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STATE AND IDEOLOGY

UNDISCIPLINED NOTES ON NIEBUHR AND VOEGELIN FROM A CHRISTIAN REALIST PERSPECTIVE

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By T.S.Tsonchev

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The Montréal Review, August 2014

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Leviathan

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Nothing on earth is his equal—a creature without fear.
He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud.
Job 41:33-34

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This article covers primarily the negative aspects of state, man, and society. However, there is another Christian realist perspective, more optimistic and significantly more complex than the one presented below; it rests on both Aristotle's political philosophy and Scripture, and was first developed in the work of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The optimistic Christian realist view on state power and human nature does not contradict the pessimistic one, expressed in this article. So, for the full understanding of this text the reader needs to have some background knowledge of the Augustinian and Thomistic political theologies, and also of the Lutheran and Calvinistic interpretations of social and political order.

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It is commonly believed that there is a historical process of development from small social groups to larger ones. If we agree with this theory, we can argue that human history is a process of growing cooperation. But this could be only one aspect of the evolution of human societies. The growing cooperation, if it really happens, is always accompanied with a parallel process of enlargement of inter-group conflicts. The conflicts between big modern societies involve more people and power, take more casualties, and have greater magnitude and destructive force than the past conflicts between family clans, feudal principalities, and kingdoms. So, it seems that we witness in history of human societies a twofold development that should make us neither optimists nor pessimists about their character and future—this development is the increasing cooperation between units, i.e. a formation of sovereign nations and international alliances, and the parallel growth of conflict between these larger units. The growth of conflict must not be sought in the number of wars and acts of violence, but in its magnitude and deadliness. Even if the number of wars has diminished over history, as Steven Pinker optimistically suggested in a recent book,(1) the scope of their devastation has grown. Even if the risk for war has diminished with the rising cooperation, the stakes in every future potential conflict have risen proportionally. We, therefore, move into a more complex and dangerous world, not because we become less civilized and less cooperative, but on the contrary, because we become more sophisticated and more interconnected. This paradoxical effect of the growing, but always partial cooperation, has been proven in the twentieth century by its two world wars that followed the longest period of trade liberalization and globalization in human history, by the Great Depression that shook not only the United States, but the entire world, and by the Cold War that was a tentative peace dividing the world into two hostile camps.

The observation of the history of social cooperation and conflict should make us realists, and in this essay, I will discuss some of the realities of our common life from a Christian realist point of view. I will offer an interpretation based on the ideas of two authors, described as "realists"—Reinhold Niebuhr and Eric Voegelin. Niebuhr will give us an insight on the character of society; Voegelin will shed some light on the secular ideologies, civil religions, and human nature.

"Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics" is hardly a theological work.(2) Niebuhr's Christianity appears subtly somewhere at the end of this book, and somewhat shyly, in the admission of the "non-realist" solution to all human problems—the selfless love. If the reader does not know the author's biography, he or she might not be able to recognize Niebuhr's typically Christian argument against pride and hypocrisy, as well as his typically religious distrust in human ability to create a perfect society. The main focus of the book is the mentioned above paradox of growing social cooperation and organization and the parallel process of "veiled" or clearly overt intensification of social conflict.

Niebuhr explains this paradox with the devaluation of moral sense that happens inevitably with the enlargement of society and its growing complexity. "Secular philosophers" and modern social scientists commonly see the creation and growth of state as a panacea against violence.(3) They almost uncritically accept either (or both) the Hobbessian Leviathan who imposes peace and order to combat the anarchy of unchecked freedom or the Lockean enlightened society of tolerance that constrains the power of king and church in the name of peace and freedom. As we will see in the next pages, Hobbes's and Locke's ideas must not be embraced too enthusiastically, but thought carefully as limited and historically determined solutions to the problems of violence and war.  

For Niebuhr, Leviathan is what it is—a beast. The modern state is a coercive institution that struggles to maintain either peace or justice within the common life. It is a pale image of the small social groups that characterize with less coercive structures, whose members are more equal, whose organization is more just, and the belief and application of their constitutive principles more genuine. Modern states, the big societies, if not an opposite of their small counterparts, are only a distant reminiscence of them: they are necessarily coercive, inevitably unequal, just only on the surface, and hypocritical, especially in the light of their legitimizing principles.

Hypocrisy, this is what can make a moral "realist" vocal. Collective hypocrisy is a source of corruption and coercion. Niebuhr calls this coercion "veiled." If modern social science, especially its enthusiastic believers in Reason and State, does not recognize clearly the true character of modern state (and human nature), it risks to become an instrument, a means for covering the "brutal facts" of human life and a promoter of the dominance of powerful. The hypocrisy of big society, Niebuhr says, consists in the invention of "romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of... collective behaviour."(4) He says that the collective hypocrisy is a symbol of the "tragedy of human spirit," of our inability to conform the collective life to the individual ideals of love, justice, peace, freedom, and equality.(5)   

The most hypocritical society is the democratic one. This is not a surprising conclusion, although it could be, if we think about the monstrous propaganda of totalitarian regimes. It is most hypocritical, because of its professing and actual effort to promote justice, equality, and freedom. Modern democracy, especially its Western forms, is the best political system ever invented and applied; historically, it proved less violent, less coercive, and less unjust than any other political order. But it is more violent, more coercive, and more unjust than we tend to believe or are taught to believe, because democracy has never lived up to its principles, and the temptation this fact to be overlooked or underestimated is always strong and dangerous. What Niebuhr suggests is not a critique and disproval of democracy, not a search for better forms of political organization, but an open and honest admission of the fundamental imperfectness of any human society. In the Moral Man and Immoral Society, he tries to analyze the universal character of social organization, and doing so, to appeal to the spirit of humility and the sense of realism.

