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Perfect World Disorder
Edward Feser writes on our political disorder—and how to end it.
What is order? What is disorder? Let’s take the first question first; the answer to it will, naturally, yield an answer to the second. The classical and medieval understanding of order is nicely summed up in an old reference work beloved of us unreconstructed Thomists, Fr. Bernard Wuellner’s Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy. He defines order as “the arrangement of many things into some unity according to some principle. The chief kinds are the order of parts to a whole and of means to one end.” The first of these kinds is not independent of the second. Something is part of a whole precisely by virtue of contributing to the realization of some end of that whole. For example, the lens is part of the eye insofar as it functions to focus the light the eye processes, where the eye in turn is part of an animal insofar as it allows it to see.
The traditional Aristotelian analysis of a thing in terms of its “four causes” provides further elucidation. The parts of a whole are its material cause, and their distinctive arrangement is its formal cause. That which brings the whole into being is its efficient cause, and the end for the sake of which the whole exists is its final cause. As Aquinas says, this end or final cause of a thing is “the cause of causes,” that which renders its other causes intelligible (Summa theologiae I.5.2). The lens is intelligible qua part of the eye only by reference to the end of focusing light; the eye is intelligible qua part of an animal only by reference to the end of allowing an animal to see; and so on. Take away the final cause, and you take away the intelligibility of the whole, and of the parts qua parts of the whole. You take away order.
A human being is both an order himself, and part of larger orders. In particular, and again to quote Aquinas:
Now there should be a threefold order in man: one in relation to the rule of reason, in so far as all our actions and passions should be commensurate with the rule of reason: another order is in relation to the rule of the Divine Law, whereby man should be directed in all things: and if man were by nature a solitary animal, this twofold order would suffice. But since man is naturally a civic and social animal, as is proved in [Aristotle’s] Politics i, 2, hence a third order is necessary, whereby man is directed in relation to other men among whom he has to dwell. (Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae.72.4)
Let’s consider these orders in turn, beginning with individual human beings themselves. Qua rational animals, the end toward which we are by nature directed is (according to the mainstream classical and medieval traditions) to know the true and the good. We are well-ordered to the extent that our lower appetites are subordinated to this pursuit. We are also parts of the overall cosmic order, with the existence and nature of its divine creator being the highest truths we can know, and service to him the highest good. Creation is well-ordered insofar as divine Providence works to ensure that the end for which it exists is realized, and good drawn out of even the worst evils introduced into it by disordered wills. The family is the primary manifestation of our social nature, and the state is a secondary natural manifestation. The latter’s function is to complete the meeting of our social needs by providing what smaller-scale social formations cannot, such as general law and order.
There are three fundamental sources of disruption parallel to these orders, famously known to Christian tradition as the world, the flesh and the devil. “The flesh” represents the most direct source of disruption to the order that is the individual human being himself. It comprises those forces that attack us from within ourselves—excessive or distorted passions that are insubordinate to reason, the vices that these can harden us into, and the corruption of reason itself when it becomes blind to the true and the good. “The devil,” of course, is that evil intelligence who seeks to ape God, and to disrupt the created order by turning it against the end for which it was made. “The world” represents malign forces within the social order that act to subvert it and to corrupt the individual human beings who make it up: crime; political corruption; false moral and religious ideologies; the commercialization of grave vice as with pornography, prostitution, and drug use; and so on.
Now, every order is given, by nature, a governing authority whose function it is to protect it against such disruptive forces by repressing them. Once again to quote Aquinas:
Now it is evident that all things contained in an order, are, in a manner, one, in relation to the principle of that order. Consequently, whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offense against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment.
Accordingly, man can be punished with a threefold punishment corresponding to the three orders to which the human will is subject. In the first place a man’s nature is subjected to the order of his own reason; secondly, it is subjected to the order of another man who governs him either in spiritual or in temporal matters, as a member either of the state or of the household; thirdly, it is subjected to the universal order of the Divine government. Now each of these orders is disturbed by sin, for the sinner acts against his reason, and against human and Divine law. Wherefore he incurs a threefold punishment; one, inflicted by himself, viz. remorse of conscience; another, inflicted by man; and a third, inflicted by God. (Summa theologiae Ia-IIae.87.1)
Because of these governing agencies, the presence of disruptive forces need not destroy an order. In a man whose rational faculties still function properly, conscience will lead him to resist the pull of the world, the flesh and the devil—or at least to repent when he has failed to resist. Hence the order that is the individual human being is maintained overall, despite the workings of these disruptive forces. In a healthy body politic, governments will repress both crime and those moral errors that are so egregious that they directly undermine the very stability of the family and the rest of the social order. And the Church, by way of her instruction, assists both individuals and governments in this task, remedying the defects in our understanding of natural law entailed by original sin.
