A version of this essay was delivered as the 11th Annual William E. Simon Lecture in Washington on February 7, 2012.
In recent years, roiled as they have been by a global financial and economic crisis, the phrase “the handwriting is on the wall” has become a staple of the public conversation. It is a metaphor for the general sense of disorientation, unease, and fear for the future that seems epidemic throughout the Western world, and that is having so obvious an effect on the national cast of mind in this election season.
The phrase may be ubiquitous, but how many of those who invoke “the handwriting on the wall” have looked closely at its source—the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible? The story told there is a striking one. Recalling it in full might help us come to grips with whatever is being written on the wall at this moment in our national history, and in the history of the civilization of the West. Reflecting on that story might also help us identify a prophet who, like Daniel, could help us translate “the handwriting on the wall,” understand its meaning, and thus know our duty.
The scene is readily set. The place: Babylon. The time: some two and a half millennia ago, in the 6th century before our era. The Kingdom of Judah has been conquered by the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar, who, the Book of Daniel tells us, ordered his chief vizier “to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, handsome and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding, competent to serve in the king’s palace, and to teach them the letters and language of the Chaldeans.” The most impressive of this group of talented young Jews was named Daniel. In addition to the personal qualities specified for royal service by Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel had the power to interpret the great king’s dreams—a skill that led Nebuchadnezzar to acknowledge, for a moment at least, that Daniel’s God, the God of the people of Israel, was “God of gods and lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries.”
Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar, was a different matter, however:
King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords, and drank wine in front of the thousand. Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and silver which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem be brought, so that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. Then they brought in the gold and silver vessels which had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. They drank wine and praised the gods of silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.
Immediately the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, opposite the lampstead: and the king saw the hand as it wrote…
It was, as we might imagine, an unwelcome interruption of the royal revels. Belshazzar was terrified and promised to make the man who could decipher the writing and its meaning the third ruler in the kingdom. The tenured academics and op-ed writers were stumped. Then the queen had an idea: Call in Daniel. So the king summoned the young Jewish exile and promised him the third position in the kingdom if he could read the handwriting on the wall and explain its meaning. The eponymous book tells the rest of the story:
Then Daniel answered before the king: “Let your gifts be for yourself, and give your rewards to another; nevertheless I will read the writing to the king and make known to him the interpretation….You have lifted yourself up above the Lord of heaven; and the vessels of his house have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives, and your concubines have drunk wine from them; and you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know, but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.
“Then from his presence the hand was sent, and this writing was inscribed. And this was the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
Then Belshazzar commanded, and Daniel was clothed with purple, a chain of gold was put about his neck, and proclamation was made concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
That very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.
Belshazzar’s feast and its ending in the king’s abrupt death is thus a Biblical warning against the lethal effects of blasphemy—the worship of that which is not worthy of worship, which is the negation of worship. In his drunken arrogance, Belshazzar turned sacred vessels intended for true worship into playthings for debauchery, and because of that negation of worship, his claim to sovereignty was annulled. The handwriting on the wall spoke of this. And it spoke truly.
THE EMPTY SHRINE
Is there similar handwriting on the wall in our own time? I think there is. The words are different, and they tend to be written, not telegraphically on walls by mysterious hands, but voluminously, in newspapers and magazines and books and scholarly journals and online. But these words, too, tell of the results of the negation of worship. Or, to put the matter in less dramatically Biblical terms, the words on the wall at this moment in history speak of the results of a negation—a deconstruction—of the deep truths on which the civilization of the West has been built. And one of the main things that the “handwriting on the wall” in the early 21st century is telling us is that the secular project is over.
By “secular project,” I mean the effort, extending over the past two centuries or more, to erect an empty shrine at the heart of political modernity. This project’s symbolic beginning may be dated precisely, to April 4, 1791, when the French National Constituent Assembly ordered that the noble Parisian church of St. Geneviève be transformed into a secular mausoleum, the Panthéon. The secular project accelerated throughout the 19thcentury as the high culture of Europe was shaped by what Henri de Lubac called “atheistic humanism”: the claim, advanced by thinkers as diverse as Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche, that the God of the Bible was the enemy of human maturity and must therefore be rejected in the name of human liberation. After atheistic humanism had produced, among other things, two world wars and the greatest slaughters in recorded history, a softer form of the “empty shrine” project emerged in the 20th century. This softer secularism—of which political science, not political philosophy, was the intellectual engine—focused on the institutional structures and processes of democracy and the market: If one simply got those structures right—powers separated and balanced, markets designed for maximum efficiency—then all one had to do was insert the key into the ignition and let politics and economics run by themselves.
