Does the American political tradition at its best consider the good of the republic to be something good in itself, an honest good, or merely a useful good, an instrument to aid citizens in the attainment of their private goods? In a recent discussion of this question a friend of mine proposed looking at American patriotic poetry rather than political treatises. His idea, if I understand him aright, is that while on a theoretical level American political thought has tended to deny the primacy of the common good, the American people have a natural and implicit love for and understanding of the true political good, and this is expressed in their patriotic songs etc. This points to an interesting tension in modern liberal democracies between their theoretical self-understanding and the image of themselves that the must propose to the imagination of their citizens. Continue reading
I am plunged into deep mire, and there is no standing. Ps 69(68):2
When Christ came into the world, he said, [...] a body hast thou prepared for me. Heb 10:5
Caro salutis est cardo. (Salvation hinges on the flesh). Tertulian, De Resurrectione Carnis, VIII
For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Heb 1:5
The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. Is 1:3
The Psalm verse about being plunged into deep mud where there is no standing is usually applied to the Passion, but Charles De Koninck in Ego Sapientia (ch. 20) shows that it can also be applied to the Incarnation. The “deep mud” is the potentiality of matter into which the eternal Son, the pure act of Divinity, is sunk in becoming man. Fashionable theologians throw up their hands in horror at this sort of application. Not only on exegetical grounds, but above all because they are very sensitive to accusation that Christianity despises the body, and material reality. They hastily quote Tertulian’s famous pun, “Caro salutis est cardo.” (Salvation hinges on the flesh). But they seldom quote something else that Tertulian calls the flesh in the very same chapter of De Resurrectione Carnis: “huic substantiae frivolae ac sordidae” (this poor and worthless substance). Tertulian does indeed defend the body against Gnostics and Platonists – the body is neither evil nor pure privation, it is good and created by God – but neither does he have any illusions about its nobility, considered merely according to its nature. Indeed, it is the very lowliness of matter that enables the flesh to be the hinge of salvation. Continue reading
Just in case there are any Sancrucensis readers who don’t now this already: the Charles De Koninck Project has launched a website, on which they are planning to make all the writings of that great 20th century Thomist available in English.
I began to be formed by De Koninck before having read any of his books, as I read Aristotle and St Thomas at a college founded by his students. When I finally read his book on the Common Good the effect was intoxicating. (When my father first read this book he was waiting for a plane in the airport. It absorbed him so completely that he missed his plane, not noticing that they called his name several times). And then I read Ego Sapientia, and was even more overwhelmed.
Thomistica.net in a post on Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan’s much ridiculed claim to be a follower of St Thomas Aquinas rather than Ayn Rand has linked to an article pointing out that Ayn Rand herself was an admire of the Angelic Doctor. It seems that she admired his epistemology mostly. I haven’t read much Rand, but as far as I can tell her ethics bear a resemblance to a certain influential, though disastrously wrong, interpretation of St Thomas and Aristotle. Take this passage of “The Objectivist Ethics“:
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.
Venuleius of Ius Honorarium has posted a mixture of praise and contempt for Christopher Ferrara’s polemics against “Americanism.” I haven’t read Ferrara’s book, but I can guess what it’s like; after all, in my undergraduate days in the USA I was in the business of quoting Diuturnum Illud and Notre Charge Apostolique to bash the founding principles of that proud republic. Venuleius gives Ferrara qualified praise for slamming John Courtney Murray-style attempts at showing that the American founding principles are the cat’s meow, and ought to be adopted root and branch by Catholic social teaching. But Venuleius argues that Ferrara overstates the evils of the American project: Continue reading
In his book on the primacy of common good and the subsequent controversy (on which I happen to be writing a dissertation) Charles De Koninck emphasizes repeatedly that beatitude is a properly common good, one of its nature communicable to many and lovable in its superabundant communicability, and that the sin of the fallen angels consists precisely in a practical denial of the primacy of the common good. I was delighted to find the same teaching in the early Cistercian Abbot William of St Thierry:
Every one of the angels and good spirits who loves you, loves me too–me, who also love myself in you; this I know that everyone abides in you and can have knowledge of the prayers and thoughts of men, hears me in you, in whom I also return thanks for their glory. Everyone who has you for his treasure helps me in you, and it is not possible for him to envy me my share in you. Only the apostate spirit takes pleasure in our wretchedness, and counts our benefit his bane; for he has fallen away from the common good (communi omnium bono) and from true happiness, and is no longer subject to the truth. Hating the common good, he therefore rejoices in isolation, hugging a joy belonging to himself alone. (De Contemplando Deo X)
During a recent discussion involving James Chastek and Arturo Vasquez, I uploaded some texts of De Koninck’s on birth control. The most interesting paper is “The Question of Infertility”, which argues that infertility is sometimes intended by nature as part of the “bonum prolis”, the good of offspring. I don’t want address the main argument here (I share James Chastek’s assessment), but the exposition of the meaning of “bonum prolis” at the beginning reminded of what I’ve always thought was wrong with Mr. Goodall’s argument in a famous passage of Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms.
