I have published two essays in this short series: Traditional Morality is Dead, Long Live Traditional Morality: A World of Evolution and Development and Traditional Morality is Dead, Long Live Traditional Morality: The Dangers of Understanding God’s Acts-of-being.
Now I will write about the greater meaning of this line of thought. I’m writing in response to Claes Ryn’s essay describing how the moral teachings and traditions of the West could re-establish some sort of peace in our world: The Moral Path to Peace. Some who traveled part of their intellectual journey as I did might ask, “How can you criticize an essay summarizing a clearly articulated and morally well-ordered knowledge of reality, a speculative wisdom with which you claim to largely agree?” I criticize in the same spirit in which I criticize even that Founding Father of the West, St Augustine of Hippo. He was human and made some mistakes but still more importantly: he was a man of the 4th and 5th centuries and we’ve learned much more than was known to the entirety of the human race in 400AD.
But what did he do in his effort to save something of Roman Civilization and all of Christianity as he knew it? At the time of Augustine, the best of pagan thinkers were claiming the fall of Rome and the collapse into barbarism was due to Christian influences which weakened the Roman character. Rather than trying to restore all that had been lost, Augustine met the challenge with courage and honesty. He presented the world with a Christian understanding of history as a linear series of passing entities and events and periods in which the Roman Empire itself was only one of those passing entities. In doing this, he preserved the Christian faith for the West and also preserved much of what was good in Roman and Greek culture in a way that disciplined those noble pagan cultures to future Christian purposes. Christ became the Lord of History and Augustus Caesar was pushed into the background; Virgil eventually served the Christian poet Dante.
In terms of our knowledge and understanding of Creation, the task for Christian thinkers in the modern world is similar but still broader and deeper than that of Augustine of Hippo. Christian understandings of Creation have been devastated, left in ruins, not so much by willful vandalism, though there was some of that, as by true advances in human knowledge in those realms of Creation we can directly explore (biology, physics, history, Biblical exegesis, etc.) and human knowledge of realms of Creation in which we must speculate (metaphysics, mathematics, logic, etc.). As Etienne Gilson claimed: Catholic intellectuals (I’d say all Christian intellectuals) have failed since 1800 to answer the questions raised in the modern world. As Joseph Ratzinger put it: modern Christians have been morally irresponsible in not properly caring for Christian civilization. I have my own ways of discussing this problem and the reader should know beforehand that I speculate that the Church Herself is the primary and central organ of the Body of Christ which is, in this mortal realm and in its ultimate form in Heaven, a completed and perfect human community which is a civilization containing a Church at worship but also much else which is validly human.
Men, individuals and also the entire species—however defined, are creatures, empirical inhabitants of a world of concrete being though not only concrete being. Still, we as a species have an evolutionary history which is a bit disturbing in some ways; murder and deceit and thievery are part of human behavior as are self-sacrifice and those random, little acts of charity which smooth our way in a sometime harsh world. We as individuals are sinners, as well as sometimes saints and often potential saints. But there are important details in any answer to such questions as: Why do we murder and steal and break trust in various ways? Is it because we inherited some sort of spiritual blemish due to a fall from grace by the ancestral couple Adam and Eve? Evolutionary theorists and geneticists tell us our last common male ancestor and last common female ancestress probably lived thousands and maybe tens of thousands of years apart. Is it because we’re descended from creatures who survived and reproduced with some success in a world with some nasty aspects? We can see our moral and spiritual failings and our corresponding strengths as the result of some complex mixture of traits and instincts and desires rather than as the result of a battle between a little angel and a little demon.
This entire line of thought I’ve been pursuing has raised questions as to the legitimacy of `schemas’ of understanding as used by Plato and Aristotle and Kant. Can the moral states of men be best, or even competently, understood in terms of virtues or any other such well-defined categories of moral traits? What I’ve said above would imply a rather strong, “No.”
This matters greatly in politics for various reasons, some having to do with observable and measurable differences in ethnic groups which have great implications for political and social and cultural issues. For me, those differences point also to a more complex Body of Christ than has been conjectured before.
In fact, it would seem doubtful there is a homogeneous or uniform `man’ to be described in terms of the tradition. Plato was speaking mostly of Greeks and not so much of Chinese or Africans; something similar can be said of Locke and Kant and most other philosophers who were part of what might simplistically called the schematic tradition. There is actually so much commonality and also so much clear thought of their situations that the best of these philosophers can play a role in understanding a world, indeed an entire Creation, though that world and that Creation must be seen in terms largely alien to most of the great philosophers, from Athens to the modern-day Cambridges.
Man not only has changed over time but man is also really the multitude of men whose characteristics vary over sometimes wide spectrums. There are some ethnic groups where shame holds (at least some Asiatics) and some where guilt holds (at least Northwestern Europeans). Some behave well when they know their kinsmen, at least, are observing and some struggle to behave well when isolated in the jungle. The first can more easily form great and stable communities and the second tend to a radical individualism, if not properly disciplined by other considerations. We’ve seen some of the dangers of the first realized in the extreme conventionalism of China when the Confucian bureaucracy controlled that land in the name of the emperors. We’re seeing some of the dangers of the second being realized in the moral and social disintegration of the liberal West. Since we know of no peoples perfectly balanced between individualistic and communal tendencies, we need to accept the historical fact—even if matters could have been different—that we need to work toward the formation of the Body of Christ and the formation of ourselves as members of that Body by way of a messy process involving two extremes.
