The Urgent Need for The Next Great Idea

Robert Nisbet’s (1913-1996) The Present Age is a jeremiad arguably more potent now than when it was published. Written in 1988, this excerpt is in part a call for the genius with the next great idea to please step forward, the revolution is dangerously overdue. When he wrote it, Reagan’s second term was ending not quite on the high note which his administration began. Though withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was intact but no longer an existential threat. Crack cocaine and Prozac had hit the streets. Die Hard and Guns n Roses were setting the tone in pop culture, and Nisbet was not pleased with any of this. Nisbet, who so valued genuine community and so hated the State’s destruction of the social order through its relentless usurping of local power and authority, saw that time for America really might be running out. Centralization and militarism, the loose individual hanging on society, fraying culture, all and more were making the odds of change less and less likely. Yet Nisbet ends with guarded optimism. The question is whether that optimism is still warranted. Did our moment of real hope and change pass a quarter of a century ago?— Editor


Framers of the Constitution who may steal back to look at the bicentennial of their labors in Philadelphia, will find a colossus, a giant. But it is a deeply flawed giant; not yet moribund but ill-gaited, shambling, and spastic of limb, often aberrant of mind. People shout at it incessantly, each shouter confident that he has the right diagnosis and cure for the giant.

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It is a giant in military resources but not in the exercise of military power and responsibility. Befuddled by belief that God intended it to be a moral teacher to the world, our giant stumbles from people to people, ever demonstrating that what America touches, it makes holy.  Convinced of effortless superiority, devoted to the religion of Know How, Can Do, and No Fault, the giant commits one Desert One after another, on land, sea, and in the air.

America is a giant too in its domestic bureaucracy, the largest in the world, the most benignly oriented, and surely the most solicitous of all bureaucracies in history. The citizens, all the while enjoying the usufruct of bureaucracy, its gifts to life, health, education, and old age, don’t like it; or at least they repeatedly say they don’t like it. They curse it. That is why each incoming president dutifully vows to reduce immediately the size of the bureaucracy and the awful total of indebtedness caused by it. But, also dutifully, each president departs office having increased the size of the bureaucracy, the national debt, and budget deficits.

In structure, our giant is a horde of loose individuals, of homunculi serving as atoms of the giant’s body, as in the famous illustration of Leviathan in Hobbes’s classic. There is little sign of organic connection among the tissues and organs. Economically, our giant is bemused by cash in hand rather than property and wealth. Growth is for weeds and idiots, not for the illuminati and literati. Culturally, reigning symbols are two in number: deconstruction and minimalism, each resting securely on the conviction that self-exploration is the mightiest truth of them all.

What does it all portend? Spengler, not aiming simply at America, but instead the whole West, said that our civilization has entered its final stage. Just as all other civilizations have gone through, at least by Spengler’s assessment, the stages of birth, growth, maturity, old age, and death, so ex hypothesi and also ipso facto, will the West, America included, its exceptionalism notwithstanding. Spengler even described the symptoms of decline, the stigmata of decadence and fall: a surfeit of wars and of military commandos, political despotism everywhere, and torrents of money pouring through weakening moral foundations.

But that, our optimists say, is simply Spengler, dour, dyspeptic, Prussian philosopher, resuscitator of the oldest fallacy in human civilization: the fallacy that a people, a society, a culture, a state is in truth an organism. Plainly human societies are not organisms, and if the Spenglerian fallacy is the only basis of prediction of decline and fall, then the prediction is otiose.

Optimists and indifferentists are free to make what they want of the analyses and predictions of Spengler—or of Tocqueville who, in his Recollections, saw and foresaw a Europe not very different from Spengler’s.  And in our own day, besides Spengler, there have been other deeply learned scholars like Toynbee and Sorokin to distill from the comparative study of history the attributes of growth on the one hand and decline on the other, and to affix the latter to the West, including America, in our time.

We may take comfort from the fact that in civilizations, unlike physical universes, there are no inexorable, unalterable laws against which the human will is impotent. Intimations of long term, irreversible decline in our civilization may indeed be based as much if not more on the temper of the observer than the facts and propositions he adduces. Short of loss of the life-sustaining ozone or other indispensable physical force, there is nothing that can afflict civilization and its component structures that is not theoretically subject to correction when necessary. For, everything cultural, from family to state, from nursery rhyme to epic, rests upon ideas. So do the diseases of civilization which occasionally assert themselves. They too are at bottom dynamical patterns of ideas, bad ideas but ideas nonetheless.

