To which of these two civilizations is temporal victory promised? I answer this question with no hesitation, with no heaviness of heart, that temporal victory will go inevitably to the philosophic [modernist] civilization. Has man desired to be free? He will be. Does he abhor bonds? They will fall to pieces at his feet. There was a day when, in order to experience liberty, man decided to kill God. Did he not do it? Did he not place Him on a cross between two thieves? Did the angels, perchance, come down from heaven to defend the Just One suffering agony on earth? Well, why would they descend now, when it is not a matter of the crucifixion of God, but of the crucifixion of man by man?…As for myself, I hold it proven and evident that evil will always triumph over good here below, and the triumph over evil is something reserved for God, if it can be said, personally…
It should not be said that if defeat is certain, the struggle is useless. In the first place, the struggle might delay the catastrophe; in the second place, the struggle is a duty, and not simply for those who consider themselves Catholics. We should give thanks to God for having granted us the struggle, and not ask, in addition to the grace of combat, the grace of triumph, for in His infinite goodness He reserves for those who fight well in His cause a reward greater than victory.
—Juan Donoso Cortes, in a letter to the Count de Montalembert, translated by Vincent McNamara and Michael Schwartz
I try not to pay attention to them, but I haven’t been able to completely avoid hearing about the aspiring Republican candidates. Except for Gingrich, they’re not a bad lot personally, but all these primaries mean that we’re forced to look at the ugly reality that is “Republican ideas“. I’m afraid I don’t think that anybody who is sympathetic to the idea of imposing a flat tax or of bombing Iran has any business being anywhere near political power–the first because I can’t imagine why a massive transfer of tax burden from the rich to the middle class, and a corresponding transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich, would be a desirable thing, the second because I generally think wars are things to be avoided, at least when there is absolutely no reason for provoking one. Then there’s the whole “The national debt is out of control! We have to cut taxes!” think that just makes it hard to take them seriously. Yes, among the Republican establishment, we social conservatives are morons for supporting normative gender roles, but holding as dogma that the U.S. economy is always on the right side of the Laffer curve–that’s the heart of conservatism, right? It pains me to say it, but it is now the Republicans who are the class warfare party. Revenue neutral tax change by definition means a burden is being taken off one group and put onto another. Hence, neoconservative publications–even First Things, as I’ve noted before–have started making noises about how the bottom half aren’t pulling their tax weight, and republican virtue demands that those slackers pony up. On the other hand, corporate income taxes and capital gains taxes must be reduced. It was hard work, but the Republicans have succeeded in living down to image of them painted by their enemies. They do make the Democrats’ accusation of being the rich man’s party hard to dismiss.
Sometimes they try to prove that they’re the “conservative” party, but this doesn’t impress me, since the Republicans don’t know what conservatism means. I’m more reactionary than anyone registered with that party, and I see no reason why people shouldn’t be forced to buy health insurance–put an end to those free riders, I say! I also don’t understand this stubborn refusal to consider the possibility that global warming is real and man-made. What does any of this have to do with defending Christendom and the patriarchal family?
The Republicans simply can’t be trusted with power. They would do no good on the issues we care about, but because we are unfairly associated with them in the public mind, their incompetence would tarnish us. I can’t work up any desire to see them defeat even our unambiguous enemies–the baby-killing, sodomy-promoting anti-clerical Democrats.
Why, though? Why can’t a national party even appear to be worthy of public trust? The end of the Cold War has been very bad for the Republicans. Back when communism ravaged half the world and promised to bring its hellish rule to the other half, the Republican positions kind of made sense. It was good and necessary that the one nation capable of resisting the Reds should do so, making its own the interests of all mankind. Today, the Red menace is gone, and American hegemony has become a fact in search of a purpose. In the face of communist agitation, condemnations of “socialism” and defenses of the free market as by far the lesser evil were also good and necessary. Today, nobody’s talking about nationalizing industries, and all this talk about “socialism” is meaningless. The Cold War gave the Republicans a sensible stand on foreign policy and economics–the two areas in which they got a reputation for being “strong”. The lack of a communist threat rendered all of that irrelevant.
Still, one would think that the collapse and discrediting of socialism would have been more disorienting for the parties of the Left. Yet they got through it without a hitch, arguably stronger than before, now that they were no longer associated (fairly or not) with a brutal tyranny. And the center-right parties went into ideological drift, no longer sure what their purpose was to be, and easy prey to every charismatic charlatan looking for followers.
