Accountability and Paternalism, Imbalance of Power and Civil Friendship

Roger Scruton embodies much of what is most noble in the classical liberal tradition. I find much to agree with in a recent essay of his on the nature of government. I agree with his main thesis that government is an honest good, rather than a merely useful good, as much of the liberal tradition would hold. I also find much of value in the account of political freedom on which he bases his argument, but I think it incomplete and partly wrong.

Scruton rejects most of the atomism and voluntarism of most liberal accounts of freedom. True freedom, he argues, is developed through community: Continue reading

In Praise of John Zmirak

Discarded Image

I’ve called John Zmirak a troll, but now he’s showing himself to be quite a funny, amusing sort of troll. He’s been trolling “illiberal Catholics” again, but this time it’s trolling de haut niveau, and I found it quite clever. The sociological points he makes about “illiberal Catholics” were highly amusing, and not without fundamentum in re. Trolling is an autotelic activity, and Zmirak presumably enjoys it for its own sake, but he is not merely trolling; he also has a serious point to make. So I want to respond to one of the Qs he puts to the likes of me:

Hasn’t the Church historically taken whatever is true in the secular world, used it as a common ground by which to approach the unbelievers, and tried to baptize and elevate it—rather than tear it all down and start from scratch in a barren wasteland. Wasn’t Augustine a patriotic Roman citizen? Or did he endorse the barbarian invasions in some text that you have uncovered from secret archives?

To which I answer: well, yes. In fact I do try to be patriotic (to both of my countries; I have dual citizenship) in the way in which Augustine was patriotic toward Rome. Here’s Augustine on Rome, and I (and I think most “illiberal Catholics”) would say the same sort of thing (mutatis mutandis) of current political (or imperial) communities:

This, then, is the place where I should fulfill the promise gave in the second book of this work, and explain, as briefly and clearly as possible, that if we are to accept the definitions laid down by Scipio in Cicero’s De Republica, there never was a Roman republic; for he briefly defines a republic as the good of the people. And if this definition be true, there never was a Roman republic, for the people’s good was never attained among the Romans. For the people, according to his definition, is an assemblage associated by a common acknowledgment of right and by a community of interests. And what he means by a common acknowledgment of right he explains at large, showing that a republic cannot be administered without justice. Where, therefore, there is no true justice there can be no right. For that which is done by right is justly done, and what is unjustly done cannot be done by right. For the unjust inventions of men are neither to be considered nor spoken of as rights; for even they themselves say that right is that which flows from the fountain of justice, and deny the definition which is commonly given by those who misconceive the matter, that right is that which is useful to the stronger party. Thus, where there is not true justice there can be no assemblage of men associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and therefore there can be no people, as defined by Scipio or Cicero; and if no people, then no good of the people, but only of some promiscuous multitude unworthy of the name of people. Consequently, if the republic is the good of the people, and there is no people if it be not associated by a common acknowledgment of right, and if there is no right where there is no justice, then most certainly it follows that there is no republic where there is no justice. Further, justice is that virtue which gives every one his due. Where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God and yields himself to impure demons? Is this to give every one his due? Or is he who keeps back a piece of ground from the purchaser, and gives it to a man who has no right to it, unjust, while he who keeps back himself from the God who made him, and serves wicked spirits, is just? (Civ. Dei IX,21)

Islamic Integralism: A Subtle Difference

In Christian political integralism the idea of order has great importance. The primary intrinsic common good of the political community is, I have argued, the good of the order of peace. This comes from a view of creation according to which that which God primarily intends in creation is the good of the order of the whole, as the most perfect reflection of the divine beauty. So I was interested to read in Remi Brague’s book The Wisdom of the World that the Islamic idea of creation lacks this emphasis on the order of the whole. Brague notes that while there are parallels between the Islamic idea of “He who excelled in the creation of all things” and the first creation account in Genesis, there is also “an essential, though subtle, difference:”

the totality in the Bible is additive, and here it is distributive; according to the Bible the object of admiration is the entirety of creatures, in the connection that gives them their consistency; according to the Koran it is every creature viewed individually, without any connection to the rest of creation, indeed, without any link other than that with Allah. (p.57)

One can readily imagine that this difference could lead to all kinds of other differences in between Christian and Islamic politics. I don’t now enough about Islam to be able to tell to what extent actual differences between Islamic and Christian societies are connected to this difference, but I should like to look into it more.

