A notable new book: Sohrab Ahmari’s “The Unbroken Thread”

I was delighted to receive a copy of Sohrab Ahmari’s new book, The Unbroken Thread. I begin with a confession: I knew people liked his conversion memoir, From Fire, By Water, but I did not read it. I am not a convert or a potential convert to the Faith and, to my great shame, have not cultivated much of an interest in proselytizing or evangelizing or whatever the correct term is these days. Luckily I avoided any social settings where I would be expected to know conversion literature generally or Ahmari’s book specifically, so I was spared the consequences for ignoring the book. One of the benefits, I suppose, of living in southern Indiana.

The Unbroken Thread, however, was immediately more compelling for me, not merely because I got a copy in the mail. It is in short Ahmari’s brief for tradition against the modern age. As a Catholic and occasional participant in debates over Catholic political and legal thought, this is a topic about which I am indeed interested. Everyone is interested in tradition these days, either for or against. One has only to check a trusted (or not) source of news to see that tradition is one of the burning topics of the age.

Ahmari tells us that The Unbroken Thread began its life as an idea to do a book of reporting about traditionalism among the young. This is a popular subject. Matthew Schmitz and Tara Isabella Burton, to take two examples, have drawn a lot of water from the well of upwardly mobile young people who like the traditional Latin Mass or anarchocommunists who own copies of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ahmari’s agent kiboshed the idea, suggesting that Ahmari really wanted to write the case for traditionalism, which is precisely what Ahmari has done. Thank goodness for Ahmari’s agent. A book about Ivy Leaguers in New York City who own well-thumbed copies of the Liber Usualis or the Antiphonale Monasticum and Das Kapital would have been too much to bear.

And, really, Ahmari has written a much more interesting book than the one he initially wanted to write. He begins by reproaching his youthful exaltation in self-definition and remaking himself. He has found in the west today the same obsession with autonomy and reinvention. With this, Ahmari has gone straight to the heart of the problem with modernity. The French-Canadian theologian Charles de Koninck explained it in his Principle of the New Order. The project of the so-called enlightenment has been to reject the primacy of the speculative and exalt in man’s practical reason. Man turns away from what is best in himself—indeed what may be called superhuman (cf. Metaphysics A, ch. 2; Nicomachean Ethics 10.7)—and finds emancipation through the organs of practical reason: his hands and his tongue.

De Koninck notes that the exaltation of practical reason results in saying and writing things one cannot think. So long as one follows the rules of grammar, one can write or say anything, even if it is deeply irrational. He finds a connected phenomenon: the disconnection of history from prudence. Historical events can be judged “objectively,” in the light of “cold facts,” without the historian needing to make right judgments about human behavior. In this particularly pointed passage, De Koninck notes that this phenomenon allows “the adulterous man to cry out on the public place: this woman was taken in adultery!”

Of course, all this is nonsense. Our Lord tells us, as De Koninck reminds us, that we shall be accountable for all our idle words on the day of judgment (Matt. 12:36). We must, we are told, take the beam out of our eye before we can hunt specks in our brother’s eye (Luke 6:42). Ahmari understands, like De Koninck, that the project is nonsense. It has promised freedom and endless self-invention, but a quick look at cable news or social media suggests that no one feels particularly free. We have made man the measure of all things only to find that humanity is concept harder and harder to comprehend. Ahmari is right to be dissatisfied. Instead, Ahmari finds in the sacrifice of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who established a monastery in Nagasaki and died in Auschwitz, true freedom and true humanity.

It is against this backdrop—and Ahmari’s understandable anxiety for his young son, Maximilian—that Ahmari sets out to find in tradition the answer to the failed promise of the so-called enlightenment. In tradition, he argues, one finds true freedom and true happiness, as opposed to the shabby substitutes on offer today. To make the case, Ahmari structures his book around twelve questions, such as “Is God Reasonable?” and “How Must You Serve Your Parents?” and “What’s Good About Death?” Each chapter takes a look at the question through the lens of a thinker in the traditions of the world, setting them in their historical context. Ahmari deftly blends history, biography, and philosophy to propose answers to the questions he sets himself. I am reminded of Clive James’s excellent Cultural Amnesia. Both men make serious points about tradition and our culture without becoming pedantic or leaden. In and of itself, this is an accomplishment.

