Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Thematic: Theological Variations

Beyond Progressivism

Toward a Personalist Metaphysics of History

John Milbank

Triad VI (detail), 1980, by Clinton Adams (1918–2002); National Academy of Design, New York, USA/Bridgeman Images; © 2023 Tamarind Institute, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

We remain at the end of history, and the only question remains how exactly this ending will end—in the end, finally. The world is everywhere dominated by a mutation of Western modernity, of technologism and a voluntarism of unchecked will both of the individual and of concentrated collective power that recognizes no objective and substantial good. This may be blended with revived yet still-decadent versions of non-Western civilizations, including those of China and India, yet that is but a detail.

At the same time and with seeming irony, the West itself is encouraged to hate its own past in its entirety: with less than coherence to scorn variously and even all at once Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Bible, Christianity, the cult of Romantic love, the rise of Science, Enlightenment, overseas Empire, and the Industrial Revolution.

Therefore, though only one world civilization survives, this civilization is not only in a phase of extreme decadence—unmoored from its core religious and mythical roots—but has also succumbed at its geographic core to a fashionable and feckless self-hatred.

Yet in the name of what, precisely? Only of the most decadent version of its own lingering yet all-pervasive identity, the dominance of which seems at one with the leakage of its own decay, like the oozing body of a suppurating giant. The name of this authorizing and entitling mutation is liberal progressivism: the final version of the West, because it is the name of its perpetuation for an indefinite perpetuity, paradoxically through disintegration.

For this exacerbated enlightenment, which can readily take the form of an apparent anti-enlightenment, progress is at once the ever greater release of the variety of natural and pregiven emotional inclination and at the same time the ever more variegated assertion of individual and variously aggregated wills. Such a sophistic will to power, which has rationalistically abandoned reason as a universalizing, normalizing, and hierarchizing myth, is necessarily unembarrassed about its incoherent dual focus upon natural tendency and elected performance, since it thrives only upon its constitutive elision of reason and truth as the mediating and selective link of the two. In the absence of any allowed metaphysical linkage between nature and meaning, it has to shuttle between one and the other, proclaiming equally, either turn by turn or simultaneously, the supposedly absolute character of, for example, innate sexuality or purely psychic gender identity, yet also the supposedly absolute character of consciously willed predilection. With its own twisted veracity, this will to power recognizes that postmodernism has forever exposed the all-too-human, ungrounded, and preferential character of reason, yet it still refuses to return to the confidence that reason may have in faith and to trust in its partial discernment of an infinitely subjective yet thereby truthful absolute.

Like a short-circuited postmodernism, forgetful of the latter’s abyssal skepticism, the new and dominant sophistry of the “woke” endeavors in this fashion to jam together the authority of matter and the authority of the will, in order to double the unanswerability of its postrational assertions of identity while concealing that they rest on opposite and incompatible bases. In this respect, it certainly fulfils the contradiction between natural freedom and cultural determination that defined liberal modernity from the outset, yet with a new shamelessness that would be blatant, were it at all self-aware.

According to this outlook, what is wrong with our own, Western identity is simply the particularity of its collective self-assertion as a system of meaning. That system can no longer be taken to be a gift, grounded in received mystery and redolent of the promise of future cultural fruits, because it is taken to be merely an assertion, which as aggregated and dominant must necessarily occlude the alternative assertions of “others.” The stream of such counterassertion must be unending, such that yesterday or today’s cause of emancipation is tomorrow’s source of tyranny and oppression.

A mere indeterminacy of sense and an endless postponement of meaningful conclusion as to objective value thus reveals itself, in full and constant collusion with the supposed progress of science and technology. An indefinite negativity of the cultural aspiration for the release of random willing always acquires its positive and half-legitimating content from physical nature, just as the positive truth of the sexual revolution was the birth control pill and a new technologization of procreation. If progress is the endless further release of a supposedly innate negative freedom of choice, it is also and perhaps more fundamentally the endless new disintegration, reorganization, and subjugation of the physical world. Hence all libertarian projects, including the Marxist one, become measurably “progressive” mainly in relation to material measure. To prove “progress,” one must have recourse to the quantitative, and all that can be quantified is matter reduced to extension and intension: to size, speed, concentration, and so forth.

