The Spirit of Burke

In a post on Brexit I had asked the following rhetorical question: “Can much of the spirit of either Burke or Cobbett be found anywhere in practical politics today?” As far as the spirit of Cobbett goes, the question remains rhetorical. But Theresa May’s new Conservative Manifesto has more of the spirit of Burke than one would expect from a successor of Margaret Thatcher. For instance: Continue reading

Secularized Fraternity or Solidarity and the Failure of the European Union

The Preamble to the Treaty of Lisbon, recognizes the influence of “religion” on its “values,” but it sees these values— including solidarity between peoples— as universal and secular. Thus it states:

DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law […] DESIRING to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions […]

Now that Brexit has become Brexibat, and the supposed ‘direction’ of European history has been called into doubt, Pope St. Pius X (if he were still alive today) might be forgiven for saying “I told you so.” In his Apostolic Letter Notre Charge ApostoliqueSt. Pius X rejected the idea that “universal solidarity” or “fraternity”  could be established on any firm basis apart from the Catholic Faith. Fraternity founded on “the love of common interest or, beyond all philosophies and religions, on the mere notion of humanity” is soon swept away by “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” No, he writes, “there is no genuine fraternity outside Christian charity.” Indeed, even if it could succeed a fraternity merely based on enlightened self-interest and a common recognition of humanity would not even be desirable:

By separating fraternity from Christian charity thus understood, Democracy, far from being a progress, would mean a disastrous step backwards for civilization. If, as We desire with all Our heart, the highest possible peak of well being for society and its members is to be attained through fraternity or, as it is also called, universal solidarity, all minds must be united in the knowledge of Truth, all wills united in morality, and all hearts in the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. But this union is attainable only by Catholic charity, and that is why Catholic charity alone can lead the people in the march of progress towards the ideal civilization.

This thesis of Pope St. Pius X’s is actually a common place of Catholic Social Teaching. Russell Hittinger has even argued  (with only slight exaggeration) that of the three ideals of the French Revolution— liberty, equality, and fraternity — the Roman Pontiffs have been especially troubled by fraternity. Quite recently, in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI echoed his predecessors on this point:

Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is. (¶ 19)

Catholic Social Teaching has long noted that three ideals of the French Revolution are secularized Christian ideals. Pope St. John Paul II was re-iterating and old thesis in his controversial (and often misunderstood) homily at Le Bourget in 1980. Unfortunately, however, parts of the le Bourget homily, and other recent magisterial teachings, seem to be endorsing a secularized universal fraternity. As the Lake Garda Statement puts it:

Today, however, the Church’s leaders present her role as merely that of proposing a “contribution” to a vast and quite hopeless neo-Pelagian project in which the United Nations or some other “world political authority” would serve as the juridical framework for a solidaristic world order in which “believers,” regardless of religion, and unbelievers would be co-equal participants.

And this despite the fact that St. Pius X’s words do seem to have been born in the 19th and 20th centuries. The universal brotherhood declared by the French revolutionaries had little weight against “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” The intellectual grasp of common humanity was drowned in the powerful pseudo-religions of nationalism, and ever more internecine wars tore Europe apart, culminating in the previously unimaginable carnage of World Wars I and II.

But after World War II it seemed that a new beginning was possible. The Schuman Declaration recognized that a merely abstract rational solidarity was not enough, and proposed taking concrete steps to fuse the interests of European nations together, hoping that out of the ‘de-facto solidarity’ of national self-interest well understood, a deeper solidarity would develop. Schuman himself, like many of the founding fathers of the EU, was devout Catholic. As Alan Fimister shows in his brilliant study of Schuman and Catholic Social Teaching, Schuman was hoping that the EU would become a new Christendom, inspired by a Faith, which at the time seemed to be reviving. But that is not what happened. As Fimister puts it in a recent article: “Schuman well understood […] that the European project of Christian Democracy, if it became anti-Christian, ‘would be a caricature which would sink into either tyranny or anarchy.’”

