This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

Liberalism and ideology

By the time that all these subtle elements congeal to form a social consciousness, they have settled into a collection of premises—certain patterns of thought—which go to form the preconceptions of the modern man. These prejudices, because they are so deep-seated and because they are shared with everyone around us, take on a guise of false obviousness. We call them ‘common sense’, even though they would have seemed utterly alien and probably absurd to our ancestors.

These prejudices are uniform across a given society, which is a necessary result of the atomization that follows individualism. The atomized man becomes at the same time simpler in his thought and more open to suggestion. Today everyone in modern society takes it for granted that he thinks for himself, while nonetheless and without noticing it, he always thinks exactly like the man next to him, even if he is vehemently arguing with him over some political talking point. It seems, in fact, that these talking points are provided to a mentally homogenous people to allow them to disagree about things while never diverging from the implicit script.

Modern man is an island, in a historical sense. Every society born of revolution is an island, and it is an island that floats, like a thin film, on the surface of history. Such people are always moving, disconnected from all that came before them, unable to put down the roots necessary to pass something on to those who will come after. Every generation has the sense of not belonging, because the island is not in the same place as it was the generate before and so the rules built up by the elders make no sense to the youth. All mechanisms of cultural inheritance are void. Generations are equal only in being left to their own devices.

In this context the average person becomes incapable of appreciating supra-individual institutions, much less the supra-individual forms of knowledge, which is to say he becomes incapable of utilizing Tradition. His tie to the wisdom of the ages is severed, and he must cope with even the most commonplace things of life, from marriage to childrearing to prayer, as if he were the first man on Earth. Tocqueville observed this in America:

Amid the continuous shifts which prevail in the heart of a democratic society, the bond which unites generations to each other becomes slack or breaks down; each person easily loses the trail of ideas coming from his forbears or hardly bothers himself about them…As for the effect which one man’s intelligence can have upon another’s, it is of necessity much curtailed in a country where its citizens, having become almost like each other, scrutinize each other carefully and, perceiving in not a single person in their midst any signs of undeniable greatness or superiority, constantly return to their own rationality as to the most obvious and immediate source of truth. So, it is not merely trust in any particular individual which is destroyed, but also the predilection to take the word of any man at all. Each man thus retreats into himself from where he claims to judge the world.[1]

What a sorry state indeed! And so, in this wretched position, he adopts a new way of dealing with the problems of life: He begins to turn to general ideas. Again, Tocqueville can teach us about the process. He begins by discussing the nature of omniscience, which is perfect knowledge:

God gives no thought at all to human kind in general. He casts a single and separate glance upon all the beings that form the human race, observing in each of them similarities which link him to them and differences which separate him from them. So God has no need for general ideas; that is to say, he never experiences the necessity of grouping a great number of similar objects under one heading so as to think more comfortably.[2]

Man does not have this power. He is profoundly limited in his reach and where his reach was once supplemented by thousands of years of authentic tradition, he must now find a different means of arriving at judgments about the world. To do this he haphazardly gathers a few similarities between events and circumstances as they occur, and on these loose correspondences he formulates general rules which, although not very accurate, serve his purpose and allow him to “get by.” This way of reasoning becomes his habit, and he mistakes for mental progress what is actually a progressive decay of knowledge:

General ideas do not bear witness to the strength of human intelligence but rather to its inadequacy for, in nature, beings are not exactly alike; there are no identical facts, no rules which can be applied loosely and in a similar manner to several objects at the same time. General ideas have the wondrous attribute of allowing the human mind to reach swift judgments on a great number of ideas at the same time. On the other hand, they only ever provide the mind with half-baked notions which lose as much in accuracy as they gain in range.[3]

This collection of ‘half-baked notions’ is called an ideology. An ideology is an assortment of ‘commonsense’ answers to complex problems, forcibly pressed into a contradictory reality. As Davila put it: “Ideologies were invented so that men who do not think can give their opinions.”[4]

Liberalism, clearly, is the arch-ideology of the modern world. Its precepts, each of them bursting with pre-packaged rhetorical justifications, each requiring no study and no actual experience of life, are knowns as equality, freedom, free markets, progress, productivity, growth, universal education, democracy, universal suffrage, patriotism, free speech, etc. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but it hangs together by the fact that each element is distilled from the underlying mythology of the modern era, and where the myth impels man to action, the Liberal ideology channels it into those pursuits that accord with its values. All of these values are accepted and pursued without question and without any real study of the relevant subjects—and most certainly without reference to history.

This leads us to a final observation about the formation of ideology in Liberal regimes, which is that it reinforces man’s inherent mental laziness. By providing him the pre-packaged answers to the mysteries of the universe, it convinces him that he can become wise without the effort traditionally needed to acquire wisdom:

One of the distinctive features of democratic ages is the taste shared by every man for easy success and immediate enjoyment—a trait evident as much in the pursuits of the intellect as in any other. The majority of those who live in times of equality are filled with ambition both vigorous and mild. They wish for immediate success without expending great effort. These contradictory elements lead them to search for general ideas with whose help they congratulate themselves on being able to depict huge objects at little expense and drawing the public’s attention with no effort.[5]

Ideology has, from the beginning, been a characteristic of Liberal democratic societies. Just as gravity is imbedded as a law in our physical reality, so the tendency toward this peculiar flavor of ignorance is imbedded in the mental physics of the modern condition.

[1] Tocqueville, Democracy, p. 494.

[2] Ibid., p. 503.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dávila, 2001 edition, aphorism 1219.

[5] Tocqueville, Democracy, p. 507.

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