Ahmari is the opinion editor of the New York Post and a regular contributor to First Things among other publications. But The Unbroken Thread suggests that he has a real talent for biography and popular intellectual history. In an age of monumental biographies like Julian Jackson’s De Gaulle, Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin, or John Röhl’s Wilhelm II, there is much to be said for Ahmari’s sketches. Not everything needs to be a spiritual heir to Henri-Louis de la Grange’s Gustav Mahler or Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson. It is altogether possible to give a sense of a man and his thought—and his influence on the most important questions of the age—in less than five thousand pages and a forest of footnotes and endnotes and bibliographies. (Though Ahmari does cite his sources.)

It is worth noting as well that Ahmari does not limit himself to any one tradition. The rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in Czarist Poland and working in the United States, sits alongside Seneca, the Stoic philosopher who was Nero’s favorite—for a time. Certainly some of his choices recommend themselves by the sheer extent and force of their influence: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Confucius. But he also draws upon figures who probably are not household names, like the theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman and the philosopher Hans Jonas. And he looks across the political spectrum. One does not necessarily expect to see Andrea Dworkin marshaled in a case for traditionalism, but here she is.

This is important, not least in the context of ongoing political debates in the United States and elsewhere. Tradition, Ahmari reminds us, is not the sole property of the west or of Christians or of the right. There are valuable insights in other traditions. One runs a risk, of course, of turning this into the liberal arts ideology. That is, by exploring all these traditions, you get a set of intellectual skills that allows you to solve modern, meaningful problems. That is to say, these traditions serve mostly to produce a neutral technology that has market value. I do not think Ahmari falls into that trap, since he emphasizes the ultimate ends toward which man is ordered. But I think The Unbroken Thread would have benefitted from a direct response to the liberal arts ideology.

The breadth of Ahmari’s book will appeal first and foremost to a general audience—by design, I imagine. However, aspects of the book cannot help but touch upon narrower debates. For example, Ahmari’s chapter “Does God Need Politics?” goes to the very heart of the ongoing debate in the Catholic (and more broadly Christian) right about the common good. Ahmari is himself in some large part responsible for sparking the debate, along with the Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermeule. In a First Things essay and a series of debates with David French in 2019, Ahmari called for a reorientation of what is broadly called the culture war.

An aside first, though. While Ahmari has certainly done much to reinvigorate a debate about the goals and means of political Catholicism, The Unbroken Thread is not really a polemic in that debate, except secondarily. While Ahmari sets for himself questions about politics, his scope is not narrowly political. A reader who wants a barn-burning political tract—a rehearsal of the arguments against David French, for example—is probably going to be a little disappointed by Ahmari. To put it another way: it is not a Twitter thread against the libertarians expanded into book form. But a book that argues that one finds happiness and freedom through tradition is going to have political dimensions.

Ahmari called for a renewed focus on the common good, even if it requires state power to establish and promote, in opposition to the broadly libertarian approach taken by French. Vermeule put the case in more concrete legal terms in an early 2020 essay in The Atlantic, calling for a common-good constitutionalism to replace the worn-out judicial philosophy of originalism. This debate has consumed Catholic political thought for the last eighteen months or so. A very recent conference arranged by Ryan T. Anderson at the University of Dallas shows that there is still a lot of energy in this debate.

One of the key issues in the debate is the question of the common good. Liberals, for whatever reason, usually begin by mystifying the concept. What is the common good? What is peace? What is happiness? Who decides? So on and so forth. They hope, I think, that by making the common good an impossibly difficult concept, they can take some of the rhetorical force out of the concept and make it as vague as the concepts they rely on, such as freedom and democracy. In “Does God Need Politics?” Ahmari offers a solution to the problems the liberals raise.

