Repenting of the Atom Bomb: Prayers, Reading, and Other Resources

On August 6th, 1945, at 8 a.m. the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima instantly killing ~75,000 men, women, and children, mostly civilians. On August 9th, 1945, another nuclear bomb was detonated on Nagasaki, Japan’s most Catholic-populated city, known as the “Rome of the East“. This second bomb landed next to the Urakami Catholic Cathedral, reducing it to rubble and vaporizing all human beings inside, along with ~50,000 others.

Despite the strict limitations of Just War, many Catholics would go on to support the use of nuclear weapons. Notable exceptions were Venerable Fulton Sheen and Servant of God Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. The Americanist Catholics sided with President Truman, a 33rd Degree Freemason, when he stated, in the manner of an antichrist: “We thank God that it [the Bomb] has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.” 

The saintly Pope John XXIII spoke out fiercely against the arms race and condemned nuclear weapons in an Encyclical (quotation below). This teaching has been repeated by Pope Francis with even greater force. The following resources—prayers, videos, protests, papal messages, and readings—have been compiled for use in Christian homes, parishes, and other communities. Please join us in making reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, begging God’s mercy on the United States of America, and repenting of the culture of death which has manufactured eternal and barbarous warfare.

Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control. In the words of Pope Pius XII: “The calamity of a world war, with the economic and social ruin and the moral excesses and dissolution that accompany it, must not on any account be permitted to engulf the human race for a third time.” 

—Saint Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris § 112 (1963)




  • “Vigil of Repentance at the Pentagon, the Center of Warmaking on the Planet”
    Beginning at Army Navy Blvd and Eads St. on Thursday, 6 August 2020, at 6:45 AM.
    Hosted by the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C. 
  • “A 24/7 Three and a Half Day Vigil of Repentance for United States War Crimes on the 75th Anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the United States Killer Drones from Des Moines Drone Command Center.”
    The vigil will be held at the Iowa Air National Guard Drone Command Center, 3100 McKinley Ave. Des Moines, Iowa. It will begin on Thursday, 6 August 2020, at 8 a.m. (the time the United States dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima) until Sunday, 9 August, at 11 a.m. (the time the United States dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki). Report from 2019.
    You can support the Des Moines Catholic Worker, who host the vigil, here. Please consider joining them in prayer.

Papal Messages

Other Reading

Episode #14 of the Tradistae Podcast (link above) contains audio recordings of the following readings from Day and Merton. 



The Working-Class in Christendom (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)

The following passages are excerpted from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913). The original article was titled “Labour and Labour Legislation“. Emphasis and headings are our own.

The Church Fathers and the Working-Class in Pagan Rome

Despite the teaching and influence of Christianity, the laws and institutions, the ruling classes and public opinion, the intellectual classes, and, indeed, the bulk of the people were still pagan. A few years later, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, but he did not thereby make the people Christian. The majority were still dominated by selfishness, dislike and contempt for labour, and by the desire to exploit their fellows, especially through usurious practices. The language employed by Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom, and Jerome against the rich of their time, is at once a proof that the powerful classes were not imbued with the Christian spirit, that the labouring classes were suffering great hardships, and that the Christian teachers were the truest friends of the poor and the toilers. The doctrine laid down by these Fathers, sometimes in very radical terms, that the earth was intended by God for all the children of men, and that the surplus goods of the rich belonged of right to the needy has been the most fruitful principle of human rights, and the most effective protection for labour that ever fell from the lips of men. It is, in fact, although not always so recognized, the historical and ethical basis of the now universally accepted conviction among Christian peoples that the labourer has a right to a living wage, and that the owner of property may not do all that he likes with his own. 

The Medieval Abolition of Slavery 

In the second and third centuries the slaves obtained certain legal rights, such as a partial recognition of their marriages and domestic relations, and redress in the courts for injuries suffered from the master. A considerable proportion of them were gradually transformed into serfs…

From the beginning of [Charlemagne’s] reign the lot of the slaves rapidly improved and their numbers rapidly decreased, so that by the middle of the tenth century they had almost been transformed into serfs throughout the Holy Roman Empire. One hundred years later, about seven per cent of the inhabitants of England were slaves, but the institution had practically disappeared in that country by the middle of the twelfth century. In the year 1170 the last remnant of it in Ireland was abolished by St. Lawrence O’Toole.

[…] Politically, [feudal lords] were not only the military defenders of their territory, but to a great extent legislators, administrators, and judges… Serfdom differed very much in its degrees at different times and in different places, but it always assumed that the serf, while not owned like a slave, belonged in a general sense to the lord, was obliged to expend a certain portion of his labour for the benefit of the latter, and was bound to the soil. Very often he was compelled to make other contributions to the lord, such as a fine on the occasion of his own or his son’s marriage. In the course of time the serf was relieved of these less regular burdens, his labour services were definitely fixed by custom, and his tenure of the land that he cultivated on his own account was made secure by custom, if not by law… The condition of the labouring class seems to have been on the whole better than at any previous time. The fact that the great majority of the workers were no longer slaves, and that they were enabled to till on their own account land of which their possession was fairly secure, represented a large measure of progress.

The Late Middle Ages in England

The condition of the labouring classes both in town and country during this time was much better than it had ever been before. In the first place, the worker enjoyed considerable security of position, either on the land that he tilled or in the craft that he pursued. According to the theories of the time, the members of every class performed a social function which gave them a social claim to a livelihood in conformity with their needs and customs. Hence the feudal lord and the monastery were charged with the care of all the inhabitants of their estates, while the guilds were required to find work or relief for their members. Although the workers enjoyed as a whole less individual freedom than they do today, their economic position was more secure, and their future less uncertain. There was no proletariat in the modern sense, that is, no considerable number of persons for whose welfare no person or agency was held socially responsible. As to the content of the livelihood obtained by the average labourer of that period, any attempt at a precise statement would be misleading. Nor is it possible to institute any general comparison that would be of value between the welfare of the labourer then and now. This much, however, may be asserted with confidence: the poorest one-tenth of the labouring population were probably better fed and better clothed, if not better housed, than is the poorest one-tenth today; for the grinding and hopeless poverty, just above the verge of actual starvation, so often prevalent in the present time, did not belong to medieval life (Gibbins, Industry in England, 177); the labouring class (meaning all persons who got their living as wage-earners or through self-employment, and not by employing others) received a larger share per capita of the wealth then created than our wage-earners obtain from the wealth produced in our time; and, finally, the guild system which governed town industry did for a time, and in large measure, succeed in reconciling the interests of consumers and producers (Ashley, English Economic History, II, 168).

Laudato Si’: The Earth and the Poor Cry Out Against the Technocratic Paradigm

Excerpts from the Encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis for the Summer Embertide readings. Painting “On Earth as it is in Heaven” used with permission from A. Vonn Hartung.

Summary: We cannot fight ‘environmental degradation’ unless we also address ‘human and social degradation’ (§ 48). The elites of the world, who sometimes use ‘green rhetoric’, have failed to hear the ‘cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (§ 49). Blaming ‘population growth’ is a way of ‘refusing to face the issues’ of global inequality (§ 50). An ‘ecological debt’ exists between ‘certain countries’, particularly ‘between the global north and south’ (§ 51). Every ‘ecological approach’ must recall that the earth and her fruits ‘are meant to benefit everyone’ (§ 93). ‘The natural environment is a collective good’ of ‘all humanity’ (§ 95). Humanity has taken up ‘technology and its development’ according to ‘a paradigm’ which has ‘squeezed the planet dry beyond every limit’ (§ 106). Technology is ‘not neutral’; it ‘conditions us’ (§ 107). ‘Finance dominates the real economy’; ‘profit’ and ‘the market cannot guarantee’ that technology will lead to ‘integral human development’ (§ 109).

Global Inequality and the Common Destination of Goods

48. The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. [1] …

49. It needs to be said that, generally speaking, there is little in the way of clear awareness of problems which especially affect the excluded. Yet they are the majority of the planet’s population, billions of people. These days, they are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. At times this attitude exists side by side with a “green” rhetoric. Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate… To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues… we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. [2] …

51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time.

93. Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone. Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order”. [3] …

95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”. [4]

The Technocratic Paradigm 

106. The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm… Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit…

107. …We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups…

109. The technocratic paradigm also tends to dominate economic and political life. The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy…. Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion. [5] At the same time, we have “a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation”, [6] while we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures…


  1. Bolivian Bishops’ Conference, Pastoral Letter on the Environment and Human Development in Bolivia El universo, don de Dios para la vida (23 March 2012), 17.
  2. Francis, Catechesis (5 June 2013): Insegnamenti 1/1 (2013), 280.
  3. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens (14 September 1981), 19: AAS 73 (1981), 626.
  4. New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference, Statement on Environmental Issues (1 September 2006).
  5. Cf. Benedict XIV, Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate (29 June 2009), 35: AAS 101 (2009), 671.
  6. Ibid., 22: p. 657.


Laudato Si’: Scripture Calls for an Ecological Conversion

Excerpts from the Encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis.

Summary: The Book of Genesis teaches that human life is not ‘adrift in hopeless chaos,’ but that God’s plan includes humanity (§ 65). Human life is grounded in three fundamental relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself; originally in harmony, these relationships were disrupted by sin (§ 66). Our ‘dominion’ of the earth is not ‘absolute ownership’; we are subject to God’s will for ‘mutual responsibility between human beings and nature’ (§ 67). Our awareness of ecological crisis must translate into new habits, especially for those ‘in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence’ (§ 209). Christianity has a ‘precious contribution’ to make towards an ‘ecological spirituality’ which is needed to ‘motivate’ and ‘inspire’ humanity (§ 216). We all need an ‘ecological conversion’ which ‘is not an optional aspect of our Christian experience’ (§ 217).

