Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Time and the Self

I have a very good memory, and this is both a blessing and a curse. The line that separates my self in the present from my self in the past is generally very thin. When I am reminded of what I have been before, and most of all when I exist in a place that I have existed before--I experience with immediacy what I once experienced, I perceive in one and the same place my self doubled, tripled, multiplied. This is the strange, miraculous thing, though: that I am all these selves, or rather that there is only one self present, not two, or three, or a multitude. The multiplicity is in fact only an illusion, an error of perspective. This is what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, this is what I saw, heard, felt. I am, I was, here, then. I am here now. This certainly has its downsides, especially when it comes to those things that it is difficult to remember. Much of my life, in fact, I spent in a futile and dangerous effort to escape from what was already past. It is also, in itself, a rather dangerous and deceptive perspective on life. There is, in fact, a difference between what is past and what is present and what is to come. What is present is open to potentiality, open to our action and causation. If we live in the present, we can learn to live well--if we live only in the past, we cannot learn at all anything which we did not already learn then. Only from the perspective of the present can we accept and suffer the past, overcome it and learn from it. The past, then, is the teacher for the present--the present is the space in which learning and action takes place. They should not be confused. Then, too, there is the danger of deception, when we remember falsely, when we perceive falsely. We can be deceived in the present, true, but never so completely as in the past. In the present, we can accept, we can discern, go beyond, learn--in the past, all too often, we find ourselves fixed, trapped, within a single, narrow perspective. What we did not see then will never be seen. All too often, too, we distort the truth of the past through the perspective of the present. We try to see ourselves in the past, but only see ourselves in the present, seeing the past, trapped by it. We lose sight of reality, of one another, are isolated and imprisoned within ourselves. Then, too, we do not remember everything, and so everything we remember is incomplete, partial, pieces to a puzzle with too many missing pieces. It is impossible to perceive the full and complete truth of any time from within such a limited perspectives. Still, one of the great tasks of life is to gradually learn, in the present, with the help of the past, to broaden and to perfect and to unify. In remembering, memory can be purified and perfected--it can become, as memory, something far more true than it was as immediate perception. A key instance of this is repentance, which is in truth a kind of remembering. We remember something as mistaken, as wrong, as false, and by remembering it in this way we perfect it. In repenting, in altering one's mind the past action, the past self, is completed, corrected, perfected. Here, too, is where the relational aspect of the person comes into its own, as we learn to to exist together, to live together, not only in the present, but in the past as well. By remembering together, by existing together, our perspectives are broadened, our reality is increased and perfected and guaranteed. The self is only really stable, it only really exists, in any time, when it exists with and in relation to others. It is, then, one of the great tasks of the human person as person, in time and space, to transcend time and space in just this way: to enrich and perfect and unify the self, all our selves, together and apart, across time and beyond it. Here, though, is the danger, the crux of the whole matter: that this is a task that is, in essence, beyond the grasp of the human person. We can, really, only affect the present--we are so easily deceived--our perspective is so small--we have so little time in which to live, to act, to remember. We, both as individuals and as a community, are unable to be the means by which past and present are unified, by which the self in all times and places is brought together and perfected. We fall through time, and so we cannot transcend it. God, however, is present in all times and in all places simultaneously, and is himself entirely apart from time. Only God can truly touch the past and the present simultaneously, perceive everything clearly, and affect the self at all points in time. This is why only God can forgive sins: because only God can actually touch the self in both past and present simultaneously, can truly alter the past as it is, not merely as it is remembered. He is the real means, the only conceivable means, by which the human person can be truly unified, truly perfected, truly taken beyond time. If God is real, then, memory, human memory, becomes far less important. This is a lesson I have had to learn--that all our efforts to broaden and purify the past, to overcome it, are, in the end, entirely vain. I lose myself in the past--I am unable to escape it, let alone perfect it. In losing myself in the past, I lose all the opportunities and potentialities of the present. I am deceived, lost in perceptions that are false, the present distorted by the past, and the past by the present. Unity gives way to total fragmentation. I have lived this. Given God, though, there is little to fear. The presence of God in past and present unifies the self, guarantees it. We do not have to labor to remember, for we are remembered--we do not have to labor to see, for we are seen. The reality of the self, in each and every time, comes only through God. Thus, any reality of the self beyond time can only come from, can only be entirely in the power of, God, and not the self. To accept this, to accept this ultimate ignorance, this ultimate powerlessness, is one of the most difficult and important things in life. It is this lesson, primarily, which time teaches us--that we are nothing. All our reality comes from God, and without him we have neither past, nor present, nor future. If we can accept this, though, then we will receive all that we have labored to achieve: truth, reality, eternity. We will receive, in the fullest possible sense, a future: a plane of reality, of possibility, entirely beyond both what has been and what is. Our future within time, along with our present and our past, will be taken up into the future beyond time. This is eschatology; the knowledge of, the desire for, the perfect fulfillment of human existence that can only take place through the transcendence of time. So, for now, we live, as best we can, in the present, learning from the past as best we can. The self, all our selves, interconnected and unified, is kept by God, in all times and beyond time. Such is life.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Immaculate Conception

Today is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception does not merely mean that Our Lady was conceived without sin; it means that from the first moment of her existence, she had within her, as the principle of her every movement and thought and sensation and action, the flame of divine love that found its perfect fulfillment in the Incarnation and Cross of Christ. She was conceived in the divine love, and never allowed herself to be separated from it, following it faithfully all the days of her life.

Free from the egotism of sin, Mary loved more, not less. Hence, her sinlessness does not separate her from us in the slightest; rather, it draws her infinitely closer to us in love, as the most faithful of friends, the most trustworthy of mothers. She was sinless for the sake of sinners, so that she might more perfectly love us in our wretchedness, and more fully share in the outpouring of God's love for us on the Cross.

Standing by the Cross of her son, she alone saw him, and the horror and darkness of sin which he bore, perfectly and truly; and of all his disciples she shared most deeply in the pain of every one of his humiliations and wounds, which he suffered for our sakes.

Therefore, let no one fear to draw near to Mary, let no one believe that his sins have separated him from the Immaculate. The one who was conceived and born and lived her whole life aflame with God's love for sinners will not abandon us in any sin. She who is our Mother will never fail to lead us to her Son, so that by his blood we may be made pure as she is pure, without stain as she is without stain, full of love as she is full of love. Flee to Mary, and you will never be without refuge in all the storms of life.

O Maria concepta sine peccato, ora pro nobis qui ad te confugimus.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reactionary Narratives

The real trouble with most reactionary historical narratives is that they tacitly assume the same kind of inevitable historical processes as the progressive narratives they claim to oppose.

Within such narratives, both past and present events are interpreted according to a hermeneutic not merely of suspicion or fear, but inevitable defeat. The idea, though, that the cosmos and its processes are not just contingently, but inevitably and naturally, aimed at the extinction of all the things you consider good and the promotion of all the things you consider bad is not, in fact, particularly conducive to continuing belief in these principles.

Such narratives frequently produce a siege mentality that is in essence nihilistic, since it is grounded not in a sincere belief in the (necessarily universal) truth of particular principles, or even in the (necessarily limited) duty of opposition to the particular evils of a given society, but rather in a profound insecurity or even despair on both of these counts. Deprived of a clear rational and universal basis for action and identity, merely sectarian and factional dynamics all too easily assume the dominant position: the mere principle of opposition to supposedly dominant and inevitable trends becomes, in fact, the true driving force, and the true end aimed at, by such groups.

