While Jon Shields’ provocative piece (“Roe’s Pro-Life Legacy,” January) credits the Supreme Court decision with mobilizing the pro-life side to begin “changing the hearts and minds” of those on the pro-choice side, I believe he understates the power of the supporters of abortion when he claims that “Roe bred apathy and conservatism in pro-choice ranks.” Because Roe made access to abortion the law of the land, pro-life citizens remain under attack by a well-organized, strategically orchestrated campaign by the opposition.
Just ask Joseph Scheidler, the founder of the Pro-Life Action League, who had to fight a costly legal battle in the 1980s when the National Organization for Women brought a lawsuit against his organization under federal antitrust laws. Scheidler was charged as being part of a “criminal conspiracy” to close women’s health centers. He was also charged with extortion and violation of federal racketeering laws in this lawsuit.
Thus began a twenty-year journey in the courts, culminating with three Supreme Court decisions and nearly a dozen lower-court battles. The goal for NOW was to silence the pro-life side, and although Scheidler finally prevailed, this goal remains.
The pro-choice side has prevailed in expanding access to abortion through President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and in the most recent HHS mandate for nearly all employers, including religious institutions, to provide free access to abortifacients for their employees. Pro-life faculty members, even those on Catholic campuses, have been forced to supervise student internships at Planned Parenthood and other providers of abortion. Those who have refused have lost their jobs or, if tenured, have been marginalized in other ways.
It remains a difficult world for the committed pro-life individual, as there are few conscience protections for those opposed to abortion. Roe has made it so. We should celebrate the pro-life victories of which Shields writes, but we should never underestimate the power of the pro-choice side.
The King’s College
New York, New York
Like other scholars, Jon Shields probably underestimates the strength of the pro-life movement before 1973 and gives too much credit to Roe for turning the pro-life movement into the strong entity that it is today. In the spring of 1971, twenty-five state legislatures considered bills to legalize abortion, and pro-lifers defeated every one. Pro-lifers won similar victories the following year. Between December 1970 and January 1973, only one state liberalized its abortion law, and it did so only under court order. In dozens of other states, pro-lifers succeeded in blocking abortion-legalization bills.
In fact, they almost succeeded in rescinding liberal laws in states where abortion was already legal. In New York, for instance, both houses of the state legislature voted in the spring of 1972 to repeal the abortion law that had permitted at least 300,000 legal abortions since its passage in the summer of 1970. Had it not been for Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s veto, pro-lifers would have made abortion illegal once again in New York. Pro-choicers were worried that their pro-life opponents would rescind legalized abortion in California as well.
The pro-life movement was strong enough to keep abortion out of the Democratic party platform in 1972, and it was powerful enough to force President Richard Nixon to condemn abortion during his reelection campaign, despite his previous overtures to population control advocates.
It is a mistake to think that the pro-life movement was a small, beleaguered, or religiously sectarian movement before Roe v. Wade . Pro-lifers were winning political victories before Roe, and they did not need the Supreme Court decision to rouse them to action.
Daniel K. Williams
University of West Georgia
Jon Shields is very mistaken about most of his history. A careful analysis of what has happened since Roe would show that the decision did not cripple the pro-choice movement. It financed the movement by allowing large sums of money to flow into the coffers of Planned Parenthood and other providers, creating an industry that helps finance resistance to government regulation of abortion as well as funding pro-abortion political candidates. You only have to look at last year’s Democratic convention.
Neither did Roe stop the “rapid liberalization of abortion attitudes.” It provided a new basis for making abortion on demand a canon of liberalism. At the time of Roe, to be liberal did not automatically mean to be pro-abortion, as evidenced by the huge number of pro-life Democrats at that time. The need for control over your own body begat a need for free and easy access, further entrenching abortion in the medical profession as a legitimate procedure, violating consciences along the way.
Shields applauds the reduction in numbers of abortions, which he implies is a result of the pro-life activism post-Roe . This is an odd argument, since Roe caused the massive increase in numbers in the first place.
But the most dangerous part of the essay comes at the end, when he claims that reversing Roe would not be a “decisive victory.” He is making a case for lowering the importance of reversing Roe as a vital goal of the movement.
Shields does not seem to understand the importance of removing abortion’s legality. Law and culture are intertwined. If something is legal, most people will tolerate it even if they find it reprehensible. “ Roe’s Pro-Life Legacy” gives the wrong impression of the best strategy for making abortion unthinkable in the United States.
Human Life Research Center
South Euclid, Ohio
Jon Shields replies:
I thank my thoughtful critics. They have given me much to ponder. Both Anne Hendershott and Denise -Mackura argue that I overstate the weakness of the pro-choice movement after Roe .
