[This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of the Lincoln Review, pp. 33-41.]


South Africa and the “Sacred Fools”: Otto Scott’s Histories—

Case Studies in the Modern “Crisis of the West” 

Dwight D. Murphey


            I first met Otto J. Scott during the summer of 1985 when we were both speakers in the Freedom Foundation’s annual seminar at Valley Forge on “Liberal and Conservative Thought in America.”  Since Scott and I were among the conservatives, our common ground helped provide the basis for an immediate friendship.  I stayed to hear his lecture, and was in no sense disappointed.

            Although it conveyed a message of deep pessimism reflecting his belief that the secularization of the West has brought with it a profound crisis not simply within the West but within all of modern civilization, Scott’s lecture sparkled with a blend of personal grace, broad learning, and quiet, patrician dignity.  These qualities should not, of course, have been surprising: Scott, I soon learned, is widely known as a lecturer and as the author of books on a variety of aspects of modern history.

             Since our meeting in 1985, it has been my pleasure to read several of Scott’s more important books.  The enjoyment has been due in large measure, I am sure, to Scott’s skills as a story-teller.  Whether he is relating the life of King James I in the context of the Reformation, or of Robespierre within the framework of the French Revolution, or of John Brown amid the Abolitionist movement prior to the American Civil War, Scott is a master at holding the reader’s attention.

            While, however, there is value in the sheer artistry of an historian’s telling a good story, the significance of Scott’s books lies in their substance.  This is so because each of the histories serves, in effect, as a virtual case study in one or another aspect of the plight of modern civilization.

            His most recent book, The Other End of the Lifeboat, published in 1985, is a study of South Africa.  Were it not for the work’s broader dimension as indeed a commentary on the world at large, one would be inclined to view it as a diversion from Scott’s much larger effort: a four-volume series of biographies about James I, Robespierre, John Brown and Woodrow Wilson called “The Sacred Fool Quartet.”  The first three of these are already in print, and Scott is now writing the Wilson biography.  In another dimension of his career, Scott has also served as a business historian: his books include The Professional: a Biography of J. B. Saunders, and histories of Raytheon and Ashland Oil. 

            In this article, I will discuss Scott’s book on South Africa and his “Sacred Fool Quartet,” but first it will be worthwhile to place his central theme—the plight of modern civilization—in perspective.  It is a plight about which philosophers have been writing for much of the past century.  By exploring it through a series of studies focusing on particular leaders and epochs, Scott is elaborating upon a theme that continues to deserve a great deal of attention.

            During the first half of the twentieth century, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote of civilization’s alternation between epochs of “concord” and “crisis.”  The Middle Ages was in Europe a period of “concord,” during which the institutions of feudalism and the worldview of Augustinian Christianity combined to form a tightly-knit whole.  As we all know, this unitary conception became unraveled over a span of centuries, leading to what Ortega referred to as the period of “crisis” that typifies the modern age.  What Ortega meant by this was that it is an age in which centrifugal forces lead to a vast pluralism, an “existential indeterminacy.”  There is no long a universal allegiance to a common conception.  Humanity struggles through a multiplicity of forms, seeking its way without preordained paradigms.

            This is a theme upon which I have myself written extensively, beginning with my book Understanding the Modern Predicament.  Without pretending to be exhaustive, I pointed to three main elements in the modern crisis.  The first is to be found in the continuing immaturity of humanity.  If we were to allow ourselves to see mankind through the perspective of long expanses of time, such as if we were to imagine that we were looking back on ourselves from ten thousand years in the future, we would have no difficulty acknowledging that the present condition of humanity, even in the developed countries with all their marvelous achievements, reflects only a partial ascent from the long darkness of pre-history.  In many ways, civilization remains a thin, though precious, veneer.  Such an observation may seem self-evident, but it is important as a reason to exercise caution about any utopian vision that would tear down an existing society to clear the way for a mere hoped for state of perfection.

            A second element has been the long-standing alienation of the intellectual, artistic culture in the West, first from the institutions and worldview of the Old Regime in Europe prior to the French Revolution and, most especially, since the early nineteenth century, from the predominant commercial, industrial culture.  The “alienation of the intellectual” has been profound in its effects and has received a great deal of attention during the past century.

            The third element to which I have pointed has been the rise of the comprehensive social philosophies—the so-called “modern ideologies.”  In a world in which nothing is pre-ordained, the complexities of existence and of human interaction can only be grasped by comprehensive systems of thought.  In effect, these systems interpret and organize reality for us.  What is more, they come to constitute a central ingredient in reality in their own right, since they become manifested in action when people live and act according to the ideas they hold.

