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Loss of Meaning, Loss of Aims: Necessity, Leadership, and Lurking Totalitarianism in Western Culture

The criticism of European modernity and its intellectual developments have long been haunting the Western intellect. Perhaps the first most vigilant observer of encroaching modernity was Pascal, but the most radical and most comprehensive doubt concerning modernity was developed by Nietzsche. He was neither an ideologist, or a social scientist, therefore he still can embody a revolt against modernity even today. But the question is what we can do if we accept either his or other anti-modernists or anti-ideologists’ ideas. We have a rich American genuine conservative pool of ideas, and we have a much less canonized series of European sporadic outbursts of conservative-leaning thinkers like Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spengler, Ortega y Gasset and even Heidegger. None of them was an ideologist but each was a philosopher of the most superb brand adhering to reality. As a result we have a great treasury of critical ideas of modernity, thus giving way to political philosophers like Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss to create a complete works of their own. They, and some other philosophers, all recognized the major issue of the modern West: Why is there growing awareness that the modern Western life has lost its meaning, and therefore its aims?

A culture without meaning is like an empty space without structure. Yet, despite this nihilistic allusion, I wish to make a case for community, as the source of meaning and ultimately that of human aims. It is the only way how reality can be saved against a virtual world, which is more and more dominated by a technologically driven development, for the benefit of a fragile being, i.e. man. Ideologies, daydreaming and fantasy do not help, only misdirect the soul that is thirsty for making one’s existence worth living. Without this, how can one say anything to his or her children? Philosophy has always meant to cement the political community in European culture, but when philosophy is neglected as in late modernity, community as such is also subject of disparagement. Political philosophy is for assisting man to create his community, as the only rational and realistic way of organizing a political community. The ever-deepening understanding of reality is the only means to find a balance between man’s individual propensity and his communal existence by nature.

Basic Issues

We all know that we, human beings are communal beings. The idea of ’communitas’ is as relevant as any other trivial concepts that have been bracketed in our public talk in recent times. But the idea of communitas or community is of a little more import compared to any other ones that are focused on the ills of our age. A few years ago the most dedicated conservative thinker, Roger Scruton, put the question to a select group of conservatives at a meeting:[1] Which would you choose from the French triad of “Freedom, equality and fraternity?” His answer was “fraternity”. He must have indicated to all of us that man’s sense of belonging based on man’s natural and unchangeable status is the number one need man has and will ever have. Man is a communal or social being – this is the first and axiomatic quality of human beings.

But before turning completely to metaphysical issues, let me quote Yael Tamir’s idea described in her book entitled ‘Why nationalism?” She writes: “Throughout the book I argue that the malaise of our age, call it alienation, individualism, the Me decade, loneliness, ‘bawling alone’, is a result of the hollowing of the political community and the weakening of the state. The liberal preference for universal values meant that liberalism nurtured a concept of the person as liberated from all particular relationships, memberships, or identities.”[2]

The two statements on “fraternity” and the “hollowing of the political community” is a key to what I wish to write about in my essay. Both Scruton and Tamir had strong arguments in favor of the nation and the nation-state which can only have meaning if human life has a meaning. Deep down of the issue of communitas we are confronted with the fundamental issue of why modern man has lost meaning of life, or more generally, the purpose of life. The answer is hidden by the crisis of the communitas of European life. It is hidden because all modern ideologies, especially the communist and the liberal, have also suggested forms of lively communal life that they offer to the people. The communists believe that “collectives”, which are nothing else than the lengthening of the state’s interests, can provide the qualities which are indispensable for men to live a worthy life. Liberals also offer a lifestyle based on the idea of community, and it is called civil society, but what they actually recommend is the maximization of the individual interests and desires through ephemeral forms of community life. If you can find similar individuals and you form a group to further your cause, then you are immediately part of a community, let alone the virtual ones which are the caricatures of the idea of community. But it is certainly not, because such groupings do not have a spiritual bond, something that points towards something outside or higher than the participant individuals involved.

