Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cccf's latest is of especial interest to readers from the nutmeg state.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Cardinal and theological virtues for America

Dear LD,

My answer to your question about the transferability of an institutional model from one country to another is yes and no.

No, if we simply try to transfer the institutional mechanics, so to speak, e.g., regarding our Western democracies, the electoral mechanism. Yes, if we look at the underlying ideas of a political experience.

The tragedy, as you pointed out yourself, is that we too might tend to forget the latter, laying all the stress on the first. Hence the creeping civil war.

One of the few authors who had something serious – should I say scientific? – to say in political matters, the Notre Dame Scottish professor Alasdair MacIntyre, laid a strong stress on the need of recovering an ethic, which is also a psychology, of the virtues.

For whomever is reading who is not inside such matters, I am speaking of the four cardinal virtues, already identified by Plato and Aristotle: prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice; and the three theological virtues, identified by Christian theology, but I think of equal universal import as the other: faith, hope and charity.

However, MacIntyre remarks that the doctrine of the cardinal virtues was classically tied with a certain model of man fit for a certain society: that of the Greek city state, the polis. So he asks himself how could they be transferred to men of a different kind of society, thus being made universal as for example in St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa.

Now I go by memory, and I haven't verified MacIntyre's answer. It seems to me to be something of the kind: because St. Thomas makes them proper for any human intercourse, so much more if it involves people coming from different human groups. The way I understand it, this necessarily requires complementing the cardinal virtues with the theological ones.

Calling faith, hope and charity "theological" doesn't mean that they depend on a religious doctrine, which only confers them their ethical validity. It is quite the reverse: they are rooted in any human intercourse, and therefore it's them that measure the religious and political validity of a doctrine, its "catholicity".

Now, back to America. Two things.

First: one of my teachers, Will Herberg, strongly stressed America being a land of immigrants: i.e., coming close to realize the situation envisioned by St. Thomas, where naked human intercourse demands the full set of the four and three virtues.

Second: it wasn't, though, made by the convergence of peoples of any kind whatsoever (as POTUS suggested in a speech of his) but of peoples who, for all their ethnic differences, somehow knew of the virtues required by the American experience.

That's why some peoples seem fit for America, like, more recently, Koreans or Vietnamese; while others seem unfit, like, alas, Islamics (with all the due qualifications of the case).

Your work on America, dear LD, is important, and needs to be carried on, precisely because both liberals and conservatives tend to think in abstract terms, detached from the core of the American experience. This needs to be unearthed in its most characteristic manifestations, to bring it consciously to philosophy.


On Plato and the Closed Society: conversational indirections occasioned by the HP

Dear HP,

Yes, it is true that I have written that book. I had almost forgotten all about it. I suppose I really ought to get rolling in the search for a publisher.

Who wants a book that makes no policy prescriptions, and writes out of a place that is before and beyond the ground on which the liberals and the conservatives grunt and spit at one another?

It is a serious question, earnestly asked.

You will recall that, at the recent public scrutiny of my effort, Fr. Flannery questioned whether the notion of the city as a man writ large and of society as the cosmos writ small - a guiding idea for me and, so I argue in the book you mention, for what I call, "America" - is really central to my defense of America as really and adequately responsive to man's natural aspirations.

In raising the question, Fr. Flannery pointed out that neither the political societies that were the consitutive elements of the United States, nor their several constitutions, nor the federal constitution, could reasonably be described as similar to the constitution of the ideal city as discussed and presented in the Republic of Plato, in which the supposedly guiding notion has its origin.

I roughly and readily replied that, if one reads Plato as the source of metaphysical doctrines and political prescriptions, then his objection is unanswerable; I went on to suggest that, fortunately for me, there is another way to read Plato: as a dramatizer of the philosophical moment - by which I meant that Palto's works (re)create the drama (in the strict, etymological sense of the word) of realizing that one is a disciple in a way of life called friendship in wisdom; I was content at the time of the raising of the question to escape the strictures of the former way of reading, but I failed to address how it is that, if one reads Plato in the latter way, then it is at least possible to see expressions such as Publius', "Government...[is]...the greatest of reflections on human nature, (Federalist #51)" as more than dappling allusion, but as a sign that America's way of thinking about the basic questions of how we do and ought to order our lives together, is really in the tradition of thinking, the roots of which are in and through Plato.

This kind of thinking will have consequences.

It might, for example, press upon us the serious hermeneutical question whether - as Popper would have it - Plato is an "enemy of the open society (whatever that is)" or whether America really is an "open society" if it is really in the way of Plato.

While I would never discourage anyone from pursuing that question, nor would I suggest that my work could not be brought to bear on such a question, neither would I pursue it myself, as couched - my work is not inspired by such a question.

I am rather interested in the question, around which which your posts have been teasing, whether it is not true that governments are given for societies of men - and societies are not all the same, certainly not equal - so that a government, which protects life and secures property adequately and even admirably for one society, may do disastrous disservice to another if the elements of the former society's government are simply and merely counterfeited and placed over the latter society.

I am interested in the question whether societies of men are capaable of choosing good government by reflection and choice - which Publius asks America pretends to answer; I am interested in the further question: what does the thinking of America have to teach us about the (way toward an) answer to the problem?


Thursday, July 22, 2010

How liberal conservatives can be

The LD has written a book that we hope to see soon published, The soul of a nation, where he investigates the political philosophical meaning of the American experience: meaning, what in the shaping of the American body politic can be of universal philosophical significance.

Now, it seems that there are two principles in America being played one against the other, both going back to some of the key words of the Declaration of Independence: equality and liberty or freedom.

The stress on the first or on the second seems to define the opposing parties of the creeping civil war I speak about as, in common parlance, progressives or liberals and conservatives – with the first relying on the state to assure equality, while the second look at the individual with his natural place in civil society to preserve freedom.

While certainly not friend of the state, I feel a certain embarrassment when I see how some conservatives defend their case as one of liberty versus tyranny. Also because, in the reconstruction they make of the casus belli, there would be nothing particularly interesting in the American experiment that the LD examines. The culture war today in America between liberals and conservatives would be the same that had been going on for centuries, through European history, all the way back to the supposed origins of Western civilization in Greek philosophical reflection on politics.

Already then, Karl Popper suggests, the opposition of principles took shape following Plato's envisioning a city (non a state) ruled by a philosopher king, to which, we are told, Aristotle opposed a vision of a city of free citizens.

Strange pairing of thinkers follow in such a reconstruction of political philosophical history: that of Plato with the anti-Platonist Thomas Hobbes, on one side, and of Aristotle with John Locke, who can't be certainly classified as an Aristotelian, on the other.

Actually Plato and Aristotle, for all their differences, go together in their emphasis on the virtues required of men for a good ordering of the city.

Equally together go Hobbes and Locke, to the point that the second can be seen as having done nothing more than gilding the Hobbesian pill. While Hobbes is brutal in his expressions, requiring a sovereign – it doesn't matter whether "single or assembly" –, Locke appears much more suave, when he definitely grants sovereignty to an assembly.

The trouble is that in any case the sovereign has the power of making laws, thus bringing order to an otherwise disordered world.

What embarrasses me is how "liberal" is this whole historical reconstruction, although in a sense of the word closer to the Nineteenth Century usage than to that of the century just passed.

The whole progressives versus conservatives opposition is no older than two centuries or two centuries and a half.

The much older question about which America represents a novel experiment is another: that of the relation of politics and religion.

Here America has parted from Europe. For liberal European states, to keep religion out of politics means to make it publicly irrelevant, preserving for themselves the education of the citizenry. In America, instead, it is politics that has to be left out, so to speak, of religion. Save for a Europeanizing cultural elite, that wants to affirm the subordination to the state of civil society with all its cultural-religious manifestations.

Essential then to the American experiment is, as the LD reminds us, that tradition of virtue which from Greek philosophy passed into Christian theology. Which is, we could claim, universal, thus making possible to keep Church and State separate, without destroying society.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

in verba Mansueti Impudentis de civitate Dei et terriugena

These remarks being a reply to the Humbly Presumptuous in the Matter of the city of God and the earthly city:

In the very first, thanks, HP, for your exposition of what is for us a (or one side of the) basic problem of that noble way of life that men used to call philosophy.

You will recall that I wrote a little book at the beginning of the century (as yet unpublished - I am not sure who would want it just as it is), which I was happy to title, Sighing for Jerusalem: the political nature of virtue in the two cities of St. Augustine's De civitate Dei.

In that book, I dealt with a fundamental, even if overlooked fact: namely, that in his book (twenty-two books, really, which Augustine described famously as his magnum opus et arduum), the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church from the now buried and all but forgotten city of Hippo - buried, I hasten to add, under a massive urban sprawl in the northeast corner of Algeria - faced the question whether Christian religion is suitable to the morals of a republic.

