Twilight of Authority, by Robert Nisbet
Twilight of Authority.
by Robert Nisbet.
Oxford. 287 pp. $10.95.
“Mundus senscit”—the world grows old—was the phrase employed by Gregory of Tours in the 6th century to describe the twilight of the Roman Empire. Like many of his troubled contemporaries, Gregory clearly perceived the coming of a barbarous age, and in his almost pathetic words one senses the helpless and weary resignation of a wise and learned man in the hour of his society’s greatest misfortune. The coming of twilight was for Gregory an event that was both irrational and uncreative; his simple words lend immediacy to one of the oldest and most disturbing phenomena in history—the decline and fall of great civilizations. It is a theme that has been pondered by a diverse assortment of philosophers, historians, and seers since antiquity.
In our own century the problem of civilizational decay has enlisted the labors of a number of celebrated thinkers. The dour prognostications of Spengler, Toynbee, and Voegelin have, despite their jargon-ridden complexity, found a large and eager audience. The vaunted “idea of progress,” like the Pelagian heresy, has proved a weak competitor when matched against man’s seemingly innate capacity for pessimism. One of the simplest, most persuasive, and least ponderous treatments of the subject was penned over seventy years ago by the political philosopher Max Nordau. In his neglected masterpiece, Degeneration, Nordau echoed the unhappy resignation of Gregory of Tours as he speculated on what fortune had in store for the 20th century. Eschewing the dogmatism of his fellow pessimists, Nordau succeeded nevertheless in painting a convincingly bleak picture of the future. “In our time,” he wrote, “the more highly developed minds have been visited with vague forebodings of a Dusk of Nations, in which the sunlight and the starlight are gradually fading, and the human race with all its institutions and achievements is dying out amidst a dying world.”
Degeneration became a bestseller in several languages. One of Nordau’s American admirers, the eccentric journalist Albert Jay Nock, was so impressed by Degeneration that he proposed, in a widely circulated essay, to write a study of the question: How do you go about discovering that you are slipping into a dark age? As a self-described superfluous man, Nock considered himself well equipped to deal with the question; but he decided in the end—after pondering the actions of his contemporaries and finding them wanting—to cultivate his own garden and leave the deep inquiries to others.
I mention both Nock and Nordau because Robert Nisbet’s latest book, Twilight of Authority, is written in the style of those two thinkers. Although Nock is only mentioned once in Nisbet’s pages, and Nordau not at all, Twilight of Authority is suffused with the spirit of them both. Indeed, even Nisbet’s literary style reminds me of Nock, and while he does not share Nock’s contempt for his fellow man, he seems to be in general agreement with him on one crucial point: that we are in fact already living in a barbarous age. How we came to slip into this sad situation is the subject of his book; his treatment of the subject would have more than satisfied the high standards of Albert Jay Nock.
Periodically, Nisbet writes, Western history has been visited by twilight ages. In these periods genesis and development give way to decline and erosion:
Something like a vacuum obtains in the moral order for large numbers of people. Human loyalties, uprooted from accustomed soil, can be seen tumbling across the landscape with no scheme of larger purpose to fix them. Individualism reveals itself less as achievement and enterprise than as egoism and mere performance. Retreat from the major to the minor, from the noble to the trivial, the communal to the personal, and from the objective to the subjective is commonplace. There is a widely expressed sense of degradation of values and corruption of culture. The sense of estrangement from community is strong.
The twilight age, like the Anaximandrian “moment of perishing,” is a time of social disintegration, a Dusk of Nations, a dark and barbarous episode, a time when the words uttered by Gregory of Tours take on special significance since they describe a feeling widely shared.
The concept of a twilight age is, of course, a relative one. Every age, as the late George Sarton once wrote, is a time of perishing and of genesis, a dark age and a renaissance. This fairly obvious fact is what makes history interesting. The so-called Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, cited by Nisbet as a typical twilight age, provides an excellent example. Was it a time of rebirth, as the historians Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt interpreted it, or did it represent, in the phrase of Johan Huizinga, the “waning of the Middle Ages”? Was it an age of secularization and theological mitosis, or of transcendental reaffirmation and missionary zeal? The most astute witnesses to the Renaissance—the sources of Nisbet’s own view of the period—recognized the great scientific and artistic accomplishments of the age, but they also recognized its political shortcomings. Indeed, Machiavelli’s longing for the glories of the old Florentine republic, destroyed, he believed, by the power of the Medici family, is not all that different from Nisbet’s longing for the old American republican virtues. And Nisbet’s despairing view of 20th-century America is adumbrated in the writings of yet another Florentine political theorist, Francesco Guicciardini. “We cannot call a city unfortunate, which, having flourished for a long time, at last sinks into obscurity,” Guicciardini observed. “For that is the end of human things. . . . But those citizens are unfortunate whom fortune has caused to be born during the decline, rather than the prosperous days of their country.”
