You can access a print-friendly copy of this essay using the green button at left.
Table of Contents
- After Liberalism Failed
- Tankies and Tocquevillians
- The Critic’s Critics
- The Ways of Judgment
- Political Animals
- Comedies and Common Goods
- Slave State Liberalism
- Wolves to Men
- City of Dads
- The White Rose
- Third Sailing
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
The Rock, 1934
The central line is the line we hear quoted. It’s a line of critique, a line that diagnoses what many of us recognize as the relentlessly empty heart of liberalism, and the idea in that line was central to the critique of liberalism which Patrick Deneen laid out in his recent Why Liberalism Failed.
The two lines that follow are almost never quoted. They are not lines of critique. They are the solution.
Two weeks ago, in an auditorium at the Catholic University of America, a couple of hundred yards from the Basilica of the National Shrine, Deneen delivered a much-anticipated talk: the annual First Things D.C. lecture. Titled “Aristopopulism: A Political Proposal for America,” it was a vision for the common good founded on solidarity between the elites and the people, a vision which called for the elites to embrace their status but get a whole lot better at it, to accept responsibility and become true aristoi; and for the populace to itself become virtuous.
So far, so Thomist. I mean, yes, shocking, if one is inclined to be shocked: it accepts the continued existence of the populus and the aristoi, the greater and lesser. It was not levelling, although crucially, it advocated at least some mobility, a healthy mixing of the two, and an enlarged and empowered middling sort.
That mixing, that rejection of a morlocks-and-eloi vision of society, is not incidental, not some kind of sop to democratic sensibilities. It is central. Deneen’s project is, and has consistently been, to remind us of the prescription of the political tradition: the danger occurs when the populus and aristoi are too far apart, when they are camps; this “coming apart” inevitably accompanies a loss of virtue, civic and otherwise, by both camps, but especially perhaps by those who can least afford its loss, because they have nothing else: nothing to fall back on but the family and communal ties that we used to think were the automatic inheritance of the American populus, the “salt of the earth,” who unlike the decadent coastal elites upheld older standards of chastity and filial piety.
But that’s all over now. That loss, the utter chaos of the American populus and their abandonment by the American aristoi, is what First Things editor R.R. Reno has been primarily concerned with for the last several years; it’s a concern Deneen shares. Lose virtue, and the center cannot hold: the poor become meth addicts who hate the “elites” and watch YouTube videos about chemtrails; the rich become Davos men and savor their contempt for the masses, with that very contempt becoming a mark of their own status, while also (in our case, at least; this is what makes our case uniquely pathological) identifying them with “the oppressors.”
This deserves further discussion. Ultimately our present day elites believe themselves to have inherited the task of 1789– or, better, the mantle of the Friends of the ABC, the progressive revolutionary leaders of the tres jours glorieuses of 1830; they believe their enemies, the “deplorables,” to somehow be the heirs to the aristocrats, or at least the bourgeois, because like (really?) the Bourbons and the bourgeois functionaries of the Bourbon regime, the white underclass are religious and social conservatives. Or something.
Put this way it is a very, very, very stupid vision, and Deneen filleted it. I’ll tell you, it was a hell of a talk.
The controversy came in his prescription: that the elites, the Davos men, must be disciplined by the political action of a resurgent populace, perhaps our own Gilets Jaunes; that this action must be willing to at least threaten something more than passive resistance; that only a decision to do this will make a difference. No invisible hand will guide the process, if by that one means a mechanistic, non-providential natural process. The hand that will direct it will be visible, and it may well, said Deneen in the Q&A, be “the back of the hand.”
Everything, it seemed, was on the table.
A friend wrote to me afterwards. What, precisely, has our friend called for? How can revolutionary violence lead to good? Can such violence be guided, channeled; can the anger of populist revolt be righteous anger? If it is unrighteous, can righteousness come from it, if perhaps it is guided, a primal force channeled to the good?
I know the gutter, and I know the stink of the street
Kicked like a dog, I have spat out the bile of defeat
All you beauties who towered above me
You who gave you the smack of your rod
Now I give you the gutter
I give you the judgement of God
“Madame Guillotine”, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1997
Music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Nan Knighton
A show-stopper, yes, but is it a legitimate political program for an auditorium full of CUA professors, Austro-Hungarian Empire restorationists who are ready to rise to the occasion the moment that Eduard Habsburg calls for it in that one glorious long-awaited tweet, Burke-and-Kirk university press publishers, GOP Hill staffers who would have voted for Bernie if he had been pro-life, ex-libertarian oppo-research urchins, restorationists still in mourning for the Vendée, Weird Catholic Twitter notorieties, and merely Christian magazine editors?
It was a spicy shot to swallow. Those who have, in the past, thought that they could steer such rage towards virtue-republican ends, their reins on the neck of that spirited horse, have been consistently wrong, their own necks forfeit.
Perhaps not impossible, especially if the anger is anger at what is truly wrong. But it would be quite the trick.
Or was what he meant simply that good men and women– of the people and of the elite– must guide “the people,” in their power as the majority, to politically threaten the Davos men enough that they take a long hard look at themselves, and get it together? Can things like Brexit and Trumpism, and their non-Anglo equivalents, get this job done, such that each nation ends up in solidarity with itself again, once more in a real polity?
I think that is, mostly, what he meant. Deneen’s end game is good: a polity constituted around a true political common good, justice as giving to each his due and a shared love of the polity, of “us,” of this project of civic friendship and living together. This project of community is underscored by a universal regard for each person as inherently valuable, and owed love, with fundamental solidarity between all people.
He would not pretend that there ever had been a moment of this perfect solidarity in American history– during, say, the 1830s, it existed on the backs of slaves. But there seems to be a possible vision for this American good, this American polity, shed of slavery but without falling into the pockets of capital, and without the rejection of sexual virtue inherent in today’s progressivism.
It’s not the sacramental kingdom of Louis IX. Deneen is an American, and the country that we find ourselves in is not a Catholic country, and so the “we” whom we love includes and must include Jews, Protestants, Muslims, agnostics, atheists. But it is a natural-law republic, perhaps even esoterically Christian, built far better than Thomas Jefferson knew, with something like the Stoic or Platonic Good as an OK-ish disguise for Christ. In that sense, his vision of the American political common good is something like basic 1990’s Catholic-Straussian First Things, and there are worse things. Many, many worse things. Many.
