“The Integrists in Quebec”

In the midst of the controversy over Charles de Koninck’s book, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, Jacques Maritain dismissed de Koninck and those who followed him as reactionary intégristes, unable to meet the true challenges of the age:

I was deeply touched by the article of Fr. Eschman in The Modern Schoolman. He has masterfully exploded Koninck, and we can now enjoy entering a fine period of scholastic controversy worthy of the Baroque age. While the world is in its agony, and Monsieur Sartre offers to the intellectuals an existentialism of nothingness, the integrists of Quebec will doubtless raise the cry of alarm in the presbyteries of the New World against the Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and, as our good friends at the Tablet call it, Neo-Pelagianism menacing the Holy Church.

J ’ai été profondément touché par l’article du Pére Eschmann dans The Modern Schoolman. Il a mouché Koninck de main de maître et nous aurons la joie d’entrer ainsi dans une belle période de controverses scolastiques dignes de l’age baroque. Pendant que le monde agonise et que M. Sartre propose aux intellectuels l’existentialisme du néant, les intégristes de Québec vont sans doute jeter dans les presbytères du nouveau continent le cri d’alarme contre le néolibéralisme, le néo-individualisme et, comme disent nos bons amis du Tablet, le néopélagianisme qui menacent la sainte Église. (Jacques Maritain to Etienne Gilson, November 15, 1945; via Francesca Aran Murphy, to whom I owe part of the translation)

And yet, seven decades later, de Koninck’s book, and those who used it to combat certain forms of “personalism” seem remarkably prescient. There was indeed in the thought of certain Catholic intellectuals eager to speak to the concerns of the age a danger of neo-liberalism, neo-individualism, and, neo-Pelagianism. The effects of it are ever more apparent.

Christian Roy has argued that de Koninck’s book was,

in some ways… a prophetic warning of a notable drift towards hedonistic secular individualism, which progressive Christian personalism unwittingly helped usher in Catholic societies such as Quebec.

That is, it was a warning that the attempt of a certain kind of attempt by Catholic intellectuals to, as it were, co-opt or subvert the spirit of the age was counter productive, and led to the opposite result of that hoped. Instead of a reversal of secularization there was a huge acceleration. But it was also a warning that even among those who remained in the Church a new liberalism and a new Pelagianism would take hold. A candid examination of debates within the Church in the past few decades— especially in Western Europe— show just how prophetic such warnings were. This is one reason, why, to the great annoyance of a certain relation of mine, I have tried to reclaim the (to his mind sinister) term integrist/integralist to name my own approach to thinking about the common good as a Catholic in the modern world.

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.

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).

Christian Spaemann on Transsexuals

The psychiatrist Christian Spaemann, son of the great Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann, has written a remarkably intelligent and balanced article on “transsexuals” and how the Church ought to give them pastoral care. The article was so good that I agreed to help translate it for First Things.

As a psychiatrist Spaeman has a lot to say about the psychological suffering of those who consider themselves transsexuals, and about the appalling way in which that suffering is being instrumentalized today, and the appalling haste with which young persons are being lead into drastic measures: Continue reading

Conference on the Common Good at Notre Dame

Some graduates students at Notre Dame are organizing a very promising conference: The Common Good as a Common Project. They have lined up Alasdair MacIntyre (!), Jean-Luc Marion, Jean Porter, and Emilie Tardivel-Schick as key-note speakers. They have released a call for papers, requesting abstracts of “both theoretical and applied papers that address key questions about the common good” to be submitted by November 15th (Feast of St. Leopold of Austria).

I am planning to attend myself, and to give a presentation, the abstract of which follows. Continue reading

Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra

Jacob Klein’s work on the difference between the transformation of the ancient concept of number in modernity, showing how the that transformation stands at the roots of modern science and philosophy, is I think the most illuminating work on modern origins that I have ever read.  Klein’s friend Strauss once wrote the following of Klein’s work:

Klein was the first to under stand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and of Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra. No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intention; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncracy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. Not indeed a proof but a sign of this is the fact that less than half a dozen people seem to have read it, if the inference from the number of references to it is valid. Any other man would justly be blamed for misanthropy, if he did not take care that such a contribution does not remain inaccessible to everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik and in addition does not read German with some fluency. One cannot blame Klein because he is excused by his idiosyncracy.