As Adrian Pabst has eloquently put it, the actual development of the EU has seen a fusion of “Anglo-Saxon free-market economics with continental bureaucratic statism.” That is, the “common interest” of EU has pursued by means of a violent and anti-traditional economic mechanism, and it’s rational “notion of humanity” has been given form (to quote Pabst again) in “Kantian morality of context-less duties, Weberian statecraft void of virtue, and Bismarckian quasi-military management of citizens through centralised welfare,” yielding a uninion that is “abstract, administrative and alien vis-a-vis its citizens.”

And yet, Pabst was arguing against Brexit, and many of his colleagues in Radical Orthodoxy have done the same. In his reaction to Brexibat, John Milbank writes:

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy.

Is this true? Can much of the spirit of either Burke or Cobbet be found anywhere in practical politics today? There certainly seems to be very little of either spirit on either side of the Brexit debate. Would that Leave and Remain could have both lost! One prominent Burkean, however, has made an argument virtually opposite to Milbank’s: Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton argues that the EU is really anti-European, and that by leaving the European Union the United Kingdom will have a chance at saving the best parts of the European heritage. But as for me, I think that Edmund Burke himself was right when, over two hundred years ago, he declared the glory of Europe was gone forever:

But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.

On Weddings in Novels

Print

An essay of mine has just been published in a volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul, edited by Eric Austin Lee and Samuel Kimbriel. It’s the first time that I have contributed an essay in an actual, printed book, and so I am perhaps slightly inordinately proud of it.

My essay is on the portrayal of the soul in the novel. I argue that the novel  developed as a literary form particularly suited to the modern view of the subject as an isolated res cogitans separate from the res extensa and also from other res cogitantes, except to the extent that it enters into voluntary relationships with other subjects

Following Ian Watt, I argue that this explains not only the form of the novel, but also to a large extent the main theme of English novels since Samuel Richardson: love between a man and a woman usually terminating in marriage. As I put it in my essay,

Capitalism having destroyed the interpersonal ties of more organic societies and replaced them with cold contractualism, freely chosen relationships took on a great importance: especially the relationship of husband and wife, which, disengaged from other areas of life, becomes a matter of personal choice. (p. 204)

Now it occured to me recently that since marriage here is important mostly for its subjective purpose of overcoming the isolation of the individual, rather than for its role in a larger society, it makes sense that while proposals of marriage play a prominent role in novels, actual weddings are surprisingly rare. Moreover, on the rare occasions when a wedding is actually described, it is often described as being a small, private affair, rather than a great feast for a whole community.

Take for example David Copperfield’s wedding to Agnes. If anyone might be expected to ignore the novelistic convention of small weddings, one would think it would be Dickens, who has so much concern with “social” problems and so on, and is by no means so devoted to the classical novelistic purpose of giving a window into the depths of the res cogitans as more formally perfect novelists. Moreover, David Copperfield is by the time of his wedding to Agnes a national celebrity, who might be expected to have a very wide social circle. (Even in our lamentable time celebrities like to have big weddings; witness Francesco Totti’s wedding at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which was televised so that the whole of Italy could be, as it were, present). And yet this is how Dickens describes David and Agnes’s wedding:

Traddles and Sophy, and Doctor and Mrs. Strong, were the only guests at our quiet wedding.

A notable exception to the rule, however, is (spoiler alert:Mary and Frank’s wedding in Trollope’s Dr ThorneIt is a truly magnificent affair in which not only all the friends and relations of the Thornes and Greshams are present, but also all the dignitaries of Barsetshire, and (significantly) all the common people dependent on the Greshams.

The reason for this, it seems to me, is that Dr Thorne is really about the conjunction of two different worlds, and of two different views of marriage. The Greshams are an old aristocratic family whose position in the community is threatened by new economic realities of 19th century England. The only practicable way for Frank to save his position, and thus the whole way of life of his family, and to a certain extent of the whole community, is to marry someone rich. But of course he falls in love with Mary Thorne, who is very poor. The interesting thing about the novel is the way in which both Frank and Mary are torn about their prospective marriage— both acknowledge the importance of personal choice and love (so central to the bourgeois ideal of marriage that is the main theme of novels), and yet both also see the importance of saving Frank’s position, and the suffering that their marriage would consequently bring on the whole community. There are two apparently incommensurable moral ideals in conflict here. This conflict is only resolved by the fortuitous circumstance of Mary’s inheriting the fortune of a railway magnate. Thus bringing a strange synthesis in which the wealth of the new world of railways and industry is used to prop up the old world way of life of the landed gentry. This works quite well in the novel, but it was not a solution that admitted to a general application to the problems of English society.

