Dreher’s Villains and his Hero

I’m going to try to summarize a few thoughts here on chapters 2-4 of the The Benedict Option in which Dreher weaves a metanarrative explaining the root of our current evils and suggests an antidote in the Rule of St. Benedict.

No narrative is entirely perfect, especially when it attempts to describe the decline of a civilization, but some narratives fail to do justice to the people and periods they string together. Dreher’s is one of these.

I thought Dreher did a rather nice job summarizing the teleological qualities of the medieval frame of mind for a contemporary lay reader. Throughout this book I have had to remind myself that Dreher never pretends to write a work of history or philosophy. Nevertheless, there is something negligent about the way Dreher wades through history like a child through an antique shop, blasting past nuanced historical arguments as that child might absentmindedly knock a priceless antique off its shelf to shatter, irreparable, on the floor.

One would think, for example, that Occam has received enough abuse over the past few centuries, and that it may be time for his semi-rehabilitation under the likes of Francis Oakley and Brian Tierney, but Dreher needs an origin story for his villains, and that origin story starts with a poor 14th century English Franciscan. Surely one can disagree with Occam and lay plenty of blame at his feet, as many still (rightly) do, but writing him up as a radical who broke entirely with the medieval tradition is an historical injustice.

Dreher would have done well to adopt a more William Cavanaugh-esque narrative to explain how the Reformation effectively subjugated the church(es) to secular princes, as that would have done more than anything else to explain where, exactly, the state received the belief that the particular practice of religious groups is subject to its purview. Otherwise his thoughts on the Reformation and the Renaissance are unremarkable. I did appreciate, however, his naming Francis Bacon as one of the villains of the Enlightenment. A more compelling narrative would have made this nefarious individual a greater center of attention than a well-intentioned (if wrong) friar.

320px-Somer_Francis_Bacon

There is no movie in which an individual in this outfit is not a villain.

Chapter 6 echoes and give more detail to Dreher’s final stage of narrative decline, and the one that still receives the most attention: the sexual revolution. I noted before that locating the change in sexual mores in the 1960s does not do justice to historical reality, which Dreher clumsily does try to remedy by pushing his narrative blocks together. His narrative would have acquired a more convincing hue if he had done more to connect Lockean liberalism and ideas of freedom with the sexual revolution, which he still presents as if it appeared ex nihilo in the sixties.

Dreher’s chapter on St. Benedict’s Rule and the monks at Norcia lays out, I think, a fairly strong thesis and some guidelines for what he is proposing. Among the fluff of his interviews, he does manage to craft a number of good principles recognizing the necessity that the members of any faithful group need to submit to a hierarchy that recognizes a common good and live in a stable, hospitable, and prayerful community pursuing that common good.

Finally, Dreher is precisely right when he calls the Rule a “political document” in the next chapter. This means more than what I think Dreher means by it: politics is not limited to the organization of a community, but it also defines the types of laws passed by that community. Especially as the liberal consensus moves farther away from the beliefs of various faithful, the members of those communities must choose to put the commands of their own laws before the mandates of the state.

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Some Initial Reflections on the Benedict Option

I finally got around to ordering The Benedict Option, the reading of which theoretically gave us the idea to start this blog. A few weeks ago I read the Introduction and Chapter 1, so today’s reflections center around a few notes I jotted in the margins at that time.

First, as anyone who has followed Dreher’s blog will already know, Dreher considers the Obergefell decision a “watershed event.” This seems wrong. Obergefell is only the most recent decision that sets out the moral views on sexual relations that also led to the legalization of no-fault divorce and the legal approval of contraceptives, among other things. Once marriage is reduced from a life-long sacrament with the purpose to beget children to an easily broken contract there is very little reason not to extend it to homosexual couples. Obergefell was certainly a blow of sorts for Christian conservatives, but that war did not begin, as Dreher asserts, with the Sexual Revolution. This sort of thinking predominates among conservatives of a certain sort, who may point at a precise date and say that things went wrong at that point; in reality, Obergefell changed only the exterior of a culture that has for at least a century abandoned the mores of that culture. Put another way, decisions like Obergefell are less “watershed events” than they are liberalism sloughing off the vestigial mores of a predecessor civilization.

Dreher surprised me by referencing MacIntyre immediately. So far he has only referenced the final chapter of After Virtue and a couple paragraphs about emotivism, and, according to the index, that’s about the extent to which Dreher quotes the thinker who inspired this project (or at least its name).

In thinking about this book and its thesis before picking it up, I’ve developed a number of concerns, which I want to lay out as two questions that I wanted to keep in mind when moving through this book:

  1.  Does Dreher formulate a response to what Adrian Vermeule and others have recognized, that retreat into communities like the ones Dreher supports depend on the liberal state not intervening in their affairs? Why would the liberal state not crush these communities for their backward and intolerant ways? And if this is the case, why should retreat to such communities be the preferred option?
  2. When MacIntyre talks about moral traditions he emphasizes that belonging to a tradition requires submission to the appropriate authority within or of that tradition. What role does authority have to play in Dreher’s communities?