“Bonum prolis” includes three things, De Koninck points out: 1) the simple existence of the child, 2) the feeding and clothing of the child, and 3) the education and upbringing of the child. The first two are ordered to the third:
Marriage was instituted chiefly for the good of the offspring, not only as to its begetting—since this can be effected even without marriage—but also as to its advancement to a perfect state, because everything intends naturally to bring its effect to perfection. (S. Th., Suppl., q.59, a. 2, c)
S. Thomas uses this understanding of “bonum prolis” to prove that fornication is contrary to the natural law:
Since fornication is an indeterminate union of the sexes, as something incompatible with matrimony, it is opposed to the good of the child’s upbringing [bonum prolis educandae], and consequently it is a mortal sin. (IIa IIae, q. 154, a. 2, c)
And this is precisely what Mr. Goodall fails to see. Waugh readers will recall that Guy Crouchback, protagonist of the Sword of Honour trilogy, is a Catholic whose Protestant wife has left him and obtained a divorce. Mr. Goodall, an eccentric old Catholic, and he have the following conversation:
[Goodall] spoke of the extinction (in the male line) some fifty years back, of a historic Catholic family.
“..They were a connection of yours through the Wrottmans of Garesby. [...] They had two daughters and then the wretched girl eloped with a neighbour. It made a terrible ado at the time. It was before before divorce was common. Anyway they were divorced. [...] Then ten years later your kinsman met this woman alone, abroad. A kind of rapprochement occurred but she went back to her so-called husband and in due time bore a son. It was in fact your kinsman’s. It was by law the so-called husband’s who recognized it as his. That boy is alive to-day and in the eyes of God the rightful heir to all his father’s quarterings.”
Guy was less interested in the quarterings than in the morality.
“You to say that theologically the original husband committed no sin in resuming sexual relations with his former wife?”
“Certainly nor. The wretched girl of course was guilty in every other way and is no doubt paying for it now. But the husband was entirely blameless.” (pp. 159-160)
Guy proceeds to act on this dubious morality, and later in the novel makes a pass at his former wife, Virginia. That is certainly contrary to the bonum prolis, and thus (in way) Virginia is right in her extraordinary outburst of indignation when she realizes what is going on, though she doesn’t give the proper ratio:
Tears of rage and humiliation were flowing unresisted. “I though you’d taken a fancy for me again [...] I thought you’d chosen me specially, and by God you had. Because I was the only woman in the whole world your priests would let you go to bed with. That was my attraction. You wet, smug, obscene, pompous, sexless lunatic pig.” (p. 178)
A teacher of mine likes to warn me against making the history of thought a system. The hap-hazard currents of the thoughts of men do not really follow the simplistic patterns that lazy generalization likes to see in them. This is all true enough, and yet I am sure that the patterns are not altogether imaginary. So it is always a delightful surprise to me when I find a a kind of microcosm of the history of philosophy, a single thinker who manifests a general pattern in the development of his own thought. When Arturo Vasquez commented on a post of mine I took him to be just one more boring Lefebvrist, but when I then took a look at his blog, from which it at first seemed that he was a Neoplatonist, I was astonished. It was like meeting someone whom one at first takes to be a Thackeray character only to find that he is really a Dickens character. (Was es alles gibt, I said to myself). But it was when I found that he had first tried to be a Thomist and that he is presently moving from Neoplatonism back to his original dialectical materialism that I really began to wonder (Das auch noch! I exclaimed to myself), for this is precisely the pattern that Charles De Koninck describes in his Letter to Mortimer Adler:
Greek philosophy started from naive materialism (Thales . . .), pass through a stage of mathematism (Pythag.-Plato), and finally reached metaphysics with Aristotle. These phases are of course statistical rather than clear-cut. Thanks to Christianity exerting a profound extrinsic influence on metaphysics, philosophy reached metaphysical maturity in s.Thomas. From that very moment we shift back into mathematism with Scotus, Suarez, Descartes, Leibniz etc. Kant is again definitely a scientist (I take “scientist” in its french meaning). The only solution to Hegel is Marx. We have rejoined materialism, but this time no naive materialism: but a perfectly conscious and mature materialism which defines the absolute just as we define prime matter.
