The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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The Gist of Paul Gottfried: Right Principle and the Failure of the American Right
Thomas F. Bertonneau - 02/09/09

At the same time, Gottfried finds himself “less than enthusiastic about Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity, which,” as he says, “provided the moral and cultural foundations of our civilization and of Nietzsche’s.” Nevertheless, “it would be impossible to understand the affinity of western societies for current forms of slave morality [without] looking at the Christian residues informing them.” Thus like Nietzsche—and like Eric Voegelin and René Girard—Gottfried takes liberal piety for an abandonment of mainline Christianity that reverts to the “exaggerated ascetism” and militant exceptional-doctrine advocacy against which Saint Paul inveighed in his epistles. “The hatred for one’s ancestors and the exaggerated asceticism that I see in early Christianity find their counterpart in the current efforts to abolish gender differences and to treat the entire history of the West as a bigoted abomination until the arrival of the anti-racist, antisexist reformers.” Gottfried’s appropriation of Nietzsche resembles Voegelin’s happy use of many specific and penetrating observations from Hegel even though in Voegelin’s summation Hegel stood guilty of an intellectual swindle.


A steady worker, Gottfried has published scores of articles and a stream of books, now numbering eight, with at least one title (a memoir) soon to appear. If Gottfried had a central theme it would be the consolidation in the contemporary West of what he calls the managerial state or the therapeutic managerial state, based on what he calls modern nominal liberalism, at the core of which lies the perversion of Christian motifs that self-denominates under the label of multiculturalism. If these new institutions, governing styles, and orthodoxies were indeed deformations of earlier hale prototypes then how would one explain the accelerating alteration into morbidity?

In Nietzschean or genealogical fashion, Gottfried's diagnosis of prevailing deformations in the society or the institution begins with a careful characterization of the patterns of the former intact structure before the onset of the long, staggering descent into corruption. These intact structures correspond to transparent, clearly articulated, and formative ideas, whose appearance marks a moment of novel articulation in the continuum of social development. Gottfried’s debt to Hegel and perhaps ultimately to Plato consists particularly in his according to these formative ideas a proper effectiveness, if not a purely transcendent reality. Gottfried then traces the sequence of disorienting events, the repeated shocks of which, in seeming to defame the ideas, have stultified the healthy civic order stage by stage and transformed it into its pathological countertype; he also describes the anatomy and behavior of the debased countertype. In The Search for Historical Meaning, for example, Gottfried repeatedly defends Hegel against those who would caricature him as an apologist for the Prussian monarchy, a mystic, or an advocate of “presentism,” the last defined as a doctrine justifying the given moment under the view that it is the adequate culmination of some teleology.

In The Search, Gottfried carefully distinguishes the Marxist and leftwing appropriation of Hegel’s dialectic, which he regards as a stultification of Hegel’s genius, from the actual continuity of Hegel’s thought in such thinkers as F. W. J. Schelling, J. K. F. Rosenkranz, and Augusto Vera. The second- and third-generation Italian idealists, such as Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce, figure in this continuity alongside the German speaking successors. But Gottfried reminds his readers that Hegelian thought had powerful transatlantic repercussions, becoming ensconced in North American intellectual life as early as the 1840s, and by no means merely in the milky speculations of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hegel’s theory of history appealed strongly to nineteenth century American thought, especially given the scheme of the “westering” of civilization in The Philosophy of History, the Jena philosopher’s most accessible and widely read work. Of the St. Louis Hegelians, who organized themselves in the decade just before the Civil War, Gottfried writes: “The movement’s critical characteristics were its interest in Hegel as a political theorist and its belief in his special relevance for the American people.” Denton J. Snider, Henry C. Brockmeyer, and their colleagues, as Gottfried writes, “saw the historical dialectic as culminating in the American nation state,” where “the Hegelian ideal of harmonizing individual will and the public good” had at last become possible. Like certain mid-twentieth century conservatives—Gottfried cites Frank Meyer—the St. Louis Hegelians viewed with skepticism Lincoln’s aggrandizement of the federal government during the crisis of national unity triggered by his election; without being pro-Southern or justifiers of peculiar institutions they tended to valorize common law and custom. Gottfried’s admiration for the St. Louis Hegelians becomes especially provocative in light of the qualified suspicion that he directs to the European “right wing Utopians,” such as Joseph de Maistre and Friedrich Schlegel, whose cases he addressed in a Modern Age article in 1980, “Utopianism of the Right.”

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By This Author
LeMay, Curtis

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