Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Note to Paul Ryan

The recent addition of Paul Ryan to the Romney Presidential ticket focuses attention on philosophical principles at stake in U.S. politics. The Roman Catholic Ryan has more than once credited Ayn Rand as a key inspiration for his life and thought. But lately he also tried to distance himself a little from the high priestess of individualism, saying when it came to "epistemology....give me Thomas Aquinas. Don't give me Ayn Rand." 

Apart from the hoary old trick of citing Aquinas to burnish orthodox credentials one wonders if Ryan has actually read the Angelic Doctor's political thought. But just before we get to that, here's a little historical memory.

In England back in the Middle Ages there used to be common land, an area of agricultural fields set aside for the villagers on which they could grow crops. Part of the massive social engineering that took place at the beginning of the 19th century were the "enclosures" of the common food-producing space. A local lord or landowner took the land into private control and this was one of the major factors forcing a migration to the new industrial cities and creating the English working class.

Aquinas in all likelihood would have been horrified. His famous definition of the ends of human existence is "to live in community and know God." He also said: "Laws are said to be just from their end, when they are ordered to the common good; and from their author, when a law does not exceed the power of the one who declared it; and from their form, when they impose burdens upon their subjects in order to the common good according to an equality of proportion. Since one man is a part of the many, each man, what he is and what he has, belongs to the many, just as any part being what it is belongs to the whole (Summa Theologica II-II, q. 25, 6 ad 2).

But, really, it is just as useless for me to quote Aquinas as it is for Ryan to cite him. Part of the point of the 19th century history is to show that a whole lot of things have changed since the high Middle Ages. Our concrete conditions are unrecognizably different, and the thought world in which we exist has also been shifted irreversibly, by people like Descartes, Hume, Kant, Freud, Nietzsche...

The idea of a common world still has direct appeal, of course, but it has to start somewhere else than Aquinas' Aristotelian-categories-plus-scripture framework. Aquinas also spoke from a deep human sense of solidarity based in standard sacrificial practice, as well as the simple need to hang together to survive the multiple threats of the environment. The huge changes in our material and intellectual circumstances which gathered pace in the 19th century, involve enormous imbalances between classes of people and regions of the world. But they have conclusively changed the global cultural perspective in which we understand ourselves. Everyone is a little individualist and capitalist now, even if only in their heads. And that's why Rand remains Ryan's essential political inspiration.

At the same time, however, at a deeper level, it is also possible to understand Rand's thought very easily as a reaction to the ever increasing mimetism of human history. To see it this way changes the thing dramatically.

What happens when the work of the gospel strips away the solidarity of an intact sacrificial system ("I am a member of the in-group and have no other way of thinking and want no other.")? In these circumstances it is no longer possible to look at the world and not see victims, and, in the absence of a genuine conversion to love and compassion, that must produce an ever-increasing resentment and rivalry. In these conditions "the other" becomes an intolerable threat. What better way, then, of dealing with the crisis than inventing a literary-romantic mythology of the nonrelational individual? This is just what Rand did, depending on Nietzsche before her, who did somewhat the same thing, but with infinitely more finesse. Like Nietzsche she also understood that Christianity was the real problem. She called it "the best kindergarten for communism possible."

But just because you invent a romance of the godlike individual does not mean mimesis goes away. It's still there, and more than ever, precisely as the individual pitted against the crowd. And this in fact is the ideology of Paul Ryan and the forces he represents, relentlessly mimicking the very thing they hate, in all its power and danger. In fact, very quickly they gather a crowd to combat the crowd, each element imagining in its mind that it is acting the sovereign part of the individual. Moreover, they intend to become the only crowd, single and united, overturning in an orgy of self-contradiction, the myth of the individual from which they started.

The discovery of both mimesis and compassion as neurally based human responses is the obvious thinking path out of the crisis. We are wired into each other whether we like it or not. This wiring is no longer connected to the public grid of sacrifice and as such can very quickly fuse into a violent melt-down of catastrophic proportions. But not if we consciously and deliberately--as relational beings--opt for a connection to the other that is nonviolent and giving. The metaphysics of an Aquinas really make no sense in a Randian world (note to Paul Ryan!), but a post-individualist anthropology of compassion does. Oh, for the politician with the clarity and courage to preach it!

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian


  1. Another "useless" citation from Aquinas:

    Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless." (Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 66, Article 7)

    1. Not so useless, really. Sounds like the gospel. I stand corrected. Thanks!