The chapter is a reading of St. Augustine’s life and De civitate Dei. Ahmari turns to Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., and his brilliant reading of Augustine several times throughout the chapter. Though, having played some small part in these debates and being familiar with Waldstein’s work on Augustine, I was less struck by that aspect on my first reading. Instead, I was struck by how vivid Ahmari’s portrait of Augustine was. Certainly everyone knows the broad strokes of Augustine’s life, especially if, as most educated people have, they have read the Confessions. But Ahmari, perhaps finding some special kinship with Augustine (though that is mere speculation), draws a remarkably engaging picture of Augustine and the circumstances under which he wrote De civitate Dei.

At any rate, Ahmari presents Augustine’s vision of Christian politics in this chapter. In Augustine’s critique of Roman politics and society, Christians find for themselves an approach to politics in accordance with reason and the divine law. This is especially true for questions like the common good or peace. Book XIX of De civitate Dei has extended treatments of these questions, which have informed the tradition of Christian political thought for fifteen hundred years. As I have insisted on several occasions here (and elsewhere) these concepts have content that we are not altogether free to provide. When we talk about peace, for example, we are not totally free to redefine it for ourselves: we follow, for example, Augustine’s treatment of peace and those who have followed Augustine.

Ahmari does not provide a definitive, scholarly study on this question—or any of the questions he discusses—and I do not have the sense he is especially interested in doing so. Neither, of course, did Clive James in Cultural Amnesia. What he does do, especially if one is not familiar with the figures he discusses, is urge one to seek the figures out for oneself. Someone who might be familiar with the debate over the common good from Twitter or the various web and print articles at various outlets but who might not have read De civitate Dei may well be inspired to seek out a copy and read Augustine for himself. On this basis, The Unbroken Thread succeeds at its task.

Waldstein on “Before Church and State”

If you have followed Catholic Twitter this past summer, you know that Andrew Willard Jones’s Before Church and State has been the book. The Josias even arranged an online reading group for it. In fact, it has been so popular that one is somewhat reminded of Anthony Blanche’s quip in Brideshead Revisited: “it’s so banal saying you have not read the book of the moment, if you haven’t.” We have it on good authority that Emmaus Academic has been somewhat surprised with the popularity of what is, ultimately, an academic text on a somewhat narrow subject. They ought to be prepared for more popularity, though: Pater Edmund Waldstein, a great friend of Semiduplex, has reviewed Before Church and State for First Things. We will not spoil the review—instead we encourage you to read it at First Things—but we will quote its last paragraph:

Even a short time ago—with the ascendancy of the “religious right” in the Reagan and Bush years—it was plausible to argue that the separation of church and state was good for religion. The accelerating pace of secularization manifested, for instance, in the legalization of homosexual marriage makes that position much less plausible today. Before Church and State offers an alternative vision, a vision that could be realized only by a profound and fundamental transformation of the whole of our society. I am convinced that in working toward such a transformation, we have nothing to lose.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is the fundamental question for Christians in 2017: what do Christians have to lose by rejecting the false promises of liberalism and returning to the teachings of the Church on the constitution of the state? To look at it another way, what does liberalism offer us that we could not afford to exchange for a justly ordered state?

In these terms, it is impossible—we think—to disagree with Waldstein.

A quick update on the new book on Luther

We hope you, dear reader, and yours are having a blessed and profitable Triduum. We had not intended to post anything during this time; however, a friend of Semiduplex has informed us that the full table of contents to the Roman Forum’s collection of essays on Luther is available in the preview at Amazon.com.* The list of titles looks fascinating.

*We want to emphasize that we are not an Amazon Associate or affiliate or whatever. We are not pointing you to Amazon because we get money for it. Just to be crystal clear.

Aristotle, Thomas, and the “City of Rod”

Rod Dreher has released his book, The Benedict Option, setting forth one more time that which he has set forth many, many times in various essays and blog posts. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a leading voice among Catholic leftists, has reviewed the book at great length and, frankly, panned it. Dreher has responded to Bruenig’s review at equally great length, and you can read the whole exchange at the links above. (We will not bore you by summarizing all of Bruenig’s critiques and Dreher’s responses.) However, our attention was grabbed by one passage in Dreher’s response:

As I say in the book, Christians have to stay engaged in ordinary politics, if only to protect our religious liberty interests. (I believe we have to stay involved for other reasons too, but even if you don’t agree, you can at least agree that religious liberty is absolutely vital.) But we cannot put as much trust in politics as we have in past eras. The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) For someone who claims—as Dreher does—to be encouraging Christians to recover a premodern tradition to fight the corrosive influence of liberalism, this is a stunning statement. Indeed, it constitutes nothing less than a rejection of the premodern tradition regarding politics. Let us put it another way; Bruenig is not the most stringent critic of Dreher on this point—Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are.

