In the dark ages, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, feudalism arose to replace the civilized order lost with the collapse of the Eternal City with the (in the beginning) rougher and simpler order of the strong. Feudalism, though it has become repugnant to our sensibilities, came about so that peasants and anyone else who was not strong enough to care for themselves, could barricade themselves behind the castle walls when the barbarians arrived to sack and pillage. In a sense, it is a pity that feudalism has gone into such ill repute; if it had not, then castles might still be fashionable or, at least, seen as practical. As it is, there are no real fortifications to hide behind when the post-modern barbarians disembark to kill.
By now, many are aware of what occurred at Middlebury College on March 2. Dr. Charles Murray, the libertarian political scientist and sociologist, was invited to speak to the small, liberal arts, Vermont based college, specifically regarding his 2012 book, Coming Apart, in which Murray observed that changing patterns, particularly concerning marriage, were in large part responsible for the decline in civilization since the 1960s. Naturally, for today, there were protestors. Unusual still, even for today, was the fact that the protestors managed to keep Murray from speaking publicly on campus as was planned. Murray therefore went into an empty classroom and streamed his talk and took questions via Twitter. The postmodern barbarians found out Murray’s location though and proceeded to congregate in the hall, stuffing the air with chants and pulled fire-alarms. But the coup de grace occurred when Murray and his interviewer, Dr. Allison Stranger of Middlebury, attempted to leave the room and campus; masked assailants physically shoved the two professors (Dr. Stranger even had her neck strained when someone pulled her hair) and once they were outside and in their car, protestors rocked the car back and forth and jumped on the hood. As Andrew Stuttaford pointed out, this was not just a protest since Murray was attempting to leave campus and not speak. This, Stuttaford declares, was punishment for perceived thought crime.
Many have taken this incident to speak—correctly—on the erosion of tolerance and freedom of speech. Several have also taken the opportunity to demonstrate that though some on the left are beginning to speak out against the fascism that has reared its head on our campuses, they have no room to speak out since they are the ones responsible for the situation as it now stands. But there is another aspect of our society which has been made apparent by this affair and that is the death of the university. Not death, as in the process but death as in the fact.
Two years ago, in First Things, philosopher Roger Scruton declared that the university, as it had existed since the Middle Ages, was dead. It was a curious declaration since by all intents and purposes, universities are far away from being dead. Currently, there are over three thousand four year colleges in the United States; almost nineteen million students attend undergraduate programs and another four million attend graduate programs. But this is looking at the situation only from the angle of quantity. When the focus is shifted to quality and, even more so, essence, it can be more clearly understood why Scruton declared the university, understood as a universal category, is dead. According to Scruton, borrowing a theme from John Henry Newman, the university is supposed to be “quasi-monastic,” a place that is, in a sense, separated from the world in order to renew the world. This, like all good paradoxes, seems counter-intuitive at first glance. What Scruton and Newman meant was that the university is supposed to be an oasis where students could gather and debate, think, and learn from the great books and languages. In effect, the university was the place where culture could be renewed within the minds of the students attending there. It was where men could be transformed into gentlemen. This was necessary because, in Scruton’s words, “the university is so important in an age of commerce and industry, when the utilitarian temptation besieges us on every side, and when we are in danger of making every purpose a material one—in other words, as Newman saw it, in danger of allowing the means to swallow the ends.”
As Scruton makes clear, this lofty end of the university extended back to the very beginning of its history, from the schools of the Greeks unto the universities of the Middle Ages.. Even with the advancement of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, this idea of the university held sway, as the 18th century gentlemen saw the scholarly life as one of discipline, with its own rules and procedures which distinguished it from the other vocations. Until the 19th century, the university was seen as place where men could learn virtue. As Dr. Bradley Birzer has written, a liberal arts education–and so the university in general, where the liberal arts were housed and taught–was seen as necessary for the instillation of virtue in the young men who attended it. Birzer points out that virtue was seen as “involv[ing] duty, loyalty, mercy, justice, and, ultimately, being willing to lay down one’s life for one’s beliefs…” which, as Plato put it, adhered itself to a standard of morality and which was also channeled toward the common or public good. In this sense, universities were means not only of preserving the culture which had given birth to the universities and the intellectual, religious and artistic heritage of the culture, but the only means of reaffirming and re-strengthening republican government.
