in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: October 1, 2021

Podcast #628: The Rise of Secular Religion and the New Puritanism

There has been a lot of civil and political upheaval lately, and what makes the atmosphere particularly disorienting, is that beyond the more obvious proximate and commonly-discussed causes for the turmoil, it feels like there are even deeper cultural currents and contexts at play, that are yet hard to put one’s finger on and understand. There’s a fervor in the debates and conflict that almost seems . . . religious.

My guest today would say that’s exactly the right word to describe the tenor of things. His name is Jacob Howland, he’s a recently retired professor of philosophy, and the currents at play in today’s world are things he’s spent his whole career studying — from Plato and Aristotle to the Hebrew Bible and Kierkegaard, with a particular emphasis on the political philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Howland draws on all those areas to weave together a kind of philosophical roadmap to how we’ve arrived at our current cultural zeitgeist. In particular, Howland makes the case that what we’re seeing today is the rise of a kind of secular religion, a new Puritanism, that worships at what he calls “the Church of Humanity.” This new Puritanism bases the idea of moral purity around one’s views on issues like race and gender, and seeks to purge anyone who doesn’t adhere to the proscribed dogma. 

Jacob walks us through the tenets of the dominant influence on this secular religion — a strain of modern thought called “critical theory” — and offers a kind of philosophical genealogy on what led up to it, which includes the ideas of Rousseau, Marx, and Hegel. We discuss how critical theory contrasts with classical liberalism, and approaches people as members of groups rather than as individuals, and as abstractions rather than particulars, and how this lens on the world leads to identity politics and cancel culture. We delve into Kierkegaard’s prophecies on the leveling of society, and how the modern tendency to make man the measure of all things can leave us feeling spiritually and intellectually empty, and looking to politics to fill an existential void it can’t ultimately satisfy. We end our conversation describing the sustenance which can.

If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.

Show Highlights

  • The Christian quest for certainty in salvation and how it changed society
  • What does “secular salvation” look like? What is “the church of humanity”?
  • The tribal echo chambers of modern institutions 
  • Virtue signaling and performative ethics 
  • The genealogy of this secular protestantism 
  • What is classic liberalism? 
  • Understanding society through the prism of large groups vs. individuals 
  • Why we’re really good at criticism and not-so-good at positive thought 
  • How does humanism change human behavior?
  • The cancellation of Socrates 
  • How can studying philosophy help people navigate our crazy age?

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. There’s been a lot of civil and political upheaval lately. And what makes the atmosphere particular disorienting is that beyond the more obvious proximate and calmly discussed causes for the turmoil, it feels like there are even deeper culture currents and context at play that are yet hard to put one’s finger on and understand. There’s a fervor in these debates and conflict that almost seems religious. My guest today would say that’s exactly the right word to describe the tenor of things. His name is Jacob Howland. He’s a recently retired professor of philosophy. And the currents at play in today’s world are things he spent his whole career studying. From Plato and Aristotle to the Hebrew Bible and Kierkegaard with a particular emphasis on the political philosophy of the ancient Greeks. Howland draws on all these areas to view together a philosophical roadmap on how we arrived at our current cultural zeitgeist.

In particular, Howland makes the case that what we’re seeing today is the rise of a secular religion, a new Puritanism that worships at what he calls the Church of Humanity. This new Puritanism, bases the idea of moral purity around one’s views on issues like race and gender and seeks to purge anyone who doesn’t adhere to the prescribed dogma. Jacob walks us through the tenents of the dominant influence of this secular religion, strain of modern thought called critical theory, and offers a kind of philosophical genealogy on what led up to it, which includes the ideas of Descartes, Rousseau, Marx, and Hegel. We discuss how critical theory contrasts with classical liberalism and approaches people as members of groups rather than as individuals and as abstractions rather than particulars. And how this lens of the world leads to identity politics and cancel culture. We then delve into Kierkegaard’s prophecies on the leveling of society, how the modern tendency to make man the measure of all things can leave us feeling spiritually and intellectually empty and looking to politics to fill an existential void you can’t ultimately satisfy. And we end our conversation, describing the sustenance which can. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Jacob Howland, welcome back to the show.

Jacob Howland: It’s great to be here, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are a Professor of Philosophy now retired from the University of Tulsa. And we had you on the show, I think it was two years ago. I think it’s been two years or has it been a year?

Jacob Howland: Either one or two years. I actually can’t remember.

Brett McKay: Well, we had you on the show to talk about your book, Glaucon’s Fate.

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s a really… We got a lot of great feedback on that episode. The whole premise of Glaucon’s Fate, is you make this really intriguing case that one of the goals that Plato had when writing the Republic, trying to answer, “What is justice?” is to persuade his brother, Glaucon, to embrace the life of philosophy and turn away from political ambition or become a tyrant. And it was… Like I said, we’ll link to that show in the show notes. But I wanted to bring you back on because a few months ago back in April, you wrote an article for a website called New Discourse, it’s called the New Calvinists. And you make this case that modern society in the West, and you’ve seen this in the United States, is experiencing a new form of Puritanism, but it’s a secular godless form of Puritanism. So what are the signs? What are the signs of this rising, secular, Puritan culture?

Jacob Howland: Yeah. Well, so I take my bearings on this question by Max Weber and in particular, his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. And in this book, Weber argued that industrial capitalism springs in large part from the attempt of 16th and 17th century, what he called Puritans, in particular, Calvinists, to work out their salvation anxiety, and this is a very radical thesis. So what did he mean by this? Calvin taught a doctrine of double predestination. And that means that God decides from eternity that a few human beings are saved, but the vast majority are damned. And this produced, Weber understood, anxiety in the believer. Because, of course, the overriding question is, “Are you among the damned or the saved?”

And so the question was, “How could a believer be assured that he or she was among the saved?” And the answer lay in achieving worldly prosperity and success because it was taken as an article of faith that no one can prosper in the world without the grace of God. And God would not show God’s grace to the damned. And so the Calvinists promoted, of course, habits of hard work and frugality and so forth, that would in many cases, lead to prosperity and power. But this was a way of proving that you’re among the saved. And of assuaging this kind of calling salvation anxiety. Now, according to Weber, Calvinism resulted in a basic transformation of the traditional religious ethos of Christianity. And he writes, “In place of humble sinners, Calvinism bred self-confidence saints,” people who are assured of their goodness and rightness with God.

But the thing is that the quest for certainty didn’t stop there because although Calvin himself argued that everybody had to worship God, it didn’t matter if you’re damned or saved, you gotta go to church and worship God. Inevitably perhaps people started saying, “Well, the minister needs to be among the saved,” you see. “And the church administrators.” And ultimately even this proved insufficient, and there was a movement of purification. The congregation came to be viewed as a community of the elect, community of people who are manifestly saved, and that means those who met the criteria of wealth and power and so forth. So there was a gradual process of purification, and that resulted in a kind of echo chamber, in which believers were able to authenticate their claims to salvation within a mutually reinforcing social framework, they’re surrounded by people like them.

Now, how does this bring us to today? Well, one of Weber’s great insights is that religion continues to operate in context where it is not obviously visible or even where it’s been publicly repudiated. And I argue that his analysis of this Puritanism and salvation anxiety helps us to understand what you might call the social and psychological economy of secular salvation today. And what do I mean by that? Well, I’m considering in particular successful politically progressive men and women, most of these people don’t… No longer believe in the doctrine of God, okay? But they do take their bearings by a kind of decayed residue of biblical categories.

