The bitterness of broken ideals

John C. Wright pens a long, far-ranging, and insightful essay, beginning, of all things, with a quasi-Noir SF novel written by Keith Laumer. This is the section I found to be of particular interest, defining as it does the four schools of modern applied philosophy.

Usually the books that have the profoundest effect on us are those
encountered in the green youth of early adulthood, in the late teens or
early twenties, which provide some schema or structural explanation of
the complexities of life young adults so dearly need to orient
themselves. In my case, however, there is at least one book I
encountered later in life which provided a framework of pellucid clarity
for understanding the relation of schools of thought one to another.
There is many a student who regards the description in Plato’s REPUBLIC
of the degrees of the degeneration of the state as just such an
epiphany. This was to me what the REPUBLIC was to them. It comes from a
tract called NIHILISM by a man who delights in the name Archmonk Brother Seraphim Rose, albeit he was born Eugene Rose.

Rose’s scheme groups the schools of thought of Western man as he falls away from Christianity into four general categories.

The first school of thought is the classical liberal position of the
pragmatic man, which says that religious opinion is a private matter
that ought not to disturb the public weal by insisting on any special or
central position in life. Instead of God as the source and center and
summit of civilized life, or precise theologically defined dogmas
addressed to the last nuance, we should have instead a rogue and vague
dogma saying only that each man should mind his own business.

In this school, each man is free to seek his own pleasures in his own
way, climb to the summit of his ambitions without necessarily stepping
on those below him (but not necessarily giving him a hand either). We
all must agree only on general rules of civility and good sportsmanship
needed for public order; we need encourage and obey the civic virtues of
teamwork and self sacrifice where needed to keep the family, the city,
and the market free from fraud, trespass, or invasion, and perhaps to
curb such gross immorality or bad taste as pollutes the public weal.
Each man must show respect for the religious opinions of others without
showing uncomely zeal for his own.

In this school, ideals are impractical, because the world is
imperfect and cannot be made perfect; but civic virtue and the prudent
exercise of liberty and civilized tolerance of the dissent of others,
which is their prudent exercise of their liberty, is crucial. A healthy
respect for what are called ‘Judeo-Christian Values’ is crucial to the
civil order. God is not crucial.

Ironically, this is the liberal position as classically understood,
characterized by Locke and other Enlightenment writers, what would now
be called conservative. To avoid confusion, let us call this pragmatic and man-centric school
of thought ‘Worldliness.’ They want to leave heaven alone and tend to
business here on earth. They are hard-headed and hard-hearted men,
idealistic only for ideals that work, impatient with theory, concerned
with results.

The second school of thought is the sharp rebellion against this.
Where the Worldly position seeks worldly wealth, civic peace, and the
comfort of conformity in opinion, the radical rebellion seeks Heaven on
Earth, Utopian visions made solid, and all pragmatism is rejected as
treason against the Great Dream of the great cause. Religion and
Worldliness are rejected with scorn in favor of Ideology. Ideals are
impractical, so this school holds, only because men are weak vessels too
selfish to practice them: all the world could be made perfect if only
sufficient force was used on weak men by a sufficiently enlightened and
despotic Glorious Leader.

The only Ideology to afflict the modern era is Socialism and its
various mild epigones, Fabianism, Leftism, Feminism, Environmentalism,
Political Correctness,  and other Marxist offshoots. Nowadays they are
accustomed to deny their Marxist roots, but gaily and liberally use
simplistic Marxist myths about oppressors and oppressed to analyze human
relations between man and workingman, man and women, man and nature,
man and ideas. The relation is one of a ruthless Darwinian struggle for
survival between man and fill-in-the-blank, and even saying “he” rather
than “he and she” is defined as an act of oppression.

In this school, freedom is dismissed as selfishness and sacrificed to
the common good or the Great Dream of the Utopian vision. Man lives for
his neighbor, or, to be precise, for the Utopian vision. The only rules
demanded are those of loyalty to the Great Dream; disobedience of civil
authority either peaceful or violent or manically bloodthirsty is
allowed or required. All institutions of the state and church and civil
society are to be smashed, or, in the less violent version of the
Ideology, subverted, suborned, and subordinated to the Utopian vision.
Only the Great Dream merits love, loyalty, respect, honesty, courtesy;
only the Great Dream has rights; anyone disloyal to the Great Dream is
an enemy. Life is crusade.

Hatred of God and Man, hatred of Judeo-Christian and indeed all
civilized values of any sort, is required in the long run, albeit a
pretense of respecting ideals such as compassion for the poor or the
equality of man is needed during the initial subversive period, to gain
the aid of useful idiots.

Because this school of thought changes its name and its public
rationale as frequently as the fashion industry changes the height of
skirt hems, and because this school is fundamentally subversive, that
is, fundamentally based on an inner circle deceiving the useful idiots
of an outer circle who believe the opposite of the movement’s true
purpose, no unambiguous name can be assigned these ideologues.

