Book review: The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy

The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy
by Ernst Cassirer (1963)

Historians of Renaissance and early modern philosophy often try to give a unity to their subjects by framing the creative elements of these periods as engaging in a revolt against “scholasticism”.  However, this only gives as much intelligibility to the Renaissance as is granted to its foil, and historians usually assign scholasticism any negative quality needed to keep the narrative going;  it can be mindlessly dogmatic or aridly intellectual or both at once, despising all nature or assigning fanciful hierarchies within it, servile or unfaithful to Aristotle, holding an opinion of man that is irrationally low (when the opponent is humanism) or high (when the opponent is science).  Cassirer tries to fit his study into this standard narrative, but he provides a great deal of interesting material, so that a more interesting story begins to emerge.

Cassirer’s exemplary Renaissance philosopher is Nicholas of Cusa, the idiosyncratic Christian neo-Platonist who smashed the medievals’ hierarchical universe to stress the incomparability of God, the Absolute and Infinite, the confluence of opposites.  He imagined the Earth in motion (which he seems to suggest is relative) in an infinite universe with no center but God, a physical infinity to which corresponds the intentional infinity of the human mind–whose operation is now conceived primarily in terms of measuring and comparing.  From Cusanus, Cassirer expands to cover a number of other characters:  Platonists like Marsilio Ficino and his Florentine Academy, humanists like Petrarch and Pico della Mirandola, proto-Hegelians like Charles de Bovillus, and those climbing toward a scientific approach to nature like Leonardo and Galileo.

Several things become clear.  The recovery of Plato’s dialogs made Plato a rallying point against Aristotle for a rather diverse group of thinkers.  Why should this be?  Petrarch’s preference for Plato over Aristotle and his scholastic followers was primarily aesthetic and therefor frivolous.  Most of the others had disagreements with Aristotle but ones that hardly seem to take them outside of the orbit of scholasticism, i.e. not farther from Aquinas or Ockham than these two are from each other.  One often encounters an assumption that separation from scholasticism means approach to secularism, an assumption popular because it is so congenial to both secularists and scholastics.  I’ll  therefore mention that most of these thinkers gave every impression of being ardent Christians.  And yet, they did consider themselves at war with the Aristotelian schoolmen.

Then Cassirer, in the final chapter, gives a revealing fact.

To understand the transformation that takes place with the beginning of the philosophy of the Renaissance, we must keep in mind this opposition, this tension, which already existed in the medieval system of life and learning.  Despite all the attacks it had suffered in the classical systems of Scholasticism, the theoretical foundation of Averroism seemed to be completely unshaken in the 14th and 15th centuries.  For a long time, it was the reigning doctrine in the Italian universities.  In the actual academic citadel of Scholastic studies, in Padua, Averroistic doctrine maintained itself into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  But gradually, a counter movement emerges ever more clearly.  Characteristically, this counter movement is by no means restricted to the environs of the school, but rather receives its strongest impulses from other quarters.  The men of the new humanistic ideal of culture and of personality are the first to sound the call to do battle against Averroism.  Here, too, Petrarch leads the way…The artist and virtuoso who rediscovered the inexhaustible wealth and value of ‘individuality’ now sets up his defenses against a philosophy that considers individuality to be something merely casual, something purely ‘accidental’.  And Augustine becomes his guide in this battle.

Well, if Averroism dominated the Italian universities (a fact which is new to me), and that’s what the humanists meant by “Aristotelianism”, then it becomes very clear how the writings of Plato–with their support for personal immaterial immortality–could serve as a philosophical rallying point to the opposition, and also how a literary movement devoted to individuality would be so adamantly a part of this opposition.  Replace “the Renaissance was a rebellion against scholasticism/medievalism” with “the Renaissance was a rebellion against Averroism”.  It would take a good deal of confirming evidence before we believe it (and Cassirer continues with citations to attacks on Averroism from many of the Renaissance greats from Cusanus on), but at least this new narrative makes sense.

The last chapter (which is by far the best of the book) also relates the Renaissance’s stumbling toward the scientific method.  The misfires are particularly informative.  One finds that prizing experience over a priori reasoning isn’t enough, at least given a medieval credulity to reports and a tendency to express observations in magical categories.  A commitment to a believe in a universal rational order of the universe isn’t enough; that led to painstakingly systemized astrology.  (Astrology made a big comeback in the High Middle Ages / Renaissance with the influx of pagan and Muslim learning.  Once again, the Church and the humanists were on the same side in the fight against it.)  Cassirer thinks what was missing was a mathematical approach to nature, and this came from scientist-artist like Leonardo da Vinci and their attention to form.  However, if focus on form is what you want, then Aristotle is your man.  And yet, the great men of the scientific revolution like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler were Platonists.  What gives?

