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There Is More to Life Than Politics

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when all you have is politics, everything looks like a political argument. My friend Nathan Schlueter recently published a critique of my article, “The Birth of the Liberal Order and the Death of God,” on this site. His criticisms are thoughtful, temperate, and nuanced. I appreciate his generous words and the serious attention he gives to my ideas. His critique is a genuine opportunity to try to move the discussion beyond the present stalemate.

In my article, I accept liberal order as an intractable social fact, with many stunning and noble accomplishments to its credit. Yet I also think that liberal order institutionalizes judgments about the nature of God, the Church, the human being, and nature that cannot be affirmed as true without effectively denying as false Catholicism and the Catholic Church. The attempt by both conservatives and progressives to harmonize Catholicism and liberal order has thus been wrongheaded and disastrous for American Catholicism, contributing greatly to the “death of God” within the Church itself.

The article was therefore addressed to American Catholics not qua citizens, but qua Catholics. The polity that most concerns me, in other words, is not the United States but the Catholic Church. It is best read not as part of the internal political debate among American conservatives but as part of the ongoing debate over the unresolved question that led to the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and has forced itself upon us with renewed ferocity: the question of the Church in the modern world. In my view, this is the most important question of the age.

Schlueter identifies himself as a “conservative liberal,” an early indication that he is thinking politically about philosophy where I was attempting to think philosophically about politics. Though ostensibly a philosophical tutorial about the nature of metaphysical inquiry and epistemic humility, this is entirely instrumental to a quite conventional political argument. Schlueter aims to defend the principles of the American Founding because “the costs of abandoning that structure for a vague and untried ‘New Polity’ are so high,” as if mine were an argument for the “best regime” and not an attempt to understand and endure this one. He accuses me of being “hostile to America,” ignoring my discussion of the peculiar American pietas that equates love of patria with adherence to a particular political philosophy. He shoehorns my argument into a political frame and frets about all sorts of theocratic anxieties that simply have nothing to do with my case. Meanwhile, Schlueter’s own argument exemplifies the dogmatism he claims to deplore and fails to comprehend the depths of our present crisis.

The presumption behind such arguments is that liberalism is essentially correct in its self-understanding. Either liberal order presupposes the self-evident judgments of a minimalist “Judeo-Christianity,” or it harbors no ontological judgments and bears no “dogmatism” of its own but provides the neutral framework within which competing dogmatisms can coexist. Schlueter seems to affirm both at once. If liberalism is ontologically sound, then its failures must be due to the moral defects of its citizens. This moralistic lens governs Schlueter interpretation of my argument, obscuring my discussion of why this moralism was necessitated by eighteenth-century conceptions of God and nature.

While Schlueter has a nuanced appreciation of certain elements of my argument, his hazy grasp of its overall nature and purpose forms the basis of his charge that my treatment of metaphysics is “excessively dogmatic” and “deterministic,” with tacitly held premises necessitating explicit convictions and courses of action. He invokes an impressive array of thinkers to disabuse me of these errors and teach me the lesson I should have learned from MacIntyre: that metaphysics is not a “canon or a creed” or “commitment to a set of propositions,” but “a difficult and dynamic tradition of inquiry.” I might then acquire some epistemological humility and understand modern philosophy as “a ‘critical project’ to identify and come to terms with these epistemic weaknesses” and appreciate that Locke was a titan and that Baconian natural philosophy has “a truth” in it. And I would know “that although metaphysical inquiry always informs ethical and political life, it simply cannot provide the neat answers or harmonious social and political order Hanby and other conservative postliberals dream of.”

A False Humility

Would that Schlueter had exerted a bit more effort to understand my ideas and less trying to interpret my dreams. For despite his impressive display of erudition, there are at least two major problems with this analysis. The first is that it rests on a cartoon, justified by no actual textual evidence from my New Polity essay or other work. I have never dreamt, much less written, that metaphysics could create social and political harmony from our fractured historical situation. I have never denied that Baconian science contains “a truth,” though I do admit to tiring of the obligatory reassurance that, yes, I really am grateful for modern medicine every time the question concerning technology arises. I have written a great deal attempting to explain just what sort of truth this is, or rather how it transforms the notion of truth itself. The point, at any rate, was not to condemn Baconian science as false, but to show that its “technological” vision is essential and not accidental to the “American experiment.” It is The New Atlantis, and not the Second Treatise or The Federalist, that most prophetically describes what we would become.

