New Oxford Review – April 2018 – By John Lyon

John Lyon has held teaching and administrative positions at several universities, including Notre Dame, Ball State, Kentucky State, and St. Mary’s (Minnesota). More recently, he taught literature and history at a classical academy in Wisconsin. He has also farmed, raising berries, flowers, vegetables, and apples, and operated a stall at the local farmer’s market in Bayfield County, Wisconsin. 

“The first thing that strikes the observation [of the modern democratic world] is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives…. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.” — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

We, the people of the United States of America, are a people conceived in liberty and born in parricide. It ought to be no surprise then that, from the beginning, we have not been of one mind. We are internally contentious, in foreign policy uncertain. In religion we have ever been fractious, our sectarian and denominational divisions added to expectable class and economic tensions, supplemented by regional rivalries, and all suffused by racial divisions.

We — even the referent of the plural pronoun is uncertain. What, or who, are we? Children of an idea, quite maculately conceived in liberty as well as regicide? God’s chosen ones in our city upon a hill? A predictably accidental, conglomerate function of geography? Self-selected members of the world’s greatest plunderbund? The wretched refuse of others’ teeming shores? We are a disparate people, at any rate, oscillating between compromise within the limits of assumed but not thoroughly examined basic principles and civil war. We have been held together for a time by a hegemonic sociopolitical class with a semi-permeable periphery, the aristocratic functions of which have been to prevent organized fratricide.

The divine right of kings largely evaporated in the English-speaking world between the 1640s and the 1780s, and with it went, in this country, any legally heritable rank and order. When we killed our father the king (1776-1783) and then refused to replace him with a successor of even symbolic significance, we settled into our regicidal peace as a band of brothers, nominally equal at law and in rights. (This was the case even though, for instance, the document that constituted us specified that some brothers were really only three-fifths the political equivalents of others.) No apodictic claims could be made by any individual, family, or class to a “right to rule,” the God of revelation having publicly perished along with the right hand of the monarchy. Despite, or in addition to, the immensely important inheritance of British common law, such civil rights as we had were now to be derived “from nature and nature’s god,” generalities that were to prove no less abstract and malleable than those of the divinity that previously issued rights to kings.

Although this move toward democratic equality might have been politically necessary, given the logic of the times, it was also the first move toward democratic totalitarianism: divide God from nature, except as a function, a derivative thereof; make belief in divinity a private matter, belief in nature public. The public belief in nature will slide away also, for the playing field in democracies is not level; it slopes downward to the Left, and that is where all significant action takes place, in the absence of strong counter-measures by the Right.

Our bipolar national style, a type of unnerving schizophrenia, evolved in the presence of a largely deist-derived rational civil order imposed upon a social order basically premised on traditional Christian principles. For the first 70 years of its existence, our nation temporarily avoided the more serious consequences of this bipolarity by directing much of its energy to subduing the better part of a continent. With some irony, however, it was precisely in the course of this geographical expansion that the ever-moving tectonic plates of our political structure erupted. Not proving ourselves capable of maintaining social tranquility based on a fraternal order of things supposedly deduced “from nature and nature’s god,” we engaged in our fratricidal Civil War.


In observing our young nation, Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America(1835), noted that “men cannot do without dogmatical belief,” and that “of all kinds of dogmatical belief, the most durable appears to me to be dogmatical belief in matters of religion; and this is a clear inference, even from no higher consideration than the interests of this world.” Dogmatical belief in matters of religion was failing us — or we it — even before the colonization of North America. It splintered into greater factions once we settled in, thanks to denominational infighting, the growing self-assertiveness of Enlightenment philosophy, and the moral and political problems presented by attempting to make freedom and equality compossible. Any divinely revealed order of things was patently mocked by denominational fission. Tocqueville saw the consequences of this and the impending failure of nature and nature’s God. “When the religion of a people is destroyed,” he wrote, “doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect, and half paralyzes all the others.” And so, any political stability based on revealed religious belief, or “natural” dogmatic religion, having failed by 1861, we proceeded to tear ourselves apart.

The upshot of this was a re-arrangement of political priorities. In order to relieve the tension created by mathematically fractioning mankind, we recreated a political order in which inequality shifted from that invidious distinction to another: all individual rights were now equal, but in the political realm, all subsidiary corporate rights were devalued. Federal rights were more equal than others’ rights — namely, those of states.

Dogmatic belief in nature and nature’s God having failed, the Great Leviathan, that mortal god, stepped in. Naturally. “A democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism,” Tocqueville observed. In spite of religiously motivated abolitionists, hymn writers for the Union Army, the insight and strategy of a remarkable President, and the eradication of slavery, we escaped facing our political dilemmas once more, moving again into an age of exploitation of the continent, this time a “Gilded Age.”

Gilded — great profit was to be had in this exploitation of nature, facilitated not so much by nature and nature’s God, but by a utilitarian/pragmatic ethic built on a positivist legal philosophy. But neither “utility” nor “what works” is a univocal concept, and positivism can be negated. Each means now this, now that, each interpretation legitimated by the force of a growing national government, in the name of the only “natural” civil entity left: the abstract collectivity of anonymous individuals. Nature and nature’s God died or committed suicide. We prospered our way west.


