I found Scott P. Richert’s article “Taking Back the Culture” (The Rockford Files, December) very interesting. It brings to mind Robert Nisbet’s central thesis that the medieval was an era of higher civilization, since it had power spread over a wide field, rather than the concentration of everything in one institution. Nisbet, as I understand his position, viewed such a concentration as a suffocation of culture. Mr. Richert’s column brings new light to Nisbet’s central thesis. Thank you.
Scott Richert has expended considerable effort in the last two issues of Chronicles to prove the adage that “politics is downstream from culture.” Or to say, given the recent election, “Thank God that culture is upwind from politics.” I write both to applaud his insight and to point out that Chronicles is the only magazine that insists that this insight is central to the American right. “Because at root,” Richert says, “[our] issues are neither political nor economic but cultural.”
A big part of the Richert message is an eloquent restating of the Burke/Tocque ville/Kirk/Nisbet theme of the “little platoons”—church, family, neighborhood, schools, voluntary associations—without which there is no order for deracinated individuals except the tyranny of the bureaucratic state. In the name of freedom and equality for the former, politics intrudes, giving power to the latter, and the history of the West since the French Revolution is pretty much that story. The conservative story organizes Western civilization around the intermediate institutions, as Robert Nisbet called the little platoons. Richert insists, however, not only that we must resist the widespread notion that elections, political adjustments, or politicians (or even constitutions!) can “shore up the most important institutions . . . foster community, [and] uphold the moral order whose truth is testified to us by natural law and revelation,” but that we must commit to the “long view” of restoring the cult on which that moral order is based.
Is Richert saying, don’t waste time simply defending the intermediate institutions in the public square? I think so, because he is quite concerned with showing how the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, broadly construed, relates to the problem of authority, on which civilization depends. Nisbet argued in his elegant 1975 book Twilight of Authority that we are living in a twilight age. But he also insisted that history is, basically, the account of the succession of institutional authorities. Whether the authority is kinship, religion, or the political state is a problem of history, not of the moral order. One may recognize that liberty, for example, fares better under the rule of kinship than under the political state, but the point is to recognize what sort of authority tends to produce what, and stoically to soldier on, knowing roughly where one is. Something similar can be said about Tocqueville, and in a lesser way also about Burke and Kirk. But is Marcus Aurelius a model for our times?
Scott Richert doesn’t seem to think so. If I read him right—and this is one of the most important things about the mission of this magazine—he is asking us to redouble our efforts to seek authority as the “quality by virtue of which persons make laws and give orders to men and expect obedience from them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). Or, as St. Matthew puts it, “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”
Mr. Richert Replies:
I thank Mr. Poitevint for his kind words regarding my column. Robert Nisbet was indeed an important influence on my own thought, though I would place myself somewhere between the imaginative conservative Russell Kirk, always alert to the dangers of abstraction and ideology, and Nisbet, who, as a sociologist, was more open to systematization. Nisbet’s understanding of community, however, even expressed in sociological terms, was far from ideological, which is why Kirk himself admired Nisbet so much.
And Nisbet’s understanding of authority was fully in line with that of Kirk and Burke and even that of the Catholic Church, as John Willson reminds us. There are certain books that I try to read at least once per year, and Twilight of Authority was one for many years, until Nisbet’s insights became my own.
Dr. Willson has read me correctly: Defending the intermediate institutions through political means may be necessary, but it can never be sufficient. The only way truly to reestablish the authority of all those institutions that should stand between man and the state is to remove them as much as possible from the political realm, and that requires us to restrict politics to its proper sphere. Caesar’s realm is not only more limited than a Bernie Sanders or a Hillary Clinton would ever admit, but also more limited than a Donald Trump can conceive. Yet that is a reason not for despair, but for hope—and a call for action on a human scale that can bring about lasting change.
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