Monday, March 5, 2018
The much-anticipated Liberalism and Christianity conference, sponsored by the Harvard branch of the Thomistic Institute, took place at the Harvard Museum for Natural History this past weekend. Though more than a few were kept away by severe weather on Friday -- including Helen Alvare who was to give one the principal talks, and Patrick Deneen, whose new book was on the lips of many -- the conference drew more than 300 participants (including a hearty portion of really smart undergrad and graduate students who asked most of the questions).
Remi Brague, the noted French historian of philosophy and professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, kicked the conference off with his keynote "Made Free for Freedom." His talk, inspired by St. Paul's "Christ has made us free for freedom" was a walk from biblical antiquity into modernity, with a focus on the primacy of freedom for both. The trouble with liberalism is not liberty, he said, but liberty as an 'ism' --an aim in itself. The ancients (he called upon St. Paul, Plotinus, and Augustine) understood freedom as sought for the sake of the Good. This view was not one laid out in argument (before Augustine), but substantively presumed. In modern times, of course, the Good is dropped and freedom--as liberation--becomes a goal in itself.
This quote from T.S. Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society captures much of his talk (and was the high point, in my mind): "[liberalism] is something which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax, rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point; away from, rather than towards, something definite. Our point of departure is more real to us than our destination..."
Fr. Dominic Legg, OP (graduate of Yale Law and incoming director of the Thomistic Institute) opened the next morning with a marvelous presentation of St. Thomas on law. He especially sought to distinguish St. Thomas' account of justice as first in God and particularly in God's divine intellect, as up and against later voluntarist conceptions of law. During the Q/A, he recommended a book that 15 years ago had changed his life (and is one of my very favorite books of all time), Servais Pinckaers' Sources of Christian Ethics. Fr. Pinckaers, also a Dominican, describes masterfully the movement from Thomas to Ockham to our current misunderstanding of freedom. This movement was the basic content of the first part of Fr. Legg's presentation.
I was especially interested to hear that Fr. Legg has discerned in Thomas a theory of individual rights. Most, he said, think the creation of individual rights is from the Enlightenment (including Deneen and Hanby, but prior to them, my teacher, Fr. Ernest Fortin). But Thomas has a such theory, even if it is a different conception of individual rights from that of the various Enlightenment thinkers. Thomas thought that what is due someone in justice is a subjective 'ius' (right) that an individual possesses and can assert. These rights, however, are never abstracted from the common good or a teleological ordering of the person and community toward God. Rights are merely a function of justice, directed to the common good, not the whole of it. But, acknowledging what is due individuals is part of what makes a city just. Rights are thus indispensable to a just regime.
Importantly, he noted that Enlightenment thinkers (and those in their wake) may have thought they were dispensing with the "good," but that every rights claim is aiming at some conception of the good, even if smuggled in under claims of neutrality (ie, Rawls). The problem is not so much rights then but the underlying vision of the good that is is deeply contested in our society. That question -- concerning the substantive conception of the good underlying each theory (or claim) of rights -- is the real conversation we should be having. Bravo!! I will post his paper on Thomas on rights when I acquire it.
The next portion of the day was when Helen was to have spoken, on the family no less. I think this explicit family perspective was definitely lacking, and Helen was the best person for the job. Hopefully she will publish the remarks she had prepared (and I will post). In her place, and to the great interest of participants, Harvard's Adrian Vermeule and Notre Dame's Phillip Munoz offered contrasting perspectives on liberalism, and on its influence over the American Founding. Adrian pulled from his deeply intelligent and thought-provoking review of Deneen's book in American Affairs. (Instead of trying to summarize it in this already long post, I will just suggest strongly that you read it in full.) Phillip, in addition to stirring the audience to laughter several times (boy, is he funny), also offered evidence that the Founders did not, on the whole or in the majority, share the view of liberalism that can fairly be imputed to Hobbes and Mill. Their shared view, rather, was that natural law -- thick on the deeply Christian ground in those days -- bounds and constrains natural rights. If there was a detente between the two panelists, it was in the view that liberalism ala Hobbes is quite wrong-headed, but that perhaps the Founders were up to something else. Bravo on this score as well!
In an effort to end this post, I'll skip Candace Vogler's talk on JS Mill and sex and gender, and head right for the final panel. Adrian was seated there too (as per original plans), joined by Rusty Reno and Princeton's Margarita Mooney. Reno offered a sophisticated response to Vogler's presentation of Mill, suggesting that though Mill wanted to encourage self-cultivation and self-possession (goods in themselves), his form of liberalism qualified by the harm principle tends to provide more advantages to the talented/well-off than the untalented and more disadvantaged otherwise. This is a theme of Rusty's and a really important one. The experiments in living that Mill endorsed (eg, alternative family structures) provide opportunities that the talented/wealthy seem to roll with, but that when embraced across society, lead to disastrous outcomes, especially for the poor. It's also one thing to redistribute economic advantages, say, through tax policy, but it is very difficult to redistribute cultural advantages. And, without a Christian impulse, the elite perhaps see no reason to sacrifice (apart from money) to the untalented. (The proof positive of this analysis can be seen in Richard Reeves' new book, Dream Hoarders.) Rusty then concluded that the true source of decadence is our unregulated sexual culture, and that we ought to engage in a moral project of cultural re-regulation. Hear, hear! [Original misspelling corrected.]
Margarita Mooney spoke of the importance of including other -isms in our critique (social Marxism and Freudianism) which she judged, calling upon the work of Augusto Del Noce, have influenced our modern situation perhaps as much as liberalism. She also thought it essential to report on the truly positive good people are doing - building new schools, starting new movements, changing their lives. Her important practical comments were taken up in a more spiritual bent by the exquisite concluding remarks of Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. I cannot begin to do these final remarks justice, so will post when I hear they are available.