The Eclipse of Thought

The Eclipse of Thought
  • Michael Polanyi’s preface to his 1951 book The Logic of Liberty begins:

    “These pieces were written in the course of the last eight years. They represent my consistently renewed efforts to clarify the position of liberty in response to a number of questions raised by our troubled period of history.”

    One of those pieces, “Perils of Inconsistency,” was repurposed two decades later by the then-elderly Polanyi and collaborator Harry Prosch for the introductory chapter of Meaning, a book shaped mostly from lectures given by Polanyi in 1969. There titled “The Eclipse of Thought,” the chapter is virtually a reprint of “Perils of Inconsistency” but with nine new paragraphs prepended.

    Here we republish “The Eclipse of Thought,” by Polanyi and Prosch, originally published as Chapter 1 of Meaning, © 1975 by The University of Chicago, with kind permission from University of Chicago Press.

    This is the first in what will be an occasional series on Liberal Currents of republications of classic essays by liberal thinkers.



In a sense this book could be said to be about intellectual freedom. Yet its title, Meaning, is not really misleading, since, as we shall see, the achievement of meaning cannot properly be divorced from intellectual freedom.

Perhaps it could go without saying that intellectual freedom is threatened today from many directions. The ideologies of the left and the right of course have no use for it. In every one of these ideologies there is always some person, group, or party (in other words, some elite) which is supposed to know better than anyone else what is best for all of us; and it is assumed in these ideologies that it is the function of the rest of us—whether doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs—to support these “wise” decisions. The examples of fascism and of Marxist communism, especially as developed under Stalin, remain only too painfully present in the consciousness of twentieth-century man; moreover, the works of such writers as Milovan Djilas show us that even the most anti-Stalinist and liberal Communist regimes also engage in the repression of intellectual freedom.

We of the so-called Western world have opposed these totalitarian tyrannies—even to the extent of war. But we ourselves have also threatened intellectual freedom. We have not, to be sure, drowned it in blood, as Hitler and Stalin did. Our threats have been much more devious. We have choked it with cotton, smothered it under various blankets. We have concealed our own affirmation of the value and freedom of our intellect under detached explanatory principles, like the pleasure-pain principle, the notion of the restoration of frustrated activity, the principle of conditioning—and even the concept of free choice itself! In such circuitous ways as these we have denigrated thought and all its works, demoting them to subordinate positions in which thought is conceived to function rightfully only when serving as a means to the satisfaction of supposedly more basic needs or wants, i.e., more material, more biological, more instinctive, more comforting.

Utilitarianism and pragmatism have both, in different ways, declared thought to possess a legitimate function or significance only in relation to social welfare—a welfare conceived largely in terms of physical and material satisfactions. The behaviorists, culminating in B. F. Skinner, have reduced thought to various forms of conditioned behavior and have directed us to look “beyond freedom and dignity”—beyond the life of self-control and self-direction—to the manipulated learning of a set of tricks supposed to be ultimately good for us to have learned. This learning would require us to be placed (by whom?) in a better-organized Skinner Box than that constituted by our present societies.[i] Old Protagoras, if we can trust Plato’s interpretation of him, would have felt right at home with these ideas.

The only modern philosophic school that seems to exhibit respect for intellectual freedom is existentialism, but since it manages to smother the intellectual part of intellectual freedom under a more generic notion of freedom per se, it tends to weaken, in the end, our respect for intellectual freedom by reducing it in practice to the level of betting on the turn of a die. For these philosophers say there are no grounds for choices except the grounds we give ourselves, i.e., except the ones we choose. As Sartre puts it, value arises simply from our choices. What we choose, we value simply because we have chosen it (and apparently we remain scot-free at any moment to nonvalue it by simply un-choosing it). In other words, we do not choose (in his view) because we see the value of something. We see the value of something because we have chosen it. For him, therefore, every choice must ultimately be nonrational, because every rational choice, it is said, is ultimately grounded in a “prerational” choice. This position tells us, therefore, that there can be no reasons for our basic choices. Thought turns out to be of utilitarian value only—and then only when it happens to be of such value.

That this view may very well falter in its respect for intellectual freedom can be seen in the examples both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir have given us by their on-again-off-again acceptance of various Communist suppressions of “bourgeois” artists and thinkers. After all (as Sartre and de Beauvoir say—sometimes), no one governs innocently anyhow. All governments interfere with the exercise of some sorts of freedom. Since these philosophers (consistently) refuse to make any philosophically based value distinctions between different sorts of freedoms—or even between different uses of these different freedoms—they seem to echo old Bentham’s remark: “Pushpin is as good as poetry.” To repress one is no better and no worse than to repress the other.

