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Rationalism, Fusionism, and the Modern Crisis

By Donald Devine

In his masterpiece “The Three Waves of Modernity,” the preeminent 20th century philosopher Leo Strauss explained the political crisis of his time—and, arguably, for our own. According to Strauss:

The crisis of modernity reveals itself in the fact, or consists in the fact, that modern western  man no longer knows what he wants—that he no longer believes that he can know what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. Until a few generations ago, it was generally taken for granted that man can know what is right and wrong, what is the just or the good or the best order of society...In our time this faith has lost its power.      

The modern crisis begins for Strauss in the 16th century with Machiavelli. For traditional right and wrong, Machiavelli substituted a “realistic” view that understood “right” as simply power, which was determined by political force and cunning. But the first crisis only came into “full force” a century later with Thomas Hobbes. To pure power, Hobbes added a natural right to self-preservation plus a rational social science which treated justice and values as mere neutral technical problems.

Strauss argues that Rousseau introduced the second, 18th century stage of modernity by looking at human history and finding that mankind started in a condition of equality. Human nature was rationalized not by a creator, but by historical forces that drove all change. Over the centuries man was forced into society yet he maintained his primitive rights to equality.  For Rousseau, this process was mostly a story of degeneration, although he held out hope that it could be rectified by establishing the general will.  This dynamic understanding of History culminated with Hegel, who, Strauss argued, added a rational spirit to guide a progressively improving human condition.  

When History delivered not the promised utopia but revolution and war, Nietzsche added a third crisis stage that subsumed both history and rationalism into a higher “will to power,” incorporating all possible earlier values.  The only certainty for Nietzsche was that “the end has come for man as he was hitherto”. What will come is either the end of man or “superman.” All values become mere social constructs, adopted or rejected because they enhance “life.”

Strauss did not despair even though Nietzsche’s critique, he said, “cannot be dismissed or forgotten” because his undermining of second stage rationalism was so successful that he has made it impossible “to return to the earlier forms of modern thought.” Still, that theoretical crisis does not necessarily lead to a practical crisis, for the superiority of liberal democracy over communism and fascism is obvious enough.”

Today, in a new century, Strauss’s optimism is questionable, even at the practical level. It now seems less convincing to expect that liberal democracy still derives life support “from the premodern thought of our western tradition.” Even more than in 1975, when Strauss’ lecture was published posthumously, a Nietzschean-derived subjectivism dominates Western rationalist thinking and convinces much of its population, even when they’re not aware of it. 

Is Strauss’ limited optimism still possible even in America? It is probably true that second stage progressivismrather than raw Nietzscheanism still leads Left establishment thinking and policy. And Ronald Reagan even moved the Right from a pragmatic-Wall Street sensibility to one more based on pre-crisis values. Conservative voters, and maybe even some officeholders, still claim to “know what is good and bad,” and to assume that the “best order of society” is Western civilization. But that position is clearly on the defensive.            That’s why the philosophy President Reagan understood as “fusionist” conservatism deserves another look today. Conservative fusionism was not a mere political coalition. It was a philosophical argument that liberty and tradition stand in a dynamic tension, with each element needed to clarify and balance the other. Pragmatically, the goal was to utilize freedom-oriented social and political means to achieve traditionalist moral ends.

            The intellectual basis for the movement that attracted Reagan centered at National Review magazine under editors William F. Buckley Jr. and Frank S. Meyer. The latter’s most important and influential work was titled “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom” reflecting the limits of political power and the value of tradition operating within a non-determinist synthesis. Indeed, Reagan, Buckley, and Meyer all originally opposed the term “fusionism” because they considered it too deterministic in meaning. They preferred the term “tension” to stress that the West balanced the values of freedom and tradition rather than implying a singly combined final resolution.

The term fusionism was actually provided by an opponent who considered the Buckley-Meyer concept too libertine. Labeling an opponent “fusionist” was clever in those days, when fusion was most identified with the philosopher Karl Marx! Marx utilized a methodology where dual historical forces contested against each other to fuse into new historical eras. There was a first Ancient historical period consisting of masters and slaves, whose long battle fused into a new Feudal historical period of lords contesting with serfs, which then fused into a Capitalist battle between owner and worker, which would finally fuse into Socialism, where a communist state would usher in a new human form and an ideal final stage of history.

Not surprisingly, Buckley and Meyer found being identified with Marx’s or any determinism disturbing. It was exactly what “fusionism” opposed. But the term stuck anyway, much like “capitalism” did, which term was devised by Marx as an aspersion to contrast with a beneficent socialism. All Meyer and the rest could obtain for clarification was to make a distinction between rationalist “fusion” and his own philosophical “fusionism.”

The intellectual father of rationalist “fusion” was a greater philosopher than Marx. Indeed, fusion’s father was the one from whom Marx himself learned, not unlike for the equally influential fusion rationalisms of Auguste Comte’s positivism and John Dewey’s progressivism. That genius was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. While more “idealist” than his more materialist followers and perhaps not as well understood by them (both Marx and John Stuart Mill found Hegel ultimately “unintelligible”), they all learned the ideal of an amalgamating synthesis from him.