I think the ultimate reason is the rout of conservatives from academia. People on this blog–including, sometimes, me–attack the pretensions of experts, but one really can’t run a modern nation-state without them. The Republicans have no experts that they can trust, so they’re running blind. The physicists tell them that their missile defense plan will never work. That’s something we should be able to speak on. However, the Republicans knew that most physicists are commies and would rather America not be able to defend herself from Soviet or Chinese missile attack; therefore, the experts can’t be trusted. So the Republicans insisted on throwing more and more money at this boondoggle. The Republicans decide that we should put a manned base on the moon, and then put men on Mars. Where did they get this hare-brained idea? Certainly not from the astronomers; we would have told them what a waste of money this is and how it will cripple the valuable space exploration and science work that NASA has been and is doing. But most of us are commies, so another boondoggle had to be carried along until a Democratic president thankfully killed it. And those are just the two biggest partisan issues in my personal field.
The Republicans thought they could do without the universities, because they would have think tanks instead. This has obviously not worked out. Academia’s peer review process is certainly imperfect, but the think tank system seems to be totally without merit. Throw enough money at unaffiliated intellectuals, and you’ll find people to tell you want you want to hear.
I of course have a prejudice, given where I work, that universities are the center of the world. There is some truth to it though. I would rather that my beliefs were respectable among the intellectual elite than that they could win votes among the masses. The masses have inertia but no initiative. What the elite want them to believe, they will believe; it just takes a generation to make the shift.
Serendipitously I was musing this morning on how conservatives must be autodidacts because the educational-informational establishment won’t present their views fairly and engage in exactly the sort of exclusionary behavior Bonald describes (this before I read your post and followed the link to his). In schools and everywhere people are presented with the best of liberal-progressive theory, such as it is, and told conservatives just follow tradition; if they’re presented with any traditionalist arguments, they are weak and out of context. To learn what traditionalist views and reasons actually are, you have to be an autodidact, and since Sturgeon’s Law applies (“90 percent of everything is crud”), most people get a misrepresented sample (they learn the “best” progressive thought in schools, presented with varying degrees of dogmatism. Thus even when they encounter the shoddier reasons outside of school, they were informed of better ones. But they have to sift through everything to find the best traditional/conservative arguments on their own, and thus get the impression that on the whole liberals are more thoughtful than conservatives).
I think Bonald’s key observation is precisely the ironic one: that those who deny the validity of tradition are currently the only ones with any kind of intellectual tradition, while conservatives have to re-invent their position anew every generation since the institutions through which they would pass and build on their thought have been progressively (literally) demolished. (This is one area where, whatever your other disagreements with Moldbug might be, he has been quite good at analyzing the plight conservatives find themselves in, and why, as a result, they are in continual retreat regardless of the fact that their views are really no less reasoned than that of progressives, and progressives are no less dogmatic and, ultimately, unreasoned than they charge conservatives with being). The irony is that those who denied there is a (Western) “canon” are the only ones who really have a canon anymore, at least in the sense that matters (passed down through established intellectual institutions. As you’ve pointed out, even the churches are no longer reliable on this, and the less said about universities, the better).
I feel sometimes like we’re in Tigger’s position where everything is a key priority that must be fixed, but this one really is. To that end Moldbug, again, offers worthy suggestions: using technology we can now access old books that our progressive “friends” in the educational establishment have no interest in letting anyone know even exist (and which most of them, having passed through a progressive education establishment themselves, aren’t even aware exist). Major work should be done on creating a conservative/traditionalist intellectual repository, and finding a way to publicize its existence broadly so that people become aware of it, and thus can use it as a resource. Something along the lines of what has already been done for K-12ers for Homeschoolers (itself rather imperfect), but for advanced education.
We know we won’t get any help or sympathy from the establishment in doing this, even the supposed “conservative” establishment. Perhaps think upon it as a new Monastic movement for a new Dark Age.
By “Tigger” he means the Winnie the Pooh character, right? I’m afraid I missed the reference. Oh well, doesn’t matter.
This is an interesting, and more detailed, explanation of how having an intellectual tradition gives liberals a real edge. For maintaining such a tradition, institutions are key, institutions that are themselves intellectually active and operating relatively outside mundane politics, such as universities.
