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.

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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The Unintended Liberalism

In a conference at the University of Dallas on “America, Liberalism, and Catholicism,” Patrick Deneen gave a talk (video embedded above), in which he argued that the early American Republic was far less liberal than soi-disant “conservatives” (funded as they have been since the Cold War by big business) have thought it to have been. The particular states even had a kind of “Prostestant integralism” as he argues—established religion, laws aimed directly at fostering virtue, etc. A similar point was made by Matthew Petterson in a recent lecture for the Thomistic Institute. That is, the American founders may have established (at least) soft liberalism at the federal level, but many of them wanted to continue to allow a kind of pre-liberal magisterial Protestantism at the state level. I think it is a useful point, especially as part of an argument for a politics of virtue and the common good in contemporary America.

An important question was, however, raised by Ross Douthat at the end of the Q&A to the panel above. He asked whether there was not something logical about the development from Protestantism, with its particular kind of “individualism,” towards a more individualistic kind of politics. Deneen gave a very gentle, ecumenical answer. But there is a lot of evidence for another answer.

In another panel at the same Dallas conference, Gladden Pappin showed how liberalism is always opposed to the authority of the Church, which it has always wished to deny the status of a societas perfecta, with the ability to make laws, and reduce to the status of a voluntary club. But, of course, this denial of the authority of the Church was one of the main points of the Protestant Reformation. The “liberty of the Christian” was taken to be opposed to the authority of the Church. Luther was very clear that this understanding of an opposition between liberty and authority did not extend to the authority of magistrates in the visible kingdom (hence his opposition to the Peasants’ War, etc.). Nevertheless, it was not surprising that the false opposition between liberty and authority that Luther wanted to contain to the invisible kingdom was later extended to deny political authority (Enlightenment and French Revolution), and even the authority of God (some of the more extreme philosophes, and then Feurbach and Marx in the 19th century). That was of course against the intentions of Luther and Calvin, who would probably have advised the magistrates to put Feurbach and Marx to death if those philosophers had lived at the time of the Reformation. But we have here a kind of reversal of intentions and effects, of the sort that Max Weber delineated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or (even more) Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

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The Meaning of Words

Chad Pecknold gave a brilliant a brilliant summary of De Koninck on the common good at a panel at a recent conference in Dallas (embedded above). The discussion that followed, moderated by Ryan Anderson, was also very good. Anderson’s questions were quite trenchant.

Pecknold’s Gegenüber was Daniel Burns who raised a question about the love of one’s country, including love of one’s regime (in the Straussian sense of politeia) as a prerequisite to effective political action. I think that Pecknold and Anderson answer it quite correctly: To love one’s politeia rightly is to love what is good in it and wish to improve it by correcting what is not good. This is also a point that Gladden Pappin made at a recent conference in Steubenville: following Aristotle, he argued that action taken to “preserve” a “regime” in the right way actually changes it for the better. And, as Pecknold argues so persuasively, to make something better you need to have the right standard. How such “preservation” might be done in the current American was indicated with much insight by Patrick Deneen in another panel at the same conference.

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Responding to a Burkean Objection

Over on twitter.com I responded to an objection that Yoram Hazony brought against a Josias essay of mine on the common good. My response is largely based on a longer paper, which will be appearing soon here, but here is my thread (automatically derived from twitter by wordpress magic, excuse the formatting):


My thanks to Yoram Hazony for this clear articulation of a Burkean objection to my account of the common good. It gives me an opportunity of clarifying my position.

Incidentally, Roger Scruton brought up a similar objection in responding to a letter in First Things:

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/10/letters

The objection is that my understanding of the political common good is too abstract, too far removed from actual political communities and their habits and traditions…

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Against the New Nationalism

The second issue of The Lamp magazine includes an essay by me, responding to Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Here’s a snip:

The first time that I visited Ukraine was in November of 1998, just a few days before my fifteenth birthday. I was travelling with my family to a Byzantine-Catholic priestly ordination. We took a red velvet upholstered, Soviet era train from Vienna to the Western Ukrainian city of L’viv. At the border between Slovakia and Ukraine, the train was hoisted up on cranes and the wheels changed. The reason, we were told, was that Stalin had had the gauge of train tracks in the Soviet Union widened to discourage invading armies.

