We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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First Things

Taylor Dinerman is a professional journalist and one of our long time readers. He has an ability to spur a lively dinner time discussion amongst visitors to North by Northwest in the upper west of Manhattan where he is often to be found. As you read on you will soon discover why!

For many years now I have subscribed to First Things, a monthly magazine put out by Institute for religion and Public Life whose purpose is to ‘advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society’. Obviously not a very libertarian endeavour, but the magazine does, on occasion support limited or small government ideas and stands firmly against the totalitarian monsters of our age. The editor Father John Neuhaus is a Catholic, but a very American one and the magazine is full of great stuff that for a non Catholic and Non Christian like myself (I am a not very pious Reform Jew.) is a window into a culture that is an important part of the world around me.

For readers of Samizdata the December 2006 issue has an article on ‘The Witness of Dietrich von Hildebrand’ by John Crosby, that they may find interesting. Hildebrand, a philosopher and theologian, was an early and unyielding opponent of Hitler’s who did ‘battle with the Nazi ideology at the level of philosophical and theological first principals.’

He said ‘the signature of the age’ was a certain anti-personalism. One expression of this anti-personalism was collectivism, the philosophy that takes human beings as mere parts in some collectivity. Hildebrand held that each human being as a person called by God and answerable to God is always more than a part in a social whole; as a person each exists before God as his own whole and thus refuses to be completely contained in any social whole. Each is a person at a far deeper level of himself than he is a member of the German State or of the English people, to say nothing of some political party.

There is a lot more like this and despite it being densely argued it tends to enlighten some of our current dilemmas. With a German theologian and philosopher as Pope these kinds of arguments and ideas may get more and more circulation. The Regensburg speech which pissed off the Muslims so much is another example of these kinds of ideas.

Libertarians and small government conservatives may find that on some issues they have a fellow traveler in the Vatican. Of course, the Pope is always going to be Pope first , any comfort he may give to us free market types will always be secondary to that role, but if he moves the Church away from the statist and collectivist doctrines that have occasionally been promoted by the Church over the last couple of centuries or more it will be a monumental change.

If it is done it will be done in language that will be difficult for laymen or non theologians to follow. The good effects (if any) may take years or decades to trickle down, but we all should be aware of the possibilities. This may be overly optimistic, but who knows ‘God’?

There is a link if anyone is interested.

11 comments to First Things

  • mike

    The link doesn’t seem to be working, is there any chance it can be fixed?

  • Pope John Paul II was also a philosopher and a personalist, and that is what made him so effective in his challenge of communist regimes. It also spoke to each person’s heart.

    I have read JP2 and von Hildebrand, and have used the personalist-phenomenological philosophical reasoning in discussing religious and nonreligious ideas with others, very effectively. Most folks are particularly inept at discussing religious ideas without merely just saying, “Well, it’s in the Bible,” rather than on merits and principles with a basis in reason, which is available to all.

    Communist pigs and capitalist pigs both treat persons as units of production. We are more than homo economicus. That’s a big JP2 theme. (Of course, he didn’t say pigs. LOL)

    The person as unit of production has really infected the modern mind. I work in higher education, and the word “individual” is used for “person” exclusively. Here I stand: I absolutely refuse to use the inanimate, reductionist word “individual” for to refer to a “person,” who has radical dignity in the eyes of God (for those of us who believe in such things) and who has unique, inalienable rights that are not given or taken away from the State. They pre-exist and are superior to the State and its entities (such as public higher education LOL).

    An individual (“unit”) is something to be managed by a bureaucrat.

    In the plural, I tend to use “persons” more than “people,” because the latter has been overused as a collectivist term that erases that radical dignity and rights of the person. “A people” is a bland mass of blancmange. A person is particular and unique, and persons keeps the emphasis on that particularity and uniqueness.

    First Things is a great mag. I sometimes read up on the website, http://www.firstthings.com, and nonreligious people can find some good stuff there.

    Please think about this individual/person issue and start tuning your ears to listen for the frequency of individual. It dehumanizes and puts a UPC bar code on each individual unit, as if he or she were an item for sale on the shelf at your local Wal-Mart. YUCK!!!

  • I have read First Things for years, and found it to be chock full of interesting thinking. Buy it if you can find it, otherwise, some of the articles can be found online at the website. Father Neuhaus always has pithy comments in his column at the end.

  • Paul Marks

    The key point is that the virtue of charity (which is understood by both Christians and non Christians as a virtue – although some people prefer to call it “benevolence”) can not be carried out by the State.