I’m not sure what most conservatives would think about traditionalism becoming somewhat self-referential. I, of course, am all for it; I would very much like us to stop reinventing the wheel every generation. If nothing else, it’s not conducive to a healthy respect for ancestors to believe liberals when they say past generations had no reasons for their beliefs. On the other hand, I think it’s important to many traditionalists that conservatism is not the tradition they’re defending. The political philosophical project is a lower, slightly unclean activity that must be done so that they and others can enjoy their real traditions–religious or regional–without having these contaminated by politics. I do appreciate the importance of not becoming so obsessively partisan that one lets, say, Christian orthodoxy or the spirit of the South, mean nothing but an opposition to the liberalism working to destroy it. On the other hand, I think the development of traditionalism really has added to the traditions. They have become self-conscious, in a way, through it. Their will to survive has been articulated through it. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the antimodernist writings of the popes have contributed to the Church’s settled doctrine. I think there is no corruption, no loss, in allowing it to become a part of a tradition that that tradition should be preserved, and that it is not made bad by offenses against freedom or equality.
The obituary for this blog was written before I typed its first line: “Here lies Throne and Altar. It’s author was a sexually repressed, closed-minded, hypocrite who never had any reasons for his beliefs except a blind faith in tradition.” Not one word I’ve ever written could be used as evidence for any of those assertions, but that hardly matters when the enemy has a louder speaker, and I can hardly complain, given that this has been the fate of so many men better than myself.
Here’s The Social Pathologist taking a first draft. We traditionalist conservatives, you see, see no need to think because we assume that tradition is infallible and want to precisely replicate the past. Now, it doesn’t matter that not one social conservative–not I, not Jim Kalb, not Allan Carlson, not Roger Scruton, not Laura Wood, not Gerry Neal, not Alte, not Jerry Sayler, not R. R. Reno, not Larry Auster, not Robert George, not Proph, not rkirk, not anyone he or I would call a traditionalist or social conservative–has ever espoused the absurd position he attributes to us. (Our rather more nuanced attitude toward tradition is explained here.) Why bother addressing–or even acknowledging the existence of–the reasons for our beliefs when SP can apparently just peer into our souls and know–without ever having met any of us or being able to adduce any evidence for it in our writings–that we’re really just motivated by a neutrotic refusal to acknowledge female sexual desire? I really wouldn’t mind if SP just said that he was unconvinced by our reasons for refusing to share his enthusiasm for game and female careerism, but it’s really impossible to carry out a dialogue with someone who simply refuses to admit that we have reasons but just goes on to make up discreditable motives to impugn us with. In fairness to SP, the temptation for one side (the “moderate” one) in an intraconservative dispute to use Leftist stereotypes to tar their opponents is always very strong. The stereotypes are part of the general pseudoknowledge, so they can generally be flung about without evidence for them demanded, and it’s an easy way to gain the sympathy of Leftist onlookers. What we’re seeing is a reoccuring feature in conservative history.
Paul Gottfried tells the story in Conservatism in America of how the neoconservatives took over the conservative movement, expelled their enemies, and then announced to the world that for the first time conservatism would now have intellectual substance and a strong grounding in reason. As Gottfried points out–and it should be obvious from the intellectual output of the two eras–this was egregiously false. The pre-takeover traditionalists maintained a level of culture and theoretical depth that the neoconservatives never matched, even before they descended into partisan hacks. (Gottfried sees this, even though he has disagreements with both camps of conservatives.) Note that the neocon victors didn’t say that their rivals’ reasoning was flawed or unclear; they simply denied its existence altogether and so didn’t have to bother responding to traditionalists’ criticisms. They were able to do this by playing on the Leftist stereotype of the unthinking traditionalist; they knew if they played that card, the Leftist media would back them up.
Of course, the idea that the continental European conservatives were blind partisans of tradition with no defensible reasons for their beliefs–”immoderate and inferior copies of Burke” as I’ve put it–has been repeated so many times with such assurance that no one seems to care anymore that there is no truth to it whatsoever. For example, Louis de Bonald’s most famous book, On Divorce, contains not one appeal to tradition. Neither did Le Play, La Tour du Pin, or Maurras ever make the ridiculous claim that because we used to do it that way, that’s how we have to keep doing it. They all grounded their positions in what they took to be the lessions of history, theology, and social science. Some of them had scientific pretentions themselves, and Robert Nisbet argues in The Sociological Tradition that the French Right laid the groundwork for the science of sociology. You may say that their reasons were wrong, or that circumstances have rendered them invalid, but you cannot say that they didn’t have them.
