Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The next stop on the BUILDING BETTER THAN THEY KNEW TOUR is Assumption College in Worcester, MASS. I’ll be giving a conference keynote talk Friday night at 7:30 in the auditorium of La Maison. The next day will feature presentations by some genuinely legendary figures—such as Dan Mahoney, Philippe Beneton, Hank Edmundson, and Ralph Hancock. The conference is about the influence of French, Catholic thought on America, and it’s fine title is “Reintegrating Man.” Googling will quckly alert you to many additional details. Here are some of my projected introductory remarks:

I’ve concluded that there’s no better way to keynote this wonderful conference on the large and beneficial influence of French Catholic writers on America but by giving a talk all about me—someone who’s not at all French, can’t comfortably speak French, and is only ambiguously a writer. There’s no better way to assess the reach of this influence but to find it in someone who’s really not particularly French, not particularly literary, and in truth pretty narrowly American.

So nobody’s better situated than ME to assess objectively the merits of modern French Catholic writers. Because I’ve often used Alexis de Tocqueville, Pierre Manent, Chantal Delsol, and other French, Catholic political thinkers to call attention to the limitations of the theory of the American founding, I’ve been accused of being anti-American. Not only that, I’ve sort of figured out that Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the best book on America, thought that the French Catholic Pascal taught the truth about who we are, and that the psychology of Pascal more than the History of Rousseau (or the ambiguously natural/Historical Locke) explains to us best of all who we are. The best American Thomist, the philosopher-physician-novelist Walker Percy, agrees that the Americans, who really are Cartesians who’ve never read a word of Descartes, need Pascal to understand that their legendary pursuit of happiness is mostly a diversion about what they really can’t help but know about themselves.

Our pursuits, as Tocqueville says, are feverish and often insane. Percy adds, inspired by both Tocqueville and Pascal, that we’re quite literally deranged. We certainly can’t explain our strange and wonderful human behavior with our Lockean and Cartesian theory. Just beneath the happy talk pragmatism of our pop Cartesian experts Tocqueville and Percy hear the howl of existentialism, which is really, as Pascal, explains, an expression of the misery of man without God. But Tocqueville and Percy also follow Pascal in not confusing restlessness with hopelessness. They see in the restlessness of the Americans reason for a glimmer—or maybe much more than a glimmer—of hope.

So I plead guilty to being unduly influenced by French Catholic thought and by Americans who has been particularly open to French Catholic influence, such as Percy but also the American Catholic agent for today’s French Catholic political thinkers in America, Dan Mahoney, and the American Mormon Thomist dissident Straussian Francophile Ralph Hancock.

That doesn’t mean I’m anti-American. One way I use to defend myself against that charge is, quite humbly, to compare myself with Socrates. Socrates must have been happy with Athens, as the Laws say in THE CRITO, because he never left that place. He was quite the stay-at-home. I too never leave America or at least our Hemisphere (rightly claimed as ours by President Monroe) except on business. I’ve never even had the European Vacation made famous by Chevy Chase.

Our friend Jim Ceaser is famous for unreservedly defending American foundationalism against our European critics. But he prances off to France every chance he gets. As a college professor, I’ve been blessed by living in abundance with very little real work, but I haven’t used my leisure to be a voracious consumer of French culture, as our libertarians or bourgeois bohemians might have predicted. I’d admit freely to being influenced by alien currents of thought, but I use them to make our place better.

Tocqueville, everyone knows, wrote about the Americans for the benefit of the French, by showing the French that we’re both better and worse than they are. When I write about the French, I think mostly about what’s best for America. I certainly haven’t made any big effort to get my work known in France. And in that lack of effort I’ve succeeded almost completely.

There are various ways Americans today relate to French thought. The first, characteristic of many conservatives (such as the so-called West Coast Straussians and students of Fox Professor of Tea Party Studies Glenn Beck), is to proudly proclaim that we don’t need no (to quote the unmatched eloquence of our vice president) bleepin’ foreign aid. American has a flawless Founding and was later messed up by the German influence on the Progressive Era and the French envy of the Obama Era.

One flaw in this account of our founding innocence of all things French or German, to begin with, is that our philosopher Locke was basically a Cartesian, and Descartes was French.. Another is that Tocqueville really does understand ourselves better than we understand ourselves, showing us that our pragmatism and progressivism aren’t really so much alien intrusions but indigenous expressions of the American, democratic mind.

