Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Aquinas vs. Kant

Ed Feser concludes his book Aquinas with the following comment about the relation between the Angelic Doctor and modernity:

In both its metaphysical and theological commitments, Aquinas’s system of ethics is, like the rest of his philosophy, obviously radically at odds with the assumptions typically made by contemporary moral philosophers. But the main difference may lie in something other than a disagreement over this or that particular ontological thesis or argument for God’s existence, in basic ethos rather than intellectual orientation. The spirit of modern moral philosophy is perhaps summed up best in Kant’s famous characterization of human beings as “ends in themselves” and “self-legislators.” This sort of talk would sound blasphemous and even mad to Aquinas, for whom God alone, as the “first cause and last end of all things,” could possibly be said to be the source of moral law and an end in himself. (ST I-II.62.1, as translated by Pegis in Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas). For Aquinas, we are not here for ourselves, but for the glory of God, and precisely because this is the end set for us by nature, it is in him alone that we can find our true happiness. And it must be emphasized that, as with the other themes we’ve explored in this book, he takes this conclusion to be a matter, not of faith, but of reason itself.

Therein lies the sting of Aquinas’ challenge to modernity. [192]

Sed Contra

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind. ~ Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

What I most fear is the reply that I am ‘only one more’ obscurantist, that this barrier, like all previous barriers set up against the advance of science, can be safely passed. Such a reply springs from the fatal serialism of the modern imagination–the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds. Because we have to use numbers so much we tend to think of every process as if it must be like the numeral series, where every step, to all eternity, is the same kind of step as the one before. I implore you to remember the Irishman and his two stoves. There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis–incommensurable with the others–and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labour of your previous journey. To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same thing as not to see. ~ CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man [80-81]

Trust And The Economy

Jennifer Roback Morse writes in her Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village:

Contract law cannot be enough to protect people from “efficient” breaches of contract. The world could not do the amount and kind of business it does if literally everybody acted opportunistically on every occasion.

The banking system provides a specific example of the economic significance of trust. The banking system is based on trust: trust that your money will be there when you go to withdraw it, trust that your loan will not be called in ahead of schedule. Without trust of this kind, the banking system would collapse, no matter how it was regulated and no matter how much deposit insurance was pumped into it. The banking system of Europe has its foundations in the activities of trading families and religious orders during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. One of the marvelous phenomena of economic development is the extensions of those networks of trust, based on personal contact or highly developed reputations, into networks available even to strangers. Hayek described that system of trust among strangers as the “Great Society.”

In the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, well-meaning Western economists have tried to graft a Western-style banking system onto that country. But the Russian people have been informing on one another, lying to the government, and generally doing what they could get away with for seventy years. Many of the economic and political leaders of Russia have had no scruples at all about lining their pockets with the money entrusted to them for the development of the country. No amount of formal regulation would be enough to overcome this fundamental lack of trustworthiness, especially in the short term. [52-53]

What About Honour?

Brett and Kate McKay have concluded a series of posts on the concept and practice of honour in Western civilization, from the Greeks until present day. It’s quite lengthy, and unless you have a whole afternoon or morning to spend, you probably won’t be able to read it in one sitting. But I think it’s worth giving the time, even if spread out.

Manly Honor: Part I — What Is Honor?
Manly Honor: Part II — The Decline of Traditonal Honor in the West, Ancient Greece to the Romantic Period
Manly Honor: Part III — The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor
Manly Honor: Part IV — The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North
Manly Honor: Part V — Honor in the American South
Manly Honor: Part VI — The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century
Manly Honor: Part VII — How and Why to Revive Manly Honor in the Twenty-First Century

They begin with honour in the Greeks, noting that even that far back there were two versions of honour: an external performance-based idea, and an internal conscience-based one. These two views have co-existed and worked out in different ways through history. In their last post, they suggest that some social honour code, with correlative social shaming, is highly valuable, and suggest some ways individuals could try to restore this practice, which has largely been abandoned.

At the same time, they don’t present a totally rosy picture of honour. They note throughout their series that there were good and bad sides to the practice of honour, and I would agree with them on that point as well. If as individuals, as the church, or as a culture, we want to restore respect for honour, we need try to preserve the good in the idea without allowing the negatives to return. This may not be easy, but the arguments McKay makes in his last post are convincing enough to me that I think it is worth trying.

