I pushed Michael Warren Davis’ new book, The Reactionary Mind (Regnery Publishing), on a friend of mine, a noted Catholic and academic leader. I told him a good part of the book was a defense of feudalism. I thought he’d like that. Instead, he said, “Well, recent scholarship shows that feudalism did not exist. So, he’s wrong about that.”
Okay, fine. “You really ought to read it.”
Finally, one evening he texted me, “I am up to page 25 and really enjoying it.” Two hours later, close to midnight, he texted, “I am at page 96, and I cannot put it down.”
The following day at Mass, he said, “I want to sell all I own and buy a farm in New Hampshire.” Davis had spoken to my friend’s long-faded inner-distributist, a distributism my friend left when he had his fourth child and private school tuitions loomed. He said, “Just wait till Davis has his fourth.”
As is evident, Davis’ new and first book is dangerous. And utterly fun.
For instance, I am totally fine with anyone unloading on the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment deserves it, and Davis gives it to the Enlightenment right in the chops. But the Renaissance? Every sixth grader knows the Renaissance is sacrosanct; but man, Davis goes hammer and tongs after the Renaissance. Davis writes:
The Renaissance was subversive by its very nature, asserting the culture of the pagan, classical world against the medieval Christian order. The question, then, is: Why this revolt against the Middle Ages? Those who launched and perpetuated the Renaissance found the medieval worldview bleak, pessimistic and limiting. If life was nothing but a vale of tears, and man himself merely a sinner, then no real happiness could be found in this world, and all we could do was submit to the authorities, say our prayers, and hope we make it to heaven.
Of course, the medieval worldview wasn’t gloomy pessimism but hard-nosed realism; man is a sinner.
Davis compares Titian’s Venus of Urbino to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Botticelli’s Venus is “nude, yes, but her face is kind. Her eyes shine with a sort of innocent curiosity. There’s nothing of the haughty, cruel, alluring gaze of the Urbino.” Davis writes, “I won’t deny that the Venus of Urbino is attractive. I’m sure Titian’s model turned a few heads in sixteenth-century Venice. But ask a forty-year-old man who the most beautiful woman in the world is. If he describes a sixteen-year-old girl with milky skin and curly golden hair, we’d probably call him a pervert. We certainly wouldn’t call him a humanist.”
The difference, Davis argues, is that Botticelli was under the influence of someone we are supposed to hate: Savonarola, who espoused an aesthetic not of the burgeoning Renaissance but the Middle Ages, and he burned perfectly fine art. Davis loves him. I never felt one way or the other about Savonarola, but I’m with Davis now.
Davis especially likes the medieval serfs. He says they were much happier than we are now, with our plethora of cereal choices, Amazon Prime, and porn. He explodes several myths about them: they were oppressed, ignorant, miserable, and therefore needed the Renaissance. Did I tell you he hates the Renaissance? He says the serf lived a life close to home, close to his work, family, and God, and in “gratitude for the blessings of his life.” The serf was “blissfully free of all the basically meaningless choices that we moderns spend the first fifty years of our lives agonizing over.”
The reactionary looks lovingly upon the Middle Ages and rejects much of what came after—not just the Renaissance but the so-called Scientific Revolution, the Protestant Revolution, heck all the revolutions, and most especially the false god of progress. None of it has made us as happy as a peasant praying to his God, scything his hay, and listening to the wind in the trees.
Davis writes all this with great humor and charm. For instance, he occasionally calls himself a “Young Earth Creationist,” but he doesn’t really mean it. What he means is he doesn’t really know or really care about the age of the earth. And so what? “The truth is that I haven’t the faintest idea whether the universe was created in seven days or seventy billion years. I’ve devoted no serious time or thought to the question because it doesn’t interest me. From what I know of astronomy and physics—that is, nothing at all—the Young Earth Creationist account is as plausible as any other.”
In praising the Puritans who “strove to live by the law of love,” he says, “(g)ranted, burning old women at the stake was a funny way of showing they loved them. But then I am not a Puritan.”
He describes Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet as “a bigger man than all the dandy poets in all the decadent courts of Europe.” Davis is a monarchist but not an absolute one. He detests the soft and effeminate Court of the Bourbons with their orgies and little yapping dogs.
Comparing Thomas Jefferson to the yeoman farmers of the North, Davis says, “Nowhere in the North would you have found a man with enough time or dough to build a neoclassical palace such as Monticello, stock it with ten thousand books, and spend his time editing all the miracles out of the Gospels.” And he likes Jefferson.
Besides his sense of humor, Davis can also write with great beauty. For example, in defending Robert Bellarmine over against Galileo, Davis says, “What matters most is not earth’s position in our galaxy but earth’s position with God. Earth is the stage upon which God created his finest artwork: mankind. He gave us ears that we may hear the seas churn as his Spirit broods over the waters. He gave us tongues to taste the fruit trees in their season. He gave us eyes (yes) to wonder at the little fires that burn white-hot in the firmament.”
And then there are Davis’ aphorisms. On multiculturalism, Davis says, “Anyone who tries to be Anglo on Monday, Arabian on Tuesday, Jamaican on Wednesday, and Japanese on Thursday will be nothing—nobody—on Friday.”
Davis is a conservationist rather than an environmentalist. He says, “I can’t waste any time thinking about other people’s woods. I’m perfectly absorbed in my own.”
He writes, “While vegetarians might like animals a whole lot, nobody can really claim to love animals unless he’s killed one.” Of course, you must eat what you kill. That is the point.
On animals, he says, “Your dog doesn’t want to be treated humanely. He wants to be treated dogly.”
In the end, Davis believes we have become too soft. Softness is unmanly. There is a whole chapter on the “strenuous life.” And by this he does not mean working out at the gym. In fact, he hates the idea of weightlifting. He says it pumps up “toy muscles.” Manly muscles are built up by doing something outdoors and useful, like bringing in your neighbor’s hay.
Men must get outdoors, hike, hunt, fish, and all must be accompanied by smoking and drinking. Whiskey for hunting. Beer for fishing. He says he prefers fishing on the ocean, “but lakes are probably fun, too.”
He says, “If you’re a man, get punched in the face at some point in your life.” It’s good for you. He says there is nothing wrong with having a few beers, going into the backyard with a friend, and “throwing hands.” He actually begins a sentence with “a lot of my boxer friends….” Who has even one boxer friend, let alone a lot of them?
He tells us to stop reading the newspapers; fear not being uninformed. Davis says his dad has to tell him what’s happening in Afghanistan and that he really does not care. Destroy your iPhone. Take cold showers. Take long hikes in the woods with a twenty-pound pack. Take your kids out of school. They don’t need trigonometry and certainly none of the propaganda they are fed every day. Move close to like-minded people and families; the bigger, the better.
Davis says he would rather be a plumber than a writer. As a boy, he worked as a farmer. He says it’s the best job he ever had. He never wanted to go to college but ended up studying with the foremost scholar of T.S. Eliot, in Australia of all places. After that, he worked for a while with the rascally journalist Taki Theodoracopulos and then with the great John O’Sullivan. In short, Michael Warren Davis is one of the most interesting young men of letters today, though he would really hate that.
I can’t entirely agree with everything in this book. I wouldn’t be so sure about tea. I can’t say I’d rather get punched in the face than drink tea, but close. I am not much for the Benedict Option that Davis loves and says he lives. But there is much to recommend in this dangerous and remarkable book.
I will leave you with what Davis says may be the reactionary’s motto. From St. Peter: “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”
And, read this book.