Culture, History

Stuff! And the Greeks

Stuff! And the Greeks“Gosh I’ve got a lot of junk!”

I must have said that line a couple dozen times over the course of the last few weeks. As I know is the case with many people, my recent move to a new place made me realize once more just how many material items I actually own.

I think most of us have been in this situation at one point or another, piling all of our worldly possessions into storage totes, bags, and boxes so we can move them to a new location where they will go mostly unused and collect a new layer of dust. At least until the time comes to move them yet again.

Let’s face it, in our modern, American society, we have a lot of stuff. And I don’t just mean knick-knacks and clutter.

Much like our overabundance of food, our level of material prosperity is unprecedented in history. For example, a hundred years ago, automobiles were still considered luxury items for the wealthy. Today nearly everyone has one, including plenty of kids who are still in high school.

Then there are our electronics. Even those of us who are of rather modest means still tend to have laptops and smart phones. We like to complain that we have no money, yet we can find a way to drop $600 on a new iPhone. Our great-grandparents who lived through the Depression Era would mock us to scorn—and rightfully so—for complaining that we are poor. The vast majority of us have no idea what that word even means.

By way of contrast, I would point to the Athenians of Classical Age Greece. As I explain to my students every year, even wealthy Greeks would have been considered poor by our standards. While we today have so much stuff that we need to hold garage sales or make regular trips to the thrift stores in order to get rid of it, most people in Classical Athens owned their clothing, a few blankets, a little pottery, some metal cooking utensils, and a bit of jewelry. And that was about it.

Keep in mind too that this wasn’t some backwards, stone-age civilization. Athens was the cultural center of the western world during the Classical Age. Its citizens weren’t a bunch of country bumpkins. Many of them were quite wealthy, in fact, and they had a flourishing culture with art, architecture, music, theater, and philosophy.

What they didn’t have though, was a lot of stuff. And they were probably a lot happier for it.

It might not hurt us to take the Greeks as role models in this regard. If nothing else, it would make moving a lot easier.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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History, Politics

Christopher Ferrara’s Judicial Thought Experiment

Christopher Ferrara's Judicial Thought ExperimentIn the article, A High View of Justice?, I argued that the interpretative theory mainstream conservatives utilize when reading the constitution has significant flaws,

“This gets to an important point concerning these competing views of constitutional jurisprudence. A primary problem with the conservative view is that they seem to adhere to a jurisprudence that does not consider the important question of what a justice ought to do. What a justice ought to do when deciding a case is much different than focusing on what the constitution affords justices the power to do when deciding a case. Progressives, on the other hand, seem to be totally focused on the question of what a justice ought to do when deciding a case no matter the constraints within the text of the constitution. This is why progressive justices will “legislate from the bench” on certain issues; they believe they have a duty to sanction justice exceeding the constraints considered to be culturally arbitrary. The problem with the progressive view, I maintain, isn’t that they focus on what justices ought to, it is that they are the philosopher kings of an erroneous political philosophy informed by the tenets of a fallacious liberalism.

Consider this from the perspective of the current debate concerning marriage and the Obergefell decision overturning laws throughout the states that had enshrined the traditional, conjugal view of marriage. What if the justices had decided differently? What if the justices not only upheld the traditional marriage laws where they already existed, but overturned the laws in other states that opened marriage to redefinition while stating that the only valid laws are those adhering to traditional marriage? Now, if the traditional view of marriage is true, right, and just could any conservative seriously argue that this is an act of unjust judicial activism? Would it be unjust to protect the family from progressive redefinition? It is important to also consider whether something being unjust and something being unconstitutional is the same thing.

The justice adhering to the textualist interpretative view of the constitution may argue that they cannot make such a ruling because they have no power to do so. The constitution does not afford them the authority to rule on the definition of marriage. This perspective will most likely result in these justices not being able to rule as they ought to in this instance. If this is the case, then it is a reasonable criticism to say that the conservative view of the constitution prevents justices from doing as they ought to in cases requiring adherence to a higher view of justice afforded by the written text of the constitution.

But can this be a correct and moral jurisprudence, let the constitution reign though justice be thwarted?”

Keep these arguments in mind when considering this judicial thought experiment taken from the pages of Christopher Ferrara’s book, Liberty: The God that Failed.


Changing History: A Thought Experiment

It is not hard to imagine what would happen if Catholics in public life awoke from their liberty-minded trance and remembered that the God who judges His creatures for failing to obey His law does not require a visitor’s pass to enter the courtrooms and legislative chambers of the Western democratic republics. He is there already, and the same judges and legislators who routinely defy His will even piously invoke His name.

