Re-Inheriting the ‘Disinherited Mind’

Though he was no friend of the Catholic Church, Erich Heller was the enemy of our enemies, and under current circumstances, that should be good enough for us.

The man has been dead for 20 years, and my paperback copy of his most famous book, The Disinherited Mind, has been yellowing for half a century, but he remains our contemporary. It was among the small handful of books I found most useful in understanding the world when I was entering into adulthood; looking back through it now, my admiration for its author is renewed.

In fact, it is only beginning to blossom. For when I first came to it, Heller’s book served me merely as an introduction to a constellation of German writers and thinkers. He led me to Burckhardt, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, and Karl Kraus. He made me want to learn German, as I began to realize that even Goethe was essentially untranslatable.

Heller gave a glimmering of that discipline called Germanistik — that curious field of the humanities in which poets and thinkers writing in German provide a field of references through which “the world” is to be discussed — and in the broadest sense of that term. It is among the most sublime of academic exercises. Of course, you have to know German to play.

Heller’s thesis passed largely over my head, or rather, right through it. The notion of great writers, trying to supply through Art what they are missing from Religion, is easy enough to understand as a formula, at first. But it becomes harder and harder as one grows to appreciate the enormity of the proposition. For what all the brilliant men listed above had in common — and add in everyone else, from Schiller to Heidegger — was disconnection from the life of faith, along with deep spiritual hunger.

In a sense, each was trying, brilliantly and quite sincerely, to “reinvent the wheel”: to provide the groundwork for an entire civilization that had to be rebuilt entirely by himself.


The thesis applies beyond the Germans. One thinks, for instance, of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and the genuine originality in them. Each, too, is trying to invent a whole civilization, a universe of interdependent symbols and meanings — an internally coherent aesthetic order. They are not unaware of the long past; on the contrary, they are vividly aware of “art history” in a way their ancestors could never have been. They make very witty play on the works of their antecedents. One thinks of Picasso’s endless (and basically empty) reprises on famous old paintings.

The artists, like the poets and philosophers, “know” the tradition; they have “seen” it or “read” it in some practical sense, but they can no longer inhabit it. They can only comment on it by constructing their own symbols and meanings in a mimetic way. They create, as it were, parodies of the tradition. For the profoundest Western tradition is unmistakably Catholic and Christian. It was not founded on symbols and meanings, but rather the symbols and meanings were expressions of faith — of the Truth it embodied, if you will.

Heller’s own “disinheritance” becomes part of this proposition. He is giving an extraordinarily sophisticated account of the black hole at the center of modernity — one that he traced specifically to the works of Francis Bacon. Yet he is a modern himself, an agnostic. He cannot possibly buy into the Judeo-Christian heritage that was his own birthright, also, as a Jew.

But he can see two great things, which converge in an intellectual and spiritual catastrophe. He can see that the finest German minds can only explain things; they cannot embody what they are explaining. And he can see the full horror of the Shoah that was visited upon the Jews by Hitler — the tremendous fact of evil that goes necessarily beyond any possibility of philosophical explanation. Put these two huge facts together, and we come to a proportionately huge conclusion: that Goethe became irrelevant in 1945.


The modern age is over; it died in the 20th century. It had been dying from the moment it was born, in the heresies of Descartes and Bacon — in the very formation of that detached, “scientific” view of the world that made so much technical advance possible. It was a science that was fatally contaminated by scientism from the beginning.

Out of their sincerity, the Germans perhaps struggled hardest to find some “scientific” way to retrieve the wholeness that was lost, when Descartes first split mind from matter, in that all-but-thermonuclear flash that destroyed the old scholastic order.

There are many alternative accounts of the same thing presented by brilliant agnostics. For instance, one of my interests over the years has been in the Austrian Friedrich Hayek — not so much as free-market economist but rather as historian of ideas. In his case, there is an attempt to trace the Enlightenment tendencies to statism and rationalist tyranny back to the same Cartesian and Baconian ideal, in which the material world is separated from the mental and spiritual and comes to be understood as a machine to be manipulated. We could go on and on with this.

The point to which I’m driving is what I imagine to be the central evangelical challenge for the Catholic Church now, in the postmodern No Man’s Land we occupy. It is to return their heritage to the orphaned moderns; to show how the “disinherited mind” is to be overcome by re-inheritance.

