Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Catholic Anarchy, Part II: The Strength of Sin Is the Law

For Part I of this series, click here.

No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. … One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want. … There is nothing that so much prevents a settlement as a tangle of small surrenders. We are bewildered on every side by politicians who are in favor of secular education, but think it hopeless to work for it; who desire total prohibition, but are certain they should not demand it; who regret compulsory education, but resignedly continue it; or who want peasant proprietorship and therefore vote for something else.
—G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, pp. 20-21

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So then, put simply, anarchism is the philosophy that the best way to organize society is for it to be genuinely self-governing, instead of being governed by a state whose authority is separated from and above that of the people as a whole. (Whether the state is instituted by elections, heredity, lottery, or any other means is not important for the anarchist: it is the state’s distinction from the citizenry as a whole, not its mode of coming into existence, that counts.)

But why think that? Most people haven’t, historically speaking—or, if they have, they’ve dismissed it as a pipe dream. And there’s a very practical case to be made for dismissing it as a pipe dream. However, I can’t help noticing in my studies of history that, in politics at least, practical people don’t seem to get what they want. Not reliably, anyway, and not for long.

Idealists, on the other hand, often make a remarkable impact: practical people have to take the unbending idealist into account, if only by shooting him. Stalin, speaking  to a French statesman who asked him about his influence with Russian Catholics, once said, ‘The Pope! How many divisions does he have?’ It’s witty enough in its own right; but it’s even funnier for other reasons, when you consider that the Soviet Union at that time was a thing of yesterday and vanished the day after tomorrow, while the Papacy is the oldest continuous institution on earth.* Idealism is much more practical than practicality—chiefly, I think, because it’s more human. Men are not bulletproof, but ideas and passions are; the pragmatist concerns himself only with men, but in so doing he leaves out the most important parts of man, his brain and his heart.

But back to anarchy. The idea is that men should be self-governing, and that, in a state, they just aren’t—even if it’s a professedly democratic state. The Man is still the Man even if you vote for him. And state governance, self governance, and chaos are the only options (until the Greys invade, but all the same we need something to do in the meantime).

This all, then, comes back to two simple questions: one, do men have the right to govern themselves? And two, is it best for them to exercise this right, or abdicate it in someone else’s favor?

Chesterton said (in a passage that I can’t find at the moment) said that there are two sorts of business in the world: the kind we wish a man to do for himself (or others) only if he does them well, like performing surgery or discovering the North Pole; and the kind we wish a man to do for himself even if he does them badly, like writing his own love letters or blowing his own nose. The classically democratic contention is that governing society is this second kind of thing; that we should wish the citizens of a society to run their society, even if they do so badly. Such is the dignity of the image of God and of its nose.

And the case for human self-government, from a Catholic perspective, is a pretty good one: if all men are rational, they are all qualified to contribute; if all men are sinful, they should all be caught. Aquinas, in discussing the nature of law in the Summa, says much the same thing:

A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the aim of the common good. Now, to direct anything to the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the deputy of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has the care of the whole people; for in all other fields, the direction of anything to its purpose concerns the one whom the purpose belongs to.**

St Thomas Aquinas: stirring up shit since 1243.

Bob Ludlow, one of the companions of Dorothy Day and an early contributor to the Catholic Worker, wrote, with reference to this passage and to anarchism in general:

The State is government by representation (when it is a democracy) but there is no reason why a Catholic must believe that people must be governed by representatives—the Catholic is free to believe one way or the other as is evident from St Thomas’ treatment of law … Anarchists believe that the whole people composing a community should take care of what governing is to be done rather than have a distant and centralized state do it. … Our Lord taught us to pray ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’—in other words the nearer earthly government approximates what things are in heaven the more Christian it is. I do believe—whether it can be realized or not—that the anarchist society approaches nearer to this ideal than do other forms of government.***

That’s a quick-and-dirty summary of my own reasons for being an anarchist: I think it’s a nigh-inevitable logical consequence of taking the democratic theory of government seriously, and moreover that the democratic theory of government is a natural corollary to the Christian and Catholic theory of man. Most anarchists have rather different reasons for being anarchists—usually descending from the philosophy and politics born of the French Revolution, especially Marxism. But I have little to do with these; their criticisms of the middle and upper classes and of capitalist economics are often right, even biting, but I don’t find their proposed alternatives satisfying, practically or intellectually.

Now, in order for this to work, you’d need to get down to the levels where a society is small enough to actually run itself; say a small city, at the very largest. This of course would mean the destruction of nation-states as we know them,**** and in my opinion, that’d be a damn good start to any improvement of human life. The massive nation-state of the modern era, which is practically an invention of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has seen greater luxuries of destruction and human horror than any other political form known to man, most often as a result of war and nationalism (or the two together, dancing the tango of suck).

