Category Archives: The Leisurely Catholic

A Book Review

NisbetRobert Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist, By Brad Lowell Stone

G.K. Chesterton’s economics parallels Robert Nisbet’s sociology.

I think that’s a fair statement, and it’s borne out in this debut volume of The Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Library of Modern Thinkers, a series of books meant to distill the essential thought of twentieth-century thinkers in short and highly-readable books (a goal accomplished admirably by Mr. Stone in this book).

Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) was a conservative sociologist whose lifework resolved around one grand theme: the importance of communities, those “human groups that spring up to fill perennial human needs and solve problems,” such as families, voluntary associations, and churches.

People need community. Community, Nisbet once wrote, “springs from some of the powerful needs of human nature.” If communities are attacked or undermined, individuals will be harmed.

This firmly-held belief animated one of the main “sub-themes” of Nisbet’s work: To the extent the centralized state becomes more powerful, communities atrophy.

This, of course, makes sense, if we keep in mind Nisbet’s primary definition of “community” as groups that solve problems. To the extent the omnicompetent state attempts to solve our problems, the role of community diminishes, weakens and eventually disappears—to the detriment of individuals. This has been the readily-discernible path in America’s recent past, as the national government’s attempt to solve problems on a national scale has crippled families (e.g., by providing economic incentives for women not to marry) and charitable organizations (e.g., by national-scale welfare programs replacing the need for local organizations and churches to care for their poor).

The rise of the powerful state has resulted in harm to individuals, Nisbet believed. He said the contemporary individual is “metaphysically beleaguered.” He said modern man is alienated. Instead of being connected to others and higher realities through communities, he is tossed about in “vast institutions and organizations” that fragment him and leave him “existentially missing in action.”

In this situation, it is not surprising that money has assumed a major role in contemporary society. Without community and the higher functions it embodies, money becomes the common denominator, with the result that every “act of service, responsibility, protection and aid to others is an act presupposing or calling for monetary exchange, for cash payment.” Nisbet called this, citing Thomas Carlyle, “the cash nexus.”

For those interested in the history of ideas, especially when connected to contemporary issues, Stone’s recount of Nisbet’s sociology is engaging.

Nisbet emphasized two great traditions in Western political thought: political monism and social pluralism. Political monism emphasizes the supremacy and pervasiveness of the state and believes all intermediary institutions must be subordinated to it. This tradition blends “social nihilism and political affirmation.” Its modern proponents include Hobbes, Rousseau, Bentham, and Lenin.

Social pluralism, on the other hand, emphasizes intermediary institutions. It sees true freedom deriving from strong communities, rather than from the national government: “According to this tradition, no state is deemed free if the government rules over the social, economic, and intellectual spheres. ‘Conversely, a government monarchical or oligarchical in structure can be a free government if—as has been the case many times in history—it respects the other institutions of society and permits autonomies accordingly in the social and economic spheres.” This tradition’s modern proponents include Burke, Tocqueville, Acton and Proudhon (and Nisbet).

Stone concludes this quick-to-read little book with a chapter that cites empirical evidence and studies showing that the dominance of political monism is destroying communities, especially the family. The studies are remarkable, such as one Canadian study that found that children in step-families are forty times more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than children living with both biological parents. Stone has little patience for the political monists (in particular, the sociologist Robert Bellah) who ignore such findings and continue to insist that modern society just needs more national political remedies to right such problems.

I opened this review with the statement that Chesterton’s economics parallels Nisbet’s sociology. That was a bit trite—and inaccurate. They aren’t really parallels because the need for smallness in economics and smallness in sociology converge, as Chesterton showed in What’s Wrong with the World. Small economic units and small social units overlap, especially in the family. Smallness makes the family strong (and, paradoxically, an emphasis on smallness often makes the family big). But big-infatuated Hudge and Gudge Monists don’t see it. They emphasize largeness, to the detriment of small communities—especially the families.

A Book Review

Russell_KirkRussell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, By James E. Person Jr.

The child Russell Kirk was visiting the family’s ancestral home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan. He woke up one night in the front parlor and saw two men looking in the bay window. Thinking he must be seeing things, he put on his glasses and saw two men—one tall with a tall hat, the other short with a round hat. Frightened, he hid under his covers; the next morning, Kirk looked for footprints in the snow but didn’t see any. Years later, his old Aunt Fay—a long-time resident of Piety Hill—told Kirk how, as a young girl, she played with two men outside the bay window who no one else could see—Dr. Cady, a tall man with a tall hat, and Patti, a short man with a turban. She knew nothing of Kirk’s experience years earlier.

A fascinating story. And not one you’d normally associate with Kirk, a pioneer of the modern conservative movement in America.

This story is recounted in James Person’s Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind, an excellent primer on Kirk’s life and enormous corpus of writings (thirty-two books and thousands of columns and articles).

A primer was needed. Many people have read Kirk, but few have fully understood him. Kirk had a tendency to use terms and phrases without concisely explaining them. His readers often walk away from his books with an amorphous appreciation for what he was saying, but not knowing exactly what he meant, especially when he used phrases like “the permanent things” or “the moral imagination” (two of Kirk’s favorites that are found throughout his works).

Person clears away any fogginess. The permanent things, for instance, are mores or norms that transcend the world’s cultures. A basic list, Person tells us, can be found in the appendix of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, such as the duties to help others, to take special care of family members, to be faithful to one’s spouse, and to be brave. The moral imagination is the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events, especially as embodied in poetry and art and sustained by religion. (“The democracy of the dead” was another of his favorite phrases, Kirk being a big fan of Chesterton, but readers of Gilbert! need no explanation of that term.)

Person’s book touches all areas of Kirk’s thought and writings, from his most famous book that shaped the modern conservative movement, The Conservative Mind, to his landmark study on T.S. Eliot, Eliot and His Age. Person recounts Kirk’s writings on education, history, social criticism, and economics.

Person also devotes a substantial amount of time to a line of Kirk’s writings that many people don’t know about: his fiction. Like Chesterton, Kirk’s talents as a writer were diverse. In addition to his non-fiction books, columns, and articles, Kirk became an accomplished fiction writer, publishing numerous ghost stories and three novels, including a Gothic romance, Old House of Fear, that would sell more copies than all his other books combined. His story-telling was good enough to earn him various awards, including appointment as a Knight Commander of the Order of Count Dracula, an honor bestowed by the Count Dracula Society.

Person’s book also makes it clear that Kirk was not wholly conservative, at least as that term is popularly understood today. Again like Chesterton, Kirk’s worldview transcended the pettiness of party politics, and he can’t easily be pinned down on the political spectrum. Kirk, for instance, admired the trust-busting and early conservationist Teddy Roosevelt and listed him as one of the top ten conservatives of all time. Kirk also endorsed environmental protection legislation that was opposed by some conservatives at the time.

Perhaps most significantly, Kirk, like Chesterton, did not have an unquestioning confidence in the competitive market economy. Kirk, an admirer of Wilhelm Roepke, the man who architected Western Germany’s economic recovery after World War II, favored what Roepke called a humane economy: “an economic system suited to human nature and to a humane scale in society, as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of counterproductive personal and social consequences.” Person points out that Kirk’s economic views were similar to distributism. Person devotes much space to exploring the merits of Kirk’s economics, and in the process sheds much light on the merits of distributism.

Finally, like Chesterton, Person tells us that Kirk was a convert and led a life marked by Christian virtue. He was a good father and husband, and a charitable man who cared for the poor and downtrodden, taking many of them into his own home for extended stays.

Overall, Kirk was a writer who labored in God’s vineyard in an age that tramples His grapes. A few more such Christians and, as Kirk would often say about other great men and women of the twentieth century who spoke out against vulgarizing modernity, contemporary civilization might be fully redeemed by now.

A Book Review

BrownsonOrestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction, By R. A. Herrera

There was a man born in the nineteenth century. He converted to Catholicism in middle age and became one of his country’s leading apologists. He wrote prolifically and was one of the leading intellects of his age. He was a huge man, standing over six feet tall and crushing the scales with hundreds of pounds.

Chesterton, right?

This same man once walked into a room and heard a guy vilifying him for becoming a Catholic. After unsuccessfully warning him to curb his tongue, he grabbed the guy by the coat-collar and seat of his pants and threw him over a stovepipe.

Okay, it’s not Chesterton.

It’s Orestes Brownson, a man every bit as colorful as Chesterton but for different reasons.

In Orestes Brownson: Sign of Contradiction, R. A. Herrera provides a compact biography of Brownson’s life, his era, and his philosophical bent.

In less than 140 pages, Herrera covers Brownson’s 1803 birth in Vermont to a family of Ethan Allen supporters to his 1876 death at his son’s house in Detroit. The quick-reading yet scholarly pages pack pounds of information. Herrera covers Brownson’s religious wanderings (Presbyterianism to Universalism to skepticism to Unitarianism to Roman Catholicism), his collaboration with early feminist radical Fanny Wright, his involvement with the New England Transcendentalists, and his role as a Northern literary leader during the Civil War.

Perhaps most importantly, Herrera provides a broad overview of Brownson’s writings and a detailed assessment of them. This is no small task (indeed, after the initial 140 pages of text, Herrera adds forty more, largely devoted to a scholarly review of his writings). Brownson’s collected writings fill twenty thick volumes, and the writings don’t come in neatly-arranged books (of which Brownson wrote few). Brownson primarily wrote for Brownson’s Quarterly Review, a journal he published for over twenty years and for which he provided most of the script for each 20,000-plus word issue.

The surface similarities between Brownson and Chesterton, as already noted, are remarkable, but it’s difficult to imagine two men more different in their literary approach. In his writings, Brownson was always uncompromising, frequently slashing, and sometimes downright mean when dealing with his opponents. According to Herrera, Brownson had an “inclination to use a battle ax to crush a butterfly.” Another recent biographer wrote: “There is in Brownson’s style a rhetorical habit of using the harsh blow of a miner’s sledge when the tap of a carpenter’s hammer would be more effective.” Brownson made many enemies in his career as a writer and, though he was the intellectual gemstone of Catholic America, he was repeatedly a source of embarrassment as well. A man more distant than Chesterton can’t be imagined.

But if you dig yet deeper and get past the writings, similarities between the men crop up again. Brownson was a kind man, his made-for-public-consumption polemics notwithstanding. He was tenderly affectionate toward his wife and children and had many friends. He was deeply devoted to God; after his conversion, always writing with a crucifix in front of him and a statue of the Virgin Mary at his side.

He was also an untiring philosopher. All biographers have agreed that Brownson was an unflagging pursuer of truth. In his efforts, he mastered foreign languages and read volumes of the best thinkers in Western Civilization, from Plato to Kant, in their native tongues. Wherever the truth took him, he went.

His pursuit eventually took him into the Catholic Church, an extremely odd journey for an intellectual in nineteenth-century Protestant America. Catholicism was exotic. Brownson had never even seen a Catholic church until his early twenties and, true to the temperament of the age, gave Catholicism little thought. He was probably a little taken back when his friend, Daniel Webster, saw him idly glancing at some Catholic works in a used bookstore and warned him, “Take care how you examine the Catholic Church, unless you are willing to become a Catholic, for Catholic doctrines are logical.”

It is telling that, when he was already highly-Catholic in his ideas and writings, Brownson was totally unaware of it until a Catholic journal re-produced one of his articles. He was somewhat stunned as he suddenly realized that his studies and ideas had unwittingly brought him to the threshold of “Catholicity” (his word). After he realized this, he investigated the possibility of conversion, but got cold feet and delayed his entry for a year.

The reason for the delay? A very Chestertonian one and a reason that contributed to Chesterton’s prolonged delay: he didn’t want to ostracize or hurt his non-Catholic friends.

It’s not surprising and it illustrates the deepest layer of Brownson. Underneath Brownson’s intellectual pursuits, underlying the argumentative writings, stronger than his occasional flares of temper, ran a consistent theme: Love for his fellow men and a desire to see them happy and saved. And in this most important though often hidden trait, this large man was most like Chesterton.

Aquinas Corner

aquinas

“The virtues perfect us so that we follow our natural inclinations in a fitting manner.”

This is similar to the observation that grace works on nature, not replaces nature. It also reminds me of convert Evelyn Waugh’s observation about himself. When asked how he could be so, ahem, disagreeable given his adherence to Catholicism, he responded that the grace through the sacraments greatly improved him, that, without his Catholicism, he would be scarcely human.

_____________________

“Man necessarily desires everything on account of the last end.”

I’m not sure how to square that with a desire for vodka and beer, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

 

 

The Coming Week

Monday: St. Matthew: The lead-off hitter for the New Testament. Tax collector, showing there’s room in heaven for anybody.

