Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The insufficiency of the General Will

Bored by the election, I have avoided the news and taken to reading more substantial works. In addition to a few other minor projects, I've also picked up Warren--and now Ann--Carroll's fifth volume in his History of Christendom, The Revolution Against Christendom. I quote therefrom:

Unerringly Burke put his finger on the central weakness of the French philosophy: that in its passion for logical abstraction it did not recognize religion and morality. It boldly assumed that these were identical with the General Will: the popular vote or other mechanical manifestation of democracy that in some mysterious way embodied the aggregate of human reason and virtue while discarding human folly and passion. The French reformers, who had disestablished their Church, thought that under a perfect constitution men would have no need for religion because the ideal State would automatically create the ideal man.

The same pathetic delusion, caused by rejection of the dogma of original sin, was to grip the twentieth century in Marxist-Leninist communism, whose horrors were fully to match the worst of the French Revolution. (p.141)

Though the scope of his work prevents him from delving into primary sources, Carroll is a thorough historian. He is also a wonderful writer; each volume reads like a well told story--which, in fact, it is. All Catholics, indeed, all Christians, would do well to read his magnificent series.

Carroll's observation seems especially prescient in light of the moral supremacy given to the democratic system of government, most adamantly and ostentatiously by the neo-conservatives, but, to a lesser extent, by almost all American public figures.

An earlier chapter in Carroll's fifth volume corrects the notion that the American Revolution was a revolution at all; more correctly, it was an assertion of independence from the British crown. It is true that the founders weren't democrats, in the sense that, although they believed in representative government, they were ultimately wary--and wisely so--of the General Will of the people. But more importantly, the founders set up a government to address a specific set of grievances, elucidated in the Declaration of Independence, to secure three things: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". They suffered no delusions about the new government being an ideal State, and if some of them, like Jefferson, were deists, the bulk of the people were devoutly religious. Paul Johnson makes this point well in A History of the American People, examining in detail the role of the Great Awakening in the grand American experiment. It was, in short, their relations to religions, which separated the French Revolution from the American War for Independence; and the fervid hatred of the former, especially toward the Roman Catholic Church, was the reason for the bloodshed of The Terror.

It is only in this distinctly early American sense that I could call myself a democrat, and even then, not a very good one. Alexis de Tocqueville offers some cautionary advice toward supporters of the American conception of democracy; though well argued, and worthy of study, they are besides the point Carroll is trying to make: regardless of the particular flavor of the government, the morals of the people must be good if its rulers are to be. This suggests culture, formed extensively by religion, and, at least to Carroll and me, the Roman Catholic Faith.

6 comments:

lars shalom said...

bored bored bored

lichanos said...

Burke put his finger on the central weakness of the French philosophy...

Yeh, he was a good "conservative" critic. I wish there were some like him today. Of course, his views were also entirely self-serving and dogmatic in their rejection of democracy, but he did understand the intellectual weakness of the more hysterical elements of the French Revolution.

The same pathetic delusion, caused by rejection of the dogma of original sin, was to grip the twentieth century in Marxist-Leninist communism, whose horrors were fully to match the worst of the French Revolution.

Are we to assume that the acceptance of this dogma will mean a society free from cruelty, murder, despotism, etc? Surely you wouldn't counter the obvious examples I would provide by saying, "Oh, but those societies did not genuinely accept original sin..." Some old commies would say that the USSR was not really a communist society...


...corrects the notion that the American Revolution was a revolution at all

Yes, well, true in some ways, but see Wood's "Radicalism of the American Revolution."


...if some of them, like Jefferson, were deists, the bulk of the people were devoutly religious...

Dubious, at best. More probably, some were atheists, most were deists. The devoutness of the public is also in dispute. The Great Awakening was a big deal, but they have come and gone in America. Most of the Fathers were horrified by such religious excess, as they called it.

The notion that religious issues were at the root of the ferocity of the French Terror is absurd. Even Carlyle doesn't make such an assertion. Class warfare is a more likely explanation.

...the morals of the people must be good if its rulers are to be. This suggests culture, formed extensively by religion...

As a lifelong atheist whose morals are certainly as good as yours, and perhaps better, I take deep offense at this. Religion may support good morals, but that is not a necessary connection at all. And don't tell me that my morals are formed by religious culture, even though I am an atheist. Next you will be telling me I believe in God because I recognize fundamental laws in the working of the universe.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Are we to assume that the acceptance of this dogma will mean a society free from cruelty, murder, despotism, etc? Surely you wouldn't counter the obvious examples I would provide by saying, "Oh, but those societies did not genuinely accept original sin..."

The failure to recognize the imperfectability of man leads to delusional attempts to create utopia, which not only fails, but seems to inevitably create a hell on earth.

Some old commies would say that the USSR was not really a communist society...

Anything but that nonsense, please. Communism cannot exist because original sin, which men for some reason choose to deny, prevents it.

Yes, well, true in some ways, but see Wood's "Radicalism of the American Revolution."

I'll look it up. Carroll points out that whereas Adams agreed to represent the British soldiers of the "Boston massacre", the leaders of the French Revolution were dispensing with trial altogether so that they could keep the blood flowing.

The notion that religious issues were at the root of the ferocity of the French Terror is absurd. Even Carlyle doesn't make such an assertion. Class warfare is a more likely explanation.

I can go into this more in detail if you'd like, but the fact that priests and nuns had to go into hiding should suggest that this was more than mere class war. There was also the issue of the Temple of Reason in the place of Notre Dame.

Class war cannot account for the masses of lower and middle class who were guillotined with the handful of aristocrats. There was also the matter of getting rid of that danged Christian calendar.

Religion may support good morals, but that is not a necessary connection at all. And don't tell me that my morals are formed by religious culture, even though I am an atheist. Next you will be telling me I believe in God because I recognize fundamental laws in the working of the universe.

I don't know you, so I have no reason at all to slight your character. If you say you don't believe in God, I quite believe you.

The essential point here is that the French Revolutionaries believed they could make a better world without God. Lenin was to try the same thing much later. Both failed spectacularly.

History suggests that while dethroning God is easy enough, finding an adequate substitute has proven far more difficult--and bloody.

lichanos said...

My point is that history also suggests that religion is no guarantee at all of a good society. Society is pretty much always crumby. Stalin and Hitler are spectacularly horrible, but they also had the benefit of 20th century technology and social structures. Christendom did pretty well for itself in the field of blood and gore during its supremecy in the middle ages.

You ignore the fact that for many Frenchmen, the Church was part of the class structure. That's not a Marxist talking, just read what its critics wrote about it then! Churchmen ate - peasants starved!

Yes, they guillotined the bourgeoisie - I'm not defending the terror as rational, well organized, or even sensible given certain goals which were not, in the end, even clearly ennunciated.

The failure to recognize the imperfectability of man leads to delusional attempts to create utopia, which not only fails, but seems to inevitably create a hell on earth.

Well, here I agree with you! My feeling on this is not religious: I call it the Tragic view of life, as opposed to the idiocy of Utilitarians and Utopians. I never said religion had nothing to offer, just that it rarely follows its own prescriptions! As that much over-rated philosopher, Nietzsche, said, "The last Christian died on the cross."

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Lichanos,

I don't think our disagreement is very substantial. The Carroll book is my first in depth examination of the French Revolution. I've still much to learn.

I recently started reading Sacrilege which discusses at length the Sex Abuse scandals among the Catholic hierarchy, a good reminder that all our fallen, and that even the Church which I know and love is far from perfect.

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.