They are Socialists in economic issues, feminists on family
questions, Greens on questions of industrial policy, Race-baiters and
Hatemongers on questions of face, absurdist in art and vulgarians in
culture, totalitarians in politics but libertarians when it comes to
questions of vice and victimless crimes. They are materialists on
philosophical issues, secularists on religious issues, pacifists on
military issues (unless the question is civil war and the overthrow of
their own institutions, whereupon they are bloodthirsty warhawks and
apologists, nay, groupie and shrieking bobbysoxers of the world’s
filthiest dictators).

In sum, they are idolaters who substitute the worship of Caesar for
the worship of Christ; they are Gnostics in the posture of eternal
rebellion both against God in Heaven and civil society on Earth. They
are chameleons who adopt any ideals or values or party lines needed for
so long as needed to destroy them, including Pragmatism, including
Worldliness. They are Politically Correct and factually incorrect.

They seek to destroy civilized institutions here on Earth and drag
Utopia down from heaven to replace them, indifferent, or even glorying,
in the bloodshed required.

To avoid confusion, let us call them Ideologues. They are utterly
unworldly, rejecting the pragmatism of the Worldly Man as cold and
loveless and unspiritual. The Ideologues are as nearly a pure evil as mankind has ever produced
or can imagine, but please note that their motives are the highest and
noblest imaginable: they seek things of the spirit, peace on earth, food
for the poor, dignity given to all men, and all such things which are
the only things, the holy things, that can electrify dull mankind and
stir him to take up the banner and trumpet and shining lance of high and
holy crusade.

The pure putrefaction of their evil springs from their materialist
philosophy, which says that man can create Eden on Earth, and overthrow
the Curse on Adam that he must labor for his bread, overthrow the Curse
of Eve, that says she will be subject to her husband, and over throw the
curse on the snake, that says he will be bruised. Merely reaching out
one’s hand, breaking all the laws of reason and morality, will allow
one’s eyes to be opened, and to be God.

The materialist philosophy says that in a godless world all we need
do to overthrow the laws of economics and the limits of human nature is
shed enough blood and make enough sacrifices of other innocent people,
and the mouths of endless cornucopias will be opened. You cannot make an
omelet without a genocide of innocent eggs, and without Walter Duranty
to get a Pulitzer for lying his ass off about it.

The Ideologue is a revulsion of the Worldly Man and his civilized
pragmatism. The Worldly Man accepts necessary evils. The Worldly Man is
willing to go to war for peace, and willing to tolerate his neighbor for
peace. The Ideologue tolerates no one and nothing, not even an unspoken
thought, if it is against the Party, against the Program, against the
Great Leader, or against the Great Dream. The Ideologue is a
heresy-hunter. But he is also a coward, since he is not willing to go to
war; it revolts him that reality makes war necessary. He thinks peace
comes from placating enemies with gifts, or enlightening them through
education to the wonders of the Great Dream.

A third school of thought is in sharp rebellion against the first
two. These are Otherworldly types, Theosophists and Spiritualists and
New Age gurus and believers in various Americanized forms of Buddhism or
Witchcraft or Astrology who utterly reject both the materialistic
worldliness of the Worldly Man, and the fanaticism and bloodlust of the

The Otherworldly Men seek peace through renunciation, and escape from
the turmoil of life through the pursuit of inner tranquility, perhaps
aided by mystic visions, meditations, or voices from the outer worlds,
or hallucinogenic drugs. Not for them the looming smokestack of the scientifically planned
socialist utopia of the Ideologues, nor the loud billboards and hungry
strip malls of the Worldly. They want to live in Hobbiton, or Arcadia,
of with the tribes that only exist in the imagination of Rousseau, noble
savages in harmony with nature, or perhaps the movie DANCES WITH WOLVES
or AVATAR (not the real one).

This movement has never been numerous enough to merit its own name,
and although it often combined with the Ideologues their enemies against
their mutual enemies the Worldly Men, the Otherworldly Men have no
name. Call them Spiritualists.

The Spiritualists are utterly unpragmatic and irrational about their
religious sentiments. They are the type of men who believe in angels but
not in God. They have no use for theology or reasoning about spiritual
or moral issues, much less metaphysics. They are the dilettante and
aesthetes of the spirit world, seeking sensation rather than
understanding, novelty rather than certainty, seeking a spiritual truth
that will serve them and flatter them and provide for them, not a God
whom they must serve.

They feel toward the things of the spirit what the Worldly Man feels
towards worldly goods in the marketplace. The only thing the
Spiritualist does not want is a final answer, an organized religion, a
Church. They want to hear gossip from the Ghost of Cleopatra but not
words of power from the Prophet Jeremiah. The only thing the spiritual
seeker does not want is for the Holy Spirit to come to find him, and to
find him out.