Why is any human society imperfect? Why is any state, even the democratic one, coercive and potentially aggressive? The most direct answer to these questions is that any society, especially the state, is a form of division. This means that there is no society that is all-inclusive and open, there is no state that is universal and all embracing. Nation state is always an entity, a unit, juxtaposed to other units. It can be in a peaceful relation with other states, but it possesses a negative identity. The modern state is not a creation of the positive will of man as we can often hear. It is not a result of a romantic national emancipation. Historically, it was a product of either a coercive force or a collective reaction against dominance felt as "foreign." The state is born in strive, it is a fruit of war, not a result of a peaceful, voluntary, and purely romantic will. People organize in state to overcome challenges, necessity (and coercion along with ideological propaganda) is what makes them cooperate on a larger scale; people do not come together, do not organize in a rigid social structure voluntarily or spontaneously as couples and families do led only by mutual love and sympathy. In fact, the majority of people find themselves within a national political order without doing anything conscious for its creation and governance. Their participation in the nation-building process consists mostly in their compliance and non-opposition to the forces imposing the order.

The national state has identity as a unit. It has common language, shared history, culture, and dominant religion, territory, and specific political and judicial system. But the identity, or if I use George Kennan's expression, the "personality," does not make the state a human-like being; (6) the state is not a person. It has no moral feelings and its ideals and legitimizing principles are, as we have said, shallow, a cover for its true nature. The state is a Leviathan, a beast without heart. "Nations are temporal societies,"(7) says Niebuhr, but they seem eternal having a life longer than the life of human generations. Nation states do not feel sympathy. They are not "ethical," they do not have conscience, do not feel shame. A nation cannot feel "personal responsibility" or repent after committing a crime against another nation or domestic community. There is no nation sentenced in court for war crimes. There is no nation that can be charged for "war guilt." The winners in the First World War tried to blame Germany for the escalation of war, but this judgement, the Article 231 of the Versailles Treaty, was an act of hypocrisy, fear, and greed, not of justice and truth. There is no earthly authority over the sovereign states. A state can be humiliated in a conflict and constrained for a period of time, but it would rise again like in the blessing of Edom in Genesis 27:40: "...but when you grow restless, you shall break his yoke from your neck."  

The collective responsibility of state's citizens is a chimera; there is no society that can experience a true sense of guilt. Have we seen Israel, the nation of God, ever truly repenting? Does not Israel always repeat its mistakes? The ancient lands of the Abrahamic religions still burn in the flames of violence. We see man repenting, never his society. Nations do not have reason, too; they have only laws (and their leaders' wills and passions). These laws are shadows of reason, dead snapshots of the living spirit. It would be a contradiction of terms to argue that the rationality we find in laws makes them equal to reason. That is why the sin of a nation not the same as the sin of a man. We do not judge imbeciles or the nature for their fury. A successful supra-national system of justice that deals with states and their behaviour has never been created and would be hard to create, if we think the state as a rational being. Beasts are not under justice.

Reason has freedom to choose between good and evil; it is a source of free will. We know the phrase "the free will of people"; today, it can be heard as part of the referendum appeals in Quebec, Scotland, and Catalonia. Then, do nations, people, have a collective freedom of will? Was Hillary Clinton right when she said in an interview for the BBC's Newsnight that Russia has the choice to be a truly great country, not a "bully" and "intimidator," or Moscow just acts under the pressure of circumstances and pre-set political realities?(8) Recently, the people in Crimea voted for secession from Ukraine and re-attachment to the "mother" Russia. Was their will free when they incited the referendum, or something urged them to act, something forced them to go out and vote, to "emancipate"? Or was the protest on Kiev's Maidan a spontaneous, voluntary action or a reaction against the long history of Russian domination? No, there is no such a thing as "the free will of people." Nations and societies have only a will that is negative, always in response to something, a limited and determined will. As we have said, the state is not a creation of a positive will, the only will that can be free; the state (and society) is moved, not a mover. If I were not afraid that the size of this essay would test the patience of the reader, I would support these claims with Augustine's interpretation of the early Roman republic and his idea of the importance of Christian love in social life as the only genuine mover. Now, I just argue that there is no nation acting from its own free will; yes, the organized in state society has a will, it has freedom and power to act, but the incentive for its action is always an impulse of necessity.(9)

In contrast to men, nations do not sacrifice for other nations; they do not give birth and do not care for children; they do not suffer as men suffer. Their acts of "altruism" are always acts of self-defence and particular interest. There is no a "civic religion of love" so great and so powerful to convince a multitude of people organized in a nation to risk and give their life for the salvation of another nation. The nineteenth century wars of "liberation" led by Tsarist Russia against the Ottoman Empire were not for the cause of the "Slavic Christian brothers"; their aim was hegemony over the Balkans and control of the Bosporus Strait. The United States was involved in the two world wars in Europe not because of its sense of collective altruism and duty, not for the sake of preserving human civilization from the "German barbarians"; its motive was the national security. The wars in Iraq were not wars of punishment of a dictator and liberation of Kuwait or Iraqi people; they were joint efforts of Western democracies for imposing a control over a region that was a source of instability and danger. The NATO bombardment of Belgrade during the war in Kosovo in 1999 was not a humanitarian action, as Vaclav Havel, for example, wanted to believe;(10) it was a concerted pressure for deposing of a nationalist, belligerent regime, in a region that provided the spark for the fire of the Great War in 1914. Behind every "just war" lurks the shadow of collective self-interest and will for domination.     

