Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Living According to the Myth

In my last article, I described the effects of bourgeois culture and its utilitarian mentality upon the aesthetic and religious ways of life. This is not an uncommon theme in Romantic and religious critiques of industrial society (or even our society which is changing from an industrial society to a merely financial society). Writers and artists such as William Blake, William Wordsworth, Coleridge, Dickens, Ruskin, Morris, Eliot, have contributed much to the critique of capitalism, claiming that it empties society of cultural richness, a sense of beauty, transcendence, romance, contact with nature, etc. Not all of these critiques were directly religious; authors such as Ruskin and Morris are known to have struggled with their faith, even become agnostic or atheistic at some point in their lives. But the religious motivation even of atheistic Romanticism never fully disappears; lurking behind their love of the old Gothic cathedrals is a tragic sense of loss, a yearning for the encounter with a transcendent God that once took place in now ruined churches. Industrialization and commercialization had reduced the life of human beings to a plethora of stale, mundane, and unromantic occupations altogether devoid of the mythical and epic grandeur of the medieval Gothic.

What was the old grandeur of the Gothic? In what did it consist? What were the Romantics seeking to retrieve, when they hearkened back to "pagan creeds" and the ruins of Tintern Abbey? Some hints can be gathered about this lost way of life, this deep spirituality, from the poetry and art of the Romantics. But much more can be learned, I think, from observation of how deeply liturgical the life of the medieval Christians was. The significance of a liturgical life ought not to be understated. In modern bourgeois Christianity, liturgy is little more than an occasional interruption of the ordinary course of life, in which men are occupied with material pursuits of a utilitarian nature: money, status, health, productivity, the maintenance of a household, or merely an indifferent and comfortable routine of existence. These things are not, of course, to be condemned. But the mind reels when it discovers what a stark contrast such a life bears to that of the Christian middle ages, whose ordinary course was imaginatively saturated with the myths of Christian and Jewish religion.

The myths of Christianity are those exemplified, not merely in the Gospel stories of Christ and his disciples, but in the epic tales of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, tales full of dark and mysterious forces, almost magical and fairy-like in their aura, grand in their scale and terrifying in their manifestation of the power of God. I would compare these mythic histories to the epics of Homer or the Metamorphoses of Ovid - only I would add that as works of mythological literature the scriptures far surpass those of any other religion or civilization, embodying a far greater terror - the power of a far greater God - than what any other myth has ever portrayed. What is more, the biblical myths are true and historical in a way that the pagan myths are not. The false modernist apologists of Christian myth that myth a great injustice when they insist that it is not historical. What is the weight of such grand and unearthly tales if they are not historical? With what power are they supposed to strike us when we read them? If the scriptures have taught me anything, it is that the purpose of all literature is not to pretend, or to make-believe - this would be a narrow escapism; on the contrary, it is to reveal that reality itself is far greater, far more infused with cosmic and divine energy, than we might be given to realize. Therefore we should want the great myths of religion to be true; and we are fortunate that the myths of Christianity are true. False escapism is nothing but a concession to what one knows is not real; but true literary escapism is the escapism of Plato: towards that which is more intensely real.

But I digress. The point is that the terrifying and fantastical drama of the scriptural narrative is real, not an imaginary fable; and that if it is real it puts a enormous and weighty requirement upon people who believe that it is real. How does one live as if gods - nay, God Himself - has led his people through the desert disguised as a great cloud of smoke, or a pillar of flame; or if God has appeared in a burning bush, in a whirling storm; if God has really parted great oceans, destroyed empires and cities, spoken with a voice of thunder from the heavens, lay down the laws of great yearly and multi-yearly festivals and cults - how does one live if one believes that these are the real and historical acts of God? How does one live as if God could reveal himself in the same way again, today or tomorrow or the next day? As if all the drama, romance, tragedy, and cosmic events of the Old Testament could take place at any minute?

The Romantics longed for nothing but to live such a life, or to see life with such a vision. William Wordsworth famously commented in his poetry on the pagan version of this way of seeing the world, as a space within which cosmic and demi-divine forces interacted with terrifying effect. Commercialism and consumerism, in Wordsworth's judgment, had blinded men to this religious and dramatic imagination. 
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Tintern Abbey

Likewise, in Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth comments on how the intense nostalgia and escapism that alone could comfort him in the midst of the din and business of commercial city life. He remembers the "beauteous forms," which seemed almost animate and personal, like gods, noting that "oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din / Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, / In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; / And passing even into my purer mind / With tranquil restoration." 

For Wordsworth, the image of  the Gothic Tintern Abbey amid the scenery of the Welsh countryside brought forward images of antiquity, when heathen peoples saw all around them as suffused with divine life and energy, the stories of their mythologies coming true in sign and symbol. But for the medievals, the imagery was not pagan; it was rather the imagery of the Old Testament, true not only in symbol but in actual historical fact, a lived experience that ordered their entire lives at every level of existence, principally through the performance of the divinely instituted cult of the Christian religion. This cult, performed with majestic ceremony and filled with the fragrance of thick smoke and the sounds of bells and angelic song in giant Gothic or Romanesque citadels, was a forceful reenactment of the cosmic drama embodied in the pages of the scripture: the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, whose death darkened the heavens and shook the earth; but not only this sacrifice, but also the sacrifices of the Hebrew rituals that were revealed by the God who spoke from within a pillar of flame; and also the eternal sacrifice of the Lamb, in the unspeakable glory with which it was portrayed in the apocalypse. All of nature joined in this great cult. The colossal churches of medieval Christendom signified the solidarity of the entire cosmos with the sacred actors on this holy stage. And just as Wordsworth thought that he could "have sight of Proteus rising from the sea, or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn," so too did the medieval Christians behold Jehovah in a pillar of incense smoke, as the Hebrews did; hear the voice of Isaiah's angels crying "Holy! Holy! Holy!" from the heavens; witness the death and death-defying resurrection of Christ; hear and feel the earth quake with thunderous sound in the darkness of Tenebrae; behold the creation of light at the Easter Vigil; follow an unknown God to the threshold of the Tabernacle; follow their God in procession out of Egypt, through the Red Sea of baptism, through the desert of Lent, around the gates of Jericho, through the gates of Jerusalem, along the way of the Cross, up the mountain of Calvary... These were the mysteries that the medieval Christians regularly lived and relived, by participating in a culture that was thoroughly suffused with liturgy. The world of medieval Gothic Christendom was nothing other than the world of scriptural mythology. 

The nostalgia and escapist yearning for myth that permeates Wordsworth's poetry is far surpassed by that of the holy liturgy of the Church, through which Christians have for centuries partaken in the unearthly myths of their ancient religion. And what a contrast it paints! how foreign it is to the bourgeois culture that permeates the secular society of late capitalism! To the pragmatic citizens of this secular society, the image I have painted of the lived mythology of Christianity, yearned for by the Romantic poets, is little more than a useless and unrealistic dream, a refusal to come to grips with the demands of "real life," a recipe for unproductivity, inefficiency, and dissolution. It is, moreover, a regressive ideology that refuses to keep pace with modern progress, advancement, and Enlightenment, through which we have been liberated from the primitive superstitions of the medieval and the ancient past. Thanks to the discoveries of modern science, we see things now as they are in fact, no longer under any illusions of magical or mystical forces that animate them. We know how to harness the natural world for our material advantage, no longer under the illusions that we undergo any kind of spiritual transformation by the performance of impractical (and sometimes unhealthy) cultic rituals. This is the enlightenment of the bourgeois mind! - which is the mind of modern Western society. 