Hendershott, for example, emphasizes the importance of pro-choice lawyers and academics. I agree that such elites are important. But these examples only underscore my larger point: After Roe, the pro-choice cause was advanced by elites rather than by a mass, grassroots movement. In the pro-choice movement today, there is nothing comparable to volunteer-driven crisis pregnancy centers, campus outreaches, annual marches, or sidewalk counseling.
Indeed, one of the reasons lawyers were so badly needed by the pro-choice movement was its need to find some way to combat the massive campaign of civil disobedience instigated by Joseph Scheidler and others. And when that wing of the movement collapsed, which it did for a host of reasons, pro-lifers simply focused on better ways to reach the public.
Since Roe, therefore, pro-lifers have done more to invigorate democracy and place their case before millions of ordinary citizens than have their pro-choice opponents. No army of lawyers has been able to prevent it. True, the marginality of pro-life academics is regrettable. But pro-life philosophers, while few in number, punch well above their weight, since their arguments are disseminated to a large activist base. Pro-choice thinkers have no such audience for their ideas.
Daniel K. Williams draws on his interesting work on the pre-Roe conflict over abortion to argue that the pro-life movement was neither “beleaguered” nor “small” before 1973. I agree and did not mean to suggest otherwise. However, before Roe there was nothing like the massive campaign of moral suasion that followed, since most of the action was taken inside state legislatures. Pro-lifers were writing letters to their legislators but not engaging ordinary citizens in significant numbers. And while pro-lifers enjoyed success in many legislative battles, they were losing badly in the court of public opinion.
But I do agree with him that we cannot know for sure whether something like the current pro-life movement would have emerged absent Roe . With far more confidence, we can conclude that Roe weakened grassroots activism in the pro-choice campaign, a conclusion he does not dispute.
Some readers, especially Williams and Mackura, seem to think that I believe Roe was a victory for the pro-life cause. I do not, for some of the reasons they rightly emphasize. Instead, I intended to show how a decision that was patently bad for the pro-life cause nonetheless offered some compensating benefits. Too often pro-lifers regard Roe as an unmitigated disaster.
Mackura argues that my essay sends a “dangerous” message by undermining the importance of reversing Roe . Yet her own spirited reply suggests that reversing Roe will remain an important, long-term goal of the movement. Pro-lifers will not give up that fight, nor would they be wise to do so.
R. R. Reno’s apology for the Republican party, his call to join its moral quests, and especially his condemnation of the Democrats (“The Agony of the Catholic Left,” January), sit uneasily with those of us who consider the fuller Republican ethical compass. Nurtured in that now extinct species, the moderate Northeastern Republican, I abandoned the party of my upbringing for good over Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” A veteran of the civil rights movement, a foot soldier for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I could not abide, then and now, the Republican exploitation of racism simply to gain leverage in the electoral college.
Nor do I think that the current Republican appeal to the social concerns that Reno cites—concerns I largely share—comes from any conviction other than a desire to put together an electoral majority. These are just matters of convenience, to accumulate votes, not core beliefs, and will be casually modified, then abandoned, when more votes are to be had by changing course. This is what parties do, and the Democrats are certainly not immune to the same behavior. Where politics does have an effect, in matters like taxation policy and the social safety net, the Catholic bishops are right to find the moral case better represented by the Democrats.
Reno sees faults in Republican policies but thinks they can be reformed. I think it is more likely to go the other way around: that offensive public policies will remain at the core of Republicanism while the sensitive ethical issues we care about will be traded away opportunistically.
Thomas S. Derr
R. R. Reno replies:
Tom Derr’s letter and notes from other friends motivated me to take up the question of first things, politics, and partisan loyalties in this month’s Public Square. He’s right, of course. Nixon’s strategy was cynical. So was the Obama campaign’s carefully crafted insinuation that Mitt Romney wanted to restrict access to contraception and otherwise attack the rights of women. That politicians excite and exploit the fears of voters is a sad fact about democratic politics.
Tom is also right that our two parties are big, baggy coalitions, often ones of convenience, not principle. But I fear he’s not analyzing present reality accurately. The white secular cohort, people who claim no religious affiliation, constitute perhaps the most powerful constituency in the Democratic party.
This secular cohort has made pro-abortion policy a litmus test for public office. They strongly favor doctor-assisted suicide. They are very likely to support the full application of civil rights law to steamroll all public opposition to gay rights. How can the Catholic bishops—or anyone with traditional religious or moral convictions—possibly function as part of a coalition that does this?
I can’t let Tom’s assumptions about tax policy and the social safety net go unchallenged. Across a wide ideological spectrum, analysts point to entitlement spending as a huge problem.
