Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jesus Does Not Shrug

Personally, I avoid attaching myself to any current political classification: one might say that I am a slow-minded scholar who is still pondering many questions of history and politics. I vote, and my vote is practical, based on issues that are concrete and essential, but my political philosophy is still in formation. I am a Catholic Christian, and what I desire for the world is a new form of an old ideal: a social order founded upon the human person in his whole and integral dignity, who is free above all to pursue in society that which transcends the world: his eternal destiny. This is neither individualism nor socialism, but it involves the recognition that human beings who are made for God are also made for one another, for a communion of life and love that embodies itself in institutions: the family first of all, then the local community, the diverse associations that bring together people pursuing various constructive interests, and the civic community on various levels, all served by a government ordered to the integral common good of a truly human social life. Ideally, the whole is imbued by the spirit of the Gospel and the recognition of Christ's mercy and charity as the ultimate measure of society--an ideal not imposed by coercion, but disseminated by love. If this sounds like the politics of Mother Teresa, then so be it. It is what the late, great L. Brent Bozell Sr. called The Politics of Mercy.

In the United States, it is not surprising that I find myself in many ways a fellow traveler with people who call themselves "conservatives." Certainly I share their judgment on certain basic social and moral issues, and I appreciate their concerns with what seems today to be the attempted intrusion of large government machinery, bureaucracy, and regulation into the lives of persons, families, and communities. But there is an individualistic streak that sometimes (perhaps inadvertently) makes its way into the conservative mind-set, and I feel the need to warn my conservative friends of dangerous ideologies that prey upon this tendency. In the face of the invasion of the sphere of human freedom, there is the temptation to exalt human freedom to the point that the individual becomes an idol. Of this, my friends, beware.

The preceding introductory reflections lead me to the main practical point of this entry. Lately I've been hearing more buzz that I care to about a name that ought to be buried deep in the archives of second rate literature and philosophy. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand is on a posthumous comeback tour. Her books are being reprinted and sales are booming. Some conservatives--not just the talking heads, but serious, intelligent, reflective conservatives--are hailing her as a prophet. It will all peak this summer, when a glossy Hollywood film is set to be released based on her notable and strange 1000 page novel Atlas Shrugged.

I will admit that I have read very little of Atlas Shrugged. It has never managed to capture my interest, and if I am going to go for a 1000 page novel I am more likely to give my attention to that treasure of human wisdom and humor, Don Quixote (which is not to imply that I am quixotic, in spite of what one might think of my stated political ideals; I know that Don Quixote is a fool--perhaps a holy fool, but a fool nonetheless--and that the real hero of the novel is Sancho, but let us leave that for another blog). I do not have the inclination to slog through Atlas Shrugged or any other of her novels. I am, however, more than a little acquainted with the philosophical theories that inspire them and that drove the woman who wrote them.

Ayn Rand was a rabid atheist whose radical individualist philosophy of "rational egoism" rejects God, any kind of Christian conception that would allow for love of God and love of neighbor, not to mention many fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. She is the polar opposite of a socialist, and we must not allow our frustration with liberals to draw us into the vortex of the imagination of a woman who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. I see too many conservatives tempted to take this road. It is founded on pride. It is as ugly, inhuman, and wrong as the system it opposes.

And one must not be lured in by her claims to be a disciple of Aristotle and her defense of objective reality independent of the mind and knowable by reason. In her philosophy, man has an Aristotelian mind but a Nietzschean heart. Rational self-interest is the highest value. There is no place for love or interpersonal communion in her philosophy; it is almost a kind of anti-Christianity, which she herself recognized in her hatred of Christianity, which she called "the kindergarten of communism."

Atlas Shrugged the movie may be entertaining, I don't know. The idea of intelligent, creative, productive people who are being leeched on by the rest of society deciding to blow off that society and work for themselves might give honest, hard-working people a bit of a thrill, but underlying the whole thing is pride and that kind of hatred of human weakness that pride engenders. I am particularly concerned that Rand will appeal to conservatives because of her apparent objective and rational epistemology. But it’s a trojan horse for the Ubermench (Superman). It attacks the very heart of Christianity. Rand's superman is such precisely because he does not live for another. Perhaps her horror of socialism in the Soviet Union and its perversion of Christian ideals drove her to the opposite extreme; perhaps it was fear that caused her to imprison individual egos in themselves. But it would be fatal for conservatism to follow her into that prison.

In Rand's philosophy, there is no place for the family--a natural community engendered by self-giving love. There is no place for community. There is no place for the energy of giving that builds community, association, or civil society. And there is no place for the sacrifice that does not look to one's own self-interest, but precisely abandons one's self to an Ultimate Other--not with the motive, but with the confidence and in the freedom of knowing that one will find one's self again, forever, in that Other.

Rational self-interest is a trap. Because it is not reasonable for the human person to limit himself to self-interest. It is suffocating. He who seeks to save his life will lose it. Man is made for love.

And then there is the spirit of the Gospel. Here we learn that man is not only to love his friends. He must not despise that weakness that is, after all, in himself as much as in others. He is to reach down and care for those who are weak. He is to practice mercy. Where in the philosophy of Ayn Rand is one to find mercy?

The real interest of man--which means the real interest of politics--is mercy. Let us together seek to make practical the politics of mercy.