Dialogue with Douthat

The latest issue of First Things includes an essay by Ross Douthat on Maritain and Catholic post-liberalism, with a response by me, and a reply by Douthat. My thanks to Douthat for his thoughtful essay and reply.

I do want to note one thing about his reply. In my response I had made the following point about the foundations of modern culture:

The twin foundations of the Enlightenment philosophy, which had such great influence on the social, economic, and technological changes in modernity, are the rejection of teleology in nature and the rejection of the authority of the church. To oppose one without opposing the other is to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back.

In reply Douthat wrote:

I am not sure this is true. After all, a belief in “teleology in nature” is hardly unique to Catholic Christendom: It belongs to pre-Christian antiquity, to non-Christian civilizations and our fellow Abrahamic monotheists, and to the ecumenical Protestantism that was foundational to the American republic. To insist that one must accept not just Christianity, not just the theological claims of Catholicism, but the political claims of the medieval or nineteenth-century church in order to reject eliminative materialism and gnostic superstition seems both intellectually and historically false. And the idea (traditionally associated with this journal) of an ecumenical alliance against these errors still seems like a more immediately effective way to answer them in a pluralist society than does arguing that teleology stands or falls on papal authority to an audience that is a great distance from being converted to the Catholic faith.

This rather misses the point of the metaphor. Of course it is possible to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back. But why would you? And of course it is possible to reject materialism without rejecting political secularism. That’s not the point. The point is that it is more difficult to overcome an adversary with one hand behind one’s back, and it is more difficult to combat modern secularist culture if one only opposes one of its principles. The emergence of our “secular age” (to use Charles Taylor’s expression) was a contingent event, rooted in contingent developments. Ecclesial corruption and scandals certainly had their part to play, but they are present at any given time. There were, however, two particularly important contingent developments that were peculiar to modernity:

1) The emergence of a neo-Democritan, a-teleogical understanding of nature as the dominant scientific view. Democritans and Epicureans have existed before, obviously, but they were not able to establish their view as the consensus. In modernity they were, and their view was institutionalized in the practice of modern natural science, modern technology, and modern industrial capitalism. Not that it would have been impossible to have analogous scientific and technological advances without the denial of teleology, but rather that the contingent way in which those things developed in modernity tended to reenforce that premise.

2) The construction of political secularism—i.e. the insulating of political action from “religious truth” claims. This political secularism (dis-integralism) was institutionalized in the modern state with its claims to “sovereignty” in the peculiarly modern sense of that term.

While there are other developments that one could add to those two, I believe those two are crucial. Moreover, I believe that to overcome modern secularist culture all of its foundations have to be radically challenged. Not because they are inseparable (they are not), but because they are all false, and the anti-culture of our day rests on all of them. Of course one can oppose 1 without opposing 2. But I think that one ought to oppose both. One can even oppose 2 without being fully integralist (as the post-war Maritain did), but, as I argued, to oppose it more fully one must oppose it more radically.

Walter Scott Against Historicism

Walter Scott’s historical novels were wildly popular in the century that saw the rise of historicism. But Scott himself was not an historicist. Nature remains the same, despite the flux of fashion and custom:

Considering the disadvantages inseparable from this part of my subject, I must be understood to have resolved to avoid them as much as possible, by throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors;—those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day. Upon these passions it is no doubt true that the state of manners and laws casts a necessary colouring; but the bearings, to use the language of heraldry, remain the same, though the tincture may be not only different, but opposed in strong contradistinction. The wrath of our ancestors, for example, was coloured gules; it broke forth in acts of open and sanguinary violence against the objects of its fury. Our malignant feelings, which must seek gratification through more indirect channels, and undermine the obstacles which they cannot openly bear down, may be rather said to be tinctured sable. But the deep-ruling impulse is the same in both cases; and the proud peer, who can now only ruin his neighbour according to law, by protracted suits, is the genuine descendant of the baron who wrapped the castle of his competitor in flames, and knocked him on the head as he endeavoured to escape from the conflagration. It is from the great book of Nature, the same through a thousand editions, whether of black-letter, or wire-wove and hot-pressed, that I have venturously essayed to read a chapter to the public.


Note on a Letter

In 2017 I wrote a letter to the editor of First Things responding to an article which had offered a Machiavellian defense of the then president of the US. My letter was as follows:

Carson Holloway’s Machiavellian defense of Donald Trump (“Donald Trump, Principe,” August/September) has the same strengths and weaknesses that Machiavellianism has always had. One such weakness is that Machiavelli’s redefinition of virtue led him to overlook the insight of classical political philosophy that rulers cannot rule their cities well unless they rule their own souls with moral virtue, classically understood. A vicious man in the classical sense, a man dominated by disordered passion, cannot recognize his own true good, and even when he partially recognizes it, he is unable to achieve it. A wrathful man, for example, cannot understand that it is better for him to suffer injustice than to inflict it. And even if a drunkard does in some way realize that it would be for his good to remain sober, his disordered passion for drink overrides the insight of his reason. When such a man comes to rule a city or a nation, the same problems replicate on a grander scale.
Donald Trump would like to make America “great again,” but he does not understand where true greatness might be found—in succoring the poor immigrant, for instance. And even where he does in some limited sense see what would be good for America, his uncontrolled passion cripples him. Once, Trump seemed to understand that an interminable war in Afghanistan is undesirable, but when his generals showed him pictures of Afghan girls in miniskirts, disordered passion overpowered his reason. And so the war continues.
No one who lacks true moral virtue can be trusted, least of all a politician.

I think the general point of my letter has held up well: a politician who is enslaved to his own passions is not trustworthy. At the time, however, one of my readers (a man whom I greatly respect) objected to the passage about Afghanistan. He pointed out that the photo of Afghan girls shown to Trump was part of an argument about the malleability of Afghan culture, and that it was calumny to imply that Trump was motivated by disordered lust. I responded to my reader that, on reflection, the implication of my letter did seem to go beyond the evidence. I do think the Afghanistan decision went against Trump’s better judgement, but the implication that it was motivated by lust was unwarranted. I also said that I supposed I will post something on my blog retracting the implication. I ought to have done so at the time. But, on the principle that late is better than never, I retract the implication now.

The War in Ukraine in the Light of Just War Principles

1 Passion and Reason[1]

Pity, fear, and anger are the natural responses to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Such passions are naturally intensified by personal ties to Ukraine. I notice that I feel such passions much more strongly in response to this war, than I have felt them in the past towards wars in places to which I had fewer ties. I often visited Ukraine, and have many friends there. Although I am a dual citizen of Austria and the United States, I learned to sing the Ukrainian anthem, She ne vmerla Ukraina[2], at a summer camp in Ukraine before I could sing either the Austrian or the US anthems by heart.

The passions were given us by our Creator to assist us in acting, to help us respond rightly to the goods and evils that we encounter in this life. The passions are like powerful horses pulling the chariot of the soul toward action. But of course, passion is not a sufficient guide to human action. In order to be good guides to action, passion must be informed and guided by reason. The virtuous man “is not passion’s slave.”[3] This does not mean that he lacks passions, but rather that he feels them in the right way, and toward the right objects, so as to preserve the true good apprehended by reason. Reason is like the charioteer who controls the horses of the passions with reigns and whip, so that they draw the chariot in the right direction, and at the right speed, so that it does not capsize at a corner.

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