Think what you like about Paul Ryan. But allow that his proposals about entitlement reform are at least honest attempts to grapple with the coming crisis. His Medicare proposal basically applies the Obamacare scheme to seniors: government-regulated private insurance subsidized by the government, with greater subsidies going to those with lower incomes. This is an “offensive” public policy? As opposed to Democratic do-nothingism?
Free-market enthusiasts, libertarians, neoconservatives, isolationists, social conservatives—the Republican party is an unstable coalition. Perhaps I’ll be disappointed, very disappointed. But we need to do our best and make a judgment. For me it’s not a close call. I’ll take my chances where at least I have a chance.
Sex and Kids
Paige Hochschild wants to understand the intrinsic connection of marriage and the rearing of children (“What Are Children For?” January). She takes as her adversary Engels and his celebration of “modern, individual sex-love.” Before turning to St. Thomas for her own account of love and children, she takes a critical distance to certain important Christian thinkers who, she thinks, make too much of the love between man and woman and too much of the sexual expression of this love, to the relative neglect of the rearing of children. Even John Paul II is listed among these thinkers. She singles out for particular critical attention Dietrich von Hildebrand.
She seems not to understand the insight that von Hildebrand achieved for the first time, namely that the conjugal act has not only procreative power, but also the power to enact and embody the self-giving love of the spouses. For centuries the conjugal act was understood exclusively in terms of procreation. This is why some Church Fathers such as St. Ambrose thought that conjugal relations during pregnancy, or after menopause, are venially sinful: In the absence of procreative potential, they thought, there is nothing left that could impart uprightness to conjugal relations.
But von Hildebrand, inspired by the Song of Songs, which celebrates spousal love with no mention or even hint of procreation, taught that a conjugal act known to be infertile can still have the eminent moral significance of expressing spousal love. (In the Catholic tradition, one had, of course, from the beginning connected marriage with love, but it was only in the twentieth century that the marital act was connected with love in the way in which von Hildebrand and John Paul II connected it.)
Once the self-giving meaning of marital sexuality was discovered, it was only natural to become aware of certain deformities of the marital act that had hitherto been little noticed. Thus John Paul II warned spouses against using their marital intimacy as a mere means for procreation; he said that their marital intimacy will be de-personalized if they in effect use each other for the sake of generating a child.
This is why von Hildebrand made the distinction that troubles Hochschild, namely the distinction between the meaning of the conjugal act, which is the expression of spousal love, and the end of the marital act, which is the generation of children. He made this distinction because he knew that the marital act, though intrinsically ordered to children, has a power of enacting love that is irreducible to its procreative power; he knew that it is no longer possible to place the entire meaning of marriage exclusively in the rearing of children.
But though we have here two irreducible things, von Hildebrand held that they are inseparable. Just weeks after Humanae Vitae appeared in 1968, he published his booklet in defense of the encyclical, offering original arguments for the moral necessity that all marital intimacy remain open to new life.
For a more adequate account of von Hildebrand’s thought, one that makes it invulnerable to the objections of this critic, see Kevin Schemenauer’s study of von Hildebrand on marriage, Conjugal Love and Procreation .
It seems to me that Hochschild runs the risk of attempting a dubious “restorationist” defense of marriage and parenthood. She seems to want to turn her back on the acquisitions of Christian personalism. She smells romantic subjectivism where in fact a deeper understanding of conjugal life is emerging.
We can grant her that some dimensions of parenthood remain underdeveloped in von Hildebrand; but she will not find the Christian alternative to Engels that she seeks if she does not first find a way of preserving the truth about the love between man and woman, the truth that von Hildebrand glimpsed.
John F. Crosby
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Paige Hochschild replies:
I thank John Crosby for his helpful letter. Whatever von Hildebrand may have “discovered,” I think that the Catholic theological tradition before the twentieth century does have some insight into marriage as a unique friendship, a domestic partnership of deep unity. Perhaps that doesn’t sound very exciting.
Putting a whole new weight upon the significance of the sexual act within marriage may be a good thing, and may combat the biologism and legalism surrounding sexuality with which von Hildebrand was concerned. I will leave this question to moral theologians. “Romantic subjectivism” has its place, but I would advocate a balanced approached for theologians, and I am motivated mostly by pastoral interests.
In the Catholic tradition, there is indeed great anxiety about the licitness of certain marital, sexual acts. There is a strong tradition of interpreting St. Paul to say that marriage is for the weak, and St. Augustine is unsure whether sex might always, as he says, involve sin in some way. If this is inauthentic tradition, or if there is a clear development of doctrine, that should be stated and discussed in a clear way.