The main difference between Plato and Aristotle is that the former makes the intelligibility of the world transcendent, the latter immanent.  Imagine you were Galileo trying to understand how bodies fall.  For an Aristotelian, action follows being.  To learn how a body falls, you must first ask what is the nature of that body, given by its substantial form.  You would not expect there to be a general rule about how things fall, because different things have different natures and hence different principles of motion.  (cf. Nancy Cartwright’s “dappled world”)  The idea of general laws of motion is much more natural in a Platonic/transcendent framework.

So there’s a story that makes quite a bit more sense than the standard story.  The fight against Averroism promoted Platonism, and Platonism gave us science.  That’s the intellectual story of the Renaissance.

The surprising powerlessness of scientists in a culture war

(Expanded from a comment on the most recent post)

The modern world is supposedly built around a scientific view of the world.  If so, that would make scientists our official prophets.  (Some say “priests”, but the role of the scientist is more analogous to that of the prophet than that of the priest.)  One would think that, to capture the culture, having scientists on one’s side would be among the most valuable possible assets.  But that’s really not the case.

Don’t get me wrong.  Having scientists from one’s group is a good thing because science is worth doing:  the truths it reveals are worth knowing, and the discipline it teaches is worth having.  The attempt to use science in a culture war only corrupts it and produces pseudoscience.  Just as a man cannot decide to learn Stoic detachment for the purpose of financial gain, scientific truth is one of those goods that can only be pursued successfully if done so for its own sake. As Bertrand Russell said about philosophy, science will answer only its own distinctive questions.  However, scientists can do very little on their own to help dominate a culture.  Having most scientists on one’s side is an effect of winning a culture war rather than a cause.


1) One certainly hopes that scientific discoveries do not depend on the prior beliefs of researchers. Therefore, stuffing sympathetic personnel into a field shouldn’t affect its conclusions.  (If it does, it’s not real science.)  A person with different loyalties might indeed investigate different questions.  Religious/political demographics probably do affect research programs in the social sciences, but I doubt they are of much relevance to the real sciences.  (Yes, I’m letting my prejudices show.)

2) Nor do scientists get a privileged role in interpreting their own discoveries. Nobody cared that Kepler took his model of the solar system to be itself a model of the Trinity.
Fermat, Leibniz, Maupertuis, and Euler all thought the principle of least action is a sign of God’s perfection. Eighteenth century French atheists claimed to base their worldview on Newtonian physics but took no interest in Newton’s own wacky Arian millenarianism. Descartes thought his physics had demolished 17th century materialism (his mechanical philosophy devised to emphasize how distinct are mental phenomena), just as Heisenberg thought his physics had demolished 19th century materialism (by overthrowing its epistemology), and Lemaitre thought he had destroyed the materialists’ eternal universe.  Maxwell used the indistinguishability of elementary particles (atoms, for him) to advance a novel design argument.

Today, the fact that many scientists thought their discoveries were irrelevant to–or perhaps even supportive of–Christianity is regarded as a historical curiosity. The narrative imposed on the history of science since Copernicus is of the great liberation from Christian superstition. This narrative comes largely from French men of letters rather than scientists themselves; the latter having been converted to it not earlier than the late nineteenth century.

By the way, this is one reason I find seventeenth century natural philosophers so fascinating.  It’s not that their beliefs about the meaning of their work were necessarily truer than the later Enlightenment and contemporary views, but that they could be so different, showing how much one’s metaphysical and historical presuppositions color how one does something so apparently nonpartisan as interpret scientific theories.

3) In any case, the philosophical interpretation of scientific theories is I think much more difficult than most people realize. Those who think it’s easy to read ontology out of physics or biology are most often reading their presuppositions into it. After nearly a century, many physicists are not shy in saying that we still don’t really understand quantum mechanics, even though it’s straightforward to use, most likely because some unacknowledged metaphysical prejudice is still being worked out of our system. As another example, that parts are ontologically prior to their wholes is an assumption which detailed scientific study of cells, atoms, etc can neither confirm nor disprove.  Plato and Aristotle believed wholes to be ontologically prior, while I find the whole idea of ontological priority suspect.