It’s also noteworthy that scripture assumes some recognition of honour and shame is right:

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12)

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32)

“He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.” (1 Samuel 2:8)

“Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.” (1 Chronicles 29:12)

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5)

“Honor the Lord with your wealth
and with the firstfruits of all your produce;” (Proverbs 3:9)

“Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty,
but humility comes before honor.” (Proverbs 18:12)

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife,
but every fool will be quarreling.” (Proverbs 20:3)

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21)

“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;” (Romans 2:7)

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10)

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;” (1 Corinthians 1:27)

“I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,” (1 Corinthians 6:5)

“Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.” (1 Corinthians 15:34)

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Colossians 2:15)

“and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” (Titus 2:8)

“wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.” (Jude 1:13)

The Laws of Nature And Of Nature’s God

One of the characteristic vices of the modern (postmodern?) world is ignorance. This may seem counterintuitive: aren’t we the smart ones? Didn’t we land someone on the moon, build the Internet, develop industrial agriculture? But intelligence in one area does not preclude ignorance in another, as anyone who has met a dumb-smart-person can testify.

And one area where the modern world is woefully ignorant is in the area of ethics. What I mean to say by this is: the modern world is living on the borrowed capital of its premodern predecessors. When it issues moral condemnations, it is presuming a metaphysical foundation that, in every other way (religion, philosophy, science, etc.) it has willfully discarded.

Let me attempt to provide an illustration. If there’s anything that modern activists don’t like, it’s violence. Well, what is violence, exactly? Let’s do a little detective work. (more…)

Occupy Handbook 3

Philip Dray writes in Chapter 3, “Take a Stand: Sit In”:

As the railroad strike of 1877 had led eventually to expanded workers’ rights, so the Greensboro sit-in of February 1, 1960, helped pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both movements remind us that not all successful protests are explicit in their message and purpose; they rely instead on the participants’ intuitive sense of justice. [28]

The last comment, perhaps predictably, puts me in mind of natural law thinking. And there is a valid point to be made here: one need not have a worked out program of policy to have one in general outline, since the universal human sense of natural law gives us a fallible but real sense of justice.

On a different note: the stories about the railroad strike of 1877 provoked me to think again about the biblical teaching regarding civil disobedience. Much thought has been expended in Reformed circles about this topic in the broadest sense (inclusive of revolution): one of the classic texts is, of course, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (“A Defence of Liberty Against Tyrants”). Arguably, the principles used to decide when revolution is necessary can also be used to determine when lesser forms of disobedience might be justified.

A more recent attempt to discuss the question of when civil disobedience is justified, especially considering the example of Operation Rescue, is John Frame’s piece, “When in the Course of Human Events Does Civil Disobedience Become Necessary?

In the hey day of Christian Reconstructionism, too, several Recon theologians published remarkably detailed attempts to elaborate on possible approaches to this question. For example, Theology of Christian Resistance and Tactics of Christian Resistance.

Much food for thought.

Occupy Handbook 2

Chapter 2 features the (in)famous Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, who argue that the 2008 crisis was a text-book Keynesian crisis with obvious Keynesian solutions, solutions which were ignored for political reasons. After laying out the facts about inequality, noting that 2007 levels were equal to those on the eve of the Great depression, they addresses this question:

Why does higher inequality seem to produce greater political polarization? Crucially, the widening gap between the parties has reflected Republicans moving right, not Democrats moving left. This pops out of the Poole-Rosenthal-McCarty numbers, but it’s obvious from the history of various policy proposals. The Obama health care plan, to take an obvious example, was originally a Republican plan, in fact a plan devised by the Heritage Foundation. Now the GOP denounces it as socialism.

The most likely explanation of the relationship between inequality and polarization is that the increased income and wealth of a small minority has, in effect, bought the allegiance of a major political party. Republicans are encouraged and empowered to take positions far to the right of where they were a generation ago, because the financial power of the beneficiaries of their positions both provides an electoral advantage in terms of campaign funding and provides a sort of safety net for individual politicians, who can count on being supported in various ways if they lose an election. [10]

Krugman and Wells argue, then, that inequality was the cause of the crisis. They contend the 1% became rich enough to buy the Republican party, and to cause deregulation enough to create crisis. However, while the first part of that assertion may very well be true (and I have sympathy with it), there are other points to be made. Firstly, rich people and institutions, like banks, support the Democrats as well. Secondly, rich people can cause crises (even unintentionally) through manipulating the market just as much as they could through recklessly deregulating it. I’ve read fairly persuasive (to my mind) responses to their view along the lines that (a) Hoover was not significantly practicing austerity, (b) that “regime uncertainty” may help to explain the length of the depression (see the work of Robert Higgs), and (c) that the 2008 crisis cannot realistically be traced ultimately to deregulation, but rather should be blamed on various interventions through fiscal and monetary policies (this is a common Austrian argument, anyway, and an example can be seen in Thomas Woods’ Meltdown). These things are at least worth considering, and actually need not oppose Krugman and Wells’ point that rich people may have caused this crisis; this is more about the mechanism through which they might have done this.

