Yves Simon’s Correspondence with Charles de Koninck and Jacques Maritain on the Common Good

My last post reminded me of a correspondence between Yves Simon and both de Koninck and Maritain on the common good that my father translated some years ago. So I got permission from my father to post it at The Charles De Koninck Project. It’s a fascinating correspondence, and gives a lot of details about the controversy over de Koninck’s book. Consider, for example, this description of a party at Simon’s house in South Bend:

After the lecture there was a party at my house. I had told W[aldemar Gurian] to open fire. He didn’t delay. Hardly had De Koninck sat down when he got the fatal question right in the solar plexus: Who are these personalists? De K[oninck] hesitated visibly and showed a little less Belgian good nature and a little more reserve. He mentioned a Californian review (do you remember, The Personalist, which Mounier discovered four or five years after launching Esprit); Adler and Farrel; Garrigou-Lagrange (with insistence), Fr. Schwalm, the author of lessons in social philosophy. As for Esprit—he did not know it; Maritain—he did not know him. When we insisted that the whole world believed Primacy of the Common Good was directed against you, he asked if the ideas of Maritain are such that one could recognize them in the personalism he described: the common good as mere instrument, etc. We insisted that many readers have the impression that you shared these idiocies. In private conversation I told De K[oninck] twice that, whatever his intentions may have been his book was being exploited “as an instrument of defamation,” that I would not want to have this on my conscience, and that he should publish an article or a note to put an end to this. His objection: “But then I would have to read Maritain! I don’t have the time.” Gurian could not believe that he has not read you. As for me, I believe it readily.

Nieto on politics and nature and the dependence of the city on the village

We’ve published another Nieto paper at The Josias: Nature and Art in the Village.” It was originally read at a conference. It’s worth watching video of Nieto reading it, embedded above, to get a sense of his style. At the end he reads out a section of one of his poems. This lecture is about the way in which the Cartesian/Baconian project of the domination of nature through technology has estranged man from nature, including his own nature, and the necessity of recovering the sort of life in proximity to nature that used to be lived in villages for the revival of true political (i.e. “city” ) life.

Nieto on Right and Left

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John Francis Nieto

Over at The Josias we have posted a brilliant essay on the inadequacy of thinking of politics in terms of right and left by John Francis Nieto. He goes right to the heart of the matter: man’s natural inclination toward the common good. He argues that the modern right and left share a fundamental misunderstanding of the common good that deeply mares their whole approach to politics. And that therefore when in our attempts to combat specific political problems we implicitly accept the reigning framework we give up something essential.

Nieto was a tutor of mine at Thomas Aquinas College, and I learned much from him— and not only in the classroom. He is a truly hospitable man, and often used to invite us students over for magnificent feasts of his own cooking and truly philosophical conversations that would last till far into the night. He is an accomplished poet as well as a philosopher and theologian, and has a marvelous capacity for communicating his love of beauty and goodness and truth to others.

We have another one of his essays lined up for publication at The Josias soon.

Liturgy as Court Ritual

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Pontifical High Mass at the Throne in the Usus Antiquior

Peter Kwasniewski has a wonderful post up at The New Liturgical Movement defending the liturgy as ‘Court Ritual’. He argues that especially in our democratic times it is necessary to emphasize that the Sacred Liturgy is a the court ritual of Christ the King as well as the oblation of Christ the Priest:

Monarchy or princedom, the oldest and arguably the most natural form of political organization, has been a far more consistent part of the human experience and of the formation of Christian culture than the democratic/egalitarian ideology of “self-evident truths” of which we have persuaded ourselves in modernity. Regardless of whether we think democracy can be made to work or not, in the realm of supernatural mysteries, Christianity is purely and entirely monarchical. Against the backdrop of the Old Testament revelation of God as the (one and only) great King over all the earth, and of the people of Israel as a kingly, priestly people ruled by prophets, judges, and ultimately the Davidic dynasty, we profess that Christ is our King, the Lord of heaven and earth, of all times, past, present, and to come, of this world and of the next; that His angels and saints are His royal court; that He deigns to call us His friends and brethren, yes, but such that we know that we never cease to be His servants. We long for His courts and tabernacles. The thick “politicism” of the imagery points to the real, sovereign polity of the Mystical Body, subsisting in the Roman Catholic Church as a societas perfecta and altogether perfected in the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the great King. Our ecclesial sacrifice, the Most Holy Eucharist, is a kingly and high-priestly oblation.