            My purpose in this article is not, however, to discuss my own views, but to elucidate Otto Scott’s.  To Scott, the root cause of the “crisis of the West” (and through it, of all mankind) is the gradual de-Christianization of the West.  As we have grown more and more secular, we have lost our fundamental relatedness to the truest reality, and with it both our understanding and our will.

            To appreciate his perspective most fully, it is helpful to compare it with my own analysis.  The reader will have noticed that I see modern history through the eyes of the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment.  To me, the “crisis of the West” is to be found in all that challenges and renders problematical the fulfillment of the ideals of ordered liberty.  The fateful turning point in modern history was the abandonment of those ideals by the West’s predominant intellectual culture when in the early nineteenth century it threw itself into alienation and into the resulting anti-bourgeois and often anti-modernist philosophies.  The adoption of those philosophies by so many in the Third World, beginning with their prevalence a century ago in late-nineteenth century Russia, marks the spread of that crisis to the world at large.

            This is by no means entirely the same thing as the perspective held by such “traditionalist conservative” intellectuals as Eric Voegelin, Richard Weaver (or Otto Scott).  To them, subject to such differences among themselves as may occur because of variations in their religious beliefs, the crisis of the West arises from modernity itself.  It arises precisely from secularism, rationalism, the loss of an ontological center rooted squarely in the Christian cosmos, and the centuries-long move away from the institutions of Church and State associated with the age of Christian faith.

            With the hegemony of that Christian concord as their polar star, they see modern life, despite all of its offsetting achievements in science and affluence, as a time in which men have increasingly forfeited their hold on Truth.  The result has, for them, been a long slide toward loss of understanding and of will, and toward the decadence that flesh is heir to.  Thus, the crisis is many centuries old, not something that occurred after the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment, indeed, is seen as part of the crisis.

            There is much in Otto Scott’s writing that associates his work with this perception.  In Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue (p. 6), he speaks, for example, of the Enlightenment as having “contained more sham than substance” and as having “rummaged through the trashbins and graves of the past to rediscover every crime and atrocity and [as having] placed all the blame at the doorsteps of Christianity and hereditary privilege.”  We see from this that his own identification is with an earlier time, which he believes did not deserve to be undermined by the muckraking of such a man as Voltaire.  (I have no hesitation in surmising that Scott is right in saying that much of the attack by the Enlightenment on the Old Regime was scurrilous, since we have two hundred years of scurrility in the later attacks on the “bourgeoisie” to show us just how ruthlessly an intelligentsia goes about attacking an existing culture.)

            Nevertheless, we can suppose that Scott may differ in important particulars from Weaver, Voegelin and the many others who hold broadly to this perspective.  In common with them, he sees the increasing de-Christianization of the West as the heart of the problem.  But agreement on the vital importance of Christianity leaves unresolved the question of what form of Christianity is to be embraced.  In his work on James I, Scott speaks well of the Calvinism of two Scots: John Knox and George Buchanan.  These were men of the Reformation.  Whether they serve as paradigms for Scott, so that it is from their vantage point that he sees the later developments within both Christianity and secular society, I cannot say with certainty, since Scott makes his critique of men and events without stopping to explicate fully his premises.  (In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy took off from his story to include long essays on his philosophy.  Scott’s readers will mostly be glad, I should think, that he does not do the same, since it certainly slows the telling of a story.  But it will add to the clarity of Scott’s contribution to the literature of the crisis if he will at some future time, perhaps in his book on Woodrow Wilson, make clear the root conception of his critique.)

            Be all of that as it may, Scott’s historical commentaries are very much in line with the analysis made by other conservatives to whom Christianity is central.  In addition, a great many of his insights are congenial to a classical liberal such as myself.  Scott sees deeply into the decadence, superficialities and ideological illusions that have in so many ways set the tone of the modern experience.  He is opposed to Communism and to socialisms of all varieties; and he values those societies that he sees as repositories, albeit imperfect, of the heritage of the Christian West.

            When all of this is applied by Scott to the history of South Africa in The Other End of the Lifeboat, the result is a richly textured discussion of one of the world’s more difficult situations.  He does not write as a narrow partisan for one side of the other; his breadth of perception makes him able to see in the most genuine way both the defaults in Western colonialism and the weakness and fragmentation within black Africa.

            First, he quite admirably refuses to join in the fashionable clamor that holds Western colonialism to have been an unmitigated evil.  He sees much that it did that was valuable.  (He takes issue, for example, with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s glib comment that the French never did anything for Indochina.)  Applied to South Africa, this means that he sees real value in the advanced civilization that exists there.

