After Liberalism

Elijah Mvundura September/October 2018

“The end of liberalism is in sight,” writes Patrick J. Deneen, a Notre Dame political scientist, in his widely acclaimed new book, Why Liberalism Failed.”1And this may lead “either to liberalocratic despotism or the rigid and potentially cruel authoritarian regime.” This dire prediction recalls Martin Heidegger’s Der Spiegel 1966 interview, published after his death in 1976, in which, reflecting on the “crisis of modernity” and philosophy’s inability to solve the crisis, he said in despair, “Only a god can still save us,” and added, “I think the possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god.”2

Heidegger comes to mind because his radical critique of modernity mirrors Deneen’s radical critique of liberalism (“liberalism” here understood in the nineteenth-century sense, not the left-liberal American sense). To be sure, “radical critique” goes back to the nineteenth century, when the “crisis of modernity” first became salient in the wake of the great political, social, and economic transformations and dislocations wrought by the scientific, Industrial and French revolutions.

Stirred by these transformations (“great events of the age,” in Shelley’s words), major nineteenth-century thinkers and artists “conceived themselves as elected spokesmen for the Western tradition at a time of profound cultural crisis.” They called themselves “philosopher-seers” or “poet-prophets.”3 These biblical allusions weren’t merely rhetorical. Nineteenth-century ideologies and aesthetic projects were shaped by biblical prophecy, particularly “in England and Germany, two great Protestant nations with a history of theological and political radicalism.”4

In fact, the French Revolution’s “violent uprooting of European political and social institutions forced many to the conclusion that the end of the world was near,” and this stimulated an interest in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation and the millennium.5 All nineteenth-century ideologies and movements—Romanticism, nationalism, liberalism, positivism, utilitarianism, Hegelianism, German idealism, Marxism, Darwinism, neoclassical economics—were hatched in a milieu animated by apocalyptic fears and millenarian hopes.

That’s why they secularized Christian eschatological motifs, as Karl Löwith showed in Meaning in History and Klaus Vondung in The Apocalypse in Germany. And according to Michael Allen Gillespie in The Theological Origins of Modernity, they transferred to nature, science, humans, and other entities attributes and essential powers previously ascribed to God. Thus “concealed theological assumptions” underlie modernity.6 And “the attempt to read them out of modernity has in fact blinded us to their continuing importance in modern thought in ways that make it very difficult to come to terms with our current situation,” says Gillespie.7

Indeed, it’s very difficult, because our understanding of modernity, liberalism, science, and other aspects that constitute the world we live in was shaped by thinkers who in their “radical critique” of the Ancien Régime “concealed” the theological origins of modernity. I am speaking here of the French philosophes,who “credited the venerable English trinity, Bacon, Locke, and Newton, with the ideas that inspired their own Enlightenment,”8 yet deviously uprooted their thought from its biblical-apocalyptic moorings.

Voltaire, for example, dismissed Newton’s prophetic apocalyptic studies as “merely a hobby, something he played with for relaxation.”9 This enabled him to detach God from Newton’s mechanical universe and produce deism. Similarly, in An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations he shifted European history into a secular framework, so that “the leading principle was no longer the will of God and divine providence but the will of man and human reason.”10 Exclusion of God from nature and history was systemized into materialism by Diderot, d’Alembert, d’Holbach, and into pantheism by Spinoza, Romantics, and German idealists. Tellingly, “self” became the leitmotif of nineteenth-century ideologies and systems: “self-formation” (Bildung), “self-conscious Geist” (Hegel), “self-directing history” (Marx), “self-regulating market” (neoclassical economics), “self-ordering society” (liberalism), “self-originating nature” (Darwin).

This shift of the center of reality from God to self, represented in Eric Voegelin’s “the egophanic revolt”11 or “the metaphysical rebellion,”12 as Albert Camus called it. Behind it was the cult of genius, by which “bourgeois intellectuals created new roles for themselves as they declared their independence” “and claimed the right to reform society according to their own lights.”13 This entailed denying God any role in human affairs. Indeed, genius-artists were defined by qualities formerly reserved for God. As said, they “could create ex nihilo, out of nothing, as God had supposedly done.”14 And create they did. For all our cultural axioms are nineteenth-century artifacts.

Unlike God, however, they did not create ex nihilo. Like the eighteenth-century philosophes, who “demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials,”15nineteenth-century thinkers and artists secularized Christian doctrines, mixing them with classical, hermetic, and occult elements to produce new combinations. Hegel is a case in point. This continued dependence on Christian doctrines brings us to Nietzsche, the self-described antichrist and disciple of Dionysus, the Greek god of madness and formlessness.