With all of that having been said, it may come as a surprise that universities have not changed structurally or in their end goal since their beginning in the Greek city-states. The modern university today still a semi-monastic or quasi-sacrosanct place that devotes itself to the teaching of virtue and good. The problem is that the understanding of what these things mean is so widely divergent from their past definitions and understandings, they have effectively mutated into something quite different, though they share the same name. The root cause of this is that the university still teaches a religious world view and is itself still a religious space. The religion, however, has changed radically. The religion is that of leftism. Leftism is a true religion in a sense because, as Dr. Robert P. George explained in First Things last December, the social liberalism–or leftism–that we witness today is another variation of Gnosticism. Although Gnosticism has taken many different varieties, from when it first appeared in the First century A.D. to its various incarnations throughout history, but, as Dr. George points out, these various forms of Gnosticism, have all shared a fundamental premise: That there is an irrevocable divide between the material and the spiritual and that the latter is what truly matters. Persons are thus spirits inhabiting material bodies; we are ghosts caught in fleshy machines. This understanding of leftism as a religious reassertion of Gnosticism helps to understand the basic positions which those on the left take. Abortion does not violate anything because the organism inside the mother is not a person since it possesses no spiritual dimension and thus, cannot think, emote, will, or act–things that only a person can do. Homosexuality, “gay marriage,” and the newest fashion of transgenderism, all explain themselves because the psychic, or spiritual person, is the real person and thus the body is merely an afterthought. With that established, marriage has no objective nature in and of itself that demands that it can only be the union of one man and one woman; the body, which has its sex stamped upon it in every cell, means nothing if the “person” dwelling inside the vehicle of the body believes itself to be something other than the body’s designed sex. Social justice and large government programs are needed so that persons can be “free” to enjoy the pleasures which they desire, and which material constraints might prevent them from tasting without government support.
There is a reason why the university has succumbed to the leftist religion and that is because nothing can really escape from the clutches of religion, of some stripe or color. People cannot really gather together apart from a religion of some sort. This is not to say that people cannot gather at all without a binding religion but that these bonds are much weaker than bonds that are religious. The reason for this is because of the need for order. Russell Kirk, in his Roots of American Order, explained that order is the first necessary consideration for any group of people. Without order, there can be no survival since the opposite of order is chaos and a society cannot survive in a state of continual chaos; nor can individuals. Kirk goes on to say that order can really only come about from religion. Religion is what forges bonds between people who are not related by blood; religion focuses the attention of the people on something outside of themselves; the religion, because of this focus on the outside, also determines the moral norms and taboos of the society in all areas of life and not just the sexual. In this light, the political contests between the left and the right become deeper because the opposition between the two groups is not about politics per se but about two different orders, stemming from two radically different world views and religions.
These two orders, on the left and the right, are contradictions; they therefore cannot both be right. Even more importantly, they both cannot exist in the same space. If we take the “space” as being all of the United States, then both orders cannot co-exist together. Abraham Lincoln foresaw that America could not survive as a nation half free and half slave. One or the other would win the whole country. The same situation is present again. This is not a new revelation nor is it really something that original to say; many people have spoken about the “second Civil War” in America, Dennis Prager being one of the most recent. The real trouble is two different approaches to this news. One reaction–or more appropriately inaction–is not recognizing that we are in a civil war at all. In mid-March, Kevin Williamson wrote a piece for National Review Online in which he discussed why CEOs became such devoted “social justice warriors.” One of the most fascinating aspects of the piece, to my mind, however, was when Williamson contrasted the mindsets of the left and the right on different and important issues. Williamson gave the example of “gay marriage”–whereas for ” the Right, the question of gay marriage is an important moral and political disagreement, but for the Left the exclusion of homosexual couples from the legal institution of marriage was something akin to Jim Crow…” The fascination comes from the two different attitudes expressed. Only the left seems to see the issue in its proper light in that it is either right or wrong; it cannot be considered wrong but then ignored. This, again, comes from their religious sentiment. The right, on the other hand, sees “gay marriage” as something which can be accommodated since they see it only as a “disagreement” and, therefore, something that can be put aside. Williamson went on to give an example that was particularly illuminating: In 1996, several groups on the right, including Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention, called for a boycott on Disney theme parks because of their friendliness toward the “gay agenda.” The effort failed dismally because, as Williamson implies, families did not see the issue as that important. They may have disagreed with Disney’s position, but they were not strong enough in their order to actually give Disney up.
The second reaction–and it truly is a reaction–is the one that realizes that we are in a war and that the war is of some importance. The problem comes from the fact that there is nothing of substance holding this reaction together. Charlie Kirk’s organization, Turning Point USA, is one example where this fact is revealed. To be fair, what Charlie Kirk has accomplished in creating and spreading his organization and its motto–“Big Government Sucks”–though rather crass, does tell a truth. The problem comes from the fact that the idea that big government is wrong because it impedes me is not a durable idea for a sustained movement and it certainly is no match for the left’s religious zealotry. Whereas the left has an order which springs from their Gnosticism and which, in turn, gives them their positions, many on the right, such as Turning Point USA, see their unity only as a way to free themselves, the individual, from the shackles of modern society (in this case, the intrusion of government). Whereas the left at least has an anthropology and seeks to take what might be called the “full man” (though their idea of the “full man” is horribly wrong) and an ethics system and a system of metaphysics, the contemporary right, has discarded much of that and has simply tied itself to the proposition that what elevates the individual and diminishes the government is good. It has, in other words, no moral imagination nor any appreciation for the “permanent things,” as Russell Kirk called them.
Many on the right claim that America is under assault from the left. This is entirely true. What the right needs to understand is that it must become deeper and wider than it is now. Only by forming a genuine order will the right be able to stand firmly against the left.