Earthly Powers

Every once in a while a book comes out which is indispensable to those seriously dedicated to truth, liberty, and the honest study of history. Michael Burleigh’s Earthy Powers is such a book. Burleigh’s thesis — the danger of state power cloaked in the guise of faith — is not novel but what makes his work so valuable is the detail of scholarship. He has rescued from the memory hole of history the details of the manipulation of faith by tyrants from the French Revolution to the First World War.

Providing excerpts from French Revolutionary secular "catechisms" (as well as reactionary Spanish civil versions) to early 20th century works of propaganda, Earthly Powers follows the course of the manipulation and usurpation of religious authority by the states of Europe but allows the reader to see fallacious governmental rationales for such predatory behavior that still persist to this day. The pernicious attitude of these regimes is succinctly distilled in a quote taken from a German cleric, "God is what the god-inspired people do."

The idea that virtues are merely the name we give to the behavior of those we call virtuous is the philosophical position of metaphysical nominalism. Its opposite is metaphysical realism which states that ideas, like virtue, are entities unto themselves and that a man can only be called virtuous if his life conforms to the objective standard. Richard Weaver once noted that this obscure medieval scholastic debate is what was being played out in the War to Prevent Southern Independence. Weaver viewed the Northern forces as those of the nominalists and, not surprisingly given Burleigh’s research, it was likewise the Unionists who draped themselves in trappings of religion. To this day Lincoln is the "god-inspired" leader whose actions defined presidential greatness rather than conformed to any definition of it.

A pleasant surprise for the reader of Burleigh’s work is the mention of F.A. Voigt and his prescient 1938 condemnation of European totalitarian powers, Unto Caesar — a study of secular religion which takes us beyond the timeframe of Earthly Powers to the twilight between the World Wars. Despite Voigt’s post-war "neo-toryism," his dissection of totalitarianism is masterful. In confronting the ideologies of the Marxists and Nazis, Voigt realized the both were "messianic and socialist," enthroning "the modern Caesar, collective man, the implacable enemy of the individual soul." Any intellectually honest and capable mind would have to admit that the current temperament of the American government is "messianic and socialist," either attempting to save us from ourselves or from others.

Writing in 1938, Voigt saw a world on the cusp of war and boldly proclaimed, "No government in the world has the right to declare war for a principle. The principles for which nations fight are rarely found to have any objective validity when they are examined in a critical spirit . . . Sometimes they will serve to conceal more tangible aims." So much for spreading "democracy" and "freedom" in Iraq at the point of a gun — even Voigt knows that somewhere beneath the Straussian noble lie is the "more tangible aim."

Continuing on the theme of war, Voigt further notes that the "impact of war produces profound psychological changes amongst all the belligerent peoples. War, especially modern war, releases many hidden forces and may transform whole nations in their outlook and their policies by a rapid sequence of unexpected events." As the Reichstag fire did not have as its "aim" the destruction of a mindset but a way of life, so the goal of a war, foreign or domestic, could have as its goal the destruction of the psyche of a people and the sweeping away of their way of life.

While many of the patterns and rhythms of history displayed in Earthly Powers and Unto Caesar are ominously present in today’s culture, despair is not the appropriate response. For every totalitarian or would-be-totalitarian ideology, the seeds of its own destruction are already sown within itself according to Voigt:

The Millennium of the modern secular eschatology has nothing in common with the past or the present — or with history, for its beginning is the end of history. But history cannot end save with the annihilation of mankind. That is why the Millennium is unattainable in this world, for no matter how alluring it is made to appear with the help of pseudo-religion, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-scientific mythology; no matter how ruthless the extermination of all heresy; the suicidal nature of every secular eschatology will be made manifest in time, and men will cry "Halt" before the edge of doom is reached. The present will assert itself once more and peace will be concluded with the past. And the name of that peace is "Tradition."

All who believe in the rule of law and the freedom of the market need only be vigilant in exclaiming the truth, because noble lies cannot last forever. Indeed the Caesars should be given those denarii which they have stamped with their own image. But tradition says that man is made in the image of God and bound only by "the laws of nature and nature’s God." Because of this belief, we know that man was born to be free and no chains, whether made of iron or ideas, can hold him very long.

C.T. Rossi [send him mail] is an attorney who lives in Washington, D.C.