On recovering teleological conceptions of the cosmic whole

John G. Brungardt, Ph.D.

Recently, Sancrucencis has defended his claim, made in his excellent lecture on the nature of freedom, that Descartes is the source of the modern conception of freedom. The reason for this is that Descartes advanced in an exemplary fashion a non-teleological conception of nature. The Cartesian claims we no longer inhabit a cosmos, a whole marked and formed by beneficent and beautiful order.

This non-teleological conception generates the basic problem of a defense, from first principles, of moral norms. Sancrucensis points us to Leo Strauss’s formulation in the opening of Natural Right and History. The original question issue is how we conceive of the whole: “From the point of view of Aristotle—and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?—the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the…

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Freedom and the Philosophy of Nature

In my recent lecture on freedom I claimed that the true father of the modern conception of freedom is not one of the great political thinkers such as Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, but rather the father of modern philosophy in general: Descartes. Descartes’s philosophy, backed up by the spectacular successes of the application of his new mathematics, gave dominance to a non-teleological account of nature. And therefore he and his many successors did not understand human freedom as the ability to understand given ends and to pursue them, but rather as a quasi-creative power, making those ends good which it chose. Thus a key question for settling which conception of freedom is right is the question of the which philosophy of nature is true: the teleological philosophy of nature in the tradition of Aristotle, or the so-called “mechanistic” natural science of the Cartesian tradition.

In the introduction to Natural Right and History Leo Strauss, showing his remarkable ability to  go straight to the fundamental questions, presents the issue as follows:

Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modem natural science. From the point of view of Aristotle— and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?— the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the non teleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But this “naturalistic” solution is exposed to grave difficulties: it seems to be impossible to give an adequate account of human ends by conceiving of them merely as posited by desires or impulses. Therefore, the alternative solution has prevailed. This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modem, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, arc forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved. (pp. 7-8; emphasis supplied)

The alternative that Strauss shows as opening up once the decision has already been made for a non-teleological account of nature has been made is a trivial one compared to the original decision. Even if a science of man that is in some sense “teleological” is preserved alongside a thoroughly non-teleological science of nature, the sort of freedom given to man ends up being rather different than the sort of freedom that follows from classical teleology (witness Hegel). The real problem  that needs “an adequate solution” is therefore the problem of teleology in nature.

It is not entirely clear what Strauss himself thought about the issue of that basic problem. He says that he cannot deal with it adequately in Natural Right and History, in which he works (ostensibly) within the confines of “social science,” and does not address the cosmological question. His friend Jacob Klein’s profound inquiries into the significance of modern science, would, I think, have given him the tools he needed had he decided to attempt an answer to the question.

In any case, Strauss is not quite right to say that  “modern followers of Thomas Aquinas” have accepted the anti-teleological conception of the heavenly bodies— not all them have. Charles De Koninck certainly did not. A contemporary thinker, deeply influenced by De Koninck, who has faced the question head on, and given a powerful argument for a teleological cosmology that takes the insights of modern science seriously is Sean Collins. I believe that his 2009 lecture, “Animals, Inertia, and the Concept of Force” (pdf, html), is one of the most important recent works of philosophy.

The Altar of Victory

The Josias

Epistle XVII

by St. Ambrose of Milan

Among the Fathers of the Church St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-370) is particularly important for the subsequent development of Catholic Social Teaching. On many questions his teaching constitutes both a precious witness to the perennial tradition, and a solid foundation on which subsequent teachers built. For example, he gives one of the clearest patristic witness to the principle of the universal destination of goods. But perhaps his most important contribution was to the question of the relation of spiritual and temporal power. A talented politician, as well as a great pastor and theologian, Ambrose expounded his teaching in direct confrontation with several Christian emperors at a time in which the persecutions of the Christians had but recently ended, and Christianity was becoming the majority religion of the empire.