4) Non-westerners encountered Western science, mores, and overwhelming technological supremacy all at once, and it was natural that they would sometimes regard them as a single package, but for Westerners it is different.  Roughly our history is as follows.  In the seventeenth century, Christians of various stripes carried out the scientific revolution.  In the eighteenth century, atheists and deists used the success of science as an argument against Christianity.  In the nineteenth century, science continued to advance, and with the Industrial Revolution, the new knowledge was now changing people’s material lives in obvious ways.  Among the ranks of scientists and inventors, there was still a large diversity–Christians to atheists and everything in between.  Only in the twentieth century did science clearly come to be dominated by atheists and Jews, long after some other fields had so aligned.  So the West has seen science change hands and is less liable to see it as the unique genius of some faction.  Being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one more “scientific” than Pascal or Maxwell.

5) Persecuting scientists doesn’t hurt one’s reputation unless one is already weak.  The Left paid no price for the murder of Lavoisier or for interfering with genetics research in 20th century Russia and 21st century America.  The weapon of getting to tar people as “anti-science” is not one that scientists themselves control.  To be clear, I’m not recommending anyone persecute scientists, just pointing out a sad fact that one can get away with it if one’s social standing is strong.  The example of Soviet science shows that one can even remain world-class in some fields (Soviet mathematics was top-rate, and of course they got most of the “firsts” in the space race) while descending into crackpottery in others.

Understanding Fascism

I’ve recently finished reading Italian Fascisms:  From Pareto to Gentile, an anthology edited by Adrian Lyttelton that was recommended to me by Drieu a long time ago.  After a few half-hearted efforts to understand fascism as a distinctive ideology, things are finally starting to click for me.  The quality of the collections is uneven–as was the actual quality of fascist writers:  lots of vitalist idiots, but four contributors that were really first rate:  Vilfredo Pareto, Alfredo Rocco, Giovanni Gentile, and Benito Mussolini.  Pareto was a sociologist who emphasized the importance of elites; what are presented as revolutions of the masses are always just the replacement of one elite by the another (usually of the class immediately behind the ruling one).  The Marxists would agree, except that Pareto is more consistent, applying the rule to socialist takeovers as well.  Rocco does a good job of explaining fascist corporatism and presenting the fascist view of history from the fall of Rome to the present as the story of the State asserting itself against rival forces and, by subjugating them, putting an end to those awful Middle Ages.  Mostly, though, I would like to focus on Mussolini and Gentile, who try to directly present the key fascist doctrines.

First, it’s important to understand what the fascists mean when they call their doctrine “totalitarian” (and they do call it that).  It does mean that no power, no organization, no social force of any kind is to exist outside of the state.  Now, when we hear that, we imagine the State just doing the minimalist sorts of things a liberal state does, and everything else wiped out–a social wasteland.  The fascist would say that this is a complete misunderstanding.  None of the peoples’ collective activities–their arts, commerce, festivities, scholarship, and religion–is to be lost.  The state is to make itself the guardian of them all, only directing them to the common good.  “The Fascist State…takes over all the forms of the moral and intellectual life of man.”  The fascist state does this not by obliterating lower levels of organization (as it accuses the socialist of doing), but by incorporating them into itself, providing a context where they can truly come into their own.  For example, private ownership of factories is to continue, but they are to be subordinated to the state via corporations, governing bodies where both owners and workers are represented.  One might well ask what good private ownership is without private control.  The fascist would probably reply by pointing to the high degree of subsidiary control:  most decisions would be made at the lowest levels by the owner/manager/worker organizations.

The fascist understanding of the state is the key to their system.  As Mussolini put it

The State, as conceived by Fascism and as it acts, is a spiritual and moral fact because it makes concrete the political, juridicial, economic organization of the nation and such an organization is, in its origin and in its development, a manifestation of the spirit.  The State is the guarantor of internal and external security, but it is also the guardian and the transmitter of the spirit of the people as it has been elaborated through the centuries in language, custom, faith.  The State is not only present, it is also past, and above all future.  It is the State which, transcending the brief limit of individual lives, represents the immanent conscience of the nation.  The forms in which States express themselves change, but the necessity of the State remains.  It is the State which educates citizens for civic virtue, makes them conscience of their mission, calls them to unity; harmonizes their interest in justice; hands on the achievements of thought in the sciences, the arts, in law, in human solidarity; it carries men from the elementary life of the tribe to the highest human expression of power which is Empire; it entrusts to the ages the names of those who died for its integrity or in obedience to its laws; it puts forward as an example and recommends to the generations that are to come the leaders who increased its territory and the men of genius who gave it glory.  When the sense of the State declines and the disintegrating and centrifugal tendencies of individuals and groups prevail, national societies move to their decline.

