Archive for July, 2009

On Culture and Reactions

In 1930, twelve men of letters published a book entitled I’ll Take My Stand, which defended man’s right to his land, his quiet, his leisure, and his right to say “no.”  It was and still is largely seen as a reactionary work stemming from Southern regressives against modern progress and the inevitability of cultural change.  Oftentimes, a reactionary production is indeed something to be scrutinized and rejected as the unthinking instinctual reflex of an closed mind.  Yet the mere fact that an action is reflexive does not necessitate that it is poorly chosen.  Thus the writings of the Southern Agrarians, who authored I’ll Take My Stand, may have been consonant with their initial reactions, but investigation of their writings shows that, while their cultural outlook may have been somewhat too rigid in some areas, their principles were both grounded in a virtuous disposition and thoroughly reasoned.

When the Southern Agrarians produced their manifesto, the damage which they foresaw being done to the culture of the South seemed little more than the paranoia of a few backwater hicks who had somehow managed to garner a fine literary education.  Yet what shines through in the eloquent writings of men such as Richard M. Weaver, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate is not a backwards rhetorical sophism, but a systematic defense of that which they found good.  Their taste in cultural preference was not chosen on a whim or by attraction to the superficial, but was deeply ingrained in both their personal lives and in their intellectual endeavors.  Most of the better-known Agrarians were poets or literary critics, many of whom were connected with Vanderbilt University, as either matriculants or professors.  In this life of relaxed academia and in the world of professional letters, what they discovered was not the competitive hustle and bustle that dominated the north-eastern universities which were ensconced by an industrial lifestyle, but the goodness of independent living.  Their intellectual peers who lived and worked in the centers of industry, such as H.L. Mencken, had no recourse to success but to trample down others; being good meant being better, and staying good meant being the best.  For the Southerners, good was good, and to stay good it did not need to become any better.

Southern Agrarian, Robert Penn Warren

Southern Agrarian, Robert Penn Warren

In contrast to the modern progressives who saw it as their divinely-appointed duty to ridicule southern culture, the Agrarians had a fundamental humility which, though at times obscured by the strength with which they promoted their opinions and denounced the cultural wrecking-ball of ill-defined progress, acknowledged man’s sovereignty simultaneously with and in no way separable from his ecological dependence.  Though man may conquer the soil, though he may cut down the forests, he cannot survive without either.  Thus, in order for men to have a proper sense of himself, he must have a proper sense of that upon which he is dependent.  A society which provides man with his every immediate need by the exchange of currency is a society which dehumanizes man, by the very fact that it denies to him the necessity of his connection with land, and thus deprives him of its joy.  When a man owns no land, and is in no way responsible for either the expanse of terrain upon which he lives or the production of that which sustains him, he loses some of his masculinity.  He becomes daily dependent on others for not only those things which every man needs every day and cannot give himself, such as community and conversation, but for the material sustenance which maintains his corporeal existence.

With increased dependence upon others come increased arrogance and a decreased appreciation for the value of things.  A man who has struggled to build his own rocking chair will not, because of his own experience, smash one out of carelessness; whereas a man who can afford a thousand rocking chairs on a whim will have likely little regard for the value of the craftsmanship which was poured into their making.  Consequently, such a society which idolizes the wealthy man who has no respect for the non-monetary value of property will care only for the here and now, the immediate good; which is to say that their only pleasure is the thrill, and their only thrills are those which are cheap.  Flitting desultorily from one distraction to another, the society which is dominated by a mentality of modern progressivism is a society which denies itself a true culture.  Inexpensive pleasures take little time to produce and sustain the person for just as long; and when the media of cultural transmission – art, philosophy, literature, architecture, music, and other such forms of societal consciousness – plant no deep roots in the soil of the past, then from their indolence, masked as artistic originality, no fruit is borne.

A society without direct ownership of real property is a society without responsibility; a society without responsibility is a society without care; a society without care is a society without a culture.  Southern Agrarianism was not without its problems.  Most of its chief proponents were terrible farmers; and the movement eventually fell apart through internal discord and the irreconcilable conflicts which permeated the consciousnesses of the individuals who were its leaders.  Yet despite its ultimate failure and its reactionary inception, it was a justified defense of what was a genuine culture, a culture built from man’s intimacy with his land.  In the words of literary critic and professor Dr. Cicero Bruce, “Yes, Tate was a reactionary. But he believed that one could animate Western culture only by reacting violently to the enervating forces within it.”1

Recommended Reading:

Allen Tate – Essays of Four Decades
Richard M. Weaver – Ideas Have Consequences
Various – I’ll Take My Stand
Cicero Bruce – The Stand of Allen Tate
Rev. Vincent McNabb – The Church and the Land

1 The Stand of Allen Tate – Dr. Cicero Bruce (links to page 8)

Categories: General

Southern Catholic Announces New President

I am not really sure anymore how to talk about the way that news spreads at Southern Catholic College.  I want to say that the college announced its new president yesterday… but there was no announcement, only an invitation to meet him over coffee.

