This essay was adapted from a commencement addressed delivered at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.
I couldn’t be happier for you, and frankly, I’m envious: To have spent four years immersed in the Catholic tradition of liberal arts; four years reading the great books in a coherent order, closely, under the guidance of teachers who love those books, and who love you, their student—what a gift that must have been.
It is a gift I never had. Or rather, it was a gift of which I deprived myself. As I wrote in my memoir From Fire, by Water, I came to college with two beliefs as foolish as they were firmly held. First was the belief that I already knew all, or nearly all, there was to know, and college was a platform for me to broadcast my (correct) opinions about weighty matters. And second, that newer books are necessarily better than old ones; that Plato and Aristotle must have been superseded by modern philosophy, by Nietzsche and his progeny.
My original impulse had been to assert a mental freedom over and against all dogma and orthodoxy. And yet here I was, in thrall now to this intellectual clique, now to that one, and at the end of it all, I didn’t feel all that much wiser than at the outset. By the grace of God, in my case, the road that began from Zarathustra’s cave found its terminus at the Tabernacle of the London Oratory Church.
Looking back on that period, as a Catholic convert who tries to take the Church’s intellectual tradition seriously, I see that I was learning firsthand and at a rather great personal cost a lesson handed down by Chesterton, Saint John Henry Newman, and Saint Thomas Aquinas (and no doubt by other Christian sages, too).
It is a paradoxical insight: namely, that we free our minds precisely by shackling them to an orthodoxy, to a tradition. Or put another way, that the boundaries erected by tradition around mental autonomy are sources of adventure and freedom; while conversely, the supposedly free mind, untethered to anything solid, is primed for slavery.
Chesterton developed the idea most fully in his book Orthodoxy, in defense of the dogmas and hierarchies of historic Christianity: He argued that the apparently fusty, restrictive structures of the Catholic Church, decried as much by sundry Christian “reformers” as by the disciples of 18th- and 19th-century liberalism, were, in fact, guarantors of human freedom and creativity.
Wrote Chesterton: “By defining its main doctrine, the Church not only kept seemingly inconsistent things side by side”—the meekness of monks, the fierceness of Crusaders—“but, what was more, allowed them to break out in a sort of artistic violence otherwise possible only to anarchists. Meekness grew more dramatic than madness. Historic Christianity rose to a high and strange coup de théâtre of morality” exemplified by, for example, the self-flagellation of Henry II.
At stake were not only the creative energies of Christendom and the need to keep them in a reasonable balance—but reason itself. Aware that reason as much as faith rests precariously on authoritative structures, the Church erected “dark defenses” (Chesterton’s term) around free thought, all while granting reason broader leeway than her “enlightened” enemies ever would.
Under historic Christianity, the scope of reason was very wide—it touched the infinite, in fact. The Church, after all, preached the Reason who was with God and who was God (cf. John 1:1). The subsequent assault on the Church’s authority, carried out in the name of reason unbound, dramatically narrowed the scope of human contemplation. Afterward, men were only permitted to contemplate what they could encounter with their senses and measure with their scientific instruments, and reason fell into a perverse doubt over its own capacities. Or as Chesterton quipped, “With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the miter off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.”
Chesterton, of course, credited this insight to that other great English convert, John Henry Newman. The great battle of Newman’s life was over the definition of conscience and what it really means to exercise a free conscience. His antagonist was the great Victorian liberal statesman William Gladstone, who, in a best-selling pamphlet published after the First Vatican Council, had charged the Church with mentally enslaving Catholics to the bishop of Rome—an act tantamount, he said, to “moral murder.”
Picking up the gauntlet in defense of the Church, Newman reminded his countrymen that Gladstone’s definition of conscience—the liberal one, which said that conscience is the right to make up your own mind however you wish, unhindered by external authorities such as the papacy—was a dangerous novelty. Conscience, rather, was merely the universal moral law “as apprehended in the minds of individual men.” If by conscience was meant an inner awareness of an objective, universal law embedded in our nature, then Newman would grant it the widest liberty.
My 3-year-old daughter betrays some murky hints of a conscience when she grabs a toy out of her brother’s hand and declares, “It’s mine.” She knows there is some unwritten law of Toddler Land about ownership. Her mother, by putting her in time-out, is helping hone her understanding that there are other laws, such as, “Share and play nicely.” In this way, authority forms the conscience. Thus, the two are allies to be consulted side-by-side, rather than counterposed as enemies. And indeed, authority protects the true conscience, insofar as it refracts a universal law.
There is a great realism in this account of mind and authority. The liberal ideal of absolute free thought, Newman argued, was a mirage. Some orthodoxy or other would inevitably lord over our societies, and likewise, some authority or other would inevitably demand our obeisance. It is our good fortune if that authority is one, like the papacy, that reverences the true conscience, rather than a huckster trying to make a buck, a demagogue seeking our vote, or a bureaucrat trying to mask our kids against all scientific evidence and common sense.
Finally, there is the greatest of the three, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Josef Pieper, the German thinker, wrote of Saint Thomas that his obedience to the Church was the source of his philosophical freedom. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Aquinas was able to approach an Aristotle, a Maimonides, or an Ibn Rushd with a cool analytic head, succumbing neither to the histrionic revulsion of the fundamentalist, who recoiled at admitting any degree of pagan or heathen insight, nor to the kind of Aristotle-worship that was characteristic of the Latin Averroists and other besotted rationalists of the era.
Pieper observed, “This very acceptance of an absolutely valid authority and an absolutely valid tradition, this very restriction, makes for freedom and an unbiased attitude toward all other historically encounterable ‘traditions’ and authorities.” In Thomas, Aristotle would be admiringly addressed as “The Philosopher”—but not revered as a demigod.
Today we might substitute the names Aristotle and Averroes with the likes of Karl Marx or Michel Foucault or even, dare I say, James Madison. In the Catholic frame, none of these names looms absolutely, because there stands the absolute authority of the Church. But that implies we can, coolly and with equanimity—and provided we take firm precautions against idolatry—despoil these Egyptians.
We can admire the American Founding Fathers’ genius for practical statesmanship, without falling into the kind of Founders-worship that equates Federalist No. 10 almost with holy writ.
Or we can reject Marx’s radical historicism (that somehow exempted Marxism itself from its rigors)—and even so, learn from him as a supreme diagnostician of market society without limits, how it tends to bring about a world in which “all that was solid melts into air.”
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Or we might rightly roll our eyes at how a Foucault rejects anything essential and immutable about human nature, ascribing nearly everything to structural causes—and still see that, yes, some of our current crises have structural causes, which means we as Christians and as Americans can address them by altering the structures we have constructed.
This is the great adventure for which your rich liberal education has fortified you. Indeed, this is your task. And Lord knows, we need your labors. We live in an age when various economic, technological, and moral developments are absolutized and treated as the inevitable outcome of natural processes. But you are in literal communion with the Absolute. And therefore, you can relativize what deserves to be relativized. And you have drank deeply from the wellsprings of the classical and Christian tradition, so you have some clue as to what is actually natural and essential, such as the definition of man and woman, and what is contingent.
You, as Christian citizens, can say with confidence that no, market and technology are not, in fact, “natural,” but human tools and institutions, subject to our political determination, to political choice—subject to the imperatives of justice and other common goods. Being bound to tradition has rendered you free. Orthodoxy has prepared you for an authentically emancipatory politics. And you have, of course, the prayers of the saints in heaven, not least Saints Thomas and John Henry Newman. And G.K. Chesterton, wherever he is, no doubt wishes you well.