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Provincial Suffocation

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.

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