My pseudonym is chosen in honor of Louis de Bonald (1754-1840), the French Catholic monarchist and defender of the patriarchal family. This web site/blog will review books and other web sites. It will also attempt to carry on Bonald’s work of articulating and defending the principles of authoritarian conservatism: the sovereignty of God, the importance of gender role distinctions, and the duty of piety towards one’s parents and people. My fullest statement on these principes can be read here.
To contact me for private correspondence, please send email to throneandaltar137_%at%_yahoo.com, replacing the “_%at%_” with “@”.
How I became a reactionary
When you think about it, my fellow reactionaries, it’s really something of a miracle that there are any of us at all. Once upon a time, many people grew up traditionalist, but not any more. We all started out as Liberals of some sort. Like most of you, I started out as a classical Liberal, meaning belief in democracy, the social contract, sexual equality, and stuff like that. I was never brainwashed into being passionate about it; it’s just that I was never made aware of the fact that there was any alternative to these ideas except outright despotism and slavery. One doesn’t get passionate about the obvious. It is quite easy in today’s world to go through life without questioning the basic premisses of Liberalism, or even imagining that they can be rationally doubted. It’s very difficult to recognize and escape this mental prison. Here’s how I did it.
Had someone asked me during high school, I would have expressed complete confidence in the following principles:
- It’s okay to do something as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
- We should always be suspicious of authority and see that it is properly checked and monitored.
Just about everyone agrees with these principles, but together they constitute the Leftist worldview that has desacralized the world, decimated the family, and eviscerated the Church.
Even though I agreed with these principles, I did have certain intuitions–hardly distinct enough to be thoughts–whose incompatibility with them I had begun to suspect. The first was my romantic view of the proper relations between the sexes. This probably came from the fact that, being physically unattractive and socially awkward, girls were unattainable to me. They never lost the aura of enchantment and mystery for me. I never became a cynic like so many of my peers whose sensibility to women was destroyed by easy conquest. I remember having a desperate, years-long crush on a girl in my class. It was utterly hopeless, of course. I became fascinated with stories about unrequited love. A proper ending always involved the hero’s death. The idea of him moving on to another girl seemed obscene. A Tale of Two Cities was one of my favorite books at the time. Given my later interests, it’s surprising that I ignored the stuff about the French Revolution and just concentrated on the love story. Sydney Carton sacrificing his life to save Lucy’s husband–that was my idea of love. The essence of love, as I saw it, was throwing one’s life away for one’s beloved. For this reason, the only arrangement for lovers that seemed right to me (that didn’t involve death) was the Catholic arrangement of indissolveable marriage. Through its irrevocability, it was able to capture this “thowing away”, this complete donation of one’s life. Catholic marriage is like death, and that recommended it to me. And if a couple decides that they (or at least one of them) would be happier splitting up? By principle #1 above, I should have to accept this, but I couldn’t. The idea was revolting. It took a beautiful thing and made it meaningless. Add the possibility of divorce, and this sacred realm is profaned by the spirit of calculation. How could I resolve this clash between belief and intuition? For many years, by just not thinking about it.
The other issue on which my feelings clashed with liberalism was over the issue of fatherhood and filial piety. I remember once catching part of a television show on PBS about the spread of domestic abuse legislation. The show was very Liberal triumphalist: a hundred years ago, it implied, most fathers were brutal torturers, and they would be again except that the State now monitors them closely to protect poor, innocent wives and children. As I watched, I became more and more enraged, but not in the way I was supposed to be. I was supposed to be enraged by the brutality of fathers. But while I have always disapproved of child abuse, what upset me what the disrespectful attitude towards fathers. “They should not be talking about fathers this way. They’re throwing dirt on something beautiful. If the State does have to intervene to stop child abuse, it should do so discretely, and not boast about it, because it is wrong for people to even think this way about fatherhood.” I had the same sense, which I had before on the issue of divorce, that something sacred was being treated irreverently. This is, I later came to appreciate, the core conservative intuition.
For a long time, I’ve had a particular admiration for fatherhood. Filial piety comes easily to me. As a kid, whenever I’d watch movies about rebellious children clashing with their fathers, I always took the fathers’ side, and I was angry when the movies themselves sided with the children. Why was this? It must have helped that my father himself is in every way an admirable man. As a provider, a teacher, and an example, my debt to him is incalculable. Equally important, though, was that, as the oldest child, I got to help babysit my younger siblings. I’m about 12 years older than the youngest, so watching and playing with her gave me a taste of the adult’s role as caretaker and protecter for children. I had no trouble seeing that this is a sacred calling. Everywhere I looked, I saw parents living sacrificial lives for their children. Perhaps somewhere in my home town a child was being abused, but shall we let this blind us to the central fact of an institution that elicits self-donation at its finest?