            Second, however, Scott is at the same time acutely conscious of the elitism, secularism, hubris, inconstancy, brutality and cultural insensitivity that marred the European experience in the Third World.  He points out that the Berlin conference in 1884-5 divided Africa according to the pleasure of the European nations—without regard to the existing tribal units!  He looks with suspicion upon the elitist do-goodism of the upper-class British group that for so long guided British colonialism: “To expect the group to have realized its errors and abandon its attempts to direct the lives of others is to expect great pride to grow humble while it still lives in comfort and luxury” (p. 130).

            Third, he sees that the islands of Western culture, such as in South Africa and as existed in what was once Rhodesia, have offered much but have been seriously flawed.  He points, along these lines, to the striking similarity between Apartheid and the controls on movement and residency within the Soviet Union, with their racial and ethnic classifications and internal passports (p. 140). He observes, too, that within South Africa organized labor and the Labour Party have historically been among those who have most militantly pushed for the exclusion of blacks (p. 34).

            Fourth, he traces the demise of Western colonialism in the twentieth century, attributing the collapse to several factors.  This leads Scott to review in fascinating detail much of the history of Europe between the world wars and during the forty years after World War II.  He points out that it was the withdrawal of the British that gave the Afrikaners, who are descendants of the Dutch, the opportunity for their present role.  He observes, too, that it was the collapse of Western colonialism that led to the change in American policy toward South Africa in the early 1970s when “Henry Kissinger and others became aware that black Africa would not be placated unless the white government of South Africa was brought down” (p. vii).      

            Fifth, Scott is a realist about the Third World—with black Africa as the case in point.  Thus, he does not sweep under the rug the deficiencies and fragmentation.  We discover from him that “with seven hundred fifty tribal tongues and a half-dozen European languages, black Africa cannot even speak to itself.  Zaire alone has seventy-five languages” (p. 153).  In South Africa itself, “there are forty-eight black tribes and languages” (p. 169).  He points to the prevalence of a worldview that is deeply at odds with advanced civilization: “that the world is governed by chance and magic.  In this belief, the success of a neighbor is always obtained at someone else’s expense.  Hence, the achiever is an enemy of the people, and must be cast out” (p. 238).  This animus against individual differentiation struck him especially, he says, when “I became aware that the huts were all exactly the same size” (p. 293.

            With these divergent factors in mind, Scott is unwilling, therefore, to offer a facile solution.  Necessarily, he must draw upon the civilizational roots that he deems worth cherishing—the Christian heritage of the West.  Thus, he calls upon the West to reassert its commitment to its own survival and to its finest values.  The book closes with the admonition that both South Africa and the United States should “ponder the example of the Israelis, a people with thousands of years of experience in dealing with self-appointed critics” (p. 329).  He sees in this not only the best hope for the West, but also for black Africa and the Third World, which will be best served by a world in which the West’s heritage continues to make a vital contribution.  This is a course that, in the South African context, calls for moderation.  It clearly puts Scott at odds with those who, in the two-centuries-old pattern of the French Jacobins or the century-old example of the Russian nihilists, would tear frantically at the existing structure of a society in the expectation, however little it may be justified, that something more humane will arise from the burning hulk.

            In the series of four biographies that Scott is calling “The Sacred Fool Quartet,” he is going back as far as the sixteenth century in tracing the fatuity of the modern temper.  He perceives a pattern of arrogance and self-pride, through which one historical figure after another has taken upon himself “the powers of God over men.”

            In his first book, James I: The Fool as King, Scott speaks of James’ cunning and intelligence.  Scott’s interpretation of James’ life is that James “unhinged the Reformation” by a life-long plotting of revenge against the reformers who had overthrown his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, and who in fact had raised him as a child.  With “secret delight,” James turned England back toward the Catholic Church and, in so doing, ended “the great hope and grand dream of Calvinist Europe.”  James, to Scott, was a fool in a personal sense: “He threw away a tremendous inheritance and a superb opportunity for the basest of motives, while indulging himself in the comforts of the sewer.”  In addition, James was “a fool in the Biblical sense, in believing that ‘there is no God.’  He called himself the Prince of Peace, and dreamed of sitting down with the Pope to rule the minds of all mankind… [H]e sought the power of God over other men” (Prologue to 1986 reprint).

            I must confess that I am not sufficiently a student of that era to have a fixed opinion about whether Scott is right about James’ motives or about the significance he attaches to James’ policies.  What I find especially interesting about the book is the portrait it paints of the times.  It was a period of almost incredible turbulence, as Popes, Protestants, Kings and advocates of the submission of all of these to the Rule of Law contended with each other in the most violent fashion.