What is more, it is reasonable to raise the question as to whether the massive and long criticism of modernity beginning in the 19th century has had any remarkable achievements—if what Schopenhauer, Nietzsche or later Heidegger, let alone other important authors, said would yield any juicy fruits for us as modest observers of modernity. The major danger of being a conservative is to forget about man’s primary need which is hope and direction to future life even beyond one’s personal earthly existence. Conservatives of the modern age have already produced enough reasons to point out persuasively that modern Western culture and life have lost its aims. It is an interesting attempt to draw a parallel between Leo Strauss and Benedict XVI on the basis of the crisis of Western culture just showing that this crisis is profoundly tied to the loss of aims: „both Strauss and Benedict maintain that the West is in crisis, and they generally agree on the nature of that crisis. For Strauss, “the crisis of the West” is the result of a “rationalistic culture” (by which Strauss means “modern culture”) that has lost “its faith in reason’s ability to validate its highest aims.” This loss is exemplified in the two most influential modern intellectual movements of our time, positivism and historicism”.[3] Indeed, if the West lost its aims, what is left for us? What can we do without simply complaining about our meager conditions or plight while living in the most affluent societies ever?

Political Frameworks

A conservative-minded understanding, by its very nature, is destined to measure up the contemporary actual conditions of man’s common life. Otherwise, conservatism would not have any meaning. It has always been a reaction to the latest and most powerful developments of our common existence. It is a frequent appeal and constant seduction for conservatives to fall into the trap of modern ideologies which it must avoid. I also wish to avoid falling into this trap by focusing on the particular or the things themselves. Accordingly, I want to illuminate the meaning of the concepts I indicated in the subtitle of my essay on the recurring issue of modernity and its conservative trail. It is an unavoidable step because these concepts might elicit familiar associations but I wish to disappoint anyone who is unwittingly concerned with the mainly snobbish rhetoric of the day.

By necessity I mean the ever-present condition of our living, i.e. we are compelled to satisfy our needs that appear in various forms – natural, social, intellectual or emotional. By leadership I mean to say that any human community is subordinated to a natural need which arises from the fact that all human communities consist of individuals with diverse backgrounds thus arranged in a hierarchy. By nature things are arranged in an echelon of hierarchies. The young will have different expectations than the old, a woman has a different attitude towards life than a man does, despite today’s fashionable voices. Things develop then decline – no escape from under this law of nature, unless we believe that man can really become the creator of things which are exempt from under the law of nature. The idea of modern law as such suggests that at least the differences between human beings can be leveled, and equality can be established by human law and political means among men. Are they right, and if not, why not? Today, modern man believes that his needs are to be met by claiming or giving rights to the “needy,” not by nature and not by law, or not even by a particular institution. A comprehensive system of rights can only satisfy anyone’s needs or necessities if they are clearly and rationally justified, and the foundation of justification is given. It is never enough to claim that someone is “needy”, unless we wish to end up with the tyranny of the individual.

By lurking totalitarianism I do not wish to convey the idea of the good old conception of fascist or communist totalitarianism. Instead I suggest that modernity as such cherishes the tendency of totalitarian power which basically means that even if the freedom of the individual is voiced, the growing dominance of modern technological development smashes the traditional standards of human living including freedom. Modernity, of which communism was a perverse outcome, tends to totalize life along the internal logic and conditions of modern life and intellectual tendencies. A symptom of it is the shrinking of private life, if it is not an illusion already, even it has got a name: “surveillance capitalism”. We all have been under scrutiny by eyes whose intentions are unknown. Private life as the last safeguard of one’s freedom must be urgently reconsidered. Once I start complaining that a deadly virus is threatening, at that very moment I offer my private life as subordinated to the public judgment if my life is to be saved or not. The internal logic of modern technology is to deprive all of us of our natural freedom claiming that political rights are the only means of creating real liberty – this is a point which must be handled carefully if we take the idea of communitas seriously from a non-modern liberal point of view. Ancient conceptions of freedom focused on the self-restriction of the individual, whereas the modern thinker regards man as the victim of political authority; thus modern progressives believe that the safeguard of modern liberty is political rights and beyond. Thus the modern individual is equipped with political rights but is left on its own to decide what is good and bad, there is no communal wisdom behind his or her choice. Individual judgment of what is, and what should be done is a matter of fact from the individual point of view, but the bad news is that most individuals have nothing to say about this fundamental question.