The state is an organism, it behaves like a living creature, but it does not have the spectrum of feelings, qualities, and emotions of human being. It does not feel real pain. It is a beast. It is also like a shadow of truth, of reality, a dark reflection of human collectivity. The state rests on power and organization, but also on loyalty, individual political disengagement, and compliance. People are the sovereign; they can change the political system, their collective behaviour produces the kind of power and order in which they exist, but do they realize this? The "most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy," says Niebuhr and I would add—pride. We see here a paradox: we claim that the state is not a human person, it has no real emotions and character, it has not true consciousness, yet, it can be hypocritical like a man, and experience a collective sense of pride. So Leviathan can be moved emotionally, but these emotions, we must note, are not love, sense of guilt, repentance, but the negative feelings of collective pride, humiliation, apathy, fear, anger, revenge, and lust for dominance.

So what is this characteristic of the nation state that makes of Leviathan, a beast without heart, yet with emotions and will. What is the source of the will of the state and its ability to act? It is the organizing and mobilizing power and will of the national elites and leaders. The highest legitimization of their power and actions is the ideal of peace. Power imposes order for the good of peace. This order is never perfect, and all peace that rests on power is simply armistice. To interpret armistice as peace is either hypocritical or superficial. We must remember that peace, any "peace," gained by force is always uneasy and unjust one. The greater the force, the bigger the suffering and injustice.

In democratic societies, says Niebuhr, the political power has been made "responsible" by the system of division of powers and political representation; the economic power has been left "irresponsible." He wrote the Moral Man and Immoral Society in the 1930s, in the time of the Great Depression, and now, almost hundred years later, economy is still under the control of those who have the power of financial capital, and the abuse of this power is still suffered by the people who lack capital but sustain its growth. If the Western democracies have succeeded in some degree to deal with the distribution of political power and representation, they continue to fail with the restraint of economic dominance.

The dilemma and tension between freedom and order has ever been present in the modern Western world. Thinkers as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, the intellectual fathers of the neo-liberal economic revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, warned that if Western democracies tighten the economic regulations and rise bureaucracy and control, they risk to disturb the unstable equilibrium of free economy, and thus threaten one of the most cherished values of Western society—the pursuit of individual success and happiness.(11) Creativity is among the most valuable assets of Western democracies; state control suffocates it and distorts competition inevitably in favour of the interests of political, economic, and bureaucratic elites, and so prevents the development of economic progress or what Schumpeter famously called "the creative destruction."(12) Western democracies seem eternally poised to wobble between the temptation of control and freedom, to stay on the edge of anarchy and order, being never in order or in anarchy. This temptation does not exist in East, in Russia, for example, or China, where the order has always been preferred before freedom, and control before competition.

"Power sacrifices justice to peace within communities and destroys peace between communities," says Niebuhr. It prevents the anarchy in intra-group relations and in the same time encourages the anarchy in intergroup relations. Putin's Russia is an example of this truth. After the fall of communism and the brief period of post-communist liberalization and anarchy during Yeltsin's presidency, Putin's government came with the "ambition" to restore the order (and justice) within Russia and along its borders, and to deal with the power of oligarchs.(13) Today, Russia is an autocracy that achieved a tentative domestic peace, locked in a non-armed conflict with what Putin officially (and hypocritically) calls "our Western partners." In the recent years, the regime in Moscow restored the order (not the peace) at home and disturbed the international order with the annexation of Crimea, with its policy of economic blackmailing abroad, and the provocation of the civil war in Ukraine.(14)

The autocratic regimes are always insecure; nobody sees them as peaceful, but, paradoxically, their primary concern is preserving the order, and from here the peace or the status quo, which simply means their own power. The autocratic and totalitarian states are both rigid and restless societies. They are contradiction to themselves. They do not like swift changes, do not want war and anarchy, (this was sensed well by George Kennan, one of the architects of the politics of containment in the twentieth century) (15) but these regimes are always in combat readiness and thus are always a source of instability—the thing they fear most. The reason for their awkward situation, is their belligerent spirit, their sense of insecurity, suspicion, paranoia, and will for dominance. Niebuhr is right arguing that every group, as every individual, has "expansive desires" rooted in the "instinct of survival," an instinct that if not satisfied, if ever satisfied, mutates into a will for dominance. "The will-to-live," he says, becomes "the will-to-power."(16)  

We speak about totalitarian regimes and autocracies having a warlike spirit, but the truth is that every state, even the most liberal and peaceful one, has the demons of war, and the reason for this, as we have said, is that the state is a distinctive unit among other units and its organization depends on coercion.

"The fact that coercive factor in society is both necessary and dangerous," writes Niebuhr, "complicates the whole task of securing both peace and justice."(17) Therefore, every state faces two main challenges—how to keep its internal unity, justice and peace, without the need of violent (or open) coercion, and how to navigate (or survive) in the "anarchy" of international system, without resorting to war and conflict. In short, the state, because of its coercive and distinctive character, seems to face, both domestically and internationally, the dilemmas of peace and conflict, of survival and destruction.

