My quarrel with the thinking man
In his essay What we think about, G. K. Chesterton relates his perplexity at finding someone write “Mr. Chesterton does not mean to enlighten us, for all we know he is modernist enough in his own thoughts.”
What the man really meant was this: “Even poor old Chesterton must think; he can’t have actually left off thinking altogether; there must be some form of cerebral function going forward to fill the empty hours of his misdirected and wasted life; and it is obvious that if a man begins to think, he can only think more or less in the direction of Modernism.” The Modernists do really think that. That is the point. That is the joke.
Now what we have really got to hammer into the heads of all these people, somehow, is that a thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism, but not deeper and deeper into difficulties about Catholicism. We have got to make them see that conversion is the beginning of an active, fruitful, progressive, and even adventurous life of the intellect. For that is the thing that they cannot at present bring themselves to believe. They honestly say to themselves: “What can he be thinking about, if he is not thinking about the Mistakes of Moses, as discovered by Mr. Miggles of Pudsey, or boldly defying all the terrors of the Inquisition which existed two hundred years ago in Spain?” We have got to explain somehow that the great mysteries like the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting points for trains of thought far more stimulating, subtle, and even individual, compared with which all that skeptical scratching is as thin, shallow, and dusty as a nasty piece of scandalmongering in a New England village. Thus, to accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St. John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world….To set out to belittle and minimize the Mass, by talking ephemeral back-chat about what it had in common with Mithras or the Mysteries, is to be in altogether a more petty and pedantic mood; not only lower than Catholicism but lower even than Mithraism.
In our day, we are familiar with the “thinking Catholic”. “Thinking” means that he accepts the modernist consensus without question, and “Catholic” means he insists the Church adjust herself to accommodate his lack of imagination. Similarly, we all know the “thinking conservative”, the type who only ever thinks about what new concessions we must make to liberalism. I have pointed out before this asymmetry between the Left and Right, that the intellectual leadership of the Left is expected to be more radical than most Leftist voters, whereas the intellectual leadership of the Right is expected to be more moderate than most Rightist voters. This is one of our major disadvantages.
The beginning of thought
Some time ago, I wrote that rejecting the Enlightenment is only the beginning of thought.
It is no doubt a great thing to free oneself from the cloud of humbug into which we are all born. However, clearing one’s vision is only the start of seeing; next we must actually look around. One way that the Enlightenment controls the minds of billions, locking them into a degrading and absurd mental slavery, is by making people imagine they know what’s on the other side. “Without the social contract…tyranny! Without separation of Church and state…religious warfare! Without feminism…rape! Without capitalism…communism! Without cosmopolitanism…Nazis! So love your chains, and repeat the slogans like a good boy.” You know how it goes. You heard it, and you remember how it kept you bound for a long time after you realized that you didn’t particularly like what they were pushing…It is not true that conservatism or reaction needs to postulate any kind of ideal time in the past, but the Enlightened must commit themselves to the belief that the past was an utter horror.
However, those blinded by the Enlightenment have no idea what is on the other side. How could they, with such a narrow, unimaginative, and parochial worldview? In fact, the world of alternatives is vast, so vast that anyone beginning to step outside Enlightenment strictures should be warned that the greatest intellectual challenge is still ahead…
Having rejected liberalism, you understand that the state cannot avoid the big questions about God, free will, and the nature of human flourishing, because any social order will represent some implicit answer to these questions. However, this does not yet answer any of these questions.
Very well, one might grant that rejecting the Enlightenment and its political program (liberalism) in principle leaves a great deal open, in practice does our culture not have a distinct pre-Enlightenment tradition into which we can easily default? In fact, we have quite a few to choose from–Plato vs Aquinas vs Suarez vs Calvin vs Descartes, imperialism vs feudalism vs royal absolutism–and loyalty to the counter-revolution cannot make these choices for us. Even when we have picked a pre-modern tradition, this does very little of the intellectual work for us that needs to be done. At best, becoming a Thomist or a monarchist removes Modernist mental clutter that would have impeded the intellectual work still ahead.