But as J.R.R. Tolkien, a truly Catholic Romantic, told to his friend C.S. Lewis, the bourgeois Protestant: "I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends - / if by God's mercy progress ever ends..." Like William Wordsworth, Tolkien was deeply animated by the anti-modern desire to see the world not simply in  the factual terms to which modern scientific progress had reduced it, but in mythical terms: as the embodiment or incarnation of unearthly, angelic, and divine powers - the powers represented by the fairies and magical creatures of ancient myth, and the magical creatures of Tolkien's own fantasies. He protests the rationalistic literalism of modernity, which pretends to be progressive and enlightened; and he insists, in characteristic Neoplatonic language, that:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.
"A jewelled tent myth-woven and elf-patterned..."
It is a radical claim: that the vision of the world according to which the myth is more real than the fact. Yet it is a deeply Christian claim as well: the cult of the sacred liturgy would be senseless if it consisted of nothing more than smoke, bells, processions, and the plethora of motions which make up its rituals - if these things were more real than the mythical and symbolic imagery which they evoked. In other words, the Christian must believe that the actions of the sacred liturgy, and indeed the activities of Christian life as a whole, as well as the movements and behaviors of the natural world itself - all of this is a work of God; it is indeed better described as a work of God than as merely the swinging of thuribles, the eating of unleavened bread, the interaction of various physical bodies or chemical particles... Not that these latter descriptions are untrue, but that they are partial and subservient. The old medieval tradition of the four senses of scripture embodies the firm belief that the literal and factual appearance of things is but the vehicle for allegorical, moral, and metaphysical realities that transcend everything mundane. 

The radicality of such belief can only shock complacent minds who inhabit the bourgeois culture of modernity - a culture which discourages the mind from opening up to the mythical and metaphysical drama that directs all life. Going about the daily business of material affairs, immersed in a culture of ruthless pragmatism and utilitarianism, the children of secular modernity are forgetful of the radical transcendence that animates all things and makes them move. The cosmos is not seen for what it most really is: the space in which Demiurgic forces work - and in which diabolical forces of the deep sometimes rise up to resist them, only to be thunderously defeated in a battle of epic proportions. Complacency blinds secular minds to these truths; they can only be broken out of their complacency by the sheer shock of a religious cult and culture that makes no concessions to bourgeois culture. 

Even those of the bourgeois culture who do profess religion, even the Catholic religion, have little appreciation for the metaphysically and morally radical demands of their faith. Religion serves almost as a mere appendage or an accessory to their lives, which are otherwise occupied in servile pursuits. This is sadly due to the fact that liturgical cult in modern Catholicism has indeed made great concessions to bourgeois culture. Modern liturgy is subject to the democratizing and flattening trends of secularization, and the refusal to acknowledge in a concrete way the terrifying presence of the Absolute, the Transcendent, in the midst of the visible world itself. Consequently, a liturgy - and a whole way of life - that does not hold back from the acknowledgement of this presence is undoubtedly a great shock to complacent souls. The demands that such a liturgy makes upon the lives of believers are great, no doubt intimidating to those who are habituated to mundane pursuits and worldly endeavors. Unwilling to break out of the comfort-zones of worldly pursuits, bourgeois Christians cannot abide the demands of a ritual, let alone a whole way of life, whose only purpose is to make present and tangible the unearthly activity of an infinite God.

The Liturgy at Notre Dame de Paris. (Source:
The metaphysical radicality of the Christian way of life has been nowhere better expressed in moral terms than in the words of Christ Himself. An honest reader of the Gospels would know that Christ speaks no longer in parables, not only when He teaches of His presence in the Eucharist, but also when He teaches of the Christian life as an urgent journey towards the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which is also, in some sense, in our midst through the Church just as Christ the King is in our midst through the Eucharist. The imagery of the Kingdom is no mere parable, though it is certainly in some sense mythical to the imaginations of democratic modernity. Yet it is a myth that is, like all the myths of scripture, deeply real. And the commandment which Christ delivers to all of His followers is to seek that Kingdom first. The context in which He gives this commandment is perfectly suited to bourgeois culture, so preoccupied as it is with worldly and pragmatic pursuits. From the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6:
25 I say to you, then, do not fret over your life, how to support it with food and drink; over your body, how to keep it clothed. Is not life itself a greater gift than food, the body than clothing? 26 See how the birds of the air never sow, or reap, or gather grain into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them; have you not an excellence beyond theirs? 27 Can any one of you, for all his anxiety, add a cubit’s growth to his height? 28 And why should you be anxious over clothing? See how the wild lilies grow; they do not toil or spin; 29 and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 If God, then, so clothes the grasses of the field, which to-day live and will feed the oven to-morrow, will he not be much more ready to clothe you, men of little faith? 31 Do not fret, then, asking, What are we to eat? or What are we to drink? or How shall we find clothing? 32 It is for the heathen to busy themselves over such things; you have a Father in heaven who knows that you need them all. 33 Make it your first care to find the kingdom of God, and his approval, and all these things shall be yours without the asking.
Christ does not condemn the concerns of food and clothing and other such worldly concerns as evil in themselves; yet He means to put them in subordination to pursuit of the Kingdom of God, which often demands that real but lesser goods - the goods of the earth - be sacrificed, so that they might serve greater ends. This is, in fact, the entire logic of the liturgical cult: the earthly goods which appear in great variety there do not all serve the immediate profane purposes which they serve elsewhere. Indeed, often those elements which someone seeking his mundane material advantage might avoid are actually compulsory in the celebration of the liturgy. (One who eats a low-carb diet must still receive the bread of the Host; or who abstains from wine must still receive the precious blood; or who avoids ingesting smoke, even for an allergy, must be immersed in the smoke of incense; or who avoids germs must receive the host from the hand of the priest, or dip his hand into the holy water font into which many before have also dipped; or who is frugal with his money must place his tithe in the collection basket; etc.) All material interests melt away before the face of the divine King who rules the universe, who alone decides the ultimate destinies of material things. But only a man who has the sort of faith which posits a divine Demiurge, which believes that such a Demiurge can reveal Himself visibly and terribly, with a majesty before which all must bow, can thus offer up his earthly needs to the demands of the liturgy and its incarnate myth. 

This is the ethic of the liturgy: a profoundly unworldly ethic, that can only stand in utter opposition to the worldly ethic of bourgeois modernity. It is the ethic of the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, in which an entirely transcendent drama is enacted, whose actors are gods and angels and demons, as well as human bearers of divine, angelic, and demonic powers. It is the ethic of the Romantic poets, who cared little for the ordinary course of worldly existence to which industrialization reduced modern society, and longed instead to participate in the mythical dramas of pagan and Christian antiquity, whose memory was embodied in the Gothic ruins of Tintern Abbey. 

Today the memory of these mythical dramas is still embodied in such ruins - not only the physical ruins of broken churches, but also the functional ruins of churches who still stand, yet no longer fulfill their former function. Churches spoiled by commercialization and secularization, profaned by the influx of tourists and consumerists, have been practically emptied of their substance, even while they still bear the faint imprint of the Demiurgic dramas that were once performed at their altars. Those dramas are sometimes now performed there only in grossly impoverished forms. Indeed, the liturgy itself, as it is celebrated in late modernity, is something like a Gothic ruin of its own: a skeleton of its former self, a tragic reminder of its own former glory. 

The unworldly, mythical ethos of the liturgy, which is the ethos of the Christian way of life as a whole, requires Christians to "despise the goods of the earth" (despicere mundum et terrena). This ethos has a long history in the Christian tradition, deeply rooted in the living of the scriptures through participation in the sacred liturgy. The prayers of the ancient liturgy are full of such sentiments: "Full-fed with the food of spiritual nourishment, humbly we beseech you, Lord: by participation in this mystery, teach us to despise earthly realities and to love celestial realities." (Postcommunion from the Second Sunday of Advent) The celestial realities are those which manifest themselves in the grandiose forms of the liturgy itself, through the imagery of the sacred ritual and its many sacred objects, as well as the architecture of the great churches - microcosms - in which it is celebrated. Every church is a place where ancient and cosmic energies coalesce to perform an act of creation - transubstantiation, the transformation of earthly things into divine things. 

