Toward the Renewal of Civilization: Political Order and Culture

By Sirico, Robert A. | Freeman, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Toward the Renewal of Civilization: Political Order and Culture


Sirico, Robert A., Freeman


Toward the Renewal of Civilization: Political Order and Culture

edited by T. William Boxx and Gary M. Quinlivan

William B. Eerdmans Publishing * 1998 * 222 pages * $16.00

Reviewed by Fr. Robert A. Sirico

To explore the relationship between politics and culture with an eye toward the "renewal of civilization" is a tall order for one volume. And yet the contributors to this collection do an admirable job of examining many facets of the intersection between political-cultural trends and what most of these authors regard as the decline of civilized standards in arts, letters, behavior, and law, not only in this country but throughout the West. But Toward the Renewal of Civilization is no gloom-and-doom tract about the end of the world; indeed, it ends on a wonderfully hopeful note.

This book had special poignancy for me, because I read it after last spring's Littleton, Colorado, high-school shootings. The two young killers had jettisoned civilized norms long before the shooting began, but it appears that adults around the kids were paralyzed with confusion and fear about how to respond. They tried psychiatrists and drugs and a bit of counseling, but for the most part, the parents, teachers, and school administrators were just biding their time, hoping the kids would straighten out naturally.

Why have such events become almost routine? Hilton Kramer argues that they are a consequence of the institutionalized counterculture that began in the sixties. The intellectual error is rooted in the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, and specifically the belief that received norms, social customs, institutionalized authorities, and traditional standards of accomplishment and morality are merely artifices designed to inhibit the natural development of the human person. The object, then, is to break free from these supposed artificial restraints, which is precisely what the boys in Littleton imagined themselves doing.

The notion of tyranny is different in each respective vision of what constitutes the natural society. In classical liberalism, tyranny is associated with violence, whether perpetuated by private parties or invasive government. To the Rousseauian, tyranny is bound up with societal expectation, as Claes Ryn points out in his brilliantly argued essay.

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