More fundamentally, I am simply not the strict Thomist that Schlueter makes me out to be. I locate myself in the broad tradition of Christian Platonism that is Catholicism because the world’s being created by God must make some difference to the meaning and structure of reality. And I do not appeal to Aristotelian and Thomistic categories because I think these are the last word or provide “neat answers” that resolve difficult philosophical questions definitionally. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I cannot quite “stomach” integralism, as Schlueter puts it: because it pre-comprehends every reality in advance with knowledge of the system. The integralist conception of the speculative order “isn’t really speculative but definitional” and functions as a kind of “exoskeleton” for political order.

I employ these categories for the opposite reason: to pose questions about ineradicable features of being and experience that are indispensable to any comprehensive and non-reductive account of the world. They make possible a “dynamic tradition of inquiry” precluded by our “epistemic humility.” My own “Thomism” has been supplemented time and again by the work of theologians, philosophers, and historians with little or no devotion to Thomas. It grows and deepens, or so I hope, with everything I have read and written.

The second problem with Schlueter’s analysis is that it rests on a false dichotomy between metaphysics as a “dynamic tradition of inquiry” and metaphysics as “commitment to a set of propositions.” From the Platonic and Christian understanding of the convertibility of truth and being it follows that truth is as inexhaustible as being is. The more intimately and perfectly one knows anything, the more there is to know. This metaphysical “proposition” is the ontological ground for a true “epistemic humility,” in contrast to the false humility of the “critical project” in modern philosophy that warrants the technological conquest of nature and the exile of God beyond the bounds of reason.

If we cannot “perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly,” it is not because we know once and for all the limits of our understanding. Wittgenstein observed that whoever believes he has seen these limits necessarily believes that he has seen beyond them. Rather it is because the being of even one little fly is intensively infinite and thus cannot be exhausted by our knowledge of it. The inexhaustibility of truth does not mean, however, that a “dynamic tradition of inquiry” is just an interminable dialogue without beginning or end.

Schlueter neither contemplates what constitutes the unity of a tradition nor distinguishes adequately between development within a tradition and a radical break between traditions. As Hans Urs von Balthasar says, whoever takes up the question of truth will discover that he has already been swimming in its sea.  Augustine recognized that the inexhaustibility of truth causes a genuine plurality. Yet there can be no “tradition of inquiry” without some basic, prior agreement about what is that comes to partial expression in the indicative, propositional form. And there can likewise be no “tradition of inquiry” that does not have the ever-deeper understanding of this inexhaustible truth as its object. Dynamic traditions of inquiry and propositional truth properly understood are not opposites but corollaries. They make each other possible.

It is no good chanting “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” when nature has been reduced to mindless mechanicity.

Schlueter’s point is not to resolve metaphysical or epistemological questions but to make them intractable. His philosophical tutorial serves the political end of establishing an irreducible and unresolvable plurality of comprehensive doctrines as our basic social and intellectual condition. He journeys through a winding path of philosophical authorities only to arrive back at the immemorial warrant for its self-understanding as the only un-dogmatic polity. Schlueter’s anti-dogmatism thus harbors the fundamental dogma of liberalism, which ensures that no truth higher than liberal order itself can ever become publicly effective and that there is no point in thinking too hard about such things in the first place. As usual, the celebrated pluralism of liberal order justifies the suffocating monism of liberalism itself.

Except that Schlueter also wants to affirm the pre-modern origin of liberal principles and the possibility of rescuing the Founders’ explicit assertions about God, natural law, and morality from the “tacit” metaphysical assumptions of Protestantism and the Enlightenment. He invokes the MacIntyrean notion of “epistemological crisis” to highlight this tension between the tacit and the explicit and to correct my alleged determinism. The charge is really beside the point, however. I do not deny that one’s tacit assumptions can be revised and corrected by explicit convictions and would insist they must be if we are to see beyond liberal horizons.