Suppose for example, that five of the six Catholic justices now sitting on the Supreme Court bench join in a majority opinion overruling Roe v. Wade. Let us suppose that this opinion holds that the Fifth Amendment protection against the deprivation of life and liberty without due process of law, applied to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment, extends to life in the womb. Suppose further that the opinion holds that the Fourteenth Amendment itself, which provides that no state shall ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to persons in utero. Finally, let us suppose that the opinion ends with this astonishing declaration:

The Constitution was not drafted and ratified in a moral or theological vacuum. The Framers lived in a society whose common law tradition still recognized the Law of God, and in particular the ‘divine positive law’ of the Ten Commandments, as the ultimate source of human positive law. The classic commentaries of William Blackstone place this historical conclusion beyond serious dispute. The justices of this very Court take an oath to God, and we deliver our opinions while sitting beneath a frieze depicting Moses the Lawgiver holding the tablets containing the Commandments.

We recall here Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic declaration in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” For too long, the legal distortions created throughout the fabric of this nation by our unprecedented legal decision in Roe have placed conscientious Americans in the same position as Dr. King, writing from his jail cell. Indeed, Roe has given rise to a new civil rights movement and concomitant social turmoil that show no signs of abating nearly forty years after Roe divided this nation in a way not seen since the abolition movement that followed the everlasting embarrassment of our decision in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857).

But beyond a mere appeal to history, which provides the context for our textual interpretation, we hold today that the Constitution’s morally freighted terms ‘person,’ ‘life,’ and ‘liberty’ cannot be considered apart from the same ultimate source of moral authority that Blackstone, our nation’s common law tradition, and Dr. King had in view. As this Court observed in Zorach v. Clausen, 343 U.S. at 314, ‘We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’ Men are creatures of that Supreme Being, accountable to Him for any human law that contravenes His law, which is written on the heart. Our unfortunate decision in Roe is such a human law. We overrule it today, not only in the name of history and tradition, but in the name of God.

That the issuance of such an opinion now seems absolutely inconceivable is in itself a demonstration of the depth and breadth of the dictatorship of Liberty. But what would happen if the Court so decided? The mass media would of course erupt in an unprecedented storm of outrage. These would be calls for impeachment proceedings to remove all five Catholic justices. But what would be the impeachable offense – that the five justices had violated their oaths to God by citing His law in their opinion? Who in the Senate would be foolhardy enough to lead a prosecution of five sitting Supreme Court justices based on their adherence to God’s law, supported moreover by references to history, tradition and Saint Martin of Birmingham?

Consider the galvanizing effect the decision would have on a nation whose population is still overwhelmingly at least nominally Christian. Surely, in response to the liberal onslaught, conservative talk radio and TV would hail the justices as heroes, as would evangelical Christian leaders and even many members of the ordinarily craven United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Pope would hail the decision, emboldened by the courageous witness of the justices, and Catholics around the world would join the Pope. Certain orthodox Jewish leaders who have long allied themselves with Christians on moral and social issues would lend support to the justices as they come under attack by the media jackals and Congress. And what could the President do? Like Thomas Jefferson in his frustration over Justice Marshall’s interference in his attempt to railroad Aaron Burr to the gallows… he would be reduced to ranting having no legal effect on the life tenure of the five justices. The justices would hold on to their seats and the ‘separation of powers’ that was supposed to characterize the American Republic would receive a tremendous vindication.

In the States, pro-life initiatives in the courts and legislatures would gain powerful impetus. If not outright bans on abortion, state after state, freed from the dead hand of Roe, would be able to enact measures that drastically reduce the number of abortions. Christians would come out of hiding throughout the political process, now openly proclaiming that God’s law ought indeed to govern positive law and judicial decisions, and what were we thinking before? The resulting rightward shift in national politics could produce a fundamental realignment in Congress and even another Catholic president, but this time one who would not be afraid to proclaim his faith while urging Americans to unite on the great moral issues of our time, using the bully pulpit of the presidency to preach national repentance and conversion of hearts while the liberals seethe with rage.

All of these things could well happen because five jurists had the courage to remind their nation that there is a God in heaven, that we must all die and face His eternal judgment, and that both men and nations have a duty in this world to follow His law. In short, our imaginary Supreme Court scenario could be a defining moment in the battle for the soul of the West, with the potential to change not only the course of American history, but the history of the world. And what is to stop this imaginary event from becoming a reality? Nothing, save fear of the powers that be. When our leaders overcome that fear, the rescue of the West from the clutches of Liberty can begin.

As the Protestant-led NRA movement recognized long ago, only when conservatives – both on and off the bench, in America and in every Western nation – begin to invoke and defend the law of God, rather than the will of the people or the text of a document standing alone, can there be any hope of regaining the vast moral territory we have already lost and of avoiding a final defeat that can only mean the destruction of what is left of the moral order and the overt persecution of believing Christians throughout the Western world. Whoever among us still does not see this is fiddling while the West burns.


 

– Lucas G. Westman

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Book Review, History, Military History

A Higher Call

A Higher Call Book Cover“It’s probably the best book I’ve ever read,” my dad told me.

“It’s really, really good,” my brother Phil confirmed.

