Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom (Frank S. Meyer, Spring 1968, Modern Age)

At the heights of the philosophical and Prophetic endeavors, in a Plato or a proto-Isaiah, as occasionally among their predecessors and followers, the vision cleared and a simple confrontation between individual men and transcendence stood for a moment sharply limned. But at these heights of understanding another problem arose, one I have referred to above when discussing the Hellenic experience and have called the problem of Utopianism. A clear vision of the naked confrontation of individual men with transcendence created a yawning gap in human consciousness. It was something of the effect of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the one hand stood the perfection of transcendence, and on the other the imperfection of human existence. The temptation was enormous to close that intolerable gap, to grasp that understood transcendent perfection and by sheer human will to make it live on earth, to impose it on other human beings – by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.

The same temptation beset the Hellenic philosophers at their highest reach of vision. The effect of this temptation was portentous for the future, because of its continuing impact upon both the Hellenic and the Judaic traditions, the twin sources from which our Western civilization derives so much of its content. Its effects can be perceived in the most diverse areas: in the effect on Western thought of the concepts of moulding human life implicit in the Utopian society of Plato’s Republic or in the dictatorial powers of the Nocturnal Council in his somewhat less rigid Laws; or in the actual political absolutism, derived from the Judaic tradition, of such polities as Calvin’s Geneva or Spain of the Inquisition or Cromwell’s England. Secularized with the passage of time, the Utopian desire to impose a pattern of what the imposers considered perfection becomes ever more rigid, total, and terrible, as in the allpowerful Nation of the French Revolution or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat of the Communists.

The Utopian temptation arises out of the very clarity of vision that tore asunder the cosmological world-view. Released from the comforting, if smothering, certainties of identifica tion with the cosmic order, men became aware of their freedom to shape their destiny-but with that freedom came an awesome sense of responsibility. For the same leap forward that made them fully conscious of their own identity and their own freedom made them conscious also of the infinite majesty and beauty of transcendence and of the criterion of existence that perfection puts before human beings, who in their imperfection possess the freedom to strive to emulate perfection. A yawning gulf was opened between infinity and finity.

There are two possible human reactions to the recognition of this reality.

On the one hand, it can be accepted in humility and pride – humility before the majesty of transcendence and pride in the freedom of the human person. That acceptance requires willingness to live life on this earth at high tension, a tension of men conscious simultaneously of their imperfection and of their freedom and their duty to move towards perfection. The acceptance of this tension is the distinguishing characteristic of the Western civilization of which we are a part, a characteristic shared by no other civilization in the world’s history.

On the other hand, the hard and glorious challenge of reality can be rejected. The tension between perfection and imperfection can be denied. Men conscious of the vision of perfection, but forgetting that their vision is distorted by their own imperfection, can seek refuge from tension by trying to impose their own limited vision of perfection upon the world. This is the Utopian temptation. It degrades transcendence by tr ying to set up as perfect what is by the nature of reality imperfect. And it destroys the freedom of the individual person by forcing upon him conformity to someone else’s limited human vision, robbing him of freedom to move towards perfection in the tension of his imperfection. It is in form a return to the womb of the cosmological civilization, in which the tension of life at the higher level of freedom was not required of men, in which they could fulfill their duties in uncomplicated accep tance of the rhythms of the cosmos, without the pain or the glory of individuation. But Utopianism is only similar to cosmological civilizations in form; in essence it is something different, because cosmological civilization was, as it were, a state of innocence, while Utopianism comes after the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of the persons of God and men. It is a deliberate rejection of the high level at which it is now possible for men to live, and as such it distorts and oppresses the human spirit. Yet it has remained, ever since the Hellenic and Judaic break through the cosmological crust, an everprevalent historical factor. In particular, as Western civilization is the civilization that accepts and lives with the tension of spirit, Utopianism has been a constantly recurring destructive force within it.

Indeed, the history of Western civilization is the history of the struggle to carry forward its insight of tension, both against the remaining inherited traumas of the cosmological attitude in its social structure and in its intellectual outlook and against the continuing recrudescence of Utopianism.

We should never be surprised that some people are willing to reject the uncertainty and risk that freedom affords in favor of the security of Utopian conformity.


