Commentary Magazine


The counterculture that emerged in the United States in the 1960′s—and pretty much simultaneously in all the Western democracies—is certainly one of the most significant events in the last half-century of Western civilization. It has reshaped our educational systems, our arts, our forms of entertainment, our sexual conventions, our moral codes. So it is important that we understand it—more important, indeed, than that we criticize it.

Perhaps the major difficulty in understanding the counterculture is that our conventional modes of analysis, whether social-scientific or journalistic, come up empty. We seek causes, and find none—or we find so many as to discredit the very enterprise of causal analysis. It is fair to say that nothing happened to provoke this rebellion—there was no visible crisis, or even any sense of crisis, in the economies, the societies, the politics of the West. Even America’s serious involvement in Vietnam, which is frequently pointed to as a cause, will not serve, for the emergence of the counterculture antedated it by several years. And anyway, such a parochial explanation overlooks the international nature of the movement.

The fact is that the counterculture was not “caused,” it was born. What happened was internal to our culture and society, not external to it.

The place to begin with any understanding of the counterculture is with its own self-designation as a “counterculture.” We are dealing here with something that is not just another dissenting movement, not another stylistic revolution accomplished by a new and younger avant-garde, but with a movement that sees itself as against culture. It emerged out of an avowed hostility to “culture” itself—and this on the part of intellectuals, professors, and artists. What can that possibly mean?

We can approach its meaning by looking at the idea of “culture” itself—an idea so familiar to us that we tend to think of it as ageless. It is not. It was only in the latter part of the 18th century that the modern idea of “culture” was born, referring to a new, autonomous sector of human activity—a sector in which poets, playwrights, novelists, and thinkers offered an intensity of spiritual experience of a kind no longer provided by traditional religion. Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), supposedly caused dozens of suicides all over Europe. The days of religious turmoil were pretty much over; spiritual turmoil was now a “cultural” event.

At about the same time there was born the modern idea of “art.” Previously, of course, the arts had existed in all their variety—ornamental, pedagogic, didactic, entertaining. But just as there was no such comprehensive term as “culture,” so there was no such comprehensive term as “art.” Both of these concepts came into being in order to designate a new self-consciousness, and a new sense of mission.

That mission was secular, humanistic, and re-demptory. All traditional ties with religion were severed, in substance if not in form. The sacred was now to be found in culture and art, where “creative geniuses”—two old terms now endowed with a completely new definition—would give meaning to our lives and sustenance to our spiritual aspirations.

There are intellectual laggards who believe that culture and art are still successfully performing this function today. One critic, Susan Sontag, for instance, has written that art is “the nearest thing to a sacramental activity acknowledged by our secular society.” But if this was true in the age of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, and even (perhaps) of Jackson Pollock, it has no relevance to the era of Andy Warhol. Literary critics and art critics used to borrow freely the religious term “epiphany” to describe the intensity of our reactions to the great modernists in literature and painting. The counterculture offers us no such epiphanies, because it is alienated from the modern tradition that created them. The counterculture is “postmodernist.”



Both the counterculture and its younger twin, postmodernism, then, are a rebellion against culture and art seen as autonomous, secular human activities. It is now felt, quite correctly, that these activities have been emptied of all spiritual substance even while continuing to claim a quasi-sacred mission.

Inevitably, the very first target of this rebellion was the modern university, which for the past century or so had established itself as the central institution of secular-humanist orthodoxy. The rebellion was spurred on not only by the mass migration of young people to the university after World War II, but by trends over the past century in the world of modern literature and modern art themselves—a world that originated outside the university and, indeed, in opposition to it. In this world, free of institutional constraints, there had emerged, long before the counterculture, what we now call (after the critic Lionel Trilling) the “adversary culture.”

That this modern, adversary culture—spanning the century, 1865-1965—was hostile to bourgeois society was obvious enough. That it was also, in a deeper sense, hostile to secular humanism was not so obvious, even to many of those involved in the adversary culture itself. Yet in retrospect it is clear that, with hardly an exception, the leading novelists, poets, and painters—those whom we now call the “moderns” (Eliot, Yeats, Kafka, Proust, Picasso)—could not be enlisted in a secular-humanist canon.