An English translation of Klein’s masterpiece was soon made by Eva Brann, and remains readily available. And a detailed exposition of it has recently been published by Burt Hopkins. But until today the German original remained inaccessible to “everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik.” But today, having found a copy in the library of the University of Vienna, I made a scan, and have uploaded it here, so that now anyone with an internet connection can read Klein in the original.

Subjectification and Objectification

As I have mentioned, an essay of mine has appeared in a remarkably interesting volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul. The best essay in the collection is, however, probably not mine, but rather William Desmond’s “Soul Music and Soul-less Selving.” Not that I agree with everything that Desmond says, but his piece is strange, subtle, wonderful, and productive of thought somewhat in the manner of a Platonic dialogue.

One question that Desmond raises has to do with Cartesian dualism: What comes first in the Cartesian rejection of a hylomorphic understanding of the soul: subjectification or objectification? He takes the one of the driving forces behind modern philosophy to be a certain impatience with indeterminacy and equivocity:

[I]f the soul has lost its meaning for many (Cavell speaks of “soul-blindness”), there are diverse factors involved in this. I think that certainly attention must be paid to the ambition to univocally determine all being that has expanded in modernity into a project claiming to be on a par with the whole. I want to suggest that there is more to soul than can be made the object of such univocal determination. […] Moreover, the project of determination passes seamlessly with a project of self-determination, and hence the huge presence of the language of self coexists with a view where there is nothing so absent as self. (pp. 354-355)

This would seem to put objectification first, but then Desmond swings back the other way:

Relative to the project of determination and determinability: I am thinking of the objectification of being, wherein all that is is determined to be an object of scientific investigation and possible technological exploitation. The qualitative textures of things do not count in this project of universal quantification, this mathesis universalis. Of course, if things are massively objectified, this goes with the huge subjectification of the human being, the self as it will come to be known. Which comes first: the subjectification or the objectification? Since objectification is a project of the subject, there is a sense in which the subjectification is prior, even though this may not appear so at the outset. We make things objective, but changes in ourselves then set in motion other changes, not only to things other to us, but also in how we relate to ourselves, how we understand ourselves. One of these changes has to do with the de-souling of nature as other to us (following the objectification), and with this the creeping soul-lessness of the ensuing self (following the subjectification). (p.355)

Certainly, it “does not appear so” the great success and prestige of the modern intellectual project certainly has to do with the power that comes from the objectification of nature in the “new science” that Bacon wanted, but that Descartes was actually able to begin. Nevertheless, in Descartes himself it is not so easy to see what comes first. Desmond goes on to speak more particularly of Descartes:

res cogitans is then identified with spiritual substance, set off by an ontological gulf from the res extensa, the neutral wax-like stuff of the world around us. The term “res” carries the objectification: “thing,” but with the implication of a determinability that fixes itself and nothing but itself. I mean this not only as an objectification and determination but also as a certain univocalization. It is as a consequence of univocal determin- ability that we find ourselves fixed in dualism; for to be the one thing it is, the res must incontrovertibly be not the other things, and between the one and the other there opens a gulf of difference, in the end not intermediated or open to intermediation. The res extensa seems to open up the vista of objectified neutralized thereness; and it seems also to define by necessary complement the res cogitans, the subjectivity for whom or for which this neutralized other is there at all. But this subjectivity itself undergoes a reification in being determined as thinking thing. It is in this determination, identified with the soul, that the soul begins to be lost.