In both its hard and soft forms, the secular project was wrong. Above all, it ignored the deep truth that it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make democracy and the free economy work properly. People of that kind do not just happen. They must be formed in the habits of heart and mind, the virtues that enable them to guide the machinery of free politics and free economics so that the net outcome is human flourishing and the promotion of the common good. There is no such formation in the vir
tues of freedom available at the empty shrine.
A glimpse of what the empty shrine does produce was on offer late last summer in Great Britain, when packs of feral young people rampaged through city after city in an orgy of self-indulgence, theft, and destruction. The truth of what all that was about was most powerfully articulated by Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writing in the Wall Street Journal:
This was the bursting of a dam of potential trouble that had been building for years. The collapse of families and communities leaves in its wake unsocialized young people…[who are the products of] a tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West, saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.
The inability of democratic countries to make rational decisions in the face of impending fiscal disaster gives us another glimpse into the effects of the empty shrine and its inability to nurture and form men and women of democratic virtue—citizens capable of moral and economic responsibility in both their personal and public lives. Whether the venue is Athens or Madison, Wisconsin, the Piazza Venezia in Rome or McPherson Square in Washington, the underlying moral problem is the same: adults who have internalized a sense of entitlement that is wholly disconnected from a sense of responsibility. And once again, it was Lord Sacks who connected the dots here when he wrote that the moral meltdown of the West—the attempt to build a civilization disconnected from the deep truths on which it was founded—had had inevitable economic and financial outcomes: “What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well….[as] people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels, and consume the world’s resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when.” These linked phenomena—”spending our moral capital with the same reckless abandon that we have been spending our financial capital”—are, Sacks concluded, the inevitable result of a “culture of the free lunch in a world where there are no free lunches.”
At the moment, the gravest examples of the moral-cultural disease that is eating away at the vitals of the Western democracies may be found in places like Greece and Italy. There, public irrationality and political irresponsibility have rendered the democratic system so dysfunctional that, under the pressure of the sovereign-debt crisis, the normal processes of democratic governance have been replaced in recent months by the rule of technocratic elites, operating beneath a thin democratic veneer.
But Americans would be foolish if we did not see glimpses of the effects of the empty shrine in our own country. Those results come into view when we note the distinct absence of profiles in courage in our own politics; when entry into public service is essentially a projection of personal ego and self-esteem; when the crude exchange of epithets displaces serious engagement with the issues; when complexities are reduced to sound bites because the talk-radio show must go on; when short-term political risk aversion leads to grave long-term consequences; when trans-generational solidarity is abandoned in the name of immediate gratification; when the question becomes, “What can I get out of the state (and its treasury)?” not “What am I contributing to the common good?”
What these symptoms of democratic dysfunction suggest is that the empty shrine of the secularist project is not, in truth, entirely empty. For while it is true that the atheistic humanism of the 19th century and the democratic functionalism and economic libertarianism of the 20thhave drained a lot of the moral energy from both free politics and free economics, the shrine at the heart of Western civilization has become the temple of a new form of worship: the worship of the imperial autonomous Self, which, in 1992, three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court promoted and celebrated as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
That false worship of the Self—the worship of that which is not worthy of worship—has led to a severe attenuation of the moral sinews of democratic culture: the commitment to reason and truth-telling in debate; the courage to face hard facts squarely; the willingness to concede that others may have something to teach us; the ability to distinguish between prudent compromise and the abandonment of principle; the very idea of the common good, which may demand personal sacrifice.
If “the handwriting on the wall” is telling us that the secular project is over, then one of the lessons of that verdict can be put like this: While there are undoubtedly serious functional problems with Western institutions of governance in the early 21st century, the greatest deficit from which the Western democracies suffer today is a deficit of democratic culture. And a primary cause of that deficit has been the profligate spending-out of the moral-cultural capital built up in the West under the influence of Biblical religion.
What we call “the West”—and the distinctive forms of political and economic life it has generated—did not just happen. Those distinctive forms of politics and economics—democracy and the market—are not solely the product of the continental European Enlightenment. No, the deeper taproots of our civilization lie in cultural soil nurtured by the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome: Biblical religion, from which the West learned the idea of history as a purposeful journey into the future, not just one damn thing after another; Greek rationality, which taught the West that there are truths embedded in the world and in us, and that we have access to those truths through the arts of reason; and Roman jurisprudence, which taught the West the superiority of the rule of law over the rule of brute force and sheer coercion.
