Politics, Culture, the Public Square
“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton
Wednesday, March 31, 2004 A correspondent writes to solicit my advice on an article of critique he has written on the subject of Socialism. One occasionally feels that, upon this topic at least, history has settled in its judgment (a kind of sulking judgment, but nonetheless a judgment); and one absorbs from the climate of opinion the insinuations, the subtle cajolery, that there is no more to say on this great controversy, which agitated the Western mind for a century and more. But then one reads or hears something jolting enough in its implications, that one is reminded that the issue is hardly settled; it is more nearly forgotten or ignored; and perhaps the reader will forgive me my presumption as I endeavor to advise my correspondent on the question of how to argue against Socialism.
To my mind, this is more an undertaking more suitable to the art of rhetoric than to the science of dialectic. It is not a matter of forensics applied to sociology and economics and directed at the purely rational faculties of the mind; but of persuasion directed the “chest” — as C. S. Lewis taught, the seat of magnanimity, “of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiment.” We must demolish Socialism as an ideal. But, again as Lewis taught, we late moderns are but “men without chests,” and so the task is made more arduous.
We must not concede to Socialism a nobility of ideal it does not possess. It will hardly matter to the Socialist that Socialism “doesn’t work,” for his concern is not with what works and what does not; rather it is his concern to conjure ideals, sweet, intoxicating ideals, and project them onto a blank screen as it were, isolated from concrete history and daily life; and from these a grand sweeping, unreal critique, now implicit, now explicit, of reality. In this glow of unreality the critique appears unanswerable. Therefore he will point to those who go hungry, or those whose sickness could be but is not alleviated, or to any number of vivid privations — all with pressing implication that his system, Socialism, can end the privations. This is a cunning rhetorical device. He is not engaging in dialectics, in a learned discourse, a sober weighing of means and ends on the question of which philosophy ought to guide our political economy. He aims rather at stimulating our naked and unguided sentiment; for him what is important is that our emotions are troubled, that we feel the bite of shame in perceiving our own comfort and plenty; and, since he is still, as yet, a merely hypothetical character, I feel no qualms about imputing to him motives of a baser sort. I say, then, that he aims at misleading our sentiment, perverting its purpose, and thereby deceiving us in a very profound way.
Now nothing could be farther from my mind than a desire to denounce the art of Rhetoric. I am a great admirer of that noble discipline; a greater admirer still because it has fallen of late into such undeserved disrepute. Indeed, I think that precisely the problem under examination here — the problem of Socialism — has a great deal do to with the discredit of Rhetoric as an art; and it must be a very real problem indeed if it has cast under suspicion the art whose champions go by names like Cicero, Burke and Lincoln. But the art of Rhetoric has fallen into disrepute because we have forgotten the principle propounded by Aristotle: that what makes a sophist is not his faculty but his moral purpose.
The method of the Socialist Rhetorician, in fine, is to subtly force a decisive comparison between ideal and praxis, namely, between the ideal of Socialism and the practice of Capitalism. His moral purpose is dubious because his rhetoric hinges on a deceit. He will not play fair; he is a cheat. He has put everything at the service of his politics, including any sense of honorable argumentation. The rules of honorable argumentation demand that when a challenger wishes to critique a system, he must take its best case and refute it. He must point to flaws inherent to the system, not ancillary or incidental to it. Above all, he must endeavor not to blur the bright lines between Politics and Philosophy, lest we forget that the former is but an approximation of the latter, even in the best of circumstances. The state of rhetoric in our day can be pretty well suggested by the fact that this simple principle of discrepancy must be repeated unceasingly. That a rhetorician can get away quite easily with a unaccountable shift or elision from ideal to reality, and back again, as often as is needful to his designs, tells us that men are not trained properly. Stable sentiment has not been cultivated in them sufficient enough to recognize and call out a dirty trick when it appears.
