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Briefly Reviewed: September 2019

Freedom from Reality: The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty

By D.C. Schindler

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 486

Price: $55

Review Author: David C. Paternostro, S.J.

The past few decades have seen remarkable output in critiques of modernity. What many critics have focused on up to now, however, is assessing where we are rather than where we should go — an entirely fair move, as part of the trick to finding or recovering one’s way is figuring out one’s present location. Nevertheless, given the glut of assessments of our present location, it might be time for a critique that also charts a path forward. D.C. Schindler’s Freedom from Reality provides both an assessment and a path forward, and with great dexterity.

When Schindler talks about the modern era, he does so through the lens of conceptions of liberty. An emphasis on liberty, even to the point of having the freedom to define existence and cosmic meaning, is one of the hallmarks of the modern age. Thus, while Schindler primarily talks about conceptions of liberty, the implications for a host of other issues, such as education, politics, marriage, and friendship, become frighteningly clear.

Schindler’s book is subtitled The Diabolical Character of Modern Liberty, and this summarizes well what he thinks of the modern conception of liberty. By diabolical he means something that tears apart or causes division and isolation. Throughout the work, he constantly contrasts modern “diabolic” liberty with classical “symbolic” liberty — a conception of freedom that draws people together. Indeed, at the very outset, Schindler declares that “an adequate approach to the notion of freedom will have to include…relation to the other as an intrinsic part of the meaning of freedom” (emphasis in original). Rooting freedom in the cosmic order, Schindler connects freedom with goodness and so envisions freedom as that which ultimately unifies all things in goodness.

Schindler’s argument is divided into three parts. In the first, he provides a close reading of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding and its various revisions in order to show the problems with Locke’s vision of human freedom, beginning with some of its internal contradictions.

Locke had multiple commitments he wanted to preserve, stressing both a robust vision of human freedom and a strong vision of an ordered universe, but stressing each in a way that was not compatible with the other. Schindler examines the philosophical implications of Locke’s commitments and what they mean for contemporary individuals. Schindler’s knowledge of both primary and secondary sources in this area is evident, yet he doesn’t bog the reader down in pointless minutiae, making this an excellent work for anyone who wishes to get a handle on Locke.

Schindler’s examination of Locke’s work makes clear how the philosopher has impacted the modern world. He also points out ideas that appear to be in line with the classical tradition but are, in fact, significant deviations. Of particular note is Schindler’s treatment of Locke and the natural law. Whereas the natural law “in the classical tradition” is understood “as an expression in the moral and legal sphere of natural teleology,” Schindler writes, for Locke it is “regulative rather than constitutive” (emphasis in original). Though for Aristotle, final cause — an intrinsic principle — was the regulating principle for the natural law, for Locke, rational self-interest — an extrinsic principle — is what matters. The moral law is thus no longer something that binds us and speaks to what we all have in common, but something that keeps each of us from impinging too much on the actions of others. By the end of the first part, it is clear that Locke envisions society not as a community but as a mere collection of individuals.

Schindler turns his attention in the second part to how Locke’s thought has influenced the modern world, looking first at the individual and then the community. The final chapter of this section, “A ‘Society of Devils,’” is particularly spellbinding and perhaps one of the most important in the whole book. Up to now, Schindler has been marshalling his forces, observing trends, identifying lines of thought. Here, though, he shows us how it all plays out. By finding the link between ontology and culture, psychology and politics, Schindler follows Plato’s move of considering the polis as the soul writ large. In seeing what these various concepts do to our culture, he sees what they do to our souls. By the time he explores the role of technology, the reader understands how de-humanizing and soul-crushing the whole system is.

Not only is Schindler’s diagnosis excellent, he sketches out a path forward. Individuals such as Charles Taylor have long expressed skepticism at any attempt to respond to modernity by turning back the clock, and Schindler is sensitive to these critiques. He notes in part three that “our response to cultural crises must always first take the form of a grateful affirmation of what is given.” We are not merely negating modernity but re-orienting it. Schindler looks at how we have long understood freedom, starting with the root meanings of the word, and then he notes the ways in which Plato and Aristotle captured elements of this understanding.

Schindler knows that we cannot simply assert that the “old ways are better.” Rather, we must find what is compelling in the classical vision for the modern person. Schindler’s presentation of Plato’s conception of freedom — in which we belong to a greater order and, in our connection to the Good, are generative — is positively thrilling. His concluding chapter on Aristotle, in which he shows how Aristotle’s conception of act allows for a progressive unfolding of the person striving toward a goal, is likewise compelling. The way Schindler brings in friendships as a necessary element of Aristotle’s vision is the balm we need in a world plagued by loneliness.