The Great God Pan was dead; but the greatest and least imaginative abstraction of all lived: “the People,” who could be counted, when it counted. Each vote counted as much as any other, whether cast by Huck Finn’s “Pap” or a sober, conscientious citizen.

But Pan has a way of unexpectedly changing forms, even of resurrecting, and so in the mid-1960s a quite nonymous student sat on the steps of the administration building in Berkeley, holding a sign that, in four letters, denoted fruitless but forceful intercourse. Connotatively, it suggested the general practice of this goal-less activity on the universe, for the universe, or so it was now commonly held, was itself sterile of purpose, though admitting of passing pleasures. Dogmatic belief in a rule of law predicated on divinity or nature had proved insolvent, pragmatism ironically unworkable. For neither utility, pragmatism, nor positivism, singly, serially, or together, had proved capable of establishing a durable hierarchy of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for the greatest number. The greatest number was about to take pleasure into its own hands, in a mixture of nominalist libertarianism and statist social programming.

America had moved into the era of Mad magazine and adopted the motto of Alfred E. Neuman, “What, me worry?” We handed over our moral responsibility to science and technology (which had been quite aggressively four-lettering nature for some time), each increasingly operating as an agency of the federal government, and we moved into a Nietzschean position beyond good and evil. Four-lettering was usually pleasurable, much more so than pushpin or poetry (Bentham’s indiscriminate alternatives), and, since the activity was inconsequent, it allowed for all sorts of partnering, thus becoming a “victimless” activity — unless one or another partner thought it so before (or after) the fact.

We had traversed Auguste Comte’s tripartite division of history, proceeding through the theological, metaphysical, and positive stages into a negation of all stages, and the end of mystery, if not history. Divine-right monarchy, natural-right republicanism, and popular-right democracy each having failed, we turned inevitably toward collective libidocracy. Since, as numerous commentators have observed concerning democracy, there is no sanctuary when “the people” are against you, let alone any political security in maintaining an unpopular social position, we came to endure a raft-load of politically obsequious “personally opposed but” politicians. Religion, rather than being that which holds a people together, retreated to becoming a matter of taste — and we all know that de gustibus non est disputandum (there is no disputing about taste). Ethics, instead of being a code of social behavior premised on a common human nature, became a precipitate of private (gnostic) revelations of what is best (that is, most pleasurable) for me, filtered through statistics and chance, brokered and cashed in by an impartial federal croupier, of course. The body politic is dissolved into its individual members, and even the Great Leviathan must pose as enforcing only the greatest individual good for the greatest number. “In democratic communities,” Tocqueville observed, “each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely, himself.”


This is a moral and political catastrophe, as many have pointed out. Pope St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae (1995), feared that “if, as a result of a tragic obscuring of the collective conscience, an attitude of skepticism were to succeed in bringing into question even the fundamental principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations and would be reduced to a mere mechanism for regulating different and opposing interests on a purely empirical basis” (no. 70).

Like Pan, the mortal god himself appeared to be perishing at the height of his prowess. But ‘twas all appearances. Leviathan seems inevitably to resurface. Divine-right monarchies, constitutional monarchies, democratic republics — all pass, with all their literate (that is, lettered) interpretations. Numeracy alone advances. Only that which can be counted counts; and what really counts is whodoes the counting. Only matter matters. Justice becomes an algorithm. The whole traditional order is overthrown in the name of the infallible (though ignorant), invincible (though passionately enchained), numerically expressed majority counted by federal actuaries, in the name of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s fatuous “sweet mystery of life” principle. We have reached bottom and begun to dig.

The dreadful consequences of the triumph of equality, even when denominated “providential,” are upon us, as Tocqueville feared. Despite his acceptance of equality as inescapable, he wrote, “I hold it to be an impious and detestable maxim, that, politically speaking, the people have a right to do anything…. The rights of every people are therefore confined within the limits of what is just.”

“Some have not feared to assert,” he continued, “that a people can never outstep the boundaries of justice and reason in those affairs which are peculiarly its own; and that consequently full power may be given to the majority by which they are represented. But this is the language of a slave.” He ended this section with the forceful statement: “The power to do everything, which I should refuse to one of my equals, I will never grant to any number of them.”

Vox populi, vox diaboli.

Later in his prescient analysis of the future of egalitarian democracy, this most observant Norman Catholic concluded, with some trepidation, “For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire political freedom. And I am inclined to think that, if faith be wanting in him, he must be subject; and if he be free, he must believe.”