Though I’d purchased the World War II aviation story for both my dad and brother after being drawn to its intriguing dust jacket at Barnes and Noble, I’d not yet found the chance to read it for myself. However, once I opened its pages, I understood exactly what they were talking about.

A Higher Call by Adam Makos tells of a kind of heroics we don’t often get to hear about in the 21st century. It’s a story of chivalrous behavior between men who are mortal enemies.

The following is from the book’s blurb:

“December, 1943: A badly damaged American bomber struggles to fly over wartime Germany. At the controls is twenty-one-year-old Second Lieutenant Charlie Brown. Half his crew lay wounded or dead on this, their first mission. Suddenly, a Messerschmitt fighter pulls up on the bomber’s tail. The pilot is German ace Franz Stigler—and he can destroy the young American crew with the squeeze of a trigger…

“What happened next would defy imagination and later be called “the most incredible encounter between enemies in World War II.

“The U.S. 8th Air Force would later classify what happened between them as “top secret.” It was an act that Franz could never mention for fear of facing a firing squad. It was the encounter that would haunt both Charlie and Franz for forty years until, as old men, they would search the world for each other, a last mission that could change their lives forever.”

While the climax of A Higher Call is the suspenseful encounter between the desperate American bomber crew and the German ace, the book is about much more than that, as it carefully traces the paths of the two pilots which led to their dramatic meeting in the skies over war-torn Europe.

There are a couple of important morals that stand out in this masterfully written story.

The secondary moral, which I will address first, is that there were good people on the German side of World War II. As Americans, we tend to forget this, as we prefer to see ourselves as having been the unquestioned heroes of the war, fighting against pure evil. We don’t like to be reminded that much of the Nazis’ wicked, eugenic philosophy originated in the United States and was even defended by the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell.

By contrast, there were many Germans, including those serving in the armed forces, who despised Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist regime and blamed the Nazis for Germany’s unfolding destruction and for the appalling suffering of the German people. The majority of Germans voted against Hitler in the election of 1932, yet the popular support he did have enabled him to rise to power anyway and then drag his country into war.

Once in control, the Nazis ruled Germany with an iron fist and would brook no dissent. Among the stories Makos relates is that of a widowed wife of a German soldier who was executed because she told a joke about Hitler to her fellow factory workers.

In an oppressive environment like this, men like Franz Stigler fought not for the hated Nazi regime and its dreaded SS enforcers, but rather for their families and friends who lived in ever-increasing squalor in the bombed-out cities below the German skies.

Against this rather dramatic historical backdrop, Makos paints a play-by-play picture of Stigler’s noble decision to spare the lives of his defenseless enemies, even at grave risk to his own. It’s in this act that we find the primary moral of the book.

As the reader will discover, Stigler had every reason to shoot down the wounded American bomber plane and no practical reason whatsoever to spare it. Despite this, in that adrenaline-fueled moment over his devastated homeland, he decided to put aside his desire for personal glory and chose instead to answer a higher call.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

 

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History, Politics

Catholics on the Court: Then and Now

Catholics on the Court“All-male, all-Roman Catholic majority on Supreme Court puts religious wrongs over women’s rights.”

Thus read an advertisement which appeared in the New York Times in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and other employers who objected on religious grounds to providing their employees with various forms of birth control.

The obvious insinuation of the ad, which was placed by the atheist group, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, was that the male, Roman Catholic justices were swayed by their religious beliefs to vote in favor of allowing corporate owners the freedom of conscience to abstain from paying for their employees’ birth control and abortifacients.

While it is more likely the five justices came to their decision based simply on the rule of law, the principle of religious freedom, and plain common sense, various groups are pressing the accusation that the justices let their Catholic religion influence their decision. It is most interesting to note that this is not the first time such an allegation has been levelled against a member of the Supreme Court.

In 1927, the Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that the forced sterilization of those deemed “unfit” to procreate was a constitutionally acceptable practice. It was in this case that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. gave the world his now infamous statement, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The plaintiff in the case, 18-year-old Carrie Buck, was considered “feeble-minded” and had already become pregnant, though it was later discovered that this was due to rape rather than to her alleged genetic proclivity for licentious behavior. Today it is strongly suspected that she was actually fairly healthy, and that her adopted family had institutionalized her in order to cover up the sexual assault, which had been perpetrated by a nephew. Nevertheless, after a poorly-argued case, the Court ruled 8-1 in favor of forcibly cutting her fallopian tubes against her expressed will.

Only one justice—Pierce Butler—dissented from the majority decision. He was the Court’s lone Catholic.

Because of his Catholic religious affiliation, Butler’s fellow justices questioned beforehand whether he would, as Holmes put it, “have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion.” Afterwards, it seemed to them that he had not. History though, would vindicate Butler.

Less than two decades after Buck v. Bell, the Nazis (who modelled their own system after American laws) demonstrated to the world the true horrors that eugenics programs could produce, and thereby helped to shock society, at least for a time, out of its quest to create a perfect master race.