The Wisdom of the Biblical Accounts

65. Without repeating the entire theology of creation, we can ask what the great biblical narratives say about the relationship of human beings with the world. In the first creation account in the Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating humanity. After the creation of man and woman, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches that every man and woman is created out of love and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26)… How wonderful is the certainty that each human life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God, and for this reason “each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary”. [1]

66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence. [2] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church… The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

Ecological Spirituality and Conversion

209. An awareness of the gravity of today’s cultural and ecological crisis must be translated into new habits. Many people know that our current progress and the mere amassing of things and pleasures are not enough to give meaning and joy to the human heart, yet they feel unable to give up what the market sets before them. In those countries which should be making the greatest changes in consumer habits, young people have a new ecological sensitivity and a generous spirit, and some of them are making admirable efforts to protect the environment. At the same time, they have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits…

216. The rich heritage of Christian spirituality, the fruit of twenty centuries of personal and communal experience, has a precious contribution to make to the renewal of humanity. Here, I would like to offer Christians a few suggestions for an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith, since the teachings of the Gospel have direct consequences for our way of thinking, feeling and living. More than in ideas or concepts as such, I am interested in how such a spirituality can motivate us to a more passionate concern for the protection of our world. A commitment this lofty cannot be sustained by doctrine alone, without a spirituality capable of inspiring us, without an “interior impulse which encourages, motivates, nourishes and gives meaning to our individual and communal activity”. [3]

217. “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”. [4] For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.


  1. Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry (24 April 2005): AAS 97 (2005), 711.
  2. Cf. Bonaventure, The Major Legend of Saint Francis, VIII, 1, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, New York-London-Manila, 2000, 586.
  3. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 Nov 2013), 261: AAS 105 (2013), 1124.

  4. Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry (24 April 2005): AAS 97 (2005), 710.

Laudato Si’: The Climate is a Common Good

Excerpts from the Encyclical Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis.

Summary: The earth, our home, is beginning to look ‘like an immense pile of filth’ (§ 21) due to our ‘throwaway culture’ of non-renewable resources and immoderate consumption (§ 22). This has caused global warming, which damages the common good of our climate (§ 23). Therefore, we need an integral ecology that recognizes our interconnectedness to nature (§ 139), the ‘immense dignity of the poor’ (§ 158), and ‘intergenerational solidarity’ (§ 159). Otherwise, we may leave our children a world of ‘desolation’ and ‘catastrophe’ (§ 161).

What is Happening to Our Common Home 

21. Account must also be taken of the pollution produced by residue, including dangerous waste present in different areas. Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.

22. These problems are closely linked to a throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish. To cite one example, most of the paper we produce is thrown away and not recycled. It is hard for us to accept that the way natural ecosystems work is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. A serious consideration of this issue would be one way of counteracting the throwaway culture which affects the entire planet, but it must be said that only limited progress has been made in this regard.

23. The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they hamper the escape of heat produced by sunlight at the earth’s surface. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes.

Integral Ecology 

139. When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

158. In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods, but, as I mentioned in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, it demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers. We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.

159. The notion of the common good also extends to future generations… We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity… 

161. Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.

What Thomism Has to Do With Marx

The following was published on 16 February 2017 by “Fergus Sandyford”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

Alasdair MacIntyre, Ethics in the Conflict of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

In a touching passage cited by Augustine, Cicero warmly praises the scholar Varro. He writes that Varro led Romans home ‘‘when we were wandering and roaming like strangers in our own city, so that we could at least know who we were and where we were.”

For more than a few Roman Catholics today, the same could be written about Alasdair MacIntyre. His After Virtue has given Catholics who roam like strangers in what has become of Western civilization a map: MacIntyre shows us where we are, in a world of interminable ethical disagreements. And he shows us who we Catholics are, as bearers of a philosophical tradition that once made sense of what it would mean to live a good life: Thomism.

As with Varro’s rehabilitation of the Roman’s old pagan religion, MacIntyre is sometimes criticized for offering a reinterpretation, rather than a recovery, of Thomism. And so, like other defenders who engage our enemies on the outer ramparts of Fortress Catholicism, no small number of arrows sail towards MacIntyre’s back. But they miss the mark. To claim that MacIntyre is not another Thomist of the strict observance is simply to misunderstand the genre and audience of MacIntyre’s project. He writes for the philosophical layman estranged from the tradition of Aristotle and Thomas. For example, the argument in his latest book, Ethics in the Culture of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative, ends with natural theology, where questions of God and our final good begin.

With the help of our friends and good literature, we tell and retell the story of our lives to ourselves and others. MacIntyre’s emphasis on the importance of narrative makes Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity a sequel to the last chapters of his famous After Virtue. As we tell the stories of our lives, we shape ourselves as ethical and political persons. MacIntyre suggests we take three philosophers on board to improve our understanding of what we desire and what might fulfill us: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Marx.

Karl Marx! A great foe of religion, even among the terrible geniuses of 19th century Germany! I beg your patience, dear reader. MacIntyre shows us a way home with these three guides, and we will have to consider them in order.

Why Aristotle? If it is our friends who teach us how to live a fulfilling human life, it is Aristotle who supplies the vocabulary to call this life “good” or not. Human flourishing, or a good human life, is not like the flourishing of non-human animals. Other animals flourish when they are healthy and reproduce in a suitable environment. But there is a much greater range and diversity in what we would consider good human lives.

Aristotelians, in the broad sense of the term MacIntyre uses, consider the facts about what makes human beings fail to flourish. Our reasoning may begin in particular domains of our lives: what makes me a good mother, a good teacher, a good store-clerk, a good friend? It then branches out in reflection, is it a good life for me to be a father, a perpetual student, or an artist? As we reflect, we may encounter conflicts: is it better for me to be a good lawyer or a good friend? When, from our failures, we learn what virtues we require to acquire specific goods in our lives, we learn about what the good itself is for human beings.

One notices that, for MacIntyre, most clear-headed “Aristotelians” in history likely have never heard of Aristotle. To be an “Aristotelian” is to disagree with the modern skeptics, to argue that human beings are unique because we are animals with language.

Furthermore, to be “Aristotelian” is to further argue that, despite the great range of possible lives open to language-users, we can take a kind of external view of human lives (as we would the life of a dog or a squirrel) and deliberate with our friends about what is good or bad for our flourishing.

Why Thomas? Thomas liberates us from one confinement of Aristotelianism. For Aristotle, we must be virtuous and fortunate to live good lives. That Solonian pessimism, still runs through Aristotle: count no man happily fulfilled—eudaimon—till he is dead. How can we be said to live worthwhile lives, if suddenly tragedy strikes us in our old age, as it did Croesus and Oedipus? She who lives to be a mother — if her beloved child dies an untimely death, Aristotle must admit, her life is unfulfilled in the last analysis.

Thomas is an improvement, for MacIntyre, not because he discovers that the beatific vision is our final end. Theology — not even natural theology — does not enter the investigation. No, rather, Thomas corrects Aristotle by insisting that no finite end can be our final end, neither wealth nor honor, neither reputation nor power, neither health nor pleasure (ST I-II q. 2 a 1-8).

Our final end does not compete with other goods. Thomas opens “Aristotelianism” for all humans, not only those fortunate enough to be born citizens of classical Greek poleis. And, MacIntyre believes, Thomas renders Aristotle more consistent in the process.

If we do not imagine ourselves too clever by half for the aphorisms of G. K. Chesterton, we may have the notion that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense. Or, in MacIntyre’s more precise language in Three Rival Versions, “Aquinas was the philosopher par excellence or theoretical inquiry into practical life” (80). Yet MacIntyre does not think one must believe in God to be open to some final and ultimately desirable good for their lives. Everyone needs to sense of a final end beyond all finite goods, to have a good reason to live even if one is bereft of this or that important finite good.

Before turning to Marx, perhaps we should see how MacIntyre’s argument is already controversial. As soon as the gist of MacIntyre’s essay seems platitudinous, consider how controversial the argument is bound to be. He courts controversy by opening himself up to several kinds of critics. First, there are those partial to the book’s philosophical targets, expressivists and Nietzscheans. The refined cousins of the emotivists profiled in After Virtue, expressivists disagree with Aristotelianism as a metaethical theory, since they argue moral judgments only signal some psychological state related to a desire or preference. Nietzscheans like Bernard Williams—MacIntyre’s main interlocutor in the book—further attack Aristotelianism as an ethical theory, arguing that the desires of others must not impede me from living authentically, or responding to who I am. Second, there are the more numerous defenders of capital-M Morality, as MacIntyre styles it, those who defend a freestanding science of morals, with abstract principles knowable to all. Both groups of critics are likely to have a third kind of criticism:

Why Marx? Why Marx, indeed? Marx’s hostility to religion is well known. Though Marx is far from a Thomist, MacIntyre’s turn to ‘Marx, not Marxism’ does not bring him outside of the Aristotelian tradition. MacIntyre writes,

“Had Marx achieved the university teaching appointment that he had hoped for at Bonn in 1842, his first lectures would have been on Aristotle. In the years 1843–1845, while a radical journalist, he made a close study of Aristotle’s Politics. And when he refers to Aristotle in his mature economic writings, it is always with a kind of respect that he shows to few of his contemporaries. Indeed, he takes Aristotle to have described accurately the forms of economic exchange of the ancient Greek world and the history of their development. When he moves beyond Aristotle, in order to understand the distinctive economic forms and development of the modern world, he still employs key concepts as Aristotle used them: essence, potentiality, goal-directedness” (94).

Marx offers the modern Aristotelian a critique of political economy necessary for what he calls “sociological self-knowledge.” Marx explains why late modern moral agents misunderstand their social relationships, and their own lives, in the matrix of a consumer society. Today, we think of our productive activity as valuable only insofar as it serves the end of consumption. Sociological self-knowledge requires practical knowledge of not only the common goods of one’s family or workplace, but also the structures of power- and wealth-distribution that may shape how we understand and direct our desires. MacIntyre drives this point home, “Consider some particularly modern forms of opportunity and hope, insecurity and poverty, regret and lament, and ambition, all of them arising from the recurrent transformations of work as economic modernity developed” (120).

How do we develop good lives in late capitalist modernity? Capital-M Morality does not instruct us as to what goals to pursue. Instead, MacIntyre describes Morality, a secular project that can be shared by adherents of various religions and traditions, as necessary to the function of modern states and markets. It can regulate the behavior of corporate executives, who may otherwise pursue their profit-maximizing duties to their shareholders too far. It can regulate the behavior of politicians, who might otherwise get their hands too dirty in the pursuit of their duty to safeguard their constituents. Morality can be the basis of social critique. It may well be best, in the long run, to act according to the precepts of Morality. But what Morality cannot supply is a standard independent of our desires to tell us what we should pursue, or a reason for fulfilling our short-term desires.

MacIntyre rejects Morality not in the name of an “I,” like Nietzsche or Williams, but in the name of a “we.” For MacIntyre, we should develop good lives by deliberating with others about our common goods, and inform our desires by this reasoning. This involves deliberating about our goods qua our social roles, and also our goods qua human beings. We should aim not at happiness in the sense of maximizing pleasure, but at the happiness that comes from engaging in worthwhile activities that develop our human powers: physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. MacIntyre claims that, while Aristotle articulates this conception of eudaimonia, it is a goal manifest in a wide range of pre-modern societies pursuing an even wider range of diverse common goods.

Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity moves towards a political conclusion — indeed, it rebuffs the modern and decidedly un-Aristotelian divorce of ethics and politics — while only gesturing at questions of natural theology. Reviving worthwhile human activities, and making them possible for all people to develop their human powers, is vital to the common good. Since his 1998 essay “Notes from the Moral Wilderness,” MacIntyre has turned back to politics, and specifically Marx, and avoiding simply addressing individuals how to fulfill themselves. The pursuit of the common good requires all of us together. And in this we are greatly aided by not only Aristotle and Thomas, but Marx and MacIntyre.

A Radical Politics of Solidarity in the Age of Abortion

The following was published on 24 January 2017 by “M.W. Lucik”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

To commemorate the March for Life, we are pleased to present a series of essays on the abortion issue, presented from a left Catholic perspective. This is the first.

Abortion is seen primarily as a moral problem. That is, it is conceived of in terms of sin (or delict) first and foremost. And rightly so. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council called it an unspeakable crime (Gaudium et spes no. 51). And so it is. To the extent, furthermore, that abortion features in discussions of politics among Catholics, it is framed in moral terms. That is, Catholics frequently discuss whether or not it is morally licit to vote for a candidate who supports abortion, even if the candidate in other respects holds praiseworthy views. This is largely where the debate stays.

However, such an approach tends to separate the ethical from the political, which is an insupportable division. Politics and ethics are the same thing. I do not mean electoral politics, of course. I mean politics in an Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, which is very different. In short, politics is the creation of a virtuous people through laws (Ethic. X.viii–xv; ST I-II q.95 a.1 co.). Laws are, of course, dictates of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST I-II q.91 a.3 co.; I-II q.96 a.1 co. & ad 2.) This is a point that is often lost in political discussions, even among Catholics. The aim of politics is ultimately virtue and the common good. A given policy or platform is proposed because it bears a rational relationship to virtue and the common good. And, given that the dictates of natural reason are accessible to all men, it is not a matter of ideology, necessarily, to say that a given policy is or is not likely to produce a virtuous people or is or is not rationally related to the common good. Reason is not magic.

Considering abortion in this context, the question is whether laws permitting abortion (or euthanasia) produce a virtuous people or are rationally related to the common good. The first point is trivial: abortion does not produce a virtuous people. Slaughter does not create virtue. The question, then, is whether these laws are rationally related to the common good. This, too, seems like a trivial question. However, a clever interlocutor might frame the matter this: we tolerate for now the unspeakable crime of abortion in order to lead society gradually to virtue (cf. ST I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2). Or he might say that there are certain goods that we would lose through the outright repression of abortion (cf. ST II-II q.10 a.11 co.). Now, Aquinas specifically included murder among the vices that ought to be repressed (ST I-II q.96 a.2 co.). And it is impossible to conceive of a good that we would lose by suppressing abortion outright or a greater evil that would be caused.

But I wish to make another point: abortion is incompatible with true solidarity. And, for this reason, abortion is always and everywhere inimical to the common good. However, in the current stage of capitalism, the only hope for a just settlement of the state, to say nothing of productive property, is a radical politics of solidarity. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, it will be seen that solidarity and the common good are inextricably linked. Second, true solidarity, especially solidarity understood in Christian terms, is the antidote to the individualistic mindset at the core of capitalist exploitation, including the reduction of persons to mere instrumentality. It will be seen that abortion is incompatible with solidarity and, therefore, the common good. The question, then, is how a radical politics of solidarity may be forged in a society that embraces abortion and rejects the common good.

In order to demonstrate my points adequately, it will be necessary to introduce several lengthy quotations from magisterial sources. There is no way around it, as a radical politics of solidarity requires an understanding first of solidarity, which is a term that has specific content in the magisterium. Once the term is rightly understood, the manner in which one employs it radically becomes obvious. However, it is essential to understand the term rightly, as it has been and remains susceptible to abuse, particularly by secular leftists who distort it for their own ends.

In Sollicitudo rei socialis, St. John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical commemorating Bl. Paul VI’s Populorum progressio, the saint explored the concept of solidarity at great length. I begin, therefore, with John Paul’s thought, which has come to define solidarity in magisterial terms. He argued that

It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “virtue,” is solidarity. (No. 38.)

He immediately drew the essential connection between solidarity and the common good:

This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. (Ibid.)

I note, briefly, that John Paul’s terse definition of the common good is profoundly Thomistic (cf. Charles De Koninck, The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists, in The Writings of Charles De Koninck v.2 [McInerny, ed. 2009], pp. 74–76.) But questions of John Paul’s Thomism may be left for another day. What matters is that John Paul draws a clear connection between solidarity and the common good; indeed, just as “development” is the “new name for peace” in Paul VI’s formulation (cf. Populorum progressio no. 76), for John Paul solidarity is the new name for the common good.

Not content to leave the matter in fairly abstract terms, John Paul sketched a vision of what solidarity looks like in practice:

The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others. (No. 39.)

I observe that, before John Paul’s vision of solidarity is critiqued as reactionary or insufficiently revolutionary, John Paul placed great emphasis on the weaker elements of society claiming their legitimate rights. Indeed, he acknowledged that this process may involve social conflict, but he taught that social conflict, rightly conceived, is aimed at the common good (Centesimus annus no. 14). Turning from that question of rhetoric to the matter at hand, it is clear that John Paul’s vision of solidarity requires the members of a polity to recognize each other as persons.

Indeed, John Paul explicitly stated as much, when he taught that:

Solidarity helps us to see the “other”—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper” (cf. Gen 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. Hence the importance of reawakening the religious awareness of individuals and peoples. Thus the exploitation, oppression and annihilation of others are excluded. (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39.)

With his treatment in Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul made solidarity, as the magisterium understands it, clear. Solidarity requires us to view other people as people, eschewing a view that reduces them to mere instruments. This is ultimately a true commitment to the common good, conceived as the good of each and every member of the polity. And this commitment leads to an open and generous relationship between the members of society.

More recently, Francis speculated even more deeply about the causes of the instrumental view of persons that is so destructive of solidarity. In Laudato si’, his encyclical on care for our common home, the Holy Father observed that

A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay. (No. 122.)

The Holy Father went on to detail numerous consequences of the “misguided anthropocentrism” he identified:

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. (No. 123.)

While the Holy Father’s language is different, it is plain that he had in mind the issues John Paul raised in Sollicitudo rei socialis. For Francis, anthropocentrism, which joins with a technocratic, power-obsessed paradigm, leads inexorably to practical relativism, and practical relativism leads to the destructive instrumental view of persons. Ultimately, to return to John Paul’s language, it is care for the self above all others—as opposed to the care for others that is at the heart of commitment to the common good—that stands in opposition to solidarity.

It is, therefore, a diseased sense of self and the other that is at the root of any failure of solidarity. Indeed, John Paul made precisely this point in Centesimus annus, noting, “[w]hen man does not recognize in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person, he effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity and of entering into that relationship of solidarity and communion with others for which God created him” (no. 41). By exalting selfishness, particularly in a technocratic paradigm that combines an obsessive focus with convenience with the “cult of unlimited human power,” one closes himself off from the relationships necessary to submit to the common good. And when John Paul wrote that the selfish person “effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity,” it is impossible not to be reminded of the Thomistic point that human dignity is found only in submitting to the common good (see De Koninck pp. 88–93). The human who rejects true solidarity forfeits his dignity as a human.

