In Defense of a Certain Kind of Story About the Origins of Modernity

Alan Jacobs recently posted an outline of an argument against a certain sort of story about the origins of modernity told by many Thomists—the sort of account given by Gilson in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages and by Maritain in Three Reformers; the Ockham→ Luther→ Calvin→ Bacon→ Descartes→ modernity tale of decline. Jacob’s makes six complaints about this sort of account. No two versions of the account are the same, and so Jacobs focuses on the versions of it presented by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation  and Thomas Pfau in Minding the Modern. I haven’t read Pfau, but I have read Gregory, and while I would quibble with some of his points, I agree with the basic outline of his argument. So I disagree with Jacobs, and in what follows I give a brief response to all six of his complaints. Continue reading

Post-Novelistic Age


Olivier Charles’s design for the Stockholm Library

Essays by novelists lamenting the de-throning of the novel as the preeminent narrative art form of our culture have become a familiar genre. Jonathan Franzen is a particularly distinguished practitioner of the form. Recently Will Self published such an essay in the Guardian. Self (what a marvelous name for a novelist!) argues that the novel has been dethroned by the emergence of less challenging media of narration. The decline began, he thinks, a long time ago with the emergence of film, radio, TV and such things. The novel itself began when certain conditions in the technology of print media were developed, it then lasted beyond its time—all the way up till the late 20th century it retained great cultural power—but now it is almost finished becoming a niche-art without influence on the wider culture. Continue reading

Bizarre Encounter with Anti-clericalism


A few days ago I was walking along in the main building of the University of Vienna on my way to the library, thinking about something abstract and not paying attention to my surroundings, when suddenly a grey haired, vaguely professorial looking man was walking next to me and saying: “Do you know: they used to tell children not to whistle?” I looked at him blankly. “Do you know where that comes from? It’s because they weren’t allowed to whistle in Church.” I was at a loss as to what to say. He regarded me for an instant in silence and then said: “How repressive! Telling children not to whistle! … I experienced this myself!” And then, shaking his head, “I don’t know if you are on the right path, young man, I don’t know.”

I thought to myself: “Seriously? We’re standing in the University of Vienna where year after year clever professors lecture large audiences on how the Church served to dupe the people, keeping them docile to the ruling class, comforting them with lies and illusions, turning the aggression caused by  their oppression away from the oppressors and toward themselves (penance) or toward heretics and Jews; or how She violently repressed the deepest human drives, laying on our culture a staggering burden of guilt, causing all kinds of psychosis, neurosis and so on; or how even now She is a nest of unspeakable hypocrisy and exploitation or whatever… And yet when you see a priest you feel compelled to go up to him and complain about… kids being forbidden to whistle? Seriously?”

Afterwards I came up with three theories about what might have been going on:

1) He had been whistling when he saw me and involuntarily stopped, causing a chain of thought that ended in his bizarre speech. (I didn’t hear him whistling, but then I wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on).

2) He meant it as a kind of masterpiece of understatement. As in the young Žižek writing in one party Yugoslavia: “Latest election polls: it looks like the Communists will win yet again!” This would fit with the ironical and understated character of Viennese people generally, and Viennese anti-clericals in particular.

3) (The least satisfying, but most plausible theory). There is no intelligible explanation. It was an act of random irrationality; the social equivalent of a Lucretian swerve.

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

The Prince and the State in the Third Millennium

His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein, was in these parts a few weeks ago giving a lecture at the International Theological Institute in Trumau. The basic idea of the lecture (which was based on His Highness’s book, The State in the Third Millenium, and is pretty well summarized in the interview embedded above) was that the state in the third millennium should be a service company providing certain useful goods to its citizens. His Highness explained that he was lead to this rather prosaic vision by the problem of religious freedom as it is understood today. The traditional legitimation of the monarchy had of course been Divine Right, but once Enlightenment style religious pluralism become accepted as the norm, such a legitimation became problematic. The Prince went in search of another model, and, living in Liechtenstein, it was perhaps not altogether surprising that he came up with a pretty boring shop-keeperish, paleo-capitalist, democratic legitimation: one which sees the ruling family as a sort of old and trusted family business (as Aelianus put it in the Q&A). The purpose of his book is to propose his model as the model for the state in the third millennium.

There are numerous objections that one could raise against His Highness’s model. If there is one thing that Marxist economics has shown, it is that the internal contradictions of capitalism are such that stability in one place can only be bought at the price of instability in another place. The stable prosperity of Liechtenstein and Switzerland can only be maintained because other places pay the price for their usury. Sometime I shall explore that theme in more detail (it basically follows from what Chesterton says about the capitalist wanting the same man to be rich and poor at the same time), but now I want to focus on another objection.

The most obvious objection is that this model is too boring. In the Q&A I asked His Highness what he thought of the future of a rival model: the model which Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has developed in Russia. I quoted a Russian friend of mine who says that he doesn’t care about the lack of civil rights or any of that kind of stuff; what he cares about is that under Putin Russia is again trying to assert her power. He cares about the glory of Russia. This is the sort of timocratic vision of a state that one can rally armies around. And that is why I don’t think a paleo-capitalist, cuckoo-clock democratic model of the state is really going to be the wave of the future. I rather tend to agree with Slavoj Žižek’s oft repeated prediction that the state in the third millennium is likely to follow the late-capitalist authoritarian model of Putin and Berlusconi.

His Serene Highness gave an interesting reply. He said that man is a strange creature. On the one hand he is an individualist who looks out for his private interest, but on the other hand he also has a “herd instinct”, which leads him to seek group-inclusion and to massacre those who are not part of his group. The herd instinct (said His Serene Highness) is best satisfied by the communal satisfactions of religion, but when religion is weak it finds an outlet in destructive ideologies such as nationalism.

This is a rather pessimistic view of man: divided between selfish greed and irrational mob ecstasy. St. Thomas would argue that there is another side of man that is the proper principle of political community: his ability to participate in common goods. The common good, properly speaking, appeals both to man’s natural love of his own fulfillment–since it is the good of those who participate in it–but also to his communal nature–for it is a good superior to his own singular good. But, as I have argued before, to be ordered to the common good in the proper sense it is necessary that a political community order its common good explicitly to God. Thus we see that it follows from the acceptance of the  “enlightened” separation of Church and state that the only models of the state left are Prince Hans-Adam’s boring model, Vladimir Putin’s oppressive one, or some mixture of the two.

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.”