A very brief review of the relevant points is perhaps in order. You no doubt know, dear reader, that Aristotle taught that man is a political animal and that the state arises from nature (Politics I.1, 1253a3–4). Aquinas follows this teaching when he observes, in the context of the natural law, that it is proper for man to know truths about living in society (ST Ia IIae q.94 a.2 co.). And this point remains noncontroversial in the tradition. Leo XIII, for example, reaffirms that it is natural to man to live in society in Immortale Dei. The great pope further reminds us that, in nature, rulers are necessary for the direction of society, even if a particular kind of ruler is not necessary (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 co. & ad 3). And the ruler makes laws in order to make the members of the society good (ST Ia IIae q.92 a.2 co.; Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–28). Finally, politics, Aristotle tells us, is simply the practical art of making good laws (Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–25, 1181a22–b1; cf. ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co. & ad 3).

With these very basic principles in mind, the extent of Dreher’s error becomes obvious. Man participates in politics, either as ruler or ruled, naturally (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 ad 1). The notion that man could withdraw from politics naturally is ridiculous (cf. Politics I.1, 1253a4–6). The notion becomes more ridiculous when one considers that the civil power comes from God, regardless of the political mechanism for its exercise and transmission. We won’t beat this dead horse further by discussing the duties of the state to God and true religion, to say nothing of the indirect subordination of state to Church. The bottom line is that the idea that a Christian could—much less should—limit his or her political engagement simply misunderstands what politics is. Now, one may say that one ought to express his or her engagement in a given way—a Catholic may vote for a pro-abortion politician only in certain circumstances when his opponent’s position on another grave matter requires it—but if that is what Dreher means, you could have fooled us.

Especially because Dreher goes on to say:

Right now, a lot of Christian conservatives believe that we dodged a bullet with the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I agree that things aren’t as dangerous for us now as they would have been under Clinton. But it’s simply delusional to think that Trump is going to turn things around. Even if he were a saint, he couldn’t do that. As Bruenig makes clear early in her review, there is increasingly little space for us Christians, at least those who don’t go along with the latest iteration of liberalism, in the public square.

Richard John Neuhaus hoped that we would have a place there. That project has failed, it seems to me. What now? Yes, we still have to be engaged in politics, but what happens when and if we lose? We don’t suddenly cease to be Christian, or to have the obligation to serve Christ, even if we have to suffer for it. How are we going to do that? How will we find the faith and the courage within us to know when we are being asked to believe or to accept something that we cannot if we want to be faithful? Where is our “Here I stand, I can do no other” line? How will we know when we are being asked to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, living as we must as resident aliens in Babylon, and how will we find it within ourselves to go into the furnace singing, as did Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego?

(Emphasis supplied.) Given all of this, it is passing hard to imagine that Dreher simply meant to say that we have to temper our engagement, while remaining politically active as nature requires.

It is, however, not hard at all to see how Dreher loses the thread. A sharp friend of ours has observed that Dreher’s work as a journalist has influenced his thinking on this point. Recall what he said a little bit before what we just quoted:

The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) In essence, Dreher’s complaint is that American Christians are bad at politics. One does not have to be a journalist reporting on politics and culture—like Dreher—to see that the deal that conservative Christians have cut, knowingly or not, with Republicans has not been a good deal historically. This is obvious. And we will not bore you with all the ways in which it is obvious. You can recite them as well as we can. But it is clear that Dreher’s reporting on this situation has affected how he thinks politics work in general terms.