We shall see, however, that the existentialists are closer to the truth in their view than any of the other academically popular Western philosophies, because there is a sense in which it is true that determinative reasons cannot be given for every choice—in fact, not for any choice. But the way existentialists have conceived this fact has generated unnecessarily antiintellectual attitudes, with disastrous consequences for the very freedom they value so fundamentally or, in their terms, “choose” so fundamentally.

It might be thought that our inquiry should now be directed to whether or not these erosions of respect for intellectual freedom in our day are justifiable. But even to raise this question is to answer it in the negative. For the attempt to judge any matter whatsoever is the attempt to think seriously about this matter, and such thinking cannot be undertaken without a tacit acceptance of the power of thought to reach valid conclusions. So our attempt to discover whether a right to intellectual freedom, i.e., the freedom to pursue subjects or problems intellectually, is or is not justified already assumes tacitly that it is justified.

Admitting, therefore, that the eclipse of our respect for freedom of thought cannot be justified, since it would require freedom of thought to justify it, we realize that nothing could have destroyed respect for freedom of thought but its own misuse; for it is only free thought that could call into serious question the validity of anything, including itself. Let us see therefore if we can discover how this self-destruction of thought came about.


From a careful study of the history of thought in our own time it is possible to see that freedom of thought destroyed itself when thought pursued to its ultimate conclusions a self-contradictory conception of its own freedom.

Modern thought in the widest sense emerged with the emancipation of the human mind from a mythological and magical interpretation of the universe. We know when this first happened, at what place, and by what method. We owe this act of liberation to Ionian philosophers who flourished in the sixth century B.C. and to other philosophers of Greece who continued their work in the succeeding thousand years. These ancient thinkers enjoyed much freedom of speculation but never raised decisively the issues of intellectual freedom.

The millennium of ancient philosophy was brought to a close by Saint Augustine. There followed the long rule of Christian theology and the Church of Rome over all departments of thought. The rule of ecclesiastic authority was impaired first in the twelfth century by a number of sporadic intellectual achievements. Then, as the Italian Renaissance blossomed out, the leading artists and thinkers of the time brought religion more and more into neglect. The Italian church itself seemed to yield to the new secular interests. Had the whole of Europe at that time been of the same mind as Italy, Renaissance humanism might have established freedom of thought everywhere, simply by default of opposition. Europe might have returned to—or, if you like, relapsed into—a liberalism resembling that of pre-Christian antiquity. Whatever may have followed after that, our present disasters would not have occurred.

However, there arose instead in a number of European countries—in Germany, Switzerland, Spain—a fervent religious revival, accompanied by a schism of the Christian church, which was to dominate people’s minds for almost two centuries. The Catholic church sharply reaffirmed its authority over the whole intellectual sphere. The thoughts of men were moved, and politics were shaped, by the struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism, to which all contemporary issues contributed through their alliance with one side or the other.

By the beginning of the present century the wars between Catholics and Protestants had long ceased, yet the formulation of liberal thought still remained largely determined by the reaction of past generations against the old religious wars. Liberalism was motivated, to start with, by a detestation of religious fanaticism. It appealed to reason for a cessation of religious strife. This desire to curb religious violence was the prime motive of liberalism in both Anglo-American and Continental areas; yet from the beginning the reaction against religious fanaticism differed somewhat in these two areas, and this difference has since become increasingly accentuated, with the result that liberty has been upheld in the Western area up to this day but has suffered an eclipse in central and eastern Europe.

Anglo-American liberalism was first formulated by Milton and Locke. Their argument for freedom of thought was twofold. In its first part (for which we may cite the Areopagitica) freedom from authority is demanded so that truth may be discovered. The main inspiration for this movement came from the struggle of the rising natural sciences against the authority of Aristotle. Its program was to let everyone state his beliefs and to allow others to listen and form their own opinions; the ideas which would prevail in a free and open battle of wits would be as close an approximation to the truth as can be humanly achieved. We may call this the antiauthoritarian formula of liberty. Closely related to it is the second half of the argument for liberty, which is based on philosophic doubt. While its origins go back a long way (right to the philosophers of antiquity), this argument was first formulated as a political doctrine by Locke. It says simply that we can never be so sure of the truth in matters of religion as to warrant the imposition of our views on others. These two pleas for freedom of thought were put forward and accepted in England at a time when religious beliefs were unshaken and indeed dominant throughout the nation. The new tolerance aimed preeminently at the reconciliation of different denominations in the service of God. Atheists were refused tolerance by Locke on the ground that they were socially unreliable.