Politics rightly conceived requires, we can see, radical solidarity. Recall that Aquinas teaches us that laws are dictates of practical reason ordered to the common good (ST I-II q.91 a.3 co.; I-II q.96 a.1 co. & ad 2.). We now know that solidarity and the common good are inextricably connected. Solidarity, John Paul taught, is a true commitment to the common good (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 38). Indeed, politics rightly conceived is radical solidarity; one must be truly committed to the common good to exercise one’s natural reason to frame laws ordered to the common good. Insincere or insufficient commitment will inevitably lead one’s reason astray, and the laws will cease to be just. For proof of this, one needs only to look at any state dominated by the technocratic, anthropocentric paradigm. Francis precisely delineated the problem when he wrote, “when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided” (Laudato si’ no. 123). Worse still, when the culture is corrupt and in thrall to practical relativism, the laws will often enshrine the corruption and the relativism. A radical politics of solidarity, a radical politics of the common good—politics rightly conceived—is the only remedy.

However, it is only in Christianity that one finds the foundations for a truly radical politics of solidarity. Returning to Sollicitudo rei socialis, we see:

In the light of faith, solidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the specifically Christian dimension of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit. One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her; and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). (No. 40.)

In other words, Christianity brings another dimension to the concept. One could, through natural reason, proceed to a place where one views the other as a person, with dignity and equality with every other person. However, Christianity, John Paul argued, takes us a step beyond that, to a place where the other is “the living image of God the Father, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and placed under the permanent action of the Holy Spirit” (ibid.). And in that place, we are called to love the other and to sacrifice for his sake. Our submission to the common good, which is ultimately the root of true solidarity, becomes a submission not merely to the temporal common good but also to the spiritual common good. And it is in that submission that we become truly human (cf. De Koninck pp. 88–93.).

It is not necessary to dwell at length on the radical nature of a politics of love and sacrifice. Such a politics is a total rejection of the corrupt liberal state, which idealizes relativism and individualism. However, despite being founded in love, it is not a passive or destructive politics (cf. Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). It insists, out of love, on the intrinsic value of all persons and on their rights in society. And it opposes, even to the point of sacrifice and conflict, anyone who would diminish the value of those persons or their rights (Centesimus annus no. 14).

With all this in mind, we turn back to abortion with Benedict XVI’s provocative analysis in his social encyclical, Caritas in veritate:

Openness to life is at the centre of true development. When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of a new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (No. 28.) 

Abortion and euthanasia are fundamentally a refusal to acknowledge the infant in the womb or the elderly or dying person as a person, “to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 39). They are, in this sense, contrary to true solidarity, as John Paul outlined it for us. But recall that John Paul taught that solidarity and care for the common good are inextricably linked; they are, in fact, the same thing. Thus, anything contrary to true solidarity is contrary to the common good. The force, then, of Benedict’s argument is manifest. When a polity “moves toward the denial or suppression of life,” it moves toward a negation of the common good expressed as solidarity.

Compare also John Paul’s fruits of solidarity in Sollicitudo rei socialis (no. 39) with Benedict’s fruits of openness to life. They are essentially the same list. It is obvious why. It is impossible for the stronger to render to the weaker what is theirs by justice if the weakest in society are seen in purely instrumental terms; likewise, it is impossible for the weaker to adopt a healthy attitude toward the common good—neither falling into passivity nor destroying the social fabric—if, in the background of all their decisions, they know that they are ultimately disposable when of no further use. In essence, the common good requires us to view the other as a person, not a tool or an abstraction, but abortion is premised entirely on treating the other as a tool or an abstraction. Openness to life, then, is a necessary part of solidarity and, by extension, the common good.

Likewise, Benedict and Francis are on the same page. A diseased anthropocentrism leads to practical relativism, which finds it expression in many ways. The practical relativism that demands untrammeled capitalism demands also the right to kill children “because they are not what their parents wanted” (Laudato si’ no. 123). For example, it is impossible, once this practical relativism finds a voice, for wealthy people to find solidarity with poor people and work toward “virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound” (Caritas in veritate no. 28). In other words, rapacious capitalism and a right to abortion are inextricably linked: if the baby is not a person, but an abstraction or an instrumentality, what hope does the worker have? Indeed, one can say that abortion and predatory capitalism, as Francis argued in Laudato si’, are two sides of the same coin.

A politics founded on Christian solidarity is obviously radical, nowhere more obviously so than in the context of abortion. We have seen that solidarity that ignores the unborn is no solidarity at all; indeed, it is a grotesque parody of solidarity, warped and demented in the hateful service of an unspeakable crime. It is, so far from a commitment to the common good, an assault on the very idea of the common good. And no Christian can make such an assault. The child in the womb—no less than oneself—is the living image of the Father, as John Paul taught, capable of being redeemed by the blood of Christ through baptism. The Christian, therefore, must love the child in the womb as God loves him or her, including standing ready to sacrifice much for that child. And if social conflict is necessary, that, too, is an expression of the concern for the common good and the love that the Christian must hold.

It is only in that sacrifice that we can forge the radical politics of solidarity—the politics of love—that is necessary to move past the failed liberal paradigm.

Aristotle, Thomas, Marx: A Dialogue

The following was published on 3 January 2017 by “Juan Martinez”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

We are pleased to publish this dialogue on the subject of reconciling Marx with the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

STEPHANUS: Why do you guys care so much about Marx? Marx is overrated AND boring as all get out!

BRONTIUS: I’m down with Marx. Stephanus, who do you recommend we turn to for political economy?

STEPHANUS: Marx gets some things right–though often accidentally it seems–so I’ve no problem with limited applications of Marx in certain areas. But articles that ignore Marx’s Hegelian roots, or the many many erroneous metaphysical assumptions behind Marx’s thought can only be of limited value.

I’m no expert, though, so I’m happy to be proven wrong here.

I should also qualify the boring bit–plenty of Marx (and more so for Engels) is quite entertaining. But when he isn’t writing for the masses, he has far too much of the dry German academic style for my taste.

BRONTIUS: If you are worried about Marx’s supposed Hegelism, I’m sure Carolus could put you at ease.

STEPHANUS: Marx is Hegel upside down and backwards, no? I mean the same theory but matter instead of spirit at the end.

It has been 8 years since I read Marx or Hegel, so apply salt liberally to all I say here.

CAROLUS: I don’t suggest that Hegel had no influence on Marx (and neither does Meikle). On the contrary. (And a lot of good work has been done trying to highlight Hegelian elements in Marx, especially by so-called Value-Form Theorists like Chris Arthur or Geert Reuten.) But the questions to consider are: To what extent did Hegel influence Marx? What aspects of Hegel’s thought influenced Marx? Are those aspects amenable to Aristotelianism? (I won’t provide anything like a complete answer here, of course.)

In regard to his later work, his own remark (in the Postface to the Second Edition of Capital) that he “coquetted with the mode of expression peculiar to” Hegel sums up well the Hegelian element in that work. It’s not difficult to see why Marx would “coquette” with Hegel. Hegel’s method finds its roots in the study of organic beings and is, in effect, that study applied to all that exists. (Here the strange fact that Hegel means by “contradiction” what Aristotle means by “contrariety” becomes intelligible: contraries become “contradictory”––in the sense of materially incompatible––most clearly in organisms; as Hegel says in the Preface to the Phenomenology, the flower “negates” the bud, in the sense that, given the nature of the organism and its natural development, flower and bud cannot coexist.)

Marx adopts this “organic” approach, too, but in reference to society (as does Aristotle, of course, in the opening of the Politics, where he treats society as a “natural growth”). This approach is exhibited by a review of Capital, Vol. I, that Marx favorably cites:

Of still greater importance to [Marx] is the law of their [social-economic phenomena’s] variation, of their development, i.e. of their transition from one form to another, from one series of connections into a different one…The old economists misunderstood the nature of economic laws when they likened them to the laws of physics and chemistry. A more thorough analysis of the phenomena shows that the social organisms differ among themselves as fundamentally as plants or animals…The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in the illumination of the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another, higher one.

Marx then comments: “Here the reviewer pictures what he takes to be my own actual method, in a striking and, as far as concerns my own application of it, generous way. But what else is he depicting but the dialectical method?” (It also throws light on Marx’s conception of “dialectic, -s, -al” that he calls Aristotle a “truly dialectical” thinker; given how Marx conceives of dialectic, this is a fair characterization. Early on––around the time that he wrote the first German translation and commentary of the De Anima, as well as a partial translation of the Rhetoric––Marx intended to write a book on Aristotle defending him against the idealist interpretations of Trendelenburg.) His method is the “opposite” of Hegel’s in the sense that he begins, not from “the Idea” or the World-Spirit manifesting itself in history, but from particular forms of social life and particular individuals––individuals who, in responding to social conditions and in attempting to better their lives, bring about social change (often slowly and unconsciously).

This is also the crux of the “materialist” view of history. This is not any materialism according to which there exists only matter and nothing else. (An excellent article here is George Kline’s “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism,” which I can upload if people wish.) Indeed, that sort of materialism comes under criticism from Marx in many places: in the Holy Family, he calls French materialism a “metaphysically travestied nature severed from man”; in Capital, he rejects “the abstract materialism of natural science”; etc. (He is perhaps a “materialist” in the minimal sense that he thinks that e.g. pure spirits do not exist; but this is quite compatible with seeing material beings as having forms or essences. Marx in fact adopts just such a view. As he says against Hegel, the “universal is the essence of the finite real”: e.g. the “State” is not some eternal concept existing independently of history, but it has validity as a concept only because it picks out the essence of some particular things, i.e. of states.) By a “materialist” view of history, Marx means a view that accords explanatory primacy, not to the Hegelian “Idea,” but rather to the economic and social practices of individuals in particular societies. The “necessity” of history is not deterministic, but is (in Aristotle’s sense) the necessity by which a seedling develops into a tree; given that human nature is what it is, and given that particular societies have real natures (even if they’re only quasi-substances, or “compounds,” as Aristotle calls them), those societies will have a tendency to develop in certain ways––though, of course, accidents are always possible. While it’s mistaken to identify Engels’s thought with Marx’s, Engels speaks for both in a late letter of his:

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Therefore if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various components of the superstructure…also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular.”