And this, of course, is the great temptation for a traditionally minded or integralist Catholic (or Christian more broadly): the culture—political, popular, and otherwise—of the United States is undoubtedly disordered. Part of this disorder is the hostility to Christians generally and orthodox Christians specifically. But it extends far beyond that. And confronted with this, the temptation for a serious Christian is to react to the situation itself. But this is ultimately the wrong approach. St. Thomas tells us that law—and therefore politics—is an exercise of reason ordered to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.2 co. & ad 1). While there is certainly room for the application of discretion and judgment, consistent with the common good and the divine and natural law, in given circumstances, one must be careful not to jettison the conclusions of reason itself based upon those circumstances.

Dreher falls into just that trap. He observes correctly that the culture of the United States is bad, and he reacts to this situation by deciding that Christians should participate in politics only on limited terms. No. Dreher is right that the way out is by recovering the premodern tradition, but recovering the premodern tradition means understanding that political participation is natural to man.

Cardinal Müller’s new book-length interview

Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has a forthcoming book-length interview with the Spanish publisher Carlos Granados. For now, the book will be in Spanish, but translations are apparently forthcoming. Sandro Magister has several lengthy excerpts at his website. One passage, translated for Magister by Matthew Sherry, touches upon the reformation festivities forthcoming, no doubt, next year:

Strictly speaking, we Catholics have no reason to celebrate October 31, 1517, the date that is considered the beginning of the Reformation that would lead to the rupture of Western Christianity.

If we are convinced that divine revelation is preserved whole and unchanged through Scripture and Tradition, in the doctrine of the faith, in the sacraments, in the hierarchical constitution of the Church by divine right, founded on the sacrament of holy orders, we cannot accept that there exist sufficient reasons to separate from the Church.

The members of the Protestant ecclesial communities look at this event from a different perspective, because they think that it is the opportune moment to celebrate the rediscovery of the “pure Word of God,” which they presume to have been disfigured throughout history by merely human traditions. The Protestant reformers arrived at the conclusion, five hundred years ago, that some Church hierarchs were not only morally corrupt, but had also distorted the Gospel and, as a result, had blocked the path of salvation for believers toward Jesus Christ. To justify the separation they accused the pope, the presumed head of this system, of being the Antichrist.

How can the ecumenical dialogue with the evangelical communities be carried forward today in a realistic way? The theologian Karl-Heinz Menke is speaking the truth when he asserts that the relativization of the truth and the acritical adoption of modern ideologies are the principal obstacle toward union in the truth.

In this sense, a Protestantization of the Catholic Church on the basis of a secular vision without reference to transcendence not only cannot reconcile us with the Protestants, but also cannot allow an encounter with the mystery of Christ, because in Him we are repositories of a supernatural revelation to which all of us owe total obedience of intellect and will (cf. “Dei Verbum,” 5).

I think that the Catholic principles of ecumenism, as they were proposed and developed by the decree of Vatican Council II, are still entirely valid (cf. “Unitatis Redintegratio,” 2-4). On the other hand, I am convinced that the document of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith “Dominus Iesus,” of the holy year of 2000, not understood by many and unjustly rejected by others, is without a doubt the magna carta against the Christological and ecclesiological relativism of this time of such confusion.

(Emphases added.) Good medicine. And there’s more of it in the post, touching upon some of the other flashpoint issues of the present day. Some sources have already picked up on Cardinal Müller’s comments about the forthcoming celebration of the reformation.

It remains to be seen, of course, what the Holy Father says in Sweden when he attends an ecumenical service commemorating the reformation. However, it seems to us that Cardinal Müller is fundamentally right, not merely that there are not valid reasons for separating from communion with Christ’s Church, though that is certainly true, but also that western Christianity and, indeed, the west as a whole has been injured by the reformation. There has been an impoverishment of western Christianity in the intervening 500 years that was scarcely conceivable with the first protestants struck out very much on their own. And one even wonders whether the complete inversion of man’s relationship to God, which Pope Emeritus Benedict has discussed fairly recently, would have happened in the absence of the wounds in the Body of Christ caused by the reformation. But such speculation is probably not entirely helpful at the moment. So we will say this: we look forward very much to reading Cardinal Müller’s thoughts on these matters.

For our part, we imagine that, on October 31, 1517, we will remember in a special way the souls of those who departed this life outside of full communion with Christ’s Church and his vicar, the Roman Pontiff.

