“Of course it’s complicated,” continued Arthur, “but when you come to look into it it comes out clear enough. It is one of the instances of the omnipotence of capital. Parliament can do such a thing, not because it has any creative power of its own, but because it has the command of unlimited capital.” Mr. Wharton looked at him, sighing inwardly as he reflected that unrequited love should have brought a clear-headed young barrister into mists so thick and labyrinths so mazy as these. (Trollope, The Prime Minister)
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
I am very grateful to the four cardinals who submitted dubia about the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia to the Holy Father. With humility and reverence before the Vicar of Christ, and “supreme teacher of the faith,” they ask him to answer some specific questions about how Amoris Laetitia is consistent with previous teachings of the Church. As they note, uncertainty has been caused by conflicting interpretations, and they ask the Holy Father to bring clarity by responding definitely to their questions. Continue reading
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.
I was one of those who was surprised by Donald Trump’s election. I had not even expected it too be close. I had thought Clinton would win by a mile. I thought that, when push came to shove, voters would not go for a man so evidently a slave of base passion— a man of intemperance, imprudence, lust, vainglory, and avarice; a liar, a cheat, a bully, and an egoist; a cartoon billionaire and a Twitter troll. I should have known better. The election helps to raise a lot of questions about the relation of politics and virtue within the horizons of liberalism. To what extent will voters in a liberal society demand virtue of their politicians? And what sort of virtue? Or to what extent does liberalism really reduce politics into a technique, rendering virtue irrelevant? Was the victory of Trump more a rejection of liberalism, or more a triumph of liberalism? These are some of the questions that have been thinking about since the result became clear. Continue reading
He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. (The Screwtape Letters)
… What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. (Hamlet)
Jake Meador has a thoughtful post up at Mere Orthodoxy distinguishing three models of how Christians should act toward the world: “radical Augustinianism” (a term that he explicates with quotes from my piece on Gelasian Dyarchy), “magisterial Protestantism,” and “illiberal Catholicism” (i.e. Catholic integralism). Meador himself is a magisterial Protestant. The magisterial Protestants resemble illiberal Catholics in that they too favor using temporal power (“the magistrate”— hence the term “magisterial”) to further the aims of the Kingdom of God. Meador distinguishes magisterial Protestantism from Catholics by two features: the Protestant doctrine of “vocation,” and the “priesthood of all believers.” I think that both of these doctrines are vulgar, bourgeois distortions of Pauline theology. In this post I want to attack only the first: the Protestant doctrine of vocation. Continue reading
Ross Douthat of the New York Times is one of the most consistently interesting newspaper columnists. While remaining within the tradition of classical liberalism, he nonetheless understands the problems of liberalism more than most, and is more sympathetic to anti-liberal thinkers. In his latest column, he discusses various kinds of resistance to liberalism among “young writers” who “regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed.” He points out the weaknesses of the liberal system, which,
…delivered peace and order and prosperity, but … attenuated pre-liberal forces – tribal, familial, religious — that speak more deeply than consumer capitalism to basic human needs: the craving for honor, the yearning for community, the desire for metaphysical hope.
He thens gives a sort of taxonomy of post-liberals. “New radicals” on the left “infused with an exasperation with procedural liberalism, an eagerness to purge and police and shame our way toward a more perfect justice.” And “neo reactionaries” on the right, “a group defined by skepticism of democracy and egalitarianism, admiration for more hierarchical orders, and a willingness to overthrow the Western status quo.” Finally he looks at “religious dissenters” from the liberal consensus, who consider that liberalism’s “professed tolerance stacks the deck in favor of materialism and unbelief.” In the online version of the column he links Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option here, along with (I was glad to see) one of my own recent posts here on Sancrucensis, The Josias, and Tradinista!
At the end of the column though, he raises a discouraging possibility: namely that the post-liberal movements that he mentions might paradoxically end up helping the liberal order to preserve itself by supplying it with “forces that a merely procedural order can’t generate… radical and religious correctives to a flattened view of human life.” I think that he is right to see that the resilience of the liberal order rests in part on its perennial ability to co-opt and assimilate its enemies. Douthat would see that as a good thing, I think, because he is not truly anti-liberal. But to me it is a discouraging thought.
Header Image: Michael Fuchs ©.
A group with the strange name Tradinista has published a manifesto, and a defense of Catholic “socialism” in three parts (part I, part II, part III). To understand the background of the tradinistas it is helpful to look back at Patrick Deneen’s 2014 essay in The American Conservative, A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching. Deneen argued that the really interesting controversy among American Catholics is not that between “liberals” and “conservatives,” but rather between two sorts of Catholics who could both be termed “conservative” in the conventional sense: firmly believing in Catholic doctrine and staunchly pro-life. On the one hand Deneen put “neoconservatives” such as George Weigel, Richard John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak, who followed the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., in proclaiming the compatibility of Catholicism and liberal democracy. On the other hand he described a group of “radical” Catholics, followers of Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler. The “radical” Catholics, Deneen writes, “[reject] the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible.” Liberalism, they claim is not the value-neutral procedural framework that its proponents would have us to believe. Rather it is the political and cultural embodiment of certain substantive philosophical views. Liberalism bases itself on an individualistic view of human beings, in which political and social community of all kinds are formed by voluntary— as it were contractual— agreement of sovereign individuals. The radical Catholics thus claim that liberalism is fundamentally at odds with Catholicism, which holds rather that human persons are,
by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are “natural,” not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the “social” realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is certainly not an ‘integralist’ in my sense of the word, but there are moments when he comes very close. Consider the following passage of The Yes of Jesus Christ, written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:
the greatness of soul of the human vocation reaches beyond the individual aspect of human existence and cannot be squashed back into the merely private sphere. A society that turns what is specifically human into something purely private and defines itself in terms of a complete secularity (which moreover inevitably becomes a pseudo-religion and a new all-embracing system that enslaves people)— this kind of society will of its nature be sorrowful, a place of despair: it rests on a diminution of human dignity. A society whose public order is consistently determined by agnosticism is not a society that has become free but a society that has despaired, marked by the sorrow of man who is fleeing from God and in contradiction with himself. A Church that did not have the courage to underline the public status of its image of man would no longer be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city set on a hill. (p. 76)
Jacob Klein’s work on the difference between the transformation of the ancient concept of number in modernity, showing how the that transformation stands at the roots of modern science and philosophy, is I think the most illuminating work on modern origins that I have ever read. Klein’s friend Strauss once wrote the following of Klein’s work:
Klein was the first to under stand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and of Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra. No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intention; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncracy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. Not indeed a proof but a sign of this is the fact that less than half a dozen people seem to have read it, if the inference from the number of references to it is valid. Any other man would justly be blamed for misanthropy, if he did not take care that such a contribution does not remain inaccessible to everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik and in addition does not read German with some fluency. One cannot blame Klein because he is excused by his idiosyncracy.