The ideas here expressed are evocative of the way all men in twilight ages view their plight, and Guicciardini’s attitude both toward the decline of society and the forces that brought about the decline is strikingly similar to Nisbet’s. It is a profoundly conservative attitude, and it is one that has been restated in the writings of such singular conservative thinkers as Hooker, Burke, de Maistre, and Coleridge, all of whom pined, as does Nisbet, after some paradigm of their society, a utopianized version of the unhappy present, but a Utopia located in the past rather than the future.
One must make the distinction here, as Nisbet does, between conservatism and mere rightism. Rightists and conservatives have often shared common ground and fought common battles, but they are not necessarily consanguineous. In America today the Right, from intellectuals like Milton Friedman and William Buckley to politicians like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, has argued within the context of the classical liberal tradition. Its mentors are such thinkers as John Stuart Mill and William Graham Sumner. Nisbet, by contrast, has always placed himself within the grand tradition of classical conservatism, and has drawn on the writings of Burke, Coleridge, and Burckhardt for inspiration. Like all classical conservatives Nisbet places the good of the polis above some abstract theory of liberty: that is, he stresses the primary importance of virtue, authority, order, and community above the benevolent spirit of the invisible hand.
Twilight of Authority is Nisbet’s most purely conservative statement to date, a somber, despairing work, full of the kind of nostalgia for the ancien regime that one would expect in such a treatise. For Nisbet the root of the problem lies in the ancient conflict between freedom and authority. He shares the Hegelian view that true freedom is a freedom that limits itself, yet “remains with itself and does not lose its hold on the universal.” Unfortunately, Nisbet laments, Americans, in the process of “doing their own thing,” have lost hold of the universal, and have ceased to place the kinds of checks upon their collective appetite that are so necessary for the survival of true liberty and equality. What we are witnessing in our time, Nisbet writes, “is rising opposition to the central values of the political community as we have known them for the better part of the past two centuries: freedom, rights, due process, privacy, and welfare.” The contemporary age, he declares, has accomplished the things that Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Bentham only dreamed about. Today the political order elicits from its citizens the kind of loyalty that prior to the French Revolution was more likely to go to other institutions in society, such as the family, the social class, the church, and even the town.
As Nisbet surveys the “present accelerating tendencies toward political Leviathan on the one hand and moribundity of the social order on the other,” he asks whether it is still possible to reverse the situation. “Nothing about us at the moment,” he notes, “offers much encouragement. We live, after all, in a world that becomes constantly more militarized, more power-oriented, and hence more dangerous to America and other Western countries.” Nisbet is, however, optimistic; he believes that it is not too late to return to the true roots of our community’s social order. Nisbet’s optimism is based upon his faith in the genius of American pluralism. He recognizes that the pluralistic tradition—juxtaposed as it is against the twin “idols” of necessity and politics—will be difficult to revive, but he remains convinced that it will, nevertheless, reassert itself: “The ravages of the social and cultural landscape . . . are bound to become so great, and so visible, that there will be no other way for human beings to turn than to some kind of rebirth of a . . . pluralistic philosophy.”
I share both Nisbet’s, desire for a pluralistic revival and his evaluation of America’s present predicament. Therefore I must confess that I cannot bring myself to share the muted optimism with which he concludes his book. The values of American pluralism as defined by Nisbet—individual and social autonomy, decentralization, an acceptance of a natural hierarchy among men and their institutions, and an emphasis on the importance of tradition—are, to be sure, the main sources of our greatness as a people; but one need only peruse the pages of the Congressional Record to see how far we have moved away from these roots. The terribles simplificateurs, with their penchant for the ephemeral and the deciduous, seem to have won the day. When Nisbet writes of the “sterilization of cultural diversity, the extinction of localism, regionalism, and the whole private sector,” he is describing a society that would seem to have receded too far into the twilight to return to its original genius.
But Robert Nisbet sees through the twaddle of our age, and in so doing he is performing a vital task. His position is a lonely one, that of an “obsolete worshipper of freedom,” as Nisbet’s hero, Tocqueville, once described himself. One can only hope that it will be made less lonely by the readers of this book.