The Long View 2005-01-21: Fire in the Minds of Men

John Reilly here puts his unique gloss on President George W. Bush's second inaugural address. A lot of sober commentators at the time were surprised by its tone, which was utopian and revolutionary. John wasn't, because W was articulating something that has a long history in the West. In the early twenty-first century, the Republicans were supposed to be the boring party, which may be why so many people were surprised, but grand visions aren't limited to the American Left.

Subsequent events did not pan out quite as expected,  but I do agree with John that this kind of urge toward a universal state will keep trying to reoccur until something actually comes of it.


Fire in the Minds of Men

This was the most disconcerting sentence in President Bush's second inaugural address yesterday:

By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well - a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

"Fire in the Minds of Men" is, of course, the title of a famous book by James Billington (Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980)). He explains the origin of the phrase thus:

The industrial revolution was permitting men to leash fire to machines -- and to unleash power in each other -- with a force undreamed in earlier ages. In the midst of those fires appeared the more elusive flame that Dostoevsky described in the most searching work of fiction ever written about revolutionary movement: The Possessed.

He depicted a stagnant (tranquil?) provincial town that was suddenly inspired (infected?) by new ideas. Shortly after a turbulent literary evening, a mysterious fire broke out; and a local official shouted out into the nocturnal confusion: "The fire is in the minds of men, not in the roofs of buildings."

The connotations of the phrase are ambiguous at best, though better than those of the title of Adam Zamoyski's more recent treatment of the subject, Holy Madness. A quick sounding of the Web this morning revealed that the derivation of the term had also been noted by AntiwarNRO, and a few other commentators.

The interesting thing about the address, which was almost all about foreign policy, is that it elevated the regime-change strategy that the president enunciated after 911 to an unconditional, categorical imperative. As the president put it:

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

What we have here is no longer a reaction to events, but a determination to create them.

Than Peggy Noonan there is no more articulate supporter of the Bush Administration, but even she had this to say about the president's decision to pull all the dampening rods from the reactor:

The inaugural address itself was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike. Rhetorically, it veered from high-class boilerplate to strong and simple sentences, but it was not pedestrian. George W. Bush's second inaugural will no doubt prove historic because it carried a punch, asserting an agenda so sweeping that an observer quipped that by the end he would not have been surprised if the president had announced we were going to colonize Mars.

Actually, the president is planning to colonize Mars, but not in the coming fiscal year. In any case, almost as startling as the speech's adoption of the Kantian Peace as national security policy was its "you ain't seen nothing yet" ending:

Renewed in our strength - tested, but not weary - we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.

About that, La Noonan had this to say:

This is--how else to put it?--over the top. It is the kind of sentence that makes you wonder if this White House did not, in the preparation period, have a case of what I have called in the past "mission inebriation." A sense that there are few legitimate boundaries to the desires born in the goodness of their good hearts.

One wonders if they shouldn't ease up, calm down, breathe deep, get more securely grounded. The most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible. Perfection in the life of man on earth is not.

Let me suggest that perfection does not have a nickel's worth to do with it, except perhaps in Spengler's sense. The president was articulating something very close to Walter Russell Mead's model of America as the engine of perpetual revolution. Far more interesting than that, however, was the speech's attempt to satisfy what William Ernest Hocking defined fifty years ago as the essential predicate for a world civilization: a common transcendent basis.

If Peggy Noonan was put off by the speech, then it was inadequate. Any attempt at a formulation would be inadequate now, and for many years to come. Still, the president's approach has more of a future than does secular transnationalism.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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