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Twilight of Authority

A “philosophical dictionary” is not a dictionary of philosophy that you use to look up obscure thinkers or recondite terms. It is a collection of brief and pithy essays on diverse topics, informed by one vision, and usually arranged in alphabetical order. Nisbet has written just such a book. Voltaire set the model by extracting mostly anticlerical pieces from the great Encyclopédie, and publishing them in 1764 as a Portable Philosophical Dictionary. Francis Bacon’s Essays—and those of many other, lesser writers—are of the same form, although without alphabetical arrangement. Bacon, Voltaire, and Nisbet each have a short piece under the heading “Atheism.” Nisbet overlaps Voltaire on “Enthusiasm,” “Fanaticism,” “War,” etc., and has more recent headings such as “Futurology,” and “Judicial Activism.” (He is against both.)

The subtitle “A Philosophical Dictionary” is fine. It is the main title, Prejudices, that is wrong. Nisbet’s essays are not prejudices but considered judgments, and that is why I find them scary. Voltaire’s dictionary defines a prejudice as an opinion without judgment. He wrote that prejudices may be needed to get a start on life; they are springs to action and many of them are perfectly sound. Reasonable people remain, however, under the obligation to subject them to scrutiny, analysis, and judgment. Nisbet has honored this obligation to reflect and judge.

When we start at the top of the alphabet we find that “Anomie” was discussed by him in similar ways in, for example, his Sociology as an Art Form1 The repetition befits a retired professor of sociology who edited work by the original student of anomie (Emile Durkheim). In “Authoritarianism” Nisbet defends the doctrine of Jeane Kirkpatrick that we are to distinguish authoritarian from totalitarian regimes, accepting that the former may be our allies but the latter must in the end be our foes. This view was worked out in a chapter on the total state in a book Nisbet published in 1953, The Quest for Community,2 where Stalin was already seen as a little worse than Hitler. When we come to “Boredom” we find Nisbet repeating a secondhand judgment stated in his History of the Idea of Progress3—boredom is one of the greatest dangers to our civilization, right up there with nuclear war and famine.

When a man has been writing professorial books about these ideas all his working life, how then can he call them prejudices? Nisbet begins his new book by quoting one of his heroes, Edmund Burke, who recalls that some thinkers try not to explode “general prejudices” but instead seek out the “latent wisdom” that they contain. They do not try to “cast away the coat of prejudice” in favor of “naked reason,” for “prejudice, with its reason,” is of “ready application in the emergency” and “does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, skeptical, puzzled and unresolved.” I suppose this fine epigraph stands for Nisbet’s view of his own essays, but if that is the case it suggests he has a muddy sense of what he has undertaken. For he writes not of “general prejudices” but, as he tells us in his preface, of his own prejudices. These seem to be of little ready application to any emergency except as might arise during belligerent repartee. Unlike Burke, Nisbet seldom tries to supply reasons that will preserve common unreflective beliefs and so increase the stability of the society in which he lives.

Instead Nisbet provides an endearingly consistent body of his own considered opinions, many of them avowing pessimism about the decline of our civilization. The underlying theme throughout is expressed by the title of yet another of his books, Twilight of Authority.4 The rot of our times must be traced back to the better times when we had a multitude of interconnecting social structures each of which exerted its own authority on its members. Family, village, and parish are often recited by way of example in Nisbet’s lists of such institutions (he is extremely fond of lists), but so also are town, voluntary association, class, trade union, and corporation.

As the authority of these rival organizations was diminished, we created the giant bureaucracies that have eaten away at democracy—or else we got, more suddenly, the totalitarian state. In either case the individual has diminished to the vanishing point, and the end of civilization is near.

Such ideas have wide appeal right now, and we have ample need for reasoned and perceptive conservative philosophies. Is Nisbet’s a candidate? We might find an answer by describing one central strand in his thought, at about the level of precision found in his own writing, and then examining that writing more closely. I have in mind his panoramic view of political and intellectual history, illustrated by his entries under “Liberalism” and “Conservatism,” among others. Here is how he sees things. Liberals have forked roots. One is planted in seventeenth-century England, whose great philosophers think of people as self-sustaining atoms, born into the world, learning from it, and creating social forms around them. The individual exists independent of society, into which he may enter of his own choice. But a slowly swelling conservative refrain keeps saying that individuals are very little in themselves. They are formed only by the ways in which they integrate themselves into social wholes. Without organizations, and the structure of authority that these impose, human animals would be almost nothing at all, certainly not persons. I agree with Nisbet about the basis of this distinction: originally liberals believed that people were self-sustaining atoms, and conservatives that they were formed into social wholes.

