A Dark Path to Recovery
Gerhart Niemeyer (1907–1997) brought to the study of political science a philosophical sensitivity born of his experience watching the twentieth century’s sad parade of tyrannical regimes. Like many of his fellow European émigrés, he coupled his hatred of tyrannical ideology with worry that the conditions favoring it still remained in the West—a point made by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Niemeyer praises highly. This new volume, nearly seven hundred pages in length, gathers seventy-six of Niemeyer’s occasional pieces on political and philosophical matters from the 1950s through the 1990s. Well over half the essays are drawn from the journals of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and from the pages of National Review, with many of the rest from Niemeyer’s papers at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught from 1955 to 1992. What can be learned from this hefty tome, the first collection of Niemeyer’s writings in almost twenty years?
These writings revolve around the axis indicated in the title—The Loss and Recovery of Truth. For Niemeyer the twentieth century was the century of totalitarian ideology, “the name for that kind of disorder which consists in substituting for philosophical questions about what is given a set of assertions about what is not given.” By this last phrase, Niemeyer means that political ideologies seek to bring about some future arrangement on the basis of assertions regarding human destiny. Almost any means is justified in the pursuit of such an end.
Reading Niemeyer’s essays on this theme, one finds many familiar features of Cold War intellectual life. Niemeyer echoes the critique of modernity’s “Gnostic” character outlined by Eric Voegelin and Hans Jonas. With Russell Kirk, he points to ideology as the chief distorting influence on modern politics. And, partly following Leo Strauss, he finds the ideological character of modern totalitarianism most apparent in an aggressive understanding of history. His deepest philosophical inspiration comes from Augustine, whom he interprets as a ontological thinker ranking with Aristotle and a viable alternative to modern historicism and existentialism. Like many of his fellow philosophers, Niemeyer was concerned not only to defend the West against its totalitarian foes, but to warn the West about the consequences of embracing a nihilistic liberalism.
First, a brief word on the character of the volume. Niemeyer’s book-length works touch on many of the subjects in these essays, including the study of totalitarian life in his 1956 Inquiry into Soviet Mentality, and the analysis of ideology in his 1971 Between Nothingness and Paradise. The current volume does gather a wide array of essays, and Saint Augustine Press (so named in honor of Niemeyer) has rendered an important service in keeping alive Niemeyer’s memory. Nevertheless, the volume’s rationale and principle of selection is rather opaque. It is not a volume of Niemeyer’s complete works, but if the aim were to highlight forgotten elements of Niemeyer’s thought, the selection could have been rather shorter without losing the point. The sequence of essays is also difficult to understand, since the original publication dates are generally available only in the acknowledgments—where they are arranged neither chronologically, nor alphabetically, nor in agreement with their sequence in the volume. These flaws hinder the engagement with Niemeyer’s work which the volume otherwise promotes. Let us return, however, to Niemeyer’s thought.
Niemeyer’s chief objection to totalitarian ideology is its tendency toward the “total critique” of all aspects of existing society. His essays on that subject provide an important witness to the twentieth century’s grand conflict between Western political traditions and the “ideological enterprises” intent on overthrowing all existing societies. Ideologies, he explains, are “bodies, even systems, of ideas and ensuing patterns of attitudes and practices which arise in a political context, [but which] have a meta-political character that runs counter to the order of political association and action.” Niemeyer’s lament over the loss of truth does not imply a defense of any particular order or even any particular truth. Rather, he contrasts the political orders of the West with communism’s attempt to halt all ordinary political discussion in favor of immediately bringing about a new order based on theoretical assertions. That task upended not only truth but even the context in which truths about human nature could be discovered or maintained.
