A little learning, as Alexander Pope once wrote, is a dangerous thing. The same can be said, ironically, for a great deal of learning. Many very intelligent men, quite well meaning in their intellectual endeavors, fall into grave errors not from ignorance, but from just how much they know; at the root of which is, indeed, the same danger against which Pope was truly trying to warn. A modicum of learning is dangerous for the same reason that a wealth of learning is dangerous: namely, pride. Pope’s admonition was not against a pithy education, but rather, against that education which teaches men to believe they are educated, wise, intelligent, or otherwise smarter than the average bear.
Some might look on this as a reason not to bother with pursuing education beyond what is needed to function in daily life. To do so would be to ignore one of the fundamentally directive impulses of human nature: the desire to know. This desire is fundamental not in the sense that it is something merely biological or genetic, though those are certainly factors in its manifestation, but which is indivisible from the continuous existence of any human life. To be human is to be an intellectual being; that is, one endowed with an intelligence irreducible to the corporeal. Yet because that intellect is also dependent upon the corporeal organs, it is not instantaneously fulfilled, but requires a gradual satiation. Contrariwise, because that intelligence is itself incorporeal and can conclude to the existence of wholly immaterial substances, even if it could comprehend the whole of corporeal being, it could never be fully satisfied in this life. In a way, this insatiability is itself a pleasure above and beyond all satiable pleasures: there is always more to learn, more to know, more to discover, always something to stimulate the intellect’s innate yearning. Like all human desires, however, if its pursuit leads to the valuing of a lesser over a higher good, that pursuit can lead man into the trouble of sin. While the truths of things man pursues to know are absolute, the knowledge which he come to possess is not; because it is always partial and lacking in some sense or another, his knowledge can be twisted, manipulated, and subjugated to his particular aims, errors, proclivities, and prevarications.
As such, even the well educated—in fact, often the best educated—can find themselves mired in erroneous ideas, theories, and schools of thought. This propensity is not unique to the individualistic, post-hierarchical systems of government with their advocation of freedom of speech, thinking, and (more and more) doing. The cultural homogeneity of Christendom, the “a cohesive effort, effected by many parts, to cultivate for the whole an order whereby men could be brought to God” mentioned in the previous post, did not come about automatically, without strife, or without imposition of doctrine and condemnations of error. Many of the great minds of centuries past have been heretics, and many of the intellectual elite have followed suit; look simply to the Manicheans.
One part of the difficulty of invested intellectual pursuits, of seeking out the truth, is the truth’s vast expanse: the breadth and depth of things to know is simply mind-boggling, and the natures of these things arenot always clearly delineated by previous thinkers. The previous sentence should make this, paradoxically, quite clear; the only word adequate to describe the objects sought is the incredibly vague “things.” When we come to a subject such as theology, there are safeguards for believers, given in revelation and the magisterial teaching of the Church, safeguards which protect against grave errors. But these safeguards do not protect in every way, especially not against attacks which strike not at what is explicitly revealed, but rather at its interpretation.
Most Christians are familiar with John 8:31-32: “If you remain in My word, you will truly be My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Fewer are as familiar with the less-quoted dialogue which occurs afterwards, in which the Jews ask Christ what He means; they, after all, are descendants of Abraham, and have never been slaves; to which Christ replies: “Amen, amen, I say to you: everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin, and he cannot remain in his house eternally; yet the Son remains forever. Therefore, if the Son makes you free, you will be truly free. I know you are sons of Abraham; yet you plan to kill Me, because My word does not take hold within you” (8:34-37). While it seems likely that Christ included in His meaning the literal act of crucifixion which He was to suffer, it is also likely, and fits within a tropological interpretation of the passage, that He meant the sins which we commit through failure to adhere to the truth, those sins on account of which He died.
Ultimately, to remain in the Truth as an intellectual is not difficult; but it is complicated, and without the virtue of humility, nigh impossible.
