Preface for Maundy Thursday

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord; who for our sins was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; who by his suffering and death became the author of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

An Image of the City, Part I: Humanity in Trinity

The organic body sang together;
dialects of the world sprang in Byzantium;
back they rang to sing in Byzantium;
the streets repeat the sound of the Throne.
The Acts issue from the Throne.
Under it, translating the Greek minuscula
to minds of the tribes, the identities of creation
phenomenally abating to kinds and kindreds,
the household inscribes the Acts of the Emperor;
the logothetes run down the porphyry stair
bearing the missives through the area of empire.
 —Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Vision of the Empire’

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My affectionate rivalry with a friend at my parish came to an interesting pass back in July. We wrangle a good deal partly because, while both of us are anarchists, he is the wrong sort of anarchist: his suspicions of authoritarianism take a capitalist or libertarian cast, where mine run closer to democratic socialism. He posed me a rare challenge during one of our discussions, suggesting that I say in so many words what ideal society I’m advocating. I have decided to take a stab at it. (As Chesterton said, ‘It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.’)

Now, politics in general is a branch of philosophical anthropology, i.e., our idea of what human beings fundamentally are. In order to have a coherent theory of politics, we must first have a coherent theory of man.

For a Catholic, our understanding of humanity is rooted in our understanding of God, because the first thing we are told about humanity in Scripture is that we are made in God’s image. This implies the following:
1. We are spiritual beings—using Aristotle’s term, we are rational animals—because God is spirit.
2. We are innately creative; art, inventing, cultivating, building, and the begetting of children are all expressions of basic humanity. The first thing we are told about God before we are created in his image is precisely that he is a, the, Creator.
3. We are simultaneously individual and interrelated: God is Trinity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. Both personal distinctness and intrinsic relationship are essential to a proper idea of man.

This already gives us a limited but important framework for what human societies ought to be. Mere chaos is against human nature. So are societies so rigid as to actively suppress creativity and innovation; those that deny the dignity of the individual in favor of the collective; and those that deny any claim, of others or of society as a whole, upon the individual person. A rationally organized society, one that embraces both creativity and fertility, and that affirms both the dignity of the individual and the essentially relational character of each individual, is a society that accords with human nature. Not only are the totalitarian ideas of Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and Francisco Franco incompatible with a fully Catholic vision of humanity: so too are the radically fissiparating philosophies of William Godwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand. [1]

Obviously, there are still a lot of different kinds of societies that might fit the bill here. This is as it should be. There’s no reason to think that only one sort of culture or political organization is good, any more than there is to suppose that healthy families can only exhibit the pattern of mom, dad, two-point-five children, and a dogcat. Nonetheless, I think we can define the parameters of a good society further.

One point of dispute between me and my friend lies in the Church’s use of the language of rights: papal and episcopal documents speak regularly of the right to health care, the right to marry, the right to education, and so forth. He posed this reasonable question: if a person has a right to something that they don’t have—a right to marry, for example—then could they (in a justly organized society) go to court and demand redress? If American law were more perfect, could incels sue for a wife?

Now, there are rights where you obviously could do this. Human beings have a right to life, but of course what we mean by that is a right not to be killed; when a person dies of natural causes, we grieve, but we don’t issue warrants for arrest. [2] Human beings have a right to property, [3] but what we principally mean by that is that if somebody steals what belongs to us, we’re justified in calling on authoritative compulsion to get it back. These ‘negative’ rights of not being interfered with are comparatively easy to grasp. But the Church goes further and enunciates ‘positive’ rights, such as those exemplified in the paragraph above. How are we to understand this?

I will begin by approaching the matter from a different angle. C. S. Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms:
What do we mean when we say that a picture is ‘admirable’? We certainly don’t mean that it is admired (that’s as may be) for bad work is admired by thousands and good work may be ignored. Nor that … a human being will have suffered injustice if it is not awarded. The sense in which the picture ‘deserves’ or ‘demands’ admiration is rather this: that admiration is the correct, adequate, or appropriate response to it, that if paid admiration will not have been ‘thrown away,’ and that if we do not admire we shall be stupid, insensible, and great losers, we shall have missed something.

Passing from the specifically ├Žsthetic to a broader philosophy in The Abolition of Man, he writes the following:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval … that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ than others. … And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). … The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
This may be a worthwhile place to begin considering ‘positive’ rights. They are (at minimum) those things which everyone should be able to enjoy; they are proper to human life; if someone lacks them (save by their own choice) it is a probable indicator that something is wrong with society. [4] That may be something which ought to be resolved through legal reforms—or it may not be. Just, effective means will vary depending on problems and circumstances. But that question itself cannot be dealt with adequately unless we recognize the defective relationship of the reality to the ideal. Which in turn means acknowledging the ideal.

Among the Trinity, what is fitting is perfectly rendered by each Person to the others: being, knowledge, and bliss exist in mutual adoration and interanimation. An unfallen humanity, which needed no political governance, would presumably operate the same way, freely responding to the intrinsic dignity of every person in an adequate way. But that is not what we have; man is fallen; politics (even anarchist politics) is very largely a study in when it is appropriate to compel others to do right or to refrain from doing wrong, and when others should be suffered to stray, every one to his own way. We must, therefore, turn from the trinitarian character of humanity to its fallen character, and try to understand their relationship.