The few students who were still in the Atlanta area received emails a few days ago inviting them to meet with some of the school’s new leaders so that they (the students) might offer their suggestions and insights into the way in which the school’s mode of leadership could be improved.  This genuinely sounded like an excellent opportunity for the students to voice some of their concerns about the damage done to the school over the past four years, and promised to offer an opportunity for the new Legionary leaders to learn from the school’s past mistakes as they have been observed from the students’ perspective.  When all of the students arrived on Tuesday morning for the meeting, they were given the news that a surprise guest would be arriving shortly; and that guest would be none other than the school’s new president, Fr. Shawn Aaron.  This was the first that any of those gathered had heard of the new president, and seems to be the only way in which the announcement has been made so far: to a clump of students in a Starbucks.1

Father Shawn Aaron

Father Shawn Aaron

The meeting was uneventful and little was said.  A few students made suggestions about the ways in which the school could improve and then the topic quickly turned to the practical elements of advertising.  For the remainder of the meeting, students were asked for their reactions to a handful of promotional materials and slogans, and then Fr. Aaron closed with a prayer.

Although this intense focus on the business aspect of Southern Catholic’s new advertising department did cost the students their opportunity to express all of their worries over the negative turns that the school has taken over the course of its four years, it also afforded those present a unique glimpse into the character of the college’s new leadership.  Particularly, it became clear that they want to be very careful not to step on any toes.  As one example of this attitude, Integer members responsible for Southern Catholic’s advertising repeatedly made the point that they don’t want to be too strong in their use of Catholic themes in advertising media for the fear of scaring off people who might not be attracted by strong Catholicism.  For instance, the phrase “Live Catholic” seems to be replacing the school’s old tagline “Prepare For An Extraordinary Life,” which actually seems to constitute an improvement as far as portraying ourselves as a Catholic school is concerned, but is still a bit vague.

Not much can be said for the particular way in which Fr. Aaron will lead the school, simply for the fact that he said very little in the meeting and there is virtually no information available about him on the internet (except for this biographical video). His willingness to meet with students and hear their concerns, however, seems to suggest that he is open to learning from the school’s many past mistakes.  Hopefully, this willingness will continue.

Fr. Aaron is scheduled to become a permanent fixture around campus on the 12th of August, and will be assuming his office very soon thereafter.

1 The announcement was also made a few hours later before many members of the faculty and staff; still, the degree of informality remains the same.

The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.III. Economy (Part III)

July 29, 2009 Leave a comment

At this point in discussing the problems with the present economic state of Western Civilization, and particularly of the United States, there are a few clarifications that need to be made.  First, capitalism is not intrinsically evil.  Much good can come out of it; likewise, socialism and communism are not intrinsically evil.  But it is important to recognize that all things, be they material objects or ideas in the abstract, have an innate quality according to their actual existence and implementation.  Insofar as there is an ideal structure to which they will more or less conform in actuality, they have an objective quality and an objective ideal, which compares as better or worse to other things.  Both the reality and the ideal will have tendencies and likely imperfections.  Socialism is flawed both in actuality and in ideality, in both denigrating the inherent dignity of man.  Capitalism is flawed mostly in actuality, as attempts to realize its ideality, the latter not being prohibited by man’s nature with necessity, ignore the reality of human beings fallen nature and difficulty in maintaining responsibility unless held accountable.  Thus attempts are made to systematize accountability, which only further exacerbates the problem, by treating men as units rather than as persons.  Thus, it is not that the systems are evil; they are morally neutral.  But a gun is also morally neutral (the creation of guns as weapons may have been morally dubious, but the technology being realized the weapon itself, unless designed specifically for killing on a larger scale without other considerations, is not intrinsically evil; anyone who has never shot a gun will likely not acknowledge just how much fun it is).  Things which are morally neutral can almost always be put to good or bad uses; as such it is up to morally responsible individuals to see that their use is not governmentally regulated, but prudentially guided, meaning on a personal level.  Economic systems are no different.  Capitalism may be validly exercised, but sooner or later, so long as it treks along the paths of capitalistic ideals, it will make moral behavior less and less capitalistically rewarding and immoral behavior all the more attractive.

Second, capitalism is rather firmly embedded in Western society and man is, whether or not he realizes it, rather woefully enslaved by not only a nationwide, but a worldwide market.  How can man be freed from his servility to the dominant macroeconomic structure which compels his purchases and denies his working freedom?  Immediate realization of a distributist economy is unrealistic and improbable.  But recognition of its principles is not: indeed, if the subservience of man to economic practices which replace the person with the dollar as the idealistic telos for which it operates is to be averted, then there must be an establishment of self-sufficiency and the common good as the two operating principles of economic science.