Krugman and Wells, I think, are fair to ask us to consider whether the rich might have effectively bought a significant chunk of the democratic machinery of the USA. And it perhaps should lead us to consider whether it may not be just to try to set a limit to inequality simply to prevent this possibility. Republicans/Conservatives are completely willing to engage in preemptive attacks in cases like Iraq, or potentially in Iran, to prevent disaster to the republic. Why, then, not preemptive action to prevent a coup by crony capitalists in their own country? The principles seem the same to me.

Occupy Handbook 1

Whilst browsing my local Chapters-Indigo, trying to find a half-decent use for a recent well-appreciated gift-card, this jumped out at me:

I couldn’t resist. One of the features that attracted me to it was the brevity of the (many) chapters. Because it is broken up into small bits, it makes for good blogging material. Thus, I hope in the weeks ahead, to occasionally blog on things that strike me as interesting. I pretend to no expertise on economics, and almost as little on politics. Hopefully, still, someone besides me will find it interesting.

To begin, a comment on the introduction, and on the first essay by Michael Lewis. Janet Bryne writes in her introduction:

Occupy Wall Street has the rare distinction of being a protest movement that even the objects of its attack can find little fault with. According to the Spectrem Group, a consulting firm serving ultra-high-net-worth individuals, 61 percent to 68 percent of millionaires support raising taxes on millionaires. Although every banker [we learn later that Paul Volcker is the only exception–AF] I approached to participate in this book, including JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, politely declined, it was impossible not to sense that, behind the scrim, income equality was a subject that everyone, even bankers, wanted to speak about. [xvi]

As always, when I read statistic assertions, I think of that infamous quote about statistics. But let’s assume this is true. Is this a remarkable fact? Perhaps it is; many would say these people are voting against their own interests. But I wonder if this is not, in a way, defining “self-interest” in a rather Darwinian way, as pitting the survival of one against the survival of the other. Is it really in the interest of millionaires to always vote to lower taxes on themselves? Consider a possible analogy: a man who knows he is going to binge drink at a party, and therefore takes the precaution of giving his keys to his friends. Prudent people sometimes act in ways that might, on first glance, seem to harm themselves by restricting their freedom of choice, but which, on a more thorough analysis, at least preserve their external conformity to the standards of goodness written on their nature as social beings.

In the first chapter, Michael Lewis gives us a 1%-er Screwtape writing to his posse of 1%er Wormwoods. He expresses (in his indirect way) what he believes the 1% have to hope for, if they want to survive with their privilege intact:

The modern Greeks offer the example in the world today that is, the committee has determined, best in class. Ordinary Greeks seldom harass their rich, for the simple reason that they have no idea where to find them. To a member of the Greek Lower 99 a Greek Upper One is as good as invisible. He pays no taxes, lives no place, and bears no relationship to his fellow citizens. As the public expects nothing of him, he always meets, and sometimes even exceeds, their expectations. As a result, the chief concern of the ordinary Greek about the rich Greek is that he will cease to pay the occasional visit.

That is the sort of relationships with the Lower 99 we must cultivate if we are to survive. We must inculcate, in ourselves as much as them, the understanding that our relationship to each other is provisional, almost accidental, and their claims on us non-existent. [6]

This passage lept out at me because it poignantly expressed the inversion of the natural law that Emil Brunner described in his Justice and the Social Order, as I’ve noted before. Instead of the classes seeing each other as part of an organic whole which must work in an integrated and mutually beneficial manner to achieve the common good, the rich, in Lewis’ fictional letter, are counselling themselves to believe they have no obligations to people they have not contracted to fulfill. If (and I write this conditionally because Lewis is imagining this dialogue, and offers no proof here that it corresponds to the actual beliefs of any sizeable portion of rich people) this is how the 1% really think of themselves, then they are ultimately only harming themselves, just as an arm which decided it could survive just fine without the body would soon learn it is not the whole.

Two Kingdoms Roundup

From time to time I discuss magisterial Protestant political theology here at CoG, and in that vein I wanted to direct our readers to a series that has just completed. Brad Littlejohn and, in one case, Peter Escalante, have done a helpfully brief series on two kingdom theology, laying out their narrative from Luther (and his context) to the present day, via Calvin, Hooker, and early modern thinkers like Locke.

Here are the six installments

The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 1: Introducing the Antagonists
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 2: From Luther to Calvin
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 3: From Calvin to Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 4: Richard Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 5: From Hooker to Locke
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 6: Why Does it Matter?

Brad nicely summarizes many of the themes within the series (though there is much more in the final installment than the following):

1) It [Protestant two-kingdoms thinking] de-sacralized, or more properly, de-totalized, the State and the exercise of civil authority. Political authority was still ordained by God, accountable to God, and indeed redeemed in Christ, to be sure, and to this extent, could be said to mediate his rule. However, this rule of God’s “left hand” was radically distinct from His proper work of redemption and oversaw matters of temporary and limited significance; civil authorities were responsible to preserve the created order, not to bring in the new creation. This teaching set a decisive limit to the scope of civil authority, or the sorts of demands it could make. Of course, medieval papalism had certainly limited the state as well, but by seeking to make the civil authorities the policemen of the church, it had made rulers tangle with matters of conscience with politics, making heresy a civil crime. Although haltingly and inconsistently, Luther’s heirs worked to disentangle these two.