So like their Puritan forebearers, the American elite value worldly success, and methodical and purpose of work, instrumental reason and so forth. But unlike the old elite, their good fortune and power suffuses them with liberal guilt. And unlike the old elite, they don’t confess and repent their sins to God, but to man, to fellow human beings. I think it’s fair to say that in the elite universities, and not just the elites anymore, they learned to commit themselves to socially transformative moral action. And so the imperatives that they heed are not the imperatives of the Bible, but of contemporary social consciousness. And the salvation that they seek is not bestowed by God, but by congregants in what I’m calling the church of humanity. And so this, it seems to me, is the inner meaning of what’s now called virtue signaling. It’s an activity that is meant to elicit public approval from like-minded people.

In addition, the psychological and social economy of secular salvation develops along lines that are familiar from Weber. In practice, the church of humanity offers salvation to all. It elevates humanity as such into sort of an object of worship, but in practice, it exhibits purifying impulses. So some of the earliest converts to this sort of social justice church of humanity were found in the academy, where the need for social validation of its doctrines eventually resulted in an almost, what is now almost a complete purge of conservative voices, and in particular, intellectual traditionalists. And that is now happening, especially recently in sort of multiple institutions across the political spectrum. And that phenomenon reproduces something that has been happening for years now in social media and in news outlets and so forth, and that is that those institutions are becoming sort of tribal echo chambers, if I may say, where people only talk to those who are from their own convictions. And it’s kind of a dangerous attitude because the attitude, whether on the right or the left or whatever, is that, “We are the saved. We are saintly and righteous and justified, and everyone else is damned and somehow polluted.”

Brett McKay: Gotcha. Alright, so just to recap here. So you make this argument that based on Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic, Protestant whatever, that we’ve just replaced it. Instead of being anxious about our salvation with God, we’re anxious about our moral purity, whether we got the right ideas, whether we’re for certain causes or not. And if you’re not, then you have to do these, perform these things to show that you are. That’s what we’re seeing now. So let’s talk about how we got here. So you mentioned… ‘Cause I want to do sort of a genealogy of this secular puritanism. ‘Cause you talked about Calvin and the Protestant work ethic and the sort of salvation anxiety as part of what’s going on, but there’s also more going on because you make the case that this stuff that’s been happening, it didn’t happen overnight. It’s actually several philosophical strains merging together to create this ascendant ethos. So let’s start from the present and then kind of work our way back.

So in this past month, I think a lot of people have been hearing a lot of talk about what’s called critical theory when it comes to issues to race, particularly gender, sexuality. It can also be… You use critical theory to talk about disabilities, mental health. What is critical theory and who are the originators and why do they think it was necessary to develop this critical theory philosophy?

Jacob Howland: Yeah, So critical theory originated with German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition, and we’re talking the ’20s, ’30s of the last century. And I would say that proponents that your listeners might recognize are people like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Herbert Marcuse, if those names are meaningful. According to Horkheimer, a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them. That’s the way that he put it. So the assumption behind critical theory is that human beings are dominated and oppressed by social conditions, but here’s the thing, social conditions that we ourselves have created. And critical theory attempts to ferret out the mechanisms of oppression, so to identify them, with a very practical purpose, that is to eliminate them, okay? And therefore enslave us.

Brett McKay: So it sounds good intentions.

Jacob Howland: Right.

Brett McKay: Okay.

Jacob Howland: Exactly. And in fact, speaking of good intentions, so for example, the huge, and in my view, deplorable wealth gap between the wealthiest Americans, we’re talking people like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and these guys, and the poorest Americans, might be subjected from the point of critical theory to a Marxist critique that explores the exploitation of labor. But of course, critical theory can be and has been applied to other areas of inequality based on race, or sex, sexual orientation and so forth. Now one way to look at this, since you mentioned Plato earlier, is to sort of think about it in terms of the image of the cave in Plato’s Republic. And as your listeners surely know, Socrates in The Republic compares the situation of human beings to prisoners chained up in the bottom of a cave. And what they’re looking at, which they take to be reality, are just shadows on a wall cast by hidden puppeteers up behind them. The light strikes… The light from the fire strikes the puppets and creates the shadows.

So the cave image presents a system of deception and manipulation. And the thing is, and here, this is crucial, the prisoners don’t even know that they’re enchained. They don’t know that they’re enslaved. And I should say that part of critical theory is, is trying to show people that, “You may think you’re free, but actually you’re enslaved.” Now, the Enlightenment. And I wanna talk about the Enlightenment, because Horkheimer and Adorno, these two original critical theorists who wrote a book called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and they criticized the Enlightenment. Well, what’s the Enlightenment about? Well, go back to the cave image. We live in darkness, but there is a sunlit upland outside the cave. This is the world of reality, and there’s the light of the good and so forth. And the idea is to get out of the cave. One way to look at the enlightenment is through science and through social rationality and so forth. We’re gonna bring everybody out of the cave into the light, okay. And we’re gonna liberate the prisoners from domination and oppression.

Horkheimer and Adorno argued that the Enlightenment actually failed, and in fact, it made things worse. It produced, for example, a very narrowly instrumental conception of reason that resulted in even greater enslavement and exploitation. And by the way, there’s a lot to this. I think it’s really important to understand what is good and significant, even in theories whose general application or orientation you might reject for other reasons. Horkheimer and Adorno were both Jewish Germans, and they thought a lot about the Holocaust, and they said, “Hmm, this is very strange, we have a tactically advanced, culturally enlightened, one might say rational society that engaged in massive acts of murder and theft and enslavement.” So there’s a lot to that. What I think we wanna talk about today or what’s on the minds surely of many people today, is the way that critical theory or social analysis plays a big role in public life. And that has moved far away from the original critical theorists who were part of… I should have said earlier, something called, The Frankfurt School.

And I’m thinking especially of identity politics and what’s called intersectionality. And intersectionality is the idea that interlocking structures of power. So you might be female and Black and gay, and what have you, and those different characteristics which puts you in a minority, an oppressed minority, combine to marginalize and oppress certain social groups, while maintaining others in positions of power and privilege. So actually last year, I came across in the Xerox machine up here at the University of Tulsa a document called, “Intersecting Axes of Privilege, Domination, and Oppression.” And I just wanna give listeners an idea of the sorts of categories that are now applied, that have grown out of critical theory to understand oppression in the United States. So according to this chart, there was a whole list of oppressors. People who are male and masculine, female and feminine, male, white, European, heterosexual, able-bodied, credentialed, young, attractive, upper and upper middle class, Anglophones, light, pale skin, gentile, non-Jews and fertile. And there’s no question that this list has expanded since then, you can find characteristics that differentiate people in ways that someone who wants to find them, could say, actually produce oppression.

Brett McKay: Alright, so just to clarify here, so the original critical theorists back in the ’20s and ’30s, they were looking at oppression in terms of economics, primarily?

Jacob Howland: That was where it came from and…

Brett McKay: That’s where it came from.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: And then it’s just… It’s morphed over the decades into, “We’re gonna not only look at income inequality, but we’re gonna look at how power dynamics can be influenced by things like race, gender, whatever.”