Is sex “just” for the purpose of having children? In such terms, no. But we must not put too great a burden of meaning or theological metaphor upon the act, nevertheless. My intent is to complement: Focusing upon the common good and seeing marriage as ordering persons to the community in a new way should highlight our need for realism in teaching about marriage. Marriage is not just a public affirmation of mutual regard.
A question for Crosby: Is the celibate vocation greater than the married because of what it affirms or because of what it renounces? John Paul II says it is the former, but as someone who teaches within the Church, I assure you there is a pervasive view that it is the latter.
By way of anecdote: I know of a Franciscan University graduate, a young man who thought about seminary but felt called to marriage. A year and a baby later, he had a sort of crisis: Did he fail to do the really heroic thing by not going to seminary? Was the sexual unity simply not effective between these spouses? I can say for certain that he was shocked with the ordinariness of marriage, with just how hard it is .
John Paul II says that holiness is more difficult for the married. But this is a beautiful thing. I will propose the meaning of marriage: It is nothing short of the suffering of the Cross. Living this suffering, the sacrifice of one’s own needs in a way that the celibate will never understand, produces the deepest unity. This is the glory and humility of marriage.
The Church has a great tool in the teachings of John Paul II, but I think we fail young people who are considering marriage when we do not talk about hard work, small sacrifices, fidelity, friendship, more laundry, the reality of sin, and the ordinary joys and sanctification of the way of the Cross more than we talk about the transcendent self-gift of sexuality.
Nicholas Healy Jr., in his review of John Connelly’s From Enemy to Brother, correctly criticizes the author for contending that in Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church renounced its mission to evangelize the Jews (“Jacob and Esau,” January). I would like to explore further this very problematic aspect of an otherwise valuable book.
Connelly’s error is based on his conflating the election of the Jews—their place as “dearly beloved” of God—with the salvific efficacy of the Jewish sacramental system as described in the Old Testament. Connelly assumes that because the election of the Jews continues, they do not require the graces won by Jesus on the Cross and distributed in the sacraments of the Church. Yet Nostra Aetate asserts only the former, not the latter.
It is clear in the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jewish sacramental system for the remission of sins requires animal sacrifice that can take place only in the Temple. The Church teaches that any efficacy of those sacrifices had ceased with the sacrifice of Christ, but even if they had not, Jews have been unable to perform them since the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.
It is praiseworthy that Nostra Aetate reaffirms what has always been held by sacred Scripture—that “as regards election, [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:28“29). But it is unfounded to conclude from that reaffirmation that the Church has renounced its mission to evangelize the Jews.
It is unfortunate that Connelly then, on the basis of his own misunderstanding, accuses the Holy Father himself of a “failure to comprehend Nostra Aetate ” for reinstating a prayer for the conversion of the Jews into the Good Friday liturgy. And Connelly’s argument that “shift[ing] the Church’s understanding of its relation to the Jews to three chapters (9“11) of Paul’s letter to the Romans” has resulted in its renunciation of any mission to the Jews—that is just silly, given the lengths to which St. Paul himself went to evangelize them.
Many forms of anti-Semitism have been, and continue to be, a problem in the Church, as Connelly so ably documents. But the heartfelt desire to see the Jews finally come to a full relationship with their own Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, and to share in the incalculable riches he brings to the world through the sacraments of the Church, is not one of them.
Ave Maria University
In his excellent review of From Enemy to Brother , Nicholas Healy Jr. rejects John Connelly’s approval of the belief that Israel and the Church are two parallel and equally valid ways of salvation. But then Healy asks: “How can God’s covenant with the Jewish people remain in force yet be ‘fulfilled’ in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?” I will attempt to outline a tentative answer.
First, the fulfillment of Old Testament realities (such as the sacrifice of Abraham, the Passover Lamb, the Exodus, the Sinai covenant) does not invalidate the prophetic events of which they are the fulfillment. On the contrary. Take, for example, the Sinai covenant. The covenant concluded by Jesus and the twelve patriarchs of the eschatological Israel at the Last Supper would become unintelligible and distorted without its permanent reference to the Sinai covenant and to the prophecy of the new covenant in Jeremiah.
Because of this intrinsic ordering of the Old Testament rites toward Christ, the entire Christian tradition and the Middle Ages held fast to the conviction that the faith in the coming Messiah expressed in those rites was a saving faith. Christian theologians, however, denied their validity for the time of the Church because they assumed that the Jews denied the rites’ fulfillment in Christ in bad faith.
For us, however, it has become obvious that many Jews reject Christianity precisely out of fidelity to God, who prohibits the worship of any human being. (Think, for instance, of the painful conflict between Edith Stein and her saintly and stubbornly Jewish mother.)