I have tried to describe, or at least to evoke, what it means for Christians to live as if these mysteries or myths were actually true. I constantly feel as if my descriptions are not radical enough, not true enough to the sublime transcendence which makes itself known in the Christian way of life, the liturgy. The force of myth, and of living according to the myth, as the Christians of bygone ages did, cannot be easily communicated by words. The best words to communicate it are those of the poets - nay, those of the liturgy itself. Far better still is it to be immersed in and therefore shocked by the sheer weight of the myth, to find oneself caught up in a great battle between titanic forces, Gods and demons, of far greater power and terror than the gods of pagan antiquity. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Aesthetics and Life, and the Effects of Utilitarianism

Tintern Abbey

The faculty of aesthetic reasoning has been practically eliminated from the souls of men in the age of materialistic utilitarianism. Neither the liberal nor the Marxist, nor anybody formed by a bourgeois social milieu, can grasp the significance of activity that is not of straightforward material benefit. “Material benefit” is, of course, variously defined; but the goods valued most highly by bourgeois society - which includes Marxism - never rise above the material. To the degree that immaterial goods are valued by such society, it is always in subordination to material benefit. 

Undoubtedly, modern industrialization has itself destroyed a great many goods, not limited to the immaterial. Not only has it undermined man’s spiritual well-being, but it has deprived him of many of the basic material goods of health and vitality. The quality of food production has radically devolved, the wages of the working class consistently trail downward, and industrial agriculture has decimated and polluted the material environment, making it sometimes inhabitable by human life. All of this has been done for the sake of maximizing utility, usually for the sake of profit. Utilitarianism - technique - is the ethic of modernity.

But modernity is full of contradictions. It contains within its very utilitarianism, not only the tendency to decimate the natural health and vitality of the environment and the human body, but also the forces of resistance to this same process. These forces are no less imbued with the spirit of utilitarianism. These are the puritans, who react to the excesses of an addicted consumerist society with the most severe and legalistic spirit of categorical austerity. Utilitarianism is the ethic of both consumerist hedonism and austere puritanism, and many things that lie between them. 

The values that are principally upheld on the spectrum of utilitarian ethics, from hedonism to puritanism, are limited to material goods - which are characteristically full of contradictions. Physical health and cleanliness, valued by the puritans, is often in violent contradiction to immediate physical pleasures. Both things, nonetheless, are goods only of the body. The contradiction between them cannot be resolved, precisely because they are goods only of the body; materialism offers no criteria by which to measure alternative material goods against each other. 

The activities of religion and art are incomprehensible to the utilitarian materialist. Often these activities involve practices which are incompatible with a purely materialist understanding of the good. The materialist cannot understand that material goods may, and often must, be sacrificed for higher goods of a spiritual order. The task of living an integrated life is to discover the proper balance and measure, in avoiding excess and defect, in making precisely these sacrifices. Goods of merely physical pleasure must, in the right measure, be sometimes given up for goods of health; but goods of the body in general must, in the right measure, be sometimes given up for goods of the soul. Goods of profit must sometimes be given up for goods of beauty. No partial good - be it pleasure, health, or the goods of the soul - can be sought maximally, as if it were an isolated absolute, without severe detriment to the other goods that make up the whole. The common good is not, in any univocal sense, equivalent to the absolute maximization of any partial good; it is rather the order amongst partial goods, the maintenance of each partial good in its proper measure, so that it helps and does not hinder other goods by being sought maximally for itself. Morality and politics largely consist in the discovery of this balance.

Religion requires sacrifice. To the puppets and puppeteers of utilitarian profit-making industries, the uses of public revenues to build a great cathedral or a monastery can only be seen as a waste of resources. To the anti-contemplative activist, the choice of monastic life as a vocation can only be seen as a waste of time - mere "bumming around," as a liberal acquaintance once told me. The monk who secludes himself in his monastery, devoting himself to nothing but prayer and worship, is rendering himself useless to society - to the degree that he recedes from society, he is even deemed harmful. The logic of sacrifice - the sacrifice of time, energy, resources, and all mundane forms of utility for the sake of religion - this logic cannot be grasped by the utilitarian of late modernity. Resources must be devoted only to the establishment of profitable businesses.

Aesthetics too requires sacrifice. Many artists are poor, because they do not partake in utilitarian enterprises that may earn them a profitable living. They have sacrificed utility for beauty. The world will not understand the logic behind such a life-choice, which is unproductive and unprofitable. Conservatives, not without good reason, add to this the fact that no such choice of life can serve as adequate support for the raising of families. (It is noteworthy that the raising of families has itself become so dependent upon purely utilitarian pursuits - creating the illusion that family life itself may never outweigh utility.) This is also the attitude of the nuclear family towards many intellectual and academic pursuits, which, like art, are not lucrative - and often not perceived as useful.

Activities deemed worthy of pursuit simply for their own sake, and not for any material advantages which they offer (indeed they are often materially disadvantageous), are systematically condemned by a society whose values only rise so high as material advantage. Rarely is it ever considered that the mere fact that such activity is spiritually advantageous is reason enough to admit the possibility of its worthiness, notwithstanding material disadvantages. Of course, neither should it be conceded that just because such an act is spiritually beneficial, it may therefore be pursued indiscriminately without regard for material goods. Rather, it is a question of balance: how much of a lesser good may be sacrificed for a higher good, without excessive sacrifice, before an imbalance is created which throws a whole life into disarray?

Activities that were once deemed conducive to a life of spiritual and intellectual well-being are now condemned by modernity as positively immoral, precisely on account of their lack of utilitarian value. "Lack of utilitarian value" includes activities which are, by a purely materialistic standard, even positively harmful to the body. Under such a worldview, not even moderation is considered a virtue: one must either indulge to the maximum, or abstain entirely. Modern morality is characteristically Protestant, and Kantian, in its proclivity to invent absolutes and categorical imperatives.

Consequently, modern American culture is quite evenly divided between the hedonist whose highest good is sensual pleasure - e.g. the pleasure of alcohol - and the puritan whose highest good is physical health and purity - e.g. the teetotaling health aficionado. The drinker - not even a drunkard! - is a threat to himself and his own health; so must the priest be, who every day imbibes what is physically wine in the liturgy of the mass. The tobacco smoker is likewise a threat, not merely to his own health, but to that of society; so also must the priest be, who routinely fills a church with the smoke of incense, in far greater quantities than the "second hand smoke" of a pipe or a cigarette. The purely aesthetic, symbolic, and religious value of these activities - their contribution to a mode of existence that is spiritual, contemplative, and prayerful - is disregarded by the utilitarian. Such value is purely relativistic, therefore subordinate to the only objective values esteemed by him: utility, profit, pleasure, health.


The utilitarian mind, when it attempts to conceive how the goods of religion, aesthetics, and intellectualism contribute to a life of contemplation, cannot conceive of this contribution in anything but utilitarian terms. E.g. music, that noblest of the fine arts, is but a means to an external end, be it peace of soul, or relaxation, or any analogous good. As such, it may be substituted by - or act as a substitute for - any other means to the same ends. A purely utilitarian means to an end is considered exchangeable for any other equivalent means. Notice the prevalence here of the ideology of transaction and markets. A means to an end is exchangeable with any other means to that end, because every means is conceived as purely external to that end.

But this is to entirely misconceive the nature of aesthetic and religious activity. The artist does not paint, nor enjoy to look upon art, as a means to the end of apprehending something beautiful. To speak of the activity in this way is to render the act itself, the painting or contemplation of a particular scenery, an indifferent activity with no internal value. The end, which is aesthetic experience, is not something attained by the use of a particular artwork, as by a tool or a technology. On the contrary, the experience is fully embodied in the act of painting, or gazing upon, the particular artwork in question. Similarly, the act of playing the piano or listening to piano music is not a means to an end, such as peace of mind, or a certain emotional state. It is no use to tell the pianist that he might as well cultivate the same peace of mind, or the same emotional state, by practicing the art of yoga rather than the art of music. This would be to view piano playing and yoga as exchangeable utilitarian means to the same end. On the contrary, the end is embodied in each act in a unique and inseparable way that cannot be replicated. The aesthetic experience, or the peace of mind, that is gained by playing the piano cannot be replicated by practicing yoga. Nor can the meditation or the aesthetic experience, of smoking a pipe, with all its symbolism and romance, be replicated by any other activity. These acts are not simply exchangeable for one another as different tools for a useful project.


