Freedom Is Not The Good

by Jerry Salyer on June 28, 2012 · 42 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power


As vice-president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Louisville’s own Archbishop Kurtz has led the way in expressing Church disapproval of the Obama administration’s health care plan.  According to His Excellency, the controversial Health and Human Services mandate — which treats contraception as an entitlement that all employers, including Catholic institutions, must provide for employees — is one in a series of “assaults on the freedom of religion.”  Archbishop Kurtz’s response to these assaults has been to promote here in the archdiocese the USCCB’s “Fortnight for Freedom” – a designated period of prayer, education, and discussion which runs from June 21st to the Fourth of July.

Though neither theologian nor legal expert nor nearly so erudite as other writers who have reflected intelligently on the conflict, I do hope to contribute a little something useful to the discussion aspect of the Fortnight.  For instance, I wonder whether there shouldn’t be more emphasis upon the substantial issue – whether or not contraception is in accord with human nature – than upon freedom of religion.  Otherwise we seem to concede that opposition to contraception is a rationally-indefensible taboo to be shielded by lawyers.  True, it is possible such an approach could “win”, but it hardly wins souls to the Church; for the Catholic way to remain permissible in a country wherein nobody actually chooses it would, after all, be a worthless victory.

Nor is the possibility of a victory proving irrelevant so implausible.  If the archbishop believes a huge majority of his own flock is now on his side he is being – with all due respect to both his person and office – terribly naïve.  To the contrary, in my experience with students I’ve found that those from Catholic backgrounds are much more likely to be passionately opposed to the Magisterium than vocally supportive of it.  On two unrelated occasions from two different persons I have heard it suggested that the current pontiff might be literally a Nazi; each time the suggestion came from a graduate of an elite Catholic girls’ school.  Meanwhile nary a peep about the “assault on religious freedom” is to be heard at either of our Catholic universities, though one may rest easy knowing that the next Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Awareness Month will go off without a hitch.  And during the last election there was the quixotic spectacle of area pro-life activists trying to get the word out to Louisville parishes about then-Senator Obama’s abortion record – as if those infatuated with the man didn’t already know his position on the matter, or could care less.

What would America look like if suddenly every last Catholic was imbued with at least a superficial respect for Church authority?  I don’t know, but I do know that in such a case it would be American culture and society which would be reacting to the bishops, rather than vice versa.

Furthermore, I can’t help positing a connection between the hollowing-out of American Catholicism and the rejection of proselytization.  Of course certainly I can appreciate that we shouldn’t “target” a stranger as if he were wild game to be brought down by a papal encyclical, but it seems evident that the American Church has erred too far on the side of getting along with everybody — indeed, given how much ground has long since been given over without a fight, I do think leftists can be forgiven for deeming the USCCB’s responses to various controversies somewhat passive-aggressive.  Perhaps just as a people which fails to be fruitful and multiply gets displaced by another, so too do beliefs lacking the will to propagate inevitably fall to more robust creeds.

In light of this we might reconsider the longstanding American Catholic embrace of pluralism – the belief that all cultures and creeds may and should coexist on an equal footing.  Per pluralism everyone can flourish, provided everybody agrees to leave everyone else alone.  Yet even the multicultural pluralist formula seems preposterous, to say nothing of religious pluralism; it is akin to proposing a local space be made equally hospitable to polar bears, cacti, and flying squirrels.  Multiculturalism is the equivalent of destroying real habitats to make way for elaborate and magnificent zoos.

Actually much of liberal democracy’s lofty rhetoric turns out to be just as irrational, as G.K. Chesterton makes clear:

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk  the problem of what is good.  We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.  We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good.

The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.”  That is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”  He says, “Away with all your old moral formulae; I am for progress.”  This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.”  He says, “Neither in religion nor morality my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

This “dodge” noted by Chesterton is the heart of the liberal project, and in addition to being absurd it is also — like Sartre’s defining man as the being who has no definition — insidious and deceitful.  For it conceals the fact that liberalism’s much-vaunted value-neutrality is necessarily a sham, that liberalism does indeed push its own particular preferred notion of the good life.  (Who seriously believes that the education establishment encourages monastic vows, traditional craftsmanship, family farming, or housewifery to the same extent that it endorses go-getter global careerism?)

In fact a state which turns to equal-freedom-for-all as the one ideal “we” can agree on has by definition declared freedom the central principle of social order; for all practical purposes it has identified freedom as the Good.  This freedom-centric theory is incompatible with the Catholic theory, which identifies freedom not as the Good but rather as a good – that is, one good which must be balanced against other legitimate goods such as communal integrity and family life.  From a Catholic point of view the freedom-centric society is idolatrous, as “freedom-of-religion” itself is turned into a kind of religion, a dishonest one which claims authority over all others yet never admits its own fundamentally religious nature.

