“There is no God in this book.”
So begins Jonah Goldberg’s sprawling tome, Suicide of the West. When my daughter gave me the book for Father’s Day, she proudly declared that it is “The most important book written in the twenty-first century.” Let’s hope she is wrong.
The problem is not that this is a bad book. It isn’t. As many others have noted, the book is littered with interesting insights and well-chosen anecdotes. Goldberg’s manifold skills as a polemical essayist of the right are on display in many places.
Even so, I am afraid that the lasting effect of this book will be pernicious. Look again at the opening sentence and ask, “Why?” Why is there no God in a book about Western Civilization? Why would Goldberg feel the need to begin his book that way? Something curious is afoot when an author so linked to National Review, the center of the fusion of libertarians and anti-communists with religious conservatives, announces the absence of God.
Instead of God, Goldberg wants to talk about “The Miracle.” This is Goldberg’s shorthand for the massive political and technological breakthroughs of the last few hundred years that have brought immense material benefits to mankind. It’s not surprising that Goldberg wants a clever name to encompass that whole process, but his word choice is curious, and rather telling. Who performs miracles? God, of course.
So, there is a god after all in Goldberg’s book, and its name is “The Enlightenment.”
A Tale of Two Revolutions
In Goldberg’s history of the West, once upon a time humans were tribalistic, integrated human beings seeking meaning in their lives. They were poor. Their lives were also nasty, brutish, and short. Then along came the Enlightenment, which divided man into his constituent parts. The Enlightenment finally enabled the rational part of man to work unfettered from all those messy emotional and spiritual impulses. The rational part of man brought progress. Alas, there are still those nasty forces out there that want to tear down this division and return us to a world where emotions and instinct infect reason, a world that looks like (shudder) the Romantic Era. In short, building a wall within ourselves—dividing the rational part of us from our spiritual and emotional impulses—is the source of much goodness.
Goldberg is, of course, not the first person to argue that life would be better if we just followed the dictates of reason and allowed the Enlightenment to continue on its natural course. Back in the 1780s, there were a whole bunch of people like Goldberg who actually effected an entire revolution based on reason. They were in France, though, not America.
Goldberg does not talk much about how the Enlightenment influenced the revolution in France. In three quick paragraphs, Goldberg blames the Reign of Terror and the Committee of Public Safety purely on Rousseau’s influences on Robespierre and his use of the idea of the General Will, as though Rousseau were not a part of the broader French Enlightenment on which the French Revolutionaries were building.
Instead, Goldberg wants to talk about the revolution in America, the one whose central document declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Goldberg thinks that statement is wrong, and he explicitly says so. He asks, rhetorically, “How does one demonstrate that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights?” Goldberg goes on to explain that “people can be alienated from their rights quite easily, starting with their right to life.” Saying I have a right to my life does not mean you are incapable of murdering me; it just means you are violating my rights when you do so. If none of this is self-evident to Goldberg, he is not alone; those guys in France agreed with him.
It is, however, not entirely fair to assume that Goldberg would really prefer a true enlightenment revolution. It turns out not even Goldberg believes his own thesis. This becomes obvious in chapter five, when Goldberg recasts his argument in terms of “the Eternal battle” between Locke (the hero representing the Enlightenment) and Rousseau (the villain representing the Romantics). This is a “staple riff” from Goldberg’s college lecture circuit, and it undoubtedly plays well with the undergrads. Right at the outset, when Goldberg is delineating the terms of the debate between the Good Locke and the Evil Rousseau, he writes, “Man is sinful according to Locke, a noble savage according to Rousseau. Our rights come from God, not from government, declares Locke. No, we surrender our individual rights to the judgment of the sovereign, replies Rousseau.” So, Locke declares that rights come from God, and Rousseau denies the relevance of God. Guess which one is the hero of the guy who says there is no God in his book.
Goldberg’s Confused Rhetoric
At least Goldberg is aware of the massive confusion sitting right at the heart of his ruminations. He writes:
Despite all this, the case is often made that Christianity gets the credit for the Miracle. And, in broad strokes, I am open to the idea that without Christianity, the Miracle may never have happened. But that is not quite the same argument as Christianity caused the Miracle (and it certainly did not intend it). However, the lesser claim, that Christianity was a necessary ingredient, certainly seems likely.
Of course saying that something is necessary is not the same thing as saying it is sufficient. I don’t think anyone ever said Christianity is necessary and sufficient, that all by itself Christianity caused the Miracle. But you could easily replace “Christianity” with “the Enlightenment,” or even with “the influence of Athens.” Both the Enlightenment and Christianity were necessary for the Miracle. Neither one is sufficient for the Miracle. Nonetheless, Goldberg makes a clear distinction. The Enlightenment is crucial to understanding the Miracle; the entire book is an argument to that effect. But was Christianity important? Goldberg is “open to the idea” that it “certainly seems likely.” Was Christianity the cause of the Enlightenment itself? “Again, maybe. Then again, maybe not. It is quite simply impossible to know.”