Once this point is reached, however, it is no longer possible to set clear limits on the means by which goals may be achieved or evils opposed: and without such limits, the means chosen very often end up sabotaging or even destroying the original goods pursued--if, indeed, the overall goal of increasing and intensifying opposition does not lead people to actively and perversely further the processes they hate, as a means to facilitating further opposition.

The irony by which reactionaries end up frequently embracing the very evils which they opposed, and sacrificing the very goods which they sought, is thus no coincidence at all, but a natural outworking of the terms of much of reactionary discourse.

Note that my point here is not that it is not valid to acknowledge the possibility that the dominant forces of a particular society, time, or place may happen to be working against particular goods or in support of particular evils. Nor am I saying that it is wrong or useless to oppose inevitable historical processes that I do not believe exist or to look to the past for models for society. Bad trends should of course be opposed, no matter how dominant or pervasive in a given time and place; and past societies are one very natural place to turn for guidance on the organization of society and life in the present and future.

The point I *am* making, though, is that ascribing inevitability and universality to historical processes that you oppose is incredibly foolish, dangerous, and destructive, as well as horribly self-defeating, counterproductive, and ultimately self-contradictory.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Reformation Did Not Take Place

The Reformation Did Not Take Place

(With Apologies to Jean Baudrillard)

(Actually, This Should Really be Called 'The Reformation Did Take Place, Mostly, But Not Like You've Probably Heard,' But That's Not As Catchy)

Subtitle: I'm Really Sorry For How Long This Is

Second Subtitle: Really, I Am Sorry. Sorry.

[NB: This is not an academic essay. It's not even really an essay at all. It is, rather, something much more like a sketch of ideas and big-picture narratives for a potential essay, essays, book, or books to be written perhaps one day. I have, as a matter of a fact, read more, including scholarly work, about the Reformation than it might appear from this; but this is very deliberately not an essay with citations and references and sources or anything of the sort. It is, rather, a kind of intellectual synthesis of the things I've read and heard and thought on the topic, a sketch of a particular interpretation of history; or, better yet, the incoherent ramblings of a graduate student with a keyboard and far too much time on his hands. Do not take it as other than such.]

So what is the Reformation, anyway?

From the beginning of the year until now, news articles, television journalists, religious leaders, and Twitter accounts have all assured me that this year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; this event is duly being celebrated or at least commemorated by many people throughout the world.

Yet the great difficulty in commemorating--or writing about--the Reformation is trying to figure out just what people are actually commemorating--and what I'm actually writing about.

Still, those commemorations, and this essay, do in fact exist, for some reason or other. So let's take that as our starting point; 500 years ago, something happened--something important enough that it is still remembered five hundred years later.

This much, at least, we all seem to agree on: five hundred years ago this year, a monk named Martin Luther nailed some theses onto a door--or maybe he didn't, maybe that story's actually apocryphal, but anyway, this guy named Martin Luther clearly did something important; thereafter, lots of things happened, and have continued to happen ever since: Luther's German translation of the New Testament, the Peasant's Revolt, John Calvin writing The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Thirty Years War, the French Revolution, the Great Awakening, the Holocaust, the election of Donald Trump...

Which of these events are to be considered to be either part of or the result of "the Reformation" or Martin Luther's hammer, and how, differs a lot depending on just who you're reading, and when and where and why they're writing.

Still, if you want to write something about the Reformation, you have to come up with something. Stories, narratives, have their own rules; they need to have, among other things, characters, a plot you can follow, and generally some conscious themes as well. If you want to give a narrative of "the Reformation," you need to come up with all these things, somehow.

In some understandings, the Reformation seems to be taken, implicitly or explicitly, as nothing more than a historical period, covering, perhaps, the years from about 1500 until...1600, perhaps? 1800? Certainly, historical periods are very tricky things, constantly created and fought and refought and buried and resurrected and winced over by historians the world over--but they also have a neutrality to them, an objectivity, that can be quite comforting.

Still--if all we're talking about when we say "the Reformation" are the years between 1500 and 1600, we surely don't seem like it. After all--I don't know of too many people celebrating the beginning of Late Antiquity, or the Age of Exploration, these days. The Reformation--in whatever guise--is clearly something more than a particular set of years and whatever happened to take place during them: it is...shall we say, an event? An action?

Still, if the Reformation is an action, we're obliged to ask who did it; and if it is an event, we're going to need to figure out what happened. Certainly, Martin Luther nailing some pieces of paper to a door (if it actually happened) is both a single action, and a discrete historical event: this much is quite clear, which is perhaps why it is this event and action whose 500th anniversary is actually being celebrated this year. But when we say the Reformation, we do not merely mean this one action of Luther's--we do not merely mean all of Luther's actions. We are clearly talking about a whole set of different actions, carried out by innumerable different people and institutions over a very long period of time; actions that somehow add up to a single thing called "the Reformation."

There are, in fact, any number of ways to unify multiple events and actions into a single larger event or narrative--some perfectly reasonable, some not so much. In general, though, events are unified based on some kind of commonality: whether this is a common cause or effect or telos or time period or category. It is this which allows us, say, to talk about the Fall of the Roman Empire as a unified historical event--inasmuch, as say, the Sack of Rome, the deposition of Romulus Augustus by Theodoric, the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, and many other events and actions all shared as a common cause the breakdown of Imperial government in Western Europe, led to similar effects in furthering that breakdown, took place at around the same time, and shared many other similarities in kind and interrelationships as well.

In general, then, I have no problem with the unification of historical events and actions into larger events, narratives, and periods; but I also believe there are clear rational standards for when and where and how this can reasonably be done.

This may seem rather academic, but it is nevertheless important if we are to make sense of the Reformation, both as it actually was and as it has been understood and narrated in the past.

For make no mistake: the very concept of "the Reformation" is, for everyone who uses that term, indelibly marked with the narratives of the past people and institutions and societies who have used that term. When we speak of "the Reformation"--whether we are atheists or Catholics or Zoroastrians or Evangelicals--we are using terms, and thinking of stories, that we have not originated, but received. The fact that we think of the Reformation as a single, unified event to be commemorated--the fact that we see it as beginning with Martin Luther nailing some theses to a door--the fact that we even remember it today, and see it as important--the fact that we call it "the Reformation." These are all legacies of narratives and histories past.

Each one of these narratives made sense on its own terms--that is to say, each one answered the basic questions I have posed above in at least minimally satisfactory way. It explained what the Reformation was, how far it extended, and what commonalities unified its various deeds and happenings into a coherent event. Each one of these narratives also succeeded at least minimally as a narrative: that is, it supplied characters, themes, a plot, and events enough to maintain at least some interest in those who heard or read about it.

Our culture no longer really has such a narrative about the Reformation--indeed, even many of those who belong to groups that once had coherent narratives about the Reformation no longer really buy into them anymore. So we are left, more and more, with confusion.

This essay does not exactly aim at clearing up this confusion--to a great extent, it aims to increase it. Nevertheless, I will, naturally, end up telling some stories, and creating some big narratives, related in some way to "the Reformation" as a cluster of events and actions and concepts; and in doing so, I will be operating on the basis of the questions I have laid out here. I will be aiming always, that is, to clearly lay out on the common ends, categories, causes, or other similarities on the basis of which I am unifying--or separating--historical events.

