August 2012 Archives

Thomas Aquinas, John Locke and Paul Ryan?

      Until recently, Congressman Paul Ryan repeatedly expressed his admiration and enthusiasm for the writings of Ayn Rand and he is reliably reported to have required that all of his Congressional staff to read Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Rand extolled unbridled selfishness and condemned altruism as a misguided instinct.

    Now that he is the presumptive GOP Vice Presidential candidate, however, Ryan has discovered the need to counter the public perceptions that he is an uncaring disciple of the gospel of selfishness. For that reason, Ryan has begun to insist that his worldview is largely inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas:"If somebody is going to try to paste a person's view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand."
      But is Ryan being truthful? Is Ryan, in fact, a Catholic conservative?
     The kind of anti-government rhetoric advanced by Congressman Ryan is at loggerheads with the Catholic social thought. That tradition, which traces its lineage from Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, to Catholic philosophers today, is fundamentally at odds with the kind of anti-social individualism that dominates current GOP political discourse. In stark contrast to Catholic social teaching, that discourse draws its values from the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation and was trumpeted by Thomas Hobbes, and, most importantly, John Locke and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. Because  Locke's political legacy inspired the Founding Fathers, was encoded into the constitutional  machinery of the United States, and has become embedded into popular consciousness, the gospel of selfishness had already found a receptive and enthusiastic audience along before Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" was touted as something new and fashionable.

     In contrast to Congressman Ryan's embrace of an ideology based upon radical individualism, Thomas Aquinas argued that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum  - the common good - which is synonymous with  justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Aquinas quotes Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."

      Aquinas also insisted that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality,"Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's neighbor, is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "...'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

     To the present, in addition, the Catholic conservative political tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their full potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens.That notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.

     Hence, while Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, Ryan and his right-wing antisocial individualists confidently assert that society is an abstraction and that only the individual is real. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who was steeped in the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is an abstraction and he rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes which belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves and to bind each of us as persons to our ancestors and our descendants. Which, then, is the abstraction: the individual or the society?

    If man is a reasoning being, Unamuno notes that this ability to reason, alone, is incontrovertible evidence that the individual is a social being: "But man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of society. There is  a little truth in the saying that the individual, like the atom, is an abstraction. Yes, the atom apart from the universe is as much an abstraction as the universe apart from the atom. And if the individual maintains his existence by the instinct of self-preservation, society owes its being and maintenance to the individual's instinct of perpetuation. And from this instinct, or rather from society, springs reason." Further,  "Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product."

     Unlike Locke who argued - as Paul Ryan has agreed - that the individual is the only concrete realty, that society is a phantasm, and that government is an artificial construct created solely by contract, conservatives contend that political societies, as historical entities, are the only operative reality: Political societies exist over the course of history, whereas individuals, as mere mortals, suffer abbreviated life spans.

     It was Edmund Burke, a Catholic sympathizer and an alleged favorite of William Buckley, who observed that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny: "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with  reverence; because it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."
    Catholic social thought emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as liberals would have it, the needs of individuals. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations. Instead, consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas, Jacques Maritain reminds us that  "...the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, since God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. For that reason Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. As Aquinas observed,"It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..." Historically also, Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.

    Aquinas' skepticism about the importance of accumulating material possessions has never been shared by Congressman Ryan. Rather, Ryan, as a radical individualist, would agree with John Locke that "The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."               

     Part of the confusion over whether Ryan's politics reflect consistent Catholic social teaching is directly attributable to the confusion and timidity of the current U.S. Bishops. Obsessed with matters sexual and reproductive, blind to enormous scandal in their own midst, and chosen primarily because of their obsequious, unquestioning loyalty to an increasingly rigid and doctrinaire pontiff, many U.S. Bishops have chosen to mute their fidelity and responsibility to teach and affirm historic Catholic teaching. Instead, they have entered into a Faustian bargain not to offend the GOP politicians like Ryan who agree with them solely on issues of contraception and reproductive rights. Although Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, decried Ryan's proposed  budget cuts this past spring for having failed the moral test of fairness, Cardinal Dolan of New York, sadly, continues to express his admiration for the Congressman and to praise Ryan's commitment to Catholic values.

