Barbaric Fragmentation: John Courtney Murray Foresaw the U.S. United in Confusion

by R. J. Snell


Voting patterns of this last election give ample support to the notion of the divided country, and it is now virtually obligatory to bemoan polarization while calling for unity in our fragmented polis.

As obvious as our polarization seems, perhaps disunity is not the real problem; instead, perhaps we already have a unity, just of a barbaric sort rendering reasonable life and speech fragmentary, incoherent, and truncated.

Over fifty years ago, John Courtney Murray, perhaps the leading Catholic political theorist of the last century, wrote that it is quite impossible for a society to operate “without some spiritual bond of unity,” without “some concept of a doctrine that is sacred.” The question and problem facing us, Fr. Murray suggested, is “not whether we shall have a national unity—of course we shall! The only question is: what kind of unity and quality of unity shall we have? And on what will it be based, and what ends will it serve and pursue?” He continued, “American culture is not pluralistic. American culture is unitary. American culture is uniform, and it is tending always to become more and more unitary and uniform.”

How could this be? What does he mean? Don’t the charts of voting patterns and demographic shifts indicate that his claim, even if plausible in 1961, is no longer possible?

Murray posits two candidates for the “unitary and uniform” American culture. First, “the mystique of science, whose aim is to create a civilization that will be purely technological.” For Murray, belief in the power of a secular technological empire is a type of idiocy, taken in the original Greek meaning: “the ‘idiot’ meant, first of all, the private person, and then came to mean the man who does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian.” The contemporary idiot is “the technological secularist who knows everything. He’s the man who knows everything about the organization of all the instruments and techniques of power that are available in the contemporary world and who, at the same time, understands nothing about the nature of man or about the nature of true civilization.”

Such technological idiocy will not be unsophisticated or without its skillful and educated practitioners, but their expertise will not include the things which matter most to our common and public life: “this technological order will hang, as it were, suspended over a moral confusion; and this moral confusion will itself be suspended over a spiritual vacuum.” Technology, whatever the claims made by our experts, specialists, and practitioners, cannot deliver civilization, for such an order provides no real purpose or vision of life, it is a void, a vacuum.

Spiritual vacuums are filled, for “society, like nature itself, abhors a vacuum and cannot tolerate it,” and since “traditional religion is outlawed as the public religion … what then remains to fill the vacuum that otherwise would result at the heart of society?” It is here that the second candidate steps forward to fill the lacuna left by technological society: “the candidate, of course, for this post of being the civil religion of American society has already presented himself. It is, of course, democracy conceived as a quasi-religious faith,” a “political mystique, the unclarified concept of freedom.”

Since technology cannot deliver human purpose but tends to sever us from the ancient traditions and communities, and since we cannot live entirely severed from meaning, we create a civil religion, “a substitute secular faith, that would undertake to take the place of the traditional religious faith that has historically given substance to the civilization that we call Western.” Moreover, for this new faith to capture our allegiance, “this set of democratic values is conceived to be transcendent to all the religious divisions that are unfortunately among us,” and there “must be outlawed all the traditional tenets of traditional religion.” Note, thus, how the new civil religion demands, and provides, a pale version of unity in demanding allegiance to freedom even as traditional religion is diminished and forced to bow to the newer gods.

John Paul II indicated something very similar in Evangelium Vitae: “freedom negates and destroys itself, and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer recognizes and respects its essential link with the truth, “when it strives “to emancipate itself from all forms of tradition and authority….” Oddly, the religion of freedom fosters both a deep alienation from others while encouraging also a mass conformity of individuals united in their quest for freedom, as John Paul II explains: “If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another…. Thus society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds…. any reference to common values and to a truth absolutely binding on everyone is lost, and social life ventures on to the shifting sands of complete relativism.”

Note the perverse nature of the civil religion of freedom—it serves as the underlying spiritual capital by which a people are formed, and yet it forms a people united only in their mutual alienation from each other.

In his classic, We Hold These Truths, Murray explains how such a situation is the unity of barbarism, for “barbarism is not … the forest primeval with all its relatively simple savageries,” but “the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.” “Here,” Murray reminds us, “the word ‘conversation’ has its twofold Latin sense … living together and talking together.”

The first failure of conversation—no longer living together—threatens “when men cease to live together according to reason.” Not the return to a state of “men … huddled together under the rule of force and fear,” such barbarism entails instead incoherent values, including “when economic interests assume the primacy over higher values; when material standards of mass and quantity crush out the values of quality and excellence,” and when “the state reaches the paradoxical point of being everywhere intrusive and also impotent.” The claimed omni-competence of the technological society and mass individualism fit this description well, in my judgment.

Barbarism’s second form, the end of reasonable “talking together,” also needn’t be an overt collapse, for “the barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand. He may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen…. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility….” Even the most cultivated of a community may be barbaric when “vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogues give way to a series of monologues … when defiance is flung to the basic ontological principle of all ordered discourse, which asserts that Reality is an analogical structure, within which there are variant modes of reality, to each of which there corresponds a distinctive method of thought that imposes on argument its own special rules.”

Barbarism, in other words, threatens whenever rational standards of judgment fail, when “men cannot be locked together in argument,” for civilization itself is formed by the locking of argument. No reason, no conversation; no conversation, no argument; no argument, no civilization, Murray suggests. Or at least no civilization in the sense of a “civil multitude,” a people formed with an “identity as a people … endowed with its vital form … its sense of purpose as a collectivity organized for action in history.”

From the vantage point of the calm (and historical) analysis provided by Murray and John Paul II, we can read the current hand-wringing about polarization and clichéd calls for unity with a quite substantial grain of salt, for we have forged a very deep unity as a people, one committed to creating a secular technological heaven of individual autonomy.

And if that comes at the expense of a new barbarism, so be it.

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