N.S. Lyons writes The Upheaval, ‘a wide-ranging newsletter exploring the nature, causes, and consequences of the chaos increasingly engulfing our lives as the world is forcibly reconfigured by at least three simultaneous revolutions: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former.’
I hope you enjoy this interview. The link to subscribe to his Substack is at the bottom.
1. What are the main revolutions happening today? And which do you think is most important and why?
I’ve previously singled out three big ones: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former. The technological one I first envisaged as the ongoing information revolution, including the internet and social media, but I’ve recently begun to think that there is an additional broader element as well, which is a revolution (or breakdown) in our conception of what it means to be human and even what the nature of reality actually is. This is too big a subject to get into here, but I think this is part of what’s driving current political and cultural conflicts connected to technology, and seems set to only accelerate.
I am undecided on which revolution is most important. On the one hand, there is a very strong argument to be made (which many have made) that it is the technological revolution that is most important, in that it has fundamentally changed how we connect and relate to each other, and therefore is radically changing our societies very rapidly. In this theory all the cultural and political conflict we’re seeing is just a secondary effect of this.
But, on the other hand, we can look back to history and see that the kind of ideological revolution we’re now witnessing has happened many times, even without any technological factor, and thus must ultimately arise not from causes outside ourselves but from human nature. I mean, we can look back and read Thucydides describing how, way back in 427 BC, “Revolution thus ran its course from city to city,” and “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” With “the party caprice of the moment their only standard,” “the advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.” “Religion was in honor with neither party; but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation.” And thus “every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow.”
So in the end I think the most important fact to focus on is that, for whatever reason, perhaps many, the prevailing idea and organizing principle of our society for the last few hundred years, liberalism, is in crisis, on multiple fronts, and hasn’t yet shown much resilience. And if that system of liberalism ends the world will be a very different place, for better or worse.
N.S. Lyons is spot on here. Philosophy anthropology certainly underlies the main tensions today. Fundamentally, the disagreement is about whether humans are merely matter without free will slowly progressing ever closer to an achievable utopia (the optimistic view of naturalism) or free and rational but fallen spiritual beings unable to save themselves (the traditional Christian view).
That revolution arises not from external causes but from within ourselves is profoundly important. The history of humanity is war punctuated by peace: bellicosity beleaguers us. Accordingly, the most bloodless political theories have always produced the bloodiest realities. Although N.S. Lyons is right that what we’re witnessing has happened many times before, however, how it is happening might be unprecedented.
This is because the ‘Long Peace’ from the end of WW2 to now really is unprecedented. And combined with our unprecedented material luxury and longevity, it has produced an unprecedented complacency. Meanwhile, since war is an expression of fallen human nature - a way in which our naturally tribal identities are discovered and directed - our civilisation is making war on itself.
2. To what extent is what we're experiencing today unprecedented?
Again, I don’t think any of this is unprecedented. As I said before, ideological revolutions are common in history. So are technological revolutions that led to societal political upheaval, such as the printing press, which helped launch the Reformation and the wars of religion in Europe. In general, I think history is the best guide for all of us in figuring out what is happening today – even if whatever that is hasn’t happened within living memory and is thus catching us by surprise.
For a contrasting view, see Michael’s Anton’s ‘Unprecedented’.
I agree about history. Most people cannot name ten Roman emperors or ten major Western battles. Like Athens, however, Rome was almost constantly at war. And the history of the West - like that of the world at large - is war. I would recommend the works of Victor Davis Hanson and Martin Van Creveld.
The history of Communism has also been conspicuously absent from education. Here are two worthwhile articles from Steven Lukes:
And let’s not forget that Hitler, too, was a socialist:
Theodor Haecker, Journal in the Night, tr. A Dru, Pantheon, 1950.
Paul Roubiczek, Across the Abyss: Diary Entries for the Year 1939-1940, tr. George Bird, Cambridge UP, 1982.
Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A Memoir, tr. O. Pretzel, Picador, 2000.
Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, The University of Chicago Press, 1955, 2017
3. Is Liberalism what needs to be saved, or the source of the problem?
Potentially it is both. I’ve come (against my will) to accept the view of the “post-liberals” best articulated by Patrick Deneen in his great book Why Liberalism Failed, that the anti-liberal ideology we are seeing flourish today is in fact a direct product of unrestrained liberalism’s flaws, including hyper individualism, the quest to abolish all limits, and a proliferation of rights that ironically requires an ever-expanding coercive state to guarantee such “freedoms.” Or as Deneen puts it: “Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded. As it becomes fully itself, it generates endemic pathologies more rapidly and pervasively than it is able to produce Band-Aids and veils to cover them.”
That said, I am not yet convinced that ditching liberalism is a good idea, since there isn’t any clear alternative that looks very pleasant. Ideally, it may be that liberalism can still be saved by reforming it. That is: by finding a new synthesis that integrates critical missing ideas that were unwisely stripped out of liberalism in a fit of over-enthusiasm. That would probably especially include traditional values and conservative principles that were lost as victorious liberalism established a near total ideological monopoly in Western societies.
