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A Perennial Illusion

A good friend from my undergraduate days wrote me recently to ask which book is the “the most difficult” I have ever read.  His own nominations were Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate and Denis Donoghue, Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot.

I responded that difficult could mean many things.  It might mean “intellectually challenging.”  It might mean “emotionally wrenching.”  It might mean literarily impenetrable (I think of James Joyce).  I intended to understand difficult to mean “philosophically provocative.”

Such a book goes to the heart of one’s worldview, challenging, confronting, and stimulating.   To create a coherent moral platform from which we see the world is always mentally and morally demanding, and many people just shy away from it, living what Socrates called “the unexamined life.”

The most difficult book I have ever read, in this sense, is The Other America by Michael Harrington (1928-1989).  It appeared (1962) when I was in high school in Massachusetts.  These were the heady days of Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” followed by Johnson’s “Great Society.”  These were the days of marches for civil rights, of political activism, and of progressive politics and morals.  How could students not become liberals?  How could liberals not flirt with, and perhaps then “marry,” socialism?

Michael Harrington

Harrington had begun as a Catholic conservative. Before long, though, he had become a “democratic socialist,” righteously angry about poverty in the United States.  Harrington was a crusader whose zeal was contagious.   The Other America gave me a view of the world that back then struck me as exactly right.  Government, it seemed, had profound responsibilities – moral, economic, and legal – and it deserved concomitant broad power to effect sweeping change.

The Jesuit-educated Harrington held up an image of an America whose blessings ought to be shared more equitably, especially with the poor. His writing complemented the Kennedys’ rhetoric and the increasingly revolutionary spirit of the time. “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5) seemed more political than biblical.  All things could be renovated, improved, even perfected!

Ask Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist candidate who just won the primary in New York’s 14thCongressional district.

By the time I entered college (in 1964), the morals of the society were changing – and rapidly.  For anyone who lived through the late 60s and early 70s, no accounts are necessary; for those to whom the late 60s and 70s are confined to the pages of history texts, no account is fully possible.

By mid-1966, though, I was weakening.  I had begun to wonder:  Did we need a Leviathan State?  Was socialism desirable (even in its so-called “democratic” form)?  Could metastasized governmental power, in its many disguises, lead to tyranny?

A month-long trip to the Soviet Union in July 1966 persuaded me that, unlike Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936), I hadn’t seen the future and thought it worked.  I was appalled by the soul-searing ubiquitous Soviet government.

Meanwhile, Michael Harrington had become an atheist. Coming to my senses, I knew I needed a worldview different from his – and better mentors. (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1)

Back at college, I was reading Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), whom I was to encounter in graduate school several years later. Voegelin’s insights into the truth of the soul and the totalitarian temptation to replace the divine work of salvation with the false promise of political redemption helped me to see that much of modern politics amounts to an attempt to rebuild the Tower of Babel.

Eric Voegelin

I was stunned by the hard Left and its nihilism. The moral and political pillars of the Republic were largely destroyed by the revolutionaries of my day.  Michael Harrington, to his credit, wrote about the danger of tyranny on both the Left and the Right.  He, and others of his socialist stripe, however, had repudiated truths without which no political enterprise can justly flourish.

By the time of his death in 1989, Harrington had seen the legal triumph of abortion and the dawn of a cluster of “progressive” policies, which emphatically deny the order of Grace and of Truth.  If, as Solzhenitsyn told us, we have forgotten God, it was Harrington and his allies who told us that it was all right, and even necessary, to do so. (cf. Jer 14:14)

Power does, indeed, tend to corrupt – and absolute power corrupts absolutely (as both Lord Acton and Frodo Baggins told us).  Modern politics is the narcissistic effort to substitute the self, or sex, or the state for the divine.  We worship the state and think it can save us from ourselves.  And the gravest ethical problem of our day is false mercy, in whose name we excuse political, legal, educational, criminal, and medical monsters.

When we forget that we are sinners, we are prone to being moral Frankensteins who create false gods and call them good: “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals.” (CCC#407; cf. 1888)

Two years after Michael Harrington died, Pope John Paul wrote this in Centesimus Annus: “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world. But no political society – which possesses its own autonomy and laws – can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God.” (25)

The worldview, or philosophy of life, which one should learn does not begin with the State, whose ruler will always be a lesser or greater Herod.  Our worldview begins, or ought to, with six words: “I know that my redeemer liveth.” (Job 19:25)

James H. Toner

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.