    The State is not a person, and although politicians and administrators are people the money they have is not their own – it is money they have taken by the threat of violence. So using some of it for (supposedly at least) the good of the poor is not an example of the virtue of charity.

    This used to be well understood. But since the work of Pope Leo XIII in 1891 (written under the influence of Cardinal Manning) understanding in this area has become much less clear.

    It is indeed Christian work for the Church to help the poor (with the resources given to it by the faithfull) and to encourage other people (Christians and non Christians) to do so. But to look to the State in these matters is an error – and a very great error. Great harm comes from this error.

    A second error is to confuse the virtue of justice and the virtue of charity. Justice is a matter of not violating the bodies and goods of others, it is a “cold” (as cold as a steel sword) “negative” virtue, it is vital to the extistance of society but it is not enough on its own. A just man may still not be a good man.

    However, it is does no good (indeed it does great harm) to try and struggle in other virtues (such as charity) under the name of “justice”.

    If a man violates justice and violates the body or goods of others, then he is a criminal and should be punished. If a man is uncharitable (say he passes by without helping a man who he sees hungry and cold) he is not a criminal and should not be punished.

    There is a difference between not being a fully good man and being a criminal – between a sin and a crime.

  • Pa Annoyed

    That’s a very interesting question. Is charity a virtue? Many certainly believe it is, and that is sufficient for a democratic choice of definitions, neverthess I think the question can still be asked.

    Is charity for the benefit of the giver or of the receiver? The Christian response seems to be that is is better to be a giver; and good is done in proportion to how much the giving hurts. We all remember the tale in Luke 21. But is this not merely a more subtle greed?
    Truly, the desire to store up treasures in heaven is the root of all piety.

    The words that disguise it have changed over the centuries, but modern religion is philosophically still true to its historical core. If charity were for the benefit of the receiver, then surely a million from a millionaire does more good than a penny from a pauper? No, here we come to the black heart of religion :- the sacrifice; the blood poured from the altar, the smell of burnt flesh a sweet savour unto the Lord.

    The people give always of their best to the high temple. The firstborn, the calf without blemish, the tithe; and the people are taught that no sacrifice is too great. They queue to be last in the hopes of being first. A true miracle: to demand everything they have under bilecurdling threat of an infinity of torment in a pit of burning brimstone, and be loved for it!

    So you are correct: the government cannot possibly give charity because it is not a true sacrifice. Politicians must all know they will burn in hell anyway, and there are better ways to buy votes. They can give only for the benefit of the receiver; to relieve suffering, to grant hope, to build a future without this endless sacrifice – and where is the virtue in that?

  • veryretired

    The crisis in the west is a moral crisis. For reasons much too complex to go into deeply here, the culture of the west has lost its moorings, and has lost not only any sense of attachment to its own identity and values, but, indeed, has lost any sense of what the definition of those values and identity might consist of.

    More importantly, in some ways, the west has forgotten that the justification for its existence, morally and culturally, is rooted in the sanctity of the individual person, the autonomy of that person’s mind and will, and the power that person owns as an entity in and of himself, from which all other social, political, and cultural powers are derived and legitimized.

    The interplay between Christianity and western culture is complex and ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of our cultural edifice, but it is the sequestration of religious doctine from political power that led the west to its dominence in the world, and it is the failure of other cultural doctrines, including Islam, to perform that surgery that will lead to their eventual collapse.

    Ancient Egyptian history is marked by periodic periods of crisis, when the theocratic state failed in its primary purpose of assuring the contentment of the gods, and drought, famine, or disease brought about the disillusionment of the peasantry, and subsequent turmoil.

    Other theocratic regimes in Asia, Central America, and modern Europe, have experienced similar catastrophic collapses when the promised “gnostic” secrets failed to insure health and prosperity. The former members of the marxist cults around the world are undergoing that painful re-examination even as we discuss this.

    The west has not engaged openly in the debate needed to clarify where it stands and what it stands for. Instead, by a combination of disinterest on the part of many, and subterfuge on the part of those assigned the responsibility of maintaining the intellectual underpinnings of our cultural definitions, cultural confidence and moral coherence have been replaced by cultural confusion, and moral insolvency.

    As Rand commented when describing the confrontation between individualism and collectivism in her era, and which is pertinent to the confrontation between islamic fascism and the west today, there is something clearly wrong when ruthless evil is confident and assertive, and rational morality is indecisive and fearful.

