Ross Douthat’s summary of the state of the Catholic conversation (“Catholic Ideas and Catholic Realities,” August/September) demonstrates the author’s typical precision in observing his own intellectual communities. On multiple readings I can find nothing substantially to disagree with; and yet I also come away, time and again, with the feeling that there are tectonic plates moving beneath the surface of these trends that are invisible, or at least inscrutable, even to the most skilled observer.
There is however one plate—or, perhaps more evocatively, one increasingly tense fault—that has come into clearer view even in the weeks since Douthat’s essay, and it is one that suggests that a convergence between ideas and realities may be closer at hand than it seems: the growing sensation of looming crisis, not in the Church, but in the American, and indeed global, liberal order.
Conversations about imminent and shattering upheaval that until recently occurred quietly only among self-consciously fringe thinkers now erupt at family picnics and neighborhood bars. The insatiable coronavirus panic; the unrelenting desolation of solidarity in the name of justice; and perhaps most poignantly the civilizational humiliation at the hands of the Taliban. The facade of strength and competence that gave everyday people confidence in the basic stability of our regime, even as they were often dissatisfied with its operation, is collapsing. I don’t know if there really is a coming storm, but if enough people organize their lives around its arrival, it will have arrived.
All this is to say that Douthat’s claim that “there are no self-consciously post-liberal cadres among the working class as yet” is true now, but its expiration date may be rapidly approaching. Everyday people are increasingly looking around and wondering how long all this will last. They know their children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be harder than their own. They are afraid, and they are open to answers that they were closed to not long ago.
And if that is the case, then Catholic commentators must realize, with holy fear, that their speculations may have a wider and more action-oriented audience than even the savviest among them realize.
I appreciated Ross Douthat’s fair and accurate description of “benedictines,” his name for Catholics who associate in some way with the ideas in my 2017 book The Benedict Option. Though my own politics tend strongly toward what counts as conservative populist in contemporary America, my political ideal is old-style European Christian Democrat, back when Christian Democrats were authentically Christian. Nevertheless, Douthat is right to say that Christians like me are skeptical of national political prescriptions for our ailing body politic. The decadence of Christian conservative politics is a sign of the decadence of conservative Christian religion. What does it profit a man to gain the White House, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court if he loses his soul?
It has frustrated me to read others mischaracterizing my Benedict Option argument as a counsel to head for the hills and withdraw from public life. No one who has actually read my book could believe that. As I write there, “We remain citizens, after all, and we ought to be committed to working for the common good”—as well as to protecting the liberties of the Church to do its work. But when the very survival of Christian belief within a post-Christian civilization is at stake, faithful Christians have to prioritize.
In one week in early fall, I attended conservative political events in both Italy and Hungary. I spoke about my most recent book, Live Not By Lies, which is more explicitly political than The Benedict Option—but what I remember most were conversations with two Catholics (an Italian father and, two nights later, a Hungarian mother) who approached me to talk about their teenage children. With so few of their children’s peers professing faith, and with so much effectively anti-Christian propaganda in the media, both parents were deeply anxious about whether or not their children would apostatize. Both felt powerless to resist the tsunami of faithlessness washing over their children’s generation.
When faced with that kind of catastrophe, it can seem that arguing over whether integralism, tradinismo, or Trumpist populism offers the most promising and authentic Catholic politics of the post-liberal future is a second-order question at best, and at worst, like angels dancing on the head of John Courtney Murray.
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I found Ross Douthat’s piece titled “Catholic Ideas and Catholic Realities” to be a very helpful assessment of the current American Catholic political picture. As Douthat notes, the categories of “liberal Catholicism” and “conservative Catholicism” are quickly becoming anachronistic, replaced by intellectual camps that transcend the old left/right paradigm and shoulder the burden of considering what a post-liberal politics will look like. However, what worries me is the relative lack of engagement in this conversation with academic philosophers and theologians. Douthat does name a few, but they are outnumbered significantly by politicians, lawyers, and journalists. This is not Douthat’s fault; his cataloguing of the main players unfortunately reflects reality.
While the post-liberal camps Douthat outlines stand in contrast to one another, most are rooted precisely in the rejection of liberalism’s anthropology as antithetical not only to Catholic social teaching but even to the classical tradition on human nature and the body politic.
However, if post-liberalism is marked by a return to a classical and Christian conception of the human person, then theologians (chiefly) and philosophers (secondarily) ought to have pride of place in the debate. We might even argue that there is nothing more characteristic of liberalism than giving the throne of the theologian to the politician or journalist.
The ancients recognized that the state must aim at the highest good; the Christians further recognized that man’s highest good infinitely transcends the natural—“the possession of God.” As such, St. Thomas concludes that “those to whom pertains the care of intermediate ends should be subject to him to whom pertains the care of the ultimate end, and be directed by his rule.” In other words, the rule of the state ought in some way to be subject to the rule of Christ and his Church. Since politics pertains in some way to man’s nature and highest end, those sciences which are best equipped to speak about politics are theology and philosophy, the most proper sciences for the contemplation of grace and nature, respectively.