An example of this casual lying about the French Right, which I’ve already noted, is Philippe Beneton’s forward to Critics of the Enlightenment. He makes the argument that the counter-revolutionaries based their argument entirely on national traditions, and now their nations have taken another track, so they’re entirely without a leg to stand on. Beneton is apparently unembarrassed to make this argument even when none of the counterrevolutionaries in the book he is forwarding ever make the argument that he says was their only one. Another case is Isaiah Berlin, who liked to say that he found anti-Englightenment thinkers’ alleged rejection of reason interesting, when what he really found it was comforting. How nice if you can just pick a few quotes from de Maistre, Vico, and Herder that seem to confirm that you, the party of Enlightenment, hold a monopoly on rationality!
Carelessly denigrating the intelligence of social conservatives is particularly popular if said conservatives are evangelicals and the attacker is a Christian academic on the make. Consider this book review in Books and Culture of Darryl Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. (The extremely positive review is also illustrates the bizarre fact that evangelicals like to be told that they’re stupid.) It’s the standard attack–evangelicals are theocrats; they’re obsessed with abortion and gay marriage; they don’t present reasoned arguments, but just invoke the Bible–with the Jeffrey Hart/Sam Tanenhaus twist of saying that getting all bent out of shape over social issues is a betrayal of true conservatism (the latter consisting of perpetual graceful surrender to the advancing Left). The evangelicals are utopians with no sense of prudence, no respect for custom or precedent.
… after thirty years of laboring with and supposedly listening to political conservatives, evangelicals have not expanded their intellectual repertoire significantly beyond the moral imperatives of the Bible….evangelicals are more likely to support political plans to improve society, grow the economy, and expand the United States’ global presence as long as doctors are not performing abortions and ministers are not presiding over the marriage of gay couples.
At least as the review presents it, the case is a hopelessly self-contradictory mess. Abortion is nowhere discussed in the Bible, so in becoming pro-life evangelicals prove that they aren’t limited by explicit Biblical commands. Pursuing economic growth and opposing seriously immoral acts is hardly utopian. If conservatives base themselves off of inherited tradition, what would be wrong with invoking our civilization’s holy book anyway? But one gets the impression that Hart’s personal holy book is the secularists’ separation of Church and State (i.e. State atheism), which he claims to have extracted from Luther’s Two Kingdom theology, and which is apparently the only bit of Christianity that it’s okay to invoke in the public square. Hart says that “the source of American greatness…lies with its political order more than its religious identity.” This is obviously false if Christianity is indeed the path of salvation and by what is “great” about America we mean what is most worth preserving. (And what other definition matters?)
I can now see that there was an element of unhealthy pride in my motives for starting this blog. I had spent quite a bit of time in isolation trying to explain to myself not just what was wrong with liberalism run amok, but what precisely was right about the things we’ve been taught to regard as self-evidently bad: patriarchy, monoculturalism, censorship, etc. As far as I knew, I was giving a more rigorous defense of these things than had yet been attempted. After all, “everybody knew” that “sexists” and censors have no arguments, right? While I knew that wasn’t really true, it did seem like the arguments existed but were scattered or not spelled out in previous works. Well, now I had the full exposition. Wait till I show the world! They may not agree, but if they notice me at all, they’ll have to take it seriously.
That was obviously vanity. In fact, I doubt there are any observations or arguments here that haven’t been written down by past generations of conservatives, many times before. Given French legitimism, Jesuit natural law communitarianism, Dutch Calvinist sphere sovereignty, German Right Hegelianism, Russian mysticism, American Agrarianism, and the metahistorical masterpieces of Spengler and Voegelin, one sees that conservatism is poor neither in arguments nor in genius. What it does lack is a tradition. The irony here is exquisite, isn’t it? Conservative thinkers do brilliant work, but it doesn’t get passed down. A T. S. Eliot, say, will produce a powerful defense of some aspect of conservatism. It will perhaps be noted, but then quickly forgotten, while the grand narrative–”conservatives are stupid; they have no ideas, just inherited prejudices”–remains untouched. The next generation of conservatives begins intellectually from scratch. We reproduce a small bit of what these earlier generations did, and we think ourselves very clever. “Wait till I tell the world!” And I do, and the world replies “conservatives are stupid; they have no ideas, just inherited prejudices”. Then I finally start to understand.
There have been some responses to my defense of monarchy against democracy at The Thinking Housewife, so far mostly negative. One question that people have raised against me, there and previously, is “Why bother arguing for monarchy? Even if you’re right, there is zero chance that America is ever going to have a king. Aren’t you just distracting us from more pressing issues?” Of course, proponents of democracy don’t mean that, since the practical debate is over, both sides should just move on and there should be no more claims of any sort on the relative merits of monarchy and democracy. They mean that we monarchists should acquiesce in the wrongness of our position and the rightness of our opponents’ becoming common knowledge. So one response I could always make is “you started it”. I generally don’t bring up the issue, but I’ll defend my beliefs when they’re attacked.