This mode of merely material “progress” unlocks the further possibilities of a liberation from limits and restraints, particularly those imposed by the state. Yet negative freedom can be evidenced and secured in terms of public space only through its objective manipulation and transformation of material reality. In this way, the liberal project, which always tried to link political liberty among humans to technological control of nature, bends today ineluctably toward the transhuman and robotic. The freedom of humans to control external nature is evermore revealed to be what it was from the outset: the biopolitical control of humanity reduced, in one respect, to mere materiality. The inevitable contradiction adumbrated by Thomas Hobbes, whereby the unrestricted material force of our will that strives to control more constrained material forces is increasingly “resolved” according to the will of a tiny minority that controls and manipulates the passive bodies or the digitally drugged minds of all the rest of us.

In this regard, the Californian post-hippie economy of the virtual has proved to be the perfect vehicle for the post-postmodern short-circuiting earlier described. Here the mental and the physical meet in an apparent immediacy that disguises the lack of any truly wise and wisely erotic sifting, or genuine mediation: Apparent choice is granted instant physical validation; the slightest movement of a finger on a keyboard achieves an infinitesimal degree of power at the remotest distance. What is disguised here is the reality of an increasingly total alienation of our interiority to central forces of control and profiteering, such that even our spiritual nature is reduced to a proletarianized embodiment. The real mind and the real mastery lie elsewhere. Meanwhile, the sphere of the actually physical gets further reduced to an aggregated and exploitable wasteland, an outdoors increasingly too hostile for human to venture forth in.11xJohn Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future (London, England: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), 93–127.

So we continue to live in the end of history, because the dominant mode of culture and technology remains Western, albeit in a terminally decadent mode of the latter. At the same time, this seeming finality is also not just in crisis but metacrisis. Today, we are not so much subject to passing tensions, potentially resolvable, as to the ultimate emergence of tensions latent in the very foundations of the modern. In the respective spheres of the political, the economic, and the cultural, we see, first, that the liberal contractual calculation that it pays to behave and obey the rules is collapsing in favor of systematic criminality; second, that the capitalist calculation that a random market will deliver increasing real wealth and sufficient parity of distribution is collapsing in favor of a quasi-feudal plutocracy; and third, that the cultural calculation that education can dispense with a transcendent reference point and rely upon respect for rights and calculations of utility is collapsing in favor of an anarchy of incompatible assertions and disagreement concerning even the useful and agreeable.

What we have, then, is the contradictory order of collapse, the rule of dissolution. In the course of the history of civilizations, this is perhaps not so unusual. What is striking now, however, is the dominance of one civilization in its phase of arguably ultimate decline, with no sign of a successor project on the horizon. How are we to make sense of all this?

In the nineteenth century, the various “metaphysics of history” were by and large intracivilizational: stories of progress that saw Western civilization as succeeding to earlier and more inadequate human ventures, and this civilization as itself continuously improving, even if through the course of inevitable conflict. The progress was often envisaged as being one in terms of ideas and reason, yet both Auguste Comte and Karl Marx realized the powerful, even determinative role of a lurking materialism. If progress in reason is objective and transparent, then this progress has to be measurable in a material equivalent. The measure of the latter can finally dispense with the measure of spirit, even if the question of the ontological status of spirit as free must lurk within Marxism. As the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and then Alexandre Kojève, the émigré philosopher who worked under Solovyov’s influence, realized, it is not so much that Marx inverts Hegel as that he deconstructs him, although in such a way that the Hegelian problematic of subjectivity still disturbingly lurks.22xAlexandre Kojève, The Religious Metaphysics of Vladimir Solovyov, trans. Ilya Merlin and Mikhail Pozdniakov (London, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Yet from the time of German Romanticism onward, this ethnocentrism with respect to universal history, which tended to regard the modern Western state (and Prussia in particular) as the culmination of incarnated reason, was also challenged. The alternative view was that Western linearity and progressivism are illusions. Instead, as the Greeks and Romans had once assumed or believed, all that we have in historical reality is a succession of civilizations that characteristically rise, decay, and then collapse. For this Romantic view, which gained further traction in the twentieth century when Europe was in obvious crisis (as proclaimed in the work of Oswald Spengler), the embrace of a cyclical movement of history goes along with the assertion of the primacy of the spiritual—and in a manner that now much less conflates the spiritual with the rationalistic.33xJohn Milbank, “Truth and the Ambivalence of Empire: On the Theoretical Work of Eric Voegelin,” in Eric Voegelin Studies Supplement 01: Israel and the Cosmological Empires of the Ancient Orient, ed. Ignacio Carbajosa and Nicoletta Scotti Muth (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2021), 169–89. We cannot hope to advance to an irreversible self-transparency of reason, which tends to assert and justify itself through its manifest technological and biopolitical self-control, because civilization, on this neo-Romantic view, pivots about a tenuous participatory intuition of a suprarational absolute. Indeed, the entire pattern of a civilization seeks ritually to “represent” such an absolute, to echo the views of two prominent metahistorians of the last century, Christopher Dawson and Eric Voegelin. Sustaining this intuition depends upon a continuous disciplined restraining of baser human instincts, which tend toward egoistic fragmentation, dissolution, and thus to evil. In the long run, these dissolving instincts tend to prevail, and a civilization collapses.

