For those, if there are any, who think about politics, Simone Weil is an especially useful guide. All of her works – mostly the core of notebooks, published since her death in 1943 – approach this topic, characteristically from “outside.”
In the one book that was positively commissioned, The Need for Roots, she examines the rootlessness of modern society – a déracinement that is historically unprecedented. Modern man is disoriented in space, but more profoundly, disoriented in time.
The subtitle of that book is Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind. It looks towards the reconstruction of France that must follow after the Second World War (she never doubted the Germans would lose it), and thus also, necessarily, back upon the débacle of 1940. (What lead to it?)
Miss Weil surprised and rather scandalized her patrons by suggesting, indeed more than suggesting, that the defeat of France was deserved. This is the sort of thing that got people lynched in the time just after the War, when what was being restored was not so much French honor, as French pride. But she did not live to see or comment upon that.
It was Weil’s insight to find the tragedy of France in the paysan (peasant, farmer, countryman) – who could think that he was a peasant because he wasn’t smart enough to be a teacher. Reciprocally, one might say, the arrogance of the teacher was to think himself smarter.
She had an acute, intensely critical appreciation of the modern concept of “equality,” which excludes the old idea of equality in the presence and judgment of God. In the face of Christ, king and scullery wench stand equal. This cannot be changed by changing their positions.
Ours is not quite the Bolshevik account. Rather, our idea of equality is the more destructive notion that everyone belongs in the social order one step above the position he now occupies. It is the anarchic notion shared by socialist governments – and commercial advertizers alike.
Space and time are correlated, and to Weil, the loss of that sense of place, within the whole, undermines each individual psyche. The anxieties and resentments we feel, are manipulated in the public sphere, in the cynical machinations of what I call “democracy” (in quotes) – with its empty slogans promising liberty, equality, fraternity, and what else in a farrago of logical contradictions, through which each opposite is consistently delivered.
But here I am carrying away from Weil’s actual writing. She focused upon that high treason: the rootlessness caused by the destruction of the past. She called this destruction, “perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”
I emphasize this to contradict the glib account sometimes given of Weil as a “political activist.” She was no such thing, in our present understanding of that term. She worked in factories, she lived among the “lower orders,” not for the purpose of organizing yet another revolution, but to gain an understanding of them. For her, “the people” were actual people.
She mixed, so to say, “as an equal,” which is something no other intellectual I can think of has ever done – if we except the evangels for Christianity through the last twenty centuries. Notoriously abrasive in the higher society from which she came, she seemed much happier in the company of the humble, who, she somewhere dryly observed, probably liked her less than she liked them.
I started this column with an intentionally shocking statement, implying that hardly anyone is interested in politics today. Let me double-down on that.
The least interested are the politicians. One does not get into that trade as the result of some deep meditation on the constitution of the state, and the constitution of society. One gets in to win. It is a utilitarian exercise, of no intellectual, nor spiritual, nor even moral significance. Many are called, by their own voices, to advance one public policy or another, or represent a constituency with a grievance. Few have any living contact with those they claim to represent.
A vision of the whole, and thus the arrangement of its parts – the kind of thing that animated Thomas More – is anyway almost impossible in or near today’s political order. To be perfectly intransitive, it beggars belief. And this is because falsely presented ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and the like have laid down their mucky sediment through several centuries.
The realities have been buried, and the intellectual effort to exhume them is beyond the normal range of human mind and will. Even to begin thinking about politics today is to acquire the skills of an archaeologist.
Which is the more reason we should start digging.
Weil referred to the state as the Great Beast. It does not exist for the people, but the people for it. This did not make her a libertarian or anarchist, but the opposite. She was clear in stating that the order of society, as the order of nature, must be hierarchical; in the phrase I like to use, “a place for everyone, and everyone in his place.”
The real anarchists are those who seek to impose an arbitrary order – who promise “equality” and other rubbish like that. For that equality already exists, in the service of the divine, and is served in turn through the ministration of religion.
A bold and courageous skeptic to the last, Weil could nevertheless summon from the mystical Catholic teaching images and metaphors from the Body of Christ.
True freedom is not the freedom to move elsewhere, but freedom just where we are. To know the truth and live freed by it.
Sticklers among Catholic traditionalists deny Weil a hearing on the grounds that, so far as we know (and we cannot know her mind as she died), Weil was never received into the Catholic Church. Yet it was her gift, and her value to us, that she lived at the knife-edge of all dogmas.
We hear much these days about the “Benedict Option,” inspired by Rod Dreher’s book by that name. Some Catholics surrounded by “nones” and liberals – and confronting public schools sexualizing students, local parishes preaching a watered-down hand-holding Catholicism, etc. – are seeking various forms of community as a defense against anti-Christian currents.
Some have changed parishes or neighborhoods, or even moved their families to locations bordering Benedictine monasteries! Some may find thecatholicthing.org and similar Catholic Internet sites to be their “cyberspace” Benedict Option.
The general idea is to take steps of self-preservation in a world imbued with relativism and secularism, get support from like-minded persons, and keep ourselves and our children from succumbing to a social environment gone berserk.