Consequently, the modern fixation on democracy, as if it were the best or the only good form of government, not only does not abolish our need for the language of kingship and courtliness, but makes it far more needed than ever before, in order to impress on our minds the way things really stand in the definitive reality of the kingdom of God. All of our democratic and egalitarian experiments will fall away at the end of time, as the glorious reign of Christ the King is revealed to all the nations, and those who have submitted to His gentle yoke will be raised to eternal life in glorified flesh while those who have rejected Him will wail and gnash their teeth, condemned to eternal fire in unending torment. The liturgy should reflect the truth of God — His absolute monarchy, His paternal rule, His hierarchical court in the unspeakable splendor of the heavenly Jerusalem — and not the passing truths of our modern provisional political organizations, or, in other words, that continual redesign of the liturgy, in language and ceremonies and ministers, for which the noveltymongers are agitating.

Yes, yes, yes! A thousand times yes!

Many years ago, in my undergraduate thesis, I made a similar point (though with much less eloquence):

The principle of active participation, which the Second Vatican Council was so right to insist on, has been nearly everywhere misunderstood and misapplied. This is because in modern democracy participation in the political order is understood in terms of being one of the rulers. We see this understanding of participation taken over so that active participation in the life of the Parish or Diocese is understood as participation in “pastoral councils” and similar tom-foolery. In the Sacred Liturgy active participation is taken to mandate all kinds of laypeople messing around in the sanctuary as lectors, ‘introducers,’ extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, etc. This banal caricature of true active participation and the priesthood of the faithful persists despite all efforts of the Magisterium to correct it. The problem is that when political government ceases to be what it should be the “wonderful resemblance” that it bears to God’s government, of which Pope Leo XIII speaks, is destroyed. But grace builds on nature and men ought to be disposed to the higher by the lower. (p. 36)

Kozinski on Girard and Modernity

In a post on René Girard and St. Thomas I argued that Girard’s account of desire as “mimetic” is very persuasive when applied to modern, secular civilization, but that it is much less convincing when applied to the ancients. This is why Girard’s very first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, remains my favorite of all his works. In that book Girard concentrates on the peculiarities of modern culture and its false promise that man can take the place of God. His readings of Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoyevsky are far more convincing than his later readings of Sophocles and other ancient writers, and much, much more convincing than his readings of Sacred Scripture. His account of desire as arbitrary and rivalrous gets at a very important feature of modern (and hypermodern) culture with its subjective view of the good, embedded in capitalistic/consumerist economies and egalitarian politics. But it is not adequate to understanding human life built around the non-rivalrous pursuit of genuine common goods. Continue reading

MacCaulay on Copyright

The advantages arising from a system of copyright are obvious. It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books: we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated […] And there are only two ways in which they can be remunerated. One of those ways is patronage; the other is copyright. […]
The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget, that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures. I admit, however, the necessity of giving a bounty to genius and learning. In order to give such a bounty, I willingly submit even to this severe and burdensome tax. Nay, I am ready to increase the tax, if it can be shown that by so doing I should proportionally increase the bounty. My complaint is, that my honorable and learned friend doubles, triples, quadruples, the tax, and makes scarcely and perceptible addition to the bounty. (Thomas Babbington MacCaulay)

Dialogue with a Catholic Leftist

When the Manifesto of the Tradinistas came out I noted that while I agree with their critique of liberalism— and indeed with most of their political positions— I would never consider myself a Tradinista on account of the cultural and historical associations that they embrace. In other words, I would never consider myself a “leftist.” But what exactly does it mean to be a leftist? I recently had a discussion with Coëmgenus on that question that made me understand more clearly what the Tradinistas mean by it, and where I differ from them. With Coëmgenus’s permission, I reproduce a slightly abridged version of our discussion below.


