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Debt and destruction



Thomas Nagel


Debt and destruction

Insights into America's rise illuminate the causes of her unraveling

Chilton Williamson Jr.’s After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy (ISI, 2012) opens by noting the reasons Alexis de Tocqueville, the thoughtful French visitor to our shores in the 1830s, was optimistic about the American republic: no great capital city (the dominance of Paris hurt the French) and abundant Christian faith throughout the country. Now the sea of faith is receding and we sing about Washington, D.C., how great thou art.

Tocqueville, Williamson notes, “considered the return of despotism to be a perennial possibility” and knew that democracy and despotism are not opposites. Plato called democracy “a state in which the poor, gaining the upper hand, kill some and banish others,” and 20th-century French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel observed, “The passion for absolutism is, inevitably, in conspiracy with the passion of equality.” 

Williamson helps us to see how our rapidly increasing national debt can strangle us: “Debt has brought down many a government throughout history, the French monarchy in the days of Louis XVI and the Weimar government with the most spectacular results.” (Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “could he obtain a single amendment to the Constitution, it would be an article removing from the federal government the power to borrow money.”) Sadly, politicians throughout history have chosen to spend the money of others to obtain power for themselves, often through the “old, old trick” of “fanning class resentments into class warfare.” 

That could be our domestic future, but readers seeking action-adventure novels without adultery or sadistic violence, and with geopolitical relevance, should try Don Brown’s The Malacca Conspiracy (Zondervan, 2010) and Fire of the Raging Dragon (Zondervan, 2012). Set in and near the South China Sea, they may even predict future confrontations on the other side of the world. (China’s future—and the world’s—will depend on how quickly Christianity spreads, despite governmental attempts to stifle it.)

Food for noggins: Naugle & Nagel

If you’re looking for a quick introduction to deep thought, try David Naugle’s succinct Philosophy: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2012). Naugle defines Christian philosophy as building on Augustine’s insights in North Africa: “faith seeking understanding ... unless you believe, you will not understand ... in an Augustinian order of knowing (ordo scientia), belief renovates reason, grace restores nature, and faith renews philosophy.” We don’t think clearly and thus come to belief: Unless we believe, we won’t think clearly. 

Naugle also notes that Christian scholarship should be “primarily Hebraic rather than Hellenic or something else.” The Hebrew mind-set emphasizes the concrete while Hellenic thought veers toward abstraction, and Naugle rightly asks: “Wouldn’t neglecting the influential principles and patterns of a Hebrew mind deposited in the Bible seriously weaken a proper Christian scholarly understanding of God, the world, and ourselves? Shall we think and live, primarily, with Greek or Hebrew lenses and hearts?” Naugle answers those questions affirmatively and concludes, “Christianity is Jewish. ... Yet most Western philosophy is derived from ‘Athens’ rather than ‘Jerusalem.’”

NYU professor Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford, 2012) is a gutsy book given today’s prejudices. Nagel challenges Darwinian evolution “not based on religious belief” but his belief that “the available scientific evidence” does not justify “the consensus of scientific opinion.” Why, then, does that consensus exist? “Because almost everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten.”

Nagel confesses, “I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling. … Nevertheless, I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude.” Unlike other secularists, he respects brains and guts: “Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves.” —M.O.