Examples: history, economy, philosophy of science
As traditionalists, we are committed to understanding the past. Our bonds of faith and sympathy with out ancestors make us better suited to understand them than modernity’s court historians, but our task is also more difficult, because we cannot satisfy ourselves with Whiggery’s facile narrative. A first step to understanding the past is to reject the Whig interpretation of history. But it would be lazy to replace a simplistic story of advance from the Middle Ages with a reverse story of decline. Renaissance, Reformation, and early modern eras were not mere transitional forms between medievalism and modernism; understood on their own terms, they display the diversity and splendor of Christian culture. Rejecting Whig history is only the beginning of thought. Eric Voegelin has taught us to study the symbols through which a society represents itself and its worldview. I have recently read a fascinating study of medieval France that fills in many details of how a sophisticated traditionalist society actually operated. These are the sorts of intellectual adventures that can begin after one rejects the Enlightenment.
Distributism is only the beginning of thought. It is no small thing to have recognized the importance of small-scale production in a humane economy, but this only makes the task of the economist harder. It is no warrant to evade his modernist colleagues’ tasks of quantitative modeling and policy prescriptions; it only adds new concerns which may sometimes cut against economies of scale and government predilection for centralization. John Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market is an excellent book, but there is a memorable point when, having defined the just wage in independent ways, he asks how we can know that they must agree, concluding simply that they must, since otherwise economics would be absurd. Clearly, more theoretical work is needed at the foundations.
Accepting Thomist metaphysics is only the beginning of thought, an unpleasant surprise for those to whom it was advertised as a complete worldview. Reading Dr. Feser’s book on Scholastic Metaphysics made me realize how boring metaphysics, properly delimited, really is. Scholastic principles such as those having to do with powers and causality are in themselves only minimally informative, as Fester admits, when applied to particular systems. The really interesting questions–about the natures of sets, space, time, matter, emergence, life, and consciousness–are all a step down in the study of ontology (what used to be called the philosophy of nature). We can take inspiration from Aristotle’s own Physics, but if we insist on accepting it dogmatically in spite of its many ambiguities and conflicts with the cosmos as we actually observe it, we will be driven to “metaphysicalize” it, attributing its truth to some noumenal realm inaccessible to the phenomenal world. But then we will not know how to apply its concepts of substance, potency, causality, etc (and those who try will often reach crazy conclusions, such as that all of chemistry is miraculous) and therefore cannot be confident that we truly understand them. We will have succumbed to the Church’s post-Galilean retreat into metaphysics. Fortunately, we have a great deal of freedom here. I often find in philosophy of physics books that a generally insightful writer will suddenly start interpreting theories in a bizarre, unnatural way quite alien to how physicists actually think about them. The reason is that the writer is tailoring his thought to the dogmas of David Hume, and at such times I am always thankful for the freedom the Schoolmen gave me.
The role of the laity
Vatican II, we are told, transformed the Church’s attitude toward the laity. This is true, but it did so in a paradoxical way. On the one hand, the laity are inordinately praised (and for all the whining about “clericalism”, few professions have for the past 60 years been as demoralized, as forbidden the ordinary pride in one’s work, as priests). On the other hand, their historic roles have been undercut. The only way we can now find to express this awesome dignity the laity supposedly possess is to give them quasi-clerical make-work during Mass. This paradox is the subject of an excellent new essay at The Josias by Alan Fimister. He points out that the formula “separation of Church and State” entails a sort of clericalism, in that it identifies the entire Church with the activities of the clerical caste. In Christendom, the temporal order was not separate from the Church; it was the other half of the Church, the half of the laity bringing the order of Christ to this life.
A better way to promote the dignity of the laity, instead of simply flattering them for being so very educated and moral, would be to rediscover the importance of their distinctive role in the Church Militant. Part of that is political; it involves fights over culture and over control of the coercive apparatus of the state. Pope Francis is right to say that these fights cannot be one of the clergy’s main tasks; the other side of this truth is that they are the one of the laity’s main tasks. Fighting is one of the things we do; it’s good, holy, and necessary work. Intellectual work, especially outside theology, is another. We probably are guilty of ignoring this work, not because thinking must necessarily lead in the direction of liberalism and apostasy, but because the enormous intellectual freedom our illiberalism gives us makes the task so difficult.