Prescinding from the inescapable, if not exclusive, public meaning of man in Tocqueville’s warning, we have reduced faith to a private function, where it rapidly devolves into a matter of individual taste and politically irrelevant sectarian conventicles. Those who have been cowed into believing that this schizoid stance reflects their opposition to discrimination are really indiscriminately opposed to any public order based on belief, whether belief based on revelation or nature or anything beyond number-counting. They are faithless in politics and thus subjects; they are free as individuals but believing in nothing more substantial than their objectless believing. Belief ceases to have any public function and splits into millions of idiosyncratic dispensations, none of which has any significant public practice, and each of which can be played off against others by the Great Leviathan to “insure domestic tranquility.”

The public relevance of religious belief, however, as Tocqueville saw, is necessary to any order of domestic tranquility other than a totalitarian one. In the long run, most individuals will find the maintenance of personal belief unbearable (as Dostoyevsky pointed out a generation or so later in his parable of “The Grand Inquisitor”) and will gladly turn that function over to the state-as-church. Hence the public school, providing stated dogma and approved discipline to the children of the faithless.

Tocqueville warned that “general ideas respecting God and human nature are…the ideas above all others which it is most suitable to withdraw from the habitual action of private judgment, and in which there is most to gain and least to lose by recognizing a principle of authority” (emphasis added). The current political struggle in the U.S. is between growing state totalitarianism and a limited political order. The prime issue is who shall have the last say about the nature of nature, and particularly the nature of human nature, about “general ideas respecting God and human nature.” The public school is the civil seminary of the omnicompetent state; the church, on the other hand, is the facilitator of government limited by extra-political factors. “Two there are…” in the old Gelasian formula. It is good to be “at two” in a world of power, for, as Lord Acton classically noted, “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Yet on we move, downward and to the totalitarian Left. Commenting on the tendency of democratic governments to centralization and despotism, Tocqueville wrote that “no sovereign ever lived in former ages so absolute as to undertake to administer by his own agency, and without the assistance of intermediate powers, all the parts of a great empire: none ever attempted to subject all his subjects to strict conformity of regulation and personally to tutor and direct every member of the community. The notion of such an undertaking never occurred to the human mind.”

That is, until Obama, and federally mandated potty-training.

This proto-totalitarian process of discrimination in the name of anti-discrimination proceeds under the smoky aegis of equality. “I believe,” Tocqueville wrote, “that it is easier to establish an absolute despotic government amongst a people in which the conditions of society are equal, than amongst any other; and I think that if such a government were once established amongst such a people, it would not only oppress men, but would eventually strip each of them of several of the highest qualities of humanity. Despotism, therefore, appears to me peculiarly to be dreaded in democratic times.” For “in ages of equality, every man naturally stands alone.”

In classic political terms, he who stands alone is an “idiot.” You tame idiots the way you tame wild animals: from infancy up. Hence again, state-run public schools.


Faith or belief as restricted privately, to or in oneself and one’s coterie, has more accurate descriptors than the shibboleth of “freedom of religion.” Pride. Self-esteem. Egotism. Narcissism. Conceit. The point of Tocqueville’s distinction and conjunction might be quite other than that of our feckless politicians, personally opposed but publicly acquiescent to naturally divisive issues proposed and supported by those self-styled progressives whose “progress” leads inevitably to Camp Siberia (to use a figure from Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip). When faith is restricted to “personal” matters, it becomes socially retrograde and politically irrelevant, the possession of civil idiots.

Tocqueville spoke of man, the public creature, not some nook-and-cranny individual or conventicle of individuals whom the public order would permit to indulge in various forms of privately revealed gnostic silliness or libidinously impelled sexual fantasies. Those “personally opposed” but publicly compliant on basic matters such as the structure and function of human sexuality, and those trying to make unsupportable assertions distinguishing human nature from personhood (directly echoing arguments over slavery 170 years ago), at either end of life, put ethical behavior up for grabs. This schizoid style, however rooted in the American experience, exaggerates our divisiveness, secularizes the once semi-enchanted public places, and turns great traditional interpretations of what it is to be human into public irrelevancies. “Free to believe” comes to mean “license to dork around,” so long as what it leads to does not seriously obstruct the road to Camp Siberia, where there will be barracks for dorking, facilitated by soma and Malthusian drill.

There seems to be no way around the fact that being “publicly compliant” entails private complicity, whatever the moral limits of that complicity might be. Where does man’s ultimate allegiance lie? To man and his nature as given, or to the state and its nature as experienced? To the stated self, or to purposive public action transcending self and state? And who sets the purposes? What can the state offer us beyond Bokanovsky’s Process, soma, Malthusian drill, and interminable work? We shall all be workers — including “sex workers” — in a workers’ paradise. Yet we certainly should know by now that Arbeit macht nicht frei (work does not set you free), and that Bokanovsky and soma at least have as their basic default position lebens unwürdig lebens (life unworthy of life). Malthus is another matter.

Is it even conceivable anymore to think, let alone say, Dies homini non desideravi(“I have not desired the day of man,” Jer. 17:16)? It would be preposterous to expect the state to propose this. Perhaps, though, if this attitude is not maintained by society, we are already in a totalitarian democracy, the “domestic tranquility” of which can be sporadically challenged only by partisan appeals to the barricades.

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