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The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America Paperback – April 2, 2003
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''And, finally, implacably, there is the Rousseau, the very central thinker . . .
“Rousseau, of the general will and its absolute power over the individual, of insistence that when the individual enters into the social contract that yields the general will, all liberties and rights are automatically surrendered. . . . Rousseau is, at least to the mind of the late-twentieth-century clerisy in this country, the saint of saints. He offers absolute power in the form of divine grace, of the community of the elect.''
‘Community of elect’ is directly taken from Calvin. Rousseau raised in Geneva.
''Rousseau transferred, as it were, grace from the body of the church to the body of the state, the state based upon the social contract and the general will. His doctrine of the general will was regarded in his day as it is in ours as beyond the power of pure reason to understand, to assimilate. He could have said what Saint Augustine said in effect: To understand, one must first believe, have faith.'' (1029)
Nisbet explains his view of current American (western) intellectual worldview. . .
''We are obviously in dire need of a revolution of ideas right now in America. . . . There is a manifest revulsion in America toward moralizing militarism, toward superbureaucracy, toward a social order seemingly built out of the cash nexus, and toward the subjectivist, deconstructionist, and minimalist posturings which pass for culture. The time would appear to be as congenial to a revolution in ideas as was the eighteenth century in America.'' (2636)
Nisbet wrote this in 1988. Seems correct today.
I. The Prevalence of War
II.The New Absolutism
III. The Loose Individual
A fundamental theme is the overwhelming change from 1914 on American culture;
''The present age in American history begins with the Great War. When the guns of August opened fire in 1914, no one in America could have reasonably foreseen that within three years that foreign war not only would have drawn America into it but also would have, by the sheer magnitude of the changes it brought about on the American scene, set the nation on another course from which it has not deviated significantly since. The Great War was the setting of America’s entry into modernity—economic, political, social, and cultural. By 1920 the country had passed, within a mere three years, from the premodern to the distinctly and ineffaceably modern.”
“Gone forever now the age of American innocence.'' (44)
Included is the permanent change in the national state produced by -
''Woodrow Wilson made the war his personal mission, his road to salvation for not only America but the world; and in the process, he made the war the single most vivid experience a large number of Americans had ever known. . . . What the Great War did is what all major wars do for large numbers of people: relieve, if only briefly, the tedium, monotony, and sheer boredom which have accompanied so many millions of lives in all ages.''
''In this respect war can compete with liquor, sex, drugs, and domestic violence as an anodyne. War, its tragedies and devastations understood here, breaks down social walls and by so doing stimulates a new individualism. Old traditions, conventions, dogmas, and taboos are opened under war conditions to a challenge, especially from the young, that is less likely in long periods of peace. The very uncertainty of life brought by war can seem a welcome liberation from the tyranny of the ever-predictable, from what a poet has called the “long littleness of life.” (157)
Nisbet highlights two controlling ideas. . .
''The first was noted profoundly by President Eisenhower in 1961 in his cogent farewell remarks. He warned Americans against what he called the “military-industrial complex” and also the “scientific-technological elite.” Taken in its entirety the Eisenhower farewell address is as notable as was that of George Washington.'' (489)
The second -
''The cost of alleged scientific miracles is probably less, though, than the total costs of what may from one point of view be called the militarization of intellectuals and from another point of view the intellectualization of the military. I am thinking of the fusion of the military and the university during the last half-century. Eisenhower offered this warning also in his farewell remarks:
“The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.”
He cautioned too: “Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” (489)
The national state has transferred the sacred from the religious clergy/institution to the political expert/bureaucracy.
Many other fascinating insights. Well worth the time. Changes and deepens understanding of modernity since 1914.
While I can understand why Nisbet is considered "conservative", his willingness to tackle idols on both the right and left strikes me as more libertarian, which is not a bad thing. I suppose it may be more accurate to say that the "myths" he challenges--the Great American Myth and its derivatives: Can Do, Know How, and No Fault--can be found on both sides of the aisle or spectrum.
Nisbet laments perpetual war, statism, and social atomism. His cause-effect analysis is persuasive and at times even brilliant, especially since the trends proceed apace.
Reasons for "I like it" instead of "I love it"?
1. Schlossberg's Idols for Destruction and Budziszewski's Revenge of Conscience do a better job of identifying and challenging left and right wing idols, in my humble opinion. Unfortunately for Nisbet, I simply happen to read those before I read this.
2. Nisbet can come across as a bit of a snob on occasion. For example, he almost mocks the Great Books approach to liberal education. He fails to realize that studying Great Books is a great approach provided you apply the proper methodology.
3. Nisbet is too dismissive of the influence of Christianity and is a little too quick to disparage the Christian Right. Yes, there have been abuses of the former and plenty of mock-worthy elements in the latter. However, sound doctrine leads us to recognize God-given rights--life, liberty, property--and to limit the role of the state to the securing of those rights. The rule of law, unity with diversity, representation, jurisdictionalism, and constitutional limits are just a few concepts that can be found in scripture and in our constitutional federal republic. Indeed, these ideas predate Greece and Rome.
Please note that the three points above constitute nitpicking. Nisbet makes some brilliant observations and has even proven to be prophetic. However, they are sufficient to warrant a one-star reduction.