Oddly enough, one who saw this early on, and most clearly, was the Marxist critic and philosopher Georg Lukacs. For Lukacs, the adversary art and literature of the bourgeois West offered a clear sign of an impending cultural crisis that would accompany the general crisis of “capitalism.” (What Lukacs did not understand, of course, was that Marxism, precisely because it was so much more radical a version of modern secular humanism, was destined to experience an even more shattering crisis.)

In the 1960′s, in any event, the counterculture started to recruit adherents among junior faculty on American campuses. The professors who constituted the senior faculty, although a majority, were the last to understand—most, in truth, still do not understand—what was going on. Together with most commentators in the media, they kept looking for proximate causes of the students’ discontents, and persisted in trying to appease those discontents.

Lionel Trilling once referred to “the humanist belief that society can change itself gradually by taking thought and revising sensibility.” This is exactly how our professoriate responded, offering all kinds of institutional reforms and procedural concessions, blissfully unaware that it was being attacked for what it was, not for anything in particular that it did. Comfortable in the orthodox humanism incarnated in their institution, the university, these professors could not credit what many of their brightest students believed: namely, that, thanks to secular humanism, the university had become a soulless institution, an institution without any transcendent meaning. Nor did they understand that it is in the nature of things for an institution which has lost its soul to be experienced as “oppressive,” even though thoughts of oppression may be the farthest distance from the oppressor’s (or professor’s) mind.

In their misconception, the professors were aided and abetted by the students themselves, who, grossly undereducated in the American fashion, and despite the efforts of their mentors among the junior faculty, found it all but impossible to formulate or even to comprehend their own discontents. (“Nietzsche is peachy” is as close as many of them came to articulateness.) One gets a deeper insight by listening to the better educated and intellectually more sophisticated French students who, in 1968, actually came close to making a revolution. They spelled out their message in graffiti on the walls of the Sorbonne: “All power to the imagination,” “Real life is elsewhere,” “Art is dead, let us create everyday life.”

Nevertheless, American students too, just like the French, were undergoing an existential-spiritual crisis, a crisis revealed in their turbulent sexuality, their drug addiction, their desperate efforts to invent new “lifestyles,” and their popular music, at once Dionysiac and mournful.



We in our secular, rationalist world are utterly unprepared for such existential-spiritual spasms. For one thing, we do not study the history of religion in any serious way, even for explanations of religious phenomena. Instead, we look for sociological explanations, or economic explanations, or even political explanations, and we do so precisely because we find it almost impossible to posit spiritual appetites and spiritual passions as independent, primary forces in human history.

Yet they are, or they can be. Take the rise of Puritanism in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s England. At that time the Church of England was the most tolerant of all national churches. It was a church with a beautiful liturgy and a host of first-rate thinkers. And England itself was the most prosperous and the freest society in the Western world, with a glorious secular culture. So why should people, especially young people among whom were many women, suddenly decide that they wanted to be, of all things, Puritans?

All one can say is that these things happen, that the spirit bloweth where it listeth, and that sometimes all you need to generate a counterculture is an orthodoxy against which it can rebel. For no orthodoxy can ever fully satisfy our spiritual appetites and our spiritual passions.

The granddaddy of all countercultures, of course, was early Christianity itself. And in a polemic written in the 2nd century by the Greek philosopher Celsus, we have a marvelous document of the bewilderment and incomprehension with which Greco-Roman rationalists of the early Christian era viewed this counterculture. All copies of this polemic were eventually destroyed by the Church, but we have the rebuttal to it, Contra Celsum, by the Church Father Origen. From this rejoinder, the 19th-century British historian and rationalist, James Anthony Froude, wrote an essay reconstructing Celsus’s argument.

And what was Celsus saying? He was saying that it was absurd for people to go around believing in miracles, believing that a god-man had been buried and then resurrected, when such things were an affront to reason and utterly impossible. Celsus’s baffled critique of Christianity made all the sense in the world, if by sense one means pure rationality. His was philosophy’s response to Christian dogma and Christian faith. But philosophy, inherently rationalist, is always disarmed by religion when it is not simply ignored by religion—just as our own academic, rationalist culture is disarmed or ignored by our counterculture.