Jacob Howland: Yeah, exactly. Even the original critical theorists weren’t simply limited to economics because as I say, they developed a powerful critique of modern rationality, but this definitely has a Marxist origin because Marx was like the grandfather of Critical Theory.

Brett McKay: Right, well, let’s talk about Marx. ‘Cause I think a lot of people hear… You see thrown around, “Well, this is Marxist.” And I don’t think a lot of people… Sometimes I’m like, “What does that actually mean?” What is something to be Marxist? Or Neo-Marxist, what does that mean? So let’s talk about how… What was Marx’s idea and how did he influence critical theory? And I think we also have to talk about… Probably Hegel, too.

Jacob Howland: Well, we have to talk about a lot of philosophers, I would say.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so we’re going backwards. So we’re going backwards. So we talked about the originators of critical theory. We’re seeing this… What it’s turned into now, where you look at different parts of your person’s identity that can give you privilege or make you oppressed. And then Marx… We’ll start with… So, let’s go to Marx. What was Marx’s idea, and how did that influence what we’re seeing today?

Jacob Howland: Yeah, well, I’d like to put Marx in a larger context, if that’s okay.

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s do that.

Jacob Howland: But since you mentioned Marx, let me start with him and maybe work backward. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that communism is the solution to the riddle of history and knows itself to be such. And one thing I wanna point out here is that history is conceived by Marx, and again, this is a trait that we find in critical theory and identity politics and intersectionality and so forth today. It’s conceived to be a riddle or a problem with a solution. And in the case of Marx, that solution is provided by Marx’s scientific analysis of the relations of production, so he writes two volumes of Capital. Actually, I guess there’s a third volume that’s incomplete, he’s got all this economic analysis. And I wanna point out that business about conceiving of history and in general of human social existence as a problem that has a scientific solution. I’ll come back to that later, but another point about Marx is that he wrote in a little piece of writing called, Theses on Feuerbach that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.” The point is to change it, and this is a very important modern idea. And again, the emphasis is on transformative action. Now, we can talk about Marx a little bit more, but if you like, I can go back and sort of try to situate him in a larger philosophical context.

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s do it. It sounds interesting ’cause Marx seems like he’s a product of the Enlightenment, using scientific reasoning…

Jacob Howland: Yeah, right, exactly. So with respect to the Enlightenment, people like Horkheimer and Adorno were very critical of the Enlightenment. But those early critical theorists themselves took a characteristically modern orientation toward philosophy, and in many respects exemplified sort of Enlightenment principles and understandings. And I can talk about a couple people who… Let me just say, sort of in self defense, this is not meant to be… What I’m gonna say is not meant to be a kind of complete genealogy of Critical Theory. I wanna point to a couple of thinkers who, I think, had decisive influence and who kind of exemplify what you might call the ethos of Critical Theory and the kinds of things that we’re seeing today. The first thinker is Descartes. Now, why do I start with Descartes? Well, Descartes, first of all, was first and foremost a mathematician. We owe analytical geometry to him. So you can create algebraic equations to map curves and solve all kinds of problems and so forth.

Descartes wrote a book called, “The Discourse on Method.” And in this book, famously in part six of this book, he argues that if we base all of our knowledge on mathematical science, we can become, “the masters and possessors of nature.” And this is a definitively modern aspiration. I should say basing it on mathematical science in order to come up with applied sciences, what we today call technology. A definitively modern aspiration, it really represents a fundamental sea change, if you will, in the orientation and the intellectual and spiritual attitude toward the world.

Brett McKay: What was it before? How would you describe that?

Jacob Howland: Well, I’ll start with modernity. Modernity wants to remake the world because it’s dissatisfied with the world as it stands. So it seeks knowledge that’s gonna be useful, as in the case of Descartes, Descartes in reshaping things materially and constructing new forms of society. In general, and of course, there are gonna be exceptions, but in general, pre-modern thinkers in the philosophical and religious traditions recognized the basic order and goodness of the given or created world. And I’m using words “given” or “created” because I wanna get the Greeks in here as well as the biblical tradition. They sought to know the natural or created order and to bring the soul into conformity with it. So this was an opening of the soul to a reality that transcends it, to a pre-existing, divine reality. And I think the word “divine,” I mean, Plato kind of re-interprets Greek gods, and the highest divine principle is the good. This is it sort of what he compares to the sun.

Brett McKay: Or like the Stoics, the… You wanna live your life in accordance to nature.

Jacob Howland: Exactly. Exactly. Modernity reverses this. It changes our very experience of the world. So I’ll give you one example. A medieval Christian might look up at the night sky, and that individual might see an animated cosmos of bright heavenly bodies embedded in spheres of increasing size. So the planets, each planet has its own sphere, and the stars have their spheres and so forth, of increasing nearness to God. And in the words of CS Lewis, who wrote a wonderful book called, “The Discarded Image,” they would see a “lighted, warmed and resonant-with-music cosmos.” The cosmos that was that. Moderns look up, and they see cold, empty space, not a cosmos, but space. Pascal describes the universe as “a sphere of infinite size whose center is everywhere.” The infinite, empty sphere whose infinite silence so disturbed Pascal. So for Descartes, it’s a very abstract notion, is what I’m trying to get at, compared to the kind of concrete richness of a pre-modern conception of the world.

For Descartes, matter, the very stuff of the world, is drained of concrete richness. Why? Because he sees it simply as what he calls extension. Now, what is extension? It’s a purely mathematical abstract concept. It can be measured, it can be reformed, and it can be imprinted by human beings at will. So the world is not something we attune ourselves to. What happens from the Cartesian point of view? And this is really decisive for all of modernity. To be masters and possessors of nature is to reshape the world in accordance with human needs and desires. And it’s these needs and desires that produce what Descartes calls problems. Descartes is the guy who told us to begin with, “Break everything, break every problem into its parts. You’re looking for solutions.” So for example, for Descartes, man suffers from mortality. And in the “Discourse on Method” in the section where he says we can become masters and possessors of nature, he says, “Mathematical science in the medical field may in fact help us one day to overcome the infirmities of old age,” that means to make us immortal.

Brett McKay: So this is Promethean?

Jacob Howland: Yeah. It is absolutely Promethean. [chuckle] And I might mention in this connection, we were talking earlier, and you said you had just read and you’re reading Descartes’ Meditations. It has six parts. The “Discourse on Method” has six parts. Descartes scholars understand this to be a deliberate imitation of the six days of God’s creation. To be masters and possessors of nature is to recreate the universe. And by the way… So I should say here, the Cartesian project of rendering us masters and possessors of nature turns us into what Sigmund Freud, writing in 1930, calls prosthetic gods. We have all this equipment and materials and radio beams and all this kind of stuff. And if I may mention, if we can make man immortal through medical science, heaven and hell become irrelevant. God is increasingly irrelevant. Now, let’s talk about the critical theorists. The critical theorists take over the Cartesian perspective of world-making in response to problems generated by human desire, and they apply it to the mastery of the human social world. See, Descartes was interested in technology. He’s not particularly concerned with political questions or oppression or anything like that.