It rejects some current expressions of liberalism, where the only given, the only thing that is central, is the democratic process and peace, with peace considered primarily as not punching someone in the face because he is an Arian. (One might call this anti-Santa liberalism.) (Constantine as avatar of liberalism because he put St. Nicholas in jail is my worst take of this piece; don’t worry, it gets better from here.)
Deneen is at his core a virtue-Tocquevillian, a civic republican of the first water, who for that reason is uneasy with centralized power. Centralized power is what men turn to when they feel shut out of real politics, when they are isolated. The solution is to refuse to be privatized, and instead to focus on smaller, more local versions of the public sphere: the little platoons which allow real political participation and which overcome isolation. He also radically prefers (and should not you, too, prefer it, reader?) persuasion to force.
Madison is grappling with the fact that not every issue can be settled by committee.
“The Room Where it Happens,” Hamilton, 2015
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
The eighteenth century civic republican temperament wants every issue to be resolved by coffeehouse conversation; the Thomistic civic republican temperament wants every issue to be settled by the coffeehouse conversation of us dependent rational animals, with the help of the Holy Spirit. I get this temperament; it is partly (though only partly) my own. And that is one root of politics: civic friendship, with the common good, the just and orderly regime of our common lives, as the magnet that draws us together. That friendship, and the development of virtues in the little platoons, in the families and churches, in the Grange societies and PTA meetings across a variety of American communities, was Deneen’s political prescription at the end of Why Liberalism Failed.
But Deneen got a lot of grief for that, from a number of directions. I’ll look at two of these directions. The first direction was the pure distilled 80-proof integralists, like Pater Edmund Waldstein at The Josias, who point out to him several things:
First, he is not actually willing to say that the government should say that Christ is King, and that to deny this is inherently to base a nation on injustice, because giving Christ his due is a matter of justice, as justice is giving to each man his due.
All kings of the earth will one day bow to Christ as king, the integralists point out, and every day they put this off is a day too long, and that to pretend that it is somehow OK, or a workable real peace, for your ruler to not publicly acknowledge that Christ is his ruler, is silly. There is no peace without justice, and there is no peace without a common love of the Prince of Peace. There is at best detente.
This is of course a matter of the supernatural common good, not the natural, but for a Christian, for a society that is built on Christianity in some sense, one can’t really pretend that one can have a natural political common good in a sort of innocent-pagan way which neglects the Kingship of Christ.
Second, he is not willing to say that it is appropriate for the government to publicly acknowledge and favor in its laws the Catholic Church as the Church which Christ founded, to be the channel of his life to the world. Again, it is worse for us than it was for the Greeks if we do not do so, by their reckoning. Every baptized Christian is the just subject of the Pope, and even for those who are not baptized, they’re shipmates in a society which rides on on the waters of baptism which flowed from Rome. You can’t undo the baptism of Europe.
Third, in proposing, as a solution to disagreements over the nature of the good, a sort of national American Kuyperianism, with different communities embodying different “thicker” conceptions of the good, he’s basically reinvented liberalism.
And finally, not every virtue can be developed in a PTA meeting. In particular, the virtue of magnanimity can only be developed in the City: Minas Tirith, Istan Polis, Caput Mundi.
The second strand of criticism of Deneen (and a bit of the first, too, especially the final point) was primarily articulated by Adrian Vermeule.
Carl Schmitt is to Dr. Vermeule what Tocqueville is to Dr. Deneen: that thinker who persists in and through each man’s Christianity, even each man’s essential Thomism; a persistent interlocutor.
Vermeule is not quite a normal integralist. He is not, let us say, your father’s integralist. And it was his criticism rather than Pater Edmund’s to which Deneen responded most specifically on Thursday.
Carl Schmitt wants to remind us that the peace of civic friendship and of mutual recognition and of philosophical contemplation and of busy exchange, and especially of the operation of legal norms– the peace of the coffeehouse conversation, of hierarchically ordered families, of courts of justice; the peace of the City– has, in reality, come at a price, and it may need once again to be bought at a price, and that that price is the establishment of rule by violence. And that that violence– that moment of exception, that moment when someone is willing to bring order, is the moment in which we see the face of sovereignty.
That is real, say the Schmittians. Without sovereignty, there is no order in which we can contemplate what law ought to be, in which we can count on the functioning of the courts, in which we can persuade each other. And to bring this order, one must be willing to kill. And to pretend that this moment never comes– never has come, and never will come– is the (in their view) not-quite-political existence of the Tocquevillians, of those who retreat to smaller incomplete communities, who (the accusation goes) can speak prophetically to power but who are never willing to take it.
And Deneen was responding to precisely this critique. One can read Schmitt to say exactly that one may use Machiavellian means for Aristotelian ends: unjust means, even, or… better… means before justice. The moment before any order is established is an inherently agonistic moment. You might, in that moment, use the populace as a weapon; you might use the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to pave the way for that decade of factory jobs and social solidarity and the youth of the Boomers.
One might say that Schmitt just hitched his wagon to the wrong Machiavellians. And of course everyone does, with no caviling, say this.
I do not think that picking better Machiavellians is the way to go.
High where the valley’s edge gave a line to the
Old road that bore Rome’s rulers and warriors
Along the wild hill-spine, and steered them
Down to the plains and the ways of judgment
There flows a stream now…
From “Buckle Street,” 2003
Is there a way to conceive of the exercise of power that grapples with the reality of the political, which does not count on debate societies as the origins of all order, but which rejects a Machiavellian account of politics?
Of those men whose work is the work of retrieval, of memory, and the application of what they find to the moment of decision, Oliver O’Donovan is, I think, the one who most directly addresses the question raised by Deneen’s critics.
He’s not really saying anything new. He, like so many others, is reminding us of what the tradition taught. One may– and if one is a ruler, one must– use the sword. Not every issue can be settled by committee. There will be men who are wolves to men, and if one is a ruler, it is neglectful to fail to protect. And more than protect: to be a picture– imperfect, and subordinate, but real– of God’s own political rule.
In The Ways of Judgment, his 2003 book edited from that year’s Bampton Lectures, O’Donovan warns of several deadly “horizons of de-politicization, on which political authority simply disappears.” One of these, he writes, “lies where the claim of injured right is systematically ignored by those holding power… they ignore the tasks of right.” Think of corrupt authorities, bribed judges, police who look the other way when a police officer is the one beating his wife; or the systematic legally encouraged or un-punished ill-treatment of scapegoat groups within a society.
