November 2010

Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.  By Eric Miller. William B. Eerdmans. 414 pages. $32.

When Christopher Lasch died prematurely in 1994, he was in the midst of a life-long study of the American way of life. He did not like what he saw. Initially educated as a historian, he came, over the course of his professional life, to write more and more about the problems of contemporary life (including a contribution to the NOR’s “Symposium on Tran­scending Ideological Conformity,” Oct. 1991): the disintegration of the family, the relentless quest for material gain, and the slavery that increased freedom had brought to everyone.

For his entire life Lasch was a nonbeliever. He had been raised by doting parents who believed in the essential goodness of man without acknowledging the only possible source of that goodness. They had no use for religion of any sort, and while they raised their only son to question much about the world, disbelief in God was a given.

Lasch was a diligent student and, from the very beginning of his academic career, impressed his teachers with his insight and beautiful way with words. At one point he considered writing fiction, although having John Updike as a roommate probably discouraged that notion. At his death he was chairman of the history department at the University of Rochester, and instead of novels he had authored a long list of scholarly books, including Haven in a Heartless World (1977), The Culture of Narcissism (1979), and The True and Only Heaven (1991).

Through them he tried to caution Americans about the fix we were (and still are) in. Some listened, but most did not. One whose ear he had, if only superficially, was President Jimmy Carter, who incorporated several of Lasch’s phrases into his famous “malaise” speech of 1979. But Carter had missed the point and blamed ordinary Americans. Lasch, on the other hand, reserved his ire for the educated and professional class who benefited the most from our economic system and who, by their rejection of history and lust for novelty, were leading the country down the wrong path. Although he found some kindred souls, like Jean Bethke Elsh­tain and Dale Vree, the NOR’s founding editor, by the end Lasch wrote with a profound sense of isolation and frustration, accused by many of being negative and pessimistic — a modern day Jeremiah. It’s true that Lasch lacked the facile optimism of the benighted, but he was never without hope.

At a time when the identity politics that supposedly would lead to greater freedom for women and minorities made it almost impossible to talk about race and gender, he was searching for a society in which it would be possible for members to work together for the common good using “plain manners and plain, straightforward speech.”

And what should the common good look like? Certainly not the guaranteed income that Lasch felt led Martin Luther King Jr. away from his roots. “‘Participation,’ not ‘distribu­tion,’…is the test of democracy.” It would be a society characterized by an integration of home and work in which men and women “do things for themselves, with the help of their friends and neighbors, instead of depending on the state.” Urban and rural areas would co-exist, with tradesmen and artisans living alongside farmers. Children would be cared for by their parents within a permanent marriage. It would be a place in which it would be possible to produce “superior goods, superior works of art and learning, a superior type of character.”

Lasch understood that a just society could not thrive without ordered and moral people, and this understanding led to his estrangement from otherwise natural allies on the Left. Conservatives, on the other hand, might be more attuned to his beliefs about moral values but were still objectionable because of their staunch adherence to laissez-faire economic policies. According to Lasch, it is not easy to be good, but it is possible. Like Catholics, he did not believe that happiness on earth is our ultimate goal or that self-denial is bad. Americans, because of our glorious history, are called to something greater than the consumerist society in which we wallow.

More an intellectual history than a detailed biography, Eric Mil­ler’s Hope in a Scattering Time traces Lasch from his early flirtation with Marxism and later Freudianism to his final stopping point, a form of populism. Reading about his pauses along the way and his disagreements with conservatives, progressives, and all sorts of liberals raises several questions. How could he value the importance, even the necessity, of religion for the proper ordering of the culture without believing in God? What would he think of our world today? Would the massive public-health plan about to materialize gain his approval because it might provide more care to the poor? Or would it earn his opprobrium because it centralizes intimate matters under the control of a huge government bureaucracy? Would our million abortions each year finally help crystallize his views on the role of legislation in that matter? He personally did not favor restrictive laws, although he did oppose abortion itself. The list could go on: two lingering wars, a financial meltdown reminiscent of the robber barons, etc.

Lasch would probably still be stern and, yes, judgmental. But he would also be hopeful, understanding that the virtues are within reach and continue to be the responsibility of us all. We are, each and every one, called to sanctity.

Eric Miller has written a thoughtful, thorough book using the published writings and private correspondence of a man whose social criticism remains valid today.

- Elizabeth C. Hanink

Tradition: Concept and Claim.  By Josef Pieper. St. Augustine’s Press. 96 pages. $13.

G.K. Chesterton once said that the Catholic Church is “the only thing that saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” This is precisely what tradition does, according to Josef Pieper, yet without turning one into a conservative partisan of some bygone era — like, say, the early 1960s. Tradition allows one to transcend the historical accidents of any particular era by means of a transmitted authority, received in faith.

