Progressivism and Aristotelianism

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The following is an essay written for Patrick Deneen’s ‘Liberalism and Conservatism’ course for the 2019 Spring Semester by Bea Cuasay, Manager of Production for Notre Dame. Its views do not necessarily reflect those of our entire staff. Counterarguments are always accepted under “Start a Chapter.”

Human life can be changed for the better. Imagine a world without suffering. Disease and war have ceased. Peace abounds as a new humanity is constantly created by we ourselves. We are more enlightened than those who have come before. This is what progressive liberalism can offer us: a new world better than our own. All this sounds enticing in light of the atrocities that never seem to end. A life free of pain is all one could ask for. Can we realize a utopia here on Earth, or is that asking for too much? Perhaps this world of ours was meant to endure suffering. It’s a fallen world with fallen people. There may never be a perfect world, but we can at least make something with what we have. There are flaws, then, in dreaming of a world that can never be perfect. Progressive liberalism provides a strong argument for the malleability of human nature. This, however, can go awry when human nature is changed to the extent of eliminating defects which in turn terminates individuals lacking desirable qualities. In response to progressive liberalism, I will lay out the Aristotelian-Thomistic view that Neo-Aristotelian/Radical Catholicism espouses. Man is both matter and form with a telos, a final end, which may be either eudaimonia (good-spiritedness) or God Himself. Politics should order man towards his final end through both natural and supernatural goods; in the Radical Catholic’s view, man’s ultimate aim is Heaven, to see God Himself in the visio beatifica (the beatific vision). Moreover, a radical Catholic views man as made in the imago Dei (image of God), so his telos is his creator. The world in which we live, however, is fallen after the felix culpa (happy fault) of our progenitors, Adam and Eve. Through this fault came the redemption of mankind through God becoming man for us and dying for our sins upon the wood of the cross. This argument I favour can be considered weak, in the sense that this may not be a ‘practical’ political philosophy from the perspective of an onlooker.

Progressive liberalism holds that human nature is malleable. Human nature is always ‘becoming’ and never just ‘is.’ What is newer is better. Friedrich Hayek defines progress as “movement for movement’s sake” (On the Constitution of Liberty , p. 95). Progress defined as such resembles the motto ‘ars gratia artis ,’ art for art’s sake, where art’s value is intrinsic. Progress, then, is done for the sake of itself. It doesn’t have a telos outside itself, but within itself. Change is the end of progressivism. Under progressive liberalism, change has manifested itself both by those who disregard and regard religion, though former is more prevalent and was upheld by thinkers such as Walt Whitman and John Dewey. The latter was upheld by Walter Rauschenbusch, who argued in favor of “immanentizing the eschaton” by making the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Whitman argued that “there was no need to be curious about God because there is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of a free people can be measured” (Achieving our Country , p. 16). Freedom for an individual, when separated from religion, is doing whatever one wants or wills. In a liberal context, of course one does whatever one wants without encroaching upon the rights of others by doing harm unto them. With respect to liberal freedom, we set up our own standards, and there is no one, no thing, or no transcendent being to answer to but ourselves. According to Richard Rorty, “both Dewey and Whitman viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite, human, historical project, rather than in something eternal and nonhuman. They both hoped that America would be the place where a religion of love would finally replace a religion of fear. They dreamed that Americans would break the traditional link between the religious impulse, the impulse to stand in awe of something greater than oneself, and the infantile need for security, the childish hope of escaping from time and chance” (Achieving our Country , p. 18). What men need according to Dewey and Whitman is not something greater than themselves to aspire to, but rather making themselves. One only needs to buckle up his boot straps and pave the path before him. It is an echo of Machiavelli’s virtù, the notion that we make ourselves great by the traits we possess. There is nothing higher to aspire to, for it is only foolish to try to attain something out of grasp. Utopian America for Dewey and Whitman was to eliminate God and make progress their god. On the other hand, Rauschenbusch believed God was significant in the progressive-liberal project. He, as opposed to Dewey and Whitman, wanted to make the Kingdom of God manifest here on Earth. The term “Kingdom of God” echoes Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, On the City of God , wherein Augustine makes the distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The City of God is perfect, whereas the City of Man is fallen. What Rauschenbusch proposes is for the City of God and City of Man to kiss, the immanentization of the eschaton. Heaven can exist on Earth for Rauschenbusch. He writes, “the Kingdom of God rejoices in forecasts and boundless horizons” (The Kingdom of God, p. 137). There are no limits in a heavenly world. Moreover, the kingdom of God is inevitable for some have already been saved; hence, if one is saved, why not make it on Earth? Calvinists like Rauschenbusch wish to eliminate human nature. He argues, “The restoration of the doctrine of the Kingdom has already made progress. Some of the ablest and most voluminous works of old theology in their thousands of pages gave the Kingdom of God but a scanty mention, usually in connection with eschatology, and saw no connection between it and the Calvinistic doctrines of personal redemption. The newer manuals … arrange their entire subject matter so that the Kingdom of God becomes their governing idea” (The Kingdom of God , p. 138). Heaven made on Earth is one goal of Rauschenbusch. If there is heaven on earth, there will be no evil. If there is no more humanity, then there will be no more suffering. All men must be made as angels. Furthermore, there is a “reign of love [which] tends towards the progressive unity of mankind and the opportunity of nations to work out their own national peculiarities and ideals” (The Kingdom of God , p. 143). All distinctions which divide people will be cast aside, according to the progressive outlook. Here, I have provided the progressive liberal outlook. It is one that views human beings as self-makers paving their own way before them. Progressive liberalism either denies the need for God or has an immanentist soteriology. Either way, both want to create a world for a better tomorrow.

