Cella's Review
Politics, Culture, the Public Square

“. . . And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.” — G. K. Chesterton

Thursday, April 28, 2005  

Michael Novak’s essay in the April First Things, “Max Weber Goes Global,” is another intriguing chapter in Novak’s career-long effort to examine the spiritual roots of “democratic capitalism.” Predictable in many ways (the generous praise for both Protestantism and Catholicism, the repeated adducing of Tocqueville, the eschewing of polemics) it is nevertheless another valuable contribution. Mr. Novak is at his best when he reminds us that free economies are founded upon virtue not avarice; on generosity of spirit, not miserliness.

Novak reflects on the rather startling effects, in the economic realm, of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination:

For Calvin, the absolute sovereignty of God means that God not only foreknows, but actively wills the salvation of some and the damnation of others. When the sheer unmeritedness of the gift of friendship with God for all eternity was promulgated among ordinary people, those people became quite anxious over the state of their souls and began to seek signs by which they might reassure themselves. [. . .]

Here, then, is a classic and powerful instance of the Law of Unintended Consequences. A formal doctrine whose original intention was to remove all concern with works-righteousness ended up propelling its adherents towards an unprecedented, almost painful, obsession with works. And this totally unforeseen and negative psychological consequence had extremely beneficial economic effects — in fact, economically revolutionary effects.

Of course, there was a Catholic contribution as well:

The Protestant ethic may issue in hard work, asceticism, and an always unsatisfied striving for material betterment, but doesn’t capitalism also foster ingenuity and inventiveness? Put theologically, the Protestant ethic tends to emphasize conversion and change of life that can be wrought only by divine grace. An alternative but no less important ethic — one that can be described as a “Catholic” ethic — has historically worked to emphasize that, despite the wounds inflicted on creation by sin, the world retains marks of God’s goodness. If Protestant striving has inspired economic dynamism, Catholic delight in the goodness of creation has, by comparison, encouraged economic creativity.

Here it gets predictable: “Nowhere has this potent combination been more fully realized than in the United States.” That is a solid point, well worth making, but Novak often tends to get a little carried away, as when he writes, “Little by little, people began to understand that it need not be the case that ‘you always have the poor with you’ (Matthew 26:11) — that it is a moral obligation of societies as well as individuals to overcome poverty.” Oh yes? Christ was wrong? it is possible (even obligatory) to eradicate poverty?

Such enthusiasms aside, Novak’s work has been important. To recall for the public that the source of all human wealth is finally in the human mind, and its interaction with the created world that the Creator called good, is admirable work indeed. And it is work that has had fewer allies and champions than it deserves. George Gilder made his own indispensable contribution with his Wealth and Poverty: “All human pioneers, from poets and composers in their many epiphanies to scientists on the mystical frontiers of matter where life again begins, are essentially engaged in forms of devotion.” One even thinks of the Distributists, who, though committed critics capitalism, did much to remind men of the irreplaceable role that private property must have in any free economy; for its is only by the principle of private property that the human mind can engage the world as a creative force. A great Distributist, G. K. Chesterton, put the whole tremendous truth of this in his own whimsical phrasing:

The man who makes an orchard where there has been a field, who owns the orchard and decides to whom it shall descend, does also enjoy the taste of apples; and let us hope, also, the taste of cider. But he is doing something very much grander, and ultimately more gratifying, than merely eating an apple. He is imposing his will upon the world in the manner of the charter given him by the will of God; he is asserting that his soul is his own, and does not belong to the Orchard Survey Department, or the chief Trust in the Apple Trade. But he is also doing something which was implicit in all the most ancient religions of the earth; in those great panoramas of pageantry and ritual that followed the order of the seasons in China or Babylonia; he is worshipping the fruitfulness of the world.

To worship the fruitfulness of the world, among other miraculous things, will yield a free economy and a free people.

posted by Paul Cella | 3:02 PM |

Sunday, April 24, 2005  

Here are some interesting remarks by Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus on his “Rome Diary” — remarks, I should note, that were published before the announcement of Benedict XVI’s election.

I have over these days been out on a limb, saying that Ratzinger will be elected on the second day of balloting. The assumption is that he is the only cardinal who went into the conclave within reach of the two-thirds (seventy-seven votes) necessary for election.

There is dispute about whether he hurt himself with his homily at the beginning of the conclave. Another interpretation is that he deliberately set a dour tone in order to reduce the prospect of his being elected; the premise being that he will accept but does not want the office.

