Notes From an Underground Thirteenther

First, let us define our term. Writing for an audience dominated by well-informed Americans, as I do in this space, I fear there may be confusion between one sort of Thirteenther and another.

In the United States, I gather, a Thirteenther is an enthusiast for what would have been the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which fell just two states short of ratification in the 1810s. This amendment would have stripped anyone who had accepted a title of nobility from any emperor, king, prince, or foreign power, of his American citizenship.

As another constitutional provision prevented the U.S. government itself from giving out noble titles, this amendment could potentially have put paid to the social aspirations of Betsy Patterson in Maryland. She had married Napoleon Bonaparte’s little brother, and was now in possession of a son who, thanks to his mom, had American citizenship. Betsy was already known in contemporary media as the “Duchess of Baltimore.” The journalists were being facetious; but she was apparently awaiting a French title for her little Jérôme.

Now, in British terms, I might be a Jacobite, but I’ve never gone to the wall for that, and am unlikely to go there for the late Betsy Patterson Bonaparte. Let me nonetheless warn any American with a foreign title that there is no time limit for ratifying U.S. constitutional amendments. Any day now, you could suddenly find yourself needing an executive order from Emperor Obama, to avoid deportation. (The good news: with the increase in the number of United States, the proposed amendment is now twenty-six states short of home free.)

So no, I’m not a Thirteenther like that. Quite the contrary. From my Canadian ivory tower, I confer aristocratic titles rather casually on my email correspondents, including those in the United States, as part of my crusade against mobocracy and populism. As an attentive Catholic, I am well disposed to hierarchy.

Instead, “Thirteenther” is a title in itself, conferred on me by someone in Texas. It is meant to suggest that I am a person who belongs in the Thirteenth Century. I am well pleased with this American honor, and only regret that I am prevented by the laws of physics from retiring to my country seat.

That would be, signally, the century of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), later sainted, and still sometimes in the news. There are factions within, as always happens, but I think we can still refer to a Thomist underground, whose members secretly recognize each other. Under the sign of the Cross (as opposed to the Dollar), we continue to plot for the restoration of Christendom.

Why only yesterday, I learnt of the progress of our agents in China. According to William Carroll of Blackfriars Hall, our Thomas is enjoying a modest vogue among scholars on several important Chinese university campuses.

The Polo brothers give a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X (1271)
The Polo brothers give a letter from Kublai Khan to Pope Gregory X (1271)

They are attracted to Thomas Aquinas, and were long ago attracted, in a peculiarly Confucian way. The great strength of the Chinese realm has been, over more than two millennia, the profound insight into morals, and rational ordering of society by that light, which Confucius had in the first instance provided. This lies directly behind or beneath the most extraordinary cultural accomplishments, some of which put the West to shame. Our earliest Jesuit visitors were themselves in awe of China’s civilizational achievement.

What they saw as the Chinese weakness, was a failure to anchor this moral order to a rationally coherent metaphysical account of the link between “God and man” – the absence, as it were, of a convincing natural theology. This left the Chinese mind prey to cultic superstitions on the one side, and totalitarian legalism on the other. (Christopher Dawson gives a scintillating overview of this within his 1947 Gifford lectures, Religion and Culture.)

Confucius himself recognized the transcendent character of the sacred order, over and above the human one. He is forthright in acknowledging the priority of “Heaven.” But he will not “go there,” to analyze the nature of that divine authority, in its relation to authority on earth. Given human limitations, he affects great modesty on the “final questions.”

Yet Chinese thinkers have, through the centuries, hungered to make just this connection, and the fascination with St. Thomas today was prefigured in the fascination with essentially Thomist Jesuit missionaries – themselves of very high civilization – welcomed in earlier centuries.

Cultural misunderstandings on both sides led to the failure of the first attempt, but here we saw the making of a grand meeting of the minds, in which Europeans and Chinese had so much to teach one another. And under present conditions (which include Christianity spreading like wildfire in the Chinese domain), the fascination with St. Thomas is revived: and now, unambiguously from the Chinese side.

Having turned first to the contemporary West for the glib “how-to” of Dollar worship, they begin to search instead beneath our veneer of cheap, degenerate consumerism – in which wealth, convenience, and material security are the only things that really matter to us. They find in that deeper, “Thirteenther” West something vastly superior to the present one, by any moral, intellectual, or spiritual standard.

I think the same thing is happening here as there, more or less invisibly beneath the surface. For sure we see, floating on that surface, manifestations of spiritual hunger, expressed in many different, often crazy ways. The old, spooky, intellectually worthless Gnosticism is certainly alive and well, in the chaos of our times.

But at a deeper level, the “nostalgia” is for order. And by this I don’t mean the jackboot order that is imposed by thugs, but a serene order that can distinguish beauty from ugliness, good from evil, truth from falsehood – while giving a coherent explanation of itself.

And this is where my fellow agents of the Thirteenther underground come in. We know where the treasure of true reason lies buried, and in the darkness we are digging it up.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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