Without plunging into a systematic critique of Socialism, which is outside the scope of this letter, what I would recommend to my correspondent is that he forget attacking Socialism because it doesn’t work (the politics of it), and begin attacking it on its own principles (the philosophy guiding it). Admittedly this is a greater burden on the intellect, but I believe my correspondent is up to the challenge. What he must demonstrate is that Socialism is evil even if it does what it says it will do; that to destroy the principle of private property is to amputate an irreplaceable part of what it means to be human, what it means to labor and create and be fruitful; in religious terms, that it is a heresy, an innovation that will annihilate, a revolt against the nature of man and the natural order of the world; in short, that it fails not because it doesn’t work, but rather it doesn’t work because it fails — fails utterly to reflect in any meaningful way the truth about Man and Society.posted by Paul Cella | 11:23 PM |
Tuesday, March 30, 2004 I took my daughter Katie (age 4) out on the golf course for nine holes last week. It went well: she wandered around and played with a variety of natural treasures while I played — and, to my astonishment, played quite well. Probably the best I have played in six weeks. There is, I am convinced, a lesson in this; and I draw from it that I have been regularly “overthinking” my shots of late. Katie’s presence distracted me, unsettled my usual routine, forced me to hit without a practice swing, etc. It was more instinctive way to play. And a better way to play.
But, I wonder, is possible to duplicate? It seems to me that distraction is not distraction if it is deliberately cultivated unaided by external events; in short, that to attempt to distract oneself, in a moment which nevertheless requires concentration, is to plunge into a kind of whirling practical solipsism, something analogous to trying to concentrate on not losing concentration.
Anyway, on the more practical side, I did manage to identify and correct a problem in my swing, which should help, solipsism or no solipsism.
I grew up in Denver, Colorado; now I live in Atlanta. Among the virtues of the American South (which are legion) is the weather, which includes a nearly year-long golf season. You can’t beat that.posted by Paul Cella | 6:44 PM |
Saturday, March 27, 2004 Grammatically incorrect though its title be, J. Budziszewski’s new book What We Can’t Not Know, A Guide would appear to claim status as a worthy effort indeed. In the course of reviewing it, the Thomist scholar, novelist and philosopher Ralph McInerny — a writer of great fecundity — drolly remarks, “One of the difficulties any appeal to common sense must face is that a lot of nonsense is commonly believed.” That is positively Chestertonian; and as it happens, Chesterton himself wrote something similar:
Elsewhere in his sparkling little book on Aquinas, Chesterton phrases things with even greater playful brilliance: “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be — that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be — that is the answer.’”
At the center of the philosophy of Natural Law is a tremendous Affirmation; that the world is intelligible, that our perception is not, in its essence, a delusion, that our efforts to discern the order of the world are not futile. By its simplicity, all is illuminated: especially that which must be illuminated by Revelation. So much of the history of modern philosophy has been a dreary retreat from this affirmation, a great scurrying, feverish effort to construct systems to overturn the first principle, and the simple common sense of men.posted by Paul Cella | 11:21 AM |
Friday, March 26, 2004 Short takes:
Thursday, March 25, 2004 Edward, one of the contributors at the excellent web-log Obsidian Wings, makes a brave declaration of his personal stake in the great issue of the day. Here is my response (edited slightly from a comment):
posted by Paul Cella | 12:54 PM |
Wednesday, March 24, 2004 In his own earthy but sagacious and bracing manner, John Derbyshire has demolished, yet again, the Myth of the Open Society, which, bafflingly, has begun to penetrate and mesmerize the minds of many on the Right, who were once more nearly immune to it. What an essay! It is not often that I would cheer the occasion of Peggy Noonan being subjected to such a thrashing. posted by Paul Cella | 6:34 PM |
Tuesday, March 23, 2004 Thomas E. Woods, Jr. argues in a stimulating lecture that free market economics can be reconciled with Catholic social teaching. And we are not talking about run-of-the-mill free market economics here. Mr. Woods even sees opponents of child-labor laws as misguided. “The only way,” he writes, “child labor can come to a genuine end is when the need for it has dwindled or disappeared. In societies where the productivity of labor has risen sufficiently — in other words, when the labor of fewer people is now necessary to perform the same amount of work as before — the contribution of children to the productive process no longer carries the same urgency.”