Such Romantic and pessimistic metaphysics of history can derive variously from Western antiquity or from an Indian, Chinese, or Russian perspective on the fortunes of the Latin West. All share an assumption that the spiritual is the driving force of history and that history slackens when spirit loses its grip.44xJohn Milbank, “Genealogies of Truth: Theology, Philosophy and History,” Modern Theology 28, no. 30 (November 2022): 1–20,

In each of those broadly contrasting philosophies of history, the progressive and the pessimistic, we find a different approach to what we can call “triadicity,” in the most basic sense that threefold patterns are to the fore. In general, a focus upon the triad is not metaphysically surprising: The structures of space, time, meaning, and gift are all triadic in terms of the relational linkage of two things by a third in order to make any sort of articulate sense. Ultimately, the structure of reality itself is triadic insofar as it is unified yet also various, and the “One” is somehow connected to the “All,” as Russian thought has tended to argue, in its realist modification of German Idealism. In one way or another, the more specific triads of space, time, meaning, and gift are also, at a microcosmic level, always trying to connect the diverse with the unified: “here,” “there,” and “distance” with shared “situation”; past, future, and linking present with time as such; sign, interpretant, and signified with elusive truth; giver, gift, and recipient with that paradox of obliged freedom or “magnanimity” that seems to sustain the social as such.

In the progressivist metaphysics of history, time naturally tends to dominate. The change from primitive cultural singularity and integration to diversification of cultural fields is seen as an advance, even if it can also often be seen as an alienation that must be resolved in a third and more authentically “spiritual” moment. Not at all incidentally, this dimension in Hegel and Schelling’s historical reflections derives from often somewhat heterodox Christian accounts of finite participation in the divine Trinity, stemming ultimately from Jacob Boehme, which tend to impute a moment of necessary self-development to God himself and involve God in a natural and historical becoming.55xIt is, however, arguable that this is much more muted in the case of Schelling and may even be fully eradicated in his final writings.

Nonetheless, as we shall see, there is something about this reworking of temporal triadicity that may be ineluctably Christian and impossible for the West to get rid of: a sense that we have advanced from a paternalistic past of heteronomous obedience to a freer filial and fraternal example that can eventually be fulfilled as universal spiritual and material perfection. Marx’s materialist version of a triadic metaphysics of historical time certainly bears the same imprint.

However, in the pessimistically and conservative Romantic metaphysics of history (as perhaps most exemplified by the French esotericist René Guénon),66xGlenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 138–45, 157–65.  what dominates instead is vertical metaphysical space. In this conception, the primordial One, the expressive Many (or All), and their (re)integration are not thought of horizontally and developmentally, in ways that favor the primacy of history itself. Instead, the bias is toward a fixed hierarchy, with history intervening only accidentally and catastrophically. There is accordingly no room for the notion that an increasing influence of the trading middle classes or the laboring proletariat might also constitute a spiritual progress. Instead, the mark of a civilization at its acme is the dominance of a reserved, priestly elite, able to impose its vision, to a limited degree, on everyone through the work of a secondary ruling, military, and bureaucratic caste, who govern and organize the work of ordinary desiring and laboring people while seeking at once to restrict and deploy the work of traders and merchants, who always threaten to escape from this hierarchical framework.

Obviously, this schema is most systematically apparent in the Hindu caste system, where it is much clearer that the this-worldly merely serves the otherworldly than in the case of the Greek and Roman outlooks. The latter sometimes tried to arrive at an outlook encompassing both, and also thereby the worldly “all” and the otherworldly absolute unity.77xLouis Dumont, Homo Hierarchcicus: The Caste System and Its Implications (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970, rev. ed. 1980). (One can read this as proto-Christian and Trinitarian.) Yet the same essential scheme is also apparent in ancient China, while the economist Thomas Piketty notes that scholarship now suggests that a vertical triadicity of “three estates” (with the mercantile the joker fourth in the pack) extends to all known complex human civilizations, not just the Indo-European.88xThomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 51–64. Piketty contrasts the “ternary” or “trifunctional” societies of all previous human civilizations with the unique peculiarity of the modern “society of ownership.”