Individual minds and governments guided by natural law are thus analogous to the body’s immune system. The immune system keeps illness at bay, or at least restores health after it has partially and temporarily been damaged. Thus the organism remains an order despite disruption to it. Similarly, the conscience of a good man, and the governance of sound public and ecclesiastical authorities, keep evil at bay, or at least suppress and correct it when it arises. Thus the individual soul and the social organism remain orderly despite the disruptive forces continually threatening them.
Positive disorder will exist only if the governing agencies in question cease doing their job. Naturally, this is impossible in the case of divine providence. No matter what the disorder into which the rest of creation falls, providence will ensure that good is, in the long run, drawn out of it in such a way as to realize the end for which the world was made. But society and the individual human being can certainly fall into disorder. Conscience, the voice of reason, may no longer be audible to a man who has fallen into deeply habituated sin. A society can fall into anarchy by virtue of its governing authorities becoming too weak or unwilling to uphold law and order and sound morals.
But this is in fact only the beginning of disorder. Perfect or complete disorder exists when the governing forces of an order not only fail to do their job, but act positively contrary to it. It involves a kind of perversity—an authority’s active subversion of the order it governs, its attempt to frustrate rather than realize the end for the sake of which the order exists. This occurs in the individual human being when his mind is in thrall to an ideology that directs him to live contrary to the natural law, and in a society when its governing institutions are dominated by such an ideology. The Church, meanwhile, cannot entirely fall into such a perversion of governance, given the divine promise that the gates of Hell will never prevail against her. But something approximating this perverse misgovernance can occur temporarily if large numbers of bishops and other churchmen fall into heresy (as has occasionally occurred in Church history, such as during the Arian crisis).
Worst of all would be a scenario where radical disorientation of this kind exists in all of these orders at once—where large numbers of individual human beings are in thrall to an ideology contra naturam, where the governing authorities of states and other large-scale social institutions impose this malign ideology from above, and where even many churchmen cease resisting it or even sympathize with it themselves. This would be perfect world disorder. (I borrow this choice phrase from the Sneaker Pimps song “Velvet Divorce.” I trust that for some this can only lend extra heft to my analysis, given the modern intellectual’s love of pop culture allusions.)
Western civilization appears currently to be approaching something like this condition.
The chief manifestation and proximate cause is the sexual revolution, now reaching a culmination in gender theory’s dissolution of the very idea of male and female as objective realities. This is a subversion, first, of the order that is the individual human being. As Aquinas argued, given the unique intensity of sexual pleasure, sexual immorality has, of all vices, the greatest tendency to blind the intellect and corrupt the will. And there can be no clearer evidence that one’s mind has been rotted out by disordered desire and ideology than an inability even to perceive one’s own sex, and a willingness severely to mutilate oneself in service to this delusion.
The sexual revolution subverts the social order insofar as it undermines the family, which is the basic cell of society. As a matter of natural law, sex exists for the sake of bringing children into the world, and binding together the father and mother on whom children rely to provide for and nurture them. It entails self-sacrifice for the sake of spouse and offspring, and in this way is the chief manifestation of our social nature.
But in the diabolical new disorder of things, sex is a matter of self-fulfillment and thereby made radically antisocial. The new life it generates is frequently snuffed out in the womb rather than nurtured. An enormous number of children who are born are left fatherless, with poverty and delinquency the sequel. Others suffer the materially and psychologically destabilizing effects of divorce. Meanwhile, young people’s own sexual sensibilities are thrown into disarray by a pornified popular culture, and their minds are indoctrinated into the tenets of the sexual revolution both by this pop culture and by the educational system. The sexual act is reduced to one item among others on the menu of entertainments. Marriage is delayed indefinitely or never entered into at all. The very ideals of manhood and femininity are mocked, and replaced by the fantasy that one’s “gender” is whichever one among dozens of possibilities one imagines it to be. Chemical and surgical alterations of the body in the service of such fantasy are encouraged, ruthlessly making permanent the effects of what would otherwise be a temporary period of confusion.
The full support of state power, public education, and corporate influence are thrown behind this ideology of sexual liberation. The traditional conception of society as an extension of the family is effectively replaced by the model of society as a political alliance of atomized onanists.
And it is not just the family, but the larger social order too that is attacked. It is demonized as inherently and uniquely malign and oppressive (racist, colonialist, sexist, etc.). Its monuments are slandered as shameful idols to be torn down and destroyed. Its system of laws and those who uphold them are defamed as instruments of oppression in need of dismantling and defunding. Criminality is thereby facilitated and excused. Ideologues peddle “critical” theories on which the racial and other groups that make up society are inherently at odds, as oppressor and oppressed. As with the sexual revolution, these poisonous doctrines are not only not resisted by society’s governing authorities and institutions, but are embraced and actively promoted by them. It is as if our leaders have taken James Burnham’s classic book Suicide of the West as a “how-to” rather than a dire warning.
