Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Oddities of Ayn Rand

I mean, aside from her atrocious understanding of human relationships, of course...

No, the odd thing about Ayn Rand is that she truly failed to understand or articulate what she was arguing for. It's there, in Atlas Shrugged, just not in the clearest, most philosophical passages. She's perhaps the best--at least, the most ferocious--enemy of charity broken away from truth.

The promise of Communism lies in man's natural rage against injustice and the suffering of his fellow man. When the workers were treated like animals, and worst than animals, the resulting back lash was inevitable from any conscience with a bit of life and spark left in it. You must feed a horse enough to keep it alive and plowing your fields. You must tend to your machinery and equipment at a bare minimum in order to keep it at work. When the horrors of the dawn of the industrial age, of Dickensian poverty and working conditions are defended and embraced by the titans of industry and those supposed to preserve the virtue of society, then one risks revolution.

But at the same time, such rage against ill treatment based in man's benevolence towards his fellow man overshot. In the name of the revolution, in the name of compassion, in the name of charity and concern for the oppressed laborers of the world, the revolutionaries believed they had to throw out all concern and charity for the oppressors of the world. Into that category they lumped the preservers of virtue in a society--the religions, the governments, the organizations and framework of the world from before the time of the Revolution, before the Year Zero of the Revolutionary Calendar--and decided it all had to go. Not only were they committed to throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but they wanted to chuck the tub with it. As well as the soap. And indeed anything and everything that reminded them they were ever involved in a bath to begin with.

Rand comes forth into the field with a clarion call for the nobility and necessity of truth, the importance of justice, the vital place of the producers--of the virtuous--who become the people of wealth and power in a society, and indeed, a call for the repudiation of anything, anything at all, that smacks of communism! And so, she pulls the baby and the tub back into the house, through the house, and right back out the other side of the house. She throws out charity.

Funnily enough, she tries to keep good will between people. She wants to retain a willingness to sacrifice everything for the welfare of people you love. She'd like to retain compassion. Even while she scorns it. It's an odd dynamic to watch at work. Her statement of her philosophy is so forceful, so compelling, so inviting in its heroic cadence and the strength of conviction behind it--and let's not forget the fact that an appeal to the existence of reason contra much of modernity is always refreshing--that many people get swept up in it and overlook the problems. She did, herself, I suspect, though it is unfair to judge her system merely from the novels and not from the explicitly philosophical work.

But her whole system depends upon the Communist vision of the world having some real attachment to what ordinary people mean when they speak of care for the little guy, and compassion for the oppressed, and the need to resolve problems of systemic injustice, and love, and altruism. Rather, she didn't understand Christianity. She who loved Aristotle, who ripped off some of his best lines for her chapter titles and section names, didn't seem to get the full force and effect of his description of the Prime Mover. Her adaptation to fit the main players of a capitalist worldview celebrating producers and men and women of achievement is an ingenious one, but it does not show that she got what he was saying. There must be a God. There must be some being at the back of all things, whether as the First Pusher who Itself is not Pushed or as the Ground of All Being or what have you, but there must be a God. There must be some first cause, or else we live in a universe of infinite cause, which is a universe of irrationality and unpredictability, without purpose or meaning. And this she abhorred.

Once that is understood, a great many other things are thrown into a different light. In an atheist's world, then history could truly have been a sequence of moochers and looters oppressing the men of production eternally, because in an atheist world, all religion would have been a sham and a lie, useful only for crowd control and the deception of the masses. But if religion is true, or the reflection of a higher reality expressed in better or worse ways by different systems, then there exists a being who may truly have a claim upon all men by right of creation, of production--a right over the creature that she would have understood and appreciated if she could only have seen. The creator's rights over the created are not like those sham rights of the master over the slave, or (in her novels) the sham rights of the looters and moochers over the producers and men of genius and achievement.

And then, of course, there's the complicating factor of the relationship God desires with his creations, which would elevate us far beyond anything Rand dreamed of in her neo-pagan fantasies. So Rand: both prophet of the diseases of modernity (specifically, of charity without the bindings of truth and justice, i.e., Communism) and a purveyor of false teaching herself (of justice without mercy, of Darwinian capitalism), while at the heart of it pulling out a key insight into money as the means of man's peaceful interaction, of trading value for value, of labor rewarded with pleasure rather than the slave's mere relief from pain, of the best of capitalism rewarding people of virtue with wealth according to their production and achievement aiding all of humanity.