See the writings of Peter Frost for an accessible entry into the anthropological and genetic work which has been done on these fields. These analyses indicate rather strongly that there are no absolute standards for organizing human communities because human nature, while a coherent concept pointing to a true sort of being, isn’t so uniform, isn’t so homogeneous, isn’t amenable to manipulation by either the warm fuzzy feelings of modern liberals nor by the harder-edged feelings of the followers of Burke nor Kirk nor Locke nor Jefferson nor—most certainly—those of the followers of von Mises. To anticipate a little, Ryn points to the importance of differences in cultures and local traditions but recommends a path for moral reform in the modern world which would be most plausible for those of northwestern European descent. And that probably won’t work even for those particular peoples because the West is currently dominated by a self-righteous American nation.
I consider myself to be, without qualification, a defender of Western, Christian Civilization, but I seem, with strong qualifications, to be turning away from much of post-Augustinian ways of thought. First I’ll note what would be obvious to any of my steady readers: I do think the citizens of the West have no intention to take up their moral responsibilities to their descendants and to God; as a consequence, I think the Body of Christ will be moving to the great Eurasian civilization whose economic aspects are being consciously shaped by the Chinese, the Russians, and others. This is sad, but it’s the Body of Christ which is of primary importance and the United States and its citizens are of no greater importance than any other particular nation and people and it is the American people and their leaders who have chosen to turn away from their responsibilities and their debts to pursue delusions of absolute power.
Ryn writes as if he considers Christian morality as binding upon himself and also quotes Jesus: “Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will be able to see and take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” And he goes on to speak with great wisdom and a tolerance of, perhaps even a liking or love for, the great variety to be found in men and their various communities:
The notion of universality that I associate with cosmopolitan humanism contains no implication that persons, peoples, and civilizations should conform to a single model of life or that universality can be imposed by means of political engineering. It may be helpful to contrast genuine universality with a type of universalism that today is particularly common and influential in the United States. I am referring to an ideologically intense variant of the Enlightenment mindset that assumes a single political system is desirable and even mandatory for all societies and should be everywhere installed, through military means if necessary. I have called this ideology the new Jacobinism. The French Jacobins summarized their putatively universal principles in the slogan “freedom, equality, and brotherhood.” They saw France as the redeemer of nations. The new Jacobins speak of “freedom” and “democracy,” and they have anointed the United States.
It is important to understand how radically that form of universalism departs from the older Western tradition in which there is an unsettled balance of the individual, or personal, and the communal in human nature.
The goal is noble, the method for reaching or even understanding the goal is defective. This becomes more clear in later lines in Ryn’s essay:
According to the classical and Christian traditions, moral virtue is indistinguishable from personal character. It is first of all a form of self-rule. It means subduing and ordering the passions. Jacobin virtue, by contrast, is primarily and directly political. It is a sense of moral superiority, of being a benefactor of mankind.
Though recognizing differences in “model[s] of life” and opposing ways of thought which assume “a single political system is desirable and even mandatory for all societies and should be everywhere installed, through military means if necessary,” Ryn advocates an individualistic approach to morality, “moral virtue is indistinguishable from personal character”. To be sure, he points to a true problem in the limited and deformed understanding the Jacobins had of what I call human communal nature. The problem with modern men is not an excessive longing for community; some modern thinkers hold a bad understanding of community in which all which is human is in the political sphere and some reject true community in favor of voluntary or even contractual relationships. As Ryn says, “Jacobin virtue…is primarily and directly political.” Our bloated estimation of what is possible by way of politics is a true problem but that indicates not that we should return to “personal character” as the only reality of human moral nature but rather that we should form proper communities in which our individual and communal natures can be properly formed and nurtured.
We men are, in fact, so tied in to communities in our moral and intellectual aspects as to make it difficult, at times, to think how we retain our individuality. I began to develop more clearly my ideas on this issue in Intelligence vs. Intellect where I was responding to Jacques Barzun’s discussion in The House of Intellect. I started my line of thought by responding to Barzun’s understanding of intellect which he stated simply:
Intellect is the capitalized and communal form of live intelligence; it is intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning and spurs to emotion—a shorthand and a wireless by which the mind can skip connectives, recognize ability, and communicate truth. Intellect is at once a body of common knowledge and the channels through which the right particle of it can be brought to bear quickly, without the effort of redemonstration, on the matter in hand.
As part of my response, I claimed that there is a human communal mind and, more generally, human being is both individual and communal. For real and not just a matter of speaking `as-if’.
