Nominalism, Nihilism, and Modern Politics

The belief that human beings and human communities can be rearranged in any way that suits our creative fancy is, as the examples of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union show, an invitation to tyranny and disaster.

In his 1943 book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis predicts that there will be a time, “not too far off,” when humanity’s technological prowess will enable us to conquer human nature—to reject, alter, and abolish limits heretofore thought to be permanent. Since his time, we have made great strides toward moderating cyclical economic crises (such as the Great Depression of 1837, the Long Depression of the late 1800s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s), eliminating the structural or natural causes of famine, and reducing the rate of infant mortality to a fraction of what it was even sixty years ago, let alone for most of human history. And yet, in overcoming natural limitations—in overthrowing forever not only the externally imposed “ought” of gods and kings, but also the “ought” implicit in the still, small voice of nature itself—we have, as Lewis put it, “stepped into the void,” in which “everything except the sic volo, sic jubeo [thus I will, thus I command] has been explained away.” The only ground for human action in such a world is the necessarily untutored movements of human will.

William Bain, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, paints a very similar picture in his 2020 book Political Theology of International Order. The world in which we find ourselves “discloses no pre-given pattern of meaning or purpose,” in which all meaning is constructed meaning, all order “imposed order.” Put differently, we live in a world in which the only basis for human action or belief is “conditional assertions of will.” Yet Bain’s account differs from Lewis’s in two crucial respects. First, Bain locates the origins of this world in the very last place Lewis would have thought to find them: Christianity itself. Second, where Lewis feared that nihilism was a prelude to unprecedented tyranny, Bain argues that nihilism is both the necessary result of a world transformed by Christian freedom and the foundation of the modern liberal order (and indeed of all future political action).

However, this apparent reconciliation of Christianity and the modern world comes at too steep a cost, not least because Bain’s nominalist Christianity proves to be irresponsibly self-abnegating. It undermines the naturalistic basis for non-nihilistic politics, but then—unlike the Christians of the first millennium—blanches at the responsibility of exercising or sustaining political power itself. It instead abandons politics to nihilism; and since nihilism is more favorable to tyranny than to humane government, Bain’s nominalist Christianity fulfills the worst fears of those ancient pagans who referred to Christians as atheistic anarchists and hostes humani generis—enemies of the human race.

It would be truer to intellectual history, and better for intellectual debate, to acknowledge instead the sharp differences between Christian theology and the philosophical foundations of the modern world—foundations that are neither Christian nor simply nihilistic. And if those foundations eventually culminate in nihilism, as the Nietzschean critique of modernity suggests, then the proposed conflation of Christianity and modernity would render Christianity unable to fulfill the salutary role, envisioned by thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, of the friendly critic, sparring partner, or perhaps just bad conscience of modern politics.


Medieval Christianity and the Triumph of the Will

To understand why Bain’s argument fails, we first need to understand his striking assertion that modern nihilism was born from medieval Christianity. According to Bain, the only coherent interpretation of the creation account in the Book of Genesis is given by nominalism, or what he also calls “the theory of imposed order.”

Bain traces the origins of this theory to a group of medieval theologians who sought to combat the influence of Aristotle on Catholic theologians and philosophers, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Saint Thomas and the Aristotelian Christians asserted that human beings possess real natures that incline them toward the fulfillment of their natural ends—e.g., the enjoyment of the fruits of political life and the practice of virtue—which can be discerned by the light of natural reason, a position Bain refers to as the “theory of inherent order.”

Against the Aristotelians, the nominalists sought to vindicate the freedom of the omnipotent Creator God, unconstrained by natural necessity or reason. The nominalists asked: if there are real natural necessities, could the world have been otherwise? If the world could not have been otherwise, was God compelled to create this world? And if God was compelled in any way, can He be said to be omnipotent? In response to the Christian Aristotelians and Aristotelian Christians, the Franciscan nominalist William of Ockham composed treatises inveighing against the reality of universals, the existence of nature or natures, and thus the intelligibility of the universe. This overthrow of Aristotle laid the foundation for empirical modern natural science, the conquest of—rather than submission to or cooperation with—nature, and the reconceiving of human beings as radically free, equal, and individual instead of members of an organic, hierarchic whole.

The political theories that arose out of nominalism sought to vindicate not only divine but also human freedom. According to nominalism, God is radically free to create and recreate the universe howsoever He pleases, without any rational restrictions. At any moment, things could be wholly other than they are, and thus nothing has a necessary relationship to anything else. All order, including all human order, is imposed on a naturally unintelligible or chaotic matter. And since the theory of imposed order is antiteleological, there is no highest good toward which all human beings are directed by nature. Hence, a greater capacity for reason does not entitle a person to rule over others for their own good.

The will, not reason, is central to nominalism; there are multiple competing “rationalities” and even “multiple truths” that are supported only by “human self-assertion”—crucially, not by nature or divine command. For Bain, the regime recommended by political nominalism is a consensual, humanitarian, pluralistic, liberal democratic state with a limited government that maximizes freedom for its radically free and radically equal members.