The historical fact that the nation state always survives and that a sovereign nation cannot be kept subjected forever does not make it more peaceful or just. This is so because the human generations that sustain and perpetuate the state organism may change and die, but their ceaseless reproduction and will-to-live, prompted by their ever present sense of finitude, are a constant source of fear, collective greed, and immortality. In fact, Leviathan is a fusion of temporal and eternal, as the temporal (human generation) sustains and molds the character of the eternal (national state). The primacy of temporal over eternal is, as we will see later, the very source of state's imperfectness and monstrosity. This primacy is inevitable since the state exists for the man, not the man for the state, but the confusion of aims and means is full, if we realize that historically the state institution dominated over the individual man while mirroring, on collective level, man's most negative features. Moreover, we have the paradox of international system that is anarchic and could be peaceful and stable, because of the ultimate tenacity of its composing parts, yet, it is always unstable, because, again, of the temporality of generations that sustain and mold the character of nation states. I would say here in advance that both the state as a Leviathan and the international system as a battlefield would disappear, if the common will-to-live of all human generations is liberated from their will-to-power. The only mean for this to happen, or at least to be approached, is the progressive conversion of the present order: not the temporal to sustain eternal, on the contrary, the eternal should sustain the temporal, which will result in an order where man is not serving the state (or society), but state (or society) is serving the man. And the eternal that can purify us as individuals and society from the passions of temporality, from the will-to-power, must not be searched in the "theology" of national state, nor in any secular (temporal) ideology; it should be found in the idea and belief in the existence of perfect Goodness.

But let's return to the question of society, peace, and war. There are two general approaches to this question. The first one examines the nature of social activity, the second one—the nature of man. The first has its beginnings in the social and political theories of Enlightenment, more concretely in the thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau(18); the second has its roots in the Christian tradition. Kenneth Waltz discusses these two approaches in his doctoral dissertation "Man, the State, and War," which is now a required reading for the political science classes.(19) In his research, Waltz explains that the conflict between states (and groups within the states) is not only a result of the nature of man or of state, but before all of the nature of social activity and the "anarchic" character of international system. The lack of peace, he argues, is a result of historical determinism and concrete situation that makes the war a solution, a legitimate, although unwanted means for survival. This claim, I have to note, does not contradict the expressed above argument that state has a negative will, that it acts always in response to something, that it is moved, not a mover, even in periods of offensive and war for dominance. Moreover, Christian thinkers like J.H. Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas recognized the importance of the deterministic element behind war and conflict and built their pacifist, Christian theories on the argument that only a radical break from this determinism, which is the act of love and forgiveness, could pacify humanity.(20) But Waltz's solution, if he offers such at all, to this determinism is instrumental, not moral. He believes that social activity is a process of interaction between particular units, therefore, any social system, domestic and international, is inevitably exposed to the risks of instability and conflict. Different interests create different situations and the challenge is how to prevent societies (and individuals) to enter in situations, in which war, conflict, and violent coercion are seen as valuable, even necessary options. So, Waltz seems to suggest that governments (and the international community) have to spend efforts in search for cures against the particular situations that create conditions for war and conflict. There is no universal solution to war, he admits pessimistically, but there are conditions that prevent wars: a system of balance powers, high costs of the conflict, nuclear weapons deterrence, interdependence, world federation of states, etc. The last "condition" is rather utopian; the creation of a world government, he thinks, seems neither good nor possible option. The main argument against world government is that it can assure peace, even a perpetual peace, but would not secure freedom. A world government could become a homogenic tyranny, an all-powerful Leviathan, proud and unrestrained by foreign powers. Waltz's inability to imagine a peaceful world was perhaps a result of the spirit of time (he wrote in the peak of the Cold War), and to his interest in sciences—there were just no evidences that peace could ever be achieved in a system that is anarchic in character.

Waltz's approach belongs to the instrumental (but not institutional) realist tradition of dealing with political conflict that has no use of metaphysical or philosophical concepts on the nature of man. He just says that whatever the character of man or state is, wars happen because there is nothing to prevent them. Thus, what matters is not the search of the sources of metaphysical evil in man and state and its description, but the discovery of useful methods of prevention.(21) To this, I would ask, if we don't know where the roots of evil are, how would we find methods for its eradication? Waltz would probably answer that roots do not matter if we have the ax to cut off the sprouts every time when they shoot up.(22) He does not believe that improving man's or states' character is a realistic option. One cannot change the nature of a given nature, as Eric Voegelin, whose ideas we will discuss after a while, says.(23)

As a Christian realist, Niebuhr does not embrace this overly pessimistic approach. Writing after the First World War, he still believes that the analysis of human nature and the nature of society matters, he reminds us that there were two general explanations for the existence of war and conflict—the lack of intelligence and the lack of moral sense. The Enlightenment bequeathed to human civilization the idea that if all people are well educated, there would be no wars and conflicts, there would be no violence, the power of Reason would be liberated, and it would start, as the ancient Greeks believed, to put the world in peace and order. On the other hand, Christian theologians and philosophers were convinced that reason alone is insufficient to bring peace, the prudence of reason, as Kant argued in his Groundwork, can be used for bad and egoistic aims, and can be destructive.(24) So people must be taught not simply how to be clever and informed, but also how to be moral. Moreover, Niebuhr says that not every moral theory gives results. Rational morality, for example, often leads to utilitarianism, i.e. to elevation of happiness to the level of fundamental good (or as its motto says "It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong"), and thus it is less potent in bringing to life the truly fundamental goods of peace and justice. Only religious morality that is aimed at duty can prevent the laziness of the soul and the prudence of reason from becoming slaves of the egoistic impulses of our finitude, from becoming instruments of the will-to-power. But even the idea of duty, which is originally a Stoic idea, is not sufficient to bring peace, if duty is resting only on reason and moral virtue, but not on selfless love. Duty from reason is always ideological, while the responsibility that love brings has no ideological program and thus it is free from temporal concerns and interests. For a Christian, love is what John Rawls would call the "veil of ignorance,"(25) this imaginable state of equality necessary for the creation of a social contract that can produce true principles of justice. Love equates justice with fairness, because love, as it is written in 1 Corinthians 13:5, "does not seek its own." 

