By Walt Garlington for the Saker Blog
Mr Paul Gottfried gives us a standard line about the need to return to the Golden Age of the American republic at the end of a short book review he penned:
Since Janowski leaves his heuristic queries open, this reviewer feels free to note that the egalitarian democracy he so graphically describes represents a falling away from something much better. It is a denaturing of the constitutional republic upholding federalism and ordered liberty that marked America’s earlier phase. The United States was not always the quasi-tyranny it is now becoming. It started with a well-conceived political order, one that some Americans wish to return to.
But is this still really a tenable ideal and goal? What did the former English colonies gain from independence in 1776? Is it not the truth that the colonies lost nearly everything a traditional people would consider worth living for and exchanged it for never-ending political feuds and money-grabbing after that fateful year?
There is hardly anything of cultural value to speak of in the United States today. What lover of beauty 500 years from now will have any desire to watch Saturday Night Live or play Grand Theft Auto or own a Ford F-150 pickup truck? But the usual farming village or small city of artisans in Christian Europe was filled with cultural treasures, however externally poor those people may appear to modern eyes. Their life revolved firstly around the parish church: the Divine Liturgy – the union of Heaven with earth, morning and evening prayers, the feasts and fasts of the Church calendar, the holy days dedicated to our Lord and His Most Pure Mother, the patron saint of the parish church, the patron saint of each person in the parish, baptisms, etc.
Then there was the life of each family, whose members included those who lived long ago by virtue of their graves in the parish churchyard and by virtue of remembering those same members and others often in prayers for the departed. The family home was also a major part of the family itself, more often than not being the same place in which their forebears had lived for many generations, with the furniture, tools, etc., also being handed down from many years before. Entertainment too was handed down from many old hands: ballads and folk songs, communal dances and games, and so on.
Related to family life was the vocation of each person, for the children usually followed in the profession of one of their close kinsmen. And the members of these professions themselves often formed communities of their own, each with its own traditions.
For this peaceful and stable way of life, the English colonies in North America substituted something truly atrocious. They called it ‘liberty’, but it is nothing of the sort. It was an unleashing of the passions, which is slavery of the lowest and most degraded form, and manifests itself in the constant re-creation of the methods of production and the grasping after money and material goods. This kind of life undermines the well-being of society, breaks all the traditional bonds between people – within families and outside them, dissipates the societal virtues accumulated by the previous generations, and causes anxiety to abound. What occupation should I pursue? What college should I go to? Where should I live afterwards? Where can I go to make the most money? Such questions were largely unknown to our ancestors.
Compounding these problems, we now have a never-ending political drama that further erodes the influence of the Church, families, and other healthy traditions. In order to protect the ‘liberty’ we won through independence from Great Britain, we placed ourselves within an unending cycle of political elections and battles. There is hardly ever any rest from it. ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’, we are taught here in the exceptional nation. Vicious, lengthy campaigns are waged to gain elected offices, and no sooner are these watchmen of our freedoms chosen than we turn our jealous Argus-eyes upon them to make sure they don’t encroach upon anything that is ours.
Politics in the old countries, and in the colonies before 1776, was much less volatile and imposed itself much less in daily life. Most officials held their positions by heredity, meaning little jostling and wrangling to obtain them. Likewise, many modern government functions were handled by kin-groups or churches: education of children, care for the poor, sick, and elderly, etc. When there was interaction with the government, it was usually not with a nameless bureaucrat but with the count or lord who lived in the village manor and whom they knew well – a man with whom the villagers received Holy Communion, who supplied their festivals with foodstuffs, in whose fields they worked at harvest-time.
The federalism and order liberty of the American constitutional republic hailed by Mr Gottfried above were merely the vestiges of a healthy pre-Modern Christian society. As the States began to fulfil the telos of their new republican creation, however, those forms faded away. Now we have no true communities, whether villages or cities, only atomized urban apartments and rural suburbs. Here we have no Christian life to speak of, but we may squeeze in a church service at the mega-church beside the interstate on Christmas Eve to keep Grandmother from nagging us. Here we have few family connections, save those that are mediated by social media, and which are further cheapened by our desire for views and likes of our posts related to family life.
This view can be confirmed by looking at the South, where old European attitudes lasted the longest in the US. In Dixie there were hereditary government offices (de facto rather than de jure); political elections were not all-consuming affairs (turnout was often very low at elections); ancestors were remembered; the Church calendar still played some role in determining the rhythm of life; families remained rooted in a particular place and home for generations. Some of this still holds true today, in a very weakened form.
New England has shown the opposite tendency. She has from the beginning been in a constant state of ferment, developing new religions, new industries, new political theories.
Some Southerners (this author included) are sometimes tempted to throw all the fault for the decay of old settled ways in the States entirely on New England, but that is dishonest, for the South also found ways to undermine them on her own: by repealing primogeniture laws, by disestablishing Christianity as the official religion of the Southern States, by extending the franchise to more and more people, by outlawing nobility.
The abnormality of post-1776 America is also reflected in the fact that Christian monasteries, one of the foundation stones for spreading and strengthening the Christian faith in the old countries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, are few in number in all regions. The vocation of total dedication to God has found shallow soil in the US, as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says in his little book The Orthodox Church, because we are all of us – New England, South, Great Plains, and the rest – so preoccupied with improving our material condition that vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are anathema to most. Only in a handful of the Spanish and French Roman Catholic communities that were later absorbed by the expanding American union were some scattered monasteries to be found, and the number of monasteries has been bolstered in recent years largely by the influx of immigrants from Orthodox and Roman Catholic countries.
From today’s vantage point, the days of the young American republic do look pleasant. But it is a deception, like a mirage in the desert. As soon as we look more closely at them, we see that the hollowness of present-day American life began with the separation from Great Britain in 1776, which was a separation from the whole stream of traditional Christian life and its replacement with the new idols of an all-engrossing political life (which is everywhere present and fills all things, to use the words the Orthodox Church uses in a prayer to the Holy Ghost) and economic upheaval and progress without end.
Thus, to good men like Mr Gottfried who pine for the by-gone days of the early American republic, we say, They are right to look to the past for a model of how to live, but they must go back further, before the federal constitution of 1787, and before the separation from Europe in 1776, and before even the Renaissance, when the Orthodox Church and family and neighbor were the sources of life, the only sources of a life that is worth living. Unless the peoples of the States rediscover those springs, life will continue to be parched and barren, and no paper constitution will be able to make it verdant and fruitful again.
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