Again, if all that bores you: I am going to tell some stories.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Faith and the Virgin

Protestants (of whom I formerly was one) entirely misunderstand the Catholic Faith when they do not understand that its truthfulness, its veracity, its reality is not merely something that is demonstrated beforehand in each particular, but rather something that is seen and grasped and known fully only in practice, as a totality.
The Faith is the term of relation between God and man, between God and human beings together and individually; it is only in this relationship that its Sacraments and its dogmas find their meaning. When coming from the outside, especially, one properly has recourse to rational demonstrations of the Faith's basic truthfulness, and of the rational consistency or necessity of various individual doctrines. But once inside, most of what is learned is learned not through abstract demonstration, but through the actual, faithful practice of the Faith. This Faith, once accepted, becomes an object of ever-deepening reflection, and quite practical experience and demonstration. Only thus is it be finally proven as a thing beyond all doubt.
The greatest example of this basic principle is the devotion paid within the Church to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. To Protestants, this is something utterly bewildering, even frightening; which is, all things considered, fairly natural. All the doctrines of the Church concerning the Virgin Mary can be found, indeed, in some form in the Scriptures; but the basic datum of the Catholic Faith concerning Mary--a perception of her as immeasurably precious and worthy of honor, the greatest possible source of help, a participant in a direct and loving maternal relationship with the Church as a whole and the individual believer--is not an abstract proposition found literally in the Bible taken as a simple text: it is an awareness that is gained only through the actual practice of relating to Mary. It is from this relationship, taken in conjunction with Revelation written and unwritten, and NOT from the text of the Scripture taken in isolation, that all the Catholic dogmas about Mary arise.
The Catholic devotion to Mary arose because it is real; that is, it is something which it is in the power of every man, certainly every Christian, to carry out, and so to test for himself. When a man makes this test, he will discover certain things, not as doubtful deductions from a text, but direct and practical certainties of the sort that form the basis of all human lives and all relationships. He will *know* that Mary is good, and loving, and beautiful, and that it is a good thing to show her honor, and to ask her for help. He will *know* that this honor is pleasing to God and to Christ, that through it God gives him graces and blessings and true knowledge of Him. He will find that the more he honors Mary, the closer he draws to her, the more he calls on her for help in his weakness--the more too will he actually find himself loving Christ, praying to him and adoring him with simplicity and trust, knowing him not as an abstraction but as a living human being and a living God. He will find, too, that the more he loves and cherishes Mary for the sake of God, the more he is able to see his neighbor as worthy of honor and of cherishing love, to perceive him with eyes of mercy, and love him with the love of Christ. All of these things will be to him--as they are to me--practical, tested facts of experience. They certainly will be explicated, enhanced, and buttressed by the declared dogmas of the Church concerning Mary, and the words of Scripture where she finds mention; but their certainty and reality will not be based merely on these things.
It is, in fact, from this undying font of devotion that the Church drew the stated facts of her dogmas, and the enjoined precepts of her practices, concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the 5th century, the brilliant Patriarch Nestorius condemned the popular practice of honoring her as the Mother of God--but against Nestorius, in the humble devotion of Christians and the words with which they called upon the Virgin, the Church found the seeds of the most profound and the truest account of the nature of Christ, and, eventually, of human nature itself. This basic pattern is repeated in every age: the wise condemn the devotion of the people for Mary, yet in the end it is from this devotion that there is born the most subtle, the wisest, and the truest ideas of philosophy and theology.
I hope and pray that all of you will, like me, come to know the great goodness and love of Mary, a simple human being like us, created out of nothing, who standing in the room of Nazareth received into her body and soul the ineffable Godhead and gave him her flesh for our salvation, and who standing by the Cross of Christ suffered with him and so became the Mother of all humanity, and of each one of us. It is by her and her human love that God wills to manifest to each one of us his eternal love.
It is a certain truth that Mary loves us and intercedes for us with God; and it is one that each one of us ought to test for ourselves.

A Personal Anecdote

People are endlessly fascinating. If I ever were to write the story of my life, much of it would consist (as does GKC's autobiography) of random anecdotes and descriptions of people I've encountered or spoken to along the way. I value the tiniest amount of genuine personal experience and insight over a thousand terrabytes of scientific data: and a large part of what I've learned about the world I've learned merely from engaging with people.

Today, an experience reminded me of an encounter that made a profound impact on me at the time, and has shaped my thinking in a lot of areas since. It was probably three or four years ago now, during my undergraduate years at a fairly small Evangelical school in the South. It was summer, a blazing, humid, grubby little summer day of the sort that only Alabama at its worst seems to produce. I was on my way home, walking across campus to meet my father, when I saw something I've never been able to forget: a very elderly African-American man, dressed in the uniform of a UPS delivery man, pushing a heavy package on a handcart. What made me stop and turn around, though, was the fact that this old man could barely walk: he was completely disabled, unable to stand on his own, and as I walked easily by, he was using the handcart as a walker, inching his way painfully a footstep at a time, barely moving at all, and sweating profusely in the miserable heat.

The campus was not crowded at this time, but there were people occasionally walking by--young, healthy men and women who could have moved the cart ten times faster than he. Almost all ignored him. I remember vividly a young woman walking by and giving him a kindly, indulgent smile. I am not quite sure what she was smiling about.

Anyway, after a moment or two of thought, I retraced my steps, and offered to help the old man take his package the hundred or so feet to the building he was going to--a journey that would have taken me probably less than a minute. To my surprise, he absolutely refused my offer. It was, he told me, sweating and shaking from the heat and the exertion of his task, against UPS's rules to allow anyone but him to deliver the package, for safety and liability reasons: and if I were to be injured somehow in delivering it, he would get into severe trouble. The odds of me being injured pushing a handcart a hundred feet across pavement were, of course, infinitesimally low; but when I tried to say this, he grew even more strident in his refusals. I, he insisted, had a future. I was here at this university to get an education and make it in the world. If I were to be injured helping "some old black man," he was sure, my parents would be absolutely furious. They wouldn't understand my behavior at all! They paid good money to send me to school so I could get an education and make something of myself. They didn't want me helping "some old black man."

There was very little I could do at that point; but I stayed nearby him, at least, as the scenario grew (to my eyes) ever stranger and more surreal. There I was, a young, healthy man, standing silently while a disabled old man pushing a handcart sweated and shook and insisted, in the very strongest of terms, that no one would either want or allow me to help him. The old man's already snails' pace slowed even further as he continued to talk to me, losing all awareness of time or space, repeating the same phrases over and over again, embellishing them with dismal claims about the nature of society and anecdotes from his life and those of people he knew. I'm afraid I no longer remember most of them. I don't know if he got some kind of enjoyment or catharsis from shouting at me; I hope he did. In any event, I had no intention of leaving him.

So there we went, for about half an hour in the end, covering less ground than I could have in fifteen seconds. The more I listened, the sadder and the more angry I became; not at him, but at the horror of what I was witnessing: an old, disabled man, in a supposedly just and prosperous society, at a Christian university no less, killing himself for the smallest bit of livelihood.

Eventually, he (somehow) reached his destination, and delivered his package. By that time, I had belatedly offered to get him some bottled water at least; and this he had accepted. The administrator whose package it was received him with another kindly, indulgent smile (again a reaction I found puzzling, to say the least) and offered him a temporary rest in the air-conditioned interior. I brought him some bottled water, and at this point, he did thank me, wearily but sincerely. Then he said farewell, and we parted; and I have never seen him since. Possibly he is out there still, struggling to deliver packages.

This experience had a profound impact on me, to say the least; though for the moment I told no one of what had happened. I have rarely talked of it since. Relationships are too important and too mysterious to be publicized wantonly, or turned into anecdotes whose only point is their impact on the one who experiences them; and this old man and I had formed a relationship, no matter how strange, during the half-an-hour in which we sweated outside in the Alabama heat.