On the Continent the twofold doctrine of free thought—antiauthoritarianism and philosophic doubt—gained ascendance somewhat later than in England and moved straightway to a more extreme position. This position was first effectively formulated in the eighteenth century by the philosophy of Enlightenment, which was primarily an attack on religious authority, particularly that of the Catholic church. It professed a radical skepticism. The books of Voltaire and the French Encyclopedists, expounding this doctrine, were widely read in France, while abroad their ideas spread into Germany and far into eastern Europe. Frederick the Great and Catherine of Russia were among their correspondents and disciples. The type of Voltairean aristocrat, represented by the old Prince Bolkonski in War and Peace, was to be found at court and in feudal residences over many parts of Continental Europe at the close of the eighteenth century. The depth to which the philosophes had influenced political thought in their own country was to be revealed by the French Revolution.

Accordingly, the mood of the French Enlightenment, though often angry, was always supremely confident. Its followers promised mankind relief from all social ills. One of the central figures of the movement, the Baron d’Holbach, declared in 1770 that man is miserable simply because he is ignorant. His mind is so infected with prejudices that one might think him forever condemned to err. It is error, he held, that has evoked the religious fears which shrivel men up with fright or make them butcher each other for chimeras. “To errour must be attributed those inveterate hatreds, those barbarous persecutions, those numerous massacres, those dreadful tragedies, of which, under pretext of serving the interests of Heaven, the earth has been but too frequently made the theatre.”[ii]

This explanation of human miseries and the remedy promised for them continued to carry conviction with the intelligentsia of Europe long after the French Revolution. It remained an axiom among progressive people on the Continent that to achieve light and liberty you first had to break the power of the clergy and eliminate the influence of religious dogma. Battle after battle was fought in this campaign. Perhaps the fiercest engagement was the Dreyfus Affair at the close of the century, in which clericalism was finally defeated in France and was further weakened throughout Europe. It was at about this time that W. E. H. Lecky wrote: “All over Europe the priesthood are now associated with a policy of toryism, of reaction, or of obstruction. All over Europe the organs that represent dogmatic interests are in permanent opposition to the progressive tendencies around them, and are rapidly sinking into contempt.”[iii]

I well remember this triumphant sentiment. We looked back on earlier times as on a period of darkness, and with Lucretius we cried in horror: Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum—what evils religion has inspired! So we rejoiced at the superior knowledge of our age and its assured liberties. The promises of peace and freedom given to the world by the French Enlightenment had indeed been wonderfully fulfilled toward the end of the nineteenth century. You could travel all over Europe and America without a passport and settle down wherever you pleased. With the exception of Russia, you could, throughout Europe, print anything without prior censorship and could sharply oppose any government or creed with impunity. In Germany—much criticized at the time for being authoritarian—biting caricatures of the emperor were published freely. Even in Russia, whose regime was the most oppressive, Marx’s Kapital appeared in translation immediately after its first publication and received favorable reviews throughout the press. In the whole of Europe not more than a few hundred people were forced into political exile. Over the entire planet all men of European origins were living in free intellectual and personal communication. It is hardly surprising that the universal establishment of peace and tolerance through the victory of modern enlightenment was confidently expected at the turn of the century by a large majority of educated people on the Continent.

Thus we entered the twentieth century as on an age of infinite promise. Few people realized that we were walking into a minefield, though the mines had all been prepared and carefully laid in open daylight by well-known thinkers of our own time. Today we know how false our expectations were. We have all learned to trace the collapse of freedom in the twentieth century to the writings of certain philosophers, particularly Marx, Nietzsche, and their common ancestors, Fichte and Hegel. But the story has yet to be told how we came to welcome as liberators the philosophies that were to destroy liberty.

We have said that we consider the collapse of freedom in central and eastern Europe to be the outcome of an internal contradiction in the doctrine of liberty. But why did it destroy freedom in large parts of Continental Europe without producing similar effects, so far, in the Western or Anglo-American area of our civilization? Wherein lies this inconsistency?

