March 21st 2020


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Murray River full; reservoirs low; farms for sale ...

ILLICIT DRUGS Cannabis marketed to children in Colorado

CANBERRA OBSERVED Budget surplus a goner but low interest rates a treasurer's dream

NATIONAL AFFAIRS 'Black Summer' bushfire inquiries: What must be done

GENDER POLITICS Young people deserve better than being rushed into transitioning

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Myth-busting China's 'soft power'

CLIMATE CHANGE Where's the evidence for man-made global warming?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal heard in the High Court

ON CAMPUS Young Liberals politics heats up after death of Wilson Gavin

OBITUARY Farewell to the indomitable John Barich

POLITICS AND SOCIETY Beyond the Great Divide

ASIA China's waterways bring prosperity ... and sorrow

LIFE ISSUES Age does not dim the memory of such loss

HUMOUR Men and women and others of Australia ...

MUSIC Evaluations of good, better, best can collapse into musical chairs

CINEMA Motherless Brooklyn: Gazing into the heart of the city

BOOK REVIEW How language is being degraded for political purposes

BOOK REVIEW Not very fresh options for a capitalism in which capital is worthless

LETTERS

POETRY

NEW ZEALAND: Victorian Road Map smooths way of NZ anti-life clique to abortion 'reform'

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POLITICS AND SOCIETY
Beyond the Great Divide


by Brian Coman

News Weekly, March 21, 2020

Part Two of two parts (the first part can be read here)

IN THIS SECOND PART OF HIS ESSAY, BRIAN COMAN ADVANCES HIS ARGUMENT THAT ANY FUTURE SOCIAL SETTLEMENT MUST BE BASED ON A ‘RETURN TO VIRTUE’.

In the first part of this essay, published in the previous issue of News Weekly, I gave notice of my intention to sketch out some possible pathway for the future of believing Christians in an age which has become increasingly hostile towards them.

The first and obvious point to reiterate is that we can no longer hope to express freely our Christian faith within the political and social geography of our time. We need to think outside the current political order, which is overwhelmingly a liberal order, focused almost entirely upon what I might call the “atomic individual”. How we might do that, of course, is a much more difficult question.

I might begin by quoting from the “front matter” of the new American journal, Postliberal Thought (visit its website at postliberalthought.com): “Unlike the ideologies of right and left, postliberalism does not seek to gain control of the institutions of power, of the state and market, but rather to reduce their significance through fostering ways of life that do not rely upon their dominance. Small government is not merely about shrinking the apparatus itself; it is even more about becoming the type of people who are not governed externally but who govern ourselves internally, through charity.

“Postliberalism would see the creation of smaller communities that do not look to the state for their order. This, and not merely passing legislation, is the path towards small-government and political effectiveness and is simultaneously the path laid down by Christ. The intellectual and the practical are therefore bound together in postliberalism. We must come to understand that we might act and act that we might come to understand.”

So, then, there are really two lines of attack: intellectual and practical.

For the group of scholars associated with Postliberal Thought, both these lines of attack rely heavily upon an approach that is commonly associated with the present-day philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. That is not to say that they always agree with him or, indeed, that they necessarily derive all of their ideas from his work.

The approach relies heavily on what is called “virtue ethics” and it derives initially from Aristotle’s account of the proper conduct of a human life. This Aristotelian approach was then taken up and expanded in medieval Christianity, after the writings of Aristotle were transmitted to the West via the work of Muslim scholars.

It continued as a dominant force throughout the Middle Ages and, in the Catholic Church, remained as a rational framework behind Christian moral thought until relatively recent times. It was known first as a part of Scholasticism or Thomism (after St Thomas Aquinas) and then revived in the 19th century as neo Scholasticism. The papal encyclical, Aeterni Patris, promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, is often quoted as a major stimulus in the revival.

But it must be pointed out that MacIntyre’s approach, initially at any rate, owes little to Christian theology or doctrine. His is a ruthlessly practical approach and my best hope of explaining his methodology is by analogy.

All my readers, I feel sure, will be familiar with the television documentaries of Sir David Attenborough. His commentaries on the behaviour of living things are heavily influenced by notions derived from evolutionary biology such that the particular actions of any organism nearly always have some apparent purpose or strategy behind them (notwithstanding the vehement denial of purpose or teleology by Darwinian Fundamentalists).

Thus, for instance, Attenborough might explain that the coming together of a group of lions to form a pride – a discrete hunting group – confers certain advantages to the individuals of that group. They can, for instance, set ambushes to capture otherwise unobtainable prey. In short, certain group behaviours enhance what biologists might call the fitness of the individual.

 

SOCIAL, ETHICAL BEHAVIOUR

This is the approach MacIntyre takes in relation to human social and ethical behaviour. He looks to those factors which will lead to human flourishing and human happiness and finds the approach he needs not in Darwin but in Aristotle.

Nonetheless, the various practices which lead to human flourishing always operate within some social setting, just as for our African lions. Human flourishing and the attainment of true happiness are achieved in various human practices through the virtues. The virtues are those dispositions or habits of mind which sustain our practices and enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to such practices.

What does MacIntyre mean by “goods internal to practices”? Here he uses the analogy of a young person being taught how to play chess. At the start the teacher may offer a reward (an external good) each time the student wins. Of course, the student can always resort to cheating in order to win the reward but, having learned the rules and come to appreciate the game, the student will eventually play purely for the intellectual challenge presented. The latter is an internal reward. The former reward is really external to the game. It is the internal rewards that lead to true happiness (there are plenty of unhappy millionaires and plenty of the “well off” commit suicide).