Coëmgenus: People use the word “left” to mean very stupid things.

Sancrucensis: What should “left” be used to mean?

Coëmgenus: I use “left” to mean the inclusion of social questions and questions of production within the realm of the political. So that a distributist who was sufficiently attentive to these things (and did not imply that they were to be solved extrapolitically through spiritual conversion alone) would count as “left” in my book. I give no credence to the idea of a “cultural left”; I see that as the fantasy of certain capitalists who want to wash their hands of certain capitalist problems.

Sancrucensis: Hmm, by your definition, Coëmgenus, Fascists are leftists.

Coëmgenus: Sort of. That’s the critique that’s often made of them by market liberals anyway. But I should probably add that leftism requires that, once one takes such an analytical approach, one tries to rectify differences in class power (ideally by neutralizing distinctions of class) — most fascists seem to have been more concerned to direct labor to some national end than to protect laborers as a class. What some reactionary critics of fascism notice is that fascism does not hesitate to use the rhetoric of helping the common man, but in practice I think this is just for show. The Trump business with Carrier seems like a fine example.

Sancrucensis: I think the addition is helpful. Leftists not only see economic power as a political question, but also think that inequality of economic power is per se unjust/exploitative. This is understandable given that they are reacting to a capitalist society in which the unbalance of economic power is unjust. To me, on the hand, a social order is conceivable with a highly gradational distribution of economic power, but in which economic activity would be subordinated to the genuine common good of the whole society, rather than to the private good of the class that has the most economic power. A corollary to my claim about the possibility of a mixed regime with an extremely hierarchical distribution of political power, but fully ordered to the common good. The leftist position seems to still accept to much of the liberal ideal. It’s democratic checks and balances applied to economy. Or as Comrade Stalin put it:

Bourgeois constitutions usually confine themselves to stating the formal rights of citizens, without bothering about the conditions for the exercise of these rights, about the opportunity of exercising them, about the means by which they can be exercised. They speak of the equality of citizens, but forget that there cannot be real equality between employer and workman, between landlord and peasant, if the former possess wealth and political weight in society while the latter are deprived of both – if the former are exploiters while the latter are exploited. Or again: they speak of freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, but forget that all these liberties may be merely a hollow sound for the working class, if the latter cannot have access to suitable premises for meetings, good printing shops, a sufficient quantity of printing paper, etc.

What distinguishes the draft of the new Constitution is the fact that it does not confine itself to stating the formal rights of citizens, but stresses the guarantee of these rights, the means by which these rights can be exercised. It does not merely proclaim equality of rights for citizens, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that the regime of exploitation has been abolished, to the fact that the citizens have been emancipated from all exploitation. It does not merely proclaim the right to work, but ensures it by giving legislative embodiment to the fact that there are no crises in Soviet society, and that unemployment has been abolished. It does not merely proclaim democratic liberties, but legislatively ensures them by providing definite material resources. It is clear, therefore, that the democratism of the draft of the new Constitution is not the “ordinary” and “universally recognized” democratism in the abstract, but Socialist democratism.

Coëmgenus: The Stalin quote is good enough as far as it goes. I would not say (differing here from many leftists) that leftism is about eliminating inequality, but about making it subject to politics. This could be the same as your view — a hierarchy in which everything is subordinated to the common good. But most reactionaries who defend hierarchy this way end up wanting parts of the hierarchy to be sui juris — they will admit eg. that the great landowners have a duty to serve the common good, but will either imply that they serve it best through glorifying their houses, or that this duty cannot be enforced by a bunch of filthy peasants. For “a subject and a sovereign are clear different things”. I have no interest in complete equality (both on account of its impossibility and on account of the critique of proceduralism to which you allude), but I hate an inequality that exempts anyone from answering to the common good. In feudalism as practiced, economic power was explicitly articulated through the state (less liberal than in our polity), but each community tended to be put at the service of the private good of the noble personage in charge of it — of course this story is much complicated by the existence of monastic holdings.  