Such a society may be ordered, with order established by one who rose to the occasion of the moment of decision; the courts may – technically, procedurally – function. But there is no sovereignty without justice, but only a parody of it: God’s own sovereignty is not voluntarist, but flows from His justice, His goodness. Indeed, in him these qualities are literally inseparable, because, being simple, he has no accidents: all his “qualities” are packed together in who He is and what he does: he, too, “deals out that being indoors each one dwells/Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells/Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”
Another horizon on which political authority disappears is precisely a lack of power to protect or to carry out judgements. If power without right has no political authority– if an unjust king is no better than a pirate– then right without power is also not properly political. “If a representative agency has no power to act decisively,” writes O’Donovan,
It cannot command the authority to require action of us. No political authority is possessed by a “government in exile” since a government that does not govern is nothing. Ousted regimes may at best have the status of a worthy opposition, which does not entitle them to command disobedience to government since it is the duty of a subject to ensure that they are actually governed… In the moment of conflict, of course, when possession is contested, the matter may be different: a revolution acquires power as it acts, recruiting the power it needs as we respond to its summons. But in this case, too, authority lays its obligation on us by what it can effectively achieve for justice. If it cannot achieve anything, it lays no obligation on us, and therefore is not an authority.
I would add here that “for justice” must also be read as “for peace;” the end of any such revolution against unjust power must be peace, and not the peace that is simply detente. The peace that is the end of any struggle, if it is a legitimate struggle, is, as Jose Mena writes,
The authentic peace in which God has ordained for His creation to live. Peace is not founded on mutual antagonism or a truce between warring parties. Peace is the harmonious activity of God’s creation working together within the order of divine providence for the good of all and the worship of God. It is not a condition in which we agree not to go to war because of mutually-assured destruction; it’s a mom and a dad delighting together in raising a child. Those images that we see after natural disasters of ordinary men and women looking out for each other in community? That’s the peace: it’s bustling, it’s fruitful, it has things to do. A politics of peace is busy and dynamic, but it’s always ordered toward building one another up in virtue. Peace should govern every level of our political life: this is what it means to promote the common good.”
I say móre: the just man justices…
“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, 1881
Gerard Manley Hopkins
These images of a government of peace highlight the fact that government itself, and hierarchy within at least some aspects of society, were not things that were added because of transgression, or something that are the result of the Fall. God is a King, and the natural law is his cosmic order written in our hearts. This order is ethical and aesthetic and political, as well as natural in the contemporary sense– there is no sharp line between natural philosophy and the rest of all of this.
Adam and Eve were given rule over creation as vicegerents; and Adam, rule over Eve: he and Eve were intended to be king and queen under God as their high King, reflecting God’s own just and loving rulership over creation, helping it to “become itself”– to form and to fill it. In a sense, God left the world unfinished, and intended to finish it through them: through their bringing potentiality to actuality, by gardening, building cities, writing novels, painting, conducting symphonies, begetting and bearing and teaching children, and– once there were more people– ruling those people, in a just and fruitful peace; both receiving and enacting what the Greeks called cosmos, at every scale, from one’s own heart to a community garden to an empire; finally all of these will be caught up in the full expression of that κόσμος in the Kingdom of God.
And all of these things take government: a good house party is not organized by a mechanistic invisible hand, although the gracious hand of Providence is involved in true conviviality, and in the invention of new cocktails based purely on the mixers and spirits that are available, according to what the guests, by happenstance, bring.
“A State,” wrote Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, and Christopher Probst, in the third of the White Rose pamphlets which they wrote and published in Munich during 1942 and 1943,
cannot be designed strictly theoretically. It must grow, mature, just as an individual person will. However, one may not forget that at the beginning of every civilization, a prototype of the form of government existed. The family is so old – old as mankind itself – that out of this initial communal being the logic [probably better translated “reason”]-endowed man created a State whose foundation would be justice, whose greatest law the good of all. The State represents an analogy of the divine order. The greatest of all utopias – the civitas Dei – is the model it seeks to emulate… This pursuit of happiness should take place free… in association and collaboration with the national community, in accordance with God’s will.
Politics, thus, can exist outside the context of the friend/enemy distinction, and rule is not primarily– contra Max Weber– a monopoly on violence, because violence is not primary, peace is. There’s a lot for a viceroy to do, even in Eden, even in the New Jerusalem. The distinct role is not punishing wrongdoing, but rather doing justice in a role of command, and governing, with authority, the building more and more fruitful order. Now that we are fallen, coercion, and punishing wrongdoing — bearing the sword– is part of that, but I think there is a way in which the energetic, spirited “justicing” that is expressed by bearing the sword will be present even in the New Heavens and the New Earth, because it too is part of the good.
What our task was, and is, is to join God in building a just city that is a temple. Building cities is what animals who are political animals do. Because they live in them.
“Divorce doesn’t mean anything anymore, Hildy: it’s just a few words mumbled over you by a judge.”
His Girl Friday, 1940
Screenplay by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and Morrie Ryskind
We are naturally gregarious, we are not isolated, but are born into miniature polities that are families, with mother and father as king and queen, and we reach our telos when we are active participants in the political economy, the cooperative orderly work of a complete community.
What we do, when we do this, is to share in the political common good, the political version of the sort of good that one experiences as, say, a cast member in a play: if you’re cast as Beatrice, you can’t enjoy that good by yourself, without the others who are cast as Hero, and Claudio, and Don John, and, of course, Benedick; Shirley Jones would not have had any fun at all just singing her part in Oklahoma, without Gordon McRae; imagine Rosalind Russell saying Hildy Johnson’s lines without Cary Grant’s comebacks.
The political common good is, precisely, the kind of complete, active, fruitful, ordered peace, that one experiences in a just polity. You have your bit to do, everyone does: there are elements of hierarchy in this and elements of peer-friendship, because both hierarchy and peer friendship are good expressions of human love. Both are needed, both are real. “One might say that the friendship found between persons is a recapitulation, a completing expression, of the basic meaning of reality,” writes DC Schindler; but, he also reminds us, “The actual order is always really differentiated, and therefore it exhibits hierarchies, however diverse and organically interrelated they may be. The desire for equality as an end in itself, an ontological condition, will coincide with a tendency to detach from, disregard, or eliminate the significance of reality as it actually is.