Chesterton once wrote that “the man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world” (Heretics, c.14: 1905). The converse is, of course, that the man who lives in a large community lives in a much smaller world; the reason being that the large community allows a man to choose his own companions, whereas the small community leaves him no alternative. Given the choice of companions, he may elect only those with whom he finds himself comfortable, with whom he already agrees. Without the choice, he must either ignore and perhaps berate or ridicule his neighbors, or he must learn to accept that their perceived failure to fit neatly into his own ideas is actually failure of his perception. His failure is not necessarily that they are right and he is wrong about whatever it is that they are doing or not doing; it is that he should expect them, who are not he, to be as he is—in knowledge, in experience, in moral rectitude. Every human is the same in nature; every man is the same in essential properties, and every woman is too (in which, nature and essential properties, are grounded certain foundational orientations, deviation from which is never justified). But because men are not just their natures, but their persons, they accrue differentiations. Allowing for these differentiations, it is true, allows for Caligulas, Robespierres, Hitlers, and Adam Lanzas; but it also allows for Sts. Ignatius of Antioch, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, and (soon-to-be-sainted) John Paul II. To demand uniformity of personhood is to demand its diminishment. When the individual is allowed to choose his own companions, and the companions he chooses are those who are most like him, he does not give himself very many opportunities to expand the boundaries of his person. (As an aside, let it be said that anyone who would accuse religious of this error has clearly not spent enough time with religious communities.)
It does not need to be explained why the “community” of today is many times larger than any were in the time of Chesterton. The technology of cultural globalization and increased urbanization has succeeded in allowing almost everyone to connect to nearly anyone else. It is not hyperbole to say that this cafeteria connectedness, in effect though not in principle, is corroding the foundation of civilization, specifically Western civilization: namely, participation in the great dialogue. When every practical daily need and strong desire—friendship, romance, nourishment, commerce, education—can reasonably be met by those of similar (or at least not opposed) perspectives, the opportunity for genuine dialogue* evaporates. Heads bob up and down in agreement to hundreds of different monologues, contrary to one another but inaudible to each other’s audience.
It is this tendency to social insularity that Allen Tate named the “New Provincialism” (in Essays of Four Decades, 535-546: 1945). While there have been many benefits to the world becoming “smaller” in the past hundred years—especially the unprecedented accessibility of resources, cultural, intellectual, and corporeal alike—”What it never occurred to anybody to ask was this simple question: What happens if you make the entire world into one vast region? …the real end is not physical communication, or parochial neighborliness on a world scale. The real end, as I see it, is what you are communicating after you get the physical means of communication.” The mere ability to speak the same language to one another does not mean that men will understand each other; it does not mean that they are actually communicating, inasmuch as communication means entering into something common: “It is possible for men to face one another and not have anything to say. In that case it may occur to them, since they cannot establish a common understanding, to try to take something away from one another” (537). While surrounding oneself with like-minded people, indulging in affirmation of one’s own beliefs, and unequivocally rejecting the possibility of dialogue with others is a disposition common to liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, atheists and Christians, the former of each pairing—which, taken as a whole, we will denominate “secular liberalism”—are generally contracted to a smaller world. For conservatives, traditionalists, and Christians are, insofar as they are true to the label, dependent upon a continuity of thought developed over millennia. All too often they are, as a reaction, content to see the tradition of any given continuity of thought as perfected and complete, needing no further extension; sometimes, even seeing no need for further intension, either.
No period is more victimized by this provincialism than that which the insulated mind of secular liberalism finds most foreign and some radical traditionalists find most glorious: the Latin age of Christendom—that is, broadly speaking, the period between 950-1600 AD, and more specifically, between 1050-1350, in which three centuries Christendom was at its peak. To define Christendom would require pages ill-suited here; but succinctly, it may be described as a cohesive effort, effected by many parts, to cultivate for the whole an order whereby men could be brought to God. It was not always a successful effort; but it was a unique one. The Roman Empire may have united more of the world, more tightly, and for longer—but Rome was Rome’s own end. The conquests of Rome were motivated by a desire for peace and stability. The infrastructure built by the Roman Empire was for the sake of Rome’s glory. Rome centered about Rome. Christendom, contrariwise, while it fostered cultural centers, such as Paris, Naples, Chartres, and Oxford, was essentially de-centralized as a secular force. The great cathedrals which still stand all over Europe today were not built to glorify Rome, the Vatican, or the Pope; Notre Dame was not built as a monument to Alexander III, Bl. Innocent V, Benedict XII, or any of the other popes who reigned during its nigh-200-year-long construction. Likewise, while the Crusades began as a defense of Christendom, they persisted for the glory of no particular kingdom but for the preservation and veneration of the Holy Land.