Second, the Church unceasingly prays for the conversion of the whole world, and her founder commissioned her to proclaim the gospel to all nations, including Jesus’ own. But she has no organized mission to target the Jews, for she accepts Paul’s teaching in Romans 9“11 that the time for Israel’s salvation will take place only after the fullness of the Gentiles has entered the Church. According to Pope Benedict, in Jesus of Nazareth , until that time “Israel retains its own mission.”
Third, I propose that in this interim period the main task of Christians is to support or rekindle the faith of those Jews who remained faithful to the traditional teachings of Judaism, the election of Israel, the coming of a personal Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead. Christians should become their allies in opposing the reduction of Judaism to a set of cultural traditions.
Fr. Roch Kereszty, O.Cist.
University of Dallas
Nicholas J. Healy replies:
I was pleased to read the letters from Roch Kereszty and Roy Schoeman. I agree with the points they put forward and have nothing to add by way of qualification or rebuttal.
In “Against Great Books” (January), Patrick Deneen misrepresents the idea of teaching from the great books. He presents the great books program as if it were a canonical set of books that taught the truth, so that where it goes wrong we are leading the students wrong. In order to make the case, he cites ideas from Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Dewey. Dewey’s own view of education was experiential, suggesting that, in Deneen’s words, “close connection is forged between the modern project of the mastery of nature and the rejection of an education focused upon the teachings of the great books.”
I think that Deneen has quite missed the point of the great books program, which Robert Hutchins summarized as inviting students to participate in the great conversation that embodies the tradition of the West. A conversation is not only about ideas that are correct but also about ideas that need to be corrected. The great conversation is one that continues down the years. Extended into the future, it might well include Wendell Berry, whom Deneen cites, as it includes Dewey’s Experience and Education .
C. S. Lewis wrote in “On the Reading of Old Books”: “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books . . . . None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.”
I believe Lewis captures the point of the great books program better than does Deneen.
Since the Enlightenment, Patrick Deneen indicates, greatness seems to rest in transformation, whereas before the rise of the New Sciences, whose advocates wrote “modern” books battling ancient books, greatness rested in a “predominant understanding” of cultivated endurance, an acceptance of natural or created limits to human powers, knowledge, and ambitions.
So, he asks, might there be an alternative way to think about the core texts of the Western tradition, ultimately as a way of restraining our scientifically released pleonexia in mastering, in transforming our world? He suggests great books might be justified by recovering this earlier understanding’s humility.
Such moral arguments constitute only one line of defense for books found in liberal arts education. Another line concerns the arts, i.e., technē. Verbal liberal arts—rhetoric, dialectic, grammar—were essentially involved in the growth and then the criticism of ancient achievements, as well as in the conceptual and methodological foundations of the new sciences. What Aristotle called “proving opposites,” the liberal arts have feet in both ancient and modern camps precisely because invention has been at their roots since the Greek, Roman, and early Judeo-Christian eras.
To defend liberal arts education through great books, we shall have to accept technē as a principle of liberal education. Technē, art, has been a transformative source of change in civilizations almost since their inception, and if you want to learn both how and why cultures, religion, literature, philosophy, morals, science, and education change, you must read books of inventive magnitude.
Dangers there may be, but art also induces counteracting hope, freedom, and a deeply broad, humbling sense of the possibilities that humans have made and continue to invent for themselves. In complement to political-moral justifications, we need, once again, to examine, rediscover, and discuss the arts—as arts—in order to defend liberal arts education and its books.
J. Scott Lee
The Association for Core Texts and Courses
The trouble with Patrick Deneen’s “Against Great Books” is that he assumes the so-called great books are read as depositories of fixed wisdom from the past that impart only static knowledge. For all anyone knows, this may be the way great books are read in some places, but not by those influenced by John Dewey at Columbia, who set up the original honors course in classics of the Western world.
Here classics have been read not as final statements but as works in an evolutionary process, each one challenged by others before and again challenging others to come. They are read to encounter perennial issues that prompt the reader to reconsider whatever he may have accepted from the immediately received culture of the day. Each age has come up with new or fuller answers to the perennial issues the classics have alerted them to. For most of us, critical thinking aims to come up with some kind of answer, however tentatively entertained, and not just endless skepticism or empty doubt.
Anyone who has taught the classics of the Asian traditions (Islamic, Persian, Indian, Buddhist, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean)—as I have for over sixty years—knows that they have endured and grown in the same way. Every age and most generations have renewed The Great Civilized Conversation (as I call it). Contrary to Hegel and Marx, who misconceived Asian civilizations as static, those civilizations were digging deeper into and expanding further their reflection on persistent and pervasive issues.
