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Re-Imaging First Principles

At the root of every mistaken political theory there lies a theological error. This is an axiom held by a wide variety of reactionary thinkers, especially those of a more Catholic bend (e.g. Juan Cortés Donoso, Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Carl Schmitt, etc). Arguably the most articulate and well known of these thinkers is the legendary Carl Schmitt, who so clearly amplifies this concept in his classic work, Political Theology.

In the essay, Schmitt draws an analogy between theology and sovereign power. What we learn is that, if we trace the origins of political power to their ultimate source, we arrive at the logical necessity of an unmoved mover (to be Aristotelian about it), an uncaused cause, some unquestionable, non-contingent fountain of authority. At which point, according to Schmitt, we are essentially discussing theology. “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state,” he explains, “are secularized theological concepts.”

He was quite right, it seems. From a reactionary perspective, it is not difficult to see how liberalism is a secularized version of a corrupt theology. The liberal order, as we know it, is simply the offshoot of the worship of the individual, the result of years (centuries) of vulgar egocentric thinking. The catalyst to this anthropocentric decline is traditionally attributed to the epistemological revolution of René Descartes. Descartes is, however, not our worst culprit. More destructive was Immanuel Kant’s inaccurate assumption that all human beings seek the same form of crypto-Christian morality. But in my opinion, the most retarded (I use that word deliberately) was Rousseau’s embarrassingly naïve romanticization of human nature.

Can we really blame it all on the Cartesian revolution though? John Milbank argues not. He claims that a decided rupture occurred much earlier, during the thirteenth century, when Duns Scotus contended for the “univocity of being.” In this argument, Scotus argued that God and man share the predicate of existence—being—in the exact same way, univocally, that is. Although it may seem like thirteenth-century pedantry to us, this theological alteration played a serious role in loosening the screws which fastened the medieval worldview, Milbank argues. (See Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy for a fulsome explanation.) Indeed, it is not difficult to see how this minor but significant shift in thinking began to set the stage for the cult of individualism of acts to follow.

The point is this. Correcting the error of modernity requires a bit more work than simply undoing or discarding the negative effects of a few thinkers. The muck is too large to be cleaned up with a few mop swipes. Moreover, the problem lies fundamentally, not in identifying the root of our heresy, but in finding an “orthodox” replacement for it.

So what is orthodoxy? Perhaps it is the view that social order ought to be a reflection of natural order. Such a structure, it would follow, would entail some form of hierarchy. Much more than this we do not yet know. The details and logistics of this society are mere conjectures at the moment. What we do know is that, if it is, in fact, true that political error is born out of theological error, it is absolutely paramount to set the theology straight. “Theology,” for our purposes, can be understood as the following question: Who is man and how should he relate to the ultimate reality of things?

There are a few ways to begin to answer this question. Many people begin with “natural law,” which implies, among other things, a society based on the biological distinctions among groups and individuals. Another option, however, could be a turn towards Pragmatism, as prescribed by American philosophers like William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty. Simplifying their view, pragmatists hold that the only existing truth is that which works. Truth with a capital T should not concern us. Functionality is all. A society guided, without impediment, by this principle does sound attractive, for it would be highly efficient.

But would it be enough? Is a human being not more than an economic building block? Thus, those who yearn for something more transcendent often look toward the charms of traditional Christianity, neopaganism, or the allure of Heidegger’s Dasein (Alexander Dugin’s Fourth Political Theory). Yet, still, none of these options seem to hit the mark. The former two are rather esoteric, while the latter a bit more than vague. (One could argue that Heidegger was more of a poet than a philosopher.)

Is not what is needed, then, something more concrete? Maybe the task before us is to become systematic theologians (metaphorically speaking, of course) as the medievals were, and thereby aim at something more defined, more definitive, more intelligible.

Liberalism is a tedious cancer to expel. And it is not every day that we find it in such a weak and vulnerable condition. It is imperative, therefore, that we act with accuracy and precision. There is no telling when the next opportunity will come. Tearing down is only the beginning. Building upward is the real challenge.

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