More preciesly, he responded to the assertion that Christian religion is not suitable to the morals of a republic, arguing instead that Pagan religion cannot (nor could it ever) sustain the morals of the Roman republic (by which he meant also the vast empire accrued to the city through the centuries), and that Christianity could do so for Rome or any republic worth sustaining, insofar as it is verus cultus veri Dei, the true worship of the true God.

I will have more - much more - to say about what the phrase, "the morals of a republic" really means, though that discussion will have to wait for another post; my concern at present is with the origin and scope of the creeping civil war.

First, a very little history, in very broad strokes:

Augusine seems to have convinced enough people of the contrary, to make the next thousand years (at least) of history in the West an effort to order society according to his vision and adapt the vision to social circumstances without warping either into unrecognizability.

Augustine, in other words, gave us something between an artist's impression of and a blueprint for what came to be called Western Civilization, the principal unit of which was the res publica christiana - an intellectual, cultic and spiritual union of the Christian principalities in the world.

The Peace of Westphalia is generally given as the death knell of the res publica christiana as a coherent civilizational idea, though it is important to note that it is in no wise necessary to receive this wisdom absolutely and without qualification.

Indeed, wherever cultural notions of catholicity, i.e. ideas of universal validity and transcendently grounded and ordered authority, continued to exist, the anthropological elements of the res publica christiana survived and even thrived, even as the institutional political trappings of it withered.

As one of my favorite thinkers, Eric Voegelin, has written:
The corrosion of Western civilization…is a slow process extending over a thousand years. The several Western political societies, now, have a different relation to this slow process according to the time at which their national revolutions occurred… The American Revolution [emphasis mine - LD], though its debate was already strongly affected by the psychology of enlightenment, also had the good fortune of coming to its close within the institutional and Christian climate of the ancien régime. Western society as a whole…is a deeply stratified civilization in which the American and English democracies represent the oldest, most firmly consolidated stratum of civilizational tradition. - The New Science of Politics: an introduction
In the United States of America (and I would include contemporary Europe as a rejection of one vision of America in favor of another vision of America - i.e. as a reply or a response to one or another side of the promice of America, even as America is a reply to the problems of Europe in Modernity), we are perpetually at risk of losing sight of the older anthropological vision out of which our particular political institutions grew and for which they were peculiarly built to suit.

We tend in this day to derive our freedom from our institutions, and we forget that those institutions were given for a certain kind of men. In the words of Publius:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.- The Federalist #55
We need to recover our sensibility of and our sensititvity toward this basic tension in our nature both personal and popular - otherwise we risk losing both.


City of God and city of men

The few readers who might have followed our blog probably remember one of my fixed ideas: that we live a creeping civil war. That's why we called the blog "Chronicles from the front".

I am not sure how clear I have made who the sides of this war really are.

Of course there are external enemies, who eventually one day hijack some airplanes and go to crush themselves against New York skyscrapers and the Pentagon. But they wouldn't be so strong, if we weren't so divided.

Reading news of the day I feel therefore continuously pressed to come back to my painful fixation.

The Church is under attack because of the sins of her ordained members. By whom?

Well, I'd say by the servants of the Emperor: i.e. by the state's governing bodies, whether legislative, judiciary and executive.

Our history teaching never makes clear enough why the roman emperors were against Christians. And yet the answer should be pretty simple: because they refused to deify the human community to which they willingly belonged, because they thought that there was a higher community of all men in God to whom it went their full allegiance.

Thus Christianity became the warrant of men's freedom, our freedom, against the self-divinization of the state, pretending to exhaust the full compass of human life.

Was the Church always up to it? Of course not, because the distinction of church and state is not a severing of men in two halves, so Christians are at the same time members of the one and of the other, always tempted into making of the Church a state, or of the State a church. The story of this distinction, with all that it involved, is that of Western history.

Men are always again tempted into making their world into the world. It happens therefore that in the name of an "open society" (cfr. K. Popper, The open society and its enemies) society is actually closed in the confines of a state: the worldly state of public things (status rei publicae: hence simply the state) in the western world of the last centuries.

To this the Church opposed herself. Until it came a time when it was said: we Christians have to learn to dialogue with the world, learn again to address it.

This was the hopeful message communicated by the Vatican II. Which leaves me with a paradox to account for: while the last Ecumenical Council announced itself as a recasting of the Church's eternal truths in a new language more apt to modern times, her capability to address people of these same modern times appears to be weakened.

Was it perhaps because it wasn't made explicit enough that there is a creeping civil was always going on, i.e., to say with Saint Augustine, between the "city of God" and the "city of men"?


