The Ordeal of Civility Critical Context - Essay

John Murray Cuddihy

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Retrospectively, the popular interest attracted by The Ordeal of Civility is difficult to fathom. Part of the reason for the stir occasioned by its publication was that Cuddihy was raising—even if in an oblique way—one of the central dilemmas of post-World War II American policy: how to promote economic progress and Western-style political systems, in short, modernization, in the Third World. Nevertheless, the major reason is that Cuddihy—in an extraordinarily uncivil fashion—challenged the polite intellectual’s evasion of discussion of the disproportionately important role played by Jews in fashioning the radically new ideological and conceptual systems associated with modern culture.

The motivation underlying this evasion was the anxiety, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that open discussion of the Jewish dimension of Marxism or even Freudianism might rekindle anti-Semitism. Cuddihy himself became the target of the charge that he was anti-Semitic. Those harboring that suspicion misread his argument. As an Irish Catholic (even if a lapsed believer), Cuddihy had no love for the secularized Calvinism that he identifies as at the core of modern bourgeois civility. His work is intended as an act of homage to “the great unassimilated, implacable Jews of the West . . . who exhibit a principled and stubborn resistance to the whole Western ‘thing.’”

Some of the difficulties with Cuddihy’s thesis are apparent even to a...

(The entire section is 428 words.)