April 26, 2009


The Achievement of Francis Canavan: Excerpt from A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good, Essays in Honor of Francis Canavan (Kenneth Grasso and Robert Hunt, 03/02/09, First Principles)

While at Fordham and at Duke, Canavan studied with two men who would have a great impact on his academic interests and development as a political theorist, Moorhouse I. X. Millar, S.J. and John H. Hallowell. It was Millar who first encouraged Canavan to read Edmund Burke, and it was Hallowell who guided Canavan in the writing of his doctoral dissertation on Burke’s conception of political reason. One of the nation’s leading political philosophers, Hallowell, an Episcopalian, wrote from an unapologetically Christian perspective and sought to articulate a theory of politics—and more particularly, of constitutional democracy—that was rooted in the Christian vision of man and society.

Much of Canavan’s subsequent work, including his groundbreaking studies of Burke’s political thought, has elaborated upon a central presupposition that he shared with Hallowell, namely, that “underlying every system of government there is some predominant conception of the nature of man and the meaning of human existence. More often than not, this idea of man is implicit rather than explicit. But if not always explicit, it is always fundamental.” In other words, every society defines itself by how it answers certain basic questions about human nature and the goods that make for human flourishing. The decision not to answer these questions at all is, paradoxically, just as much an answer as any other, and the practical consequences for any constitutional order are profound. In short, politics is an inescapably moral enterprise. [...]

At the risk of oversimplifying matters, Canavan’s writings on Burke might be said to focus on the restoration of Burke to his rightful place in the pantheon of Christian political thinkers. This restoration, Canavan believes, is particularly important in light of the effort of some scholars to portray Burke as a Humean skeptic or historicist precursor to Hegel. For example, some Burke scholars have portrayed Burke as a man skeptical not only of Enlightenment enthusiasms and abstract metaphysical systems but as a principled opponent of any effort to ground political life within a larger metaphysical framework. Others have interpreted Burke’s defense of tradition, convention, and “prejudice” to mean that he was a follower of the historical Zeitgeist in whatever direction it might happen to be moving at the moment. Canavan has argued that each of these interpretations of Burke’s thought is mistaken.

On the contrary, according to Canavan, “Burke did his political thinking within the framework of a ‘realistic’ metaphysics derived from the biblical and Christian doctrine of creation.” At the heart of Burke’s thought is the vision of a divinely created and “teleologically” ordered universe, “composed of creatures with distinct natures serving natural ends, subject to natural laws, and all directed to the ultimate purpose of the Creator,” and whose “intelligible order [was] accessible to human reason.” Or, as Canavan argues elsewhere,

Burke believed in a common human nature created by God as the supreme norm of politics. But he knew that human nature realizes itself in history through conventional forms, customs, and traditions, which constitute what he called the second nature of a particular people. Convention can and often enough does distort our nature, but it is not opposed to it. . . . Convention, made as it should be to satisfy the needs of nature, is not its enemy, but its necessary clothing. The statesman must therefore frame his policies with a practical wisdom that understands his people, their history, their traditions, their inherited rights and liberties, and their present circumstances. To do otherwise is to court disaster.

The focus of Canavan’s work has been the recovery of the authentic Burke. At the same time, it is obvious that his interest in Burke is not purely historical in nature. He shares Alfred Cobban’s view that “as a school of statesmanship,” Burke’s work possesses “permanent value.” Burke’s writings, he contends, offer us “a richer and fuller way of understanding” political life “than one founded on the sovereign individual and his rights.” Burke’s “profound and luminous mind” offers us “a way of thinking about politics . . . and its problems which makes it possible to approach them rationally, while avoiding both unprincipled expediency and doctrinaire idealism.” Thus, even though “Burke is not a major figure in the history of political philosophy” (and even though he is most certainly not a defender of constitutional democracy in the modern sense), his work nevertheless teaches many lessons that contemporary America needs badly to learn if it is to sustain its experiment in democratic self-government.

-Francis Canavan, S.J. (1917–2009) (Kenneth L. Grasso, 02/27/09, First Principles)
-ARCHIVES: Francis Canavan (Liberty Fund)
-ESSAY: ON MERELY BEING INTELLIGENT: CANAVAN’S VIEWS AND REVIEWS (James V. Schall, S. J., from A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good – Essays in Honor of Francis Canavan)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2009 6:45 AM
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