And as he writes elsewhere,

“our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the matter of the Hegelians. All history must be studied afresh…But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge…constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible.”

There’s much more that could be said, but I will stop. Even if Meikle (and many other commentators) are wrong about Marx, however, something like the Aristotelian Marxism that he outlines is philosophically plausible and, I think, simply right. Much of what Marx says is, in any case, quite compatible with an explicitly Aristotelian-Thomistic foundation. Undoubtedly, certain elements of Marx’s thought need to be corrected––but that is no reason to disregard him. On the contrary, he has much to teach us.

STEPHANUS: Carolus, I’m mulling over what you say, and I’ll respond more at length. As for the Aristotelian bit, what do you make of Marx’s and Engles’s denial of quality–they both reduce quality simply to quantity, do they not?

CAROLUS: I’m not sure what you mean; which works/passages are you thinking of? But that claim strikes me as going against just about everything Marx wrote.

STEPHANUS: It may have been Engels, but I take him here to have been following Marx, who gave the example of color being reducible to quantity, and all “qualities” similarly being reducible to quantity. I’ll try to find the passage in a moment, but it was quite explicit.

Marx’s materialism may not be the materialism of some of the stupider naturalists of today, but he was far from Aristotle or Thomas, on my read at least. That doesn’t mean he has no value as to economic or political issues, but I’m personally wary of relying heavily on the ethical theories of those who are in error as to the philosophy of nature.

CAROLUS: Ah; perhaps Engels could have said such a thing, but it’s at best highly questionable whether his stuff on metaphysics, e.g. “Dialectics of Nature,” would be endorsed by Marx. Much of what Engels says about e.g. history, society, etc. is generally in accord with Marx; but when he turns to metaphysics, things become quite doubtful. But it’s hard to see, anyway, how Marx himself could reduce quality to quantity; Chapter 1 of Capital, for instance, relies on the contrast between the two. (There Marx also says: “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this is it the direct opposed of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects.”)

Marx didn’t, of course, hold philosophical views identical to Aristotle or Thomas. To suppose that would be silly. But he can at least be regarded as an Aristotelian in a broad sense (what might be called a metaphysical realist or real essentialist). I haven’t mentioned Marx’s “ethical theory” so far, but I think that it’s also broadly Aristotelian (i.e. human beings are creatures with particular natures and hence with particular needs, and since they are political animals, they flourish in communities). It is perhaps wrong to rely “heavily” on Marx’s ethical theory; yet I do think that that theory is correct in broad outlines, but it certainly requires supplementation/revision in a more Aristotelian-Thomistic direction. (I don’t think, though, that Marx is in any serious error about the philosophy of nature.)

Are you thinking of this passage from “Dialectics of Nature”?:

In the first place, every qualitative infinity has many quantitative gradations, e.g. shades of colour, hardness and softness, length of life, etc., and these, although qualitatively distinct, are measurable and knowable.

In the second place, qualities do not exist but only things with qualities and indeed with infinitely many qualities. Two different things always have certain qualities (properties attaching to corporeality at least) in common, others differing in degree, while still others may be entirely absent in one of them. If we consider two such extremely different things – e.g. a meteorite and a man – together but in separation, we get very little out of it, at most that heaviness and other corporeal properties are common to both. But an infinite series of other natural objects and natural processes can be put between the two things, permitting us to complete the series from meteorite to man and to allocate to each its place in the interconnection of nature and thus to know them.

Supposing that Engels does indeed speak for Marx here, this passage certainly doesn’t show that quality is nothing but quantity. To say that qualities admit of various intensities––a kind of quantitative measurement––doesn’t turn quality into quantity. Nor does saying that qualities don’t exist independently, but are always qualities of some thing (a thing which will typically have quantitative dimensions as well), reduce quality into quantity.

NICODEMUS: Carolus – in light of this use of the acorn analogy and Hegel’s essentialization (effectively) of accidental change by the conflation of contrariety and the contradictory, what would he say about the family and the village as they exist in a developed state? Or, for that matter, the individual? More generally, what about any private good or limited non-ultimate common good?

Finally, how does this determine his view of economics? Your explanation makes me real curious about all these things.

CAROLUS: The family is not a monad, and will be affected by the society around it. (As MacIntyre says: “The family flourishes only if its social environment also flourishes…Generally and characteristically then the goods of family life are achieved in and with the goods of various types of local community.”) Marx was sensitive to this, and saw capitalism as deforming the modern family, turning the latter into “a mere money relationship,” disembedding people (in order to seek work) from their families and families from communities, etc. Hence he regarded appeal to the “sanctity” of the family as hypocritical. Marx, and especially Engels, was also aware of the various forms (often, unsavory in character) that the family has taken throughout history. And Marx, but Engels more vociferously, called for the abolition of the bourgeois family. What this would be replaced by under communism is not entirely clear. In any event, I don’t, of course, endorse all or most of Marx’s views on the family, but I do agree with two points: (1) the bourgeois (“nuclear”) family is problematic; but that doesn’t mean that the family itself ought to be done away with, but rather that families need to be more integrated with their communities and with other relatives. (2) The precondition for the flourishing of families is a flourishing society, and a step towards the latter would be the abolition of capitalism in favor of…[communism, distributism, etc.; I try not to cook up recipes for the future]. While Aristotle may have regarded the polis as the form of society adequate to human nature, Marx would argue that only a communist society could be so. (This is not to say, of course, that there wouldn’t be problems in communist society. Far from it. Even if many ills are socially conditioned, human beings are always and everywhere wicked; there would still be natural inequalities among individuals; diseases and afflictions of various kinds would still be present; some form of the rule of law would still be necessary; etc.)

Concerning the individual, perhaps the most legitimate complaint that one might have with Marx is not that he drowned the individual in a sea of collectivism, but rather the opposite: that his social philosophy is too individualistic. The prominent place of the individual is a theme that echoes throughout all of Marx’s work, from earliest to latest. (i) In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he writes that, under communism, “[e]very one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression…of your real individual life,” rather than your life being alienated as under capitalism. (ii) In the German Ideology, he says:

“in a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

This is a romanticized picture, of course, but it brings to light the emphasis on the individual in Marx. (iii) In the Grundrisse, communism is characterized as “free exchange among individuals who are associated on the basis of common appropriation and control of the means of production.” (iv) In Capital, communism is envisioned as “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common.” (v) Finally, in Marx’s first work on political economy, the “Comments on James Mill,” he writes:

“Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature. Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature…My work would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life.”

Further, Marx plausibly holds to a trans-historical conception of human nature. References to human nature appear again and again in Marx’s early work, but they also do so in Capital. In the context of critiquing Bentham’s utilitarianism, he writes:

“To know what is useful for a dog, one must investigate the nature of dogs…Applying this to man, he that would judge all human acts, movements, relations, etc. according to the principle of utility would first have to deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as historically modified in each epoch.”

When Marx speaks sometimes about how people, in transforming nature through their work, also transform their own natures, this needn’t be read as saying that human beings essentially alter their natures (what would that even mean?), but simply that they realize certain potentials within human nature, acquire new social relations and skills, etc. Effectively the only passage that would seem to indicate that Marx denied any trans-historical human nature comes in the Sixth Thesis on Feuerbach: “But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.” This enigmatic statement can certainly be read in various ways, but it needn’t necessarily be read as denying any nature to human beings apart from that given by their social relations. Indeed, one year earlier, in the “Comments on James Mill,” Marx wrote something very similar but which makes clear that he’s not denying some trans-historical human nature:

“[A]s long as man does not recognise himself as man, and therefore has not organised the world in a human way, this community appears in the form of estrangement, because its subject, man, is a being estranged from himself. Men, not as an abstraction, but as real, living, particular individuals, are this entity. Hence, as they are, so is this entity itself. To say that man is estranged from himself, therefore, is the same thing as saying that the society of this estranged man is a caricature of his real community, of his true species-life…”

(MacIntyre also reads the Sixth Thesis in the same way that I do, in his article “The Theses on Feuerbach: A Road Not Taken”; and a painstaking defense of the same view is given by Norman Geras in his book, Marx and Human Nature.)

All of this also throws light on the issue of “private goods” or “limited non-ultimate common goods.” Marx certainly respects the goods of individuals and does not sacrifice them for the sake of “Utopia” (as happened tragically in the USSR and elsewhere). Communism, on his view, is precisely a way of respecting those goods: abolishing the anarchic and agonistic “free market”––especially the labor market––and establishing better (more human) way of working and allocating resources.

I’ve already said too much, but let me say something about Marx’s “organicist” and essentialist approach to society in relation to economics.

First, Marx was not an economist; he was rather, as the subtitle of Capital puts it, offering a “critique” of political economy. Although he doesn’t say what exactly he means by “critique,” it’s perhaps best understood in the sense of Kant’s critiques: a critical examination of the limits of political economy.

Second, Marx’s approach to society gives a prominent place to the specific social form of the economy under consideration. As he writes in relation to society:

“Our general definitions do not advance our understanding. An explanation…which fails to supply the differentia is no explanation at all…[T]he real subjects…are and remain uncomprehended because their specific nature has not been grasped.”

