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A Spiritually Decapitated U.S.?

A Spiritually Decapitated U.S.?

Staat und Gesellschaft in Amerika. Char­lotte Lütkens. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1929. Review originally published 1930.


[In a] sociological study of America of the rank of Charlotte Lütken’s book . . . . the essential elements, which then are pieced together in a picture of American society, are considered with great knowledge and extraordinary delicacy, such as is to be acquired only after a period of many years spent in America. This society, so en­tirely different from European ones, is richly endowed with technol­ogy, and compared to Europe achieves very high levels of production. Superficial observers could draw from this the conclusion that, as a social body, America is ahead of, or superior to, Europe in terms of development. Lütkens rejects this conclusion because a high level of economic development is only an external characteristic of a society that is entirely different from European ones. With this picture, I can find little to disagree because my own investigations, to the extent that they deal with the same subject matter as is treated by Lütkens (as she herself emphasizes), come to the same conclusions. . . .

In Europe, the liberal idea was the political theory of the bourgeoisie in its struggle against a declining abso­lute monarchy, but in America, the frontier was a real form of life that, with advancing capitalistic organization and loss of economic independence of the individual, sublimated the ideal into theory. If I were to mark the decisive difference of American society from European in positive terms, I would highlight, not the capitalist stage of development, but the fact that the immigrant class, which has been decisive for American social structure, comes from the petit-bourgeois and agricultural classes of their homelands and has been able to make its own petit-bourgeois spiritual constitution into the sole reigning social constitution.

In America, we face a phenomenon that is unique for sociologists, that of a spiritually decapitated soci­ety (such a thing has existed at no stage of European capitalism!), a society belonging to the middle class according to its spiritual type, but belonging to the fully developed European societies according to its technical and scientific sophistication. Crudely put, the Ameri­can situation is that of a petit-bourgeois society messing about with a rational apparatus without spiritual supervision. In general, it works well enough, so long as the advantage of natural conditions allows no socially dangerous dissatisfaction to arise. The claim that there are no estates bound by tradition should be modified to the statement that there are not several such estates. The overwhelming majority of the society belongs, according to its spiritual habitus, to a single petit-bourgeois class that extends from Rockefeller and “Baptists in the oil business,” down to the last salaried employee. This class as a whole, however, is bound firmly by the tradition of its very narrow horizon. Beside the “dynamism” and “freedom” of money-making stands what the European perceives as an inconceivably brutal social terror of the bigoted petit-bourgeoisie unafflicted by doubts in spiritual matters.

All these features are intensified by the rule of women, which is correctly put on the same level as the other essential features by Lütkens. However, she expresses herself with too much circumspection, I believe, when she asks whether aban­doning the cultural sphere to women “leads to the far too summary, optimistic, and trusting treatment of public and cultural problems.” Liitkens adds that this “can only remain a tentative question.” In fact one can pose this question very energetically and offer a com­pletely clear answer. Indeed this question is often discussed and answered as follows, that the American gynocracy is the decisive obstacle to the spiritual development of that society, and that the hundreds of thousands of female teachers in the colleges and high schools have permanently broken and turned off the spiritual live­liness and restlessness of young people before they had a chance to develop. A class of spiritually responsible humans rising above the petit-bourgeois level can develop only in opposition to the rule of women, and will have as its precondition the destruction of it.

Here lie the socially determinative features that are indeed treated properly by Lütkens but are somewhat displaced from their central position by the methodological starting point of formal economic relations. This critique is not meant to dismiss the book, but rather to raise a question with regard to methodological principles that seek to capture the essence of a society by way of its economy. In fact the economic sphere, as Lütkens herself also emphasizes, is peripheral compared to the spiritual determinants of society. In penetrating to the essentials, the interpretation of a society cannot move outward from the ambiguous markers of class (that, as with the economy it­self, can be externally similar among fundamentally different social structures). It must instead interpret from the unambiguous spiritual givens (as they are to be found in metaphysical and political theory) outward to the periphery, and clarify the unclear in this way. That is also the standpoint of Lütkens: thus throughout the entire book does she interpret correctly on the basis of an immediate understanding of the atmosphere of American life. The methodological shortcomings of the thesis and the economic determination of the book are so detached from its insights that they do not diminish the value of the work.     


This excerpt is from Selected Book Reviews (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 13) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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