civil and religious liberty

In the civil wars, the Egremonts pricked by their Norman blood, were cavaliers and fought pretty well. But in 1688, alarmed at the prevalent impression that King James intended to insist on the restitution of the church estates to their original purposes, to wit, the education of the people and the maintenance of the poor, the Lord of Marney Abbey became a warm adherent of “civil and religious liberty,”—the cause for which Hampden had died in the field, and Russell on the scaffold,—and joined the other whig lords, and great lay impropriators, in calling over the Prince of Orange and a Dutch army, to vindicate those popular principles which, somehow or other, the people would never support. (Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil)

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

Schadenfreude and the Elections in the UK

Schadenfreude is not the most noble of human emotions, but it can certainly be very sweet. I must confess that to me the most enjoyable thing about the recent Tory election victory in the UK is the impotent rage and naked despair in the left-wing English newspapers. I don’t much like what passes for Tory politics in England nowadays, and I don’t actually think this Tory victory will make much difference, but the progressives’ despair is really amusing. For a moment the worshipers at the idol of progress doubt their god, and shout in rage at the meaningless nothingness left over after his absence. Continue reading

Blessed Are They That Mourn: Stratford Caldecott and Tradition

Hilaire Belloc calls the dons that taught him at Oxford «The horizon of my memories— / Like large and comfortable trees.» I can apply that expression to the friends of my parents whom I knew as a small child. Since we moved often when I was growing up, there are many who form the horizon of my childhood memories whom I have seen only rarely since. There is something wonderful about meeting those people now (or even just reading their writings), and being able to know them in quite a different way than I did as a child. Continue reading

John Betjeman on Greece (but really on England)

I suppose I am the last person on earth to discover this brilliant poem. It reminds me of my own visit to Greece in 2003, but of course (like all Betjeman poems) it is really about England.

Greek Orthodox 

by John Betjeman

To the Reverend T. P. Symonds

What did I see when first I went to Greece?
Shades of the Sixth across the Peloponnese.
Though clear the clean-cut Doric temple shone
Still droned the voice of Mr Gidney on;
“That hoti? Can we take its meaning here
Wholly as interrogative?” Edward Lear,
Show me the Greece of wrinkled olive boughs
Above red earth; thin goats, instead of cows,
Each with its bell; the shallow terraced soil;
The stone-built wayside shrine; the yellow oil;
The tiled and cross-shaped church, who knows how old
Its ashlar walls of honey-coloured gold?
Three centuries or ten? Of course, there’ll be
The long meander off to find the key.

The domed interior swallows up the day.
Here, where to light a candle is to pray,
The candle flame shows up the almond eyes
Of local saints who view with no surprise
Their martyrdoms depicted upon walls
On which the filtered daylight faintly falls.
The flame shows up the cracked paint– sea-green blue
And red and gold, with grained wood showing through–
Of much-kissed ikons, dating from, perhaps,
The fourteenth century. There across the apse,
Ikon- and oleograph-adorned, is seen
The semblance of an English chancel screen.

“With oleographs?” you say. “Oh, what a pity!
Surely the diocese has some committee
Advising it on taste?” It is not so.
Thus vigorously does the old tree grow,
By persecution pruned, watered with blood,
Its living roots deep in pre-Christian mud,
It needs no bureaucratical protection.
It is its own perpetual resurrection.
Or take the galleon metaphor– it rides
Serenely over controversial tides
Triumphant to the Port of Heaven, its home,
With one sail missing– that’s the Pope’s in Rome.

Vicar, I hope it will not be a shock
To find this village has no ‘eight o’clock’.
Those bells you heard at eight were being rung
For matins of a sort but matins sung.
Soon will another set of bells begin
And all the villagers come crowding in.
The painted boats rock empty by the quay
Feet crunch on gravel, faintly beats the sea.
From the domed church, as from the sky, look down
The Pantocrator’s searching eyes of brown,
With one serene all-comprehending stare
On farmer, fisherman and millionaire.

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