The Spiritualists are as nearly worthless in peace or war as it is
possible for any warm bodies occupying space and breathing in otherwise
useful oxygen can be, but their motive is noble and high and pure. They
suffer the same revulsion about worldliness and the same yearning for
something better than war as does a hermit standing on a pillar in the

Their drive is indeed purely spiritual, but it does not drive them
toward the only reality worth seeking in the spirit world, namely, the
Holy Spirit. Hence the effort is self-centered, reaches nowhere,
inspires no social revolutions, builds no observatories, erects no
universities, opens no charity hospitals, captures no Holy Lands, kills
no Saracens, galvanizes no missionaries to spread the Good News of
Fashionable Theosophist Blither to the enlightened savages. Charity, the
burning love of the Christian, is impossible in the Spiritualist
framework because charity requires an objective standard of values, a
living truth as terrible as unquenchable fire, and not merely a selfish
seeking for truth.

Although much less violent and much, much, much less
dishonest than the Ideologues, the Spiritualists are also, ironically,
farther from God and farther from the truth. The Ideologue is at least
willing to join a crusade, man a barricade, march in a protest, send
money and mash notes to gangsters in Russia and sadists in Cuba, and
falsify news reports about the murders and enormities of their fellow

The Ideologue has a perverted ideal of charity toward the poor and
downtrodden in the same way that the homosexual has a perverted ideal of
romantic love; and it is just as sterile and vile. But in the same way
that the sodomite at least is a step above masturbation, in that his
love at least turns outward toward another man, the Ideologue is at
least concerned with destroying allegedly unjust social institutions
such as church and state and marriage and sanity, whereas the
Spiritualist wishes, like the shy cenobite, to withdraw from the shock
and jar of the world and seek the ineffable in private. Spiritualism is
the otherworldly version of the Sin of Onan.

The final school of thought is not a school of thought at all, but an
exhausted rejection of thought. This is Nihilism, and it is the
dominant philosophy of our age, and the unspoken assumption underlying
nearly every major social policy debated or enacted today.

Nihilism is the metaphysical posture that no truth is actually true.
If no truth is true, life is what you yourself have the strength of will
to decree it to be, like God separating Light from Darkness at the dawn
of time, by fiat. If no truth is true, no flag is truly worth dying for
or fighting for or even arguing about, and no marriage is final and no
contract is binding and your word of honor means nothing, and you owe
your friends no loyalty.

If no truth is true, the only impermissible sin is to believe and preach and practice the truth.

Nihilism shares with Worldliness its patience for dissent. Since no
truth is true, there is no point in disagreeing with another man, nor
even having a deep conversation with him on any topic, not even to
discover whether he disagrees or not.

Nihilism shares with Ideologues its contempt for worldly and material
things, for ambition and self-made men. None of these things are worth
seeking in and of themselves, but only if you, in your godlike
self-sovereignty, deem or decree them to be worth seeking.

Nihilism shares with Spiritualism its distaste for theology or reason or organized religion.

The Nihilist lives in a formless void, and believes only in himself,
his willpower, his self image and his self esteem. His motto is that
life is what you make it.

He sees the long and tragic history of man, with all its kings and
slaves and wars and empires and monarchs and democracies and despots and
with all its philosophers and saints and sages, and sees that none of
these things have brought peace.

And so he condemns all systems, all sagacity and all saintliness to
oblivion, and promises that as soon as men realize that there is nothing
in the universe, then nothing will be worth fighting for, and man will
have peace.

The Nihilist does not mention that man will no longer be man in any
recognizable sense of the word, merely a dull lump of meat seeking to
beguile the hours with diversions both refined and profane until kindly
death relieves him of the intolerable burden of an conscious existence
he did not seek and does not use. Nihilism is the cult of death.

Unlike the Worldly Man, or the Ideologue, or the Spiritualist, the
Nihilist seeks nothing but to bolster his self esteem and entertain
himself to death. Nihilism is an end-state. There is no room for a
rebellion away from Nihilism because there is nothing away from which to

The reason why I say the scheme of Seraphim Rose maps out the mental
landscape from now until the end of the world is that Nihilism is a dead
end. There is no further point of degeneration beneath which to fall.
Once your philosophy tells you all philosophy is vain, you cannot erect a
new philosophical variation on that foundation. There will never be
such a thing as Neo-Nihilism or Post-Nihilism.

The reason why I say the scheme is complete is that there are no
other major variations possible, once Christianity is abandoned, for a

The whole essay is well worth the investment of time required.  Read it. His observation concerning Nihilism is particularly significant with regards to literature, especially SF/F literature. It is evident that we are in the process of seeing SF/F transform from the Ideologues like John Scalzi, Steven Gould, and their female acolytes who are far too trivial to bother naming, to the Nihilists such as George Martin and Joe Abercrombie, just as it previously transformed from the Worldly perspective of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov to the Ideologues.

Against these things stand the Traditionalists of the Empty Tomb. With MacDonald and Chesterton and Lewis and Tolkien we will stand, as unmoved and unimpressed by the Nihilists as we were by the Ideologues and the Spiritualists before them.  And while we can co-exist in mutual self-respect with the Worldly, we must recognize that our perspectives and philosophies are, in the end, fundamentally different, though not necessarily opposed.