Indeed, Hegel (along with Auguste Comte) was the primary target of Buckley and Meyer’s own philosophical inspiration, F.A. Hayek. Hayek saw Hegel as the ultimate rationalist disciple of Descartes, “whose central aim is to create a universal history of mankind according to recognizable laws.”  Hayek identified Hegel’s epistemological foundation as a belief that the philosopher’s “mind would be capable of explaining itself and the laws of its past and future development.” Hayek argued, however, that this intuitively complete understanding of fundamental concepts, and the ability to progressively derive universally valid deductions from them, could not be accomplished by mere human beings. Hegel’s “threefold rhythm” of thesis, anthesis and synthesis which supposedly leads to a predetermined end is simply an assumed “historical determinism” based upon hope rather than reason.

While Hayek found Hegel much less determinist than Marx or  Comte, all three were “studying reason from the outside,” practicing the “hubris sown by Descartes and perhaps already [sown] by Plato,” and adopted by “constructivist” rationalists ever since. Hayek insisted, however, that there is no mental ability to somehow get outside of oneself to find and start with absolute axioms or to derive universally valid deductions from them. As Hayek’s inspiration, Karl Popper insisted, it is impossible to start analysis without assumed first premises rooted in general understanding, that is in tradition, which is not understanding but merely the first step toward understanding. For western civilization, Hayek argued that tradition adopted by modern fusionism was primarily based on medieval European-derived rule of law.

Another major 20th century philosopher who greatly influenced the development of Meyer-Buckley fusionism was Eric Voegelin. Hegel was so central to Voegelin’s understanding of the modern crisis that after writing three volumes of his magnum opus, Order and History,  he announced that he had changed the whole logical progression from his earlier work with Volume 4. Rather than considering him unintelligible, Voegelin called Hegel “the philosophically most competent and the historically most knowledgeable of the egophanic thinkers” in modern times.

In Voegelin’s terms, “egophanic” means deterministic thinkers who insist on “eliminating the tension” of human existence by transforming reason into a completely resolvable process of understanding along a single logical line to assured conclusions. To achieve this desired result, he says, egophanic philosophers must create a façade of rationalized harmony. And in creating such façades, Voegelin viewed Hegel as the “manipulator par excellence.” 

Voegelin argued that Hegel begins with a Christian terminology but changes its meaning, while continuing to use its helpful traditional religious language. He claims Hegel takes the central  Christian belief in a triune God from Paul’s 1 Cor 2:10, and reinterprets “spirit,” not as a part of a holy trinity, but as a subordinate part of an ultimate Historical Power. That highest secular spirit was able to penetrate even God with a single higher historical mission to direct the whole cosmos including, of course, human history, to its ultimate positive fulfillment.

            Hegel’s more rationalist ultimate power won wide support among European intellectuals and liberal reformists. This all seemed to climax successfully for the progressive worldview after Hegel’s death with the 1867 passage of the liberal English Reform Act.  But then came the Paris Commune, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and the Soviet Revolution. Hegel won in the universities and bureaucracies but Marx won in the streets. Worse, Strauss conceded that Nietzsche had so seriously undermined rationalist apriorism that it was impossible to go back. Indeed, he noted, even Nietzsche himself was not fully determinist since he did not guarantee the superman, but only hoped for him.

            Hayek-Buckley-Meyer fusionism rejected rationalistic determinism including the more optimistic Hegelian variety. Hayek rejected Hegel’s “threefold rhythm” as simply “historical determinism.” Voegelin labeled Hegel’s as “absolute knowledge,” a result that “could never have been derived from a Plato or Augustine or St. Thomas but only though Hegel.”  Strauss’ crisis started with Machiavelli but ended with Hegel producing Nietzsche, although not precisely causally.

Still, Strauss concluded his analysis without rejecting hope for the recovery of a sense of right and wrong by establishing a new, truer philosophy. Some pessimism about the crisis today is not even necessarily a problem. Indeed, back in the late 1960s in the concluding paragraph of his own major work, Meyer already saw possible threats to fusionism’s productive tension between freedom and virtue, with no guarantees for its future. It all seems so much more vulnerable today. Yet, as Meyer also noted, Western civilization had recovered from previous crises, going back at least to the fall of Rome. That actual history, rather than predetermined History, reminds us that fusionism might have the capacity to do so again, even as it insists that we should never expect guarantees.

If it is any consolation, Giambattista Vico—a major precursor of historicism—was probably correct to predict that a society’s better parts might survive political loss and economic decline. After defeat, civilizations may actually end up more “religious, truthful and faithful” even if denied immediate power. As far as our own crisis, we might also allow for the possibility of building toward a better if more remote future, even in a fourth wave of modernity still to come. And perhaps the reader could even become part of a reconciliation or recovery process.  

Donald Devine is Senior Scholar at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C. He served as President Ronald Reagan’s civil service director during the president’s first term in office. He is the author of 11 books, including his most recent, The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, and Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Principles.



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