Everywhere, it would seem, a civilization has to combine unity, which requires some sort of specific representation and enforced exercise of a culturally sustaining vision, with the role of a relatively few active enforcers and the more or less active or passive consent of the many who continuously reproduce its material foundations.

A brief philosophical conjecture is in order here. It is hardly surprising that societies have traditionally thought in these terms, seeing the sociopolitical, psychic, and cosmic orders as mirroring each other. Each human person has to coordinate her actions by conscious and reflexive thought merely to fulfil her appetites; the entirely undisciplined soon perish. At the same time, we act on obscure impulses of the “will” that we try to express as “reason,” and we then “feel” that this expression is relatively adequate, or not. Any human culture combines at a collective level these needs for sustenance and for meaning. Yet since human beings are always, by their mere use of technology and language in surplus to the merely utile, the merely useful, it is meaning and the shamanic or priestly proponents of meaning that tend to dominate, especially because they can answer the question of unity linking the triadic: What is it all for?—a question that inevitably arises, given the self-aware, reflective capacity of humanity as such.

For these reasons, the Romantic pessimistic take on history is not obviously false. In the long run, the baser level of human material instinct may tend to corrode spiritual rule, especially if the rulers themselves succumb to perverting their power in order to secure mere material advantage, albeit through abstract “quantification,” and so lose their legitimacy. We can see today the way in which a merely self-interested and wealth-hoarding meritocracy is starting to lose any legitimacy in the face of popular suspicion. It is in these terms that Guénon understood the fate of the modern West as decline from the heights of its medieval glory, when it was integrally dominated by the Church. He was always a religiously dissenting perennialist who eventually converted to Islam. Yet an orthodox Christian believer like T.S. Eliot thought little differently concerning the course of history.

Here we can see a further stark contrast between the progressive and cyclical metahistories: Precisely that which the idealist or materialist metaphysic of history sees as the unique progress of the West is cast in the Romantic view as but one more instance of typical decline, thus relativizing the West in terms of a more Asiatic but also universally perennial understanding. Everything the former view celebrates—our freedom from natural determination, increased individual autonomy, and equalization of opportunity—the latter denigrates as merely the loss of spiritual priority and of a shared and unifying cultural perspective.

At this point, the questions to ask are whether a third viewpoint on the metaphysics of history is possible, and whether this can help us diagnose our current plight and even find a better way to “end” our human endeavor. Is it possible to grasp how progress can be disastrous yet remain to a degree authentic progress? More fundamentally, is it possible to try to combine elements of Western progressivist triadicity with elements of static “Indo-European” triadicity?

To answers these questions in turn, we might draw on those Russian thinkers whose situation “between” Europe and Asia tended to encourage them to make this combination. I am thinking especially of Vladimir Solovyov and another one of his of his followers, Lev Karsavin, whose thought is only now emerging from its Soviet-era obscurity.99xVladimir Solovyov, Lectures on Divine Humanity (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1995); Solovyov, The Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge, trans. Valeria Z. Nollan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), esp. 19–56; Solovyov, “Critique of Abstract Principles” (1880), trans. Boris Jakim (unpublished manuscript); Lev Karsavin, “On First Principles” (1924), trans. Boris Jakim (unpublished manuscript); Dominic Rubin, The Life and Thought of Lev Karsavin (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2013), esp. 171–238.

For both thinkers, the key to a metaphysics of history was not rational logic, material exigency, or disembodied spirit, but the embodied or incarnate person. Their rigorous skepticism, anticipating the postmodern, disallowed any traceable rational or material necessary links between unity and variety, despite the inescapable truth that all our reality consists in such. For Solovyov and Karsavin, the only clue to this linkage lay in our experience of interpersonal love: Both individually and collectively, personality expresses and realizes ineffably an erotic-agapeic fusion of the one with the many.

It is just for this reason that “character” is the most palpable yet most elusive reality, the most predictable yet most inexhaustibly unpredictable. Always and everywhere, universal realities are constituted only by individual examples, yet these examples exhibit what the genus consists of far more than any abstracted generalization can. A single human being shows us what humanity consists of more than any summation of common attributes does. If this is indeed the case, it is more logical that we think of general humanity as a single archetypal “man,” as did Gregory of Nyssa and other Church Fathers.