Given the State’s charge to the people’s “spirit”, it is obvious how fascism will reject the liberalism for its individualism and socialism for its materialism.  What is more interesting is the fascist reason for rejecting conservatism in its religious, nationalist, and traditionalist forms.  This is because of fascism’s other key doctrine:  immanentism.  The State is prior to individuals and groups, but nothing is prior to the State.  It has no goal outside of itself; it can be judged by nothing outside itself.  How could it, since the State is supposed to already embody the people’s highest spiritual ideals?  The reactionaries, nationalists, and theocrats (as the fascists characterize them) disagree, seeing the state as ordered to some good–God, dynasty, nation, tradition, race–that is conceived as existing prior to the State.  Gentile is particularly clear on this.  Regarding the nationalists:

The nationalists’ “nation” is, in a word, something which exists not by virtue of the spirit but as a given fact of nature, either because the elements that give it being, such as the land or the race, depend on nature itself or else because they must be considered as human creations:  language, religion, history.  Because even these human elements contribute to the formation of the national entity, inasmuch as they are already in being and the individual finds himself face to face with them, since they pre-exist him, from the moment he begins to act as a moral being; they are therefore on the same plane as the land and the race…This naturalistic attitude is a weakness…This naturalism was particularly and obviously visible in the loyal support shown by the nationalists for the monarchy….

So basically, fascists are as devoted to autonomy as liberals, but autonomy for the collective spirit known as the State rather than for individuals.  Note that racialism is incompatible with fascism.  Strictly speaking, Hitler was not a fascist.  Regarding the Church:

The Italian Fascist state, desirous…of forming one single unit with the mass of the Italians, must be either religious or else Catholic.  It cannot fail to be religious because the absolute nature which it attributes to its own value and authority cannot be conceived except in relation to a Divine Absolute.  there is only one religion based on and indeed rooted in the mass of the Italian people and meaningful for them, on which they can graft this religious feeling of the absolute nature of the will of the country…So the Fascist state must recognize the religious authority of the Church…

This, too, is a difficult problem since the transcendental conception on which the Catholic Church is based contradicts the immanent political conception of Fascism; and Fascism, I must reiterate, far from being a negation of liberalism and democracy, as people say–and as its leaders, for political reasons, are often justified in repeating–is, in fact, or strives to be, the most perfect form of liberalism and democracy, as defined by Mazzini, to whose doctrine it has reverted.

So, Fascism in its Italian incarnation must preserve the Catholic Church, because it gives the people an imaginative apparatus for experiencing awe for the State.  However, Catholicism has the drawback that it is ordered to something outside and above the State and the national community.  That is a dilemma, and Gentile doesn’t really point the way out.

The contradiction between fascism and conservatism is quite instructive.  Is the nation a completely immanent being, ordered to nothing outside itself, or is it the collective response of a particular people to the order of being around it?  The goal of fascism is to take the nation’s spiritual resources and give them an entirely immanent frame, but can that be done without doing violence to them?  What would it even mean to have a religion without a “transcendental conception”?  That’s practically the defining feature of a religion!  I would say the same thing about arts and sciences; they are essentially ordered to apprehending a cosmos that transcends us, and only accidentally express the genius of a people.  Perhaps if fascism had lasted longer, we would have seen how its best thinkers–represented in this book–would have dealt with this.

