A Brief History of Western Civilisation
I have been doing a great deal of reading lately on the rise of fascism after the First World War. It has been one of my keenest interests since my university days because of my deep concern that we are not free of this beast yet.
One of the books I have come to appreciate very much in that respect is Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind (1940). Another, which I just finished, is Stephen Roberts’ The House That Hitler Built (1938) which I had never heard of until a few weeks ago and ordered immediately (a remaindered copy arrived that was once in the Harvard University collection). Roberts’ book has been one of the most rewarding studies that I’ve read of the Nazi period. He spent about two years in Germany from 1935 to 1937 and had remarkable access to many of the Nazi leaders and their organisations, including an audience with Hitler.
I had read Viereck’s Metapolitics as an undergraduate. It was something of a breath of fresh air after having read so many liberal or Marxist interpretations of the fascist period. However valuable these were in their own way, I was always left with the sense that they were incomplete — that they did not fully account for the psychology and “spirit” of fascism in a way that would inoculate us from a recurrence of this sickness.
Viereck’s approach is that of a “conservative” — actually “Nietzschean” — who excoriates conservatism itself for its complicity in the rise of fascism. He points out that Nietzsche’s very public break with Wagner’s romantic nationalism (he accused Wagner of becoming “Reichsdeutsch“) and his break with his sister Elizabeth for her anti-Semitism proved the case that Nietzsche was no “proto-Nazi”. It is Viereck’s argument that the “roots of the Nazi mind” lie in Wagner’s “romantic” aesthetics and mythology — precisely the things Nietzsche eventually violently rejected and which destroyed their friendship — and he makes a very strong case.
And despite being himself “conservative”, he makes a very strong case that conservatives have been willing “fellow-travelers” and “useful idiots” themselves in facilitating the rise of fascism even as they protest the contrary.
That may not come as much of a surprise to “progressives”. The interesting thing about Viereck’s conservatism — something that had me practically rolling on the floor howling with laughter — was how he “had opened people’s minds to the idea that to be conservative is not to be satanic.’ But, he said, ‘once their minds were opened, Buckley came in’.”
In other words, for Viereck, one of the biggest threats to the ideals and traditions of Western civilisation is conservatism itself, despite its posturings to be the exact opposite of this.
That may not come as being much of a surprise to progressives either, given the tendency of “new conservatives” to eviscerate traditions of “common law” and concepts of human rights in force since the Magna Carta, which evisceration is, as much as anything, an aspect of “the new normal”.
Viereck’s conservatism has lot in common with Rosenstock-Huessy’s “counter-reactionary” conservatism, too. But there is one very important factor in which Rosenstock-Huessy’s conservatism differs from Viereck’s conservatism, and it is very enlightening.
Viereck, in his defence of “western civilisation” against barbarism, is forced to come up with a reasonable definition of what the term “Western civilisation” actually means. It’s a reasonable expectation, is it not? Most public intellectuals would merely skip over the term “civilisation” and “Western civilisation” as if it were something self-evident, or “common sense”, something that commands our absolute “loyalty”, and “loyalty” and obedience is a very conservative ideal, such as “my country right or wrong”. Here’s Viereck’s definition of the meaning of “Western civilisation”:
“A rough attempt in a single sentence: loyalty to western civilization means loyalty not to one particular portion of geography — that would be nationalism — but to a universal civilization compounded of three separate heritages: rationalism, classicism, Christianity”.
I understand what Viereck is trying to get at here, but to describe as “universal” civilisation only those civilisations as embrace rationalism, classicism, and Christianity as their basis is very narcissistic, very ethnocentric. In effect, by “universal” he means “catholic”, for anything outside these three streams of influence — rationalism, classicism, Christianity — must be considered as not belonging to “universal civilization”.
You will notice here, perhaps, the same old compulsion to think in terms of “three” terms: “liberal, socialist, or conservative”; or, “length, breadth, depth”; or, “liberty, equality, fraternity”; or, “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”; or “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”, or “red, white and blue”, and on it goes. It’s a compulsion that has come to seem like “the common sense”.
Viereck’s definition of “Western civilisation” isn’t complete either (and this is where Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” is so valuable as a corrective to false consciousness). In effect, Viereck is saying that “western civilisation” is the product of three streams of influence: Greek rationalism (philosophy); classicism (Roman law and politics); Judeo-Christianity (the prophetic voice). In other words, Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem, or philosophy, politics, and religion are considered to have been the essential streams shaping the meaning of “Western civilisation”.
He’s forgotten the era of the tribes — the “roots” of this civilisation itself. Exactly the thing that erupted in Nazism as the neglected factor.
“Western civilisation”, as Rosenstock pointed out, is the construction of four streams of speech: the tribal (the Bard), the Greek (the Philosopher or rationalist), the Roman (the Politician or legal), the Judeo-Christian (the Prophetic).
There are, therefore, four streams of influence, not three. Viereck has overlooked the influence of the tribal origins.
There are four streams of influence because our reality is fourfold: past (tribal, nationalistic); future (destiny or “prophetic” — revelation); objective (rationalistic, “reasoning” our reality); and subjective (law, internal organisation). The “rational”, the “classical”, the “Christian” did not originate within the West. They shaped it from without. The tribe (community) was the only “native” element in the formation of Western civilisation, and it is the factor that has been ignored, but which became the entirely exaggerated factor in fascism.
So, one is entitled to ask: how could Viereck and others overlook the four streams of influence in the shaping of what is called “Western civilisation”? The tribal origins, the Greek mind, Roman law, and Judeo-Christianity? Or, poet, philosopher, politician, and prophet?
Only the one who embodies all four is “civilised”.