This is the place where Thomas finds Aristotle, and he notices that this is sort of the bottom up, secular version of what Genesis is taking about from a top-down perspective: they fit together as heaven and earth do. And you can imagine him sort of blinking, there in Paris, and saying “but the marriage of heaven and earth is what the Marriage Supper of the Lamb is, this is what we’re aiming towards…” and deciding right there that bringing together Athens and Jerusalem was his life’s work, his way of pitching in to prepare for that day.
It begins with domestic life, and it ends in a wedding: We can thus say that the proper genre to associate with the common good is the comedy.
How all this nets out is that rulership, and politics properly speaking, are not extrinsic to the cosmic order, but are baked right in. We can pretend that politics are an emergency backup measure, as liberalism does, and that they are primarily about a monopoly on violence, and that they are not anything to do with rulership properly speaking, but only with alienated self-sovereignty. But we would only be pretending.
We are directed to pray for “rulers, and all those in authority.” And when we do– when we pray for the president or the mayor– we pray for the polity that is, as it was understood earlier to be, his body. As Christ’s body is the church, the King had both a natural body and a “body politic.” So when we pray for the ruler, we are praying for his body, too, and for all the incomplete communities, and all their members, and all the sub-rulers under him. Because the polity is the “complete community,” when one prays for it, one prays for all of the mini-communities that are within it: every school, every borough, every county, every business, every guild, and every family. And none of these exist because of the Fall. They are human things, and humans are creatures made in the image of God, and this is all an image of how it will be when the High King returns and we all take our places under his rule, as Adam and Eve ought to have done, and as he (incarnated as the second Adam) finally did, and will do.
If the peace of one’s polity is built on bribed judges, laws that permit the killing of innocents for the convenience of the powerful, the neutral enforcement of contracts with no eye to whether those contracts, however voluntary, are either (in reality rather than pro forma) exploitative of the weaker position of one party, or even morally licit at all, or the scapegoating of an outgroup in order to provide a simulacrum of solidarity for the “us” who are not “them,” this is not peace, but a brooding and uneasy domestic cold war.
Justice and peace must come to such a society through both the populace and the elites beginning to tell the truth. And for the ruler of such a society, it would be neglectful to fail to execute justice– proportional justice– because to do justice is to tell the truth. This is a good which is, as O’Donovan says, “always owed to the offender in punishment: the truth about his offense.” This is the same good offered to society in judgments against crimes: a just judgment, one in accord with natural law, tells the truth about the world, tells the truth about the necessary and immovable good that is in God’s character, as that good is applied to a particular contingent circumstance.
The ruler does not bear the sword in vain. O’Donovan exegetes: “the symbolic sword which is the mark of his office is not an empty symbol, but points to the fulcrum of political authority in the capacity for coercion.”
But the sword is not to be used to arbitrarily decide the state of exception, to be the bloody divider of “us” and “them” arbitrarily. Not all force is the same. To think that it is is to find oneself caught in the claws of liberalism, because liberalism precisely cannot see the distinction between ends. To recover a politics of ends, with the primary end being peace, we must not lose track of the distinction between different applications of power.
Dr. Vermeule argues that Schmitt would not disagree. “The Schmittian sovereign,” he writes,
need not be a nihilist. The exception is decisionist, not arbitrary; those are different things. The point is to be entirely substantive — to base irreducible decisions on Truth, even if that Truth cannot be ‘universally’ justified in liberal terms.
The substantive nature of the decision must be based on precisely on the end. To put it in the simplest terms, the violence with which a would-be murderer attacks a two year old, and the violence with which her mother repels that attack, are not parallel things. This seems obvious, but to say “well, there was violence on both sides; really it’s all the same” is mad.
Lord God it was a work of Thine,
And how might I refrain?
But Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
I hear her in her pain.
Her corn is rustling in the ground,
An arrow in my flesh.
And all night long I staunch a wound
That ever bleeds afresh.
Get up, get up, my hardy sons,
From this time forth we are
No longer men, but pikes and guns
In God’s advancing war.
And if we live, we free the slave,
And if we die, we die…
“John Brown’s Prayer,” from John Brown’s Body
Stephen Vincent Benet, 1928
Those who reject a common-good account of politics in favor of a liberal one do so, often, on the basis that people don’t necessarily agree on the nature of the common good. If you make the common good the center of politics, you will always end up with the state enforcing one version of the common good against all the others. This is the liberal horror-dream, because liberalism suspects that there is no non-arbitrary way to decide between visions of the common good: there is no reality to the good; it’s all just will.
Some are ready to go quite far in jettisoning any agreement and thus any real peace. What they are willing to get behind– and the only things they are– are the deliberative democratic process, on one hand, and peace as in not being physically violent towards those you disagree with because you disagree with on the other. This is the story that liberalism tells itself: “my right to punch you in the nose ends where your nose begins.”
There is nothing which is more absurd, because there’s nothing which is more baseless, in this “politics of means.” Who, after all, are the people who may be involved in that deliberative process? And what happens if a majority of those human beings come, through deliberative democratic process, to the conclusion that a minority are not ones who are “like us,” and so not ones who, next time, get to be involved in that deliberation at all? At the very least, a political common good must include a common sense of who the “we” are. Who are the humans who matter to the state, humans against whom injustice can, but must not, be committed? How do you recognize a human being, and against what do you measure the outcome of a debate? What if the outcome of the debate, the “settled” idea, is that each human life does not, in fact, have transcendent value?
This is of course not hypothetical. At all.
The debate over abortion is a debate over the recognition of those who are human beings, or human beings who really matter, as opposed to human beings who only kind of matter. The clearest articulation of this principle is from the pen of Justice Kennedy, in what Jose Mena wonderfully described as his “ahayusca-encomium” to what he takes to be the “heart of liberty,” from his defense of abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
“Who in history,” asks D.C. Schindler, of this plurality opinion,
would ever have dreamed of having the power to determine the very meaning of existence, of the universe, of life itself? … The power… exceeds the gargantuan aspirations of the most megalomaniacal of ancient tyrants.
In this formulation, it is a mother who gets to define whether or not that creature inside her is a human, claiming our regard; her liberty to do this, to come down on one side or another based on her will, is the sine qua non of contemporary freedom. The recent rejection of the Born Alive Act, which would have required doctors to provide the same care to newborns who were the survivors of botched abortions as they do to newborns who were wanted shows the end-game of this logic: the only difference between a child who gets the protection of the law and the child who does not is the mother’s will that the child should be protected. Law is purely, here, the tool of the will.
