The brilliant poet, philosopher, and political thinker Charles Péguy, who wrote in the heat of France’s culture wars of the early twentieth century, understood the all-consuming demands of modern ideological politics. Péguy’s analysis carries weight precisely because he was an utterly political animal. But he also understood the role of culture in maintaining a healthy polity. So he could write with some authority about political activists who scorn those who look after a society’s mystique, the religious and imaginative symbols and narratives that give a culture its identity:
For the politically minded always recover their balance, and think they can save themselves, by saying that they at least are practical, and that we are not. That is precisely where they are mistaken. Where they mislead. We do not even grant them that. It is the mystic who is practical, and the politically minded who are not. It is we who are practical, who do something, and it is they who are not, who do nothing. It is we who accumulate and they who squander. It is we who build, lay foundations, and it is they who demolish. It is we who nourish, and they who are the parasites.
A socialist turned Catholic, Péguy became convinced that in the modern era “Everything begins as a mystique and ends as a politique.... THE MYSTIQUE SHOULD NOT BE DEVOURED BY THE POLITIQUE TO WHICH IT GAVE BIRTH.” As Alexander Dru writes in the introduction of Temporal and Eternal, the book from which these quotes are taken, Péguy believed in the need for “Christianity always to return to its source, its mystique, and to refound its institutions by allowing the mystique the freedom to create tradition afresh.”
Here’s the irony: the one force at the heart of the West’s mystique that has the resources to serve as a source of social and cultural renewal—the Judeo-Christian tradition—has become to millions of people a sign of division and ideological fanaticism. The blame for this lies not simply at the hands of that tradition’s avowed enemies, but among the faithful, too. Péguy reserved his greatest fury for the Catholic clergy, whom he felt had given in to politicization and forgotten to tend to the mystique.
The choice is not between engaging in political life and nurturing culture. Both are essential activities. But given the huge disproportion between the energies and resources being devoted to these endeavors, the real question is how many of those addicted to the culture wars will be willing to step back, refound institutions, and create tradition afresh.
There are signs that a movement in this direction has already begun. The efforts are small—insignificant, even, at least to some eyes. But then a number of world-changing movements have begun in just that way. A group called Brewing Culture meets at a pub in the shadow of the nation’s capitol for the purpose of “creating, commissioning, and celebrating transcendent works of art and media.” On the web publication called the New Pantagruel, a growing number of young, renegade conservatives buck the dominant trends on the Right with Rabelaisian wit and gusto. Another online magazine, Godspy, moves Catholic discourse away from mere apologetics into probing reflections, including moving personal narratives grounded in experience.
As huge armies march past, these small groups accumulate, build, nourish. Together, they form what Péguy called a “system of courage.”