Saturday, July 10, 2010

From the Archdiocese of St. Louis...

We have this statement from Archbishop Robert J. Carlson:

Money qute:

Since the first century, the Church has addressed the moral evil of abortion and the killing of a defenseless baby in the womb. People who are casual about the sin of abortion and who choose to view it as a political issue rather than the serious moral issue that it is are guilty of violating the Fifth Commandment. You cannot be "pro-choice" (pro-abortion) and remain a Catholic in good standing. That's why the Church asks those who maintain this position not to receive holy Communion. We are not being mean or judgmental, we are simply acknowledging the fact that such a stance is objectively and seriously sinful and is radically inconsistent with the Christian way of life.
As I said at Fr. Zuhlsdorf's place (to whom, a tip of the hat, (/:-)), This is an excellent statement, and deserves to be circulated as widely as possible, as an example of how to balance the ad intra and ad extra aspects of the message.

One the one hand Abp. Carlson makes the Catholic position very clear to Catholics, and amkes it clear that he is speaking to the faithful, directly and specifically, saying: this is what our Church teaches on these matters, now and forever.

Then, in paragraph 6, the archbishop explains that the Catholic teaching is not incompatible with the requirements of citizenship.

He wraps it up very well, too.

Well done, indeed!

CCCF: "Guttmacher's Wrong...Again°

Juan O'Callahan at the CCCF blog continues his signal service.


I continue to encourage bloggers to support the Cccf in every possible way.



Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Friendship, eros, charity

A New York sexologist by the name of Esther Perel has gratified us with a book, Mating in captivity, lavishing all her wisdom about sexual desire and how to keep it alive.

It seems that many couples after a while that they are together experiment a dreadful fall of their sexual desire. They want to stay together as a couple, but don't feel like making love anymore. Well, if they just accept it, it's no big trouble: there is no law that prescribes to do it. The trouble springs when desire is aroused by other people, and they follow their impulse. Then you have infidelity, and that's no good.

OK, Perel argues, we can't stand infidelity, it is dishonest; but there is a solution: to be utterly honest with each other. She envisions so negotiating couples, who come thus to agree on what one can accept from the other in violation of the exclusiveness of their sexual involvement. In this way, she suggests, even their mutual desire can gain in vitality.

I would suggest another kind of therapy: ama et fac ut vis (Saint Augustine). For those who don't know Latin: love, and do as you want.

The catchword here is ama. What does it prescribe?

C. S. Lewis wrote a marvelous little book, Four Loves, in answer to the question of what is "love". So much more marvelous, the less it claimed to any originality in the basic finding. It was enough for him to observe that we use the word in four different way: to mean "affection", "friendship", "eros", and "charity"; and analyze each one in turn.

Now, I leave aside the first, which is that we can prove toward our doggies, in general pets, or the things we are familiar with.

Eros is the one in question here: i.e. the attraction between a man and a woman that makes them engage in sexual games, which seems to falter after a while, so they are driven to look for novel experiences.

The alternative (to Perel's) therapy I suggest is to keep eros together with friendship and charity.

Friendship is the pleasure people draw from each other's company. Thus said, we can ask where such a pleasure comes from. Lewis' acute observation is that people are always friends in an idea, some shared likings. More: from Aristotle to Cicero it was stressed that only virtuous people can be friends, thanks to the appreciation of the good present in the other.

Charity is the readiness to give.

Now, back to the imperative ama. It doesn't prescribe a feeling, which would be absurd (how could you ever obey such a prescription?). What it prescribes is always a performance, the reciprocal giving of one's own life, in whatever ways one might willingly manifest it.

Here is also the idea in which lovers (in the current, erotic sense of the word) can be friends: that of a relationship in which one looks at the other as precious and uniquely good. Having something that only he or she can give: his or hers total self.

I assure you that in such a case, where friendship and charity are alive between lovers, eros cannot fail. Sexual desire stays alive too.


Sunday, July 04, 2010

For What It's Worth: a letter home on Independence Day

When our forbears mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the independence of America, they were effecting a momentous change in the world - though not the one which springs to the mind of most people. They were, in effect, making their personal commitment to the truth of the claims laid out in the Declaration. The signatories’ pledge was in the name of the United States, in Congress assembled, so that their pledge was to order their lives in a way that made (makes) the truth of the claims advanced in the Declaration plain for all to see.

