The world is broken.
There was a time when those words would have been considered unremarkable—a truism, even. Of course the world is broken: Our first parents, Adam and Eve, broke it. They did so by their sin. They had everything that any man or woman could ever reasonably want: a paradise to live in, all the food they would ever need, the ultimate healthcare plan (that is, no need for one), human companionship and the company of animals, leisure. The God Who had given them life had blessed them and given them a mission, too: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” Their leisure was meant to be the basis of a true culture. They had no need of faith, as Hebrews 11 defines it: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” They could see everything they needed to see—not through a glass darkly, as we do now, but face to face. They walked with God. Had they kept to their mission, had they used their leisure properly, their children would have walked with God, too.
But they didn’t keep to their mission. They didn’t use their leisure properly. They broke the world. And their children kept on breaking and breaking and breaking, starting with Cain, and continuing down to this very day.
Leo Strauss said that Eve was the first philosopher, because she valued the pursuit of knowledge above “tradition”—that is, above her love for, and her duty to, the God Who had created her. Now, I do not agree with the Straussian conception of philosophy as atheism, of Athens as the enemy of Jerusalem. Strauss’s conception is a subversion of the classical and Christian conception of philosophy as the love of the good, the true, and the beautiful; and of theology not as the enemy of philosophy but as the completion of it. But I do think there’s a lesson in political theory to be learned by analogy in the story of the Fall. Rather than seeing Eve as the first philosopher, I see the serpent as the first politician. We might even say he’s the first populist politician. While Christ tells Pilate that he would have no power over Him were that power not given to him by God above, and Saint Paul tells us that all true authority—including political authority—comes from God, the serpent spins a different story to Eve. It’s a tale of a corrupt elite—God Himself—ruling capriciously over His creation, making laws and even environmental regulations (do not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil!) designed to keep Adam and Eve from rising up and taking full advantage of their rightful place at the top of the order of creation. “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” All of that flowery language can be summed up in modern terms in a phrase that would fit in a tweet, with 120 characters left over for a string of hashtags and a clenched-fist emoji: “Power to the People!”
And yet, when Eve fell for the rhetoric of the serpent, and Adam, like a dutiful husband, followed suit, they didn’t become as gods. Their power didn’t increase; worse yet, they forfeited much of the authority that God had given them, as the pinnacle of His Creation, on the sixth day. They broke the world, and they broke themselves. They had been meant to live forever; now, they would grow old, and frail, and die as a result of their sin.
The serpent had accused God of lying, of trying to keep the man down, but when Adam and Eve fell, the serpent was revealed as the liar. For his lie, the serpent was punished, but like so many politicians, he was never much more than an empty snakeskin. Only one creature emerged from the Garden of Eden more powerful than he had been when he entered it: Satan was now the ruler of this world, and his rule would continue unchallenged and unbroken until Christ conquered death by death. But even in the wake of Christ’s Resurrection—indeed, even 2,000 years later—the Devil has made it clear that he has no intention of giving up power without a fight.
And that should come as no surprise. First, because Satan is Satan. Unlike Adam and Eve, when Satan fell, he fell completely; there was no good left in him, no matter what such diverse sources as Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Book of Mormon and NBC’s Lucifer would like you to believe. And second, because the nature of Power (with a capital P), as opposed to authority (with a lower-case a), is such that those who have it always want more of it, as such diverse men as Lord Acton and Bertrand de Jouvenal and J.R.R. Tolkien understood.
Which brings us to the obvious question, back here in the “real world” (that is, the world broken by sin): Who, in this little tale, is Satan, exactly? Is he Barack Obama or Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton or Steve Bannon? Is he a Democrat or a Republican? A liberal or a conservative? A nationalist or a socialist?
The answer, as Aaron Wolf reminded us in his April column (“K Is for Vendetta”), is none of the above. The Devil is the devil; and Obama and Trump, and Clinton and Bannon, and all of the Democrats and all of the Republicans, and all of the liberals and all of the conservatives, and even all of the nationalists and all of the socialists, are just men and women. They aren’t demons, devoid of any good; but like Adam and Eve—because of Adam and Eve—they are all fallen creatures. Like us, they are broken. And they are living broken lives in a broken world.
But that means that all of these men and women have something in common with Adam and Eve, and with Satan, too: the desire to be as gods. And in those moments when we set aside the constant distractions of the modern world and are brutally honest with ourselves, when we pause to look into our own hearts, we know that the same desire resides there. And that desire manifests itself in a lust for power.
Indeed, the lust for power is so much a part of fallen man that Satan himself has found it useful, and not just in attempting to lead us astray. Most Christians today assume that, when Satan was tempting Jesus in the desert, he knew exactly Who and what Jesus was, and that his sole purpose in putting Jesus to the test was to get the new Adam to fall, as he had the old Adam. But many of the Fathers of the Church read this text differently: When Satan addressed Jesus, saying, “If thou be the Son of God,” he was, those Fathers said, uncertain. The trial was the Devil’s attempt to determine whether Jesus was indeed Who Satan suspected He was. Read in that manner, Luke’s account of the trial takes on a different light:
And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
That Jesus was able to resist the temptation of unlimited worldly power was not only a reversal of Adam’s sin but the proof the Devil needed that Jesus, unlike all other children of Adam, was not fallen: He was indeed the Son of God. Only an unbroken man could resist Satan’s offer of unlimited power on this earth.