Laid out like this, you could make this anecdote about any number of different things. Race, certainly; class, most definitely; a lack of respect for the elderly and the disabled, naturally; not to mention, of course, an economic system and a society that systematically prizes money and convenience over human persons and their needs. But to take a person and his sufferings and make him *about* an issue is to miss the whole point. Really, it's the other way around.

An old man, a person, has suffered for most of his life grave injustice in the midst of great prosperity; and his suffering has been ignored and overlooked by those who could have helped him. That is the point; that is the reality. I don't know--I don't need to know, necessarily--who exactly or what precisely caused that to be: though I believe the most fully fitting term would be "sin." But whatever caused this to happen, whether it be human malice or indifference or culture or racism or economic systems or even the iron laws of fate itself--whatever caused this should be destroyed. That much I am sure of, and always will be.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Relational Realities

Male and female are relation realities. "Personality" is a relational reality. The human person itself is a relational reality.
It is no coincidence that Late Modern Americans have so many grave and profound doubts about the existence of all three. We don't relate directly to things anymore, let alone persons. We relate to images, which are related to other images, which are related to text captions. Our most sacred dogma is the existence of the Absolute Individual Self that consumes and uses and chooses everything for itself without qualification, while being itself subject to or dependent on or in relation to nothing. Our idea of knowledge is "Science," which means the total subjection of a being as "object" to the knowledge and control of this Absolute Self, and the rejection of all aspects of that being not capable of being so controlled and subjected. Every reality that is relational and interdependent has to be rejected inasmuch as it is not capable of such mono-directional subjection, or, in other words, inasmuch as its existence acts inevitably as a limitation on the control and willing of the idealized Absolute Self.
The terms of any relation are mutually interdependent at the very least qua related. Inasmuch as a particular relation is constitutive of the essence of one term, that term is dependent for its existence and coherency on the other term. If both terms are constituted by that relation, neither is capable of being understood or existing apart from the the other.
The classic instance and limit case of this in Christian philosophy was of course the Trinity, where God himself exists as a Trinity of Persons that are (as Aquinas argues) nothing other or more than the relations by which they are constituted: the Person of the Father having no existence apart from his begetting of the Son, the Son existing only as begotten in relation to the Father as begetter, and the Holy Spirit existing only by way of the relationship of Procession from them both.
What makes you a human person, then, is primarily your constitutive relation with the Trinitarian God as the source of all reality, and then secondarily your interdependent and constitutive relations with other human persons, as well as your various relations with all the other creatures of the cosmic order. What makes you a male or female person is in the first place your interdependent and inter-coherent relation with persons of the opposite sex, which primary relation itself impacts in various ways your relations with other creatures and objects of the cosmic order. What makes you a particular person with a particular personality is the irreducible particularity of each of these relationships in your actual concrete existence as opposed to abstract universal form, and all the fine modalities present in each one.
None of these things are "subjective": none of them is manufactured by the individual human mind or society playing tricks on itself. At the same time, none of these things is able to be coherently grasped apart from the various relations that constitute it.
Our modern anti-relational philosophy, indeed, is itself dependent on relational reality; it merely replaces every one of these relations with a single mono-directional relation with an idealized Absolute Self. This Absolute Self is in a sense a twisted, monstrously anthropomorphized and psychologized (and incidentally anti-Trinitarian) vision of the monotheistic God; but in its deepest reality it is rather an idealized limit case of the (powerful, wealthy, characteristically male) human person as knower and controller of the natural world and other persons. Reality as a whole, then, is divided up into various instances or approximations to the relation between absolutely controlling and willing Self and the absolutely controlled and known Object. Systems formed on in reaction to or rejection of this system still base their view of reality on it--as should be massively evident from even a shallow perusal of our current intellectual world.
Inasmuch as we refuse to acknowledge relational reality, we will have no choice but to abolish and dogmatically deny most of reality. The human person, as such, will have to be abolished. This is, more or less, what our society at the moment is working towards.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Philosophy and Matter

One of the most difficult things in philosophy to define and understand seems to me, oddly enough, to be matter. Understanding what it is that makes a thing "material," what exactly "matter" is, and what role it plays in schemes of understanding, is in practice monstrously difficult. If you put together all the different ideas of what matter is or has been in various philosophical systems, it's hard to see how we're even talking about the same thing.
The basic problem of matter is how you can have something left over when something dies or ceases to exist; as well as how something can pass over from one thing to another. Hence, the most basic idea of "matter" is simply material, in the sense of something out of which something else is made; if you make a statue out of marble, that marble remains distinct from the image you make in it, and you can later reuse that same marble to make something else. Yet "matter" in the philosophical sense is the attempt to describe a universal medium for all or at least a large class of objects--one in some way distinct from the regular, intelligible being of that object or, indeed, of that of any of the class of material objects.
The ancients and Medievals were all agreed, more or less, in seeing matter as a source of disorder and unintelligibility in things: whether Plato's material imposing necessity on the demiurge to Aristotle's pure potency receiving act. The basic idea in all these systems is the imposition of intelligible reality onto some more or less unintelligible material that delimits and conditions it. What exactly it does, and why and in what sense it even exists, is complex, and different in different systems. Even here, though, the basic problem is always to explain why this matter even has to exist, both as a means of explanation, and as a part of the cosmos; the other basic question is what relationship precisely it has with intelligible reality. These were all questions the ancients and Medievals were well aware of, and spent a lot of time trying to answer. I'm broadly a Thomist, and find the general Aristotelean-Scholastic account mostly satisfactory; but it still leaves me with a lot of questions, and I would have to study and think a lot more to really answer them. Perhaps I will write more on this topic at some point.
Starting in the modern period, we seem to move to a large-scale view that takes matter somehow both as the source of order, intelligibility, and even existence in things, and also as the realm of external knowledge and control opposed categorically to the mind as controller and knower. This meant that matter was often taken in a purely mathematical sense--to give a "material" account of an object is to give an account of it entirely in terms of quantitative relationships between discrete quality-less objects. By doing so, one exhausts the object entirely--nothing is left over besides subjective elements whose real origin is in the self. Yet if matter is simply mathematical, then it's hard to see what matter actually adds to mathematics; and since mathematics is itself an intelligible discourse of mind, matter as a discrete category opposed to mind ends up being rather slippery, to say the least. Hence, this idea of matter produced not only systems that made everything material, but also idealist systems that eliminated matter entirely.
As this account shows, the roots of this view are highly subjective, in the sense that they take the individual human self and its relationship with the world to be a constitutive element of philosophy. We move, essentially, from a more or less open account of things in themselves--usually with an explicit divine mind as governor or creator--to a view where the human mind itself takes the role formerly held by God, so that objects can be defined largely or entirely by their relation to the idealized individual self. It's not clear to me, in fact, if 'material' in the modern sense often means anything more or less than 'manipulable' or 'capable of systematization and control according to mathematical schema' or even simply 'external to the self.' Otherwise, it's hard to see what exactly 'matter' as a categorical phenomenon is contributing to these schema in terms of philosophical explanation.
Modern science here certainly provides important information; especially since the modern relativistic and quantum revolutions have succeeded in almost completely overturning the older, purely mathematical and deterministic ideas of matter I've talked about. Still, as always, pure science is very confusing, and highly in need of philosophical interpretation. I certainly believe an Aristotelean interpretation of modern physics is possible; and, indeed, such explanations are treated as increasingly attractive and persuasive by modern philosophers of science. Still, the question of how to fit matter in with *any* philosophical scheme remains, I believe, a difficult one.

