism and the Randian cult as well. The one common theme among all these groups that seek after de-differentiated realities and monism is a loathing and contempt for Christianity. Again, every prominent ideology the exists today is but a reaction to Christianity.

It is also interesting to note that Muhammad, Nietzsche, Marx, and Rand all had contempt for the idea of Christ’s suffering. A theme worthy of further reflection.

Thucydides writes:

You have pointed to the Christian origins of liberalism’s moral and normative individualism, or focus on the self. The other core commitments of liberalism also have their origins in Christianity. These are human universalism, egalitarianism, and the belief in progress.

Human universalism is the idea that all men are essentially the same in all times and places, and that particular identities, national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, etc. are not constitutive of the individual, but rather are merely lifestyle choices, superficial and epiphenomenal. According to this view, important duties and rights are owed to all men, regardless of relationship if any, and merely on their shared humanity. Human universalism obviously has its origin in the notion that all souls are of equal importance to God, without regard to social station or particular identity.

Egalitarianism is the idea that all humanity is a single moral status community regardless of particular moral qualities which again are seen as merely epiphenomenal, and that hierarchy and authority (without which no society could exist) are therefore always suspect and in need of the most stringent justification. This is closely linked to human universalism, and has the same origins.

The Belief in Progress is the idea that history is a kind of moral drama, proceeding diachronically towards an ultimate redemption. In some versions this is thought to operate by necessity, in others, that bien pensant people must help it along. This idea has not been at all common outside the Christian and post-religious West; the Greeks thought history to be cyclical, and that is the view taken in oriental religions. This idea has its origins in the Hebrew prophets and in Christian eschatology, and in fact is only a secularized version, with the ultimate redemption brought from the hereafter into a terrestrial future. This is Eric Voegelin’s “immanentization of the eschaton.”

So modern liberalism can be understood as a kind of Christian heresy, a substitute providentialism, with the Deity abandoned along with any notion of original sin, or the recognition of the limitations of a flawed human nature. Modern liberalism came to us in large part from the Progressive movement, which derived from New England post-millenial pietism. The Protestant religious dissenters who came to American believed that the Second Coming would occur only after the millennium (hence “post-millenial”), and we had to prepare for it by building the “shining city on the hill.”

Early progressives like John Dewey thought government was this wonderful instrument God had given us to achieve the “shining city.” In fact Dewey and number of others started off as ministers. In time, they simply forgot about the God part and the Second Coming, as the dream of a secular redemption provided salvationist inspiration enough to sustain them.

Daniel S. writes:

Thucydides articulately outlines the heresy of liberalism and its bastardizing the things of God and dragging them down into the realm of the profane. But then again, as Martin Luther observed, Satan is ever the ape of God.

As far as the idea of progress and history is concerned, the “end of history” that the Marxists, Hegelians, and liberals await will not be the dictatorship of the proletariat or the universalization of liberal democracy; rather the end of history is consummated and finalized in the appearance and reign of the Antichrist.

Clark Coleman writes:

Chesterton is quoted:

There is one thing, and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.

Sounds like a classic post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy to me. Would anyone care to defend this heretical statement by Chesterton?

LA replies:

Yes. I would say it’s more a clever rhetorical point than a serious substantive point. What he’s saying is, it is irrational to blame various modern neo-pagan and utopian belief systems on Christianity, since, in reality, everything we are, our entire civilization, comes to us from Christianity (or at least via Christianity). Blaming Communism or liberalism on Christianity is like blaming the existence of sin on the existence of the good; it’s like blaming the existence of hurricanes on the existence of the earth and the solar system. Once you have a Christian order, you are inevitably going to have various distortions and heresies of Christianity, just as once you have the good, you are going to have various perversions of the good.

The only thing that does not come from Christianity is … Christianity itself. And Chesterton’s rhetorical way of putting that point was to say that Christianity comes from paganism.

(I confess I just winged this comment; I don’t know if it will hold up under examination.)

Clark Coleman replied:

OK, but I just very strongly reacted to having that statement appear in print without being challenged. It is a perverse statement, regardless of motivation.

LA replies:

I agree with you that Chesterton’s remark, in and of itself, is obviously incorrect.

October 2

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Is Chesterton’s claim concerning Christianity’s relation to paganism really baffling or perverse? Not to me. Merely to consider it historically is to concede that Christianity emerged in the context of late pagan thought. Certainly the phrase “comes out of” or “comes from” can refer to that. But even more than that, Christianity absorbed, “baptized,” and consciously preserved and then transmitted to posterity the pagan intellectual and artistic heritage. There is a fascinating chapter in Augustine’s Confessions, an early fifth-century document, in which the autobiographer says that Platonism, which he had studied in his early thirties, was the necessary stepping stone in his pilgrimage to the Catholic faith. And in The City of God, supposing my memory serves me, Augustine says words to the effect that Revelation (and I deliberately use the capital R) includes Greek philosophy, especially Plato and the Platonists. Slightly earlier than Augustine, Saint Basil of Caesarea issued a pamphlet decrying the claim of some Christians that a Christian educational curriculum should eschew entirely “pagan letters.” Basil regards this claim as self-evidently absurd, pointing out, for example, that there is a great moral continuity linking Christianity to the higher paganism. He adduces the episode from Homer’s Odyssey where the hero, washed ashore on the remote island of Scheria, confronts in his nakedness the decorous princess NausicaƤ, taking great care in supplicating her to hide his unclothed indignity. In this episode, basil says, the pagan hero acts like a perfect Christian gentleman.

LA replies:

And the naked Odysseus didn’t have any tattoos!

Terry Morris writes:

I’m not so sure that either you or Mr. Coleman is correct. Chesterton seems to me to be criticizing Christianity in the same way that the both of you criticize mainstream conservatism. Which, of course, is a perversion of true conservatism.

Would it be a “perverse statement,” or “obviously incorrect” to say that conservatism is of conservative origin?

LA replies:

My reply to Mr. Coleman on that point was too quick and simplistic. On one hand, Christianity originates in the Incarnation and Revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That has nothing to do with paganism. On the other hand, in the articulation of the Christian religion after the time of Jesus, Greek (i.e. pagan) philosophy was merged with the Hebraic and Christian ideas of God. So in that sense it could be said that Christianity is of (partly) pagan origin.

Catherine C. writes:

Today you made a connection between tattoos and the flight from God, as does Flannery O’Connor in her story “Parker’s Back.” The story is about a man who has covered the entire front of his body, as well as his arms and legs, with tattoos. In a last desperate attempt at transcendence he has a “picture of God” tattooed on his back.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 28, 2012 03:40 PM | Send

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