Principles of Catholic Morality XI: Dietrich von Hildebrand

While the twentieth century was largely a rout, it did produce one outstanding expositor of Catholic moral theology.  Dietrich von Hildebrand was a student of Edmund Husserl (the most important twentieth century philosopher and a Lutheran Christian) and a convert to the Church.  Like many of the first generation of phenomenologists, von Hildebrand saw Husserl’s methods as a liberation from modern philosophy’s obsession with epistemic doubt to pursue philosophy as Plato had done it,  as an investigation of essences.  Von Hildebrand was unsatisfied with the Thomists’ teleological ethics; it seemed to miss the other-directed essence of morality.  He instead perfected the value ethics which had begun to be explored by Max Scheler (Catholic) and Adolf Reinach (Lutheran).  This gave him a way, using the tools of phenomenology, to recapture the Anselmian/Scotist insight that free beings can love justice for its own sake.  His basic position is layed out in his book Christian Ethics.  As I have written elsewhere

In that work, he identified three ways that a person may perceive something as important:  it can be merely subjectively satisfying, it can be an objective good for that person, or it can be a value—something objectively good and deserving of esteem.  Ethical behavior is a matter of appropriate value response to those values that von Hildebrand identifies as morally relevant.  Ethical behavior does promote one’s deepest objective good, but that can’t be why a morally good person does it; the value must be the main consideration.  One can respond to values both with one’s will and one’s emotions; veneration and enthusiasm would be examples of the latter.  Although our emotions are not totally under our control, we can be morally required to endorse or reject a feeling based on the objective value or disvalue of that feeling’s object.

What then is love?  Above all else, love is a value response to a person.  The lover recognizes and responds to the inner beauty and preciousness of the beloved…Love is an affective value response, i.e. a matter of emotion as well as will.  It is also a superactual value response, meaning that we maintain our love for the beloved even when we’re not consciously thinking of him.

As we see from the above, von Hildebrand’s notion of a value response is richer than just a decision of the will; it is a response of the whole soul:  intellect, will, emotion, habits, and desire.  Our thoughts and feelings as well as our acts can be true responses to objective value or disvalue.  This richness allowed von Hildebrand’s value response system to cover the whole of Christian life.  Before, wholism had been an undoubted advantage of the Thomist virtue ethics system over its Anselmian alternative.  The Thomist vision of human flourishing deals with the whole man, but so too does the vision of volitional/affective/contemplative/habitual value response.  Von Hildebrand applied this sensibility to all areas of Christian life, in the process providing a timely defense of Christian practices that were under heavy attack.  In In Defense of Purity and Man and Woman, he defended Catholic sexual ethics and the beauty of conjugal love.  In Liturgy and Personality, he brought to light the importance of formal prayer for giving an authentic response to the sacred.  In his best-loved book, Transformation in Christ, von Hildebrand attempts a more more complete picture of the spiritual attitudes of a soul allowing itself to be transformed by Christ, with wise and practical meditations on patience, humility, the willingness to change, simplicity, reflection, and contemplation.  Late in his life, he wrote The Nature of Love, which can be read as a belated response to Nygren’s severing of eros and agape, but also the most thorough and profound.  Von Hildebrand shows that, not only are the two loves compatible, but that eros can actually grow out of agape.

he breaks new ground by saying that love takes value response to a whole new level; it’s a “super value response”.  In love, I make the one I love a matter of my objective good, and not just a matter of disinterested value response.  I allow my happiness to become contingent on him returning my love and maintaining a relationship with me.  I concern myself with his objective good to such a degree that I come to relate to it in a way similar to how I respond to my own objective good.  Now, von Hildebrand insists that this new level of interest is not an intrusion of selfishness but an organic development of love.  The desire for union always bases itself on recognition of the beloved’s intrinsic value, and the value response and concern for the other’s good always take priority.  In fact, this “giving one’s heart away” so that one’s own happiness is tied to the beloved is the greatest tribute one could make to the other’s value.

Von Hildebrand’s writings are so beautiful, they really must be read to be appreciated.  Although he was a world-class philosopher, none of them (except perhaps What is Philosophy?) require any philosphical training in the reader.  Von Hildebrand’s lifelong goal was to bring souls to Christ, both in his writings and his personal life.  Those who knew him attest to his deep personal piety, his love for Jesus and the Mass, and his enthusiasm for the Church (e.g. this tribute from his widow), qualities which are already clear to his readers.

Needless to say, von Hildebrand found himself fighting the ideological currents of his day.  He even rendered some services to the reactionary cause.  When Hitler came to power, he left Germany for Austria, saying he would not live in a country run by a criminal.  In Austria, he became a main propagandist for Chancellor Dollfuss, writing an anti-Nazi, pro-Christian corporatism newsletter, and debating Catholics who thought the Church should seek an accomodation with the National Socialists.  With the Anschluss, and an order for his assassination, von Hildebrand fled to America, where he became a professor at Fordham University.  There he was forced to fight an evil zeitgeist again when a wave of heresy washed over the American Church after the unfortunate second Vatican Council.  Von Hildebrand responded vigorously, defending orthodoxy against its fashionable opponents, exposing the pantheist charlatan Teilhard de Chardin, and defending Humanae Vitae.  No doubt his oh-so-progressive students thought he was some kind of Nazi.