The critical theorists see social and political life as a set of structural and moral problems, problems of justice and so forth, to be solved. And one of the problems is, I mentioned the abstractness of the modern view, is that that inevitably results in considering human beings only in the aggregate, that is to say formally and abstractly. Why? Because the relevant structures that produce the problems and have to be adjusted have to do with large-scale relationships between groups divided by class and race and ethnicity and religion and sexual orientation and the like, and maybe we should talk a little bit about liberalism, classical liberalism, and then come back to see how…

Brett McKay: Right, okay. Yeah, so let’s talk about… Okay, so what you’re saying is that the critical theorists took this idea of Descartes of abstraction where you can solve problems through abstraction, applied it to sociality, so in order to solve the problems, you have to treat individuals as part of a collective. So it’s like you’re not just Jacob Howland, you’re a Jewish guy, that’s all that matters, all that matters is Jewish, that’s what this… So you abstract… So let’s talk about liberalism, it seems like liberalism goes the opposite direction, it tends to focus on the individual.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, and so I might say some things about liberalism and then I wanna return and mention Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who’s the other thinker besides Marx and Descartes that fit in here. So there’s a lot to say about how critical theory and identity politics relates to liberalism, I wanna focus on a couple of essential differences, and to be absolutely clear by liberal… So words change their meanings, and today if I say, “Brett you’re a liberal,” I mean you’re pretty far left on the political spectrum.

Brett McKay: That’s what we mean today, right.

Jacob Howland: Right. What we’re talking about is classic liberalism, okay, the foundational idea of the American republic, there are some things I wanna say about this. Every regime, even those that purport to be neutral, incorporates an understanding of the human good. And the founders of the American republic, these classic liberals, had I think an extraordinarily broad mind and an expansive understanding of the good life for human beings. And as you know in the Declaration of Independence, it’s based on inalienable rights given by the creator, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Note by the way, not happiness but the pursuit of it, that the individual pursue it. And the founders of liberalism emphasize individual freedom and dignity, the incomparable worth of the single individual. By the way, this is something we find in Judaism and Christianity as well, and that classic liberalism values the education and development of the peculiarities of mind and taste and character that make each of us distinctive individuals.

And, so they thought, that enrich the common store of humanity. These are… If we have people developing their peculiar talents and tastes and capabilities, it gives us this varied and rich context in which we ourselves can think about the possibilities of life and the sorts of things that we might be capable of. Classic liberalism and the American founders for sure are uncompromising in their opposition to the tyranny of the majority and the defense of the political value of freedom of speech. So the founders’ belief for example, that good policy and intelligent decisions can be arrived at only through public debate and deliberation, the articulation and consideration of multiple points of view. We see this for example in John Stuart Mill’s brilliant short book on liberty, which from my point of view should be required reading for all high school students.

Critical theory in its current form of identity politics focuses not on the individual but on the group, in fact it’s highly critical of American individuals, and it takes American individuals to be a kind of myth created by dominant groups to help support their social positions and to maintain oppressive structures of power. So from the point of view of Critical Theory, one’s identity does not derive, as you said earlier, Brett, from individual characteristics like the content of your character but from certain traits that may seem accidental, but that Critical Theory considers to be essential, male, white, European, things like this.

That’s one thing, another thing is that, from the point of view of Critical Theory and identity politics, society is a zero-sum competition between groups. And what I mean by zero-sum, of course, is one group’s gain is another group’s loss. Zero-sum is a pie, I get a bigger piece of the pie, you get a smaller piece. And more important the professed goal is not individual freedom and dignity but complete equality between the groups. That’s how the human good is understood. You see, the liberal idea is the human good resides with the flourishing of the individual, the idea from the point of view of identity politics is the good is the achievement of equality between groups.

It doesn’t consist in an individual’s free and conscious choices or in an individual conscience in thought and character but in a certain sort of relationship between groups. I think this is a fundamental mistake. It’s a mistake that became quite apparent to Soviet authors, that is the best Soviet authors like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and so forth. Vasily Grossman wrote a book called Life and Fate, and I think he expresses the liberal idea really well in a particular passage. I just wanna read it to you, “Human groupings have one main purpose to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right, but this is where a terrible fateful error is born, the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a state are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No, the only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.” This is the testimony of a man who suffered great oppression in the Soviet Union.

Brett McKay: Alright, so… Let’s just highlight the difference you recapped. So, liberalism, it wants the individual to flourish and it wants as many individuals to flourish as possible. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll flourish. You have the right to pursue happiness, but not necessarily mean you get it. But the idea is that, if you have as many people pursuing their happiness, we’ll get all this great stuff, and more interaction going on and we’ll have… Stuff will pop out, right?

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And then in Critical Theory, the idea is like, no, it’s not the individual matters, we wanna make sure that groups as such, they’re all just equal.

Jacob Howland: Exactly, and it’s… Let me comment here…

Brett McKay: And that stuff… ‘Cause it sounds like a great thing. It’s like, “Who doesn’t want equality?” They’re like, why… What happens when you…

Jacob Howland: Right. So… And I think we have to distinguish here between equality of opportunity, which is absolutely essential. I believe that’s what the founders meant when they said, “All men are created equal.” And obviously today, men and women. But equality of outcome is a different thing, and so we’re now seeing, for example, certain calls of… We need 50% of the employees to be in a certain oppressed category and so on and so forth. But let me also say something about the Liberal Idea here. I just watched Hamilton. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, the musical?

Brett McKay: I have not.

Jacob Howland: It’s terrific. It’s really terrific, and one of the things I like about it very much is it sort of presents the mystery of Alexander Hamilton for us. Here’s a guy that just came from very disadvantaged circumstances and so forth. And he became this sort of brilliant genius. And what’s crucial is that he was educated, largely self-educated. His mother had 35 books or something, they were good books, Plutarch’s Lives and things like this, and he read them. I think the idea of the founders was that, if you develop individual potentialities, right, if you educate minds, if you develop characters, if you give them powerful models, good books from the tradition, so they can see the range of human possibilities, you will get good leaders. Leaders who are capable of adjusting themselves to ever-changing circumstances and making wise and prudent and good decisions. So, for Plato, everything comes down to education, and I think that’s extremely important.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s continue this genealogy. So let’s talk about… Next, you said… You mentioned Rousseau.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, yeah, so maybe I can just point out that understanding human beings in terms of these large groups based on certain kinds of characteristics that are deemed to be essential, which may or may not be viewed as essential by the individuals within that group, it’s not a particularly liberal viewpoint. In the first place, of course, it doesn’t take account of the individual, but only of the group. It abstracts from the individual and from the quality of individual. It tends to replace qualitative considerations with quantitative ones, where like averages, aggregates, least common denominators and so forth. But the second thing I wanna mention, this goes back to Descartes as well, is that liberalism doesn’t see politics as problems to be solved by some sort of social science or by an analysis that asserts itself with great and perhaps unmerited conviction as unimpeachable knowledge, but as a kind of art, as I suggested earlier, of dealing with a constantly changing reality.

And again, to recapitulate, that relies on the existence of educated individuals who are capable through debate and discussion of collectively setting a course for the society by exercising well-educated judgments. The founders understood that there are no permanent solutions to political problems. An analogy that has come home to me living in Oklahoma, as you know, Brett, we have something called dry rot.

Brett McKay: Right, in this state.

Jacob Howland: It’s not like you can paint your house and your window sills and all the wood surfaces that are exposed to the harsh conditions of the Oklahoma weather and say, “It’s painted, problem solved.” You can’t do it.