The recent resurgence of the conception of totalitarianism has at least two sources. The one is philosophical, the other is political. The philosophical is rooted in Heidegger’s idea on technology which has come to dominate Western thought, and underlies modern man’s highest aspiration to conquer nature. Thus humanity has reduced its aspirations to one aspect, i.e. conquering nature by technological development. The political dimension can be demonstrated by various recent attempts to point out the essential common roots of both communism and liberal democracy. Ryszard Legutko, for instance, enlists the similar features between communism and liberal democracy.[4] His central argument is based on the observation that both systems have similar objectives, only methods differ. This is an insight already put forward by Leo Strauss, too, several decades ago.[5]

Tradition and Power

We need first to clarify the relationship between community and authority. There is not a single community without some sort of a leadership. Each community, by necessity, has to have a structure of decision-making. It is a false idea of some modern enlightenment thought that every single individual is capable of self-government. Even if it is true, a community of a certain number of individuals needs to have a channel or means how to reconcile the different opinions of the individuals on any particular issue. Finally someone must have the right to make the decision. This right rests on two elements: first, on an institutionalized or procedural way of the selection of the leader or leaders, and the authority of the selected leaders. The first is called legitimacy, and the second is usually applied in terms of moral concepts. An authority should possess features of morality, in the case of political leadership these qualities are related to greatness. The interplay of legitimacy and authority can produce a good government, however, either of the two missing would most likely produce a bad government. But the essence of authority is that is the cement of the community.

In modernity after the introduction of written constitutions and the conception of universal human rights, all authority came to be suspicious, because individual reason and judgment took the upper hand of any other forms of knowledge, let alone wisdom. A leader or a board of leaders must be put under appropriate control of the institutionalized part of power. It implies that authority as such is suspicious, and its role must be minimized. Modern progressive mind introduced the term of ‘authoritarianism’ which reeks of ideological bias, from scratch. Going back to either the arguments of the Burke-Paine debate in the late 18th century, or to J. S. Mill’s minute criticism of the moral conclusions of natural right and religious teachings, we immediately perceive why modern progressives are inimical to both power, i.e. leadership, and authority as the outcomes of a moral order depending dismissing both revelation and classical rationalism in favor of a human rationality relying exclusively on itself. Tradition was slowly also degraded, and today it is more like an impediment to progress than a helper of it. Power as such is bad, because it harbors inequality among men, and leadership based on authority is against the individual assessment of how a community should be led. According to the most radical progressive views we could dispense with any communal power, provided every single individual is left to his or her own in an unhindered context. The moment modern liberalism has vested all final judgments in individual decisions, any central decision-making became something to be replaced after a while. The concept of authoritarian government has been used by the liberal progressives referring to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. After the collapse of these regimes, the progressives have preserved their reservations against all authorities, i.e. all power structure with the exception of their own, thus everything is labeled authoritarian by them that has a commanding force beyond individual reason. Thus the concept of freedom may have changed its hierarchy. According to the old concept of freedom the following hierarchy evolves: self-control, obligation, self-preservation, civil rights. According to the modern hierarchy of the values of freedom is inalienable civil rights, self-preservation, obligation and self-control. Comparing the two hierarchies, we can discern that whichever one accepts, he or she would take the context of hierarchy for granted.

This is why, for instance, tradition is also a burden. “What is tradition?” – asks Nietzsche, and he responds: “A higher authority, which is obeyed, not because it commands what is useful to us, but merely because it commands.”[6] Nietzsche’s point is crystal clear when he points out that a true authority ‘commands’. But commanding is something that is the arch enemy of the modern progressive thought and practice. Anything beyond the individual judgment has to be disposed of. In a more profound aspect, the long but steady changing of the meaning of the Law ultimately led to the complete reassessment of any human laws, rules and manners. Tradition must be annulled or simply regarded as antiquarian. Ever since ‘authority’ obtained a negative meaning, leadership as such also lost its positive taste or flavor. But no community can thrive without authority and leaders. If the issue boils down to the question who should rule, as it is the case, then the liberal progressives are not only wrong but cynical as well. Power is immediately good when it is seized by them, and wrong when it is taken by any other claimants. The same applies to authority: if authority is the moral glue to power, then any honest or decent man can rightly claim power – and ideologies should not have any say in the procedure of the race for power. Cynicism is, however, a precondition of modern wielding of power. It is connected to the democratic way of managing modern public life. Since modern authority is based on popular votes, every public agent is confined to seeking majority support whatever truth is about.

