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

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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

Catholic Social Teaching on Lake Garda

Christopher Zehnder has written an excellent post comparing Pope Gregory XVI’s anti-modernism and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. I took a similar approach in my own appreciation of Laudato Si’, praising it for its clear eyed opposition to technocratic modernity. I did, however, also write that I thought Pope Francis ignored “some elements of Catholic Social Teaching that ought really to follow from his own position on human society as a part of the order of creation, and his rejection of technocratic liberalism.” What exactly are those elements that I think he ignores? An answer can be found in the concluding statement of the Symposium of the Roman Forum in Gardone in northern Italy, which I have just finished attending.

The main point is that  it is necessary to insist on the integralist thesis. Universal brotherhood among men can only be founded on an explicit ordering of society to God. Pope Francis certainly wants to convert the world to God, but his silence on integralist themes in his teaching is counter-productive in this regard; it encourages the illusion that it would be sufficient for the Church be contributor to a sort of neo-Sillonist universal brotherhood not based on the subordination of natural society to the supernatural society of the Catholic Church. This is what The Lake Garda Statement argues with great force. The statement follows in full below. Continue reading

St. Gregory Nazianzen on the Primacy of the Common Good in the Spiritual Life

A reader has pointed out that what I call the ‘disastrous conclusion’ that Garrigou-Lagrange draws in the final passage quoted in my last post is drawn almost entirely from quotations from St. Thomas. Including this one: Debet autem homo semper magis sibi providere in spiritualibus bonis, in quibus unusquisque sibi praecipue subvenire potest. (IIa IIae, Q 117, A 1, ad 1). In context there is nothing wrong with such quotations. The problem is the use to which Fr. Garrigou puts them. Compare the Garrigou quote in the last post with St. Gregory Nazianzen agonizing over whether to return from retirement (Oration 12): Continue reading

Was Garrigou-Lagrange a ‘Personalist’?

A few years ago my father discovered and translated Yves Simon’s correspondence on the controversy surrounding Charles De Koninck’s masterpiece, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists. (The translated correspondence will be appearing soon at The Charles De Koninck Project).

Yves Simon was a French émigré philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, who was a friend of Maritain, and on friendly terms with De Koninck. He corresponded with both of them about De Koninck’s book. He was very upset that the book was being taken as an attack on Maritain, as he did not think that Maritain was in fact a ‘personalist’ in De Koninck’s sense. He criticized De Koninck explicitly whom he meant by the ‘personalists’. When De Koninck was lecturing at Notre Dame, Simon had someone ask him whom he had really been attacking. In a letter to Maritain he describes the scene as 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.

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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