During the Nuremburg trials, the Nazi eugenicists tried to defend themselves by pointing to the Buck v. Bell decision. Eugenics was, after all, considered a proven science at that time and was believed by many to be crucial for the common good.

In retrospect, most people realize that Buck v. Bell was a terrible miscarriage of justice, yet it was a decision in which only one of nine U.S. Supreme Court justices had the courage to dissent. It was a decision in which only one Supreme Court justice had the foresight to resist the latest trend in “healthcare.”

That justice was Pierce Butler—a Catholic.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky


(This article was originally written by Nicholas Kaminsky in summer, 2014 for The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.)

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History, Military History, Politics

Cato the Elder & John McCain

Cato the Elder & John McCainLearn from history or repeat it, the popular maxim goes. The problem is, no one ever seems to learn from history.

Consider the following case in point:

From 264-146 BC, ancient Rome fought a series of major wars against its greatest rival, the city of Carthage. All three of these Punic Wars, as they are known, ended in Roman victories, which ultimately led to Roman dominance of the Mediterranean.

It would be a mistake though to think that these wars were a cakewalk for Rome. Perhaps the greatest danger to the Romans came during the second war when the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, who is widely considered to be one of the greatest military commanders in world history, performed the impossible task of leading an army of men and elephants over the Alps and into Italy where he rampaged around the countryside for 15 years, destroying all the Roman armies sent against him.

Hannibal’s reign of terror was ended when a young Roman general named Publius Scipio launched a counterattack against the city of Carthage, causing Hannibal to be recalled from Italy to Africa, where Scipio defeated him at the decisive Battle of Zama in 202 BC.

Despite this second defeat of Carthage and the application of crushing sanctions and indemnities, many Roman senators could not rest easy while their old enemy existed, even as a shadow of its former self.

The most vocal of these senators was Cato the Elder, who as a young man had fought in the Second Punic War. In his later years, Cato held a variety of political offices, where he was well-known for his enduring hatred of Rome’s ancient rival. He was famous for ending every speech he gave, regardless of the topic, with the exhortation, “Carthage must be destroyed!”

In 149 BC, Cato’s wish came true as Rome declared war once more after Carthage violated the nations’ peace treaty by defending itself against military aggression on the part of Rome’s African ally, Numidia. After a series of hard-fought battles, Roman troops captured the city of Carthage and utterly destroyed it, selling the survivors into slavery. The Punic Wars were over.

Whenever I tell my class the story of the Punic Wars, I am struck by the uncanny likeness between the old curmudgeon, Cato the Elder, and our own American politician, Senator John McCain. Both were once soldiers who served bravely on the field of battle, yet both appeared to have difficulty moving beyond their respective wars. Just as the aging Cato couldn’t get Carthage out of his head until it was annihilated, so the octogenarian McCain seems obsessed with the idea of reigniting the Cold War and even of dragging the United States into a hot war with his old nemesis, Russia.

The following are but a few examples of McCain’s belligerence toward his Eastern foe of yesteryear:

1.) In 2008, when the Russian military intervened in Georgia to help a strongly pro-Russian section of the country assert its independence, McCain famously promised the president of Georgia that the United States would support Georgia against its former Cold War partner, saying “Today we are all Georgians.”

2.) In 2011, McCain—along with Hillary Clinton—pushed for U.S. assistance in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which ultimately led to Gaddafi’s murder and to the collapse of his country into anarchy. The American intervention in Libya was opposed by then-prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the bloody aftermath reportedly galvanized Putin against softening his stance toward the U.S. as Gaddafi had done.

3.) In 2013, McCain publicly goaded President Barak Obama to deploy the U.S. military to enforce his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Russian-allied Syria, despite a lack of constitutionally required Congressional authorization for the President to do so.

4.) In 2014, McCain declared “We are all Ukrainians” in regard to Russian invasions of the Crimean Peninsula and parts of the Ukraine after the pro-Russian president of that country was driven out by angry mobs spurred on in part by rhetoric from McCain himself, who travelled to Eastern Europe for that purpose.

5.) In 2016, McCain claimed that alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election was “an act of war.”

6.) In 2017, McCain sought to give NATO membership to Montenegro, yet another country in Russia’s backyard, and went so far as to accuse fellow senator Rand Paul of “working for Vladimir Putin” when Paul opposed the move on the grounds that it unnecessarily risked pulling the U.S. into yet another major war.

7.) Finally, John McCain has for years been one of the staunchest advocates of U.S. military action against Iran, a move that would assuredly ignite yet another proxy war between the United States and Russia, much like the one currently raging in Syria.

While he hasn’t yet thumped his fist on his Senate-chamber desk and declared, “Russia must be destroyed,” it’s clear that Senator John McCain—like Cato the Elder two millennia before him—has an obsession with his country’s chief opponent from the days of his youth.