Loss of Meaning

The main question is why modern man in Europe and America has lost the meaning of life and consequently the goals of life. As the outcome of a long and gradual process, the modern way of life has become devoid of meaning. It was observed, scrutinized by several minds of European culture beginning with Pascal, then carried on by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger. This is the line of philosophers who most profoundly reflected on their age keeping a distance, to say the least, from the Enlightenment, and the problem of what can ultimately be called nihilism. It is not a mood or emotional attitude, but the description how radically we have lost vital needs of human existence including faith, commitment, and loyalty to any community. Cynicism and nihilism are the sure signs of the loss of meaning and aims of life. Modern man has become isolated and reduced to a particular aspect of knowledge which is a combination of modern science and technology deliberately deprived of both transcendental and moral justification. “Neutral” or “value-free” science simply means that knowledge is to be constructed by the dismissal of transcendental, metaphysical and moral aspects. Thus modern knowledge is neither good or bad without definition. Therefore the basics of modern knowledge is not self-evidently good. Ironically the modern “advancement of learning”, i.e. knowledge questions the goodness of knowledge per se.

Modern way of life is mostly preoccupied with man’s economic welfare. As if it were the clue to peace and social cohesion. Especially after WWII the West and its rival, the communist empire competed for the recognition which can provide “higher standards of living”. The West or the free market (capitalist) conception finally obtained the gold medal. Not denying the importance of economic welfare, it is relevant to ask if the comprehensive or covering issues are economic in nature, is it really true that the main standard of a good life is economic of some sort?

One of the most important features of Pascal’s Pensées is the complete absence of the issue of economism from his paragraphs. He wanted to cover the whole of man’s existence, but economic issues were not included in his account. This cannot be a mere error or sign of narrow-mindedness. Not at all, it was Pascal who was fully cognizant of the implications of the world he lived in, and the simmering new represented by Descartes. But Pascal had a very strong emphasis on the nature of philosophy or thinking in general: skepticism cannot be for its own sake, because it is to help the individual to find a way to faith. He may have thought that faith and reason can be and must be reconciled. But Pascal was neither an ideologist, nor a dogmatic thinker. Just the other way round, he shared the view that love of wisdom needs to prefer questions to answers. Not the solution but the seeking of truth is the highest and most human approach to one’s own existence.

It was not a chance that Nietzsche, who unambiguously sought God and detected decadence in our culture, wrote very positively about Pascal. And Heidegger extensively studied Nietzsche’s works during the 1930s and 40s and happened to say that “Nietzsche hat mich kaputt gemacht”, by which he probably meant that it was a real challenge to understand what Nietzsche had had to say. But it is a shared view that there are a few points or ideas that Heidegger endorsed in Nietzsche’s works. The first is the end of metaphysics, secondly, “Nietzsche, or, rather, Nietzsche in conjunction with Hölderlin, was for the Heidegger of the mid-1930s and 1940s the guide to a deeper conception of what it means to be German.”[7] and thirdly, the concern with historical understanding and its connection with the present. Heidegger wrote: „Nietzsche is that thinker who thinks what is now”[8], thus expressing his profound concern with modernity.

This is where Kierkegaard’s short lecture on the modern age also comes to the fore. Kierkegaard called his age “passionless” in sharp contrast to passionate ages:

“a passionate age pushes forward, establishing new things and destroying others, raising and tearing down, a reflective, passionless age does the opposite, it stifles and hinders, it levels. This leveling is a silent, mathematical, abstract process which avoids upheavals. Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear      one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.”[9]

Kierkegaard observed that his age is directed towards a virtual world in which the average is the key, the public is just an abstraction, the media is everything (!), but action and passion are missing. Modern life is based on formalities rather than inherited forms of existence. He also recognized that the cult of the individual, which is a possible way for the modern man, deprives man’s existence of meaning.