Paradigm Shifts

Thus, where Schlueter speaks of MacIntyrean “epistemological crises,” I prefer to speak of Kuhnian “paradigm shifts,” which are more suggestive of an objective set of relations “externally” embodied in the lebenswelt of a community. Paradigm shifts occur when a community’s common world, its horizon of meaning, begins to be lost. Sometimes this loss is imperceptible, especially at first, and it can be difficult to comprehend with the passage of time, as denizens of the new paradigm lose touch with the plausibility structures of the old. This is why an implicit metaphysics is apparent not simply in what a community explicitly affirms, but, as I have written, “in what one cannot see or say from within its conceptual parameters.”

I argue that liberal order is the political expression of a wholesale transformation of the Christian world, a massive “paradigm shift” that was simultaneously theological, cosmological, metaphysical, scientific, and religious described in social and political terms by historians such as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood. I dwell on Locke and Hobbes not at the level of efficient causality, as Schlueter seems to think, but formal causality. The point is not that all the Founders were Lockeans but that his philosophy, considered in toto, exemplifies the logic of this total transformation and makes evident the relation between the new conception of nature, knowledge, and political order and the reinvention of God, the Church and Christianity in the modern world.

Once this is understood, it becomes obvious why Schlueter’s political “strategy” of revising “tacit beliefs in order to shore up the true ones” and “retrieving so many positive elements from the premodern tradition” is unable to comprehend our own time in thought and unlikely to succeed even in its political objective. There is a reason why conservative-liberal arguments are only ever convincing to those who are already committed to them. The relation of a tacit to an explicit metaphysics is not that of premise to conclusion. Rather it is a relation of whole to part, of the entire horizon of meaning to the particular meanings it makes intelligible. It is no good chanting “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” when nature has been reduced to mindless mechanicity. The divine origin of natural rights means little in a world for whom God is dead or what amounts to the same thing, a world where the affirmation of his existence makes no appreciable difference to what things are. And it is useless to fret about moral decline in a world where morality seems to have nothing to do with reality. Unable to see this, conservative liberals often find themselves in the rather ironic and “scholastic” position of offering “self-evident truths” that are no longer self-evident to anyone as “neat answers” to questions no one else is asking.

What’s at Stake

The real question is not a question of elements at all but of the whole in virtue of which they are elements. The Catholic Church was once the real, living embodiment of this meaning, which pervaded the cosmological, philosophical, and political spheres as well as the religious. We no longer think or live as if this were so, having long reduced the Church to a mere part within another whole that ultimately has no meaning. Just as a hand severed from the body is no longer a hand, to borrow Aristotle’s example, so too the “premodern elements” of liberalism, severed from the whole that once gave them life, are no longer the same elements. To fail to see this is to fail to appreciate the depth of the crisis we confront or the question of truth that lays before us.

The passing of the old world into the new, brought about by a transformation from within, belongs to what Nietzsche called the greatest of deeds, whose shock waves, he foresaw, would reverberate for centuries. The meaning of this deed is a vast question and an indispensable question for a Church that cannot “go back” but must nevertheless bear this rejected truth in fidelity to its memory under the new and rapidly devolving conditions. But it is only secondarily a political question. That such a question cannot be properly posed within liberal categories of thought reveals its total inadequacy for grasping the meaning of the historical situation they helped to bring about.

Schlueter’s “conservative liberalism” would preclude us from asking such questions. To treat the defense of America’s Founding principles as the first and most urgent of tasks is to mark the boundary where thinking stops. If America’s Founding principles are unimpeachable a priori, the manifest disintegration of the social order built on their foundations must be due to their corruption, that is, to one’s political and ideological enemies. And the only solution is to defeat them. This hardly seems like a formula for “social harmony” either.

Schlueter is correct that a deeper metaphysical understanding “would not solve many of the practical problems we face.” It will not help conservative liberals defeat their progressive enemies or win elections. Yet it is a quintessentially American notion, and emblematic of the death of God, that we automatically measure the truth of a thought by its usefulness in solving practical problems. There is no value in the seeing that was once the very goal of human life. Yet understanding may be the key to enduring the apparent death of God without the complete obliteration of his image and to transcending the tragic fate of liberal order with some semblance of our freedom and humanity intact. Surely there is some use in that.