Brett McKay: Yeah, no. I’m actually having this issue. There’s this window frame, it’s just falling apart, and I painted it two years ago.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, exactly. And so you have to go back and deal with the rotted wood and cut it out and fix stuff. Let’s go to Rousseau. Another milestone on the road to Critical Theory is provided by Rousseau. Now, prior to Rousseau, pretty much the entire philosophical and religious tradition believed that man was a depraved animal. Okay, Plato had no doubt about it, the theme that human beings are sick, there’s something wrong with us, our inquisitiveness, our insatiable desires and so forth, and obviously the biblical tradition as well. Rousseau argues that we’re good by nature. He’s got this idea of the noble savage. But we’re corrupted by society, which is a construction of human beings. And you see, if that’s the case, then all of the bad things, criminality and injustice and inequality and so forth, could in principle, be solved by deconstructing and then reconstructing society. And by the way, Rousseau, this view very much encouraged the French revolutionaries, and it seems to be an article of faith among critical theorists. I say seems to be because I’m sort of giving them the benefit of the doubt that it’s not just a question of a continual sort of critique, but something that’s gonna get us somewhere. That was the Marxist vision, right? Because communism is the solution to the riddle of history, so we’re going to actually solve these problems.

Brett McKay: So this is interesting. So Rousseau introduced this idea that, man is by nature is a depraved… In fact, in some mythical time, everything was fantastic, we lived in common, there was no oppression, and so we’re trying to get back to that. How did he propose we do that? Was it through large scale? Just burn the thing down and then get back…

Jacob Howland: Now that’s a really interesting question because Rousseau presents us with two very, very different pictures, if you will. We might think that we should get back to the noble savage, and that’s not the route that he himself suggests we should follow. Although, it is the route that some who have read Rousseau suggest we should we should follow. So in the early ’90s, I was teaching a philosophy class, this was the period of the character called, The Unabomber. And as you may recall, The Unabomber mailed bombs in particular to people who were sort of involved in high technology, because he literally wanted to sort of bomb us back to the stone age. His view, and it was influenced to some extent, by Rousseau, was that human beings, like other animals, our… Not happiness, but we ought to be occupying our days subsisting. Other animals forage, squirrels forage for nuts and stuff like that, all the animals are busy all day, just providing the conditions of their existence. The problem with human beings is when technology allows us to rise above that, we have free time, we get bored and we get into all kinds of trouble. [chuckle]

But going back to Rousseau, the… Oh sorry, I should say in my class, I don’t know if it’s relevant, but we were reading Rousseau and other philosophers and I said, “Let’s try to figure out the identity of this guy ’cause he’s obviously read this stuff.” But going back to Rousseau, the other vision that he offers is a kind of total or even totalitarian state. He loved Sparta. Sparta is the state… One of the states in human history that exercised maximum control over human beings. It’s not like you would say, “What am I gonna be? I’m a Spartan. What am I gonna be when I grow up?” “You’re gonna be a Spartan, you’re gonna be a warrior.” And if you’re not, you’re done. You’re not part of the society.

And so there was a high degree of regulation. And so Rousseau sort of presents that as an alternative. In other words, if we don’t want the arrogance and the pride and all these other kinds of problem, we have to have really maximal educational… And let’s say, indoctrination and control over human beings. And so you’re left with Rousseau… I should say, by the way, I’m sure that many listeners who are more educated on specific matters than I am may say, “Oh, this isn’t quite right about Rousseau.” But my impression as a kind of amateur reader and teacher of Rousseau is that he gives us these sort of two alternatives [chuckle] and says, “Well, guys, choose. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna be Spartans or are you gonna be… ”

Brett McKay: Living in a cave.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, right.

Brett McKay: Right.

Jacob Howland: And the latter is not really possible for us.

Brett McKay: Right. So Rousseau introduces the idea, again, that you can think of people in terms of a collective. The individual doesn’t matter, it’s what you do in the group.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: That’s what matters. And as you said that inspired the French Revolution.

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: The Jacobins really took this idea and ran with it and they said, “Hey, we’re just gonna round up all the bourgeoisie… ”

Jacob Howland: Yes.

Brett McKay: “Kill them all and maybe we’ll go back to this wonderful, beautiful, blissful state of nature.”

Jacob Howland: Yeah, they wanted to promote liberty and equality and fraternity, and they did apply this group analysis. They said, “You’re bourgeois or priests and monks and so on and so forth.” These people are in classes. That’s what matters, it’s not a question of, “I’m gonna find out who Brett McKay is and decide whether this guy has a place in our society.” It’s “No, Brett’s a priest” or “Brett’s bourgouise” or “Brett’s aristocracy.”

Brett McKay: Right.

Jacob Howland: The French Revolution was the first and most decisive revolution ’cause it sort of set the model for all subsequent revolutions. The Soviet Revolution, Maoism and so on and so forth, and certainly fascism. We can find these characteristics. You can look at the Nazis, you can look at the communists… Group analysis is the big thing.

Brett McKay: And it’s funny, it’s interesting, you see this idea of going back to some mythical prehistory. Even in Islamic jihadism…

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s the same idea. It’s like, “Well, if we can just destroy everything, we’ll be able to raise this caliphate” in a way it shouldn’t… But it’s a very… They think… It seems like ancient and primitive, but it’s actually a very modern idea that you can just destroy everything and then start up from scratch.

Jacob Howland: That’s a really important observation. And the thing about the modern era is we excel at criticism. If you want to… I think Marx, he’s got theory of surplus value and a number of accounts of capitalism that are really very persuasive. You look at Nietzsche and his reflections on problems in modern society are outstanding. I could go on but… And then we say like, “Okay, well, what does Marx offer?” Well… And I’ve read, I haven’t proved this myself, but that Marx talks about the communist society, what it’s actually gonna be like for about six pages in a shelf of writings. Nietzsche, he’s got a screwy idea of the superman, the Ubermensch. So we’re really, really good at saying, “What’s wrong with this? What are the flaws? What are the problems? How can we deconstruct it?” But we’re not so great at positive thinking, and part of the reason is that I don’t think we’re attuned to the organic character of human life.

Human beings, this is a theme I’m gonna come back to perhaps in our discussion, but let me just suggest now, we grow up in local circumstances, we speak different languages, we live in different regions with different plants and animals and flora and fauna and climates and so on and so forth, we inhabit local spaces, particular traditions, places with customs and habits and so forth, and those things grow organically, they’re not planned by some bureaucratic agency or something like this. But that kind of central planning and construction is really a character of the moderns and it doesn’t tend to produce very good results.

Brett McKay: Yeah, pretty much every… You look in America, we’ve had utopian experiments, they’ve all failed.

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: None of them have worked out great.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.

Brett McKay: So Rousseau, this idea that, “Okay, we wanna see individuals as part of a collective and we can use mass scale… Use the government basically to enforce that.” Marx picks up on that idea.

Jacob Howland: Yep. You got it.

Brett McKay: It sounds like in his ideas that we can… And the problem he’s trying to solve is the inequality between the proletariat and the capitalist.

Jacob Howland: Right, exactly. And so Marx is, let us say, the child of Rousseau and Descartes, right?

Brett McKay: Right.

