A recurrent question in my life, lately, has been the nature of hope. It is something with which I am moderately familiar from an academic, intellectual standpoint, but not something which has often occupied my mind, until late, in praxis. Not to say that my life has been “hopeless” or that I have lived in despair, but it has, for the most part, been an abstraction or considered in terms of the transcendental and not an immanent reality. In the terms of phenomenology, it could be said that I have a sense of the content of hope, but little lived experience of it.
But I am not writing this to share my personal experiences; I am reflecting upon their significance in illuminating what hope means, both in the theoretical and in the concrete.
We tend to consider hope from two perspectives. The first is that wherein we discuss it as a theological virtue, situated between faith and love, ordained to eternal happiness. This is a hope for some end that we cannot attain ourselves but which can be given by another. The second is that which belongs to common, ordinary life, and which has for its object those things that we can obtain by ourselves—meaning not things that are actually within our individual grasp, necessarily, but those things which can possibly occur through the exercise of the natural powers of human beings.
We could talk, therefore, about ordinary hope and theological hope; but it would be somewhat mistaken to completely separate the two, or even to completely separate the objects. The first is a gift, a virtue infused from divine grace; but grace always builds upon nature. My concern here, therefore, is principally to discuss ordinary hope, i.e., the objects which pertain to our daily lives, but also to consider the subjective element of hope, the nature upon which that grace builds, which provides the continuity between the ordinary and theological objects.
Václav Havel once wrote in an essay that “The kind of hope I often think about (especially in hopeless situations like prison or the sewer) is, I believe, a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.” (Esquire 1993). What Havel said about hope is true and gives insight about the subjective aspect. Hope is most definitely not something that the world itself gives to us, nor is it something we can really give to another. At most, we can give an opportunity in which someone else can find hope—just as we can give someone an opportunity to become educated—but hope about the world always comes from within. It is, indeed, a state of mind.
But like all states of mind, hope is an intentional state, meaning that it is of or about something else. Hope requires a object, something towards which it is ordered, regardless of whether that object is something that we can attain by ourselves or not. Thus hope is not a merely subjective phenomenon—it is not something which simply happens within us—but is a tending towards; it is a motion outwards towards something we do not possess, with which we are not united. As Thomas Aquinas says, “hope denotes a movement or a stretching forth of the appetite towards an arduous good.” (Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q.17, a.3, c.). Hope is a state of mind; but it is not a passive state. This does not mean that we are always acting for the which we hope to attain, only that it is something towards which we, in some way or another, are striving. Sometimes this striving takes the form of wishing—that is, wanting something outside of our present power; sometimes, it takes the form of prayer—that is, beseeching God that its attainment is His will; and sometimes it entails strenuous effort—as when I spend hours upon hours working on my dissertation, or when a charitable organization seeks out sufficient funds to give to those who have not.
Moreover, we do not hope for things easily attained, but only for goods not readily grasped. What makes something an “arduous good”, bonum arduum? Obviously, it is a good for which we must struggle. Obstacles impede our attainment of it. These obstacles can be either something internal, our own deficiencies and weaknesses, or something external, from financial duress to a corrupt system or the whim of another human being. The external obstacles can feed the internal, and the internal can magnify the external; seldom, if ever, is an object of hope an arduous good solely because of external impediments. The greater struggle is in our own disposition towards such goods’ attainment: our tendency to give up, to doubt, to pursue lesser, more easily attained goods. We overcome these internal impediments only, on the one hand, by being aware of them, and on the other, by knowing as much as possible the true good of the object sought.
But what makes these things truly good, that is, good for us as human beings? Someone could hope for unlimited wealth, unfettered opportunity for promiscuity, or the death of an enemy. There is a part of each thing which is good—the means to some other end afforded by money, the pleasure of sex, the lack of disruption caused by an enemy—but on the whole, these things are bad. What makes a good worthy of our ordinary hope, ultimately, is its subordination to the highest good, the eternal happiness which we all desire and which is the object of the theological virtue of hope. The goods we desire, be they arduous or not, are desired because we believe, fully consciously or not, that being united with them will result in a greater perfection for ourselves. Since our highest perfection is completed only in unity with the Divine, through the Beatific Vision, it follows that all of our hopes are justified in their subordination towards this end.
