The best of Fred Hutchison
Historical roots of the culture war
An overview
January 3, 2013
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Originally published September 30, 2005

The culture war is deadlocked. Conflicts between contradictory worldviews generally produce clear winners and losers, instead of going into extended deadlock. In contrast, family quarrels within a worldview tend to go on indefinitely.

Interestingly, World War I was a family quarrel between the imperial powers of Europe. The war went into four years of deadlock, was fought in the trenches, and was settled through negotiation. It was the last of a series of inconclusive European wars. In contrast, World War II was a struggle between Democratic powers and totalitarian powers with radical ideologies. In short, it was a conflict between worldviews. On the battlefield, it was a war of rapid movement, dramatic offensives, shattering setbacks, and unconditional victory at the end. The Cold War was also fought between great powers with incompatible worldviews, but its long deadlock seduced many people into the false belief that it was a family quarrel — that is to say, that the Soviets were essentially like us. They were not, of course. This was made clear with the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, which restored the correct perspective of a struggle between incompatible enemies, with one of them left standing in the end.

Does today's deadlocked culture war imply that liberal Modernism is debating conservative Modernism? Whenever there is a spectrum of ideologies with two poles of left and right, there can seldom can be a final victory. The pendulum will swing back and forth between the poles many times. On the other hand, the culture war might be deadlocked like the Cold War, eventually leading to the collapse of one of the antagonists. This is a plausible allegory because it takes into account the striking differences between contemporary liberals and conservatives, which do not much resemble family differences. For example, I can find no family resemblance between the ideas of Rush Limbaugh and those of Michael Moore.

I used to think that postmodern liberalism was a new worldview and therefore can be defeated. I later came to realize that Modernism and Postmodernism are linked, and elements of this deadly duo go back five centuries, with many swings of the pendulum between the two. To my great surprise, the conflicts between Modernists and Postmodernists are a family quarrel. Both Modernism and Postmodernism must be simultaneously defeated to make an end of these twin delusions.

During the long centuries of Modernism, several kinds of conservatism emerged: (1) conservative reaction within the modern-postmodern continuum — with reactionary movements sometimes changing the direction of the pendulum movement; (2) conservative defense of traditional culture and the social fabric; and (3) Christian conservatism that rejects both modernism and postmodernism and the worldview they share. We see these play out in the following historical developments.

Renaissance humanism

Historically, the first ideas recognizable as elements of modernism appeared during the Italian Renaissance among the cluster of ideas called "humanism." Renaissance humanism was based upon the literary classics of ancient Greece and Rome, and its focus was upon man. It had five branches — with Sir Thomas More as the Catholic humanist archetype, Melanchthon as the Protestant humanist archetype, Erasmus as the ultimate classicist, Machiavelli as a secular humanist, and Mirandola the archetype of platonic humanism. The platonic branch of humanism sowed some of the seeds of modernism.

Keep in mind that only a tiny fraction of the population participated in the Renaissance and that platonic humanism was the smallest branch. However, many of the men who were influential in government, like Sir Thomas More and Machiavelli, were educated in schools of classical humanism dedicated to the formation of the gentleman.

The idea to develop schools for the gentleman who would replace clerics as the leaders of the Western world emerged in extended discussions between Petrarch and Boccaccio and a circle that formed around them in Florence, Italy. Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374) was the greatest poet and humanist scholar of the late Middle Ages. Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) wrote The Decameron, which helped to develop the idea of the gentlemen and the lady. The idea of the gentleman was brought to perfection over a century later by Baldassar Castiglione (1478-1529) in his classic Renaissance work, The Courtier. For centuries, this book was the international guide for the gentleman. The gentlemen of Urbino, which Castiglione described in The Courtier, were products of the humanist education recommended by Petrarch and Boccaccio.

In the early days of the Renaissance, Florence had three successive chancellors who were versatile Renaissance men, classical scholars, and refined gentleman. The most famous of these was Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) who presided over a "Republic of Letters" and compared the Florentine Republic to ancient Athens. He wrote a treatise on education in classical literature.

When the aristocrats of Italy looked to Florence and saw how splendid the leadership of sophisticated gentlemen could be, they sponsored schools for the gentleman and hired leading humanist scholars to teach them. These were all Christian schools, of course, because Renaissance men saw no contradiction between Christianity and classical studies. Great schools for gentlemen were built in Mantua, Ferrarra, Urbino, and Florence, and humanist colleges were established under the aegis of the old medieval universities of Paris, and Oxford, England. The formation of the English gentleman has deep historical roots.

