Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit and on not getting distracted

Oh, look! An Article 50!

While I write this, I'm conscious of having made explicit or implicit promises to a number of people to write about particular issues on this blog and not yet having got round to it. Apologies. I remember who you are even if you've given up on me!

As is obvious, I'm easily distracted. Given this is my personal blog, I put up even less of a struggle against that tendency here than I would in other parts of my life. But as we enter into a series of processes around Brexit which could drag on for years, it's important that 'we' (ie all those who have broad sympathies with Catholic social teaching) don't get distracted by the epiphenomena of political life. One of the reasons why I've said little on Brexit here (besides cowardice and personal confusion) is that I saw little prospect of anything fundamental being changed by either result. Let's take again Russell Kirk's list of conservative principles as a rough starting point. Whatever emerges from the complex series of energies that will emerge from the event of Brexit, I see no likelihood of the secularising demolition of the little platoons being reversed by a UK government. David Cameron's resignation speech betrays many of the obsessions of modern politics:

1) Focus on the needs of international financial markets
2) Undermining natural marriage as a basis for procreation and education of children
3) A blindness to the complex layers of societies that exist below and above the State
4) A thin understanding of national culture

When you add into that the inevitable problems with Scottish Independence that will arise as a result of an Independence referendum that made much of the dangers of Scotland being forced out of the EU being trumped by an EU referendum that has forced Scotland out of the EU against the overwhelming popular Scottish vote, there are more than enough distractions to keep us all going for a while. But, to repeat something I've said many times before, unless some people are thinking and talking about the more permanent things of the polis, we will find ourselves arguing about squirrels rather the fundamental and harmful changes in social life that almost everyone in ephemeral politics seems to find agreeable.

Just for a starter:

a) The absence of any sort of supernatural order and end which underlies ephemeral politics and a culture which feeds the soul.
b) The importance of nation and national culture and the inadequacy of the remains of imperial nationalisms to do justice to this.
c) The need to preserve natural family life as the primary vehicle of individuals' engagement with the past and the future.
d) The promotion of the little platoons of civil society.
e) The promotion of international order which respects subsidiarity and escapes from bureacratic, progressivist technocracy.

As a coda, I note that Patrick Harvie in The National is making similar sounding noises to me although in substance from an entirely opposed position:

But the underlying problem will still be there whether the result is Leave or Remain – the need for a compelling politics of the common good that is internationalist and unites people instead of dividing them. Greece and Spain have shown that this is possible, and the ground for it seems more fertile in Scotland than in much of the UK. But there remains much work to turn that potential into reality across Europe as a whole.
Scotland can play an important role in that, building relationships with progressive forces across Europe, and whether our immediate goal is now to defend our rights as current EU citizens in the wake of a Brexit vote or, as I fervently hope, to ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard at the EU table with the UK as a remaining member state, we’ll need to keep all options open.

To borrow the metaphor I've used before, progressives like Harvie have established the landscape within which all ephemeral politics is now conducted. Unless (at least sometimes) we take our eyes off the pretty squirrels running around in this landscape and start exploring the landscape itself, there is little hope for the politics of the future.

Monday, 13 June 2016

The legitimacy of rebellion

This is going to be one of those blogposts where the primary aim is for me to summarise some incomplete thoughts/research rather than to attempt a complete solution. (If I've misrepresented anyone else's views at any stage, my apologies, and do correct me in the combox. I find Twitter particularly frustrating for bringing out detail and nuances and I've quite likely misunderstood a lot of these.)

As a result of Ttony's post on the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Government (here for the text of the proclamation) I got into a discussion with Cathy Barry (on @IrishPhilosophy -follow!!) on the understanding of rebellion in the proclamation and, more widely, in just war/Thomist theory. To start at the end, I suggested the following eirenical formula:

Need longer treatment to deal with all this! But might we agree that mediaeval political theory at least reluctant to concede right of rebellion/revolution to groups/individuals without legitimate authority? And that brings us back to 1916 and rhetorical/real search for such authority

Now Cathy wasn't prepared to concede this -on the grounds that 'they didn't say that' (I'll return to this) - coupled with a reasonableness test from the following scenario:

 Imagine North Koreans with plan to revolt likely to succeed. How could they get authority?