The argument of doubt put forward by Locke in favor of tolerance says that we should admit all religions since it is impossible to demonstrate which one is true. This implies that we must not impose beliefs that are not demonstrable. Let us apply this doctrine to ethical principles. It follows that, unless ethical principles can be demonstrated with certainty, we should refrain from imposing them and should tolerate their total denial. But, of course, ethical principles cannot, in a strict sense, be demonstrated: you cannot prove the obligation to tell the truth, to uphold justice and mercy. It would follow therefore that a system of mendacity, lawlessness, and cruelty is to be accepted as an alternative to ethical principles and on equal terms. But a society in which unscrupulous propaganda, violence, and terror prevail offers no scope for tolerance. Here the inconsistency of a liberalism based on philosophic doubt becomes apparent: freedom of thought is destroyed by the extension of doubt to the field of traditional ideals, which includes the basis for freedom of thought.

The consummation of this destructive process was prevented in the Anglo-American region by an instinctive reluctance to pursue the accepted philosophic premises to their ultimate conclusions. One way of avoiding this was to pretend that ethical principles could actually be scientifically demonstrated. Locke himself started this train of thought by asserting that good and evil can be identified with pleasure and pain and by suggesting that all ideals of good behavior are merely maxims of prudence.

However, the utilitarian calculus cannot in fact demonstrate our commitment to ideals which demand serious sacrifices of us. A man’s sincerity in professing his ideals is to be measured rather by the lack of prudence he shows in pursuing them. The utilitarian confirmation of unselfishness is not more than a pretense by which traditional ideals are made acceptable to a philosophically skeptical age. Camouflaged as long-term selfishness or “intelligent self-interest,” the traditional ideals of man are protected from destruction by skepticism.

It would thus appear that the preservation of Western civilization up to this day within the Anglo-American tradition of liberty was due to this speculative restraint, which amounted to a veritable suspension of logic within British empiricist philosophy. It was enough to pay philosophic lip service to the supremacy of the pleasure principle. Ethical standards were not really replaced by new purposes; still less was there any inclination to abandon these standards in practice. The masses of the people and their leaders in public life could in fact disregard the accepted philosophy, both in deciding their personal conduct and in building up their political institutions. The whole sweeping advance of moral aspirations to which the Age of Reason opened the way—the English Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the first liberation of slaves in the British Empire, the Factory Reforms, the founding of the League of Nations, Britain’s stand against Hitler, the offering of Lend-Lease, U.N.R.R.A., and Marshall Plan aid, the sending of millions of food parcels by individual Americans to unknown beneficiaries in Europe—in all these decisive actions, public opinion was swayed by moral forces, by charity, by a desire for justice and a detestation of social evils, despite the fact that these moral forces had no true justification in the prevailing philosophy of the age. Utilitarianism and other allied materialistic formulations of traditional ideals remained merely verbal. Their philosophic rejection of universal moral standards led only to a sham replacement; or, to speak technically, it led to a “pseudosubstitution” of utilitarian purposes for moral principles.

The speculative and practical restraints which saved liberalism from self-destruction in the Anglo-American area were due in the first place to the distinctly religious character of this liberalism. As long as philosophic doubt was applied only to secure equal rights to all religions and was prohibited from demanding equal rights for irreligion, the same restraint would automatically apply in respect to moral beliefs. A skepticism kept on short leash for the sake of preserving religious beliefs would hardly become a menace to fundamental moral principles. A second restraint on skepticism, closely related to the first, lay in the establishment of democratic institutions at a time when religious beliefs were still strong. These institutions (for example, the American Constitution) gave effect to the moral principles which underlie a free society. The tradition of democracy embodied in these institutions proved strong enough to uphold in practice the moral standards of a free society against any critique that would question their validity.

Both of these protective restraints, however, were absent in those parts of Europe where liberalism was based on the French Enlightenment. This movement, being antireligious, imposed no restraint on skeptical speculations, nor were the standards of morality embodied there in democratic institutions. When a feudal society, dominated by religious authority, was attacked by a radical skepticism, a liberalism emerged which was protected by neither a religious nor a civic tradition from destruction by the philosophic skepticism to which it owed its origin.

Here, in brief, is what happened. From the middle of the eighteenth century, Continental thought faced up seriously to the fact that universal standards of reason could not be philosophically justified in the light of the skeptical attitude which had initiated the rationalist movement. The great philosophic tumult which started in the second half of the eighteenth century on the Continent of Europe and finally led up to the philosophic disasters of our own day represented an incessant preoccupation with the collapse of the philosophic foundations of rationalism. Universal standards of human behavior having fallen into philosophic disrepute, various substitutes were put forward in their place.

