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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Nisbet’

What I wrote above about heroes and villains is pertinent here. Precisely as we lack surpassingly good men (and evil men, strictly defined) in pubic life, so do we lack them in literature and the arts – in what we call high culture. For a long time it has been evident that conditions no longer exist in the West in which a literature of tragedy can be written, by virtue of spreading disbelief in the reality of the kinds of individuals alone capable of being endowed with tragic being. What is now becoming evident is a lack of conditions in which serious literature of any kind is possible. To try to imagine novels and dramas being written today in which the kinds of characters and events are present which fill the pages of Melville, Hawthorne, James, Dreiser, Faulkner, and Hemmingway is not easy, Our imaginative literature is as more than a few critics have recently told us, increasingly one of self-projection, more and more self-parody.

The reason is not far to seek. A culture is required for great individuals, good or evil, in life or art, to flourish – a culture in the literal anthropological sense; that is, composed of themes, patterns, and perspectives of meaning rich enough to evoke response, universal enough to encompass writer and reader alike. the basis of any culture is the presence of values which have external force in the individual’s life, which reflect a power greater than anything that lies in the individual alone. In the fusions of such values wee get the “patterns of culture” the late Ruth Benedict wrote of so eloquently, patterns which are to be found both in the ordinary lives of human beings and in the highest artistic, religious, and moral reaches of culture. …

The inherently adversary cast of mind that, as [Lionel] Trilling has written, was the mark of the artist and intellectual from almost the moment that the tides of political and economic modernity washed over the European landscape, was, for a long time, restrained by conventions and codes made powerful by many centuries of history. Some degree of conformity was the price exacted by these conventions and codes from such geniuses as Cezanne, Stravinsky, Joyce, Yeats, and others early in this century. “Conformity,” as I shall explain in a moment, is not quite the proper word, for a significant degree of relations with traditional values was a cardinal part of the creative act in each of these minds. I am only trying to indicate here the continuing role and influence of tradition in the West even as late as the early twentieth century, even in minds as original and powerful in influence as those I have mentioned. It is to the backwaters of the turn of the century that we must go, to those in small light who consecrated the eccentric and pathological as ends in themselves., as if we would find art that is all escape. So much of what we associate with the fin de siècle in the way of eccentricity and the pathological, cultivated infantilism, irrationalism, and experience-destroying subjectivity, is all too plainly, part of the present cultural scene. It is, alas, often confused with cultural creativity.

— Robert Nisbet; The Twilight of Authority

What I wrote above about heroes and villains is pertinent here. Precisely as we lack surpassingly good men (and evil men, strictly defined) in pubic life, so do we lack them in literature and the arts – in what we call high culture. For a long time it has been evident that conditions no longer exist in the West in which a literature of tragedy can be written, by virtue of spreading disbelief in the reality of the kinds of individuals alone capable of being endowed with tragic being. What is now becoming evident is a lack of conditions in which serious literature of any kind is possible. To try to imagine novels and dramas being written today in which the kinds of characters and events are present which fill the pages of Melville, Hawthorne, James, Dreiser, Faulkner, and Hemmingway is not easy, Our imaginative literature is as more than a few critics have recently told us, increasingly one of self-projection, more and more self-parody.

The reason is not far to seek. A culture is required for great individuals, good or evil, in life or art, to flourish – a culture in the literal anthropological sense; that is, composed of themes, patterns, and perspectives of meaning rich enough to evoke response, universal enough to encompass writer and reader alike. the basis of any culture is the presence of values which have external force in the individual’s life, which reflect a power greater than anything that lies in the individual alone. In the fusions of such values wee get the “patterns of culture” the late Ruth Benedict wrote of so eloquently, patterns which are to be found both in the ordinary lives of human beings and in the highest artistic, religious, and moral reaches of culture. …

The inherently adversary cast of mind that, as [Lionel] Trilling has written, was the mark of the artist and intellectual from almost the moment that the tides of political and economic modernity washed over the European landscape, was, for a long time, restrained by conventions and codes made powerful by many centuries of history. Some degree of conformity was the price exacted by these conventions and codes from such geniuses as Cezanne, Stravinsky, Joyce, Yeats, and others early in this century. “Conformity,” as I shall explain in a moment, is not quite the proper word, for a significant degree of relations with traditional values was a cardinal part of the creative act in each of these minds. I am only trying to indicate here the continuing role and influence of tradition in the West even as late as the early twentieth century, even in minds as original and powerful in influence as those I have mentioned. It is to the backwaters of the turn of the century that we must go, to those in small light who consecrated the eccentric and pathological as ends in themselves., as if we would find art that is all escape. So much of what we associate with the fin de siècle in the way of eccentricity and the pathological, cultivated infantilism, irrationalism, and experience-destroying subjectivity, is all too plainly, part of the present cultural scene. It is, alas, often confused with cultural creativity.

— Robert Nisbet; The Twilight of Authority

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Robert Nisbet, in my opinion, was one of Conservatism’s most prescient thinkers. The text below is from his 1975 work The Twilight of Authority.

The rise of the tyrants occurred in the ashes of representative institutions. and in each instance what we observe is a closer and closer tie effected between people and monarch, to the corresponding devaluation of all intermediate institutions, and, with this, an immense increase in the luxury, the splendor, and the centralized power of government. …

We are witnessing at the present time in American and in other Western nations an upsurge once again of the royalist principle. The modern political community, born in the eighteenth century, was, especially in its American form, a triumph once again in the West of representative and republican forms – even where, as in England, the monarchy was retained. Whether in monarchical England or republican United States, the great fear in the minds of the champions of representation and of republican liberties … was of what Burke called … “arbitrary power” and, more particularly, power set directly in the passions and loyalties of the populace. Hence the emphasis in the American Constitution upon not only checks and balances and division of powers, but, equally important, upon institutions which would mediate, which wold serve as buffers between central government and the populace. …

There is the ever-growing centrality of the image of the President and, with this, the constantly augmenting attention to the President by public and press alike. Not only what the President thinks on a given public issue, but what he wears, whom he dines with, what major ball or banquet he may choose to give, and what his views are on the most trivial or cosmic of questions – all of this has grown exponentially in the regard lavished by press an lesser political figures upon the presidency during the past four decades. The first care of royalty … is that of being constantly visible, and naturally in the best and most contrived possible light for the people.

Nisbet goes on to describe three attributes of tontemporary royalism the American Presidency has grown in particularly since FDR’s Administration. Those attributes are luxury, “the idea of national security” and “the rising use of personal retainers who are lartely unreachable by legislative bodies.”

It is clear that the Obama Administration, with spending, in one estimate, over a million dollars of taxpayer’s money on a “date” with his wife, with declaring some information off limits to the public in the interest of “national security,” and with the increasing use of “Czars” who are unanswerable to the Congress is the pinnacle of what Nisbet described as “Democratic Royalism.”

America is not declining under the weight of European style Socialism. Rather a majority of its citizens, since FDR, have willingly accepted the replacement of a limited republican government with a democratic royalist government.

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The Emersonian, all-American individualism of the nineteenth century was destined from the beginning to fail as a creed. In violation of the wisdom of the ages, indeed of simple common sense, it regarded the individual from the ‘I am myself alone’ perspective, thus overlooking the nurturing social contexts in which alone individuality can develop. From Emerson’s self-reliant individual needing nothing but his own inner resources to the desocialized, hedonistic, narcissistic free spirit of the late twentieth century is really not a long journey.

Robert Nisbet, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary, 1982, p. 187

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