Elijah del Medigo on The Divide between the Ancient and Moderns

Elijah del Medigo recently wrote a longish piece about what ails modernity, in which he follows the Straussian line from NRH and the essay “The Three Waves of Modernity.”

I am going to summarize the sections of Medigo’s essay and posit a few questions about his thesis as I go. His thesis in sum: liberal political theory produces bad politics, and is in fact the progenitor of communism and fascism which are also bad. You can find his essay on his blog Thoughts out of Season.

Liberalism and the End of History & Liberalism and Nature

Liberalism is the child of modern political philosophy and modern political philosophy promotes the conquest of nature—specifically, human nature. Liberalism is pacifist and pacifism is contrary to nature. There is a “genuine struggle of war and famine” that makes history, and this struggle is overcome by liberalism. Trying to escape war and famine doesn’t sound that bad though; indeed, the desire for tranquility (a release from war and famine) sounds Biblical as well. So… there is a difference between the Biblical utopia and the liberal utopia, between the Platonic utopia and the Baconian utopia: liberalism is dishonest. It distracts men with fake wars (war on drugs, poverty, etc) and fake threats, whereas the Biblical utopia never forgets human neediness and therefore human nature. Liberalism enervates man and obscures the genuine struggle whereas the Bible and Plato elucidate human nature and orient man accordingly. Everyone’s political philosophies are aiming at a paradise, but the paradise of liberalism is fake and gay. Liberalism is the secularized return to the Garden of Eden.

Question: It’s unclear whether liberalism is anti-nature (and therefore different from ancient political philosophy) because it is trying to “immanentize the eschaton” and is “millenarian,” or because “it replaces the genuine struggle of war and famine with a purely political counterfeit.”

Socialism and Fascism

Liberalism is the father of socialism and fascism. Socialism seeks to attain the liberal utopia through illiberal means: namely, violence. Fascism “rejects both liberal ends and liberal means, and yet it is still characteristically modern.” Focusing on the volk and Fuhrer, and marrying the “corporation and state,” are modern things, not ancient things.

Question 1: Why are the volk, Fuhrer, and marriage between corporation and state specifically modern? Are there no analogues for these things in ancient political philosophy? There seem to be… Is it possible to link fascism to liberalism without its having this “distinctly modern” character that you assert? Are there really no shared aims and means? And if the “modern” link is indeed all that ties it to liberalism … why can’t there just be two or three or x-# of “modern” political philosophies, or ONE GREAT modern political philosophy of which even liberalism itself is an offshoot?

Question 2: You say, “liberalism seeks to create a simulacrum of History internal to itself, and thus avoid the trauma that accompanies actual history.” Do you mean that liberalism comes to a sort of stasis and then promulgates fake problems and fake solutions, thereby giving people something to do without meaning? Why not interpret the “war for the rights of some minority; the battle for healthcare of some other cause” as signs of decline (and encroaching communism) rather than mere “simulacrum”?

Relativism and the End of History

The basis of toleration is skepticism regarding things religious:

[T]he genesis of the liberal order consisted of the declaration that it does not matter which party is in possession of ultimate truth, which is tantamount to a declaration that for all practical purposes, there is no truth.

Call it relativism; call it nihilism; call it tolerance. However we wish to label it, relativism is built into the liberal scheme of things. This is not entirely a negative phenomenon: it allowed for a cessation of religious warfare.

People who are skeptical of religious claims will not fight others on behalf of those claims. Spreading doubt takes away the justification of violence on behalf of religion.

This relativism plays a role in spawning communism and fascism. Communism offers a more substantive standard, a more liberal liberalism: a liberalism without skepticism, which men will be willing to fight and die for. Communist ideology deepens liberalism, makes something that was largely meaningless or merely a reaction (to religious violence) into a positive political program. Communism is “liberalism more itself.” How relativism leads to fascism is more complicated.

Fascism jettisons everything liberal except for the relativism. Medigo quotes Mussolini: “From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value [the takeaway from liberal relativism], we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and to enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable.”

Question 1: How can liberalism be both a utopian attempt to “immanentize the eschaton” and relativist?… have an ideal and assert that all ideals are relative?

Question 2: Do fascists deny the right of other people to assert and defend their ideals? If they do, then how are they nihilist? If they don’t, same question. In other words: do they really think all ideals are equal? Don’t they really think, as you seem to think, that the liberal ideal is deceitful and therefore cowardly, whereas they are honest and therefore more deserving of recognition?

Fascism and The End of History

Fascism arises out of despair at our inability to return to nature. The liberal declared war on nature and defeated it. Despairing of a return to nature, the fascist views the state as a machine: that’s why he talks about “the Corporation and the State.” There is no internal content to fascism: the only reason it is anti-Jewish is because liberalism tolerated Judaism. The ideal of fascism, its utopia, is perpetual struggle. The obsession for struggle “nurtures an obsession with aesthetics.” This obsession and its adoption of liberal language make it a “grotesque parody” [he calls it this 4 times] of liberalism.

Question 1: What makes fascism mechanistic? You say that “fascism is the mechanistic society devised by Bacon and Hobbes … behind the façade of neo-classical building and martial Romanism.” But Carl Schmitt’s criticism of Hobbes in his The Leviathan in The State Theory of Thomas Hobbes focuses on exposing the liberal’s mechanistic conception of the state. “The idea of the state as a technically completed, manmade magnum-artificium, a machine that realizes ‘right’ and ‘truth’ only in itself—namely in its performance and function—was first grasped by Hobbes and systematically constructed by him into a clear concept.”

Question 2: Why does the promotion of “perpetual struggle” nurture an obsession with aesthetics?

The Dialectic of Modernity & Two Types of Post-Liberalism

Strauss advocated returning to liberalism but this is impossible and undesirable, because it would merely restart the unfortunate dialectic: liberalism to communism to fascism. What is needed is a genuine return to nature, which means a revival of premodern political philosophy.

Concluding thoughts:

Attempts to draw a sharp or principled distinction between ancient political philosophy and modern political philosophy suggests that modernity represents a complete break with antiquity, that something wholly new was wrought by the modern political philosophers. In Medigo’s essay, he asserts that this can be seen in the “un-Natural” principles, aims, and means of modern political philosophy as opposed to the natural character of ancient political philosophy.

However, these attempts strike me as inadequate. Every state, whether it is a massive modern state or the polis of ancient Greece looks up to ideals, seeks to succeed in war and thrive in peace, glorifies struggle and shows a concern for property, and so on. Even the charge that the modern state is “mechanistic” amounts to so much hand-waving, whether the accusation is made against liberalism or fascism … it’s not like the Romans didn’t “balance power” and seek to make institutional corrections that would cut back on mismanagement and corruption. That was the point behind the institution of co-Consuls, and the later addition of the Tribune.

Should we simply deny our eyesight, then? Isn’t the modern world different from the ancient? Don’t the modern philosophers write differently than the ancient? Doesn’t their rhetoric appeal to different passions?

These questions about modernity animate Medigo’s essay, and he illustrates various currents in modern liberal thought that certainly are anti-nature. The questions I asked and this conclusion are not meant to be a wholesale rejection of his thesis. He begins his essay saying “I fully acknowledge its inadequacy, both in terms of sourcing & in terms of coherence” … so I hope my questions and objections are not too “out of season.” In a future post I will provide an interpretation of Strauss’ “three waves of modernity” essay and in the meantime hope he responds to my questions and expands upon his general thesis.

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