Cosimo de Medici sponsored the Platonic Academy of Florence and appointed Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) to be the headmaster. Ficino specialized in the translation and study of the philosophies of Plato and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. He also attempted to place Neoplatonism on a Christian foundation. Christian Neoplatonism developed into a platonic cult that flourished during the high Renaissance. The result was a sort of deification of man, a phenomenon I like to call "platonic inflation."

Many conservatives for the next five hundred years have raised their guard over humanism because of the taint of platonic inflation. As an eighteen-year-old conservative in college, I was alarmed at the utopian wishful thinking of my liberal teachers. I could smell the platonic inflation as I squirmed in my seat.

Three most spectacular examples of platonic inflation in the Renaissance were Leon Alberti (1404-1472). Pico Della Mirandola (1463-1494), and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Alberti is the archetypal Renaissance man who became a pioneer in several fields of study. He said, "A man can do all things if he will." He addressed "man" with these laudatory words:

"To you is given a body more graceful than other animals, to you power of apt and various movements, to you most sharp and delicate senses. To you wit, reason, memory like an immortal God."

Alberti's god-like view of man was reprised by Shakespeare's Hamlet in a more extended form and with more beautiful phrases. The difference is that Alberti really believed it and Hamlet used the phrase as a device of bitter irony as he spoke of his disillusionment with man.

Mirandola wrote On the Dignity of Man, which paralleled the ideas of Alberti. Alberti said a man can do anything, and Mirandola said that a man can be anything. Man becomes what he chooses to be by changing his nature. The church celebrated Ficino's Christian Platonism but condemned Mirandola's platonic inflation, of course. Mirandola sounds like an American in a New Age cult or an American motivational speaker or management guru. Conservatives, beware of the platonic inflation!

The patron of Renaissance artist Michelangelo was the Medici family in Florence. Michelangelo was acquainted with Ficino, the headmaster of the Platonic Academy. The young sensitive artist absorbed the platonic inflation that was in the air. He wrote passionate and obsessive Neoplatonic poetry. His platonic inflation is palpable in his depiction of mankind as a race of muscular giants on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Montaigne and Shakespeare: The first postmodern men?

Like the bursting of a stock market bubble, platonic inflation collapsed, partly caused by the shock of the Reformation and the sack of Rome by German troops (1527). Some humanists who had gloried in man became skeptical about man. Michelangelo painted heroes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before the sack of Rome, but after the sack of Rome painted an angry Christ casting terrified sinners into hell on the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. With a turn of the head, one can go from platonic inflation on the ceiling to doom on the east wall.

In the century following these events, two great men who were disillusioned humanists appeared, namely Montaigne and Shakespeare. They were representatives of a great disillusionment that was the first great pendulum swing from optimism to pessimism about man. In the twentieth century, the pendulum swing from optimism to pessimism about man was the shift from modernism to postmodernism.

Some historians claim that Michel de Montaigne, French essayist, (1533-1592), was the inventor of the self-absorbed essay. Actually, Petrarch, who we might call the original humanist, invented this genre. However, Montaigne's sharp-tongued skepticism and intense individualism make Montaigne sound very modern, even though he lived in the late Reformation era. Montaigne, like Shakespeare, was a Renaissance humanist disillusioned with man. As such, both men sounded startlingly postmodern on occasion. Shakespeare was an avid reader of Montaigne, which must partly account for Shakespeare's skepticism and his remarkably wide range of the expressions of human experience. Montaigne explored the caverns of human consciousness, and Shakespeare brought them to the stage.

Contrary to a popular misconception propagated by atheists of the French Enlightenment, neither Montaigne nor Shakespeare were hostile to the religious establishment, even if they laughed at silly men that they saw both inside and outside of the church. Montaigne was a conventional, if not particularly devout Roman Catholic. His disillusionment with man was not because of the wars of religion. It had more to do with the loss of a brilliant and indispensable friend who he was never able to replace. Shakespeare was open-minded about Christianity and agnosticism, superstition and skepticism, hope and nihilism, depending upon his mood. As a disappointed humanist, he was mainly interested in the phenomenon of man as sometimes religious and sometimes doubting, sometimes virtuous and sometimes evil, sometimes witty and sometimes silly, sometimes rational and sometimes confused. In his darkest moments, he played with cynicism, nihilism, and witchcraft. All human things were props for his drama. He was both obsessed with man and disillusioned with man. It was rather like a woman in love with a man whom she does not like and never ceases to scold and praise.