    Such is the state of our post-modernist, multi-cultural, relativist pop culture when confronted by a truly irrational and aggressive theocratic fascism, unapologetic in its convictions, and unabashed in its authoritarianism.

    Courage is found in the stout heart confident in its own values and beliefs. Far too many hearts in our modern western culture are in a permanent state of angina, waiting for some little miracle pill to stop the pain, and fill the emptiness of hearts, and souls, stunted and undeveloped.

    Our weakness is not material, but spiritual, and our salvation lies not in finding a lord, but in rediscovering ourselves as worthy entities deserving of life in its fullest and truest sense.

  • Midwesterner

    Democratic republicanism has completely replaced the constitutional republic’s mandated recognition of the individual as the principle unit of society.

    Democracy has become the religion of the 20th century. Is it the failure of this religion that is leading to the failure of confidence? Is democracy’s failure to “insure health and prosperity” the source of the “cultural confusion, and moral insolvency”?

    Everytime I hear speakers who substitute “democracy” for the protection of the individual as the core feature of our constitution, I feel like I am watching alchemists turning gold into lead.

    It is interesting that it is the ‘true believers’ who are most likely to defend the status of the individual and that it is the relativist interpreters of faith who are most inclined to adopt a collectivist, democratic, group-rights interpretation of Christian principles.

  • luckluckly

    It will be interesting the Pope visit to Turkey.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course the First Amendment does not seperate church and state (as the school books claim) it prevents the Congress giving any particular church an advantage or disadvantage. Some States still had established Churches (such as the town church system, from a list of five, that existed in New Hampshire till 1819).

    However, most relgious people have now accepted (I think rightly) that there should be a seperation of church and state this does not mean that the religious opinions of a candidate are not considered at election time – but it does mean that laws to favour one religious group over another are opposed by most relgious people (even if the laws are to the benefit of their own group).

    For example, the Roman Catholic church would oppose (and oppose quite honestly) any law then said only Roman Catholics could vote or hold office.

    And Protestant churches (real Protestant churches, not the dying “liberal mainstream”) that once held hating Roman Catholics as a basic part of their world view would now strongly defend the rights of Roman Catholics.

    Part of this is due to developments of theology (not all such developments are bad), but a lot of it is to with the fact that secular progressives (as Bill O’R. calls them) have violated the seperation of church and state by making war on religion.

    This started way back when progressive Protestants (by no means all Protestants supported the revival of government schools (which had gone into decline in the 18th century) to counter the church schools of Roman Catholic immigrants in the early 19th century. But it did not stop there. And nor did the progressive Protestants remain Protestants in any real sense for long – the “social gospel” of “liberal Christianity” developed into the modern left – with everything from government financed abortions (and, in the past, sterilizations and the rest of the eugenics agenda) to “sex education” and the rest of the Welfare State.

    The Roman Catholic church tried to adapt itself to the active state of such politicians as Disraeli in Britian (and those who came after him) and Bismark in Germany (and those who came after him) by accepting a government role in what are now called the social services (the 1891 move I mentioned). Indeed after Vatican II in the 1960’s in seemed as if the Roman Catholic church would join hands with the “liberal mainstream” in the Protestant churches (or by then the people whose parents had been Protestants) and in Latin America and other places sections of the Roman Catholic church are still bogged down in Marxist liberation theology – but I believe that the Roman Catholic chuch is slowly dragging itself away from this stuff.

    I am not a Roman Catholic and I may be wrong, but I have a strong sense that the worship of God (as opposed to the worship of “the people”) is gaining strength.

    This does not mean that I dispute veryretireds point about human being being worthy of respect. But the worship of people is a mistake even for athiests – and nor do the Liberation Theology worship people in some sort of Randian way (i.e. worship their achievements) they worship poverty and hold that only achievement worthy of praise is the “struggle” which will drag down “the rich”.

    The Western tradition of art and music are to be destoyed (they get rid of beauty in all its forms – as if they were fanatical Calvinists in the 16th or 17th century) as they are distractions from the “struggle” and are “elitist” anyway.

    Heaven is, to them, not a place we go to when we die to be with God. Heaven is a collectivist utopia to be built on this Earth – and God is just a personification of the “masses” (nothing to do with a “mass” in the sense of a religious service).

    I believe that these people (for all there vast power – for example in the theological colleges, and the administrative structures know as the “Bishops conferences”) are slowly losing.