Meanwhile, in the Church the dominant tendency is not to combat these malign developments but rather to accommodate them. Churchmen downplay, keep silent about, or in some cases even apologize for Christian moral teachings offensive to the prevailing ideologies. Where there seem to be at least verbal similarities between these ideologies and the Christian tradition—as with the language of compassion, equality before God, and so on—these are played up, while substantive differences in content are papered over. Ancient liturgical practices are held in contempt and suppressed. Persistent ambiguity and aggressive novelty demoralize the orthodox and embolden outright heresy.
The remote cause of this perfect world disorder is the intellectual and political transformation that the West underwent beginning around the seventeenth century. Its implications have been unfolding ever since, but in recent decades have snowballed. The most fundamental element of this transformation was the abandonment of the very notion of teleology or final cause—in the absence of which, as I have said, the possibility of order disappears. Modern science, we are constantly told, revealed final cause to be an illusion. In fact it did no such thing. It simply stopped talking about it for the narrowly predictive and technological purposes of physics. But over the centuries this ignoring of final cause increasingly came to be treated as a refutation of it. On this non sequitur has modernity been constructed. (This is a story I’ve told at length elsewhere, in a semipopular way here and in a dryly academic manner here.)
The non sequitur is embraced because of the political purposes it serves. As Pierre Manent has written of “the origins of the liberal or modern project”:
In order to escape decisively from the power of the singular religious institution of the Church, one had to renounce thinking about human life in terms of its good or end, which would always be vulnerable to the Church’s “trump.” Since, therefore, power in the body politic can no longer be considered the power of the good that orders what it gives . . . man can understand himself only by creating himself. The idea of man’s self-creation characterizes the so-called Promethean ambition of modern man, who wants to be the offspring of his own works. (An Intellectual History of Liberalism, p. 114)
So as to further “the construction of the new body politic, the new world of human liberty,” Manent says:
It is the teaching of Aristotle, which was essentially adopted by Catholic doctrine, that Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke will implacably destroy. That man is a substance and onesubstance, that is the Carthago delenda of the new philosophy. (The City of Man, p. 113)
Now, to deny the oneness or unity of man, and the end or final cause toward which he aims, just is to deny that man is an order. It is, accordingly, to erase the distinction between a well-ordered soul and a disordered one. Lunatic exercises in Promethean self-creation like the ones to which the sexual revolution has now led were inevitable given this revolution in thought, even if they are undoubtedly not what Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke and company had in view.
What they did have in immediate view was what Aquinas calls the “third order” to which man is related, the “civic and social” order. Denying final cause was essential to denying that we have obligations to a larger social order by nature rather than by consent. It was essential to modern liberalism’s project of making society a matter of choice or contract. But the genie could not be confined to that one bottle, and as the centuries have worn on, Promethean liberal man has gradually made everything a matter of choice—whether or not to kill his offspring, whether to be a man or a woman or some novel “gender” he has concocted out of a personal fetish, and in general whether to submit to natural and divine law.
Special divine punishment may follow, but it is not required to bring this disorder of things crashing down. That will happen of itself. Where supernatural action is needed is in mitigating the disaster, and ensuring an eventual restoration of order. It is only the most overarching of orders, the providential one that cannot fall into disorder, that can save the others. This is knowable to reason as well as to faith. In the Republic, Plato famously critiques egalitarian democracy, arguing that it tends to produce disordered souls dominated by the appetites, and especially by lust. Sophistry overwhelms public discourse, as even philosophers are corrupted, flattering and catering to the mob rather than calling it back to the true and the good. The sequel is tyranny and, humanly speaking, all is lost. Without divine action, virtue and true philosophy will disappear:
The philosophic nature we have postulated . . . must in the course of its growth develop every excellence, but if it is sown and grows in unsuitable soil, the very opposite will happen, unless providence intervenes. . . .
To produce a different type of character, educated for excellence on standards different from those held by public opinion, is not, never has been, and never will be possible—in terms, that is, of human possibility, and short of a miracle as they say. For, make no mistake, to escape harm and grow up on the right lines in our present society is something that can fairly be attributed to divine providence. (pp. 214–15)
From the Christian point of view, it is primarily through the Church, which Christ promises never to abandon, that this providential assistance is mediated. Since the Church is herself is in a bad way, the true renewal of the West awaits the renewal of the Church. But by no means does that entail that there is nothing to be done in the meantime, including at the level of politics. Effective political action will require political imagination beyond election cycles and partisan interests, and political success may only be piecemeal in the short run. But the crisis was centuries in the making, and so resolving it will be the work of generations. Rome is not rebuilt in a day.