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.

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

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.

Gregory on Envy and the Communicability of the Divine Good

But why do we say so much about envy if we do not also suggest how to get rid of it? It is indeed hard for people not to envy someone who has what they want to acquire. Concerning any material good that is acquired, the more it is divided among many owners, the less of it does any single person have. And that is why the mind of the one who wants it suffers so much from spite: one person who has what that one wants has either bought up the whole supply or has made it scarcer. The one, therefore, who wishes to be rid of the plague of spite for good must fall in love with that inheritance that is not used up by the number of coheirs. It is one for all and all for each one. The more abundant it is, the greater the multitude of those who receive it. (Moralia 5.XLVI.86)

Augustine on Sin as Preference for the Private Good

Thus when the will, which is an intermediate good, holds fast to the unchangeable good as something common rather than private – like the truth, which we have discussed at length without saying anything adequate – a person grasps the happy life. and the happy life, i.e. the attachment of the mind holding fast to the unchangeable good, is the proper and fundamental good for a human being. It also includes all the virtues, which no one can use for evil. although the virtues are great and fundamental goods in human beings, we thoroughly understand that they are proper to each person, not that they are common. Truth and wisdom, however, are common to all, and people become wise and happy by holding fast to them. of course, one person does not become happy by the happiness of another. even if you emulate another in order to be happy, you seek to become happy by means of what you saw made the other person happy, namely through the unchangeable and common truth. Nor does anyone become prudent by another person’s prudence, or is made courageous by another’s courage, or moderate by another’s moderateness, or just by another’s justice. Instead, you conform your mind to those unchangeable rules and beacons of the virtues, which live uncorruptibly in the truth itself and in the wisdom that is common, to which the person furnished with virtues whom you put forward as a model for your emulation has conformed and directed his mind.

Therefore, when the will adheres to the common and unchangeable good, it achieves the great and fundamental goods of a human being, despite being an intermediate good. But the will sins when it is turned away from the unchangeable and common good, towards its private good, or towards something external, or towards something lower. The will is turned to its private good when it wants to be in its own power; it is turned to something external when it is eager to know the personal affairs of other people, or anything that is not its business; it is turned to something lower when it takes delight in bodily pleasures. And thus someone who is made proud or curious or lascivious is captured by another life that, in comparison to the higher life, is death. (De libero arbitrio 2.19.52., trans. Peter King)

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

Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

I read a paper on individualism and totalitarianism in the writings of David Foster Wallace and Charles de Koninck (see below) at a conference on “Political Demononolgy” at Worcester College, Oxford on Friday. The talks were about all sorts of things from all sorts of perspectives. And many of them were quite good. Conor Cunningham’s keynote on evil as the refutation of eliminative materialism was hilariously funny (“Some of you might be interested in the political implication of all this. But I don’t do politics; I’m from Belfast.” “I hope you don’t read Bataille— he’s crap.”). Adrian Papst gave a wonderfully clear and convincing paper on the pessimism of liberalism— looking at Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and making a plea for a politics of the pursuit of common ends. And Henry Mead gave a fascinating paper on the idea of original sin in T.E. Hulme, and his guild-socialist friend A. R. Orage. Sadly I had to leave before the final keynote by Elizabeth Frazer, but I have heard that a recording will be made available soon. I met some people that I only know through the internet— including Andrew Cusack, whose excellent blog I have followed for years.

I have pasted my talk below, and have also made it available in audio and pdf formats.

The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck and David Foster Wallace

Continue reading

Political Evil


There will be a one-day conference on “the genesis, location, logic, categorisation, or implementation of political evil,” especially as approached in literature and theology, in Oxford on May 20th. I am going to be reading a paper on David Foster Wallace, Michel Houellebecq, and Charles de Koninck. I was pleased to see that they have put portraits of  two of my authors on the conference poster. An Abstract of my paper follows.

The Dialectics of Individualism and Totalitarianism in Charles de Koninck, David Foster Wallace, and Michel Houellebecq


The Laval School Thomist Charles de Koninck (1906-1965) argued that individualism and totalitarianism are both founded on the same misunderstanding of the common good. In both ideologies the common good is seen as a bonum alienum, a good that is not really the good of the members of society, but rather external good that is in some way opposed to the individual good. In individualism the common good (thus misunderstood) is then subordinated to the private goods of individuals, becoming an instrument of individual desires, and debasing politics into an art of balancing private interests. In totalitarianism, on the other hand, the individual is subordinated to the good of the collective, thus debasing the human person to the status of a means to an extrinsic end. Totalitarian subordination can be proposed in at least two ways. In Fascism the subordination of the individual is proclaimed in open and naïve terms. In Marxism-Leninism, on the other hand, it is affirmed in a dialectical fashion, which always holds out the promise of a future transcendence between the opposition of individual and society, the future transcendence, however, cannot mitigate the present opposition.

De Koninck argues that the excesses of each of these paths lead to a desire for the other. The crushing of individual freedom in totalitarian systems makes individualism seem attractive. And conversely the pusillanimity and meaninglessness of individualist societies gives rise to totalitarian temptations of various kinds. I will examine the descriptions of such totalitarian temptations in the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Michel Houellebecq. Showing that both give plausible descriptions of what it feels like in current individualist societies to be subject to the sort of pressures that de Koninck elucidates.

Auctoritas, Potestas, and Integralism

I have posted an essay over at The Josias  in which I give my fullest account to date of what I call “integralism.” I argue that integralism gives the most satisfactory reading of Pope St. Gelasius’s teaching on the relation of the auctoritas sacrata of pontiffs and the potestas of emperors.  I also consider the postmodern, Augustinian radicalism of the likes of John Milbank and William Cavanaugh, and argue that while they make some important points, their theory ultimately suffers from an inadequate theology of grace. Finally, I take another look at Whig Thomism, and locate one of the the roots of its failings in a “personalist” theory of political community.

Catholic Action and Ralliement

In a recent post at The JosiasPetrus Hispanus criticized what he called the “strategy” of Catholic Action, as a form of Catholic political and social engagement  that concedes too much to liberal institutions, and is thus quasi inevitably corrupted by their spirit. Gabriel Sanchez responded at Opus Publicum, arguing that Catholic Action is a core principle of the Church’s social magisterium, and that it is nothing other than social action of Catholics aimed at restoring the sovereignty of Christ in social life. Hispanus then responded to Sanchez, doubling down on his condemnation of Catholic Action. He argues that it was a strategy of using liberal institutions against liberalism, favored by some popes for prudential reasons, but that Catholic’s are not bound to find those reasons actually prudent, and that the results have indeed shown them to be imprudent. The debate is somewhat confused by equivocation on the term “Catholic Action,” but it nevertheless raises an important question. The question could be re-formulated as a question about Pope Leo XIII policy of ralliement— encouraging French Catholics to abandon loyalty to the Ancien Régime— and take part in republican politics, in order to Christianize the Republic. Was ralliement a prudent strategy? There is no agreement about the answer to this question among serious proponents of Catholic Social Teaching, and yet the answer must have far-reaching consequences. I think that both Hispanus and Sanchez would fall on the side of those who argue that it was not prudent, and to some extent I am inclined to agree with them. Continue reading