Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West
by R.R. Reno
Regnery Gateway, 2019
xviii + 182 pages
If you had to pick the thinker most responsible for our current social and political ills, who would it be? R.R. “Rusty” Reno has an answer that will surprise you. He is a theologian who taught at Creighton University for twenty years and is now the editor of First Things, an influential journal that deals with religion and politics from a conservative point of view. Reno’s answer to the question is Karl Popper, but Popper is not alone: Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and John Rawls are also on his list of intellectual malefactors. Reno does not like the free market, but, as I hope to show, there is something to be said for his book’s main argument. Unfortunately, there is a problem. Reno just doesn’t know enough about many of the texts he addresses, and his remarks about them often make his ignorance manifest.
Reno argues that in
the second half of the twentieth century, we came to regard the first half as a world-historical eruption of the evils inherent in the Western tradition, which can be corrected only by the relentless pursuit of openness, disenchantment, and weakening….The anti imperatives are now flesh-eating dogmas masquerading as the fulfillment of the anti-dogmatic spirit. (p. viii, emphasis in original)
Although World War II ended long ago, we must, the partisans of openness contend, continue the battle against the Axis, and the populist nationalist protests against leftist orthodoxy, from the movement led by Trump in America to that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, are wrongly taken to be recurrences of fascism. It is safe to predict that Reno would not get along well with the philosopher Susan Neiman, who wants us always to keep the dangers of Nazism in mind. (See my review of her Learning from the Germans)
What the dominant dogma ignores is that openness is not enough. “Today the greatest threat to the political health of the West is not fascism or a resurgent Ku Klux Klan but a decline in solidarity and the breakdown of the trust between leaders and led” (p. xv). A society to survive needs something beyond each person’s narrow pursuit of interest and pleasure. We need “strong gods…[which] are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unite societies” (p. xii). In this contention, Reno follows the great French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who realized that “there can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and collective ideas which make its unity and its personality” (Durkheim, qtd. on p. 135).
Reno is right to question the unlimited value of “openness.” Not all moral issues are mere matters of opinion, and Aristotle was right when “he saw that a free society requires well-trained citizens who are habituated to seek what is just” (p. 58). But it does not follow from this that people need to be ready to sacrifice themselves to the state; to the contrary, it is objectively true that people are ends in themselves, not at all subordinate to a collectivist Moloch.
And now to Popper. Reno says that the
enormous influence of The Open Society and Its Enemies in the decade following World War II seems, at first glance, improbable. The first volume is dominated by a detailed and highly critical, even abusive, interpretation of Plato, while the second volume treats Hegel and Marx with equal severity. (p. 3)
No, it doesn’t. Popper is much more favorable to Marx than to Plato and Hegel.
Reno goes on:
Popper theorized the progress of science in formal, procedural terms, trying to encapsulate it in the principle of falsification, which stipulates that beliefs, theories, and hypotheses can be held as true only if it is possible for evidence to come forth that can falsify them….Plato’s metaphysics does not rise to this standard, Popper argues, nor do Hegel and Marx’s theories of historical development….The key to social progress is the restriction of truth-claims to those that are falsifiable. (p. 6)
This is wrong too. Popper’s falsifiability principle is not a requirement for truth or meaning. It is a criterion for statements to count as scientific. Popper’s main criticism of Plato was for his historicism, which Popper thought not meaningless but false.
Reno is no better on Hayek. He writes,
Since the basic principle of individualism is individual liberty, we must resist anything that compels our choices, even holding at arm’s length the compelling character of solid and significant moral truths….The essence of individualism is the freedom of every individual to be “the ultimate judge of his ends.” I must have the liberty to decide what is good or bad for me. By “good or bad,” the economist Hayek undoubtedly means increasing or reducing my utility rather than congruent with morality or not. (p. 21)
Once again, Reno misses the point. One can hold that morality requires that individuals not be coerced in the pursuit of their ends. This is an affirmation, not a denial of objective morality. Further, Reno ignores a major theme in Hayek’s work, his assault on “constructivist rationalism” and his defense of tradition.
He also gets Rawls badly wrong. “We need ‘public reason,’ as Rawls would put it. This is an anti-metaphysical, procedural approach in which truth claims are limited to what can be empirically assessed by those who have command of the relevant data” (p. 7). Elsewhere he says,
Justice, fully understood, means legislating in accord with reason and toward ends that all citizens can affirm, no matter what they believe about the higher purposes of life. In practice this means limiting public debate to concerns that arise in our own ‘little worlds’ of private interest rather than in the larger worlds of religion, metaphysics, and value. (p. 59)
This is mistaken. People are free to make moral arguments in a Rawlsian “well-ordered society,” so long as their reasons are publically justifiable to others.
It goes on. Reno says that the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida “avoided a direct engagement with Marxist dogmas” (p. 67). Well, Rusty, he wrote a book, Specters of Marx, about Marxism, which has generated a considerable literature; it might have been a good idea for you to look at it. Reno calls Walter Lippmann “a journalist, not a philosopher” (p. 15). Rusty, he was one of the major American intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century. William James and George Santayana respected him; maybe you should too.
In his memoir of public service during World War II and the Cold War, Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson reports that his boss in the Roosevelt administration, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, insisted upon the importance of protectionist policies. Hull was captive to the priorities of an earlier time when high tariffs allowed the United States to become an industrial power… (p. 145)
As everyone except Reno knows, Hull supported free trade, and if you look at Acheson’s book, you will see that Reno has it backwards. Acheson says: “The Secretary—slow, circuitous, cautious—concentrated on a central political purpose, the freeing of international trade from tariff and other restrictions as the prerequisite to peace and international development.” (Acheson, Present at the Creation, reissue ed., [New York: W.W. Norton, 1987], p. 9) I do not know whether we need “strong gods”; we do need careful argument and accuracy.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.