Idolatry seems to undermine and degrade the very thing it idolizes:  In their campaigns against the peasantry, for example, the Bolsheviks made a mockery of equality, while Adolf Hitler ultimately crippled the German spirit.  So too may the celebration of freedom for its own sake point toward the destruction of every freedom worth having.  Under the American ideology a man’s “freedom” increasingly refers to his being trapped (albeit all-sovereign) within a small existential bubble of “rights”, even as his theological, moral, and aesthetic convictions are absolutely prohibited from playing any role in shaping what is supposedly “his” country.

In my view the contraception affair should be seen as opportunity rather than crisis, for it will have had a positive result if it forces Catholics to recognize the necessity of making a choice.  Either we must somehow set ourselves apart from the corrupting influence of American society as it slides further and further away from the Church – call it the ghetto option, the catacomb option, the secessionist option, the Benedict option, the Amish option – or so far as possible we must actively seek to dislodge and replace liberalism’s decaying tenets with those of the Church.  The first step is acknowledging that — no matter how many times George Bush may have repeated the word in his speeches — freedom is not the Good.  So long as Catholic voters agree to be fettered by the phrase “separation of Church and State” and conservative Catholic politicians fear to run on explicitly Catholic principles, they are no different from President Kennedy.  The faith which can be set aside before the voting booth or campaign or political office is no faith at all; it is a hobby.

Obviously the current contest reveals great disagreement about the meaning of this word “freedom”, and it is equally obvious that one cannot promote a Catholic understanding of freedom without teaching others how to think at least a little bit like Catholics do.  But for generations the American Catholic leadership has mostly assumed that an Enlightenment Deist’s conception of liberty is perfectly commensurate with its own.  Some would even say the leadership has adopted the Enlightenment Deist’s conception of liberty.  Either way, for more than two centuries the Catholic has obediently danced to the American system’s tune, without ever seriously questioning that system’s basic vision and principles — much less seeking to revise or correct them via light from the Church Fathers and Doctors.  So who is to blame when he discovers that, left to itself, the system’s definition of liberty has devolved into something hostile?


avatar Thaddeus Kozinski June 28, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Excellent analysis here. Two recent books are must reading to get a deep handle on the problems with American political order and the god of liberty:

Chris Ferrara’s magnum opus:

Glenn Olsen’s new one, which is a masterpiece of arguments in tension with the Murray/Maritain/Neuhaus/American Bishops a la HHS Mandate paradigm of religious liberty trumping religious truth and authority:

avatar Rob G June 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Great piece, Jerry. That last paragraph, especially, is a keeper.

avatar T. Chan June 28, 2012 at 5:59 pm

The Church certainly seems to have accomodated itself to existing in a “pluralist society”; still, there is very little it can do to evangelize if it cannot get its own house in order and focus on fostering the stability of local Churches and the communion of their members.

avatar Marchmaine June 28, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Well put…
“Some would even say the leadership has adopted the Enlightenment Deist’s conception of liberty.”

More Chesterton:
But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save.

avatar Tim Fout June 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Does this mean the Salyer limo will not be sporting a COEXIST bumper sticker?

avatar RockLibertyWarrior June 29, 2012 at 1:17 pm

So what of it? I am proud Deist who believes in most of the same morals and standards as the rest of you. Call me crazy but wouldn’t more “liberty” let us form our own communities around shared beliefs, morality etc.? Isn’t the centralizing force of big government destroying this very thing. Sometimes when I come on this site I am confused. You all seem to be for decentralization yet in some way want centralization. I understand people caring for their God, family and community, I believe the same thing. I think the classical liberal ideas you guys some times deride foster those things. I wouldn’t necessarily say our current state of affairs have to do with “individualism” or “selfishness”. It has been quite the opposite, all the centralization has come through the words “community”, “country” etc. The very words used on this web site, however I know our meaning of community, country etc. is way different. I might be wrong but I think we share the opinion that community can’t be created from the top down but from the ground up. From voluntary exchange, shared religious morals and beliefs etc. Shared values in other words, that freedom does have its limits in that morality and taking responsibility for our own actions. That was what classical liberalism is all about. I have made no bones about being a fire breathing libertarian but even this libertarian knows freedom has its limits. What I don’t get is when you guys sometimes deride libertarianism when as a philosophy its central plank is decentralization of power and even corporate power. I understand your problem with the whole money money thing but most libertarians I talk to don’t see that as a prime motivator, its wanting the freedom to live and breath and to help their neighbors free of government busy bodies forcing them to. Really what we believe is no different then what you espouse on this site, guess I painted a big target on myself on this comment board. LOL!

avatar T. Chan June 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm

” From voluntary exchange, shared religious morals and beliefs etc. Shared values in other words, that freedom does have its limits in that morality and taking responsibility for our own actions. That was what classical liberalism is all about.”

