Category: philosophy

A Defense of Virginia and the South

Portrait_of_Robert_Lewis_DabneyA while back, over at Throne and Altar, Bonald pointed out that leaving the Enlightenment framework is only the beginning of thought. Once one rejects Liberalism root, tree, and branch, and embraces the Right, the rubric for judging historical figures and events is totally different, and it’s no longer clear without further investigation who the “good guys” in a given conflict were. Progressives occasionally mock the “gotta hear both sides” attitude, but once one is on the Right it becomes necessary, even in situations where the “correct” side always seemed obvious before.

So, one comes to the War Between the States, which is a major part of Progressivism’s triumphant narrative of itself, and finds that the whole thing needs re-evaluation. That the South was in the right has, frankly, always seemed obvious to me, but there are a few different ways to arrive at this conclusion, each one varying degrees outside the Overton Window. Some examples:

  • The South was right because I’m a Southerner and always support my own people. This attitude of “my country right or wrong” is the most reactionary of all in some sense; it’s certainly the least ideological, and rests purely on natural human loyalties. It’s not very satisfying intellectually, though, and we (moderns, at least) can’t help but want to know if we’re really in the right.
  • The South was right because of States’ rights. This attempts to set aside the slavery issue and focuses on arguing that because the States were sovereign they could secede for any reason. This legalistic argument is common and, I think, basically right as far as it goes in appealing to the logos, but isn’t rhetorically effective because it doesn’t address the pathos at all and only touches on ethos in the abstract issue of law, not in the more visceral slavery issue.
  • The South was right because the Union was wrong. In other words, take the fight to the Union and argue that Abraham Lincoln and company were criminals. Thomas DiLorenzo takes this approach in The Real Lincoln, and he’s a relatively neutral source since he’s a Libertarian and neither the Union nor the Confederacy were meaningfully Libertarian governments. This argument is also correct and somewhat effective; it’s far more effective rhetorically to attack than defend, but a positive defense of the Confederacy is still lacking in this approach.

Now, all three of these typically come with a disclaimer that, though the Confederate States had the authority to secede from the Union, abolishing slavery was a good outcome of the war. However, this approach is ultimately rather weak; for most people, slavery seems so evil on a visceral level that it’s near-impossible to set aside. Besides, I’ve been on the Right long enough that I can smell a concession to modern sensibilities, and this has just that distinctive odour. These positions peek outside the Overton Window, maybe even open it up and smell the rose bushes outside, but are careful not to venture too far.

Some politically incorrect positions prompt stronger reactions than others. To reject republicanism and embrace monarchism is to leap out the Overton Window with a running start, but to most observers it just comes across as eccentric. Some positions, though, are more like turning back toward the Overton Window hurling a Molotov Cocktail right at the feet of those inside. Today, we have just such a rhetorical arsonist in Robert Lewis Dabney, with his 1867 book A Defense of Virginia and the South, and the fuel for this cocktail is not even necessarily agreeing with, but simply giving a fair hearing at all to this thesis:

There is nothing inherently wrong with slavery.

Now, Dabney presents a wide range of arguments across nine chapters, so I’m going to take the simplest approach and go through the book chapter-by-chapter. As I generally do, I’ll quote heavily and let Dabney do most of the arguing for himself, and content myself with providing some context and commentary; in other words, this won’t be a full analysis and criticism, but more of an introductory sketch of Dabney’s position.…

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G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

Last year, I read G.K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, and just got around to reading the follow-up, Orthodoxy. The earlier volume focuses on criticising modern ideas, essentially “bursting the bubbles of ‘clever sillies,'” as I put it in my last review. Here, he attempts to state his own philosophy in positive terms, and most of the book goes through various ideas that lead him to become a Christian. This isn’t in the form of a Catechism or series of logical proofs like the Summa Theologica or De Romano Pontifice, though. Rather, it’s more of a series of loosely connected observations. As he says, I think accurately, “the evidence in my case… is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts… a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.” In other words, people aren’t convinced of something because of a powerful proof, but because a number of seemingly disparate observations all point in the same direction.