The preeminence of the Beatific Vision as an object of hope does not mean that ordinary hope or the objects of it are worthless or insigificant; for the instruments whereby God directs us towards Himself are multitudinous. On the side of the objects hoped for, these can direct us towards Him inasmuch as they reflect in some finite way His infinite goodness. On the subjective side of ourselves, they direct us towards Him inasmuch as we are made virtuous, and thereby better lovers of the good, in their pursuit. Most especially, the things for which we hope in this life give us ample opportunity for humility. As aforementioned, unity with the things hoped for in this life, while they are within the reach of natural powers, are not always within the natural powers of the one hoping. Very often, almost all the time, really, we need the help of others to attain them. Sometimes, they are entirely beyond our reach.
This teaches us one final thing about hope: namely, that it is not the same as expectation. The phrase, “don’t get your hopes up” is really inaccurate as to the meaning of hope, for what is meant is “don’t set your expectations too high” or, often, “don’t expect this to actually happen.” No one can expect salvation or unity with the Beatific Vision; no one can expect the world, as Havel rightly said, to give us the things for which we hope.
Both hope and expectation are anticipatory, true; but expectation is the anticipation of the person who looks to have control over the object desired. Hope, genuine, rightly ordered hope—both theological and ordinary—is the anticipation built upon faith which looks towards love.
Anyone who has used social media often enough and for long enough has doubtlessly seen the “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do” memes. The typical format includes a header stating the occupation (be it a profession, vocation, or hobby), along with six captioned photos, usually along the lines of 1) what my friends think I do, 2) what my mom thinks I do, 3) what society thinks I do, 4) what [insert random relevant person] thinks I do, 5) what I think I do, and 6) what I really do. They seem to have been made for just about every occupation under the sun or moon, from “science student” (the apparent origin) to “stay at home mom” and, of course, “philosopher”. Like most memes, they are stupid.
Why do I mention this? Well, about a month ago, someone—who will remain nameless—offered as an explanation of philosophy that it is “the soft stuff between the hard stuff.” I looked at him and said nothing. What was I going to say to that? It’s a very cute answer; he jumped to defend it, as, in a paraphrase of his words, it is necessary to have the soft stuff to keep the hard things from damaging each other.
It did get me thinking, however, as to how to explain to someone who is not a philosopher what philosophy really is; or, since “philosophy” is always going to remain a concept somewhat too large to explain to someone who is not a philosopher without using highfalutin flowery language which amounts to nothing more than a pretty abstraction, what it is that a philosopher really does. The best way I could think to do this is by contrast with what the professor of philosophy does. Now, while this is technically my job title—okay, well, at the moment, “adjunct professor of philosophy” is my job title (and the “adjunct” part is important; that’s Latin for “wage slave”)—I do not consider myself a professor of philosophy. A professor is one who professes. He takes something as given and then communicates it to others. The professor of philosophy reports on the philosophical thought of philosophers.
Doing this is not philosophy. Neither, for that matter, is teaching students to be “critical thinkers”. Being a critical thinker, in the sense of one who is capable of solving problems without needing to follow predetermined or prepackaged solutions, is certainly a common consequence of being philosophically educated. But “critical thinking” is not what philosophy teaches. Courses in “critical thinking” are an abomination born of what Josef Pieper calls the “world of total work”, i.e., that attitude towards our daily occupations that everything we do or learn or practice is subordinated to productivity and efficiency; the attitude that everything we encounter in the world is a problem to be solved, so as to move on to the next thing; the attitude that mystery is an obstacle we’d rather not face.
When I asked my students what they thought a philosopher does, the answers centered around “studying”, “pondering”, “contemplating”, “philosophizing”, and, naturally, “sitting in a comfortable chair reading and thinking all day” (obviously none of my students have ever sat in the chair provided in my office). All of these answers are at least true, but none of them get to the heart of the matter—aside from “philosophizing”, all of those things could be said about literary theorist, theologians, historians, theoretical physicists, biologists, and people in pretty much any academic discipline. What is it that belongs singularly to philosophers? [This is the part where I get to the point, for those of you who are too lazy to read the whole thing.]
The philosopher considers that which is encountered in human experience, and what can be inferred from that experience, according to the first and the highest principles of natural human reason. Thus, the philosopher is not confined to the consideration of this or that particular subject matter; his subject of study is “everything”. He may have an expertise within the realm of “everything”—ethics, for instance, which is right reason concerning human action; or philosophical physics (more commonly called “natural philosophy”), which considers the natures of and relations between beings which exist in the corporeal realm and therefore act and interact through motion—but the exercise of his office begins and ends with “being”. Here we appear to toe the line of abstract language; but it seems this way only because “being” is an object that is mysterious. The philosopher does not avoid the mystery. Indeed, his task is to make the mystery intelligible, a task which never ends, which is not a problem that is “solved”, but which is nevertheless not a futile endeavor. The task is endless not because it produces no result, but because the object considered, “being”, is infinite, and can therefore be unfolded for us infinitely.