I am hoping to visit Iran soon for a conference for a Muslim-Christian conference at the Al-Mustafa International University in Qom. I shall propose this question of the order of the whole of creation as a presentation topic.


If patriotism and love of liberty are beautiful things when well ordered, they are remarkably ugly when disordered. John Brungardt has asked me to respond to a particularly outrageous example of disordered love of liberty from John Zmirak. Zmirak attacks what he calls “illiberal Catholicism” — a name which he applies to (among others) Fr. Michael Baxter (for agreeing with Dorothy Day), Cardinal Dolan (for wanting universal health-care), and Thomas Pink (or those who follow him (for reading Dignitatis Humanae with a hermeneutic of continuity)). He then proceeds to call all of these good people “bleeping crazy,” (or at least to claim that calling them that would  be forgivable), and to compare their political principles to those of Hitler and Stalin. He then musters all the clichés of old-fashioned anti-Catholic polemics, and says that said clichés are all justified to the extent that Catholicism does not embrace the principles of the Enlightenment. Such an embrace he sees as having been developed in the USA, brought to its apex in the Rev. John Courtney Murray, S.J., and accepted by the whole Church at Vatican II. But this acceptance he sees as being under threat from the likes of Patrick Deneen and Thaddeus Kozinski.

Zmirak is evidently what children and journalists nowadays call a “troll,” so I hesitated before agreeing to John’s request–especially since lots of other blogs have already sprung to the defense of “illiberal Catholicism” (e.g.: Rorate Caeli, Cosmos in the Lost, Opus Publicum). But then on it being pointed out to me that lots of our friends basically agree with Zmirak–even though they would not express themselves in such outrageously offensive fashion– I decided to post something after all. Zmirak refers to a group of Catholic thinkers much more worthy of being taken seriously–“men like John Courtney Murray, Michael Novak, Robert George…”–and so I will take this as an opportunity to once again address what I think is wrong with the project of “neo-conservative Catholicism,” or (to use my favorite term) “Catholic Whiggery.”


David Schindler’s Critique of Liberalism

This time I wan’t to look at a critique of Catholic Whiggery developed by a theologian who has devoted a lot of careful thought to the task, and who has entered into direct debate with the Weigel, Novak et al.– namely David Schindler. Schindler’s articles in Communio, and especially his strange and beautiful book Heart Of The World, Center Of The Church, have influenced my own thinking on these things a lot, but I have come to think on the one hand that Schindler doesn’t quite follow his insights to their logical conclusion, and on the other hand that there are certain philosophical imprecisions in his account. His unwillingness to follow all the way through seems to come from a misguided fear of integralism and an acceptance of the common misreading of Dignitatis Humanae (a misreading recently corrected by Thomas Pink). The imprecisions are a bit more complicated, and have to do with being, relation, and the good, and the order of the natural to the the supernatural. If I find anything to criticize in the nouvelle théologie it is usually due to its exponents putting their speculative seven-league boots on when baby steps would be helpful. I shall try to indicate a little that the truths Schindler is driving at can be teased out more precisely with the help of some patient Thomism-of-the-strict-observance from Ronald McArthur and Charles De Koninck. Continue reading

James Fenimore Cooper on the Effects of Love of the Common Good

Although I have serious objections to the political principles of the American Revolution, I nevertheless find much to admire in the love of the common good which the revolutionaries showed. Matthew Peterson has recently written a fascinating study of how that love was manifested in the debates on the American Constitution. I was reminded of this recently, when listening to a lecture by Duane Berquist in which he quotes the following lines from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Spy:

Many years since, the writer of this volume was at the residence of an illustrious man [presumably John Jay], who had been employed in various situations of high trust during the darkest days of the American Revolution. The discourse turned upon the effects which great political excitement produces on character, and the purifying consequences of a love of country, when that sentiment is powerfully and generally awakened in a people. He who, from his years, his services, and his knowledge of men, was best qualified to take the lead in such a conversation, was the principal speaker. After dwelling on the marked manner in which the great struggle of the nation, during the war of 1775, had given a new and honorable direction to the thoughts and practices of multitudes whose time had formerly been engrossed by the most vulgar concerns of life, he illustrated his opinions by relating an anecdote, the truth of which he could attest as a personal witness.