Here is the crux of the problem, perhaps: voluntary exchange may be a part of communal relations but it is not the first and foremost form of association, as liberals/libertarians may maintain. If they do not believe it is so, then their rhetoric is rather misleading. Certainly it fits with their belief in the autonomous individual being the fundamental unit of society (and the only identity that matters).

This understanding may be consonant with the “American experience” but it is still rather problematic. Libertarians may not be so different with respect to practice (seeking to build natural associations such as extended family networks, neighborhoods, and so on), but they should then examine liberalism and liberal rhetoric more carefully, since what they believe is at odds with how they actually behave.

I don’t know if any of the contributors supports greater power for the National Government. I think Mr. Salyer is focusing his attention on the rhetorical strategy of the American Catholic bishops. Does his position entail that the morality that the bishops espouse should be enforced at the national level? I don’t think so. But the bishops having adopted the Yankee/Nationalist myth is certainly a problem.

avatar Joan July 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Beautifully written. I’m going to have to save some of these to my Great Quotations file:

“…the hollowing-out of American Catholicism…” reminds me of a secular American of Jewish ancestry who described his experience of Judaism as “primarily gastronomic.”

“Multiculturalism is the equivalent of destroying real habitats to make way for elaborate and magnificent zoos.”

“For it conceals the fact that liberalism’s much-vaunted value-neutrality is necessarily a sham, that liberalism does indeed push its own particular preferred notion of the good life. (Who seriously believes that the education establishment encourages monastic vows, traditional craftsmanship, family farming, or housewifery to the same extent that it endorses go-getter global careerism?) ”

“Idolatry seems to undermine and degrade the very thing it idolizes: In their campaigns against the peasantry, for example, the Bolsheviks made a mockery of equality, while Adolf Hitler ultimately crippled the German spirit. ”

“The faith which can be set aside before the voting booth or campaign or political office is no faith at all; it is a hobby.”

I recall a history book (though I’ve long since forgotten it’s title and it author’s name) which looked at the Northern, religiously-based colonies as they faced contradictions between the principles of their respective faiths and the necessities of governance. The Congregationalists of New England opted to compromise their faith and remain in power; the Quaker leadership of Delaware and Pennsylvania resigned from government more or less en masse. The book’s author clearly preferred the former choice, but by the time I read his opinion, around 1974, the Congregational Church, like the other controversy-free “white bread” churches, was hemorrhaging members, as it continues to do, while the Quakers remain at about the size (in absolute numbers) that they were in colonial times, and whether you agree with them or not, their success in remaining a distinct and occasionally influential community of faith cannot be denied.

avatar Anymouse July 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Excellent piece! Salyer is a true conservative.

avatar Bill July 4, 2012 at 5:46 am

A well-written and thought provoking piece.

While I entirely agree that freedom is merely “a good” and not “the Good,” I would suggest that freedom is the only good which is any business of the government. That is to say, proper government exists to ensure that freedom (which comes from the Creator and not from the government) is preserved. It is within an atmosphere of freedom that folks are best able to work out the Good, which of course goes far beyond mere political freedom.

As citizens surrender freedom to government on the hope that it will then bring about the Good, they are empowering the government to use coercion to impose its own version of “the Good” on all. Carried to its full extreme, all freedom is surrendered to a government in the vain hope that it will deliver “the Good.” Instead of the Good, the citizens end of with tyranny.

Citizens should not be satisfied with mere freedom or liberty. But, I think, we should not expect or require any more than that from our government.

Just my two cents worth…

avatar Anymouse July 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm

“Citizens should not be satisfied with mere freedom or liberty. But, I think, we should not expect or require any more than that from our government.”
We can not expect even that from this government, sadly. And there have been Catholic confessional states with far more freedom and liberty we have in this supposedly free and secular government.

avatar E.R. Bourne July 4, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Rock Liberty Warrior,

If libertarianism or classical liberalism meant local autonomy, decentralized authority, and active yet small political community, then you would be correct in wondering why such an ideology would be opposed by writers like Mr. Salyer. The truth, though, is that, historically speaking, this is absolutely not what liberalism was used to achieve. With the exception of the early American republics, which behaved in many illiberal ways, the advent of liberalism in the 18th century marked the beginning of radical centralization, national sovereignty to the exclusion of all lesser loyalties, and the dissipation of communal political life.

The libertarian only appears to advocate for decentralization because, in our current state, the highly centralized federal government possesses all political authority. We know from history, though, that if states, cities, and villages began assuming the responsibilities they were intended to have, in other words if they assumed for themselves primary political authority, the libertarian would begin to advocate for a powerful centralized government to come free them from the tyranny of their neighbors. We know this because, as stated in the first paragraph, this is how liberalism began.