Nietzsche’s historic importance is in unmasking the Enlightenment hypocrisy or dishonesty of rejecting Christianity while retaining its moral and humanitarian values. He called for radical honesty. Christianity must be rejected in toto, including values derived from it: equality and democracy. “Christianity made natural,” because they had destroyed the “aristocratic ideal” and produced cultural degeneracy.16 For Nietzsche, only the recovery of archaic Greek Dionysian religion could revitalize European culture. The choice, as he starkly put it, is “Dionysus against the Crucified.”17 Thus he replaced Christ’s second coming with the doctrine of eternal recurrence. Still he was unable to escape the eschatological horizon opened by the Crucified. In speaking of the god who is coming (Dionysus), Nietzsche aped the messianic vision.

This Dionysian messianism, which Heidegger adopted, is the clue to his cryptic remark that “only a god can save us.” All of Heidegger’s work is pervaded by a sense of deep cultural crisis so pervasive that it would destroy modernity and open up a new epoch. If this sounds apocalyptic, it’s because Heidegger too was unable to escape its horizon. Indeed, like the Apocalypse, he believed that history is under, not human control, but impersonal forces. Or, as his French acolytes argued, it’s under linguistic, symbolic, political, ideological, gender, and logocentric structures, which assume a monstrous life of their own.

That is why “radical critique” since the nineteenth-century dismissed freedoms in liberal democracy as false or illusory and sought their destruction so as to disclose “authentic” freedom. For “radical critique,” religion or Christianity is the oppressor, “the opium of the people,” as Marx famously put it. Or, as Heidegger explained: “Since the beginning of and throughout the modern age it [Christianity] has continued to be that against whichthe new freedom . . . must be distinguished.”18

Christianity as the antithesis of the modern freedom; or, in Voltaire’s words,the “infamy” opposed to reason and science. But it’s misleading. In fact, it’s false. For it doesn’t make the crucial distinction between the different influences of Catholicism and Protestantism on modernity. As it is, it’s the Catholic Church that condemned Galileo and supported the reactionary forces aiming to restore the Old Regime. It’s the pope who, in the Syllabus of Errors, refused “to reconcile himself

. . . with progress, with liberalism and modern civilization.”19 This intransigency is what made French intellectuals radical, anticlerical, and virulently antichristian, thwarting the growth of liberal democracy in France. As Quinet succinctly put it in the nineteenth century: “Catholicism being the national religion, how can modern liberty be built up on a religious principle that denies it? That is the crux of our history for the last sixty years.”20

As for Protestantism, while Luther and Calvin, like the Catholic Church, rejected Copernicanism and did not champion modernity, their theological anthropology, doctrine of sola scriptura, and inviolability of the individual conscience, made religious and intellectual uniformity impossible, thus aiding modern freedoms. Indeed, Protestant sectarianism, the multiplicity of opinions it engendered, coupled with the experience of religious wars, made such English thinkers as Hobbes and Locke establish politics on new foundations. And their philosophical prescriptions were rooted in the theology of Luther and Calvin.

As we know, half of Hobbes’s Leviathan deals with the “Christian Commonwealth” and the “Kingdom of Darkness.” In both, his argument is Calvinist and eschatological. “He insists unremittingly on the literal and physical nature of Christ’s return, the literal, physical, and political character of his kingdom after the resurrection of the saints.”21 His thrust was to discredit the theocratic claims of both the Catholic Church and Puritan sects. For him, the state is a human artifice, based on a “social contract,” because the divine kingdom is in the future. But before eschaton the all-powerful state—Leviathan, “King of all the children of pride”22—is necessary to restrain the libido dominandi of the proud or vainglorious.

In placing “limits on government” and insisting on the “limits of human understanding,” Locke was also informed by the same goal to restrain pride. Indeed, all major early modern English thinkers, including the American Founders, had a deep aversion to pride based on the theological anthropology of Luther and Calvin, which blamed the Fall on pride, on the desire to become God. As Francis Fukuyama acutely noted: “The Anglo-Saxon tradition of liberalism takes its decisive turn in the relative moral weight assigned to the passions of pride or vanity,” which it deplored as “the source of all violence and human misery.”23

The continental tradition, on the other hand, took its decisive turn in the primacy it assigned to reason. Inspired by Thomist optimism about human nature, Descartes saw no limits to human knowledge. And the result was a heaven-storming pride that literally reenacted the Fall. Replying to Christina of Sweden on what was the “supreme good,” Descartes wrote, “Freewill is in itself the noblest thing we can have because it makes us in a certain manner equal to God and exempts us from being his subjects; and its rightful use is the greatest of all the goods we possess.”24 Just as Descartes advised, the “rightful use” of free willspawned a self-deifying rationalism. Ascarlet thread runs from the Cartesian ego, through Fichte, Romantics, Hegel, to Nietzsche’s “will to power,” as Gillespie showed in his pathbreaking book Nihilism Before Nietzsche.