What is the definitive value of a religious or an aesthetic experience, one that transcends and even negates the values of utility and practicality? (In fact it would be wrong to say that such experiences negate values of utility - they merely negate the absolutist conception of them.) The liturgical act of worship is, perhaps, the clearest example - the archetype - of all such experiences, yet it too has been grossly attacked by the spirit of utilitarianism. Religion is a highly aesthetic affair; the tragedy of modern religiosity is that it has attempted to empty religion of its aesthetic quality. The values of utility, practicality, and rationality have subverted the aesthetics of religion. Religious services in the modern era - those of evangelical Protestantism or Novus Ordo Catholicism - have been reduced to the status of glorified pep-talks and group-therapy sessions for bourgeois professionals or the ordinary middle class. These services do not aspire to metaphysical heights; they do not embody the Romantic dream that animated the cults of antiquity and the middle ages. On the contrary, they affirm bourgeois society in its ordinariness, its mundanity, its wordliness. In modern religion one finds the extremes of both hedonism and puritanism: sentimentalist entertainment culture, and the blank tedium of puritan austerity. The terrifying glory and mythic drama of antiquity is nowhere found in such an experience.

This is undoubtedly a feature of modern man's unwillingness to strain himself, to rise beyond the confines of an earthly existence in which he seeks only the maximum achievement of earthly goods such as health, profit, or sensual pleasure - all authentic goods, to be sure, but nonetheless earthly and therefore partial. Valuing such earthly goods as his highest goods, he fears to rise to new and unfamiliar heights because he fears losing his earthly goods. Relative to such goods, even the aesthetic - the sublime and the beautiful - are a threat to him, a danger, a veritable assault. Heedless of the misery and the closed-spiritedness in which he lingers, he thinks himself comfortable, cheerfully living a "normal" life - where "normal" is variously defined as productive, healthy, pleasure-filled, carefree, etc. T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland paints a dismal picture of what life really is for people who live without a care for the goods that transcend physical existence. But even the less dismal portrayals of such a life, the portrayals of glamour, gaiety, and all forms of physical (and even emotional and mental) well-being under such a condition of life, manifest a deep and fundamental absence of interiority and transcendence. Aside from the Epicurean philosophers of old, who seem to be the precursors of bourgeois society, the ancients understood that what gives meaning and purpose to earthly human life is something beyond that life, which must be sought before all else; and the seeking of it sometimes requires that one give up, or at least rein in, the search for goods that are immanent within earthly life itself. This is not a comfortable truth, either for the hedonistic relativist seeking after his own pleasure, without regard to objective science, or the austere objectivist seeking after physical health or functionality, as knowable by objective measures. Both are seeking merely earthly goods - legitimate goods, but only in proportion to their limitedness in comparison to greater goods which may demand their obeisance. On the contrary, the primitive religious men of antiquity understood that utility, pleasure, health, profit, honor, practicality, efficiency, cleanliness, etc., must eventually bow before Beauty who is their Queen.

In the folds of this philosophy, many will perceive what appears to be nothing more than a defense of romantic nostalgia, an escapist yearning for an age in which men could indulge in fruitless flights of fancy, carelessly ingest clouds of poisonous tobacco smoke, and be nothing more than generally useless members of society. Such men are the Don Quixote's of the world, fools and freaks who think that life is, or ought to be, a utopian fairy-tale. The denizens of modern practical society will no doubt accuse these dreamers of a fanciful disregard for the hic et nunc, with all of its demands. Among the many figures disdained by the modernist is the tweed-wearing traditionalist, pipe in mouth, whiskey in hand, book in another hand; who would rather sit with other similar characters and share tobacco, whiskey, and a highly abstract intellectual dialogue, than go about the ordinary business of waking early, going to work for 8 hours, doing his daily exercise, looking after his practical affairs, going to bed, and repeating the process in the morning. This is a despicable inversion of the values of the modernist.

J.R.R. Tolkien
The modernist would be quite right in his observation of the condition of such a traditionalist: he would prefer to indulge in romantic fancy than put himself to work. But the modernist is by no means right that such a desire is in itself shameful or a sign of failure. The man who thinks this has probably never witnessed the beauty of a slow whirling cloud of fragrant smoke, exuding from the sacred flame housed in a thurible or a tobacco-pipe; nor allowed his spirit to float with this smoke towards the heavens; nor gazed upon a summer sunset after two or three glasses of red wine; nor felt his body shiver in holy terror at the reverberating sound of Gregorian Chant, announcing the coming of Christ in the form of the Eucharist. The sweet leisure, the pure aestheticism, the religious romanticism of life, the freedom from earthly cares, are but silliness to the modernist - "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." Yet Aristotle noted that work is for the sake of leisure - not vice versa; the goods of the body are for the sake of the goods of the spirit. Activity, productivity, wealth, health, and pleasure are for the sake of contemplation - the religious and the aesthetic experiences. While no man should disdain mundane labor or the forms of physical pleasure and health which sustain it, nonetheless these things are properly at the service of nobler goods: beauty, contemplation, religion. A society that requires activity, productivity, health, or any partial good in such a degree that no time, energy, or attention is left for the ecstatic pursuit of contemplation is an oppressive and unnatural society. As Tolkien so eloquently illustrates in On Fairy Stories, the Romantic is not wrong to long to escape from such a society (as a prisoner is not wrong to long to escape prison) by engaging in activities of a contemplative nature where he need not worry about lesser goods. Christ himself cautioned his apostles not to seek so anxiously after their material well-being, whether it was what they should eat, where they should sleep, etc; not that concern with these goods is illegitimate, but that there are nobler goods to be sought first.

Of course, a man would be a failure who simply refused to work for his family, or maintain his health and vitality so that he could do so effectively. And it is true, especially in modern utilitarian society, that traditionalist values of an aesthetic, religious, or romantic nature will put a man under immense pressure of conflict with the desperate material needs of working-class existence. In the proletariat condition, a condition created by utilitarianism itself, even useful values and the goods of health are denied to a man and his family, by a strange and tragic paradox. It is no wonder that the pursuit of beauty, romance, and religion, are so often perceived as a threat; not only do they threaten to disrupt the self-righteous comfortableness of the bourgeoisie, but they also threaten to undermine the ability of the proletariat to look after itself. Beauty is a distraction from the needs of the working-class, a mere luxury at best - and at least, a mere respite for tired souls. It has nothing truly advantageous to offer for the working condition. Where the physical means of subsistence are so unjustly denied to working families by the ravages of late capitalism - witness the profound damage done by the food industry to the health of the average American - it is no wonder that those who wish to reverse this injustice are repelled by any activity, aesthetic or otherwise, which negates the primacy of a good such as physical health. The traditionalist father of an average family certainly has a duty to secure the material well-being of his family, especially in a society where they have been so deprived of it. But in such a society, his duty towards his family's material well-being may very easily come to be seen as at odds with his desire to pursue traditional aesthetic and romantic experiences. The mere fact that they are so at odds is a telling signal of the oppressive condition to which utilitarianism has reduced modern society. Utilitarianism sets real goods at odds with each other precisely by denying the subordination of some goods to others, making the prospects of moderation, balance, integrity, and transcendence seem desperately impossible.


Modernity lacks all sense of the priority of transcendence; even where it is affirmed, by those among the bourgeois or the middle class who wish to conserve some semblance of religion in their lives, utilitarianism still cruelly smothers the desire to escape, to fly on the wings of fancy to a place free of earthly cares. Utilitarianism, the spirit of capitalism, holds secure the chains that bind the prisoners in Plato's cave (Republic), preventing them from even peeking above the clouds where divine forms linger in eternity (Phaedrus). When will the powers of modernity have mercy on the souls of men, which long for nothing more than to become one with the sublime and beautiful? 

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

John Paul II Was No Defender of Capitalism

In his encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote some controversial words on the subject of capitalism, the interpretation of which has been the subject of much disagreement among Catholics interested in the economy. A common reading of this encyclical portrays Pope John Paul as a run-of-the-mill free market liberal, even a moderate libertarian of the socially conservative stripe. Pope John Paul is claimed by this reading as the great papal defender of capitalism. But I want to propose that this reading is deeply mistaken, and is based upon that classical mistake of reading out of context. Upon closer reading, including some of his other encyclicals, I might very well have thought JPII a straight-up socialist — had he not made it quite clear that he condones neither capitalism nor socialism (these terms being defined a certain way — keep in mind how equivocal words are), and for quite similar reasons.

