Posts for Tag: politics

The pursuit of happiness

Medieval people believed with great seriousness that final happiness lay on the other side of death. They did not expect it in its fullness on this earth. But the methods of modern science provide no grounds for belief that there is anything beyond death. Hence, the whole freight of human happiness has to be carried in the few short and uncertain years that are allowed to us before death ends it all. The quest for happiness becomes that much more hectic, more fraught with anxiety than it was to the people of the Middle Ages.

There is a further implication of the emergence of the concept of human rights.... [T]he concept would have been meaningless in an earlier age. "Rights" only exist where there is a legal and social structure that defines them. Anyone can, of course, assert a need or express a wish apart from such a legal or social structure. But a claim to a right must rest upon some juridical basis. Asserting a right where there is no such basis would be like writing a check on a nonexistent bank. Therefore, if the right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is asserted, one has to ask, "Who is under obligation to honor the claim?" In the Middle Ages the answer was found within the network of reciprocal rights and duties. The man farming the land had a duty to provide troops to fight his lord's battle and a corresponding right to his lord's protection. Duties and rights were reciprocal. One could not exist without the other, and all were finite. But the quest for happiness is infinite. Who, then, has the infinite duty to honor the infinite claims of every person to the pursuit of happiness? The answer of the eighteenth century, and of those who have followed, is familiar: it is the nation-state. The nation-state replaces the holy church and the holy empire as the centerpiece in the post-Enlightenment ordering of society. Upon it devolves the duty of providing the means for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And since the pursuit of happiness is endless, the demands upon the state are without limit. If—for modern Western peoples—nature has taken the place of God as the ultimate reality with which we have to deal, the nation-state has taken the place of God as the source to which we look for happiness, health, and welfare.

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 26–7.

We are living through a moment of extreme irrationality

“To some extent, of course, politics has always played out, even in the most enlightened times, through visuals and suggestions, through hints and insinuations, and has always gone to work on us at an affective level. But new tools for carrying this work out, tools that combine both creative imagination and technical expertise, have ceded an outsized responsibility for our political destiny to the technologically literate but argumentatively sub-literate, to the meme-makers, to online subcultural insiders. It should not be altogether surprising that these sectors of society were not necessarily prepared to wield their new, tremendous power in a responsible way.

“We are living through a moment of extreme irrationality, of fervency and ebullience, of destabilization and fear. An important part of the story of how we arrived here seems to be the collapse of traditional safeguards for the preservation of rational procedures and deliberation.... Again, there are many people who evidently welcome this turn. It is rather those who value caution and reserve who feel suddenly as if they belong to another era, and have woken up to find their concerns, their habits—in short, their world—simply gone. It is those who have a weakness for legitimation from a crumbling establishment, from what will soon be the ancien régime, who have the most to lose, those who seek to preserve the old way of doing things: maintaining subscriptions to print media, publishing books, getting humanities degrees, supporting mainstream candidates in mainstream political parties, listening to well-reasoned arguments. These are the people who likely feel the sharpest disappointment at the seizure of the internet by the forces of aggression and chaos, at a moment when we can still hear echoing, from the most recent past, the grandest claims about its power to serve us as an engine for the rational ordering of human life in society....

“... we have most recently discovered the irrationality at the heart of the algorithm, or at least the impossibility of applying algorithms to human life while avoiding their weaponization by the forces of irrationality.”

Justin E. H. Smith, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (Princeton University Press: 2019), 17-18.

On nationalism and pledging allegiance

[There is] an impulse that can be dated back to the beginnings of the modern era and the rise of the state. Before the latter’s ascent, memberships in various social settings were overlapping and varied, ranging from families, neighborhoods, townships, boroughs, regions, guilds, Church (parish and Catholic), nation, even empire.

The state undermined competing allegiances by demanding primary allegiance to itself alone, and only secondarily and ‘voluntarily’ to these preexisting institutions. Such memberships became less and less ‘constitutive.’ Rather, such associations and memberships came to be viewed as secondary to our primary allegiance to a State that reserves the right to control, oversee, and define any other institution....

The only liberty that could be recognized was the liberty of individuals to 'pursue his or her own ends.' The ancient rights, privileges, immunities and liberties of institutions—the Church, universities, guilds, localities—were redescribed as forms of oppression. The increased power, even intrusiveness, of the state, was justified not as a form of oppression, but rather in the name of liberation of the individual....

During the bloody twentieth century, the Church stood against the totalitarian ambitions of Fascism and Communism. A third ideology is clearly flexing its muscles today—threatening to make those victories of the last century merely Pyrrhic. The totalitarian impulse today is embedded in the very logic of liberalism, which seeks to expand its dominion into every aspect of life and against every competitor to its demand for the exclusive allegiance of individuals. We need to keep firmly in mind the picture that adorns the Leviathan, and resist our absorption as individuals into the body of the state by retaining deep, abiding, and even primary allegiance to family, locality, and Church.

Patrick J. Deneen, "President Obama's Campaign For Leviathin" (First Things blog, October 3, 2012).

American Exceptionalism

The deepest theological danger inherent in American exceptionalism, then, is that of the messiah nation that does not simply seek to follow God's will, but acts as a kind of substitute God on the stage of history. When the concept of chosenness becomes unmediated by the church and unmoored from the biblical narrative, the danger is that the nation will not only be substitute church but substitute God. When the shrine is emptied of the biblical God and replaced with a generic principle of transcendence, there exists the danger that we will not come to worship God, but will worship our freedom to worship God. The empty shrine is surreptitiously filled. Our freedom itself becomes an idol, the one thing we will kill and die for.

William T. Cavanaugh, "Messianic nation: A Christian theological critique of American exceptionalism", University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 3, issue 2, article 6 (Fall 2005), 268. Read PDF article.