Despite the similarities to Lewis’s diagnosis, Bain rejects Lewis’s proposal to return to the theory of inherent order. Bain instead finds strange hope in the nominalism-cum-nihilism underlying contemporary theory, or in the promise of human creativity: just as the God of the nominalists is eternally making and remaking the world, so too “human beings can make a different world in view of some vision of the future.”

At the same time, the conclusion of Bain’s book is not exactly optimistic. It depicts a deified humanity that “acknowledges no restraint beyond self-assertion,” ruling over a disenchanted world in which Christian nominalism has become nihilism because we are no longer capable of belief, either in God or in nature. Unwilling to go back and unable to go forward, we find ourselves in a “paralyzing state of doubt.” Given this civilizational paralysis, it is going to take something practically miraculous to transfigure our situation: only a god can save us. But since we no longer believe in a God that became a man, we require that a man become a god. We require a “sovereign God-person, who constructs international order and the theoretical models used to explain it” based only upon his own will, for “the only ground to be had is conditional assertions of will, backed by professions of faith.”


From License to Tyranny

Despite—indeed, because of—its extreme commitment to freedom, political nominalism provides a stronger foundation for brutal imperialism and fascism than it does for good government. If nominalism safeguards freedom to a greater extent than Aristotelianism, it is nevertheless only according to Aristotelianism, and not nominalism, that we can speak about what freedom is for. And if we are unable to say what freedom is for, then we will be unable to give an adequate account of when, and for what reasons, freedom ought to be curtailed—except, perhaps, in those cases where the freedom of one person infringes on that of another, or what is sometimes called the harm principle.

But why stop there? Despite his support for humanitarian norms, Bain admits that the lingering commitment to human dignity or humanitarianism among contemporary theorists is a fundamentally baseless attempt to develop a post-Christian account of a Christian value judgment—a commitment unsupported by the logic of their theories and contradicted by their natural science. Put more simply, in a world of merely imposed order and absent a divine command, why ought a concern for your freedom limit my freedom? Why ought I to be concerned with your freedom at all? Assuming that I am sufficiently clever, what reason do I have to curb my freedom to gratify my passions to the greatest extent possible?

Or, to speak politically, if power is necessary for freedom—as modern thinkers like Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes teach us—is there any reason for a people or a state to refrain from dominating others to the greatest extent possible? To paraphrase Joseph Ratzinger, an obsession with freedom thus understood leads not to freedom, but to the indisputable right of the stronger. Perhaps this paradox helps to explain how a movement (political nominalism) whose original purpose was defending human freedom and equality culminates in a yearning for this-worldly salvation at the hands of a monarchical “sovereign God-person”—who, as Bain himself admits, might prove to be, not a worldly savior, but “a worldly Lucifer” who dominates by “capricious will.”


What Reason for Hope?

This is why Bain’s strange hope in the future is so puzzling, for the faith on which his hope is founded is not above reason, but against it. It is, at the very least, against our experience, for our naïve nineteenth-century exuberance at the triumph of a will freed from the stifling restraints of reason has been battered by the century of Auschwitz and Katyn Forest and My Lai—by the century that, more than any other, featured regimes that believed that human relations could be destroyed and reconstructed by sheer force of will alone, without regard for any natural limits.

Our society has left behind belief in natural values, but we do not trust ourselves to create their replacements. It is little wonder, then, that the dizzying expansion of mankind’s power over nature is today deployed almost exclusively for the gratification of base passions (e.g., pocket supercomputers used for social media and pornography). Our situation is at once horrifying and banal, our political pathologies at once unhealthy and uninteresting, our great criminals “quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices,” as Lewis put it. We have become, as Ross Douthat argues, decadent. And rightly so if, as Bain’s conclusion suggests, the only alternative to decadent nihilism is the attempt to remake human beings, human society, and the international order from the ground up according to the arbitrary will of a merely human sovereign.

If the end result of the nominalists’ misguided attempt to vindicate freedom—both human and divine—culminates in the extinction not only of reason and knowledge properly so called but even of freedom itself, through our capitulation to will and brute force, then we must resist the influence of nominalism on political thinking, international or domestic. The belief that human beings and human communities can be rearranged in any way that suits our creative fancy is, as the examples of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union show, an invitation to tyranny and disaster. Moreover, we must ask ourselves: Is freedom, as the nominalists insist, the ability to act according to one’s imagination and desires? Or is freedom the ability to act according to what is best, free from the domination of base passions or a sinful disposition, but in accordance with a standard that necessarily requires limits? Understood in this way, the debates of medieval Christendom map onto the age-old American distinction between liberty and license, and Bain’s account helps cast light on the goodness of the former and the self-destructive nihilism of the latter.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.

Subscribe to Public Discourse!