The countercultural rejoinder to today’s rationalist, like the early Christian response to Celsus, is always something like, “You just don’t understand.” That is not, technically, an argument. But it is a powerful and, for some, a persuasive way of ending the discussion, and ending the discussion is, precisely, the goal of a counterculture, which always aims to create a new vocabulary, establish new terms, mark new parameters of discourse—in short, to forge a new human and social reality.

It rarely succeeds, however; an orthodoxy has far greater staying power than a counterculture. And even when it does succeed, it creates, willy-nilly, a new orthodoxy of its own.

There have been only two such orthodoxies, enduring orthodoxies, in the history of Western civilization, and both of them began as countercultures. They are Christianity and secular, rationalist humanism. Obviously, creating a new orthodoxy is very hard. But even when countercultures do not eventuate in a new orthodoxy, they still have an effect, sometimes a lasting effect; the world is never quite the same again when they have done their work, and neither is orthodoxy.



Countercultural challenges to orthodoxy take different forms at different times, but a common substratum of attitudes and belief is discernible.

To begin with, there is the experience of what we now glibly call alienation, and all the forms in which this experience is expressed. Not to feel alienated is, from the point of view of the counterculture, to be “inauthentic,” to be deficient in a fully human sensibility. We have witnessed this phenomenon among the intellectual and artistic classes in the West over the past 100 years, and the notion of the alienated intellectual and artist is, by now, so familiar that we read it backward into history.

This is a misreading, however. It makes no sense to regard Bach and Mozart, Titian and Raphael, Dante and Shakespeare as alienated from the civilization in which they lived. They were, one supposes, discontented often enough, and critical often enough. But mere discontent, and normal criticism of the actual from the viewpoint of the ideal, do not add up to alienation, which is a far more profound experience—the experience of being homeless in a world created by orthodoxy.

Associated with this sense of alienation is a corresponding sense of indignation, even outrage, at the orthodoxy which is perceived to be the ground of the alienation. It is this indignation at what is felt to be intolerable that unites people into a countercultural movement, as distinct from a collection of tormented individuals, or a mere school of thought. And as all movements seek power, including countercultural ones, this in turn leads to conflict. It is astonishing how frequently the defenders of orthodoxy fail to see that power is at issue, and deceive themselves into believing that a benign, therapeutic approach can pacify the passions of indignant alienation.

And then there is sex, always sex. “Sexual liberation” is always very near the top of a countercultural agenda—though just what form the liberation takes can and does vary, sometimes quite wildly. Women’s liberation, likewise, is another consistent feature of all countercultural movements—liberation from husbands, liberation from children, liberation from family. Indeed, the real object of these various sexual heterodoxies is to disestablish the family as the central institution of human society, the citadel of orthodoxy.

Just how one goes about such disestablishment is of secondary importance, though it is of very keen interest to the participants. Thus, at one end of the spectrum, there have been counter-cultural movements that promoted sexual promiscuity, on the grounds that the members of the movement are of the “elect,” the already redeemed who have recaptured humanity’s lost innocence. At the other end of the spectrum there have been countercultural movements that have preached and practiced abstinence. What we call Catholic monasticism was such a movement.

In her wonderful novel The Abyss, Marguerite Yourcenar deals with the disastrous Anabaptist rebellion in Germany in the 1520′s. The origins of the Anabaptist sect lay in a medieval heretical movement called the Brethren of the Free Spirit (at various times it had other names), which emphasized spiritual Christianity as against organized, institutionalized Christianity, and preached spiritual devotion as against orthodox piety. The Brethren also deplored sex and the family as distractions from the realm of the spirit.

For all these reasons, the Church quite ruthlessly suppressed the Anabaptist movement. But the impulse kept bubbling up for some two centuries, and at one point the movement became sufficiently numerous to gain control of the city of Münster. There, the wheel quickly came full circle, and soon Münster was notorious for its uncontrolled licentiousness—after all, there is a very fine line between absolute sexual purity and utter sexual licentiousness, and human beings, especially if they are bereft of institutional guidance and support, can easily lose their balance.

In the end, the German secular authorities laid siege to the city and, after some months, conquered it, slaughtering the inhabitants. In this, the princes had the blessing of Martin Luther, who (like John Calvin) was a staunch defender of the family and sought—and achieved—not a liberation from orthodoxy but a reformation of the prevailing one. Today no one is more emphatic in defense of the family than our own Baptists, who have inherited the anti-institutional animus of their forebears but little else of their counterculture.



Which leads us to another, more recent, attempt to undermine the family.

We have witnessed in our time the extraordinary collapse of Soviet Communism. Most analyses of that collapse have focused on the disaster that inevitably accompanies efforts to create a centralized, planned economy. These analyses are convincing, but I do not think they tell the whole story.

One need not have known a great deal about the theory of free-market economics to have been convinced that Soviet religious doctrine—described, somewhat redundantly but accurately enough, as “godless, atheistic materialism”—could never sink roots among the Russian people. All people, everywhere, at all times, are “theotropic” beings, who cannot long abide the absence of a transcendental dimension to their lives. The collapse of Soviet Communism vindicates this truth.

And there is another point to be made here, which pertains not only to 20th-century Communism in practice but to socialist doctrine as a whole. This body of thought has always been hostile to the family as an institution, not only because the family is the crucial vehicle for the transmission of specific ideas and values, but because it is in the family that the very sense of tradition, the basic human instinct of piety toward an ancestral past, is preserved and conveyed. In seeking to create a brave new world, socialism of necessity subverts tradition and celebrates impiety. It agrees with Tom Paine, a pre-socialist thinker, that the dead are a “nonentity,” that we should “let the dead bury the dead,” and that we must resist “the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave.”

In the early socialist credo, contempt for the family was universal. All the thinkers whom, following Marx’s usage, we call “utopian socialists” were agreed on this point, although they approached it from different angles. William Godwin in England professed to despise not only marriage and the family but also sexuality, arguing that the truly rational man would be liberated from such lowly passions. In France, on the other hand, Charles Fourier insisted that in his ideal communities, sex would be absolutely free, and that as a result of such liberation of the passions, men and women would live to 144 years of age, 120 of which would be spent in active love-making. A nut, one might say; but Fourier was respected and influential throughout Europe and even among transcendentalist circles in the United States. When in the grip of a counter-cultural passion, one can easily lose or repress the ability to distinguish the nutty from the sensible.

When I taught a graduate seminar in social thought, my classes tended to be dominated by young Marxists and quasi-Marxists. We used to read The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx launches a vitriolic attack on the bourgeois family as an institution of legalized prostitution for the unfortunate wives. I once asked my students what they thought of these remarks but got no response—it was clear that they preferred not to think about them, though they regarded The Communist Manifesto as a kind of scripture. I then asked whether they thought their mothers were prostitutes. An uneasy and baffled silence ensued. What I found and still find fascinating is less the fact that no one had the courage to say “yes” than the fact that no one had the courage to say “no.” Keeping their Marxism intact was obviously more important to them than anything else.

But setting aside the mental contortions of believers, it remains true that one of the inherent weaknesses of even moderate socialist movements and governments is this ingrained hostility to the family. We are coming to recognize that this hostility, now cloaked as indifference, is a major factor in the political torment of what we still call “liberalism” in the United States. That the hostility is there is revealed by the complaisance of liberalism before the assaults on the family by contemporary radical feminism and the “gay-rights” movement. All liberal politicians today feel it necessary to speak highly of the family, but they cannot bring themselves to defend it against its enemies.



And what about our own orthodoxy, the secular, humanist, rationalist orthodoxy against which all the countercultures of the past two centuries—from romanticism through modernism to postmodernism—have rebelled? How has it been coping?

On the whole, it has been coping badly, its survival ensured mainly by its toleration of older religious and moral traditions that still govern, however uncertainly, the lives of most citizens, and by its unqualified faith in progress, material and moral—a faith that is grievously wounded but not yet dead.