The Feast of the Holy Innocents in Heiligenkreuz

Holy Innocents2

In many monasteries on the Feast of the Holy Innocents the order of seniority is reversed, and the novices rule. This custom is particularly elaborate in the Carmel, as a cousin of mine in the Carmel of Graz attests (cf. also Sackville-West), but it is also among the Cistercians. In Heiligenkreuz the reversal takes place only at lunch. The youngest novice this year gave a very amusing exhortation before lunch.

Holy Innocents

The abbot, prior, cellerar, and novice-master had to serve at table, while the sub-prior read the table reading.

Holy Innocents3

Afterwards the novices commanded that Kaffee und Kuchen be served in the recreation room.

Holy Innocents4

Romano Guardini on Teleology in Nature


I have just discovered that the the Catholic Academy of Bavaria has a searchable concordance of Romano Guardini’s works online. It’s one of those things that I have always wished existed; how splendid to find that it actually exists. The database contains not only the works published during his lifetime, but also many of the lecture notes posthumously published in recent decades. I recently read his lectures on Dante–they are amazingly good. Someone ought to translate them into English. Here is a passage on the arbitrariness of an a-teleological view of nature:

The world is not a mere mass of reality causally ordered, and indifferent from an ethical point of view. That is how modernity sees it. And we would do well to realize clearly that this way of looking at things is not at all the result of science, but rather an a-priori. Modern man sees the world thus not because the world is thus, but rather because that is the way he wants to see it, and thus his view is the result of a selection. Max Weber’s famous definition according to which science must remain value-free–pure ascertainment of fact and analysis of reality– is a postulate, an expression of a certain attitude towards reality, not the result of an authentic encounter with the real. One of the points on which our future hinges is this: whether or not we recognize that the good is not some humanly imposed valuation of things, but rather that condition of the fulfillment of life which is given in being itself.

[Die Welt ist nicht eine vom ethischen Gesichtspunkt aus indifferente Wirklichkeitsmasse, die rein kausal geordnet ist. So sieht sie die Neuzeit, und wir tun gut, uns klarzumachen, daß diese Sehweise durchaus nicht Ergebnis von Wissenschaft, sondern ein Apriori ist. Der neuzeitliche Mensch sieht die Welt nicht so, weil sie so wäre, sondern weil er sie so sehen will, und nach dieser Voraussetzung eine Auswahl vollzieht. Die berühmte Definition Max Webers, wonach Wissenschaft wertfrei bleiben müsse, reine Wirklichkeitserfassung und Wirklichkeitsanalyse, ist Postulat, Ausdruck von Gesinnung, nicht Ergebnis echter Wirklichkeitsbegegnung. Und es ist einer der Punkte, an denen sich unsere Zukunft entscheidet, ob wir wieder erkennen, daß das Gute keine vom Menschen her aufgesetzte Charakterisierung des Daseins ist, sondern im Sein selbst gegebene Voraussetzung der Lebenserfüllung bildet]

Angelic Governance and Human Dignity

As today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels, and St. Thomas Aquinas is called the “Angelic Doctor” partly because of his teaching on the angels, the reader will excuse a dense neo-scholastic reflection on the Gospel of the Feast.


See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)

The greatest good realized in creation, that which the Creator primarily intends in creating, is the good of the tranquility of order, the beautiful harmony that unites all creatures. This is the primary intrinsic good of creation, and the most perfect image of the God Himself, the separate and transcendent good of all things. The goodness of each individual consists in in own participation in being, its own reflection of an “aspect” of the divine Glory, but consists even more in the contribution that it thereby makes to the order of the whole.

Now the order of the whole of creation consists in two things: distinction and governance. In the distinction between different kinds of being and different levels of perfection, and in the governance of lower things by higher—the ordering of the less noble by the participated providence and power of the more noble. By governance the higher creatures help the lower contribute to the harmony of the whole, and finally “return” to the separate good of all things.

The is a great difference in the degree of participation in cosmic order between irrational creatures on the one hand, and rational and intellectual creatures on the other. Irrational creatures, since they lack true interiority cannot attain to the order of whole by knowledge or love, thus their participation in ballet of creation is extrinsic, imperfect—that is, the good of the universal order is a good to which they contribute in a small way, but it is not good for them, they cannot appreciate it. There participation is strictly speaking good for rational creatures, since only rational creatures can understand and enjoy their participation. The principle parts of the universe, the things of which the universe primarily consists, are thus the rational and intelligent creatures. They are the creatures that the universal good is for, in the sense that they enjoy it (Though in a more proper sense they are for it, as the universal good is more good than any particular good).