The three pillars of the West—Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome—are all essential, and they reinforce one another in a complex cultural dynamic. That mutual interdependence of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome is another lesson that the handwriting on the wall in the early 21st century is teaching us. If, for example, you throw the God of the Bible over the side, as atheistic humanism demanded, you get two severe problems: one empirical, the other a matter of cultural temperament. Empirically, it seems that when the God of the Bible is abandoned in the name of human maturation and liberation, so is his first commandment, to “be fruitful and multiply”; and then one embarks on the kind of demographic winter that is central to the crisis of the European welfare state. Culturally, upon abandoning the God of the Bible, one begins to lose faith in reason. For, as post-modernism has demonstrated, when reason is detached from belief in the God who imprinted the divine reason on the world—thus making creation intelligible through the Logos, the Word—reason soon turns in on itself. Then radical skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything with clarity begets various forms of soured nihilism. And that lethal cocktail of skepticism and nihilism in turn yields moral relativism and the deterioration of the rule of law, as relativism is imposed on all of society by coercive state power.
Taking a cue from that great philosophical celebrant of irony, Richard Rorty, Colgate University’s Robert Kraynak has neatly described the net result of all this as “freeloading atheism”: Like Belshazzar’s lords, wives, and concubines, those formed by the empty shrine and the worship of the imperial, autonomous Self have been d
rinking profligately out of sacred vessels, freeloading on moral truths that they do not acknowledge (and in many cases hold in contempt), but which are essential for sustaining democracy and the free economy, which the freeloaders claim to honor. But as Lord Sacks pointed out last summer, that jig is up.
THE EMPTY NARRATIVE
If the death of the secular project is one truth that “the handwriting on the wall” is teaching in our time, then so is the related death of post-modernism, which has been done in by the radical disconnect between “narrative” and reality. In recent years, the notion of “narrative” (which gave birth to that horrible neologism, “narrativizing”) has become ubiquitous in our public vocabulary. To “change the narrative” is to gain political advantage; to “narrativize” a problem in a new way is taken as a way to solve it. Yet “changing the narrative” cannot change reality, and anchoring our public life to “narrative” rather than to reality can so warp our perceptions of reality that we end up like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, believing impossible things before breakfast—and lunch, and dinner.
This has become painfully obvious in Europe, where the public “narrative” of the post-World War II period, and particularly of the post-Cold War period, is the story of the creation of a community of social democracies living in harmony in a world beyond conflict. That narcotic and seductive “narrative” has crashed against reality in recent years, and most painfully in the past year. It has crashed against the consequences of an unprecedented reality in human history: systematic depopulation on a mass scale through deliberate and self-induced infertility. That infertility, in turn, set the stage for the contemporary European fiscal crisis and the crisis of the modern European welfare state. For the simple fact—the reality that no “narrative” can change—is that Europe does not have a sufficient number of taxpaying workers to sustain the social welfare states it has created. As if that were not bad enough, the post-Cold War European “narrative” has also crashed into the reality of spoiled and self-indulgent citizens whose productivity cannot deliver the standard of living their politicians promise—those promises being yet another example of false “narratives.”
The ability of false “narrative” to warp our perception of reality is also evident in the claim that China will inevitably rise to become the dominant world power. This Sinophilia has a familiar Oriental ring to it. Twenty years ago, the leading candidate for the title of post-American hegemon was Japan, and an extended narrative of the inevitability of Japan’s rise was spun out in bestsellers like Japan as Number One. Today, however, Japan is living through an extended period of economic stagnation compounded by a demographic free fall that makes the very existence of the nation questionable over time. Now, the Asian contender for lead society in a post-American world is China. Yet that narrative, too, is crashing against demographic reality: Thanks to its one-child policy, China will get old before it gets rich, with its population declining after 2020 and aging at a pace that will make it impossible to support growing cadres of retirees. Moreover, as Max Boot has written, “China must also deal with the fundamental illegitimacy of its unelected government, its lack of civil society, pervasive corruption, environmental devastation, and paucity of natural resources.” These are facts; this is reality. Yet the “narrative” of China as the inevitable lead society of the future has become so familiar that the facts simply do not register beyond a small band of skeptics.
And then there is the damage that substituting “narrative” for reality has done in our own country—to the Obama administration, to the general health of the public discourse, and to our national security. Evidently, the administration was so taken with the results of the “narrativizing” that worked wonders during the 2008 campaign that it imagines that “narrative” is the very point of government. As the president himself put it in an interview last summer, reflecting on what he might have done differently, “…the more you’re in this office the more you have to say to yourself that telling a story to the American people is just as important as the actual policies that you’re implementing.” Presidents certainly must take seriously what the first President Bush dismissed, likely to his regret, as the “vision thing.” But for a president to argue that what fundamentally matters in governance is storytelling is, at the very least, a striking indicator of just how much President Obama is influenced by the intellectual exhaust fumes of post-modernism.