It is a seeming paradox: that man must become committed both to self-sufficiency and to the common good in order to be free.  But like in the interpretation of a Scriptural text, one must both believe in the verity of a single verse and of the entire Bible, which may seem at times contradictory; unless one understands the relationship of the part to the whole.  So too must one understand the relationship between the individual and the community.  If one improperly elevates the good of the community, and particularly of the state, above the good of the self, the good of the self ceases to exist and thus the community will also cease, sooner or later; contrariwise, if one disregards the good of the community in favor of the benefit of the self, the community dissolves.  In the former error, one ceases to be a person; in the latter, he ceases to be truly self-sufficient, for try as he might he cannot both pursue wealth and disregard others, they being necessary to his goals.  Yet if their good is no longer his concern, he becomes entirely dependent upon a macroeconomic system in which he does not deal with others as persons, but as units which themselves economically interact with himself as a unit.

In theory, then, distributism relies upon man recognizing that in some ways his good is superior to that of the community and that in others the community’s good supersedes his own; secondly, it relies upon man acknowledging that if he has too few options from which he may purchase his goods, then those companies are capable of exercising a certain form of economic tyranny over not only their consumers, but also their suppliers – for instance, when companies such as Wal-Mart demand that all of the packaging in which their resold products come be biodegradable, their suppliers have no choice but to comply or else go entirely out of business.  Similarly, when trying to find a rare piece of music or an unusual book, is an invaluable service; but when they support “Gay Pride Month,” principle demands a boycott and thus a foregoing of the goodness of music or the written word, if it cannot be found elsewhere – and oftentimes it cannot.  Compliance with the tyrannies of such companies ultimately redistributes the wealth of the individual into the hands of the already wealthy; and while the enormous quantity of existing money in the world makes it seem as though there is always more to be had, the simple fact is that when someone makes money, someone else loses it.

Local Shops (but strange roads)

Local Shops (but strange roads)

In stark contrast to this financially upwardly funneling hierarchy which results from the dominance of a large corporation, more people operating small businesses within a given community keeps money circulating within a community.  In small towns across America, it is not uncommon for a Wal-Mart to open and subsequently suck the money out of a community, to the point where not only are most people shopping at a single store, but many are working there.  While to some, attempts to keep most of a community’s money internal may seem like too much stillness, too much stagnation, and too much repetitiveness, such is little more than part of the myth of Progress.  Furthermore, communal financial cycling allows for many benefits: particularly more men being masters of themselves in their work, as is in accord with their dignity (is it any wonder that so many men are not manly when the vast majority spend their whole lives taking orders, often as regards menial tasks, from other men?  How can a cashier at McDonalds be respected by his company’s CEO as anything more than a unit of profit?  How can he be a man to the company, when that which directs the company has never met him as a man?) and also involves the individual with the wholeness of his industry, making him master of his trade or practice.

Additionally a man will be more incentivized to achieve such mastery in a system where he alone is accountable for his financial success or failure; where incompetence will be recognized by juxtaposition to that which is better; and where a denigration of quality through monopoly is prohibited.  It is from such a system that the things of a nobler culture come.  Capitalism, as it stands presently, is perceptibly contributing to a watering down of cultural mediums.  When anyone can publish a book, lower literary standards will prevail; when two-cent talent with a million dollar physique can score a record deal, true music is replaced with pre-packaged ear-candy.  Any attempt to appeal to the masses immediately will result in finding the lowest common denominator; contrariwise, an attempt to appeal to the tastes of a local community will not necessitate dropping standards quite so low, and make it possible to gradually improve upon the quality of those things that are offered to the community: as master craftsmen compete for more mastery, for a product which is identifiable, appreciable, and superior, the local populace will benefit.

Such speculation about the benefits of a distributist society can go on ad infinitum.  On the strictly practical level, it has to be acknowledged that such a society cannot be immediately realized, partly because capitalism is so thoroughly established, and partly because distributism, much like capitalism, cannot begin by a government, top-down initiative, but must start from the bottom, from the individual, to the family, and to the community.  Small impacts, small attempts to do both the self and the other true justice, may collaboratively bring about not material exchange but genuine cultural development.  Such can, and will happen, the more that individuals make sacrifices of extraneous wealth in favor of working for smaller businesses, by starting small businesses of their own which cater to local markets and not large-scale economies, by emphasizing personal relationships in their businesses – by being conscious of what John Paul II termed “the personalistic norm” – and by buying locally whenever possible.  In other words, the implications of one’s financial decisions need always to be evaluated.  It may end up costing a lot more for the average purchase – which will result in the purchases made being significantly more valued.  It may reduce the number of things which an individual can buy – which will reduce the noise and clutter in man’s life, helping him find peace and quiet in the simplicity of a few good things rather than a million things of meager significance.  Indeed, a man may spend a lot more on every single thing he buys; but if that money never goes further than his neighbor, and his neighbor’s money never goes further than his own neighbors, then more of that money comes back to the first man.  In this way, the good of each is bound up in the latter and the good of each is respected for its own inherent quality; the self is sufficient and yet respectful of the community.  In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage.”1 Indeed; and so must they be tied together in their economic community, as one person to another, lest the worse parts of human nature prevail.

