Category Archives: Philosophy

YOUNG PEOPLE ARE DYING TO BE NEEDED

Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.

What made my friend briefly consider joining an army in a country he never visited that speaks a language he doesn’t know?

Read the rest, here.

George Washington on Political Parties

From his Farewell Address:

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

Defining The Republic: From the Declaration to the Northwest Ordinance

In this lecture, I define a republic in two ways. First as a mixed government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, comparing it to the human person (mind, soul, stomach). Thus, the republic is always flawed and always in a life cycle of birth, middle age, and death. Second by its elements: virtue, property (as the right to moral ownership), a well-armed citizenry, and decentralized decision making. I also focus on Articles 1-3, 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, and I talk about Hillsdale’s connection (with historian Ransom Dunn’s creation of the Republican Party in 1854—inspired by Article Six of the Northwest Ordinance) to all of this.

Reflections on Lord Acton

Introduction for Dan Hugger’s LORD ACTON: HISTORICAL AND MORAL ESSAYS (2017).

When scholars discuss the nineteenth century of western civilization, they automatically and reflexively conjure images of the three most profound and original minds of the period: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud.  Sometimes, depending on the scholar, one might list Friedrich Nietzsche as well.  This is obvious in the massive and tedious surveys of western civilization as well as in the remaining and lingering canons of Great Books.  None of this is false, of course, and the three (or four) men remembered certainly were among the greatest of minds to come into this world of sorrows.

One might, with equal accuracy and a bit more humanity and justice, create a different trinity.  What about John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton?  After all, as the great Russell Kirk once argued, “In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.”  With the possible exception of Darwin, neither the taken-for granted trinity nor their followers were wont to taint the men or their ideas with the airy notion of the “grace of God.” 

With the newly-proposed trinity of nineteenth-century thinkers, though, the men and their followers would lovingly accept the grace of [g]od. 

Even among these proposed three, however, Lord Acton—the author of the essays you now hold in hands–remains the least known, the least studied, and the least understood.  True, every American with any education at all remembers his assertion that “power corrupts.”  Other than this, though, he’s largely forgotten or dismissed.  It’s as though his entire existence from 1843 through 1902 mattered only for that one sentence.  Truly, this is to both our discredit and our loss.  Thanks to the Acton Institute and Daniel Hugger, we can begin to rectify this massive error near the beginning of the twenty-first century.

A profound thinker and essayist, Acton argued in his seminal piece of 1862, “Nationality”: “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races as Paganism, however, identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular.” The modern and rising nation-states, though, demand unity of thought, culture, and politics.  In essence, Acton believed, the world was re-paganizing, returning to its worship of the state as god.  After all, he wrote, “in the ancient world idolatry and nationality went together, and the same term is applied in Scripture to both.”

While this is just one of many profound arguments that Acton advanced during his writing career, it is critical to see him not only as important in his own day and age, but also as the critical link in the arguments about natural rights, liberty, and human dignity between Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, a century earlier, and Friedrich Hayek and Christopher Dawson, a century later.

In his own day and age, though, Acton tapped into something rather deep in the currents and movements of the western tradition.  Imagine for a moment the influence the original trinity mentioned above had on the West and on the World.  When looking at the depth and intelligence and brilliance of their arguments, one can readily narrow down each to one fundamental element.  For Darwin, all things were biological and adaptive.  For Marx, they were economic.  For Freud, they were psychological.  As Acton would well understand, none of these things were untrue.  The problem with each was not falsity, but lack of context.  Man is biological, economic, and psychological, but not singularly.  Rather man is all of these plus a million other things.  As with Burke before and Dawson after, Acton knew that man’s greatness and his sin simultaneously resided in the immense complexity of each individual human person, made uniquely in the infinite image of God.  With Socrates as well as Hayek, Acton knew that we knew very little and that, through humility, we recognized our limitations of knowledge.

Thus, one can readily picture Acton writing “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of and mysteries of human complexities as Darwinism, however, “identifies itself with their biological adaptation.”  Or, as Marxism, however, “identifies itself with their economic base.” Or, as Freudianism, however, “identifies itself with their psychological urges.”  To which, each can be answer, “yes, but there’s more.”  Again, no matter how significant Darwin, Marx, and Freud were, Acton is more nuanced, broader, and, thus, in the long run, more accurate and insightful.  Unlike the three more famous men, Acton never demanded any gnostic sureties in this world or the next.  Faith is, after all, not fact.