Jacob Howland: Because Marx really believes, I’ve got a science. It’s economic science, and economic science is the fundamental social science because the conditions of our existence come from our material relations, and I can explain the material relations and I can show how if we change means of production and stuff like this, and the relationship of ownership and workers and capitalists and so forth, we can change the conditions in which human beings relate to each other, we can overcome the alienation between human beings, the sort of dog-eat-dog world of struggle to make money and so forth, and we can have a kind of brotherhood of man. And that will restore us to a kind of… That scientific approach, Cartesian analysis and approach applied to society will restore us to something like a Rousseauvian world in which we can hunt and fish in the morning and read philosophy in the afternoon and have lots of leisure time and so forth.

Brett McKay: But so, I think maybe this is a good point to talk about Hegel, his thesis and thesis, and his idea is, okay, you can come to a solution to these problems by having these contrasts. And then there’s sort of a synthesis that’s supposed to happen at some point.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: But it never seems to happen, it just seems like it’s just a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, so Hegel’s interesting here because first of all, he picks up on Hobbes in a very particular way. For Hobbes, if you look at his discussion in the Leviathan of the reasons for conflict between human beings… I think he’s often misinterpreted as saying, “It’s a matter of scarcity.” You and I fight in the state and nature because there’s not enough food to go around or something. No, it has to do with human pride. Human beings are vain glorious, right? And when two people meet in the wild, one is bound to insult each other or the other and to impede on the other. Hegel picks this up.

Very important part of the phenomenology of spirit is his notion of the struggle for recognition. And he makes recognition, that is respect. My view that you have a place in the world, you are equal, you are somebody who has rights as well, I can’t step over a certain boundary, I can’t murder you, I can’t… That’s absolutely crucial. And Hegel builds that idea of respect into his view of what human beings are looking for, what’s going to make us happy, he uses the word satisfaction. Part of the problem with that, is that it puts human fulfillment entirely in a social context. But he has to go beyond the social context in order to believe in or see his way to a equilibrium of mutual respect.

So later in the phenomenology, he talks about a disagreement between what he calls a person of the beautiful soul who kind of doesn’t do anything but wants to maintain his or her moral purity, doesn’t descend into politics ’cause politics is filthy and so forth. But considers himself to be beautiful. And then the active person who rebukes that beautiful soul for saying, “You’re not involved, you’re not trying to change things.” And so they get in this fight because one of them doesn’t do anything and the other accuses the other of violating principles of justice. It’s resolved by a kind of agreement on both sides that they’re both wrong. A kind of understanding of humility. And you see, from the way I read Hegel, that’s really only possible, if you have a moment of transcendence, a light in which you can see that human beings are fallible creatures that we should be humble, that I think involves an understanding of something above us, some conception of the divine, some conception of beings or the possibility of being wiser than we are. So Hegel’s interesting, I think he puts us on this road where respect, recognition, which is what’s all this stuff is about today. The race and sex and all these things, all about. I’m here too, I’m important, give me my recognition. It’s not clear to me… And I would actually put it more strongly, I believe that’s important for human beings, but it’s not the be all and end all. It’s not gonna satisfy us fundamentally.

Brett McKay: Is that pretty much it? So Descartes, Rousseau, Marx. And so it seems like… It’s all, after Critical Theory, this idea that instead of seeing people as individuals, you see them only as abstractions based around a part of their identity, and we can make changes in our society by toying with or messing with these different parts of identity.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, yeah. And I think this perspective of raising human beings to the place that let’s say was previously occupied by God. We’re making humanity as such an object of admiration. This tends to warp behavior, maybe we could…

Brett McKay: Yeah, how do you think it warps behavior? We’ve replaced God and this could… Even if you’re not a theist, then you could say like, “There’s an idea of a common good.” Like Plato’s idea of…

Jacob Howland: Yeah, right.

Brett McKay: Truth, justice, beauty, right?

Jacob Howland: Right, right. So let me go back to look at Critical Theory again in the context of religion. First of all, making humanity as such an object of worship is biblically speaking, idolatry.

Brett McKay: Right.

Jacob Howland: Which by the way, that was the greatest of all sins in the Hebrew Bible.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Jacob Howland: The Christians have the idea of original sin and so forth. But the sin in the Hebrew Bible is idolatry. And If humanity has been elevated to the level of God, then there’s nothing above man, there aren’t any divine measures that transcend our everyday existence in time. I can put it this way, the worship of humanity inflates the human world to such an extent that we begin to lose the possibility of transcendence. To go back to Plato’s cave, it’s as if the mouth of the cave were closed off. And we couldn’t access truth or being beyond the cave.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah.

Jacob Howland: Because it’s all politics, it’s all… This is what absorbs everybody. Man becomes the measure of all things. And as the Sophist Protagoras said. Well, that was his remark, that “Man becomes a measure of all things.” And metaphysically speaking, if you like, “We’re without stars to steer by.” And here’s the really frightening thing about all this, if man is the measure of all things, the problem is that the measures of man are always changing. And they do so with incredible rapidity in a revolutionary age like ours. And so, what was respectable opinion a year ago or maybe even a month ago, is now condemned.

And that’s a kind of chaos, what’s especially noteworthy to pursue the religious theme about the deifiers of humanity is that they justify their action in accordance with Christian principles of compassion and charity. This is something Dostoevsky understood. In the Brothers Karamazov he’s got this character, the grand inquisitor. So Jesus comes back to the world, the grand inquisitor has Him arrested. Says, “I’m gonna burn you at the stake tomorrow.” [chuckle] Why? And after 90 years, he pours out his heart to Jesus, and he says to Him, he accuses Him of “Loving only the few strong human beings who can follow Him out of their own free choice and free love. But not caring for the great mass of humanity, who are too weak and childish to follow Him. In other words, the grand inquisitor says to Jesus, “You’re insufficiently compassionate.” That’s a kind of anti-Christianity that turns Christianity on its head.

I wanna say the church of humanity abstracts from particular human beings in order to produce this infinite abstraction of human being as such, humanity as such. That’s a reversal of the Christian story of incarnation, right? Because in that story, the universal, infinite, awesome creator of the universe becomes a particular human being, which by the way, I find to be an absolutely tremendous and beautiful expression of the worth and dignity of the individual, but the church of humanity goes the other way, it says “Humanity as such, humanity as such” and these particular differences that add richness and meaning to our lives are then turned against us because these are your male ways or these are your white ways, or these are whatever it may be. There’s one more very important thing, really important. The identity politics of the church of humanity actually divides human beings into opposed groups. Victims and oppressors, the pure and the impure. But here’s the problem, the impurity can’t be washed away. Go back to Christianity… Catholicism, confess your sins, you get absolution. But the impurity in this case is, so to speak, ontological, it’s inherent in who you are. Say you’re white, you’re male, you can’t do anything about these things.

Brett McKay: So here we are. We’ve kind of done this genealogy of this secular puritanism, so I guess the orthodoxy is influenced by critical theory. You look at humanity as abstractions and your goal is to make everyone feel equal and you do that by ignoring the individual, you just look at sort of these identity groups. And it sounds like it’s just… It’s almost, it’s like just pure power. It’s just will to power. Who can dominate with conversation? That’s why, “Well, we’re just gonna completely eliminate your point of view because you are an oppressor.”

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And it seems like liberalism, one of the, I guess, the benefits of a liberal view, and by liberal, I’m talking about classical liberal, is that it sets in place a process where you can figure out these problems without resorting to just pure power plays.