I myself am indebted to von Hildebrand. Intellectually, he provided me with an ethical system that made sense of my intuitions about duty, reverence, and marriage.  Personally, he was an inspiration for me.  Reading about him cured me of the idea I had inherited from the surrounding culture that it is somehow unmanly to be concerned about sexual morality and foolish to be upset by blasphemy.  Here was a man who was a fighting Christian and a serious intellect if ever there was one–there wasn’t anything the least bit sissy or hysterical about him–and he didn’t think it beneath him to defend the virtues of purity and reverence.

Natural slaves

In his Politics, Aristotle famously thought that some people were natural slaves.  These people are not capable of directing their own lives and households, so they need someone else to do it for them.  It’s very common among moderns to say that this was a regrettable lapse on Aristotle’s part, that his cultural conditioning overcame his usual lucidity, but we enlightened ones of the modern age, who don’t suffer from the effects of any cultural presuppositions, are able to see that every human being is equipped for freedom and has a right to its exercise.

As usual, the moderns have things exactly backwards.  Aristotle in believing in “natural slaves” was being his usual empirical, commonsensical self.  We all know people who seemingly can’t make responsible decisions, and their only hope of a decent life is that someone with a better head on their shoulders–a spouse, sibling, or friend–will be able to steer them in the right direction.  Most of us could name several such people just in our own extended families.  We don’t call them “natural slaves”; we call them nitwits.  On the other hand, it is we who are blinded by our cultural presuppositions–the dogmas of democratic ideology–from accepting the evidence before our eyes.  Perhaps the dogma is right and our senses deceive us, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s we rather than Aristotle who are being independent thinkers.

Questions that must not be asked

What makes human beings worthy of love?  An abstract, ontological analysis could address that.  Why do I love this woman rather than some other?  This question cannot be answered.  If it had an answer, it would not be love, since love must be as particular as its object.  Not because she’s the kindest or the prettiest, because then it would be a quality I treasured rather than her.  But it’s not just that I can’t answer this question; I should not try to answer it–I should not even ask it.  I must be silent before the mystery of apprehending another being’s haecceity.  Looking for a reason in the realm of qualities will only obscure this vision.

Why must there be polities, and why must they have authority over their members?  Human nature supplies the answer to that.  Why should my allegiance and my neighbors’ be to the USA rather than to eastern Washington State, to North America, or to the people of the Northern Hemisphere?  Why is America a people, and not these other groups of which we are part.  Why is America’s government in Washington D.C. our sovereign, rather than some other group that might claim to represent us?  These also are unanswerable questions.  If there were a quality that made us Americans, America would be a class rather than a particular, historical people.  If it were a quality that made our government sovereign, e.g. that our representatives are the most intelligent men in the nation, then they wouldn’t be sovereign–they would have to bow out the moment a more intelligent man arrived.  We all sense that a man who asks “why should these particular men rule us?”, he is being seditious.  There is no answer–there can’t be–and he knows it.

The question of authority–why am I morally obliged to obey earthly rulers?–was, from what I can tell, not a major issue for the great classical political philosophers.  For Aristotle, the key question was, given that the polis exists, who should have a share in its administration.  This he saw as a matter of justice to those with a rightful claim.  Equals should be treated equally, superiors should be treated better, but what is the appropriate measure?  Wealth?  Birth?  Freedom?  Numbers?  Aristotle draws the sensible conclusion that the real measure is contribution to the common good; different qualities contribute in different ways and should be acknowledged variously through a mixed constitution.  This is the pagan way of framing the political question:  given the existence of authority, how do we equitably share participation in it?  With the coming of Christianity, politics came to be addressed from an entirely different perspective:  given the existence of God and His Church, why should I obey an earthly master at all?  The question of authority’s origin was, as far as I know, first asked by Saint Paul.  His answer, of course, is that temporal magistrates are God’s representatives and have authority derived from Him.  Even those who don’t think this a particularly profound answer–what else would a Jew and an Apostle say?–should appreciate the newness of the question.  Really great conceptual leaps always come from asking new questions rather than finding new answers.  Ask the right question, and the answer will often be obvious.  For Saint Paul and his scholastic descendants, there is no question of justice to the ruler.  Unlike Aristotle, Paul doesn’t imagine that any man has a claim to rule us because of his or his class’s intrinsic qualities.  We owe the king nothing in himself, but obedience to him is something we do owe to God.

