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American Catholicism: The Retrograde’s Intellectual Tradition.

Never in the history of our fledgling republic have we been presented such an opportunity for the reexamination of—not our ideals themselves, but—the source of those ideals.

Never-Trumper David French recently remarked: “People are trying to put some sort of intellectual frame around the ambitions of this one guy [Trump], who doesn’t even have a particularly coherent ideology himself. If they can make something that is utterly incoherent coherent — more power to them.”

French and his cronies see nothing intellectual in the Trump revolution.

He’s abjectly wrong. Whether or not it will be heeded, there exists a sizable, undeniable—if now overlooked—faction of Trump’s camp centering its thought around Steve Bannon’s connections to the Catholic intellectual tradition. And this means systematic coherence beyond all others.

The longer the absence of the pre-calculated “mussed” single hair on the politician’s head, the better. Presentation now bends the knee to substance.

As of November 2016, the sun set on the codex of bywords in American conservative political discourse, the text and font of this oldish lexicon no longer scrutable or even utterable. In this new day’s early light, directness is the Morningstar. (Ancien regime hangers-on like David French and Bill Kristol apparently lament the development.) Whereas politicians of the previous two or three generations toiled artfully at length not to utter certain truths, the new “deplorable” statesman labors earnestly to express those truisms swiftly, bluntly, and unsentimentally.  

Long live candor.

The longer the absence of the pre-calculated “mussed” single hair on the politician’s head, the better. Presentation now bends the knee to substance. But again, what French and Kristol fail to appreciate in the Trump revolution is not only its forthrightness, but the intellectual source of that forthrightness.

The astute observer notes that the corresponding pedigree of ideas which underlie and animate that marketplace of conservative politics has been reopened for reimagining. Those of us who dwell closer to the bone of conservative ideation—where “letting our yes mean yes and our no mean no” requires rigorous and scrupulous citation—deserve a moniker more studious than “deplorables.”  Instead call us “retrogrades”: the thinking man’s deplorables, the truest opponents of Alinsky and Marx yet—and the very ones who furnish a coherent ideology, should our good President choose to access it.

Either way, the window of opportunity here is inarguable. Never was a candid reappraisal of the provenance of “Americanist” ideas so feasible. I speak of those reasons for being of our republic—peculiar natural law ideas—which were almost dashed early in our national adolescence: natural rights, local rule, virtue ethics, free enterprise, individualism based in family rather than state, honor, and manliness.  Never in the history of our fledgling republic have we been presented such an opportunity for the reexamination of—not our ideals themselves, but—the source of those ideals. The latter determines the former.

Announcing that is the stuff of a revolution of thought: the retrograde’s revolution.

Catholic Church in Italy

The left urges all manner of diversity except the single one which matters in republics: the ideological sort. While the right has usually sought to juxtapose itself in this regard, the disparity with the left in our respective attachment to the truth has never been sufficiently sharp.  Conservatism must seize this opportunity with both arms. It is the opportunity to speak directly for the first time in our republic’s life.

Unsentimentally, it appears to be the last and best opportunity to redeem the American republic before the premature darkness falls. But, like ripping off a Band-Aid, it may seem abrupt and uncomfortable to most outside Bannon’s circle.

The easiest way to present these shocking Scholastic ideas is through cautionary example—listing the things which America is not, but which most conservatives have taken her to be.

Notwithstanding their rejection of liberty, Martin Luther and the other Reformers have widely—and schizophrenically—been considered a profound inspiration to Americanism.

In “celebration” of the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation in October 2017, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion-editorial piece calling Martin Luther one of the “greatest champions” of human liberty in human history.

The joke was on them.

Evidently, they ran the piece abjectly ignorant of the fact that Martin Luther wrote On the Bondage of the Human Will, boldly denouncing human liberty (and maintaining this view until his dying day, with virtually all of Protestantism following suit). Notwithstanding their rejection of liberty, Martin Luther and the other Reformers have widely—and schizophrenically—been considered a profound inspiration to Americanism.

Most Americans recognize that John Locke lauded liberty in his political writings; fewer Americans realize that Locke vitiates its metaphysical possibility all throughout his primary philosophical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Such praise-then-rejection was ubiquitous not only among Locke’s fellow Whigs, but amongst virtually every other “modernist” thinker of the Enlightenment or Reformation as well.  

