- The Morality of Everyday Life
- University of Missouri Press, 270 pp.
“Law: An ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care for the community.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (1237)
In my student days, forty years ago, I spent way too much time lost in the miasma of nihilism, happily listening to Bob (Zimmerman) Dylan’s latest album on an old record player a former student had left behind. Now it goes without saying that old Bob had a way with words, not to mention ideas. I remember one line, in a song whose title escapes me, that goes, “And you know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you Mr. Jones?”
Bob’s classic line is as appropriate today as it was forty years ago.
It seems for many of us who labor in the vineyards or the engine house of the beloved republic that, indeed, “something is happening” and we really aren’t too sure what it is.
We do know, for example, that government costs us half our income, that our hard-earned wages that we use to feed, house, and clothe our families is being transferred, by government fiat, to people we don’t even know (not to mention the funding of certain, select corporations and fulminating academics), that our armed forces are lodged in Iraq in order that we may “bring democracy” to that Middle East country at great expense in blood and treasure, and that our southern border with Mexico is an open door to illegal aliens, organized crime, and al Qaeda.
But, this short list (and I’m sure that you could add many more items) is merely an example of the symptoms of the disease. What then is the root of our cultural malaise (to borrow a term from President Carter)? In his recent book, The Morality of Everyday Life, author, essayist, editor, and philosopher, Thomas Fleming explains, in some detail, where Western Civilization had its brain freeze. And, in inculcating his readers, and I think Fleming is first, a teacher, he provides some erudite definitions that pave the way to a better understanding of both the causes and potential cures of our moral/cultural catastrophe.
Dr. Fleming argues that since the birth of classical liberalism in the seventeenth century, a century that gave us “universality, rationality, individualism, objectivity, and abstract idealism,” Western Civilization has developed a flaw in its ethics, moral behavior, and thus in the construction of its state apparatus. He points out that the two primary political philosophies, liberalism and conservatism, burst forth from the fecund loins of classical liberalism and while there are, indeed, differences they have both embraced a “farsighted” or “long view” of human life.
The problem, then, is that both political “positions (liberalism and conservatism)” in order to engage this farsighted, idealistic, perspective of mankind (modernity) have in the very act of “freeing themselves from the shackles of particular circumstances and traditions” introduced an ethical virus that eats away at the traditional duties and obligations of the individual while disenfranchising the very foundation of human society, the family.
The contest that is being played out is between the ancient traditions (pagan, Judaic, Christian which are, interestingly enough linked to “Chinese, African, and Native American” cultures) and modernity’s philosophies.
Fleming writes, “Where Descartes and Locke looked at the everyday world and saw nothing but a few universal rules reducible to a mathematical formula, Aristotle and the writers of the Old Testament discerned an intricate network of peculiar obligations arising from specific circumstances and experiences.”
Modernity’s philosophers have provided humanity with the ability to resolve moral conflicts in absolute terms; it may be a question of “human rights” or the oppression of a weaker people or just the ongoing debate between “right and wrong.” The problem is that mankind cannot apply absolutism to his everyday actions. Each act, by the individual, incorporates a specific set experiences predicated on his own situation and on human frailty. To judge the individual based on some abstract and absolute formula is both impractical and absurd.
Dr. Fleming, in his essay (the book is comprised of seven essays) Hell and Other People, describes the eighteenth century and the philosophies of “Voltaire, Kant, and (later) the New England transcendentalists” as the time when the Stoic concepts of “universal brotherhood, international law, and world government reemerged.” The twentieth century saw the idea of a “just state,” or government that is committed to “economic equality,” the idea that one is to “sacrifice private life to public good,” not to mention the phalanx of inane do-gooders who are constantly interfering in the private lives of citizens. So the state has become the vehicle of moral certitude and each of us, through the wisdom of the state, is to take his place as “deputies” in providing for the its necessary expansion in order that it might provide, among other things, largesse to the “underprivileged,” justice for all, and, of course, the ever elusive, equality.
Fleming’s response is a cogent and direct rebuttal, “The very notion of citizens acting as the state’s moral deputies implies both a deification of the state and a denial of individual responsibility that would erode the foundations of morality. But as silly as such an extreme conclusion appears on the surface, it is an entirely logical deduction once we accept the premise that it is ultimately the state’s responsibility to provide for the welfare of its citizens.”
If it is the duty of the state to define morality, we can see it is but a short distance to the idea of engaging in such utopian schemes as the “war to end wars,” or supporting Muslim terrorists in Kosovo, or in “bringing democracy to the Middle East.” And, it is even a shorter distance to establishing a United Nations, the super state, that promises, “World Peace,” the end to world famine and disease, and a benevolent world police force that will always and everywhere protect us.
There is no reason to provide the litany of failures that such efforts have caused; millions dead in wars for peace, famine, poverty, the obliteration of the family, cultural decline, should be enough to suffice as an illustration of the follies of modernity’s philosophies in the twentieth century alone.
Fleming’s cure is a powerful and provocative examination of the wisdom of the ancients. From Aristotle to Aquinas Fleming explains the ancient Christian, pagan, and Judaic dictums and teachings with a familiarity that only a life long study can provide. His primary prescription indeed, the leitmotif of the book, lies in the ancient concept of casuistry, “a sophisticated tradition of ethical discussion” predicated on two principles. “First, that there are general and universally applicable moral laws governing human conduct; second, that these laws may not be applied simplistically and uniformly to the great variety of human circumstances and situations.”
The author refers to a Catholic casuistry best exemplified by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori (1696-1787) and his book Theologia Moralis.
Fleming writes, “Rejecting absolutism as both impractical and, in this human world, impossible, he argued from the basis of probability, always making allowances for human frailty. The result of his method is a mature and humane approach to moral problems that have never been equaled.”
The ancients better understood the fallen nature of man than any contemporary philosopher. The application of moral laws to such a frail creature is not an easy job. Fleming explains, “Different casuists, whether philosophers or novelists, will come to different conclusions, because ethics is not (as St. Alphonsus acknowledged) an abstract science; it is more like the art of tuning a piano or tacking a sailing ship against the wind. The rules are as fixed as the points of a compass or the overtone series, but applying them to the imperfections of human life is a messy and sometimes dangerous business.”
The author explains that casuistry was pushed to the background by the early twentieth century when the Catholic Church embraced a rigid neo-Thomism and mainstream Protestantism had similarly embraced the liberal philosophies of John Locke and Adam Smith, or “retreated into the austere rigorism of a puritanical Calvinism.”
But, while casuistry was being suppressed by the rising tide of philosophy, particularly moral rationalism, it continued to be nurtured by novelists from Jane Austen to Dean Koontz. Fleming explains that “Storytelling is the most ancient and perhaps the best way that human beings have found to make coherent sense out of their experience.” I shall never again criticize my wife for reading too many novels.
Dr. Fleming’s book, The Morality of Everyday Life, presents seven essays that examine, in depth and detail, the unraveling of our culture and government. But, this is not a screed against wayward consolidators, liberals, or socialists rather a polemic that addresses the current predicament. And, while Fleming’s solution is not easy it did work, for the most part, for our ancient ancestors.
If you buy one book this year, this is it! As the irascible H.L. Mencken quipped, “God’s hand is in it!”