There might be something to that. It is no secret that he earnestly desires to return to his work as an academic theologian and acceded to John Paul’s desire that he head up the Doctrine of the Faith very reluctantly and only under obedience. He tried to resign in 1991, in 1996, and again in 2001. But, as he has described it, when he saw the determined obedience of the frail John Paul II in continuing until the end, he could not bring himself to insist upon resigning.

Reminds me of a finely-wrought aphorism from one of the Dune novels that has somehow stuck with me over the years: “Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it ... We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase that reluctance.”

posted by Paul Cella | 3:09 PM |

Tuesday, April 19, 2005  

I recently watched portions of a very typical movie — so typical, indeed, that it hardly seems necessary to identify it by name. This movie was one in a very long and even tedious line of movies, which aims to deflate and discredit the image of America before it was emancipated from patriarchy and the shackles of traditional sexuality, and thus implicitly preserve and succor the regime of sexual license under which we live. “Tradition told them they would only be wives,” the packaging for the film introduces. “Miss Watson taught them how to be women.” A fitting introduction to this genre. Its very narrowness is announced in tones of dramatic broadmindedness.

What interests me here is the peculiar quality that distinguishes most contemporary social criticism in whatever medium it is conveyed. That quality is really a negative thing rather than a positive feature; a lack not an accretion; a kind of positive deficiency. It is the absence of the self-criticism. The authors of these critiques will see all the evil and weakness in things other than themselves; will penetrate deep into the errors and failures of the ages that preceded them; will scoff at the consummate folly of their immediate ancestors; but will never look hard at what they are and love. They will teach many lessons (some of them, I hasten to add, valuable lessons); but they will learn no lessons about themselves. They will instruct but never be educated, preach but never hear. They are instructors but never pupils.

One of the elements of pathos in this film I watched consisted in a skillfully rendered picture of the agony inflicted by an unfaithful husband; an agony compounded by failed compassion and – remembering our critical theme – the stale propriety of the age under examination. Now: let no man gainsay the very solid reality that is the pain of a vow betrayed; let no man take me to mean a belittling of what a woman endures when her husband forsakes what he swore to her before God and Man. The lesson delivered does indeed teach — but not, perhaps, what its creators intended for it to teach.

But the whole drift of the film, aside from some occasional flashes, fails to give criticism the foundation and balance of philosophy – precisely because it fails to self-criticize. It sees with poignancy and even power the wounds sin inflicted in a lost age of man; but it cannot see what wounds sin is inflicting even now, in our own age. Therefore it cannot even begin a comparison or judgment between the two. In the vision of this film the emancipation accomplished to rid the world of the propriety that bound women to unfaithful husbands was a good unqualified. It was no development, and most certainly no degradation, but rather an achievement, solid and shining. The critic cannot imagine that what he (or she) sees as a grand liberation may have rapidly led to a new, more subtle, enslavement; that the chains he (or she) so despised in ages past were really only protections or sentinels, erected hastily and shakily to be sure, but erected in good faith and searching human compassion, to protect the souls of men from greater demons. In short, the critic cannot really even see what has happened since the revolution was made, and the liberation achieved. He cannot conceive of himself as equally an object of criticism as his ancestors. He cannot imagine, perhaps, that one day he will be the ancestor, lonely and without weapons to defend himself against the criticism of his descendents. He sees sexual propriety, what used to be called chastity, as nothing but base oppression; and to him its clumsiness is not evidence of its humanness, but of its injustice. And the very farthest thing from his mind, the very last thing he would consider, is that, having been emancipated from his clumsy human thing, what we desperately need now is to be freed from the emancipation.

Yes, it was awful that women were forced by the mob of patriarchy and propriety to remain with unfaithful husbands, to bear that terrible burden; but might it not also be awful that children are now bound beyond all hope of escape to the web of divorce and separation that attended liberation? Might it not also be an awful thing that our zeal for emancipation produced a legal regime that again regards certain human beings, namely the unborn, as property? Traditional sexuality was miserably far from perfect, indeed. Looking back it seems so vulnerable. It has been the target of countless blistering barrages of critical artillery. But how often has the same pitiless artillery been turned against modern sexuality? I suspect this newer fortress would nary survive a day; I wager it would prove shabbily constructed and only tremulously defended. I venture that at the first sustained volley its garrison will quickly scatter to the four winds and few reinforcements will arrive. For the fortress of traditional sexuality has weathered a thousand bombardments, by a thousand innovators and sophists and libertarians and revolutionists; and yet it stands, though shaken and damaged; while the other has decayed into near oblivion of its own rottenness in a mere 40 years. The guns of tradition — strangely assembled, an eclectic mix no one could have predicted — have already begun to congregate, as Mary Eberstadt demonstrated in a brilliant piece examining the thematic roots of the more grim members of popular music, which often lie in seething anger at divorce. The fortress of sexual liberation is already doomed, though none can say with any certainty what will follow it.