Unfortunately, though there is some very good material here, it’s a weaker volume than its predecessor. Most of the book is fine, of course, but applying common sense to modern “heresies” is easier than building up a positive case, and the latter requires a more rigorous, traditional sort of approach to philosophy, which isn’t Chesterton’s strong suit. As a result, though the book is still well worth reading, there are a few major arguments that are surprisingly weak.

Let’s start with some of the strong points. Those on the Right today will likely have seen the argument that Progressivism is, in a sense, a “Christian heresy,” and Chesterton makes a broadly similar point about modernity:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone… For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race— because he is so human.

I’m not sure who Mr. Blatchford is, due to Chesterton’s understandable but annoying habit of not explaining his references, but one senses that he was on the farthest end of a contemporary holiness spiral. Progressives are certainly anti-Christian, as they often claim to be, but Chesterton is correct in this early observation that they attempt to be “holier than Jesus,” so to speak, and try to take certain Christian virtues without the underlying reason behind them. It may be an interesting research project to see who was the first to make this connection between Progressivism or Liberalism and Christianity, but Chesterton is the first that I’m aware of.

Speaking of early observations of modern trends, Chesterton also noticed that Liberals like to appeal to The Current Year as if it’s a decisive argument. He writes, “An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another.” He then makes the obvious point that a dogma is either true or it is not, regardless of what the calendar says. Just because one idea is newer than another or even arose from another does not mean that it has meaningfully progressed, in the sense of improved, in any way. As he says in a later discussion, in a comparison to Darwinian evolution, some men “think that so long as they were passing from the ape they were going to the angel. But you can pass from the ape and go to the devil.”

All good so far, and becoming of the Apostle of Common Sense. Then, we get this discussion:

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common… The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe)… is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.…

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Notes on Bellarmine’s De Romano Pontifice

I’ve noticed that native English-speakers often assume that anything worth reading has either been written in English or, at least, has been translated into English. However, the more one branches out intellectually the more one finds that this is by no means the case. Take, for example, St. Robert Bellarmine’s De Controversiis, which is available only in parts in English. Fortunately, translator Ryan Grant over at Mediatrix Press has been working on a project to translate as much of Bellarmine’s work as possible, beginning with the first part of De Controversiis, called De Romano Pontifice (or On the Roman Pontiff). I’ve just finished the first two books, which Mediatrix Press collects into one volume; the remaining three books will be out in another volume later this year.

I reviewed another part of De Controversiis last year, De Laicis, and it was one of the five best books I read in 2015 and one of the most useful works on politics I’ve ever read. De Romano Pontifice has fully lived up to the expectations set by that work; if someone wants to know how a Christian approaches government, De Laicis is an excellent starting-point, and if one wants to read a defense of the papacy, De Romano Pontifice is, so far, looking like an indispensable resource.

Now, whether it’s the best starting point is another question. Bellarmine is extremely thorough, and in the first two books has spent a few hundred pages addressing basic questions like whether the Church ought to be governed as a monarchy, whether St. Peter was truly given authority over the other Apostles, whether he went to Rome, whether his authority is passed down to his successors, and so on. He also makes sure to answer every objection he’s aware of from the Eastern Orthodox and early Protestant churches to the papacy, typically quoting directly from the authors he’s answering. Generally, Bellarmine begins each section of the book with a question, which he answers, then lists objections, then goes through them one-by-one, primarily relying on Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, but also getting into the meanings of Greek or Hebrew terms, history, and simple logic.…

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Heretics (75 Books LXV)

Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton, is another book that I read back in college but decided to revisit recently since I’ll also be reading its follow-up, Orthodoxy, in the near future. That may have been unnecessary, though, because as enlightening and entertaining as Chesterton is, one always knows what to expect from him in his essays, and if you’ve read, say, Tremendous Trifles, What’s Wrong with the World, or any of his other non-fiction work, you know what you’re in for. Here, he goes through a set of erroneous modern ideas put forward by various prominent people, such as Rudyard Kipling or H.G. Wells, and demonstrates why they’re wrong typically by way of a paradox and with several asides.