In Columbia’s core curriculum, this process is accompanied by courses serving the same purposes for the natural sciences and arts (music, visual arts). I can say that generations of students have recognized these classics as both great and humble at once, and above all as a challenge and spur to further learning.
William Theodore de Bary
New York, New York
The post-Baconian books Patrick Deneen believes deserve condemnation, presumably for exuding hubris in a peculiar way, appear to him as sorts of antibooks, autophagic books. But why should it be that any book function as a supernovum organum, as it were, precipitating bookish culture into a black hole from which no mental energy could escape?
The post-Baconian, post-Cartesian books he castigates do not seem to be novel phenomena in the canon of great books. Pre-Socratic and co-Socratic atomists (Leucippus, Democritus) and their reductionist, naturalist materialism passed into the canon of great books via Epicurus and his intellectual descendant Lucretius. The inclusion of great arguments that excluded the role of mind and purpose destroyed neither classical culture nor classical education.
West Salem, Wisconsin
Plutarch tells us that above the Delphic oracle were inscribed two sentences: “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much.” In my experience, most advocates of a great books curriculum focus on the first of these injunctions.
Since to know oneself one must first know the cosmos, the whole within which humanity is situated, the Delphic injunction is an invitation to philosophy, the pursuit of comprehensive wisdom concerning what is. The Great Conversation is undertaken in order to launch that Socratic quest.
Patrick Deneen, however, focuses in effect on the second injunction. “Nothing too much” implies limits to what human beings might reasonably hope for, and a discipline of virtue that sets boundaries on man’s otherwise boundless desires. The second injunction is therefore an invitation to responsible freedom, and it is certainly true that some advocates of great books curricula have endeavored to sell their pedagogic idea in these political or moral terms as well.
The problem is that many of the great books on the “modern” list—Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Dewey—reject both the limits implied in “Nothing too much” and, for good measure, the notion that true wisdom is the sort of thing that might profitably be sought after in the books of the past.
What then? Deneen’s article might be understood as a partisan intervention on behalf of ancient restraint against modern technological liberation. He counsels the reading of “humble books” that chronicle the wreckage wrought by modern progress. But can he really mean that we should shelve the modern greats and turn for edification instead to a steady diet of Wendell Berry?
In fact, the second Delphic injunction depends decisively on the first. In order to know what would be “too much,” we must first know what sort of being man is and what sort of cosmos he inhabits, just where the limits lie for human hopes.
Another way of formulating that first injunction, “Know thyself,” is to ask oneself the question, “Who am I?” This seems to be the existentially urgent question that really motivates students to pursue a great books -curriculum.
For a great books course is above all a historical study, and only human beings (of whom we ask the question, “Who . . . ?”) are historical; nature (of which we ask the question, “What . . . ?”) is not. If we ask ourselves that question in any serious way, there is no getting around Bacon and Hobbes and the rest. For good or ill, the modern project shapes, in large part, who we are.
Great books curricula as we have known them in the United States are not perfect. My own quarrel with the usual lists is that they systematically understate the role of Christian theology in also shaping “who we are.”
After all, it was Christianity that demolished the narrow limits of the Greek polis, it was Christianity that transformed a necessarily cyclical into an obviously linear sense of history, and it was Christianity that promised a greater and happier destiny for man than was dreamed of by any of the ancient philosophers. Much of this is obscured in the truncated list of Christian books deemed great by those who have constructed these curricula.
Still, any turning from the path that the modern greats have set for us can only be by way of no less profound, no less great a theoretical intervention against modern hubris. Those who hope for a theoretical standpoint that might overcome the excesses of our age must therefore begin with a critical engagement with our tendentiously partisan foundations.
Mark C. Henrie
Patrick Deneen replies:
I am grateful for these, and many other, responses generated by my essay. A number of these refer to a curriculum in the great books as an entry into a “conversation.” I aimed to point out that, if it is a conversation, it is a particular kind: less a pleasant chat than a heated debate, a debate over which, in the final conclusion, one must take sides.
Our current default reflects the prejudices evinced in de Bary’s letter: namely, that these works reflect an “evolutionary process” in which we arrive at “fuller answers,” in contrast to views that regard older texts as reflecting “static knowledge.” De Bary acknowledges, and his very words reflect, the guiding inspiration of John Dewey. That is, the approach to the great books undertaken at Columbia (he relates) already reflects an implicit commitment to one of the combatants in the Great Debate.
Ironically, commitment to this position, as I argued, has contributed centrally to the waning presence and relevance of a great books curriculum. Why spend time with old books—books whose ideas have been superseded by evolutionary development—when precious time and resources should be spent instead on the natural sciences?