One last thing: checks and balances as such are not bad; this is why I support labor unionism, for example. Not because it’s a guarantee of welfare, but because it addresses what seems to be a frequent failure of negotiation. The error is not to have a procedure but to put one’s hopes for justice in procedure alone.

Sancrucensis:  I agree that checks and balances are not bad in themselves; the “mixed” regime with democratic, aristocratic, and monarchical elements is best. But I think it important that checks and balances don’t tip the regime so far over that one loses the goods of obedience, political piety etc. It is quite true that sovereign and subject are two different things. Even in a democracy there will always be a part that rules and part that is ruled. But in democracy the ruling part has to conceal this fact, and pretend that it is ruling merely as an instrument of the sovereign people. And therefore the goods that are considered most important in a democracy are “vulgar” goods, and the type of human being taken to be the measure is the so-called “common man”. (Leo Strauss has a great discussion of this in ch. 4 of Natural Right and History). In a liberal democracy the ruling part is an oligarchy that rules in the name of the common man, but really for the private advantage of the capitalists. In a “socialist” state it is usually a vanguard party that considers itself to be preparing a post-political future, but really functions as an inefficient oligarchy. So I still think the best solution is one in which the democratic checks and balances are considered secondary, and the greater part of political power is in the hands of an hereditary monarch and an hereditary aristocracy. The hereditary aristocracy should be composed of a landed gentry that is at the same time an urban patriciate (to use Strauss’s terms again)— that is of “gentlemen” who derive their income from the land, but live for part of the year in the city.  Such an aristocracy can of course become corrupt, and seek its own private advantage. But historical experience shows that such an aristocracy— especially when tempered by the monarchical and democratic elements— can cultivate an ethos of true public spirit, and an appreciation for noble goods: for civic friendship and military virtue, for art and philosophy. To the extent that they really pursue such goods they contribute to the common good of every member of the society. To the extent to which natural virtue can dispose men well towards supernatural virtue, I think such a regime does prepare men well for the life of the Church, and conversely the Church can have an ennobling and moderating effect on such an order.

Coëmgenus: I simply cannot imagine an aristocracy that does not degenerate into a faction. The aristocracies of Europe were born as a kind of mafia, and seem to have discovered the common good as a last-ditch effort to win some support when the bourgeoisie was finally about to wipe them out. “Popular sovereignty” can be an idol, but whoever rules rules on behalf of the whole community, and is in a sense their delegate.

The classical throne-and-altar view is that an aristocracy ought to rule while the commoners pray pay and obey, so that the common people are not troubled by the demands of political life. Against that ideal, I want to maintain that the subject never ceases to be a citizen. It is not my vote that creates the common good: even a purely autocratic system is not inevitably unjust. But if I am part of a community its political life is very much my business.

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

Von Balthasar and Benedict XVI on Anti-Semitism

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lordvol 5, pp. 579-580:

In his insatiable and hateful polemic against the Old Testament, Hegel pursues the one element for which he has no use in his otherwise all-reconciling system: the sovereign and lordly elevation of God above the world, who acts, elects and rejects in complete freedom of will; and thus he has no use either for the distinctively Old Testament form of the divine glory: the Kabod. It was precisely this kind of anti-semitism which necessarily had to appear at the end of our history of the Spirit in which the elevation of God above the world—first in terms of classical antiquity and then of Christianity—is reduced step by step until it becomes a structure of implication and explication.

Pope Benedict XVI, Address in Auschwitz-Birkenau, 28 May, 2006:

The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone – to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.