John Gray, self-appointed academic assassin of the Enlightenment, observes that the United States, unlike other Western democracies, has little history of regional and local cultures that stand out as authoritative communities in the face of the universalizing culture of the Enlightenment.[1] Like many other postmodernists, Gray deplores how the Enlightenment de-privileges the local and particular. The Enlightenment championed universal knowledge, universal truth, universal reason, universal experience, and universal virtues as an increasingly secular continuation of the same universals fostered in the Christian culture of medieval and Reformation Europe. Gray joins other historians of ideas in judging the Enlightenment a basically secularized Christendom. Among the postmodernists, he heralds — and relishes — the breakdown of the Enlightenment in favor of localisms and particularisms, of older, simpler, regional cultures “uncorrupted” by the rapacious technological science and universal values of the West, sounding a lot like Heidegger in his nativism. Gray agrees with Nietzsche that once you get rid of the synthesis of Christianity and Greco-Roman culture that is the heritage of the West, you must recreate culture from the ground up — new “truth,” new ethics, new aesthetics. Or else: re-privilege the cultural particularisms that the Enlightenment universals vanquished (without pretending that the Enlightenment never happened).

The problem is that the United States was birthed in the Christian/classical synthesis, and simply has no bevy of robust local and regional cultures to which to return and, therefore, faces “an outbreak of nihilism of a violence and intensity unknown in other Western countries.”[2] For the United States, the breakdown of the Enlightenment universal means replacing it with the horror of Nietzsche’s universal nihilism, since no “particularistic” substitutes for it are readily available in the Unites States’ heritage. It’s universals or bust. Apparently, it’s either universal nihilism or universal Christianity.

You get to pick only one.


[1] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 216–218.

[2] 217.