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.

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

Is marriage ‘pre-political’?

I remember Marcus Berquist once remarking that the problem with politics nowadays is that all the really important things have already been settled, and settled wrong. Given the developments of recent decades (and indeed centuries), there was nothing surprising about the United States Supreme Court’s decision on homosexual “marriage.” Viewed as a symptom of the general corruption of our time it is a sad thing. Viewed with a bit of detachment though, there is something comical about the court’s “finding” a right to this spectacularly irrational abomination in the terse, 18th century prose of the constitution that it has to pretend to interpret. Justice Scalia’s comparison of the opening line to a fortune cookie is even a bit unfair. Unfair, that is, to fortune cookies; they are not accustomed to apply their banalities to such extreme perversion.

Continue reading

Laudato Si’ and Charles De Koninck

In a programmatic post on the new encyclical, John Brungardt argues that Charles De Koninck’s philosophy of nature and his anti-personalist account of the common good, both rooted in his rich understanding of the order of the whole universe as the final cause of creation, make De Koninck a particularly suitable instrument for pursuing the concerns of Laudato Si’. Continue reading

Some notable appreciations and critiques of Laudato Si’

Over at The Josias I defend the section of Laudato Si’ on world government, in the introduction a section of Henri Grenier neo-scholastic proof of the necessity of such an institution. At the same time, however, I wriggle out of the conclusion that the UN’s authority ought to be expanded by claiming that such a world government could only be just if it recognized the social kingship of Christ. Continue reading

A Magnificent, a Wonderful Encyclical

In his weird and partly brilliant book on infinity, David Foster Wallace writes, “what the modern world’s about, what it is, is science.” That is, the heart of the modernity as a project is the new science developed in the 17th century, which consists in the application of a certain kind of symbolic-calculation to nature through experiments for the sake of technological power over nature. This science was “new” because unlike the old science its goal was not the contemplation of the truth in the forms of things; the goal of the new science was and is practical. As El Mono Liso recently noted, “the attempt to analyze the world as a series of mathematical equations or chemical formulas is ultimately not an unbiased analysis of static essences, but a blueprint by which civilized actors seek to bend all things to their own will, in our case, the will of capital.” The reference to capital is crucial. The new science was wedded to a new attitude toward external wealth: capitalism. For the first for the first time in history “the economy” emerged as self-regulating system aimed at the measureless increase of exchange value. And it was capitalism that provided the main measure of the growth of technological power. Unlimited technological progress is the engine of economic growth, and unlimited economic growth the measure of technological progress. Continue reading

On the Utility and the Disadvantage of Neo-Scholastic Manuals for Intellectual Life

I have been reading Henri Grenier’s manual of moral philosophy. We have posted passages on personalism, on the subject of civil authority, and on private property at The Josias with introductory notes. I have found Grenier tremendously exciting and enjoyable, but I realize though that my enjoyment depends on a good deal of Vorbildung. Only to someone who has thought about the questions that he treats a good deal before hand, and seen the many difficulties involved in trying to answer could Grenier’s highly formal and apodictic presentation be enjoyable and exciting. James Chastek reports of his first discovery of Grenier: «I had the sense of having found the answer key to Thomistic thought.» I had the very same sense. But this is precisely the reason why I think that Grenier’s manual was completely unsuited to it’s original purpose: to be a text book for the seminarians beginning philosophy. Continue reading

Use Values and Corn Laws, Aristotelian Marxists and High Tories

In a reply to Owen White’s comment on my last post I claimed that English Toryism worthy of the name suffered its final defeat in 1846 with the triumph of the free trade movement and the abolition of the Corn Laws. To explain what I meant I want to consider the account of the anti-conservative nature of capitalism in The Communist Manifesto.  Marx and Engels point out that bourgeois capitalism has dissolved the feudal ties that used to tie men to their ‘natural superiors,’ and that it has stripped human relations down to ‘egotistical calculation,’ and reduced human values to ‘exchange value.’ But they think that this was in a way necessary (one might almost say good) because it has enabled the rise of a revolutionary class who know that they are being oppressed: «for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.» (p. 16) But what if the religious and political institutions that founded pre-capitalist society in Western Europe were not illusions? What would become of their argument then? If one thinks that earthly societies ought to reflect the hierarchical order of the cosmos, then one might indeed think that ‘feudal’ society may have been more defensible then Marx and Engels thought, and that the rise of bourgeois capitalism was not a necessary unveiling of exploitation at all, but just an unmitigated disaster. Continue reading

Desire and the Good

Match-Ice-Cream-Advertisement-Its-Year-PublicationOver at The Josias I have put up thirty-seven theses on the good. Since the good is the cause of causes, errors about it are in a way the most fundamental errors. There are three main errors about the good that I try to correct in my post. The first one has to do with the relation of goodness and desire: the error is to think that desire is not caused by the intrinsic goodness of things, but that rather things are only considered good because people happen to desire them. This seems like a small error, but has terrible consequences, it undergirds the typically modern view of the world as inert facticity upon which human desire projects ‘value,’ which therefore really refers to something in human desire and not something in the objects themselves. Marcus Berquist writes in a paper on the common good (p. 4) that one might see in this error the fundamental difference between modern philosophy and the tradition of Aristotle and Plato (and of Catholic moral theology). And this fits with his argument in another paper that the most fundamental disagreements among philosophers, the sources of all their other disagreements, are not about what is true and what is false, nor about what is most certain or most obvious, but about what comes first. In this case the question is: What comes first, the good or desire for the good? I think it is true to say that the typical modern view answers this question wrong— it sees desire as a kind of primary fact of human life, not as following on the genuine goodness of things. Aristotle and St Thomas of course give the opposite answer, but strangely enough they are often subjected to a strange mis-interpretation according to which they give basically the same answer as the moderns. Both certain would-be supporters of Aristotelian and Thomist eudemonism (such as Ayn Rand), and as well as certain thinkers who protest against it (such as Dietrich von Hildebrand) adopt this misunderstanding.

The second error that I try to attack is closely related to the first: the error of thinking that all desire for the good is essentially selfish. Von Hildebrand (and before him Luther), accuse a eudemonistic account making the love of God mercenary, as though on the classical account one loves God only as a means to one’s own satisfaction. I try to show that this is the complete opposite of what St Thomas actually teaches. god is to be loved with a love of benevolence not of concupiscence.

The third error is again closely related to the first. It is the view that the common good is merely an useful good for allowing people to get the private goods that they desire. I try to so that since the good is really in things, there can be a common good that is more desirable for me than any private good.