It is just to cite Hubert L. Dreyfus’s piece titled ‘Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics’, which summarized the crucial point:

“The only way to have a meaningful life in the present age, then, is to let your involvement become definitive of reality for you, and what is definitive of reality for you is not something that is in any way provisional- although it certainly is vulnerable. That is why, once a society like ours becomes rational and reflective, such total commitments begin to look like a kind of dangerous dependency. The committed individual is identified as a workaholic or a woman who loves too much. This suggests that to be recognized and appreciated, individual commitment requires a shared understanding of what is worth pursuing. But as our culture comes more and more to celebrate critical detachment, self-sufficiency, and rational choice, there are fewer and fewer shared commitments. So commitment itself begins to look like craziness.”[10]

Craziness? It sounds Platonic, i.e., if rationality is disregarded, then we are exposed to an impotent or helpless situation. Man without communities is the most fragile creature among the living beings. We Europeans have tasted the deification of the individual, and the loss of various ingredients of human existence that can lend meaning to our lives. Restoring meaning to human life, having real goals again, we must reconstruct our communities beginning with the family, communities of faith and common activities, and the nation as the political framework of our existence. Why? Because this is the only way of surviving in our flawed struggle with Nature, including with our own nature.

Equality, Rights, and Reality

Man is born to level by his reason at least according to the modern liberal dogma. Nature is always at work, the human mind is not. Conservatives of the day have an alternative depending on how he or she answers the basic issue: Are we able to challenge the reigning argument about human life which professes that our problems are to be solved by political and economic means? According to this modern conception we all need, as a primary necessity, security, the number one demand of human life. Thus, human existence must be considered by the concepts like modern liberty and economic well-being. Modern liberty is purely political in its nature and prescribes a break with all classical understanding of freedom. The classical is based on the ancient concept of Nature, which is cyclical and has laws that must be obeyed in order to find a way towards man’s good decisions in terms of how to conquer our own urges.

One’s virtues, thus, are the only sources and warrant of one’s freedom. Needless to say, the development of the character is a moral issue, the political community is to be subordinated to this need according to ancient or classical wisdom in general. If you have characters of virtue in majority, your community will be thriving. The central idea of this conception is greatness in public life. Greatness presupposes inequality of the living including human beings. Nature does not suggest equality except that we are all subject to the laws of nature. Today the mainstream liberal ideology demands to pick and support the idea of equality but not the foundation of natural laws. It is enough to observe how the modern liberals mix up the two different conceptions of equality.

For instance, the champions of today’s idea of equality regard pandemic COVID 19 as an opportunity to enhance the idea of equality when advertisements communicate to us that the virus does not distinguish between age, sex, race, social status or education. We are all exposed to the malignant virus. What does this message suggest? First, it confuses equality of natural law and that of the modern liberal dogma. Second, it also suggests, though modern liberals are unaware of this, that what is evil could equally effect anyone irrespective of his or her wealth, social status, or race. It is true, but equality does not depend on how evil affects us all. The question is whether good or perfection can equally attract all persons. It is true that we are all sinful, as it is stated by the Bible, but we are not all alike eligible for the good, unfortunately. But this is a matter of fact or experience of all thinkers of all ages, and everyday experience, too. But this Ereignes, as Heidegger would put it, allows us to discern the core of modern cult of equality.

The modern leftist idea of equality, philosophically speaking, is based on a tendency of regarding only the plight of the most deprived and subordinated members of the community, and those who are successful must be regarded as either morally despicable or the potential enemy of the community. Success, like sinfulness or turpitude, ceaselessly manufacture situations and even conditions that question moral attempts at equality. From the perspective and standards of equality any aspiration to perfection or greatness also seems to undermine equality. For the advocates of modern substantial (economic, social and moral) equality consider any aspiration to perfection or greatness as a hidden or inherent denial of equality. In moral sense the modern idea of equality was founded on the open neglect of the Aristotelian conception of telos by claiming that there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost ayme) nor Summum bonum (greatest Good) as is spoken of in the Books of old Moral Philosophers. Modern man manipulates materials and claims that our existence is rooted in the matter. When modern science is respected and claims authority, most people believe that science is the highest aspiration of man to perfection or detachment from nature’s power. Thus science and technology must converge and technoscience is the only solution to the ills of humanity. The authority of modern science is derived from its alleged qualities to provide technological remedies to the problems of man. But the false arguments are to be discarded by referring to man’s natural inclination and need to have more than what is available for him.