This book will surely provide opportunity for more questions and comments later.

Amasis’ Foot-Pan and the Meaning of Coverture

Coverture perhaps ranks first among the old-timey villains of contemporary law professors. It supposedly represents an antiquated misogynistic habit to systematically oppress women by “covering” their legal personhood with that of their husband, and its demise with the Married Women’s Property Acts is seen as an important victory against the nefarious patriarchy. However, as we must never assume that our ancestors were so cartoonishly unjust, we owe it to them to briefly examine what the purpose of coverture might have been.

Because this blog has, up to this point, dealt with a reading of Aristotle, we will examine some of Aristotle’s thoughts regarding the place of the family in the polis and the role of the husband in the family. These issues will provide an introduction to some of the theoretical concerns potentially undergirding coverture. Then we will actually define coverture and try to figure out what its purpose actually was.

Aristotle gives the family a primary significance in his Politics in that it is the fundamental unit of all human society. As he says, “In the first place there must be a union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female, that the race may continue.” (Politics 1251a 26-28.) Without it the human race ceases, so Aristotle places it at the foundation of human society. The family is established “for the supply of men’s everyday wants.” (id. 1252b 12-13.) Families band together in a village to aim at the supply of “something more than daily needs.” (id. 1252b 15-17.) The family, then, is necessarily the smallest unit of society, but in order to interact even on the village level it will need some way to act as some unified whole.

If the family (as opposed to the individual) is the smallest societal unit, then it must have a way to interact within the polis as a whole. Each family first requires unity within itself, to which end a single figurehead, generally the father, represented the family. (id. 1252b 22-25.) The husband heads the family as an equal to the wife, as his relationship to her is not “royal” (as it is with his children) but a “constitutional rule” (i.e. the rule of a balanced commonwealth). (id. 1259a 40-41.)

As the man and the woman are equals, Aristotle makes an analogy to explain how the man may exercise headship:

Nevertheless, when one rules and the other is ruled we endeavor to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect, which may be illustrated by the saying of Amasis about his foot-pan. The relation of the male to the female is of this kind . . . .

(id. 1259b 7-9.) The saying about Amasis comes from Herodotus, where Amasis, after becoming ruler of Egypt, found people grumbling against him because he had once been a commoner like them. He proceeded to refashion a foot-pan in which people had washed their feet as an idol, and, seeing the people marvel at it, he told them that he was like the idol in that he was once common but had been refashioned as their ruler. The Egyptians then accepted him as their ruler. (Histories ii 172.)

Aristotle appears to be saying that the unity of the family under the headship of the husband is necessary because any group of people (including a family as much as the Egyptian people) needs a head in order to act as a whole and that will lead the members of that body toward the good. It is true that Aristotle does distinguish between the virtues of a man and a woman. (Politics 1260a 20-31.) But we do not have to accept Aristotle’s thoughts on the virtues particular to man and woman, or that a man is by nature “fitter” to govern the family, to recognize the practicality, if not the necessity, in having a single head to the political unit of the family. (id. 1259b 1-7, 1260a 20-30.)

With Aristotle’s thoughts on marriage in mind, let us turn to Blackstone’s definition of coverture:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protecture, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-french a feme-covert, foemina viro co-operata; it is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection of the husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during the marriage is known as her coverture

(Commentaries, 441-442.) The abolition the wife qua legal entity seems rather severe. Consider the situation further, though. As Blackstone continues to tell us, “a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into a covenant with her. . . .” (id., 442.) This only describes the outward effects of a husband and wife’s particular legal unity, and prevents the husband from escaping debts by granting his possessions to his wife. Similarly, the common law obliged a husband marrying a wife with debts to pay those debts himself, thereby preventing the parties from using marriage as a way to avoid debts. (id., 443.) Coverture, then, did not deprive the wife of rights so much as unite the woman and the man for the more efficient management of the household under the somewhat arbitrary headship of the husband. (See Politics 1259a 37, 1259b 1-10.) 

These restrictions are not unique to English law, either. Under Roman law, neither husband or wife could make grants to each other during the marriage. (Studies in Roman Law, 103.) Similarly under Roman law, the wife’s property came entirely under the husband’s control. (id., 101.)

Under Scottish law the wife remained nominally independent in a number of ways, but her husband’s consent was generally required in matters relating to real property. (id., 114.) In Scotland, the husband would still be the administrator of those lands for the duration of the marriage. (id., 114.) Indeed, the common law of Scotland remained much the same as that of England, and gave the husband the vast majority of the wife’s property at the time of the marriage. (id., 114-115.) Again we see the woman united legally united to the man for the duration of the marriage for more efficient, and just, management of the household.

What we see from in Aristotle as much as under Roman and English law is a tendency to unite the legal personhood of the wife and the husband into one entity. This protected the family from being preyed upon as individuals, and consolidated the possession and debts of both under headship of a single individual. Of course this doctrine could potentially be abused, as, for example, a profligate husband could sometime fritter away the wealth he gained from marrying his wife, or a woman could be denied a suit in tort for her husband beating her (though this also applied vice versa). But the occasional misuse of a law does not make a law unjust. 