Since universe consists primarily of intelligent creatures, in the sense that they are its principle parts, and since intelligence is found most properly in purely spiritual creatures, St. Thomas argues that it is fitting that the “intelligences” (angels) exceed all corporeal creatures not only in the intensity of their being but also in their variety and number. As Lawrence Dewan puts it:

Thomas thinks there are good reasons [even apart from Revelation] to propose [the] existence [of angels], and their existence in number and variety such as to surpass incomparably any number of corporeal beings. The created universe, as St. Thomas conceives it, is overwhelmingly spiritual as to its ontological status, an assembly of spiritual substances or persons. ‘The universe’ is primarily a group of persons.” (Wisdom, Law, and Virtue: Esays in Thomistic Ethics, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, p. 273)

However wonderful the numerical superiority of spiritual things over corporeal, far more important, and better known, is their intensive superiority to corporeal creation. Charle De Koninck has a wonderful summary of this in the second part of Ego Sapientia, which is concerned with the lowliness of Our Lady in the order of nature. He writes:

At the peak of creation, seen from the purely natural point of view, one finds the angels, pure spirits, beings very perfect according to substance and operation. Their essence being simple, each one of them constitutes in himself a complete and individual species subsisting outside of every naturally common genus. Each exhausts a degree of being. Radically hierarchised, each angel occupies an absolutely determined place in this hierarchy. Even the most inferior pure spirit constitutes in himself a universe incomparably more perfect than the cosmos and humanity together.

De Koninck proves this by considering how pure spirits are naturally superior to human beings, the most perfect corporeal thing. While man is composed of matter and form, of potency and act, and thus has the principle of his own passing away with himself, the angels are entirely necessary—the do not contain in themselves any principle of non-being. This is why in the world of men, unlike in the angelic world, so much is a matter of chance:

We are living at the border of the universe in which we are diffused, both as regards substance according to quantity, and duration according to time. Our days and places are uncertain. All here below is variable and precarious, and it is only by great effort that we sometimes succeed in impressing a momentary direction upon things. It is only by a habituation that blinds us and by a kind of animal resignation that we have become unconscious of the immense confusion in which we live, where violence alone seems capable of awakening us. Our substance is truly at the border of being.

The contrast is even starker if one looks at the act which is most defining of intelligent beings: knowledge. The angelic mind is in act from the very start of its being, a ray light as it where that takes in all things, that comprehends all creation with very few and powerful ideas. But the human mind begins in darkness, a purely potential intellect, which only begins to find some sparks of light through abstraction from exgternal, corporeal things: “The need of shadows of the sensible world originates in the weakness of our intelligence. By nature our rational life is the least perfect intellectual life conceivable.” (Ego Sapientia, ch. XIX)

Nevertheless, despite all this imperfection, human life, is an intellectual life, and as such it is able to attain to the good of God’s manifestation of Himself in the order of His creation, and (through grace) beyond that to the vision of God Himself. And this is what gives us our dignity.

This dignity is manifested by the fact that each human person has their own guardian angel—a pure spirit, who sees the beatific vision of God, and who is yet concerned with governing an individual man. We are part of the corporeal world of things, that comes to be and passes away, and yet we transcend it. God’s providence is chiefly concerned with things that endure forever, and only secondarily with passing things. Thus St. Thomas teaches that the angels concerned with governing the corporeal world are not set over individual things (destined to pass away), but only with the species of things which perdure. But individual human persons are not destined to pass away, and thus each one has a guardian angel, a governing intelligence. Children manifest most clearly the human condition of potentiality, ignorance, and weakness, and yet their angels in heaven always behold the face of the Father, and the task of those angels is to lead the children themselves to that vision, and in that destiny lies their dignity.

What is the Primary Intrinsic Common Good of Political (or Imperial) Community?

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Does the American political tradition at its best consider the good of the republic to be something good in itself, an honest good, or merely a useful good, an instrument to aid citizens in the attainment of their private goods? In a recent discussion of this question a friend of mine proposed looking at American patriotic poetry rather than political treatises. His idea, if I understand him aright, is that while on a theoretical level American political thought has tended to deny the primacy of the common good, the American people have a natural and implicit love for and understanding of the true political good, and this is expressed in their patriotic songs etc. This points to an interesting tension in modern liberal democracies between their theoretical self-understanding and the image of themselves that the must propose to the imagination of their citizens. Continue reading