Back in 2010, I commented to a post at VFR:
Nominalism is satanic, I’m telling you. It’s a device to destroy man. Convicted nominalism has to end in suicide, whether cultural or personal. If there are no transcendent values, but rather only and merely our own personal, private preferences, then our personal private preferences are false to facts. This is a little tricky to see, until we draw the analogy to the schizophrenic. The schizophrenic’s impression that there are black helicopters pursuing him are peculiar to him. The black helicopters are not really there. So we understand that his impressions are illusions. But nominalism says that the values we apprehend in things and people and activities, like the black helicopters, are not objectively real. And this means that our feelings of value are—just like the schizophrenic’s black helicopters — hallucinations. They are false. Nominalism says that there is in reality no value out there to be had.
But to say that there is no value really to be found in the world is nihilism. And the consistent nihilist, who has the courage of his convictions, cannot believe that his own life, or anyone else’s life, or the life of his nation, are worth a hill of beans. So he cannot find any way to defend them—none at all. And this will result in death, one way or another, even if only through the sheer lassitude of utter ennui.
I thought at the time I sent that comment to Lawrence, God rest his soul, that in characterizing a school of epistemology as satanic I was perhaps engaging in a bit of rhetorical hyperbole. Firing for effect, as it were.
But then, the other night, I was reading An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: the Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels, by Father Gabriele Amorth, SSP. Father Amorth was for many years the exorcist of the Diocese of Rome. I read the following passage from his explanation of Satanism (beginning on page 30):
What is the [objective of Satanists]? Satanists wish to develop [their] depraved form of devotion through a diffusion of the theory and practice of three basic principles: you can do all that you wish, no one has the right to command you, and you are the god of yourself. The first principle intends to confer full liberty to the adherent on everything he wishes to do, without limits. The second is the release from the principle of authority, that is, from any obligation to obey parents, the Church, the state, and whoever places restrictions in the name of the common good. The third denies all the truth that comes directly from God: paradise, the inferno, purgatory, judgment, the Ten Commandments, the precepts of the Church, Mary, and so forth.
With a shudder, I recognized our Enemy. Don’t you? Compare Justice Kennedy’s infamous statement in Planned Parenthood versus Casey:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
Of that statement, Clifford Goldstein wrote in 1997 [emphases mine]:
… it’s ironic that mostly political conservatives attack it, because at the heart of Justice Kennedy’s at-the-heart statement is the essential message of political conservatism, and that is personal liberty.
On the surface all this metaphysical “universe,” “meaning,” and “existence” stuff does sound like something uttered from a channeler or from Shirley McClaine (Judge Robert Beezer of the U.S. Court of Appeals said that the phrase can – especially out of context – sound “so broad and melodramatic as to seem almost comical in its rhetorical flourish”), but what Kennedy says does, in fact, encapsulate basic Jeffersonian conservatism, and had Kennedy written the sentence in dissent to Casey’s affirmation of abortion “rights” (which is at the heart of the rancor over the dictum), this same quote would have been seen as sweeping summary of classical conservatism.
Putting aside the actual Casey decision itself (which is problematic enough) – it’s hard to see how in principle (as opposed to the application) any freedom-loving American, especially a classical small-government-lower-taxes-gun-owning-strong-military conservative could reject Kennedy’s basic message.
“Our law affords,” the justice began the paragraph containing the infamous phrase, “constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education.” For a nation that prides itself on freedom, what else could the justice have said? “Our cases recognize ‘the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.’ Our precedents ‘have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.'” Again, what better summarizes the essence of classical conservatism? “These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Next comes the “mystery” passage: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” And he ends the paragraph with this: “Belief about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under the compulsion of the state.”
Whether the “right” to an abortion appropriately expresses this philosophy is surely an open question. But so often what’s attacked is the phrase itself, as if those words somehow were blatantly hostile to sacred constitutional principles. Yet despite their somewhat otherworldly tone, they clearly reflect the essence of what a government designed to protect the religious rights – indeed, all the rights – of its citizens should be about.
In fact, “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” depicts, essentially, religious ideals. After all, what is religion if not an attempt to explain existence, the universe, and human life? Had Kennedy used more Judeo-Christian phraseology, like “one’s own concept of Deity, of Creation, of man’s relationship to God,” he would have been saying the same thing while no doubt sparing himself the ridicule that the phrase itself, especially taken out of context, has engendered. On the other hand, perhaps Kennedy purposely used desacralized language in order to avoid the problems caused by such statements as Justice Douglas’s oft-cited line in McCollum: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” (a phrase that Douglas supposedly was later sorry he made).
Whatever his motives, Kennedy’s “notorious mystery passage” is neither notorious nor a mystery; it is, instead, a politically correct expression of the best principles of a people who considered rights of conscience so fundamental to how they wanted to live that they framed a Constitution to protect those rights. The mystery, instead, is why those who profess to believe in those same rights should find the passage so notorious.
Indeed. Exactly. The irony is so thick, it verges on tragedy.
The bottom line is this: the appeal to personal liberty can be used to undermine or support anything at all – even so drastic a curtailment of personal liberty as ruling murder effected via abortion a sacrosanct right of all women. And, the assertion that life is essentially and thus incorrigibly mysterious, which is to say, fundamentally unintelligible, so that no one can authoritatively dictate the terms of reality – this being a retail version of the doctrine of nominalism as practically implemented – is effectually the assertion that life is worthless.
Either reality is essentially up for grabs, and is what we make of it, so that nothing is more important or worthy or justifiable than anything else, and nihilism is the only apt attitude; or, not. Only in the latter case can there be such a thing as true good, true virtue, true beauty, true truth – or true life.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.