Modern technē, contrary to J. Scott Lee’s effort to suggest continuity, is advanced as a replacement for ancient virtue, and hence science waxes as the humanities wane. There is no need for humility, moderation, and prudence when modern science can both provision what our will desires and assuage the deleterious consequences of our unfettered appetite. Or so we are told.
John Lyon rightly reminds us that this debate has been with us all along. I would simply point out that for much of premodern Western history, voices other than the natural materialists were deemed to possess the superior argument. As long as teachings advanced by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and Aquinas were regnant, books of antiquity were understood to be repositories of wisdom, not antiquated works whose teachings had been or should be superseded.
Such authors held, pace Mark Henrie, that we were not merely “historical” but rather natural creatures with a history. Each generation needed necessarily to relearn what it was to be human—including the difficult task of learning about our inherent limits and tendency toward hubris, or superbia—and that we could find as guides the lessons and wisdom of the past, rather than believing ourselves to be mere “plastic,” or purely historical beings whose fundamental condition could be changed through the mastery of nature and historical progress.
I agree with Henrie that all of the great texts of our tradition should be read and contemplated as a requirement for self-understanding, but we cannot finally remain indifferent or neutral about their teachings. Ideas have consequences, and as the teachings of ancient philosophy and theology are displaced in the wake of modernist assumptions, the very justification for encountering those ancient teachings dissipates.
That a longstanding insistence upon the centrality of core texts in a liberal education is losing ground is not an accident of our age but the direct result of the victory of the ideas contained in certain “great books” over others. Teachers of the great books should not let this fact go unnoticed by our students. Our students will draw their own conclusions, but we should at least give them the full story. We might liberate them from the prejudices of our age before the teaching of the great books ceases altogether in the wake of the impending total victory of books insisting on limitless human greatness.
Utility of Utility
Peter Wicks’ review of Charles Camosy’s Peter Singer and Christian Ethics (“Utility’s Deceptions,” January) offers two criticisms: (1) The disagreements between Singer’s utilitarianism and Catholic moral theology are “profound” rather than “narrow,” and (2) Singer is not the originator of the theory he endorses but only one proponent of it.
The problem with the first criticism is that no one seems to know what a “narrow” disagreement would be. Camosy doesn’t tell us, but then again neither does Wicks. A gap can be wide or narrow, but can a disagreement? Camosy’s metaphor is meant to show that a disagreement, like a gorge, can be both deep and narrow. Wicks may be right that this isn’t the best image; perhaps no metaphor will quite work.
What Camosy really wants to show, and shows admirably in the book, is twofold. First, we can often agree on a practical course of action even with someone whose underlying reasons differ from our own. Sometimes the underlying disagreements will derive from only one or two specific first principles rather than from an entirely different worldview—at any rate, it’s worth exploring such cases to find out.
Second, and conversely, we often share significant theoretical common ground even when we disagree about practical conclusions. For example, the Thomist and Kantian can agree, against the utilitarian, that euthanasia is immoral, even though the Thomist and utilitarian will agree, against the Kantian, that ethics has a fundamentally teleological structure.
Those, I think, are Camosy’s concerns. I doubt he much cares whether these points are conveyed via images of gorges or gaps or Copernican solar systems.
Wicks’ second criticism might have gone a good deal further. Part of the problem with Singer’s work, and one that Camosy acknowledges, is that it is too thin on the history of ethics. The right question is “Where did consequentialism come from?” The right answer is not (as in Anscombe) “Sidgwick made it up.” But nor is it (as in Singer) “All rational people are consequentialists to begin with.” Nor is it (as in Wicks’ MacIntyrianism) “From modern managerial technocrats. But mostly Hume.” Rather, the answer is “Early modern theology.”
The first utilitarians were Christian theologians facing challenges to natural law. They responded by blending moral sense theory with a type of eudaimonism. This goes wrong if it becomes voluntarist (as in some Protestants) or if it becomes an engine of unchecked social reform (as in Bentham), but it nonetheless has legitimate Christian roots.
Wicks will be happy to know that these themes are taken up at length in God, the Good, and Utilitarianism , a forthcoming collection of essays originating at the 2011 Oxford conference where the topic was debated by John E. Hare, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Eric Gregory, John Haldane, and others.
University of Oxford
Peter Wicks replies:
When I suggested that utilitarianism is an ethical theory well suited to the technocratic spirit of our times, I was attempting to identify one of the sources of its contemporary appeal, not offering a thesis about its historical origins. I certainly agree that we will understand utilitarianism better if we see it in historical perspective, although in order to gain such a perspective we need to know more than where it came from; we need to know how it got here and how it was transformed along the way.