When states and local sovereignties proscribe certain behaviors, speech, economic practices, and other elements of human society, as they had been doing before the early modern era, the only hope of the libertarian is the modern state. It is the only apparatus that can dilute communal and local authority so utterly that people in a country as vast as the United States will look to a small cabal in Washington D.C. to tell them what to do. In this way, the relationship between the libertarian and the modern state is more symbiotic than antagonistic.

avatar Eric Brooks July 4, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Archbishop Lefebvre told us that denial of Christ’s right to rule over society would ultimately be a denial of Christ as such– at least in practice if not always in theory (i.e. these bishops may not deny the private importance of conversion). I think we see this with our U.S. bishops today who are afraid to declare that no American should be using contraception, and are afraid to declare that the Church has a right to proclaim this truth because it is true rather than because it is “our conscience.” In fact we find numerous statements, even from Bishops, that they are standing up for the rights of protestants, Jews, and others as well, so that whatever they may say about the importance of an individual submitting to the law of Christ they in practice deny their Lord in the public square. Perhaps in a document on the mass we will find something about the “unique sacrifice of the God-Man” but in the public square it all must be subjectivized into “our traditions” “our conscience” and generalized rights of man.

Defending the traditional doctrine of the social kingship of Christ is not about saying that this country or any country should become a Catholic State tomorrow (what such a claim would even mean in a country like ours is confusing at best) but is rather a matter of acknowledging that Christ’s law is the ultimate law, above any private creed or national government. To say “liberty” is the best possible law of the land, and we only privately submit to Jesus, is really a theological rather than a political error. Thus I think the problem here goes beyond a bad political strategy, beyond poor rhetoric and confused pastoral strategies, but is really a matter of a bad theology. On the other hand, it is a good example of how denying one seemingly minor point of Catholic Truth can corrupt the whole in a very short period of time.

It seems to me that many American Catholics (I can’t comment on the rest of the world) are waking up to many of the issues Lefebvre pointed out, though of course while tending always to reject his rhetoric, his actions, his solutions, etc.

avatar robert m. peters July 6, 2012 at 12:16 pm

We exist in an anti-culture.

A culture consists of the set of principles, institutions, customs, traditions, habits and traditions, anchored in what we have come to call “religion.” The purpose of such a culture is to restrain the lusts, desires and compulsions of the person so that the person is emancipated (freed) from them so that he can fulfill his duties to God, to family, to Church, his associations and his local commonwealth.

An anti-culture conspires to emancipate the “individual” from the principles, customs, traditions, habits and traditions of culture so that said individual can pursue his whims, lusts, desires and compulsions.

These are two antithetical purposes for freedom. One does note that at the root of the Germanic word “freedom” is “love” which suggests relationship, which is a limitation which itself contradicts the anti-culture.

All Christians, not merely ones of the Catholic idiom, need to struggle against the anti-culture which is the product of our ancient enemy who has been with us since the Garden.

avatar R. Salyer July 6, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Preserving the “God-given” liberty of the individual is not the purpose of government.

This is actually against what Mr. Salyer harangues. Freedom is the overarching Good of this government, and it is in fact this notion that is at the root of many of our problems.

Because the government, or more generally, the state, is properly just a reflection of the individual’s interrelationships with other persons (society), to make preserving liberty the government mission is to set up a system to prevent one man’s apparent impositions upon another. Today’s government sucks up power to use in breaking down the natural authorities that, as the government argues, impose themselves on men.

This path is born of a mistaken view of Man. Man is not born free. He is not his own author, nor is there any basis to claim that he is entitled so to be. Rather he is born within a society of humans, shaping him involuntarily, and has only that freedom that this society bestows. The society is oriented toward what it communally perceives as the Good.

Clearly Mr. Salyer has signalled to what he believes the Good should be. One may disagree. But to attempt to orient the Good to individual freedom is to deny society altogether. It is a denial of the Good in fact, and is intrinsically, internally contradictory. It must end in materialism and sensuality because, while values may be a matter of opinion (i.e., freedom mandates that they be only be voluntarily adopted), resources and base pleasures are not.

Although a Good would have to be recognised as the starting point, as a practical tact, perhaps one should speak of preventing evils rather than in affirming goods as at the root of the government’s dossier. And dump the freedom-talk.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 7, 2012 at 8:59 pm

R. Salyer is an honest totalitarian.

Although it is true that “no man is an island,” most tyranny in human history has been committed by one person wrapping themselves in the mantle of what he perceives to be what “this society bestows” or should bestow, and imposing this personal vision (or factional vision) upon another.

Our Supreme Court has wisely observed that the framers of our constitution were no more willing to submit certain liberties to the vagaries of legislative majorities than to crowned monarchs. The integrity of the community does derive in part from the integrity of the individuals within it. The collective is good to the extent that it sustains and expands the opportunities available to each and every individual.

