Properties of Blood: Preface
Many decent men and women feel instinctively that their world has gone wrong and is going still wronger every day. Whether the subject is marriage laws, immigration, crime, moral and aesthetic standards in the arts, or even decisions of war and peace, discussions are reduced to an exchange of slogans and sound bites crafted, cobbled, and propagated by opposing political factions. Conservatives and liberals with common sense, when they are confronted with the ideas and projects of the revolutionary left, are so confused that they concede point after point to their opponents, and, before too long, they have surrendered another institution or tradition to its enemies.
A very basic part of the conservative failure is the acceptance of leftist principles, such as equality and human progress, as fundamental truths. They want to defend what they call “traditional marriage,” but they stumble as soon as they accept the revolutionary premise that marriage is strictly a contract between two individuals. Older conservatives may stick to their principles out of stubborn prejudice, but their children will bend to the changing mood of the times.
The modern mind is in a hopeless muddle, and anyone who has tried to persuade friends or readers of the grave mistakes being made by people in authority will run into the same brick wall. Few but leftists know what they believe, and fewer still know what they know. What passes for thought in serious publications and debate are tissues of clichés, often contradictory, which are accepted blindly and without examination. All our discourse, from “America is a nation to immigrants” to “planet earth is being destroyed by global warming,” is dominated by truths we hold to be self-evident. This is an infallible indication that the ideology that shapes public discourse is a kind of religion. There may be sects and heresies, but a set of common assumptions undergird every argument.
I have been working for two decades to articulate a coherent opposition to this religion. This alternative point of view is based on no new ideas or original insights but on the traditions that pre-modern men and women took for granted. This is the first volume of a work addressed to two sorts of readers. The first sort consists of Christians who wish to disentangle Christian teachings from the political ideologies that have tended to instrumentalize the faith for purposes that may be (or, more commonly may not be) blameless or even laudable in themselves but are no part of the Christian tradition. The second sort of reader is anyone, including cynics, atheists, and agnostics, who has grown weary of hearing the Bible quoted in defense of revolutionary political measures advocated by ideologues who, by and large, seem to have little to do with Christianity as it has been historically understood. I mean, the sort of political advocate who runs around saying things like, "a real Christian would not support the death penalty," or "Christians who believe in the value of marriage would surely extend the right of marriage to homosexuals," or "democratic capitalism [or nonviolent socialism] is the fulfillment of the Christian gospel."
Although the author is a practicing Catholic, this is not a work of apologetics designed to lead careless readers either to Christianity in general or to the Catholic Church in particular. There is no political agenda, no policy prescriptions, no blueprint for success or roadmap to a brighter future. I leave all such dreams to men and women suffering from the delusion that they are pragmatic, when in fact they are powerless and disenfranchised busybodies whistling past the graveyard of the American Republic.
The principal difficulty with reformers is that they almost always want fast action before having grasped the fundamental principles at stake. Since, they argued, children should not be forced by their parents to do remunerative work, they passed laws making child labor illegal. They never paused to think of the superficial problems they might be creating in depriving poor families of much-needed income, much less of the probable consequences that would follow from legislation that subverts the authority of parents and erodes the autonomy of the family.
The human race, depending on how you count and who is included, has been around many thousands of years, and our social institutions have evolved as a means of securing natural necessities. Our civilization, in one form or another, has been forming our character for some three to five thousand years, which can be numbered as roughly ten to fifteen thousand generations. The idea that we can devise brilliant new answers to the ancient problems of flesh and blood is, on the face of it, preposterous. As Dr. Johnson observed, "Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed," or, to quote a leftist songwriter, "I want to be known as the man who told you what you already knew." I have no notion of setting up any "new paradigm" or founding a new ideology. With the poet Charles Péguy I can boast that like other Christians, I am stupid once and for all.
What I do hope to accomplish is, nonetheless, ambitious enough to incur a charge of vanity. For many decades, I have been studying the pre-Christian or non-Christian foundations of a just social order and attempting to distinguish the common traditions of Christians and their predecessors from the ever-increasing tendency, for several centuries at least, to regard Christianity as a revolutionary movement that would better be termed Christianism—that is, an abstract ideology—rather than a collective noun of the type that includes humanity, society, and even Romanitas ("Romanness").
Yet the founder of the religion, whom Christians regard as God, declared He had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Taken seriously, even literally, our Lord was saying that the laws and customs of the Jews, however much they might have suffered from neglect, decadence, and misconstruction, were not going to be swept aside but clarified and refined. A key passage is his teaching on divorce. In Jesus' time, a Jewish husband could dismiss his wife for any of a dozen trivial reasons and then marry a woman who pleased him better, but from the beginning, He assured his followers, it was not so. Adam and Eve were bound in an indissoluble mystical union, from which Moses granted divorce only as a concession to the hard hearts of his people. Christian marriage practices, then, were not to be made out of whole cloth but would be a continuation, albeit in more rigorous form, of traditional customs.