Our ancestors who formulated the idea of coverture were addressing a complex problem, and their answer would inevitably be imperfect. Reflecting on this now defunct notion, though, should not be an occasion to rejoice at the march of progress. Rather, we ought to turn our attention to contemporary legal and societal notions of marriage, and the ways we may have gone too far in another direction while addressing the ills of coverture

Bibliography

Aristotle, The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941).

William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England: Vol. 1 Including Books I & II (Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1884).

Herodotus, The Histories trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (London: Penguin Books, 2003).
Donald MacKenzie, Studies in Roman Law (William Blackwood and Sons: Edinburgh, 1915).

A quick note on slavery

Since Aristotle’s notes on slavery frequently attract controversy, it may be well worth it to spend some time figuring out exactly what he means.

Even before Aristotle starts talking about slavery, he quotes “the poets” to whom he ascribes the dictum, “It is meet that the Hellenes should rule over the barbarians.” (1.2.8) Aristotle quotes this in a section wherein he considers proper place of slaves and women within a society, and this appears to lay the foundation for his slightly later discussion on slavery. Aristotle starts, then, by illustrating with the example of Greek dominion over barbarians the rightfulness of a slave’s disordered soul to the more ordered soul of his master.

The Philosopher spends a while describing instrumentality through the slave and various justifications of slavery, after which he arrives at an analogy: just as some are born with the bodies of slaves and some are born with the bodies of freemen, so are some born with the minds of slaves and some born with the minds of freemen. Aristotle concludes thusly:

And if this is true of the body, how much more just that a similar distinction should exist in the soul? but the beauty of the body is seen, whereas the beauty of the soul is not seen. It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.

(1.5.36-40) That is to say, so much as some may have a body intended for servitude, and some a body intended for the work of a freeman, even more so are free and slave distinguished in their souls.

Chapter 6 contains a discussion on relative freedom and nobility, according to which Greeks are reluctant to deign anyone a slave but barbarians, save when in the barbarians’ own land. Concluding that both Greek and barbarian believe that “from good men a good man springs,” (1.6.40-42) the Philosopher continues to discern a relationship between slave and master the abuse of which constitutes an injury to both.

Aquinas comments on a “good man” springing from other “good men” in the following:

And sons may also differ from parents in goodness or wickedness not only because of natural bodily disposition but also because of an aspect that does not necessarily result from a natural inclination. And so human beings who are similar to their parents in natural disposition may also, because of a different education and upbringing, be dissimilar even in morals. Therefore, if the children of good parents are good, they will be both reputedly and really good. But if the sons of good parents are wicked, they will be reputedly noble but actually base. And the converse is true about the sons of wicked parents.

Then [Aristotle] shows how it is expedient or inexpedient for some to be slaves, summarily concluding form the foregoing that the difficulty previously posed has some plausibility. And so there is in some cases a distinction between freedom and slavery by law, not by nature. But in other cases, there is a distinction between the two by nature, and it is advantageous in such cases for one person to be a slave and another to be his master. And this is also just.

(Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, comment on 1255a3-b15.)

Thomas earlier quotes the more succinct and poignant passage from Proverbs: “The stupid will serve the wise.” (Prov. 11:29)

This indicates that slavery, as imagined by Aristotle and briefed by Thomas, is entirely just when dealing with the submission of lazy or wicked souls to better souls. This, it appears, is why Aristotle includes a discussion of the natural subservience of barbarians – as imagined as disordered souls – at the beginning of Politics. The barbarians described at 1.2.8 have no order, and so no ability to establish a polis in which they might work towards the Good. When Aristotle considers the arguments for and against slavery starting in 1.4, he finds a middle ground between slavery by human law and absolute abolition in finding that some people are indeed less suited for for freedom owing to the quality of their souls. As Aristotle believes it is just that someone establish dominion over the barbarians to inculcate virtue within them, so it is just that less ordered souls within a polis be led toward virtue by “masters.”

Those are only some quick thoughts that throw out some terms such as “justice” and “virtue” that may require further background in Politics or Nicomachean Ethics, thought I welcome and encourage additional thoughts on this.

 

Welcome

Hello.

A group of us in and out of the desert, who admire each other’s wit and insight, have come together in an attempt at an online reading group.

Rod Dreher’s book on his “Benedict Option” inspired this endeavor, as many of us have interest in and opprobium for this proposal. Since the release date does not arrive until next year, we have decided to start with Aristotle’s Politics, hoping that that can start a discussion on what a community ought to look like and the ends it ought to have. Suggestions for future readings include From Dawn to Decadence and A Secular Age.

We have agreed to work through Politics a book at a time while taking turns writing a reflection on a chosen book. Commentary from any of the group are welcome at any point, whether or not the book for that week is “theirs,” and constructive comments from outside readers are welcome.