If Goldberg wanted to write a book talking about the importance of the Enlightenment, he could have written his entire book without explicitly removing God at the outset. That opening sentence was a conscious rhetorical choice.
Why did Goldberg make that choice? He recently explained.
My aim was to appeal to people who do not already like or sufficiently appreciate the Miracle. I set out to persuade mostly secular people on their own terms. Call them what you like—secular humanists, liberals, progressives, socialists, leftists, or simply the not particularly religious. The point is that telling these people they should like a system they already don’t like because God tells them to is not a persuasive argument by my lights.
To say this is a strange argument is putting it mildly. This is not Goldberg’s first book, after all. His first book was Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. In that book, he compared modern liberals to Hitler. His second book was The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. After writing those two books, did Goldberg really imagine those liberal fascists who cheat in the war of ideas would pick up his new book, see that first sentence, and think, “Wow, this Jonah Goldberg is really a bridge-building kind of guy who wrote a book speaking our language”?
Still, let’s take Goldberg at his word that the first sentence was purely a debating gimmick. Is it thereby irrelevant? Can we just give him a pass for a failed attempt at trying to lull liberals into complacency?
The Miracle or the Monastery?
Alas, no. Goldberg makes a fundamental mistake in thinking there are no consequences to cavalierly tossing out God in the opening sentence before talking about the benefits of the Miracle. Since there is no God in the book, Goldberg ends up talking about the Miracle in purely materialistic terms. The Appendix, entitled “Human Progress,” is two dozen pages detailing increasing material prosperity, everything from higher incomes to longer lifespans to widespread cell phone usage. Goldberg prefaces that discussion by stating that “our prosperity is not merely material but political and philosophical,” yet every example of progress that follows is material.
This feeds into the increasing complaint by some on the right that the American experiment, modernity, and economic progress are inimical to true Christian values. It’s not clear whether Goldberg realizes he has just provided marvelous fodder for that wing of the conservative movement.
Rachel Lu’s thoughtful reflection in Public Discourse notes the way Goldberg’s book stands as a counterargument to Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. One book is a triumphalist account of the material prosperity of modernity; the other is a denunciation of modernity for its spiritual bankruptcy. Lu is a charitable reader of both books, suggesting that perhaps we can find a middle way, one in which we can be grateful for the material benefits of the Miracle even while acknowledging the spiritual desecration the Miracle has wrought.
But Lu’s “fairly commonsensical middle ground” does not exist in Goldberg’s landscape. If Goldberg is correct, we are faced with a choice: we can organize society to promote economic progress, or we can organize society to promote our spiritual lives. Goldberg argues we should build and maintain a wall between those two things. “The romantic wants to pull down the walls of compartmentalized lives and restore a sense of sacred or patriotic unity of meaning and purpose . . . The problem is that seeking such unity in all things is the first step in leaving the Miracle of modernity.”
Take your pick, conservatives: the Miracle or the Monastery.
A False Choice
Fortunately, Goldberg is wrong in implying that these are our only two options. The miracle of political and technological progress that has led to economic growth and better standards of living carries with it a crucial moral component. Indeed, that Miracle of modernity, and all those signs of material progress that Goldberg applauds, are only valuable in a world in which there is a sacred unity of meaning and purpose.
To see this, consider a thought experiment I run with my students. I have a plan, I tell them, that will increase material wealth for everybody on the planet. Everyone will be richer and lead better, more satisfying lives. Even the poorest people will be ten times richer than my students. The plan: randomly kill 10 percent of the population. Choosing whom to kill is completely random. Then, the remaining 90 percent will be phenomenally wealthy. The question is not whether this plan will work. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.) The question is: assuming it would work, would you take this offer and implement this plan? I have (fortunately) never had a student who thinks that this is a good idea.
That thought experiment reveals something vitally important. Yes, we like the Miracle. Yes, we like all the benefits it brings. But we only like the Miracle because we believe it has not violated some important ethical norms. The Miracle is not just a miracle of economic growth. It is a miracle of economic growth that has preserved the ability to lead a good, moral life, to bring about that progress without sinning. Yes, of course, abuses abound. This is a fallen world. But, even when these abuses occur, we agree that there is a moral code that all people should follow, and that violating the moral code is wrong.
The Miracle without that moral code is not something Goldberg would praise. It is vital to his argument that the Miracle is not just a tale of prosperity, but a tale of the existence of a moral code combined with prosperity. Goldberg knows this. Yet in his attempt to distance his book from God, his argument ends up terribly unbalanced.
Rhetoric has consequences. Those consequences are apparent in the last paragraph of the book, which ends up being even more shocking than the first sentence: “Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore.” Thus concludes the author who, purely for rhetorical convenience, killed off God as a principle in the first sentence of his book. Decline is indeed a choice. I am afraid Goldberg made the wrong one.