It seems that now we are steadily moving from Christian realism to Christian idealism. It is not so. And I will explain why. In what people, organized in society, believe is a question of fundamental importance. Do are they organized in a rational system of justice, having a culture of consumerism, loving peace and happiness, having no definite faith, or live in a system of terror and militarism, disillusioned or believing in a political or religious gnostic teaching, acting under compulsion or sense of duty, it doesn't matter. Neither the illusions for just political order nor the trust in rationality nor the duty and loyalty to the nation can restrain or change the unethical Leviathan. The beast can be disrupted from inside, which is with something immanent and real, and from without, which is something transcendent and ideal, but not less real. The "inside" is the man and his personal choices (or will), it is "you," and "me." The "without" is the object of our hope and its transformative power. Reason plays in our lives an important, yet supportive role; we know its limitations. Faith (or hope) is what brings true change in our lives, and not any faith and any hope, but the right faith and hope.

"Right faith" is a dangerous phrase, people don't want to hear about self-righteousness, it has brought too much suffering in human history, but people cannot stop believing, cannot stop hoping in something; if they lose faith, if they lose hope, they lose their will-to-live. Of what they hope and at what they aim is the measure of their rightness. What the Christian aims is the will-to-live, he believes that life is eternal; what he doesn't want, what his religion disproves, is the will-to-power. Whoever aims at power and hopes in life, is not a true Christian. Thus, the presence and the activity of the Christian within society is to defeat fear, to combat the illusions of power, to restore the spirit of truth, and to change the temporal order giving the eternal its due respect, and so reconciling the particular with the universal. His choices and actions are to set the things in their right order, permitting the universal to support the particular, transforming the society from a master into a servant to the individual. The Christian makes Leviathan, in any society, disappear, not through revolution and war, not through particular social, legal, or political technology, not even through living a life of self-sacrifice, but through hope merged with reason and right estimation of the value of things. Only a Christian truly believes that society must resemble the ideal of Christian Church or community; his religion educates him to believe that society must serve the individual; to do so, the individual must act socially, which is to act from love, not seeking his own: my property, my nationality, my achievements, my church, my social class, my religion. He knows, there is no private property to defend, except his free will; there is no nation to receive loyalty, except humanity; there are no achievements to be proud, except the fruits of common efforts; there is no social class to belong, except the class of mortal; there is no one religion, but one God. The Christian knows the limits and drama of human existence and this does not produce in him the terror and desperation that a man without faith in the perfect Goodness can feel. He does not sweat to achieve the dreams of the will-to-power, he laughs at the naïveté of the Machiavellian disregard to the "ought" of Christianity. The true Christian faith does not make Christians righteous, nor perfect, it simply sustains their will-to-live; when they fall they rise, when they rise they fall, but faith gives them hope in time of despair and humility in time of exaltation. Christians transform society with their hope, faith, and choices. Niebuhr, as many others, was right to insist: it is not whether we attain happiness or perfectness or any other excellence in this world, these are impossible to achieve, it is how we see the world and what directs and moves us to aim at excellence, this is what matters.

Someone would argue that saying all this we have irreversibly slid into a Christian idealism. To this I would reply that we would descend (or rather ascent) into idealism, first, if we have claimed that this world is fundamentally evil, if we see the state and society as absolutely corrupted and immoral; and second, if we don't admit our human fallibility and limits.

In two articles,(26) published in the 1950s, Eric Voegelin sheds some light on the danger, to which a believer in a particular ideology or "truth" finds himself exposed. Nobody is safe from the illusions of supersessionism, even the "tolerant" liberal, as Douglas Farrow lucidly explained in an article for the First Things.(27) The "supersessionist righteousness" is organically related to the pessimism (and, often, political pragmatism) of the "gnostic" and his ambition, his inexplicable optimism in the possibility to destroy and rebuild anew the common world.(28) For Voegelin, the "gnostic" is the man of "knowledge," the learned man of special insight, the person who knows the truth and has the will and passion to impose it. Not the knowledge is the problem here, but the attempt, the political action to enforce a particular, temporal (limited) vision for good and bad. The fathers of the early Church understood what danger the soldiers of the "secret" knowledge and righteousness among them pose to the universal Christian faith, and exposed their delusions and haughtiness in books and credos. But Manichaeism has not disappeared with the ancient Gnostics. In history, political radicals of any kind, led or covered behind an ideology that describes the world as absolutely evil and unjust, caused bloody wars and conflict to achieve nothing but revelation of their own false ideology and will-to-power. Only in the twentieth century, humanity suffered the gnosticism of Bolsheviks, Maosits, religious fundamentalists, Nazis, and nationalists. Moreover, the sprouts of "Manichean" will-to-power are everywhere, we can find them among the modern liberals, conservatives, among scientists, "new atheists," economists, and in all "supersessionist" sects on the fringes of secular ideologies claiming to possess the truth, but blind for the limits of their projects, and yet willing to fight for their realisation.

