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You will recall that I wrote a little book at the beginning of the century (as yet unpublished - I am not sure who would want it just as it is), which I was happy to title, Sighing for Jerusalem: the political nature of virtue in the two cities of St.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


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