Ultimately, it is the individual soul, not the community, that must meet its maker.

avatar Chris Wilson July 10, 2012 at 9:53 am


Do you consider Jesus Christ to be a totalitarian or a tyrant? If so, I’m sure Mr. Slayer would be honored to be placed in the same company of so great a redeemer. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Your argument is self-contradictory. You’re claiming that it’s dangerous to impose one overarching world view on the rest of society, yet this is precisely what you have done.

Your world view goes by many names. My two favorites are “dictatorship of relativism” and “culture of death.”

avatar Chris Wilson July 10, 2012 at 9:59 am

Please note my apology for misspelling Mr. Salyer’s last name in my post.

avatar ck July 10, 2012 at 10:22 am

“Either way, for more than two centuries the Catholic has obediently danced to the American system’s tune, without ever seriously questioning that system’s basic vision and principles — much less seeking to revise or correct them via light from the Church Fathers and Doctors. ”

A most worthy project that it seems our generation of American Catholics must begin.

avatar ck July 10, 2012 at 10:27 am


I think these points would be good to raise to Archbishop Chaput in September where he will be attending Villanova Law’s Scarpa conference:

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 11, 2012 at 11:44 pm

My dear Mr. Wilson, what do you know about Jesus Christ? Further, what do you know about what I believe about Jesus Christ? OK, technically, you asked a question, rather than making a statement, but the question was rhetorical, and you rambled on assuming an answer not yet given.

I follow John Wycliffe’s observation that man has no earthly spiritual overlord BUT Jesus. I deny that any human individual, institution, conclave, is either authorized or capable of speaking in Jesus’s name.

The line you quote is one of the most misunderstood and mis-used in the history of religious thought, but even taking it as you offer it, what has that to do with the Pope, or any other foreign prince? This is Jesus speaking, the only begotten son of God, not some prelate prattling about why Jesus must have wanted us to throw money in the collection box.

The reason I say it is misunderstood is that the line is taken out of context. The disciples, a curiously clueless bunch who frustrated Jesus no end because they never understood anything he tried to teach them, had just asked him “How can we know the way?” — not unrelated to Phillip’s “show us the Father and it sufficeth us.” Jesus was telling them “Don’t you understand anything? Your flesh is not capable of beholding the Father. He’s transcendent. That’s why you got me.” The disciples had NOT just asked him, “can the heathen enter the kingdom of heaven?”

But be that as it may, you indulge a terrible hubris when you equate R. Salyer’s personal notion of “the overarching Good,” or your own admiration of the same, with the authority of a transcendent Deity. James Otis remarked at the time of the American Revolution that God is the only monarch entitled to omnipotence, because only God is omniscient. Wise words indeed, and far better than your totalitarian speculations.

I take your Roman pretensions, and their Protestant counter-parts, with a considerable dose of humor, because mankind has outgrown your petty totalitarian philosophies. If I ever had to take you seriously, I would have to thank God for the Second Amendment, because you are enemies of everything my ancestors fought to establish here. Fortunately, as Lee Sherman Dreyfuss once told Cardinal Carol Woytyla, in America, “they are good Catholics, but they think like Protestants.” Amen, and Amen.

avatar Luke Daxon July 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm

No Christian doubts that “the Good” is synonymous with the revelation of Christ. The question, which has not been addressed directly, is whether its reception is confined to the Roman Catholic Church. If it is so confined, then a state ordered to the promotion of “the Good” would necessarily seek to further the Catholic faith. What place would Protestants, Orthodox or Anglicans have in such a state?

I would welcome the author’s thoughts to clarify these questions.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 15, 2012 at 7:33 pm

The most difficult questions to resolve derive from opposing viewpoints starting from different and irreconcilable premises. While I am also interested in how the author would answer Luke’s question, I would suggest that the state is not, properly, ordered to promotion of “the Good” at all. The state is incompetent to discern or determine exactly what “the Good” is, which is one reason this is best left to individual conscience. That is the basis of our First Amendment: not that all religions are equally Good, but that the state is at least as likely to be wrong as right in trying to sort it out.

Incidentally, I am not aware of the relation between Jerry Salyer (author) and R. Salyer (commenter). I infer they must be siblings or cousins or something. The author writes in a thoughtful style, akin to his photo, whereas R. is somewhat analogous to Thomas Huxley as “Darwin’s bulldog.” I disagree either way, but appearances suggest that a face to face conversation with the author could be conducted at a low and respectful volume.

avatar Gian July 17, 2012 at 3:03 am

The State exists to realize Justice and justice is not possible unless Good is known.

Following Aristotle, we say that man is a political animal. It can be re-expressed as “The State (or the City) exists by Nature. ”

There are three irreducible levels in human organization: The Individual, the Family and the State (or the City).

The Natural Law provides for proper harmony between these levels. The Natural Law is known by reason; the human reason is clouded owing to original sin and thus much confusion and disagreement as to the proper relations between Individual, the family and the State.