For example, while discussing Thomas Carlyle’s arguments for aristocracy, he writes:

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle’s pathetic belief (or any one else’s pathetic belief) in “the wise few.” There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob… And no oligarchies in the world’s history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies— the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies— the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.

I recall an acquaintance criticising Chesterton for not being “rigorous” is his writing, and since I’ve also written about some “higher class” philosophers this year, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that he’s known as the “Apostle of Common Sense” for good reason. He wrote for a general audience, and addressed that audience perfectly. His reasoning is (almost) always sound, and he’s obviously well-read, but those expecting in-depth Socratic dialogues or Thomistic systematization will be disappointed. Chesterton’s strength, though, is bursting the bubbles of “clever sillies,” that is, the type of person who is genuinely intelligent and well-read, but has reasoned himself into something nonsensical. I don’t recall the context, but I once saw an idea criticised as something “only a philosophy grad student could believe.”

As much as I enjoy Chesterton’s writing, there are a couple small things that bother me. He’s rather too “democratic” minded at times, as in the passage above. Also, he can be a little self-indulgent, getting to his points via roundabout paths, and reveling almost too much in his own paradoxes. Which, now that I think about it, is also a complaint brought against Mencius Moldbug, though Moldbug is more systematic. In any case, neither of these are major problems, and the latter just makes his essays a little more monotonous if one reads a lot of them at once, since they all have basically the same style and structure.

As I said, I will move on to the follow-up book Orthodoxy soon, but honestly I prefer Chesterton’s fiction over his essays, even though he seems better-known for the latter. His epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse is one of my favourite books, and I’d also highly recommend The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday to anyone. If you haven’t read Chesterton before, I’d start with one either Ballad or Napoleon, then pick a collection of essays, because he’s one of the few authors whose fiction and non-fiction are mutually enlightening.…

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Education at the Crossroads (75 Books LXIV)

Education at the Crossroads is a revised version of a series of lectures Jacques Maritain gave at Yale University in 1943 in which the author discusses, in four parts, “The Aims of Education,” “The Dynamics of Education,” “The Humanities and Liberal Education,” and “The Trials of Present-Day Education.” In other words, what education is, where it is now, and where it will, or at least ideally should, go.

Maritain’s idea of and approach to education is one that was probably moderate or Conservative by the standards of 1943, though by today’s standards I suppose one would call him a Paleoconservative. In any case, he’s a believer in a Liberal education (not a Progressive one, in today’s confusing terminology), and he defines the aim of education early on:

It is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person – armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues – while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations. The utilitarian aspect of education – which enables the youth to get a job and make a living – must surely not be disregarded, for the children of man are not made for aristocratic leisure. But this practical aim is best provided by the general human capacities developed. And the ulterior specialized training which may be required must never imperial the essential aim of education.

In other words, education exists to hand down a culture, provide moral training, and essentially set him up to acquire wisdom. It is not primarily technical or vocational training, though it may aid in training for one’s eventual career and can, and probably should, provide some “practical” knowledge to that end. Unfortunately, by 1943 schools had begun losing sight of this goal, and the problem has only grown worse since then. There’s no underlying philosophy or ultimate, agreed-upon goal for what an educated college graduate should look like, so university curricula are an incoherent mess of “core classes” of history, mathematics, humanities, and other components of a Liberal education, but these have no connecting tissue between them and in effect are mostly just filler for the vocational training that most students attend university for. I noticed this problem during my own university education and wrote about it near the end of my junior year and again shortly after graduation, and Maritain drives right to the heart of this problem.