Progressivism and Justice

There is really a terribly lot to be said for contemporary mainstream progressive culture & politics: that culture which contrives to enfranchise and liberate and equalize endlessly, into the brave future. Above all else, its forthright moralism, dogmatism, and growing embrace of social sanction are bracing and attractive, and a welcome change from the dull consensus liberalism of '90s American politics. It is such clarity, after all, that makes genuine dialog, and a genuine politics, possible. Likewise, its basic political and social instincts, of compassion for minorities and the suffering and a generalized beneficence for all, are positive, and vastly preferable, again, to the ignorance and callousness of older liberal and conservative politics.
The very worst thing, though, that can be said about such culture and such politics is that it is mostly engaged in turning universal human goods into luxuries. There seems to be no human and philosophical background at all; and this means that whatever good it does, it can only ever do to the few, never to the many.
It is hard to fathom the kind of breathless optimism that can move from one favored minority to another, bestowing belatedly on each in turn such goods as "rights," "dignity," "justice," or (heaven help us) "freedom," while continuously anticipating doing the same for other as-yet-undiscovered minorities in the future. Now if these words have any meaning at all, surely such things as "dignity" and "freedom" are simply universal human needs--if not simply universal human possessions. Certainly they are things that belong to, or at least are owed to, the vast mass of humanity. If there is an unlimited set of groups of people out there lacking them, waiting in darkness for society to bestow these goods on them--groups we will never know about until the next turn of the Zeitgeist--this would seem little reason for optimism of any sort. This is in fact, inasmuch as it is taken seriously, a shockingly, monstrously black view of the cosmos; an infinite, nihilistic oroboros of suffering and indignity and incompleteness. Certainly, some people (mostly on the more radical fringes of Right and Left) seem to realize this fact; but the mainstream of American progressive culture and politics chugs merrily along regardless.
This is, of course, not to say that there are not real groups in society that suffer injustice and should be helped; far, far from it. The trouble with mainstream progressives is not that they fight injustice too much, but that they fight it too little; or rather, that they have no genuine concept of justice on the basis of which even to begin, let alone prosecute and conclude, such a fight.
What is missing from all of this, in fact, is any view of the human person as such: what it possesses, what it requires, what it wants, what is good for it, what is bad for it, what it is. Universal philosophy has dropped out, and been replaced, mostly, with class--that is, general impressions and similarities made in people by their experiences of life and material consumption. Such Progressive culture and politics, in fact, is essentially and not accidentally the creation of elite culture; it is born of, and subsists in, this strange, sheltered world of twinned luxury and desperation.
If we had some idea of what a human being is, and what human beings require and possess, we could work, consistently and laboriously, to affirm the latter and ensure the former. If we encountered people lacking basic human goods, with their humanity unacknowledged by themselves or others, we would be rightly horrified and seek to undo this outrage; but our movement would be an urgent and limited defense, based on that which is truly necessary for everyone, not an endless, beneficent gifting by the elite to a few. It is precisely because we lack any such idea that we can, seemingly, conceive of no model of life or justice more substantive than the continual manufacturing of luxuries and their beneficent bestowing on various people and groups according to their and our tastes and desires.
What is most horrifying about contemporary mainstream progressivism, then, is precisely its lack of any sense of proportion. Eternal, necessary human things are set side by side with doubtful novelties; we contrive to give people both what they already have and what they have never conceived of or wanted, and expect to be praised equally for both. In this, all too often, we forget to give them what they desperately need, only to belatedly discover it and throw it in later, as a kind of bonus.
People in our day constantly contrive to suggest that such things as "community," "family," and "meaning" are new goods, recently discovered, whose spontaneous creation and generous bestowal is a matter for surprise and celebration. Things that had been universal possessions of all human beings become, by a kind of magic, luxury goods for a lucky few. Such discourse exists, in fact, precisely because the majority do lack these things, or rather have been robbed of them--but no acknowledgement of this is ever made. The few ruin the homes and lives and livelihoods of the many, and then sell bits of the ruins to their fellow elites, with a tithe given to charity.
This is very much of piece with the kind of political discourse and the kind of culture where "jobs"--i.e. the human possession of the necessities of life and their creation through labor--are treated as gifts generously bestowed by corporations, rich men, and governments on the grateful masses. It is very much of a piece with a consumer class that, in everything, contrives to blur luxury and necessity, human dignity and self-esteem, pleasure and suffering, meaning and meaninglessness: where the Apple iPhone, "healthy food," "self-care," and "human contact" are all available for purchase from the same corporation, and at greatly varying prices.
In truth, all this optimism is only the meaningless grin of the madman. It is built on a refusal to understand reality; a preference for freedom over love.
There is no possibility of this culture and politics ever achieving real solidarity or popularity among the majority of the people--except, indeed, as it manages to extend some kind of effective patronage to the masses. The Servile State of Belloc is the obvious choice here; the people will suffer any amount of indignities, any number of bizarre fads, from their masters, so long as their basic necessities are provide for. But such politics, and such culture, will still only be that of the few. It will still not have anything to do with the genuine common good of the whole society.
If we wish to recover real justice, and the real common good, then, we cannot be satisfied with the mere progressivism of the Zeitgeist, no matter how seemingly compassionate or intelligent it may be. We must dare to think of the permanent things--we must dare to do philosophy. Only on the basis of what is universal and true can we truly accomplish good, even in limited or ambiguous cases. Only if we love what is permanent can we have true progress.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Technology, the Market, and the Good

The governing realities of contemporary life are technology and the market. Increasingly, man knows himself, others, and the world as a whole principally through and in these systems.
That is, one's own self, other persons, the world as a whole, are known and defined first and foremost as technological--that is, as capable of manipulation by and subjugation to the a-rational desires and ideally disembodied willings of the self, known precisely and circularly as the unlimited locus of will and desire. "The market"--conceived of as an idealized system for the unlimited production, increase, and distribution of quantified technological power, as well as the maximally efficient application of this power to all areas of existence--is an outgrowth of the same basic idea.
In a sense, these mindsets are as old as humanity itself; and they are of course capable, to varying degrees, of being moderated and integrated into larger ethical, moral, and cosmic systems. Yet what makes our time in many ways so unique is the purity and breadth of their application to the lives of human beings.
To a very great extent, these systems are taken not merely as means, or even ends--they have, rather, precisely the same force that ideas of nature and being hold in philosophical systems. Commerce and technology are treated not merely as economic, but ontic, realities. This is partly due to a general epistomological and societal breakdown; family, community, philosophical systems, and religion have all collapsed, while technology and commerce have only grown stronger. The former seem, increasingly, distant and hard to believe in; while the power of the latter is obvious, inescapable, and, in many ways, truly defining.
The perception of contemporary man, then, is that everything good (in the most basic sense of "desirable" or "perceived as a proper object of the will") is able to be either directly manipulated or purchased. In this way, objects present themselves to our wills and our minds precisely as objects of subjugation or exchange; and the basic mode of interaction between the self and all things not itself is the assertion of technological power. Of course, inasmuch as the self itself is capable of being externalized, subjugated, and exchanged, it, too, is treated in the same way.
This process, however, is essentially incoherent and self-destructive. In asserting its technological power, the self knows the objects of will and desire only as means to these appetites; in so doing, it negates their actual existence, and truly aims, not at them, but rather at itself. Yet when the actual existence and so goodness of the objects of desire and will are negated, so too are the appetites that aim at them. In willing and desiring in this way, then, the self wills and desires its own nonexistence.
In the truth, the good can only be received; that is, grasped and known as actually existing, as it is in itself. To receive the good, then, a real assimilation of the appetites to their object must take place. The will and desires must be ordered to their object, the real good existing in itself, and not vice versa; only thus are they capable of actually attaining it.
For this to take place, the self must, in a real and proper way, submit itself to the objects of its knowledge; that is, it must come to know and will all things as existing in themselves, prior to and above their existence as objects of its own will or desire. Or rather, the two operations must in a real way become one; each object must be willed precisely in its own real and proper existence and desired in precisely the same way: that is, to use the proper philosophical term, it must be loved. Only in this way can the self come to know anything as good--that is, as a true object of the will and desires. Only thus are the will and desires actually capable of fulfillment, and man himself capable of happiness.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Radical GKC