The difficulty, of course, is that ideas, even bad ideas, have consequences. The consequences of this commitment to “narrative” by the administration have certainly falsified domestic reality and made serious problem-solving far more difficult. They have also placed the nation, and the world, in greater jeopardy.
In foreign affairs, the equivalent of the Obama administration’s commitment to changing narratives has been the notion of a “new engagement,” as if a change of declaratory policy and a less assertive (some would say more cringing) approach to difficult nations and difficult problems would change the problems themselves, perhaps even resolve them. It hasn’t.
Three years into recasting the narrative with Russia and China in terms of “re-engagement,” both these veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council continue to impede efforts by the United States and others to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions—ambitions that, if realized, would pose an existential threat to Israel (and perhaps several Arab countries) while creating a capacity for lethal terrorism on an unprecedented global scale.
Three years into the administration’s “reset” with Russia—famously launched with a toy button that turned out to have the wrong Russian word engraved on it—Vladimir Putin’s bullying (and worse) in the Russian “near abroad” has intensified; authoritarianism has increased within Russia itself; and Russia has provided support for such anti-American (and destabilizing) regimes as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Meanwhile, “resetting” with Russia—”changing the narrative”—led to a betrayal of America’s Polish and Czech allies on the question of missile defense. That betrayal, in turn, has encouraged the Putin regime to double down on its paranoid resistance to the emplacement in Europe of American missile-defense facilities of no conceivable threat to Russia.
And then there is Iran. Here, the change of narrative began with an apology for American actions taken more than half a century ago, continued with negotiations that produced no discernible results, and reached their moral nadir when the administration ignored popular discontent with the mullahs’ regime and effectively undercut the possibility of the Iranian people shaking off the rule of the apocalyptic clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. As for the results of this attempt to “change the narrative”: Iran continues to be a state sponsor of terrorism and, because of that, Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; Iran saber-rattles in the Strait of Hormuz and undertakes assassination plots in Washington; the Iranian nuclear program grinds on. Meanwhile, this attempt to change the “narrative” of America’s dealings with Iran has often obscured from public view the reality of the situation, which is that regime change in Tehran is the only path to the reintegration of Iran into the community of responsible nations.
A change of “narrative” cannot change reality. But false narratives can so warp our perceptions of reality that mat
ters are made worse. And matters made worse can, and often do, lead to matters made far more dangerous. That, too, is part of “the handwriting on the wall” in this election year.
A MODERN DANIEL
In the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel, “the handwriting on the wall” bespoke, however cryptically, the imminent demise of King Belshazzar’s regime. I am not suggesting that “the handwriting on the wall” in the early 21st century bespeaks the demise of the West or of the United States. Like Rabbi Lord Sacks, I can look back in history on moments of social dissolution followed by rapid periods of cultural transformation and profound societal change. In his Wall Street Journal article, Sacks cited the rapid change of early industrial England under the influence of the Wesleyan revolution, which in two generations transformed British society in positive ways. Closer to our own time, we might recall the transformation of American culture, society, and law effected by the classic civil rights movement, another revolution of social change led by churchmen and built on the foundations of Biblical faith.
Any such revolution in the 21st century will have to contend with social acids at least as corrosive as cheap gin in Dickensian London and racism in America, however. It will have to contend with the intellectual detritus of the past two centuries, which has placed the imperial autonomous Self at the center of the Western civilizational project while reducing democracy and the free economy to matters of mechanics. Who is the Daniel who can read this “handwriting on the wall” and point a path, not to the demise of Western democracy, but to its moral and cultural renewal and thus its political transformation?
One possible candidate for that prophetic role is the Bishop of Rome who created the modern papacy, Pope Leo XIII. Born in 1810 into the minor Italian nobility and elected pope in 1878 as a caretaker, he died in 1903 after what was then the second-longest pontificate in recorded history. Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci came to the papacy at one of the lowest points in that ancient office’s historic fortunes. On the demise of the Papal States in 1870 and the pope’s withdrawal from public view as the “prisoner of the Vatican,” the great and good of Europe thought the papacy and the Church a spent force in world-historical terms. Yet over the next quarter-century, Leo XIII would prove to statesmen that he was, as Russell Hittinger put it, “the wiliest pope in centuries.”