            I have long made the point that the enormities that human beings have committed against one another in the twentieth century are not best to be understood as aberrations, but as atavistic carry-overs from the brutalities that have seemed so normal a part of earlier epochs. Scott recounts in details the horrors of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; he speaks of “a dreary round of burnings and stranglings.”  He describes “the procedure then in vogue”: “It called for the condemned to have his genitals cut off and burned before his eyes, to be strangled to the edge of death and then resuscitated, and finally to have his head chopped off and his body divided into four quarters—and for these parts to be displayed in prominent public places” (p. 105).  This gives us some historical perspective; we see that Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the butchers of the Cambodian “killing fields” represent a level of civilization characteristic of much of our human past, during which even the most horrible sufferings of others were below the threshold of common sensibility.

            This is a point that can just as well be made about the next epoch Scott studies, the period of the French Revolution, vividly described in Robespierre: The Voice of Virtue.  Here, the cast of characters is different: the excesses are those of the presumptively enlightened, but nevertheless thoroughly fanatical, Jacobinical representatives of the Enlightenment.  Scott uses the occasion to delineate with sharp perception the traits that can lead to such a warping: “Robespierre,” he says, “lived in… a world in which words clothed all deeds and masked all motives from himself as well as from others, a world in which noble words alone mattered and in which a casual remark was justification to kill a man” (p. 219).

            Years ago, I enjoyed Plutarch for the descriptions he gave of the leading figures of Greek and Roman times.  A good book on the French Revolution has much the same quality; everything is larger than life, as though all eternity were packed into a brief span.  As one of the very readable histories of the Revolution, Scott’s book is similarly a valuable study in human nature.

            The third book in the series, The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, changes the scene to the United States and to the middle of the nineteenth century, but is necessarily a description of much the same characteristics.  John Brown’s fanaticism arose, again, out of an “excessive pride in virtue,” and provides still another example of how lofty aspirations can, if there is a loss of balance, serve as vehicles for brutality.  Scott sees Brown as “a new type of political assassin… He did not murder the mighty—but the obscure.  He did not pursue officials…; he murdered at random—among the innocent.  Yet his purposes were the same as those of his classic predecessors: to force the nation into a new political pattern by creating terror” (p. 3).  Surely we would like to think that high moral goals insulate a crusader from barbarism; but if we think that, we fail to learn from history and have no hope of understanding the modern “terrorist.”

            As to the larger issue of slavery and abolitionism, Scott again puts himself on the side of a moderation that would cure the disease without bludgeoning the patient to death.  “The British,” he points out, “had shown the way to eliminate slavery without either bloodshed or arguments among whites.  In the British program to emancipate the blacks of their West Indian colonies, they compensated the slaveholders, and mandated a program of apprenticeship and graduated freedoms….”  Scott compares this with what occurred in the United States: “The radical abolitionists scorned the British example.  Despite the knowledge that slaves constituted financial assets to the South, the radicals refused to consider their purchase… They argued that slavery was a sin” (p. 73).

            Scott’s point is extremely valid, but the truth of it is obscured for us in light of the North’s eventual victory in the Civil War.  Since the Union was kept together and the slaves emancipated, history seems to have justified the moral absolutism of the radical abolitionists.  We should be reminded, though, that prior to the Civil War there could have been no certainty that the North would win.  An outcome in which the United States became divided into two hostile, warring nations, one of which would then have been even more adamant in its commitment to slavery, was not at all unlikely.  (As a matter of fact, the victory of the South, at least to the extent of preventing a forcible reunification by the North, would almost certainly have been the outcome if the South had had a military commander such as North Vietnam’s General Giap instead of the gentleman-commander Robert E. Lee.)  The single-minded fanaticism of the radical abolitionist preferred civil war, even if the result might prove unfavorable, to the more moderate British example.  The analogy to the current situation in South Africa is inescapable.

            I am looking forward to the final volume in the “Sacred Fool Quartet,” the book on Woodrow Wilson.  If Scott’s already-existing works are any indication, it will not be a narrowly-drawn description of Wilson; it will, instead, provide a panoramic view and careful analysis of the human foibles and civilizational deficiencies that led up to the horrors of World War I ad that then produced the follies of the inter-war period.  In a great many ways, World War I set the state for what has followed in the twentieth century.  The Bolsheviks would not have seized power in Russia without it, with all the consequences that that has entailed; and both the National Socialist phenomenon in Germany and the waging of World War II itself were, in effect, continuations of World War I.

            For the culmination of his series, Scott has picked one of the more fateful periods in human history.  And with Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and other like personalities on hand to people his pages, Scott again will be able to exercise his considerable talents as an observer and chronicler of human nature.