Perhaps the central philosopher here is John Locke. Edward Feser has an excellent book on him, reviewed here.
4. Is rationalism savior or suspect?
I’m pretty convinced that the totalitarian ideologies – and obsession with politics generally – that we’re seeing emerging today are crude replacements for religion that are filling the “God-shaped hole” in Western society that has emerged as that society largely secularized. This is not to say that secularism is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, only that it seems to me that Jordan Peterson was right in his thesis that humans are fundamentally religious beings by nature, and that if you reject religion wholesale you just end up with “Stalin instead of God.”
That being said, I still think the secular rationalism that was produced by the Enlightenment and got us to where we are today has also had tremendously positive effects, including the scientific revolution and much of our material prosperity. So, again, I think it would be ideal to achieve a new societal synthesis that better embraces religion and traditional wisdom (including classical philosophy’s insights) about how to properly order a life in pursuit of the Good, while retaining the spirit of rational pursuit of truth in conformance with physical reality.
Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education is a full treatment of precisely this problem. In a memorable passage, he writes that, ‘we must face the fact that the vast expansion of man’s external powers by science and technology which are the creation of human reason have done nothing to strengthen the power of reason in the moral order which is its proper domain. For the moral order and the technological order have become out of gear with one another, and as the technological order has advanced and become stronger, the moral order has grown weaker. The technological order lends itself most easily to the service of the will to power which, as Nietzsche saw, is a fundamentally amoral power, destructive of moral values. It resembles those jinn of whom we read in the Arabian Nights that were ready to do anything, good or bad, in the service of any man who possessed the word of power or the talisman.’
5. Is the machine of technological-capitalism sustainable, and is it a blessing or a curse?
This is basically a subset of the last two questions: has the global machine of liberal-rational-capitalism produced more pathologies than benefits? I’d lean toward no: it is still a net positive, drastically reducing poverty and of course keeping many people alive. But we should also not turn a blind eye to the fact that it really is producing pathologies that are causing big problems. That includes accelerating ideological reactions, but also other better known problems like environmental degradation, wealth inequality, whatever the tech oligarchs in Silicon Valley have planned for us normal humans, etc.
It is unclear to me that it is still a net positive. More people were killed by their own governments in the twentieth-century than were killed in all the wars throughout human history previously.
6. In his Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), Walter Lippmann argued that 'the radical error of the modern democratic gospel is that it promises, not the good life of this world, but the perfect life of heaven.' To what extent do you think the woke revolution (and the totalitarian tendencies of modern politics more broadly) are spilt religion - attempts to satisfy man's ineradicable spiritual yearnings?
Yes, I think that is absolutely right. And in fact I would go a bit farther and say that Wokeness is subconsciously in fact a religion (whether its followers realize this or not), and a Protestant heresy in particular. It has absolutely all the hallmarks of a Christian belief system, including concepts of original sin, celebration of the weak and of martyrs, specific rituals of worship, excommunication for heresy, and on and on (just not any of the forgiveness, or grace, or any of the sophisticated, positive stuff). And what makes it specifically Protestant is that it carries to an extreme Martin Luther’s dream of a “priesthood of all believers,” in which each individual rejects hierarchies and determines their own personal relationship with God / the spiritual – and therefore in this case ultimately their own reality and values. This is then combined with a rejection of any divine afterlife, creating an urgent drive to create the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth (utopia). I’d also say it’s specifically a Gnostic heresy, but I won’t get into that here.
This is a trenchant insight and just one reason you should subscribe to N.S. Lyons on Substack. Gnosticism is the doctrine of salvation by knowledge, as indicated by the etymology of the word (gnosis "knowledge", gnostikos, "good at knowing"). Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the soul attains its proper end by obedience of mind (faith) and will (works) to the Supreme Power. Gnosticism, however, places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics, as "people who knew", constituted - they believed - a superior class of beings. There are parallels here with Levin’s intellectual vanguard of revolutionary elites: the masses don’t know what’s good for them.
7. Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m conflicted. I am confident that things are going to get better on the ideological revolution front, eventually – people will revolt in order to return to sanity eventually. But I don’t know when this will be (it took 70 years for the USSR to collapse, after all…), and I’m fairly certain that things will get worse before they get better. Those believing political backlash (as is now gathering momentum in the United States) will solve the problem are I think mistaken; this is not fundamentally only a political problem, but a theological and economic-class one, in my view. None of the structural drivers will have changed, even if conservatives win some elections. Meanwhile China isn’t going anywhere yet, and of course the technological revolution shows no sign of slowing down.
I agree, and we shouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. Fallen man tends towards disorder. I will be exploring this idea further in an article on Pascal, who wrote insightfully about humanity’s aversion to truth.