Crossing the border into Ukraine in the 90s was like going back in time. As the train rattled through the Carpathian Mountains, we looked out on women in headscarves washing clothes in icy rivers, and horses pulling sledges and wagons. The wagons had car tires on their wheels, but apart from that we could have been in the 19th century.

At the train station in L’viv we were met by an old man in a towering fur hat, who was to drive us to the house where we were staying, and by a young student who spoke English. The student told us that the old man had spent years in a Siberian labor camp during the Soviet persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We gaped at this Solzhenitsyn character come to life.

You can read the rest by subscribing to The Lamp.

Wolfgang Waldstein’s Jurisprudence

Wolfgang Waldstein with Cardinal Erdő in Hungary

Ius & Iustitium is a new blog on legal and juridical matters associated with The Josias. I was very happy to be able to get a text posted there by my grandfather, Wolfgang Waldstein: “The Significance of Roman Law for the Development of European Law.” I believe that my grandfather exemplifies precisely the sort of realist common good jurisprudence, founded on the natural law and enriched by the centuries old tradition of the application of natural law in the Roman law and the legal traditions based on Roman Law that Ius & Iustitium is trying to promote.

Wolfgang Waldstein at the summit of the Dachstein

Racial Justice and Social Order

Do we Live in a Society? This question came up in a recent Josias Podcast episode. Serious doubts were raised about whether we do. The discussion focused on the United States, where my interlocutors live. I lived almost half of my life in there, but it has now been almost 14 years since I left. In another sense, however, as a German rock band says, “we’re all living in Amerika.”

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Adrian Vermeule’s Brilliant Essay on Common Good Constitutionalism

The Havard jurist Adrian Vermeule has published a brilliant essay in The Atlantic arguing that American conservatives should move beyond the legal philosophies that dominated the rearguard of the long defeat to hard liberalism, and adopt a jurisprudence of the common good. Vermeule’s common good constitutionalism shows a deeply Augustinian and Thomist of the educative and directive function of law in helping human beings come to the common life of virtue in peace for which they all yearn (even if they don’t all know it):

unlike legal liberalism, common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits. Just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of subjects, if necessary even against the subjects’ own perceptions of what is best for them—perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches, habituates, and re-forms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods, better habits, and beliefs that better track and promote communal well-being.

Michael Hanby, in a recent essay on contemporary integralists (including Vermeule, Gladden Pappin, and me) in First Things, warns that “today’s integralist thought risks degenerating into a conservative Catholic form of Hobbesian power politics.” But Vermeule’s essay shows him to be anything but Hobbesian. Hobbes had a purely subjective and private account of the good: “whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good.” Therefore, he thought that there could be no last end or highest good rendering human life intelligible: “Felicity is a continuall progresse of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the later.” For all of Hobbes’s totalitarian conception of the commonwealth, then, the end of his political philosophy is deeply individualistic: the security of each individual in the pursuit of his private desires. Vermeule, by contrast, having an objective understanding of the good sees that the end of politics (and therefore ultimately of jurisprudence) is a common good:

Authority is held in trust for and exercised on behalf of the community and the subsidiary groups that make up a community, not for the benefit of individuals taken one by one.

It follows from this that Vermeule sees the state as being obligated to give subsidium to smaller communities in which true common goods are attained:

The state is to be entrusted with the authority to protect the populace from the vagaries and injustices of market forces, from employers who would exploit them as atomized individuals, and from corporate exploitation and destruction of the natural environment. Unions, guilds and crafts, cities and localities, and other solidaristic associations will benefit from the presumptive favor of the law, as will the traditional family; in virtue of subsidiarity, the aim of rule will be not to displace these associations, but to help them function well.

I could go on, but I would end by quoting every line of the essay, which I urge my readers to go read.