Marx’s main complaint against the “political economists”––and all those who adopt the perspective of “methodological individualism”––is their abstractness. In e.g. their Robinsonades, they seek to derive laws of economics that are valid always and everywhere, but Marx thinks that such laws can only be trivial and hence of little explanatory significance. For instance, even if it were true that agents always act so as to maximize self-interest, that tells us very little about what conceptions of self-interest individuals have, what social conditions constrain individuals’ pursuit of self-interest, etc. Without bringing in the specificities of the society in question, economics is apt to become a peddler of “general definitions” that are uninformative for understanding particular societies.

Third, for Marx, laws express natures. The economic laws of a certain society are what they are because that society is what it is. Hence e.g. Marx’s “law of value” (i.e. the tendency for commodities to be sold according to the amount of “socially necessary [abstract] labor-time” embodied in them [or rather, at their “prices of production,” which is determined by socially necessary labor-time]) does not apply always and everywhere, but rather only to capitalist society. Only with the formal independence of economic firms, with widespread competition, with production for the sake of profit-making, with large-scale industry, and with money mediating all economic transactions does the law of value hold sway.

Fourth, Marx maintains that, just as the parts of an organism cannot be understood in isolation from the whole, so also features of the economy must be seen in their interrelation to one another. Hence Marx rejects an atomist or empiricist or individualist approach to political economy.

Fifth, societies are not always entirely harmonious wholes. This is because the “matter” of societies is human beings. But human beings are not indeterminate lumps of matter, but have natures of their own. Since society is not strictly a substance, but only a quasi-substance, there is the possibility for the “material” element, i.e. human beings and their activities, to be out of tune with the form of society. As a very peculiar sort of matter (again, where matter is simply contrasted with form), human beings and their social relations––and “productive forces”––can develop in ways that run against the prevailing social order, and this can sometimes produce a revolution. (This is in addition to the other “contradictions” immanent in a social formation.)

Note that when Marx talks about “productive forces” as the motor of history, these do not include only e.g. bare technology or tools; they also include the social form in which production is carried out. For instance, it’s not merely the existence of machinery and other advanced technology that paves the way for communism; it’s the collective knowledge that workers in e.g. factories have that makes it possible. As some (e.g. libertarian socialists like Kevin Carson) argue, the way in which large capitalist corporations are organized is in fact highly inefficient: here the capitalist class relations actually hinder the efficient deployment of “productive forces” (or “natural or social power[s] of labour”). Only what Marx calls “associated labor”––workers working in cooperation with one another––can efficiently deploy those forces.

Further, as Engels notes, in every generation, there is always some sort of resistance to the forms of exploitation that prevail. The effectiveness of such resistance, however, depends upon how developed the productive forces are. If new productive forces are not already present, even inchoately, in the current society, then a revolution will not be successful, since it could not sustain a new kind of society.

CAEDMON: I would be happy to hear a great deal more of this, Carolus.

NICODEMUS: I am actually very much enjoying this, because even though I think what Marx wrought was poisonous, I also think he is often not clearly understood and it is a genuine joy to see someone carefully and impartially explaining his philosophical character. Really, thank you – this is the stuff that makes arguments into discussions.
I am a bit busy, but I wonder whether most economists wouldn’t respond by saying “granting Marx’s critique, none of us are preparing to establish a set definition of self-interest; if you give a definition we will show how that definition demands certain rules of economic action that are at least analogous developments of reason about the logic of quantifying value and what those result in for your material situation; and privately we disagree on what self-interest is.”

For example, Acton’s folks have a notion of self-interest that, whatever the flaws, undeniably involves some elements of virtue-based piety, avoidance of sin, etc., whereas IHS is described as “the Institute for Heroin and Sodomy” as a not-quite joke. There are different notions there about the purpose of the human person and I wonder whether one can entirely eliminate self-interest from any human equation considered as the act of the will based in, for example, apprehension of one’s own dignity.

The question in the end becomes whether it is possible to integrate a paradoxically selfless self-interest into the social scheme – a self-interest that recognizes for example that our life belongs to God and that it IS our good to do His Will. But this is I think not something easy to discuss in the context of economics and I would be interested in hearing arguments as to why self-interest can ONLY mean something opposed to this.

STEPHANUS: The Engels text is quite clear–it is in the Anti-Duhring. He uses the example first of calculus–which we should recall was poorly understood and taught back then–and then of water. A change in quantity of temperature changes ice into water into vapor. Engels writes “the quantity is transformed into quality”.

But would Marx reject Engels here? I’m not so sure. I will continue mulling this over.

In praise of Marx–or Marx as read by Meikle at least–I do think that he understood in an important way the way in which Capitalism commodifies even man himself.

As for the “Aristotelian” bit, Marx badly misunderstands the common good, Marx (or at least Engels) badly misunderstands metaphysics in his disastrous notion (taken in a modified way from Hegel) of contradiction. De Koninck himself recognizes that the Marxist of his day “holds Aristotle in esteem,” but in doing so the Marxists completely bungle Aristotle’s teachings–or if they do not misunderstand what Aristotle was saying they think he was wrong but in a sort of precursory pointing to the future type of way.

Marx (and Hegel as well) are very unclear about what contradiction is and speak of it in different ways in different places. This is partially because what they seek to establish is so wrong that no-one could consistently hold it all the time–indeed, their idea is against consistency itself!–but at least in some places they hold actual contradiction as being objectively accomplished and actually existing in the real world.

This is, of course, a colossal bungle! While it is true that Aristotle (or Aristotelians and Thomists will say, at least, including myself) that motion is a certain mixture of being and non-being, this is possible first because non-being is taken in two sense: (1) in the sense of potency, i.e. non-being here is already a division of being as such, and the non-being is nothing other than being in potency, and second in an absolute sense, non-being as opposed to being as such simply. And second, this is possible because motion is not a mixture which is determinately in act, but rather is the act of the potential as such.

Marxists at least (again, I apologize for not referring to Marx himself, but he is lengthy, difficult, and also his thought changed over time. I’ll try to see if Marx himself is better than Marxists including Engels, but if that is the case then Marx would be correct while “Marxism” would be false for all the reasons stated), in fact take motion to be an actual contradiction, not merely a possible contradiction. IOW, Marxism attributes to “being” things that can only be true of “becoming.”

This is no small error.

So much for Marxism’s “metaphysics.”

Again, as for his political and ethical thought–it is monstrous! And rather than be longer winded than I already have been, I’ll merely point to De Koninck’s “The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists”, “The Principle of the New Order”, and “In Defense of St. Thomas.” Suffice it to say that Marx radically misunderstands the nature of the common good.

In brief — Marxism does not require supplementation. It requires a correction and reworking — a repudiation even! — of its first principles. That Marxism is trenchant in its criticism of capitalism I will grant, but this says more about the broad and easy nature of the target than it does about the accuracy or goodness of the archer.

CAROLUS: Nicodemus, sorry, that bit on self-interest was mainly my own example of an un-illuminative abstraction of economics. (Some of the abstractions that Marx mentions would be e.g. defining capital merely as a “thing” (rather than also as a social relation), such that it can be said that capital exists in all societies; talking about “exchange” in abstraction from the ways in which the exchanged goods were produced; viewing money as a “veil” beneath which the true economic relations exist; and so on.) Marx doesn’t talk much about self-interest per se, but he does talk about “utility,” and he says basically the same thing: even if it’s true that people seek to maximize utility, this doesn’t really explain much, since how people maximize their utility is highly dependent upon social conditions, and insofar as political economy abstracts from these social conditions, it prevents itself from throwing light on the workings of capitalist society––at least as these workings differ from those of other economic formations. (It also follows that, insofar as one attempts to derive substantive conclusions merely from considerations of utility, one will be smuggling the social content in, often for “ideological” purposes. MacIntyre makes basically the same point vis-à-vis utilitarianism in After Virtue.)

Anyway, it’s trivially true that people pursue “self-interest” in some sense. But not much follows from this. And self-interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Thomas teaches after all, love of self (which is perhaps a variety of self-interest, good self-interest, interest in what’s good for oneself) is the foundation for the love of others. (Cf. David Gallagher’s good essay on this subject, “Thomas Aquinas on Self-Love as the Basis for Love of Others.”)

Stephanus, regarding you objections, I would say this: undoubtedly, Engels adheres, in Anti-Dühring and in Dialectics of Nature, to the Hegelian doctrine that quantity can transform into quality: e.g. molecular motion “becomes” heat; the addition of molecules can change the nature of a chemical compound; and the addition of many workers together creates a “new power,” distinct from and greater than what the workers could do separately. But it’s absurd to say that this doctrine––whether for Engels or Hegel––makes quality into nothing but quantity. Saying “X transforms into Y” doesn’t reduce Y to X, nor does saying “Y depends on X” reduce Y to X.

Further, we must remember that, if quantity transforms into quality, the reverse also holds for Engels. Indeed, the first of Engels’s three “laws” of metaphysics, as he writes in Dialectics of Nature, is: “The law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and vice versa.” The mutual dependence of quality and quantity isn’t hard to grasp: every quantity––except, perhaps, in the case of pure numbers, which isn’t what Engels is talking about––is always a quantity of something and that something will have qualities of various kinds. (This also exemplifies his second law of metaphysics: “The law of the interpenetration of opposites.”)

So: it’s highly implausible that Engels reduces quality “simply” to quantity. And it’s also doubtful––and, like the Marx-Engels relationship generally, the subject of significant scholarly debate––whether the ideas in Engels’s “metaphysical” works can be ascribed to Marx. I think not, but we can leave this point aside.