Answering the Christian’s question doesn’t answer the pagan’s question:  why should we regard this particular man or this particular senate as God’s representative?  The Church’s philosophers will not answer, and their refusal is wise.  Their answer of sorts is “establishment”:  this king is God’s representative because everybody knows that he is.  Isn’t this circular?  “He has authority because he has authority.”  Somewhat, as it needs to be to deflect dangerous questioning.  A man is king because all his subjects recognize him as such.  In this sense, kingship lies in the subject rather than the king.  It’s what they think, rather than what he thinks or any objective fact about him, that matters.  This absolutely does not mean that authority derives from the consent of the governed.  To recognize is not to consent.  All those subjects may wish they had another king, but because they recognize that this man is their king, he is their king.

Real authoritarians positively boast of their belief in ontological equality.  “Why should one man obey another?”  asks Louis de Bonald.  Nothing about a man commands obedience from his ontological equals, he answers, but only God’s will made known in authoritative institutions.  Authority begins in God.  From there, according to conservative political theory, it passes to the “unwritten constitution” of a people.  This is a people’s sense of where legitimacy lies.  It has no explanation.  It makes its own reality.  One can’t cook up a people or an unwritten constitution, as the social contractors try to do, but we are fortunately not in a position of having to do such a thing.  History has created for us peoples and authorities that those peoples recognize as valid.  The social contractors may try to destroy a dynasty by asking “Why him?”, and they may destroy a people’s sense of identity by asking “Why us?”, but they can never replace what they’ve taken.  Abstractions can never justify a particular loyalty.  Who should be allowed to vote on their contract, and why should I be bound by the will of this particular group?  If I step outside the world of particular loyalties, how shall I ever get back in?

Fortunately, peoples exist, and sovereigns rule them.  The only thing for the Christian to do about it is to ennoble mens’ obedience by reminding them of its divine origin.  The only thing for conservatives to do about it is to defend authority against unanswerable questions.

Principles of Catholic Morality X: the challenge of modernity and the contested legacy of Thomism

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.

American Catholic intellectuals are pathetic!

Is this the best we’ve got?

The Catholic Hall of Fame’s Greatest American Catholic intellectuals, in the order of their birth:

  1. Orestes Brownson (1803–1876)
  2. John Courtney Murray (1904-1967)
  3. John Senior (1923-1999)
  4. Avery Dulles (1918-2008)
  5. James Schall (1928-)
  6. Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)
  7. Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
  8. Mary Anne Glendon (1938-)
  9. George Weigel (1951-)
  10. Robert P. George (1955-)

Of the above, Brownson is the only one I would call a thinker of any importance.  I admit that R. J. Neuhaus had great writing style and a talent for organization, but George Weigel?  That’s just embarrassing.  Can’t we come up with a better list of names?

Maybe not.  Actually, it’s not clear to me that a top ten list of American intellectuals of any religion would be much more impressive.  This is, after all, the country that regards John Dewey as its great philosopher.

A difference between Catholic and Protestant traditionalists

The Christian reactionary is confronted by two “Others”.  On the one hand, there are liberals, the members of his own civilization who share many of his habits and history and yet wish to cut this civilization off from its Christian roots.  On the other hand, there are the other religions and civilizations:  Islam, pagan antiquity, and the Orient.  There are, thus, three points on his ideological map.  In principle, there’s no reason the three points couldn’t be equally spaced, each equally different from the other two.  In practice, the Christian reactionary usually takes one of two positions.

  1. Regard Christians and liberals as closer to each other than either is to non-Christian civilization.  Liberals are our wayward brethren.  They’ve forgotten how the stuff they value, like human rights and the presumption of a rational universe, depends on Christian revelation.  Before and outside Christianity, the world is cruel and vicious, and not at all what liberals would want.  The non-Westerners are the real threat.  They don’t just criticize our civilization from within; they would destroy it from without.  Practical implication:  make common cause with Right-liberals against Islam.
  2. Regard Christianity and other religions as closer to each other than either is to the liberalism.  Liberalism is a freakish departure from the piety, patriarchy, and hierarchy that marks the consensus of all mankind.  Plato, Muhammed, and Confucius stand with us in condemning the liberal abomination, and this fact gives us comfort.  Practical implication:  make common cause with Muslims against feminism.