Abortion is defended, as Hadley Arkes has never ceased from pointing out, precisely as Stephen Douglas defended slavery during his 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln. Douglas, the perfect liberal, argued for a principle of neutrality with regard to slavery. “I deny the right of Congress to force a slaveholding State upon an unwilling people,” he said in the July 9, 1858 speech in Chicago which kicked off the debates,
I deny their right to force a free State upon an unwilling people. I deny their right to force a good thing upon a people who are unwilling to receive it. The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it; and the right of free action, the right of free judgment upon the question is dearer to every true American than any other under a free government.
It’s one of the clearest statements of the liberal principle that I know.
And it immediately betrays the central lie of liberalism. Liberalism claims to not make a judgment on substantive questions. But of course to refuse to judge is to judge.
There was only one reason that Stephen Douglas was able to hold this position of neutrality, and that’s because of what he believed about black people. In his fourth debate with Lincoln, on September 18, 1848, he addressed his audience: “I say to you in all frankness, gentlemen, that in my opinion a Negro is not a citizen, cannot be, and ought not to be, under the Constitution of the United States.”
And why? Again, for only one reason. Several rounds earlier, on August 21, 1858, he had spelled it out. “I do not regard the Negro as my equal,” he said, “and positively deny that he is my brother, or any kin to me whatever.”
The purported neutrality of liberalism, in that case, only worked if one firmly and completely rejected the reality of the humanity of black people, if one definitively rejected human brotherhood.
And Lincoln, on October 7 of that same year, responded:
All [his] arguments, if you will consider them, will be seen to exclude the thought that there is any thing whatever wrong in slavery. If you will take the Judge’s … declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”- you will see at once that this is perfectly logical- if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. If you do admit that it is wrong, Judge Douglas cannot logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down. Judge Douglas declares that if any community want slavery they have a right to have it. He can say that logically, if he says that there is no wrong in slavery; but if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that any body has a right to do wrong.
He insists that, upon the score of equality, the owners of slaves and owners of property-of horses and every other sort of property-should be alike and hold them alike in a new Territory. That is perfectly logical, if the two species of property are alike and are equally founded in right. But if you admit that one of them is wrong, you cannot institute any equality between right and wrong. And from this difference… arises the real difference between Judge Douglas and his friends on the one hand, and the Republicans on the other.
The peace that Douglas wanted to hold, Lincoln saw, was a peace that was a cold war. By pressing Douglas to admit that his politics of means concealed a politics of ends, he revealed the truth.
This revelation was, as all unveilings are, a kind of apocalypse. North and South were, in reality, enemies: bent on destroying each other’s way of life. And they were such despite the real bonds of love and brotherhood across the Mason-Dixon line. They were not at peace. Bleeding Kansas was the true face of that “peace.” “A house divided against itself cannot stand”– you know the rest:
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.
But it did fall. The nation that could not endure half slave and half free, did not endure: the regime which Lincoln refounded was a different regime.
Something like this shift in regime is what we may hope for from this illiberal moment. It is not impossible. What would it take?
When pack meets with pack in the jungle, and neither will go from the trail,
Lie down till the leaders have spoken; it may be fair words shall prevail.
“The Law of the Jungle,” from The Second Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling, 1894
To have a polity at all, you must have justice as a shared commitment and love, you must have the ability to recognize every human as “one like me,” a rational animal, one I love, and one with whom I can in principle attempt to persuade with words, not swords, through the shared gaze on reality.
This is what it means to be a ζῷον πoλιτικόν. We don’t form polities with wolves because we are not their fellows, we can’t persuade them, they do not have rational souls. The only thing to do, if a wolf decides to attack you, is to kill it. But though homo homini lupus est sometimes, he isn’t really, not fundamentally. He only forgets himself, and acts like a wolf to his fellowman. He too, if he is attacking your child, may be killed, but there is a self to which he may be recalled; there is a primordial peace and a shared nature of which he may be reminded.
This reminding is something not quite the same as argumentative persuasion. Rather, it’s a pointing towards truth, a direction of a mutual gaze. Look at this good that you already know, that you knew before that knowledge was drummed out of you: That is what it seems to me I have said when I have had these conversations.
Certainly, one may also show that the logic of a liberal opponent’s position depends on illiberal premises, and that’s important too. But as a matter of experience, it is the direction of the gaze, the mutual contemplation of the truth of human worth, the reality of justice, and of the good of gift as opposed to what is earned, which are most powerfully persuasive.
But persuasion doesn’t always work. If there are those who do not regard humans as having worth, if someone averts his gaze from that truth to the point that he decides to kill, it is just to prevent him from doing so, and punish him if he does. “Say what you will, at least it’s an ethos” is not good enough. The ethos of a hired assassin is not parallel with the ethos of Jean Vanier. One ethos directs its holder along the grain of reality, directs him in harmony with how things actually are. The other, however firmly held, does not. And a state, to be just, must hold and uphold the ethos that is along reality’s grain and not against it.
Not all power is the same. Not all wills are the same. There is power that is not Machiavellian. The power with which you enforce the not-killing-two-year-olds principle is not the same as the power with which you might kill a two year old. One is just. And one is unjust.
If one rejects this, if one rejects the idea that some exercises of power are different than other exercises of power, then one will be willing to do absolutely anything to avoid one’s own death– or the defeat of one’s country. (This is Niebuhr’s mistake: if one is a Niebuhrian, one is a conscientious pacifist but one thinks that sometimes you have to violate your conscience and go to war, if it’s existentially necessary. Going to war is already intrinsically wicked, for a Niebuhrian, but sometimes we have to do it; and so there’s no way to say that, in a war, there are things one may not do to win. It is a Very Bad Thing to be a Niebuhrian.)
Just war theory and martyrdom go together, because one thing that just war theory says is that there are things we may not do, not even to win. If you lose this, you have not kept hold of the center. The Good who is Christ is King, and so we must finally submit to his kingship. Not as a matter of being crushed, but as a matter of telling the good truth about ourselves, and him, and the world in which we live. And we have got to do that by refusing to use Machiavellian means for Aristotelian ends.
Plan A is to cleave (whoever we are, in whatever role) to the Good, to Christ. And there is no Plan B.