It is typical of the secular liberal to see the undeniable achievements of Christendom as aberrations from the spirit of the age, produced in spite of barbaric authoritarianism. The protagonist of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, William of Baskerville, exemplifies this attitude: he is portrayed as both a compassionate humanist, as a member of the Franciscan order, and an intellectual, in love with the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas. Meanwhile, Bernard Gui is portrayed as an authoritarian monster who extracts confessions by vicious torture for reasons never sufficiently explained; Jorge of Burgos is portrayed as a proto-Puritan, for whom reason often contradicts faith and must therefore be quelled. Many of the other monks are shown as Scriptural listeralists pre-eminently concerned with avoiding heresy. The books of the library are locked away in a labyrinthine tower. The tone of the novel suggests that this is characteristic of the age.
Contrariwise, historians such as Henri Daniel-Rops look at Christendom as a glorious period of order and reason which ideally (though impossible) ought to be restored.
Neither Eco nor Daniel-Rops is entirely wrong, nor is either entirely correct; but of the two, Daniel-Rops makes a more compelling historical study, albeit one shaded with the provincialism of closed-traditionalism. Eco is certainly not a man ignorant of the facts, but his interpretation of them seems distorted by a secular liberalist provincialism. The ideologies respectively represented by Eco and Daniel-Rops accuse each other of being closed-minded; in that, both are correct.
In principle, the transgression of any sort of intellectual insularity is, like most profound errors, a metaphysical transgression. It is to take some limited existence as true and good, but as the whole truth and the summum bonum, and consequently to take some other limited existence as false and evil, because it is not entirely true and not completely good. The smaller the world of the individual, through the largeness of his “community,” the more provincial his perspective, the more monological his provincial discourse, the more limited the existence of what he accepts as true and good. And more the fool is he: the glory of Christendom, for instance, was not produced by a united culture affecting a uniformity of persons, but by a genuine diversity of human persons affecting a united culture: the differentiations which marked the person of St. Francis of Assisi were quite different from the differentiations which marked the person of St. Thomas Aquinas, and yet their contributions to the world were within, and are not fully intelligible apart from, one and the same order of a Christian society. But moreover, Christendom was not the pinnacle of everything that ever has been and ever shall be made good by man; the philosophy of Scholasticism, a prime example, is not only not contrary to the insights of phenomenology (or even, dare it be said, semiotics), but complemented by them, and it is complementary to them—indeed, it might even be said that philosophy as a whole does not discrminate in favor of any one against the other, so long as any may bring to light something true (even analytic philosophy)!
This universal approbration of what is true, however, does not mean that we cannot or should not condemn things as false. It is the perennial task of philosophy to disentangle what is true from the associated and intertwined errors of previous generations. To do so requires distinction of true and false—which requires that a man forsake the self-affirming security of his chosen world.
*While interesting, it is somewhat pedantic to consider the etymology of the word “dialogue,” coming from the Greek dia- meaning “across” and legein, meaning (more proximately) “to speak” and (more remotely, if we can believe Heidegger) “to gather.” The latter translation includes some notion of resolution—not in Hegel’s sense—where some further truth is educed from other truths held by multitude.
Men are always disagreeing with one another. While many unthinking pacifists would like to abolish this, disagreement in itself is not necessarily an evil, for through reason, men may come to resolve the discord in a way more satisfactory, with more understanding for all involved parties. Yet because men are not always reasonable, laws are established, so that there might be adherence to right action even when comprehension is utterly lacking.
Unfortunately, while the need for law is, with rare exception, universally recognized, the basis for and the purpose of law–not to mention the particulars in which it is manifested–are themselves a topic of not infrequent social discord. Those commonly called progressive view law as a fluctuating, mutable establishment of the will of the people (sometimes but far from always the majority of the people), while those called conservative perceive it as the particular embodiment of the natural law.