One such substitute standard was derived from the contemplation of individuality. The case for the uniqueness of the individual is set out as follows in the opening words of Rousseau’s Confessions: “Myself alone . . . . There is no one who resembles me . . . . We shall see whether Nature was right in breaking the mould into which she had cast me.” Individuality here challenged the world to judge it, if it could, by universal standards. Creative genius claimed to be the renewer of all values and therefore incommensurable. Extended to whole nations, this claim accorded each nation its unique set of values, which could not be criticized in the light of universal reason. A nation’s only obligation was, like that of the unique individual, to realize its own powers. In following the call of its destiny, a nation must allow no other nation to stand in its way.

If you apply this claim for the supremacy of uniqueness—which we may call romanticism—to individual persons, you arrive at a general hostility to society, as exemplified in the anticonventional and almost extraterritorial attitude of the Continental bohème. If applied to nations, it results, on the contrary, in the conception of a unique national destiny, which claims the absolute allegiance of all its citizens. The national leader combines the advantages of both. He can stand entranced in the admiration of his own uniqueness while identifying his personal ambitions with the destiny of the nation lying at its feet.

Romanticism was a literary movement and a change of heart rather than a philosophy. Its counterpart in systematic thought was constructed by the Hegelian dialectic. Hegel took charge of Universal Reason, emaciated to a skeleton by its treatment at the hands of Kant, and clothed it with the warm flesh of history. Declared incompetent to judge historical action, reason was given the comfortable position of being immanent in history. An ideal situation: “Heads you lose, tails I win.” Identified with the stronger battalions, reason became invincible—but unfortunately also redundant.

The next step was therefore, quite naturally, the complete disestablishment of reason. Marx and Engels decided to turn the Hegelian dialectic right way up. No longer should the tail pretend to wag the dog. The bigger battalions should be recognized as makers of history in their own right, with reason as a mere apologist to justify their conquests.

The story of this last development is well known. Marx reinterpreted history as the outcome of class conflicts, which arise from the need of adjusting “the relations of production” to “the forces of production.” Expressed in ordinary language, this says that, as new technical equipment becomes available from time to time, it is necessary to change the order of property in favor of a new class; this change is invariably achieved by overthrowing the hitherto-favored class. Socialism, it was said, brings these violent changes to a close by establishing the classless society. From its first formulation in the Communist Manifesto this doctrine puts the “eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc.”—which it mentions in these terms—in a very doubtful position. Since these ideas are supposed always to have been used only to soothe the conscience of the rulers and to bemuse the suspicions of the exploited, there is no clear place left for them in the classless society. Today it has become apparent that there is indeed nothing in the realm of ideas, from law and religion to poetry and science, from the rules of football to the composition of music, that cannot readily be interpreted by Marxists as a mere product of class interest.

Meanwhile the legacy of romantic nationalism, developing on parallel lines, was also gradually transposed into materialistic terms. Wagner and Walhalla no doubt affected Nazi imagery; Mussolini gloried in recalling imperial Rome. But the really effective idea of Hitler and Mussolini was their classification of nations into haves and have-nots on the model of Marxian class war. The actions of nations were in this view not determined, or capable of being judged, by right or wrong: the haves preached peace and the sacredness of international law, since the law sanctioned their holdings, but this code was unacceptable to virile have-not nations. The latter would rise and overthrow the degenerate capitalistic democracies, which had become the dupes of their own pacific ideology, originally intended only to bemuse the underdogs. And so the text of Fascist and National Socialist foreign policy ran on, exactly on the lines of a Marxism applied to class war between nations. Indeed, already by the opening of the twentieth century, influential German writers had fully refashioned the nationalism of Fichte and Hegel on the lines of a power-political interpretation of history. Romanticism had been brutalized and brutally romanticized until the product was as tough as Marx’s own historic materialism.

We have here the final outcome of the Continental cycle of thought. The self-destruction of liberalism, which was kept in a state of suspended logic in the Anglo-American field of Western civilization, was here brought to its ultimate conclusion. The process of replacing moral ideals by philosophically less vulnerable objectives was carried out in all seriousness. This is not a mere pseudosubstitution but a real substitution of human appetites and human passions for reason and the ideals of man.

This brings us right up to the scene of the revolutions of the twentieth century. We can see now how the philosophies which guided these revolutions—and destroyed liberty wherever they prevailed—were originally justified by the antiauthoritarian and skeptical formulas of liberty. They were indeed antiauthoritarian and skeptical in the extreme. They even set man free from obligations toward truth and justice, reducing reason to its own caricature: to a mere rationalization of positions that were actually predetermined by desire and were held—or secured—by force alone. Such was the final measure of this liberation: man was to be recognized henceforth as maker and master, no longer as servant, of what before had been his ideals.