Now, I’m not sure in what ways you think Marx badly misunderstands the common good (I’m willing to grant that he partly misunderstands it––hence the need for supplementation and revision, perhaps even at the level of (the specifics of) ontology), so I’ll leave that aside too. In any case, I have nothing but the highest respect for de Koninck’s work on the common good and I regard it as quite right. (Sadly, I think de Koninck profoundly misunderstood Marx––though he may well have understood so-called “Marxism,” which, especially in its Soviet form, is a perverse and stupid corruption of Marx’s thought.)

On to contradiction! It’s quite possible, I think, for contradictions to exist in reality. Even a Thomist could agree to this. The reason, again, is that Marx follows Hegel’s usage in speaking of “contradiction” in the sense that Aristotle would speak of “contrariety.” One may justifiably disagree with this terminology, of course, and it no doubt leads to confusion; but to understand Marx, we have to understand his (often murky) terminology.

(Unfortunately, Marx never got around to writing the short treatise on his use of “dialectic” that he was planning. Alas. I think the reason, however, that he, like Hegel, uses the term “contradiction” is because of its connotation of “mutual incompatibility.” But mutual incompatibility does not occur merely at the level of logic or metaphysics. There are, plausibly, more concrete types of incompatibility. For instance, given current atmospheric conditions, it is impossible for an insect to be, let’s suppose, 10 feet long; this is because, as insects get bigger, their respiratory systems take up a larger percentage of their bodies, until, at some point, there would be no more space left for any other organs. This is an example of what we might call a “physical” contradiction. Marx is interested in analogous types of contradictions that we might call “social.” Further, for Marx, capitalism is perverse in part because, in it, agents behave as if a misguided metaphysic were true: e.g. it is only through the sale of commodities on the market that the concrete labors of individuals become validated as socially useful, and hence those labors become treated as “abstract.” Thus, it’s sometimes the case that Marx is simply describing the as-if metaphysical weirdness of the “commodity world,” not propounding such weirdness himself. Moreover, the social world is susceptible of contradiction/tension in a way that the natural world is not; people e.g. can act upon incoherent beliefs and such beliefs can be embodied at a social level. Hence social things, like money, can have “immanent contradictions,” contradictions constitutive of the thing in question. But perhaps natural things can, too: recall Hegel on the flower and the bud. These natural contradictions, however, are more harmonious than social ones; e.g. the transition from bud to flower doesn’t provoke a “crisis” in the plant. Finally, form and matter can also be in “contradiction,” e.g. if I make a knife out of rubber. The matter is here unsuited to, and hence in contradiction with, the form; and this is because the matter isn’t prime matter, but matter that’s already in-formed in some way (what Hegel calls “content”), such that the rubber’s form clashes with the form of the knife.) But the point to grasp is that, in Marx’s sense, contradictions (e.g. of capitalism) are not logical contradictions: it’s not as though, under capitalism, something is both A and not-A at the same time and in the same respect. Marx’s contradictions are simply “tensions” that exist within capitalism.

For instance, he writes in Capital, Vol. II:

“Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production. The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity––labour-power––capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to the minimum price.”

This is plainly no logical contradiction. In fact, Chesterton, in the “Outline of Sanity,” makes an identical point:

“Capitalism is contradictory as soon as it is complete; because it is dealing with the mass of men in two opposite ways at once. When most men are wage-earners, it is more and more difficult for most men to be customers. For, the capitalist is always trying to cut down what his servant demands, and in doing so is cutting down what his customer can spend.”

Are we, then, to regard Chesterton as a proponent of dark Hegelianism? Similar “contradictions” of this sort include: the fact that a commodity is essentially both a use-value and an exchange-value; that private property requires the state; that money enables private persons to acquire social power; the divergent interests of labor and capital; and so on. Again, none of these are contradictions in Aristotle’s sense. Rather, they are tensions that––because they are not consciously managed (though they may be, to a certain extent) and thus are left to the impersonal operation of the market––can turn into crises if the conditions are right.

Concerning motion: While it is true that Hegel, Engels, and many soi-disant “Marxists” (e.g. Mao) regard motion itself as essentially contradictory, I can’t find any instance where Marx himself says this. But in Chapter 3 of Capital, he does talk about the “contradiction” of a certain kind of motion:

“We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly flying towards another and at the same time constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved.”

Here, however, the ellipse, though “contradictory,” is also that which resolves a contradiction. More generally, capitalism “resolves” its contradictions by moving them around (or by focusing on different aspects of the contradiction at various times). Insofar as, e.g. in the case of the ellipse, motion involves “contradictory” elements (flying away from X, flying towards X), it’s the particular form of motion that resolves these. Once again, this isn’t a contradiction in any strict logical sense or Aristotelian sense, but rather in the sense of a tension between prima facie (materially) incompatible properties.

This is also how Hegel’s doctrine that motion itself is contradictory must be understood. He writes in the Science of Logic:

“A thing only moves, not when it is at this instant here and at another instant there, but when it is at one and the same instant here and not there…[From this] it does not follow that that motion does not occur, but rather that motion is existent contradiction itself.”

(However, note that, while Hegel sometimes says [like here] that motion itself is contradictory, he elsewhere seems to indicate that motion is rather the result of contradictions in things: contradiction “is the root of all movement and vitality.”) The “contradiction” here is that it seems contradictory (or: strange, absurd, etc.) for something to be at one instant here and another instant there (although what exactly is contradictory about saying that X is here at T1 and there at T2?); this “contradiction” is expressed in/resolved by motion. But this isn’t a logical contradiction either.

The upshot is that, although it’s perhaps doubtful (I can’t find any explicit passages, anyway) that Marx thought of motion itself as contradictory, it would not be a metaphysical disaster if he did. This is because of the sense in which he, like Hegel, uses the term “contradiction.” In any case, I heartily agree with the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of motion that you’ve given.

The wickedness of capitalism doubtless makes it an easy target for criticism. But unfortunately most other critics of capitalism have much worse aim than Marx does. At any rate, Marx has much to teach us––especially we Aristotelians and Thomists. MacIntyre made this point last year, in his epilogue to What Happened in and to Moral Philosophy in the Twentieth Century?:

“What therefore neither [Marxists nor Thomists] took seriously was the thought that Marx’s narrative of how human beings had come to misconceive their own nature, relationships, and powers presupposed not one of the liberal post-Enlightenment conceptions of human nature but something much closer to Aristotle’s conception and, that is to say, something uncomfortably close to Aquinas’s. Yet, if this is so, dialogue between these very different voices is badly needed, dialogue that acknowledges the need of each to learn from the other and the depth of some of their disagreements. It is a dialogue that would draw upon the significant work already done on Marx’s often unrecognized Aristotelian commitments, most notably by Scott Meikle.”

This dialogue is needed for two reasons:

“First, both in philosophy and in everyday life the currently dominant conceptions of human nature and human agency disguise and mislead. They therefore need to be challenged and undermined by a philosophical critique that is able to draw upon both Thomism and Marxism. Second, we need a better characterization than we now have of the predicaments generated by the ethics, politics, and economics of advanced modernity, so that, for example, in our reflections on the role and function of money in our lives we learn to think in terms that are at once economic and moral, terms that enable us to integrate thoughts from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Marx––and also from Simmel, and others––into a single critique.”

Quite right.

STEPHANUS: Unlike you, I take Hegel at his word. He believes in actual contradiction. Why else go to so much trouble to reject the law of non-contradiction?

But I think if one uses contradiction so loosely as to include the fact that an insect has a determinate size, and that a rubber knife could exist but the material would be badly suited to the function of a knife (viz. cutting), that contradiction simply means tension, then one has to wonder why the term was used in the first place, and why so much ink was spilled over the theory initially?

Again, granting that Marx has some sort of essentialism–which is not nothing, mind you–I’m not really seeing that he is an Aristotelian.

But I’m heartened by the fact you agree with De Koninck’s critique of Marxism, you just think it doesn’t apply to Karl Marx himself–do I have you right there?

NICODEMUS: Of course, Stephanus, there is the real possibility that Marx just wasn’t as rigorous as he seemed he was being, which is not unbelievable given the blatantly rhetorical character of much of his writing.

STEPHANUS: Well, if I’m right (and I’m mostly following De Koninck) that Marxists and Engels are wrong for at least the reasons given, it would say something about the clarity and rigor of Marx if his followers, including the man with whom he collaborated most closely, all radically misunderstood him.

I mean it is possible, but at that point, what kind of teacher and writer is Marx?

CAROLUS: It’s unhelpful to appeal to “tak[ing] Hegel at his word” in regard to the principle of non-contradiction, since we want to know precisely what (non-) “contradiction” means for him. So yes, real contradictions exist for Hegel; the task is to understand what this can mean. The better way is to look at his philosophical practice, i.e. concrete examples and analyses of contradictions that he gives. That is what I was doing with his example of motion.

Why all the fuss about the principle of non-contradiction for Hegel, then? The main objection to it is that it affords only a static picture of things (or the principle is only used in a static way). For Hegel, in order to grasp the way in which things are constituted by certain differences/relations to other things (e.g. the organs of the body), something more than a mere identity/difference contrast is needed. More generally, it’s the static, abstract, one-sidedness of the principle of non-contradiction that Hegel rejects; what appear, from a static or abstract perspective, as “contradictions” are reconciled from a broader perspective, one that grasps the unity (often processual) of things. But Hegel exegesis isn’t really the point here.