Jacob Howland: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s the idea, right? In theory.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, right. And look, I don’t deny that politics and much of society has a heck of a lot to do with power, there’s no question, but there is a sense in which the inflation, so to speak, of politics and social relations kind of eclipses these other concerns. So, yeah, if there are power relations that prevent people from having equality of opportunity, then these things need to be addressed, but there is a sense in which today, going back to the Hegelian idea of respect and recognition, that our politics today is hugely symbolic. We are represented in certain spheres. And so this issue of who gets enough respect and recognition in certain sort of representational context. What shows are on TV or what voices are heard, or what kind of music is played, or what sort of paintings are put up on the wall, who produced them and so forth. It eclipses other concerns which are, What is the quality of the art that is produced?

Brett McKay: Is this good? Right.

Jacob Howland: What is the richness of the voice that is singing? What are the prospects that are opened up by this kind of thinking? It produces a kind of uniformity, and incidentally, it inevitably leads, as I said earlier, to echo chambers and to a kind of tyranny, and this is rather old. Plato knew about this. Take someone like Socrates. He occurred to me in this context, because the liberal vision is a vision of educated, developed, intelligent individuals. Active, reflective centers of moral responsibility who speak their mind and profess their faith in public so that everybody can hear it, and if there are things that are wrong with it, it can be corrected. That’s Socrates. Socrates is executed.

Brett McKay: He got cancelled.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, he got cancelled.

Brett McKay: Right.

Jacob Howland: He was put on trial for corrupting the young and for impiety, and so he goes into his trial and one of his accusers, Meletus, he drags him up and he starts talking with him in the trial, and he gets Meletus to say that Socrates is the only person in Athens who corrupts the young, that he is, and Socrates describes his accusers, and this is born out by this whole conversation, as considering him to be most polluted, most polluted. He’s gotta be purified. And when Meletus says, “You’re the dude, you’re the one. If we just get rid of you, we’re good,” This is classic scapegoating. And what did Socrates stand for? Well, one of the most common adjectives applied to Socrates in the platonic dialogues is “atopos”, it literally means out of place, you could translate it strange. That’s the problem with Socrates, he didn’t fit in. Now, if you’ve got these big group ideas, you’ve got a conception, so you run into these difficulties and it produces its own kinds of cancellations, not quite as severe as Socrates.

Brett McKay: Right. Right. And then going back to this idea isn’t new, this idea of what we’ve been talking about, these things we’re seeing in the modern world, you see this in Plato. As I was… Before this conversation, I was thinking about the sophists, and the sophists, you kind of see sophists today, there’s people out there who will… You can pay them so you know the right things to say and how to present yourself so that people will give you the… It’s just like the sophists, you pay the sophist back in Ancient Athens, tell me the right thing to say, the right arguments to make, but you’re not really doing anything, it’s just you’re just sort of, I don’t know, parroting stuff, and it doesn’t mean anything.

Jacob Howland: Yeah. Exactly right. And Protagoras, he was sort of the most famous sophist and he went around and basically what he’s doing is he’s coming to… He actually traveled around the Greek cities and he advised people, and essentially what he’s doing is saying, “Ah, these are the rules of the game here in Corinth, okay? And if you wanna get ahead, I can tell you how to play the Corinthian game.” [chuckle] Now that doesn’t… That’s a kind of internal troubleshooting. You have a mechanism. No one’s standing here and saying, “Are Corinthian values good values? Should we all be Corinthians? Is there a better way?” No. It’s like, “You wanna be a Corinthian? Here’s what you do. Here’s how you present yourself.” And that’s a kind of neutral attitude that again doesn’t open up a possibility for gauging yourself by sort of transcendence. By looking at things in the light of the good or of the divine light of God, or whatever it is that is not simply time bound, finite passing, but eternal and perhaps universal and infinite in some way, that’s beyond us.

Brett McKay: So you can encourage a moral relativism. So whatever’s in Corinth, I’m gonna do that or whatever is the in vogue… Like you’re going back to the idea of whenever you get rid of the idea of God or a larger transcendent good, and you’re just looking at humanity to get your moral bearings, one of the dangers of that is just moral relativism. It’s like well, in this situation you’re gonna… This is good, but in this situation, it’s bad.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I would sort of go on here, man does not live by earthly bread alone, and we need intellectual and spiritual nourishment. And I actually think, Brett, that a lot of the dissatisfaction today in our… This includes affluent Americans who have lots of so to speak, earthly bread. What do I mean by earthly bread? Food, clothing, shelter, plus entertainment, physical amusements and so forth, bodily stuff. But why are they dissatisfied? Because they’re not getting that intellectual and spiritual nourishment which I think one primary vehicle is the tradition. And how is the tradition handed down? It’s handed down in particular communities of teaching and learning, faith congregations, meaningful connections between human beings, reading groups like the ones that you’re in. And the odd thing about we’re not living by earthly bread alone, is that we long for… I think we long for something to devote ourselves to. Something to give our lives a kind of higher purpose. Now today that position is occupied for many people by the church of humanity, and so you can see people who maybe in fact had a religious upbringing, but now that’s kind of been transferred over to moral imperatives, of equality and stuff like this.

And so… This is another way in which, going back to Max Weber, religion continues to imprint us and to guide us even in our highly secular society. There is a kind of religious devotion to certain kinds of moral principles, and there’s another sense in which there are articles of faith because people will put them today beyond debate or discussion. So if somebody asks you or calls into question certain kinds of fundamental principles, the response might be, “That’s not a legitimate discussion. We’re not gonna have that discussion. These are off limits. And even maybe your speech, your questioning is itself a kind of violence and it makes me feel unsafe and so forth.” You see what I’m getting at. But the problem is that that’s not the real spiritual and intellectual nourishment. I think these are kinds of ersatz substitutes. And we’re bound to be disappointed. We are not the highest thing in the universe, and if we worship ourselves as stuff, we’re just bound to be disappointed.

Brett McKay: No, I think that’s a good point. I think a lot of people, they wanna feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. I think that it’s an innate human drive, but I think you’re making this case is that we’re basically… We’re substituting humanity for something transcendent.

Jacob Howland: Yeah. Actually I can make this point with respect to the philosophical tradition as well. So this was a big part of the appeal of fascism and communism in the 20th century. Marx in effect promises heaven on Earth in the communist society. This is an observation familiar to many people. He translates into human history a kind of milleniarial divine history. And we’re gonna have this in society. We’re gonna have this Eden. Martin Heidegger. Martin Heidegger was the son of a Saxton, and he originally studied theology before he switched to philosophy, and he infamously argued in his rectoral address in 1933 after Hitler had come to power that Nazism would be a new revelation of Being with a capital B and for Heidegger, Being is God. In other words, Nazism would be a new revelation of Being for the German people. This is why I kind of think of Heidegger as a sort of prophet. These are religious impulses. Heidegger is expressing the idea that what’s happening here and now is like world historically relevant because it relates to Being, not just to events but to this highest thing that is his understanding of the philosophical translation of God. This is a natural human tendency. We want to see our lives in connection with something higher, more important that we can devote ourselves to that we can bow down to. And if there’s gonna be a vacuum, it’s gonna be felt.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think another thing too, you’ve written about Kierkegaard before and I’ve been rereading him… I’m actually reading this book called The Existential Survival Guide written by this really fun professor, who was a boxing trainer but now he’s a philosopher.