This is not to say that those learned in other sciences or disciplines ought not to play a vital role in unpacking the post-liberal question. A truly sapiential vision requires a unity of the sciences only possible when each is properly ordered to the others, yet always with the queen of the sciences governing the whole.
There is no shortage of significant, contemporary theologians and philosophers—there is only too little attention given to them. To name just a few who ought to be more widely read and associated with the post-liberal moment: William Cavanaugh, Andrew Willard Jones, John Milbank, Chad Pecknold, D. C. Schindler, Thomas Storck, and Edmund Waldstein. These are thinkers with very disparate views, yet united by their knowledge of the highest sciences and their contemplation of how politics ought to be fitted to the highest things. Tolle lege!
Taylor Patrick O'Neill
thomas aquinas college
As a lifelong Francophile, I was delighted to read Nathan Pinkoski’s article on Éric Zemmour (“France’s Most Controversial Man,” August/September). Our Anglo-centric world is so accustomed to seeing its hereditary bête-noire Bonaparte as dictator/emperor that we have a hard time realizing that in France he is seen as having consolidated the changes of the French Revolution (thus several of the massive multi-volume histories of the French Revolution from the nineteenth century). Napoleon himself may have been, as Tocqueville put it, “as great a man as there could be without virtue,” but the subsequent Bonapartist political tradition produced a gigantic pro-nationalist, center-left alliance that has had a mostly positive effect on French politics (his nephew’s doomed reign notwithstanding). Jacques Bainville explained the recurrent period revolutions in France since 1789 very simply: Each newly arrived generation of bourgeoisie feels a bit guilty for its success and, in the liberality of its nostalgie de la boue, offers keys to its house to the ravenous underclasses that would destroy it.
How familiar our situation today would seem to him, with our middle classes’ fawning obeisance to the thuggery, utopian lunacy, and, yes, racism of the BLM movement. Pinkoski correctly intuits that the probable current salvation of France may depend on the person (or ideas) of a left-leaning centrist figure such as Zemmour because the right, in France, will always be tainted with anti-Semitic associations by the media and the bien-pensants, just as the same parties in America have succeeded in staining conservatives as racists. (Their perverse but successful misreading of Trump’s Charlottesville remarks ensured this.) Implicit in Pinkoski’s summation is the hint that our situation may be worse than that in France because there is virtually no ground left for a patriotic center-left in this country. This was proven to me when the Democrats failed to notice a person appearing early in their 2016 debates who was, in my view, the greatest presidential candidate their party had produced for over fifty years, namely, Jim Webb. Former senator, Secretary of the Navy, decorated Vietnam War hero (the Navy Cross, one Silver and two Bronze Stars), and successful author, Webb’s platform of bringing jobs and soldiers back home was remarkably similar to Trump’s. Every mention of him I made to Democrat relatives or acquaintances was met with the same puzzled squeak: “Who is he?” There seems to be no respect for the military left here except in conservative circles, whereas France has always allowed a strong centrist military figure like Lafayette or de Gaulle to come back and save her from herself once in a while (a miracle that both of them actually performed more than once).
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Call it the clear lens test: Journalists or philosophers we admire as long as they write about things we are not familiar with quite frequently disappoint us when they dabble in matters we know well. All the more so if such failures are compounded by national or cultural differences. Even the least insular (or Hexagonal) of the French are bemused by the American propensity to project preconceived ideas or categories on Gallic matters, and particularly by an inability to understand that France is a much older nation than the United States. An American academic once described to me Bastille Day, the commemoration of the Revolution of 1789, as “the anniversary of French independence.” I didn’t even attempt to correct him.
For all that, many contemporary historians of France are American, and some American observers have an accurate perception of current French politics. But Nathan Pinkoski’s article on “France’s Most Controversial Man” (August/September) is, in my opinion, a cut above. It should not just be read for what it was probably supposed to be, the perfectly informative and elegantly nuanced introduction to the Zemmour phenomenon for American audiences; it is also a reflection on the very nature of conservatism and liberalism. Indeed, Éric Zemmour may reshape the political landscape in France and carry much weight in the coming presidential election of April 2022—quite an achievement for un homme de plume, a journalist living by the pen and the TV debating scene. He may reinvent or rejuvenate the French right as nobody has done since de Gaulle. He may signal the end of a forty-year Lepenist far-right cycle or the final demise of the traditional, bourgeois right. Alternatively, he may just bring so much additional division to the French conservative camp as to ensure centrist president Emmanuel Macron’s reelection. But while these are important issues and interrogations, it is certainly no less important to ask, as Pinkoski does, whether “the Z” is truly a conservative, or whether the right can exist at all in modern politics without some leftish adjunctions.