Even so, a half-dozen generations of scholars in the United States have attempted with varying degrees of success to reduce the ideas of the Declaration to a minimally modified mimicry of John Locke’s formulaic for the purpose of government, and make the revolution the Declaration proclaimed to justify a mere exercise in Lockean political theory.

John Adams, who sat on the Declaration’s drafting committee and all but single-handedly carried the day for independence, spoke of the independence of America and the American Revolution in the following terms:
Who was the author...of American Independence [?]…We might as well inquire who were the Inventors of Agriculture, Horticulture, Architecture, Musick [sic]…[The] only true answer must be the first emigrants. The Revolution was [therefore] effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.
The question, “Who was the author of American independence?” wants to know in whom American independence has authority. Adams’ reply, that the only true answer must be the first emigrants, would find authority in their experience of exodus, for he describes them as emigrants, and not as immigrants. They came out of the Old World; their coming into the New, where they established a way of life, eventually allowed their descendants to say with probity, “this is good,” in describing the way of life that they had inherited, and so without reference to the king of Great Britain.

Whatever else this means, it tells us that the American mind does not express itself in others’ terms; the words it speaks are its own, though deliberately, they are not novel. America does not speak first, but is called upon to speak, and expresses itself in a way that is appropriate to the call to which it speaks:
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
A pertinent practical example of this way of thinking is to be found in in Stanley Cavell’s 2004 book, Cities of Words: pedagogical letters on a register of the moral life, precisely in his chapter on Locke:
I recall…Emerson’s accusation and confession that we no longer speak or think for ourselves, no longer say “I think,” “I am,” but “quote some saint or sage.”… [I]t follows from this loss of capacity to outface a doubt of our existence, that we in effect declare that we haunt our existence. The implications for the body politic are immediate, since if I have no voice of my own in which to express my thoughts, I cannot give my consent to be governed and our condition is that we haunt our society. It cannot hear us.
But here, could we express Emerson’s longing for America to discover itself by imagining him to declare, “Man is timid, he is afraid to say, ‘I think,’ ‘I consent,’" but instead quotes, for example, Locke?
The Declaration is not exactly quoting Locke.

Some of the words of that document are similar enough to Locke’s language to let us note and possibly – so we might understand the Founders to be requiring of us – to know the difference.

The Declaration says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident:” so that the thirteen political societies are united in claiming these truths each for its own in America; what is more, the thirteen States of America, through their representatives to Congress, are claiming that the truths of the Declaration are visibly present as ordering forces in American life, if only one will come and see for oneself.

There is no argument in the Declaration because self-evidence cannot, as such, be argued - only shown: but are we showing, by our conduct and example (as Publius a few years later would say it is our duty and our privilege and our Providentially-appointed task to show), that societies of men are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, i.e. that they are not forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force, and that they do not require the chains of despotism to keep them from destroying and devouring one another?

The resolution of the 2nd Continental Congress, which, on the 2nd of July, 1776, voted in favor of Richard Henry Lee’s June 7th motion:
RESOLVED: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The members of Congress were signing their own death warrants, and committing the states they represented to war, and all the immense expense in life and treasure that is the price of war.

To say that they did so in order to test a parlor theory of the origin of politics, is not to praise the worth of philosophy; it is to indict the founders as moral imbeciles, at best; at worst, they would be rabid, bloodthirsty ideologues.

Jefferson described the Declaration as an expression of the American mind. Though Locke is clearly present as one contributor to the sentiments of the day, the authority of the Declaration rests on its harmonizing of those sentiments, which, as Jefferson himself has just attested, is an expression of the American mind.

This is not Lockean. This is something different.

The question whether we are still commited to the task, to which our fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, is one that must be front and center, now and forever, in our national and our individual minds.

This is the price of liberty.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Weekend Briefing

  • I have been looking, so far desultorily, for either a German (I believe it was conducted auf Deutsche) or an English transcript of the debate between Charles Taylor and Card. Schoenborn. Any news from readers on this point would be greatly appreciated, as both the HP and I would like to enter our own remarks by way of criticism/commentary.
  • I am thinking my way through a post on the TV series, LOST. Be on the lookout - and feel free to post here or e-mail thoughts, links to interesting criticism, etc. I could use some help getting my head around the literary sub-genre of television criticism.
  • A request: the blog has seen an increase in traffic of late, and this is very pleasing. Are there questions, topics, stories, issues, which the readership (whether new or established) would like to see either the Hp or me address?
  • It is 4th of July weekend. I will be posting by the morning of the 4th, if not before. To my countrymen: INDEPENDENCE FOREVER!