1 Chesterton, G.K., What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 45.

A Taste for Music

Music is a universal language. Nearly every culture has its own form of music. Thus, most people have an opinion concerning music. These opinions rarely concern music simply. Rather, any such opinion is usually made concerning a given kind of music or a given performance of music. Additionally, the opinion arises as a matter of taste and is left with little to support it substantially beyond its undeveloped status as an opinion. Although this is usually the case, can anything more be said of music? Surely, a subject of such universality has more to it than is determined by mere preference or taste. One can enjoy the taste of junk food or candy, but this does not make such foods good when consumed more than occasionally. It is far better to eat a meal consisting of meats, vegetables, and starches rather than to treat junk food as if it were the main course. Thus, enjoyment does not dictate the goodness of food. The same rule applies to all enjoyable things. Any given pleasure has a certain place amongst a hierarchy of other pleasures which are more and less good for people. Some things are good for people regardless of whether or not they find them pleasurable. The opposite may also be true. Thus, it is important to become educated such that one can learn to like what is in fact good for oneself as a human person.

As food is a good, so too is music, analogously. Like food, music can be either good or bad for the human person regardless of whether or not it is found to be enjoyable. As such, there is more to music than just taste; taste is relative to the taster. But, there are better and worse tasters insofar as there are people who know more about what they taste and who thus train their taste accordingly. Therefore, the best tasters taste both according to how things are supposed to taste and which things are truly best for the human person. Ultimately, to judge taste, the taster must know the purpose of that which he tastes. In the case of food, its fundamental purpose is to nourish the person and to additionally be palatable. Thus, food must not only be good for the person but must also taste as good as its nourishment suggests. Here it is evident that foods which seem to taste good can be dangerous when they are actually detrimental to the person’s health. Food is then principally nourishing and secondarily tasteful, though both are necessary.

Extending the analogy to music, one must judge the taste according to the purpose. Does it taste as it should? Is the substance actually good aside from the taste? Ideally the two ought to coincide as the actually good being actually tasteful. But, as food does not always occur in this fashion and thus requires training and discipline to learn to like what is really good, so too a musical performance ought to sound as the music itself dictates. Here, the two parts are again evident. Music ought to have a purpose and a means by which it attains that purpose. But it is clear that music can serve many purposes. These purposes can all be examined according to the standard of music’s ultimate or highest purpose.

Before examining the different kinds of music and its various purposes, one must look at music simply. Why do people listen to music? People listen to music because it brings about a certain disposition or state. For example, drums in warfare stir courage in the troops on one side and stir fear in the troops on the other side; Catholics have Gregorian Chant to lift their souls to God in prayer. Whatever the purpose, the music can be performed either well or poorly. Assuming that the music is performed well and achieves its purpose, which purpose is highest?

The highest purpose corresponds with the highest state or disposition for the human person. Man is essentially a rational animal. Thus he is a thinking being which is self-animating. There are many animals in the world but what sets man apart from the rest of the animals is his ability to reason. Thus, while not denying any part of the human person, the highest activity is thinking. And, since man is also essentially a social being, the highest activity is thinking with other rational beings—conversation. Additionally this conversation must tend towards the highest things. The highest thing is God. Thus conversations about God are among the highest activities of the human person. The highest activity of man is to converse with God Himself in prayer. Thus, the music which best brings about this highest disposition is the sacred music fostered and preserved in the Roman Catholic Tradition, namely Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony. The nature of this music is such that it does not draw attention to itself. Rather it is a transparent window into the things of God.

On a purely human level, the highest things to think and converse about are truth, beauty, and goodness. How does one musically bring about a disposition which is conducive to the contemplation of such elevated things? First and foremost, the music must not be too emotionally focused because it would draw away from the intellectual nature of the highest things (a by-product is that such music also does not draw much attention to itself directly). Also, music conveying truth, beauty, and goodness should not arouse the passions such as sex, anger, etc. One can hardly expect to contemplate truth, beauty, or goodness while the irascible or the sexual passions are aroused. What kind of music, then, is most transparent, ordered, and elevated? Here is a hint: it is not Rock and Roll.