Just to dispose of the latter point quickly, North Koreans (admittedly with a mediaeval Christian outlook on these things!) might seek authority from the papacy (as a universal authority) or from the bodies with authority within the land (eg barons). This is very much the scenario of the Declaration of Arbroath where, having emphasised the independent rights of the Scottish King (as against the English claim of his holding this kingship from the English monarchy) it then goes on to emphasise the rights of the Barones et Liberetenenetes ac tota Communitas Regni Scocie [barons and freemen and the whole commuity of the kingdom of Scotland] to depose a king who acts against their  leges et Consuetudines [laws and customs]. This is a communitas with internal sources of authority from within the state appealing to a source of authority above the state. Unsurprisingly, the Declaration is very mediaeval in this way: it does not simply appeal to the better condition of the Scottish people if they are ruled from Scotland, but to questions of legitimate authority to wage war and govern. It envisages not the modern emphasis on just the state and the invididual, but envisages other corporate sources of power and authority. [If I were developing this point, I'd say something here about a general point of mediaeval hermeneutics: both on grounds of commonsense ideas of (feudal) hierarchy in the mediaeval world and on the grounds of the neo-Platonic influence in (eg) Aquinas, I'd expect such a concern with establishing authority from above -not with the idea that the individual has a right to act himself, but with the idea that authority is bestowed from above and only in certain circumstances where that (state) authority has broken down is it legitimate to look elsewhere.]

Now of course fast forwarding to 1916, we are no longer operating in an entirely mediaeval picture (even for Catholics). But modern Catholic teaching, however far it has moved from the mediaeval world, still maintains a concern for the natural authority of bodies other than the state. Moreover, it maintains a concern for civic peace and preservation of th established order that goes beyond the simple question of effectiveness (would (eg) people be happier under a new regime?) [I leave this paragraph as an assertion, but it is one that I think is easily evidenced from (eg) the Compendium of Social Doctrine.] So I would expect, however changed from the Declaration of Arbroath, a concern in a heavily Catholic influenced document with the legitimate authority for their actions. And I would argue that this is pretty self evident from the text:

In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.


We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.

Now, of course, to assert legtimacy is one thing, to prove it is another. But going back to my eirenic claim above, I would expect Catholics at least to be worried about establishing legitimate authority for rebellion and, mutatis mutandis, I think that concern is evident both in the Declaration of Arbroath and the Proclamation. [There is also the rather interesting attempt (successful?) to achieve support from the papacy for the Easter Rising (Plunkett and Benedict XV here).]

I turn now to consider Cathy's point about texts: 'they didn't say that'. In the context of our discussion, I take that to be a reference to Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, particularly STh IIa IIae qq40 & 42 (on war and on sedition) q40 here q42 here . More specifically, we discussed the legitimacy of applying 'Just War' theory to rebellion. (I think this cropped up as a result of Ttony's focus on this question in his blog and this may have cropped up from the book he was reviewing. In any case, the applicability of Just War theory here is not an unreasonable thought.)

Now I concede immediately that Just War theory, certainly as sketched in q40 is not directly applicable to rebellion. But then neither is the theory of sedition in q42: indeed Aquinas clearly excludes 'perturbatio' of tyranny (and presumably rebellion is a subset of perturbationes of this kind) from sedition.

Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant's rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant's government.

That just perturbatio is subject to a test of proportionality does not mean that this is the only test: it is a necessary condition of just pertubatio not a sufficient one. (Or at least, there is no indication in the text that this is the only test: Aquinas doesn't say that.) Moreover, although he does say that war is about external strife rather than internal strife ( 'quia bellum proprie est contra extraneos et hostes' (SThIIa IIae q42 a1 resp) note the 'proprie'. Given the usual Aristotelian ideas of focal meaning or paradigms, that somethng may not be said proprie of a case does not mean that this case cannot be illuminated by the case proprie described. Here, I'd expect the case of Just War to illuminate the issue of rebellion, particularly if it is (as was claimed in 1916) a case of perturbatio 'contra extraneos' ('The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people...') Aquinas certainly does seem to say this.