The problems or conditions which have persisted throughout the present age—militarism, bureaucracy, the monetarization of the human spirit, and the trivialization of culture—are all subject to arrest and reversal. It is not as though we were dealing with the relentless advance of senescence in the human being or the course of a cancer. Ideas and their consequences could make an enormous difference in our present spirit. For whatever it is that gives us torment—the cash nexus as the new social bond or the spirit of deconstruction and minimalism in the arts and perhaps areas too of the sciences—it rests upon ideas which are as much captive to history today as they ever have been.

The genius, the maniac, and the prophet have been responsible for more history than the multitudes have or ever will. And the power of these beings rests upon revolutions in ideas and idea systems. The whole course of humanity was reshaped by a major revolution in Eurasia in the sixth century That was when a small number of geniuses and prophets—Confucius, Lao-Tze, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mahavira, Thales, Ezekiel, and Pythagoras—spread out over a vast continent nevertheless simultaneously introduced a revolution in ideas, one in which the individual was for the first time liberated from the role of automaton in a heavily oppressive culture and brought face to face with the entire cosmos, or its ruler at any rate. There have been other, analogous revolutions of ideas—those associated with the names of St. Augustine, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein among others.

We are obviously in dire need of a revolution of ideas right now in America. But it seems not to be the privilege of man to will his own revolution when he wants it. Time and circumstances are sovereign. Fashions, fads, and fancies in ideas come and go like cicadas. Intellectual revolutions tend to stay on for long periods. It was an intellectual revolution in the Colonies that led to the United States.

Perhaps the time is ripe now for a comparable revolution in ideas. Tocqueville, in a little known, fascinating footnote in Democracy in America, writes:

If I inquire what state of society is most favorable to the great revolutions of the mind, I find it occurs somewhere between the complete equality of the whole community and the absolute separation of ranks. Under a system of castes generations succeed one another without altering men’s positions; some have nothing more, others nothing better, to hope for. The imagination slumbers amid this universal silence and stillness, and the very idea of change fades from the human mind.

When ranks have been abolished and social conditions are almost equalized, all men are in ceaseless excitement, but each of them stands alone, independent and weak. This latter state of things is excessively different from the former one, yet it has one point of analogy; great revolutions of the mind seldom occur in it.

But between these two extremes of the history of nations is an intermediate period, a period of glory as well as ferment, when the conditions of men are not sufficiently settled for the mind to be lulled in torpor, when they are sufficiently unequal for men to exercise a vast power on the minds of one another, and when some few may modify the convictions of all. It is at such times that great reformers arise and new ideas suddenly change the face of the world (Part II, Bk. 3, Ch. XXI).

Perhaps we in America are in such an intermediate period as Tocqueville describes. There is much reason, it seems to me, to think we just may be. The present age I have described in this book answers reasonably well to Tocqueville’s specifications. We have moved since 1914 from a highly traditionalist, hierarchical, decentralized, and inegalitarian society to one that in our time approaches the diametrical opposite of these qualities. We are approaching rapidly the kind of egalitarianism that Tocqueville describes as being no less sterile of thought than the highly stratified social order. But we still haven’t reached it; there is hope. There is a manifest revulsion in America toward moralizing militarism, toward superbureaucracy, toward a social order seemingly built out of the cash nexus, and toward the subjectivist, deconstructionist, and minimalist posturings which pass for culture. The time would appear to be as congenial to a revolution in ideas as was the eighteenth century in America.

One thing is clear at this late point in the age that began for America in 1914 with the Great War: The popular, the folk optimism—what an admiring and affectionate, but troubled, Lord Bryce called the ‘fatalism of the multitude in America’ is fast waning. Americans are much less likely than they were a century ago to believe there is a special Providence that looks out for America and guides her purity of conscience to ever greater heights. And they are immensely less likely than were their Puritan forebears three hundred fifty years ago to see America as the “city upon a hill,” with the world’s eyes upon it. On the basis of recent White House occupants, it is unlikely that Americans will be coaxed and preached back into the American Idyll.

Thank you to the Liberty Fund for permission to print this excerpt of The Present Age


  • Robert Nisbet

    Dr. Nisbet taught Sociology at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, was Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and is regarded as one of the genuinely original thinkers in the conservative movement. He authored several books including The Quest for Community and Twilight of Authority.

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