April 18th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Justice at last: Cardinal Pell set free

EDITORIAL Australia needs an economic reset after covid19 crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED The very young can still be 'taken care of' during the covid19 outbreak

RURAL AFFAIRS A national disgrace: Our great land sale

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Use detention centres to help deal with covid19

GENDER POLITICS Do we really need to ask, what is a woman?

REFLECTION A chance for a change of heart: Covid19 as Memento mori

FAMILY Who let the kids out? The stay-at-home parent and covid19

ECONOMICS The oil cartel: The lesson for other industries from OEC

HEALTH Lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic

CULTURE AND SOCIETY There is a war: The battle in and for hearts

ASIAN AFFAIRS What makes China different is not the Chinese but the CCP

HUMOUR Locked down in Covi Town

MUSIC Great, er, swan songs

CINEMA+TV Staying in; staying sane

BOOK REVIEW Not our Robin Hood

BOOK REVIEW At home among others




CARDINAL GEORGE PELL FREE: The commentary file

Books promotion page

At home among others

News Weekly, April 18, 2020

MORAL MATTERS: A Philosophy of Homecoming

by Mark Dooley

Bloomsbury, Sydney
Hardcover: 232 pages

Price: AUD$39.99

Reviewed by Brian Coman

Were it within my power, I should like to impose a moratorium on the publication of all new books dealing with post-mortem analyses of liberalism. It’s not that such books are inaccurate, or misleading, or poorly written. Quite the reverse. The problem is that the subject has been done to death over the last couple of decades.

“Everyone complains about the weather”, said Mark Twain, “but nobody does anything about it.” This is exactly the situation with the failed narrative of modern liberalism. Here, I must own up to my own complicity in this surfeit of writings on the failures of liberalism.

Mark Dooley’s Moral Matters is yet another analysis of liberalism but, in it’s defence, I have to say that his approach and his subject matter differs significantly from most other post-mortems of liberalism.

In the first place, Dooley zeroes in on the digital world and shows exactly how a preoccupation with cyberspace has disconnected us from the real world and real human society. Many of us, he says, are not citizens of the real world, but citizens of “Cyberia” – the immaterial world of the internet. We are, in fact, not citizens at all, but netizens.

Second, by focusing his concerns on the notion of “homecoming”, Dooley refers to the traditional notion of the human person as an essentially social animal. This idea dates back to Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon politicon – a polis-dwelling animal. Our true home on this earth is within a community of other humans and the modern, liberal idea of hyper-individuality goes directly against the natural impulse of community life and all that such life entails.

An important part of Dooley’s philosophy of “homecoming” concerns itself with the family unit and the family home as the proper form of human nurture, especially the nurture of the young. It is within the family environment that the prerequisites for proper human flourishing are introduced and maintained.

Dooley also expands the notion of “home” to include such things as patriotism and pride in one’s country, as well as the notion of the natural world as a “home” requiring good management. Here, he refers back to the ancient Greek word, oikos (“good housekeeping”) (from whence comes our modern words “economics” and “ecology”).

In fact, if one reflects upon what Dooley has to say, it is evident that he stresses the need for our connection to the Real , and here, it is worth harking back to a book I reviewed in News Weekly about 12 months ago entitled Freedom from Reality. The central issue with modern liberalism is its entirely false view of human freedom. It is essentially a freedom “from” and not a freedom “for”.

That is to say, its emphasis is upon “freeing” the individual from each and every commitment to proper community life. Such commitments are perceived as restraints when, in truth, they are exactly the opposite – they free us to attain our full potential both as individuals and as members of a shared society.

In pursuing his various themes, Dooley relies heavily upon the writings of the late Roger Scruton. However, some other of his influences are less obvious. One such influence is the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), whose writings he clearly holds in high regard. Indeed, he pits many of the ideas of Hegel against a whole raft of postmodern philosophies, but especially against the ideas of Jacques Derrida.

The book is well written and well presented, free of jargon and easily understood by any non-specialist reader. While Dooley does give some generalised accounts of how we might begin to recover from that Slough of Despond which is modern liberalism, the book is more of a diagnosis of an illness rather than a prescription for a cure.

Here and there, we get hints of just how we might go about the process of escaping from Cyberia (a clever neologism that immediately reminds us of Siberia and the Gulag camps) and reconnecting with the real world. For instance, the tending of a garden will serve to re-connect us to the world of nature and give us some sense of that traditional notion of humans as custodians or “viceroys” of nature. However, what we really need in this age of post-liberalism is a detailed practical guide as to how we might escape Cyberia – one that gets down to specific and achievable recommendations.

Such guides, alas, are in short supply. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is certainly a step in the right direction. We need to cease bemoaning the current state of affairs and begin that difficult process of recovery.

So, lest I be myself accused of mere negative criticism, I will finish this review by offering one small avenue of hope, based on my own experiences over the last few decades. Now, the usual catchcry of anti-liberal writers (including Dooley) is “return to religion” but, in the current atmosphere, such a prospect is not likely. We may have to start further back – a return to the possibility of religion.

I want to begin by quoting from Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. In dis-cussing Eliot’s spiritual journey, Kirk says: “To have lost one’s certitude in an order spiritual and an order temporal, during the years of school and college and university, had been a commonplace experience ever since the beginning of the 18th century. To lament this loss and to search for curious substitutes had been a widespread game among men of intellect during the latter half of the 19th century.”

Now, I feel sure that many News Weekly readers will connect with Kirk’s observation here. It was certainly my own experience as a young undergraduate.

In Bendigo, where I live, a group of former students and staff of a specific course at La Trobe University (Studies in Western Traditions – now defunct) has re-instituted the Bendigo Philosophical Society, first formed in 1897 by the poet, William Gay. Now, while the general aim of the Society is merely to foster an interest in the philosophical, literary and artistic achievements of the past, our monthly meetings attract quite a number of young people whose quest is just that mentioned by Russell Kirk in the quote above.

The Society has no particular “agenda” and no religious or political affiliations. It is merely a group of people, both old and young, holding widely disparate views on political, religious and other matters. Nonetheless, all of us have a certain respect for the past and a desire to better understand the human condition.

Few of its members, I suspect, hold modern liberalism in high regard – quite the contrary. If nothing else, our monthly meetings and presentation of papers by members has exposed younger members in particular to the achievements of the past and to the weaknesses of modern relativism and hyper-individualism.

I am not suggesting that such a specific model should be instituted elsewhere. Our circumstances, after all, are unique. But many similar approaches exist that would have the same endpoint of exposing younger minds to the achievements of the past and to the notion of true freedom – the freedom to fully attain one’s human potential.

A book club might achieve such a goal just as well as a philosophy group. So too, might an art appreciation group. For those with no interest in such matters, even a gardening group would serve a useful purpose of giving alienated individuals some sense of belonging and some opportunity to re-connect to the world of nature.

In essence, what we must aim for is not a return to some imagined pre-liberal order but rather merely to create an environment where “the big questions” are allowed to expose themselves. That is the very first step.

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