Maritain’s defense of Liberal education reminded me of  Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is what I’ve generally looked to in the past as the ideal of what a university education ought to look like. One difference, however, is that Maritain’s idea is much more democratic. Cardinal Newman takes for granted that many students aren’t suited for higher education, but Maritain writes in the third part, “In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all…” He also speaks elsewhere of the importance of Liberal education for all members of a democratic society. Now, it’s certainly best to offer university education to as many citizens as possible, but frankly many, if not most, people are not suited to higher education and to force them through it anyway is a waste of resources and cruel to the student. We’ve seen what happens when we try to get as many people into university as possible, and the result is a lowering of standards and the fragmentation of the curriculum just criticised above. Now, clearly, the modern university is not at all what Maritain argues for, but it’s the predictable, near-certain outcome of pursuing universal education.

That faulty assumption aside, though, Education at the Crossroads is still worth the relatively short reading time (it’s 118 pages in my edition), though I’d recommend supplementing it with Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is a more focused and thorough treatment of university education.…

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Ideas Have Consequences (75 Books LIX)

I probably should’ve learned my lesson from reading Evola and Boethius that trying to read anything particularly sophisticated as an e-book, especially since this usually means just reading during lunch break at work, is a bad idea. However, that’s the format I owned Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences in, so that’s what I did. As with Evola and Boethius, I’ll need to re-read this someday in a dead-tree version, because I had a hard time following some of Weaver’s arguments, and I’m sure that’s my own fault.

In any case, Consequences is an ambitious work that traces the origins of Liberalism to William of Occam’s idea of nominalism, and then proceeds to demonstrate the consequences of that idea in modern art, work, property rights, and many other things. There are a couple possible dangers to this sort of broad approach to tracing the genealogy of Liberalism. The first is that one can oversimplify the problems one’s society faces, and start to think that one can fix it with “one weird trick” by striking at one underlying issue. The other is that Rightists sometimes turn this into almost a parlour game or a competition of “Rightier than thou” by tracing the origin of Liberalism back farther and farther, until one starts to wonder if perhaps the Code of Hammurabi is what ruined everything. Fortunately, Weaver avoids both of these potential problems.

Though he wrote this in 1948, both the general thesis and Weaver’s specific examples are still very much relevant. While discussing education, for example, he writes:

[Americans] have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

This is still true today, and has only gotten worse in the decades since Weaver wrote. When writing about journalism, he makes an observation familiar to anyone used to seeing mainstream journalists compare anyone and anything vaguely Right-wing to National Socialism: “I have felt that the way in which newspapers raked over every aspect of Adolf Hitler’s life and personality since the end of the war shows that they really have missed him; they now have no one to play anti-Christ against the bourgeois righteousness they represent.”

Consequences is one of those books that one can quote almost in its entirety, but it’s most effective, of course, read together. So, I’ll just say that it’s deservedly one of the relatively few classics of the American Right, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.…

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Saint Paul (75 Books LVIII)

In 2008 and 2009 Pope Benedict XVI devoted a series of General Audiences to discussing St. Paul, which have been collected in this book titled, with admirable straightforwardness, Saint Paul. Over the course of twenty chapters he gives an overview of the Apostle’s life and teaching.

Pope Benedict has a reputation for having a professorial demeanour, and it’s easy to understand why when reading this. Much of the book reads like a good university lecture, and for a short book aimed at a wide audience His Holiness spends a fair amount of time discussing the background of St. Paul’s life, cross-referencing scripture, and even includes some etymology. Though he does attempt to make this material “relatable,” it’s clear that he doesn’t just want to give a motivational speech, but actually wants to teach the reader something. Even the tone of the book reminds me of some of my better professors, raising and answering questions and introducing each topic like a class.

The main problem with the book is that it’s too short to go into much detail. In each chapter, His Holiness is only able to sketch out the topic at hand, so those wanting an in-depth discussion of St. Paul’s writing will have to look elsewhere.…

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Leviathan (75 Books – LI)

I’ve found that a strong majority of books reputed to be classics do indeed live up to their reputation, both in fiction and non-fiction. Once in a while, though, I’ll finish one and think, “That’s it?” Unfortunately, that was my reaction to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.