The essay is chalk full of similar provocations. (Here is a thoughtful demurral from Jim Kalb.)
posted by Paul Cella |
6:16 PM |
Wednesday, March 17, 2004 Upon us are the four greatest days in all of sports: the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. If watching these games, an astounding number of which will end unpredictable and breathtaking heroics, does not provoke in you a thrill at the vigor of the human spirit, then vitality has probably already left you. It is not merely the unpredictable nature of the game; what captivates is the ineffaceable humanness of it, which can be discerned best perhaps in the mysterious ability of certain players to “step up,” to take over a game; such that the spectator comes to an almost eerie certainty that he will hit the three-pointer to send the game to overtime, despite a very mediocre shooting percentage. Or perhaps it is best discerned in the battle of wills that often develops between two players, or two teams — a kind of civilized spectacle of warfare, with all its glory but none of its misery. The spectator is thrilled by the spectacle of a pulverizing collision of will and desire, of raw human aspiration in competition with the same.
The college basketball tournament is distinguished from so many other sports because the great majority of its participants are in it only for the love of the game. Some small fraction, it is true, will make it to the NBA; and it is also true, naturally, that these few often carry their teams to victory; but many more will not, yet it does not diminish, but rather probably intensifies, their exertion. Men will collapse with leg-cramps, dive headlong into the crowd in hopeless pursuit of a ball, weep when defeat catches up with, and weep when it is overcome.
This is athletic competition of the first magnitude. It is man as Man.posted by Paul Cella | 6:54 PM |
Monday, March 15, 2004 [Editor's note: this essay has been temporarily removed for publication elsewhere.] posted by Paul Cella | 11:59 PM |
Saturday, March 13, 2004 I don’t have anything more to say about the unspeakable massacre in Spain than this: If two hundred Spaniards perished because that proud nation stood with America in her hour of need, then their wounds are our wounds. May God, Who is a God of justice, comfort the people of Spain. posted by Paul Cella | 11:55 AM |
Wretchard of The Belmont Club writes prose so beautiful it can be almost painful to read.
What could possibly be appended to such craftsmanship?posted by Paul Cella | 11:24 AM |
Thursday, March 11, 2004 Every society includes a public orthodoxy. Without an orthodoxy, there is no society, but simply a decay, slow and excruciating, or rapid and sanguinary, into chaos. “Orthodoxy refers to any public doctrine accepted unconditionally by a community,” write Frederick D. Wilhelmsen and Willmoore Kendall in a very substantial essay* (pdf format) from some 35 years ago, “even if the orthodoxy in question is somebody else’s heresy; and the emotional reaction of positivists to the word ‘orthodoxy’ is only one aspect of their orthodoxy.”
Modern Liberalism is our orthodoxy; or is very near to becoming it, notwithstanding the resistance that still endures. That resistance was far stronger 35 years ago, but perspicacious critics like Messrs. Wilhelmsen and Kendall could perceive even then that it was in retreat. The orthodoxy of Christendom, which had prevailed, mutatis mutandis, for the great bulk of American history, was disintegrating, and something new rising to replace it. James Hitchcock’s recent catalogue of the attitudes of many prominent legal minds makes for a good representative sample of this new thing. Here we have the clerics of an ascendant orthodoxy — those who are, as Jim Kalb puts it “busily drawing out the obvious implications of liberal pluralism: the suppression of everything that isn’t liberal pluralism.”
The emergence, maturation and ascendance of a new orthodoxy necessitates a severe reshuffling of ideological alliances among the constituents of the society which is undergoing this change. It cannot be otherwise. And it is increasingly clear that the big fault lines of this ideological shift are on the Right. For it is the Right whose duty and vocation has usually been to defend the orthodoxy, just as it is the Left whose vocation has usually been to criticize the orthodoxy, whether overtly (when the orthodoxy is weak), or subtly (when it is strong).
But the terrible conundrum for many on the Right is that the new orthodoxy is repugnant to them, opposed, in fact, to the nature of man, which it is their orthodoxy to hold up to men as true, irrevocable; and to discern its lineaments, and its mysterious complexity as something unique in the unique order of the universe, is their craft. So Conservatives, under this new orthodoxy, cannot be conservative; indeed, the day may dawn when they will be revolutionaries. Yet some will remain mere conservatives, and turn with loathing on what they see in their former comrades as a new threat to the established order which it is their business to defend. In brief, there will be conservatives whose project is to conserve the status quo, and Conservatives whose project it will be to restore the status quo ante; those loyal to the established order, and those loyal to a transcendent order that is not recognized. And they will emphatically not be allies. Wilhelmsen and Kendall go on,
But the situation today is exacerbated by the fact that modern Liberalism’s Absolute is a denial of the Absolute. Men are asked to venerate a negation.