In the famous paragraph 42 of Centesimus Annus, the Pope writes the following words:
42. Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?  
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
Here the pope gives two definitions of capitalism. The first is basically the free-market/private-property form of economy, where people who own things make things and sell them, etc. Catholic defenders of capitalism will often point to this first definition as the definitive proof of JPII’s economic liberalism. But note how that sentence contains a qualification, that it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy.” In other words, “capitalism” is not JPII’s preferred word for the market economy, and so a market economy of private property and free exchange etc. is not his preferred definition of capitalism. Presumably, then, his preferred definition of capitalism is that which he gives in the very next sentence: a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious. And this sort of economy he cannot condone.

One can assume from this that Pope John Paul II prefers an economic system in which economic freedom is circumscribed by strong juridical frameworks at the service of total human freedom (which, interestingly, is both ethical and religious in nature). JPII is explicitly advocating strong state regulation of the market, in the service of explicitly formulated ethical and religious ends (sounds like integralism). He will have none of the supposed individualistic neutrality of liberalism-libertarianism, which frees individual desires (specifically the desires of the wealthy) of all limitations.

Pope John Paul is known as the great pope of anti-communism, and indeed it shows in this encyclical. In the very next paragraph, he claims that Marxism failed to provide a solution to economic crisis — but, crucially, the pope acknowledges that there is a crisis, and what’s more, it appears very like the crisis which Marx himself once observed in capitalism (if understood now in a new way), namely alienation:
The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.
Again, all the while opposing Marxism, the pope nonetheless rests firmly on the belief that, good as markets are, regulation by the state is something good and necessary, in order to solve the real problems of poverty and alienation caused by capitalism. He views libertarianism and unfettered market forces as insufficient to do this, and as being naive for distrusting the effectiveness of social and political solutions.

Alright then, a capitalist will respond; so maybe he just believes in a more regulated form of capitalism.

But there’s more to John Paul II’s understanding of what exactly capitalism is. He lays out in significantly more detail his understanding of capitalism in the earlier encyclical Laborem Exercens, where again — all while firmly criticizing communist Marxism as such—he applies seemingly modified “Marxian” insights to his analysis of capitalism, especially where he decries the separation and conflict of capital and labor, and the subordination of the latter to the former. In fact, in paragraph 7 he explicitly describes capitalism as such by exactly this perverse relationship between capital and labor, which he claims is an inversion of the proper relationship established in the book of Genesis:
In all cases of this sort, in every social situation of this type, there is a confusion or even a reversal of the order laid down from the beginning by the words of the Book of Genesis: man is treated as an instrument of production, whereas he — he alone, independently of the work he does — ought to be treated as the effective subject of work and its true maker and creator. Precisely this reversal of order, whatever the programme or name under which it occurs, should rightly be called “capitalism.”
In part 11, he goes on to recount and analyze the dimensions of the class conflict between labor and capital which emerged with the rise of industrial and exploitative capitalism:
Throughout this period, which is by no means yet over, the issue of work has of course been posed on the basis of the great conflict that in the age of, and together with, industrial development emerged between “capital” and “labour”, that is to say between the small but highly influential group of entrepreneurs, owners or holders of the means of production, and the broader multitude of people who lacked these means and who shared in the process of production solely by their labour. The conflict originated in the fact that the workers put their powers at the disposal of the entrepreneurs, and these, following the principle of maximum profit, tried to establish the lowest possible wages for the work done by the employees. In addition there were other elements of exploitation, connected with the lack of safety at work and of safeguards regarding the health and living conditions of the workers and their families.
These are only a few of the lines and passages which might be cited to indicate that Pope John Paul II, the great enemy of communism, was no friend of capitalism either, as he defined it. Moreover his definition of capitalism, involving the conflict of labor and capital and the unrestraint of economic freedom from juridical and political bonds, is more consonant with the understanding of capitalism put forward by the most prominent theorists of capitalism themselves, from Adam Smith down to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. And although he rejects the Marxist solution to the ills of capitalism, he is not loathe to use parts of the Marxist critique in his own critique and analysis of capitalism. JPII rightly observes that capitalism subordinated labor to capital, according to “the principle of maximum profit” — which is the effect of Marx’s own observation that capitalism subordinates use value to exchange value, i.e. the value of the actual product of labor to the value extracted by means of market exchanges (money).

Furthermore, simply because the pope does not adopt the Marxist solution as such, it does not follow that he refused to accept certain elements of a solution which might be called “socialistic” in some way. He repeats an old principle of Catholic social doctrine, which he traces back to St. Thomas Aquinas, namely the “universal destination of goods,” according to which all possession of property, even private possession, nonetheless has a use that is for the common benefit of all. The principle of the right to the acquisition of private property, though not per se the cause of conflict between capital and labor, becomes the cause of such conflict only once it is absolutized and exalted over the obligation to serve the common good. Thus, referring to the principle of private property, JPII writes in part 14:
The above principle, as it was then stated and as it is still taught by the Church, diverges radically from the programme of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism…. At the same time it differs from the programme of capitalism practised by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it.
Accordingly, in the same section, he lists a number of possible solutions that accord with the Church’s teaching on this subject. Economists and policy wonks will recognize some of these types of solution as those sometimes proposed by none other than socialists, especially so-called market socialists:
In the light of the above, the many proposals put forward by experts in Catholic social teaching and by the highest Magisterium of the Church take on special significance: proposals for joint ownership of the means of work, sharing by the workers in the management and/or profits of businesses, so-called shareholding by labour, etc.
JPII is obviously here in favor of various kinds of collectivization or socialization of the means of production, such as those envisioned by worker-cooperative models, or more broadly by social wealth funds — which take the mutual fund or index fund model and extend it to the whole nation by means of state ownership. In other words, social ownership cannot be ruled out of the vision of a healthy and humane economy — so long as it does not entail the eradication of any form of private ownership as well. In a cooperative model, or in a social wealth fund, individuals themselves participate in a pool of property rights so to speak, and the benefits of the means of production clearly go to them as individuals — even though the management of this property must be carried out cooperatively.

JPII contrasts this with other forms of socialism which effectively monopolize the control of property in the hands of a separate social group, namely the ministers of the state. His critique of this sort of socialistic arrangement is worth noting, first because it is remarkably like his critique of capitalism itself, as something which monopolizes and concentrates property in the hands of one group — even if that group claims to represent the whole society. Without means of ensuring the state’s accountability to society as such, including every person within its purview of care, this form of collectivization risks being not social enough:
Thus, merely converting the means of production into State property in the collectivist system is by no means equivalent to “socializing” that property. We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with every one else.
Imagine that: state socialism is not social enough, because it monopolizes power in a way very similar to how capitalism does the same thing. This is also the basis of the contemporary distinction between “democratic socialism” and “totalitarian socialism.” The difference is not that one involves central state planning, while the other does not. They both do. Rather, the difference is that “democratic socialism” effectively shares and distributes power and ownership through a wide swath of the social landscape, so to speak, rather than concentrating it in the hand of an unaccountable authoritarian state institution. (In all probability JPII has the Soviet Union in mind here.) It might be better to describe such a democratic form of socialism as cooperativism or corporatism or distributism, accordingly, to make that distinction all the more clear. In any case, it involves genuine forms of social ownership and social use of capital, against any and all forms of individualism or liberalism that inspire the workings of capitalism.