An anarchist society couldn’t abolish war, but it would tend to put the lid on nationalism; and it would make the gigantic wars of the last three centuries harder to conduct, for two reasons. First, there’s the fact that no one society could draw upon the power required to wage such a war—whether we’re speaking of soldiers or money or technology.

And second, when waging a war is taken out of the hands of the state and put into the hands of the people who actually have to wage it, the people who bear the cost of the decision are the same ones making it; and that is an encouraging thought. Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces or no, you didn’t see George W. Bush disarming land mines at Fallujah, or Barack Obama hunched over a computer in Yemen orchestrating drone strikes, any more than you saw Truman flying over Nagasaki. They don’t have to see what they’re authorizing; only their tools and their victims pay that price. That is wrong.

Once again to be continued …

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*With the possible exception of the Emperors of Japan.
**Summa Theologica, Second Part, I.4.xc.3. I’ve tried to clean up the customary, but (for the lay reader) borderline impenetrable, Dominican translation by reference to the Latin; anybody who wants to check my work can look at the Latin and the Dominican fathers’ English side by side here.
***Day quotes this in her partial autobiography The Long Loneliness (pp. 268-269); it seems to be from a personal letter of Ludlow’s, or perhaps an article, but she doesn’t specify. Italics, or rather un-talics, are original.
****A nation-state, in the technical sense in which I’m using it, isn’t at all the same thing as a country. For example, France and Spain are countries, and the French and the Spanish are nations; the Basque people, who live on the western side of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, are also a nation but do not legally have a country. A nation is a group of people with a common cultural heritage, and usually a common ethnicity; many states, past and present, have been multinational—the USA and the Austro-Hungarian Empire are good examples. (The British Empire, since it was a colonial power, is a little different.)


  1. Whenever I read a commentary on systems of government, I am reminded of Samuel's warning about kings - which was the first reading yesterday (at least in the general Latin Rite - I don't know the lectionary for the Ordinariate). Despite his warnings, we insisted on a king and that's essentially what we've gotten since.

  2. I'm really enjoying this series, I haven't thought about Christian Anarchism much for a few years and it's interesting to explore the ideas again. I wonder though if we've reached such a large population in the world that it's simply not practical to go back to city-states, but that's probably a cop-out on my part. I need to engage with anarchism more seriously before dismissing it out of hand like that, so I'm looking forward to the rest of your series and maybe doing a little independent reading. Any recommendations for Christian anarchist writing?

    Also, if you're wondering, I believe that that Chesterton quote you're looking for about blowing noses and writing love letters is from Chapter IV of Orthodoxy, "The Ethics of Elfland". In my copy it's the third paragraph.

    1. Thank you! It would probably never have occurred to me to look there -- I was so sure it was in his political essays somewhere.

      As to other Christian anarchist writing, there's a good deal of it; Christian anarchists are a minority among both anarchists and Christians, but a talkative one. Among Catholic sources, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin stand out; a number of other Catholics who avoided or rejected the anarchist label are in fundamental sympathy or were important influences: Bob Ludlow, in the passage selected here, makes special reference to Fr Luigi Sturzo's book "The Inner Laws of Society" (which I've not had the pleasure of reading), and both Chesterton and Tolkien contain important anarchist elements in their writing. Tolkien himself famously said in a letter to his son Christopher:

      "My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -- or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offense to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang,' it would go a long way toward clearing thought ... [T]he most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." (I've linked the passage in its full glory at the end of the comment.)

      Non-Catholic Christian anarchists are slightly more plentiful. Doubtless the most famous example is Tolstoy. Jacques Ellul, a French Protestant and professor of law, was an existentialist and pacifist who wrote extensively on anarchy as an expression of Biblical faith. William Blake (though decidedly heretical and, more than that, decidedly confusing) seems to have become a prophetic anarchist in the wake of the French Revolution; Dietrich Bonhoeffer shows signs of the same thing under the aggressions of the Nazi state. Ammon Hennacy, who was also a Catholic for about ten years under Dorothy Day's influence (though he later apostatized), wrote on the subject. Finally, in contemporary times, Shane Claiborne, one of the founders of The Simple Way (a Christian commune in Philadelphia), while primarily pacifist, also shows anarchist elements.

    2. "I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!"

      I have to say I was surprised to see this sentence in the quote above. I'm sure Tolkien meant these words hyperbolically, perhaps facetiously. Nevertheless I find it ironic that even pacifist anarchists need to resort to violent imagery to make their points.

      I also find this particualrly disturbing because in practice, "revolutionary" rhetoric like this is often not hyperbolic at all - in fact this is pretty accurately what has happened in a lot of historical revolutions. And I guess this is what scares me about anarchism generally. As much as I can get behind the ideology, I fear that even if it were to gather widespread support, there would always be elements that would try to implement the ideology through force. Which quite defeats the purpose, no?