Sunday 27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham

And my favourite Advent hymn (from Lincoln Cathedral choir):

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (4): Europeans are lost

This interview of Pierre Manent, former director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, was conducted by the newspaper Il Foglio in the wake of the ISIS murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel. (English version from First Things.)

The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way. … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionless over the surface of the planet. … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity. Everyone can see and feel this, but how can it be expressed when the only authorized language is that of individual rights? We have become supremely incapable of seeing what is right before our eyes. Meanwhile the ruling class, which is not a political but an ideological class, one that commands not what must be done but what must be said, goes on indefinitely about “values,” the “values of the republic,” the “values of democracy,” the “values of Europe.” This class has been largely discredited in the eyes of citizens, but it occupies all the positions of institutional responsibility, especially in the media, and nowhere does one find groups or individuals who give the impression of understanding what is happening or of being able to stand up to it. We have no more confidence in those who lead us than in ourselves. It is neither an excuse nor a consolation to say it, but the faults of the French are those of Europeans in general.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (3): oppositional thinking

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

Fundamentally, what annoys me in the work of some  contemporaries that I have touched on, such as Louis Dumont, but even in such as a writer like Heidegger, is that their thought is dominated by a polarising and in the end polemical approach. A sort of battle of the giants is revealed to us between the new and the old, but the new and the old are each still thought of in terms of the other: the modern is defined by being the negation of the ancient, which is itself defined by being the anticipated negation, so to speak, of the modern.


The evolution [of my thought] of which I am speaking consisted in freeing myself as much as possible from the polemical posture which is shared by the two great parties of the Modern and the anti-modern. And which is even, in the final analysis, shared by those who look for impartiality in a 'neutral' polarity, 'without conqueror or conquered', between 'holism' and 'individualism', whose attempts I've followed with sympathy: they may modify the tone, but not the basis of the debate for it is still a principle of opposition, a polarity of contraries, which organises their thought. Opposition and hostility are not only some of the most powerful forces in human life; they often penetrate the most intimate depths of thought. It seems to me that, in the more recent period of my work, by reducing, if I can put it like this, the element of hostility which was included in my thought, I have arrived at an expanded understanding of the questions which have occupied me from the beginning.



It's easy to apply this to the current public world. The tone of mutual hostility which exists between (say) pro and anti-Trump partisans is clear. But Manent I take it is going beyond this. (The following should be read more as speculation rather than an interpretation of Manent.) An analysis, say, such as feminism which rests essentially on an opposition between male and female interests, and between the patriarchal past and the progressive future, covers up real life complexities and other possible political approaches and resolutions.  And the solution here is less about opposing feminism (because that simply reproduces the oppositional thought) but disregarding it entirely. Ideological thinking such as feminism traps even its opponents into being opponents.

In politics, Manent's main focus, I think leads to an obvious way forward. One constantly wrestles to free oneself from the black and white thinking associated with identification with or opposition to a particular ideology, and instead tries to reduce (note the hint that full success is impossible) the influence such ideological approaches have on you in favour of a prudential attention to reality and human nature.

[The focus on feminism isn't something I found in Manent. But it occurred to me while writing this that opposition to binary, oppositional thinking is something that feminism regularly pays at least lip service to. The irony of this of course is that it's hard to think of many other ideologies which currently produce so much oppositional thought and action both within its own ranks and as a reaction.]

Daniel J. Mahoney's essay on Manent is interesting:

This focus on practical philosophy—on deliberation and action—has become increasingly central to Manent’s work. He rejects a social science rooted in the fact-value distinction as estranged from the deliberations and choices that confront acting man. Contemporary discourses about “values” are remarkably vacuous, he maintains, since they ignore the structure of human action and render human choice arbitrary or groundless—in Max Weber’s famous formulation, men choose their gods, who may turn out to be demons. Behind soft democratic relativism, with its endless evocation of arbitrary “values,” lies an inexpiable “war of the gods,” a neo-Nietzschean metaphysic that destroys the moral integrity of liberal democracy. Manent’s thought points in a more truthful and salutary direction.


Sunday 13 November 2016

Respecting opponents requires moral self-discipline

                                          Perhaps not the best way of regulating disputes...