Rod Dreher got the inspiration for his book from a short final paragraph of Alasdair Macintyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue, where Macintyre concludes, comparing our age with the late Roman Empire of the original Benedict, “this time . . . the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”
In a later interview, Macintyre confided that he regretted writing that paragraph, thus giving rise to the impression that he was advocating a strategy of withdrawal.
Macintyre’s book received – and deserved – a lot of attention. I came across it at a time when I was doing research for my book Ethics in Context, and was impressed by his brilliant critique of attempts to formulate viable ethical theories in the aftermath of the Enlightenment – especially two theories that still appear in college classrooms in various revisions and reincarnations: utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative.
One thing, however, that Macintyre does not go into: both of these influential theories were Enlightenment attempts to replace natural-law theory, which had previously enjoyed pride of place among Catholic philosophers and also some Protestant philosophers.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of utilitarian ethics, claims it’s the solution to the “subjectivism” of natural law:
A great multitude of people are continually talking of the Law of Nature; and then they go on giving you their [personal] sentiments about what is right and what is wrong; and these sentiments, you are to understand, are so many chapters, and sections of the Law of Nature. . . .[The “Natural Law” consists] in so many contrivances for avoiding the obligation of appealing to any external standard, and for prevailing upon the readers to accept of the author’s sentiment or opinion as a reason, and that a sufficient one, for itself.
As a solution to the necessity for completely objective “external standards” for ethics, Bentham offers his “utilitarian” system, geared to the maximizing of happiness for the greatest number, and consisting of elaborate charts with numerical ratings of pleasures to be taken into calculation. Later utilitarians have refined Bentham’s quaint charts, and expanded his notions of happiness.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed a different replacement for natural law, which involved a return to subjectivism, but seemingly also establishes universal validity with the Categorical Imperative:
Since the universality of the law according to which effects are produced constitutes what is properly called nature in the most general sense (as to form) – that is, the existence of things so far as it is determined by general laws – the imperative of duty may be expressed thus: Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.
In other words, if you want to follow the “law of nature,” simply formulate your moral maxims in such a way as you would wish them to become universalized; if you can’t do this, you are departing from the natural law. (This approach is similar to the Golden Rule, “do unto others,” but, Kant claims, offers a more solid philosophical formulation.)
Macintyre’s critique was a major catalyst for my own interest in natural law, which has been ignored or “replaced” by modern ethicists.
But why is natural-law theory largely ignored by contemporary ethicists? Because of the “is-ought” distinction emphasized by David Hume (1711-76). This is still a “gold standard” among contemporary ethicists. Hume’s distinction (“Hume’s Guillotine”) prohibits any derivation of an “ought” from something factual, like human nature. The Catholic philosophers John Finnis and Germain Grisez have tried to develop a “New Natural Law” theory, which avoids this “Guillotine.” But many others – myself included – find these efforts unconvincing and even unnecessary, due to fallacious interpretations of Hume.
Macintyre does not examine natural law in After Virtue, but does consider the Thomistic version of natural law in Volume 2 of Ethics and Politics. In Chapter 4, “Aquinas and the Extent of Moral Disagreement,” he focuses on Aquinas’ classic analysis (ST Ia-IIae 94, 2) of the three “precepts” of natural law: preservation of our lives and health; education and nurture of our offspring; and pursuit of the truth and rational social relations.
Macintyre also discusses the “secondary precepts” related to Aquinas’ “primary” precepts, and the practical disagreements that occur regarding applications. He concludes that “the set of precepts conformity to which is a precondition for shared rational enquiry as to how our practical disagreements are to be resolved has the same content as those precepts that Aquinas identified as the precepts of natural law.”
A remarkable conclusion: In shared attempts to establish preconditions for dealing with value disagreements, we will arrive at the vestibule of Aquinas’ classical precepts!
We may possibly take this vision of dedicated dialogue as Macintyre’s own new, highly intellectualized, version of the “Benedict option.”
According to this line of argument, ethical contenders establish methodological precepts for overcoming disagreements, and eventually (and surprisingly) arrive willy-nilly at Aquinas’ three precepts about self-preservation, care of offspring, and rationality.
Alisdair Macintyre’s brilliant critique of the various attempts in modern philosophy to arrive at “rules” for determining what is ethically right or wrong has been a major stimulus in recent decades for the rise of “virtue ethics.”
Virtue ethics generally avoids attempts to come up with rules governing specific ethical issues, but focuses on virtues, “habits of excellence,” which should lead to proper decisions and activities for good men. De-emphasis and even disdain of specific rules is common among “virtue ethicists.” The focus on virtue by some virtue ethicists is reminiscent of persons who are “spiritual but not religious” – claiming to pursue the spirituality which is the common goal of most religions, but disdaining the rules of particular religions for promoting spiritual progress.
But, as I have indicated in a previous column, following Aquinas’ almost self-evident primary precepts of natural law supplies reliable guidance for countless everyday ethical issues that come up (and also promotes virtue). These precepts may emerge after lengthy dialogues by sincere intellectuals, as Macintyre proposes. But why cannot preservation of life, nurture of offspring, etc. function as starting points for such discussions?