So what do I do? To put it in somewhat more concrete terms: as a professor, I philosophize with my students, meaning that we ask what things are, why they are, why they are what they are, how they ought to be, why they ought to be how they ought to be. I might ask a student a question seemingly as simple as, “What do we mean by the word ‘one’ when we say that ‘this is one thing’?”—and you might be surprised how long and complicated that discussion can become. I can ask, “Do we mean the same thing when we say that something is ‘good’ for a human being and something is ‘good’ for a dog?” and see that students, while they take it for granted that something is good for them and not for a dog, have never actually stopped to think about what the term “good” really means. We get into these questions by reading texts—some as old as the mid 4th century B.C., some published just a couple years ago—written by very smart men and women who have also engaged in questioning the mystery of being; and in so doing, we see that the answers to these questions aren’t really answers if they are treated as facts to be memorized. I, along with my students, enter into the mystery again, anew, and discover something new.
As a philosopher outside of my role as a professor, I try to push deeper into the mystery, both as discussed by other philosophers and from my own experience of the world; both as it appeared to them and as it appears to me. Mostly, this means thinking; a tiny portion of it involves writing down those things that I have thought; an even tinier portion results in sharing those things written with others. My own speciality is nuanced, pedantic, and is probably boring as hell to most people (“metaphysics” and “philosophy of knowledge” might sound really exciting, but if I start talking about things like “the principle of sufficient reason” as it applies to an understanding of the via resolutionis, the difference between Umwelt and the In-der-Welt-Sein specific to humanity, or the difference between species impressae intellectus as a “mere” quo and species expressae intellectus as an in quo… you’re bored already, aren’t you? Plus, what jerk uses all these foreign languages? This jerk, apparently).
At any rate, there you have it. That’s what I do. Oh, and I write things like this, instead of working on my dissertation.
Matter, understood in the Aristotelian-Thomistic framework of natural philosophy, corrupts; that is, matter, which exists only by virtue of a form, is always disposed to receive some other form. In terms of substances, this receptivity entails destruction. Corruption in this sense does not mean gradual decay, but the immediate separation of form. To receive a new form, matter must be, however, properly disposed; that is, the antecedent form must be such that it does not refute the consequent.
In other words, the material universe allows for things to always get better, but also always to get worse… and the worse it gets, the more work it takes to make it better. Though informed by a spiritual soul, nevertheless human beings, whose spiritual faculties depend extrinsically on the functioning of the body, admit such variegation.
I am often accused of being a pessimist, though I maintain that this is really a case of persistently disappointed optimism. Man can overcome the weakness concomitant to his inescapable materiality by human virtue–the perfection of his natural faculties–and the defect of his nature may be overcome by the sacramental grace of God–an elevation beyond what he can rightly attain of his own accord. At times, pursuit of either good one can result in neglect of the other. Though it is always preferable to receive God’s life-giving sanctity, and though His grace may overcome any defect within nature, it is nevertheless a mistake to ignore natural virtue and pursue only the spiritual. Men are not angels, and, being material, need to be rightly disposed for the reception of good forms. No disposition ever merits reception of God’s grace; but inclination to sin is likewise an inclination to the rejection of God. All too often, men are not only inappropriately disposed for the reception of God’s grace–that is, in a state of sin–but also for the development of natural virtue.
In other words, men are not only ignorant, which is a mere absence of knowledge; they are both morally and intellectually stupid. They have developed an immunity to reason and virtue. It is undeniable that human beings have spent much of their history, as a whole, more ignorant than the mass of men making up the world today. Yet if we take stupidity (stultitia in Latin, often translated “folly”) to be the vice opposed to wisdom, the virtue which consists in knowledge of the highest principles, it should be evident that the present population of the word is suffering from a pandemic of stupidity; for, despite a decrease in ignorance of facts, there is a pervasive abdication from principle.
While it is possible to neglect the spiritual for the material, or vice versa, one can never separate the two; likewise with speculative or theoretical and practical reasoning. To neglect one half of either pair, however, leads to atrophy and rot, and rather than a functional limb, one is left with a useless husk which only impedes the good of the other. The human body exists for the sake of the human soul; and the speculative is turned into the practical by extension–that is, by applying the universal truths discovered by intellectual operations to actions, to act in accord with right reason. This inseparability of the immaterial and material extends to all aspects of human life: religion and politics, faith and reason, science and philosophy; the good of each depends upon the good of the other, just as the good of any body depends upon each of its parts, and the good of each part depends upon the good of the whole. Though not every human individual will engage with each of these pursuits, they nevertheless go towards making up the whole human experience. Without principles uniting these many elements, disorder invariably ensues.
The fallout of decentralized and unprincipled approaches human life into many parts was astutely observed, as were so many other signs of moral decay, by Richard Weaver, in his seminal Ideas Have Consequences. He called it the “centrifugal impulse of our culture” in a marvelous chapter titled “Fragmentation and Obsession”. Those two words have often stuck with me in considering the contemporary ethos; we segregate our personal lives from our professional, our faith from our socializing, our work from our pleasure, and make each out to be an almost singular object of focus. Moreover, we isolate the pursuits of our profession from those of others or from common life; as Weaver warned, this results in the non-consideration of the ethical implications of one’s work. Cancer researchers, often lauded for the nobility of their end, subject children to cruel and unnecessary treatment for the sake of experimentation; accountants find loopholes in the code to exempt big business from billions of dollars in lawfully-owed taxes; politicians compromise or abandon the positions of their platforms to adapt to the “political landscape” so that they avoid appearing unsuccessful; journalists selectively present facts and edit stories to produce a juicier story or advance an ideology; and academics fritter their time away on obscure and irrelevant minutiae of scholarship, becoming so obsessed with the past that they forget any relevance for the present or future. No profession is exempt from fragmentation and obsession. Society not only permits, but encourages segregation–most especially through the relegation of faith and religion to the sphere of opinion. If what ought to be the most important principle in a human life is publicly marginalized, it is no doubt that what it ought to unite will begin to separate.
For all his insight, however, Weaver did not have a viable solution which he could propose, nor even a definite direction towards which he could point except backwards. His philosophical perspective was that of the Platonist, who views the material world as merely an imitation of the pure Forms. The honest Platonist recognizes the necessity of natural virtue, to be sure; but the practical good can for him never be more than a necessary evil to be overcome en route to pure speculative bliss.
Others have looked to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas for an answer. Much has been achieved by the revival of Thomism; it has and ought to occupy a prominent place in the pursuit of a well-ordered genuinely human civilization. His teaching, it has been said, is the teaching of the Catholic Church. The range and perspicacity of his thought is marred only by the inability of us lesser men to grasp fully the meaning and consequence of his often all-too-briefly stated wisdom. Pride of place ought to be given to Thomistic philosophy in discerning the eternal speculative truths which permeate the natural world and enable us to elevate our minds beyond this sublunary reality.
Yet Thomism, like nearly all “-isms,” has inescapable limitations in affecting the good of all the world. While all men ought to live in pursuit of wisdom, to love the truth, and to reflect thoughtfully on all that they do, the philosophical life is not identical with philosophy as such, nor is it right to demand that all thought cohere with the verbo ipsissimo of Thomas himself. Moreover, while the speculative is necessary for the right-ordering of the practical; but the man who dedicates himself to the speculative can only do so much in the practical, and vice versa. Thomism is a vital part, but nonetheless not the whole; rather than make it a mold into which we force the world, we should see it rather as a principle of ordering the academic life, of the scholarly pursuit of truth.
There is, however, one “-ism” which can claim to be the principle of the whole in the world: namely, Catholicism. The very name means “universal”–it is that which extends to all, embraces all, and as I once wrote over five years ago, lays claim to every truth and every goodness. Catholicism is, by definition, non-sectarian and non-exclusionary. It is not a human institution, but an institution by God for humans; the most perfect extension of speculative to practical. And yet, just as the soul requires the body, and the right disposition of the body, so too Catholicism needs for its members to rightly disposed to live rightly and receive the grace of God. The influence of Catholicism on our lives cannot be merely spiritual; it cannot be relegated to within the walls of a church, to an hour on Sunday or even an hour every day of the week. It should be for us not only a source of faith, but a source of culture.
Hence the title of this post. The verbum mentis is the mental word; it is a conclusion to a process of reasoning, bringing it to a conclusion; the expression of what something is. Something analogical is said in many ways, and thus of many things. Many of my conversations of late have been concerned with the state of the world–not in a merely political sense or with regard to some abstract Geistesgeschichte, but the concrete realities of lived experience–and asking myself the question, “What can be done? How can things be set on the right path, when the problems are so widespread? What can establish order?”
The answer is, in a way, very obvious.
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.