The final section of Schind­ler’s work is merely a sketch of how we can go forward, and by his own admission it will need to be filled out by other thinkers. However, Schindler has done a great service in pointing the way forward and thinking about how we can fruitfully recover the best of the classical tradition and present it to the modern world. We may hope that others will not only fill out Schindler’s presentation of Plato and Aristotle but add the insights of other great thinkers in the tradition, such as Augustine and Aquinas. Having a solid sense of what ails the modern world, we may now draw upon tradition to propose our solution.

Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church

By Roberto de Mattei

Publisher: Angelico Press

Pages: 232

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Mark A.S. McMenamin

Commenting on the Arian heresy, St. Jerome wrote that the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.” And yet, the Church recovered from the crisis. St. Hilary attributed the recovery to an emergent sense of the faith (sensus fidei) and, more particularly, the sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium). St. Hilary remarked that during the Arian crisis, Sanctiores sunt aures fideles populi labiis sacerdotum (“The ears of the faithful are holier than the lips of their priests”).

With examples such as these, historian and author Roberto de Mattei addresses the contemporary crisis in the Church. He offers historical perspective to shed light on our time, when confusion among the faithful is rampant. Sound doctrine is under assault not only by the culture at large but also internally, by occupants of high offices in the Church herself. De Mattei chronicles papal fidelity and infidelity through the centuries and, in doing so, imparts renewed hope and confidence that, as before, the Church will weather the current crisis and emerge stronger and more united as a result.

Jesus promised that He will never abandon His Church — a promise that remains valid to the end of the age. De Mattei reminds, however, that there will be times when the number of faithful contracts almost to the vanishing point. The most extreme case of this was the Virgin Mary on Holy Saturday, when the entire Church was reduced to one person, Jesus’ own indomitable mother. We are not quite to that point in terms of loss of membership, but the Church’s shrinkage in the West is cause for alarm.

This past May, dozens of prominent Catholics signed an “Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church,” in which they accuse Pope Francis of “the canonical delict of heresy.” (As of this writing, 92 have signed; full disclosure: I was a signatory.) De Mattei is not currently a signatory, but the text of Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope clearly indicates that he is sympathetic to and encouraging of efforts to correct a wayward Pope and his sycophants in the Church hierarchy. Many agree, de Mattei included, that this need for filial correction must be expressed in a loving and respectful manner, and that firm but charitable filial resistance gives no support to sedevacantism or other such nonsense.

De Mattei’s “filial resistance” is, in essence, defense of the eternal truths of the faith. He sees the history of the Church as “always repeating itself.” External persecutions and internal crises change, having “different motivations, different protagonists, different magnitudes, and different intensities.” But in these crises, one thing that does not change is “the force of Tradition, which is destined to defeat any revolution that opposes it.” De Mattei writes, “A remnant — however minimal — of light cannot be extinguished, and this remnant has in itself the irresistible strength of daybreak, the possibility of a new day with the sunrise. This is the drama of evil: it cannot destroy the last remnant of good that survives; it is destined to be destroyed by this remnant.”

So, what does effective resistance to wayward popes look like? De Mattei says, “There are vocations to silence, like those of many contemplative monks and nuns; but Catholics, from pastors to the last of the faithful, have the duty of testifying to their Faith, with words and example.” Beloved saints gave example: “Saint Athanasius and Saint Hilary did not remain silent against the Arians, nor did Saint Peter Damian against the corrupt prelates of his time. Saint Catherine of Siena did not keep silent in front of the popes of her time, nor did Saint Vincent Ferrer [when] presenting himself as the Angel of the Apocalypse.” Limiting ourselves to “a generic denunciation of the errors that oppose the Tradition of the Church isn’t enough.” De Mattei urges us to “admit that the pope himself promotes and propagates errors and heresies in the Church. We need to have the courage to say this, with all the veneration that is due to the pope. True devotion to the papacy expresses itself in an attitude of filial resistance, as happened in the Filial Correction addressed to Pope Francis in 2017.” (The “Filial Correction” was a detailed letter signed by dozens of Catholic clergy and lay scholars. It was delivered to the Holy Father in August 2017 and has, to date, received no answer.)

In declaring Pope Honorius anathema, Pope Hadrian II explained the reasons why to the Roman Synod in 869: “Honorius was accused of heresy, the only cause for which it is licit for inferiors to resist their superiors and to repel their perverse sentiments.” De Mattei confirms this admonition: “The pope, like any other faithful Catholic, must respect the divine and natural law, of which he, by divine mandate, is the guardian. He cannot change the rule of faith.” De Mattei makes a powerful case for speaking up: “It is for us to call out by name all those who inside the Church profess a theology, a philosophy, a morality, a spirituality in contrast with the perennial Magisterium of the Church, no matter what office they may occupy.” Keeping in mind Ecclesiastes 3:7, he says, “Today is the moment to speak.”


©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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