The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
The Words of Political Modernity Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The words we use often have many meanings. A reader or listener may take a word for one meaning, while the speaker or writer may intend another. Speakers and writers, indeed, will deliberately use this confusion to accomplish their ends. The word “equality,” for example, may mean that each person has the same status before the law, but it cannot mean that each individual has the same intelligence, virtue, or weight.

We frequently hear it said that all people should live under essentially the same “form” of government. What is wrong with the world is that we have different governments. Thus, our foreign and domestic policy should strive to place everyone under the same “form” of rule. This thesis implies that something is wrong with forms of rule that do not conform to this “standard” now universally understood to be the best form of government.

In this perspective, governments really ought not to differ much. Everyone has the same “rights.” All should live in a “democracy,” with a rule of “law,” a free economy, and a government whose purpose is to guarantee these things.

Behind these institutions are the ideas that define and support them. The principal ideas are those of “equality” and “choice.” Everyone has a “right” to make himself into what he wants himself to be. No natural or divine law exists. Man is free to define himself. No definition of man is “wrong” except one maintaining that natural and divine law exist.

This latter view is “intolerant.” It claims that a “truth” defines what man is, so that the human purpose is to find and live these laws of human being. In the new dispensation, the purpose of man is not to become “virtuous” but to exercise his “rights.” To maintain that truth “exists” is a form of “fanaticism.” Government exists to suppress “fanatics” and punish “hate-language.” This is what “freedom of religion and speech” now means.

The modern world is ruled by “values,” not “duties.” “Values” are, in principle, subjective. Since no natural law exists, no definite “values” exist. “Values” are what we choose, not what we know. We can thus never agree on our “values.”


The Nivolet Cross, in the distance,
seen over a statue of Rousseau near Chambéry, France

Likewise, “rights” are what are owed to us. Since we are “free” to “choose” what we mean by “right,” the government we set up “democratically” is obliged to give us what is “owed” to us, namely our “rights” as we define them.

We are thus required to “tolerate” each other’s “rights.” The one working “value” of a “democracy” is that we “tolerate” everyone’s “rights.” Is it ever “right” to do “wrong?” This is a meaningless proposition. “Right” and “wrong” have no objective status. But surely to kill is wrong? Not if it interferes with my “right” to “choose.” We can “democratically” decide that such a “right” is established to become a “rule of law.”

The free “market” of goods is parallel to the free market of people. No political boundaries are allowed to interfere with the extension of these “rights” and “values.” Foreign policy is designed to allow everyone to “share” in these “rights.” No one should be prevented from living where he wants. Everyone has a “right” to vote in any election as everyone is “equal.” We should have only one government with universal jurisdiction and a universal police and military contingents to enforce our “rights” against the “fanatics.”

Between the state and the individual, consequently, no institution should exist. The family and institutions of what is called “civil society” are to be replaced by government rule based on “rights” and “values” in a “democratic” manner. “Democracy” means majority rule. No remnant of aristocratic or natural law ideas should remain operative against the “will” of the majority. Morality means the “will” of the majority. For the time being, many must be “forced” to be “free” as fragments of religious and civil prejudices remain widespread.

The government is responsible for the good of Earth and all “citizens.” A citizen is one who rules and is ruled by the “democratic” state in pursuit of universal “rights” and “values.” Since the good of the Earth makes possible the good of man, the government decides what is possible to man by its estimation of what the Earth can support. The good of the Earth so judged decides the good of man and what “rights” he can enjoy.

The words of political modernity imply a world-state enclosed on itself. Man now “comes of age.” Nothing exists in the world but what man puts there. He is finally “free” to be himself with nothing but himself deciding what he is.

We might have only one hesitation about this final construction of man. When we so spell it out, it sounds like nothing so much as what might be called, in Aristotelian terms, a freely chosen “democratic tyranny.”  