So, I choose to devote this final part of the essay with a short discussion on the liberal Manichaeism, because political liberals, in which I include all who believe in the merits of liberal democracy, are the most widespread group of learned men in the West and thus, as a majority, the most susceptible to hypocrisy and self-blindness. I chose to do this also because it is most difficult for me to criticize them, since I share the fundamental principles of classical liberalism. Yet, I believe that what is good and universal in political liberalism can be preserved with frank and constant discussion on its limits. Following Voegelin, I will show that even the heart of liberalism, which is pluralism, is not safe from the encroachments of the supersessionist impulses and will-to-power. Pluralism is the foundation of the liberal political order and as such, it needs defence; the best defence it can receive is the open critique and debate on its limits and contradictions.  

In a review of Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism," Eric Voegelin used the opportunity to assert one of the central claims of his political philosophy—that the twentieth century politics had been divided not between the camps of liberals and totalitarians, but rather between modern "immanentists" and traditional religious and philosophical "transcendentalists." In this essay, Voegelin agreed with Arendt that the aim of totalitarian ideologies and regimes was not to transform society; what they tried to do was to change human nature. He said that the transformation of human nature is "the essence of totalitarianism as an immanentist creed movement," and added that the "totalitarian movements do not intend to remedy social evils by industrial changes, but want to create a millennium in the eschatological sense through transformation of human nature." "Christian faith in transcendental perfection through the grace of God," Voegelin said, "has been converted—and perverted—into the idea of immanent perfection through an act of man."(29) In what he didn't agree with Arendt was that she, in his opinion, assumed (although not accepted as right) that human nature can really be changed. Thus, he said, "'Nature' is a philosophical concept; it denotes that which identifies a thing as a thing of this kind and not of another one. A 'nature' cannot be changed or transformed; a 'change of nature' is a contradiction of terms, tampering with the 'nature' of a thing means destroying the thing. To conceive the idea of 'changing the nature' of man (or of anything), is a symptom of the intellectual breakdown of Western civilization."(30)

Voegelin argued that any attempt to change the nature of man is futile and dangerous; meanwhile he did not say anything against the possibility to transform society without changing the nature of man. Moreover, if the state is a Leviathan, as we have argued above, would Voegelin agree that its nature is capable of transformation, at all? I would say that transformation is possible, because Leviathan is a beast composed by humans with good although fallible nature and its transformation would lead not to a creation of a new Leviathan, but to the disappearance of the old one; it is the progressive conversion of the City of Man into a City of God. And this conversion could happen and it is indeed happening not through supersessionist will-to-power and violence, not through revolutions or political programs; it takes place on a deeper and invisible level, through the multitude of individual ethical choices and acts that shape the world, prompted not only by reason, but, before all, by faith and hope in an unworldly, transcendent Goodness and Rightness. The impulse for this change is in man and so in society, yet it does not originate from man or society, but from the immaterial, and eternal, object of man's love and hope. Where all secular ideologies fail is their belief that the transformation of social reality is possible only as a mere result of the immanent will of man and his reason. They cannot accept seriously the reality and the transformative, miraculous power of a transcendent, unimaginable God, who cannot be depicted and idolized, and who has no clear political program for salvation. Being unwilling to accept the existence of the transcendent, they still need the mobilizing force of hope and faith and thus present and use their immanent ideology as a transcendent one. In this way, they confuse the order of things forcing the temporal into the position of eternal, and since there is nothing stronger than truth, they face opposition on every step, trying to impose their temporal and limited order against the unlimited and eternal structure of natural order.

This is what happens with all secular supersessionists, including with the liberal immanenists. In "The Oxford Political Philosophers" Voegelin criticizes the conviction that Western liberalism is the greatest and final political system and ideology that has succeeded to accommodate both the best of the ancient Greek culture and the modern ideals of freedom. Such belief in the superiority of Western liberalism is superficial, Voegelin argued, not because it is not a good system of governance, but because of the blindness to its temporality. It is an illusion, he said, that modern liberalism is a successor of the Greek culture. The ancient Greeks, he reminded, did not believe in the infallibility of their political orders. Plato and Aristotle, Voegelin wrote, "did not hesitate to rank Hellenic political culture higher than any other but found enough of a gulf between the standards and reality to make them despair that well-ordered polis could ever be realized in Hellas. The Oxford political philosophers do not adopt the classic philosophical attitude that reality at its best is still far from conforming with principles."(31)

Not having a sense for its own limits, every political ideology, including liberalism, becomes a totalitarian immanenist teaching. But political liberals do not see the world as a dialectic between immanenist credos and transcendental worldview, between radical anthropocentrism and faith in God. Moreover, they don't see themselves at all as having something in common with totalitarianism. They are used to think that the world and history have always been moved by the dialectical confrontation between the powers of "orthodoxy" and the aspirations of "freedom." They assume three types of political principles, Voegelin says, "the medieval totalitarian, the modern totalitarian, and in between the preferred modern type characterized by free pursuit of truth, religious freedom according to conscience, and civil liberties."(32) "In this radical opposition of freedom and orthodoxy as the respective representatives of good and evil, he says, we recognize an instance of gnostic-Manichaean dualism."(33) Now, some would immediately point out Voegelin's failure to recognize his own dualistic vision, and I would not become his advocate, but will defend the Christian transcendentalist view with the Augustinian argument that the City of God and the City of Man are not totally opposed and separated, but intermingled, as the one is transforming the other, without destroying neither the nature of man nor the freedom, but acting in such a way that the potential for evil in man, which is his will-to-power, not to develop into action.