Progressive liberalism has its faults, as progress can lead to eugenics. Hayek wrote, “as it remains a progressive society, some must lead, and the rest must follow” (On the Constitution of Liberty , p. 98). Those who are more able will take advantage of those they deem unfit to further the mission of progress. This creates more marginalization than peace, contrary to a progressive liberal’s goals. Making a more perfect world means casting out those who are imperfect. Progressives cannot get themselves around this, for “if [they] abandoned progress, [they would] also have to abandon all those social improvements that [they] hope[d] for.” Progress is always in a forward motion. The Progressive Era was at a high in the 1920s. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in favor of sterilizing a mentally ill woman in Buck v. Bell (1927) under Virginia law. It was done to promote the “health of the patient and the welfare of society.”1 Under progressivism, it is better to eliminate those who cannot contribute to the ‘positive’ progress of society. We must always be changing ourselves to be better. Progressivism now manifests itself in our technocratic society. There have been calls for making “superhumans,” much like the übermensch of Nietzsche’s design, in the philosophy of transhumanism. Transhumanists “view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways” (“Transhumanist Values,” p. 4), so they seek to construct their own humanity. One aim of the transhumanist project is to eliminate all pain and suffering from human life, so they seek to create perfect super-human beings. “Wide access” is a basic condition of transhumanism which calls for the following: ““there are many reasons for supporting [it]: to reduce inequality; because it would be a fairer arrangement; to express solidarity and respect for fellow humans; to help gain support for the transhumanist project; to increase the chances that you will get the opportunity to become posthuman; to increase the chances that those you care about can become posthuman; because it might increase the range of the posthuman realm that gets explored; and to alleviate human suffering on as wide a scale as possible” (“Transhumanist Values,” p. 11). Trans- or post- humans, in effect, would become gods among men. If they are stronger than humans full of defect, they will be able to outlive the humans subject to disease. Transhumanism, let alone progressivism, is a kind of Neo-Darwinism. Equality comes at the cost of removing the conditions which make us simply human. Ergo, progressivism brings with it detrimental ramifications.

In opposition to this malleable view of humanity is neo-Aristotelianism/Radical Catholicism, which holds that man is both matter and form, has a telos , and is made in the imago Dei . Aristotle wrote about this hylomorphic distinction in his De Anima . In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that man is made to be happy insofar as he a lives virtuous life; his end is happiness, or eudaimonia. In his Politics , Aristotle writes that “man is by nature a political animal” (Politics , I.2.1253a2). Hence, politics should order man to this end, which is, by his nature, happiness. Aristotle writes, “the complete community, formed from several villages, is a city-state, which at once attains the limit of self-sufficiency, roughly speaking. It comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life” (Politics , I.2.1252b27– 30). In Saint Thomas Aquinas’ view, he furthers Aristotle’s claim by saying man is both a “political and social animal” (De Regimine Principum , Ch. 1). Both politics and society, then, should be ordered toward the final end. Saint Thomas talks about the final end akin to happiness in his Summa: “Now man’s happiness is twofold, as was also stated above. One is proportionate to human nature, a happiness, to wit, which man can obtain by means of his natural principles. The other is a happiness surpassing man’s nature, and which man can obtain by the power of God alone, by a kind of participation of the Godhead, about which it is written that by Christ we are made ‘partakers of the Divine nature.’ And because such happiness surpasses the capacity of human nature, man’s natural principles which enable him to act well according to his capacity, do not suffice to direct man to this same happiness” (S. Th. IaIIae Q.62, A.1, c.). Aquinas later argues that natural happiness is ordered to supernatural happiness in his De Regno.2 Supreme happiness, that which that surpasses all things, then, is the final end in Aquinas’ view. This specifically is the beatific vision, seeing God Himself. Virtue is essential to meeting one’s telos . Living a virtuous life, however, is not central to the progressive’s project, for their end is change itself. Alasdair MacIntyre observes this in his After Virtue: “we thus have a threefold scheme in which human-nature-as-ithappens- to-be (human nature in its untutored state) is initially discrepant and discordant with the precepts of ethics and needs to be transformed by the instruction of practical reason and experience into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos . Each of the three elements of the scheme–the conception of untutored human nature, the conception of the precepts of rational ethics and the conception of the into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-itstelos – requires reference to the other two if its status and function are to be intelligible” (After Virtue, p. 53). What we face now in our modern world rampant with progressivism is this elimination of telos . If we have nothing greater to aspire to and don’t live lives of virtue, we will experience moral decay and never achieve our telos . Virtue, according to MacIntyre, is “an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods” (After Virtue , p. 191). If we are able to achieve goods through the practice of virtue, we can one day achieve the summum bonum, the highest good. Practicing virtue, furthermore, maintains political and social stability, as all people strive to live virtuous lives. The neo-Aristotelian/Radical Catholic view on human nature, then, differs greatly from progressive liberals. Human nature is fixed with a telos that can be achieved through practicing a life of virtue. This does not matter to progressive liberals, who argue that human nature is in flux as time progresses.