    As for what Pa Annoyed says:

    “They can only give for the benefit of the receiver; to relieve suffering, to grant hope, to build a future without all this endless sacrifice….”

    Well if what is meant by “they” is politicians (and it may not be – Pa Annoyed may mean human beings in general) then NO, politicians as politicians (as opposed to in the private capacity as human beings) can not do any of these things (at least not in the long run – and, contrary to Lord Keynes, we now live in the long run).

    Indeed it is depressing to see (after all the exposures of the harm the Welfare State does) the same old promises trotted out.

    The Welfare State does not reduce suffering over what it would otherwise would have been – it increases it, it undermines civil society and the human character. It does not bring hope, it breeds despair.

    All Western nations will face a choice. Either they will turn away from the Welfare State, or they will see the collapse of civilization.

    Whatever may have been the short term effect of their actions (and, of course, at first the schemes were so tiny, relative to the size of the economy, that they hardly caused any economic or social damage, but with their incredible growth over recent decades society has been utterly transformed and is in the process of being utterly undermined), in the long run, Disraeli, Bismark and the rest have not proved to be benefactors to mankind.

    A tiny example of the harm the modern state does (quite seperate to the growth of the underclass – utterly dependent on government for schooling, income in the “working years”, medical care, and care in old age) is the case of the attack on homeschooling in Belgium.

    The right to educate one’s children at home is enshrined in the Belgium constitution of 1831 (and still has legal force). But the powers that be simply get round it by demanding that parents sign a “declaration” – full of United Nations “Rights of the Child” (“positive” rights of course) stuff, that conservative or libertarian partents (the parents who would be most likely to homeschool) could not honestly sign.

    And even if parents do sign – the government can simply send “inspectors” who (under no objective criteria) can make whatever judgement they wish to – for example order the children to be sent to government schools (in spite of there being no objective evidence of any lack of academic or “social” skills in the children).

    The recent persectution of Dr Alexandra Colen and Dr Paul Belien is a good example of how the modern state works.

    These parents have homeschooled four of their children (who then went on to university), but are now in trouble concerning the homeschooling of their youngest child.

    This is directly connected to the Dr Colen (the mother and a former universtity lecturer) being a member of Parliament for the Vlaams Belang (the Flemish political party that has to keep changing its name because of a long history of poltitical persecution by the Belgium state – for example a ban on the private funding of political parties, and then a ban on taxpayer funding of “racist” parties), and Dr Belien (the father – a former lawyer, and now a journalist) openly holding the opinion that the Belgium state is much too big (i.e. that taxes and government spending should be radically reduced) and openly holding the opinion that Islamic migrants are a threat to Belgium and other Western nations.

    For this latter opinion Dr Belien was threatened by Equal Opportunities and Opposition Against Racism (C.E.O.O.R.) organisation of the Belguim state. The C.E.O.O.R. is inspired by the doctrines of Herbert Marcuse (of Germany and later the United States) – i.e. it does not really care about Muslims as such, but sees them (and all other “minorities”) as a way to undermine society so that it may be smashed and rebuilt along Marxist lines.

    When Dr Belien invited the C.E.O.O.R. to prosecute him for whatever crime they thought him guilty of him they backed off – but then the government came after his child.

    This is what the state is about – nothing to do with helping people, or “building hope” or whatever.

    It is no different in Britain.

  • Pa Annoyed


    Nice one! Yes, I should have caveated the comment regarding the difference between ‘welfare’ charity and ‘development’ charity. In trying to argue the point over whether the fact it wasn’t their money made it non-charitable, I over-simplified the alternative.

    On the other hand, I’m not convinced that all charity is as inevitably counterproductive as you suggest. The essential point arguing in favour of investment for wealth creation over welfare for wealth redistribution is independent of who does it or why. A parent invests their time homeschooling their children, without generally expecting a return. This is charity. It is also a sound means of wealth generation. Education is an economic multiplier. It grants hope of a life with less sacrifice.

    When the government educates, this is also a positive. I will not argue that it can’t be better done privately, and will certainly not argue that the government shouldn’t refrain from interfering with the alternatives, but it is nevertheless a net positive as redistributive welfare is not. There is nothing inherent in the idea of government that means they cannot act in a long-term beneficial way – it is socialism you are arguing with here, not the state.

    Short term relief that enables people to survive and recover is good. Development aid that educates, builds infrastructure, and provides capital can start or accelerate the process of wealth generation, and may also be good. Continued aid to prop up a failed system is not.