‘The Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull

The founders of this great nation cheerfully called themselves “neo-Whigs,” after Locke and Whigs like Algernon Sidney. The mostly Protestant American founders prized liberty when reasoning about politics and culture. But like Locke and Luther, their American imitators struggled to conclude anything but the opposite of liberty in their metaphysical figurings.  

As in algebra, the bottom line matters: one cannot instantiate a political principle that does not descend from metaphysics. America cannot call itself a “Protestant-Enlightenment” nation, while clinging to liberty or the natural law. The descent of historical America from grace is the instantiation of this principle.

This hall-stalking chimera—the sourcelessness of American liberty and natural law—is the American problem. Yet among the phantasmagoria of its calculus inheres the redemption of our republic. Bannon and some in his crew seem to understand this.

Happily, our founders plagiarized the true natural law tradition just enough as to render the mere enumeration of their sources—accomplished better late than never—antidotal. One must ask: What makes American liberty and its corollaries (natural rights, local rule, virtue ethics, etc.) possible at all? What tradition makes it intelligible?

America must acknowledge its Thomistic roots, or perish.

The retrograde spirit gives voice to this answer: the Aristotelian tradition, especially that which was perfected by the medieval schoolmen of Dominican pedigree. The foremost of these thinkers was Thomas Aquinas, hated but needed (and scandalously plagiarized) in England and the blooming American colonies. In Aristo-Thomistic philosophy alone may the natural law, human liberty, virtue ethics, and veritable self-rule be pinpointed, explicated, and articulated.  

America must acknowledge its Thomistic roots, or perish. (I give the details in my book Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish without Rome.)

Whereas the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment unabashedly spurned the Aristo-Thomist tradition, such thinkers in the 16th and 17th centuries found themselves plagiarizing Aristotle and Thomas when they went looking for ontological justifications for logical problems.  

As Thomas Woods has noted, “the idea of formulated rights comes…not from John Locke and Thomas Jefferson—as many might assume—but from the Canon law of the Catholic Church.”

Jefferson’s favorite Whig thinker Algernon Sidney was accused in his own lifetime of lifting the philosophy of Thomist Jesuit Robert Bellarmine. American Romantic Nathaniel Hawthorne took note of the Protestant American schizophrenia, writing of the Reverend Dimmesdale: “the pale clergyman piled up his library, rich with parchment-bound folios of the Fathers…and monkish erudition, of which the Protestant divines, even while they vilified and decried that class of writers, were yet constrained often to avail themselves.”  

Thomas Jefferson provides us a faint glimmer of hope by enumerating (a few times in his voluminous writings) Aristotle as one of the four most important thinkers for the American natural law tradition. But generally, this footnote had been willfully dropped from the page by Aristotle’s schizophrenic disciples among the Protestant American founders.

We must do better in 2019.

Western civilization’s grandest prizes were wrought from the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Patriots must be capable of needful self-correction from time to time. Whether or not David French acknowledges the capability, conservatives have it.

The fighting spirit of the American retrograde furnishes the unique corrective to the premature degradation of low-fidelity American liberty and other natural law ideas. We have by now enculturated the anthem, “fight or die.” We retrogrades must add to this notion the following one: Western civilization’s grandest prizes were wrought from the Catholic intellectual tradition. Like it or lump it, the sole antidote lies in telling the truth about American liberty’s sources.

In Trump’s America, Wall Street Journal hagiography about Luther is no longer good enough. Recalling slavery and segregation, one notes that nothing is more graciously American than using the noble to excise the ignoble, the true to eliminate the duplicitous, and the proven to tell on the false.

Timothy Gordon, J.D., Ph.L., M.A., studied philosophy in Europe, taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, then went on to law school. He holds degrees in literature, history, philosophy, and law. He writes and teaches philosophy and theology in Central California. 

Written By

Timothy Gordon, J.D., Ph.L., M.A., studied philosophy in Europe, taught it at Southern Californian community colleges, then went on to law school. He holds degrees in literature, history, philosophy, and law. He writes and teaches philosophy and theology in Central California. 

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