Progressive liberalism leads to moral decay. By constantly changing human nature, one cannot know where he is going. Oliver Cromwell writes, “Man never mounts higher than when he knows not where he is going” (On the Constitution of Liberty , p. 91). In paving a path that is not tried and true, progressive liberals risk falling into uncharted territory which only leaves dangerous results. Michael Hanby makes mention of this in his First Things article, “The Civic Project of Christianity.” He writes specifically about the sexual revolution, which “is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology)” (The Civic Project of Christianity,” ¶3). Augusto Del Noce observes the same implications. According to Del Noce, now that the metaphysical has collapsed under progressivism, science provides instruments but no goals–it only ‘increases’ vitality. The sexual revolution, moreover, came from the Marxist disintegration of class––people can have as much sex as they want now that there is no class distinction. Under the Marxist influence, sexual un-repression also reflects Marxism’s atheism, as one considered “sexually repressed” is someone who obviously is a theist. With progressivism, we have divorced philosophy and politics as MacIntyre observed. “Philosophy has thereby been rendered unpolitical, so politics has been rendered unphilosophical,” (The MacIntyre Reader, 236) so what matters in our progressive world is what is useful or meaningful to us. What is meaningful now is the meaning we make or create. This is a slippery slope, as it welcomes philosophies which are harmful to human flourishing to enter the sphere. This is disgraceful and must be stopped. The artes liberales , liberal arts, must make a return to our world dominated by the artes serviles , servile arts. Progressivism, without limits, can lead to destruction.

The Neo-Aristotelian/Radical Catholic view can, perhaps, be countered by progressives who hold that classical learning is not necessary. If one receives an education according to what John Dewey recommended, which is whatever is cutting edge, then one will have no need for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the like. There are no intellectual forebears to look up to; looking forward is the only way. Hans Jonas makes this observation in “perpetual revolution,” “If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise—then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, ‘revolutionary’” (The Civic Project of Christianity,” ¶1). In the Deweyan education system, what ones learns today will be irrelevant tomorrow. The past does not matter if one is in a progressive state of mind. What only matters is making things better than they are today. Neo-Aristotelian/Radical Catholics would be appalled by the Deweyan system. They would rather have their children educated, perhaps in a homeschool system devoid of all liberal propaganda, and teach their children Latin, Greek, and the Great Books. Human wisdom builds over the years for a Neo-Aristotelian/Radical Catholic. They have trust in the breadth of history. Progressives do not trust history and wish to make things ever anew. Therefore, progressives who disregard a holistic, liberal arts education would be quick to shoot down ideas they consider antiquated.

Progressive liberalism, then, has its strength in being able to constantly remake itself. Its strength, however, can become a weakness when there are no limits to how humans can change their nature. Neo-Aristotelian/Radical Catholicism responds with a fixed human nature with a telos, a final end, which serves as a limit on human nature and can only be achieved through practicing a life of virtue. It can only be disregarded insofar one views it as archaic and useless.

One Response

  1. Well, it is a nice essay, however I find faults. Utopia has yet to be found, though hundreds have tried in various ways to build it once the trust of others is gained by yet another promise of the politics behind the building of such a fantasy. “Progressive liberalism provides a strong argument for the malleability of human nature. This, however, can go awry when human nature is changed to the extent of eliminating defects which in turn terminates individuals lacking desirable qualities.” Man is made in the image and likeness of His Creator and politics is the accidental outcome of the society in which every man finds himself. The Call of Christ is irrevocable and can only be lived by the individual as best he can in whatever society he finds himself in and no new political outlook will ensure his flourishing like that which God gives His people as they live their lives in Christ Jesus.
    Eudaemonia, or happiness is too often defined in our age by what makes for mere pleasures of the flesh. The life of Christ is one of sacrifice even unto death, death on a Cross. This is the contradiction of the Cross. Nine months of worries and concerns for the future proceeding the labor of delivery and the relief of ten fingers and ten toes followed by the anticipation of the Baptism to follow in a few days or weeks, the Cross our inheritance given to yet another member of the Body of Christ with loving parents and siblings to help lift it high. No high-sounding neo-Aristotelian logic needed to aid those around the babe in arms. No new program to re-introduce Catholics to Catholicism is needed. Just an embrace of the Cross and all that flows from it. God bless. Ginnyfree.

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