December 22, 2010


An Advent Conversation with James V. Schall, S.J. (Ken Masugi, December 20, 2010, Claremont Institute)

Ken Masugi: Congratulations on the publication of your thirty-second book, The Modern Age (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press). How does this book differ from others of the same title?

James V. Schall: Thank you. I read somewhere once that any author, no matter how many books he produces, mostly says the same thing. There is truth in that. This is why you can usually tell that the same author abides through all of his books. The title, as I mentioned in the text, is the title also of a famous ISI journal, founded by Russell Kirk in 1957, in which I have written myself. One thinks too of Romano Guardini's The End of the Modern World, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, and Leo Strauss' felicitous phrase, "the modern project." Actually, if you check Google, you would be astonished at the variety of things that are labeled "modern age"—tobacco, musical groups, hairstyles, learned books, a move with Joan Crawford. Lots of folks want to get into the modern age, get out of it, or figure out what in blazes it is!

But I think it incumbent on everyone who thinks on these things to come to terms with what he means by "modern times" or "the modern age." So with this book, I further reflect on issues that I have taken up before. The title of Chapter 3 of At the Limits of Political Philosophy was "What Is Modernity?" Though the term has origins in literature and theology, it is of particular importance to political philosophy to grasp clearly the intellectual relationships of classical, medieval, and modern philosophy. I always write with Gilson's Unity of Philosophic Experience in the background of my mind. That is, ideas can be related to each other in content even when they seem far apart in time.

The efforts of Strauss and Eric Voegelin to argue that the classics were needed to save us from modern turns shocked many. But Strauss and Voegelin had a point with which we still have not sufficiently come to terms, the suspicion that something is inherently disordered about our modern souls. As Robert Sokolowski showed in his Phenomenology of the Human Person, we need to rediscover the basics of philosophy itself, not just its history, not just modern philosophy, as if modern philosophy is intelligible without reference to classical or medieval philosophy. We need actively to think them all through in our own minds, before we can further understand what and where we are.

The feeling that we have taken a radically wrong turn pervades our culture. We are, none the less, unwilling to take a cold look at what we have brought about precisely because we do not want to admit that the turn, in spite of some good things, was wrong at its core. That would require a change in the way we live. It is all, as I like to say, in Aristotle, the rejection of who, as Henry Veatch remarked, was at the founding of the modern age. Aristotle hovers over any return home.

KM: You maintain that "The modern age is characterized by the claim that man can propose his own final end, can decide the content of his own happiness." No doubt, in a manner he can do this, but is what he defines worth having?

JVS: Your question—"Is it worth having?"—in its own way, brings out the central theme of this book. Indeed, this "Is it worth having?" theme is why Benedict XVI's encyclical, Spe Salvi, is so fundamental for understanding the nature of political philosophy. We have had intimations all along from Nietzsche to Bury to Voegelin that the modern world is not nearly as "secular" in inspiration as it pretends to be. Rather it is an effort to accomplish the lofty goals that were found in the revelational tradition by means other than suggested there. Without this elevated background, our political ideologies and enthusiasms would simply never have happened.

KM: You proceed to show how such ambition leads to corruption of human reason and an assertion of divinity. This is what Voegelin called Gnosticism. Strauss, you argue, "notes that the elevated understanding of human nature from revelation remained even when its means of achievement were politicized."

JVS: Yes, the fundamental "corruption" of the human intellect is based on the assumption that nothing is found in the universe to which our minds are related. Gnosticism is what follows, namely, the use of our own practical intellects to propose what the world and our lives within it should look like. The Gnostic mind has nothing to "conform to" but itself.

The Strauss remark—similar things can be found in Voegelin—is extraordinarily perceptive. Quiet like Benedict, Strauss sees that the ends of everlasting life in happiness are proposed in Christian revelation. Their achievement requires grace. But their accomplishment is not to be found in this world. Yet, when faith is gone, these elevated ends remain demanding a "practical" response. The optimism of progress or utopianism ultimately comes from this forgotten grace's original addendum, as it were, to nature. Christianity in this sense has not been rejected. It has been relocated with a motivating force no longer dependent on faith, prayer, and good works. It depends rather on the technical/biological transformation of man and polity so that such ends are now produced in this world by man himself, by his "science." This is, as you put it, "an assertion of divinity."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2010 5:56 AM
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