Is this unrealistic? Am I asking for “the best” polity, in Aristotelian terms, rather than “the best possible?” Am I asking for a benevolent monarchy, an idealized version of the sacramental kingdom of Louis IX, when what I should be content with is a Pretty Good Polity, the mixed government that is within the aspirations of both the baptized and unbaptized? Am I, perhaps, illicitly mixing up the ethical with the political, confusing the fundamental ethical opposition of good and evil with the fundamental political one of friend and enemy?
No. Even within the realm of the Pretty Good, the “best possible,” the Thomistic mixed regime, there are things which we may not do. This isn’t fanciful: Augustine himself contemplated the existence of actually just temporal rulers, precisely because creation has been restored:
For [the just] do not give their commands out of any desire for domination but rather out of dutiful concern for others, not out of any pride in ruling but rather out of compassion in providing for others. This is what the order of nature prescribes; this is the way God created man.
If you will do anything to win– if you commit injustice, if you drop that bomb, if you attack civilians, if you exchange your coronet for a bonnet rouge, throw off your title to lead the Terror– then you have perhaps gained the world but you have lost your soul. To embrace a politics of ends does not require us to embrace all possible means. Paris is not worth a Mass. There are things which we may not do.
That does not mean that you cannot defend your daughter’s life, if someone tries to kill her. You must. That does not mean that the ruler should not protect his people, and that the state should not use force to enact, as best it can, proportional and as-good-as-possible justice. That does not mean that we have to pretend that those who, say, want to kill two year olds, or who would want to walk into coffeehouses with explosive vests, or into mosques with machine guns, are not our enemies. That does not mean that a properly political enemy, a hostile foreign power bent on our destruction for the sake of a fever-dream, is not our enemy. They are; and while you may turn your cheek to your inimicus, you may not turn someone else’s cheek; that’s called treachery.
But what we have to do with our enemies–both hosti and inimici— is love them, even if we love them by not letting them have their way. And what we know that they have perhaps forgotten is that they too are made in the image of God.
Is this simply a game for rich young boys to play?
“Red and Black,” Les Miserables, 1987
Music by Claude Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
I don’t for a minute think that Deneen would disagree with any of this. I think he was pushing back against the accusation that he didn’t know what politics was, and that he was unwilling to acknowledge the role of violence, and unwilling to take a truly illiberal stand. He was pushing back against the accusation, in other words, in twitter-speak, that he is a “Dad,” someone who wants safety, and to be left alone.
This seems to me to be unjustified. If one wants to keep one’s head down, one does not write books that reject out of hand the philosophical and political principles on which one’s current regime is founded. As Gladden Pappin pointed out, his book called forth an honorable degree of fusionist immune system response: “What conservatives are conserving, after all,” David Frum wrote, correctly, betraying himself, “is a liberal order.” There are easier gigs, if ease is what one is looking for. Patrick Deneen is not a conservative.
And maybe he overstated. It seems to me that the back of the hand, the discipline of the rebellious populace, the invocation 1789 or of 1830, is probably not the best way to state the proper role of force.
It was a dramatic statement, and one that asked for explanation. And, at several events afterwards, he gave one. What he was going for was, simply, something more like Aristotelian means to Thomistic ends: the good but never pleasant pain-point of mixed government, the possibility of a people who are reminded of who they are, who in turn remind their elites of who they could be.
What other possibilities are there, Deneen would say, given the nation that we are? Our populi are not morlocks, they are not beyond reach; they’re humans, who want their own good, real people in whom an appetite for nature can waken, even before an appetite for grace. And perhaps that hunger for the real is what has been awakened in this populist moment. Our elites are not eloi, though they seem to be doing their best, and they too have (in ways they don’t recognize) the remnants of a heritage of Christian regard for the value of the person. There is in this mix the possibility of a political eucatastrophe.
This is a properly political hope. To push for this, for perhaps a realignment of American politics around a center that looks like a real common good, with… I don’t know… Liz Bruenig on the left and someone like Tucker Carlson (although, after this past week, not Tucker actual Carlson) on the right, is a properly political plan. It does not abandon the public sphere for private development of virtue, even “civic” virtue.
It is real. It does not fantasize about being somewhere else, and it sees the “us” that we must care for as we are. It is, in fact, an answer to at least some of the critics of the book. Perhaps an imperfect answer, perhaps one that will not satisfy Deneen’s challengers. But one that at least rises to the challenge. And one which bites into what we may actually be able to do, the action we may be able to take.
Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath…
“Desdichado,” in Catholic Tales and Christian Songs, 1918
Dorothy L. Sayers
If, then, we reject the idea that there is ever a case when a ruler, or a populace, must do evil that good may come– if we reject the truly Machiavellian means to Aristotelian ends– we are left still with the question of politics: of power, and responsibility; of the moment of decision; of the founding of the circumstances of peace. And although O’Donovan is essentially right, I think he’s missing something.
What does it take to be political? Is it the willingness to kill a properly political enemy? At some point, perhaps, within the bounds of a just war.
But what it takes first is the willingness to stick one’s neck out, to regard oneself as responsible. And the shape that this takes, first, is the willingness to die.
And the only thing powerful enough to support that willingness is desire.
One thing that existential politics, the experience of politics, is founded on– as well as civic friendship, as well as the unfallen political task of Adam, as well as the kingship of Christ– is the willingness to die for the good of the City, out of love for your friends and your people, to protect and stand for transformation, towards the end that each person, including those whose hands shed innocent blood, will know themselves, finally, as men made in the image of God.
“Have you not,” Judge Roland Freisler asked Sophie Scholl, when she came before him in February of 1943 for sentencing, having been convicted of writing and distributing anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlets,
come to the conclusion that your conduct and the actions along with [those of] your brother and other persons, in the present phase of the war, should be seen as a crime against the community, but in particular against our troops fighting arduously in the east, that merits the severest sentence?
“I am, now as before,” she responded, “of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences.”
One of those whom the judge accused her of betraying, one of those who was fighting on the Eastern front, was her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel. Although he was fighting for Germany, a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht, he was ambivalent about the regime; he had joined the army as though it were still the army of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. “In your ideal conception” of the soldier’s life, wrote Sophie to him in 1940,
it really accords with the moral demand made on every individual. [But] how can a soldier have an honest attitude, as you put it, when he’s compelled to lie? Or isn’t it lying when you have to swear one oath to the government one day and another the next? You have to allow for that situation, and it’s already arisen before now.