In an essay I published later that same year of 2012, Do We Need Heart and Hands as Well as Mind to Understand Reality?, I continued to develop my understanding of human being, individual and communal. These ideas are presented in their currently most mature form in A More Exact Understanding of Human Being.
We do remain individuals while also being fully our communities—both are true in this world only in some sort of extrapolation as confessors and psychiatrists and novelists can tell us. Though there are always the exceptions which prove, that is—test, the rule, personal character and community character move together. This doesn’t mean that all men in the future American states in 1776 were at the same level—the Founding Fathers were not uniformly moral giants but all did display at least the virtue of courage in difficult circumstances. (Though some weren’t particularly brave in the way of serving in the Continental Army but they all risked the hangman’s noose.) What it does mean is that the Founding Fathers, including a disproportionate number who were relative moral giants, were unusual; the American people never chose to even try to emulate men of (real or idealized) public honor and our current mess, as well as earlier messes, are the results of not just objective historical events but also of the lack of American moral character capable of dealing with serious problems or with great wealth and power. This isn’t a weakness which can be overcome by a sudden reform of personal character on the part of millions of individuals. It is a problem which can only be solved by a multi-generational effort on the part of individuals and communities alike, an effort to raise both personal and communal moral character, inch by inch, with the personal sometimes moving ahead and the communal at other times. Such an effort would interfere with our trips to DisneyWorld or our concern for the NFL playoff situation or the latest wonderful television show about shallow, unlikable, and morally disordered human creatures.
We Christians believe we are images of God, He who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit in one God. Each of the three Persons remains a true individual while each being fully God. I’ve developed a modern Christian understanding of Creation by taking the Western theologies and philosophies and empirical sciences seriously. Under this understanding, I claim that those who will be saved and share God’s life will remain fully themselves while being fully the true and perfect man, the Body of Christ, or even—Christ.
Ryn, and most conservatives who may be Christians or have at least an appreciation for the Christian foundations of the West, know this. And they can’t take the bull by the horns. Ryn speaks of a “cosmopolitan humanism” which is a gathering of peoples and not a mob of uniform carbon-based entities. But it also isn’t anything like the Body of Christ which is an image of God in His unity as its members are images of the divine person who is the Son of God. With an imperfectly Christian understanding of community, Ryn then speaks of of moral virtue as if each of us stands free from the communities to which we belong, though those communities remain important in some sense subsumed under the term `cosmopolitan humanism’.
The West was and is merely a fraud if it isn’t the product of a 1500 year long period in the life of the Body of Christ, a period in which that Body was being formed by evolutionary and developmental processes from a large number of human beings in their individual being as well as their being as members of overlapping human communities formed of families and ethnic genetic-lines, religious communities and vocational or professional communities, neighbors and fellow-citizens of more or less coherent nations or other political entities.
We are bound to these communities of individuals and communities. We are shaped by them. We are them and they are us. We are Christ and He is us.
I think the Body of Christ to be a complex entity indeed in which each individual member is also a member of many of the communities which function as organs.
The Christian Church is the central organ, but not the entirety of the Body. The reasoning toward this claim is found in my various writings including the freely downloadable book referenced above: A More Exact Understanding of Human Being.
I welcome the idea that other groups, certainly Jews, will also become part and parts of this complete and perfect human community which is also Christ, the Son of God. That is to say, I think the idea is plausible and worthy of exploration.
Yet, each person in each community has to live and speak in specific terms if we are to diagnose and heal our civilization and such a healing—to a Christian—is a return to the path which can be traveled by men of good-will and which leads to salvation; God is, of course, free to put some on other paths where they have no direct access to human means of salvation. There is also the optimistic idea that men of weak good-will and even some rebels might well travel with the pilgrim Body of Christ even into the world of the resurrected. Do we retain a pagan view of being or do we adopt the view proclaimed by St John the Evangelist and rediscovered by `radical’ thinkers in quantum mechanics? (See two early and short essays for the meaning of this statement: Einstein and Bohr’s debate on the meaning of reality and Quantum Mechanics and Moral Formation.)
Civilization is what shapes us, what lives inside our minds and souls. Civilization is a narrative which tells us what it all means, including our lives individual and communal. Civilization, and not just the Christian Church, is the Body of Christ in its mortal, pilgrim form. A proper Christian civilization would be the best possible earthly school to prepare us for Heaven. And, finally, the Body of Christ in the world of the resurrected will be much like a completed and perfected civilization.
We Christians or Jews or Moslems or other believers in a personal God Who is concerned with this world are bound to very explicitly put God in the center of our thoughts and our communities and our civilizations. Since we Christians believe not just in a Creator but in a Creator who became man, immanent in His own Creation, then we particularly are bound to pay attention to empirical reality, including all of the abstract forms of knowledge derived from that reality. We must shape our understanding of human nature using the best of modern empirical knowledge, however disconcerting at times.
I’ve done much towards the goal of understanding Creation so that we can properly shape our minds and souls as well as those of our communities, even the Body of Christ on earth. Interested readers can find information on my writings by downloading Catalog of Major Writings by Loyd Fueston.