Non abbiate paura

One way in which Christ brings peace is by conquering fear:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)

Fear is contrary to peace because one cannot be tranquil as long as one expects to suffer the privation of the good. But the Pascal Mystery removes any cause for fear of any created thing; tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and death itself (cf. Romans 8:35) are no longer fearful because Christ has transformed them by His passion, death, and resurrection into the means by which we are united to His sacrifice and brought to ultimate triumph. Continue reading

Usury and Growth

I am by no means an admire of leftist politics, but I must admit that the English Labour MP in the above clip is attacking a real evil. The so-called payday loan companies that give short-term loans at a very high rate of interest are a particularly clear and extreme example of the injustice of usury. They exploit the distress of the poor, enticing them into an unjust contract, obligating them to exchange (say) £182 for  £100.

Payday loans are clearly absurd, but they are typical for an economic system in which usury is the default solution to bottle necks both in supply and in demand. Leftist analysis of economic injustice is often as insightful as Leftist solutions are disastrous. Take a look at David Harvey’s application of Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capital accumulation to the current situation:

That’s a remarkably pithy summary of the basic underlying dynamics of the system. The first point at which usury enters into the system is in supply. Supply is supposed to work by a capitalist taking money, buying means of production, hiring labour, and and using an industrial technology to produce enough of a commodity to pay for the means of production + labour + a profit. The first point at which usury enters into the system is simply to accumulate enough capital at the right place and time to get the system going. But this means that enough of the commodity has to be produced to pay for means of production + labour + interest on debt + a profit. Unless of course one delays re-paying the debt, for then one can reinvest part of the profit in an expansion, and pay from the expanded profit. This is the first point at which growth becomes vital: one needs to be able to expand. The imperative to expand is of course also strengthened by competition (not to mention greed).

Now an interesting problem arises: it’s simply what G.K. Chesterton identifies as the basic contradiction of capitalism: namely that it wants the mass of men to be both poor (since their wealth comes from wages) and rich (since they are the capitalist’s customers). Another way of stating the paradox is to say: where does the necessary surplus demand come from to keep the growth going? Marx explains the contradiction by means of a simplified model of the economy: if you had an economy entirely divided between capitalists and workers increase in demand can’t come from the workers, since they can’t possibly spend more money than is paid to them in wages. So the capitalists themselves have to supply the surplus effective demand. But how is that possible? Well, the answer is of course by usury. But now it’s lending money to the consumer. Credit cards are a great example here. This is money lent to increase demand in order to drive growth. So now you have a system in which both supply and demand are financed by usury which always depends on future expansion. Hence debt increases with the growth of the economy. The whole thing is an elaborate Ponzi scheme that only works as long as there is a very high rate of growth.

But of course one can answer to this that in fact it has worked pretty well. Every once in a while there’s a depression in which a lot of people go bust and the system starts over again as it where from scratch, but for the most part the economy keeps growing. And while perhaps we have more usurers making unjust gains than in earlier economies, we also have less people starving. Is constant growth such a bad thing? What about “be fruitful and multiply” and all that. This is the line of argument taken up by Edward Hadas in a book that I have just begun reading. In the introduction Hadas remarks that he began the book intending it to be simply a condemnation of the modern economic world. Synthesizing the thinking of the anti-capitalist Jewish left in which Hadas was raised, and the anti-modernist strand of Catholic Social Teaching to which he had been converted. But soon he came to think that a tout-court condemnation was an inadequate response to what he calls the “pro-life” features of modern industrial capitalist economy. This economy, he contends, allows the world to support many more people, and allowed them to live longer, healthier lives, and expand their knowledge of creation. “A life-lover cannot simply dismiss these accomplishments as meaningless.” (p. xvi) So Hadas goes about trying to formulate a constructive critique of the system. Hadas’s point made me think of a chilling scene in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedomwhere the misanthropic Walter attacks economic growth:

Mainstream economic theory, both Marxist and free-market, Walter said, took for granted that economic growth was always a positive thing. A GDP growth rate of one or two percent was considered modest, and a population growth rate of one percent was considered desirable, and yet, he said, if you compounded these rates over a hundred years, the numbers were terrible: a world population of eighteen billion and world energy consumption ten times greater than today’s. And if you went another hundred years, with steady growth, well, the numbers were simply impossible.  […] “I mean, everybody is so obsessed with growth, but when you think about it, for a mature organism, a growth is basically a cancer, right? If you have a growth in your mouth, or a growth in your colon, it’s bad news, right?” (pp. 121-122)

An anti-life vision if ever there was one. In a brilliant undergraduate essay Caleb Cohoe once made a “pro-life” argument for capitalist economy similar to Hadas’s, in which he points out that Aristotle thought that one had to prevent poverty by limiting population including by infanticide and abortion.

But then again, if one looks at the actual effect of the globalization of the capitalist system in our times one sees that it has spread abortion and contraception to the four corners of the globe. So I’m looking forward to seeing how Hadas’s unfolds his project of a pro-life re-thinking of our economic life.

On Jokes and the Difference between Austria and Prussia

I think that the carnival is an irrational institution, and that St Philip Neri was entirely right to try to abolish it. The irrationality is mostly limited to February, but in German-speaking parts it “officially” begins on the 11th of November. This is because of the confusion of the “little” pre-Advent carnival with the “big” pre-Lent carnival to form one giant “carnival Season”. Various rationalizations have been attempted for the carnival. What interests me about them is that they fall into basically two types, which correspond to the two accounts of the nature of jokes that I referred to in my last post as the Prussian and the Austrian view. Continue reading

Pontificate of Hope

The author's first encounter with Bl. Pope John Paul II

My confrere Pater Johannes Paul and I went to Rome with a group of pilgrims for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. It was tremendously moving and all that sort of thing, but the trip was also kind of exhausting and so I actually fell asleep during the sermon at the Beatification Mass. Reading the sermon when I got back, I was struck by the following passage, in which Pope Benedict gives a remarkably pithy summary of the center of his predecessor’s teaching: Continue reading

The Three Stages of Philosophy in Miniature


A teacher of mine likes to warn me against making the history of thought a system. The hap-hazard currents of the thoughts of men do not really follow the simplistic patterns that lazy generalization likes to see in them. This is all true enough, and yet I am sure that the patterns are not altogether imaginary. So it is always a delightful surprise to me when I find a a kind of microcosm of the history of philosophy, a single thinker who manifests a general pattern in the development of his own thought. When Arturo Vasquez commented on a post of mine I took him to be just one more boring Lefebvrist, but when I then took a look at his blog, from which it at first seemed that he was a Neoplatonist, I was astonished. It was like meeting someone whom one at first takes to be a Thackeray character only to find that he is really a Dickens character. (Was es alles gibt, I said to myself). But it was when I found that he had first tried to be a Thomist and that he is presently moving from Neoplatonism back to his original dialectical materialism that I really began to wonder (Das auch noch! I exclaimed to myself), for this is precisely the pattern that Charles De Koninck describes in his Letter to Mortimer Adler:

Greek philosophy started from naive materialism (Thales . . .), pass through a stage of mathematism (Pythag.-Plato), and finally reached metaphysics with Aristotle.  These phases are of course statistical rather than clear-cut.  Thanks to Christianity exerting a profound extrinsic influence on metaphysics, philosophy reached metaphysical maturity in s.Thomas.  From that very moment we shift back into mathematism with Scotus, Suarez, Descartes, Leibniz etc.  Kant is again definitely a scientist (I take “scientist” in its french meaning).  The only solution to Hegel is Marx.  We have rejoined materialism, but this time no naive materialism: but a perfectly conscious and mature materialism which defines the absolute just as we define prime matter.