Moreover, there is a danger of reading Aquinas' Summa as a legal code. For example, let's accept for the sake of argument that q40 does not deal with rebellion. And let's also accept that rebellion is covered in q42 where it is subject only to the test of effectiveness. If this were a legal code, one might point to the clear text and exclude any other considerations. (That's debatable, but it is at least arguable.) But the Summa is a theological primer for students: it is no intended to cover every eventuality and nor does it. Now it is pretty obvious that Aquinas has nothing like a developed theory of rebellion: he is not trying for one and he certainly hasn't achieved it here. It is therefore reasonable to look to Aquinas' general approach in related areas to see how they might flesh out ad mentem divi Thomae the little he does say about rebellion. And it is reasonable in such circumstances to look to q40 on Just War.

To summarise. I conclude that a concern for the establishment of a legitimate authority to rebel is present in the 1916 Proclamation. Primarily, that is a matter of the text itself, but the general trend of Catholic teaching on this seems to make this a reasonable interpretation.

Secondly, I conclude that mediaeval political theory [is] at least reluctant to concede right of rebellion/revolution to groups/individuals without legitimate authority. In the comparative luxury of a blogpost over the 140 characters of Twitter, I'd concede that 'mediaeval political theory' is too wide, and would have to include (if taken literally) everything from Ango-Saxon theories of kingship to Marsilus of Padua and more. But in the context of the present discussion, if it means 'what formed the germ of Catholic political theory particularly in Aquinas', then I'd stand by the claim. This is for two reasons. First (and this is unevidenced but I take it to be intuitively plausible) there is that general hermeneutical point from above that a concern for levels of authority above the individual is what you'd expect (mostly) to find in the Middle Ages. Secondly, so far as the texts of the Declaration of Arbroath and the Proclamation are themselves evidence of what is thrown up by this tradition, both do in fact display such a concern. Thirdly, insofar as the texts of q40 and q42 in tbe Summa are concerned, nothing is said to contradict such an interpretation and much is said to support it.

[And now to acknowledge the lacunae that I'd like to pursue but don't have the time just now!

1) There a highly relevant paper I don't have immediate access to it (I think it's pre-digital access but in any case none of the archives I can access seem to allow me to see it. Off for a hard copy at some stage!)

2) I haven't taken detailed account of other texts where Aquinas deals with this issue. (They're listed on the first page preview  of the above. I've had a quick look at them insofar as they're available online (all are apparently available at least in Latin) but won't claim to have done much with them. The above paper seems to suggest a development in his views.]

3) Suarez would be an obvious next step (esp Defensio catholicae fidei contra anglicanae sectae errores ). There are some English translations of at least part of this online but again I haven't pursued in any detail.]

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Losing my religion...?

No, don't worry (or rejoice). Not me, but the Orthodox philosopher Nick Trakakis (his essay here. Catholic response here. Orthodox response here.)

Trakakis' essay raises a lot of specific issues regarding Orthodoxy and traditional Christianity which, although I wouldn't want to dismiss, seem rather less fundamental than his dismissal of institutionalised religion per se as in tension with the philosophical life:

Part of the reason for Heidegger's separation of philosophy and theology lies in his view that philosophy is more radical in nature than theology. Theology, on this picture, does not allow for radical or genuine questioning: if we start from a position of faith, then our questioning or seeking begins by already having found what it searches - namely, God. Dominique Janicaud, in his criticism of the recent theological turn in French phenomenology, made a similar point: "The dice are loaded and choices made; faith rises majestically in the background."

Philosophy, by contrast, must consist in honest questioning, really following inquiry or evidence wherever it leads. The kind of thinking that has traditionally been regarded as integral to philosophy demands deep and searching questioning and a restless and perhaps even endless exploring, but without knowing where such wondering and meandering will lead (so as not to prejudice the outcome). It is what Heidegger envisioned as a type of thinking that is always underway, travelling "off the beaten track" onto bypaths and even dead-ends, but with no predetermined end in sight.