For the mystical Russians, their personalism cohered naturally with a Platonic account of genera as transcendent “ideas.” In the case of a third thinker in the tradition of Solovyov, Pavel Florensky, both person and idea can equally be thought of as “icons.”1010xPavel Florensky, The Meaning of Idealism: The Metaphysics of Genus and Countenance, trans. Boris Jakim (New York, NY: Angelico, 2020), 3–32. The primacy of the personal always goes along with the primacy of the symbolic, because a personalist philosophy understands the rationally “expressed” to be but the ineffable mingling of two impenetrable sources: of the depths of material world, on the one hand, and the heights of spiritual inspiration, on the other. Without the “passionary” meeting of these two, human reason is ultimately void of all but formal and self-referring content.1111xThis notion of the “passionary” is important in Eurasianist ideology, of which Lev Karsavin was one of the first developers, though he remained, like Solovyov, always desirous of ecumenical union with the Latin West. His “left Eurasianism” was more concerned with correcting Western disparagement of the sophistication of the various Asian cultures. On Eurasianism in general, see Leo [Lev] Gumilev, Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, trans. Vadim Novikov (Moscow, Russia: Progress, 1990).

Given this link of the maximally individual to the maximally inclusive, it follows that every fully realized person coheres with every other, including every other thing, to the degree that it sustains personhood at all: Individual and shared common goods coincide; otherwise, there exist no good or goods whatsoever. That which obscures this underlying ontological harmony is the evil of separation—not, as in some currents of Asiatic thought, the separation that is individuation, since the genuine realization in the relation of individual and expressive personhood alone has access to a reflection of the harmonious absolute. For this reason, “the way back” to the absolute is not by way of vertical and private retreat but through further forward activity, newly integrating the erotic, artistic, and social into the spiritual. For the Russians, this was literally a divinely guided project of assisting the final resurrection.1212xGeorge M. Young, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 92–144, 177–92.

How, then, in these personalist terms, can we rethink the metaphysics of history? Can advance be also collapse? Inversely, can triadic historical development also better realize through a certain qualification vertical triadic order rather than simply betray it? Can a third metahistorical narrative emerge that would do justice to a sense of permanently valid triadic order yet also grant some validity to notions of triadic development and progress, including a certain role for moments of alienation and estrangement? In other words, is there a third, personalist philosophy of history distinguishable from either the progressivist one or the romantically conservative one?

The first question concerning advance and collapse can be posed in relation to the peculiar character of modern Western history. From one perspective, this is indeed a decline: a loss of the almost uniquely integrated civilization of Western Christendom that was sustained and developed by the best of the Renaissance. Yet from a second perspective, this is no ordinary decline. It involves an unprecedented attempt to distill order out of disorder itself: a project often conceived in terms of a voluntarist, “economizing” God, maintaining his rule despite and even through human depravity. These are the Calvinist and Jansenist notions of a de-ethicized Providence eventually secularized in terms of the “heterogenesis of ends.” Thus, essentially doubtful, mistrusting, and despairing human creatures are supposed to achieve a contractual balance of fears and impulses to achieve a simulacrum of order stronger than order itself, according to Thomas Hobbes. Thus, equally, the unplanned coordination of needs and desires by the market can achieve a simulacrum of wealth more abundant than any shared wealth that has been previously pursued. Thus, thirdly, the systematic pursuit of fame, reputation, and flattery can achieve a “polite” and “civilized” simulacrum of virtue, honor, and decorum.

The absolutely massive release of individual and collective energies which this has allowed has indeed achieved unprecedented effects, most of all in the variegated alliance of human liberty and natural power, whose hitherto unsuspected capacities have been continuously unveiled. And a gradual loss of the arguably natural “rule through estates” and the concentration of all “regalian” functions at the center of monopolized political and economic power has been compensated for by the hugely augmented technical and biopolitical capacity for the exercise of this power.

Nevertheless, one can ask whether this “liberal” project is ultimately an “impossible” one and a false apocalyptic—in the sense of final disclosure. Liberalism seeks to sustain history beyond its “end,” beyond the collapse of a civilization, such that all the imperial voyaging of the West has been but the voyaging of a specter, of a Flying Dutchman always uneasily aware that its mariners have shot the symbolic albatross, to mix my allegories. The upshot of this voyaging has been the pillaging and destroying of all other histories, with the consequence that the liberal ending of history has now indeed been universalized. Yet this liberal ending seems to be now itself threatened with extinction, even if what could come next remains wholly obscure. Or in other terms, the reality that, back in port, Latin civilization ended several hundred years ago returns to haunt what could now be our universal voyage to literal extinction.