My review was not an attempt to show that Singer’s utilitarianism and Christian ethics are radically different worldviews. What I hoped to convey was the basis for my doubts that those who have already arrived at that conclusion will be persuaded by Camosy’s attempts to show that their differences have been greatly exaggerated. Too often Camosy shows that there is agreement and then says that it is significant when it is the significance and not the agreement that needed to be established.
The discussion of teleology is a case in point. It is true to say that utilitarianism and natural law share a teleological structure, but Camosy’s claim that this is “a fascinating example of theoretical overlap” is offered without basis. The overlap is well known; its significance is the point of dispute.
Edward Skidelsky wants to divorce trade from property, presumably because if people have freedom to exchange they will be more acquisitive, and he points out that the nobility were not allowed to sell their land and that worked out just fine for them (“Market Morals,” January). Indeed it did. Of course, they got that land by conquest, subjecting its resident population to servitude and expanding it however they could.
That is what capitalism ended after a period of mercantilism in which the same elite used the state to try to control to whom the new commercial wealth accrued. It was a messy transition, and the descendants of that nobility have been complaining about markets and capitalism ever since.
One can grow things, make things, steal things, but unless traded, stuff just sits there. Trade is the source of material wealth and much else.
Skidelsky asserts that property rights and trade lead to the concentration of wealth. This narrative endures because we see so much concentration, but it isn’t necessarily true. It’s like Chesterton’s comment about Christianity: Free-market capitalism has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult to establish and therefore is seldom tried. Almost everything the state runs is a monopoly, but are there enduring monopolies in the private sector that have not been created or protected by the state?
While Skidelsky is rightly concerned about the rampant materialism that dominates our culture, it would seem that he falls into a materialist trap by advocating materialist solutions. Freedom is not a materialist solution; it just has the added benefit (or curse) of producing lots of things people think they want. A materialist approach is to take stuff from one group and give it to others under the assumption that man does indeed live by stuff alone.
Is it not obvious who shall exercise more influence on a state powerful enough to impose its distributional preferences? If the state becomes powerful enough to control giant modern corporations and powerful distributional coalitions, then the state has become totalitarian.
Far before that point, we get what has evolved in the West over the last century: a symbiotic relationship between the political class, the administrative state, and powerful interests, a relationship that enhances the power of each. Skidelsky points to developing concentrations of economic power over the last forty years in the United Kingdom and the United States as evidence against markets. But the evidence during this period actually shows the accumulating power of these symbiotic relationships.
This symbiosis isn’t healthy, and it was not in any way a period in which free markets under the rule of law flourished—nor, as he points out, did religion, morality, virtue, or other good things flourish as they did prior to the movement toward the administrative state.
Market critics following the ideas of the late J. K. Galbraith assert that the state must be a countervailing power to an undemonstrated spontaneous creation of concentrated private power. State power doesn’t countervail; it joins and accumulates. It is not what Hayek meant by the rule of law. Robert Sirico was making the much-needed but limited case that gets lost in the false narratives about markets, freedom, and the moral order.
John H. Penfold
In order to criticize Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market, Edward Skidelsky redefines capitalism as “the exploitation of man’s greed for the improvement of his estate” and attacks this straw man by projecting the vices of the progressives onto the free market. Skidelsky writes of “spirited beings moved by questions of status and honor” to legitimize the progressives’ vice of envy. But vice attired in the garments of virtue is still vice. It is the progressives who use materialism, greed, envy, and covetousness to justify their political greed and wealth redistribution.
The free market provides goods people choose voluntarily. Any substitute requires compulsion and bureaucrats to allocate goods outside the price system. All alternatives require a counterproductive clerisy. Those elite, self-appointed few exploit the economic capital of a society for personal benefit.
Sirico’s book is a timely, well-written exposition of the virtues of free markets and their role in human flourishing, but only for those with ears to hear. Edward Skidelsky would do well to consider the source of his philosophy, repent of his advocacy for serfdom, and make a visit to an audiologist.
Wakonda, South Dakota
Edward Skidelsky replies:
It was not my intention to denigrate trade. Trade is of course indispensible to the functioning of a modern economy. My point was rather that the unrestricted movement of goods and capital is in no way implied by the right to own property—which was Robert Sirico’s argument. In many civilizations in the past, people have been allowed to own property but not to trade it, or to trade it only within strict limits.
Even today, there are many restrictions on international trade. These are not usually felt to be violations of property rights. There is no contradiction in saying “yes” to property but “no” to free trade. This has been the position of Catholic social thought, which Sirico claims to represent.