No modern writer or thinker has more directly impacted my life and my thinking than Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Of course, I am first and last and foremost a Catholic--and this means that I cannot and will not be subject to the narrow limits of any man's ideas, no matter how intelligent, wise, or holy. Still, it is to Chesterton that I owe, humanly speaking, this insight; for he was one of the primary human means by which the saving truths of the Gospel and the Catholic Faith were communicated to me, by the grace of God. Far from the only one--but certainly among the foremost. I call myself a Thomist--but in truth, my thinking is much Chestertonian as Scholastic. I have read a shocking amount of his shockingly large corpus, and continue to draw new spiritual and intellectual truths from it daily.
It is with this in mind, though, that I feel compelled to take a moment to lodge a protest to the use that Chesterton has been put to, and continues to be put to, in the world of modern American Christianity. The general adoption of Chesterton as a luminary of the modern American, ecumenical Christian Right has, to be sure, brought about much good--but it has also seriously deformed the public figure of the man, his thought, and his commitments. We are in great, even terrible danger of losing sight entirely of the real Chesterton--who he was, and what he stood for.
Chesterton was a famously friendly, humorous man, a man whose public enemies were also his private friends--so that, even in his lifetime, there was a general tendency to take him, as it were, as a light, rather foolish figure: a great fat man whose only message was the essential goodness of the universe and the importance of Christian tradition. This much, of course, is certainly true. The modern conservative vision of Chesterton, though, has if anything delivered a far more unforgiveable insult--turning Chesterton into a mere proponent of generic "common sense," an intellectual apologist for whatever variety of Christianity happens to suit one's fancy, a defender of the settled homes and lives of the American middle class. It was in this context that I first encountered Chesterton--and for that I am naturally grateful. Still, if this friendly, inoffensive Chesterton pleases us, it delivers an unforgiveable insult to the man himself.
Who was Chesterton? He was, from first to last, a political and social and religious radical, with enormous sympathies with revolutionaries of every sort. He was also, from first to last, a proponent of the essentially radical, revolutionary, and totalizing aspects of philosophy and religion.
Of course, the main thing that is usually forgotten about Chesterton is the simple fact that he was a journalist--and hence, first and foremost, a commentator on current events, and the social and political trends underlying them. In this, he was hardly ever anything but a rabble-rouser; a man who was not well understood by his contemporaries, not because he was too light and frivolous, but because he was too serious and direct.
The beginning of Chesterton's career as a public intellectual was the Boer War--in which Chesterton played the immensely unpopular role of radical anti-Imperialist agitator. This colonial war, fought for reasons of Imperial policy and economic interests, was immensely, indeed universally popular in England--and, for Chesterton, the object of a thoroughgoing and utterly uncompromising hatred. Chesterton first made a name for himself, not as a proponent of common sense and good fun, but as a young firebrand prone to attending Jingo rallies in order to shout taunts at their participants. His first public notoriety came from the fact that he had the nerve to oppose the British Empire at the very height of its success and universal popularity.
A brief quotation from one of poems gives his own view of this war, and its effect on his life, quite well:
"For so they conquered, and so we scattered,
When the Devil rode, and his dogs smelt Gold;
And the peace of a harmless folk was shattered,
When I was twenty and odd years old;
When the mongrel men the Market classes
Had slimy hands upon England's rod,
And sword in hand, upon Afric's passes,
Her last Republic cried to God."
In his Autobiography, Chesterton says that the Boer War was one of the turning points of his life--for when he realized he hated this war, hated it as he had never hated anything in his life, he was pushed to ask *why* he hated it, to unravel the strands of this most colonial and economic of wars, and develop further his own political and social philosophies. What he realized, gradually, is that what he hated about this war was simply what he hated about his entire society--its capitalism, its industrialism, its racialized Nationalism, its Imperialism, its expansive belief in progress, its lack of belief in God.
Already before this time, Chesterton had had his major spiritual and philosophical crisis, which resulted in his lifelong belief in the essential goodness of creation, and the constant necessity of humble, grateful appreciation of the world, oneself, and one's neighbor. Yet even this crisis was not purely individual; it was, in truth, a very direct intellectual battle with the prevailing philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, and a social and religious battle with the decadence of the fin de siecle. Chesterton's declarations of the goodness of things were very far from cries of placidity; they were, once again, cries of revolt. Throughout his life, indeed, Chesterton pursued his enemies on the philosophical field with as much aplomb as any Crusader.
This essential belief in the goodness of things, though, was far from a mere placid optimism--it was a belief found in battle, and founded, as Chesterton was later to say, not on the maximum of goodness, but on its purest minimum. It was also, in Chesterton's belief, the necessary precondition for any real revolution, reform, or progress. If the world was a disappointing, despairing waste, then nothing could be done but passively accept things as they were; but if God and being were, essentially, good, if man were, essentially, precious and miraculous--then this was a recipe, not for placidity, but revolution. If a precious nation were being absorbed by an Empire, it must be defended; if a precious family was being torn apart by divorce or sin, it must be saved; if a precious man were being crushed or starved by industrialism, he must be rescued. There was no time to waste.
The combination of these ideas can be seen at their purest, perhaps, in Chesterton's first novel, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill," written, by Chesterton's admission, in direct response to the events of the Boer War. This strange little parable, then, is from first to last concerned equally with the radical preciousness of existence--and an equally fiery anti-Imperialism.
A quotation from this novel--which is in most respects impossible to describe--will illustrate this well enough. In an early chapter, our main English characters encounter the exiled President of Nicarauga, whose nation has just been conquered by an assemblage of Imperalist powers (England, Germany, and America), who want to open Nicarauga to international commerce. A dialogue ensues:
" 'You need not hesitate in speaking to me,' he said. 'I am quite fully aware that the whole tendency of the world of to-day is against Nicaragua and against me. I shall not consider it any diminution of your evident courtesy if you say what you think of the misfortunes that have laid my republic in ruins.'
Barker looked immeasurably relieved and gratified.
'You are most generous, President,' he said, with some hesitation over the title, 'and I will take advantage of your generosity to express the doubts which, I must confess, we moderns have about such things as—er—the Nicaraguan independence.'
'So your sympathies are,' said Del Fuego, quite calmly, 'with the big nation which—'
'Pardon me, pardon me, President,' said Barker, warmly; 'my sympathies are with no nation. You misunderstand, I think, the modern intellect. We do not disapprove of the fire and extravagance of such commonwealths as yours only to become more extravagant on a larger scale. We do not condemn Nicaragua because we think Britain ought to be more Nicaraguan. We do not discourage small nationalities because we wish large nationalities to have all their smallness, all their uniformity of outlook, all their exaggeration of spirit. If I differ with the greatest respect from your Nicaraguan enthusiasm, it is not because a nation or ten nations were against you; it is because civilization was against you. We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples—'
'The Sẽnor will forgive me,' said the President. 'May I ask the Sẽnor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?'
'I never catch a wild horse,' replied Barker, with dignity.
'Precisely,' said the other; 'and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism. When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people. If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, "This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him." You say your civilization will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? I recur to the example I gave. In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses—by lassoing the fore-feet—which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilized.'
'Something, perhaps,' replied Barker, 'but that something a mere barbarian dexterity. I do not know that I could chip flints as well as a primeval man, but I know that civilization can make these knives which are better, and I trust to civilization.'
'You have good authority,' answered the Nicaraguan. 'Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?' "
One of the chief morals of the novel, in fact, is precisely this anti-Imperialist and anti-Colonialist doctrine: because existence is precious, because each person and each people are precious, the mere brute dominance or absorption of many peoples by one is a shocking, revolting crime.
Of course, all this was to lead, in short order, to Chesterton's belief in Christianity--but even here (especially here!), his commitment was far from an light and easy matter. For, from first to last, Chesterton's commitment was not just to Christianity in the abstract, but to the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church. Here some clarification is in order. Chesterton did not, in fact, convert to the Catholic Church for some decades: however, even during his time as an Anglican, he considered himself, as many Anglo-Catholics do, not an Anglican, but a Catholic. Even here, though, as he was later to say, he differed substantially from even most Anglo-Catholics; for while they were and are often interested in somehow "Catholicizing" the Church of England, he was interested only in finding and belonging to the Catholic Church. When he came to believe that the Anglo-Catholics were not, in fact, Catholics, he converted to the fullness of the Faith that he had already professed.
This is a somewhat longwinded way of saying that, once again, Chesterton's commitments were far from merely conservative--they were, indeed, revolutionary. Chesterton believed in Catholicism precisely as "the one fighting form of Christianity," the Church on earth tasked with shaping and informing every aspect of society with justice and divine truth. His idea of religion was not merely private or personal, but radically public, social, and even political: "A man can no more have a private religion than he can have a private Sun and Moon."
In this, he was doubly a rebel in an anti-Catholic England where Catholics, especially Catholic converts, were still viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Far from rejecting that controversy, though, Chesterton embraced it; and in his examination of history, he came more and more to see the roots of all the evils he had opposed in the rejection, first by Protestantism, and later by secular commercialism, of the great truths of the Catholic Faith. In Catholicism, too, he found a true justification for the essential goodness and preciousness of existence--a true Internationalism without Imperialism--a social teaching capable of giving true justice to the nations--and most importantly, of course, humility, repentance, the forgiveness of sins, and the reality of divine love.
All of this was, of course, to fundamentally shape his work over the course of his life--first and foremost, of course, his journalistic work, commentating, day in and day out, on the events of his time, engaging in public controversy, giving lectures, and fighting day in and day out for what he held to be the truth.
In this regard, mention should be made of what was perhaps the great work of his life, which defined and indeed consumed its last decades, taking up most of his time and enormous amounts of his own money: the founding and running of his own weekly paper, GK's Weekly, and the concurrent founding and promotion of the Distributist League. These were closely allied tasks.
For this, too, was one of the main things for which Chesterton, at every stage of his life, stood: the complete destruction and dissolution of industrial capitalism. At first, this took the form of the rather conventional Fabian socialism of his time--but rapidly, under the influence of his friend Hilaire Belloc, Pope Leo XIII, and the great Father Vincent McNabb, this anti-capitalism was sharpened and defined into the positive cause of Distributism. This was, certainly, a radical enough cause: the massive division and redistribution of the means of production from the rich to the masses. It was this, more than anything else, that consumed his energies in his last years.
As for the industrial capitalist order itself, Chesterton had nothing but contempt for it--in his view, it was was chiefly responsible for the godless Imperialism of his lifetime, the bitter oppression of the poor by the rich, the growth of promiscuity and sexual immorality, and the destruction of the chief institution of human society: the family. In one of his weekly columns, he bitterly complained that even the godless tyranny of Soviet Communism seemed preferable, for him, to slowly watching human society dissolved and corrupted by the triumphant forces of unbridled greed, lust, and pride.
When Naziism arrived on the scene, in the last years of his life, Chesterton saw it as the culmination of all that he had come to hate in his lifetime, and in his own society: the racial Imperialism of the Boer Wars, the anti-Catholicism of No Popery, the regimentation and impersonality of industrial society. In Nazi racism, especially, Chesterton saw a truly spiritual threat: racism was nothing other than the deification of pride, the complete rejection of the humble gratitude for life that he had come to believe in as a young man. Here there was no room for compromise: war with the Nazis, he argued again and again, was simply an inevitability. This was indeed to come, though he was not to be alive to see it.
For most of his life, then, Chesterton was something of a rejected prophet; his beliefs and causes regarded as backwards trifles, even if he himself was still appreciated as a humorous and beloved character of public life.
When Chesterton died, in 1936, the world was very far from embracing his ideals or his commitments; nor is it now. Still, his Distributism did find many converts in his day, including, most notably, the great and saintly Dorothy Day. In the end, these ideas, and those of the Papal Social Teaching on which they were based, did play an important role in shaping the post-War world. Of course, this world was to be shaped even more by the economic and cultural dominance of America--and here, Chesterton was far less enthusiastic. In his last years, seeing this dominance start to shape itself, Chesterton commented that, while he still despised all Imperialism, he certainly preferred an Imperialism like that of England's, founded on courage in arms, to an Imperialism such as America's, founded on economic dominance of the world.
Still, in the end, Chesterton was not a cause, but a man; and what he believed in, most of all, was not his own ideas or causes, but rather the Catholic Church herself. When he died, it was with the same faith in the essential goodness of God, and the preciousness of the world, that he had had from the beginning; a faith supported, and increased beyond all measure, by the Cross of Christ.
Among his last words were the repeated injunction: "The matter is now clear; it is between light and darkness, and everyone must choose his side." This, more than anything else, is what Chesterton stood for; and this is very far from easy comfort.
All of this is, of course, only a tiny sliver of the thought of a great man whose mind was infinitely larger than his body. It does, though, pick out in relief details that are often, in our day and age, overlooked and forgotten.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Internet and Its Discontents

