Thomas Molnar has published books in English, French, and Hungarian, while seeing some of his writings, mostly those dealing with the “mal moderne,” translated into German, Spanish, and Italian. Though defined in his work in various ways, from rampant Catholic heresy to political utopianism, this evil for Molnar is best described by his phrase l’hégémonie libérale. The progression of hegemonic liberalism since the 18th century, which he thinks was nurtured by both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, has led to dire consequences, including the disintegration of ecclesiastical authority, an obsessively consumerist society, a religion of secularism, and, finally, a “reconstruction of the state as a profoundly coercive caricature” of political authority.
Most striking about these critical observations, which do seem justified, is Molnar’s intensive search for long-range causes. This often results in connections being assumed between modern evils and temporally distant developments. Molnar insists, for example, that one cannot understand today’s moral anarchy or parody of a state without looking back to the late Middle Ages, specifically to the breakdown of medieval forms of interrelated secular and ecclesiastical authorities and to the attack made on their essentialist philosophical foundations. This progressive undoing of medieval authorities did more than subvert corrupt institutions. It had the ultimate effect of devaluing authority itself, as something to which deference is due and which in turn is bound by a higher law. In this widening rebellion, Molnar sees the contributions of many thinkers and movements, extending from nominalism, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, and the “temptation of German philosophy” to deify individual consciousness, down to the atomistic hedonism and sexual kinkiness associated with contemporary America: “ce théatre permanent du bouffon et de l’absurde, la langue neutralisée, officiellement dissolue, et l’armée homosexualisée.”
What makes liberalism a unifying theme in this brief is the growing centrality of individual expressiveness and individual will. Though Molnar does not imagine that a straight causal line can be drawn from William of Ockham to Hillary Clinton —that is, from the 14th-century English monk who denied the possibility of demonstrating moral and theological axioms to a self-actualizing feminist as world-historical figure— he nonetheless believes that one things leads to another—or in his own idiomatic French, tout se passe du fil en aiguille. Moreover, it might behoove those who, according to him, have entered the “terminal phase of a mortal illness” caused by “defective social organization” to retrace the steps by which society got to where it is. This involves looking at the transitional stages by which a traditional hierarchical society became one in which nothing is thought to warrant respect unless the individual finds it in his interest to value it. The victory of this self-centered ethos, Molnar notes, has not put an end to either religious longing or mythic obsession. In other words, the desacralization ascribed by sociologists to a post-Christian age has not created the total spiritual void that many religionists complain of More significant has been the quest for a new spirituality that has given rise to a variety of cultural phenomena, from New Age cocktail talk to inexhaustible therapeutic Utopias.
Though Molnar is widely known as a Catholic Aristotelian with some sympathy for Plato, his philosophical interests, as revealed in his conversations with Jean Renaud, are remarkably broad. He professes high regard for both existentialist and pre-Socratic thought and considers Greek atomism a “marvelous discovery.” He is impatient with Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who fuss about the incompatibility between the biblical and classical worlds. He insists that Christians “will always be indebted to Athens,” that philosophy is “an authentic activity of the spirit,” and that philosophical discourse is basic to the Christian formulation of belief This argument, it might be noted, is true not only for those who profess to be Christian humanists but equally for those on the other side. Such distinguished critics of humanistic Christianity as Luther, Zwingli, and Barth offer densely reasoned arguments for their anti-humanism, while showing staggering evidence of a classical education. If neither is evident in the anti-humanist posture of contemporary fundamentalists, both are likewise absent from the tracts of Christian liberals. The capacity to produce reasoned discourse and the acquisition of classical learning, both long associated with theology and philosophy, are becoming divorced from American education; and this, far more than a theological stand on Greek thought, Molnar claims, has marginalized the cumulative cultural traditions of the West.
Molnar has often highlighted the role of one social democratic philistine who has heavily influenced American educators, John Dewey. Discovering a lack of political relevance in the teaching of classical languages, Dewey hoped to devise a largely technical education, one that he thought would be suitable for a reformed democratic America. Such an attitude tells more about the genetic causes of our educational problems than the effects attributed by movement conservatives to the hippie decade of the 1960’s.
My own reservation about Molnar’s case against late modernity is his tendency to push back explanations too far. Is it helpful, for example, to revisit the Reformation in order to comprehend modern liberalism or the pervasiveness of American materialism? One may concede the point that Protestantism, particularly in its Calvinist formulation, predisposes believers to be relatively individualistic, compared to Catholics, in searching for salvation. One may, furthermore, accept Max Weber’s view that a correlation exists between Calvinist moral theology and the capitalist spirit. But even if one concedes the above, one has still not found more than a single factor in the creation of the vast historical trend leading to the present. And the limiting cases that historians must consider are endless. Indeed some of the most deeply conservative groups up until recently have been Calvinist, from American Southern Presbyterians and Dutch and Afrikaner farmers to Hungarian gentry and Swiss burghers. By contrast, some Catholic populations have been raving fanatics of modernization and, in the case of the Dutch Church, have cheered on the “imbecility” that Molnar laments in criticizing contemporary moral fashions. Though Molnar ascribes these developments to Catholic imitations of Protestant behavior, the more likely explanation is that both sides have been simultaneously overwhelmed by the same mass democratic trends.
Despite my difficulty with Molnar’s intricate genealogy of morals, he correctly observes that we are looking only at the tip of an iceberg. Things did not start going bad in our society because kids in the 1960’s took to smoking marijuana or because George McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972. The collapse of the family and of gender identity which I have witnessed in my adult years is as dramatic an event as any 20th-century totalitarianism. But this cataclysm is taken for granted even by mainstream American conservatism, which only quibbles at the edges over disastrous government policies. At my college and at professional gatherings, I hear white male professors expressing guilt over making, unbeknownst to others, racial and gender distinctions in their minds. Gay rights, among other hallucinatory “human” rights, are a given among most educated Americans today; and while we protest the infanticide being practiced in the impoverished Chinese countryside, we proclaim partial-birth abortion a “women’s issue” in feminist America. Add to this a boundless hunger for new commodities and gadgets, and one get a sense of the “disfigured model” of the American constitutional republic for which Molnar is always reaching as an illustration of late modern decadence. He is right to ask how this model became so disfigured, and while one may disagree with the details of his causal explanation, he is also right to look deeply for answers.