I think frequently she is mistaken as a proponent of deregulated business, when she was rather arguing for the proper rewards for achievement and virtue. It is true, she wanted government cut to a minimum, enforcing contracts, handing down justice, and keeping the peace so that the producers could do what they did best. But she was not simply friendly to business--she was friendly to the achievers. She was not friendly to deregulation--she demanded just laws and good government, government based on truth and justice. She desired to see virtue rewarded and vice punished, according to her own scheme. And that was the problem, in the end. According to her own scheme--except her scheme was wrong.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Two Big Lies and A Smokescreen

One of the names on any round-up of the people contributing to turning the tide must be Peter Kreeft. He's especially well known for his analyses of the culture, culture wars, and where we go from here. Exhibit A:
Night is falling. What Chuck Colson has labeled "a new Dark Ages" is looming. And its Brave New World proved to be only a Cowardly Old Dream. We can see this now, at the end of "the century of genocide" that was christened "the Christian century" at its birth.

We've had prophets who warned us: Kierkegaard, 150 years ago, in The Present Age; and Spengler, 100 years ago, in The Decline of the West; and Aldous Huxley, seventy years ago, in Brave New World; and C. S. Lewis, forty years ago, in The Abolition of Man; and above all our popes: Leo XIII and Pius IX and Pius X and above all John Paul the Great, the greatest man in the world, the greatest man of the worst century. He had even more chutzpah than Ronald Reagan, who dared to call Them "the evil empire:" He called Us "the culture of death." That's our culture, and his, including Italy, with the lowest birth rate in the world, and Poland, which now wants to share in the rest of the West's abortion holocaust.

If the God of life does not respond to this culture of death with judgment, God is not God. If God does not honor the blood of the hundreds of millions of innocent victims then the God of the Bible, the God of Israel, the God of orphans and widows, the Defender of the defenseless, is a man-made myth, a fairy tale.
He goes on to offer hope and make the best diagnosis of the problems and solutions of the modern age available. But the question the above quote raises is: why have we ignored so many different voices speaking with authority and telling truth for so long? Several reasons present themselves. First, the long and fruitful efforts of Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freire, among others, have taken deep root in the Western subconscious. Even those frequently considered conservative have swallowed whole the fundamental lies of the Communist ideology.

1. Possessing power which others do not have/being in a position of authority/having more money/talent/having more makes you an oppressor. Those with less than you are the oppressed.

2. Anything the oppressed do to achieve parity with the "oppressors" is legitimate because they would not need to take action to achieve parity if they had not been oppressed in the first place.

Since any redistribution of the wealth/power/authority/etc. undertaken within this model will almost always occur in the context of unjust acts (the French Revolution followed by the Terror, the Communist take over of Russia followed by show trials and seizure of wealth, the Chinese Communists followed by the long reign of Mao, etc.), a new oppressed class emerges and the cycle begins anew.

Communism is a road into a traffic circle with no outlet. The cycle of violence, begun in the name of ending oppression, does not permit the possibility of ever ending oppression, injustice, and violence, but rather sets in motion a process which may only end with the sort of forgiveness practiced and taught by Christ. Along the way, though, the adherents to these two lies will put in motion the sorts of obfuscation and distortion predicted so accurately by George Orwell. And hence our current state of confusion and fear.

The easiest way to hide the lack of morality consequent on accepting the two lies is to deny the existence of morality at all--or at least, the existence of objective morality. The dictatorship of relativism decried by Pope Benedict is in part a reaction to the deep self assurance of the high modernity, evident even unto our present day in statements of relativism as dogmatic truth, i.e. "There is no such thing as absolute truth". This intellectual self assurance held (and holds) confidently the idea that man's mind may attain a knowledge of truth by the application of reason to the workings of the natural world and man himself. Frequently, such a mind dismisses all religion and belief in the spirit world as mere ridiculous superstition, a viewpoint especially evident in the Sherlock Holmes canon and other literature contemporary to that time.

Ayn Rand and her followers remain prominent adherents to such a view, as do those who take Robert Heinlein and other such logical positivists as intellectual leaders. Taken as a whole, these admirers of the high modern intellectual assurance usually presume that a complete scientific understanding of and explanation for all phenomena within the realm of man's experience is only a matter of time. Partially in a natural reaction to such an evisceratingly anti-spiritual worldview, partly in reaction to the associations of such a view with eugenics, imperialism, colonialism, and slavery arising from the common origin of that method of viewing the world and these evils in the 1800s, and partly because it is so much easier to "win" an argument when one has blunted the force of reason, many people avoid such a belief, preferring instead the false hopes of boundless tolerance, endless comity, and an end to conflict, by denying mankind the ability to know what is right and true. Indeed, they deny that anything is right and true, or that righteousness and truth exist at all.

In the absence, then, of boundaries, we see the coming death of human rights, and law, and science, and anything that depends upon the intelligibility of the universe and the existence of truth--a point laid out by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. Absent truth, there can be no morality. Absent morality, there can be no justice--for without a standard of law, any court or authority can only be an arbitrary one. Absent justice, the world devolves into an all against all struggle for survival.