Of course this is not to say that the Russians are merely innocent victims of American aggression as some would have us believe, but neither were the Carthaginians helpless lambs being led to the slaughter by an oppressive Rome. Rome certainly had some good reasons to fight against Carthage, at least during the first two Punic Wars. Despite this, it would behoove us to remember that the Punic Wars cost both Carthage and Rome a tremendous price in blood and treasure, leading to the annihilation of the former and setting the stage for decades of social strife and civil war in the latter.

Despite these historic similarities, there is one major difference between our modern, international situation and that of Cato’s time, of which everyone involved should take note. The difference is that neither Rome nor Carthage had a stockpile of nuclear weapons capable of wiping out humanity.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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History, Military History, Politics, Uncategorized

The Praetorian Guard, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and Michael Flynn: Dangerous Precedents

The Praetorian GuardOn the first day of my Ancient and Medieval Civilizations class, I always ask my students why we study history. One of them always replies that if we don’t learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it.

I think this is true. I also think that we as a people never learn from history.

The early weeks of the Trump administration brought up an interesting case in point. President Donald Trump’s National Security Director, Michael T. Flynn, was forced to resign after someone in the intelligence community intercepted and leaked to the media a recording of a conversation between Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak, in which Flynn seemed to suggest that relief of U.S. sanctions against Russia was possible under Trump.

Many in the media hailed the leaker as a hero who’d exposed an alleged violation of the 1799 Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in diplomacy. After all, Flynn wasn’t appointed National Security Director until a few weeks after the conversation with Kislyak.

Not everyone, though, viewed this development in a positive light. Nor was it only Trump supporters and fellow Republicans who expressed concerns about the wiretapping and leaks. Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who is perhaps best known for his attempts to impeach President George W. Bush in 2008, gave an interview in which he strongly condemned the actions of the mysterious leaker and warned of the secret power plays at work in the CIA. “The American people,” Kucinich said, “have to know that there’s a game going on inside the intelligence community where there are those who want to separate the U.S. from Russia in a way that would reignite the Cold War. That’s what’s at the bottom of all this.” He also mentioned that “what’s going on in the intelligence community with this new President is unprecedented. They’re making every effort to upend him.”

Whether they like Trump or hate him, I think all U.S. citizens should be troubled to learn of unknown and unelected bureaucrats working covertly to sabotage a presidential administration. We are not the first civilization to tread over this dangerous ground.

For much of its early history, the city of Rome did not tolerate armed troops within its official boundaries. Returning armies marching through the city in victory processions had to leave their weapons outside the city limits. The presence of armed troops within the city was viewed as too great a danger to the freedoms of Rome’s citizens.

This policy changed with the rise of Caesar Augustus and the emperors who followed in his footsteps. Augustus, arguing that he needed bodyguards, allowed armed troops into the city in the form of his elite Praetorian Guard. As the years passed, the Praetorian Guard grew more influential and more accustomed to protecting its own interests. It eventually became so powerful that it was able to depose emperors and proclaim new ones.

Over the centuries that followed Augustus’s reign, a total of thirteen Roman emperors died at the hands of those who were supposed to be their bodyguards. It’s true that many of these rulers were evil or incompetent or both, but the Praetorian Guard wasn’t just looking out for the good of Rome. It had a vested interest in ensuring that there would always be an emperor in need of its protection. Thus, after the Praetorians murdered the vicious emperor, Caligula, they moved quickly to thwart the plans of the senators for restoring the Roman Republic by declaring Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, the new emperor. By doing so, they ensured that they would maintain their position of power within the Roman government.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Trump or any future President is going to get assassinated by the CIA or any other government agency. But I am questioning how comfortable we should be with unelected bureaucrats pulling strings and calling the shots from the shadows, especially when those bureaucrats belong to an agency known around the world for its role in regime changes.

In the United States we have a Constitution with a system of checks and balances in place to prevent any branch of the government from becoming too powerful. If a President (or one of his subordinates) does something illegal, he needs to answer to the people’s representatives in Congress. That’s how our system is supposed to work. While it might be easier to let the intelligence services take care of the problem, it’s also far more dangerous.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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Culture, History, Philosophy, Political Philosophy

Phillip Blond on the Tyranny of Liberalism

Rebellion and Revolution in France

“The dilemma arises, however, of how to uphold the precedence of the individual over and above the society with which he or she must necessarily engage. The answer is a two-stage path to modern tyranny – first collectivism and then the authoritarian state. The extreme individualism that underpins the liberal account of human nature in the end demands collectivism as a means of preserving the sanctity of the singular when confronted with the reality of others. If enduring human relationships – the family, corporations, communities – offer only subjugation, society must be stripped of its oppositional forces and of a genuine difference in order to preserve this radical idea of liberty intact. Individuality cut away from human relationships and inherited traditions demands that, in order to preserve this extreme sense of identity, all individuals must be exactly like each other: this is exactly why John Rawls imagined that one could only construct a model for a liberal society by imagining a ‘veil of ignorance’ in which no one knows what identity or what social role they would occupy in any actual social arrangement. But genuine decision-making is always a reflection upon what we have received and what we owe each other: a fictional abstract subject, identical to all other subjects and free of all relationships, can only choose a society that preserves this formal identity and equality as far as possible. Such a society will be bound to become tyrannical: to purchase identical freedom for all at the price of a terrifying control of all by all, which will be exercised in the name of what Rousseau called the ‘general will’ by a tiny elite.