It is in this context that politics in postmodern America will be best comprehended. In this context the strange and explosive fractures within what was once a more unified Conservative party will become clear in their causes and meaning; as, for example, it clarifies why some on the Right reacted so sternly against a symposium in the pages of First Things about “the judicial usurpation of politics.” The symposium and the reaction against it, in short, presaged a fracture into a Right that would become revolutionary in its opposition to a tyranny of courts and judges, and, against that, another Right that would be conservative of the status quo, even if the status quo included lawless courts and “robed masters.”
Other controversies which perplex may be illuminated by this dialectic. The fracture over amending the Constitution to prohibit homosexual marriage; the fracture over immigration; perhaps even the rupture over the film The Passion — all of these, I conceive, are related to the transformation of the public orthodoxy of this nation, and the response to that transformation of the men and women of the Right.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004 Writing in Touchstone, Robert Hart admonishes conservatives within the Episcopal Church for focusing so narrowly on the issue of homosexuality, when what is really at stake is the virtue of Chastity itself.
Mr. Hart has discerned and articulated a very hard truth which reposes uncomfortably near the heart (if you will) of the traditionalist response to the aggression of the sexual revolutionists. In brief, most are only traditionalist to a point: namely, the point where the hard edges and rigid demands of Chastity threaten to make them personally uneasy. They do not want to consider that Chastity, if it be a real thing of integrity, applies to “straights” too, and even applies to straights within their lawful marriages.
It strikes me as quite unlikely that opponents of the sexual revolution will be able to defeat it with half-measures, by ignoring their favorite sins while castigating those they disfavor. An unprincipled moral stand will not stand. Or so I conceive it in my more Roman Catholic moments. It is not insignificant to me that as large and fruitful an intellect as the one possessed by G. K. Chesterton was finally turned to Rome when the Anglican Church capitulated on contraception.posted by Paul Cella | 6:46 PM |
Thursday, March 04, 2004 I find myself compelled again to mention The Passion of the Christ even though I have yet to see it. What provokes me this time is a John O’Sullivan column of subtle intelligence and power, and a James Pinkerton column of blended acumen and folly. The former offers a comparison of the portrayal of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate in the film, and from that comparison draws out some perceptive observations about modern life.
Mel Gibson’s depiction, he writes, “makes Pilate a far worse villain than Caiaphas.” It is Pilate’s very sophistication and cleverness that impeach him.
Mr. O’Sullivan continues,
That is solid stuff.
Meanwhile, there is James Pinkerton, turning an analysis of the film into a wider examination of religion and politics. Mr. Pinkerton is at times an infuriating writer, but one cannot deny that he is often interesting and unpredictable. He agrees with Ben Domenech that The Passion is film more for believers than skeptics or unbelievers; and he projects that it will have the effect of helping to solidify Christians in reaction against the modern world.
What Pinkerton is missing, I think, is the great relentless expansion of what Penn State’s Philip Jenkins calls the Third Church. This is the awesome variable that most of our Western secularists and Liberals would rather not add to the calculation. It is too huge and awful; a great menacing shadow on the horizon. Modern rationalism is a peculiarly Western fancy; and because it flattens the aspirations of Man by obliterating the tension, fundamental to all the fruitful societies of our ancestors, pagan or Christian, of a soul rooted by a physical life in the material world but reaching achingly, tragically, heroically toward its immortal Creator; because stale rationalism scorns Man’s aspirations, and answers his hoarse cries not with God’s thunder — as to Job: “where were you when the foundations of the world were laid?” — but with cruel mockery; because of this, modern rationalism will fail, if for no other reason than because its adherents, sunken with boredom, or stoic resignation, will not reproduce, while its opponents will always locate the procreative power of Man in the larger mystery of the Creation story, and the lesser, but still astounding mystery of their participation in it.posted by Paul Cella | 10:38 AM |
Wednesday, March 03, 2004 There is an quaint old term for the philosophy guiding this little French-Canadian town, a term most associated with two great English Catholics, Chesterton and Belloc.
(Via Peter Burnet at BrothersJudd.)posted by Paul Cella | 1:49 PM |