Contra Gentiles: Non-Cartesian Sociology


Contra Gentiles: Non-Cartesian Sociology

W. H. Marshner

Vol. VII No. 8
October 1972

One day during TRIUMPH’S summer dormancy, I received the manuscript which is published elsewhere in this issue under the title, “Non-Sociology.” It was a memorable day because the manuscript turned out to be a refutation of the commission which had procured it. As I recall, my commission had asked the redoubtable J. Wisner to assist our readers in their task of making a new Christendom by exposing them to the personalities and doctrines of the great Catholic sociologists of the last century: men like LePlay, Mun, and La Tour du Pin. They were the direct forbears of Christopher Dawson, as who (savor this syntax) they deserve to be as well known. But Wisner’s response was to sweep them all away; in fact — and this is the worst of it — he dismissed them with an argument from which I cannot dissent, though it makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

A good summary of Wisner’s argument resides in this sentence: “Christian society was a very great accomplishment; and since it was not based on reason but on piety, it cannot be repeated like a scientific experiment.” Now, if Wisner is right, what place is left for Christian social theory? What could such a theory pretend to do, after all, but teach us how to repeat Christendom? And if making Christendom is something that cannot be taught, if it is not something that comes from “knowing the ropes” but from loving the neighbor, then what possible good are intellectual blueprints?

One could answer that they are useful apotropaically, that is, in driving away illusions. Short of some vast catastrophe, we cannot return to the docta ignorantia of the seventh century. As far as we can see ahead, we shall be surrounded by ignorantia docens: the multitude that lives on gimcrack ideologies. Therefore, how are we to keep our own heads clear, unless we possess refutations of these ideologies?

If the literature of Christian sociology constitutes a body of such refutations, then I think J. Wisner will concede this marginal usefulness. I think so, but I am not sure. This doubt springs from what appears to be a serious (and dangerous) ambiguity in “Non-Sociology.” Does Wisner concede, or does he not, that Christian sociology, though ineffective, is true? In some contexts, it seems that he does, as when he says that the Catholic sociologists were the “good ones.” Elsewhere, however, he seems to take the line that reason necessarily “distorts” social reality and that society, therefore, like God and chaos, is incomprehensible. This ambiguity is grounded in Wisner’s distinctive usage of the word “reason.”

To most of us, “reason” means a faculty of the soul. As such, however, reason is the precondition of human society, since without it there could be neither freedom nor authority nor love. In this sense, to say that Christendom was not based on reason would be equivalent to saying that medieval society was an ant heap or a cow herd. It goes without saying that Wisner must have a different sense in mind.

The problem is that his different sense is exclusively Cartesian. Cartesian reason is never contemplation; it never results in truth-for-the-sake-of- truth. Cartesian reason is a means to power. As ah abstractive essentialism, it is forgetful of existence, heedless of particularity. It is the sort of reason on which modernity is based because it is the sort that makes machines. Machines are indifferent to every human faculty save analysis; they are nothing but abstractions reproduced endlessly in any suitable matter. Applied to society, Cartesian reason “mechanizes” in order to control. Cartesian sociology conceives of the social order precisely as a vast machine. As such, its design can be altered, and a new design can be produced. With J. Wisner’s rejection of this sort of reason and the sort of sociology it necessarily produces, we are in strong agreement. But it should be pointed out that Christian sociology was not and is not of this kind.

Catholic sociology aimed at truth and not at revolution. Its “blueprints” intended to teach reality and not how to gain power. This sort of thing was possible because there is yet another kind of reason: St. Thomas’s kind. This is reason which sets the highest value precisely on truths that have no cash value whatsoever. Nobody ever made a dime off the proposition that God is subsistent Being. All the metaphysics in the world will not make a single mouse-trap, just as all the Catholic sociology will not make a single confessional state. But this is not to say that our sociology is without value. Its value is its truth (for the social order, unlike mud and chance, is comprehensible).

The impotence of good sociology, as Wisner has shown, resides in a stunningly elementary fact: that society is a moral and not a mechanical affair. Where men do not love one another, Christian society is impossible. Where men love only things (and themselves), no city is possible but that of the Devil, as St. Augustine would have put it. The city of the Devil is not some grandiloquent Pandemonium. It is the tired, banal world of the unredeemed: not so much 42nd Street, where sin is open and souls are exposed, as Kansas City and Nashville.

Our problem as Catholics and as would-be constructors of a new Christendom, then, is not one of demonstration but of monstration. We have to show our contemporaries what it means to have society because if love is the basis of social existence, then we need to remind ourselves that love is caught by example, not learned by arguments.

So by all means, let us have our LePlays and our Dawsons: but let us not trot them out at the expense of our Christ, who alone has the power to draw hearts, having created them because an eternal infinity could not contain His love.

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