Remarkably, this form of social ownership which the pope advocates is not incompatible with the market economy, as described by the looser definition of “capitalism” cited in Centesimus Annus. The pope envisions an economy where market forces play a genuine role in contributing to the development of industry and entrepreneurship, much in the way that market demand conditions the process of production, aiding in the refinement of the craftsman’s art. And insofar as things are bought and sold and exchanged in such a system, one person gives to another a commodity that was once his own, in return for a commodity that was once was the other’s: it is an exchange of private property. This is by no means incompatible with the structure of an economy where each man participates, as a member of some larger corporate and cooperative body, in the ownership of a common wealth, by which those commodities are produced in the first place. The market thus becomes an instrument of the social body’s act of distributing wealth throughout itself, thus contributing to the common good. The mechanisms of this market process are well known, but what is crucial to note is that they are independent of the key characteristics which JPII identifies in the definition capitalism: unrestrained pursuit of profit, and the exploitation of labor for capital. A non-capitalistic market economy is very much a possibility, and one which Pope John Paul II prefers.

Catholics who appreciate the work of Pope St. John Paul II should not do him the disservice of exalting him as the great defender of the capitalist system. He might have been the defender of markets and market economies, but he was by no means any defender of the unconstrained and exploitative economic freedom of the capitalist class.

Re-awakening of the Blog - Some Thoughts on Liturgy and Community

The common good is twofold: intrinsic to the community, and extrinsic to the community. The activity by which the community may enjoy its common goods is also roughly twofold: inward-directed and outward-directed. Both are necessary. But as the intrinsic common good is subordinate to, and merely the reflection of, the extrinsic common good, so is the inward-directed enjoyment of the common good subordinate to the outward-directed enjoyment of the common good.

Of the complete community (as opposed to those which, as such, are incomplete), I take the outward-directed activities to be the proper acts of religion, generically the acts of worship, specifically the liturgical act of sacrifice. Here the community is not directed towards itself. I take the self directed acts to be not properly religious acts, though they are extensions of religion and subordinate to it; e.g. acts of culture, e.g. the communal gathering of friends to enjoy each other’s company and sing music around the piano or enjoy food around the table.

Both of these kinds of acts, religious and “cultural,” are good; and they even have a certain continuity with each other. It is incredibly important to see acts of culture as inspired by acts of religion. But it is equally if not more important to see their distinction. If liturgical worship is conceived as if it were the community’s internal celebration of itself, it risks devolving into distraction from the truly extrinsic and transcendent common good, God, who is fearful and Other in his transcendence. Liturgy becomes comfortable, sentimental, homely, and a thing of this world, like gathering around the piano or the dinner table. No matter how beautiful the music one sings around the piano, if it is but the occasion of communal self-affirmation, it belongs nowhere in the act of worship. The liturgy is perverted, and the order of goods is distorted and disfigured.

This is, I fear, what many modern liturgical celebrations have become - even many that are relatively conservative and aesthetically tolerable. It is a sad state of affairs that most Catholics do not experience the really numinous.

Friday, 26 October 2018

The Nation-State as a Counterfeit of the Integrated State

The nation-state such as we know it now is a modern institution, its origins roughly traceable to the periods of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. Politics and state-craft mean something now which they did not mean in more traditional societies. Earlier on, in the 13th century, one sees a very different organization of political institutions, for example in France. In 13th century France, one does not see a whole and unified nation so much as a body of local regions governed by local jurisdictions with common boundaries. These jurisdictions may have been further unified under a higher, more universal jurisdiction, such as that of the king, but in a concrete sense the principle of subsidiarity manifested itself inasmuch as political activity occurred first and foremost in the context of the local jurisdictions. 

To the modern political theorist, this system appears disorganized, chaotic, and inefficient. Overlapping jurisdictions seems to give rise to the possibility of conflict; a lack of unitary governance and well-defined governance across the nation seems to give rise to procedural inefficiency and a lack of cooperation. In the 14th and subsequent centuries, indeed, what might be thought to be dissatisfaction with this chaotic and inefficient system gave rise to the birth of the nation-state, a unitary and far-reaching institution with universal jurisdiction and well-defined boundaries, within which it could exercise total control. Such a system was bound to be more unified and efficient; any political plan or strategy could be executed quickly and without delay by officers and managers deputized by the governing powers. Such a system appears, prima facie, much more integrated and well-ordered than the multiplicity of jurisdictions which characterizes, say, 13th century France under Louis IX.

The nation-state works on the model of a machine: a well-ordered system that operates automatically, when the right wheels are set in motion, and the parts are properly weighted and balanced against each other. Whether we are speaking of a monarchical nation-state or a democratic nation-state, this principle is the same: the state is a machine that manipulates bodies. At first blush, a monarchic state may seem to be something external to the bodies (the citizens) which it manages, while a democracy includes them as its parts; thus the common image of democracy as giving political power to the people. This may also be the image that characterizes Hobbesian versus Lockean political regimes: the Hobbesian Leviathan is something apparently transcendent, looming over the people, whereas Lockean democracy seems to reside in them. But this contrast of images is almost irrelevant to the very working of the nation state: even in a representative democracy, the neutral machine becomes inhabited by politicians who, though supposedly chosen by the people, effectively amass into a machine that manages bodies from on high, like Leviathan. The workings of the nation-state-machine are thus more or less independent of the difference between monarchy and democracy. A monarchy may be just as all-encompassing and efficient as a democratic state.

Thus, what characterizes the nation-state as such its is mechanical and totalizing efficiency, its capacity to bring all subjects under the umbrella of a single, unitary system, with pre-defined policies and programs to be imposed universally and univocally upon all, in all places and circumstances within the nation. As such, it appears integrated, well-ordered, a complete whole with universal causal power.

But this is almost all an illusion, based upon a fatal misunderstanding of the metaphysics of universal causality in creatures, and a misunderstanding of the metaphysics of wholes and parts and the order amongst them.

William Cavanaugh has an excellent article detailing how the nation state arose, not out of a concern for the true unity of societies around common goods, but out of a concern for a false unity ordered to the private goods of very specific classes of individuals, usually those who happened to have more power and money. But at a couple of points, he describes this nation-state as "integrated" in contrast to the earlier medieval "system" (hardly a system). I want to point out that, for the very reasons Cavanaugh gives for the rise of the nation-state, any appearance of "integration" in the nation-state is in fact an illusion. But as Cavanaugh essentially makes this point in a historical way - the nation-state did not arise out of concern for building real societies but for manipulative ease for private ends - I want to make this point metaphysically:

True integration presupposes a right metaphysics of wholes and parts, and a right understanding of teleology in the context of wholes and parts; and as a consequence, a right understanding of causality in the same context. The metaphysical doctrine of the common good, summarized by Aristotle at the end of Book 12 of the Metaphysics, sums up all of these things at once. According to this doctrine, the common good relates to the private goods in a way that is analogous to a whole and its parts; in fact, the common good is a good of some whole, while the private goods are the goods of its parts. But there is a crucial distinction to be made: the common good does not relate to the whole (whose good it is) in the way that a private good relates to the part (whose good it is). For example, a private good such as a meal relates to its consumer and only to its consumer in a simple one-to-one correspondence. There is nothing complicated about a meal; for every meal, there is one consumer at a time, in only one respect. But the common good is different: for the common good, there are many beneficiaries, at many times and in many respects. What is received is received in the mode of the receiver; but what is received might only be able to be received in a certain mode or number of modes. Food as such can only be received by one receiver, in the mode of one who eats. But a common good can be received by many, and in many modes. 

In other words, it is crucial not to confuse the kinds of unity or wholeness that characterize common and private goods. Common goods have a unity and wholeness that is equivocal, not univocal; a common good does not apply to its beneficiaries in all the same respects, but adapts itself to them according to their very multiplicity in time, place, and circumstance. A private good can only be applied once and in one way, in one circumstance. 

It is also crucial not to confuse the unity or wholeness that characterizes a common good with that unity or wholeness that characterizes universal concepts, such as a genus or a species, i.e. an abstraction. The common good is not an abstraction; it is something that is itself one in number, a real being, and moreover it is enjoyed by its beneficiaries according to their very concrete and multiple modes of being. It is common in a concrete sense, because as a good it embraces all things in their very diversity. A genus or species that is abstracted is not common or universal in this sense; it is common only in that it belongs univocally to many, not because it embraces that many as such, within itself. The concept of animal does not actually embrace men, dogs, cats, fish, beetles; it embraces only sensitive living being, because it is no more than an abstraction. But the common good is not an abstraction; it is a real thing, and it is common because it can be enjoyed by many men, even perhaps dogs, cats, fish, beetles - and even plants and rocks, in an ultimate sense. What is most common is somehow good for all; whereas a common genus has no real effect on any multitude, but only on the mind that conceives it, or on the artifacts of a common nature that are produced by that mind. 