So is the light of our own reality still faintly reaching us only from the death of our own star, far back in time? One could argue so. The full project of achieving order through disorder is still ongoing and is never quite complete. Intermediate and corporate bodies and their mutual support through reciprocal gifts has to some extent survived; the “communism” of the family is still just about with us; the commitment in practice of law to equity and not just precedent or utility has intermittently persisted; religiously based education, along with the rectory, has continued, even up to the present, as the nursery of a remarkable proportion of our culture.1313xAdrian Vermeule, Common Good Constitutionalism (Cambridge, England: Polity, 2022).

Yet ever since the much more explicit attempt at the abolition of estates, corporations, inheritance, and preferential gift-giving by the French Revolution, it is notable that the disturbance and violence of history has proceeded at an ever-increased pace.1414xJohn Milbank, “Catholic Social Teaching as Political Theology,” New Polity 3, no. 2 (Spring 2022): 25–49.

In this respect, we cannot simply dismiss the claims of Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre that the revolutionary project was in some respects an “impossible” one, even if we have no wish to return to the Ancien Régime or even the Middle Ages. Modernity may now be in crisis just because it is modernity. Liberal democracy may now be in crisis just because it is not in the end sustainable: because it has no way ultimately to contain an unrestricted liberty of wills without a horizon of the common good, save by recourse to draconian organization and surveillance. There is no guarantee that aggregated negative wills, or our notion of “democracy,” will not always tend to choose the basest if most people are deprived of encouragement in wisdom and liable to fall prey to the blandishments of persuaders or to seek solace in the illusions of the virtual.

More profoundly, one can argue that modern political order is really as much a simulacrum of ancient triadic order as it is its complete overthrow in the name of a sovereign coordination of isolated individuals from a single center. Auguste Comte’s recommendation of just this fusion has indeed come to pass: We have today the dominance of scientific, technocratic, and medical professions that are in reality subservient to the power purposes of an increasingly small international political elite who merely try to legitimate their actions in the name of supposedly objective scientific truth.1515xIbid. Equivalently, business corporations of the largest kind have increasingly assumed de facto political power, yet with little requirement of political responsibility.

The “rule through disorder” of liberalism was always officially predicated on dividing the political from the economic in the name of ethical neutrality as to productive and trading purposes. Liberal individualism requires such a separation to remain a “private affair.” Yet this arrangement has always concealed from view the dubiously total economization of the political sphere in modernity, by conceptualizing social and political bonds in terms of calculated contract. In consequence, the largely hollow political sphere is naturally filled up with fundamentally commercial and economic purpose, just as the theoretically indeterminate private sphere is naturally filled up with material accumulation and destruction.

Conversely, the separation of the economic from the political has always concealed the total politicization of the economic, as Leninists and Gramscians correctly realize. Workers are deprived of all specifically economic or “household” resources: ownership of property or assets and ownership even of their own labor. Behind the economic appropriation of labor as profit lurks the liberal political imaginary, which obliterates the personal and symbolic character of labor by thinking of it, as it thinks of land, as both “raw material” for accumulation and exploitation and as abstract, numerical, commodified, and quantifiable “value.” For all his essential grasp of much of this, Marx failed in the end to see that the point was not the mystificatory suppression of the material by the “fetishistic” but the denial of the inevitably crucial human fetish of the symbolic. Marxism uncritically sustains the modern and liberal short-circuiting of cultural mediation, or the splitting of the symbol into the “merely material” and the “merely abstract.” This dualistic denial of the mediation that alone renders us cultural animals only succeeds in covertly construing mediation as raw power that is diversely yet collusively accumulated at once as the piled abstraction of money and as the expropriation and leveling desertification of land and matter.

Now that workers are increasingly deprived even of alienated work, and appropriated work merges with appropriated information, we can see still more to what extreme degree the capitalist project is one of liberal political control that always tends to put class interest even above that of the pursuit of overall profits, if this entails an expansion of collective wealth that tends to increase workers’ economic demands and so their power.1616xClara E. Mattei, The Capital Order: How Economists Invented Austerity and Paved the Way to Fascism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022).  In the same way, to the degree that capitalism stagnates into a regime of unproductive rents and loans, we can also see how, from the outset, it was as much about turning land into loans, and wealth into debt, as it was about the extraction of surplus value from labor. If liberal politics is secretly economized and the liberal market secretly politicized throughout, then the two realms are truly held apart only by the collusive debt mechanism that puts big money and big power continuously in each other’s pockets.