Now, I’ll be conservative in judging the book. It could be that I’m the problem – intellectual hubris is one of modernity’s characteristic vices, and I don’t want to fall into that if I can help it. Besides, the book certainly does have some good material. For example, while discussing things that harm a commonwealth, Hobbes compares the idea of dividing sovereignty among multiple branches to a Siamese twin, which is an apt analogy. Elsewhere, he writes that “Leasure is the mother of Philosophy; and Common-wealth, the mother of Peace, and Leasure. Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy.” The best artistic and intellectual work has often been done or sponsored by those with leisure, i.e. the nobility. Furthermore, the advance of philosophy depends upon peace, which seems like an obvious point but moderns often shy away from measures that help ensure peace and take civilisation for granted.

However, Leviathan does have some problems. It seems far too wide-ranging, for one thing. The most famous portion of the work is that on civil government, but this is only the middle part. Before that Hobbes discusses the senses, the nature of language, memory, and other topics that seem rather too basic as a starting-point. The last part concerns “a Christian Common-wealth,” and is essentially a work of theology or moral philosophy, and a good deal of Protestant apologetics. He spends most of one chapter, for example, attempting to refute a work by St. Robert Bellarmine on papal authority, though since I haven’t read the book in question I don’t know if he succeeded or not. His arguments in this part vary widely in quality, but frankly a course in Protestant theology is not at all what I signed up for, so to speak, though I’ll admit that may be unfair on my part.

I read the edition published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Richard Tuck. CUP’s books tend to be about as nice as paperbacks come, plain covers aside, and I appreciate that it retained Hobbes’s spelling and marginal notes, which serve essentially as a running outline of the work. Tuck also provides a helpful introduction and footnotes that point out variances in the early editions of Leviathan, though these tend to be so minor that only the most devoted students will likely be interested.

Should one read Leviathan, then? It’s hard to say “no,” simply because the work is so well-known and respected that anyone who takes political science seriously ought to have some familiarity with it. For myself, I found Sir Robert Filmer’s short commentary on Leviathan more interesting than the original work, as Filmer strikes at Hobbes’s first principles and assumptions. In any case, go ahead and give it a read, then check out Filmer afterward.…

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The Consolation of Philosophy (75 Books – XLIX)

The Consolation of Philosophy is one of those books that’s difficult to discuss without doing a full analysis, so I’ll be a lot briefer than the book deserves. Boethius covers the problem of evil, the nature of happiness, and a couple related topics, in the form of a dialogue in prison between himself and Lady Philosophy. It does have some more poignancy than most works of philosophy, because Boethius was in fact in prison awaiting trial for an alleged crime of treason, of which he was innocent, while writing the book. Boethius and Lady Philosophy also end or begin each part of the book with poetry, which no other philosopher I’m aware of does and which adds some aesthetic value, though strictly speaking the poetry didn’t seem necessary on my first read-through.

The dialogue reminds me of Plato’s Republic, and the method of Lady Philosophy’s discussion is similar to Socrates in that she will often question Boethius and draw out ideas, or at least starting points, from him. Boethius is more direct than Plato, though, as Philosophy tends to lay out a logical case for the point under discussion in a more-or-less direct fashion after Boethius’s initial answers to her questions.

I read the e-book edition published by Ignatius and translated by Scott Goins and Barbara Wyman. I can’t vouch for the accuracy, of course, but the English was easy to follow and about as natural as a philosophical dialogue can sound. The poetry, though not bad, struck me as a bit plain. However, that may just be carried over from the original, and may have simply been a stylistic choice.

In any case, the book is, of course, a must-read for anyone interested in the subject, and one can easily see why Boethius was so respected for centuries after his death.…

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De Laicis (75 Books – XLI)

The best Catholic writers tend to be the ones who divide the world into Catholics, schismatics, heretics, Jews, and pagans, with no “separated brethren” nonsense. St. Robert Bellarmine takes just this approach in De Laicis, in which he discusses the nature and scope of political power and its relationship to the Church. His answers tend to be orthodox by the standard of the time and the book isn’t very long, but it’s an excellent and uncompromising primer to a traditional Catholic understanding of the state.