The common good is a universal cause. It is a universal final cause. It extends its reach to the multitude, but not by abstracting from their inner diversity, as a genus or species, but by touching them in their very diversity. Causes are concrete beings that operate on concrete effects; abstractions do not do this except through the mediation of the practical intellect. And it is the common good, not any common species, that is the first principle of morality and politics. Morality derives its operation from its telos, which is ultimately one for all - and the all consists in many persons in many circumstances. The art of politics, i.e. the direction of all to their common good, consists somehow in unifying men, bringing them together, binding societies together, in common pursuit of this telos. The wielder of the art of politics is himself also a kind of universal cause - an agent, not a telos. His operation is to direct the many, as many and diverse, to the One. 

Accordingly, here are the two corruptions of totalitarian politics, which is that practiced by the nation state: 1) The political art does not therefore consist in making them all the same. That would be to confuse the universal final cause with the universal or abstract concept, the genus or species. To the extent that this is done, the political art falls into totalitarianism. This is to confuse the types of unity or wholeness that characterize universal causes and universal concepts. 2) The political art does not direct the many to what can only be the private good of an individual or group of individuals. That would be to confuse the types of unity or wholeness that characterize common goods and private goods. I claim that the nation-state which I described above is a perverse institution, because to a large degree it is characterized by precisely these two mistakes.

1) The nation-state is an institution within which political plans are pre-conceived in an abstract form and imposed a priori upon an existing multitude of real persons in an incalculable multiplicity of concrete circumstances. This multiplicity is all the more multiplicitous due to the sheer scale of most nation-states, which cover enormous swaths of land, and span enormous diversities of cultures and traditions that are conditioned by the circumstances of the people in those places. From the outset, such a system is totalitarian, since it pays no regard to existing order, tradition, and custom, the characteristics of existing peoples, and instead seeks to impose upon them unitary solutions conceived in the abstract. This is to confuse common species with common goods. The unity of a society around the common good is not identical to its specific unity as a group. Moreover, it is injurious to the common good, which is communicable to the diverse, to eliminate legitimate diversity which arises from real and concrete orders and circumstances.

2) The nation-state is an institution that favors the private goods of the men who wield it. It favors the private good of the powerful, at the expense of the private goods of those over whom they rule - and consequently, at the expense of the common good of all. The common good depends, in large measure, on private goods; but it depends on them insofar as it consists largely in the ordering and harmonization among them. The neglect of this order, by reason of the prioritization of one set of goods at the expense of all others, is de facto a neglect of the common good. It is also the very incarnation of tyranny, which is defined as rule for the sake of private rather than common goods. The mechanical model which I described above works well, as a machine - the problem is that it is inherently and structurally neutral with respect to the very ends for which it works well. The ends come and go; it is in itself no more than a neutral means for any and all ends that might be conceived by the individuals who operate it. 

I claim further that this system of the nation-state is anything but integrated, in a true sense, for it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the natures of the relevant kinds of wholes and parts. Integration connotes the right order of parts within a given whole; something is disintegrated when its parts are isolated from their context within the whole, and thus from each other - disintegration is the destruction of relations. Relations are context-based; individuals relate to each other according to the concrete modes of being and living which they inhabit. They relate by sharing common goods, and to this extent they are like each other; but they share those goods from different circumstances,  different places and times, different points of view, different spheres of subjectivity, etc. If all shared exactly the same circumstances, points of view, personalities, etc., there would be no need for community - no need for mutual support, for learning, for friendship. Each individual would be completely autonomous and thus self-sufficient, having nothing new to offer to his others, having nothing to receive from his others. But in fact this is not the case and can never be the case. Persons are constituted to need each other, because they are not self-sufficient; they are conditioned by infinitesimally distinct circumstances, in an infinity of ways. Consequently, they are perfected by entering into relations, into communities; they flourish as social beings, not as autonomous individuals. Accordingly, to the degree that sameness is imposed upon the multiplicity of individuals, society disintegrates. To the degree that circumstances are neutralized and subjected to pre-conceived systems of uniformity, relations fall apart. Of course, this can never work in a final sense; the only way that the totalitarian project could conceivably work is if it rid all people of diverse circumstances - of which there are infinity. People will always feel the need for society, because that is in their natures; to impose uniform political solutions upon them, without regard for the differing circumstances in which they flourish socially and relationally, is thus to do them a grave injustice - and it is to cause disintegration, under the mask of uniformity. 

Likewise, to the degree that the system of the nation-state favors the goods of those who hold institutional power, once again - perhaps in a more obvious way - it causes disintegration. Integration is caused by the many entering into community by enjoying the common good, according to their multiple capacities and circumstances. But to prioritize the private good of any person or persons over the common good is an act of tyranny which suppresses the ability of the people to enjoy the common good. This to sever those goods from each other which relate as parts and whole: it is to disintegrate the whole. As I have mentioned, the common good consists largely in the good of order among the private goods, for the sake of an external common good. Order requires that all parts receive their due, that they not be isolated from each other or from their proper place in the whole. That private goods of so many are not accorded them, on account of the private goods of the ruling classes, is an act of injustice, robbing the whole of some of its parts, and thus causing it to disintegrate. 

Thus, it is important not to be deceived by the bureaucratic efficiency and completeness of the modern nation-state. To the degree that it engages in an act of tyranny and totalitarianism, by privileging the private good of some over the common of the many and imposing uniform solutions upon a multitude that is not disposed for it, it is responsible for a grave society-wide injustice. As such, it must be resisted - peacefully, if possible, without needless revolution, and only as far as benefits the common good. Above all, for the common good, the nation-state should be converted. That is, after all, the purpose of all moral and political action. 

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Notes on Metaphysics and Politics

Politics and ethics must be resolved to metaphysics. The subject matter of political or ethical science is not properly metaphysical; yet, as all the lower sciences are resolved to metaphysics, so must politics and ethics be resolved. The subject matter of the natural sciences (i.e. physics and biology) is not properly a metaphysical subject matter; yet all things are metaphysically constituted, so even the object signified by the subject matter of physics may be studied metaphysically, considered under a different formality. E.g. man may be studied as an object of natural science insofar as he is a being of matter and motion; he may be studied as an object of metaphysics insofar as he is simply a being. Object and subject-matter are not synonymous: the same object (a being) may be studied by two different sciences, insofar as those sciences relate to it under distinct formalities, constituting it as a different logical subject matter for each science. 

Political science is not the same as metaphysics, for it has a different subject-matter and a different goal: it studies not being as being, but human action as such; yet insofar as human action is related to being, as such it does indeed pertain to metaphysics. This is not to identify politics with metaphysics, but to resolve politics to principles which can only be provided by metaphysics. The political or ethical philosopher knows how to act as man only because he knows what is the perfection of man’s being – the good by which his being expresses and fulfills itself. Meta-physics knows man as being, as a participant in being as such; consequently it knows what his perfection is, insofar as it knows being as such in relation to what is the perfection of being as such: the good itself. Metaphysics is the search for the causes of being as such: knowledge of the perfection of being is knowledge of its final cause. This, indeed, is how Aristotle culminates his pursuit of the metaphysical science.