But why not just drop that one belief? Am I not unnecessarily marginalizing myself by embracing a position that is complelely rejected by the mainstream? Could I not have a bigger effect by shutting up about my more eccentric beliefs and just focusing on those issues where public opinion might actually be moved? As a short-term strategy, that has a lot to recommend it. If I were running for political office (which would arguably be hypocritical for someone of my anti-democratic beliefs), I suppose I would have to learn discretion in what opinions I disclosed.
In the long-term, though, I think conservatism has suffered greatly from surrendering on what seem like impractical or unwinnable issues. Cummulatively, all of this surrendering gives our enemies complete control of the historical narrative. In the history books studied by our children, progressives are always right, and conservatives/Christians/anti-egalitarians are always wrong. We have always supposedly been so wrong that our actions can only be explained by reference to irrational fears and hatreds or by selfishness and greed. We’ve given in on the meaning of every past progressive-reactionary clash: 1776, 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1936, 1960, 1968. For each historical argument, it always seemed easier for us to give in and focus on present issues instead. We may poke fun at the idea that the 1950s red scare was pure paranoia, but we don’t fight it enough to make a difference, and it remains the official view, the only one that anyone who’s not a Cold War history buff is ever likely to encounter. We get irritated when we see the Left romanticizing the Spanish Republicans; but the Left still gets to teach our children to admire those priest-butchering savages.
It just never seems worth enduring the hatred of the Leftist hivemind over academic historical arguments. We’d prefer to take our stand on something current. But when we do that, we guarantee ourselves failure. Imagine for a moment how things look to the average public-school educated, television entertained voter when Left and Right square off on some issue of current import. He sees two sides, one of which is acknowledged by common consent to have always been right in every past argument of this kind. The other side admits that it has always been wrong in the past, but insists that this time–for the first time ever–things are different. In the past, appeals to tradition and natural law have really just been unconscionable defenses of privilege and injustice, but this time they’re actually valid! That doesn’t sound very likely, does it? The voter has been given one historical narrative to use in understanding the present: heroic progressive faces off against the forces of oppression and ignorace and inevitably prevails. Since this script is the only one in his head, he’s always going to end up being sympathetic to the Left.
Of course, what makes me absolutely livid is the implication that we Christians and conservatives owe the Left, that they did us a favor by vanquishing us, and we’re better off under their rule. Supposedly, these freemasons and deists had a better idea what a “truly Christian” society looks like than actual Christians did. The treaty-breaking Piedmontese conquerers did the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies a favor by devouring them. The pope should be thankful for being “relieved” of his temporal domains, these self-righteous pricks have the gall to suggest. We Christians should be grateful to be ruled by benevolent atheists, because otherwise we’d just kill each other. We are incapable of self-rule; we need Leftists to rule us.
So perhaps you understand better why I can’t and won’t let these issues go. I will go on cursing the American and French revolutions, the Risorgimento, Spanish, French, and Mexican anti-clericalism, communism in all its forms, and the sixties. I will continue to defend King Louis, Tsar Nicholas, and Pope Pius. This for the practical reason that if the Left is allowed to control the past, it will control the future.
Put yourself in the place of a typical Republican politician. (The situation of a Tory or a Christian Democrat would be similar, I imagine, but America is what I know best.) As a Republican, you have a reputation as a “conservative”, and many of those who voted for you (or who you hope will vote for you) also describe themselves as “conservatives”. But, assuming you’re a typical Republican, you have a problem. First, you don’t really know anything about conservatism. You’ve never read a word of Hegel or de Maistre. You’re so ignorant, you don’t even know that conservatism has ever had any intellectually respectable champions. What you do know about conservatism, a few policy positions having to do with marriage or Church-State law, you don’t believe. What’s more, you think these positions so wrong as to be indefensible. Every once in a while, you will say something like “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman” because you know you have to say it to get conservatives to vote for you, but you will never say why it is you think that marriage is a heterosexual institution. You don’t really believe it, and you can’t imagine what a sensible argument for it would even look like. Your list of what you imagine to be conservative policy positions also has some right-liberal or libertarian elements, such as that taxes should be lowered. But you don’t understand right-liberalism any more than you understand conservatism, so when you try to express your “right-wing” economic beliefs, you make absurd or obnoxious statements such as that lowering taxes always raises government revenue, or that poor people need to pay higher taxes so that the rich can pay less.