One of the more interesting things about the Internet is that, being a totally abstract plane composed of symbols, images, and other abstractions, it allows ideas, their consequences, and their effects on people and society to be seen quite clearly.
Technology as such is nothing other the reification and externalization of the human will, which itself acts based on the ideas contained in the human mind. Technology, then, always creates systems that are to some extent rational in nature; and as such these systems necessarily shape all those who, as rational beings, make use of them or exist in the environments they create.
The Internet takes this basic principle to a heretofore unseen level. The digital frameworks into which people pour themselves are human artifacts composed of abstractions. The digital identities into which people invest themselves are human artifacts composed of images, symbols, and abstractions. There are no concrete natural substances at all on the Internet; only universalized abstractions. The man who interacts with the Internet takes his place in a vast system of ideas--and he cannot help but be shaped by it.
Most of the characteristic social and political realities of our historical moment are the direct result of the Internet as a shaper of society and personality alike. The identities and frameworks and images and ideas that people imbibe and are shaped by on the Internet have come to profoundly affect and even define them--and so increasingly, whenever people act in the political and social spheres, they act out of those identities and based on these ideas and images.
The modern 'alt-right' is only the most obviously pathological form of this phenomenon; it is far from the only one.
This is not, of course, in itself a negative thing. Human beings are rational creatures, and abstractions and systems are to an extent necessary if people are to find the truth, grasp it, and learn to live it out. Yet symbols and images are, by their very nature, infinitely interpretable and so infinitely deceptive; and even more decisively, a world composed solely of abstractions cannot contain those things of which the world is actually composed: that is, concrete particular substances, including those rational, relational substances known as persons.
Hence it is that people trained in the Internet as it exists now naturally, as a matter of course, ignore and elide natural realities and concrete particulars in favor of symbols, images, and other abstractions; and they likewise learn, in varying degrees, to ignore, instrumentalize, and be indifferent to the actual concrete existence of persons, including themselves.
Even so, it is in fact possible to create technological systems, as well as systems of ideas and abstractions, that communicate truth, goodness, and beauty--systems that mediate and embody and make known the concrete existence of persons, the world, and God. This basic principle is the basis of the sacramental economy of Catholicism--as well as essentially all cultural and artistic production, of whatever sort.
The problem, then, is not so much the existence of abstraction as (1) the relationship of abstraction to reality, and (2) the particular ideas reflected in our systems. It is not merely that the Internet is abstract, but that, as it exists now, it relates to concrete realities in certain ways, and embodies certain ideas; and so causes great harm.
If we are unsatisfied with our society and its politics, we would do well to look to the Internet; if we are unsatisfied with the Internet as it now exists, we would do well to look to the ideas, the philosophical and moral conceptions, that it is shaped by and shapes. If our ideas, embodied in the Internet, torment and destroy people, make their lives a living Hell, and plunge them into falsehood and shame and hatred--then there is something wrong, not just with the Internet, but with our ideas, and ourselves.
If we wish to actually save our society and ourselves, there is no other option but sincere repentance founded on the examination of conscience. To examine our conscience, as individual persons and as a society, requires a recognition of the systems we have built and lived in, what ideas they embody, and the relationship of these ideas to the concrete reality of other persons, the world, and God.
Let us pray that God will give us all the ability to do this, soon--for all our sakes.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Manicheanism, Good and Evil, and the Sorrow of Christ