Nick Cave on Christ and the Devil (Freddie Sayers, Dec 25, 2023, UnHerd)

In the old days, with The Birthday Party, they were extremely energetic, extremely (I would say) violent, aggressive concerts done by a not-fully-formed person, who held the world in contempt as a sort of default. That was the energy of those concerts — and that has changed completely. Now I see the world in a completely different way, and see human beings in a completely different way. I see the brokenness of human beings, but also the unbelievable value of human beings. This is something that, back then, I could never have imagined I would have felt. I think it has something to do with becoming a more complete person, through a series of things that have happened to me through my life — things that have happened to us all, probably.


The Greatest Gift (Philip Van Doren Stern, Dec 25, 2008,

When he found himself unable to find a publisher for his story, author Philip Van Doren Stern printed up copies of the “The Greatest Gift” and gave them out as Christmas cards in 1943. Eventually, the story came to the attention of director Frank Capra, who explained later, “It was the story I had been looking for all my life! A good man, ambitious. But so busy helping others, life seems to pass him by…Through the eyes of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he not been born. Wow! What an idea.” Capra went on to turn Stern’s story into the cherished holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Released in 1946 and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Gloria Grahame, the film received several Academy Award nominations and has gone on to become one of the most iconic films in movie history, as well as a beloved feature of every holiday season. Here, presented for your enjoyment, is the original Philip Van Doren Stern story. Happy holidays, all.


PODCAST: Whit Stillman on ‘Metropolitan,’ a Christmas Movie (SONNY BUNCH, DEC 16, 2023, Bulwark Goes to Hollywood)

This week I’m thrilled to be joined by Whit Stillman, the director of, among other features, The Last Days of Disco, Barcelona, and Love and Friendship. He’s on the show today to discuss Metropolitan and the way it has been embraced as a classic Christmas movie, as well as the evolution of the indie film business over the last 40 years or so.


Keeping politics local (Jeffery Tyler Syck, 12/21/23, American Habits)

Each one of these elections proves that keeping political debate tethered to local issues is a winning strategy but such an approach to government is simply superior. The pressure to make every issue, every aspect of our lives, about national politics is an unhealthy disease. One that rots the true heart of every democracy – localism. True freedom flourishes in the institutions that stand between the individual and the national state. It is in these layers of civil society and regional government that draw humans out of their own lives and help us to forge vibrant communities in which civilization can flourish.

To put this all more simply, the most important political goal we are given is to ensure the dignity of everyday human existence. This means ensuring that fathers and sons can enjoy an afternoon fishing with one another; That mothers and daughters can bond over a good book together; That a local community can gather at a town festival or church and look passed their many differences to simply relish the company of others. All of this is threatened by making national politics, which does not organically touch upon our daily lives, so central to our existence.


Santa Claus and Science: On imagination, faith, and the natural fancy of children (G. K. Chesterton, December 20, 1935, Commonweal)

Fourth, what do our great modern educationists, our great modern psychologists, our great makers of a new world, mean to do about the breach between the imagination and the reason, if only in the passage from the infant to the man? Is the child to live in a world that is entirely fanciful and then find suddenly that it is entirely false? Or is the child to be forbidden all forms of fancy; or in other words, forbidden to be a child? Or is he, as we say, to have some harmless borderland of fancy in childhood, which is still a part of the land in which he will live; in terra viventium, in the land of living men? Cannot the child pass from a child’s natural fancy to a man’s normal faith in Holy Nicholas of the Children, without enduring that bitter break and abrupt disappointment which now marks the passage of a child from a land of make-believe to a world of no belief?


After 2 years in space, the James Webb telescope has broken cosmology. Can it be fixed? (Ben Turner, 12/22/23, Live Science)

But over the past decade, an alarming hole has been growing in this picture: Depending on where astronomers look, the rate of the universe’s expansion (a value called the Hubble constant) varies significantly.

Now, on the second anniversary of its launch, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has cemented the discrepancy with stunningly precise new observations that threaten to upend the standard model of cosmology.

The new physics needed to modify or even replace the 40-year-old theory is now a topic of fierce debate.

“It’s a disagreement that has to make us wonder if we really do understand the composition of the universe and the physics of the universe,” Adam Riess, a professor of astronomy at Johns Hopkins University who led the team that made the new JWST measurements, told Live Science.

Relax, son, no one thought we understood.