If we wish to grapple with the ultimate questions of life and death in novel, interesting and fruitful ways, a creative and adventurous spirit is required, one that is prepared to occasionally depart from the conventional and familiar in order to freely roam on roads less travelled, imaginatively constructing speculative theories and experimenting with diverse myths, models and metaphors of, for example, God and world.

It's a position that I've often come across. Religion is about accepting answers while philosophy/rationality etc is about an open ended inquiry which leads who knows where. The closedness of religion is essentially in tension with the openness of philosophy.

It's difficult to know where to start with this. And perhaps that's the first thing to say: it's a deceptively simple claim which really isn't very simple at all. What is philosophy? What is religion? (Are these questions demanding a descriptive answer - 'This is what my experience of Orthodoxy is like' or a normative one -'This is what Orthodoxy should be'?) Does philosophy automatically trump religion? Why? And so on. Reading some of the comments both in Trakakis' essay but particularly those in the combox, I was reminded of the chapter in Newman's Loss and Gain where the prospective Catholic convert is beset by visits from various crackpots all claiming to have the answer to life (nowadays of course neatly expressed on a website).

There is a truth here, one which you find roughly sketched both in Plotinus' claim that life is the 'flight of the alone to the alone' or the existentialists' claim that existence precedes essence, that we are all, inevitably, left in the position of trying to make sense of it all. (To borrow from Trump, I have some sympathy with the general desire just to stop everything 'until we've figured out what the hell's going on'. Unfortunately, we can't.) Even if some sort of radical philosophical rootlessness was the correct stance for PhD educated philosophers, where would that leave the rest of us? Wouldn't we have to trust some sort of academic authority while we earn our daily crust? Wouldn't some sense of the limited nature of our reason and the need to rely on something pre-digested by the smarter or more knowledgeable or simply more leisured be part of what figuring out what the hell's going on is like for most of humanity?

But let's consign the lived reality of most people's search for meaning to the dustbin: what about the purported wise? Shouldn't we remain open to truth in a way that religion closes down? Again, I think there's a rough truth here which is that intellectual exploration does have to be free from extraneous pressures: the search for truth should not be restricted by (eg) the State (and that I take it is the reasoning behind Dignitatis humanae). But that is hardly what Trakakis can mean. He is free to leave Orthodoxy. I am free to leave Catholicism. Nothing will happen except that we have something slightly more exciting than usual for an audience to read about. Moreover, every reflective religious believer is aware, particularly a convert such as myself, that there is in principle the possibility of radical (and unexpected) religious change simply because it has happened  before. Atheist teenage me didn't expect to become a Catholic. Middle aged Catholic me doesn't expect to become a Dawkinsian. But it might happen. Indeed, it should happen if I can no longer stay within a particular institution without sacrificing (again in rough terms) my integrity. There is a point at which change is required, even though specifying that point precisely is not a straightforward matter. (Again, even philosophers have to reckon with the restricted nature of their reasoning. At what point does a temporary local difficulty in one's institutional commitments become the necessity for change?)

All of us find ourselves with commitments and the need for decisions which close down or channel our lives. (The slightly waspish me might suggest that Trakakis might be in greater danger to his intellectual integrity from continental philosophy and the iron laws of the Western academy than he is from Orthodoxy.) There is the detailed, Somme like struggle to answer those specific points that might begin to persuade someone that Christianity is untenable. That simply requires spadework and detailed argument and both Trakakis and I know well enough how these arguments go and go on. But there is the meta-argument about where, while we wait for death, we are better off living out our lives of confusion and search.