This liberation, however, destroyed the very foundations of liberty. If thought and reason are nothing in themselves, it is meaningless to demand that thought be set free. The boundless hopes which the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century attached to the overthrow of authority and to the pursuit of doubt were hopes attached to the release of reason. Its followers firmly believed—to use Jefferson’s majestic vocabulary—in “truths that are self-evident,” which would guard “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” under governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” They relied on truths, which they trusted to be inscribed in the hearts of man, for establishing peace and freedom among men everywhere. The assumption of universal standards of reason was implicit in the hopes of the Enlightenment, and the philosophies that denied the existence of such standards denied therefore the foundation of all these hopes.

But it is not enough to show how a logical process, starting from an inadequate formulation of liberty, led to philosophic conclusions that contradicted liberty. We have yet to show that this contradiction was actually put into operation, that these conclusions were not merely entertained and believed to be true but were met by people prepared to act upon them. If ideas cause revolutions, they can do so only through people who will act upon them. If this account of the fall of liberty in Europe is to be satisfactory, it must show that there were people who actually transformed philosophic error into destructive human action.

Of such people we have ample documentary evidence among the intelligentsia of central and eastern Europe. They are the nihilists.

There is an interesting ambiguity in the connotations of the word “nihilism” which at first may seem confusing but actually turns out to be illuminating. As the title of Rauschning’s book—The Revolution of Nihilism—shows, he interpreted the National Socialist upheaval as a revolution.[iv] As against this, reports from central Europe often spoke of widespread nihilism, meaning a lack of public spirit, the apathy of people who believe in nothing. This curious duality of nihilism, which makes it a byword for both complete self-centeredness and violent revolutionary action, can be traced to its earliest origins. The word was popularized by Turgenev in his Fathers and Sons, written in 1862. His prototype of nihilism, the student Bazarov, is an extreme individualist without any interest in politics. Nor does the next similar figure of Russian literature, Dostoevski’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (1865), show any political leanings. What Raskolnikov is trying to find out is why he should not murder an old woman if he wanted her money. Both Bazarov and Raskolnikov are experimenting privately with a life of total disbelief. But within a few years we see the nihilist transformed into a political conspirator. The terrorist organization of the Narodniki, or Populists, had come into being. Dostoevski portrayed the new type in his later novel The Possessed. The nihilist now appears as an ice-cold businesslike conspirator, closely prefiguring the ideal Bolshevik as I have seen him represented on the Moscow stage in the didactic plays of the early Stalinist period. Nor is the similarity accidental. The whole code of conspiratorial action—the cells, the secrecy, the discipline and ruthlessness—known today as the Communist method, was taken over by Lenin from the Populists. The proof of this can be found in articles published by him in 1901 and 1902.[v]

English and American people find it difficult to understand nihilism, for most of the doctrines professed by nihilists have been current among themselves for some time without turning those who held them into nihilists. Great, solid Bentham would not have disagreed with any of the views expounded by Turgenev’s prototype of nihilism, the student Bazarov. But while Bentham and other skeptically minded Englishmen may use such philosophies merely as a mistaken explanation of their own conduct—which in actual fact is determined by their traditional beliefs—the nihilist Bazarov and his kind take such philosophies seriously and try to live by their light.

The nihilist who cries to live without any beliefs, obligations, or restrictions stands at the first, the private, stage of nihilism. He is represented in Russia by the earlier type of intellectual described by Turgenev and the younger Dostoevski. In Germany we find nihilists of this kind growing up in large numbers under the influence of Nietzsche and Stirner; and later, between 1910 and 1930, we see emerging in direct line of their succession the great German Youth Movement, with its radical contempt for all existing social ties.

But the solitary nihilist is unstable. Starved for social responsibility, he is liable to be drawn into politics, provided he can find a movement based on nihilistic assumptions. Thus, when he turns to public affairs, he adopts a creed of political violence. The cafés of Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, where writers, painters, lawyers, and doctors had spent so many hours in amusing speculation and gossip, thus became in 1918 the recruiting grounds for the “armed bohemians,” whom Heiden in his book on Hitler describes as the agents of the European revolution.[vi] In much the same way, the Bloomsbury of the unbridled twenties unexpectedly turned out numerous disciplined Marxists around 1930.

The conversion of the nihilist from extreme individualism to the service of a fierce and narrow political creed is the turning point of the European revolution. The downfall of liberty in Europe consisted in a series of such individual conversions.