You are in a dilemma. You think conservative voters are evil and stupid, but exploiting this evil and stupidity is perhaps your only road to power. It’s an unsatisfactory position, even to someone with no integrity (and, being a typical Republican politician, you have no integrity). You yourself buy into the liberal narrative of progress, according to which right-wing forces are always defeated and discredited by the forces of progress. Being on the side foreordained to lose can’t be a good long-term strategy. What do you do?
First, you might just say the bare minimum “conservative” statements needed to get elected, and then try to win back posterity’s approval by governing like a moderate Leftist. This is a popular strategy, and it works.
Still, being on the losing side won’t work eventually. Sooner or later all those right-wing voters will die and be replaced by their Lefty college-educated children. We’ve got to reposition now! Hence the second strategy: veer the Party hard to the Left. Many “conservative” intellectuals make their living pushing this (you all know who), and I would be shocked if many Republicans hadn’t thought about it. It’s a very perilous strategy, though. You can’t move to the Left of the Democrats: no one would think you were being honest. Any big leap to the Left will cost you your conservative voters. It will buy you nothing with the college educated and young demographics; these will always vote for the Leftmost party. Even if they end up hating you slightly less (and they won’t), what does that matter if they still vote for your opponent? Your only hope down this road is to win more “independent” votes. These are largely people who don’t care about politics. We flatter them for being “open-minded”, but I expect they’re really just lazy. Anyone who pays attention has long since formed an opinion on the great two century debate between autonomy and order. So, to win the votes of the stupid and apathetic, you must try to say as little about politics as possible. Sell your personality. Stuff like that. It’s hard to ideologically realign your party with such a persona, though. You tone down the planned shift, eventually settling back into strategy one.
There is another possibility, though. As long as politics is one-dimensional, with society ever shifting from right to left, you’re sunk. What if we could introduce a second dimension? Let’s say that we too believe in freedom, equality, and all that good stuff, but we apply it in a totally different way from the Left. Here’s an idea: why don’t we prove our idealism by exporting democracy to the third world? It’s so stupidly self-destructive, how could anyone doubt that we’re acting in earnest? Or take any random belief that allows us to dispute the Democrats without having to affirm any nonliberal doctrine. “Global warming is a fraud!” Etc. Hence we see the Republican party routinely veering off on crazy tangents. The media obliges by identifying each of them with the “far right”.
The fact is that the Republican party has no reason to exist, but people who make their living from it don’t want to face this plainly. They’re convinced that conservatism has lost the big argument with liberalism. Why doesn’t the “conservative” party just fold up and go home then? Why not have a one-party state, if all the ideological issues are settled? Or maybe make room for the next big debate, say between social democracy and communism? No, the typical Republican decides that he would rather cook up some reason for his party to go on existing. He actually agrees with the Democrats, but his job depends on picking a pointless fight with them over something.
In the eighteenth century, the Church found itself faced with a new foe, which was to prove deadlier than paganism or Islam. The destruction of the Catholic Church–first its social marginalization, and then its complete annihilation–has always been the first and overriding goal of the philosophes and their progeny, the liberals and socialists. By definition, no peace is possible with people whose whole organizing purpose is your extermination. Whenever the Church has foolishly offered concessions, she has been met by steepening demands and escalating attacks. Although the philosophes were extremely second-rate as thinkers, they did form an ideology that powerfully appeals to mens’ baser instincts: individualism, utilitarianism, libertinism. Whoever wishes to cast off the holy bonds of community, tradition, and natural law finds in these a ready justification.
The Church would, of course, reject individualism in all its forms, and doing so would lead to significant developments in her understanding of both herself and the temporal order. This began with the counter-revolutionaries. Although derided by progressive (and even Burkean) historians, they were original in some important respects. The focus of Louis de Bonald was quite new. Rather than basing his system on a view of individual human flourishing or even of collective national flourishing, his concern is above all to defend a set of relations (power/minister/subject; father/mother/child; king/ministers/subjects) understood to be willed by God as the way His authority is communicated to Earth. Individuals are less important than the roles they fill. Society itself is important only as the sum of these relations. Bonald was also an early proponent of the Catholic view of tradition as enabling reason, rather than substituting for it. We cannot reason, he says, without language, and language is something we receive from our culture, which received it in the beginning from God Himself. However, the fact that we owe the means of our reasoning to tradition doesn’t imply any cultural relativism. Once we have linguistic reason, we apprehend objective truth with it. The counter-revolutionary attack on individualism would come to fruition in Rene de la Tour du Pin’s vision of a Christian corporate state. Every profession is organized corporately; all of them participate in the political process and are directed by authority toward the common good. The counter-revolutionaries were to have an important effect on Pope Leo XIII and his denunciation of economic liberalism.