The “will to power” culminated in the “murder of God.” As Nietzsche himself put it: “Whither is God?” . . . I will tell you. Wehave killed him.25 Of course, God cannot be killed. But His “murder,” accomplished philosophically, was necessary for the fabrication of the secular religionsthat paved way for the man-gods—the Stalins and the Hitlers. Curiously, Communism and fascism as religions, and Stalin and Hitler as man-gods, is not central to our understanding of these ideologies. Yet Nietzsche, like the Romantics and other nineteenth-century thinkers, explicitly stated his desire to be god and create new religions or myths. As he put it, after “we have killed him [God],” “what festivals of atonement, what sacred games, shall we need to invent? . . . Must we ourselves not become gods?”26 And Jean-Paul Sartre admiringly described “the project of being God . . . as the deep-seated structure of human reality.”27 Similarly, Heidegger, the avatar of postmodernism, “interpreted monotheism as a monopolistic claim on the divine.”28

To put it differently, for Heidegger, divinity must to be democratized. We must all become gods. When in the late nineteenth century Nietzsche’s madman announced these news, his listeners fell “silent and stared at him in astonishment,” forcing him to retreat: “I have come too early.” The news of deification “has not yet reached the ears of men,” he said.29 However, thanks to Heidegger’s formidable interpretation of Nietzsche, the demonic tidings of human divinity spread from Germany to France and from there to the United States. Through the dominance of American universities and culture, the tidings are now a global phenomenon, as evidenced by the radical individualism or narcissism that defines our times.

The globalization of the desire to be God, strikingly reenacting the Fall, is perhaps the clearest proof, if proof was needed, of the existence of “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Indeed, the popular “scientific” claim that the Bible is a myth, when its authenticity is universally demonstrated by the rebellion against God and diabolical crimes, can be explained only in terms of demonic mendacity. As it is, blindness to demonic mendacity goes to the heart of failure of liberalism, as Dostoevsky powerfully dramatized in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

If ideologically liberalism reflects the deep-seated human longing for freedom, Dostoevsky’s insight was that unlimited freedom ends in unlimited despotism. In Demons he depicted this perversion of freedom into its opposite in terms of demonic possession. And in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” it’s the devil himself behind the Grand Inquisitor. He bides his time, waits for liberalism—unlimited freedom to descend into license, unbridled egoism, and sensuality—causing moral and social anarchy, so extreme and horrific that Dostoevsky describes it as “cannibalism,” a Hobbesian war of all against all. Peace comes when the emaciated survivors crawl to the Grand Inquisitor and cry: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we have come back to you, save us from ourselves!”30

Fanciful? Civilizations do collapse. It’s the pope, we must recall, who saved the West after the collapse of the Roman Empire and was its spiritual leader until the Protestant Reformation. And reason, the new leader fabricated by the Enlightenment, failed to check the demons. After they nearly destroyed Europe in the Second World War, leadership fell on America, which bought them off materially. Now, with Pax Americana unraveling, they are resurgent. Can they be checked? This is the central question of our times.

If liberalism collapses, what comes after? In a chilling prediction, Dostoevsky, who accurately predicted the deformations of the Russian revolutions, has the devil himself, tracing the heaven-storming trajectory of continental philosophy, say, in the end, “man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear.”31 To put it directly, after liberalism—comes the antichrist.

1Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University press, 2018), p. 182.

2Martin Heidegger, in

3M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1971), p. 12.


5Ernest R. Sandeen, Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 5.

6Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 274.

7Ibid., p. xii.

8Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 5.

9Voltaire, in Arthur H. Williamson: Apocalypse Then: Prophecy and the Making of the Modern World (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008), p. 235.

10Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 1.

11Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume Four: The Ecumenic Age (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), pp. 260-266.

12Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (New York: Vintage Books, 1956).

13Carl Pletsch, Young Nietzsche: Becoming a Genius (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 2.

14Ibid., p. 6.

15Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932), p. 31.

16Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufman and R. J Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 125.

17Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 104.

18Martin Heidegger, in Brian D. Ingraffia, Postmodern Theory and Biblical Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 3.

19Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the NineteenthCentury (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 111.

20Edgar Quinet, in Roger H. Soltau, French Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Russel & Russel, 1959), p. xxviii.

21J.G.A. Pocock, Politics, Language, and Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 174.

22Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962).

23Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), pp. 155, 156.

24Rene Descartes, Philosophical Letters, trans. Anthony Kenny (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1970), p. 228.

25Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), p. 181.


27Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), p. 742.

28Rene Girard, “Dionysus Versus the Crucified,” Modern Language Notes 99, no. 4, French Issue (September 1984): 817.

29Nietzsche, Gay Science, p. 182.

30Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), p. 239.

31Ibid., p. 590.

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.