Their mechanism deserves closest attention. Take, first, conversion to Marxism. Historical—or dialectical—materialism had all the attractions of a second Enlightenment; taking off and carrying on from the first, antireligious, Enlightenment, it offered the same intense intellectual satisfaction. Those who accepted its guidance felt suddenly initiated into a knowledge of the real forces actuating men and operating in history, into a grasp of reality that had hitherto been hidden to them—and still remained hidden to the unenlightened—by a veil of deceit and self-deceit. Marx, and the whole materialistic movement of which he formed a part, had turned the world right side up before their eyes, revealing to them the true springs of human behavior.

Marxism also offered them a future of unbounded promise for humanity. It predicted that historic necessity would destroy an antiquated form of society and replace it by a new one, in which the existing miseries and injustices would be eliminated. Though this prospect was put forward as a purely scientific observation, it endowed those who accepted it with a feeling of overwhelming moral superiority. They acquired a sense of righteousness, and this in a paradoxical manner was fiercely intensified by the mechanical framework in which it was set. Their nihilism had prevented them from demanding justice in the name of justice or humanity in the name of humanity; these words were banned from their vocabulary, and their minds were closed to such concepts. But their moral aspirations, thus silenced and repressed, found an outlet in the scientific prediction of a perfect society. Here was set out a scientific utopia, relying for its fulfillment only on violence. Nihilists could accept, and would eagerly embrace, such a prophecy, which required from its disciples no other belief than a belief in the force of bodily appetites and yet at the same time satisfied their most extravagant moral hopes. Their sense of righteousness was thus reinforced by a calculated brutality born of scientific self-assurance. There emerged the modern fanatic, armored with impenetrable skepticism.

The power of Marxism over the mind is based here on a process exactly the inverse of Freudian sublimation. The moral needs of man, denied expression in terms of ideals, are injected into a system of naked power, to which they impart the force of blind moral passion. With some qualification the same thing is true of National Socialism’s appeal to the mind of German youth. By offering them an interpretation of history in the materialistic terms of international class war, Hitler mobilized their sense of civic obligation which would not respond to humane ideals. It was a mistake to regard the Nazi as an untaught savage. His bestiality was carefully nurtured by speculations closely reflecting Marxian influence. His contempt for humanitarian ideals had a century of philosophic schooling behind it. The Nazi disbelieved in public morality the way we disbelieve in witchcraft. It is not that he had never heard of it; he simply thought he had valid grounds for asserting that such a thing cannot exist. If you told him the contrary, he would think you peculiarly old-fashioned or simply dishonest.

In such men the traditional forms for holding moral ideals had been shattered and their moral passions diverted into the only channels which a strictly mechanistic conception of man and society left open to them. We may describe this as a process of moral inversion. The morally inverted person has not merely performed a philosophic substitution of material purposes for moral aims; he is acting with the whole force of his homeless moral passions within a purely materialistic framework of purposes.

It remains only to describe the actual battlefield on which the conflict that led to the downfall of liberty in Europe was fought out. Let us approach the scene from the West. Toward the close of the First World War, Europeans heard from across the Atlantic the voice of Wilson appealing for a new Europe in terms of pure eighteenth-century ideas. “What we seek,” he summed up in his declaration of the Fourth of July, 1918, “is the reign of law, based upon the consent of the governed and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind.” When, a few months later, Wilson landed in Europe, a tide of boundless hope swept through its lands. They were the old hopes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only much brighter than ever before.

Wilson’s appeal and the response it evoked marked the high tide of the original moral aspirations of the Enlightenment. This event showed how, in spite of the philosophic difficulties which impaired the foundations of overt moral assertions, such assertions could still be vigorously made in the regions of Anglo-American influence.

But the great hopes spreading from the Atlantic seaboard were contemptuously rejected by the nihilistic or morally inverted intelligentsia of central and eastern Europe. To Lenin, Wilson’s language was a huge joke; from Mussolini or Goebbels it might have evoked an angry sneer. And the political theories which these men and their small circle of followers were mooting at this time were soon to defeat the appeal of Wilson and of democratic ideals in general. They were to establish within roughly twenty years a comprehensive system of totalitarian governments over Europe, with a good prospect of subjecting the whole world to such government.

The sweeping success of Wilson’s opponents was due to the greater appeal their ideas had for a considerable section of the populace in the central and eastern European nations. Admittedly, their final rise to power was achieved by violence, but not before they had gained sufficient support in every stratum of the population so that they could use violence effectively. Wilson’s doctrines were first defeated by the superior convincing power of opposing philosophies, and it is this new and fiercer Enlightenment that has continued ever since to strike relentlessly at every humane and rational principle rooted in the soil of Europe.