Categories: General

Accidentally Capturing the Zeitgeist

For the most part, a trip to the movies these days entails a downward voyage into a dark, musky pit of sound and fury which signifies nothing. That is, modern movies are, on the large, devoid of much real content. You enter the theater and have some emotion, be it fear, pity, lust, or excitement, elicited from you in a cathartic whirlwind which is not entirely unlike a drug, or a strange form of hypno-therapy. And somewhere in the midst of all of the gratuitous sex, violence, and special effects which are designed to toss your intellect somewhere into the recesses of the back of your brain, movie makers often try to insert witty quips or thematic elements which either advance some sort of progressive ideology, or attack institutions which uphold traditional understandings of morality, particularly the Catholic Church. In fact, I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find out that there is some sort of movie-making checklist which reads:

-Bad guys must be Russian or German
-Children can’t get hurt
-Good guys have to win
-Catholics must be slandered

But, despite their best efforts to express poorly-thought-out philosophies and produce a final product whose moral principles stand in the face of any traditional understanding of the human person, it seems like modern movie makers have actually given birth to an altogether beautiful thing.

When a writer sits down to construct a plot for a movie, before they have reached the stage in which they satisfy the four great tenants of filmmaking listed above, they must first chose a subject matter. The plot of a film must of course be interesting and attractive, and it is these very ideas of interesting and attractive that lead the moviemakers into their act of brilliance. What will people be attracted to? What will people want to watch? These are the kinds of questions that writers must ask themselves before choosing a subject matter, and in answering them they unwittingly capture an element of their era’s zeitgeist, a feat which will most likely be the greatest quality of their film, accomplished before pen is ever put to paper.

We haven’t seen any movies lately about aliens coming to enslave humanity, partially because it is not an issue with which Americans are greatly concerned, and particularly it is not something that we can relate to on any great level; it simply isn’t part of our zeitgeist. This was not true in the 1950’s when the idea of space travel was floating about for the first time and inspired such movies as: The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, It Came from Outer Space, and It, the Terror From Beyond Space, to name a few. This interest in and concern with the idea of things greatly more intelligent and powerful than us possibly existing in the inky expanses of space was a sentiment that characterized the zeitgeist of the 50’s just as much as the fear of communism characterized the zeitgeist of the Cold War era.

What we do see in movies these days is what is immensely interesting. In the past ten years or so, movie screens have been filled with images depicting man’s enslavement by, not aliens this time, but technology. Films such as the Matrix trilogy and the more recent Eagle Eye showcase this fear very well. People feel an uneasiness about their reliance upon machinery because certain elements of technology seem to threaten one of the most crucial elements of human nature, freedom of the will, in a way very much like the little green men of the fifties.

Matrix Human Farm

Matrix Human Farm

Our soul is a composite of intellect and will, two things which must operate together, and anything that threatens the operation of the soul by subduing the will is as much a threat to human dignity as is physical violence. In fact, much in the same way as our nature makes use of the emotion “fear” in cases where physical violence is threatened as a means of maintaining safety, so also does human nature use fear to ensure the safety of the soul. And, ironically enough, it is this very fear, the fear of violence done to the soul, that movie makers play upon when they develop many modern films; while simultaneously discrediting its existence by ridiculing the institutions of religion which maintain it.

Cinema, despite largely having sunk to the level of a cheap thrill, seems actually to be able to tell us something about human nature that few other things can. A history book in the future may contain the phase “Americans in the early 21st century feared the encroachment of technology upon their lives” but it could not convey the zeitgeist as well as a fistful of films about the very same thing. This isn’t because a movie can convey sentiment more effectively than text, but it is because there is a kind of honesty inherent in the way that a movie expresses the zeitgeist. We are not talking about something that a filmmaker wrote into the script as an idea that he wanted to convey, we are talking about the fact that he wouldn’t make the movie if it wouldn’t sell, and in order to sell, it had to strike a chord with its audience; a chord that the moviemaker could not invent, but one that he would have to find.

Categories: General

The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.III. Economy (Part II)

July 21, 2009 Leave a comment

A maniacally independent society is a maniacally divisive society.  From an unshakeable belief in scientific research which is still trying to find the smallest constituent parts of matter (and simultaneously postulating that nothing material is anything more than an aggregate of composite parts), to an exorbitant divorce rate, Western civilization cannot help but individuate everything possible.  Thus, the perspective of economy as a science, as a hard science, pursues its study with man on the periphery at best and at times altogether dismissed; as with the rest of the hard sciences, economics have insisted upon keeping the individual man a perpetual bachelor.  In other words, and in a great sad irony, the economic science which promotes a radically individualistic capitalism, may have some vague conception of man as mankind in its deliberations, but has no real conception of man as the individual – that is, as a dignified being in the image and likeness of God who is inherently anything but well-served by individualism.