In all these ways, then, the liberal abandonment of triadic order, of corporate power and its accompanying fusion of the political with the economic, proves to be to some extent a mirage. But to the extent that all three return in an altered technocratic form, they tend to subvert both liberal freedom and liberal democracy. Prized away from the symbolic, the rule of naked power is far more alien to consent and participation than was the power exercised in premodernity. In this way, the tendencies to the authoritarian and the fascistic are intrinsic to the liberal order, and do not just stand over and against it, as we can well see today. All that fascism does, in its many modes, is to fill this empty heart of control with an emotional and sentimental appetite.

Is it possible, nevertheless, to have also a third perspective on the decadence of the West since the Middle Ages? Already I have suggested that the victory of the liberal order (and, one can add, of its supplementation by the positivist, neotriadic order) has never been total. But one can also go further, pointing out the many instances of Christian Romantic or neo-Gothic pushback during the liberal era, especially in the nineteenth century, or in the twentieth after both world wars: more radically but for a shorter period after the first, less radically but for a more sustained period, up to the 1970s, after the second.

Rightly refusing the centralization of the Ancien Régime as already too modern and even liberal, many attempts were made to reintroduce mutualist reciprocity and a more plural corporatist order (including guilds and cooperatives) no longer separating the political from the economic, or secretly fusing the two, but allowing a political voice to firms and to unions in exchange for ethical economic responsibility and reconstruing political rule not as one of an independent “state,” which tends to become a quasi-economic power of its own, but as one of coordinating several dispersed sovereign centers, both at home and abroad. At the same time, as Michael Lind and others have argued, the guiding priestly role was variously and to some degree restored in terms of the influence of the Church upon culture and (one can add) in terms of the operation of various kinds of public and corporate trusteeships, like that of the BBC or the National Trust in Britain.1717xMichael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite (New York, NY: Atlantic, 2021).

One could go still further and say that these sorts of development and many others arose not simply in reaction against the modern but also as being in part allowed by it. It might be argued that “Romanticism” as such embodies this paradox. If it is true that modernity unleashes the indifferently and negatively individual, then it also and, as it were, accidentally further releases the personal or the exploration by individuals and communities of new modes of positive liberty, freely participating and variously expressing the transcendent.1818xThis has been frequently emphasized by Charles Taylor; see, for example, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 473–504. One can think here of new religious movements, including “esoteric” ones (that have tended to interpret modern mutation and creativity in traditional participatory terms), and of the many artistic innovations since the Romantic age itself, which have rarely been simply “promodern,” despite the Futurists.

In order fully to understand this, we need to try to link the singularity of the Western liberal attempt to distill order from disorder to the singularity of Western civilization itself as a Christian civilization. At this point, we can also invoke a question concerning the metaphysics of history from a Christian perspective. Insofar as Christians may deplore the loss of a Christian civilization in the West, and thereby concur with Guénon’s narrative of a decline into materialist plurality, how, nonetheless, are they to understand the possibility of a retreat from Christ, if the Incarnation is taken to be not just the center of a civilization but the center of history as such, to the degree that Christ was no mere avatar of the divine but a full realization of the divine as also human?

This issue can be construed not merely as one of faith and belief. Even regarded objectively, there is something unique about the reports concerning Jesus Christ. He broke at once with the fusion of temple, money, and power in the case of Israel as much as in the case of Rome—thereby, as David Lloyd Dusenbury suggests, inventing “religion” as we know it, as a practice, philosophy, cult, and community standing somewhat apart from and normatively over and above the political and the economic.1919xDavid Lloyd Dusenbury, I Judge No One: A Political Life of Jesus (London, England: Hurst, 2022). Within this space, what we think of as the independently “social” also started to grow, with its further encouragement of independent corporations and guilds. Allied to this “space of active reserve” was Jesus’s unique injunctions to forgive everything and to render no final judgments.

But what is more, this “religion,” newly defined in excess of the politico-economic, was also a strange mode of cult compared to those that hitherto had been so bound up with human authority. Its primary content was not a law code, or complex ritual, or set of initiatory secrets, or even a teaching, but the person of Christ himself. The supremacy of the person as such was thereby inculcated—as was the supremacy of character and exemplified love, of the symbolic as the iconic, as we have seen, only because one specific person was adulated and this person held to be a perfect person, repairing all our human deficiencies since he was none other than the person of the Son of God himself, hypostasizing a human form.

This Christian paradigm inevitably complicates the Christian understanding of the metaphysics of history. The acme of Christian history is given at the outset, in the midst of all history. It consists not in the dominance of the worship of the One but in a descent to the particular that is nonetheless held to be a perfect descent. What is more, this descended one is held to have suffered and been put to death by the forces of now-surpassed civilizations (surpassed only by this death), and to have triumphed on earth only through the repetition of his personhood individually and collectively in the Church. Just as the Son of God realized his Trinitarian expression of Paternal Unity on earth in his lifetime, so this is realized further in the time of the Church and interpreted as a co-belonging of its variety with the One Father by the Trinitarian presence of the Holy Spirit.