It will not be done by arguments and reason, except indirectly, insofar as those arguments point back to Faith. It cannot be done directly through Catechism, which is finally an external. It most certainly cannot be done by sponsoring some movement in society — some trend or fashion.

We cannot escape from the dead end into which modernity has delivered us, even by glimpsing the Truth in Christ that has been concealed. Instead, we must find the means to re-inhabit that Truth in our own persons: to rethink and re-assimilate our knowledge, through minds reanimated by Faith.

Paradoxically, the finest agnostic minds expound the case against their own agnosticism.


Image: Picasso’s Las Meninas

David Warren


David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

  • Wolfgang G.

    Brilliant article. Distance from faith was a typical but not an essential property of German and Austrian thinkers. There were those like Werfel, Roth, Hofmannsthal, or even D

  • David Ambuul

    I could not agree more with your assessment that moderns will not be converted by the Catechism or any of the other means we typically use within our own little citadel. After reading Nietzsche and Camus and Russell, I was left with the sickly feeling that I couldn’t connect with them -or God. This must be how those angry poets at the local coffee shop feel after their cups are empty and the doors are closed. And yes, God has given back to me a heart that is tender, a heart that can feel their isolation.
    I felt something similar to this when I met Cathelineau on the stage of history. That a man who left his family and hamlet to defend the honor of his God and King was a terribly beautiful story. That he was mowed down by a cobbler’s bullet on his march to Paris was terribly depressing. And so it was easy to question God once again: why? did You not like that army, that cause? God’s silence can be a most terrible thing. Yet it is He, not Hegel, who is the God of history. -No- He, not Hegel, knows what he says. He knows what He writes. And the failure of that Royal and Catholic Army was once again one of the great Christian paradoxes of history. A paradox whose fruit we are just beginning to see some 220 years later: For over 100 years now we have not seen a single aristocratic pope. Almost all can be classified as peasants, or close to it. Cathelineau’s death was very similar to Christ’s in that it was a beginning as opposed to an end. And I believe this with a full knowledge that upon his dying St. Louis DeMontfort wept over his beloved Bocage. Even from his spot in heaven, how could he not?
    But in the beginning of this third century since that morbid butchery we are beginning to see light. Our popes are loved and persecuted, our vocations are growing beyond our enemies worst nightmares and modernity -sick, putrefied post-modernity is beginning to refuse new turns into old dead ends. It has nowhere to go.
    And so it up to us. We must meet these unhappy souls where God has allowed them to be. In their coffee shops, restaurants and soccer sidelines. God has given us a vibrant Church with many good priests, nuns and bishops -detached now from the world, to lead our way. And if you can’t see this you are asleep. With our rosaries in our pockets and our most recent Eucharist in our hearts we must bring Him to our streets so “that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of [His] name.” If you and I don’t do it, it will not happen.
    I don’t know much about Keats religiosity, but I like his poetry. And it is probably because he can act as a good bridge between us and those poor souls on the street that I now remember a line from one of his better known poems. It even serves to show us that the “less than holy” people we meet are often more noble than we, in our pride, are able to notice. I must quote this from memory b/c I have to get to bed:

    But if I should this very midnight cease
    And the world’s gaudy ensigns see in shreds
    Verse, fame and beauty are intense indeed
    But death intenser, death is life’s high mead.

    Indeed! And our deaths may not go as well as we imagine, from our lofty citadel, if we don’t descend with Christ into those lower regions of this world.
    I sincerely thank you for your scholarly insight Mr. Warren.

  • Steve D

    Perhaps there are those who do not wish you to go “on and on with this”. But I wish that you would. I am very interested hearing more. It sounds like the making of a book. Or perhaps the book(s) are already written about this. If so I would like titles and authors. Otherwise David, please do go on and on, for my sake. You have struck a hunger in me that needs feeding.

  • David Ambuul

    The only “book” I never wrote, to quote GK Chesterton, is the one I will put into the rosaries I say before morning Mass. You, Steve, will be personally mentioned and remembered there before the statue of my Lady. Over Bartolo Longo’s dried bones I promise this! Bitte fur uns sunder -sorry, my German stinks…

  • Mark Kirby

    Another smallish symptom of our disinheritance: museums are quieter than churches — more reverence before a Matisse than before the Blessed Sacrament.