Hunwicke on Tissier’s biography of Lefebvre

Fr. John Hunwicke has a very lengthy, very interesting post, ostensibly recommending Bishop Tissier’s definitive life of Marcel Lefebvre, and arriving at some broader reflections. (It is worth noting that the Holy Father is reputed to be a fan of Tissier’s book, having read it twice, according to reports. One wonders whether the Holy Father’s evident sympathy for the SSPX is rooted in sympathy for its founder.) A selection:

But is it true that Marcel Lefebvre was faced with a situation of grave disorder? I think we can avoid just loudly shouting at each other about our own individual subjective judgements; instead we can simply consider objective, Magisterial  decisions. Summorum Pontificum confirmed juridically that the Latin Church had lived for some four decades under the dominion of … yes … a lie. The Vetus Ordo had not been lawfully prohibited. Much persecution of devout priests and layfolk that took place during those decades is therefore now … officially … seen to have been vis sine lege. For this so long to have been so true with regard to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which lies at the heart of the Church’s life, argues a profound illness deep within the Latin Church. And that Big Lie was reinforced by multitudes of Little Lies … that the Council mandated reordered Sanctuaries … that the Council mandated exclusive use of the vernacular …

So, I suggest, we can read Bishop Tissier’s book as a narrative of how a good, but very often puzzled, man coped with the incomprehensible. And we can do this to our own benefit. Many Catholics find our present situation incomprehensible. As in the situations which Lefebvre faced, some Catholics may naturally feel inclined to act as though the rule-book does still apply (and so to treat the Church’s current office-holders with the same obsequium as if we were still in the pontificate of S Pius X); on the other hand, others may discern the dysfunctions and ask their consciences what God expects of them by way of resistance, as many did during the Arian crisis and the Great Western Schism.

(Formatting in original.) Read the whole thing there.

A notable new book on the Church’s social teaching

At The Distributist Review, Thomas Storck reviews Daniel Schwindt’s new book, Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis. Storck’s review is, in the main, positive, and we have ourselves added Schwindt’s book to the list of books we want to buy. (An ever-expanding list that is, we admit, more aspirational than anything else!) We encourage you to check it out, and if we get around to buying it and reading it, we will be sure to share our impressions. We note particularly a couple of points that Storck makes that encourage us greatly.

First, Storck observes that:

Following these preliminary points, the author discusses what he calls “permanent principles,” which are: the common good, the universal destination of goods, private property, solidarity and subsidiarity, freedom and justice. The inclusion of freedom in this list raises some questions, however. The freedom of choice with which man is endowed accompanies him everywhere, indeed is inseparable from his nature, regardless of his political or even penal situation. In the Anglo-American tradition, however, it is not this inherent freedom which preoccupies us but freedom in the political order, which is widely seen as the chief political good. But this is surely incorrect. Rather it is justice which is the chief political good, and it is justice which rules and determines the other principles listed here, such as property, solidarity and subsidiarity. Obviously political freedom is good to a degree, but it is subordinate to both justice and the common good.

(Emphasis added.) This seems to us to be a very good capsule summary of much of what is wrong with modern America, economically and otherwise. And it seems to us further to be a really very good way of summarizing the fundamental disagreement between those who are faithful to the whole of the Church’s social teaching and those who part ways with the Church. Obviously, there is nothing incompatible with justice and freedom necessarily, provided that both are understood properly. However, when freedom becomes disordered and ossifies into liberalism, it is indeed often flatly incompatible with justice. Now, this might not be the end of the discussion, but it seems to us that it’s a fine elevator pitch.


Although, as he notes, the popes have called for cooperation and just dealings between capitalist owners and workers, still “the Christian aversion to the concentration of ownership and wealth has ancient roots.” If ownership and work are not divorced, it is more difficult for such concentrations of wealth to arise. Schwindt quotes Leo XIII pointedly, the “law … should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” This, of course, is exactly what Distributism aims at—the widest diffusion of productive property, in large part to prevent that fatal separation of ownership and work which leads to so many evils, both societal and even personal. Also worthy of note is Schwindt’s discussion of guilds. The guild system, suitably updated to take account of contemporary conditions, is one of the foundations of Catholic social thought, for it avoids the twin rocks of state control of the economy and the injustices and chaos produced by competitive capitalism.