The Manichean is the person who believes that evil can and ought to be be entirely externalized: that it is a separate substance from the good, capable of being isolated, identified in its purity, and removed. Yes, the Manichean may truly believe that this evil exists within himself as well--in the same way, say, that there may happen to be some sand or granite mixed in with the cup of water he's drinking. Still, the water can be boiled, and these bits of external matter removed. Maybe this evil is very widespread indeed, mixed in so much that it comes to form the very substance of people or places or societies, so that there is, in the end, no real hope of separating them without destroying the things infected. Very well, then; societies and people and objects are all capable of being destroyed if necessary. The situation may be very dire indeed; but when all is said and done, the *solution* is quite clear: find the evil, isolate it, separate it from the good, cast it away, and be done.
If we treat evil in this way--and, I believe, pretty much everyone in our society does--then this will define and circumscribe all our responses to it.
To begin with, we will strive to become very sensitive to evil: its taste, its smell, its touch. We will expend great efforts trying to isolate evil in its chemical purity, to figure it out, what it is, what makes it tick. The more we do this, the more we will find ourselves in a constant state of *annoyance*: aha, I have detected it! I have smelt it, I have tasted it, I have sensed its presence. This annoyance will give way easily to rage: whenever and wherever we find it, we will want to point out this evil to others, to crush it, smash it, excise it. This rage is, in a sense, unbounded; there is no natural limit to it at all, since in its essence it aims at nothing less than the complete removal and annihilation of the evil inasmuch as it is perceived. In any event, our task is clear: we will exercise all our powers to find evil, and then to see it mocked, hated, despised, rejected, and denied--until the victory is won, and the substance of the good remains alone, as it ought to be.
Either this, or--if it ever seems that this victory is impossible--nothing remains for the Manichean but utter despair.
This is not how the Christian views evil, nor can he ever react to it in this way. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, Manicheanism and other dualistic systems are essentially the opposite of Christianity. This is quite right and proper, for Christianity has always viewed evil in a completely different light, and defined it in completely different terms, than the dualist.
For the Christian, evil strictly speaking does not exist. The definition of evil, according to the Catholic tradition, is simply a privation of being. Evil, in other words, is nothing other the absence of what ought to be there.
There is, for the Christian, only one unlimited and eternal Being--and from this arises a cosmos of limited, partial beings, existing in harmony under the governance of their sole Cause and End. Each limited being has a nature, a partial and participatory being, and an end at which it aims. Each being is, inasmuch as it exists, operates according to its nature, and achieves its end, necessarily good and true and beautiful--for by these things, it participates in the goodness and beauty and perfection of the first and undiminished Being from which it comes.
Evil, then, is not a substance alienable from the good: it is rather the reality of the failure of creatures to participate in the Good as they ought to.
Evil then, is nothing other than a diminishment of what should exist; the failure to gain something beautiful, good, and true that is aimed at: that is, a tragedy. Evil is a wound in the living body of the cosmos governed by Eternal Goodness.
For the Christian, then, evil can never simply a matter of *annoyance*: nor can it be a matter of limitless rage: and least of all can it ever be a matter of final despair. Rather, as the Christian tradition shows, evil can only really be dealt with in two ways, exemplified by the life and works of Christ our God.
In the first places, one can react to the presence of evil with *anger*; that is, with a limited drive to action to correct and chastise and set right. The rightly angry person is not seeking to isolate and annihilate evil, as though it had any existence of its own: he is seeking rather to find where a particular creature or system of creatures has gone wrong, and then work to correct it so that it will exist and operate as it should--and to do this, of course, he will first have to understand and appreciate that creature's existence, its nature, its aims, and its place in the cosmos governed by God. Thus, Christ casts the money-lenders out of the temple, so that the House of God will be as he knows it should be: he teaches on the Mount, so that men will live as he knows they should be. Yes, he preaches at the same time the real possibility of eternal damnation--that is, final and permanent exclusion from the vision of God. But for the Catholic, not even the damned are entirely annihilated; not even the damned are entirely separated from God. They still exist, dependent on his Being, and serve his Will, and his Justice.
Yet anger is not, and cannot be, the principal way with which Christians respond to evil; for it is not the principal way with which Christ responded to it. For all evil, inasmuch as it represents a diminishment, a loss, of what is aimed at and desired, by each creature and the cosmos itself and God, represents first and foremost a tragedy: that is, something for which the correct response is sorrow. Christ truly defeated evil, after all, not in the Cleansing of the Temple, but on the Cross. It is here that he willingly bore and took into himself all the evil of men and of the cosmos--and suffered it. In the Catholic tradition, it is dogmatically maintained that Christ suffered on the Cross for all men, including even the damned: and in many Catholic mystical texts and visions, Christ is shown as suffering and mourning even for the eternal loss of the damned, whom he has loved and desired. Christ mourns and suffers, for those whom he willed to be with him forever are forever lost.
For the Christian, the response of God to the evil of the world is the Paschal Mystery, the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. The love of God responds to evil by mourning for it, and suffering it, so that what has gone wrong may be set right, so that what has been been lost may be restored, and even increased: so as to bring all things and all persons to the Source of their Being, and unite them to it forever in love. The Good is never alone.
When the Christian looks out at the world, then, when he perceives evil in it, in his neighbor and himself, he does not perceive a Manichean substance to isolate in its purity, root out, and cast away. He perceives rather the violation, the diminishment, the loss of that which is good, true, beautiful, fair and desirable, and most precious: human souls, for whom Christ died. And like Christ, his deepest, truest response must always be one of sorrow. Often, yes, anger is called for, to defend the good, to prevent its utter ruination, to set things right: but always, in his heart there must be the same love, and the same sorrow, that dwells in the heart of Christ--as well as the joy that comes only by the Resurrection. In this is our hope, and in nothing else: Christus mortuus resurrexit.
The Manichean, then, defeats evil by casting it away from himself, and rejoicing: the Christian defeats evil by taking it into himself, and suffering. This is the greatest divide there is, or could be.
God help us.