Man is a being, because man exists; but he is man because his existence is conditioned and lim-ited by a certain mode of being, an essence, which is a peculiar potency with respect to the act that is existence, which together make him a being. Being is not univocal; it is analogous. Thus, although metaphysics differs from the lower sciences by considering being as such, it can only know being in its unity by simultaneously assimilating and separating from its knowledge of the particular modes of being. Metaphysics assimilates the particular and limited knowledge that has particular modes of being for its object, e.g. the knowledge gained by the natural sciences. This knowledge is not properly metaphysical, nor is metaphysical knowledge the same as natural science; yet natural science is resolved to metaphysics, and metaphysics must assimilate the knowledge gained by natural science – these are in fact the converse of each other. The study of human nature as one particular mode of being, a mode of being that is one-of-a-kind and not uni-vocally being with respect to (for example) mere physical being, is one such category of knowledge that can and must be assimilated and resolved to metaphysical knowledge. Accordingly, the theoretical study of human nature against the backdrop of which alone ethics and politics are possible is indeed relevant to metaphysics, and must be shown to receive its principles from metaphysics. Conversely, metaphysical knowledge itself is perfected in the degree that the metaphysician knows human nature as such in being as such. 

Knowing metaphysically what is the ultimate final cause of being, and knowing in relation to being what is the nature of the human being in particular, the philosopher may transition from speculative to practical intellect: the question for the practical philosopher, having transitioned from metaphysics, becomes how to attain the final cause of being, and more specifically, the final cause of the human being. These questions are related, because ultimately the final cause of being and the final cause of human being are the same thing: and the answer to the latter question can only be resolved in relation to the former. Ultimately, the perfection of man is only a moment, a stage, granted a highly significant stage, of the perfection of all being in the divine final cause of all things.

Metaphysics reveals what is the perfection of man, which is hierarchically manifold and ultimately one. Ethics and politics reveal what are the practical steps that a human being and a human society might take in order to attain that perfection. The ethicist and politician cannot perform their philosophical task without metaphysics: only through metaphysics do they know what is the perfection they seek; and they even gain remarkable insight into the ontological nature of the steps that must be taken, since metaphysics reveals not merely the ultimate goal, but also the intermediate goals, the many stages of metaphysical goodness and perfection in respect to being. Just as the perfection of man is itself an intermediate stage within a whole structure of perfections ordered to the ultimate final cause, so there are many intermediate stages between man’s proper perfections and the perfection enshrined in the ultimate final cause. Philosophical anthropology, especially one that is metaphysically guided, has much to say on the many kinds and grades of human perfection: perfection of his lower, middle, and highest faculties; the participation of his lower faculties in his higher faculties; the participation of his higher faculties in a mode of operation that is not even properly human (i.e. angelic operation); the various relations of his faculties to lesser and greater objects, i.e. external goods. Etc. Speculative or theoretical philosophy reveals not only the Good, but the goods of being, and of specific kinds of beings, and of human beings. To the ethicist, this store of theoretical wisdom becomes a guidebook, a map of goods to be acquired, of choices to be made, etc. He takes this wisdom and applies in the infinitesimal circumstance; he unites the universal principle with the contingent situation of factual, historical existence. He teaches and practices the virtue of prudence.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Back from Hiatus - And What a Hiatus!

After a two-month period of silence on this blog, I have much to report, but little energy or time to report it. These two months have been eventful in many ways - I have left Belgium to return to California, taking a gap year in the midst of my studies of philosophy at the University of Leuven. During this gap year - in little more than a month's time - I will be getting married, Deo Gratias. The plan is to be married in the Old Rite, of course, though the church space in which we are to be married is situated so that we cannot have the mass ad orientem. It is a loss to the traditional liturgy, but also a definitive improvement upon that which is normally experienced in this and the average parish. 

During these two months, I have become embroiled in several battles against liberalism, offering my voice on such sites as Twitter, Facebook, and the Josias, in defense of the Catholic traditional of social and political thought. That has been and will continue to be an adventure. This blog is a bit more esoteric, usually, than is accessible to the people who need to be engaged on pressing issues, from a principled standpoint. I have found that I can reach more people on those other social media platforms, as long as I do not let myself be trapped in the Web - and that itself is a struggle! Technology has many advantages, but many pitfalls as well. In our age, it is one of the most effective means of evangelization and witness; but it is also one of the most effective means of distancing souls from nature, and from other persons with whom they are more immediately connected. 

Before leaving Europe, I traveled to Rome and to Paris - I traveled far too little during my whole year in Europe, so in the last months I found myself obligated to see at least these two centers of  historic Christendom. I saw and learned much on these visits. In both cities I saw the ancient and huge monuments of the Catholic tradition, looming like giants amidst a sea of tourists. I went to Rome to see my faith, literally set in stone, concrete and immense in its presence. The Roman basilicas especially overwhelmed me with their mosaic images, in which the history of salvation seemed to come alive and shape the very atmosphere of the place. I witnessed the celebration of the ancient vigil of Pentecost at the parish of Santissima Trinita Dei Pellegrini, and the mass of Pentecost Sunday celebrated by Cardinal Raymond Burke at the parish of Gesu e Marie. The whole experience - not just these liturgies - was profoundly liturgical, even where there was no liturgy being celebrated in the churches I visited; even where I was not visiting churches, but standing in front of the profane monument of Vitorio Emmanuelle. Likewise, in Paris, not only was it a profoundly symbolic and even quasi-liturgical experience to walk into Notre Dame (or into Chartres Cathedral, on the one day when I could make an excursion from Paris). Even to see the Pantheon - temple of the Enlightenment - or the monuments to liberte, fraternite, and egalite, was a symbolic act of remembrance: on these sacred grounds have acts of profanity also been committed, yet the Church still stands in some places amidst the signs of pagan ruin. 

The juxtaposition of the City of Man and the City of God: this I witnessed especially in Paris, city of Saints and anti-Christs, heart of the eldest daughter of the Church, and center of the perversions of Enlightenment liberalism and modernism. France has spawned both the most staunch traditionalists and the worst modernists. The tense intimacy of these opposed domains has long been observed by the patriarchs and teachers of the Catholic tradition: Christ, St. Paul, and in the most detail St. Augustine, have observed this juxtaposition. It is a juxtaposition that comes in many forms: in times of Christian flourishing, the Church has set herself clearly above the world, in clear distinction and rulership. In other times, as can be seen in Paris, the City of Man exercises its dominion, yet the Church barely but steadily continues to breathe. Paris in this way represented to me the modern world as a whole, where the Church no longer appears to bear the sacred and revered authority which once was recognized in her. The Church - the People of God - has been exiled. 

In the Old Testament, there are countless tales of God's city being destroyed and resurrected - his people being exiled into the city of man, where they are surrounded by corruption, where they cannot worship in their age old traditions in the safety of their temple, with the freedom of their God-given ritual. The Babylonian exile represents the severance of God's people from their home, which is the entire body of their traditions of worship, law, custom, and morality. For several decades, we have been losing our traditional rites of liturgy as Catholics, the rigor of our laws and morals, the depth of our ancient identity. We do our best now, in this strange city where we cannot live or worship according to our own traditions; but our best is still poor compared to the life we lived in and surrounding the old Temple in Jerusalem. Every Sunday, I do my best to contribute to the liturgy by cantoring at the Novus Ordo, singing a little bit of ancient chant, and I consider this a sacred activity. But in the psalms I sing, I sometimes have to hold back tears of intense nostalgia; it is often like I am singing of my very inability to sing the songs of old Jerusalem: "By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept..." (Psalm 136). This past Sunday it was ever more poignant, in part because of the recent revelations of the moral decay in which the Church of today is so deeply immersed. It struck me again that we have been exiled to Babylon. We have seen our own city submitted to the destruction of the Chaldeans; we have lost our temples and their ancient rites of worship; we have followed false gods and false shepherds and suffered for it; we lived for generations in a place that is not our home.

But God always promises restoration. In Jeremiah 33, he promises to restore his people to their former joy, after they had been destroyed and desecrated by the Chaldeans. "They will be my people and I will be their God." He promises that they will once again sing his praise - I read this and I thought of the liturgy - and that the young brides and bridegrooms will join in this song of praise - I thought of my forthcoming marriage in just over a month - saying: "Give ye glory to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his mercy endureth forever." (Jeremiah 33:11). The intense nostalgia for Old Jerusalem is accompanied by hope - hope for the restoration and rejuvenation of the right worship of God. Our Church desperately needs this restoration. The Church has died many times, but happily, as Chesterton quipped, she has a God who knows His way out of the grave.