Of course, this book you now are reading is much deeper than what I’ve just given.  Hugger has ably and, indeed, lovingly crafted a book of some of the best arguments Acton made in his life.  From a philosophy of history to the history of liberty, from specific personalities to the grand movement of ideas, Acton looked at all with a Catholic and classical wisdom so often lacking in his day.  We would do well to remember Acton.  In so doing, we remember not just the man, but the insight of one man into a much larger and unfathomably complicated world.  True, in choosing Acton over Darwin, Marx, and Freud, we choose an ignorance and humility that the world hates.  But, then, the world has generally hated what’s good for it.  Have your ideologies if you must, but I’ll take truth, beauty, and goodness anytime. 

Oh, and, by the way, power does corrupt.

Henri de Lubac’s Criticism of Indirect Power – The Regensburg Forum

In my previous post, I discussed theologians who offered interpretations of the doctrine of the two swords before the Second Vatican Council. While some hierocrats believed that the pope’s two swords made him lord of the world, Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez argued that popes had indirect power in temporal matters. Papal power was only indirect because temporal rulers were “supreme in their own order.” These theologians also believed that temporal rulers derived their authority from the political community, not from the pope. Nonetheless, for spiritual ends, the pope could use temporal authority, even to the point of deposing rulers in certain circumstances. (I mentioned the deposing power in the section on Suarez. Perhaps I could have mentioned it a few more times as a way of clarifying the extent of this “indirect power” in the thought of Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez, even though I was focused on what they said about the “two swords.”)

While some seventeenth-century contemporaries of Bellarmine and Suarez and modern scholars see the controversy between the hierocratic position and this idea of “indirect power” as a distinction without a difference, Bellarmine faced opposition from some in the Roman Curia for his idea. So, the debate certainly mattered at that time.

We should not ignore this seventeenth-century debate. While my previous post indicated that the “two swords” doctrine was interpreted in different ways long before Vatican II, we should not forget that twentieth-century challenges to the temporal power of the papacy (whether direct or indirect) saw Bellarmine (and not the hierocrats) as the major challenge. My goal here is not to oppose (or defend) Bellarmine, nor is it to endorse (or challenge) the twentieth-century arguments that follow. I hope that these passages might be of interest and useful for future discussion.
— Read on regensburgforum.com/2018/02/02/henri-de-lubacs-criticism-of-indirect-power/

Roosevelt’s Folly: Robert Nisbet’s Second World War ~ The Imaginative Conservative

World War II—especially the European theatre—intrigued Robert A. Nisbet (1913-1996) throughout his life. A staff sergeant in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, 1943-1945, he desired to understand the Cold War and how it had come about. After writing an article for a conservative academic journal, Modern Age, in 1986, on the friendship of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, he decided to write a book exploring the topic. The result, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship, offered a penetrating examination of a dark period in world history. For Nisbet, America went from isolationist to accommodationist almost entirely because of Roosevelt’s wrong-headedness and misunderstanding. Though he never accuses Roosevelt of homosexual feelings for Stalin, he does accuse him of treating the Soviet dictator as a lover and himself, at times, as the spurned lover. Certainly, from the beginning of their friendship, Roosevelt could not see Stalin as anything other than an ally, an anti-imperialist and proto-democrat.
— Read on theimaginativeconservative.org/2021/01/roosevelt-folly-robert-nisbet-second-world-war-bradley-birzer.html

Nietzsche: A Primer

I suppose we all have guilty pleasures. 

One of mine (one of several, actually) is reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.   I can pretty much sit down, day or night, with any one of his works and be rather—at least intellectually, if not spiritually—a happy man.

Yes, I very much know he was somewhat crazy, descending into a greater and greater madness until his death, so symbolically in the last year of the nineteenth century, 1900.  I also know how much he loathed republicanism, liberalism, Stoicism, and Christianity (well, really just Catholicism) and things that matter most to me.  Still. . . .

In many ways, though, he was the greatest of all nineteenth-century men.  Think about his competition for even a moment or two.  Of the five most influential thinkers of the western world in the nineteenth century—Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Nietzsche—he was the most interesting, the most-well rounded, and the one with the most depth. 

Certainly, some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century—such as Paul Elmer More, Eric Voegelin, and Henri de Lubac—respected and feared the ideas of Nietzsche, recognizing their significance for the modern and post-modern world.

He also, for better or worse, will continue to influence cultures, individuals, and peoples for centuries to come, in ways the other important thinkers of the nineteenth century probably will not.  In many ways, the entire modern and post-modern obsession with power comes from Nietzsche, whether those tools who espouse theories of power (race, class, gender) realize this or not.