 
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (11)Add Comment
0
...
written by ib, July 23, 2013
Roman Catholics, prizing the principles of subsidiarity and justice, will agree with Fr. Schall that the utopian project of modernity he sketches is nothing but a dehumanized horror. Yet many modern "nones"-- that is, people of no religious persuasion; 20% of U.S. adults identify as "nones" according to Pew polling -- would see it as the best of all possibilities. It reminds me of the famous novel "We" by Yvegeny Zamyatin, which in the 20th century used to be taken as a warning against the dehumanization of the totalitarian state. My guess is that most of our present-day "nones" would not intrepret it that way, and instead simply condemn the hero as a sociopath: why couldn't he just do as the state told him? ... It would have been for the best! The dehumanization involved in such a choice would slip by them as surely as the sense of their own humanity has ebbed ...

However, even Fr. Schall's sketch leaves something out: the corruption of every purely human effort by Original Sin. Fr. Schall gives these moderns the benefit of the doubt in order to show that, even if it all went as they intended, the result would be a dehumanized horror. But all never goes as intended, and in practice such utopian plans lead inexorably to the killing fields and the death camps. The horror, the horror!
0
...
written by Manfred, July 23, 2013
We received a very real foretaste of this with the Zimmerman-Martin episode. The Federal Government, with the the total support of the Main Stream Media (MSM), had found Zimmerman guilty within days of the occurrence. There is another very important warning here! When Britain and France had regiments of non-citizens (e.g. the Foreign Legion, the Indian Army)those units could NEVER be brought into France or Britain. The officers of these units had to be French and British "gentlemen", i.e. holders of place as these leaders had SOMETHING TO LOSE if the regiment revolted. There is no question that the present U.S. administration HAS NOTHING TO LOSE if the present societal structure collapses. In fact, it encourages its collapse. When upright citizens are fighting a "guerilla war" of ezpensive lawsuits against THEIR GOVERNMENT which is insisting they provide contraceptives and abortions to their employees, then we have a Bolshevik Revolution right here. When our government is forcing us to accept sodomite marriage, our government is a tyrrany RIGHT NOW. The question is: what are WE going to do about it?
0
...
written by Howard Kainz, July 23, 2013
Like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, "words mean just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
0
...
written by Achilles, July 23, 2013
Refreshingly sober comment Manfred.

Excellent article Fr. Schall, as usual!
0
...
written by Seanachie, July 23, 2013
"Since no natural law exists, no definite “values” exist"...appears to be a gratuitous observation and claim...what is your evidence?
0
...
written by Brad Miner, July 23, 2013
Seanachie: Fr. Schall rarely responds to commenters, but I'm curious: You do know, don't you, that he is describing the modernist view when he writes "no natural law exists . . ."?
0
...
written by maineman, July 23, 2013
Manfred, it seems that there is nothing left to do but practice and preach the Gospel, helping and saving as many souls as possible as the edifice of modernity, including the wreckage of what once was the US, collapses.

Can you think of any other option at this point? I can't. And frankly, it can't happen soon enough as far as I'm concerned.
0
...
written by Seanachie, July 23, 2013
Brad...overlooked the context of the comment...thanks for the clarification.

Seanachie
0
...
written by Brad Miner, July 23, 2013
Seanachie: You are welcome. Please keep your comments coming. -ABM
0
...
written by Howard Richards, July 24, 2013
The modern ideal is that each state (not meaning US State) should democratically choose its government and respect minorities -- at least some minorities, anyhow. It is abundantly clear, though, that democracy often leads to the oppression of minorities. Without appeal to an absolute standard, this becomes an impossible dilemma. That dilemma can be ignored out of arrogance, but it cannot actually be resolved within the modernist worldview.
0
...
written by stanley, July 25, 2013
One of the more accessible accomplishments of Eric Voegelin was his tracing of language (words) from philosopher to philosopher. The way out was to go back to the experience(s) that gave way to the language and hope that provides some light. To quote him:

"One of the great tasks ahead of us is a renewal of the analogical meaning of symbols, a new philosophy of myth and revelation."

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Other Articles By This Author

CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner