The Twilight of Authority (Nisbet)

“War and the military are, without question, among the very worst of the earth’s afflictions, responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions, tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to. In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true individual initiative in the intellectual and cultural and economic areas, is made impossible– not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse, extinguished more or less at the root. Between military and civil values there is, and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proven more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war, and the accompanying military mind.”  — Robert Nisbet

In 1975, when Robert Nisbet wrote The Twilight of Authority, Vietnam was vivid in the minds of the American people and the Watergate scandal had shattered many illusions about our nation’s leaders. As a leading sociologist and a neoconservative during the era, Nisbet made his voice heard. His conservative analysis likened the time to a period of twilight before the dark. Nisbet could hardly have known at the time that his disconcerting viewpoints would be so valid and important over thirty years later.

Nisbet attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received both undergraduate and graduate degrees. In 1939, he joined its faculty, teaching history and sociology. Over the passing years, he would also be the Guggenheim Visiting Fellow at Princeton University, Willian Allan Neilson Research Professor at Smith College, and a professor at the University of Bologna, where he received Italy’s Award of Merit. Nisbet was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Nisbet wrote 17 books during his life.

The Quest for Community is considered Nisbet’s first important work. In this work, Nisbet bemoaned the modern state’s ongoing demolition of those “intermediate social institutions” — family, church, and friendly societies — which gave color and meaning to human social life. Absent those institutions, “loose individuals” became more and more dependent on politicians and bureaucrats for their survival. It is this same idea within which Nisbet delves in his next book, The Twilight of Authority. In this book, “Nisbet declared America to be unquestionably in a twilight age where the forces of decline outweighed the forces of progress,” according to Charles B. Forcey.

Robert Bork summarizes Nisbet’s thesis: “the West is in a state of decline, a ‘twilight age,’ characterized by a loss of social authority and hierarchy, and a decline in attachment to political values, couples, perhaps not paradoxically, with the spread of an oppressive state machinery.” Individuality is disappearing, and soon, we will simply be a mass–a mob–ruled by military regimes. He points out the destructive nature of war on a society, even when that war is being fought thousands of miles away. Nisbet uses the term “licensed immortality,” meaning that a society at war will accept certain behaviors–like violence–during war time, specifically because it is during war time. Such a widespread reaction of insensitivity is intellectually numbing, making it easier for the sate and military to level society into a mass to be ruled.

Although his outlook may seem bleak, Nisbet does offer an answer. In the preface, he admits, “I seek to identify the essential social elements of an alternative to the twilight age we live now. It is possible, as I suggest, that certain countervailing forces are already in evidence, leading at once to diminution of the state’s power and to a greater degree of vitality in our social organization.” Nisbet was a man with a warming and a vision for American society, and by heeding his voice from 1975, perhaps our twenty-first century culture will avoid sinking into its own twilight age.



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