The answer, on both accounts, may be no. Pinkoski stresses the fact that even if Zemmour is decried by his critics as an “anti-Enlightenment reactionary,” and in fact often parades as one, the French nation-state he defends is largely the product of the Jacobine-Napoleonian left-nationalism. As a matter of fact, this was true as well of Charles Maurras, who championed in the early twentieth century a modernist monarchy. “If you are a patriot, you have to be a Royalist—Reason demands it,” Maurras famously said. A rather bold statement that wrapped together nostalgia for the Old Christian Monarchy with its very antithesis: patriotism, which implies in French parlance the people’s—rather than the anointed king’s—sovereignty, and Reason, the deity worshiped by the totalitarian First Republic and incidentally the ci-devant Marquis de Sade.
Maybe Pinkoski will at a later stage broaden his investigation and write a novel history of the Western conservative from Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre to this very day that will shed more light on the interaction between right and left. One Israeli-French historian, Zeev Sternhell, attempted to identify the issue some forty years ago, but he was blinded by a whole array of left-wing prejudice. Pinkoski seems much better intellectually equipped to me.
I read Nathan Pinkoski’s profile of Éric Zemmour, first, with the personal pleasure of a continued conversation that the writing of an interlocutor offers, but second, with a natural fascination at the prospect of another TV star turned president. France is, after all, every other Western country’s second choice for cultural and historical importance, and even minor familiarity with the country leaves one with the impression that public philosophizing plays the same role in French society that reality television plays in our own. I, of course, understand hesitating to mention Donald Trump more than is strictly necessary, but it was not Tucker Carlson of whom I first thought.
Nevertheless, the Carlson comparison—contrasting the Frenchman’s focus on historical forces with the American’s emphasis on elite personal failure—allows Pinkoski to compare Zemmour, whom he describes as walking a fine line between anti-Enlightenment reactionary and Hegelian Whig, to another unconventional reader of Hegel, the theologian of decision, Carl Schmitt: “For Zemmour, the Napoleonic era discloses two different ways of ordering the Earth. . . . The struggle between the English and Napoleon was the struggle between the forces of globalization and those opposed to it.” We might say the French live under the eye of the Anglo.
The question, then, is what the left-nationalism Zemmour represents needs in order to defeat the Anglo-American progressivism that is swallowing up the globe: merely History on its side, or also men on horseback—a new “Bonapartist resolution to the problem of political power,” as Pinkoski phrases it? The answer will tell if Zemmour’s faction, as much as the French right he accused, is “not really serious” in its counterrevolutionary aims.
Nathan Pinkoski replies:
The Letters page of First Things is always worth exploring for its treasures, but this epistolary triad is particularly rich. I am especially grateful to Michel Gurfinkiel for his generous remarks on my essay. He is one of France’s best political commentators and has spent his adult life writing on (and sometimes redirecting!) the course of the Fifth Republic. So I shall gladly take up his exhortation to write more on the enigmatic interaction of the left and right.
Our two American writers correctly see the Zemmour phenomenon as an occasion to reflect upon the situation in the United States and consider political possibilities on the home front. Both understand that the crisis of legitimacy exacerbated by progressivism is transforming America’s political landscape; both understand that the Europeans are ahead of us in many things. For if nothing else, they provide the examples for how to reshape the Earth. Much more could be said about Gurfinkiel’s ruminations on Zemmour’s political prospects and its paradoxes, Desmond’s analysis on the demise of American left-nationalism, or Meadowcroft’s cunning X-ray of my intentions. I hope their reflections will be as graciously received by our readers as they were imparted.
Bach and God
I take issue with Dan Moller’s assessment of the Pythagoreans’ error (“Bach and Pythagoras,” August/September). He writes: “Their mistake was to suppose that the order was out there in the world and not a rational construction of our making.”
My background is physics, and it is difficult to study the last two centuries of physics and deny that mathematical order is “out there in the world,” from galaxies to subatomic particles. A classic exposition of this is Eugene Wigner’s “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.”
And yet, creation always defies our attempts to describe it completely. The most successful theories in science are inconsistent with one another, and “random-seeming constants” are everywhere. The most serious twentieth-century attempt at the Pythagorean dream was Arthur Eddington’s idealism, which failed miserably at explaining fundamental constants.
One response to this failure is to find fault with “unruly nature,” like Moller does. An alternate response is to find fault with ourselves. After all, we are finite beings, limited in intellect and knowledge. How can we hope to describe the handiwork of an infinite, omniscient creator except by incomplete and inconsistent “rational constructions”? From this perspective, the Pythagorean error is not the belief that order is “out there in the world,” but the conceit that our interior sense of order is ultimate. God’s order is much more subtle, beautiful, and spectacular than our own. Therefore, when we find irrational numbers, Pythagorean commas, or Heisenberg uncertainty, the proper response is to fall on our knees in humility and awe.
And then we imitate the order. Like all great art, Bach’s music reflects true reality, not a myopic Pythagorean version. The imitation, whether through composing music or building a scientific theory, brings us nearer the divine. We can draw close, but never fully understand.
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