Precisely because he conceived liberty in such individualistic terms, Rousseau was forced to say that the price of sustaining a mutual recognition of liberty is to hand over all our rights to the power of the state. We then receive our rights to freedom back from the state in an enhanced form, supposedly, and together we participate in the mystical collective liberty of the power of the state itself. But in reality this conception of liberty leads to conformism and terror, as first the French Revolution and many subsequent revolutions have shown. Yet, in rightly attacking the revolutionary tradition, conservatives too often lose sight of the fact that the entire liberal tradition has fomented a dangerous creeping revolution – and alongside this a creeping terror and a creeping conformism, as we have so clearly seen with new Labour and its restrictions on civil liberties and association.

The alternative to this modern form of tyranny is a virtue society and a polity that constantly seeks to discern a just order of priorities between differential claims and between various associative groups in society for the attainment of various purposes.

Liberalism, then, paradoxically tends to promise a totalizing unity within an overriding collectivist framework that nullifies opposition in the very name of negative freedom. For an authoritarian state claims only to intrude upon the will of the individual when it moves against those associations that are restrictive of individual freedom. By attacking potential constraints, rather than promoting specific goals, it seeks to insulate itself against opposition by perpetually eradicating anything that might prove a barrier to self-gratification. But almost any positively creative assertion of free action impinges in some way upon another person…and in this way can be taken to reduce the other’s freedom of choice and scope for unhampered activity. Thus, the state is driven to homogenise individuality in the very name of individual diversity. Individual liberty becomes inexorably the ‘general will’ of the social whole and the only truly freedom belongs to that individual write large – which is the state. Competing claims to loyalty, from customary tradition, localities and the family, are anathema to this modern state, because they are supposedly anathema to the unfettered freedom of the individual agency.”

– Phillip Blond, Red Tory

– Lucas G. Westman


*Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, Pg. 148-151

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Apologetics, Church Fathers, History, Philosophy, Saint Augustine, Theology

Genealogical Narratives & Their Villians

St. Augustine WritingThe competing genealogical narratives of the advent of secular modernity are vast. Some of these interpretations of historical progression into the cultural, social, economic, and political reality we now participate consider such developments to be a good thing. Other interpretations cast a negative light on the secular modern instinct. Most often these narratives drifting toward the negative are invented by academics willing to pin the blame on a single intellectual villain, exhume the thought of said villain from the grave, to which these academics will create a movement committed to a perpetual ritualistic burning in effigy of the image created for said narrative purposes. An example of this would be Radical Orthodoxy’s treatment of Bl. John Duns Scotus. This may be a bit too strong of a depiction, but the famous “Scotus story” is one that continually casts the humble friar in a negative light.

The Radical Orthodoxy movement is a theological persuasion initiated by John Milbank’s book, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Following this publication, Radical Orthodoxy has grown significantly in its influence, and the work attributed to this movement is voluminous. And like any other movement Radical Orthodoxy has their villains, to which I point to the aforementioned Bl. John Duns Scotus. Milbank identifies Scotus as the nefarious character associated with the genealogical conundrum of the modernist ontological destabilization of the West. Not Galileo, or Descartes, or Hume, or Kant, or Newton, or Marx, or Comte, or Nietzsche, or any combination of these names. Not even the Devil himself is to blame for the disaster of modernity. Instead, the villain identified as the culprit is a Franciscan theologian and philosopher; the theological master that inherited from St. Bonaventure a tradition dedicated to the primacy of Christ and vigorously defended the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The latter is of course an official Marian dogma of the Catholic Church. The person bringing every aspect of his thought into the framework of the spirituality of the Seraphic Father, the primacy of Christ, and the Blessed Mother, instigated the downfall of Christendom – or so Radical Orthodox theologians would have you believe.

Indeed, there are many people other than Scotus that have been blamed for instigating the downfall of the West. One example of this is William of Ockham. Another is Martin Luther. Another is Descartes. Another is Aquinas. Another is Bonaventure. And yet another is Augustine. No doubt there are other names that could be added to the list, but the point is that there are many candidates vying for the title of the one who is responsible for sowing the seeds that would eventually destroy Western Civilization. To be sure, some of these individuals, such as Ockham, are heroes to those who consider modernity a blessing. So again, the story matters for the purpose of the one telling it. In my view, a few names mentioned above deserve to probably be categorized as propagating such a negative trajectory. However, I want to focus on something else that happens when theoretical genealogies are created to explain how we got into the mess we are currently in.

I have noticed an interpretative pattern for those looking to find a villain for a genealogical theory. The pattern initially unfolds by totally ignoring the context of the views espoused by the person being transformed into the antagonist of Western Civilization. For example, I am yet to witness critics of Bonaventure and Scotus engage the specific Franciscan spirituality they were working within. Instead of looking to understand their thought as distinctively Franciscan, a particularity in their thought will be isolated from the correct context, to which it is criticized apart from the appropriate spiritual framework, and then stripped of its spiritually relevant import to the entire system and tradition from which it came. This mistaken handling of the material also ignores the historical milieu from which the thinker is working, therefore ignoring the questions relevant to the person attempting to provide answers for various quandaries. Moreover, if influential thinkers after them used elements of their thought for their own purposes, abusing an idea for a differing pet theory, the original thinker is blamed for the mistreatment rather than the one committing the act of intellectual thievery.

If this pattern is followed – the persistent stripping away of contextual relevance of a specific thinker – a villain is most likely being created to support an academic movement. This is almost a necessary step for an academic because the “villianization” of a person is usually juxtaposed with a proposed corrective theoretical remedy.

This is precisely what has taken place with Scotus and the Radical Orthodoxy movement. And despite many correctives being offered by the relevant Scotus scholars, one shouldn’t expect a change of tune any time soon. Scotus experts such as Thomas Williams, Richard Cross, Mary Beth Ingham, Daniel Horan, and others have offered corrective rebuttals to critics of Scotus, but to no avail. The “Scotus story” continues forward unabated. It is one thing to argue against the Subtle Doctor’s theory of the univocity of being, but it is quite another thing to identify that theory with the cataclysmic events following the institutionalization of modern ideals.

In addition to the “Scotus story,” I have now encountered this same pattern of critical reductionism in Eastern Orthodox criticism of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to the story being told, Augustine and Aquinas are responsible for planting the seeds, unbeknownst to them, for the development of modern atheism. I have been attempting to interact with these critical arguments with charity, which in turn forces me to dig deeper into the thought of these two great theological and philosophical masters. Despite my efforts, I am finding it very difficult to find the seeds of atheism lurking underneath the theological richness of Augustine’s work on the Trinity, Christian Doctrine, or the City of God; nor have I detected the detriments of atheism in the biblical commentaries of Aquinas. It is equally difficult to discover atheism among Augustine’s passionately devoted defenses of the true faith against Manichaeism and the Pelagian heresy. I have also been left empty handed when examining Augustine’s homilies and soliloquies. Augustine’s Confessions also brought me to a dead end in this investigation. Moreover, the view of nature these two put forth is unambiguously infused with telos, with a final end that ultimately glorifies God, nature’s transcendent Creator. So I am unable to find an atheistic understanding of nature in their ancient, organic view of the natural world.

It is difficult to take serious a genealogical narrative identifying the seeds of atheism in Augustine when it is his thought especially that influenced the development of Western Christendom in the first place. If an interpretative theory is identifying the downfall of a Christo-centric civilization in the thought of the very person responsible for influencing its actualization, then said theory has gone off the rails. Moreover, how atheism went unnoticed for several hundred years to only be recognized after the dreadful schism between the East and West is entirely mysterious. Not to mention that the Protestant revolt and the era of Enlightenment rationalism, which were movements dedicated to overthrowing the cultural hegemony of the Church, were motivated to move away from the Scholastic synthesis and its Patristic inheritance.

What these Eastern critics have actually accomplished by creating this narrative is to set up an impossible standard for doing theology and philosophy from a Christian perspective. If St. Augustine (who is recognized as a saint in the East) and St. Thomas Aquinas can be pinned with the responsibility of introducing, even if only latently, the errors of modern atheism, the standard of infallibility must be inexorably linked to the task of doing theology and philosophy. If atheism is the default critique concerning an area of disagreement with the theological articulation of an important position, then ideology, rather than serious charitable interaction may be guiding the critical project at hand.

According to what I have encountered within this narrative, Eastern critics of Augustine and Aquinas are treating them with the same pattern identified above regarding the “Scotus story.” And it is worth noting that those treating these two as the progenitors of modern atheism happen to be on the other side of a schismatic theological dispute. This is a convenience that is most likely being used to justify a specific religious identity. Just as Protestants must exert continued effort to not become too Papist in their thought, those on the East seem to be associating their identity with not being associated with the West.

To be sure, the specific arguments underpinning the narrative itself still need to be dealt with, but this does not prevent us from recognizing the enormous leap in logic needed to make such a claim regarding Augustine and Aquinas. The lesson to be learned is that we ought to be extra attentive of the desire for some to pin the downfall of an entire culture on a single individual in history. The picture is often much more complex than what is being suggested.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


NOTE: A specific book I have in mind making this argument concerning Augustine and Aquinas is, Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom, by David Bradshaw. There is much to learn from the book, but the overall narrative it is attempting to create in order to justify Eastern Orthodoxy as the true apostolic Church is, well, quite farfetched in my humble of opinion.