The trouble, again, is that my attitude that we should not even think bad thoughts about fathers was in direct contradiction with principle #2. If fathers are authorities–and they surely are–then shouldn’t their authority be checked? Shouldn’t we be suspicious of them and guard against abuses of their authority? Again, I solved the contradiction by not thinking about it.
One day as an undergraduate I was wandering aimlessly through the university library, and my eyes spotted a book entitled Aristotle for Everyone, by Mortimer Adler. I remember thinking to myself that it might be nice to know a little philosophy, and since the book was quite short and looked like a very small investment of effort, I checked it out. Exposure to Aristotle, even in this popularized form, turned out to be a major event for me, because it showed me that one could make a credible ethical system out of something other than the “no-hurt” principle, and one could make a credible political theory out of something other than the “social contract” and suspicion of authority. From the reasonable idea that things have natures, Aristotle reasoned that they could have natural ends. Human nature finds its fulfillment in the polis; therefore, the state is not an artifice designed to further the wishes of the governed, but a natural means through which we find our natural fulfillment. “Consent of the governed” is never invoked, but the Aristotelian state is nevertheless both reasonable and humane. The social contract can be questioned, and once it could be questioned, I quickly found it repugnant–a replacement of noble patriotism with mercenary calculations of self-interest.
Soon afterward, I read Frederick Copleston’s introduction to Thomas Aquinas, and I was surprised to find that classical theistic metaphysics actually has strong arguments in its favor, arguments that modern science has done nothing to discredit. In time, I would read some of the primary sources, the major works of Aristotle and St. Thomas themselves. Thomism gave me a richer mental framework, one that accommodated far more of my intuitions about human nature and morality than the utilitarianism we all pick up from the surrounding culture.
Still, there were lingering problems with my new philosophy. The emphasis on intrinsic teleology had the great advantage of giving morality and objective ground, but it had the disadvantage that morality still seems to be reduced to a higher form of self-interest. One easily gets the impression that morality, virtue, and even God Himself are reduced to means for fullfilling one’s telos. I don’t remember if this concern came to me from reading Kant; more likely it had been with me all along. There are answers to this criticism of course, e.g. that by making the apprehension and indwelling of God to be man’s end, God is lifted from the realm of mere means. Then there is Aristotle’s writings on friendship, and Thomas’ on charity. Still, the emphasis in teleological morality seemed off.
One day, I came across a review of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Man and Woman on a Catholic weblog. It sounded good, and I managed to find it in the university library. (Like many great reactionary books, it’s out of print, but I later found and ordered a used copy.) Von Hildebrand had the same problems with Aristotle that I did, so he formulated a different ethical theory based on value response. Reading this book, and later his Christian Ethics, I finally found an ethics that gave due centrality to the claims of reverence as I had intuited them. Values are not means to ends, but things recognized for their own sake. Von Hildebrand also had developed a rich philosophy of love that captured and exceeded my intuitions about self-donation. He also defended without apology the goodness of distinct gender roles. My only criticism of von Hildebrand’s writings on marital love is that they give too little emphasis to parenthood, to the paternal and maternal roles, an oversight I try to correct in my Defense of Patriarchy.
The elements of a new worldview were now falling into place. There was only one piece missing: an understanding of the distinct essence of social authority. My thinking at this point was still overly individualistic; it was entirely focused on value responses by individuals and ignored the possibility of value responses by an organic community. About this time, I picked up an old copy of Fustel de Coulagnes’ The Ancient City in a used bookstore. This book impressed me by showing how an entire civilization can be built up from an idea of the sacred. I think I was rather fonder of the pagan religion of the Greeks and Romans than was the author. About the same time, I read Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics and Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, which tried to show that all societies are built upon sacred symbols. From Abbot Vonier, I learned that understanding the signification of symbols is the key to understanding the sacraments. Just as Aristotle had taught me to see human fulfillment as an objective thing, Eliade and Vonier led me to see the meaning of symbols as objective and not merely conventional. Putting these together, a vision of society started to emerge–the social order is a sort of icon, a language of symbols, that helps us see God in the world.
With all the pieces available, I set out to put them together. This is what I’ve been doing on this weblog.