An article in the New York Times typified a lot of 'progressive' reaction to Trump's election. A Muslim student discovers her roommate -whom she seems to have got along with rather well before- voted Trump and therefore packs up and leaves:

We fought; I packed. This was Tuesday evening, so I headed to my friend’s dorm, where a small group of us, mainly black women, tried to find solace in one another as the country slowly fell to red. I tried and failed to speak, to write. I ignored my roommate’s lengthy texts.
Did she really expect me to respect her choice when her choice undermined my presence in this country, in this university, in my very own dorm room? Did she really expect me to shake her hand for supporting a candidate who would love to bar my relatives from this country, who has considered making people of my faith register in a specific database and carry special ID, Holocaust-style?
What the article seems to miss (amongst many other things) is just how difficult it is for people to get along in a civilised manner: it requires virtue and often considerable will power. Certainly, part of this is putting up with other people's irritating personal habits: untidiness, singing off tune, slurping. But even more difficult is putting up with other people's views on important ethical matters. I am surrounded by people who often claim to see nothing wrong in killing unborn children, speak dismissively of God, and are positively foul about the Catholic Church. If I allowed my emotions free rein, I would be running around screaming at them. That I don't is a mix of different reasons. Sometimes it's because, short of ending up starving on the street, I have to get along with them. Sometimes it's because I have special duties to them as, for example, relatives. Sometimes, it's because, despite their views, I can see that they have a basic decency. And so on.
I'm not sure how much of this is due to social media, but this sort of recognition of the need for self control to establish civic peace and cordiality seems increasingly to be lost. Given the diversity of today's nation states, we all need to inculcate in ourselves and our children a much sterner self-discipline about knee jerk, emotional reactions. Getting on with other people involves compromise, self-restraint and courage. (I don't dismiss the student's fear of how she will be treated as a Muslim. But taking out that fear on a well-inclined, friendly roommate seems to me viciously self-indulgent.)
Self-restraint, civility, simple politeness. Not particularly fashionable virtues in a society where letting it all hang out and stuff anybody else has been the norm of behaviour from the sixties. And, yes, I am only too well aware of the difficulty in reconciling these norms with Donald Trump's behaviour. Doesn't make them any less necessary.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (2): Trump and Brexit

Pierre Manent on Brexit:

Once the result was known, very violent attacks have been launched on both sides of the English Channel against the voters of Brexit… This is the highest comedy, the comedy of repetition. We have known for about ten or fifteen years that the European peoples are perplexed, dissatisfied, very concerned. They have largely lost confidence in the governing class and in the so-called elites. This is reflected by the protest votes, either in referendums as in 2005 in the Netherlands and in France, or just recently in the United Kingdom, or in the usual elections, by the important gains of so called populists. And each time, it is the same comedy: the members of the Council of European family look incredulous as if the Arc de Triomphe and Buckingham Palace had exchanged their seats. They briefly fall silent, choked on a genuine indignation. Then they dump on the voters by all available channels the great waters of their contempt: According to them, the vote was decided by an unworthy plebs, lazy and ignorant, xenophobic and regressive. They rediscover the long discredited argument in favour of restricted suffrage. In short, the European Union should have introduced us to the ultimate stage of democracy, and it has instead  reconstituted a self-aware oligarchy, assured of their right, and quite content to impose their views on the recalcitrant majority.

Interviewer: How to explain that, according to you, our leaders no longer feel obliged to convince their fellow citizens?

Until a fairly recent date, the social divisions of our country were covered up and overcome by participation in the nation as a political community. This is no longer the case today. The right and left have renounced the role that had been theirs since these families of thought began to exist. The right has abandoned the 'people as nation', and stopped seeking justice and unity by a unifying reference to the nation: farewell to gaullism. The left has abandoned the working class, and stopped seeking justice and unity by a unifying reference to the people who are "exploited": farewell to socialism. Right and Left  no longer give themselves the task of representing the French in their concrete reality, to govern them in the best way possible, but instead aim to lead them toward a new society, a new world in which they would disappear as French to resurface, better and wiser, as Europeans.