Jacob Howland: Gordon Marino.

Brett McKay: Gordon Marino, yeah.

Jacob Howland: He’s a good friend of mine.

Brett McKay: Alright. So yeah, I’m talking to him on the podcast next week.

Jacob Howland: Oh, terrific. Say hi to him for me.

Brett McKay: I will.

Jacob Howland: Good. Good. Good.

Brett McKay: So… Gordon, Kierkegaard is like his guy. He loves Kierkegaard. And it seems like Kierkegaard was also a prophet of this modern age. Kierkegaard, he’s the first existential philosopher. He was seen as that. He came from a Christian perspective, but he thought modern thinking… He saw how it could lead to corruption. And one of the insights that he had, and you’ve written about this, is that modern thinking and the democratic ethos can lead to this leveling. That’s sort of the natural… And this leveling for Kierkegaard was like everyone just ends up the same, and that might seem good, you know, you’re like, “Hey, equality. Well, how can you be against equality?” But he says there’s some dangers in that leveling process.

Jacob Howland: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Kierkegaard defended the freedom to judge for one’s self and to speak and act for one’s self and to come to be one’s self in the fullness of one’s individual particularity, but he warned in an incredibly prophetic book called Two Ages which was published in 1846, against the danger of exactly what you said, he called it leveling, in the name, by the way, of democratic equality. Now, what did he mean by leveling? He meant the destruction of organic communities of human beings. Families, congregations, nations and so forth.

And there’s a sense in which modernity, and I should also mention in this context, capitalism. Capitalism has been described as a kind of creative destruction, but one thing it does, it comes in and it’s like, “In this town, they used to have this industry, no more, boom, goodbye.” So it wipes things away and so forth, but Kierkegaard sort of understood that human beings are local creatures, again, they have these organic communities, and there was something very disturbing about modernity. And so he made this incredibly prophetic remark, he said that, he said, and this is basically a quotation, “The abstraction of leveling is related to a higher negativity, pure humanity.” He used those words, “Pure humanity.” He already understood in 1846 that there was gonna be this movement of focusing on pure humanity, and again, if you’re gonna have pure humanity, you gotta get rid, you…

Brett McKay: No differences.

Jacob Howland: Yeah. Right. You can’t have particularity. By the way, the only thing that he saw that was good about this was that with all of these organic communities gone and so forth, we would be standing in an unmediated relationship to God, just you and God. [laughter] There’s no… But he predicted that nothing… And this is terrifying for me. He predicted, because he was such a prophet, that nothing would be able to stop what he called the spontaneous combustion of the human race. He said, “It’s gonna happen.” It’s gonna happen.

Brett McKay: So, this is all leading up to that, the spontaneous combustion of the human race?

Jacob Howland: Yeah. Gone.

Brett McKay: What did he mean by that? Just like, we’re just gonna wipe ourselves out?

Jacob Howland: Well, I think he was foreseeing something that Dostoevsky foresaw as well. Maybe I should make a little more mark here. I’ve come to understand the claims of the medieval philosopher, al-Farabi and the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides that philosophy and prophecy are identical. And what I mean by that is people who… I’m gonna say this is philosophy. People who really, really understand the human world, understand us, anthropologically, metaphysically and so forth, they can predict things, they can understand what’s gonna happen. So Dostoevsky, in his book, Demons, he actually predicts that this kind of nihilistic socialistic revolutionary tendencies would kill 100 million people, which is the total in the black book of communism, of the deaths in the 20th century owing to communism. How does he do that?

Because he understands the forces of nihilism, these sort of destructive forces. Kierkegaard, I think, understood in some vague way, the things that we saw in Nazi Germany, in Maoist China, in the Soviet Union, in Pol Pot’s regime of the Khmer Rouge, and in other places where there’s just this kind of destructive rage that comes through and clears away all these structures in the name of a higher good, of making the world better. By the way, the Nazis thought this too. They’re like, “We’re gonna serve all humanity by getting rid of the infection of these Untermenschen, right, these lower species of human beings, Jews, Poles, etcetera.

Brett McKay: That’s a good point. I think sometimes when we think about Nazis or communists or Stalin, we think like… The way they’re portrayed in the media is like they know they’re bad guys and like.

Jacob Howland: No. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: No, they actually thought they were the good guys. They thought they were doing something good. I think you’re going back to CS Lewis, he had this quote, it’s like, “You gotta be careful. The tyrants you have to be most on guard for are the ones who want to do you good.” Because they’re just gonna keep going and going until they think they’ve done you good.

Jacob Howland: Vasily Grossman whom I quoted earlier, in his book Life and Faith, he’s got a letter from a guy in… Actually it’s in a Nazi camp, its a huge sprawling book and he’s got stuff all over. And the guy says that more evil has been done in the name of Good with a capital G than has been done by people who simply are pursuing evil. I think that’s really interesting, I mean… And see all of that gets accelerated by modern technology. If you’ve got a means of disposing of 10,000 people a day in a gas chamber and crematoria or whatever, you can really go to town. But also electronic means, surveillance, internet and all this kind of stuff, those things kind of amplify the potential for leveling.

Brett McKay: All this stuff’s happening, right, so there’s a lot of changes going on in our culture, and I think a lot of people might feel disoriented, and I’m hoping this conversation we’ve had can kind of give people an idea of how we got here. You’re a philosopher, how do you think studying philosophy can help people manage or understand and navigate this current age we’re living in?

Jacob Howland: Yeah, so navigate is the right word. Being alive today is like being in a flood. The currents come along, they wipe out the landscape, they sweep you up, they spin you around, and you don’t know where they’re gonna deposit you. And so, I think we need more than ever to have some compass points to orient ourselves. We gotta be able, at least like Hamlet, even if we don’t know where true North is, as he says he can reckon North by Northwest. And those compass points are not to be found in the flood itself. That’s not gonna happen. For me, that orientation has come from a study, not just of philosophy, but of Western literature and history and science. And this is… The original idea of the university was a place where the best that had been thought and created and said could be passed down from generation to generation, could be preserved and developed and extended and passed down. And tradition is just absolutely fundamental for giving us a sense of how to find our feet and how to orient ourselves in a rapidly changing world. And I think that… This is why for me, the study of the classic books of the great books needs to be maintained. I think people… Students read a lot of books, but not necessarily the really important ones that are gonna endure. If you got a chance to read Dante’s, Divine Comedy or some recent book by some professor on some subject and you gotta choose between them, I know what the right choice is.

Brett McKay: Right. Well Jacob, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about what you’re doing?

Jacob Howland: Yeah. Actually, probably the easiest thing is to go to And if you go there, you can see some of the information about me and so forth. But for listeners of this podcast, I would especially recommend you click on the word, More. You got like publications, whatever, and click on, More. And there is a button that shows up called Links. If you go to that, you can click on articles that I’ve written that pertain quite directly to the kinds of things we’ve been talking about on our podcast, so I would begin there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Jacob Howland, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Jacob Howland: Thanks so much Brett. Always great to be with you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Jacob Howland. He’s a now retired professor from the University of Tulsa. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check at our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Check at our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to Sign up. Use code “Manliness” at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding all to not only listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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