Now, most of the book was written in answer to objections to Christians holding political power raised by various Protestant groups at the time, but much of it reads like a response to the modern Christian Libertarian crowd. For example, some Anabaptists apparently believed that while kings were given to the Jews, Christians should not have secular rulers. Bellarmine responds, in part:

But the contrary is true, for in the beginning the Prophets predicted that all the kings of the earth would serve Christ and the Church, which could not come to pass unless there were kings in the Church. “And now, O ye kings, understand; receive instruction, you that judge the earth; embrace discipline,” according to the Hebrew Naschechubar, “embrace ye the Son”, whom in the same Psalm the Scriptures call the Messias… And, “Kings shall be Thy nursing fathers and queens Thy nurses: they shall worship Thee with their faces towards the earth and they shall kick up the dust of Thy feet.” We have certainly seen this fulfilled in the cases of Constantine, Theodosius, Charlemagne, and others who venerated the tombs of the Apostles and Martyrs, and endowed and protected churches.

Many of the arguments draw from Scripture or the Church Fathers, as one would expect of a book primarily addressing a conflict between Christians. While writing about Dante’s Monarchia, I mentioned that many of the poet’s arguments draw as much from Aristotle or simple reason as Scripture. Bellarmine, however, caters his argument entirely towards fellow Christians, and uses Scripture and the Church Fathers as his primary authorities. Non-Christian readers may still agree with some of his conclusions, but not how he arrives at them. For example, he addresses an early version of the “social contract” theory, which drew from Cicero and stated that at one time men “wandered about in the manner of beasts,” but were later persuaded to live together in society. Bellarmine then says, “But that state of affairs never existed, nor could it have existed at any time. For Adam was a very wise man, and without doubt did not allow men to wander about like beasts, and Cain, his son, even built a material city; before Cain and Adam, man did not exist.” Non-Christian Rightists would certainly agree that this proto-social contract theory is nonsense, but certainly not for this reason!

A few of Bellarmine’s positions are not as reactionary as one might expect. While discussing sovereignty, for example, he states, “Divine law gives this power to no particular man, therefore Divine law gives this power to the collected body. Furthermore, in the absence of positive law, there is no good reason why, in a multitude of equals, one rather than another should dominate.” So, while he certainly does not object to monarchy, he does not consider it inherently better than an aristocracy or republic. Sir Robert Filmer would directly address some of Bellarmine’s arguments in his work (and John Locke, in turn, would respond directly to Filmer), though it may be worth pointing out that Bellarmine here follows Aristotle, who supported a mixed form of government, more closely than some of the philosopher’s Medieval, monarchist students, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante, who did argue that monarchy is best in tune with natural law.

Not that Bellarmine is, by any means, a soft-hearted man. After introducing the idea that a nation ought to allow freedom of belief, he writes:

But this error is most harmful, and without doubt Christian rulers are in duty bound not to allow freedom of belief to their subjects, but to afford opportunity that that faith may be preserved which the Catholic Church, and especially the supreme Pontiff, says should be held. It is proved first from Scripture, “the king, that sitteth on the throne of judgment, scattereth away all evil with his look.” And likewise, “A wise king scattereth the wicked.” Indeed, it cannot be denied that heretics are impious. And the same is said, “And now, O ye kings, understand, receive instruction, you that judge the earth. Serve ye the Lord with fear.”

He spends more time on this question than any other, understandably so since this was such a major issue at the time. What he believes should be done in a state that already has a large number of heretics, though, he doesn’t say. Interestingly, he doesn’t object to tolerating Jews, because their scriptures contain the prophecies that the New Testament fulfills, because they’re clearly not Christians (as opposed to heretics, who are wolves in sheeps’ clothing), and because they do not proseletyze anyway.

In any case, while one may disagree with some of Bellarmine’s conclusions (for example, in today’s world it seems wise to work with Protestants where possible), De Laicis makes for good reading if only as a reminder of a time when the Church’s bishops appeared absolutely confident in what the Church teaches, and were unafraid of speaking boldly against error.…

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