Desmond’s account reminds me of the illuminating comparison that Maritain makes between the way Descartes thinks that human thought works and the way angelic thought actually works in Three Reformers:

It remains— and this is what concerns us— that the Cartesian ideas come from God, like angelic ideas, not from objects. Thus the human soul is not only subsistent as the ancients taught, causing the body to exist with its own existence; it has, without the body, received direct from God all the operative perfection which can befit it. There is the destruction of the very reason of its union with the body, or rather, there is its inversion. For if the body and the senses are not the necessary means of the acquisition of its ideas for that soul, and consequently the instrument by which it rises to its own perfection, which is the life of the intelligence and the contemplation of truth, then, as the body must be for the soul and not the soul for the body, the body and senses can be there for nothing but to provide the soul— which needs only itself and God in order to think,— with means for the practical subjugation of the earth and all material nature, and this reduces the soul’s good to the domination of the physical universe. This universe, the whole of which has not the value of one spirit, will make it pay dear for this deordination. This angel is iron-gloved, and extends its sovereign action over the corporeal world by the innumerable arms of Machinery! Poor angel turning the grindstone, enslaved to the law of matter, and soon fainting under the terrible wheels of the elemental machine which has got out of order. (pp. 63-63)

‘Reasoning is worse than scolding’

david copperfield housekeeping

I have been listening to an audiobook of David Copperfield, and one scene reminded me of the moral laxism promoted by certain contemporary ecclesiastics. In the scene David is trying to persuade Dora to be stricter with the servant, but she will have none of it:

‘No, no! please!’ cried Dora, with a kiss, ‘don’t be a naughty Blue Beard! Don’t be serious!’

‘My precious wife,’ said I, ‘we must be serious sometimes. Come! Sit down on this chair, close beside me! Give me the pencil! There! Now let us talk sensibly. You know, dear’; what a little hand it was to hold, and what a tiny wedding-ring it was to see! ‘You know, my love, it is not exactly comfortable to have to go out without one’s dinner. Now, is it?’

‘N-n-no!’ replied Dora, faintly.

‘My love, how you tremble!’

‘Because I KNOW you’re going to scold me,’ exclaimed Dora, in a piteous voice.

‘My sweet, I am only going to reason.’

‘Oh, but reasoning is worse than scolding!’ exclaimed Dora, in despair. ‘I didn’t marry to be reasoned with. If you meant to reason with such a poor little thing as I am, you ought to have told me so, you cruel boy!’

Dora’s opposition to reason with its apparently harsh demands is clearly infantile. She doesn’t want to have any unpleasantness, but the unpleasantness that follows from her indulgence toward servants, and her refusal to be reasoned with on the subject, ends up being much greater than any unpleasantness that might have followed from being a little stricter to the servants. Later in the novel her indulgence leads to a servant being transported to Australia for stealing her watch. This leads David to the following reflection:

‘My darling girl,’ I retorted, ‘I really must entreat you to be reasonable, and listen to what I did say, and do say. My dear Dora, unless we learn to do our duty to those whom we employ, they will never learn to do their duty to us. I am afraid we present opportunities to people to do wrong, that never ought to be presented. Even if we were as lax as we are, in all our arrangements, by choice—which we are not—even if we liked it, and found it agreeable to be so—which we don’t—I am persuaded we should have no right to go on in this way. We are positively corrupting people. We are bound to think of that. I can’t help thinking of it, Dora. It is a reflection I am unable to dismiss, and it sometimes makes me very uneasy. There, dear, that’s all. Come now. Don’t be foolish!’

As Fr Hunwicke recently remarked, “Anti-intellectualism is a stance people very often adopt when they propose to do something irrational,” and it is even more the stance that people adopt one when they do not want to have the unpleasantness of being rationally strict with others. But in the long run such a stance always leads to misery. Happiness can only come from conforming human life to right reason, and a cowardly and infantile refusal of the demands of reason leads to misery in this life, and eternal punishment in the next.

“The great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people”


Portia from The Merchant of Venice—looking a bit like the way I imagine Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

In discussing the Bloomsbury Group’s enthusiasm for the ethical theories of G.E. Moore—his intuitionism, his utilitarianism, and his conviction that “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine”— Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “This is great silliness of course; but it is the great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people.” He therefore takes a careful look at sociological reasons that made Moore’s theories should be so plausible to Bloomsbury. He goes on to argue that Moore’s was a key influence on the emergence of emotivism (the theory that moral judgements are merely expressions of emotional approval or disapproval) as the dominant ethic of our time,  and then argues that the triumph of emotivism was due to the same sociological factors that made Lytton Strachey compare Moore favorably to all previous ethical thinkers, including “Aristotle and Christ.” Continue reading