The error of Hobbes and Locke, on which the capitalism is built, rejects the natural view of State and builds the State (or City) as a convenience for the individuals. The State protects us from aggression from other men and nature. By forming a City, we can better provide for ourselves. All this is true, but that negates the central reason for States.

The libertarian theory can not account for Justice. It is not possible for an Individual to mete out Justice to another individual that trespasses on him. An individual can engage in self-defense but justice is something else.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm

“The State exists to realize Justice ”

Says who? I know you believe that, or you wouldn’t have said it, but surely you don’t expect me to accept it as axiomatic without some foundation we can agree to recognize?

We can agree that Justice is a Good thing. We may not, however, be able to agree on what constitutes Justice. In my seldom humble opinion, the state exists to establish and maintain a modicum of peace and good order among fractious humans, such that each can live in peace, and their respective efforts produce both a common and an individual livelihood. This established, each can seek the Good as God gives them to understand it, without of course treading on their neighbors’ toes or smashing their neighbors skulls. That is quite enough to expect of governments established by and among men.

Despising Aristotle, as the Roman Catholic Church did for centuries, before raising him to a level just short of Holy Writ, but reading C.S. Lewis with some respectful interest, I say that man is a curious hybrid, half animal and half spirit. Orthodox Jews teach something similar.

I’ll grant you your three levels, although I reserve the question whether they are irreducible. I’m not sold on the notion of original sin — Genesis was first given in Hebrew to the Jewish people, and they, being most conversant with Original Intent, view it rather differently. But if the State arises naturally from human existence, it would be difficult to sustain that it has some independent essence over and above human convenience. And if it does, then the State is a Totality to which individual human choice and striving and even spiritual seeking must bow, a good rudimentary definition of totalitarianism.

Indeed Justice is something else than self-defense. But what is it?

“justice is not possible unless Good is known”

The indeed we are lost, because we cannot agree on what constitutes the Good. But I would suggest that justice is that which makes whole any grievance that can be redressed by human judgement, and Justice is administered only by God, so the rest of us should cease the temerity of thinking we can establish it, however great our devotions.

The error of Hobbes and Locke was to be overly trusting of the capitalist to do Good, and overly dismissive of the Common Man, both philosophers having their thoughts too deeply mired in feudal prejudices.

avatar Gian July 17, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Siarlys Jenkins,
Thanks for a challenging counter-comment.

First, I would recommend Anthony Esolen’s translations of the Divine Commedy in three volumes. From the notes therein, I have learned a lot about the medieval conception of the State and Justice.

Justice is not merely a convenience. Humans absolutely require it or at least its hope. No human society can exist without some realization of it.

Now, justice is not self-defense and not arbitration either. The Judge must sit higher than the plaintiff and the defendant, for he must sit in judgment OVER them.

Now if man have an equal dignity, then the only (temporal) thing higher is the City. And we do find that The City is the dispenser of justice. This function can not be outsourced or privatized.

Anarcho-libertarians like David Friedman have proposed models for private justice but all of them are logically faulty.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I wholeheartedly agree that private justice is logically faulty. There must indeed be some commonly accepted authority that exercises a general public trust, and is accountable to, if you will, the entire polis. Robert Heinlein’s vision of justice in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is rather entertaining, but I wouldn’t trust my life, or property, to such a system.

A given judge can sit OVER two contesting litigants by virtue of:

1) conquest

2) general public acclaim or election

3) appointment by a constitutionally accepted process

4) divine appointment, or divinity itself

5) mutual agreement by the contending parties to submit their dispute, and to whom.

I can’t think of any other major categories. Rejecting (1) as having any claim better than “Might makes right,” and disputing that any earthly authority can claim (4), it would seem that (2) and (3), with occasional and dubious resort to (5) are as close to justice as we are going to get.

I don’t have time for Divine Comedy right now, but I’ll keep it in mind for the future.

avatar Gian July 20, 2012 at 3:08 am

Siarlys Jenkins,
It is far more than “some commonly accepted authority that exercises a general public trust, and is accountable to, if you will, the entire polis”

A polis embodies or instantiates, Natural Law in a particular way. The Natural Law lies at the very core of Polis. Any free human community spontaneously binds itself in laws that approximate the Natural Law and thus Justice, which is an attempt to realize the Law, is an essential part of any Polis.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 20, 2012 at 10:22 pm

That is rather speculative, but your words COULD be read in a manner I would have no reason to object to. Since we share, I think, a belief that the universe was created by an omniscient deity who has purposes of his own, and since most human societies share some common threads of what constitutes virtue, vice, etc., it is entirely possible that a truly FREE human community, free of self-interested coercion by aggrandizing individual would- be rulers, would SPONTANEOUSLY develop laws for itself that approximate a natural pattern of law that are part of the fiber of Creation.