The downfall of liberty which in every case followed the success of these attacks demonstrates in hard facts what we said before: that freedom of thought is rendered pointless and must disappear wherever reason and morality are deprived of their status as a force in their own right. When a judge in a court of law can no longer appeal to law and justice; when neither a witness, nor the newspapers, nor even a scientist reporting on his experiments can speak the truth as he knows it; when in public life there is no moral principle commanding respect; when the revelations of religion and of art are denied any substance; then there are no grounds left on which any individual may justly make a stand against the rulers of the day. Such is the simple logic of totalitarianism. A nihilistic regime will have to undertake the day-to-day direction of all activities which are otherwise guided by the intellectual and moral principles that nihilism declares empty and void. Principles must be replaced by the decrees of an all-embracing party line.

This is why modern totalitarianism, based on a purely materialistic conception of man, is of necessity more oppressive than an authoritarianism enforcing a spiritual creed, however rigid. Take the medieval church even at its worst. The authority of certain texts which it imposed remained fixed over long periods of time, and their interpretation was laid down in systems of theology and philosophy developed over more than a millennium, from Saint Paul to Aquinas. A good Catholic was not required to change his convictions and reverse his beliefs at frequent intervals in deference to the secret decisions of a handful of high officials. Moreover, since the authority of the church was spiritual, it recognized other independent principles outside its own. Though it imposed numerous regulations on individual conduct, many parts of life were left untouched, and these were governed by other authorities, rivals of the church such as kings, noblemen, guilds, corporations. What is more, the power of all these was transcended by the growing force of law, and a great deal of speculative and artistic initiative was also allowed to pulsate freely through this many-sided system.

The unprecedented oppressiveness of modern totalitarianism has become widely recognized on the Continent today and has gone some way towards allaying the feud between the champions of liberty and the upholders of religion, which had been going on there since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Anticlericalism is not dead, but many who recognize transcendent obligations and are resolved to preserve a society built on the belief that such obligations are real have now discovered that they stand much closer to believers in the Bible and the Christian revelation than to the nihilist regimes based on radical disbelief. History will perhaps record the Italian elections of April 1946 as the turning point. The defeat inflicted there on the Communists by a large Catholic majority was hailed with immense relief by defenders of liberty throughout the world, many of whom had been brought up under Voltaire’s motto “Ecrasez l’infame!” and had in earlier days voiced all their hopes in that battle cry.

The instability of modern liberalism stands in curious contrast to the peacefully continued existence of intellectual freedom through a thousand years of antiquity. Why did the contradiction between liberty and skepticism never plunge the ancient world into a totalitarian revolution like that of the twentieth century?

We may answer that such a crisis did develop at least once, when a number of brilliant young men, whom Socrates had introduced to the pursuit of unfettered inquiry, blossomed out as leaders of the Thirty Tyrants. Men like Charmides and Critias were nihilists, consciously adopting a political philosophy of smash-and-grab which they derived from their Socratic education; and, as a reaction to this, Socrates was impeached and executed.

Yet whatever difficulties of this sort developed in the ancient world, they were never so fierce and far-reaching as the revolutions of the twentieth century. What was lacking in antiquity was the prophetic passion of Christian messianism. The ever-unquenched hunger and thirst after righteousness which our civilization carries in its blood as a heritage of Christianity does not allow us to settle down in the Stoic manner of antiquity. Modern thought is a mixture of Christian beliefs and Greek doubts. Christian beliefs and Greek doubts are logically incompatible; and if the conflict between the two has kept Western thought alive and creative beyond precedent, it has also made it unstable. Modern totalitarianism is a consummation of the conflict between religion and skepticism. It solves the conflict by embodying our heritage of moral passions in a framework of modern materialistic purposes. The conditions for such an outcome were not present in antiquity, when Christianity had not yet set alight new and vast moral hopes in the heart of mankind.


[i] B. F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971).

[ii] Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature, trans. H. D. Robinson (Boston: J. P. Mendum, 1853, pp. 153, ix–x).

[iii] W. E. H. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1878), 1:128.

[iv] Hermann Rauschning, The Revolution of Nihilism, trans. Ernest W. Dickes (New York: Longmans, Green, 1939).

[v] V. I. Lenin, “Where to Begin?” (1901) and “What Is to Be Done?” (1902) in Collected Works, ed. Victor Jerome, trans. Joe Fineberg and George Hanna (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1961), 5:23–24, 473–84, and 514–18.

[vi] Konrad Heiden, Der Fuehrer, trans. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944), pp. 145–50.