    In contrast to Catholic social teaching, Paul Ryan has never expressed a commitment to the idea of social justice, nor is he able to comprehend the notion that the public interest is something different and distinct from a mere aggregation of self-interests. He would also undoubtedly disagree with Thomas Hill Green, the father of  "modern liberalism" who, after he witnessed  the pervasive human misery spawned by the Industrial Revolution, disavowed laissez-faire and concluded that government should be used as a positive instrument for the public good.

    Faced with a similar specter of poverty and economic inequality today, Congressman Ryan remains utterly oblivious to the suffering all around him. How can this insensitivity and indifference, Cardinal Dolan and other apologists notwithstanding, be reconciled with the message of the gospels and the social thought of Thomas Aquinas?

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Bread and Circuses?

  A number of events  of this summer have cast in stark relief the continued unraveling of civil society in the United States. These events raise a concern as to whether the majority of American citizens suffer from a kind of pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder that has rendered many of us unable to understand the implications of what we are seeing before our very eyes.


    While large parts of the country are consumed by wild fires, drought  and excessive heat, timid politicians on both sides of the aisle, fearful of offending corporate  interests and incurring the wrath of their Super PACS, continue to blithely ignore the unmistakable signs of global warming. As millions of acres of land in the States of Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado, to cite just three examples, have been consumed, most of their elected officials have insisted upon further reductions in state spending, including fire fighting, and decried federal spending while simultaneously demanding additional federal aide to help them combat the effects of a phenomenon that they continue to deny.          

    Within the past two weeks, the country has witnessed horrific two incidents involving the use of semi-automatic guns. After obligatory expressions of condolences from elected officials, and a moment of silence observed by the Congress in the wake of the Aurora tragedy, it is still virtually impossible to find any elected politician, whether Democrat or Republican, who will dare to suggest publicly - for fear of antagonizing the NRA and the gun-manufacturers' lobby -that there is something fundamentally deranged about a culture in which any virtually lunatic or white supremacist can purchase unlimited numbers of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition anonymously at unregulated gun shows or over the internet. Sadly, the current incumbent at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from whom we expect more, as well as the dauphin-in-waiting, from whom we expect nothing, have equally failed the test of leadership in refusing to address the need for a vigorous response to this unending mayhem.

    This collective insanity has been blessed by the imprimatur of the country's highest court. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), five linguistically-challenged, right-wing jurists, who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior, cavalierly disregarded the principle of stare decisis and set aside what had heretofore been the settled Second Amendment jurisprudence. In overturning United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), Justice Scalia claimed to divine some constitutional right on the part of individuals to bear arms, and  piously intoned, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."    

    A third ominous example involves the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in states as varied as Massachusetts, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, among many others, where SuperPACs are determined, through the use of electronic media and negative ads, to control the election results and thus gain complete control of the machinery of government. The phenomenon was again sanctioned by the same five result-oriented jurists on the Supreme Courts who comprised the one-vote majority in the Heller case. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. ____, 30 S. Ct, 876 (2010), these ideologues held that corporations were people within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and that, as such, expenditures of money by them to influence the outcomes of  political  elections were protected speech under the First Amendment.

    The journalist Eric Schlosser has predicted that,"The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power." In a similar vein, Harvard political philosopher John Rawls warned that, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed."

    Their concerns were recently echoed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) who in public comments observed that, "So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And, that's only what has been publicly disclosed. This $61 million does not include about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season. These 26 billionaires have a combined net worth of $146 billion, which is more than the bottom 42.5 percent of American households (equal to nearly 50 million families in the United States.)"  Sanders added, "What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: 'You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government."    

      The response of ordinary citizens to these appalling developments is profoundly disheartening. In the second century A.D., the Roman poet Juvenal lamented the demise of the Roman Republic after it was corrupted into an oligarchy, largely, he believed, because of the indifference of its citizens: "Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions -- everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."(Juvenal, Satire 10.77-81)
      Will history be allowed to repeat itself? Have too many Americans opted to become merely passive spectators, content to surrender our rights and eschew our civic responsibilities, in return for an endless menu of NASCAR and 24 hour reruns of the Kardashians on cable television?    

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