At times Montaigne was postmodern, and at other times he was ultra-conservative. He opined that every conceivable human behavior was socially acceptable in some parts of the world and in some cultures. This is the argument of moral relativism constantly used by postmodern multiculturalists. Montaigne's inward search through his consciousness for authenticity had a remarkably existentialist tone. In fact, the modern existentialist Merleau-Ponty was an admirer of Montaigne.

As a French aristocrat, Montaigne was often involved in public affairs. Incredibly, he was opposed to change of any kind. This postmodern, existentialist man was a classical reactionary, a political troglodyte! Although he was bored with women and children, he married and had children because it was socially correct. Although he was bored with elite society, he continued to dabble in it out of noblesse oblige. He was a culturally conservative humanist who constantly read the classic authors in the ancient Latin and Greek texts. In Montaigne we find a prototype of the far left and the far right, and every place in between in the contemporary culture war. Above all, we find egoism, skepticism, sarcasm, and self-absorption, the very stuff of the breezy condescension of postmodern man.

Montaigne was the first literary bohemian and the first "ivory tower" intellectual. In his case, it was a real tower over the walls of his chateaux. The tower was round with a cone-shaped roof and contained a large, round library furnished with thousands of books. He mounted sixty maxims of Greek and Roman authors upon the interior walls of the library.

As a brilliantly educated Renaissance man, Montaigne mastered the arts of the court and of the high society of his day, yet was bored with the mediocrities that inhabited his social world. His only happiness was his solitary retreats into his tower, where he explored the labyrinth of his own mind. He was a forerunner of the Western interest in psychology.

Descartes and Modern Rationalism

The radical ideas of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the great rationalist philosopher, would not have been possible without Montaigne, the skeptic. This is very strange, because skeptics and rationalists are natural enemies. Skeptics are pessimistic about what we can know through reason, while rationalists are optimistic about what we can know. Descartes transformed a profound personal skepticism into a new optimism about human reason. He was the hinge on the door of a new cycle of history that opened to a new era of optimism about man, which was to be called "The Enlightenment." One more swing of the pendulum.

Descartes wrote, "Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based upon them." He decided to "demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations." It is the nature of postmodernism to doubt and deconstruct all that goes before. Descartes, who lived during the Thirty Years War and had seen service as a soldier, was living at the farthest point of the pendulum swing away from confidence in man. He could not have been so skeptical if he had not had a century of disillusionment behind him that followed the bursting of the platonic inflation of the Renaissance.

However, Descartes did not extend that skepticism to himself. He shared Montaigne's confidence that he could find answers by turning within. He had radical self-confidence in the midst of his skepticism about everyone else. He was inwardly modern and outwardly postmodern. He proposed to start from scratch and rebuild the world anew with himself as the creator. His godlike pretensions were reminiscent of Alberti and Mirandola. His project to remake the world was reminiscent of the French philosophes of the Enlightenment who would undertake grandiose projects a century after his death. Descartes gave birth to a race of god-men who devastated the earth.

During a mysterious experience involving flashes of light, Descartes discovered a starting place upon which to build his philosophy. In his attempt to doubt everything, he found something he could not doubt. He could not doubt that he was doubting. If he was doubting, he must have been thinking. If he was thinking, he must have a mind. If he has a mind, he must exist. "Cogito ergo sum," or "I think, therefore, I am." "Existence exists." From this starting place, he set out to prove the existence of God. He did not start from God and reason to himself. He started from himself and reasoned to God. The more one meditates on this megalomania, the more shocking it seems. A humbler and sounder proposition is, 1) By faith I believe that God exists, 2) God creates, 3) the creation has a nature and a design, therefore, 4) Existence exists, and therefore, 5) I exist. God first, and self last. We are real people in a real world that God has made. No need to start from scratch and invent a fantasy world.

The Age of Reason

Descartes launched an era of tremendous confidence in the human mind, often called "the Age of Reason." The three great rationalists of the era were Descartes, Spinoza, and Liebnitz. Descartes was a dualist, Spinoza was a pantheist, and Liebnitz was a metaphysical pluralist. To have a sense of how each of these philosophies would affect the culture war, let us briefly consider how each might come down on abortion. Notice how inhuman the calculations get as the mind is inflated to godlike proportions.