The term Deep State has recently begun to pop up in mainstream political reporting. Like fake news, it has different meanings, depending on who uses it. It seems to have originated in Turkey; but here in the United States, it was first used by the radical left as shorthand for a conspiracy theory that argued that popular government was a sham; a cabal of unelected intelligence officials and longtime military men, not the president and Congress, were really calling the shots (quite literally, it was alleged, in the case of the assassination of JFK), using the immense power of the U.S. government for their nefarious purposes.
Over time, the term was adopted by more mainstream political analysts to signify something less ominous, though still troubling to those who prefer limited government and a representative democracy—what we used to call a republic. In this view, the Deep State was the governmental wing of what James Burnham called the “Managerial Revolution.” The Deep State wasn’t actively nefarious; it was composed of unelected bureaucrats, in both the executive and legislative branches, who technically answered to elected officials, but were concerned, in a rather mundane way, with maintaining and expanding the power of their various agencies.
Now the term has come full-circle, and once again is being used to signify a cabal of unelected intelligence officials (though perhaps no longer of military men) who are actively working to undermine popular government. The twist is that the Deep State is no longer a left-wing conspiracy theory, but a right-wing one.
I have never believed in conspiracy theories of any kind, not because I don’t believe that human beings attempt to engage in conspiracies—any father of more than one child has witnessed conspiracies unfolding in his own household—but because those who engage in conspiracies are, in the end, people just like us. By definition, they are neither omniscient nor omnipotent, and no amount of power or technical expertise can change that fact. They are incapable of the degree of control that every conspiracy theory assumes they must have. They act on incomplete knowledge; they make mistakes. They are prideful and capricious and impulsive. They are, in a word, broken, just like we are.
But since that brokenness manifests itself in all of us in a lust for power, the more mainstream, non-conspiracy-theory use of the term Deep State simply describes the effects of fallen human nature in our modern bureaucratic age. Those who have power desire to maintain it, and to expand it when they can. And, as Lord Acton reminds us, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Acton said a lot of other things about power, but most of them are not as well known. For instance: “Everybody likes to get as much power as circumstances allow, and nobody will vote for a self-denying ordinance”; “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power”; and “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” Acton was a man who seldom hedged his judgments, but in his various discussions of power, there was never a need to do so.
Tolkien was a rather different man from Lord Acton, but he shared with Acton the Catholic understanding of Original Sin, of the brokenness of man and the world, and of the corruption of morality that goes hand in hand with the lust for, and concentration of, power. There are many layers to The Lord of the Rings, but at its center lies a cautionary tale of the danger of Power and the way in which Power, left unchecked, always becomes more concentrated and leads not to the restoration of culture and the world, but to its destruction.
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” Taken by itself, the line engraved on the One Ring, forged in the fires of Mordor by Sauron, is easy to misinterpret. The pronoun them seems to refer to all of the creatures of Middle Earth—the men, the elves, the dwarves, the hobbits—and on one level, it does. But that line is taken from a longer verse:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
The pronoun them refers first to the 19 other rings, collectively known as the Rings of Power. The One Ring, the most powerful of them all, was meant to draw all of the other Rings of Power to itself, to centralize power in the hands of the tyrant Sauron, who had set himself up as ruler of Middle Earth, as Satan rules our world. Tolkien shows us the horrifying effect that the nine Rings of Power which were given to men had on those who wore them; they were so corrupted that they became the Nazgûl, the Ring Wraiths. Sauron promised “Power to the People,” but like Satan, only Sauron gained more power when the men put on the rings.
Tolkien was always adamant that The Lord of the Rings was not to be read as an allegory, but taken on its own terms; yet he did address the question of power in our world, and the corruption that accompanies it, in a discussion of the enigmatic character of Tom Bombadil. Unlike all of the others who wore the One Ring (or even spent time in close proximity to it, in the case of Boromir), Tom Bombadil was not corrupted by it; in fact, the One Ring had no effect on him whatsoever—it did not make him invisible, and even when Frodo was wearing the One Ring and was invisible to everyone else, Tom Bombadil could see him. Tolkien explained this mystery thusly:
The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. But if you have, as it were, taken “a vow of poverty,” renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the questions of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless . . .
Tolkien goes on to describe this “vow of poverty” as “a natural pacifist view,” but to those familiar with Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, “renounc[ing] control, and tak[ing] your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing” sounds a lot like the classical and Christian conception of philosophy as the contemplation of goodness, beauty, and truth.
