Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Missing the Point, II: Why It Was Missed


Yesterday we noted that, on the whole, latter day Chestertonians and distributists seem to have missed some very important points Chesterton made in his thought and writings, viz., that certain modern phenomenon were presaged by some fundamental errors made in the Middle Ages and were carried forward to today, and that the great error of the modern age (again anticipated by events in the Possibly-Not-So-Dark Ages) is widespread acceptance of the shift from the Intellect to the Will as the basis of the natural law. The great problem is the effect this shift has had on civil, religious, and domestic society.
"The natural law is discernible by human reason alone."
To explain, many Chestertonians and distributists have shifted the basis of their understanding of the natural law from God’s Nature, self-realized in His Intellect and discernible by the force and light of human reason alone (Humani Generis, § 2), to a personal interpretation of God’s Will based on faith alone.  Ultimately, within this framework might makes right and the end justifies the means.

As Mortimer Adler put it, this is a shift from objective knowledge, to subjective opinion, which he characterized as one of the “Ten Philosophical Mistakes” that afflict the modern world.  As a case in point, witness the near-hysteria of Mr. Ahlquist's editorial staff for not agreeing with said staff in the right way.  (Anti-) "intellectual" bullying at its finest, manifesting itself in name-calling and the sneering that Chesterton noted as prevalent in the modern age.
Chesterton related a popular version of this revolution in thought, which he (in common with Adler, Rommen, and Fulton Sheen, among others) characterized as a return to a rather distorted Platonism, in two of his most popular — and most consistently misunderstood — books, Saint Francis of Assisi (1923) and Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (1933).  In the former, the change resulted in the invention of a new form of religious society under the old name of Christianity.  In the latter, it provided the basis for the invention of a new form of civil society under the old name of democracy.
"I told them what you said, Lord, but they still didn't get it!"
Most people who read the books, however, tend to miss what Chesterton had to consider the “elephant in the icebox,” so to speak: something so obvious that he seemed to have trouble believing that even his own followers didn’t pick up on it.  That is the direct parallel between what the renegade Franciscans and Manicheans attempted in religious and civil society, respectively, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and the Fabian program in regard to both religious and civil society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It has resulted in what C.S. Lewis described as one of Satan's greatest triumphs: the development of the "materialist magician." This is someone who uses spiritual and eternal goods as a means to gain material and temporal goods, instead of material and temporal goods as an assist to gain spiritual and eternal goods.  A form of pelagianism — a school of thought that holds, in part, that salvation is material — such sorcerers seem to be everywhere today, a product of the combination of modernism, socialism, and New Age thought, even among people who consider themselves good Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Consequently, in a supremely ironic twist, many of today’s Chestertonians and distributists attempt to integrate the theories of the Fabians, modernism, and New Age thought into their understanding of Chesterton’s thought, and from there into Catholicism.  Systems such as guild socialism, social credit, and georgism — all either derived from or integrated into Fabian socialism — and the work of such individuals as Arthur Penty, R.H. Tawney, Major Douglas, and E.F. Schumacher are accorded respect, even veneration that would have baffled Chesterton, as would the whitewashing of socialism of any kind . . . particularly since he presented distributism as an alternative to Fabian proposals.
It would have outraged Hilaire Belloc.  His book, The Servile State (1912) was a damning indictment of the Fabian program (Edward R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society. London: Frank Cass & Co., 1963, 229-230) that (according to George Bernard Shaw) would, in part, force everyone to work at a wage system job on pain of death for non-compliance.  Was Shaw engaging in hyperbole to make the point that everyone should be forced to work, willy nilly?  Possibly — but if someone says he wants you dead if you don’t go along with what he wants you to do, it’s not generally a good idea to doubt his word . . . even if he’s a teetotal vegetarian pacifist socialist.
"Natural rights are inherent in human beings, not the collective."
The ends — the transformation of Christianity and democracy — may seem different, but the root cause is the same: the rejection of common sense (i.e., reason).  This, in turn, is based on the theory that God does not build natural rights into human beings as part of their nature, but into humanity as a whole (or, in extreme cases, not at all; rights are construed as a human invention).  The collective, therefore, has rights that individuals do not, unless the collective finds it expedient or useful to delegate rights to actual human beings.
The error here is obvious.  God being omniscient and a Perfect Being, He does not abstract or generalize — He doesn’t need to.  He knows everything already.  Everything except Himself He knows directly and objectively: practical knowledge.  Even His speculative, subjective knowledge, which is limited to Himself, is perfect, and He therefore has no need for abstraction or generalization.  Abstraction or generalization is a “crutch” by means of which finite and limited human beings deal with what is, to all intents and purposes, infinite and unlimited knowledge.
Thus we say that God created man, not mankind.  He therefore vested natural rights — the natural law “written in the hearts of all men,” not “all mankind” — into actual, flesh and blood human beings, not into the abstraction of the collective.  God does not grant people natural rights, for human beings have rights by their very nature; the gift is human nature — existence itself — not rights; rights are part of a package deal.
God made man, not humanity.
Each and every human being is a natural person (that is, has rights) by the mere fact of existence, not because some authority or even Authority made a grant.  Natural rights such as life, liberty, and private property are necessarily absolute and inalienable individually in every single human being, not just a (self) chosen élite, and — just as necessarily — are socially limited in their exercise.
And that is the crux of the matter.  If God, the Creator of human beings, does not grant natural rights to people, neither does the State, a creation of human beings.  This, in fact, is the original basis of the United States Constitution: “We, the People” organized and delegated a revocable legal sovereignty to the State, while retaining political sovereignty.  Rights are therefore a grant from people to the State, not from the State (or any other form of society; cf. Divini Redemptoris, § 29) to the people.
Dred Scott
How did we get away from this idea, and end up with the idea of a “living constitution” that has given us abortion on demand — and at taxpayer expense! — and same sex marriage?  To summarize very briefly (a complete analysis can be found in William Winslow Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1953), beginning with Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Supreme Court gradually expanded judicial review far beyond anything ever intended by the framers of the Constitution.
While a judicially correct decision, Marbury eventually led to the notorious Dred Scott decision, Scott v. Sandford, in 1857 in which Justice Roger Brooke Taney, in an effort to preserve and extend slavery, conflated the terms “person” and “citizen” (deliberately so according to some authorities) and issued an opinion that claimed natural rights come from the State the same way that citizenship — i.e., civil/statutory — rights do.  The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in part to overturn Scott, but was itself nullified by the opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, an opinion so vaguely worded that any future Court could make the Fourteenth Amendment mean anything it wanted — as it did in Roe v. Wade.
Thus, while Mr. Ahlquist wrote what can be considered an interesting and somewhat informative article — up to a point — he by no means managed to address the real issues involving Chesterton and the law.  Like so many over the years, he missed the point.
#30#

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