Some Comments on Metaphysics and Societies

I’m a big fan of Ross Douthat. In matters prudential, we’re often on opposing sides (I’m crazier), but he, better than a lot of Conservative Catholics™, is willing to inhabit the confusing existential crisis zone where one recognizes that modernity is both baked into our DNA and is on the brink of collapsing. What such a collapse will mean for the aforementioned DNA is anyone’s guess.

His recent comments on major figures in the French Négritude movement point to the groping attempts in understanding the matter. They ring somewhat with my comments on our segregating society – not one-to-one, but inhabiting the same thought space. The question is how we live as a united society while recognizing that we are made of differing societies.

This gets me thinking about a metaphysical question plaguing philosophers throughout history – the unity/plurality of being. In a nutshell, we say things ‘are’, that they have being. However, we also say things are different because of what they are. An apple is different from a chair (an apple is not a chair) because an apple is an apple and a chair is a chair. These are common sense statements, but once you start poking at them things get very complicated.

Two errors can quickly appear. One can say that being is the same in all things – chair, apple, animal, human, angel, God. Thus, it is only the appearance which is different. We call this Monism. Such thinking gives rise of pantheism – all things are God because all things are the same thing. On the other hand, you can say all things are absolutely different – there is nothing the same about the apple and the chair. This we call Radical Pluralism. Reality is just a bunch of disconnected chunks without some real underlying harmony. Any harmony we see is simply foisted upon it by man.

There’s an analogy (Thomists, I’m getting to it…) to the way the political questions are stirring about. Is humanity fundamentally the same across all locales? Can we expect the same sorts of basic values and practices to dominate across the board? This tends to be the assumption of a lot of elite globalists and cosmopolitans, believing in some sort of universalism of values with only the appearance of difference in food and dress.

Or maybe humanity is fundamentally different? Maybe there is no possible unity of culture, society, and tribe? Maybe we are all so radically different that our first, and maybe only, loyalty is to our own nation? This is the rhetoric of those like Trump in America and the various nationalisms in Europe. It basically leads to a kind of universal isolationism, where political relations are only made for self-interest.

In addressing the philosophical problem, a solution was articulated by Thomas Aquinas in declaring that being is present throughout creation analogically. God is all being. All other things participate in varying fashions and degrees in that being. Thus a bird manifests only one way of being while a dog another. Further, certain beings manifest more of being than another – God is the plenitude of being, man less than God, and animal less than man, down the chain to particles which participate so minimally in being they are almost completely indeterminate – talk to a particle physicist about what a particle is and prepare for some interesting answers.

Key to this, though, is the recognition of some plenitude of being. This is called God, though the astute observer will recognize that this God is not necessarily the God of the bible. This is the God of the philosophers. The important point is that all creation shares in what God is, being, though in different ways and different degrees.

Our political structures of the past worked in just such a framework. There was a political ideal which contained the plenitude of being, often portrayed in eschatological visions like the Jerusalem Above, and every society was to conform itself as much as possible in the concrete to that political ideal. As no finite being could manifest the plenitude of the infinite, and thus would be different from other finite beings, so societies would as well. However, as all beings were still measured against the plenitude of being (thus morality is that which is in conformity with being), so societies, even though different in the concrete, must be united in their proportional and diverse conformity to the political ideal.

Christendom manifested this. France, England, Spain, Italy, the German kingdoms, these were all wildly diverse, though remained united in their commitment to living in conformity with the heavenly Jerusalem. This unity of ideal was manifested in the religious sphere by the episcopal union around the Pope and the political sphere by the regnal union around the Holy Roman Emperor. This continued in those later neo-imperial attempts of the post-revolutionary period (e.g. French, British, American) – colonies would be conquered and be brought into conformity with the new ideals (either in culture or in political form).

Going back to Douthat’s piece cited above, the struggle one sees in the declining west is one where we are struggling to define what that political ideal is. The past 300 years (and arguably only the past 50) have been the first time in history we’ve attempted to do this in radically and purely secular terms. We’ve banished God. Have we also banished the plenitude of being, that which protects the analogical way of unity that was manifest in Christendom and its warped successors?

That most every recent attempt at bureaucratic unity has failed when founded on secular ground and with that especially long lasting experiment called history almost ignorant of such secularity… It makes me think this whole banishing of God thing is only a form of ritual societal suicide.


About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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One Response to Some Comments on Metaphysics and Societies

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    In order for a society to exist, there must be a shared set of axiomatic values–certain truths that are held to be self-evident. Murder is wrong. Theft is wrong. Christian Europe was possible because there was a shared belief that the Ten Commandments were axiomatic. People could disagree on everything else, so long as they agreed not to kill or rob from their neighbors.

    Without acknowledgement of a transcendent moral authority to provide these axioms, society fragments into warring tribes. The history of the 20th Century can be largely explained as attempts by multiple groups to define a set of moral axioms from an Atheistic worldview.

    Spoiler alert: It didn’t work, and it continues to not work. Science, as a god, cannot provide any absolute authority. Murder is wrong, say the Atheists, but it is not absolutely wrong–other things could be more wrong and so justify murder. Property rights are a good thing–unless we decide that they must be sacrificed to a better thing. Everything is conditional, every law must be shown to be based on some other law which is, in the end, just as arbitrary.

    When one’s neighbors are known to believe that “Thou shall not steal” is a conditional statement one is well-advised to invest in good security.

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