Reading Niemeyer’s essays nearly twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one is struck by how quickly the political scene has changed. A critique of ideology no longer appears adequate to present conditions. However false communism’s claims about human nature may have been, its fall did not prove that systems built on falsehood were themselves untenable. What it showed instead was that politically enforced ideologies are too costly, and that the apparatus needed to secure a particular ideology could not sustain itself. Yet today we have no lack of quasi-ideological, arbitrary assertions about the future character of human life. Rather than wearing the easily identifiable garb of an NKVD officer’s uniform, today’s ideologists are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and marketers of cultural and fashion products. Our marketplace provides the space in which the continual reinvention of parts of human life can happen without the need for in-your-face repression. Niemeyer himself indicates this fact in his observation that T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land “reflects American reality”—and indeed, that the “disorientation” chronicled by Eliot “has become more widespread.”
Writing for National Review in 1977, Niemeyer spotted this aimlessness of contemporary society and blamed it not on intellectuals but rather on the middle class. “It is the millions of college-trained but less-than-educated people sitting in metropolitan offices these days,” he wrote, who, “alone with their subjectivity, . . . are now compelled to spend every day figuring out how to be ‘emancipated,’ ‘relevant,’ ‘happy.’” No strong, ideological assertion about “what is not given” is even needed. In fact, our use of products that spirit us toward the future can be completely disconnected from beliefs about the future itself. No one need be a transhumanist to make use of current communications or medical technology. As a whole, however, our current system of production aims to fit itself to every jagged edge of our spiritual fragmentation. Using a pill to cure loneliness is only slightly more absurd than using a computer.
The history of political philosophy seems to indicate that, while the term ideology might describe a modern phenomenon, the term tyranny describes a phenomenon of every human age. If most Westerners live after ideology, we cannot be so certain that we live after tyranny. For that reason Niemeyer’s writings provide a permanently valuable warning against the destructive use of political power. Writing in 1992 just after the fall of the Soviet Union, Niemeyer warned that the “intellectual and spiritual background” which generated the communist hypothesis in the West “still continues.” Putting this remark together with his comments on the “Two Socialisms” in Modern Age thirty years prior, one finds the following reason to continue to read Niemeyer. He suggests that the political justification of laissez-faire marketplaces tends to increase rather than limit state power: hence the “Two Socialisms.” The Lockean argument that limits government’s purview is a two-edged sword. By accounting for civil peace chiefly in terms of “external conditions” rather than the orientation of the human soul, the management of external conditions becomes the whole concern of government—and almost anything can reasonably be said to be a precondition for growth. What Niemeyer calls the “mandarin state” is thus fully compatible with the anarchical lifestyles and reckless technological innovation which otherwise dominate contemporary life.
Since the fall of Soviet Communism, Western companies have been remarkably efficient in bringing down the cost of the very techniques that made Eastern Bloc police states such terrifying foes. Networking technology has given everyone a reason to part with their privacy under putatively voluntary arrangements, facilitated by communication platforms that have quickly made themselves necessary to ordinary life. At the same time, however, the economic arrangements that have fostered this spectacular growth have grown increasingly aware of their own fragility—and thus increasingly desperate to justify and protect themselves. The “intellectual and spiritual background” that generated communism no longer has any need to generate an aggressive ideology. The threat of tyranny now comes from the fragility that the market has engendered. Though Niemeyer directed his intellectual energy elsewhere, he clearly shared with Solzhenitsyn this concern regarding the future linkage of liberalism and tyranny.
Niemeyer was not only a diagnostician: he wrote in search of the “recovery of truth” in addition to describing its painful loss. What ought to concern contemporary readers is the darkness of the path Niemeyer identified in this recovery. It was the Soviet labor camps, he said, that revealed to their inmates the spiritual dimension of human life, by taking the total domination of human life to the furthest extreme short of death. The dark night of the soul only occurred in extremis. In making this suggestion, Niemeyer actually flirted with a principle of Marxism: that the revolution against current conditions will only come as those conditions grow bleaker and throw into relief the character of human being. The “regenerative experiences” needed to recover ordinary human life may not be pleasant ones. Our technological sophistication has created a world that can barely function when our control over it falters, when the markets are disrupted, when the promised progress does not arrive. Should the events that occasion regenerative experiences appear, we will want to retain Gerhart Niemeyer as a guide.
Gladden J. Pappin is a Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.
Posted: December 29, 2013