For the purposes of this post, here are three of Nietzsche’s most important ideas.

First, the mad philosopher claimed that all modern drama in western civilization stemmed from the conflict found in the mythology of Apollo (order) and Dionysius (chaos).

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics were we have succeeded in perceiving directly, and not only through logical reasoning, that art derives its continuous development from the duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac; just as the reproduction of species depends on the duality of the sexes, with its constant conflicts and only periodically intervening reconciliations. These terms are borrowed from the Greeks, who revealed the profound mysteries of their artistic doctrines to the discerning mind, not in concepts but in the vividly clear forms of their deities. To the two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we owe our recognition that in the Greek world there is a tremendous opposition, as regards both origins and aims, between the Apollo arts of the sculptor and the non-visual Dionysius art of music. These two very different tendencies walk side-by-side, usually in violent opposition to one another, inciting one another to ever more powerful birds, perpetuating the struggle of the opposition only apparently bridged by the word “art”; until, finally, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic “will” will, the two seem to be coupled. [Source: Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy]

While this is too extreme and Manichean, Nietzsche makes a fine point, and it’s difficult to dismiss our own modern Hollywood culture without, at least to some degree, realizing that he understood a fundamental aspect of who and what we were to become in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Second, Nietzsche considered Catholicism to be the greatest enemy yet invented and imposed upon the nobility of man.  It’s most important representative, he feared, was Pascal.

Faith, as early Christianity desired, and not infrequently achieved in the midst of a skeptical and southerly free–spirit world, which had centuries of struggle between philosophical schools behind it and in it, counting besides the education intolerance for which the imperium Romanum—this faith is not that sincere, austere slave–faith by which perhaps a Luther or a Cromwell, or some other northern barbarian of the spirit remained attached to his God and Christianity; it is much rather the faith of Pascal, which resembles in a terrible manner a continuous suicide of reason—eight to half, long–lived, wormlike reason, which is not to be slain at once and with a single blow. The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self–confidence of spirit; it is at the same time’s objection, self–derision, and self–mutilation. [Source: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil]

His father had been a Lutheran pastor, but Friedrich had rejected not only the faith of his father, but he also rejected all Protestantism because it was insufficiently pagan.  Catholicism, he believed, represented the only true Christianity.  Lutheranism and Protestantism were merely halfway houses between Catholicism and full-blown paganism. 

At one very powerful point in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche imagines what an Epicurean god might do if he gazed long enough upon 1,900 years of Catholicism.

If one could observe the strangely painful, equally course and refined comedy of European Christianity with the derisive and impartial eye of an Epicurean god, I should think one would never cease marveling and laughing; does it not actually seem that some single will has ruled over Europe for eighteen centuries in order to make a sublime abortion of man?  He, however, who, with opposite requirements (no longer Epicurean) and with some divine hammer in his hand, could approach this almost voluntary degeneration and stunting of mankind, as exemplified in the European Christian (Pascal, for instance), would he not have to cry aloud with rage, pity, and horror: ‘Oh, you bunglers, presumptuous pitiful bunglers, what have you done!  Was that a work for your hands?  How you have hacked and botched my finest stone!  What have you presumed to do!’ –I should say that Christianity has hitherto been the most portentous of presumptions.  Men, not great enough, not hard enough, to be entitled as artists to take part in fashioning man; men, not sufficiently strong and far-sighted to allow, with sublime self-constraint, the obvious law of the thousandfold failures and perishings to prevail; men, not sufficiently noble to see the radically different grades of rank and intervals of rank that separate man from man:–such men, with their ‘equality before God,’ have hitherto swayed the destiny of Europe; until at least a dwarfed, almost ludicrous species has been produced, a gregarious animal, something obliging, sickly, mediocre, the European of the present day.

Finally, Nietzsche himself believed that his ideas had taken him, mystically, into another universe or plane of existence, confirmed later, at least as he believed it, by a vision of Zarathustra, a pre-Christian Persian priest and prophet, within and next to him.  Henri de Lubac has done the best job of exploring this side of Nietzsche in his Drama of Atheist Humanism.  And though he despised Catholicism, Nietzsche even believed his collected writings to be a fifth Gospel, obviating those of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  He, Nietzsche, then, believed he would serve as a “rival and successor to Jesus,” espousing the myth of the Overman, and transcending the limitations of good and evil.

Well, nobody’s perfect. . . .