To develop particular communities is an idea that has to be competitive enough with the idea of universal human rights. The real breakthrough took place when the idea of right obtained the adjective ‘universal’ sometime in the 18th century. It was not a quick win, yet slowly but steadily gained the upper hand over any other suggestions for the foundations of a political arrangement or political good. Even Kant’s Perpetual Peace, as if it were to contain the remedy against war, boosted the long-lasting illusion that it is the liberals who can safeguard lasting peace. Wars have been ever since, two WWs to say the least, yet what we experience today all over the world is that the universality of human rights cannot be challenged, and as a consequence, a decent political framework must have a written constitution comprising a complete description of human rights. The underlying idea is equality of all men originally by nature, today by legally ascertained means. It is right to the extent that we do not believe that the idea of human rights is the antidote to all human problems, including political visions based on hereditary cultures, religions, and rationality not founded on modern science. If human rights are absolute, then indirectly we maximize the possibilities and powers of human rights’ advocates.

But this is a question of power which cannot be absolute. Everybody understands and knows after Nietzsche, who said that “ It means that human rights cannot even be absolute and used as a trump card even in political debates. Man is a member and subordinate to a community (or communities), therefore any device, like human rights, cannot neglect man’s first quality, i.e. he or she is a man of a community. Therefore, loyalty and obligation precede any rights of the individual. It does not mean that the community would have unlimited rights or power over individuals. But political rights are a part of the set of rights of a member of a community enjoys, so modern human rights are not absolute. They are important and relevant but not absolute at all. And they must not be if freedom is truly appreciated. It is almost tragic how human rights have become the opponents of man’s unalterable or basic quality, i.e. he is a communal being and not representative of any minority or identity collectives.

Likewise, loyalty to communities’ needs cannot be unlimited either. Today, in our present age, the major challenge is the overemphasis of human rights, and a complete neglect of man’s other needs like a sense of belonging or a claim to the acknowledgment of achievements, let alone the demand of ethnic minorities which are simply left out from the individual approach to human rights. The basic or most fundamental cleavage in our culture is between the whimsical needs of the individual and his natural belonging with other human beings. The doctrine and practice of modern human rights wish to defend the individual at the cost of stripping him of his communal qualities – this is why all traditional communities are to be abolished by modern progressives, starting with religious communities and customs, then the traditional and natural family by disrupting the bonds between man and woman, and those within the larger family, communities based on friendship almost disappeared, and everywhere loose and shallow forms of human connections thrive on the internet. Not less is at risk than the abolishment of man as a communal or social being.[13]

Globalized or Universal Values, or What?

The basic necessities of human existence include food, shelter, security from violent death and a set of beliefs, i.e. ethos, boosting the way of life a community follows. These are primary necessities. One would also say that these are “the” necessities of an individual and any particular community. But there are political needs as well which point towards the issues of political leadership. If equality reigns comprehensively, there would be two consequences; one is that the separation of men from each other on the foundation of human rights will tendentiously sweep away all communities despite the propaganda of ‘cooperation’, ‘integration’ or ‘solidarity’; and second, the greatest Leviathan may evolve as an outcome of a never seen size of a world mass society led by a narrow and virtualized elite, i.e. the greatest tyranny or totalized power, which might claim all relevant decisions without a modicum of authority involved. It is not by chance that we speak of ‘universal values’ and ‘globalized economy’, and never vice versa (“globalized values”?!), which indicates that morality cannot be technically managed despite the illusion initiated by Locke’s claim  that morals could be mathematically calculated.