In practical affairs Nisbet would happily ally himself with many an old English liberal, just as he might for some purposes form a popular front with the libertarians who are completely opposed to true conservative thinking. But he cannot tolerate the other source of liberalism, which he associates with the destructive vainglory of eighteenth-century France, whose philosophes tried to destroy the customary practices of their world in order to create a reasoned life. Jacobins brought terror in their wake. Once it became clear that such violent change was not desirable, the liberal aimed at reform by increasing state intervention. Hence we got bureaucracy, bred by war, economic depressions, and the predilection of the forked liberal intellect to devise big government in order to help the individual. Traditional authorities in conflict with this trend—family, church, etc.—began to dissolve. It was left to the conservative to defend the pursuit of liberty, not on the old liberal grounds that individuals are atoms who freely enter into social contracts, but because people need a multiplicity of independent social structures within which they can define themselves.

Thus the people that Nisbet labels as liberals and conservatives seem to change sides. The antiauthoritarian liberal ends up defending enormous bureaucracies in which only members of the elite can have any distinctive, autonomous personality, for only they can dimly perceive the chains of command that are invisible and unintelligible to the very people whom the bureaucracies were supposed to assist. The conservative tries to destroy such overarching organizations that leave no room for the lesser social forms that are necessary for individuality.

Here Nisbet draws on Tocqueville or, more accurately, on the version of Tocqueville that concentrates on his prophecy of a “new species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced.” This one-dimensional figure is for Nisbet an even greater hero than Burke, and was quoted for two full pages at the beginning of his 1953 chapter on the total state. Tocqueville foresaw where liberal democrats were about to go, and Nisbet wants to report the end of the saga, namely a civilization that will expire of boredom, bureaucracy, anomie, and so forth.

We have lost our faith in progress, Nisbet argues, because we have lost our faith. Progress for him is not a modern invention. It reached its cultural peak in the nineteenth century but, Nisbet says, it is a central part of Greek and Christian tradition. In every case the belief in progress was part of a religious view of the world. (On occasion he cheerfully calls Marxism a religion.) Trust in progress ended not as our century began but only in our own days. We have ceased to have faith, even in revolution. We can no longer believe in progress because of “the effective loss of the past as an integral remembered part of the present.”

Such a panoramic view of our past and present may well fit the conservative mood of our times. But a panorama needs some details, here a church spire jutting out of the trees, there a lake with a bit of mist, and below a plowman with his oxen. A Turner seascape of yellow light and froth is a great painting but not a panorama. When we pass from Nisbet’s romantic vision and ask after details, something unpleasant occurs. There slowly emerges a pattern of indifference to fact and, what is worse, a rhetoric with distressing overtones of cruelty. When terms such as “unalloyed hatred” or “punitive fury” sprinkle the pages to describe other people, we begin to wonder if the hatred and fury are not those of the author himself.

For example, after the remark about progress just mentioned, we are told of another social force digging the grave of progress, “an increasing number of intellectuals, inspired by environmentalism, by unalloyed hatred of economic prosperity and its cultural and intellectual byproducts.” We can put aside the serious question raised here: whether progress may now be better served by conservation or expansion. We should note first the tone of the words, and then ask whether what they imply is literally true. Was there ever, even for one faddish moment, a sizable number of intellectuals filled with unalloyed hatred of economic prosperity?

When we turn to his piece “Abortion,” we find that Nisbet dislikes populism of all kinds, and so dislikes the more strident wings on each side of the abortion debate. So do I. Yet the way in which he expresses his judgment is disturbing. He loathes the “zeal in behalf of killing one’s own fetus [that] leads the militant abortionists to march happily with lesbians, homosexuals, and others whose interest in freedom is matched by a desire to vent punitive fury upon the family.” What happens in such prose is that diverse groups, whose members may not themselves have any demonstrable desire to punish, have been categorized in a way that appeals to the impulse to punish them.

Nisbet also holds that the advocates of the “right to life” present an even more serious threat to the family, for they wish to deny the family the authority to decide on its own membership. An aging grandmother will, I expect, be cautious in welcoming this novel argument in favor of legal abortion.

The family, in Nisbet’s view, is all important but it is not much threatened by divorce, because divorce, or at least “marital hatred,” has been part of the family in all ages, and hence is all right. The family is instead being destroyed by forgetfulness of or indifference to roots, and “social democratic tax policy alone [is] doing the family more injury than…divorce.” Just what tax policy he has in mind, he does not say. He would seem to mean inheritance taxes, although just how these taxes—which in 1981 applied only to estates above $175,000, now apply at $250,000, and will soon apply only to estates above $600,000—are wrecking family life many of us will find hard to imagine.

Nisbet is keen not only on authority but also on authorities, or at least proper names. Sometimes the name-dropping reaches comic proportions. Opening the book at random to pages 258-259, I found, under the heading “Reification,” Goethe, Lessing, Hegel, William James, Marx, Captain Bligh, Tocqueville, Rousseau, Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert, Balzac, Ruskin, Freud, P.T. Barnum, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Althusser, and Godelier. When names are so crowded together, one can hardly say anything false about them, because one can hardly say anything. But once Nisbet allows himself a few sentences of elbow room, he gets things wrong.

In his entry on “Creationism,” for example, Nisbet denounces populist anti-Darwinians and then goes on to chastise an overconfident scientism that tries to dispense with religious instincts:

…as Weiskopf emphasizes, science has always had its roots outside its own rational mode of thinking. He cites the mathematician Goedel’s demonstration that a system of axioms can never be based on itself. To prove the axioms, statements from the outside must be introduced. “Science,” noted Weiskopf, “must have a nonscientific base….”

The remaining three sentences of the essay conclude with references to Max Planck, G.K. Chesterton, and St. Augustine.

What Nisbet reports of Gödel is merely silly. It is true of no standard system of axioms that “to prove the axioms, statements from the outside have to be introduced.” This claim is trivially false, so Gödel did not demonstrate that. (Under all standard accounts of axioms and proof, including Gödel’s, axioms suffice to prove themselves.) Nisbet may be referring to Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem, which concerns the consistency of sufficiently rich axiomatizations of arithmetic. No consistent and sufficiently rich system of a certain very general kind can prove its own consistency. A proof of consistency requires other techniques or else a stronger axiomatization of arithmetic which, in turn, cannot prove its consistency if it is consistent. To labor the point, the result Nisbet attributes to Gödel is nonsense, and what Gödel did prove has no bearing whatever on the issue of science and religion. To write otherwise is to insult the memory of the genuinely mystical Gödel.

Like most of us, Nisbet is best when his ideas are grounded in his own experience. Under “War” we learn that he had what the English call “a good war” in the Pacific. It took him away from the narrow corridors of professorship. Nisbet then returned to the university, and he has many sensible judgments to make about education, including a firm rejection of numerous pseudo studies, interdisciplinary studies, and other forms of antiknowledge. But all too often a note of cruelty creeps in. It is fine to denounce vulgar psychology as a dangerous fraud. It is also legitimate to express reasoned doubt whether the variants of the English language used in subcultures should have a place in American formal education. It is wrong to continue as follows:

The conditioning supplied by psychobabble was what made it easy for educators to commence lauding black English a few years back, the barbaric syntax and impoverished vocabulary of this alleged language notwithstanding—or actually held up in some quarters as a model of linguistic directness. After all, if language and culture have been breached by the celebration of affective states in which reason, logic, and grammar play no roles, little further harm is done by pretending that black English is a language.

The author who wrote the first sentence of this passage is hardly in a position to profess his dedication to syntax. Nor is an author who misrepresents the work of the most respected logician of the century convincing as an exponent of logic. An author who sees a causal connection between the fads of Marin County and the proposals of desperately pressed inner-city teachers is not a man dedicated to reason. But above all when Nisbet runs on like this, his mind is not engaged in a “steady course of wisdom and virtue”—another of Burke’s phrases cited at the front of his book. He is venting kind of arrogant spite whose cheapness Burke would have scorned.


Getting Goedel Straight May 12, 1983

Getting Goedel Straight May 12, 1983

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press, 1976.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 1953.

  3. 3

    Basic Books, 1980.

  4. 4

    Oxford University Press, 1975.

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