Voegelin reminds us that this dualistic, secular approach in dividing the world into evil orthodoxy and good liberalism has its roots, ironically, in the first secular, political philosopher, the thinker that according to Mark Lilla(34) caused the Great Separation between the dangerous mysticism of the old political theology and the promising potential of the modern political philosophy—Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes was the one who set the ideological template for the modern theory of state, he was the first who used the metaphor of Leviathan to defend the necessity of secular order over the religiously inspired chaos, and who had no other intellectual tool on disposition except the same old Manichaean dualism, explaining reality as "Christian Commonwealth" versus "Kingdom of Darkness." The Hobbesian dualities have been re-branded by the modern liberals as "Barbarianism" versus "Civilization."  

But was the medieval past more barbarous than modernity? We have started this essay with the paradox of growing cooperation and the simultaneous expansion of the range and deadlines of the inter-group conflict. As Niebuhr argues in his masterpiece The Nature and Destiny of Man, there is no progress in history; there is only growth of both good and evil. Voegelin says that the arguments of the liberal immanenist philosophers that the past was barbarous and despotic compared to the present are simply wrong. There was religious freedom in the Middle Ages, under the so-called "orthodoxy." What there was not was an institutional order that regulates the conflicts led under the banner (but rarely under the motivation) of religious identity. There was persecution in the past, but this does not mean that the old system was "totalitarian," because of the belief in a transcendent reality. If it was undemocratic, in the modern sense of the word, this was not due to religion, it was rather a result of the political organization of medieval and pre-medieval societies.

Freedom of conscience, that is the center of liberal criticism against "orthodoxy" and the beating heart of modern pluralism, turns out not to be the undoubtedly rational idea that prevented (once institutionalized) violence and helped the creation of a just society and state. On the contrary, human conscience has often been erroneous and has brought no less misery in the world than the unrestrained control and power. The danger with the liberalism is that rooting the rules of justice in man's conscience, making it the highest measure of reality, and expelling God and religion, or the transcendent, as correctives and factors in decision making, sets up, again, the temporal before the eternal and so reverses the natural order of things. Voegelin writes that according to the liberal immanenists, "[A] will that deviates from conscience is immoral. Even if his conscience is badly in error, a man must follow it. Does liberty of conscience in the political sense mean that every man must be left free to follow it, even if it advices him to organize a revolution of Fifth Monarchy men or the proletariat?"(35) If our liberal mind and common sense respond to this question with "No," then, says Voegelin, "the so-called freedom of religion and conscience has never been opposed as a 'principle' to medieval persecution."(36)  

If liberalism accepts the logic of common sense, if it admits that conscience errs, and eventually recognizes the need for control, (after all, John Locke did not propose unlimited freedom), "Could it be," Voegelin asked, "that behind the formulae of freedom and toleration hides the orthodoxy of a liberal, semi-secularized Protestant church-state?"(37) Returning to Hobbes, he said that behind conscience there is amor sui, "beyond conscience lies the spiritual personality of the man who has it." Hobbes, the religious sceptic, diagnosed the existence of self-assertion behind every conscience, including the one of the devote Puritan, "he understood its dictates as a manifestation of libido dominandi,"(38) a manifestation of the will-to-power.

So the conclusion is that liberalism, with its secular principle of freedom of conscience, becomes a "civil theology," which means that it becomes the next temporal order that tries to appropriate the qualities of eternal. Here, it should be noted that neither Voegelin nor I reject or underestimate the qualities of the liberal-democratic society and its political philosophy. What I support is Voegelin's insistence that the "English civil theology" must be constantly corrected and reminded for the dangers of immanenism. Liberalism survived the influence of the gnostic movements from the seventieth to the twentieth century, but without the challenges of criticism, it would not be safe from the supersessionist tendencies. There is no other corrector, I think, against the liberal civil theology, against the Leviathan of the modern democratic state, except the faith in the transcendent reality, and the reasoning based on the rich tradition of divine revelations and historical precedents.

It doesn't also mean that the City of God, in which we participate and re-create with our faith, hope, and choices, is a creation of a new institution that must replace liberal democracy. In God, there should be neither time nor space for new things. The "new creation," promised in Scripture, has always been here and it is not an institution. Whether we see it, is another question. It does not mean that with his pessimism in the abilities of secular, the man of faith wants, of should want, to create a new Leviathan. Selfless love has no political program, as it has been said. One can be a Christian, and a political realist, while being a liberal, or conservative, nationalist, or anarchist. But what makes one different from the supersessionist liberal, conservative, nationalist, or anarchist, is the sense for the limits of any secular ideology and power and of any group belonging and identity. The man of faith, the Christian, is loyal only to God and to the postulates of Gospel. There is one act that he accepts as legitimately supreme, as an end and a beginning—the self-sacrificing love of Jesus Christ, the God who dies for us. Such universalist and unworldly attitude, if shared by all men, would never produce an "immoral" society. Well, it is not shared by all. And there are no perfect Christians with perfect love.

So, we ought to be careful not to think ourselves as "elected," even as Christians. We ought to be anxious to preserve the domination of universal over the particular. This "ought," the realist would say, is still "ought," not "is," even for the Christians. Therefore, the free conscience, the source of Western pluralism, is not and could not be the final arbiter in resolving the conflict in society. We must accept, as Niebuhr and Voegelin advice, the reality of human nature, its limits, and weaknesses. "A theory of conscience that skies away from ontology, and in particular from a theory of nature of man, is empty," says Voegelin. Moreover, "it paves the way for the best of all consciences, viz., that of the totalitarian killers."(39) This warning should make us aware that it is not enough to find a theory and methods for dealing with the failures of social action; there is also a need for understanding human nature. In the end, what ultimately makes the City of Man a City of God are the invisible acts of love and humility performed by each of us in our daily lives.


1. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011)

2. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)

3. See William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and The Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009)

4. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 9

5. Ibid.

6. See George Kennan, The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, (July, 1947).

7. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 9

8.Hillary Clinton: Full Newsnight Interview, June 12, 2014,  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27826749

9. For a discussion on the importance of freedom from necessity in politics, see Hannah Arendt's "The Human Condition." For Augustine's interpretation of the peace and justice in Roman republic, see The City of God.

10. Vaclav Havel, Kosovo and the End of the Nation State. Address given to the Canadian Senate and House of Commons in Ottawa on April 29, 1999. For the full text, see The New York Review of Books, June 10, 1999.

11. See Friedrich Von Hayek, The Road To Serfdom (University of Chicago Press, 1944, 2007), Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 1962, 2009).

12. See Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (Routledge, 2013, First edition 1942)

13. For a concise analysis of the post-Soviet transformation period see Peter Kenez, A History of Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Chapter 11, Leap into the Unknown, pp. 278-302.

14. In a recent interview with the liberal journalist Vladimir Posner, Nikita Mikhalkov, one of the most talented Russian filmmakers and actors, also a nationalist and Slavophil, expressed in a few short sentences the logic of the Russian autocratic tradition.  "It is the artist's task to predict what would happen," he said. "Russia has always been a cross—the vertical of power and the horizontal of culture. Without the vertical there will be anarchy that would bring Russia so much bloodshed and terror that any, even the most brutal power, could not bring... And most importantly, even if you have the cruelest dictator, you know who he is; but in a state of anarchy, you don't know who [the power] is...." Then, a few minutes later, speaking about Russia's character and fate to stir the world, Mikhalkov said, "In Russia, there will never be a mild climate... because Russia is destined to produce change..." (Познер—ток-шоу с Владимиром Владимировичем Познером; www.youtu.be/3Cbhm0zoLoY, accessed on July 17, 2014)

15. See George Kennan, The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Affairs, (July, 1947).

16. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p.18

17. Ibid. p.20

18. See Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (Courier Dover Publications, 2012)

19. Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War (Columbia University Press, First Edition 1954, 2001)

20. See Stanley Hauerwas, Should War Be Eliminated?: Philosophical and Theological Investigations,  (Marquette University Press, 1984) and J.H. Yoder "Discipleship as Political Responsibility," (Herald Press, 2003)

21. The liberal political philosophy also seems to favour prevention as the basic means for dealing with war. For example, John Rawls's "realist utopian" vision postulates, "The crucial fact for the problem of war is that constitutional democratic societies do not go to war with one another. This is not because the citizenry of such societies is peculiarly just and good, but more simply because they have no cause to go to war with one another." (Italics are mine.) This simply means that if we remove the conditions for war, we would achieve peace. But the problem still remains: How to remove the conditions? What are the conditions for war? According to Rawls the basic source of instability, i.e. the fundamental condition, is the internal structure of the states, for example, he thinks that the societies of old monarchies were "inherently aggressive and hostile to other states," while the democracies go to war only in "self-defence" and to "protect human rights." However, I must note, this last claim brings us back to the question of the nature of state, not to the nature of international system and the politics of war prevention. See John Rawls, "The Law of Peoples: With the Idea of Public Reason Revisited," (Harvard University Press, 2001) p. 8.   

22. This is indeed not very far from the Machiavellian pragmatic realism. In the Prince, Machiavelli advised, "In the beginning the disease is easy to cure, difficult to diagnose; but after a while, if it has not been diagnosed and treated early, it becomes easy to diagnose and hard to cure. So, too, in politics, for if you foresee problems while they are far off (which only a prudent man is able to do) they can easily be dealt with... The Romans always looked ahead and took action to remedy problems before they developed. They never postponed action in order to avoid a war, for they understood you cannot escape wars, and when you put them off only your opponents benefit..." So, if Romans acted resolutely with force against potential future enemies, we, moderns, must rather act in the same aggressive and timely manner, but against the conditions that make war a valuable option. (Niccolo Machiavelli, Selected Political Writings, Edited and Translated by David Wootton, Hackett, 1994, p.11) 

23. "Among states, the state of nature is a state of war," says Waltz in Theory of International Politics (Addison- Wesley, 1979). p.103

24. See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of The Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

25. See John Rawls, "Theory of Justice" (Harvard University Press, 2009)

26. "The Origins of Totalitarianism" (1953) and "The Oxford Political Philosophers" (1953)

27.  See Douglas Farrow, Three Meanings of Secular, in  First Things, www.firstthings.com/article/2003/05/three-meanings-of-secular  (accessed 16 July, 2014)

28. For a classical example of political pragmatism mixed with pessimism about "the old order" and idealistic optimism in a future order governed (dictated) by an enlightened vanguard, see Lenin's "What Is To be Done" in "Essential Works of Lenin" (Courier Dover Publications, 2012)

29. Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 11, Published Essays, 1953-1965 (University of Missouri Press, 2000), p.21

30. Ibid.

31. Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 11, Published Essays, 1953-1965 (University of Missouri Press, 2000), p.29

32. Ibid. p. 32

33. Ibid.

34. See Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern Age (Vintage, 2008)

35. Eric Voegelin, ed. Ellis Sandoz, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 11, Published Essays, 1953-1965 (University of Missouri Press, 2000), p.34

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid. p. 35

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid. p.46

***

 
 

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