Intellectually the first step towards reshaping natural human communities and arousing the desire of belonging with other people other than meeting them in masses (“mall shopping”), or staff meetings at a workplace would be to separate politics from philosophy, to reconcile or to bring in balance philosophy and religion, and to cultivate beauty by arts. As it has happened earlier in the history of European culture genuine developments were always started by turning seriously to old books, works, pieces of art, and ideas. Today there is relative safety in terms of physical security and economic consumption in Westernized civilizations based on technoscience. If the satisfaction of the animal part of man is the ultimate goal, then there should not and will not be a considerable challenge to modern arrangements and tendencies, unless we are compelled to reconsider them. Therefore, conservatives face the dilemma whether they want to soften or slow down the speed of the development of modernity, or whether they want to recommend an alternative conception of man’s development beyond modernity. Faith and rationality desperately need a new combination or integration, putting an end to a one-sided rule of arrogant rationality. If we fail to achieve this aim, we are to be confronted with a new phenomenon of totalitarianism.

Ongoing Totalitarianism

The concept of totalitarianism has a long intellectual history back to the 20th century. When I suggest reconsidering its meaning, I wish to do it in one particular sense, i.e. a totalitarian regime or arrangements are meant ultimately to narrow the sphere of one’s private realm. While we have developed the size of the individual ego both in legal and moral sense, and as a trend we have reduced the competences of our natural communities and their legitimacy, which is weird to say the least, we have managed to augment our capabilities of controlling nature as a sum of material entities or rather simply objects. If the world is only matter, then the connections between them cannot be else than spiritual. The moment we try to realize who we are and where we are, we start seeking endlessly connections and relationships between diverse phenomena or developments, and we are compelled to name the mere existence and, what is more, the quality of these relationships. Giving a name is the product of thinking, unless we take it for granted that every human word is the expression of imitation of sounds or voices, i.e. onomatopoeic, which is more than dubious. One thing is, however, sure. Thinking is neither matter itself, nor any particular form of matter (no convincing argument has been put forward favoring an idea of the soul and/or thinking being the product of material interactions). Thus, we have no reason to assume that nature can be reduced to the examination of matter (Cartesian dualism is still the most influential doctrine of the body-mind problem, which means in practice that matter is preferred to any other possible source of explanations).

What we need is to focus on man as a communal being, and an individual, being thus a mixture of these two interdependent and conflicting qualities. But this condition cannot and should not hinder us to make not only a distinction between the two, but to rank them in a hierarchy. The community is superior to the individual in an existential sense. It sounds cruel or inhuman to the ears of the modern Enlightenment intellectuals, yet it is the case that a particular community can dispense with a particular individual, but an individual cannot live without a particular community, unless we believe that ultimately we have one real or genuine community, and it is the global community of mankind, a sort of end goal of history. If it were true, then any particular individual can be sacrificed for the benefit of this overall world community as it happened during communist period. And what is the good of the individual if it was true? Nothing, except that one has served a non-material goal, be it communism or the end of history, the liberal ideal of human development or progress, which is, by the way, differs from the communist ideal only in method and scope of time.

Leo Strauss put it this way: “At first glance liberalism seems to agree with Communism as regards the ultimate goal, while it radically disagrees with it as regards the way to the goal […] according to liberalism in contradistinction to Communism, it preferably democratic or peaceful, surely not war, that is, foreign war […] There remains, however, one important difference between liberalism and Communism regarding the goal itself. Liberals regard as sacred the right of everyone, however humble, odd, or inarticulate, to criticize the government, including the man at the top.”[14]  But Strauss does not stop here, because the consequences of his debate with Kojéve still vex him when he declares that some liberals “aim at the greatest approximation to the universal and homogeneous state or they are guided by the ideal of the universal and homogeneous state.” Strauss corroborates his point by changing the position, saying that “Conservatives regard the universal and homogeneous state as either undesirable, though possible, or as both undesirable and impossible.”[15]