...The more "European construction" progressed, the more the springs of democratic political life were distorted. That life is based on a moral exchange between people and rulers: the people puts its trust in rulers, who justify this confidence by governing in a fair, prudent and honourable manner. When the reference to Europe intervenes between the governed and rulers, the representative mandate gives way to an ideological mandate. The political class is no more accountable to the people of the electors, but to the idea and the "criteria" of Europe. Since nobody can define positively what is "Europe", it will instead be defined negatively: to build Europe, it is undo, and first delegitimize the nations. This is the politics of ideology, i.e. policy of the impossible, since the nations of which one wants to ruin the legitimacy remain the only really alive and strong constituents of European life. Political legitimacy and political reality are moving away from one another. The political class is more and more ideological.

(Interview from Le Figaro 1 August 2016. Non paywall version here. My translation (or, more exactly, tidied up machine translation for speed.) )


Thinking about the success of Trump today, I wonder how much is a result of progressive politics being based on this imposition of a goal to make voters better. If you go on telling people that they are xenophobes, patriarchal and just generally not good enough as they are, how long before they begin to get irritated? One of Manent's constant themes is the depolitisation of politics. Instead of appealing to voters with existing concrete lives and interests, liberal elites aim to impose moral ideals which existing voters invariably are failing to live up to. (And which, absent any substantive content to 'progressive', tend to be defined negatively by destroying the already existent.)

Sunday 6 November 2016

Scottish government goes soft on religious worship?

                                      S6 finding a secular alternative to religious worship...

The never ending guerilla campaign of the various septs of Clan Atheist to undermine religious schooling in Scotland continues.

The latest surge focuses on allowing 16-18 year olds to opt out of acts of worship off their own bat:

A consultation is to be held on whether older pupils should be allowed to opt themselves out of religious observance in schools, the BBC has learned.
All young people in Scotland need parental permission to withdraw from religious activities like assemblies.

The Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS) was seeking a judicial review of that policy for older pupils.
The Scottish government is now to consider revising guidance to head teachers.

Religious observance must take place in Scottish schools at least six times a year.
In England and Wales, sixth form pupils - normally aged between 16 and 18 - have the right to make their own decision about opting out.

[From BBC website here]

I confess that up till now, I'd rather naively assumed that the thrust of this campaign was directed at non-denominational schools rather religious ones (ie in Scotland, essentially Catholic). Although I'd lean towards keeping matters as they are even in non-denominational schools, my enthusiasm is tempered in this case by a realisation that, generally, this probably means subjecting youths to the inanities of modern Jesus-lite Presbyterianism. (But, broadly, better that than nothing. A previous post on a related issue probably gives a good sense of my views. My previous suggestion that such non-denominational waffle should be replaced by cultural sessions of metrical psalms and readings from the Authorised Version of the Bible doesn't seem to have many takers either. Shame.)

However, judging from the BBC Sunday Politics Scotland (here: after 1.01) this is also or even primarily directed at Catholic schools. Specific mention is made in the programme of the incident in Motherwell where fifty pupils didn't bother to turn up to an annual Patron's Day Mass (earlier report here) and were punished accordingly. Allowing pupils to opt out of Catholic worship in a Catholic school undermines that school's ability to provide a Catholic ethos. Whilst you're free to regard us Catholics as a bunch of iron age goatherd worshipping paddies or whatever, if you're going to allow us Catholic schools, then you have to allow us the right to run those schools as Catholic schools. And here, unlike the more difficult to resolve issues on, say, the teaching of a Catholic sexual morality at odds with the common-or-garden secular version, this is simply the basic, minimum standard of a Catholic ethos: worshipping God.

Anthony Esolen makes the point about the Mass's centrality to Catholic understandings of social order in his book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, referring in particular to the teaching in Leo XIII's Mirae caritatis:

This Sacrament, whether as the theme of devout meditation, or as the object of public adoration, or best of all as a food to be received in the utmost purity of conscience, is to be regarded as the centre towards which the spiritual life of a Christian in all its ambit gravitates; for all other forms of devotion, whatsoever they may be, lead up to it, and in it find their point of rest. In this mystery more than in any other that gracious invitation and still more gracious promise of Christ is realised and finds its daily fulfilment: "Come to me all ye that labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you" (St. Matt. xi., 28).
15. In a word this Sacrament is, as it were, the very soul of the Church; and to it the grace of the priesthood is ordered and directed in all its fulness and in each of its successive grades. From the same source the Church draws and has all her strength, all her glory, her every supernatural endowment and adornment, every good thing that is here; wherefore she makes it the chiefest of all her cares to prepare the hearts of the faithful for an intimate union with Christ through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, and to draw them thereto. And to this end she strives to promote the veneration of the august mystery by surrounding it with holy ceremonies.
Undoubtedly, the atheists will regard this as so much nonsense. Unfortunately, it is our nonsense, and if we are to be allowed to run schools to promote a Catholic ethos, the Mass should be at the heart of those schools. If pupils can't accept that, they should leave the school. (And the choice of leaving or staying at a school is one for parents, not children.)
But of course, the real question, to which these are but preliminary skirmishes, is whether we are to be left to run schools...

Wednesday 2 November 2016

New series: Manent Mercredi

As part of my services to alliteration, I'm going (until I get bored anyway) to institute Pierre Manent Wednesdays in which I'll excerpt and perhaps comment on some of his writings. He strikes me as one of those Catholic thinkers who should be better known in Scotland and the rest of the UK. (Admittedly a long list...)

The 'Contemporary Thinkers' website gives a good overview of his work here.

I don't claim to have any particular expertise in Manent's thought: indeed, one of my reasons for doing this is to force me to engage more seriously with his work myself. If I had to give a rough idea of why I think this might be worth doing, I'd suggest:

1) He appears to be utterly orthodox in his Catholic belief and practice and yet sensitive to the way that religion, politics and philosophy are not always easy bedfellows.

2) He is realistic about the difficulties globalisation brings to Europe without fantasising about the possibility of undoing existing conditions.

3) Whilst sympathetic to 'identitaire' concerns about preserving French culture, he has a deep appreciation of American political thought.

Anyway, let's kick off with an extract from an autobiographical collection of interviews Le Regard Politique. (There is an English translation Seeing Things Politically but I'll be using my own (imperfect) translations from the French.)

On the distinction between compassion and charity:

It is true that democratic feeling, compassion for your fellow man, often produces the same actions as charity. The perspective, however, is radically different. Fellow feeling is a subtle development of self love. Because I see him as my fellow man, I identify myself with my fellow man who is suffering and therefore I want to rid him of his suffering as I would want to be freed from mine. At the same time, of course, compassion supposes that I do not suffer myself. My moral imagination needs, so to speak leisure, needs to have some room so that it can pay attention to the suffering of others. If I am suffering myself, at least with a certain intensity, this ability is taken away from me. And as Rousseau, to whom we owe the most rigorous analyses of humanitarian compassion, emphasises, even the most sincere compassion carries with it, along with the identification with the other suffering person, the satisfaction and pleasure of not suffering oneself.

Charity is completely different. In the strict or fullest sense of the term, it's a disposition, a virtue that human beings cannot acquire or produce by their own efforts. Technically, if I might venture to put it like this, charity is God's own love, the love with which God loves human beings and, in the first place, the love with which God loves himself in the trinitarian exchange. Therefore, in the true sense of the term, a charitable person is someone who shares, by the grace of God, in the love of God. That's a theological definition so we can put it aside for now. But even if we regard this disposition from a simply human point of view, we can see that charity involves aspects that distance it from democratic compassion. Charity, in effect, ignores the return to oneself which belongs to the life of fellow feeling, because charity doesn't involve an identification with the other suffering person, or a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure in not suffering oneself.


[The charitable person] doesn't love him [ie his fellow man] because he is his fellow, he doesn't love him because he is this particular person, he loves him because he is the image of God.



Putting aside any deeper analysis here, the identification of the element of self love and pleasure in one's own state in compassion strikes me as insightful into much of what passes for altruism in modernity. Virtue signalling is a clear instance of this. Moreover, much of the progressive commentary on the refugee crisis assumes an incredibly patronising stance: much of it is shot through with a sense of our home as a secular heaven to which we delight in inviting those we choose. Manent's contrast of compassion with the rather more objective and detached charity does hint at the appalling sentimentality that dominates many discussions of beneficence.