Christians may understand that we are led economically through our spiritual feelings, up through our devotion to the symbolic expressions of the Logos in time to the unknown source of the Father. In that sense, Christians share a perennial view of vertical triadicity. But in another sense, they uniquely understand that God in himself is a Trinity, and that there is a kind of cosmic democracy lying curiously atop even the cosmic hierarchy. For this reason, they do not consider individuation and materialization to betoken inevitable decay, because both are always more primarily, even in decrepitude, a personalization, just as even the most wayward self-assertion is always more fundamentally and ineluctably a self-giving. What is more, since Christ’s personhood was displayed most forcefully in his sacrificial death, even the death of a Christian civilization may exhibit instances of Christian witness and hold out the hope of resurrection.

It is in this light that one ventures to assert that, for the Christian or Christian-formed outlook, civilizational decline is always ironic. Although it betokens separation and therefore evil, for the personalist perspective separation is always secretly outplayed by further personification and further unification since, from the outset, the only fullness of unity lay in manifold self-expression and the only hope of return to the One lay in linking the fullness of this self-expression—which may well be fully achieved in disintegration—back to a loving unity with the One itself.

In the light of this ironic attitude, the post-Christian project of liberalism can appear only to be parody. The very idea of grounding security upon the isolated individual could have occurred only to people emerging from a personalist legacy, however much they have subverted its real truth. Similarly, the idea of founding order upon disorder is a parody of the message of the Cross.

Yet for both reasons, within liberal modernity, authentic Christianity has always kept returning to the confounding of the former. The personalism of theophanic character taken as displaying the transcendent absolute, or God, is much more individualistic than individualism, and so can outplay it. The self-immolation of the Cross is much more disintegrating than decadence and so can also outplay it through the enactment of total self-sacrifice, self-giving, and self-surrender. The self-assertion involved in expressive giving (even to self-destruction) is much more freely expressive of “right” than are rights themselves, and much more acceptable, since the genuine personal gift must, by definition, cohere with every other gift, whereas a “human right,” being only by definition a self-assertion, might not. A house built upon the sand of antagonism, even regulated antagonism, is doomed to fall, but no authentically different reality really stands against anything else. Hence Christianity, perhaps unlike any other creed, has nothing ultimately to fear from release: Deeper than every jolt lies the confirmation of benign recoil. That is the core of the Christian metaphysical trust in the nonultimacy of ontological violence, the ultimate peaceability of being or reality as such.

In one sense, the message here is simply not to give up, but to retain hope in the face of the most extreme-seeming disaster. But in another it is to have trust that the Christian process is still elaborating and unravelling itself. If no other civilization after ours is in prospect, then that may indeed be because Christianity is the final civilization. There can be no further disclosure of the divine after that of simply the human as such, at the cosmic center: No rationalism or materialism can overtake it without a dualistic denial of the centrality of the symbolic and the liturgical and their mediation by feeling in human historical existence. Jesus removed our interpersonal, social, symbolic, and gift-exchanging existence away from their being embedded in political and purchasing power. He demanded instead that they be embedded in the social and then subordinated to the social and interpersonal as much as possible.

In practical terms, this means that Christians and others may have a valid hope that the evident exhaustion of liberalism as manifest crime, plutocracy, and narcissism opens a space beyond an exhausted liberal democracy for pitting a valid corporatism against a decadent one, a rule of representative popular “councils” not governed by parties against the rule of inevitably bought and plutocratically controlled parliaments (unless the latter are seen as councils of councils, both regional and vocational), and a valid “free theocracy” (per Solovyov) against either the rule of the scientific or of the reactionary clerics.

The perennially normative idea of triadic estates remains valid. We need to admit that a civilization requires a common spiritual vision alongside wide toleration. We need to accept that, at every level, the common good depends as much upon well-educated and virtuous architectonic ruling elites as it does upon a more widely dispersed participation—and indeed to realize that the two things positively foment each other.

But at the same time, we need to recall how the Christian Incarnational and Trinitarian vision always worked to subvert the perennially triadic one in a much more substantively democratic way than is the case for liberal formalism—by realizing that ritual expression and political rule further articulate contemplative vision, and that all laboring and artisanal enactment further realize both the original wisdom of theory and its endlessly new expression as the beauty of harmonious order, surviving even the most acute and painful of ruptures.