The conversation that Sophie would later bring to the leaflets was this conversation, the one that she’d been having with Hartnagel for years. A few weeks after that letter, he wrote to her to ask her what she thought about the question of “nationhood.” He had just been sent to Holland, as part of the invading army; she knew what he was really asking. And she answered:
As I see it, a soldier’s position vis-a-vis his nation is rather like that of a son who vows to stand up for his father and family come what may… [But] I’ve always thought it wrong for a father to take his child’s side on principle, for instance when a teacher punishes him or her. However much he may love the child, or for that very reason…
She was groping towards Chesterton’s dictum that “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”
“We were taught in school,” she went on in that letter, “that a German’s attitude is deliberately subjective. Unless it is objective as well, I can’t accept it.”
Two years later, she had responded to a letter in which he’d described the repeated debates he’d gotten into with his Nazi messmates. “I wish I could back you up with what I know,” she wrote,
and [could be] in the arguments you’re so often compelled to have with your brother officers. The fact that their whole inner being doesn’t rebel at that “law of nature,” the conquest of the weak by the strong, strikes me as dreadful and degenerate… If they believe might must prevail, ask them whether man and beast must be placed entirely on a par, or that man additionally shares in a world of the spirit. Ask them– they’re bound, in their arrogance, to endorse the latter. And then ask them if it isn’t ignominious for the flesh and brute force to triumph in the world of the spirit… Yes, we do believe in the victory of the stronger, but the stronger in spirit… This victory may come to pass in a world other than our own… no, it already does so here…as a radiant prospect visible to all.
When they say that Nature is good because it was created by God [she’s responding, I take it, to a hypothetical argument by one of Hartnagel’s Nazi messmates that the victory of the stronger can be seen in nature, and so it is part of the natural law, and is good: that might, in other words, makes right], they forget that man, and the whole of nature, fell after creation, which God had described as “very good.” How meekly they submit to God’s judgment all of a sudden! I’ve never, ever believed that anyone thinks it is good for a weak country to be attacked by a powerful army… The supremacy of brute force always implies that the spirit has been destroyed, or at least banished from view. Is that what they want, the people who argue with you? Oh, those lazy thinkers with their sloppy notions of life and death! Only life engenders life, or have they seen a dead woman give birth to a child? …They’ve never reflected on the absurdity of their proposition that only death engenders life, and their urge for self-preservation will lead to their self-destruction. They know nothing of a world of the spirit in which the law of sin and death has been overcome.
Their letters back and forth continued. “At bottom, you’re already half on my side, and you’ll never feel entirely at ease there again,” she told him. Fritz got frostbite at Stalingrad, lost a couple of toes. The month before she died, she wrote him again. It’s not clear whether she ever told him what exactly she was up to. “You know the value of a human life,” she wrote, “and we have to know what we’re risking it for.”
Sophie Scholl, against the Dads. And against the Machiavellians as well.
Born May 9, 1921, Sophia Magdalena Scholl had, when she was in high school, joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel. But she grew increasingly horrified at the regime, and also more awake to the call of Christ, and so she began trying to figure out how to practice some kind of resistance. Her brother, Hans, had traced a similar path: he’d joined the Hitlerjugend when he was fifteen, becoming a squad commander. He resigned when he was 17, joining with some friends to form a youth group of their own, affiliated with the Bundische Jugend, dj-1/11, a sort of counter-HJ.
Hans was drafted, sent off to basic training, and while he was there, Sophie, her brother Werner, and her sister Inge were arrested because of their affiliation with and support for his group. Sophie was thus sixteen when she first “came to the atttention of” the Gestapo. She was released quickly, but her siblings spent a week in jail. Hans, three years older, was racked with guilt, but proud.
In 1941 she began studying for a combined biology and philosophy degree at the University of Munich, which Hans also attended, finishing up his medical studies, along with Hans’ friends Alexander Schmorell, Christopher Probst and Willi Graf.
The friends talked for hours, they talked late into the night. She and Hans shared an apartment, and sometimes after they’d turned the lights out they couldn’t stop talking; in a letter to Hartnagel, she describes a conversation in the dark after midnight where she was trying to convince Hans that Leibnitz’ theodicy made no sense, because the ability to do evil is not a power, but a privation.
They wrote letters to each other and to their parents and their friends, and sent each other books and treats; Sophie exchanged endless letters with Hartnagel, and Hans with his girlfriend, Rose Nagele; Hans started contributing to a magazine; they went on skiing holidays and swimming holidays, and Sophie decided to grow out her hair; they read– Novalis and Aristotle and Dostoyevsky and Aquinas and Augustine and Berdyaev and Junger and Nietzsche and Mann and Goethe; Leon Bloy, Paul Claudel, Bernanos, Etienne Gilson– and the group of friends met up for discussion groups about what they’d read, and about current politics; Hans and Probst and Alexander Schmorrell, under the direction of the journalist Carl Muth, debated Aquinas’ teaching on the right of resistance to tyranny; they went to concerts; Hans acquired a samovar and took up making elaborate Russian-style tea; Sophie bummed cigarettes from her friends; they had a birthday party for a professor, Kurt Huber.
They began, more and more, fumblingly, to pray.
Huber was the one who introduced the Scholls to John Henry Newman; Sophie, ever eager to pass along what she loved, sent a couple of volumes of his sermons to Hartnagel, in Russia. The late-night conversations of the Scholls and their friends began focusing, often, on Newman’s ideas about the development and authority of conscience.
And then, in the spring of 1942, on campus, Sophie came across an anti-Nazi pamphlet which had been distributed around the city and university. It was put out by an anonymous Christian student society called The White Rose. She recognized the writing and ideas as her brother’s. He’d been wanting to keep her out of his resistance work, to protect her. He did not want a repeat of 1937, his little sister once again in a Gestapo prison.
She had once written to Hartnagel that “establishing contact with someone new is a momentous occurrence, a simultaneous declaration of love and war.”
Of course, she insisted on joining.
The group met for discussions and to draft leaflets in the garden and basement studio of an architect friend, Manfred Eickemeyer. All but two of the leaflets were written in collaboration, with Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorrel writing most; the sixth was written by Huber; Christoph Probst wrote the last one; Sophie probably contributed to 2, 3, 4, and 5.
The friends typed the handbills and copied them on a hand-cranked mimeograph in Eickmeyer’s basement studio. Even buying the paper and ink was dangerous.