What really made me laugh out loud though (no offense, Mr. Vasquez), was Vasquez’s characterization of Thomism:
It is also ironic that something that started out as a means to dialogue with the pagans and heretics (Thomist philosophy) itself became a doctrine foundational to Counter-Reformation Catholicism and a measure of orthodoxy itself. That is sort of the Zizekian vulgar core of Thomism: it is meant to convince only those who believe it that it it can convince the Other who does not believe it, all the while knowing that this isn’t really the case.
This is so ironic and funny on so many different levels. No one can read more than a few pages of S. Thomas without seeing how false it is of him. It is so clear that S. Thomas is concentrated on the reality that he is trying to understand. He developes his philosophy principally for the sake of knowing the truth, and it is only a secondary aim of some of his arguments to show how one might “dialogue” with unbelievers. Now, clearly Vasquez has Thomists in mind rather than S. Thomas himself when he says they are trying to convince their own that they can convince the Other, and perhaps this is true of some Thomists; but the great irony is that it is much more true of all the attempts that I know of trying to baptize dialectical materialism. They are all about justifying one’s belief to the Lacanian big Other (in this case “mainstream” philosophy) which doesn’t actually care about them. And thus it is precisely their “Zizekian vulgarity” which leads them to abandon Thomism. For true Thomism must always be hidden, to quote De Koninck again:
I think Thomism triumphs when it lives in our world today. But I am also convinced that its life must be hidden, because it is immanence in a world that has eyes only for pure extrinsecism. Thomism is not “foris”. There is a mass of Thomists today. But in this, because it is a mass, there is “malum ut in pluribus”: Thomism has reached therein one of its most profound forms of deformation. By this I do not mean that we should hide it: I mean that ipso facto it becomes hidden as we approach it more profoundly. The purer our Thomism is, and the better we speak of it, the less it is heard. [...] I insist that I am not pessimistic. I think it is enough that here and there is one who really devotes himself to the object.
The problem with most of those who try to synthesize Christianity with dialectical materialism is that they are not content with devoting themselves to the object, to reality, they cannot stand not to be heard.
The birth of the Eternal Word in time reveals the mystery of His eternal birth from the Father. Creation is an image of God’s essence: in its manifold way it mirrors the perfection which He has in the absolute unity of His essence, but it does not show the most intimate depths of the Divine life; it does not show the procession of Persons. It is this most Divine of all mysteries that the Son came into the world to reveal. S. Thomas explains this in the Proemium to the Commentary on the Sentences:
. . . it belongs to him [the Son] to be the manifestation of the Father who utters [him as Word] and of the whole Trinity. And so it is said, “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him” (Matthew 11,27), and “No one has ever seen God except the only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1,18). Rightly, therefore, is it said by the person of the Son, “I, wisdom, poured forth the rivers.” Those rivers I understand to be the flows of the eternal procession whereby the Son ineffably proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit from both. These rivers were once hidden and in some way poured together, both in the likenesses of creatures and in the enigmas of the Scriptures. . . The Son came and poured out the pent up rivers, as it were, by bringing the name of the Trinity out into the open, “Teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Whence [it also says,] “He searched the depths of the rivers and brought forth what was hidden into the light” (Job 28,11). (Translation by M. Waldstein)
Coming into the world in order to reveal His eternal coming forth from the Father, the Son enters the world in a way which is itself the most perfect temporal image of the eternal procession. De Koninck points out that it is the very lowliness of human condition that enables this imitation:
The assumption of human nature can also be accomplished in two ways: immediately and without any preliminary conditions as would be the case if God immediately formed the assumed nature; or in assuming human nature by way of birth, God would thus place Himself in dependence as it were on man and proceed into the universe by way of origination. And the being itself from which He is born becomes thereby the origin of God. Let us notice right away that this very radical communication would not in any way have been possible in the assumption of an angelic nature. God could not proceed from an angelic nature, since that nature is, on the one hand, too perfect to engender as do natural beings, and on the other hand, too imperfect to engender as does God. “Perfecta imperfecte, imperfecta perfecte.” It is thus thanks to the potentiality of matter, taking matter insofar is it is deprived of form, therefore to the privation which is the weakest reality, that the Son of God can proceed from the very inside of His creation, thus imitating in a very profound manner His generation from the eternal Father. Infixus sum in limo profundi: et non est substantia—I am thrusted in the depth of slime, where there is no point of support (Ps. LXVIII, 3). Happy imperfection of matter which merits such an informing! (Chales De Koninck, Ego Sapientia, ch. 20)