Right now, I’d like to leave aside the question of which is right and which is wrong.  I have colleagues who I deeply respect on both sides.  What I’ve noticed, though, is that Protestants seem to be noticeably more drawn to position 1 and Catholics to position 2.  Does this seem true to anyone else?  I think what’s going on is that Protestants ultimately feel more at home in the modern world than Catholics.  (It’s when the Reformation happened, after all.)  They are less likely to reject democracy, capitalism, and secular culture in their entirety.  They are more willing to try to salvage some good in the liberal/American tradition.  Catholics, on the other hand, feel more alienated from the modern world (It’s when the Reformation happened, after all.), and more tied to the ancient world.  The idea of a perennial philosophy, that Plato and Aristotle (and, for that matter, Ibn Sina) are on our side, has deep roots in us.  Catholics don’t like the “Christianity saved us from pagan barbarism” argument, because we don’t like it when people put down the Roman empire.

Montaigne on death

…nature compells us to [death].  “Depart,” says she, “out of this world even as you came int it.  The same way you came from death to life, return without passion or amazement from life to death.  Your death is but a piece of the world’s order, and but a parcel of the world’s life.

“Shall I not change this goodly contexture of things for you?  It is the condition of your creation:  death is a part of yourselves:  you fly from yourselves.  The being you enjoy is equally shared between life and death.  The first day of your birth doth as well address you to die as to live.

“Life in itself is neither good nor evil:  it is the place of good or evil, according as you prepare it for them.  And if you have lived one day, you have seen all:  one day is equal to all other days.  There is no other light, there is no other night.  This sun, this moon, these stars, and this disposition, is the very same which your forefathers enjoyed and which shall also entertain your posterity.

“And if the worst happen, the distribution and variety of all the acts of my comedy is performed in one year.  If you have observed the course of my four seasons; they contain the infancy, the youth, the virility, and the old age of the world.  He hath played his part:  he knows no other wiliness belonging to it, but to begin again.  It will ever be the same, and no other.

Make room for others, as others have done for you.  Equality is the chief groundwork of equity; who can complain to be comprehended where all are contained?  So may you live long enough, you shall never diminish anything from the time you have to die:  it is bootless; so long shall you continue in that state, which you fear, as if you had died being in your swadling clothes and when you were suckling.

“…no man dies before his hour.  The time you leave behind was no more yours than that which was before your birth, and concerneth you no more.

“…And if company may solace you, doth not the whole world walk the same path?  Do not all things move as you do, or keep your course.  Is there anything grows not old together with yourself?  A thousand men, a thousand beasts, and a thousand other creatures die in the very instant that you die.”

There you go.  Has death lost its sting for you now?  To be fair, Montaigne says we need to be thinking about death all the time before we really get comfortable with it, and being sick and infirm doesn’t hurt either.  Both Montaigne and Pascal despise the “just don’t think about it” plan.  Instead, we are supposed to face death and figure out a reason why it’s not that bad.  But I’ve never liked reasoning to a predetermined conclusion.  What if death really is that bad?

I’m surprised that Montaigne leaves out something that I suspect gives a lot of people comfort in the face of death:  the prospect of living on, in a sense, in one’s children, extended family, or other community.  I could have easily imagined Nature in that essay rising up and saying, “Here this, man.  When a man dies, his body goes to the earth and his soul to God, but his blood lives in his children, from generation to generation,”  or something like that.  (Try to imagine some prose worthy of Montaigne.)  True, it’s not your own subjectivity, but it means a lot to a lot of people.

This is why I’m always fascinated by science fiction apocalytic stories like On the Beach or Children of Men, where characters have to face the certainty of an end of humanity itself (and, so far as they know, all sentient life in the universe).  How does one not despair in the face of something like that?  I think one would have to take solace in something even more enduring than humanity.  If I were a Platonist, I would turn my thoughts to the eternal Forms that will endure in spite of the absence of material beings to contemplate them.  Not being a Platonist, I would turn my thoughts to God, who contains in Himself all goodness and beauty, and who will surely endure forever in atemporal beatitude.