In my reading, that would be directly contrary to rule by the self-appointed Excellencies that the author and many commentors have bowed to in their prose.

Although I find much to admire in the Enlightenment, and the Declaration of Independence, I know that by origin, governments were not established among men to secure either rights or self-evident truths, nor by any social compact. Governments began as glorified gang warfare and protection rackets, as venal but powerful and conniving men sought to take power over their fellow citizens. The anthropology is quite well established, e.g. Otterbein’s How War Began. The Enlightenment, politically, attempted to redefine government as something it had never been, but could be and should be. Hammurabi and Edward I are both brutal cases in point, admired later for late-in-life attempts to add a gloss of Law to their conquests.

That was hardly an exemplary manifestation of Natural Law in operation, nor was the slave-based polis that was Aristotle’s environment. I can look for a Natural Law manifesting itself in unconstrained free political discourse. I cannot find it in the rule of princes, of the church, or the state. Now if you want to throw in original sin, or, with a more secular patina, human fallibility, that may interfere with a free human community adhering to Natural Law, but it does so no less in the operation of any hierarchy.

avatar Gian July 23, 2012 at 2:01 am

The question is not the origin of war but the origin of State. And here anthropologists do not convince me.

Even, a smallest hill village is self-contained with its local deity and necessarily self-governing to some extent, at least –I speak of Himalayan villages I have seen, and doubtless not unique.

How can there be a human community that is not rule-bound?. Without a shared conception of lawful and unlawful?
And thus some process of judging?

And as for Enlightenment, a saying of Aristotle is useful:
A man should rule his wife politically, his children monarchically and his slaves despotically.

Now, what is political rule. It is rule
among friends,i.e among equals (the Suarez doctrine). It is proper for virtuous and rational people and that the Enlightenment sought to establish.

The monarchic rule arises from the primordial patriarchy (The Taparelli school of Catholic philosophy). It is proper for a developing society and is intended for the benefit of the ruled.

The despotic rule is fitting when ruling over irrational people or under savage conditions.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 23, 2012 at 11:50 pm

That quote from Aristotle is, in my seldom humble opinion, utterly repugnant. Yet to you it is axiomatic wisdom. No wonder we can’t agree.

avatar Gian July 25, 2012 at 1:50 am

Not axiomatic but because it explains a lot of disparate things.

Perhaps that about the despotism repels you? But it is surely a matter of observation and historic experience that when there is a great difference in culture between the rulers and the ruled, the rulers, perforce, be despotic.

That’s how the British were able to civilize the Head-hunters of Assam, and which are now lapsing back to barbarism under the premature democratic rule.

avatar R. Salyer July 27, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Civilization—the joys from which some have gained the liberty to impugn it—is rooted in the establishment of hierarchy amongst men. Call it gang warfare if you like.

It is right to say that the Enlightenment sought after a true form in a mythic future. If the Enlightenment declares what should be, is but has not been, then on what basis does it declare what “should be”?

If the State, writ-large, is incompetent to determine the Good, then what is its purpose? If its good is simply to prevent one man from “harming” another man, then this at least is a Good that could use justification and definition.

Wycliffe erred. What does anyone know of Jesus but through a “spiritual overlord.” If one is claiming divine revelation, then of course, I cede the field with pleasure.

That no man is omnipotent or omniscient is a mere truism. Clearly everyone is born with their first overlords being their parents. These gave them their form, their language, etc…. These cannot be chosen by the individual, despite what John Rawls might think. This collective is greater than the sum of the individuals, as is any other community of human beings worthy of the name.

avatar David July 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Gian asserts:

The monarchic rule arises from the primordial patriarchy (The Taparelli school of Catholic philosophy). It is proper for a developing society and is intended for the benefit of the ruled.

The despotic rule is fitting when ruling over irrational people or under savage conditions.

Hm. As it happens, just yesterday I was reading I Samuel 8, where the twelve tribes of Israel choose their first king. The example the Word of God furnishes us, for precisely the purpose of instructing and warning future generations, tells a story diametrically opposed to the “Taparelli school of Catholic philosophy” as you tell it. According to scripture, when men are obedient to God, they need no king but God. When men become depraved and idolatrous, and wish to imitate the heathen, then they demand a king.

The Origin of Kingship in Israel

avatar David July 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm

To clarify above comment: I might agree that monarchic rule “is proper for a developing society.” However, the society under discussion in the essay is American society, which is not developing; and if deteriorating, in large part that can be laid at the doorstep of increasingly despotic government which usurps the proper responsibilities and powers of individuals, families, churches, and free social institutions of all kind.

Also to address the thesis of this essay that “freedom is not the good”: Certainly if by “freedom” one includes the freedom from harm by one’s neighbor, then freedom is quite clearly the good. Any further goods are not the business of the state. Indeed, the only record we have of a theocratic state (i.e., a real one, ruled by the actual Theos) shows us that even perfect law cannot create a perfect heart.