Ultimately, capitalism, though it begins nobly in giving each man a relatively equal chance to establish his own business and succeed, comes to expect a divine flawlessness in the underprivileged man.  At its worst, capitalism starves off those who fall on a streak of bad luck or begin life impoverished; at its best, it develops the impersonal pity of a governmentally redistributed handouts: “Capitalism must keep alive, by non-Capitalist methods, great masses of the population who would otherwise starve to death.”1 Does this seem improbable, untrue, a mere witty retort?  Recent history would suggest otherwise.  Unable to compete with lower manufacturing costs across seas, the major American car companies, all in economic trouble as a result of an oversaturated market and an economic plan built on high product turnover, have had to lay-off unparalleled numbers of employees.  Poverty in Michigan due to unemployment has reached such levels that not only are countless numbers of people relying on welfare, but cities, such as Flint and Detroit and other places built around America being economically viable in the industrial mass-production of goods, having once bloated themselves to unsustainable levels on capitalistic lard, are now dying.[2][3]

Literary critic, author, and distributist Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce

Built upon premises of growth and innovation, on replacing the old and same with the new and improved, capitalism has sacrificed the good of man for the good of consumptive quality of that produced.  The most obvious evidence of this is the enormous number of products sold in the United States that are produced in China; and if not, in some other foreign country with cheap labor.  Once dominating only the markets of cheap goods (in itself a problematic situation), technological capabilities that do not correspond to improved working conditions or better pay have enabled countries such as China to provide cheaper products of comparable quality to those produced in the United States.  Well, objectors will say, why not purchase from China?  What is wrong with purchasing things from China?  Objectively, nothing; but the circumstances dictate otherwise.  To whom is the money spent on Chinese products going?  What is that money supporting?  Under what conditions are the product produced?  Economically speaking, these questions, left unanswered, are troubling.  The answers, once given, are downright morally disturbing.4 Are these impoverished people to not only have their conditions accepted by the relative comfortable people of the West, but exacerbated by the capitalistic tendency that rewards a dehumanizing profit-seeking necessary to the preservation of the capitalist economic model?  The lower a company’s overhead, the more it can focus on production, marketing, selling, research and development; but all too often, as capitalist companies grow, the only means of reducing overhead, and thus remaining competitive, is to seek means which increasingly devalue the worker: cutting corners on working materials, working conditions, worker’s compensation, anything so long as the product continues to sell and profits continue to mount.

Disregard for the workers is, however, only one of the dangers of capitalist economic principles.  Coinciding with reckless in regarding human rights, capitalism perennially take a reckless approach to both the quality of the products produced and towards the environment upon which it is built.  As regards the latter, there will be no speculation upon “green” technology; but it will and must be said that man is supposed to be a steward when it comes to the earth, not a conqueror.  As a bridge between these two avenues of reckless capitalist driving, the prevalence of agribusiness has resulted not only in the destruction of great amounts of biological diversity, both in rural America and England, but also in significantly damaging the quality of the crops produced.  The debacle of Genetically Modified Organisms – crops produced from seeds in which the genes have been modified so as to be immune to pesticides, allowing larger amounts of crops to be planted, cared for, and harvested without significant losses due to natural occurrences despite employing fewer farmers – proved quite adequately how the reckless pursuit of profit results in disaster.5 Could these companies not simply restrain themselves from constantly seeking to expand?  No; for this sort of profit growth is necessary in an economic system that rewards only those companies that continue to grow and punishes those that try to maintain a level of sustenance; the small businesses (by which are meant those that have fewer than 20 or 30 employees – the Small Business Association considers businesses with up to 1500 “small” in some industries) that thrive today do so out of positively un-capitalist tendencies amongst people who have become fed up with poor quality and poor service.  Nonetheless, they are in constant threat of capitulation to those larger organizations that insist upon not merely beating the competition, but ultimately destroying it.

Yet the problems with supporting such businesses are skewed not just in the realm of observable human action, of fiscal transactions, of product quality, and of , but with the fundamentals of human nature.

