His critiques of the left are fair. But his description of the range of choices in public philosophy currently on offer is striking in what it leaves out. He posits that there are three possible positions for political philosophy: an insane, bossy humorless progressivism that denies human nature; the vitalism of his knockoff “Homeric” virtue, or the “social contract.”
He writes: “The left completely abandoned Americanism in the 1960s; at this point they’ve also abandoned biological reality. Vitalism is all that’s left against their demented biological Leninism.”
What? Why is vitalism all that’s left? Why on earth would the three things he’s listed be the only three options? Mike Anton had originally suggested that, as an alternative to grey-eyed oiled bodybuilders willing to kill for the City, he consider The American Founding™. To this, BAP basically responded “Nah, sounds boring.” Which… I mean, fair. But again, it’s not like the American founding is the most coherent or natural inheritor of the Western political tradition.
No one’s putting a gun to the guy’s head to force him to read Aquinas. But, despite what he claims in the piece, you don’t get to critique one system without having some germ of an idea of a better one. Solzhenitsyn, whom he cites, certainly didn’t. There is simply not any way to criticize something as ugly if you don’t know what beauty is, or as weak if you don’t know what strength is. These two, BAP would admit.
But BAP is not a consistent BAPist. He holds up strength and courage and thumos and beauty as goods, yes. And so they are. But in accusing the left of being “mendacious,” he holds up honesty as a good too. In denouncing “hysteria,” and in praising Claremont for their “courage to try to understand this countercultural moment in a spirit of objective consideration,” he holds up dispassionate reason as a good. And in his opposition to what he characterizes as the “tyranny” of the left, he holds up non-tyrannical government as a good: he calls for justice.
And he can’t do that from a position of pure agnosticism about what the good is, what justice is, and to pick beauty and strength out of the collection of the rest of the goods and decide to simply care about them is arbitrary; it breaks reality; because dammit the unity of the transcendentals is real.
There’s a reason that BAP can’t be answered satisfactorily by Michael Anton, whose response to him appeared today. Anton looks for “something above beauty, strength and daring,” and says that this something is “equality understood as a limiting principle to prevent or discourage strength and daring from abusing the common man.”
For Anton, in other words, goods are already in competition with each other; the principle of “equality” is the limit which must prevent one good from getting out of hand.
But this can’t be the case. Beauty is one of the ways to understand the highest good; it is one of its faces, so to speak. Further, in the Christian tradition, there are, properly speaking, no “common men.” Not, as Anton seems to think, because there’s no way to draw a correct bright line between common men and uncommon ones, because we all exist on a spectrum from base to noble, and we wouldn’t want the Sorting Hat to call someone with a soul of silver a bronze-soul accidentally. The Christian vision is something else entirely. The Lewis quote is overused because it is ever apropos:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
The principle that prevents strength and daring from abusing those who it might abuse is not equality, any more than Lewis’ weight of glory is a matter of equality. Not at all. Is it equality which prevents the strength and daring of a father from abusing his child? It’s absurd to think so. We aren’t called to fail to wrong each other because we recognize political equality, whatever that is. What we are called to do is to love, and to love at great cost.
Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.