Ours is not an era especially fond of tradition, even among Catholics. Yet Pieper’s book takes a badly needed approach toward a remedy. It is not a theological treatment; hence, it is unconcerned with technical questions about the relationship between Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, etc. Rather, its approach is broadly philosophical. It does not focus exclusively or even primarily on Christian sources, but draws generally from representatives of the philosophia perennis. Thus, Pieper’s authorities are not always necessarily Christian or even religious. We find him quoting liberally from the noble pagan traditions of ancient philosophy (especially Plato) alongside predictable Christian sources. He wants chiefly to elucidate tradition as an idea and a living reality in the lives and language of ordinary people.

Pieper broaches his subject by asking whether tradition is not in some sense “anti-historical.” Historical change, whether in science or political developments, involves revolutions and breaks with the past, whereas with tradition the situation seems “absolutely the opposite.” Rather than dealing with something new or evolving, it is a matter of preserving the identity of something pre-existing against the passage of time.

The basic elements of the concept of tradition, says Pieper, involve “two partners” — the transmitter and the recipient — as well as the thing handed down (traditum). For both partners, the act of passing down and receiving is voluntary. Despite superficial similarities, what is involved differs from “discussion” or “teaching.” It differs from discussion in that the two parties involved stand on different levels — one “hands down”; the other “receives.” It differs from teaching in that the acceptance of tradition is based on believing it to be true. By contrast, a historian might have a very exact and extensive knowledge of Catholic tradition without accepting it.

Accepting what has been handed down — relying on someone else — immediately raises the question of authority. Noting that people today often tend to confuse authority with arbitrary power, Peter Kreeft once defined authority as “author’s rights” — ultimately the right of the divine Author to tell us what is right and wrong, true and false. That this view is not the exclusive province of Christians is borne out in Pieper’s analysis of how the authority of tradition is understood in Plato’s Philebus: “What Plato tells us here…confronts the foundation of tradition, that is: on whom does the last one in the line really rely and depend? In whom does he really ‘believe,’ when he accepts what is transmitted as true and valid? What is it that in the last analysis vouches for tradition?… Plato answers this question with a reference to the gods…saying that anyone who accepts and ‘believes’ that tradition is relying, strictly speaking and fundamentally, not on the ‘ancients,’ but on the gods themselves….” In this sense, suggests Pieper, tradition is closely allied with revelation.

Not all tradition, admittedly, is sacred tradition. Numerous secular traditions and customs exist, which are also passed down the generations. Their authority, however, differs from that of sacred tradition, which alone goes back to divine speech and something authoritative that is actually received by the first in line and not merely confirmed by his own insight. In this regard, one may speak of a “TRADITION within tradition,” or, with Yves Congar, of “tradition” (singular) vs. “traditions” (plural).

Furthermore, not all sacred tradition is Christian, says Pieper. Certainly it is within Christian doctrine that divine revelation is set forth most clearly and fully. Yet “echoes” of the original revelation can be found in (1) mythical traditions throughout the world — like Socrates’s discussion of the Judgment of the Dead in Plato’s Gorgias; (2) “certainties associated with the center of the person” — like the cultural memory of aboriginal happiness discussed by St. Augustine in Book X of his Confessions; and (3) language itself — in expressions like adieu, replaced by auf wiedersehen circa 1914-1915.

Theology, says Pieper, is the “science of tradition.” Its job is to constantly translate the “original texts” of sacred tradition into the idi­om of successive generations. As believers, our primary interest is in divine speech, not in theology. But a theology that does not concern itself pre-eminently with the task of preserving divine revelation through history “does not deserve the name ‘theology.’”

Philosophical questioning is fundamentally different from the act of handing down a tradition, but unless philosophers stand within a tradition they believe to be true, allowing it to define their task, they cannot avoid betraying their philosophical purpose.

Science, by contrast, has no place for tradition, says Pieper. Following Pascal and St. Albert the Great, he insists that “physics has absolutely nothing to do with tradition.” Pieper’s view here lacks the benefit of more recent insights of Gadamer, Polanyi, MacIntyre, and others, who note that all reasoning occurs within the context of some tradition or other; and scientific reasoning is no exception.

What is more needful today than ever is the long view provided by Pieper’s analysis. Gratitude and reverence for tradition carries, like the flip side of a coin, “a very decisive distrust, for example, of the all-too-exclusive talk of the future.” Pieper concludes with a quotation from Gerhard Krüger: “The only reason we are still alive is our inconsistency in not having actually silenced all tradition…. We are facing the radical impossibility of a meaningful common existence….” Krüger is pointing out, says Pieper, that the unity of the human race cannot be secured by a political “One World” achieved by technical means, but only by a common shared tradition that goes back to God’s words.

- Philip Blosser

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