Hilaire Belloc, Man of Letters and Distributist Champion

Hilaire Belloc, Man of Letters and Distributist Champion

Aristotle once said that “man is by nature a political animal.”6 To the contemporary English-speaking mind, politics is at once indivisibly associated with but separate from economics; the former exists as sort of a bracketed channel by theories of the latter are implemented.  Yet the Greek word politikos, connotes not mere politics according to the modern English-speaking conception, but to that of the citizen, that of the man who is engaged in the well-being of the societal whole.  Man is a societal animal (the “animal” part is not exactly correct, but, well, that is another topic altogether).  This means that he is, by his very nature, economic, insofar as economy deals explicitly and necessarily with property.  But he is also social: no man after all, really is an island.  Transactions of property and wealth necessarily entail some interaction on the level of humanity; otherwise there is no guarantee of justice between them.  A man buying from someone he does not know, whose conditions he does not know, does not know where his product came from, how it was produced, or whether or not he paid a just price.  More importantly, by helping those who are very far away, he is likely not helping himself; by which is meant he is likely not helping his community.  Cheaper computers produced in China may improve man’s ability to purchase that upgrade for his satellite programming package; meanwhile, his neighbor, a man with whom he has many things in common but has never met, whose son is best friends with the first man’s son, a few houses down is put out of his local custom computer business because his products cost a little bit more money.  It happens.  It also happens that men who work hard day and night support other men and their families; the work of the low level employee in a thoroughly capitalist system inevitably results in the increased earnings of those higher in the company.

What has been outlined here, in a via negativa (negative way, that is, by showing what is lacking), is the economic system known as distributism.  As with many good things, it is misunderstood by almost everyone.  Socialists see it as too far to the right and capitalists as too far to the left.  Socialists and capitalists, however, have respectively gone so far to the left and so far to the right that, in both situations, the means of production are in the control of the relatively few.  Hilaire Belloc, in his economic magnum opus titled The Servile State, defines the unjust economic theories ironic collision thus: “That arrangement of society in which so considerable a number of the families and individuals are constrained by positive law to labour for the advantage of other families and individual as to stamp the whole community with the mark of such labour we call The Servile State.”7 Contrariwise, distributism stands in polar opposition this servile state, for it insists upon the means of production being in the hands of the many.  This stance is, and long has been, vehemently denounced as economically unviable, impractical, and idealistic.  In the sense of economics as a pure science – divorced from its natural spouse the social, societal, political, economical man – it is indeed unviable, impractical, and idealistic, for its principle premise is neither monetary profit nor material gain, but the respect for the dignity of the human person: “the difference between servitude and freedom, appreciable in a thousand details of actual life, is most glaring in this: that the free man can refuse his labour and use that refusal as an instrument wherewith to bargain; while the slave has no such instrument or power to bargain at all, but is dependent for his well-being upon the custom of society, backed by the regulation of such of its laws as may protect and guarantee the slave.”8

But now the question must be asked: in this pervasively servile state, how can man be freed?

1 Belloc, Hillaire, The Servile State. (from memory; no text to hand).
5 Cf. Pearce, Joseph, Small is Still Beautiful (Wilmington: ISI Books) pp. 154-190.  Pearce’s book also discusses the capitalist conquest of small brewers and subsequent microbrew revolution on pp. 103-115.
6 Aristotle, Politics (New York: Penguin Books, 1992) 59.
7 Belloc, Hilare, Belloc (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1970) 175.
8 Ibid.

The Cult of Truth, the Cult of Progress

July 20, 2009 Leave a comment

The word “cult,” as applied to a person’s life-orienting beliefs, has two very different but nonetheless indissolubly linked meanings.  There is the common negative meaning, as is applied correctly to the Branch Davidians, the Church of Scientology, and the Church of Latter-Day Saints, in which a number of people are bound together by common self-subjection to an unquestionable premise.  There is also the positive meaning – most notably used by St. Thomas Aquinas in the phrase, “the cult of latria,” (see Chapter 120, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 3) – which describes the totality of the practices or objects associated with some object of veneration or worship.  Thus, the cult or cultus of a saint – the Blessed Mother, for instance – would contain all of the relics, devotions, and prayers associated with that saint – such as the Rosary, the Salve Regina, the Angelus, so on and so forth.  Where this cultus of a saint is bound up within and for his veneration, it is elevated to the cult of worship, or latria, for the Divine, which then naturally subsumes all that goes into the veneration of the saints, as His servants; it is the totality of praise.

The former sort of cult, the negative type, is not entirely different from its noble opposite, if such a paradox may be excused for the moment; for the cult that demands unquestioning obedience, in a pale and hollow parody, also accumulates the totality of something within and for the sake of another something.  Instead of symbols and signs within and for the veneration of a person or the worship of the Divine, however, it accumulates the totality of a person’s behavior within and for the veneration and praise of symbols and signs that have no true referents.  This empty sort of cult has a persistent and uninterrupted monolocution of calcified ideological rhetoric, which bears no regard for the truth.  It is the authoritative unreasoned word, which attempts to crowd out all other voices.

There is a popular lie amongst those who are intractably committed to the idea of “progress,” by which is meant something indiscernible for its vagueness, that Traditionalist Catholics, the worst of all superstitious and backwards cults in the negative sense, would like to see every modern innovation, from the personal computer to the contraceptive pill, completely and entirely obliterated, crowded out of the consciousness of mankind by the authoritarian voice of unreasoning propaganda issued from the pulpit.  Such innovations, in the eyes of these progressives, are indivisible from one another, for both are the result of Progress, that which has made man’s life so much better, that which has saved lives, given people freedom, that which is responsible for the Declaration of Independence and the airplane; that – to be perfectly frank – undefined, unlimited, unrestrained, and completely fictional god of modernity, Progress.  If there is a monological cult of unreasoning submission in the 21st century, it is that of Progress, its god of the same name.