Because of this faith in progress, our modern orthodoxy has been enabled to ignore the basic principle of any orthodoxy, which is virtue (a principle that all countercultures find intolerable) . The word itself has suffered a degradation in our time. As the philosopher Leo Strauss once pointed out, a term that used to refer to the manliness of men came to be limited in its reference to the sexual purity of women—and now even that meaning has, as it were, fallen.

Orthodox virtue is a prescription whereby people find contentment in their lives by doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind. The last qualification is the weakest of the four: all orthodoxies believe that if you do the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, you will probably end up in possession of the right frame of mind. (That is why orthodoxy is always suspicious of those who go around talking enthusiastically about “spirituality.”) Orthodoxies have known forever that virtue is a practical, existential discipline, not simply a matter of faith, and definitely not an application of abstract doctrine to behavior.

Beneath the priority that orthodoxy gives to right practice lies a basic, primordial intuition: that the world is meant to be a home for mankind. Leading a life according to virtue is therefore of metaphysical significance. In pursuing the ethical sanctification of the mundane, virtuous practice gains strength by linking the living to the dead and to the unborn. In a traditional orthodox community, both the dead and the unborn have the right to vote.

But our orthodoxy is essentially contemptuous of the very idea of tradition; this it has in common with its offshoot, socialism. It also lacks a central principle of virtue. Instead, it proposes a whole set of virtues, the “liberal” virtues—toleration, pluralism, relativism—which, one might say, construct a supermarket of possible good and decent lives. This is a prescription for moral anarchy, which is exactly what we are now experiencing. And there is no way that moral anarchy can pass for moral progress, though there are today, especially in our educational system, a fair number of people who pretend that it can.



And so we come full circle. I began by noting that today’s postmodernist counterculture grew out of trends in modernist culture itself, whose works it disdains but whose work it continues. Essentially, postmodernism’s critique of modernism is that it is “academic,” seemingly designed from the outset to constitute a “canon.” And our current counterculture is opposed to canons, just as it is opposed to Culture (with a capital “C”) and to Art (with a capital “A”).

In the poets and painters of the previous adversary culture, there was to be found an intense spiritual energy, an energy derived from their overweening ambition to have art replace religion as that which gives meaning to our lives. The ethos of our current counterculture is, instead, the ethos of a carnival. It is cynical, nihilistic, and exploitative; it is candidly sensationalistic and materialistic.

The energy of the postmodern counterculture goes into self-promotion, public relations, and grant-seeking. In this respect, the counterculture has become an extension of the modern media, favoring exhibitionism in place of intellectual or spiritual ambition. Shopping for, not whoring after, strange gods is the order of day.

Can it last? The original excitement of the counterculture is certainly gone; there is already a sense of tedium about the whole business—too many “lifestyles,” too many transient “protean” selves.

But that does not mean that things will return to “normal.” The real danger, it seems to me, is that the collapse of secular humanism signaled by the rise of the counterculture will bring down with it—will discredit—human things that are of permanent importance. A spiritual rebellion against the constrictions of secular humanism could end up—in some way, it has already ended up—in a celebration of irrationalism and a derogation of reason itself. In these circumstances, the liberal idea of liberty could collapse under pressure from a new spiritual and ideological conformity that rushes in where liberals fear to tread.

Countercultures are dangerous phenomena even as they are inevitable. Their destructive power always far exceeds their constructive power. The delicate task that faces our civilization today is not to reform the secular, rationalist orthodoxy, which has passed beyond the point of redemption. Rather, it is to breathe new life into the older, now largely comatose, religious orthodoxies—while resisting the counterculture as best we can, adapting to it and reshaping it where we cannot simply resist.

Resistance is important because it buys time during which the contradictory and self-destructive impulses of the counterculture can work themselves out. (The current conflict between pro-lesbian feminism and an older “sexual liberation” is a case in point.) At the same time, we have to recognize that some ground may never be recovered. And as for breathing new life into the spirit of older orthodoxies, it must be said that no one can foresee how that would happen, what it would entail, and in what ways a newly-inspirited religious orthodoxy would differ from the old.

We have to be prepared for surprises—not all of them, perhaps, to our liking. But, historically, this is the way the clash between orthodoxy and counterculture has always been resolved.

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