Epistle XVII, written in the Summer of the year 384 to the young…

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A Review of Die Taubenwirtin

On November 9th was the long-awaited premier of Eric Peters’s opera Die Taubenwirtin in the Kreuzherrenpalais in Vienna. It was so brilliant that I went again on the 11th. Eric Peters’s achievement is really astonishing— sparkling, inventive music, with a great range, from comic to tender to noble. It is in the style of Mozart, but listening to it I was reminded of something that Msgr. Ronald Knox remarks of the satyrical poems that Hilaire Belloc had written in the style of Alexander Pope:

… to be capable of such pastiche is to be capable of something beyond mere imitation. One who could so master the secret of Drydan and Pope could, given the opportunity, have written as they did. (Literary Distractionsp. 203).

I hope that Eric Peters will be many more opportunities to compose as Mozart did.

The performers entered into the spirit of the piece with great élan. Johanna Kräuter was charming as the titular innkeeper. Ágnes Jordanov gave great presence to the cook Ludmilla with her powerful sophrano. Ali Magomedov was tender and expressive in the role of the Spanish slave escaped from the Moroccan ambassadors, who eventually falls in love with the Taubenwirtin.

The élan of the singers was supported by Clemens Fuchs’s scenery and Leni Fuchs’s costumes, which were just right. And above all by Ralf Siebenbürger’s libretto, which not only caught the style of 18th German, but was also genuinely funny and clever. It had just enough arch references to “future” events to remind us that it was written in the 21st century. As an example of his style, consider Ludmilla’s portrait of the Viennese character in her aria Ach, liebe Herrin (no. 6):

Ach, Liebe Herrin, seyd doch froh,
Ihr wißt, die Wiener sind halt so.
Sie sind gern wichtig, nörgeln gern
Doch sonst gemütlich sind die Herr’n.

Sie schimpfen, machen alles schlecht,
Und kommen wieder — alles recht!
Drum thut Euch nur nicht ennuyirn.
Bey ihrem Grant thut nix passirn.

The American Election and the Virtues and Vices of Liberal Politics (and Politicians)

I was one of those who was surprised by Donald Trump’s election. I had not even expected it too be close. I had thought Clinton would win by a mile. I thought that, when push came to shove, voters would not go for a man so evidently a slave of base passion— a man of intemperance, imprudence, lust, vainglory, and avarice; a liar, a cheat, a bully, and an egoist; a cartoon billionaire and a Twitter troll. I should have known better. The election helps to raise a lot of questions about the relation of politics and virtue within the horizons of liberalism. To what extent will voters in a liberal society demand virtue of their politicians? And what sort of virtue? Or to what extent does liberalism really reduce politics into a technique, rendering virtue irrelevant? Was the victory of Trump more a rejection of liberalism, or more a triumph of liberalism? These are some of the questions that have been thinking about since the result became clear. Continue reading

Contrasting Concepts of Freedom

I have posted an expanded version of the talk on freedom that I gave at a recent Catholic-Shi’a conference to the ViQo website, and The JosiasI attempt to give an account of freedom as understood in the Catholic tradition, and contrast it with the modern, liberal account. Here’s a snip from the introduction:

One can consider freedom on many different levels. For the sake of clarity I shall distinguish between three such levels: 1) exterior or political freedom, 2) interior or natural freedom, 3) moral freedom. The secular and Christian concepts of freedom differ on all three levels. I shall summarize the differences briefly before considering each view more closely.

1) For the Christian tradition external freedom means not being subordinated to another’s good, not being a slave. Politically such freedom is realized by a political rule that orders people to their own true common good— a good that is truly good for them. For the secular tradition of the Enlightenment in contrast, external freedom means not being commanded by another to act in one way rather than another. Negatively this kind of freedom is realized by limiting the scope of government to the preservation of external peace, leaving each citizen free to seek whatever he thinks is the good. Positively it is realized by the participation of all citizens in political rule— so that everyone can claim to be “self-ruled.”

2) Interior or natural freedom is taken in the mainstream of the Christian tradition to mean the ability of man to understand what is good, deliberate about how it is to be attained, and choose means suitable to attaining it. Unlike the animals, man is not determined by instinct, but is able to deliberate about his actions. On the secular view, however, internal or natural freedom is taken to mean a completely undetermined self-movement of will. On the secular view man is free not only to deliberate about how to attain the good, but to decide for himself what the good is.