To become personal, my conversion to Christianity (initially Episcopalianism and then Catholicism) was intellectually at least affected by at least two broad issues. First, I was plunged into a great deal of Greek philosophy. This lead to a great many intellectual obsessions, but three in particular struck home. One was the strong sense in Plato of the transcendent, of something above and better that beckoned to us. (You can see this both in the Ideas and in the daimon of Socrates.) There is an ethical seriousness about the intellectual, philosophical quest that, frankly, is often better modelled in religious communities than in the Western academy. Secondly, there is the horizon of philosophy in myth and figurative language: Plato frequently stops and goes beyond dialectic to say something that is unsayable. Finally, there is the perennial question of Plato and Aristotle (and Strauss): the relationship between the City and Man (or the community and the person if you prefer). Philosophy exists in a city: how does it live there and how does it engage with that city? Trakakis seems from that perspective to have opted not for the life of the unfettered mind, but for life simply in a different sort of city from that of the Orthodox church. Has he applied the same degree of critical reflection to the exercise of power in that City as he has to the exercise of power in the Orthodox Church? To cut that long story short, I found (and find) those obsessions better answered in the Catholic Church than I do elsewhere. It is a better sort of community to live in while waiting to die. It is a better sort of community to live in whilst pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. To the extent that Foucauldian power inevitably surges through its veins, it seems to me to be better used for the flourishing of its members than the same unavoidable power when surging through the institutions outwith it.

The second aspect of my conversion was having children. Now this might not seem a very philosophical reason for change, but I think it was. For the first time in my life, I was presented with the need to articulate and to persuade someone else. (Academic teaching isn't the same:there isn't the same desperate ethical need to get it right rather than just to explore. Moreover, as a father, one is not producing adult philosophers (who arguably themselves  have a personal responsibility to get it right) but people who are, at least for eighteen years, radically dependent on your lead and, thereafter, quite possibly going to be dependent 'ordinary folk' rather than the autonomous wise.) What does one say to the next generation while, before your eyes, time is running out to say it? In many ways, this is just a dramatic intensification of the preceding aspect: given that someone vulnerable and to whom you have a duty of care is dependent on your getting those answers right, you are forced to think and act much much more seriously. But it is also that most characteristically Greek philosophical question of how do you pass on the good life to the next generation. And the answer, even for the philosophical life, is not itself by philosophy. I don't know whether Trakakis is a parent or not. (To the extent that he reaches people outwith the academy, let alone within it, he is certainly in loco parentis.)  But how does one prepare the ground for philosophical flourishing let alone any other kind? What sort of community is the best preparation (and this is the really tough one) how does one achieve it as a matter of fact, now, before your child reaches eighteen and gets sucked into the void of modernity?

[Just rereading the above, the one issue I don't think I've tackled adequately is the phenomenology of the freedom of search in the Church  (ie what it feels like). Here, I think the abandonment of the sharp distinction between natural reason and revelation in much modern Catholic theology is unhelpful. Qua philosopher, all bets are off. Of course, I expect (based on previous reasoning) to approach certain issues in certain ways. But it is perfectly possible (I keep an open mind) that I will find myself outargued or persuaded to a different conclusion. That is the freedom of philosophy: an intellectual suspension of commitments and a willingness to follow the arguments. But at the same time, as a human being and Catholic, I am subject to certain commitments which may or may not be in tension with the free deliberations of philosophy. Moreover, qua philosopher, I am aware of how difficult these issues are and that a momentary inability to see a way forward in an expected direction is not the final conclusion. All I can say is that, up till now, I have never found an issue in philosophy which provides a clear stumbling block for my Catholicism (as opposed to a difficulty of which there are many) and have found many issues where my Catholicism has helped illuminate philosophical issues. As I said above, that might change. But so far as I can see at the moment, given what I know and given a fairly thorough going over the key issues, that is unlikely to happen.

I also think that (judging from purely external observation) there is something here that needs to be said about the intellectual life within Orthodoxy rather than in Catholicism. I have no wish to indulge in Orthodox bashing here, but it's only fair to record that one of the reasons why I became Catholic rather than Orthodox and remain so (despite occasional bouts of finding myself in angustiis) is the apparent greater openness and philosophical emphasis within Catholicism. Anyway, another issue for another day. As partial penance for this latter observation, I would point you in the direction of Turning East a volume of essays explaining their reasons for conversion from philosophers who became Orthodox Christians.]