Book Review: Return of the Strong Gods by R R Reno
One of the rare consolations of the Empire of Lies we’ve found ourselves in is occasionally encountering a sphere of truth. Such an event reassures us we’re not alone and that kindred spirits are still out there, patiently pushing back against the insanities of the age. One such spirit is the American Catholic author and editor of First Things magazine R.R Reno and his 2019 work Return of the Strong Gods.
Like contemporary efforts by Patrick Deneen and the Polish philosopher Ryzsard Legutko, Reno’s is a book which illuminates the errors of the age. It’s a work which neither succumbs to the easy evasions of the left nor to the vulgarity found on farther reaches of the right. Ultimately, it’s a book that rejects the notion that the post-war era has been the best of all Panglossian worlds.
Divided into five sections and written in simple yet succinct prose, the overarching theme is that the West has lost its way in an abyss of openness: that sine qua non of the present day. Opening at the Second World War and surveying the post-war era, Reno traces our failings back to Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the promise that ‘never again’ would we bear witness to such horrors.
In light of such an overwhelming imperative, a rhetorical and practical pursuit of openness was initiated in what Reno dubs the “postwar consensus”. A stance which involved the marginalisation at best – and outright illegality at worst – of the noxious -isms that led us to 1914-1945. Nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism were what caused our horrors, they were thus to be expunged from the public square.
Put simply, such ‘strong gods’ were too dangerous: they had to be banished from the realm. Yet precisely who these deities are, and what they mean in practice, is rendered by Reno deliberately vague. In essence, they’re the deeper – and often darker – parts of the soul such as pride, envy and a ‘love of one’s own’.
Yet Reno does provide us with a rough definition. As he states, the strong gods “are the objects of men’s love and devotion, the sources of the passions and loyalties that unites societies” – ”Truth is a strong god” as are “King and country.” Not all strong gods are malignant, however: they can just as well “be beneficent.” Still, the chief lesson of the twentieth century was that the strong gods of “militarism, fascism, communism, racism, and anti-Semitism” overwhelmingly “brought ruin.”
To this end, the Western post-war consensus, led by the United States, was to prioritise cultural weakening in the form of a near-unlimited openness. Out were truth, certainty and exclusivity; in were relativism, doubt and diversity. If these trends were ever queried, one only needed reminding of 1945 and was soon brought to heel. The post-war consensus – and its Manichean framing: either ‘openness or Auschwitz’ – was thus brought into being.
A stance that Reno then proceeds to illuminate, beginning with ‘the open society’. A notion coined by the author of the movement’s most emblematic and eponymous work, Austrian philosopher Karl Popper and his two-volume Open Society and Its Enemies. A book which was written in obscurity in New Zealand during the Second World War and in which Popper attacks Plato, Hegel and other giants of the tradition before coming down on the side of openness.
As Reno remarks, for Popper ‘our civilisation faces a choice.’ We “can live in a tribal or ‘closed society’… or we can break free from this ‘collectivist’ impulse and build an ‘open society’”, one that ‘sets free the critical powers of man.’ And as Popper argued at the time, our future depended on choosing the latter: something we’ve dutifully done and which has set in train the decline that’s since followed.
The rest of the book is then an exploration of this one key theme; with Popper’s socio-cultural openness soon echoed on the economic plane by compatriot Friedrich Hayek: he of Road to Serfdom fame. Thus in a strange symmetry, the West ends up with two Austrian emigres erecting the twin pillars of its post-war world: the Popperian commitment to cultural openness and the Hayekian imperative of free markets.
As Reno remarks, these two men were “united by a commitment to individual freedom and a desire to prevent the return of authoritarianism.” A notion that encapsulates the last eighty-odd years as well as any other and that’s been reinforced through organisations like the Mont Pelerin Society, which Popper and Hayek were founding members, and through Popper’s most famous student, and current bete noir of the right, George Soros: he of his own Open Society fame.
Once established, then, the open-society framework of free markets, multiculturalism and the neutering of metaphysics – “The open society must be anti-metaphysical” – comes to characterise the West. A stance Reno then explores in an impressive overview of the major philosophical figures of the era. After Popper and Hayek, come the Americans Milton Friedman and William F Buckley; followed by a return to the German-speaking giants of earlier in the century, Sigmund Freud and Max Weber; before ending with the Francophone philosophers of the latter part of our era, namely: Albert Camus, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Yet it’s Weber and his notion of the disenchantment of the world – i.e. the scientific erasure of the supernatural – that helps further explain our malaise. As Reno observes, Popper, following Weber, wants to rid us of the metaphysical. For as Reno adds, it’s been imperative to eliminate “the vestiges of sacred authority that blinker men’s reason”. A stance that many of us have come to believe is benign, yet it’s a trend which Reno intimates is ultimately suicidal as it “drains away the substance of Western Civilization’s beliefs in robust metaphysical truths.” That is, it erodes the religious substrate that has enabled us to flourish.
A posture that has been implemented practically by what Reno dubs our ‘therapies of disenchantment’. As although erasing the sacred is ultimately futile quest, our need for metaphysics can be tamped down by the political order. Something that has been done by “relativizing” such notions, by “putting them in their historical contexts” and “critiquing their xenophobic, patriarchal, cisgender, and racist legacies”.
From this, the cultural imperatives then follow: we must “celebrate diversity”, “cultivate transgression” and “problematize” our traditional ties. A stance accomplished by our elite as they “drive old loyalties to the margins of respectability, and otherwise advance the cause of an open society and open minds.”
This metaphysical poverty, allied with the imperative of openness and the eviscerating force of the free-market, have led us to the current impasse. One witnessed in the apparently inchoate actions of voters in their support for non-establishment actors like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. That is, in their clamouring for figures brave enough to enunciate the failures of the liberal order and able to address them.
Something evident in what Reno calls the Homeless Society. One which is a natural reaction to the “embattled postwar consensus” and a “rebellion against the dogmas of openness”. As in opposition to the issues of 1945, we no longer face the same problems. Indeed, what ails us now is the direct opposite of that time.
Our issues revolve around an all-pervasive anomie. We are a culture that’s “imperilled by a spiritual vacuum and the apathy it brings”. A society that’s “politically inert, winnowed down to technocratic management of private utilities and personal freedoms”. Our main danger is thus one of “a dissolving society; not a closed one; the therapeutic society, not the authoritarian one.”
A stance Reno expands upon as he notes the economic, cultural and demographic disasters that have arisen under the aegis of openness. A failure that has been overseen by what can only be described as an utterly inept and unpatriotic elite – or as Reno puts it, our Leaders without Loyalty. Indeed, the book can be read as one of the best indictments of our elites yet seen.
Simply put, our elites are hypocrites. They insist on ‘openness for thee, but not for me’ as they insulate themselves from the baleful effects of their dogma. As Reno notes: “For all their talk of an open economy and open society, those in the upper echelons of our society work very hard to protect [themselves and] their children”. “They…choose homes in neighborhoods with goods schools” and condemn “traditional norms as authoritarian, but… keep their [own] marriages together.” Ultimately, “they shelter themselves and those whom they love” from the destructive effects of openness as they praise its putative virtues publicly.
Given this hypocrisy, and the other failings of the liberal order, the post-war consensus is straining under the weight of its contradictions. It’s a case of ‘what can’t go on, won’t go on’ – and the current settings can’t go on much longer. Indeed, the anti-naturalness of the post-war project was inherent from the outset, but only now are the fissures impossible to ignore.
As such, we move back to the beginning: to the ‘return of the strong gods’. A notion that is not only the book’s title, but which was also an inevitable result of the liberal order. As despite the well-intentioned commitment to openness and the promise of ‘never again’, the post-war concord was always doomed to fail.
This is so as it doesn’t accord with underlying nature. For as many have come to realise, the liberal order is one big affect. Although largely peaceful and prosperous, the post-war consensus fails to fulfil a multitude of human needs. Socially, it’s a regime that doesn’t recognise the darker elements of the soul, like parochialism and ‘a love of one’s own’; not does it address the practicalities of life in a political community: such as a sense of belonging, a common culture and the stability we innately seek. While economically, the Hayekian imperative of unencumbered markets has left us as financially precarious as we are socially: afflicted by the dilemmas of the ‘double-dose’ liberalism to which many now allude, and that writers like Christopher Lasch and John Gray explicitly warned.
Which is why Reno finishes the book seeking an end to the ‘long twentieth century’ and a return to the politics of ‘shared love’. Our order failed as it rendered us homeless: lost in a sea of apathy with no place to call our own. As in spite of the left-liberals who treat our crisis “as an illusion” – with Trump and Farage mere manifestations of an aberrant electorate – Reno treats their rise as the logical result of the errors innate to the liberal order.
The mere fact of ‘populism’, then, is not an epiphenomenon of short-term economic or social angst; but of deeper and entirely legitimate “questions about national identity, immigration and foreign policy, all of which cast doubt on the legitimacy of the established leadership class in the West.”
As in advancing openness, our elite has eroded the solidarity we seek. As under our technocratic ethos, vast swathes of the human experience is marked verboten and placed outside the frame of debate. As Reno remarks, our elite “is so thoroughly blinded by the postwar consensus” it neglects “the actual problems we face – atomization, dissolving communal bonds, disintegrating family ties, and a nihilistic culture of limitless self-definition.”
We thus need to return to the strong gods: of love, solidarity and genuine community. It requires our leaders “to ask question they have been trained to supress”. It needs them to realise that, as the philosopher Leo Strauss observed – in direct opposition to Popper – that ‘the society by nature is the closed society’. A notion to which Reno alludes when he references that well-known saw about human nature: that “blood is thicker than water.”
Which in essence is all that is wrong with the post-war order and why it’s now falling apart. As although the initial desire to prevent future holocausts, gulags and atomic explosions was clearly laudable, these events did not to change human nature. That is, a nature which still seeks solidarity and a sense of the sacred; one that sees our “private interest as part of a larger whole”; one with a “love of our land, our history, our founding myths, our warriors and heroes”. Simply put, we need a renewed patriotism: we need ‘to renew the “we”’.
There is thus very little to critique in Reno’s work. Being an avowed Catholic, his remedies tend towards the Christian, which may rankle the less religious, yet he wears his religion lightly and the book is never in danger of dogmatism. There is an argument to be made, however, that by anchoring the book to the motif of socio-cultural openness, other factors, like the importance of economics – and the centrality of economic growth to the post-war era- are not given the import they deserve. There is also an incongruous attempt to smuggle in some American-style civic nationalism that is understandable even though it’s completely contradictory to the spirit of the work.Nevertheless, this is a highly commendable work. Like Deenen’s and Legutko’s, it’s one of few recent books that drives to the heart of our malaise and that honestly elucidates the errors of our age.