(Emphasis added.) This is, of course, very interesting, since guilds (or syndicates or trade unions or what-have-you) featured heavily in the popes’ early social teaching, especially Quadragesimo anno. Indeed, one could argue that subsidiary function is most functional in  an environment where there are robust guilds and similar organizations. However, this line of the Church’s teaching has sort of fallen into disuse, if not outright oblivion. It will be interesting to see Schwindt’s treatment and whether he makes any concrete proposals for reinvigorating the notion of guilds.


I call attention also to Schwindt’s discussion of taxation, and in particular of progressive taxation. He quotes Pius XI’s encyclical Divini Redemptoris that “the wealthy classes must be induced to assume those burdens without which human society cannot be saved nor they themselves remain secure.” As Schwindt notes, “the exact application of this principle could take various forms, but one can say without much risk of error that the system known as the ‘progressive tax’ is a fairly straightforward and appropriate means of realizing this goal.” In the last few decades in the United States conservative politicians have somehow persuaded large numbers of people that a flat tax is more fair than a progressive tax, even though it should be obvious that a rich man has much more disposable income than a poorer man, and hence can rightly afford to give up a larger percentage of his income in taxation. Despite what some people claim, there is absolutely nothing in Catholic teaching or tradition that would prohibit a progressive income tax.

(Emphasis added.) Enough said.

If you have any impressions that you’d like to share with us—and we note that correspondence received will likely be anonymized and published here—feel free to drop us a line at our email address or on Twitter.

What men choose to forget

Book Review
The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Volume 1: Collected & Uncollected Poems
Christopher Ricks & Jim McCue, eds.
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, $44.95
ISBN-13: 978-1421420172

We don’t think that T.S. Eliot’s poetry needs to be sold very hard. Over the past century (“Prufrock” turned 100 last June, if you can believe it), Eliot’s work has assumed a central place in the modern English canon. More than that, his poetry is practically part of the patrimony—to borrow John Hunwicke’s language—of Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. To some extent, then, discussing a new volume of Eliot’s work will be a discussion not of the poems, about which everyone long ago formed opinions, but a discussion of the various apparatuses and commentaries in the volume. Though the discussion about individual volumes seems less and less important after one considers Ricks and McCue’s two-volume edition of Eliot’s poems.

One thing about Eliot’s poetry—to immediately undermine our statement about reviewing volumes instead of poems—is that there are multiple ways into his work. On one hand, one can gain access through the modernism of his early work, up to and including The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. On the other hand, one can very easily develop a great fondness for Eliot through his later works such as Four Quartets, Choruses from The Rock, Ash Wednesday, and the Ariel Poems. Christians—those who haven’t simply absorbed Eliot by osmosis—will likely be recommended his later works. But the thing about Ricks and McCue’s annotations is that no matter how one got into Eliot’s poetry, one can find one’s way around very easily with their help.

Every poem is given a serious, thorough commentary, addressing content and context alike. And criticism. And cross-references. And, well, just everything. Eliot’s letters, comments by editors and friends, and historical sources all appear copiously. Ricks and McCue leave no stone unturned, and, in some instances, they point out there a stone was and what one would have found if one had turned it over. For example, in early editions of The Dry Salvages, the text read “hermit crab” where Eliot meant “horseshoe crab” (cf. The Dry Salvages I.19). Eliot acknowledged that he had written the former when he meant the latter, he asked his publishers to make the correction, and he agonized over the error at length; however, it was corrected in subsequent printings. The reader running through the text (including in this edition) would see simply “The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone,” as would have everyone else who read the poem in a corrected edition. Just everything, like we said.