What really made me laugh out loud though (no offense, Mr. Vasquez), was Vasquez’s characterization of Thomism:

It is also ironic that something that started out as a means to dialogue with the pagans and heretics (Thomist philosophy) itself became a doctrine foundational to Counter-Reformation Catholicism and a measure of orthodoxy itself. That is sort of the Zizekian vulgar core of Thomism: it is meant to convince only those who believe it that it it can convince the Other who does not believe it, all the while knowing that this isn’t really the case.

This is so ironic and funny on so many different levels. No one can read more than a few pages of S. Thomas without seeing how false it is of him. It is so clear that S. Thomas is concentrated on the reality that he is trying to understand. He developes his philosophy principally for the sake of knowing the truth, and it is only a secondary aim of some of his arguments to show how one might “dialogue” with unbelievers. Now, clearly Vasquez has Thomists in mind rather than S. Thomas himself when he says they are trying to convince their own that they can convince the Other, and perhaps this is true of some Thomists; but the great irony is that it is much more true of all the attempts that I know of trying to baptize dialectical materialism. They are all about justifying one’s belief to the Lacanian big Other (in this case “mainstream” philosophy) which doesn’t actually care about them. And thus it is precisely their “Zizekian vulgarity” which leads them to abandon Thomism. For true Thomism must always be hidden, to quote De Koninck again:

I think Thomism triumphs when it lives in our world today.  But I am also convinced that its life must be hidden, because it is immanence in a world that has eyes only for pure extrinsecism.  Thomism is not “foris”.  There is a mass of Thomists today.  But in this, because it is a mass, there is “malum ut in pluribus”: Thomism has reached therein one of its most profound forms of deformation. By this I do not mean that we should hide it: I mean that ipso facto it becomes hidden as we approach it more profoundly.  The purer our Thomism is, and the better we speak of it, the less it is heard. […] I insist that I am not pessimistic.  I think it is enough that here and there is one who really devotes himself to the object.

The problem with most of those who try to synthesize Christianity with dialectical materialism is that they are not content with devoting themselves to the object, to reality, they cannot stand not to be heard.

Charles De Koninck and Slavoj Žižek, Dialectical Materialism and David of Dinant

Charles De Koninck points out that the difference between dialectical idealism and dialectical materialism is largely an illusion.

The absolute idealism of Hegel is really more materialist than the materialism of Marx. For Hegelian being, being an extreme of indetermination, has much more the character of matter than the matter of the physical order; it is infinitely poorer than prime matter. (On the Primacy of the Common Good, Appendix IV)

Hegel famously taught that the essence of spirit is freedom and that this makes it the opposite of matter.  By saying that he is already saying that its essence is a kind of indetermination, but he sees this kind of indetermination as something which spirit has to attain: “Spirit begins with its infinite possibility, but only its possibility”. That is to say, it begins with the indetermination of pure potency–and that is the very definition of matter. This is why De Koninck compares Hegel to David of Dinant, “who most stupidly posited that God is prime matter.” To say that potency is prior to act is to turn everything upside down, to posit a kind of non-being as the cause of being.  It would follow that everything else is turned arond: plurality is prior to unity, for example. Some of our contemporary dialectical materialists are perfectly willing to draw these conclusions. Witness the uproariously funny Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Žižek, my favorite atheist:

Plurality is prior to unity (This is part of a longer lecture that is very much worth watching; it includes the funniest elevator joke of all time):

Non-being is prior to being:

What makes the “most stupid” position of Dinant so fatefully attractive in Hegel or Žižek? De Koninck argues it is the Promethean glamour of freedom:

For if I am dependent, my being is referred to something else which I am not; I cannot exist independently of something external. I am free on the contrary, when my existence depends upon myself (wenn ich bei mir selbst bin). (Hegel)

The “violence of metaphysics,” that contemporary continental philosophy is so obsessed with, seems to be nothing other than the fact that metaphysics sees us as determined by something (or Someone) greater than ourselves. As De Koninck puts it, “We are not dealing with purely accidental errors of a thought […] these errors have their roots in desire.”