R. Salyer commented , long ago: “But to attempt to orient the Good to individual freedom is to deny society altogether.”

This is the familiar strawman caricature that I usually would expect to hear from a collectivist. Individualism does not deny society; it is the basic ingredient of a free society. Like a properly functioning market, a properly functioning society is one of individuals freely associating, not forced together on someone else’s terms.

Children are not free to choose their associations, but they soon enough grow up — some sooner than others. Wise parents, IMO, raise their children to be godly, discerning, and questioning of all human institutions, traditions, and so-called laws. “Raising up a child in the way that he should go” itself requires discernment, wisdom, and flexibility; it is not necessarily the same as raising him up in the way that you’d prefer he go.

avatar Luke Daxon July 28, 2012 at 11:55 am

“Either we must somehow set ourselves apart from the corrupting influence of American society as it slides further and further away from the Church – call it the ghetto option, the catacomb option, the secessionist option, the Benedict option, the Amish option – or so far as possible we must actively seek to dislodge and replace liberalism’s decaying tenets with those of the Church.”

That Western society is putrefying, I do not question. That solution is faith in Christ I do not question either. But, unless I misrepresent you gravely Mr Salyer, you identify that faith (and obviously the Good) with the Roman Catholic Church. If this is so, then those Christians outside the Church, no matter how sincere or scrupulous, are not true Christians but heretics and schismatics.

I feel I must I repeat my question. How far is it legitimate to go to advance this line of thought? Just what would happen to an Anglican like I if it you could “dislodge and replace liberalism’s decaying tenets with those of the Church.”?

avatar Gian July 30, 2012 at 2:13 am

“a properly functioning society is one of individuals freely associating”

Really, did you choose to be born in America? and to associate with Americans?

Man is born into a context, his City (or nation in modern parlance), his culture, his politics.
The denial of Politics is one of the great error of modern American conservatism. For example, it leads to an incorrect view of the property rights and thus leads one to libertarianism.

avatar Gian July 30, 2012 at 2:16 am

“liberalism’s decaying tenets with those of the Church.”

It is unnecessary. The reaction is political and not theological.
It is only necessary to recover a pre-Hobbesian understanding of the politics and that is common to all Christians. No theological issues enter here at all.

avatar Gian July 30, 2012 at 3:00 am

You need to appreciate that your freedom to form voluntary associations is consequent to the political efforts of many others.

Now politics is not everybody’s cup of tea but still must not be disparaged. Politics is a necessary part of human flourishing, esp in a Republic.

It is utopian to imagine that one can escape politics. People are not ‘forced together on someone else’s terms.”; man is a political being, that is, man naturally forms self-ruling societies
that are ruled by moral laws.

avatar JD Salyer July 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Mr. Daxon:

Unfortunately my response can only be rudimentary. The short answer is that at the moment I haven’t got an answer. Identifying the problem — in this case liberalism — is only the first step toward working out a fully-threshed solution, and I frankly have no delusions about my ability to work out such a solution all on my own.

At the level of principle, I do think it helpful to note that there is a lot of room between the two extremes of liberal indifferentism — which effectively establishes liberalism as the state religion by which society is structured — on one hand, and a compulsive control-freak theocracy on the other. Liberal society claims that these two are the only possibilities, thereby committing the fallacy of false dichotomy.

On the one hand I am bound to heed Catholic teachings, and advance the cause of the Church at all times. At the same time, those very teachings suggest to me that such advancement can only be carried out in a spirit of prudence, restraint, and justice when I deal with my neighbors — be they Orthodox, Protestants, or for that matter non-Christians. Considering the last group might be the most illustrative, albeit roundabout way of addressing your question: Unlike the liberal, I take it that setting up a Nativity scene on the county courthouse lawn during Advent is not equivalent to inciting a pogrom.

In any case, a Catholic community which includes Anglicans must strive for the best possible arrangement of engaging them. This would mean not allowing the errors of Anglicanism to undermine the community, while simultaneously acknowledging the instrinsic worth of the Anglicans in question, as well as that of particular Anglican practices and traditions, and the common ground of baptism, Trinitarian theology, etc.

I suspect that the fuller answer to your question would imply that there is no simple, straightforward one-size-fits-all answer regarding how to achieve the aforementioned aim, and that the evils of the American strain of liberalism are owed in large part to a naive effort to find just such an answer. A Catholic community would interact with an Anglican minority differently than it would with, say, a Lutheran or a Methodist or a Russian Orthodox — or with a Cherokee pagan, or a Hindu. Liberalism, on the other hand, is only able to treat all religions equally because it holds all religions in equal contempt.

I hope you find something of worth out of this; I’m vastly overloaded at the moment and simply don’t have time to elaborate as much as I’d like.

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