More to the point for our purposes, Leo XIII, as Professor Hittinger wrote, was also possessed by “a relentless drive to diagnose historical contingencies in the light of first principles.” He was, in that sense, a kind of public intellectual. Like his 20th- and 21st-century papal successors, he, too, believed in reading “the signs of the times.” But unlike the radical secularists of his time and ours, Leo XIII believed in reading the signs of the times through a lens ground by faith and reason. His passion for understanding the deep currents of history through reason informed by a Biblical vision of the human person and human communities is best remembered today for having launched the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. Yet Leo, who began to disentangle the Church in Europe from the evangelically stifling embrace of the old regimes, was also an acute analyst of the pathologies of political modernity. And it is that aspect of his thought and teaching that makes him a possible Daniel for our time, helping us read “the handwriting on the wall” as the freeloading pagans of modernity continue their carousing.
Leo’s analysis of political modernity might be summarized in one phrase: no telos, no justice. Or, if you prefer: no metaphysics, no morals. Or, to leave the technical vocabulary of philosophy: no grounding of politics and economics in the deep truths of the human condition, no society fit for human beings.
What I have called the “empty shrine” at the center of political modernity was, for Leo XIII, the result of a dramatic revolution in European intellectual life in which metaphysics had been displaced from the center of reflection, thinking-about-thinking had replaced thinking-about-truth, and governance had therefore come unstuck from the first principles of justice. Science, which had replaced metaphysics as the most consequential of intellectual disciplines, could provide no answer to the moral question with which all politics, in the Western tradition, begins: How ought we to live together? Worse, when science stepped outside its disciplinary boundaries and tried its hand at social and political prescription, it let loose new demons, such as Social Darwinism, that would prove astonishingly lethal when they shaped the national tempers that made possible the great slaughters of the First World War.
Leo tried to fill the empty shrine at the heart of political modernity with reason, and with the moral truths that reason can discern. This was, to be sure, reason informed by Biblical faith and Christian doctrine. But the genius of Leo XIII, public intellectual, was that he found a vocabulary to address the social, political, and economic problems of his time, and ours, that was genuinely ecumenical and accessible to all—the vocabulary of public reason, drawn from the natural moral law that is embedded in the world and in us. In one of his great encyclicals on political modernity, Immortale Dei, published in 1885, Leo wrote that “the best parent and guardian of liberty amongst men is truth.” Unlike the post-modern Pontius Pilates who imagine that the cynical question “What is truth?” ends the argument, Leo XIII understood that this question, which can be asked in a non-cynical and genuinely inquiring way, is the beginning of any serious wrestling with the further question, “How ought we to live together?”
This general orientation to the problem of political modernity then led Leo to pose a cultural challenge to the post-ancien régime public life of the West: a challenge to think more deeply about law, about the nature of freedom, about civil society and its relationship to the state, and about the limits of state power.
Leo XIII’s concept of law, drawn from Thomas Aquinas, challenged the legal positivism of his time and ours, according to which the law is what the law says it is, period. That may be true, at a very crude level. But such positivism (which is also shaped by the modern tendency to see civil laws as analogous to the “laws” of nature) empties law of moral content, detaches it from reason, and treats it as a mere expression of human willfulness. Leo challenged political modernity to a nobler concept of law, synthesized by Russell Hittinger, as “a binding precept of reason, promulgated by a competent authority for the common good.” Thus law is not mere coercion; law is authoritative prescription grounded in reason. True law reflects moral judgment, and its power comes from its moral persuasiveness. Law appeals to conscience, not just to fear.
Given this understanding of law, it should come as no surprise that Leo challenged political modernity to a nobler concept of freedom. Following Aquinas rather than Ockham (that first of the proto-modern distorters of the idea of freedom), Leo XIII insisted that freedom is not sheer willfulness. Rather, as Leo’s successor John Paul II would later put it, freedom is the human capacity to know what is truly good, to choose it freely, and to do so as a matter of habit, or virtue. According to this line of argument, a talent for freedom grows in us; we cut short that learning process if we insist, with the culture of the imperial autonomous Self, that my freedom consists in doing what I want to do, now.
Leo XIII’s challenge to political modernity was also a challenge to the omni-competence of the state. Leo was a committed defender of what we would call “civil society,” or what were called “voluntary private associations” in his day. Political community, according to Leo XIII, w
as composed of a richly textured pluralism of associations, of which the state was but one (albeit an important one). These voluntarily entered, free associations (which, to reduce the matter to its simplest form, included everything from the family to business and labor associations to civic groups and religious communities) were not merely barriers against the reach of state power; they were goods in themselves, communities expressing different forms of friendship and human solidarity. Thus the just state would take care to protect these soci
This article was originally published on National Affairs