Like the deities of all cults, Progress is a figure of smoke and mirrors; an insubstantial vapor enlarged to a seemingly divine magnitude.  In what does Progress result: woman’s suffrage, the personal computer, the contraceptive pill, a coffee pot that brews 12 cups in 3 minutes, systematic euthanasia?  These proponents of Progress, who sometimes proudly and sometimes discreetly postulate these inventions as children of the prodigiously procreating god, describe Progress as itself born of contention, and dissatisfaction, of rejecting that which is Old in favor of that which is New.  In the words of H.L. Mencken, American critic of the early 20th century, “the world gets ahead by losing its illusions, and not by fostering them.  Nothing, perhaps, is more painful than disillusion, but all the same, nothing is more necessary.”1 Thus, according to the doctrine of the progressives, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, the forerunners of the French Revolution (glossing over the murderous Robespierre, of course), Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger (a eugenicist long before Justice Ginsberg, but in the same vein), Martin Luther King Jr., and all such men and women are champions of Progress, because they challenged the institutions before them, because they, against the illusions of their predecessors, invented by virtue of their disillusion new devices and methods, and made men (and women!) so much freer; revolution praised for the sake of being revolutionary.  Truthfully, however, the most progress was created by those who did not revolt and merely reformed.  The scientists, Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, had genuine progress (though Galileo was impudent and disobeyed the Church’s exhortation to teach heliocentrism within scientific circles as theory, instead promoting it as definite fact, and thus was put under comfortable house arrest by the office of the Inquisition), not based on rejection of older work for the sake of rejection, but based, as Newton himself said, upon the work of their forebears: “If I have seen a little farther it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”  Likewise, the men who revolutionized the technological age, from the Wright Brothers to Steve Jobs, did so not out of disillusion, but out of fantasy, out of dreaming for something that was not yet but was not so far off as to be impossible.  Such men had true progress because they did not insist upon knocking the whole totem of tradition down, but by climbing it; they progressed because they had a goal towards which their efforts aimed: the true and the good.

H.L. Mencken, Progressive Ordinaire

H.L. Mencken, Progressive Ordinaire; bad philosophy, bad hair

In contrast to Progress, and in accord with the motivational sentiments of the truly progressive, the cult of Catholicism, which is the cult of latria of the Divine, is the most truly dialogical cult that ever has been.  From the transcendence of the Divine to which it appeals comes not only one Voice, only one Word, but Three that are yet mysteriously One.  This transcendental dialogue furthermore permeates the earthly Church; and though the minds of Her members can receive such voiced Truth only by a limited channel, that which is received may unfold infinitely, may be discussed, debated, be broken into an infinite number of disagreements and yet, so long as they are resolved correctly, never err.  Thus the univocal speech of the Catholic faith, to those who refuse to engage it in dialogue, who refuse to introduce to the Church their doubts, their qualms, their reasons, and even more sadly refuse to listen to what She has to say and consider it, seems a monologue aged into a hard, brittle, fossil and vainly protected by a veil of illogical reverence for an illusory eternity.  But like those who affect real progress, men like the guy who invented the wheel, Ebers Papyrus, Ibn al-Nafis, William Harvey (oh those backwards pre-moderns! Papyrus and al-Nafis lived in 1600 BC and 1242 AD, respectively), Albert Einstein, and so many, many others, the Church has always been genuinely progressive, not in spite of its illusions, but because of them; because She has always sought that which She cannot see, but which She knows is there, can be discovered, articulated, can be spoken.  The Cult of Catholicism is the Cult of Truth.

The Cult of Progress, it must finally be noted, in contrast to the actuality of progress, is built not upon contention, but upon a logical fallacy.  Since two events occurred in the same era, the Cult says, they must be part of some unified chronologically linear cause; since both are desired by a certain number of people, since both claim to make man’s life better, they must both do so.  A occurs in X; B occurs in X; therefore X is the cause of A and B.  As with all logical fallacies heavily and obstinately relied upon, that of the Cult of Progress is grown out of a frustration: the desire to deny that anything is truly and objectively good, that men accomplish more by virtue of their dreams than their disillusions, and that man achieves the most progress not by floating along with the stream of a historical inevitability, but by his own efforts; and most especially, the Cult of Progress is frustrated with just how many of those men who have done so have done it within the teachings of the Holy Catholic Church.

1 Mencken, H.L, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) 100.

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