Self-criticism is a difficult business, to be sure. But I submit that our ancestors accepted its burdens far more readily and willingly than we do. When St. Thomas Aquinas set himself to organizing and illuminating the whole of Christian theology (and more: the whole of human knowledge), he did not neglect the objections to it. No indeed: the critiques he leveled were more shrewd and difficult to answer than the great majority of his successive opponents throughout the successive ages. As the University of Pennsylvania historian A. C. Kors one wrote, if you want to discover the most powerful objections to Christianity, look not to the haughty doyen of the modern age, the Darwinists and Nihilists and Rationalists; look instead to the sed contra objections of the great mediaeval Schoolmen.

What most marks the Modern Age is that thing from which the creed of the Cross recoils most sedulously: It is the exaltation of itself, the smug assumption that we are the measure of history, because we standing at the pinnacle can see the rest better. It is Pride. One often wonders how historians freed from the myopia of our rancorous disputes, distant enough from us to see us more clearly, will picture in their books the men who presided over the age of gas chamber and gulag, the slaughter of the innocents in the womb and the gradual criminalization of Christian conviction, the rise, decline and resurrection of eugenics and the liquidation of national sovereignty, all of which things have been (or are today) justified in the name of progress. One need not follow all of my polemical points to see that we will need searching and sympathetic historians indeed if we are to be portrayed as anything other than alien monsters of a dark age. Such a characterization will of course be grossly unfair — for men great and small fought each of these things in their time — but that it just the point. Alien monsters of a dark age: let us hope that our historians will be humbler men than us.

posted by Paul Cella | 12:30 PM |

Wednesday, April 13, 2005  

A revised version of an essay that I originally posted at Redstate appears today on TCS. The subject is the great Edmund Burke.

Moreover, the charge that Burke was a complacent apologist for oppressive aristocracy is itself tedious caricature. I have been struck on occasion by the amusing and almost fanciful spectacle of some modern liberal or progressive having recently discovered Burke — that is to say, having recently decided to actually read him. The discovery leads the progressive in question to speak with pomp and solemnity, almost as a scold: for the discovery is like that of a prosecutor coming upon a clutch of useful physical evidence — better, as they say, than witness testimony. Perhaps he has uncovered the large fact that Burke (himself an Irishman) lent his considerable eloquence and intellect to the cause of Irish emancipation; maybe he has been amazed to learn that he prosecuted a prominent imperial abuser of the subjected Indians; more likely our progressive has stumbled upon the vivid fact that his sympathies were with the unruly American colonists. In short, our progressive has discovered the whole huge truth that Edmund Burke was way ahead of most of the progressives of his own day in endorsing progressive causes. And this truth is demonstrated best, we might say, by the fact that Burke's friends and admirers were simply dumbstruck when he so decisively and so forcefully judged the progressive cause of the day — still indeed, perhaps, the progressive cause, as I have said, of the entire modern age — to be a titanic catastrophe. [more]

posted by Paul Cella | 12:36 PM |

Friday, April 08, 2005  

Dear readers, I know the activity around here has been minimal of late, and I hope to have it pick up again soon; but for now perhaps these two essays of mine, both, by coincidence, published today, should give you all something to chew on.

It is understandable that there would be serious confusion in properly evaluating a man such a Karol Wojtyla. For one thing greatness is by nature enigmatic — and there can be no doubt that John Paul II was a great man. But more importantly, this confusion derives from the decay and dissolution of our politics, which accompanies the decay and dissolution of the modern age. [more]

The proponents of gay marriage, in choosing as their final legislator the courts of this country, have thrown open to question, in a radical way, the very idea of self-government. They have made us think the unthinkable: that we might no longer be governed, however untidily, however frustratingly, by Publius’s “deliberate sense of the community,” but rather by a judicial plutocracy, egged on by the urban sophisticates. They have asked us to answer a terrible question. They have asked us to answer whether America will be a republic anymore. [more]

posted by Paul Cella | 2:38 PM |
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