Tuesday: St. Thomas of Villanova: Spawned a pretty good basketball team, the absent-minded professor type, and lover of the poor.

Wednesday: The great, and enigmatic, Padre Pio. There’s plenty of video footage of him. A psychiatrists interviewed him and famously declared him an egomaniac, thereby proving his profession’s snake-oil foundation.

Saturday: Saints Cosmas and Damian. Nothing known of these men, except they were martyred during the great Diocletian persecutions.

 

 

Blood: The Price of Freedom

julian the apostateIn the fourth century, Eastern Christendom was racked with the persecution of Emperor Julian, the “Apostate.” Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire for about fifty years, but Julian thought it was weakening the Empire, so he sought to re-install paganism and eliminateChristianity. He started with a repeal of his own baptism, which he sought to accomplish through the pagan rite of the taurobolium, a bath in bull’s blood.

Julian’s foolishness, his revolt against Truth, and use of the taurobolium vividly symbolizes a fundamental truth: Blood is the necessary condition when freedom is sought from something beyond a person’s power.

Power and Freedom: Siamese Twins

Power and freedom are Siamese twins. But not in a deformed sense. They are symbiotically-existing Siamese twins, walking together, separately but intertwined with each other, and needing each other for their proper existence.

Consider, for instance, the power of locomotion. If a person lakcs the power to move from place to place, they have no freedom to move. Similarly, if a person (say, a slave) lacks the power to control his time, he lacks the freedom to choose the course of daily life.

Because power and freedom walk together like Siamese twins, they cannot be separated without violence and grotesquerie. Try giving a 3-month old baby absolute freedom to choose its daily events for a week when you leave for vacation. The baby will have no freedom because it has no power, and it will die a gruesome death before you get back.

Power and freedom, because they are so closely intertwined, must be proportionate to each other, and both must be proportionate to a person’s actual level of power. If a person demands more freedom than his level of power allows, the results are often unfortunate, like the man who wants the freedom to drink and drive: The result is often a fatality because that freedom (drinking and driving) is disproportionate to his level of power (his ability to drink and drive).

Separating the Twins

Problems arise when a person demands more freedom than his level of power permits.

Reduced to its most-fundamental aspect, this is the root of war, whether it be over boundaries or trade rights or security risks. A nation has power over points A through C and has freedom to act within those points. But if it wants freedom to act within points A to F, it needs power over points D through F, which it doesn’t have. There is disproportionality. And if it tries to exercise power over, freedom within, points D through F, the result is war, which will either result in the aggressor nation’s defeat or an accretion to its actual level of power, thereby resulting in actual freedom over points D through F.

Applied to civilian society, the results are highly similar. If you exercise the power (use the freedom) and make choices, but then demand the further freedom (to wit, freedom from the consequences of those choices), there is disproportionality and the result is violence. You have the power to make choices and the freedom to make choices, but, after the choices are made, your power over the consequences ends—and so does your freedom. I have the power to throw a rock at a window, but, once it’s thrown, I am powerless to stop it, and I am a fool if I stand there demanding that the rock stop in mid-air. And I am equally the fool if I then want freedom from the consequences of throwing the rock. Such freedom can only be obtained by ratcheting up my level of freedom in an amount disproportionate to my actual level of power. In order to get to this point, there must be grotesqueness at some level, whether it be gross unfairness (bribery and corruption with the justice system) or violence (threatening my neighbor with harm if he turns me into the police).

Separating the Twins and Civil Unrest

This is important because I think the disproportionality between, the lack of adequacy between, freedom and power, feeds much civil unrest.

We are increasingly entertaining the notion that freedom and power don’t need to be proportionate to each other.

Many people have adopted an attitude (exercising power over their attitude, exercising mental power), not only in despite of circumstances, but also in despite of circumstances that they’ve chosen through their earlier freedom. This, by its very nature, in a disproportionate amount of freedom that is wholly inadequate to their level of actual level of power.

And the result is grotesque. The “rolling stone” who insists on a carefree life leaves a batch of un-fathered children in his wake. The Casanova insists on being happy, and leaves a trail of broken-hearted misery. The actively gay fellow insists on his integrity and ends up contributing to a lifestyle that is fraught with despair and disrespect. The stripper insists on her dignity and contributes to a society fraught with sexual violence and exploitation.