So we have the two key lies of the Communist ideology, which are actually the lies humans (and possibly the devils as well) tell themselves when they seek to excuse monstrosity. In order to avoid the accusations or the realization of monstrosity, they deny the existence of any objective, universal standard by which to measure their actions--but in so doing, they unleash hell upon the world. In this, we have another of the key reasons for Rand's continuing popularity--she saw this trend and excoriated it--as well as an explanation for why modern movements are so hard to fight. Whether they be liberal or conservative, jihadi or communist, they embrace obfuscation, justified by the two lies listed above. The only answer? Truth, repeated so that the great lie may not drown it out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On (Maybe) Why the Jesuits Cracked

An interesting comment on the Dominicans v. the Jesuits from the Dark Lord Himself:
...when I discovered the liberty of the Catholic faith (and even more so, of the Dominicans where the prevailing ethos is "If you've met one Dominican, you've met one Dominican") I felt as though I'd come home. One of the funniest critiques of the Catholic faith has always been the "The Pope tells you what to think. You beome one with the mnonolithic Borg" thing. Nothing could be further from my experience. The Dominicans are nothing if not celebratory of immense diversity and ordered freedom of the intellect. (I remember one priest making fun of St. Ignatius remark that he would believe black was white if the Pope commanded it. A Dominican has too much common sense for such absurd authoritarianism.)
And right there--right THERE--we may have a reasonable explanation for the current crisis of fidelity within the Jesuit order and its institutions. What happens when a rope or a bridge, drawn incredibly taut by immense pull, suddenly snaps? It flies away from the center point of the breach at immense speed. What happens when an incredibly potent machine gets a bird inside of it when running at high speed? It destroys itself (and does significant damage to the plane). Or apply the metaphor to a boat--the Barque of Peter, perhaps... Thank God (literally) that the survival and running of the Church does not depend upon the Jesuits, or the Dominicans, or any of the Popes, or any human thing. We'd have seen it destroyed long since. But here, in this little remark, I think I can see suddenly clearly the heart of the issue. Simply: Ignatius crafted a hugely potent tool, with massive potential for good or evil. He harnessed that tool to the Papacy with the most stringent vows of obedience possible, hoping to hold the whole together. But vows are vows, and men are men. Anything under such intense pressure--such minds, such skill, in some of the most brilliant and capable men the world has ever seen pulling against the bounds of obedience--runs the risk of breaking out. The formation was too intense. The expectations, too much. The engine got the large stone of modernism in it and tore out fundamental pieces of itself. The effects are still being felt. Things were rusting for some time before. There had been decay, as is only to be expected in human organizations. But Ignatius's work held together...till the mid point of this past century.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Benedict: Charity Depends on Justice

Mark Shea excerpts from the new papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate:
Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his”, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity[1], and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI's words, “the minimum measure” of it[2], an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us. On the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice. On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving[3]. The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion. Charity always manifests God's love in human relationships as well, it gives theological and salvific value to all commitment for justice in the world.
The fascinating thing about this passage is that he captures perfectly the promise and the problem of Ayn Rand's philosophy. The reason why her work is so attractive to so many is her clear eyed perception of the tendency towards injustice in the modern world to the great and the good. We live in an age characterized by the instinct described by Screwtape of the dictator flicking the tops off of grass which stands above the rest, discouraging genius and greatness in the name of central planning. She was in full rebellion against the Communist move to falsely level the playing field, to prevent any man from becoming rich in the name of justice, when wealth can be the just reward for skill and labor.

But she sought merely justice, strict justice, justice absent charity or mercy. She failed to make the leap to the second half of the equation, or to understand, as John Zmirak pointed out in his piece commenting on the encyclical, that all human beings inherit vast quantities of gratuitous, unearned social capital such as language, technical knowledge, and so forth. She remains a powerfully attractive force by means of those truths she saw so clearly and articulated so forcefully in a time which mirrors much of the decay she described in Atlas Shrugged, but she failed to understand man. She didn't know mercy, or care for the weaker and less fortunate--though her characters are usually better than her philosophy, and her philosophy better than its practitioners. She had half the insight of the Pope. She knew the necessity of justice, but failed to see that it acts as the foundation of charity.

Once the great and the good of society are granted the basic, elemental charity of just pay for excellent, superlative work, then due to the life, skill, and the cultural riches transmitted from ages past which come as gift, the excellent of society have an obligation to "give back" a little in return for what they have received. Scripture even suggests that such a gift ought to be proportional when it states that "Those to whom much is given, much will be expected."

The next step is not looting in the name of altruism, but rather a recognition of the fundamental dignity of all human beings deriving from their common humanity. That dignity lays obligations upon others to respect human rights and freedoms, to love their neighbor as themself. Further, we are all part of a common human family, and so stand in a relationship of love and care to the rest of humankind. When we fail to recognize this relationship, we sin.


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