The Loss and Recovery of Truth. Gerhart Niemeyer with Michael Henry, ed. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2013.
Those who come to America’s shores, and truly adopt the country as their own, can often teach more that is valuable about this society than those who have lived here all their lives. The perspective of one who has come and seen the country decline in some respects is more valuable still. The United States still has substantial wealth and military might, but much like the driver of an expensive new sports car, one begins to wonder if some sort of compensating for defects is going on.
In what must be the political equivalent of canaries starting to die in a coal mine, those who advocate for there being a natural order to human life, one with duties and responsibilities to families, churches, and communities, wonder if this country is even still worth fighting for. Decent people know that children cannot be left in front of the television, or on-line, and seriously question whether it is safe to send them to local public schools. But where do decent, patriotic citizens come from, if not from decent patriotic families? What can bring on a death spiral of decency in society faster than the best citizens withdrawing to private life?
For those who want to strive towards the restoration of the country, there is Gerhart Niemeyer’s The Loss and Recovery of Truth. This giant collection is an excellent introduction to Niemeyer’s thought. Among many other things, it includes articles on the Church, opposition to Communism, and the place of the University in society. This review will focus on the picture of the United States that emerges in the book – what we had, how it was lost and the possibilities of recovery – while keeping in mind Niemeyer’s admonition “that a will to fight is required when one wants to protect the peace of one’s homeland” (353).
Niemeyer, a German immigrant who taught political theory at the University of Notre Dame, came to America sick of the ideological madness that was occurring in Nazi Germany. He arrived to find a sober, decent country. Perhaps not one that had produced the fruits of philosophy and the arts that Europe had, but one that had advanced civilization in a different manner. Niemeyer says, “But America had made its own contribution which cannot be counted of inferior value: The United States had cultivated the art of living together, the attitudes of good will, single-mindedness, and public friendship, the patriotism of freemen and women, the virtues belonging to representative government” (13). While the framers of the United States’ Constitution knew that government was not safe without auxiliary precautions, like the separation of powers, they also knew that a dependence on the people was the primary control of good government. As Niemeyer puts it, “if America has created a sound political order it is because the founders and teachers of this country knew how to relate politics to true philosophical knowledge of man.” The problem is that “at present, this original sound sense of order has been overlaid by ideologies” (13).
Despite being a large and diverse country, the United States had enough character for it to hold together, for there to be a homonoia, if not friendship among its citizens. Niemeyer offers this story to illustrate the decency of Americans: “In a large sophomore course which I taught one of the students violated the honor code in that he copied from his neighbor’s paper. It so happened that the president of the sophomore class sat behind the culprit. He tapped the sinner on the shoulder and quietly said: ‘you flunk this.’ The student turned around, blushed purple, got up, handed in his less than half finished paper and walked out. A brief account of the event, without naming names, appeared the next day in the student paper” (11). The incident occurred at Princeton University, where a simple honor code had been instituted, not rules, procedures, or courts.
According to Niemeyer, the modern condition is one of disorientation from living in a world without the limits that had been traditionally fashioned to cultivate the soul. In such a world, one could not rely on the common sense of citizens. Instead rules had to be create through acts of will, producing “codes of ethics” along with “floods of litigation” and ultimately totalitarian regimes that were in the business of creating “new worlds.” Traditionally, in America there was a separation of church and state because it was understood that there were heights that government could not reach. Additionally, society governed people through non-political orders such as “the order of the church,” “the order of universities,” and “the order of market.”
Niemeyer sees society being replaced by the “mandarin state” which, through its various programs, dampens the possibility of change in our politics since “individuals seem to cling just as tenaciously to the state as the state to them” (207). He argues that the mandarin state makes government all pervasive and thus unchangeable and ineffective. Government then becomes a colossus, incapable of change or improvement.
At times in the volume Niemeyer sees the mandarin state emerging out of the idea of liberalism. For instance, in a sub-section entitled, “Locke, Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill” he argues that a society arranged to serve private interests will inevitably use the tools of public management to guide the Invisible Hand when some find themselves disappointed. While Niemeyer acknowledges a tradition of pursuing self-interest in American politics, he maintains that the country had always been more than that and that our true tradition of liberty rested on a tradition of friendship. Niemeyer states, “All the same, there is plenty of evidence of a strong sense of common good pervading American politics, at least until that day in 1933 when the state took on itself the burdens of providing private welfare aspirations with public guarantees. Then, against the ensuing relentless encroachment of public regulations, men and women of common sense began to draw out of the same well of American premises the ideal of ‘being left alone’” (213). In effect, the government has become so pervasive that it creates a longing for privacy while at the same time attaching these lonely individuals to itself for their continued survival.
As a counter-weight to the mandarin state, Niemeyer sees the market economy as a positive good: “in spite of glaring imperfections, capitalism has not only produced unprecedented wealth for all parts of the population and beyond, but also has made an indispensable contribution to human freedom, in that it established an extra constitutional separation of powers – the vitally important separation of economic power from political power” (248). Later he states, “Many Jews in Hitler’s Germany were saved because they could find refuge on the remaining islands of German capitalism” (Ibid). While political power can always be a rival to the most dangerous aspects of large corporations, once citizens’ livelihoods are in the hands of the government there will be no escape from its control short of revolution.
That being said, simply calling for “free markets” will not do. Nor would a simple return to the original meaning of the Constitution and limited government fix our problems. The picture of America that arises out of The Loss and Recovery of Truth is a subtle one and the road to recovery described in the collection calls for spiritual renewal. Following Augustine, Niemeyer defines a people by what they love. “We know that the love that bound early Americans together was for honor, decency, courage, patriotism, faith, charity. We do not claim that these men were paragons of perfection, but their joint loves, which founded a nation, met at the center of these and similar excellences” (354). What Americans loved determined what America was like. It still does.
If there be something missing from the volume it would be Niemeyer’s thoughts on the topic of civil rights. Niemeyer never claims that American society of the past was perfectly just. But one is left wondering whether he would think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a case of government penetrating too deeply into the economic order or a correction of an injustice. What is clear in the volume is that Niemeyer thinks we live in an ideological age, in which one aspect of truth is made the whole of reality. This ideological attitude tends to divide the world into the good and the others and explains why we are continually waging “war” on things, whether it be poverty, drugs, or crime. True recovery must be a recovery of the philosophic disposition of being open to the natural order of the world. It involves limitations to what we can do, what we can expect from government, and dedication to the public good from our citizens. For Niemeyer, only when we recover the love of truth will we be able to recover what he loved about America.