3) Moral freedom, according to the Christian tradition, means knowing what the true good for man is, and what means are necessary to attain it, and being able to make use of those means. Moral freedom means being liberated from bad habits and disordered passions that lead us away from what we know is the good. To be morally free is to live in accordance with the nature that God has given us— it is to be virtuous and wise. For secular culture on the other hand, moral freedom means not being determined by cultural pressures, rejecting conformity for the sake of “authenticity” and “originality” deciding on one’s own peculiar way of living human life, based on one’s own “freely chosen” (i.e. arbitrarily chosen) “values.” (Read the rest here or here).

The True Doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers

In a recent post I claimed that «the Protestant doctrine of “vocation,” and the “priesthood of all believers”» are «vulgar, bourgeois distortions of Pauline theology.» But of course there are also orthodox, Catholic ways of understanding “vocation” and “the priesthood of all believers”. Today’s saint, Pope Leo Great, is a great teacher of the later truth. In Sermon IV, Pope St. Leo teaches as follows:

Although the Church of God as a whole has a hierarchical structure, so that the completeness of the sacred body consists in a diversity of members, “we are,” nevertheless, as the Apostle says, “one in Christ.” No one functions so independently of another that even the lowliest part does not have some relationship with the Head to which it is connected. In the unity of faith and Baptism, we have an undifferentiated fellowship, dearly beloved. and a uniform dignity.

So proclaims the most blessed apostle Peter when he says with these most sacred words: “And you yourselves should be built up like living stones into spiritual dwellings, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And later on he says: “You, however, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart) All who have been regenerated in Christ are made kings by the sign of the cross and consecrated priests by the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Apart from the particular service that our ministry entails, all Christians who live spiritual lives according to reason recognize that they have a part in the royal race and the priestly office. What could be more royal than the soul in subjection to God ruling over its own body? What could be more priestly than dedicating a pure conscience to the Lord and offering spotless sacrifices of devotion from the altar of the heart? Since this has been given to everyone alike through the grace of God, it is a devout and praiseworthy thing for you to take joy in the day of our elevation as if in your own honor. Let the episcopacy be celebrated in the entire body of the Church as one single mystery. When the oil of benediction has been poured out, the mystery flows, though more abundantly onto the higher parts, yet not ungenerously down to the lower ones as well.

The grace of Christ flows over His body, the Church, in a hierarchical manner. “Like the precious ointment on the head, that ran down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, Which ran down to the skirt of his garment” (Ps 132[133]:2). It is poured out on the Apostles and their successors, and from them it is given to the rest of us by means of the instrumental causality of the Sacraments.

Heiligenkreuz to Revive the Abbey of Neuzelle

The Community in Heiligenkreuz after the November 10th Chapter. (I’m in the back row, sixth from the left). Photo credit: Stift Heiligenkreuz.

We sang a Te Deum after a momentous conventual chapter in Heiligenkreuz today. The chapter (the assembly of all the monks with final vows) decided to send a colony of monks from Heiligenkreuz to revive the Cistercian Abbey of Neuzelle in Lower Lusatia in Eastern Germany. The idea had come to us from the Bishop of Görlitz, the diocese in which Neuzelle is located. Continue reading


Gregory on Envy and the Communicability of the Divine Good

But why do we say so much about envy if we do not also suggest how to get rid of it? It is indeed hard for people not to envy someone who has what they want to acquire. Concerning any material good that is acquired, the more it is divided among many owners, the less of it does any single person have. And that is why the mind of the one who wants it suffers so much from spite: one person who has what that one wants has either bought up the whole supply or has made it scarcer. The one, therefore, who wishes to be rid of the plague of spite for good must fall in love with that inheritance that is not used up by the number of coheirs. It is one for all and all for each one. The more abundant it is, the greater the multitude of those who receive it. (Moralia 5.XLVI.86)