What does Strauss suggest then? First, “at first glance” liberalism and communism share the same goal, that is, a global state is desirable, but probably communists believe that it is inevitable and imperative to create it whereas liberals believe that if they work on it peacefully and steadily, the universal state would evolve after a while; second, the liberals adhere to their sacred view that everyone can and should criticize the government, and this is a crucial difference. I am not sure that Strauss would still maintain without any qualification this statement of his today. The liberals he may have known surely differ from contemporary liberals. But the central question is whether this difference also makes a difference with regards to final goals. Since we know from Strauss’s debate with Kojéve over tyranny that Strauss refused Kojéve’s argument about the universal and homogeneous state, we can say that despite the indicated major difference between liberalism and communism, the final goal of both liberals and communists is the same or very close.[16] We can also add to Strauss’s observations that it is not necessarily true anymore that liberal regimes do not enter into foreign wars. It needs a special treatment to overview the wars by the US after WWII especially under the cover idea of the export of democracy. But as for the final goal, the universal and homogeneous state, there is a treasury of developments and ideas within the European Union whether empire-building in Europe is a goal in itself, or a stage of creating a world state thus achieving the one community of humankind.

We cannot help noting that currently we are at a stage of modern Western development when the post-modern liberal agenda regards equality as a taboo. The fight for a dogmatic interpretation of equality by liberals can be regarded as a precondition of a final universal state.  And the liberals think that it can be implemented by totalizing legal arguments and actions over any other political instruments, let alone ideas. This dogma or sacred worldly teaching keeps the door wide open towards a political project that is based on the conception of a globally centralized power or authority (called global “open society”), and on the individual human rights which can indiscriminately be claimed by any group of human beings at any time for any reasons. The cover idea of all this is “progress”, as if “history” were really a final aim. And this progress largely depends on the development of technology which is politically, allegedly, indifferent. As a result, we have a combination of a liberal concept of the end of history or global state, and the unlimited development of technology which implies the conquest of nature, thus changing human nature, too. It is not only weird, but also ignorant about the use of history and experience as such.

Anyone familiar with the actual facts of communism will soon realize that there is nothing new in this idea. If we can discard the ideological enamel, we must be able to recognize that is the renewal of good old totalitarianism with a facelift. The individual is practically nothing, the collective is everything and genuine or natural communities are to be annihilated. Today, under the liberal arrangements, and answering mainly to the insatiable desire of technological development, the deep demands are the same: the individual should one-sidedly serve progress and should be ready to sacrifice his private life for the benefit of progress. Paradoxically, it is the modern liberals would like to curb the precondition of liberty, that is, the private life. The new form of totalitarianism is liberal in its very essence, but its outcome is akin to any regime or political arrangements that do not respect freedom, though in rhetoric, they are the defenders of it – no, they are for liberty, but not for freedom of the individual. Is it inevitable? I do not think so.



[1] The Center for European Renewal (also known as Vanenburg Society) is a foundation dedicated to challenge the mainstream liberal public moral which is blind to the serious signs of European decline in terms of education, culture and communal values. Roger Scruton contributed to the activity of the foundation up until his death.

[2] Tamir, Yael: Why Nationalism? (2019), New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 53

[3] Leo Strauss and Benedict XVI on the Crisis of the West.

[4] Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (NY: Encounter Books, 2016

[5] See the proper description later.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche: The Dawn of Day. (1911) The MacMillan Company. Book I. 9. p. 9.

[7] Hans Sluga: Heidegger’s Nietzsche. In: A Companion to Heidegger (2005). Eds. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall, Blackwell Publishing, p. 113

[8] Ibid. p. 116

[9] Sören Kierkegaard: The Present Age (1846)

[10] Hubert L. Dreyfus (2006): Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics. In: The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Ed. by Charles B. Guignon.. Cambridge University Press,  p. 348.

[11] Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909. Reprinted from the edition of 1651, p. 75.

[12] Friedrich Nietzsche: The Dawn of Day. Ibid, . Book V, 535

[13] Cf. C.S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man (1947). New York: Macmillan.

[14] Leo Strauss (1968): Liberalism Ancient and Modern. New York/London: Basic Books, INC: Publishers. pp. v-vi.

[15] Ibid. p. vi.

[16] Leo Strauss (1963): On Tyranny. Ithaca/New York: Cornell University Press. Cf. esp..the chapter of Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero. pp. 189-226.

Andras LancziAndras Lanczi

Andras Lanczi

András Lánczi is Director of the Political Science Institute at Corvinus University of Budapest in Hungary. He is author of Political Realism and Wisdom (Palgrave, 2015).

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