Whether we call it pacifism or philosophy, how Tom Bombadil can renounce the lust for power is, Tolkien admits, an intentional enigma. Even the elves, angelic creatures that they are, avoided the fate of the men who became Ring Wraiths only by refusing to wear their three Rings of Power, and hiding them to avoid the temptation. And if others were capable of imitating Bombadil and gaining an immunity to the corruption of power, that could not, Tolkien indicates, be the basis for a lasting, desirable political order: “Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.”
In other words, men must take other measures if they desire to resist the centralization of power and the corruption that inevitably accompanies it. If Power becomes too concentrated, something like the War of the Ring may be the only way to destroy it, but victory in such a struggle always comes at the expense of great loss, as Frodo discovers. The best defense—the only defense—against the inevitable corruption that flows from the concentration of power is to prevent the concentration of power in the first place.
Lord Acton understood this; Tolkien did as well. So did the advocates of republicanism, both classical and modern, including the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. So did the Twelve Southerners who wrote I’ll Take My Stand, and G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and the Distributists who joined the Agrarians in Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, the lesser-known but just as important sequel to I’ll Take My Stand. So, too, did Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum novarum, and Pope Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, and even John Paul II in Centesimus annus, despite the best attempts by certain partisans of power to distort that encyclical into an endorsement of a centralized “democratic capitalism.”
All of these men had the same fundamental insight, expressed with characteristic pithiness by Lord Acton: “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in concentration of power.” Or, to look at it from a different direction: “It is easier to find people fit to govern themselves than people fit to govern others.”
Republicanism, federalism, decentralism, distributism, agrarianism, subsidiarity—the fundamental insight of each of these political theories is that the only way to preserve liberty, confine politics to its proper sphere, and provide a world in which a true culture and morality can flourish is to prevent the inordinate concentration of power. One cannot be a classical republican and believe that an emperor or a tyrant is fine, so long as he professes to believe in classical republican principles; one cannot be a federalist and believe that it is all right to tip the balance of power between the states and the national government in favor of the national government because “our” party now controls the latter. One cannot espouse the principle of subsidiarity while turning it on its head, and insisting that the proper flow of authority is downward from a central government, rather than outward from the family.
And yet, as power becomes more concentrated over time, and the corruption of morality that accompanies the centralization of power increases, the temptation to use that power for our own purposes increases as well. Rather than reasserting the proper authority of the family, of the Church, of local and state governments, and of a thousand other intermediary institutions, we start thinking about the good that we could do, if only the One Ring were to pass to us. Why put ourselves through the monumental effort required to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, in which it was forged, when we are certain that we, alone among all men, are immune to its corrupting force?
Why, indeed? Because, as Lord Acton writes, “Men cannot be made good by the state, but they can easily be made bad.” Or, in the words of the principle that has guided our work at Chronicles for the last 40 years, “There are no political solutions to cultural problems.”
At the very beginning of the American republic, another man expressed this reality with the clarity of a prophet. Edmund Burke had supported the American Revolution, and he had high hopes that the federalist system enshrined in our Constitution would diffuse power, and thus preserve liberty. But Burke was a Christian, and he understood that we are broken, and he knew that the ultimate battle lies not in the halls of Congress or in Parliament, but in the souls of men:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites . . . Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Their passions: such as the pride which cries out that others may be broken, but we are not; and the rage against external corruption that all too often is no more than a fig leaf masking our own moral nakedness. But pride and rage are revolutionary impulses, not conservative (much less traditional) ones: As Satan did in the Garden of Eden, these passions promise “Power to the People!” but lead only to slavery.
But the converse, as Burke saw so clearly, is true: When we give up the sin of pride and embrace the virtue of humility, we break the chains we have wrapped around our own souls and can build a culture that will sustain true liberty. Humility is not simply a Christian virtue; it is, as John Lukacs writes, “a recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.” The world is broken; we are broken; and the first step in rebuilding anything is realizing that we cannot rebuild everything, no matter how much power we arrogate to ourselves.
That is why the real division today is not between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, nationalists and socialists; it is, rather, what it has always been: between the partisans of power who work endlessly for its centralization, and those who realize that true political, economic, and even moral freedom in a broken world requires the diffusion of power and the reassertion of proper authority at every level, starting with our control over our passions and the restoration of the family as the fundamental unit of culture and society. Charmed by the snake, we have tried to become as gods; we have cried “Power to the People!” while forging the very chains that keep us in bondage.
The centralization of power has gone hand in hand with the decline of Christian belief, each fueling the other in an unbroken cycle of death and destruction. Yet as Christians, we know that the restoration of our broken world began with the ultimate act of humility, the triumph of Powerlessness over Power, in the death of Christ on the Cross. In our baptismal vows, we reject the empty promises of Satan, because we know that God is faithful, and He has promised true “Power to the People!”—the power of His grace, offered freely to the people of God, if we will only humble ourselves enough to admit that we need it.
If we desire any kind of freedom in our life on this earth—moral, cultural, economic, political—we have to fight to prevent the centralization of power. Struggle is our lot in life; that die was cast long ago, by Adam and Eve in the Garden. The world is broken.
But not forever.