At the same time, the Church’s newly explicit anti-individualism was having a profound effect on her understanding of herself. In Germany, Johann Adam Moehler was to apply the communitarian understanding to the Church. The Church is not a mass of individuals, but a single corporate body–the body of Christ–with a collective soul, which is none other than the Holy Spirit. Corporatism allows us to see the Church as the continuation of the Incarnation across space and time, visually organized through the hierarchy. Another German, Karl Adam, would take this idea of spiritual corporatism and present it as Catholicism’s very spirit. He convincingly argued that this idea makes sense of many Catholic doctrines that Protestants find inexplicable: the sacraments, the ordained priesthood, the communion of saints, and indulgences. The culmination of this corporatist ecclesiology was Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, a definitive statement of the Church’s self-understanding.
Meanwhile, in England, John Henry Newman was to defend the Church against the liberals’ claim that the appearance of mutability in the Church’s doctrine over time disproves her claim to authority. If the Church is infallible, shouldn’t she say precisely the same thing at all times? If her teaching is apostolic, shouldn’t it all be found in first-century writings? Newman agreed that the Church should not contradict herself with time, but he saw Christianity as more than a set of explicit beliefs expanding outward only by logical deduction. The Church is an organic community. Like an organism, she can mature and change while maintaining her distinct nature; like an organism, there is an objective distinction between corruption and maturation along the lines of one’s nature. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was part of the Church from the beginning, implicit in her scriptures and rituals, but she had to “grow” intellectually before she could formulate it in an explicit dogma. The “development of dogma” is really the process of the Church bringing to light the truths encoded in her rituals and other practices. Christians prayed for the dead, for example, long before they had a dogma that made sense of that practice. Here again, we see the Catholic view that obedience to tradition does not mean you ever have to shut off your brain. If a traditionally established Christian practice doesn’t make sense given currently doctrines, this is an opportunity for deeper investigation of the Church’s hidden treasures, rather than to simply dismiss either the doctrines or the practice.
After World War II, the Church found herself confronted by a world dominated by two powers, both representing the Enlightenment, but different strands of it. The United States represented the “moderate” tradition of Locke and the founding fathers: deist and democratic, hostile to religious establishment put friendly to its private excercise, and with an idealism tempered by prudence. The Soviet Union represented the fanatical, atheist, and totalitarian tradition of the Jacobins: bloodthirsty, cruel, openly anti-religious and Satanic, unrestrained by humilty, tradition, or even basic human pity. While the Church saw errors in both positions, she certainly could not be neutral between them. An American world would be a challenge; a Soviet world certain death. Thus the wise Pius XII through his entire weight behind the free world and against the godless communists. Christian thinkers began to reevaluate the moderate Enlightenment with more sympathy. Surely, if these Lockean liberals could be steadfast allies of Christianity against the Nazis and the communists, they can’t be all bad?
This brief sense of friendship between moderate liberalism and Christianity is the spirit of “the fifties”, which really lasted from 1945 to about 1965. It was a time when people like Jacques Maritain, Arnold Toynbee, and Reinhold Niebuhr could find a large and receptive audience. Maritain, the Catholic of this bunch, had been a Catholic communitarian during his days in Action Francaise. He mistook the papal command to leave this organization as an order to help Catholicism get with the liberal program. So Maritain spent the rest of his life trying to square the circle of imagining a spiritual community that is worldview-neutral. Quite a waste, really. The main statement of this incoherent vision is his Integral Humanism. The key to Maritain’s new Christendom was community based on the natural law, which in the haze of the “fifties” Maritain imagined to be shared by Catholics, liberals, and even socialists.
