Such people were wrong about Ken. He was the staunchest of allies, it’s just that he didn’t like bruiting it about. Ken’s was a deeply interrogative temperament. The world, and the people in it, puzzled him. I remember the occasion, fairly early in our friendship, when we were lunching at the Garrick Club in London. We somehow got round to the subject of utilitarianism, whose basic axiom is that the test of value is whether a given policy affords the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. If that were true, Ken mused, then imagine someone invented a machine that could eliminate highway fatalities, those tens of thousands of deaths per annum, only it needed to be fed 6 people at random to work. Most of us would recoil from such a solution, but why? We spent a tonic hour over the wine and the ice cream with crystallized ginger (a Minogue favorite) teasing out the answer.
I was pleased and proud to have published Ken’s last book, The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life, which has some deep things to say about the melancholy fact that “while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them.” How did that happen?
The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?
Can it? The jury, Ken argues, is still out but the signs are not encouraging.
Ken was also frequent contributor to my magazine The New Criterion on subjects social, moral, and philosophical. He wrote brilliant essays on Friedrich von Hayek, the sorry bitterness that is feminism, and, more generally, the many counterfeits of freedom that modern liberalism had inveigled us with. His most recent piece, published in March 2013, was about Noel Malcolm’s magisterial three-volume edition of Hobbes’s Leviathan.
Ken never simply reviewed a book. He used the subject under consideration as a springboard for his own reflections. One of his most searching essays, from June 2003, was called “‘Christophobia’ and the West,” which dilated on “the rising hatred of Christianity among Western peoples.” Ken’s subject was not secularism — that reliable coefficient of Enlightenment self-infatuation — but something more visceral: a species of histrionic narcissism Ken denominated “Olympianism.”
Olympianism is the characteristic belief system of today’s secularist, and it has itself many of the features of a religion. For one thing, the fusion of political conviction and moral superiority into a single package resembles the way in which religions (outside liberal states) constitute comprehensive ways of life supplying all that is necessary (in the eyes of believers) for salvation. Again, the religions with which we are familiar are monotheistic and refer everything to a single center. In traditional religions, this is usually God; with Olympianism, it is society, understood ultimately as including the whole of humanity. And Olympianism, like many religions, is keen to proselytize. Its characteristic mode of missionary activity is journalism and the media.
If Olympianism has the character of a religion, as I am suggesting, there would be no mystery about its hostility to Christianity. Real religions (by contrast with test-tube religions such as ecumenism) don’t much like each other; they are, after all, competitors. Olympianism, however, is in the interesting position of being a kind of religion which does not recognize itself as such, and indeed claims a cognitive superiority to religion in general. But there is a deeper reason why the spread of Olympianism may be measured by the degree of Christophobia. It is that Olympianism is an imperial project which can only be hindered by the association between Christianity and the West.
There is, Ken observed, a curious political side to the progress of the ethic of Olympianism. It is epitomized by the multicultural imperative: the contention that all cultures are equal, but that Western culture is somehow less equal than others. You can see this at work in the phenomenon of globalization, which operates by spreading Western rationalism along with a deep suspicion of the values that made rationalism possible. The resulting confusion is that “wonderland of abstractions” that whose guiding prejudice is the belief that prejudice has been overcome and consigned to the dustbin of history. “It reminds one,” Ken concluded, “of Aesop’s frog, who wanted to be as big as an ox, and blew himself up more and more, his skin becoming thinner and thinner, till he burst.”
“I wonder what Ken thinks about this?” It was a question I have often asked myself and could hitherto satisfy by making a phone call or sending an email message. It is a great sadness to me that that question will now have to go unanswered. RIP.