The appeal to natural law has been the backbone of conservative social and political defense for centuries; and yet the advocation of perversions permeates Western society more thoroughly every year. Upright and moral men of the early third millennium simply shake their heads in disappointment and disgust as federal judges rule in favor of homosexual “marriage” while the federal legislature slides stultifying, stupefying egalitarian employment quotas into financial regulation bills. How has it come to this–not merely that the people can blindly elect an illegitimate government–illegitimate by reason of its unreason–but that any government could be so unreasonable? How is it that arguments for natural law have not been trumped, or thwarted, or discarded, and yet they are seemingly disregarded nonetheless?
It is easy, and in one sense correct, to say that progressives (to use the term for convenience’s sake) invariably wear blinders and see only what they would like to see; that no matter how often the truth is put before them, they avert their eyes; quite true, in fact. Yet at the same time, to hold those with whom one disagrees as fully culpable for the disagreement in any situation is a sure way to perpetuate adherence to falsehood; it is to despair of the efficacy of the good and the true, to despair of every man’s innate desire for God.
So it is that the question, “what is the natural law?” begs re-examination. Progressives are decreasingly dismayed by the use of the term natural law, in part because of its overuse, but more devastatingly because of the lack of significance in its use. Prayers are used repetitiously, and yet, understood, investigated, inquired into, they become ever more meaningful; each repetition becomes a reinvigoration. That all too often conservative argumentation for the preservation of some objective, universal truth should not bear the same pattern is absurd.
To get at the true root of the problem, it must be traced from its fruits. Why is the concept of the natural law perceived as decreasingly opprobrious to progressives? On a superficial level of semantics, a law derived from or based upon nature will, in the eyes of the progressive, atheistic materialist, be one that is derived from the strictly physical components of beings; having a wholly distinct immaterial and objective reality to which it corresponds requires a leap that most are not willing to make and that, from a standpoint of strict reason, they cannot be faulted for not making. The natural law, according to the principles they accept, therefore perdures and binds only insofar as nature itself perdures and gives grounds for binding–something which, by all appearances, it does not do. Strictly material being is always, as Heraclitus noted, becoming something else; the material being of every being is perpetually inchoate.
Alternatively, one may interpret the natural law in an entirely contrary manner, one which bears great resemblance to Manichaeism. This interpretation perceives the natural law as existing outside of nature, or as something almost superadded to it externally by which it is limited and governed; as that which exist incorporeally, be it in the mind of God or something unknown. It requires therefore not merely a leap from the material to the immaterial, but a conception of the person as always at least somewhat–intellectually–independent of corporeality. Moral order becomes a merely mental concept, superimposed on physical behavior.
In either interpretation, however efficacious they may have been at one time or another, there is an inconsistency with the lived human life of the 21st century. In the former sense, the natural law is as fixed as material being itself; meaning that whatever can be moved may be moved, the natural law no less malleable than a blade of grass. In the incorporeal interpretation, natural law appears as an arbitrary power attempting to enforce conformity in the actions of particular beings. Consequently, nature itself seems to be in revolt against the natural law, as when animals act homosexually, or people feel perverse urges; in the materialistic-derivative interpretation, nature endorses perversion. To the eyes of the average progressive, then, natural law is then either based upon a principle which is itself rightly rejected (a principle of purely negative and metaphysically incoherent, Manichean morality) or an endorsement of material manipulation.
These two common ostensibly contrary but equally impotent interpretations have only served the progressive agenda. The strictly materialist interpretation (that being what it devolves into for someone metaphysically disinclined) of a derivative natural law undermines not only the conception of rights, but all positive laws based thereon. That which is immoral is only immoral because it is as it is–and if it may be made other than as it is, it might no longer be immoral. If promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, gluttony, and sloth are sinful they must seem sinful to the materialist only because of their diversion of the course of physical nature; if science, technology, and human ingenuity can enable their enaction without diverting nature’s physical course, then they must seem no longer immoral.
The semi-Manichean interpretation does even greater harm; for whereas the materialist interpretation defines morality through ability, through that which can be done and that which can be averted, the semi-Manichean defines morality through the will. If the intellect is treated as a separate, incorporeal faculty of man and yet he does not encounter with it God, or the ideas of God, or anything physically insubstantial but the ideas of his own and the ideas of other men–if material being is merely a disorganized, chaotic mess of accidental composition–then what is morality, what is law, what is nature but the successful exertion of the will to power?
To be continued.
Liberty, nature’s most exalted gift, the endowment of intellectual and rational beings only, confers on man the dignity of abiding “in the hand of his counsel,” of having power over his own actions. But the manner in which this dignity is exercised is of the greatest moment, inasmuch as on the use made of liberty the highest good and the greatest evil alike depend. Man, indeed, is free to obey his reason, to seek moral good, and to strive unswervingly after his last end. Yet he is free also to turn aside to all other things, and, in pursuing the empty semblance of good, to disturb rightful order and to fall headlong into the destruction which he has voluntarily chosen.
The Redeemer of mankind, Jesus Christ, after restoring and exalting the original dignity of nature, vouchsafed special assistance to the will of man. By the gifts of His grace here, and the promise of heavenly bliss hereafter, He raised it to a nobler state. In like manner this great gift of nature has ever been, and always will be, deservingly cherished by the Catholic Church; for to her alone has been committed the charge of handing down to all ages the benefits purchased for us by Jesus Christ. Yet there are many who imagine that the Church is hostile to human liberty. With a false and absurd notion as to what liberty is, they either pervert the very idea of freedom, or they extend it at their pleasure to many things in respect of which man cannot rightly be regarded as free.
On other occasions, and especially in Our Encyclical Letter Immortale Dei, while treating of the so-called modern liberties, we distinguished between their good and evil elements. We have shown that whatsoever is good in those liberties is as ancient as truth itself, and that the Church has always most willingly approved and practised that good. But whatsoever has been added as new is, to tell the plain truth, of a vitiated nature, the fruit of the disorders of the age and of an insatiate longing after novelties. Seeing, however, that many cling so obstinately to their own opinion in this matter as to imagine these modern liberties, cankered as they are, to be the greatest glory of our age and the very basis of civil life, without which no perfect government can be conceived, We feel it a pressing duty, for the sake of the common good, to treat separately of this subject.
It is with moral liberty, whether in individuals or in communities that We proceed at once to deal. But, first of all, it will be well to speak briefly of natural liberty: for, though distinct and separate from moral liberty, natural freedom is the fountain-head from which liberty of whatsoever kind flows, by its own force and of its own accord. The unanimous consent and judgement of men, which is the trusty voice of nature, recognizes this natural liberty in those only who are endowed with intelligence or reason; and by his use of this, man is rightly regarded as responsible for his actions. For, while other animate creatures follow their senses, seeking good and avoiding evil only by instinct, man has his reason to guide him in each and every act of his life. Reason sees that whatever things are held to be good upon earth, may exist or may not. Discerning that none of them are of necessity for us, it leaves the will free to choose what it pleases. But man can judge of this contingency, as we say, only because he has a soul that is simple, spiritual, and intellectual–a soul, therefore, which is not produced by matter, and does not depend on matter for its existence; but which is created immediately by God. Far surpassing the condition of things material, it has a life and action of its own, so that, knowing the unchangeable and necessary reasons of what is true and good, it sees that no particular kind of good is necessary to us. When, therefore, it is established that man’s soul is immortal and endowed with reason and not bound up with things material, the foundation of natural liberty is at once most firmly laid.
[From Libertas Humana promulgated 20 June 1888 by His Holiness Pope Leo XIII]
*As an aside, the final paragraph could be interpreted in a way that seems out of keeping with the Thomistic-Aristotelian tradition. Consequently, as a caveat, it should be kept in mind that particular material things are unnecessary, but, barring Divine Intervention of an incomprehensible sort, material reality itself is necessary for man–hence man being created as a being that is unified in body and spirit, their division being an unnatural consequence of original sin.
Heresies have often arisen and still arise because of this, that disgruntled minds will quarrel, or disloyal trouble-makers will not keep the unity. But these things the Lord allows and endures, leaving man’s freedom unimpaired, so that when our minds and hearts are tested by the touchstone of truth, the unswerving faith of those who are approved may appear in the clearest light. This is foretold by the Holy Spirit through the Apostle when he says: There must also be heresies, that those approved may be manifest among you. Thus are the faithful proved, thus the faithless discovered; thus too even before the day of judgment, already here below, the souls of the just and unjust are distinguished, and the wheat is separated from the chaff. This explains why certain people, backed by their hot-headed associates, seize authority for themselves without any divine sanction, making themselves into prelates regardless of the rules of appointment, and, having no one to confer the episcopate upon them, assume the title of Bishop on their own authority. In the Psalms the Holy Spirit describes these men as sitting in the chair of pestilence; they are pests and plagues to the faith, snake-tongued deceivers, skilled corruptors of the truth, spewing deadly venom from their poisonous fangs; whose speech spreads like a canker; whose preaching injects a fatal virus in the hearts and breasts of all.
[From The Unity of the Catholic Church by St. Cyprian]
God is not only his essence, as shown above, but also his existence. This can be shown in many ways. First, whatever is in something that is other than its essence must be caused either by the principles of the essences, as in the case of proper accidents following from the species (as the ability to laugh follows from being human and is caused by the essential principles of the species); or by something external (as heat is caused in water by fire). Accordingly, if the very existence of a thing were other than tis essence, then it would be necessary for its existence to be caused either by something external or by its own essential principles. But it is impossible for existence to be caused solely by the essential principles of a thing, because no thing suffices as the cause of its own being if its existence is caused. It therefore follows that anything whose existence is other than its essence must be caused to exist by something else. This cannot be said of God, however, since we call God the first efficient cause. It is therefore impossible in God that existence be other than essence.
Second, existence is what makes every form or nature actual, for neither goodness nor humanity is signified in actuality except inasmuch as we signify that it exists. Accordingly, it follows that existence itself is related to an essence that is distinct from it as actuality is related to potentiality. So since there is no potentiality in God, as shown above, it follows that in God essence is not other than existence. Thus God’s essence is God’s existence.
Third, just as that which has fire but is not itself fire is on fire through participation, so too that which has existence but is not itself existence is a being through participation. But God is his essence, as shown above. Thus if God were not identical with his existence, God would be a being through participation rather than essentially. This would mean that God is not the first being, which is absurd to say. Accordingly God is his existence and not only his essence.
[From Summa Theologiae, Question III, Article 4, in The Treatise on the Divine Nature, by St. Thomas Aquinas]
To know what that was upon which the Crusading host came when they at last saw Antioch, a man must himself have seen the strange small relic of what Antioch once was, standing now today upon its river bank: that little shrivelled present town, the huge precipitous mountainside towering above it, miles and miles of fortified wall with curtain and tower climbing up and down the mountain slopes, crossing the profound gorge and encircling like a vast arm all that now wasteland whereon the mighty city once stood.
It is more than a mile from the banks of the Orontes southward and upward to the crest which the topmost of the wall still follows; it is two miles at least from the western extremity of those defenses downstream, to the eastern extremity, along the Aleppo road. All that great space had been filled for a thousand years with clamor and life. Antioch had been the third city of the Eastern world; it had been crowded with every kind of movement, officialdom, and wealth, a mass of temples and palaces, with colonnades that stretch from end to end. Today it is something larger than a village but not much larger, with not one stone of its antique grandeur remaining to stand against the sky as such things stand in profusion throughout the ruins of antiquity elsewhere, from Mesopotamia to the Channel, from the Sahara to the Rhine.
Of that ancient splendor, how much remained for the Crusaders to see? How much could the Crusading myriads see as their still prodigious column wound down the road from the Orontes crossing towards the walls, with the wide, very large shallow lake upon their right and the dark mountain with its line of towers frowning above them, much as Cader Idris frowns over its abrupt southern steep. What they saw as they approached was certainly something very much more than remains for us today after so many centuries of Mongol barbarism and general Mohammedan neglect.
[From The Crusades by Hilaire Belloc]