Now, of course, Aristotle’s list of the virtues is not the same as that of Aquinas and the Schoolmen, but this is to expected because Christianity vastly extended the notion of the proper end for human life. MacIntyre himself came to see the inadequacy of a purely secular account of the virtues and eventually came to Aquinas.

Indeed, MacIntyre’s intellectual journey has been a remarkable one, beginning in a sort of Protestant Marxism, moving through a period of atheism and finally coming to Thomism. What is truly admirable in MacIntyre is his ruthless pursuit of truth and clarity of argument, and his willingness to change his own views in the face of what he sees as legitimate criticism from others.

Let us now return to our analogy of the lion pride. Attenborough’s scenario takes place within a certain habitat – the African savannah. The flourishing of the lions could not occur in Antarctica, but that of the Emperor penguins could. The practices of the lions require a certain background – a certain suite of prey species, a certain geography, and so on. So it is with human practices and the virtues.

For us humans living in the West, that background is our Western tradition. We are located in its history and we are shaped, as it were, by the particular nature of our past. This notion was put very eloquently by T.S. Eliot in one of his essays: “ ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

The modern notion of progress tends to blind us to the past and our relationship and indebtedness to it. I was forcibly reminded of this recently when my wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. A friend remarked: “Half a century, eh! There are only 20 of those centuries between us and the time of Christ.” That tends to pull you up with a start.

The modern liberal mindset, by contrast, tends to look at the past by a process not dissimilar to looking at a landscape through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything seems to be at a vast distance and the only prominences that stand out are things like the Black Death, witch burning, the Inquisition, and the negative aspects of the Crusades. What fade into mere background are achievements like the establishment of hospitals, the building of the great cathedrals, Dante’s La Divina Commedia, and sundry such “insignificant” things.

 

LOCATING TRUTH

Not only are we shaped by our past, in fact our whole notion of truth is derived from within our tradition. In his later writings, the famous 20th-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, seemed to suggest that the notion of truth was tradition bound – there could be no notion of truth outside what he termed a “language game”. That is to say, you cannot derive the notion of truth from first principles.

For “language game” we can substitute the word “tradition”. In a similar vein, MacIntyre suggests that it is only within a particular tradition that we can rationally justify a particular moral order.

This wholly inadequate summary of MacIntyre’s account of the virtues will, I hope, nonetheless set the scene for an explication of the practical aspects of his project. Just like the lions in Africa, the proper setting for the realisation of human potential is fundamentally with small, localised communities beginning, of course, with the family. (Not, by the way, with the so-called nuclear family. MacIntyre insists that the notion of the family retain its older connections with extended families.)

Chesterton once said that “without the family, we are helpless before the state”. But the family itself does not exist in isolation. It in turn is part of a local community and each individual family member bears responsibility not only to family members, but also to that community. These responsibilities are primary, and the responsibility of the individual to some larger aggregate – the state – is secondary. In this scenario, the “policing” duties of the state are much reduced because, in pursuing the good, the individual and the local community effectively govern much of their own activities. They are their own policemen.

Note, too, that MacIntyre’s notion of a practice with its attendant internal goods might be related to the Christian notions of human work. In the Catholic communion, work is redemptive (we think of the encyclical, Laborem Exercens). In other Christian communions the situation may differ but work is never regarded as a drudge – a necessary evil. There is, after all, something called the Protestant work ethic.

In summary, then, the way forward for beleaguered Christians in our time is via practical local action much along the lines suggested by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option.

There are, of course, massive obstacles in front of anyone wishing to replace the failing narrative of modern liberalism (with its equally failing narrative of progress) with a more equitable social order based on the Christian message. In the first instance, the whole project of modern liberalism, through its concept of the “global village”, is designed to destroy the notion of a “Western tradition” entirely.

In the liberal version of multiculturalism, every culture must be praised and nurtured except that culture from which the whole liberal tradition itself emerged as a sort of mutant species (to continue with our Darwinian similes). There is a good deal of self-hate here. Liberalism, after all, can be seen as a Christian heresy.

Second, we have no real idea how the eventual death (for it is dying) of liberalism as an ideology will pan out. Will it die a peaceful death and transmute into something more benign to Christianity, or will it trigger another Dark Age? In our own darker moments, we might be tempted by that terrible vision of the antichrist in Yeats’ A Second Coming: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

But hope is a Christian virtue and, as MacIntyre himself recalls at the very end of After Virtue, the Christian West itself emerged from the desolate ruins of the Roman Empire.

As well as such obstacles ahead there is always the utopian temptation that ignores the realities of the human condition and inclines us to believe that we can create some sort of heaven on earth. A Christian approach to the formation of a proper social and political order must always be mindful of the gap between human aspiration and human achievement.

A related danger is the vexed notion of a confessional state – the notion that we might advocate the return to some form of state-sponsored Christianity. These are some of the minefields we have to negotiate.

So, we await, as MacIntyre says, another and doubtless very different St Benedict. But we cannot wait in inaction. Each of us, in our own little social setting, must sow what seeds of truth we can.

The exact mechanics of how this is done are beyond my scope here and perhaps will require a great deal more careful thought. Some have suggested a model not unlike that used by the underground resistance in some of the former Soviet satellite countries. Whatever the case, while we wait, certain words St Matthew’s Gospel ring in our minds: “Behold I am with you all days, even unto the end of the world.”




























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