Descartes (1596-1650) proposed a dualism of mind and matter. The mind has supreme importance and the body is just a machine. If one assumes that a fetus has no mind, then it can be disposed of just as an inconvenient machine can be thrown away.

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a pantheist. Everything that exists is connected to everything else in a closed system, and "god" is the sum total of what exists. The babe in the womb is a double loser in this system: (1) connection trumps individuality, and therefore the babe's connection to the mother is more important than its independent existence — and since the babe exists as a dependency on the mother's body, the babe can be regarded as the mother's possession and she can do with it as she pleases; and (2) the mother is a cog in a great machine, and the baby is a subset of the mother — therefore, the babe has minimal importance in the grand scheme of things.

Gottfried Leibnitz (1646-1716) was a metaphysical pluralist. Everything consists of individual "monads" whose defining principle is action. "To be is to be active." The philosophy is a blend of individualism and vitalism. Action as a defining principle puts a premium on individual will and choice. Therefore, the choice of the mother trumps the passive being of the babe in the world.

This backwards world created by Descartes must come to backwards conclusions. By contrast, if we start with God instead of starting with self, we must conclude that the babe in the womb is created, therefore has a nature and a design. As a result, the babe has independent ontological being and value in his own right. He is not merely a machine, and his independent being trumps his connection to his mother. He is something greater than a cog in a system, and the value of his passive being trumps his mother's active will.

Edmund Burke and traditionalist conservatism

The French Enlightenment engendered a god complex that was much like platonic inflation. The godlike intention of the intellectuals to reinvent the world led to the French revolution and drove the revolution into increasingly radical phases. The wild utopianism of the god-men led to the reign of terror that shocked all Europe. The revolution launched twenty years of war due to the god complex of Napoleon and his glory-intoxicated soldiers.

Edmund Burke (1727-1797), essayist and member of the British parliament, wrote Reflections on the Revolution with France as an outraged protest of the French Revolution. Burke believed that a dangerous principle had led to the revolution and that the British parliament should be on guard against that principle. Burke had contempt for social reformers who were guided by political theory to reinvent the world. Burke argued that such reforms do great harm to human society. The social fabric is woven with delicate threads over many generations through the practical wisdom of millions of people. The reformers are blind to the beauty and wisdom of the exquisite tapestry of society and have contempt for cultural tradition. Their sweeping generalities and abstract speculations lead to crude reforms that tear the delicate social fabric and injure countless people. The French Revolution is a case in point of the destructiveness of arrogant reforms. Burke was the founder of modern traditionalist conservatism. Russell Kirk was the most important American traditionalist conservative in the tradition of Burke.

During the pendulum swings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, traditionalist conservatives consistently argued against platonic inflation, utopianism, and modernism. However, an unprecedented number of utopian movements emerged in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Waves of disillusionment with utopian modernism have accumulated, leading to our present postmodern disillusionment. Disillusioned postmodern liberals are battling Christian conservatives and traditionalist conservatives in the culture war.

The dragon and the zombies

Fighting the god-men of modernism was like fighting a mighty dragon. As a fighter pilot, my father fought the god-men of Fascism and Nazism. In Korea, he fought the god-men of Communism. My mother gave instrument training to Naval aviators who flew from aircraft carriers in the pacific during World War II. Their generation, rightly called the greatest generation, fought the great battle against the dragon. They have left to us to fight a lesser battle against the zombies.

Postmodern liberals are disillusioned, demoralized, and bitter. The Democratic party has become the bitterness party, opening its arms to the likes of Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, Jesse Jackson, and Howard Dean. These are not robust, hearty, enthusiastic enemies like the modernist god-men that my parents faced. Our punctured and deflated enemies are "men without chests" and women "without faces" in the words of C. S. Lewis. They are filled with rage, but have lost touch with who they are as people with an innate nature. They are like zombie warriors that Tolkien called "Orcs."

I would rather fight zombies than god-men. I lack the romantic heroics that enabled my parents to face the dragon. This is the day of small things, and we are given small enemies to fight. However, the dragon is not dead, only wounded. Time is short before the dragon returns. We can postpone the return of the dragon by defeating the zombies, because Modernism and Postmodernism are two sides of the same madness.

"God, as your small men, give us grace to defeat these small enemies, lest the dragon returns once more to devastate the earth. Amen."

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31