A lot of what this discussion, so far, is really about is what it means to call someone an “Aristotelian.” Certainly, no one claims that Marx held identical views to Aristotle. Further, after his early years, Marx offered very few explicit remarks either on metaphysics or indeed on the philosophical foundations of his work generally; these must be gleaned from bits and pieces throughout his work (and, of course, his thought develops over time). Readings of Marx that focus on the Aristotelian aspects of his work do indeed employ “Aristotelian” in a thin sense: e.g. that things exist apart from us and have natures/causal powers that are knowable; that man is a political animal; that the good life is one of activity (for Marx, free purposive productive activity); that justice involves not bare equality, but rather equity, respecting the differences of individuals; that society must be thought of organically (not atomistically and not as the result of, say, a social contract); and so forth. Does this warrant calling Marx’s thought “Aristotelian”? Many, including me, think so. Others may disagree.

I agree with de Koninck’s work on the common good, i.e. insofar as he is expounding the truth about the common good according to Thomas. But what he says about Marx and Marxism, however, is of a mixed character. Some of it applies to Marx (e.g. Marx certainly was an atheist––though not in a philosophical sense, and neither he nor Engels advocated religious persecution––and, like Prometheus, perhaps hated “the pack of gods”; but he of course saw religion as a necessary balm that people used to assuage their alienation and had a greater respect for religion than for most “secularists” of his day (e.g. he told his wife that, if she needed her “metaphysical needs” satisfied, she should read the Hebrew prophets instead of attending her secular society meeting; sometimes he took his family to hear the sung Mass; etc.)), and with that I don’t have much quarrel. Some of it applies mainly to “Marxism,” i.e. Marx’s professed followers. But de Koninck offers a very Hegelian reading of Marx––one that relies heavily on Marx’s early works––and this I find implausible.

Why Marx was misunderstood––by Engels, but more so by “Marxists,” like Plekhanov, Kautsky, and Lenin––is a difficult question. Partly it’s because, at least in his later work, he is very reticent about his philosophical commitments; his comments on philosophical topics are scattered throughout his “scientific” work on political economy, and a lot of work is required to stitch these comments together into a “system.” The reason for his reticence is presumably because he thought philosophy was irrelevant to his practical and social-scientific pursuits: the working class didn’t need a treatise on metaphysics from him. (Also, Marx could hardly have expected that his work would, after his death, be turned into a set of dogmas that served as an entire worldview––although, indeed, already during his lifetime people were calling themselves “Marxists,” which led him to say, “All I know is that I’m not a Marxist.”) Further, a large part of the blame for the misunderstanding of Marx by so-called “Marxists” was the crude philosophical knowledge that many of them had (including Engels, who––unlike Marx, who had a doctorate in philosophy––was an autodidact philosopher, and who, having read all the main works of metaphysics in just a few months’ time, immediately proclaimed his “system” of dialectics). For instance, most Marxists seemed to think that, if Marx was not an idealist, then the only option was for him to be a “materialist,” and that a materialist just is a physicalist, such that “Marxism” explains everything in terms of “matter in motion.” Another part of the misunderstanding, at least as far as the establishment of e.g. the USSR was concerned, was also due to the fact that the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the German Ideology––writings which present a more “humanistic” aspect to Marx’s thought––were published only in the 1930’s; neither Lenin nor the other founders of the USSR had read those texts.

As for Engels, while he displayed a better grasp of Marx’s work than most later “Marxists” (especially in relation to Marx’s work on political economy, society, etc., though plausibly much less so in relation to metaphysics), he nevertheless both misunderstood Marx in certain ways and undeniably contributed to that misunderstanding in others. This was partially due to the fact that Volumes II and III of Capital were not completed by Marx, and Engels had to cobble them together from various scattered papers and fragments, resulting, often quite tendentiously, in various omissions and insertions of his own into the text. (An egregious example is, in Volume III, his comments that the object of Chapter 1 of Capital is “simple commodity production,” not capitalism. This has rightly received much criticism from commentators.) Partly, again, it was perhaps due to Engels’s lack of philosophical acumen. But it is also true that Marx at least was aware of what Engels was saying––even concerning metaphysics––and didn’t correct him. If he disagreed with Engels, why didn’t he say so? This is a hard question, and one can only speculate. Perhaps it was due to Marx’s friendship with Engels; or because Marx was financially dependent upon him; or because, after the 1840’s, Marx didn’t have much interest in matters of ontology, but was concerned with his work on political economy; or because he thought any metaphysical quarrel was irrelevant to the more important task of empowering the working class; or because he didn’t think that Engels’s metaphysical work would be taken seriously (as, alas, it was). (These ideas––and more on Marx’s alleged “materialism” and relation to Engels––are given in George Kline’s article, “The Myth of Marx’s Materialism.” MacIntyre (in “The Theses on Feuerbach”) put me onto Kline’s work, since he agrees with “George L. Kline’s thesis… that Marx did not have a materialist ontology.”)

CAEDMON: Carolus, you are right to point out that most of the discussion has revolved around establishing Marx’s essentialist credentials. But this is really just prologue, since were Marx’s thought impossible to reconcile with Thomism, we would be free to simply ignore him, and chastise his followers for their errors.

What we are ultimately interested in are true, sound principles of e.g. political economy, not simply that Marx can be viewed (perhaps obliquely) through a Thomist lens. What, then, would you say is the most profitable way for the Thomist to read Marx? To summarize what you’ve written above, what are the key deficiencies in his thought that need filling-in from Thomistic or Aristotelian sources, and what are the clearest ways in which Marx and later thinkers in his vein genuinely contribute to the Thomistic tradition?

CAROLUS: Of most usefulness to the Aristotelian or Thomist is Marx’s work on political economy, rather than that on more “philosophical” topics in particular. Much of what Marx says philosophically is, I believe, consonant with an “Aristotelian” approach, but I don’t think that he adds much new that is also philosophically useful. But what he writes on political economy is, I think, very profound and on the whole correct. Capital––and the Grundrisse and the three parts of Theories of Surplus-Value––demand careful reading. Much of what he says in these texts also doesn’t (or needn’t) depend, in any significant way, on Marx’s metaphysics (other than upon his view that things have essences that are knowable). The existence of “analytical” Marxism––although a departure, self-consciously so, from Marx himself––is a testament to this. What aspects of his work on political economy, however, are important, and to what extent these are “infected” by e.g. his atheism, would require a lot of work to spell out. I’ll hopefully do this at a future moment, when I have more time. But even if one disagrees with his interpretation of Marx, the works by Meikle that I posted point the way towards a more fruitful dialogue between Marxists and Aristotelians––towards how to make use of Marx’s thought if you’re an Aristotelian.

For now, here’s a good list of other works (articles and books) on Marx and Aristotle (most sympathetic, some critical):

  • Tony Burns, “Materialism in Ancient Greek Philosophy and in the Writings of the Young Marx”
  • Denys Turner, Marxism and Christianity
  • Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right
  • Howard Engelskirchen, Capital as a Social Kind
  • Kathryn Dean, Capitalism, Citizenship and the Arts of Thinking: A Marxian-Aristotelian Linguistic Account
  • James Farr, “Marx’s Laws”
  • Georg Lukács, Ontology of Social Being, Vol. 3
  • Patrick Murray, “Marx’s ‘Truly Social’ Labour Theory of Value,” Parts I and II
  • Marcel Reding, Thomas von Aquin und Karl Marx [in German]
  • William Clare Roberts, “The Labors of Karl Marx: Tekhnê, Valorization, Revolution” (dissertation)*
  • G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World
  • Vanessa Wills, “Marx and Morality” (dissertation)
  • and many other articles by Scott Meikle.

*This dissertation also sketches out the striking similarities between Capital, Vol. I, and Dante’s Inferno. We already knew, of course, that reading Capital is hell, but it’s also structured in analogous ways to Dante’s work (e.g. 33 cantos + 1 introductory one vs. 33 chapters of Capital), littered with allusions to Dante, and the subject-matter of the various parts corresponds roughly to the levels of hell. So Capital, intentionally or not, can be read as a kind of descent into the hell of capitalism.

The President-Elect

The following was published on 9 November 2016 by “Coëmgenus”. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

Those who love the common good and long for a juster politics cannot celebrate the election of Donald Trump; one need not think very highly of the American people to believe him unworthy of standing as their head. When he has spoken coherently he has given the world reason to think he will rule on behalf of a single class; when he has rambled and shouted he has demonstrated a vicious and erratic character that executive power is unlikely to discipline or reform.

But we are Christians; we are forbidden to despair. What God sends us as chastisement we will endure, and what princes attempt against the common good we will resist. If Trumpism is a turn for the worse, it is not the first time America has gone astray: his racism, his casual misogyny, his exploitation of the weak are nothing new to Americans who have suffered these at the hands of their rulers and their bosses.

Trump puts himself forward as a protector of the working man, and as an enemy of legal abortion. His long career of chicanery gives us no confidence that he will honor these commitments, but those who have supported him in pursuit of these ends are mistaken, not evil, and if they become disappointed in Trump we hope the work of this Collective will provide them with clarity and guidance.

But Trump promises other things that admit of no defense. His contempt for women, his kindling of xenophobia, his cheerful calls for torture and brutality, and his assaults on the solidarity that should bind all Americans are a threat to our common life. All Christians, all people of good will should do what they can to oppose these.

Where voting will make a difference, vote; persuade those who are capable of persuasion. Much can and should be done, even within the bounds of liberalism, to oppose the worst of what Trump promises. But it is not in the interest of liberalism that we oppose him. Our struggle is beyond Trump toward the order of which he is the current avatar; it is not simply an unqualified President-Elect but an unjustifiable way of life that we condemn.