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History, Politics

Enlightenment as Religion

This is an insightful paragraph, and the quote highlighted in the meme is a lucid description of the intellectual spirit of the founding era. The predominantly Protestant Christian presence in the colonies, coupled with Enlightenment rationalism, created an odd sort of secular “christian” theistic rationalism in the culture rather than the “orthodoxy” many of the evangelicals believe existed during this time. It is also important to note that Freemasonry was the collective expression for “Enlightenment as religion”


enlightenment-as-religion“The secular version of this intellectual set of interpretations for America’s ‘common faith’ offers the various phases of the Enlightenment (and religious belief, most especially not evangelical Protestantism) as the basis for the profound distrust of Catholicism in the United States. In this account of America’s intellectual life, it is the bracing air of reason, pressed by figures like Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams, that bequeathed to the Republic its distrust of hierarchical institutions and the argument from authority. Scholars like Daniel Boorstin, Henry May, Bernard Bailyn, and Gordon Wood have presented the real American intellectual tradition as intimately tied to the Enlightenment’s distrust of both revealed truths and nondemocratic sources of authority in every form. This approach was most elegantly presented in May’s great study of four enlightenments that hit British North American culture in successive waves of influence: the real key for understanding U.S. culture was not the relation of Enlightenment and religion, but rather Enlightenment as religion for the founders of the American republic. This version of the intellectualist reading of American cultural roots argued that the common cultural faith was rooted in profoundly egalitarian, rationalist presuppositions about the world, and anti-authoritarian impulses against which the Catholic tradition appeared to many as an easy target.”

– Mark S. Massa S.J., Anti-Catholicism in America: The Last Acceptable Prejudice –


 

– Lucas G. Westman

 

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History, Politics

Culture & Constitution

jefferson-hamiltonI go back and forth on whether or not I should do posts on the constitution, jurisprudence, SCOTUS rulings etc. The reason I go back and forth on this is because I don’t think a written constitution means anything if the unwritten constitution of the culture usurps the text and transforms it into something it was never meant to become. It is the unwritten constitution of culture that needs to be transformed before a truly cogent understanding of the written text can become meaningful in any objectively relevant manner.

I am convinced the founding era didn’t know exactly how cultural ramifications would influence the interpretation of the written text. A microcosm of this uncertainty can be found in the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s vision was more in line with a robust industrial economy, centralization as an embodiment of strengthened nationalism, and a “loose” constructive interpretative lens of the constitution in order to accomplish what he thought was best for a young America. Jefferson’s vision was more in line with a romantic agrarianism, decentralization to strengthen the individual and local communities, and a “strict” constructionist interpretative lens of the constitution in order to accomplish what he thought was best for a young America. These comparative descriptions are quite crude, and do not come close to specifically identifying the nuances of the Hamiltonian/Jeffersonian divide concerning political philosophy. To be sure, the divergent and competing political philosophies of these founding rivals does not suggest that their policy visions are what inexorably follow from their philosophical commitments. For now, I will ignore nuance to make a much broader point.

At first, Hamilton won many of these battles with Marshall at the helm of the Supreme Court. Following the collapse of the Federalist Party, a Jeffersonian perspective won other battles concerning culture and the constitution. Either way, the interpretation of the constitution was directly influenced by the cultural vision of those men in political positions able to shape the direction the country would take given early circumstances.

In order to appropriately offer arguments for a transformation of our cultural predicament, I must also make the constitutional arguments. Our identity as Americans is tightly wrapped in how we understand our culture and the constitution. Hence, to offer a compelling vision for American culture, one must also persuade their fellow citizens of its constitutionality. Moreover, if consistency is a virtue to be sought in critical thinking, we must be willing to properly recognize where amendments are needed rather than legislation.

Finally, we have to find the best interpretative philosophical lens for understanding the written text of the constitution. The necessity of interpretation forces us to enter into philosophical debates concerning competing views of jurisprudence, political philosophy, and legal reasoning.

Indeed, we do not need to look back to the founding era for rivalries to support my case; examples of this can be found in our own time. Rather than focusing on two individuals, we can look at two law firms seeking to shape our culture and constitution according to their vision of freedom, and human flourishing.

These law firms are:

  1. American Civil Liberties Union
  2. Alliance Defending Freedom

The ACLU could be fairly summarized as an organization guided by secular progressive values and interprets the constitution as a living document. The ADF could be fairly summarized as an organization guided by traditional values and interprets the constitution according to its original meaning.

Catholics must enter this discussion. Much is at stake, and the Catholic worldview has a unique perspective that may be able to untie many of the knots tightened in today’s ideologically driven culture war.

 

– Lucas G. Westman

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