Also during the fifties, an up-and-coming theologian named Has Urs von Balthasar wrote a spectacularly foolish book called Razing the Bastions: On the Church in this Age. Balthasar claimed that the Church’s separate organizations and her defenses against modernity were harmful and should be abandoned. They just prevent fruitful “engagement” with the world and keep converts out. Therefore, all the Church’s plausibility structures should be abandoned, and Catholics should immerse themselves in the hostile general culture. Seriously, that’s the argument. It’s as if a soldier were to say to his general that all their defenses against the invading army should be torn down, because they’re discouraging incoming defectors! The Church, defended by the Holy Spirit from heresy but not from boneheaded stupidity, took Balthasar’s advice, and the results were what one would expect from unilateral disarmament. Once the walls were breached, Maritain and Balthasar (when the latter wasn’t writing incomprehensible books on Christology) would both defend their city heroically, but it’s not clear that they ever realized their past errors.
Since Aeterni Patris, most orthodox Catholic intellectuals have been calling themselves Thomists, so the argument of how to respond to modernity has taken the form of a civil war between Thomists. The Radical Orthodox theologian Tracey Rowland in the book Culture and the Thomist Tradition has characterized this conflict as a disagreement over how the Church is to understand culture. The “Whig Thomists” see culture as a theologically neutral set of practices–such as speaking German vs. speaking French–and the Church must simply “translate” herself into the culture she finds herself immersed in. Today, that culture is modernity, and the Church must reexpress herself in its idiom by chucking hellenistic philosophy and pre-democratic political sensibilities. Third-world “inculturation” advocates certainly takes such opinions, but Rowland has in mind primarily American Catholic neoconservatives like Michael Novak, for whom the Church inculturing herself means specifically baptizing (i.e. capitulating to) democratic capitalism.
Neoconservatives are, of course, rather easy to dismiss, intellectually speaking. A more serious set of “Whig Thomists” are the proponents of the New Natural Law, such as John Finnis and Robert George. This group is convinced that Hume’s is/ought distinction is a serious blow to the original Thomist natural law theory, based on the Aristotelian notion of a normative human telos. So they propose to replace human nature with a list of “goods of human flourishing”. Of course, any such list could only be anchored in some normative human nature, so this move really buys them nothing. What they do with it is worse. Their fundamental principle is that these goods are effectively on a level and one may never act against any of them. Thus trivial goods like “play” can impose moral obligations as weighty as serious goods like “religion” (this latter category being their only half-recognition that God may have something to do with human flourishing). Saint Thomas himself never advocated such a moral system, which is not surprising, since it is absurd. Despite their obviously flawed system, the new natural lawyers have been some of the ablest public defenders of Christian morality of late.
Against the Whig Thomists, Rowland points to the “postmodern Augustinian Thomists” who recognize that culture is not morally neutral, but always contains at least implied moral standards, and who identify liberal modernity as a culture/tradition at least partly antithetical to Christianity. The best known proponent of this view is Alasdair MacIntyre. A convert from Marxism, MacIntyre came to see that a tolerable ethics would need something like the Aristotelian sense of virtue and human excellence. However, he thought Aristotle’s natural philosophy was obviously wrong (an opinion he later changed), so something other than an Aristotelian form would have to be found to supply this standard of virtue. In his most famous book, After Virtue, MacIntyre suggests that virtues may be an emergent property of communities. In modern bureaucratic organizations, only the final product, the output, matters. Healthier communities have “practices” which are done for their own sake; it doesn’t just matter that such-and-such gets done, but that we do it. To be able to excel at “practices”, a person must develop certain qualities, and these are the virtues. Thus, someone can only really be virtuous in a certain type of community, and modernity/democratic capitalism isn’t it. What’s more, we need narrative traditions to fully make sense of our lives and the virtues, a theme MacIntyre was to develop more fully in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? This book again identifies liberalism as a distinct tradition incompatible with Thomism. The way to rejuvinate ethic life is not, MacIntyre believes, to replace the liberal state (he hasn’t seen that far, unfortunately), but to create small communities where the genuinely virtuous life can thrive.
Rowland, as I said, is a member of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Although largely an Anglican movement, a major inspiration of this group is the mid-century Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac. Lubac is best known for his attack on “extrinsicalism”, the idea that grace and nature are completely unrelated, so that the natural human order can get along just fine without God. Lubac attributed this belief to his scholastic enemies, and he blamed it for the rise of secularism. The cure, he thought, is to emphasize man’s natural desire for God. The Radical Orthodoxy application of this is to say that no human activity is autonomous. All should be ordered to God. The danger they often understate is that the distinction between nature and grace may be lost.
The conciliar document Gaudium et spes more or less assumed that culture can be changed with as little effort or consequence as changing a set of clothes. The results of this false assumption have been ruinous. We are now coming to understand that a certain cultural context is important for the fostering of the Christian virtuous life. Morality is not a private matter.