Monday, July 9, 2018

Rod Dreher and Natural Law: Bathwater and Baby?


Perhaps a couple times a year Rod Dreher, whose work I admire, manages to weigh in on the “uselessness” of the natural law tradition. It’s disappointing to watch, and this time, quoting a frequent gay commenter on his blog, “Matt in VA”, I think Dreher has gone overboard in his dismissiveness.

Dreher frequently says he is personally “likes” natural law arguments, but then acknowledges he isn’t very deeply read in the tradition, and in the end the result is he posts things under titles like this:



It's disappointing. The thread that followed the piece wasn’t all that enlightening in rejoinder either. I’m not very versed in natural law theory myself, but still, I know enough to recognize hamminess and flailing when I see it. I don’t think 80% of the commenters have background enough to make the arguments they make. (NB: I do think Dreher's blog often draws a sharp range of commenters.)

But how should the Christian writer, though he may not himself be a serious student of natural law, write about the place of natural law philosophy in the culture and in relation to the Church? This is my main concern. I think Dreher is off track with pieces like this one.

Below are my own comments on the post, condensed.

Eric Mader writes:

“Style is everything.”

I say: “Meh”. Matt in VA is just making an argument Nietzsche made much better. It’s the same argument that, via French post-structuralism, underpins the whole postmodern thrust that birthed our current hyper-individualist hordes, especially the SJW hordes. Yes, I agree with Matt to the extent that he’s making a diagnosis of sorts, but don’t at all agree with his stance that “the law is dead”. It remains alive as long as it is seriously pursued and articulated by only a few. We should support those few, Rod; we should do what we can to convey their arguments, and the need for philosophy generally, whenever we have the chance.

What’s more, the fact that here again, Rod, you underline 1) the intellectual difficulty of getting into the natural law tradition and 2) that people are no longer disposed to accept it--that you point to these almost as arguments--I want to say: “So what?” Are these valid grounds to post yet another piece more or less throwing water on the remaining flames of the natural law tradition? Because that’s what you’re basically doing by featuring Matt/Nietzsche in this way.

Every third piece you’ve written over the years--specifically those stressing the deep wrongness of most LGBTQwerty initiatives--was ultimately premised on natural law arguments. You cannot argue that a boy is a boy because he was born as such, you cannot argue that boy is a coherent essence, without the natural law. Why is it a surprise to you that such arguments aren’t accepted by a culture whose intellectual being is a mash-up of cheap scientism, Lady Gaga aesthetics and a religion of the Desiring Self?

Matt may think Scalia matters because of his verbal wit, but that, I’d say, is a minority position. Scalia’s verbal wit is just an added feature on the man’s a serious intellect, without which intellect Scalia might as well be Stephen Colbert--this time lucky enough to get on the Supreme Court.

If this culture is indifferent to natural law arguments because of 1) their difficulty and because 2) Lady Gaga wouldn’t agree, do you think they’re more open to arguments from Scripture? Maybe they’re a little more open, those who have been touched by grace, or those who have been horrified by the void that now gapes, but that doesn’t mean throwing in the towel on natural law, does it?

The only element in this piece I can get firmly behind is the call for artists, especially writers, to allow the insights of natural law to guide their work. Flannery O’Connor, though not even a very serious reader of Thomism, was on the right track.

I think commenter @RealAlan is right:

*If* the new Leftist order collapses, people are going to look back and ask “What went wrong?” Natural Law will be there to answer that question. Society owes a great debt to folks like Professor George and the other exponents of the “new” Natural Law. When Western Civilization regains its senses, an established philosophical tradition will be there to be recovered.

And so, if a Christian public intellectual is going to blog on natural law, how about this as a more helpful rough tack: The natural law tradition is hard, it requires a conceptual apparatus that is somewhat counter-intuitive for us moderns, but natural law arguments have convinced some of the most brilliant minds in our history and remain vital and necessary. So go hit the books, why not. Start with Edward Feser’s short volume Aquinas (A Beginner’s Guide), and God speed.

Just sayin’.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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