2) More foundationally, it deprived the church as such of juridical or coercive authority. There could be no spiritual jurisdiction in the full and proper sense of both of these terms. This was in stark contrast to the medieval system, in which the penitential system of the church was conceived in increasingly juridical terms, and the church accordingly tended to take on the characteristics of a civil polity. Worst of all, in the Crusades and in Boniface’s claim to a plenitudo potestatis, it made the sword to be a possession of spiritual rulers, calling for holy violence on behalf of the Church against the Church’s enemies. Luther’s reform, however, radically de-sacralized violence, associating it entirely with temporal rule and very limited temporal ends, and many of his heirs admirably carried forward this legacy.

3) Closely related to these two points, it stood as a bulwark against any attempt to immanentize the eschaton. Since we walk by faith, not by sight, any attempt to attribute eschatological ultimacy to any visible institution or activity was misguided. The two-kingdoms doctrine instilled in the Christian a sense of healthy detachment toward earthly loyalties, a healthy realism about what earthly institutions can accomplish, and offered consolation when they failed to achieve their lofty aims. It discouraged any attempt to make the kingdom of God a complete outward reality here and now by force, whether by holy war or holy law. Neither civil authorities nor church authorities could expect to create a perfectly virtuous people here in the midst of history.

4) Because of all these things, it treated freedom of conscience as sacrosanct. Because faith was not dependent on any human works, nor could it depend on any human authority, God alone remained master of the conscience, and his word alone, not the commands of either princes or bishops, could bind it. Although of course the realm of this freedom was debated fiercely and at times constricted, the principle was clear, and however much Protestants might quarrel over the scope of “things indifferent,” the fact that civil authority was limited to the regulation of these set the stage for the progressive expansion of civil society and individual freedom.

5) It served as a bulwark against an overextension of the sola Scriptura principle, to which many Protestants were tempted, and safeguarded the continuing value of natural reason and prudence to guide political deliberation. Good two-kingdoms thinkers resisted any idea of a Scripturally-mandated blueprint for politics or jurisprudence. This was one respect in which two-kingdoms thinking, in many other respects hostile to late medieval theology, preserved some of the rich contributions of scholastic Aristotelianism. Richard Hooker is perhaps the most prominent example of this use of the two-kingdoms doctrine, recovering the full resources of Thomism in his account of law in the civil kingdom even while maintaining a staunch Protestantism when it came to the spiritual.

6) In all these ways, the two kingdoms doctrine clearly paves the way for the development of liberal institutions. However, it provides what many Christian defenders of liberalism have lacked—a basis for secularity in the sense of non-ultimacy, but not in the sense of non-religiousness. In Protestant two-kingdoms thinking, the civil kingdom, despite all of the above, remains both informed by and concerned with the exercise of true religion. While natural law was retained and even championed by many of these thinkers, Scripture remained its authoritative interpreter, and the redemption wrought in Christ, although fully realized only in the eschaton, had implications for civil rule inasmuch as it disclosed the proper, restored order of fallen creation. Since grace perfected nature, good religion conduced to civil peace, and hence a good ruler could not be entirely indifferent to the promotion of true religion, although he must never seek to compel belief.

As a bonus, a few other essays by these gentlemen:

In celebration of the upcoming DVD release of The Dark Knight Rises, I want to share again a condensed form of a multi-post discussion Littlejohn wrote on the political themes of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. I include this post here both because I’m a complete Batman nerd, and because TDKR can be plausibly seen, in my humble opinion, as an apology for a 2K order over against the eschaton-immanentizing project of Bane/The League of Shadows.

Escalante (in some cases along with Steven Wedgeworth) has also discussed the themes of the 2K series previously. Here he interacts with Davey Henreckson further on Locke’s period, and here and here Peter and Steven delve into more detail on Calvin.

I commend to you, in general, both The Sword and the Ploughshare, and The Calvinist International.

On How My Mind Has Changed

I used to spend a fair amount of energy defending libertarian positions on politics and economics on this blog. In the time that has passed since then, I have shifted my positions on a number of issues, but the conclusion is, I don’t regard myself as a libertarian in any sense anymore. In general, my political/economic views probably come most near to Philip Blond’s Red Toryism (or, insofar as it is another name for the same thing, Blue Labour). Since I have changed positions quite substantially, I feel I owe it to my readers to be explicit in my shift. (more…)