EDIT: After writing this post, I discovered that the language of positive and negative rights is used differently in technical discussions of moral theory among academics. I don't understand their terminology or its rationale clearly enough to use it, so I'll stick to my own inventions, but be aware that my language may clash with more standard language.

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[1] This isn’t to say that we cannot learn from these sources. I’ve drawn on Marx in my understanding of the world; but I’ve never done so uncritically, and there are key elements of his philosophy that I reject outright, like the labor theory of value or the idea that religion is nothing but an instrument of control.
[2] Or if we did, we’d have to issue them against God. Which, good luck with that, I guess?
[3] This is admittedly a sticky concept, partly but not only because of the relationship that can exist between life and property. We’ll get to this in more detail later.
[4] I say an indicator, not an infallible sign. Obviously, happenstance and variation will be involved in some cases. But when a trend emerges, that merits investigation.


  1. One example of rights language I find baffling is when the hierarchy says something like that children have a right to a mother and father (in the context of gay adoption). Does this mean we force every widowed or single mother to marry? Ban singles from adopting? Let’s remember we’re talking about orphans for whom the choice isn’t gay parents vs straight parents (a preference might be expressed) but rather gay parents vs NO parents...

    1. Yes, that's part of the reason that I started wondering whether at least some rights could be best understood in the terms of "correct, adequate, or appropriate response" to the fact of a human being's there-ness. Obviously it isn't like you can go grab a dude off the street and say "You have to be this single mother's child's dad now, because every child has the right to a father." But if this talk of rights is chiefly a frank admission that children who *don't* have both a mother and a father in their lives are in a tragic, rather than merely atypical, situation, it makes some sense. It still might not be a very good way of expressing it. I'm trying to articulate my idea of rights more clearly to myself as I write this series, so I may need to make retractions before I've finished.

  2. Well, from this post, I still find it hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of anarchy you are supporting. I also find it doubtful how you can justify that position given Catholic (and biblical) social teaching on various forms of authority, ie subsidiarity, obeying Caesar, obeying one’s bishop, obeying Christ. Not sure how one would be obliged to obey authority when none is left? Seems contrary to the Gospel. How is whatever you propose not just another iteration of the “Age of Disobedience” that we have been living in, ushering in the reign of the false savior, the anti-Christ?

    1. Well, I haven't finished; I am planning to go into those things. For now, I'll say three things. First, that a divine command to obey something or someone is adequate reason to obey them, even if their own rationale for their authority isn't legitimate. Second, that (despite appearances) anarchism doesn't necessarily oppose authority as such, or even laws and government; it's the incarnation of those things in a state, i.e. a minority that rules over the majority, that anarchists object to. (Some anarchists do go further and oppose the very concept of authority, but I do not.) And finally, anarchy is a political philosophy, not necessarily applicable to ecclesiology -- my view of the Church is quite different, since it's rooted in the supernatural order.

  3. “We must, therefore, turn from the trinitarian character of humanity to its fallen character, and try to understand their relationship.”

    This “turn” away from the Trinitarian God would be considered by many rather sinful and diabolic. In this “turning” you would be turning away from the source of all grace. Are we to imply from this that you are no longer Catholic (or Christian)? Does this “turning” make you anti-Christian? Certainly it is a Nietszchean sort of flip: “evil be thou my good”.

    1. No, not that kind of turning -- just considering a new aspect of the subject, as one might turn a gem to consider a different facet.

  4. I think the hierarchy is just trying to use “rights language” because that’s what’s “cool” now, but they wind up doing it clumsily because it’s not like it has very deep roots in our philosophy.

    Maybe they mean something like “everyone deserves...” and think that’s equivalent to saying “everyone has a right to...” when really those are two different statements.

    1. That's also possible. I think it raises important philosophical questions all the same. It wouldn't be the first time somebody said something that was subtler than they themselves realized!

  5. “...anarchy is a political philosophy, not necessarily applicable to ecclesiology.”

    One could say the same about Communism, except for the uncomfortable aspect of the atheistic nature of “dialectical materialism.” At a certain point politics and Catholic teaching do intersect, which many Popes, up to and including Francis have made an effort to point out. Do the encyclicals Rerum Novarum, Quas Primas and even Laudato Si have nothing to teach us about political philosophy? I would think that, following Catholic social teaching, the only true “Catholic” political philosophy would be Distributism or some similar variant.

    1. Oh, certainly Catholic teaching intersects with politics. What else do you suppose I'm saying, in writing a whole post about how our approach to politics needs to be rooted in the image of the Trinity in man? I'm very much in favor of Distributism as an economic framework -- I consider it compatible with anarchism, as well as with a number of other political systems. And anyway, I am an anarchist not in the sense that it's part of my creed, but in the sense that it's one of my opinions. I could be persuaded that a different approach to politics was more just and more practical, if I were given satisfying reasons.

      But my point about anarchy was, one can take that view of how civil society should be organized, without also thinking the Church should be anarchist in her organization. Given that civil society is ordered to earthly justice, where the Church is ordered to the ministry of the sacraments, it's reasonable that they'd work in different ways and have different authority structures.

  6. This “turning” towards the “fallen” doesn’t seem very new, and actually seems like a very Calvinist obsession to me to be quite honest.

    1. Not really. Sin and a fallen world are pretty common topics among Catholics -- always have been. One has to consider them sometimes, and outlining a political philosophy brings the subject up quite naturally, since sin is the principal obstacle to just and effective politics (though of course there are others, which deserve their own due thought).