The second American way of relating to French thought, characteristic of many liberals, amounts to French envy. We need to get less Puritanical and more French. That means we have to stop being sexually repressed, gun toting, workaholic, religious nuts. We have to transform our greedy brutal capitalism into a European social democracy so that we can switch over to that near oxymoron, the French work ethic. And that means we’ll have all the leisure we’ll need to be appreciative enjoyers of French culture—sitting for example, for hours in cafes in squares graced by cathedrals that were built based on beliefs that no sensible person has anymore.

There’s a second kind of French envy that’s much less common: It is found among certain very admirable American traditionalist Catholics, many of whom are shaped in some measure by the “after virtue” philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre. Only the most individualistic currents of European thought, beginning with the Protestant dissenter Puritans, got to America. So from the very beginning America lacked what it takes to have genuine political or spiritual community. And then America morphed into being the most imperial of the modern nation-states—out to dominate the world with its particularly brutal form of capitalism. Lately we’ve been unjustly invading countries to protect our oil and to make everyone become democratic individualists just like us. There’s little to no hope for America. But Christendom—the way of life that existed in the Europe prior to the nation-state—might rise from the ruins of Europe. There’s even hope, in Europe, in what’s left of the Christian Democratic parties and in the universalistic, postnational aspirations of the EU.

There are some curious convergences in the trendy left and seemingly traditionalist forms of French envy, beginning with exaggerations—really, caricatures—of American individualism as it exists right now in our relatively unsophisticated heartland. But more important is willful ignorance of the fact that, by Tocqueville’s standards, Europe is generally speaking much more individualistic than America right now. Individualism, remember, is, according to Tocqueville, a kind of heart disease, an emotional withdrawal into the confines of one’s own puny self based on the mistaken judgment that both love and hate are more trouble than they’re worth.

My view of Europe today isn’t of course based on firsthand observation. I’m not that kind of social scientist. But I’ve listened to the criticisms of Europe from the best French, Catholic political thinkers, beginning, of course, with Pierre Manent. These criticisms are BOTH French and Catholic. According to Manent, the nation is the modern form of the ancient polis, the place where people can and should find a political home. The nation is a body, with definite territorial limits. It’s a real place with customs, traditions, and political institutions.

Human beings, the Catholic adds, are more than citizens, though; they have another and higher home than their political one. And that fact is represented by the universal church. But the universal church isn’t meant to and can’t really displace the particular nation. So today Europe is making two fundamental errors: It’s abolishing the nation and denying that all particular nations exist under the universal church. Much of today’s Europe is in the thrall, the emphatically French and Catholic man Manent explains, of a kind of post-political, post-familial, and post-religious fantasy. People have so withdrawn into themselves that they aren’t even making enough babies to secure their political future. They hate their bodies, Manent shows us, because they’ve become so sure that they’re nothing more than bodies. The eros of Europeans is less and less aroused and shaped by the familial, political, and spiritual responsibilities given to beings like us.

We can also learn much from Tocqueville or Manent or Beneton about the excesses of our individualism, about our inability to keep Locke in the Locke box, about the horror that is Roe v. Wade and the mean womyn side of our feminism, and about the more narcissistic and laughably risk-averse elements of our creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism. And as Orestes Brownson, the 19th century American thinker most influenced by French, Catholic currents of thought first explained, the Americans—with their merely contractual understanding of the origin of political authority—never have had a proper theoretical understanding of the political or national virtues of loyalty and gratitude.

Still, Manent admits that, following the example and much of the analysis of Tocqueville, we are, comparatively speaking, better off because the family, the nation, and religious belief remain stronger here. Thanks mainly to our observant religious believers, we’re still having enough babies to keep ourselves going. And we, more generally, are doing what it takes to defend ourselves politically. We even still think that the old and the disabled are mainly still the responsibility of particular families and not some impersonal state. Not only that, we still practice the virtue of charity as particular persons in big numbers and often on a grand scale.

So we’ve read the studies, often written in the spirit of Tocqueville, that American conservative Christians are distinguished by their philanthropic generosity and their voluntary care giving, and their churches, at their best at least, are attentive to the whole lives of particular persons. We learn from today’s French Catholic writer, Chantal Delsol, that the virtues most slighted in our high-tech and exceedingly productive world are those displayed through care giving, although it’s care giving far more than productivity that displays to us the depths about who we are. The Catholic principle of subsidiary, while officially extolled everywhere in Europe today, is at least somewhat more alive, as Tocqueville explained, in the virtuous voluntary activity relatively prevalent in our country, in the virtue displayed, for example, in THE BLIND SIDE.

More to come . . .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles