Saturday, June 21, 2008

Quebec, the Cube and the Cathedral, and Leo Strauss

George Weigel has a book called The Cube and the Cathedral, in which he uses two architectural landmarks in France as an analogy for the contrast between modernist-nihilist and cultural-religious visions of the world. When I was in Quebec two weeks ago, I discovered that the Old City district there has its own version of Weigel's analogy.

The first landmark is the site of the oldest market in North America, anchored by the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.

The second landmark lies a block or so down from the Church, and is a sculpture given as a gift from France to Quebec in 1987.

One of the more persistent questions of my life is to try and understand exactly how Western culture got from there to here. How does a culture come to the point where it decides to stop building churches, and starting building formless arrangments of aimless lines? It's not enough to simply trace the problem, as Weigel does, to 19th-century atheistic humanism and the ensuing rise of secularism. The problem must lie deeper than that, since after all, the 19th century cultural trends that Weigel deplores did not come from nowhere - they are themselves the product of other trends and cultural philosophies which must be explored if the full context of the problem is to be understood.

I do not pretend to have a full answer to the question posed by the cube and the church. I do think, though that one clue is provided by the purpose of La Grand Arche, the modernist cube referred to in Weigel's book. It is built to house the International Foundation for Human Rights. In other words, if we seek to understand the Cube, and why an entire culture would celebrate itself through such a monstrosity, it would perhaps be worth our time to understand what is intended by the phrase "human rights."

Which brings me to Leo Strauss, and his exploration of the modern doctrine of Human Rights, as explored in History and Natural Right. If Strauss' account is in any way correct, it seems that the anthropology and metaphysics implied in the modern doctrine of human rights is indeed in profound conflict with that authentic Catholic anthropology which leads to the building of churches. By tracing the problem back to early-modern philosophy, Strauss shows that the rise of 19th-century secularism is a direct descendant of philosophical trends that were on their face seemingly compatible with the existing Christian order, but in were actually in a position of radical discontinuity with that order. Of course, I would argue that this disconinuity has its roots in an even earlier time, which coincided roughly with the Renaissance, but that is a post for another time.

I would also note in passing that Catholics who consider themselves "politically conservative" generally accept Lockean natural right theory wholesale. A close reading of Strauss should make such persons a bit uncomfortable. I myself am generally appreciative of Edmund Burke, and found Strauss' critique of Burke to be rather intriguing, and a bit unsettling.


Blogger John said...

I suspect the point of divergence was the invention of Nominalism in the 14th Century. (Good summary here )

I take the thought from Fr. Bouyer's splendid (to an ex-Protestant) book: The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008 8:37:00 PM  
Blogger John Cassian said...

While Nominalism can certainly be assigned some measure of blame in regards to the question posed here, I am somewhat suspicious of the "pop philosophy" that the Carl Olson article indulges in. I know that Nominalism has come in for a fairly severe beating in contemporary theology, especially from the Radical Orthodoxy corner of the world.

Still, I'm not sure that Nominalism doesn't sometimes get used to simplify a rather complex series of philosophical relationships that mark the transition between Scholastic and early-modern philosophy / theology. My (limited) understanding of Ockham is that he was trying to recover a more pre-scholastic vision of theology, i.e., a more "apophatic" approach commonly found in the Eastern theological tradition. Beyond that set of vague and simplistic statements, I don't really have enough reading under my belt to express any definite opinion on the subject. I am generally suspicious of all-encompassing philosophical genealogies which purport to "explain" historical phenomena. That being said, I note in closing that my theological mentor is a Thomist of the strict observance, and despises Nominalism. Very interesting.

Thank you for the interesting comment.

Thursday, June 26, 2008 9:37:00 PM  

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