La féminité (citation de Tasha Tudor)
L’Afrique chrétienne, qui est catholique, protestant ou orthodoxe
The word “liturgy” derives from the Greek word leitourgos, “a man who performs a public duty,” “a public servant,” or simply “work.” In Catholic usage, liturgy refers to an array of communal religious practices and rituals, above all the Mass. Perhaps “work of God” is an apt definition. But “liturgy,” in a broad sense, seems to be among the natural human inclinations. In practice, liturgical actions are often simply taken for granted and are even “invisible” because the focus is on the purpose of liturgy, not its details.
For example, August is the first month of the “sports year.” The pre-season games anticipate the celebration of the regular season, which begins in September. The rituals are familiar. People gather in stadiums, sing the National Anthem, and enter into the drama of the game. The high feast days are the playoffs, culminating in the Solemnity of the Super Bowl. But we don’t think of the NFL season and rituals (e.g., kissing the Lombardi trophy) as liturgy. We’re just looking to be entertained.
Or take the military’s liturgical practices: from marching bands to the changing of the guard, with uniforms and magnificent displays of hardware and firepower. Again, we don’t think these as “liturgy.” But we do experience feelings of patriotism or nationalism, admiring the discipline and courage of our soldiers, and the might of military hardware. “Thank you for your service” has become a common military liturgical greeting in our day.
Secular liturgies have much in common with religious liturgies. Even the “incense” of pyrotechnic effects at rock concerts are “liturgical.” Like churches, stadiums and concert halls provide useful venues for crowd control, a context for the “rituals,” and their orderly performance.
Secular liturgy, like religious liturgy, is tempered by faithfulness to the given forms. But even these forms need benign direction. Without religious sensibilities, our innate liturgical inclinations quickly become self-serious, disproportionate, even destructive. The importance of an overarching cultural framework of faith and religious liturgical practices should not be underestimated.
Soccer riots in South America, drunken victory celebrations, and rock concert debauchery reveal the consequences of liturgy severed from religion. Even military rituals devoid of religion easily go bad (Sieg Heil!). When faith and religious liturgies are rejected, the liturgical void is filled with extreme and dangerous “liturgical” forms.
The purpose of most (otherwise benign) secular liturgies is to provide a common experience of entertainment or to exalt the power and the glory of a nation’s military might. Secular liturgies are not explicitly in the service of God; they are in the service of man.
By contrast, the purpose of the sacred liturgy is worship – and the means of entering into union with the living God. The ritual and symbolic appurtenances (like sacred music) are expected to be pleasing, but pleasing because God is glorified by beauty and our obedience to His will. As we are immersed into the liturgy, we become less aware of the liturgical practices per se. Just as football fans are unaware of the secular liturgy, it is possible for a devout Catholics (e.g., saints like Padre Pio and Pope John Paul II) to “lose themselves” at Mass in true prayer and devotion in union with Christ and His Mystical Body.
There are dangers when liturgy becomes familiar. Familiarity rooted in sloth can bring boredom and with boredom a demand for “vibrant” liturgies – i.e., excitement and entertainment. Such selfish expectations reveal a breakdown in understanding of the true purpose of Divine worship, a purpose that “renders unto God that which is God’s.” (Mk 12:17)
The sacred liturgy does not compete with the entertainment dimension of secular liturgies. It is practically impossible for the sacred liturgy to top the excitement of a professional football game, or a rock concert, or a military parade – or even the temple prostitution of ancient Greece. (Nothing is really new under the sun.)
The ritual of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is instructive because it honors soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in battle: “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn. 15:13) As secular liturgies go, it comes closest to true Catholic liturgy. There are few demands for it to include more “vibrant” ritual practices such as inserting popular tunes into the solemn act.
It should be obvious, therefore, that we shouldn’t ask pastors (or that pastors shouldn’t ask their people) to “jazz up” the Mass – the re-presentation of the Cross and Resurrection – with all those ill-advised and tiresome post-Conciliar tunes, pseudo-religious and secular. Even “conservative” Catholics need to be on guard lest “fine music” of whatever style at Mass has the corrosive effect of becoming high-class entertainment rather than facilitating prayer.
A Mass should be “vibrant” only to the extent its reverence in celebration moves our souls to enter into an intimate union with Christ and His Mystical Body.
Sacred liturgy and ritual are both instructive and transformative. While it is profitable to consider the Mass from an academic stance, it is more profitable to enter into the Mass with a living faith, attentive to and engaged in the words and action. Our transformation in Christ through the liturgy is not magical; it is gradual and mystical, touching our minds, hearts, and emotions.
This is why the Third Commandment, Keep Holy the Sabbath, is so important. Our weekly Mass attendance is not only necessary under the pain of mortal sin (absent valid excusing circumstances), it is also necessary for us to continue our ever so gradual transformation in Christ.
The liturgy can have visible, sanctifying effects on the faithful. Ask any priest who has visited an apparently unconscious parishioner who attempts the Sign of the Cross during prayers, with parched lips that tremble with the recitation of the Our Father. Like the sacred liturgy properly celebrated, it is beautiful – and transforming – to behold.