The White Rose wrote, mimeographed and distributed six leaflets. They distributed the last one on February 18, leaving stacks outside the University lecture halls. Sophie and Hans threw the last few handfuls over the balustrade that circled the University’s courtyard; a janitor saw the leaflets falling, and called the Gestapo. When he was arrested, Probst had the text of the seventh leaflet in his pocket.
They were arrested on 18 February 1943, and convicted of treason four days later. Hartnagel heard of the arrest, checked himself out of the military hospital where he was recovering, and went directly to Berlin to petition for clemency. When he reached the city, he called Sophie’s father. Herr Scholl told him that the sentence had already been carried out.
Sophie and Hans were executed by guillotine a few hours after their conviction, along with Probst; Schmorell and Huber were beheaded on July 13. Graf was held months longer, as the Gestapo attempted to get him to reveal names of friends and accomplices. He revealed nothing, and was guillotined on October 12. Eleven others who had helped were either killed or died in concentration camps. The rest of the Scholl family were taken into “kinship detention”– guilt by familial relationship– and served prison terms of various lengths.
None of the six, except their professor, was out of their early twenties.
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start,” Sophie said to Judge Freisler at in that courtroom, after she was sentenced to death. “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just didn’t dare express themselves as we did.”
What Sophie did can’t be separated from how and why she did it. “I’ll keep on repeating it for us both,” she wrote to Hartnagel,
We must pray, and pray for each other, and if you were here, I’d fold hands with you, because we’re poor, weak, sinful children. Oh, Fritz, if I can’t write anything else just now, it’s only because there’s a terrible absurdity about a drowning man who, instead of calling for help, launches into a scientific, philosophical, or theological dissertation while the sinister tentacles of the creatures on the seabed are encircling his arms and legs, and the waves are breaking over him. It’s only because I’m filled with fear, that and nothing else, and feel an undivided yearning for Him who can relieve me of it… However many little devils scurry around inside of me, I shall cling to the rope God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.
She did not choose the Kingdom of God over Germany, any more than she chose Christ over those she loved on earth. She was not, in her Christianity, apolitical. Rather, in choosing the Kingdom of God, she chose Germany; in loving Christ, she loved her brother, her parents, Hartnagel. Politics, for her, was precisely about desire, the desire for the good not just of the Kingdom of God but also of Germany, desire she was willing to seal with her death. But the only way that she could do this was because she knew that death was not the final end and Germany was not the Kingdom of God.
O’Donovan would say that this doesn’t quite rise to the level of the political; her authority is moral authority, but cannot enforce itself. I am terrified to disagree with O’Donovan, but I think he may be wrong. She was not a ruler with both power and justice at her disposal; that was not her role. That would have been, perhaps, the role of Helmuth von Moltke, and indeed the White Rose had apparently been on the verge of making an alliance with the Kreisau Circle when they were discovered and executed; Hans had also had a meeting with Deitrich Bonhoeffer scheduled for one week after the date of his arrest. They were planning, they were working for the the future of their country, they were making links with other groups. They called, explicitly, for sabotage:
Sabotage in armaments factories… Sabotage in all assemblies, rallies, festivities, organizations that were breathed into life by the National Socialist Party, prevention of the smooth operation of the war machine… Sabotage in all scholarly and intellectual realms that exist for the continuance of the current war – this whether it be in universities, colleges, laboratories, research facilities, or technical offices. Sabotage in all areas of literature, all newspapers that are on the payroll of the “government”, and that fight for their ideas, for the dissemination of the brown lie.
This was not quietism, nor private virtue. The epigraph to this third pamphlet was Salus Publica Suprema Lex.
We will forgive them for misremembering their Cicero; there was a war on.
As relentlessly Aristotelian as they were relentlessly Christian, the Scholls meant their scare quotes: this was not a government, but a “government,” what they would call later in that pamphlet an “un-State.” This was a hijacking of a state.
Sophie Scholl bit into the world. She did not announce only the coming of the Kingdom of God, although she did that too, but out of love for Germany, willed the overthrow of the way of life that it was currently leading, willed its return to itself. She became, in that sense, Germany’s enemy out of love for Germany. “The world refuses to be governed badly,” she would have read in Aristotle. If judgment is telling the truth, she told the truth with her own blood, the very injustice of her death commanding the death of the regime that killed her, and thus the life of the nation on which that regime was a parasite. She united political action and political passion: doing justice by telling the truth, and suffering the consequences.
There’s not a man in this debate who would disagree with what she said. And I don’t think there’s a man in this debate who would not, if called on, do what she did. To be willing to do this is precisely the way to be a “man that is,” and it is in that way that that such men “shadow the men who pretend to be.”
This is not a love of death. Poor old Nietzsche, that he never saw this: That he never saw that this was what even he, especially he, was looking for, this love of life that overflows from the source of Being itself, from the heart of the good; an open-handed generosity that is a love of life, even a love of yourself as you truly are and ought to be, which is inseparable from the love of God and of your fellows. To receive that liberality, and to give it out, is the true and original meaning of freedom.
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer?
…Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
Are we at some kind of inflection point, some kind of “postliberal moment?” It seems clear to me that we are: both politically, and philosophically. Five years ago, technocratic neoliberalism, the politics of means rather than ends, the apolitical and inhuman politics that does not seek to rule men but rather to administer things, was in the ascendent, and across the world there seemed to be no-one willing to do anything other than lick its hand. Seaweed, seemingly, bound every rudder. Today, there are populist movements across the world, neoliberalism kicked to the curb by both left and right.
What can we hope for? Not the “broad sunlit uplands” of neoliberal progress. But then again, that is not what we want. This world is made not just to be improved or to be destroyed, but to be married to another; heaven and earth are made to be united. And that means that we can never succumb to either complacency or despair, we may never give up on the time and place and people to which we are in fact called, nor lose heart. Nothing good will be lost. What we can hope for from the world, from each nation, is something altogether stranger than “progress,” and it’s something that confers urgency on each choice we make.
This is not the conversation that many of us were having five years ago. What’s going on is that we’re groping together towards the good– good principles, good actions, good policies, good ways to live together. Primarily, we are trying to remember; and we’re trying to figure out how to apply those things we remember to this people, to this regime, to this moment, the moment of action, the moment of decision. The conversation that Deneen, and Vermeule, and Pater Edmund and the rest are having is the conversation we should be having.
And it’s a conversation worth protecting.
Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.