We note that Ricks and McCue’s edition follows several other similarly all-encompassing editions of poets carefully described as “modern.” For example, Archie Burnett’s recent edition of Philip Larkin is full of interesting biographical and literary information about a poet who was very forthright. Jon Stallworthy’s edition of Wilfred Owen is perhaps less heavy on commentary and explication, but very, very heavy on textual issues, drafts, and manuscripts. (In many respects, it supersedes C. Day Lewis’s venerable old New Directions edition.) Plainly, publishers think that they’ll recoup their costs (and a little profit) from annotated editions of some 20th century poets. However, Eliot’s poetry—a product of tremendous erudition—seems to encourage the sort of careful, voluminous commentary that Ricks and McCue provide. One does not really feel the need (we don’t, at any rate) to track down the allusions in, say, “Spring Offensive” or “The Whitsun Weddings” the way we want to track down the allusions in Little Gidding.

It goes without saying that, for a longtime reader of Eliot (or, for that matter, an enthusiastic first-time reader of Eliot), the annotations are a joy. A conversation, really. One is tempted to respond to the notes: “Ah, I knew that,” or “I suspected that’s what he meant,” or, all too often for our self-image, “I had no idea.” And perhaps that’s the right judgment on this edition: Ricks and McCue’s annotations are like having a conversation with someone who knows everything about the poem. For this reason, we recommend dipping in and out of the commentary, lest a treat become tedious—though for poems we are fond of, it is unlikely that the commentary would become tedious. Even the bit about the “hermit crab” mistake in The Dry Salvages was interesting, particularly the extent to which Eliot agonized about a relatively minor mistake.

It seems strange, though, to see these massive, massively annotated editions of modern poets. Larkin, particularly, was working and publishing in recent memory. One’s parents may have been avid readers of Larkin’s High Windows when it first became widely available in 1979. But one’s grandparents may well have been avid readers of Eliot’s work when it was first published. We recall meeting once, briefly, a man who had corresponded with Ezra Pound. Of course, Pound was quite elderly at the time and this man was a young man; but (!) he corresponded with Pound all the same. This is a long way of saying that even Eliot is a poet of living memory. Yet, here we are: considering a monumental annotated edition of his poetry.

Perhaps it is necessary, for, to the extent that the world Eliot inhabited has become remote or that the culture he inhabited has become remote intellectually, Ricks and McCue do the reader a great service with their annotations. It is probably hard to dispute that, in the last fifty or seventy-five years, the West has run headlong away from the idea of Christendom and even the idea that there was something of that culture worth preserving. Certainly, there are aspects of this flight that are reasonable to a point, though they are premised upon a misidentification of a vile, murderous perversion of a cohesive Western, Christian culture with a cohesive, Western Christian culture itself. But, regardless of of the motivation, it must be said that, except to those with great interest, many of the sources upon which Eliot drew are becoming pretty remote. So, even if with only a narrow focus, Ricks and McCue do fine work making some of these sources behind the allusions available.

True, there may be great joy in running down Eliot’s allusions yourself; however, where do you begin? If you didn’t know that Eliot was alluding to St. John of the Cross in East Coker III and if you weren’t familiar with St. John of the Cross or mystical theology more generally, then you would probably have a hard time knowing where to begin running down the allusion. There is Google, we suppose, but sifting the signal from the noise on Google can be a daunting task. One does not have the feeling that one has to sift Ricks and McCue’s work that way.

But, at the same time, we have a slight reservation. The sheer amount of information, the obviously indefatigable research, and the clear erudition of Ricks and McCue give their annotations a strong sense of authoritativeness. (They plainly have authority, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?) And an editor imbued with authoritativeness can present a problem to the reader without the reader knowing it; editors, like everyone else, have opinions, maybe even agendas, about their subject. Most of the time, the reader can suss out the opinions and agendas, and push back. But when an editor has authoritativeness, it becomes harder and harder to resist those opinions and agendas. After all, they’ve marshaled so much information that they have to be right. We do not mean, of course, to suggest that Ricks and McCue have an agenda: we haven’t read the book so thoroughly that we can form an opinion. But, if they did, it would be awfully hard to resist it given the sheer quantity and, honestly, quality of their annotations. But all of that may be overthinking the problem a little bit.

While the list price is a little steep—and the Amazon price was not much below list when we bought the book there—this edition is very much worth considering, even if you, as many people do, have one or two (or several) other volumes of Eliot’s poetry. Obviously, if it is available at a local library or it could be procured by a local library on a permanent basis, it is an easy choice to borrow. And borrow and borrow.