These people can say they have that power all they want, but we’re finding differently. I attended a lecture at the 1999 Touchstone Conference by sociologist David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, who said fathers who walk away from their responsibilities—including the most carefree rolling stones who seem to do it with equanimity—gradually wear down, some unknown pressure bearing down on them, resulting in a depleted sense of life and a dilapidated mental and emotional state.

Guilt will bear down. Shame cannot be denied. Only gods and beasts feel no shame. And, because we can’t become gods (another Roman emperor, Caligula, tried and failed miserably), the other option is to become beasts, which is what these people are doing by playing to the most bestial parts of their nature. But eventually the human part will catch up and the guilt and shame will wear them down.

But in the meantime, there will be bloodshed. When freedom and power grow disproportionate to each other, blood must spill. Julian sought freedom from Christianity. It was a type of freedom that was totally incommensurate with his power because Christianity, and its founder Christ, is the Truth. His attempt to wipe out his baptism through his bath in bull’s blood reflects the bloodiness that is results when freedom is sought beyond one’s power.

Likewise, the drunk driver spills the blood of his passenger when he seeks the freedom to drive when he doesn’t have the power to drive. The aggressor nation spills the blood of its neighbor when it seeks freedom within boundaries over which it doesn’t have power. The sadist spills the blood of his mate when he seeks freedom to control another person in a manner that exceeds his proper level power.

In this environment, it’s no wonder that millions of babies are dying in an ocean of blood. Millions of women are spilling the blood of their unborn children in an effort to obtain a level of freedom (the ability “to choose”) wholly disproportionate to their actual level of power.

Power over blood is perhaps the highest level of freedom; the freedom to kill is an immense type of power. Previous cultures reserved the power to a handful of men within the justice system. Now, in a freedom-obsessed culture, it’s becoming the right of every one.

The Beam

BernardIf your spiritual space swells with concern for the self, it has little room for anything else.  If the self shrinks, the space clears for other things, most importantly God.  But it also clears for anything that thrives in the spiritual arena, such as appreciation for God’s creation.  The person who renounces the self—through fasting, abstinence, tithing—shrinks the self and better appreciates nature and other people.  Asceticism leads to proper aestheticism.

The beam in your eye that Christ referred to is the self and the sins that emanate from it. “Pride in the mind is a great beam which is bloated rather than heavy, swollen rather than solid, and it blocks the mind’s eye and blots out the light of truth, so that if your mind is full of it you cannot see yourself as you really are.”  Bernard of Clairvaux.  Shrink the self, and you will see.  Break it apart, and the world will come together.

Flogging the Middle Ages

aachenChesterton pointed out that every stick is good enough to beat the Catholic Church with. The same could be said about the Middle Ages (for related reasons, btw): every stick is good enough to beat it with.

I have a business acquaintance who repeatedly harumps “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin!” not realizing that issue was never debated in the Middle Ages. Everyone still thinks medievalists thought the world was flat, which is a complete lie. When people hear “witch hunts,” they think “Middle Ages,” not realizing the hunts didn’t start in earnest until the seventeenth century. If you read the history of philosophy, you’ll skip from Augustine to Francis Bacon, as though the intervening 1100 years didn’t exist. When you read about the fall of the Roman Empire, you’ll learn it fell in 476, ushering in the Dark Ages, not realizing the Dark Ages never really existed and things didn’t get really bad in Europe until the ninth century . . . and started to improve by the dawn of the eleventh.

And now we know that every pervert’s favorite anti-Middle Ages joke, the chastity belt, is also a myth. From “Everything You’ve Heard About the Chastity Belt is a Lie“:

When one considers the evidence for medieval chastity belts, as Classen did in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-making Process, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there’s not much of it. First of all, there aren’t actually all that many pictures of or accounts of using chastity belts, and even fewer physical specimens. And the few book-length works on the topic rely heavily on each other and all cite the same few examples.

“You have a bunch of literary representation, but very few historical references to a man trying to put a chastity belt on his wife,” says Classen. And, any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.

If you want a better perspective on historical truth, adopt this rule of thumb: If you hear something negative about the Middle Ages from anyone besides a medieval scholar or someone who really knows something about it, simply discard it as myth. You’ll be correct far (far) more often than you’re wrong