But Jewish customs, in such matters as marriage and child-rearing, revenge and self-defense, charity and war, differed only in particulars from those of neighboring nations and from the habits common to Greeks, Romans, and other peoples of the Mediterranean. With its unmistakably Jewish roots, Christianity could hardly have been accepted by large numbers of Greek and Roman gentiles, had it radically jarred with the best pagan morality. Justin Martyr, one of the earliest apologists, had enough familiarity with Greek philosophy to tell the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his philosophic heir Marcus Aurelius that Christianity is not only a rational creed but one that shares and clarifies the best ideas of Greek philosophers.
Later volume take up the household and the institutions of private property, marriage and family, vendettas and euthanasia. This first volume, which serves as a preface, takes a broad look at love and hate as the foundations of our moral and political institutions. Of necessity, it is more philosophical and theological than subsequent parts that depend more on historical evidence.
This work can be read by anyone who can keep his mind open long enough to entertain the outrageous possibility that early human generations may have had a better idea of how to lead good lives than the modern subjects of Western democracies. However, it does take for granted the arguments made in an earlier book, The Morality of Everyday Life, whose goal was to demolish the Liberal tradition of moral and political reasoning to make way for a point of view that combines objective observation with a "decent regard for the opinion of mankind," though unlike the great Mr. Jefferson, I do not limit that opinion to educated people of recent centuries. There will also be some reference to the sociobiological arguments of my first book, The Politics of Human Nature, in which I tried to show the compatibility of the traditional classical and Christian view of human nature with the evidence of science.
The overall working title, Properties of Blood, emphasizes the importance of blood ties as the basis of the social order. The subtitle of this volume, Cities of Man, is intended as a response to Augustine's contrast between the ideal community known as "The City of God" and the flawed and often evil institutions of the Earthly City. Augustine, as I shall be suggesting, was overreacting to the Visigothic sack of Rome in 410, and he could find little good, in the aftermath of that catastrophe, in the Roman Empire, which he had hitherto praised as the best political institution in history. As an alternative to Augustine's stark contrast, I am suggesting that the City of God on this earth cannot be built on anything but the foundations built by the City of Man—or rather Cities, since there has never been and never will be one commonwealth or one type of regime that will satisfy the needs of all human societies.
It will, therefore, be necessary, to take up in some detail (I hope not tedious) the laws and customs of various societies in order to give substance to more general claims about the universality of marriage and institutionalized aggression. Inevitably, philosophers and political theorists—breeds that tend toward dry-as-dust abstractions—will find this approach unsatisfying and even amateurish. My late friend, Paul Piccone complained, "Why do you take so long to get to the point?" In jest I sometimes reply that, as in all adventures and travels, getting there is half the fun.
In truth, I should say, that the ample use of historical, literary, and anthropological examples is offered as a casuistic alternative to the Simon-pure rationalism of the philosophers, who write as if human life, with all its fuzzy perceptions and sloppy tendencies could be plotted like points on a graph. To avoid the tedious pretense of absolute knowledge, Plato, himself the first and greatest of the great abstractors, used the give and take of dialogue and delighted in unresolved paradoxes; St. Thomas used, to similar effect, the scholastic method of point and counter point. Since the Renaissance, as moral and political speculation has become almost completely detached from reality, wiser writers have turned to the novel and the essay more frequently than to didactic syllogisms and universal systems. Since the word "essai" means attempt or trial, I think of my own efforts as so many trial balloons. Rather than attempting to draw up a broad topography of the human moral universe, I have been content to take a few soundings into some of the deeper regions of our civilization.
In exploring the foundations of a Christian moral and social order, I have tended to focus on two sets of historical examples: first, those three civilizations, Greek, Roman, and Jewish, which came together to create the Christian Church, and second, those that seem most relevant to our own traditions: American, British, French (before and after the Revolution), and Italy in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For some subjects, I have also studied the customs and literature of the Balkan Slavs. A more comprehensive book might have been written by a scholar with a better knowledge of Orthodox traditions or even of the non-Christian civilizations of the East, but one human being can only do so much.
Wherever possible, I have tried to work with texts in their original languages rather than textbooks, surveys, and secondary scholarship (though, as the bibliography will show, I have made a good faith effort to grapple with the scholarship on a number of questions.) The one exception is the Old Testament, where my abysmal ignorance of Hebrew has made me dependent upon translations and on Tradition. In my defense, I should say that I am firmly convinced that Christians should study the Old Testament from their own point of view and privilege the selection and interpretations of the Greek Septuagint, which is, after all, the source of most of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. When differing interpretations are not a problem, I have been content to quote from well-known translations, such as the Authorized or King James version of the Bible and various influential translators of the classics. More typically, I have either retranslated the passages or altered familiar translations to bring out the point I am pursuing.
I am taking the somewhat unusual step of posting rough drafts online and soliciting comments. Where those comments help to shape or correct my arguments, I shall certainly give due credit in the footnotes. This book or series of books is, then, a sort of joint enterprise with my readers, an heroic journey of companions on a quest for sanity.